07/16/2012 11:40 am ET Updated Sep 14, 2012

Learning to Give During Difficult Times

This happened.

Twenty years ago I lived in my first studio apartment in southern California in a run-down neighborhood. The apartment had thin walls and cockroaches. I worked swing-shift by myself running a plastic blow-molding machine, making about 5000 poly-collars (some kind of plumbing device) per night. This was the kind of job my degree in theology had secured for me, but it was all right for the moment.

One night I came home to find a bombed-out car, still smoking, in front of the apartment complex. (This was a few months before rioting would occur in the wake of the Rodney King verdict.) I slept on an old couch (it was a "furnished" apartment) across from my two huge bookcases filled with Calvinist and Reformed theology books, the sum of my possessions. I listened to KFI talk radio every night at work. I did not own a television. This was still a couple of years before the world wide web would take off.

I had stopped attending any kind of church, though I was fresh from working at a Bible College. I had yet to discover the Orthodox Church, which I finally made my home a few years later. I had been more or less a fundamentalist Christian for about seven years, and was feeling a little burned out. I was still single, very young, and beginning to feel jaded. At the time, I decided, however, to pray that God, in his providence, would arrange for me to help someone in need at least once a day.

I had been thinking a lot at the time about human dignity and what that really meant. My meditation was on the passage in the epistle of James, which says that "pure and undefiled religion is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself un-spotted from the world." All in all, it seemed a bit more practical than all the theology I had spent the previous few years ingesting. Religion, the text seemed to imply, is about serving those in need, and for an example, the writer chose those who were the most vulnerable -- children and widows with no one to protect them. This sentiment follows a longer section in which James also says that faith without works is dead, and, "Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works." I was motivated to get my "religion" out of my head and into the streets. Literally.

As it turned out, about once a day I would find somebody in need and assist them. Small things cropped up, usually while driving. Many people needed gas, or their car battery jumped (I ended up buying a gas can and a pair of jumper cables that I carried around with me), and so on; circumstance provided another person in need daily for about eight weeks straight. The prayer was being answered, but I thought to myself, "This isn't necessarily being arranged by God or by his providence. I am just unconsciously or even consciously, actively looking for people to help and making myself more available." I thought this, but continued to pray that at least once a day, someone would need what small help I could offer.

One night after my swing shift I decided I was just going to forgo the whole experiment, drop by a convenience store, buy some beer and get drunk. After work I drove around for a bit, then stopped at the first convenience store I saw, one that I had never been to before, and went in, grabbed a six-pack of beer, and took it to the counter.

The guy behind the counter hung up a phone, a stricken look on his face. "My wife just left me," he said.

"Oh no," I said. probably not very convincingly. I had never been married or dumped. I got out my wallet.

"I can't believe it," he said. "She just called and told me she had packed and is going out the door this minute."

"That's terrible," I said. "I'm sorry."

He put his hands down on the counter, trembling, and began to talk, and I began to listen. No one came in the store, and for about 30 minutes he told me his troubles. I listened, and consoled him the best I could. I didn't offer any advice, thankfully, because I didn't have any to give. I was just a pair of ears, there at the right time.

Since this is a true story, nothing miraculous happened to give it a sense of closure like you might see in the movies or hear in a three point sermon. The guy and I did not become friends. I never saw him again. His wife likely left him and he was likely miserable. Maybe, hopefully, my presence for 30 minutes as a listening ear was helpful for what it was in that moment. But it was something, and it was, oddly enough, as the cliche has it, my "good deed for the day" on a day in which I had decided to do nothing.

Perhaps the answer to my prayers wasn't all entirely of my own making. Maybe providence is more about both sides working together -- my own volition and availability in cooperation with that which is well beyond my control.

Time passed and my life circumstances changed and I moved and stopped my conscious experiment. But recently I have been thinking about taking it up again, and wondering if others will join me. It seemed personally relevant in a city that, a few months later, was burning.

It is just as relevant now in continually difficult economic times. The threat of scarcity, combined with mimetic desire, motivates many people (not all) to be less charitable, to hold on to what they have in the fear they will lose it. Many prosecutors are more fierce, many landlords less flexible. Millions of Christians vocally promote a false gospel of selfishness and greed, rather than one of loving one's neighbor, wrapped in an ideology of "liberty" that is rooted absolutely in self-interest. Rather than grace, religious leaders preach judgment, and justify hatred in a convoluted logic that resembles a grandiose persecution complex.

None of this should be the case. Economic hardship is an opportunity to truly give, not only from our own abundance, but from our own poverty -- even if it's just a gallon of gas, or some attention to someone who needs it. So I wonder if anyone will join me in deciding to be useful in a way that isn't normal for us at least once a day, to go out of our way to help someone else. Circumstances, or providence, provides the opportunity. "It's more blessed to give than to receive," said Jesus, according to St. Paul. Simply put, he's right. All we need to do is make ourselves available.