A few years ago, we wanted to encourage our kids in the spirit of giving. We had had a number of conversations with them about comparative wealth; and we wanted them to identify other people’s need, and give something back. So my husband pulled out a Tearfund's Useful Gifts Catalogue and invited each of them to choose something that we, as a family, would buy in their name.
Our youngest kids performed as expected. They took turns flipping through the catalogue, then chose cows and vegetable gardens: useful, and no real skin off our nose. We handed the catalogue to our oldest, expecting her nine-year-old self to order a toilet, but instead she took the catalogue and said, very seriously: “I’ll need to think about this.”
She went away to a quiet corner of the house. Some time later she returned, catalogue in hand. “So,” she said, “this Village Package means a village gets everything, right? Not just a chicken or a toilet, but everything they need to make their lives easier?”
We had been so charmed by the pictures of chickens and women's groups that we hadn’t paid much attention to the back page, which featured the $5,000 village development package. We looked at each other as she went on to remind us that we had said we were among the richest people in the world. “We live in Australia,” she said, “and you guys have jobs, and we have enough of everything. And you promised to buy anything from the catalogue.”
We gulped. We had promised. And she was right.
It is a truism that children keep you honest – yet I am not being fully honest. What I wrote above makes a great story, and it is true up to a point. But we had noticed the village development package and, knowing my daughter’s generous nature, I had suggested a price limit on what the kids could order. My husband disagreed. He thought it was more important that they had a free choice, even if it meant that our finances would be stretched.
Looking back now, I suspect that my husband had already decided that we probably should buy the full package, even if it felt too expensive; whereas I, worrying about our finances, thought our giving should be more limited. By asking our children to choose, my husband allowed us both to be challenged and to do the right thing when, left to our selfish adult rationalisations, we might have avoided it.
So we agreed. It took us a little while to find the money, but we did it. And the very fact we did it proved our daughter (and my husband) right: we could afford it, and we can indeed afford to be much more generous than we think.
I wish I could say that learning this has stimulated in me a new pattern of sacrificial giving. However, we have to fix the terrible leaking gutters and do other major plumbing works and my computer is dying. I am ashamed to say that there is a part of me that wishes the money was sitting on the mortgage, or had been used to prop up the house, or had gone towards a newer car. What we gave away could have made our lives even more comfortable.
But given my already high standard of living, any extra comfort is very small potatoes compared to what it might mean for a woman in an impoverished village to learn to sew, grow fresh vegetables, get some chooks, and see her children go to school. So while the Tearfund Catalogue is tucked safely away for now – since the gutters absolutely must be fixed – I will keep listening to my children’s questions and opinions about justice and the life of faith. For I know that, sooner or later, they’ll find a chink in my armour and stretch me to be generous once again. And that can only be good.
Alison Sampson is a pastor at Sanctuary, a faith community based in Warrnambool.
Normally when we write about money, we stay anonymous. Revealing what we earn, spend and give is one of the great taboos, but I’m putting my name on this. First, because I think this taboo is poisonous. It perpetuates income discrimination, and gives money too much importance in our lives. Second, because this story is not about my generosity, but my daughter’s. I am the miser here, even as I recognise that we can always give more. Finally, because many people who read the things I write figure out I have written them even when they’re anonymous. So I am Alison Sampson, a pastor at Sanctuary, a new faith community with Baptist Connections based in Warrnambool. https://sanctuarybaptist.wordpress.com/