HELPING LELAND’S GRANDMA

The house was small and dark inside, unkempt outside, slumped behind an overgrown hedge like a sleepy hitchhiker by a busy road. I delivered Christmas gifts to Leland (pseudonym), the 5th-grade boy I mentored, and his younger siblings. But his widowed grandma drew my attention. The elderly lady was cold, wrapped in a shawl, huddling near a little oil-fired heater, and wheezing badly.

I hate being cold. My heart went out to her.

It was an all too typical situation. The boy’s father was in prison, his sister and baby brother were children of two other men, his mother a classic example of chronic self-indulgence and irresponsibility. And everyone crowded into grandma’s little clapboard house, living off of food stamps and her meager social security.

The boy was my primary concern, my mentee from the Mentor Role Model program. We met consistently through about the first year of high school when he drifted away. I did everything I could to try and give him a leg up on a better kind of life. I guess the jury is still out on that. But his cold, sick grandma always comes to mind when I pass the now empty house. And the question always comes back: how could I have helped her without further enabling her debauched daughter?

The answer is, I could not.

You may have heard of toxic charity. Toxic charity does for others what they can and should do for themselves. It attempts to meet chronic needs with crisis-response methods and ends up incentivizing behaviors that created the condition in the first place. It also perpetuates the status quo between the rich and the resourceless. It makes the giver feel good while perpetuating dependency and fosters dishonesty to boot. It robs God’s image-bearers of the dignity that comes from the work God created us to do. That’s a bad situation. But recognizing it won’t keep grandma warm.

Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.” I think what he meant was that, given our sin-nature, we will always have irresponsible people freeloading on their elderly parents. (I did confront the daughter, but that’s another story).

He also said, “You can do good to them anytime you want.” I think that means we cannot always solve the social pathologies that come from our systemic sin-nature, but we can, just for a little while, keep one or two widows warm and trust God to hold their sinning children to account.  

THE ELUSIVE JOY OF GIVING by Robert D. Lupton

THE ELUSIVE JOY OF GIVING by Robert D. Lupton

Note: Bob Lupton, a long-time friend of my wife’s family, founded Focused COMMUNITY Strategies over thirty years ago by moving his young family into inner-city Atlanta. He is the author of TOXIC CHARITY: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). I thought the following, from his monthly URBAN PERSPECTIVES update, would edify you in this giving season. Reprinted by permission.

I can’t remember when Mary Phillips came to live with us. Somewhere along the journey of my father’s itinerant pastorates, Mary had attached to our family. She was like a live-in grandmother to me. I called her MeMe (a name that stuck with her the rest of her life). I remember watching out our front window for her to get off the evening bus. When I saw her coming I would run to the door to meet her, get my big hug, and wait expectantly for my “surprise.” MeMe always brought some little treat home to me. She would reach into her coat pocket and, glancing around to be sure no one else would see, slip me some little trinket or stick of gum or piece of candy, pretending that no one else in the world knew. It was our special secret.

I remember like it was yesterday (though I was only four) the day MeMe stopped giving me those daily surprises. I had run to the door to greet her as I always did, got my hug, and waited expectantly to see what she had brought for me. But for some reason on that particular day she had nothing in her pocket for me. I immediately threw a temper tantrum, creating quite an ugly, tearful scene. MeMe was obviously distressed by my behavior and vowed that she was not going to bring me any more surprises. I assumed, of course, that this was her way warning me to control such outbursts in the future. But the following day when she arrived home from work, her pockets contained no treats. The next day was the same. And the next. Her daily surprises never did resume. It wasn’t until many years later that I understood why she had so abruptly stopped her daily treats.

Seven decades later, the painful lesson I learned from MeMe’s decision remains vivid in my mind. It has sensitized me to the ways joyful giving can turn ugly when it becomes an expectation. I saw it happening in our inner-city ministry at Christmas time. We received many offers of food, clothes and toys from caring friends around the city who wanted to share their abundance. I asked Zack, an emerging young community leader, if he would assume responsibility for identifying needy neighbors and distributing the donations to them. He accepted the role with eagerness. The first year was an absolute delight as Zack delivered unexpected blessings to struggling families. He felt like Santa Claus, spreading joy and good cheer. The second year, instead of receiving joyful greetings from families, Zack felt pressure from recipients for specific gifts and special favors. His enthusiasm diminished. By year three, Zack was ready to quit. Recipients grumbled about their lack of choices, made accusations of favoritism and claimed priority rights based on their longevity in the program. What began as a joyful sharing of unexpected gifts had turned into a litany of entitlement.

MeMe and Zack figured out what it takes charities and churches much longer to learn. Giving turns toxic when the recipient comes to expect it. Gratitude turns into presumption. And the benefactor, with all good intentions, ends up creating unhealthy dependency—the very thing benevolence hopes to abate. But there is a corrective to this dilemma. Reciprocal exchange.

We discovered it when we opened the Christmas Store. When a customer and a merchant meet at the bargaining table, each brings something of value to exchange. Both stand to gain in the transaction. Parents find bargains; FCS generates needed revenue. Jobless neighbors are hired; the store gains a workforce. Both enter the exchange with worth; both exit with dignity. That’s why we named our Christmas Store promotion “Pride for Parents.”

Reciprocal exchange. It is a fundamental principle of healthy relationships. It assumes that everyone has something of value to bring to the table. The responsibility, then, of stewards of resources is to develop those systems that create the opportunity for fair and authentic exchange.

FLABBY-BRAINED BELIEVERS?

The bathroom scales hounded me back to my Nordic Trak last week with the words: “You are a middle-aged blob who eats too much and exercises too little!”

OK, it didn’t actually say that because it can’t talk. And no, I’m not going to tell you what it read either (I am vain that way). Let it suffice that I sweated through my first thirty-minutes in about a month on the twentieth-century torture tool and I’m headed back there today.

I wonder, however, if there was a scale for the Christian mind that could talk, what it would be saying to the people of God? I’m afraid it would report that many of us have flabby brains.

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body,” said Joseph Addison, but far too many of us read nothing at all.

If you’re ready to get your mind back in action here’s a list of recommended reading that will equip you to think Christianly about life.

Suffering

SUFFERING AND THE HEART OF GOD: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores, by Diane Langberg, PhD. Langberg, who has worked with Rwandan genocide victims, is a globally recognized expert on trauma, particularly that special evil suffered by sexual abuse victims. She is theologically solid, clinically expert, and personally compassionate. I’ve heard her speak and read her previous book, On the Threshold of Hope. I guarantee that if you do not already know a sexual abuse victim, you will and you will want to know how to help. Her books will help.

Marriage

SAVING YOUR MARRIAGE BEFORE IT STARTS: Seven Questions to Ask Before (and After) You Marry, by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott. The Parrotts are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. I’ve been offering per-marital counseling since 1995 and I’ve yet to find a better resource.

RECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES: Healing for Troubled Marriages, by marriage and family therapist Dr. Jim Talley. Talley’s work became my go-to for counseling couples in crisis many years ago and remains so today. It is simple, clear, and concise. Read it five years into your first marriage and you probably won’t have a second. Find him at drtalley.com.

Giving Wisely

TOXIC CHARITY: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and how to reverse it), by Robert D. Lupton. Bob, the founder of FCS Urban Ministries, moved his young family into inner-city Atlanta in the late seventies and stayed. He “has developed two mixed-income subdivisions, organized a multiracial congregation, started a number of businesses, created housing for hundreds of families,”[1] and is a friend of our family. He is also an excellent writer and teacher of the ideas he promotes. The book is an easy and useful read.

Biblical Worldview Thinking

HOW NOW SHALL WE LIVE, is the late Chuck Colson’s and Nancy Pearcy’s magnum opus on biblical worldview thinking. If you have no exposure to the genre and five hundred pages doesn’t frighten you, begin here. It is compelling and easy to follow.

THE GOOD LIFE, also by Colson with Harold Fickett, is much shorter and more about answers to the questions we all have, like: Why am I here; how can I find significance? But all of Colson’s works are infused with the worldview rubric and this one will challenge you to choose carefully.

Culture War

CULTURE MAKING: Recovering Our Creative Calling, by Andy Crouch. Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, makes an excellent case that it is not enough to condemn culture, nor to stand aloof and critique it or naively copy it, still less to unconsciously consume it. If Christians want to return to the cultural influence that helped build Western Civilization, we have to create better culture. CULTURE MAKING is the best book yet on how to do that.

ONWARD: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, by Russell Moore. Moore is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a man who, like Albert Mohler, is an energetic, entertaining, and articulate defender of the faith. ONWARD is a quick, compelling read that roots our cultural engagement squarely in the Gospel and never strays from it.

Perhaps you are thinking, “I don’t have time to read serious books.” If so remember World Magazine and World Radio, both of which will keep you up-to-date with the latest biblical worldview thinking in a highly portable format. Go to getworldnow.com for a free three month trial. The daily worldview update, Breakpoint, with John Stonestreet and Eric Metaxas is also excellent.

Brains, like bodies, get flabby without exercise. What would our imaginary mental scales say about yours? Time to get to work!

[1] From the book cover.