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The Faith of Giving

Stories
Contents
“The Faith of Giving” by Peter Andrew Smith
“Facing Guilt” by David O. Bales
“Necessary Ash Wednesday” by David O. Bales



The Faith of Giving
by Peter Andrew Smith
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Richard took the last of the bags out of the back of the car and placed them in the large donation bin behind the homeless shelter.

“My friend Todd cleaned out his grandmother’s closet for her and got almost $50 for the clothes she didn’t want anymore,” Gus said. “I’m telling you the used clothing place will give you decent money for what you’re donating.”

“More than likely.” Richard got back in and started the car. “The people who come here need it more though.”

“If you want to help them you could simply donate the money you get from selling the clothes to the shelter.”

Richard paused at the red light on the corner. “Do you think the clothes or a couple of dollars will make a bigger difference to these people?”

“I guess the clothes because you had some nice stuff in those bags.” Gus frowned. “But they don’t even know that you donated them. The least you could get was a thank you from them.”

“Do you suppose the clothes will be any warmer or needed if they knew I gave them?”

“I suppose not,” Gus admitted. “I still think you should get something out of it.”

“Why?” Richard moved through the intersection as the light changed green.

“Are you going to give me the whole ‘giving is its own reward’ speech?” Gus shook his head. “What about inspiring people by your actions and all of that?”

“I don’t seem to be inspiring you much so far.” Richard laughed as they turned onto a side street. “So, you ready for our next stop?”

“I guess so. Where are we going?”

“Seniors’ residence. I called to let them know I have some flowers for them.”

Gus looked in the back of the car. “Those are pretty fancy, where do they come from?”

“Someone who wants to remain anonymous.”

“You mean they’re not from you?”

“Not in the least.” Richard pulled into the back of the seniors’ residence. “Can you give me a hand?”

Richard rang the bell at the back as Gus grabbed two of the vases of flowers. A woman opened the back door with a trolley and greeted Richard.

 “Oh, the flowers are beautiful!” The woman’s face lit up with a smile. “That arrangement of roses would be perfect for one of the residents who is having a birthday tomorrow. She will love them!”

Gus put the flowers on the trolley and the woman shook his hand. “Thank you so very much.”

“I’m just helping deliver them, ma’am,” Gus said. “They’re from an anonymous donor.”

The woman looked at the trolley full of colorful flowers. “Please let the person who donated them know how much they are appreciated.”

Richard nodded. “We will.”

Gus looked over at Richard as they got back into the car. “Are you going to tell the person who donated them how much the flowers are appreciated?”

“I will but they don’t really care,” Richard said.

“Why not?” Gus frowned. “The flowers you just dropped off must be worth a fortune.”

“They’re actually what would be thrown away at the flower shop. Some of them are arrangements that people didn’t want, and others are stock they can’t sell. Everything we delivered was heading for the compost heap.” Richard paused. “Kind of like my old clothes when you think about it.

“It’s not the same,” Gus protested. “You’re deliberately helping someone else with your clothes. The flowers don’t mean anything to the people getting rid of them.”

“So?”

“So, there is no caring, no love, no charity in what they are doing.”

“And?”

Gus furrowed his brow. “They don’t intend to help anyone with the flowers. You are with the clothes.”

“Does it make any difference to the people receiving them?”

“No, but it does to you.” Gus took a deep breath. “You’re giving what you have to help others. The people are just throwing away the flowers and don’t care where they end up.”

“What if they knew the donation was from me and I received all sorts of praise and recognition?”

 “Then you might give just to get that praise and recognition.” Gus paused. “How is that different from giving anonymously?”

“To the people receiving there probably is no difference.” Richard said. “To the giver though I think there is a world of difference. I give anonymously so that I don’t receive anything, and my gift is simply that - a gift freely given to the other person.”

Gus looked at the buildings as they passed. “Is that why Jesus says to not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing?”

“I think so,” Richard replied. “Sometimes we get caught up in what we get from our generosity and we forget that giving is simply about that -- giving to others as freely as God gives to us.”

* * *

Facing Guilt
by David O. Bales
Psalm 51:1-17

Beth was more irritated than confused, though confused she was, and tired. She didn’t want to be here. She only attended her neighbor Ellen’s church when Ellen hounded her. Ellen also pressured Beth to attend this retreat. Of all the places to be dragged: a convent. Beth knew little of the Catholic faith. Truth was, she hardly knew the Protestant faith.

She was here with Ellen’s younger women’s group. They were strangers to her, although they tried hard to befriend her as they walked along carrying their Bibles in small totes. The whole place didn’t meet her minimum expectations. The nuns weren’t dressed up. No robes or headdresses. Those who mowed the lawn and tended the flower beds wore jeans.

Hearing the Bible read through dinner was different, but the Bible was read aloud in worship at Ellen’s church. She’d heard of the stations of the cross but was befuddled with the prayer labyrinth. Fortunately, Ellen had attended the convent before—she called it a “retreat center”—and informed Beth about the “Catholic details.” Ellen made sure to accompany Beth to the lectures, small group discussions, and worship.

Ellen sat beside Beth in her worship cubicle, helping her follow the order of worship: standing, kneeling, sitting, listening to scripture, chanting the psalm. Beth came out of worship even more tired.

So much of the retreat was new and she harbored such negative feelings at being shanghaied that she assumed it was her disorientation and anger that exhausted her. Everything around wore her out and she spent her few extra minutes safely in her cell asleep. That was why she chose the option offered to all retreatants: Instead of meeting next with Ellen’s group, she signed up for time with a spiritual director. Maybe being with just one person would decrease the sensory overload. That was the plan for immediately after worship.

However, in worship the whole crew chanted Psalm 51 back and forth across the sanctuary. She held the worship folder in her hand, transfixed on the psalm. She was already frustrated, but now also worried, frightened, fascinated. For the few times she’d been in Protestant worship, nothing matched this speaking back and forth of sin and guilt. This is Catholic? This is Christian? These nice ladies chanting across the sanctuary about abysmal sin? Why did it make her even more tired?

After worship Ellen left with her group and Beth, bewildered at what was going on around and within her, she searched for the Scholastica Room. Sister Ruth—an ancient person also in civilian clothes—greeted her there and offered a short prayer that the Holy Spirit would bless Beth and their time together. They sat face to face in chairs. Ellen was confused and tired, tired more than anything. She hadn’t thought about what she’d talk about with a spiritual director. She surprised herself by blurting out, “I’m awfully tired.” Was this the most important thing to discuss? “In our free time, I just go to my room and sleep.”

Sister Ruth, eighty years old if a day, nodded, “I hear a lot of that from our retreatants. You get to rest when you’re here. God wants to give you rest.”

Beth grasped at her thoughts. She tried to aim the conversation toward whatever it was that had gotten her into this sparsely adorned room with this pleasant lady who sat across from her waiting for her to speak as if she wanted nothing else than to listen to Beth.

Beth looked at her right hand. She still held the worship folder. “This,” she said, offering the page to Sister Ruth. She pointed to the printed psalm.

“Yes,” Sister Ruth said, as a statement and a question.

Beth had committed herself to continue with what she didn’t understand well enough even to ask a question about. “It bothers me,” she said.

Sister Ruth said, “Mmm,” and sat silently looking into Beth’s eyes.

It was coming clearer to Beth. “It’s about feeling guilty.”

“The psalm? Yes. Not just feeling guilty, being guilty.”

Beth drew in a deep breath. With that motion in her chest her thoughts came together. It was plain now. She realized that guilt was dragging her down. She saw the deed she’d done. She recalled the people she’d injured, maybe for their lifetime. The memory ambushed her. It grasped her, flowed down over her, crushed her bodily.

She became aware of deep shaking sobs. She cried for five minutes before she realized that Sister Ruth held an arm around her shoulder. She handed a box of tissues from which Beth, slowly quieting, grabbed a handful. “I’m sorry,” was all she could force out. “I’m sorry.”

Sister Ruth said gently, “People cry a lot here. When you know God’s here and loves you, it’s easier to cry.”

“Didn’t expect … didn’t know ….” Beth began to get her breath.

Sister Ruth held her. Beth felt Sister Ruth’s breathing. She daubed tissues around her face. Sister Ruth waited beside her for a few moments then sat.

Beth slumped in her chair. She hadn’t cried for years. She was still physically tired, but the crying cleared her mind. Sister Ruth waited silently.

After shaking her head and breathing deeply, she said, “Don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“About what?”

“A couple I hurt, really bad.” It tumbled from her, “Years ago. My guilt.”

“People attempt to deal with guilt in different ways, lots of which aren’t helpful—work it off, push it down, flee from it. The centuries teach us that the place to start is to confess to God and accept God’s forgiveness. You might need to ask others’ forgiveness also, but the scriptures show us that confession’s the best way to start, no matter how painful. God doesn’t want us suffering for our sins. God wants to free us from our guilt. That’s what you can claim along with old King David.”

“Can I confess to God and you at the same time?”

“That’s a helpful way to do it,” Sister Ruth said. “Why don’t you just mention the first names of the people you hurt. God knows the details.”

Beth stuttered out two names that she hadn’t spoken for nine years. She was able to repeat with Sister Ruth a prayer for those people, asking God for forgiveness and cleansing from sin. Then she and Sister Ruth prayed together the first of King David’s words, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”

They hugged and Sister Ruth said she’d meet with her again tomorrow. There would be more to deal with in Beth’s life for sure; but, this was a blessed step toward God’s joy of forgiveness. Beth went directly to her cell and lay on the bed. She was still awake when the dinner bell sounded.

Preaching point: God wants to free us from sin and guilt.

* * *

Necessary Ash Wednesday
by David O. Bales
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

“Never heard that one,” Brooke said.

“Yeah. Nutty parents are sprinkled all around,” Sheri said, “but I’ve never met anyone who raised her own parents.”

“I was exaggerating,” Susan said. “Yet for a while it felt like that.”

The three college freshman sat on their dorm beds two months into fall term and compared parents. They’d lived away from home enough time, Brooke noted, to start feeling homesick—or at least reflective.

Susan said, “Worked out okay, but it was hairy for a while.”

It was her turn to tell about her parents and the discussion so far had leaned heavily on humor.

“Of course, Julie and I—she was ten and I was 11—were still in flashflood mode over our birth mom. We’d watched her slowly die thirteen months before. As kids, we still felt guilty for not helping her more as she was suffering. We were clawing back through grief. Dad wasn’t. Like he didn’t have time to. He couldn’t cook and didn’t have money to hire a cook. Julie and I experimented in the kitchen, but all three of us,” she said, sweeping her hands in an arc over her head, “were culinarily disabled. No relatives around to pitch in. Church helped some, but whichever angle you looked at Dad, you saw the strain.

“Pastor nudged him to carve out extra time and attend the group. He wouldn’t have attended except to help Julie and me. The time and effort was a sacrifice. But at the hospital’s grief group, he met Fran.

“Fran’s husband had died nearly two years before and left the business—she knew nothing about—in her hands. She was at her wit’s end. Dad had us girls, trying to make up for no mother. Here were two adults, each with a sack full of problems. As Fran later put it, their needs attracted them to one another. More accurately, the hope that the other would meet their needs attracted them to one another. The clincher was they were both Christians. They could push aside all kinds of good reasons and take a desperate leap of hope that the other would put their life back together. They got married.

“Julie and I were usually fair with Fran. She attempted to get to know us and to be our mom. The older I get, the harder her task appears.”

Brooke and Sheri fluffed up their pillows and laid in more comfortable positions. Susan shifted on the bed and sighed, “They tried to adapt to a new spouse who was very different from the first mate they still mourned. Didn’t work well.

“Julie and I stayed out of the middle when we could—when we saw a middle to stay out of. Much safer to be audience than participant. We witnessed their difficult times as well as their resolutions to try harder. We saw their faith that held them together. Of course, their faith also caused them a lot of problems.”

Brooke, currently a non-believer, said, “I can understand that.”

Susan shook her head, “Wasn’t that bad. As I look at it now, the differences in faith weren’t relationship-destroying. They didn’t throw lamps at one another, just these sideways comments, only recognizable as snide to someone in the family, and that included Julie and me.”

“I’m sure we’ve both heard similar things,” Sheri said, gesturing to Brooke.

“I say we helped raise our parents; because, when we were around, they reduced their sniping. So, in a sense we helped them grow up just by our calling a time out.

“They’re still together and relatively healthy, but one time we really aided their relationship—unintentionally. Seven months after they’d married, in one of their ‘up cycles,’ they pulled us out of school in February to take a trip to Ohio to introduce Fran to Dad’s family. I said that their faith had caused friction between them. It was over their different churches. Fran was Lutheran and Dad was evangelical. Fran’s church was structured, liturgical. The only church Dad knew—and took us to—scorned such worship. He called his “free.” Sometimes Dad called it “from the heart.” We learned real fast that saying that to Fran was like the bell ringing for the next round. They tried worshipping in each other’s congregations. Fran said she didn’t mind Dad’s church, although she missed the pattern of the creed and sung responses. The Lutheran church rankled Dad by repeating the same things every Sunday. All that ‘ritual,’ another word that turned Fran’s face red.”

“Doesn’t sound like anything to declare war for,” Sheri said.

“They were working at it,” Susan said. “During that one truce we were in the car for the two days’ trip to Ohio. We’re in the back seat doing homework. Dad’s driving that first afternoon, and out of nowhere Fran almost leaps, ‘It’s Ash Wednesday.’

“Julie and I had never heard of it. Fran’s got this desperate look on her face. ‘Need to go to Ash Wednesday worship,’ she said. I guess Dad knew what she meant and grumbled; but she was adamant. ‘We,’ she said, including us all, ‘need to go to Ash Wednesday.’

“We stopped at the next town and Fran found a phone booth with a telephone book and plunked in her coins. Within half an hour we knew where we’d be at 7 p.m.

“Julie and I had been to Lutheran worship a couple times, so no great shock, until Fran leaned over and whispered about the ‘imposition of ashes,’ which sounded like what you do with someone who’s been cremated. She saw the term frightened us. She whispered and gestured about the cross on the forehead.

“The theme of the night was guilt, earned and unearned. And forgiveness, definitely not earned. What was being read, said, and recited hit all four of us. Dad and Fran were taking the message seriously. Obvious by looking at them. Julie and I had brought a meal’s worth of guilt along too. We were dealing with double guilt for not having been as helpful as we could with our dying mom and not as welcoming to Fran. The pastor explained that God reaches into the world in ways we can see and touch in order to forgive us, not only in Jesus’ life and death but also with sacraments and rituals.

“We got in line, stepping toward the pastor for the cross on our forehead. New to Julie and me. The pastor looked me in the eyes, traced a cross on my forehead, and said, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return; but God gives this sign of Christ’s forgiving your sin and wiping away your guilt.’

“The four of us left quickly after the benediction. We didn’t know anybody and the four of us were emotionally wound tight. At the car Dad stepped over to Julie and me and said, ‘It’s okay to wipe the ashes off your forehead now.’ Julie and I didn’t say anything, just shook our heads. Dad stepped back. It surprised him. Then he smiled—the cross square on his forehead. He gave us a little pat and walked over to open the door for Fran.

“Dad and Julie have settled on worshipping in their own churches. When Julie and I are home, we sometimes worship with Dad. Usually we attend with Fran.”

Preaching point: God gives us a ritual to help us accept God’s powerful forgiveness.


*****************************************


StoryShare, February 17, 2021 issue.

Copyright 2021 by CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Lima, Ohio.

All rights reserved. Subscribers to the StoryShare service may print and use this material as it was intended in sermons, in worship and classroom settings, in brief devotions, in radio spots, and as newsletter fillers. No additional permission is required from the publisher for such use by subscribers only. Inquiries should be addressed to permissions@csspub.com or to Permissions, CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 5450 N. Dixie Highway, Lima, Ohio 45807.
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