My family and friends may have stopped asking me to say grace at meals. They don’t want to get me started, because I pray too long.
It’s not really my fault. I’ve experienced too much. In the first place, my husband John lost his senses of smell and taste in a horse accident five years ago. So if I eat about 1,000 meals a year, that’s 5,000 times I’ve been able to enjoy the savory aroma and delicious flavor of food while my good husband just eats to live. Before I start praying out loud, I silently thank God for the amazing sense of taste, our Creator’s good gift to us. John’s loss has shown me how much I had taken for granted the pleasure of food. I have a new appreciation for every flavorful bite.
Then, over the past eight years I’ve been to 36 countries and seen countless undernourished people. I’ve watched children scavenge through garbage and hundreds of others beg for food. I’ve been served hearty meals in the homes of people who have so little, I know they’re sacrificing their own family’s essential supplies to honor me as their guest. I’ve driven by hundreds of miles of farmland where workers labor with primitive tools under a hot sun to feed their families.
I sit down to a beautiful, nutritious, affordable plate of food. I did nothing to deserve this food! Someone planted seeds, cooperating with God’s bountiful design for seedbearing plants. God provided fertile soil, sunshine and rain—perhaps assisted by the ingenious human efforts of fertilizing and irrigating. If I’m eating meat, an animal’s life was sacrificed for my benefit. Even if I’m eating only fruits and vegetables, someone did the hard work of harvesting, hauling to market, cleaning, cooking and serving the food. It’s too much! I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. If I’m in a restaurant, my server may get a nice surprise. Since she’s the only one in that whole chain of workers I can tip, I might be a little extravagant.
There’s a connection, of course. When we’re truly grateful, we have to give something to someone! Gratitude begets generosity.
It starts with a posture toward God that honors Him as the Giver of every good gift and acknowledges His lavish grace in all its many forms. Some of God’s greatest saints live humble lives with few material possessions and in harsh circumstances that would make others complain. Yet they begin each day with a prayer something like this: “Thank you, Lord, for waking me up this morning and giving me another day of life. You didn’t have to do it, but You did, and I’m grateful.” They receive the grace inherent in every new day as a gift.
Some languages reveal the relationship between grace and gratitude. Gracia is Latin for grace. So when Spanish speakers thank each other by saying Gracias! the concept of God’s goodness spills over into the word. You can see the Greek word charis, which also means grace, in the larger word Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus gave thanks as He shared the bread and the cup in preparation for graciously giving His very life for our sakes. Gratitude and grace are of one essence.
The Apostle Paul wrote of this profound connection in his second letter to the Corinthians. We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. (2 Corinthians 8:1-2) A famine in Jerusalem had prompted the churches from near and far to send a relief offering, but the churches in Macedonia excelled them all, giving generously from a position of poverty. Notice his use of the word wealth. Their sacrificial contribution exhibited the richest form of giving. Beyond tallying the amount of the gift, Paul extolled their virtue and grace as they eagerly participated to alleviate suffering among people they did not know and would never meet.
Mutuality is a key component of Christian community, both locally and globally. It’s essential that everyone is allowed the privilege of giving. In the words of Henri Nouwen, “Only those who truly believe they have something to offer can experience themselves as spiritually adult.” (Gracias! pp. 18-19) And so even the poorest Christian congregations all over the world give their offerings to the Lord every Sunday, often dancing joyfully down the aisle to present their gifts.
I recently heard missionary Darin Land recently speak, raising financial support so he and Jill can return to the Philippines as theological educators. With deep conviction he explained, “Our Asian brothers and sisters are rich in the ways we are poor, and poor in the ways we are rich.”
How clearly I saw this reality when, in 2007, a family of refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo joined New Hope Free Methodist Church in Rochester, New York, where I served as pastor. They had once owned a sizeable piece of land and many cattle, but had been driven from their country for political reasons. After enduring a refugee camp massacre in which their 7-year-old daughter was killed, and then being shuttled from camp to camp, they had finally arrived in the US with few material possessions. Among those few possessions were their Bibles, their hymnals, and their Free Methodist transfer letters. Their priorities were not subtle!
From the very first day, our congregation began to perceive the riches these refugees had brought with them. They were rich in faith and prayer. Their family ties were unbreakable, having persevered through horrific hardships together. They loved God passionately and worshiped in joyful abandonment. And their singing! We had never heard such harmonies and rhythms, nor seen such lovely dancing before the Lord. They were rich in languages, fluent in several. Their wealth was also shown in gracious simple hospitality, profound words of blessing over visitors to their home, and appreciation for even the smallest kindness. They took no gift for granted.
What did we have to offer people as rich as these? We learned! We could help them learn to speak English and process paperwork. We could provide some household essentials like appliances, furniture and linens. We could give them rides and then teach them to drive. We listened to their needs and discovered ways to help them find goat meat and cassava at the public market. Some church members helped them navigate the bewildering aisles of the grocery store; others showed them how to use a washing machine or a can opener. What we really shared was our love, our time, our hearts and homes. We welcomed them. And we were absolutely sure that we gained more than we gave.
In this month of Thanksgiving and as we approach the Season of Giving called Christmas, let’s consider the deep connection between God’s grace and our practical expressions of gratitude for this grace. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians continues: But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this grace of giving also. I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:7-9)
How can we excel in the grace of giving at this time of year? That concept may begin with a willingness to part with some of our hard-earned money to purchase fitting gifts for our loved ones, a practice that is expected in our culture and can express genuine love and strengthen family ties. But it surely goes beyond that. In this passage, Paul says that sharing with people in need is a way to prove that our love is genuine.
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, taught in several of his sermons that “true religion” is a combination of “gratitude and benevolence; gratitude to our Creator and supreme Benefactor, and benevolence to our fellow creatures.” (e.g. “The Case of Reason Impartially Considered, p. 359) Recognizing that we have received much from God and others, we yearn to “pay it forward” and we seek out ways to share from our plenty. In fact, we could go further, following the example of Jesus, whose self-giving involved abandoning his riches and becoming poor! Now we’d be moving toward his kind of perfection in the grace of giving.
Some of our benevolent giving will naturally be local—we see needs “right in front of our eyes” and find ways to help. Beyond that, the world we live in, with vast differences in wealth among nations and regions, presents new and enormous challenges and opportunities for sharing globally. Myriad organizations exist to form these connections between compassionate donors and people in poverty.
In this context, we need to consider the wisest means of charitable giving. Many schemes of poverty alleviation actually end up causing more harm than good, so it’s important that we learn how to help in truly helpful ways. For instance, programs that send tons of food from donor countries to food-insecure countries often drive local farmers in those countries out of business, because who can compete with free food? Other well-intended programs give things that people don’t need or want (no malnourished girl needs a Barbie doll instead of food!) or ship items overseas that are not worth the cost of import taxes so they never leave the port. Often people in these countries feel the need to be appreciative, even though they would rather tell the donors the truth about what would truly help. But most of these organizations are huge and impersonal, so who would they tell?
This is where our connectional system called the Free Methodist Church becomes really useful! The most strategic way to share our material blessings is through healthy, mutually-respectful relationships where giving goes both ways. Our global network helps us to relate to one another as members of a family. I’m often referred to as sister when I visit other countries, and I receive it as an honor and a privilege. Far more than Doctor Linda, which also happens, I love it when I’m greeted as a member of the family. It establishes a sense of affectionate kinship, expressing the reality of the Family of God.
Our FMCUSA bishops, FMWM area directors and missionaries, and leaders of FM ministries like International Child Care Ministries, SEED Livelihood Network, The Set Free Movement and several other wonderful “first cousin” organizations all invest deeply in relationships with Free Methodist nationals around the world. We are in honest dialogue with bishops and church leaders in many countries on questions of how best to partner with one another. We have decades of shared history and crossover initiatives. We don’t always get it right, but we are in this relationship for the long haul so we work hard at growing together and learning better ways of relating and ministering.
An obvious shared value with the global Free Methodist family is that whatever is being done, it involves sharing the love of God and serving people in Jesus’ name. If we sponsor children, they are in the reach of the church. ICCM wants children to discover the joy of learning, hope for living, and the love of Jesus—and that happens through the gracious, self-giving work of countless adults who serve as pastors, teachers, house parents, project managers, and in many other roles. In that sense, sponsors and parents and other adults in the children’s daily lives are truly partners. Whether it’s continuing education, water filters, money to purchase local food to cook for the children or fabric to sew their school uniforms, putting additional resources in these people’s hands invests in our shared vision of blessing the children.
Other Free Methodist initiatives offer opportunities for livelihood, medical training, pastoral education, cooperation in the fight against human trafficking, and many other forms of empowerment. All of these are designed to express and expand the Kingdom of God while supporting development among our loved ones in other parts of the world. Our partners receive these gifts as from loving sisters and brothers in the global Family of God, and they thank God for our generosity.
This reality was experienced in the Early Church, as Paul expressed to the Corinthians later in the same passage: For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! (2 Corinthians 9:12-15)
When our global partners express their truest and highest words of thanksgiving, these words are directed to God. As Paul explained to the Corinthians, the recipients of their gifts repay kindness with affection and prayers—they long for you and pray for you. This is a tremendous contribution. I cherish their prayers! But above all, Paul says, the simple act of sharing overflows in many thanksgivings to God…they will glorify God… What a joy to know that there’s something we can do so that somewhere else in the world, there’s an increase in the glory and praise of God!
The virtuous circle is complete. We are all beneficiaries. It begins with God’s lavish gift, His Son. Through Jesus, we receive the gift of salvation by grace. Our gratitude flows outward in generosity. The needs of God’s people are met. They are filled with gratitude for our expression of God’s grace. Their own generosity is poured out in acts of self-giving service, and they praise God for his goodness. In turn, we declare with them, Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!
Linda Adams is the director of International Child Care Ministries — the child sponsorship program of the global Free Methodist Church. Before becoming ICCM director, she served as a Free Methodist pastor for 17 years.