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Christmas stores and tithing

The best giving gives with the recipient's eyes

Christmas stores and tithing

Now that the temperature in Austin has fallen to a fall-like 75°, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. In "Wins & losses," I wrote about seeing Atlanta through the eyes of veteran poverty-fighter Bob Lupton. Here I'd like to note two passages from his recently published book, Renewing the City: Reflections on Community Development and Urban Renewal (InterVarsity).

The first describes the way Christian groups have typically helped children to have a Merry Christmas: "I gathered lists of needy families with the names, ages, sizes, and special needs of their children and matched them with families who would deliver on Christmas Eve a bounty of delicious food and wonderful presents."

A great idea, right? Read on: One year "as we sat in the living rooms of the poor when the gift-bearing families arrived, we saw something that had escaped our attention before. The children, of course, danced with excitement at the stacks of presents arriving at their door. And the mothers were generally gracious to their well-dressed benefactors, though they seemed self-conscious and subdued. But the fathers, upon hearing the knock at the door, would disappear from the room and not return until the gift givers had departed. For the first time a darker side of our giving tradition became evident. I saw parents in their own homes, in front of their children, being exposed for their inability to provide for their families. Our system of kindness was destroying their pride.

"A new way of doing charity was clearly needed. The following Christmas season, I asked our giving friends to consider an additional gift. 'Give the gift of dignity to the dads,' I requested of them. . . . Instead of delivering gifts to homes, we encouraged donors to bring them unwrapped to our Family Store, where we set up a special 'toy shop.' Each gift would be ticketed with an affordable price tag. Parents from the community would then be invited to come shopping. . . . Parents who had no money would be offered jobs so that everyone could share in the dignity of earning and purchasing and giving."

Mr. Lupton records that the next Christmas "had a different spirit about it" as both children and parents were joyful. He then asks, "Why had it taken us more than 10 years to see such things? Doubtless for the same reason that churches continue to feel good year after year about their soup kitchens. . . . A gift seems compassionate unless it is seen from the recipient's side."

With about 10 weeks to go until Christmas, I hope many church groups will take Mr. Lupton's advice to heart-and I think many will. A second of his recommendations, though, is likely to be more controversial. He notes the debate that ensued when he told a group of ministers that he had spent part of his tithe money to fund a holiday barbecue for poor neighbors. Even though the Old Testament explicitly advocates the use of some tithe money for community feasting, many ministers were critical.

The Lupton response: "Hmm. Now, if this were about being biblical, then joyful celebrations and sharing food with the poor must surely be as legitimate as paying priests their salaries and keeping the temple candles burning, right? . . . For these pastors, keeping their sermons relevant, their programs engaging and their churches growing was an all-consuming effort. Little wonder why they lacked interest in such a disruptive endeavor as restoring the doctrine of tithing to its intended purposes."

Since tithes in biblical times went for temple worship, aid to the poor, community feasting, and religious education, Mr. Lupton says church members should be able to channel tithe money toward their individual preferences within those categories. He includes in Renewing the City a letter he and his wife sent to their pastor about their plan "to meet and exceed your challenge to tithe our gross income at the 10 percent level. This year we have decided to give 15 percent. And we will give a tithe of this tithe to the church. The balance we will invest in the frontline troops who are engaged in kingdom work in the urban trenches."

That's a radical step. It would be better for churches themselves to increase substantially their mercy and missions budget. But Mr. Lupton's challenge can wake up all of us.