04/29/2014 05:52 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2014

Two Simple Reasons to Give

My daughter, Jessica, who sometimes just calls to share a joke with me, gave me a great cartoon from the New Yorker magazine a few years ago. I keep it on my desk. Moses stands on the mountainside holding the Ten Commandments up so the crowds below can see them. In the audience there's a guy with his hand up, asking the question, "What's the takeaway on all this?"

Often, when I speak to people about Louisville Seminary's work and how much we need their support, I explain why we are doing away with tuition by the fall term of 2015 and why we are eliminating housing costs for students by 2021. Our scholarships, I explain, will make it possible for us to recruit the students with the greatest promise for ministry and will allow our graduates to enter ministry with no Seminary debt. This will free our graduates to build new ministries, to take risks, to become more entrepreneurial, to serve wherever God calls them, even in those places where the pay will be far from guaranteed (and the pay in ministry is never great).

I also tell the story of how our educational program, in addition to providing great biblical, theological, ethical and historical training, also teaches our students to be bridge-builders in this deeply divided world. I tell this story because it doesn't matter one whit if an education comes to you cost-free unless that education is priceless. The theological education our students receive is not only great in every traditional category, it is also the most relevant to the needs of our church and society.

Even as I deliver this message, frequently I feel like there's a guy inside me with his hand up asking the question, "What's the takeaway on all this?" Is there a purpose beyond the goods that we seek for our students and even our church's future? Is there a greater end, an imperative rationale that compels us to act? I am asking people to invest, and to invest significantly, in our Covenant for the Future strategic plan. I'm not asking us to reach in our pockets for spare change, but to change our giving plans and even our wills to support this work.

What's the takeaway on all this?

I have realized that there are really two simple but crucial reasons we should give and give generously. One has to do with the mission of God's people in the world; the other concerns a strange but fundamental theological fact about who we are.

The first simple reason we should give specifically to theological education is because we need well-prepared leaders to help us be the people we are called by God to be.

I think of the young pastor with whom I was talking on the phone a few months back. When I asked him what he had done that day, he said, "Oh, the usual pastor stuff." When pressed, I found out that, in the course of his daily rounds among the people in his urban-suburban neighborhood, he discovered that a worker at the local program that provides care to poor children and families had, herself, become homeless. It all occurred through a chain of errors, none of which were her fault. But the sort of mess that would be an annoyance and a nuisance to most of us literally put her struggling family on the street. By the time it came to this young pastor's desk, it was a mess indeed.

A clerical mistake at her bank, which they promised to clear up as soon as possible, caused her to overdraw her account, which made her rent check turn to rubber. Within a few days, and because of delays by the bank in getting the matter cleared up, she was evicted from her apartment. In fact, the eviction was improperly and illegally conducted. But she had no clout, and before she knew it, she and her children were in a local motel desperately piecing together rent each day. That's when our young pastor found out what was going on. She asked for a day's rent at the motel.

The young pastor I spoke with spent a good chunk of that day contacting a banker friend (and member of his congregation) who helped sort out the mess that started everything. He found another landlord who was willing to show mercy, and mobilized some church members who helped the family to move into a new apartment and made sure they had supper on the table. Not only was this woman back at work the next day at the homeless shelter, not only was her family saved from homelessness too, but some of God's people also had the opportunity to participate in Christ's redemptive ministry in this world because of this pastor's work.

"Oh, the usual pastor stuff." We could literally multiply that story a hundred or a thousand times over, every single day.

There is a frightened child right now sitting with her hospital chaplain waiting for chemotherapy to begin.

There is a woman who has suffered years of neglect and abuse, with trembling hand reaching out to open the door to a refuge that will take her in and protect her in the name of Christ.

There is a couple struggling mightily to hold together their family against all sorts of odds, economic and emotional, pouring their hearts out to a pastor or pastoral counselor.

There is a cup of hot soup and a warm bed awaiting a homeless person at the end of a long day on cruel city streets in a world that works overtime to tell him that he is not really human anymore.

There's a small group of friends who have gathered together to pledge to one another and to God that they will stay sober one more day.

There is the life of God -- the reign of God -- going on all around us. This life, this reign, needs the best leadership and the broadest participation possible. Louisville Seminary is here to make sure those leaders are well-prepared to participate in and lead in God's work throughout the world. That's the first simple reason to give, and to give to theological education in particular. But there's another reason why we should all give.

Giving goes to the heart of what it means to be created in the image of God.

As I said earlier, I get the privilege of asking people to give and give generously. As a Seminary president, it is just about the most rewarding part of my job. That may sound odd to a lot of folks, but it is true. The reason is simple. I get to spend time with people who have discovered the joy of giving.

Among the varieties of people I have encountered, three groups stand out: takers, keepers and givers. The takers might be characterized by the fellow Michael Lewis mentions in his new book Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014) about the darker side of Wall Street. The fellow says, "I'm not happy just to sit in first class. I'm only happy if everyone else I know is sitting in economy." That's a taker. Grasping, claiming, acquiring, when having has nothing to do with needing, but is only the outward manifestation of a sick soul. This group is the unhappiest I've ever met.

There are also the keepers. Now, true to my Scottish heritage, I'm pretty conservative when it comes to money. There are, in fact, members of my family who will remain nameless who see me as "tight." But keepers take sensible conservatism to the limit. They hold on to what they've got as though, in the words of songwriter Don Henley, hearses came with luggage racks. They have forgotten that what they have was given to them on loan from God. At most, we are temporary stewards of what we have. While the takers live in fear that someone else might get more than they will get, the keepers live in fear that they will lose what they possess, until their possessions possess them. They aren't a happy group either.

But I've also met givers. These are the happiest people I have ever come across, and I've often wondered why.

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, in a recent essay for the New York Times, links philanthropy and charitable giving, to "what psychologists call 'self-efficacy,' one's belief that one is capable of handling a situation and bringing about a desired outcome. When people give their time or money to a cause they believe in, they become problem solvers. Problem solvers are happier than bystanders and victims of circumstance." Giving, Brooks says, has a "transcendental benefit to donors and recipients alike." Giving, he says, "creates meaning."1

I think Brooks is right, but for a deeper reason.

In his profound and beautiful meditations on the spiritual meaning of The Apostles' Creed, the late theologian and priest, Hans Urs von Balthasar, writes movingly of the opening passage in the Creed, I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. Balthasar writes:

Herein lies the most unfathomable aspect of the Mystery of God: that what is absolutely primal is no statically self-contained and comprehensible reality, but one that exists solely in dispensing itself: a flowing wellspring with no holding-trough beneath it.2

God does not create because he is driven by need, by insecurities or by self-interests. God does not create from a relentless desire to take or keep. God creates from boundless love, love that finds its expression and joy in giving itself away.

The core of our humanity, the deep secret of our human identity, the mystery at the heart of all we are is that we are created in God's image and are never truly ourselves, never truly at rest, and never truly joyful until we participate in God's love which gives itself away. We were made for this. We were created to live this life of God, the Giving Giver. That's why givers are the happiest people I've ever met. They have found themselves in God. They live in the full flow of God's love.

I regularly invite people to give. I often invite them to give to Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and to other theological schools too, because I believe there are few better investments for the sake of this world that God loves. In the Presbyterian community, it is almost entirely through the endowments of our theological seminaries alone that the education of our church's ministers is funded. Theological schools, overwhelmingly, pay for the education of our own students. When you give to a theological school, you make possible the preparation of ministers, pastors, counselors, chaplains, social workers, teachers and other members of the helping professions. You are investing through them in all the ministries that they will lead throughout the days of their lives. You are really helping to create ministries, multiplying your gift, well beyond your field of vision for generations to come.

I also invite people to give to their churches and to other charities, too. I invite them to participate as broadly and as deeply as they possibly can in the culture of giving. Why? Because when we do, our lives find their truest meaning. When we give, we find ourselves resonating with the life of the God in whose image we are created. When we give, we discover a happiness and joy that endures.

1Arthur C. Brooks, "Why Fund-Raising Is Fun," The New York Times (March 29, 2014).
2Hans Urs von Balthasar, Credo: Meditations on the Apostles' Creed, David Kipp, tr. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1990), 30.