Don't you just love doing taxes? I sure do. There's something very spiritual about it, what with the whole "rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's" business. If it's good enough for Jesus, then it's good enough for me.
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What I meant to say is that doing taxes is on par with sliding naked down a giant razor blade into a pool of rubbing alcohol.
I approach tax preparation in much the same way I approach exercise, as I see they bear an uncanny resemblance. For starters, I avoid eating egg salad sandwiches before doing either one, because I learned the hard way that both a treadmill run and itemizing deductions are likely to turn my stomach, and there is no need to give Ol' Man Regurgitation a head start.
So much detail. So little patience.
On the plus side, there are brief flashes of bliss for both exercise and taxes, like that rare instance when I can execute a reverse lunge without pulling my groin, or when I get to figure my charitable contributions. There's something magical about entering each monetary gift in a spreadsheet and watching our tax bill shrink while my balloon of self-righteousness inflates with every donation.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to experience this trivial joy again. And I must admit, by the time I finished itemizing, I felt pretty good about myself. Very good, in fact. Our tax forms showed that our family met its biblical giving commitment with room to spare, making me feel superior in a holy sort of way. But we're not the only ones in the country who could pat themselves on the back.
Consider these helpful tidbits.
Americans gave away over $316 billion dollars in 2012, making the United States the most generous nation on the planet. The vast majority of the giving (72 percent) came directly from individuals, with another 9 percent coming from bequests, according to Giving USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy.
Skeptics may say we're generous because we're wealthy, but the data say otherwise. Only 5 of the wealthiest countries ranked in the top 20 of the world's most charitable according to the Charities Aid Foundation report. This study includes three aspects of generosity -- giving money, volunteering time, and helping strangers. Coincidentally, this report also lists the United States as #1, a source of pride for a nation where 80 percent of the population describes itself as Christian.
But something is amiss.
When researchers from Google and Indiana University's Center for Philanthropy looked at the beneficiaries of all our giving a number of years ago, they estimated that only a third of our dollars were given to explicitly help the needy. A paltry 8 percent went to organizations that provide basic needs like food and shelter, while 23 percent went to programs to help the poor, such as literacy, job training, health care and scholarships.
So who did the other two-thirds help, you ask?
I can look back at my own tax forms for a clue. While our family gave to organizations that directly serve the poor, we also gave to other non-profits. Schools. Theaters. Churches. The IRS considers all of them charities, and all of them serve a purpose in our community.
But who has two thumbs and benefits from a donation to my child's school? Or a silent auction gift basket chock full of movie tickets and restaurant gift cards? Or contributions to my church's building fund?
Don't get me wrong, financial donations make a huge difference in our society. They help promote and improve higher education. They help find cures for devastating diseases. They fulfill a need. But what concerns me is that we may be redefining the word charity without even realizing it, unintentionally adding a degree of selfishness to our giving.
char·i·ty ('cher-ə-tē, ˈcha-rə- tē)
1. The voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need.
2. Help or money given voluntarily to those in need.
3. An organization set up to provide help and raise money for those in need.
Much like our society has continually blurred the line between want and necessity, adding things like TVs and washing machines to our list of basic human needs, we have also broadened the term "those in need" to include any cause we feel is important. Like donations to my child's public school to purchase more computers. Or contributions to my son's little league to buy lights for the ball fields.
Or tithes to my church.
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Please don't misunderstand me. I believe churches are a critical part of the fabric of our society. They provide comfort for the brokenhearted. They provide community for those in need of support. They also provide a spiritual foundation for devoting our lives to the cause of Christ, and motivate us to great acts of service. There are churches doing beautiful things for God. I am reminded of a recent Monday night in our own church building where the homeless spent the night in our fellowship hall while a community group met in the sanctuary and Alcoholics Anonymous congregated in a preschool classroom.
At the same time, I cannot deny that the church can also be a social club where Christians connect with others who are a lot like themselves, and roughly 80 percent of donations (on average) benefit the members.
Guilty as charged.
Unfortunately, archaeologists have yet to unearth Jesus' old tax returns, so we can't be certain of what the Son of Man would think of the state of my Christian giving today. But, were he faced with the choice of donating a round of lunches for a homeless shelter or a thumping new sound system for the sanctuary, I'd put my money on the casseroles.
For Jesus, keeping the commandments was one thing. But as He told the rich young man:
..."If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." Matthew 19:21
I am not saying we Christians should stop giving to causes that benefit the whole of society. What I am advocating is that we be more mindful of our charity and make sure we are dedicating as much or more of our giving to the "least of these" rather than just the "rest of these." And I am also asking all of us to keep our churches in check. Reminding ourselves that choosing to invest in our own buildings or our own programs could also mean saying "no" to the Christ we profess to follow.
The one sitting on the curb just outside the door.
For Jesus saw himself in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and homeless. All of them Christ in our midst. The voiceless. Without possessions. So easy to ignore. Yet, Jesus implores us to see them. And to serve them. Expecting nothing in return so we can truly experience...
How it feels to be selfless.
How it feels to be Jesus.
Filled with the unbridled joy of a servant's heart.
Writers note: I would love to hear what you and your church are doing to remain radically focused on the needy in your midst, like our friend Maggie with Mercy Community Church. You gotta check 'em out.
Scott Dannemiller is a writer, blogger, worship leader and former missionary with the Presbyterian Church. He writes the blog The Accidental Missionary, where this post first appeared.
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