What would be the opposite of living generously? You might think that it’s living selfishly, but I wonder if it is living in fear.
People who live in fear live pinched lives—hoarding possessions in fear that they will lose them, protecting borders in fear that their way of life will be taken, staying away from people who are different in fear of being in danger. It might sound as if I am talking about other people, but surely I can recognize myself. Maybe we all have a version of these fears. Some of our fears are well-founded, but some have been stoked by people who don’t have our best interests at heart.
The wise and wonderful writer Marilynne Robinson says she has two things to say about fear: First, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind (The Givenness of Things, p.125).
We know she is right. We know we are surrounded by elements working overtime to make sure we are always afraid. We also know that the Bible tells us over and over, “Do not be afraid.” But it’s easy to think of those admonitions as Bible words that angels said thousands of years ago, and fill our minds instead with the many truly scary things around us.
During the weeks when so many people lost their homes through earthquake, water, wind, and fire, I remembered a story from years ago. The story was written after the 1989 earthquake in northern California. Like many victims of natural disasters, the author lost everything she owned. But over time something began to happen: Friends began bringing her the things that she had given them. They gave her photos and recipes and books and other fragments of her life. Soon she realized that the only things she now owned were the things she had once given away.
We could call this the Parable of Living Generously. The way to step out of fear is to open our hands and let go. If we hold our possessions lightly, we will find it easier to live generously. And to paraphrase scripture, we are generous because God first was generous toward us.
Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.