Starbucks, despite being an evil enormous international corporation, is a great blessing to the Englishwoman having tea out in Moscow. Starbucks baristas, when asked for black tea With Milk, do not look shocked and perplexed and ask whether they should put the milk in the teapot. Nor do they dish out a cup of hot water and milk froth with a well-intentioned teabag in it completely failing to brew. I have even been asked in Starbucks how much milk I wanted exactly, and whether I’d like it in a separate cup to add at the appropriate moment. Such service seems not far short of a godsend.
Good tea is particularly necessary, of course, immediately after a Sunday morning church service when a further hour of Bible study still lies ahead. But there is a certain irony in the situation when you take your expensive cup of excellent black tea with milk and a sun-dried-tomato sandwich and settle down in a comfortable corner of Starbucks to talk with your brothers- and sisters-in-Christ about the importance of financial generosity.
Here is the opening of the article we discussed, Grace Turns Giving Upside Down.
Giving can be a touchy subject. It may be hard for pastors to address it without apologizing on the one hand or laying down a guilt trip on the other hand. Most of us often would rather avoid talking about the subject altogether.
I am proud to say that during our discussion in Starbucks none of us did any avoiding, apologizing or laying down of guilt trips or anything else. But if touchy isn’t quite the word, then the word is complicated. Does giving result in the giver being blessed? we wondered. Or is giving a blessing in itself? Were we talking about material blessings there or about moral benefits? About consequences, about rewards, or about the inherent rewardingness of a spiritual discipline? Or did these amount to the same thing? Was tithing different from other sorts of giving? Was tithing commanded or just sensible? Was it to be considered in pragmatic terms, a handy mechanism for covering the church’s expenses, or should one emphasise its advantages for the individual disciple? Could one tithe anywhere or only to the local church? Did tithing ‘work’? If a megachurch pastor said that tithing was for people who want to be rich, did he mean that tithing would make you rich, or that tithing would make you reasonable? Was it possible to find a happy balance between those who felt thankful for the various good things in their lives, those who felt unfortunately rather hard up, and those in whom even a very good cup of tea could not quite curb a tendency to play Whack-a-Mole with prosperity gospels?
Four days later, the weather changed. The rain fell, the wind blew, the entire city disappeared under a sheet of ice, and my thoughts about generosity were unexpectedly altered by a fall and a fractured right elbow.
It turns out that the left hand really never has any idea what the right hand is doing in the midst of most of its ordinary everyday activities.
I have discovered that my right hand speaks a mysterious language which to my left hand is more or less unknown. The fine motor skills possessed by my right hand, its comparative strength and dexterity, I never used to give any thought to: I might occasionally have reflected on my poor handwriting, but mostly my right hand was just there, ready and willing to answer the needs of the hour, whether with a pen or a plectrum, cutting a loaf, doing up a zip or straightening the washing over the radiator. The secret of the right hand is a secret skill, constant, functional and unconscious. Hold that thought for the moment. (And forgive me the anachronism and the sleight of hand involved in not mentioning that what one ideally wants is two hands.)
A broken elbow means that generosity has a different look, a very immediate one. Generosity looks like my colleagues in the Recruitment and Timetabling Departments when a bewildered teacher with a broken elbow came through their office door at eight o’clock on a Thursday evening, since they neither raised an eyebrow nor batted an eyelid but took the situation calmly and completely in hand, providing every sort of support, help and reassurance as if there was nothing better they liked doing at the end of a long working day. Generosity looks like a string of friendly taxi drivers. It looks like Service Control at the 24-hour clinic, represented by a bored-looking man in a white shirt, who, while I was trying and failing to get my бахилы on, appeared suddenly from the other side of the room and did it for me.
Generosity looks like the people who let me go ahead of them in the queue, arguing that my need was greater than theirs, which may or may not have been the case. Or like a text message, Facebook post, phone call or email from a friend or colleague, coming out of the blue. Or like the flight attendant checking up on me on the plane. Or like my brother waiting at Arrivals at Gatwick to drive me away. Generosity sees a problem and steps in with kindness.
No doubt all those people would say that it was natural and obvious to help in the way they did. But that is exactly the point. That is what the right hand does: without analysis or calculation it reaches out to do what is natural and obvious, which turns out to be the action that changes everything for someone else. Giving is not really that complicated. Giving is an instinct and a skill. It is not a system. It is just what we do because of the world’s needs.
Perhaps more Sunday morning offering slots should go like this:
Reverend Sykes emptied the can on to the table and raked the coins into his hand. He straightened up and said, ‘This is not enough. We must have ten dollars.’
The congregation stirred. ‘You all know what it’s for – Helen can’t leave those children to work while Tom’s in jail. If everybody gives one more dime we’ll have it -‘ Reverend Sykes waved his hand and called to someone at the back of the church. ‘Alec, shut the doors. Nobody leaves here until we have ten dollars.’
One challenge, of course, can be that one feels more like a left hand than a right hand: keen in principle to serve and be useful, but hesitant, clumsy, tongue-tied, impractical or underconfident. Here one can only hope that the metaphor will bear me out: left hands, real left hands, do acquire more skill with practice and with time. You might never know exactly how much difference you have made — so that the cup of tea, for example, which someone in the Timetabling department made for me, and which I failed to actually drink because I was too bewildered, will go down in my memory as an infinitely more valuable thing than anything I’ve had in Starbucks or anywhere. The tea itself is neither here nor there after all. What matters is the kindness with which it came.