One night last week I tuned into the news magazine “Chronicle” to hear a story about famed baseball great, Pedro Martinez. Not a story about his pitching career or his notoriety. Instead, a story about what he is doing now. Martinez grew up in the Dominican Republic in impoverished circumstances in a small town that had little in the way of things like running water, stable housing, educational supplies; little in the way of opportunity in general. He and his wife live there now, and we were given a window into what his home life was like back then. Not much has changed for the people who remain.
Pedro retired from baseball at a time when salaries were high for sports figures although not as high as they are now. He is wealthy by comparison with those he lives among, but not so much so among his peers. He knows what a chance to make a better life can do for a person and has purposed himself to create that potential in the lives of children in the Dominican Republic. His foundation there supplies basic needs, educational materials, health, and wellness. His work extends to local Boston area children as well. He says that he gives hope; that when the children see him and Carolina, they see hope. And for him, this is all so much more important than what he was, what he did in the major leagues.
Author and professor, Toni Morrison, has said that she told her students “When you get those jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” Martinez seems to have grasped hold of this idea. He doesn’t have to do what he does in those poverty-stricken communities, and yet the freedom he experienced coming up in the baseball system and the power he has garnered because of his relative wealth and fame are all things that he feels called to bring to bear on young people who might not otherwise have a chance. This is generosity.
Poet, David Whyte, writes that, “To give well, appropriately and often is to establish a beautiful seasonal symmetry between the urgency within us that wishes to be generous, and the part of the world that is suddenly surprised and happy to receive.” Giving is a relational process, bound up in our desire to be givers and our ability to know another well enough to give meaningfully. The essence of giving, he says is that the recipient is simply alive, a privilege to know, “a living privilege themselves.” So, “giving means paying attention and creating imaginative contact with the one to whom we are giving . . . a way of acknowledging and giving thanks for lives other than our own.”
With the holidays upon us and the gift-giving season ramping up, I am reminded of the consumerist tendencies we have to just give something, without much in the way of forethought, without much in the way of searching out the deep desires of those on the receiving end, of knowing them well enough to give in ways that are meaningful. Holiday giving becomes an exhausting chore that runs the risk of insulting through the presentation of some random item. Whyte says that giving “appropriately always involves a tiny act of courage, a step of coming to meet, of saying I see you, and appreciate you.”i His essay on giving is peppered with the word ‘appropriately’ and what I think he is getting at is the concept of generosity. There is a difference between giving and giving appropriately, the latter involving a more generous spirit and some effort on our part.
This twist on giving begs the question – How many of you have heard of the Golden Rule? Go ahead and shout it out – “Do unto others . . .
. . . as you would have them do unto you.” In light of Whyte’s treatment of the topic this sounds a little selfish to me. It is grounded in the needs of the giver, not the receiver. Back to Martinez for a minute – he has a desire to give back, not simply to give. He does so with a deep knowledge of those to whom he is giving. He lived the lives they live, and he has settled himself among them when he could just as easily be living in some more affluent place. He continues to know these people in real time so that what he gives is appropriate to the need. Generous.
The Rev. Michael Collins wrote about generosity saying that it is a nice sentiment but is only a sentiment without the knowledge that relationship brings. How many of you have heard of “the Platinum Rule?” I must say, this was new to me! At least as an actual rule! It reads a little differently than the Golden Rule. Listen for the shift: “Do unto others as they would have done unto them.” Did you hear it? Let me say it again: “Do unto others . . . as they would have . . . done unto them.” It’s not about the giver at all, other than to compel us to action. It is about the receiver. Ours is to have done the work of getting to know them, having a genuine relationship with them which also involves being open to feedback and accountability to them. So, not the surface relationships. Instead, the kind of relationships that change us.
Criticism of the Golden Rule is not new, come to find out, having been expressed by Kant and Nietzsche who suggested that you can’t know how others want to be treated unless you set yourself to be about the business of doing so. It must matter to you. The problem with the Golden Rule, according to Dave Kerpen in his book The Art of People is that we are all different and what I want may be very different than what you want. We can’t just treat everyone like ourselves, assuming that what we want is sufficient for them. To do so ignores their unique experiences of life. And it posits ourselves as fixed entities – “This is what I want – Here you go – Have some.” Hints of imperialism ringing in my head. Culturally, we are people grounded in the Golden Rule, not the Platinum version. It is a big shift. But generosity has much more to do with platinum than gold.
Generosity requires something of us. As people of privilege, we tend toward the golden rule, make assumptions based on our desires, assuming that everyone, of course, wants what we have. To be truly generous we need to develop the ability give up some of what we have, who we are, in order to meet those with whom we are practicing generosity where they are. In short, we need to be willing to be changed. We have talked about this before. The concept of inclusion versus welcome. Generosity means diving deep into the lives of others in real relationship, creatively sharing and learning and growing together. Real generosity means we are ready to give up a part of ourselves in order to further relationships of understanding and acceptance and to give in meaningful ways.
Generosity is one of the six stated values in the proposed Unitarian Universalist Association Article II bylaw revisions. And it reads in part, “Our generosity connects us to one another in relationships of interdependence and mutuality.” We need one another – all of us on this planet. It says that generosity cultivates gratitude and hope – the very things that Martinez says the children in the DR see when they see the spirit of generosity with which he offers. “We covenant,” it says, “to freely and compassionately share our faith, presence and resources.” Can we focus on the idea of presence for a minute? That’s the piece that requires us to quiet ourselves and to listen, to observe and to inquire from our hearts with a genuine curiosity so that we come away with a stronger sense of the other, their truest and fullest selves. We build relationships that honor each and all. And we do so freely it says – no holding back – no fear. It is an act of generosity to take that time, to make oneself available to those we have yet to come into a relationship with. When we do our giving will be received as generosity as opposed to charity.
Richard Gilbert, in our prayer this morning wrote that we “hold out the chalice of our beings” – these containers of self, open and waiting to be filled – aglow with fiery spirit – “to be filled with the graces of life that abound” – including our companions on this journey – this earth. We hold steady and receive in preparation to give with generosity. We share from our abundance, he says, knowing we could just as easily have less and be in need. We are willing to let go of a scarcity mentality – the idea that what we have is in short supply and so we need to hold onto as much of it as we can. Possessions because we believe there isn’t enough to go around; power because we believe it is limited, love because the more you get the less there is for me. It is a self-perpetuating cycle, according to Parker Palmer.ii
We are generous people here, sharing from our abundance – financial resources for organizations that do good work in our communities, time as volunteers here at the Meeting House and in other places that meet our values and tug on our hearts, talents – the unique and creative gifts that are a part of each of us beckoned forth by needs that we encounter. Our service this morning is an invitation into appropriate giving; an invitation to spend the time getting to know those who we choose to bestow our generosity upon. It’s easy to drop a little cash in the basket. Harder to make space for a relationship with those we support.
I’d like to take a moment to let you think about someone in your life or experience who you consider to be perhaps one of the most generous you know – think about this in terms of the definitions we have heard this morning. Take a moment and then turn to someone who you didn’t arrive with today and share briefly who that person is and why you chose them.
Generosity is so much more than just giving. It is rooted in our deep desire as people to be in relationship with one another. Not the superficial kind of relating that lets us check off the box marked “done.” The “How are you?” that just wants to hear, “Fine.” in response and go on our way. But the kind that is ongoing – unending - because there is always more to know about the people we encounter in our lives, windows into their souls and spirits. In the end we are changed by one another’s unique ways of living – being - doing. To be changed in such a way is to be truly generous.
May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, November 12, 2023
i From “Giving” in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte; Canongate, Great Britain, 2019; pp.63-7.
ii From “Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation” by Parker Palmer; John Wiley and Sons, Inc, San Francisco, 2000.