I heard a delightful little story this week. Three boy scouts help a little old lady across the road. They report back to their scoutmaster, their pleasure in their good deed writ large across their faces. He too was pleased but asked, 'Why did it take three of you to help one little old lady across the street?' 'Oh,' the one boy said. 'Because she didn't want to go.'
Every time I think of that story, I laugh a little. Helping is one thing but helping in ways that are helpful to the people you're trying to help is something else entirely. It has become fashionable to speak about the subtle, hidden dangers in assisting others. Terms like 'enabling' and 'dysfunctional rescuing' are terms that speak to the difficulty we sometimes have in helping others in ways that honour their personhood and their needs.
We turn our attention to assisting others, but their reliance upon us ultimately becomes something that stunts their growth rather than advances it. We have probably all witnessed this; when a parent fails to move a child along, they encourage an unhealthy reliance.
Are we giving to others the thing they actually want or need from us or is our giving more about us? Enter Gary with his Love Languages. Though a little too simple, the premise of his book is a good one: different people need different sorts of gifts from us. Our ability to discern what that might look like goes a long way toward others receiving our gifts with joy and gratitude.
The truth is, actually helping people is a treacherous undertaking. We need a tremendous amount of self-awareness. It is so easy for our assistance to become more about us than the person being assisted. There is after all a helper's high – that good feeling that accompanies doing a good deed. We can experience a sense of accomplishment and pride as we reflect on the remarkable degree of our own generosity!
How easily we slip from a selfless act into something that is actually quite selfish. No wonder Jesus instructs us not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing when helping the needy (Matthew 6:3). I know a couple who are both incredible social justice warriors; she confided that their helping of others could have a bit of a competitive edge. When they've drifted into unhelpful patterns of thinking and being, they find themselves attempting to outperform each other in the 'Care Stakes'.
How do we help well? If I could return for a moment to the parent illustration. Recently I read an article on healthy parenting. Now, some articles on parenting are better than others. Some fall into pragmatic advice-giving (which is fine), while others dip into poetry, and speak with a broader lens that guides thought before behaviour. The Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran wrote these fine words on parenting:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
Kahlil's worldview was possibly different from yours and mine; you could easily replace the word 'Life' with 'God' to bring into focus.
it is a sage piece of advice: your children don't belong to you. You know, I find that hurts a little to hear. I like to think of my child as mine. She is mine! Or ours. But no, actually. She is God's first and foremost – was born into this world carried on the desire of God, will live her Life fulfilling the promise of God's Divine Spark within her. Our work? We get to nurture, to steward, to guard the Life that belongs to God. It is a high calling indeed, but it reminds me that - when all is said and done - 'the earth is the Lord's and everything in it' (Psalm 24).
I hope you enter Advent with Joy, Peace, Hope, and Love growing increasingly evident. I hope the bustle of the season is more about the thrill of this most beautiful time of the year. I hope you're not weighed down by the various responsibilities that are sometimes unnecessarily pulled along in its glittering tow.
And I pray for you the thing I pray for myself right now, that I would give out of a high degree of self-awareness; that I would see what clearly not what I wish to give but what the other person needs to receive from me. And then, if I'm inclined to applaud myself for these acts, to do it in a very measured way. For –I have received far more blessing from God, from others, than I will ever be able to repay. I'm quite sure that is true for you as well.
As I write these words of instruction, I feel pressed to say: regardless, it is the grace of God that holds us.
Don't forget to check out our Seven Questions for the coming week here.
Also look out for information on our Advent sermon series titled 'God With Us'. Details to follow on our webpage and Facebook page.
And lastly, join us for Cork's AGM this coming week (Sunday 1st December) after the 11.30am service.