what to give when you can’t give much

The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a Kate Spade Gravy Boat.

Imagine Ashley, invited to attend the wedding of her closest friend. Ashley is in her late twenties and has a good job, but because of a perfect storm of student loan debt, preschool expenses and the breakup of her marriage her finances are about as tight as can be. Actually, they’re worse than tight: she has to borrow money from family, depend on gifts from friends and is frustrated that she can’t pay her bills without help.

But she won’t miss her friend’s wedding.   She finds someone to keep her kids and manages to scrape together enough money to make the trip but before she heads out she goes online to purchase a wedding gift.  A good southern girl, her friend has a registry that promises a well-appointed house, with 1000 thread-count sheets and pieces of fine china that will be used somewhere between twice and thrice over the course of the marriage.

Thankfully, there are also some items at the low-end of the registry, and while this pains Ashley but she knows that this is her price range right now. She has always been generous and giving with her friends. She wanted nothing more than to buy a whole set of the Kate Spade china but instead clicks on the $45 gravy boat (with $45 that she technically doesn’t have) and then goes to finish packing.

Last week a friend read give 10, save 10, and live on the rest  and had a question for me. “That’s great,” she wrote, “but what about those of us who simply cannot do that? What about those who want to give generously and save intentionally but are really struggling right now just to (literally) keep our kids fed and dressed? ”

My question wasn’t just about whether each of us could carve out a substantial amount for giving and savings. Rather, I wanted to invite us to consider how much our whole communities would change if we could all take this on as a shared value. It’s a little utopian to pretend that everyone would jump on board, but the point was to consider what might happen if a great many did.

My friend’s point is really important though. The reality is that a whole lot of people genuinely struggle. Many of those folks really want to give more but simply can’t.  My friend asked, “What would you say to us?”

Frankly, I’m a bit humbled by the question. I am not a financial planner and I am certainly not a prosperity preacher. I think it’s irresponsible to give away college savings while praying that that Uncle Leroy (who you’ve never heard of) will leave you a gazillion dollars and a very slightly used Mercedes.

I do like what the people on the personal finance shows say when (invariably) asked by listeners who are really broke what do to about savings. “Start small, and just do what you can. Can you set aside $25 a month? Start there. Can’t do that? Do $10.” The same is true for giving. The Widow’s Mite tells us, among other things, that God knows when we’re really struggling. God has a special affection for us when we’re in that place, and is less enamored with the posh folks who make a show of big gifts.

But let’s get back to the Parable of the Wedding Registry.  Does Ashley’s friend care that she can’t afford a sumptuous gift? Unless Ashley’s friend is a total asshole, the answer is no. She wouldn’t care is Ashley skipped the gift altogether. All she cares about is that Ashley comes to the wedding, to be there, to give the toast, to share the moment with her friend.

What can Ashley give? Far more than the people with money, as it turns out.  She can’t afford the KitchenAid, but plenty of other people can. Ashley’s presence is far more important. Her friend need her, not what she can give.

If we aren’t giving as much as we’d like, it’s important think about the long run and to set a goal. But it can take years and some major life changes to get there.  The path of giving is a lifelong one, and sometimes we simply need to be as patient with ourselves as God is with us.

In the meantime, there are things beyond money that folks can give. A church (and any institution, really) needs the presence of people committed to the mission of the place even more than we need cash. Oh, we need money too, but in an age when a social media “like” can almost pass as real participation, actual presence goes an incredibly long way. So give what you can, but more importantly pitch in where you can. Come to church every week, or even most weeks. That’s more valuable than money.

The fact is, church wouldn’t be complete without Ashley: her stories, her struggles, her hopes, and the unique gifts that she brings. If the church didn’t make space for folks at every stage as life to come together as equals, then it simply wouldn’t be much of a church at all.

A part of Treasure & Ash, a series of short essays about money.










About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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