The summer after I graduated first grade, one morning farm neighbor Tom brought to our house a large fish he had just caught. While Tom visited with my mother at our doorstep, likely discussing as at other times techniques of fish gutting, odd things found inside animals, and the best ingredients for breading, I gazed mournfully at the poor, gasping bass. Something kindled inside me. I slid the fish from Tom’s truck. I remember hugging to my chest the slippery load, a third as big as me. My back to the fish-murderers, I edged sideways. In the dusty shade under a bush, a favorite afternoon spot for the dog, I hid the bulge-eyed escapee. I aimed to snag a bucket and take the fugitive fish to a nearby pond.
But the breakout halted abruptly. “Have you seen my fish?” Tom asked the boy struggling with a bucket of water. On interrogation, I broke. I betrayed my fish friend.
I don’t recall the denouement, but it probably was tasty.
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another,
even as God in Christ forgave you.” - Ephesians 4:32.
A couple of years brought improved competence in compassion. In the back of a store I found a tub containing a hill of small turtles clambering over one another. I recall feeling sick and outraged at this turtle hell. I bought as many as I could. These five liberated turtles survived. Gentle use of solvents and water removed the smiley faces painted on them, an indignity any fool should know would warp their shells. Camped temporarily in a pen recently used by baby chicks, the refugees thrived on worms and corn flakes. They could seek sun, shade, or water as they liked. In mid-summer I released them under a tree at the nearby pond. I don’t recall considering that they could be invasive, but Missouri was not overrun by turtles.
Still irked that I had not redeemed the whole tub o' turtles, I was conflicted also that my buying only encouraged the turtle trafficker. Deciding not to risk smuggling, with dollars in hand I returned to the store. I was relieved to find no tub, no turtles. A decade later on that spot, I confess grim satisfaction on finding no store, only a vacant lot.
There is Robin Hood’s way to preserve the dignity of the poor by letting them earn their gift, as violently presented by the Monty Python crew. Though it demonstrates broader considerations, I don't recommend this approach.
Which is better for my heart, the risk of pride or the risk of hardening?
There are many ways helping can hurt, but I am reminded of the update from G. K. Chesterton: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” With plenty of opportunity for practice, I've learned to be of more help than harm in giving. In the next blog entry I aim to consider ways I found that the individual, the church, and society can better address need.
After thought and at least a flash prayer, often I just give money or time or transportation. It's not that I trust the recipient. Nor do I trust my own understanding or intuition. Rather I trust God, who repeatedly urges kindness. This is the God who "sends rain both to those who do right and to those who do wrong." This is the God who "will supply all your need according to his riches in Christ Jesus." This is the God who "made us to do good works."
In perhaps the oldest writing of the Bible, righteous Job states his practice of what sounds like unrestrained generosity:
“I have never refused the appeals of the poor
or let widows give up hope while looking for help.
I have not kept my food to myself
but have given it to the orphans.
Since I was young, I have been like a father to the orphans.
From my birth I guided the widows.
I have not let anyone die for lack of clothes
or let a needy person go without a coat.
That person’s heart blessed me,
because I warmed him with the wool of my sheep.
I have never hurt an orphan
even when I knew I could win in court.
If I have, then let my arm fall off my shoulder
and be broken at the joint.
I fear destruction from God,
and I fear his majesty, so I could not do such things."
- Job 31
I often pray, “God, please take care of needy people.”
What do I get back? “Greg, please take care of needy people.”
"I Like Turtles" Kid All Grown Up