A few years ago, a copier was donated to our church. I can imagine the process that brought it to us: Another congregation, frustrated with its finicky copier, wanted to buy a new one but felt guilty about junking something that still worked. So they gave it to us. We are a poor church, we can’t afford new things, and we were grateful. The copier makes copies most of the time, but you have to be careful not to leave the paper in the feed tray overnight, not to put too much paper in at once, and also to keep your batches small. Any missteps will strand you in the copy room, desperately opening and closing Door A.
One evening as I watched an already worn-out elder struggle to get the ten copies she needed for our council meeting, I started to ponder. Someone’s good impulse brought the copier to our church, but there is something uncomfortable about it, too. Donations like this seem kind but sometimes add further burden to people who are already weighed down. More importantly, they often don’t reflect the generosity of our God. If the “least of these” are Christ in our midst, as Scripture tells us, then why are we giving them our castaways?
I am one of the pastors of a small rural congregation in Michigan. Twenty years ago, our community set out to welcome the wounded—to hold space for those who felt excluded from other churches—and we’ve done just that. But our work is difficult and often painful.
My first pastoral visit to a member of the congregation happened in a behavioral health unit, where one of our deacons had been hospitalized. She has dissociative identity disorder, sometimes referred to as “multiple personality disorder.” One of her alter-egos had slit her wrists and another had called an ambulance. This sort of drama is not out of the ordinary for our church community, and it takes a toll. Many of the people in our community live in the daily crisis of poverty, and many have been through more trauma and suffering by their tenth birthday than I will go through in my entire life.
It is a needy church, and now it has a needy copier.
Only while pastoring a church have I been on the receiving end of donations like this, but nonetheless I have seen this impulse before. While I was working on a farm one summer during seminary, my coworkers and I divided up our harvest each week. The “firsts,” or the best produce, were sold at the farmer’s market because people don’t like to buy funky looking vegetables. The seconds went to those people who had bought shares through the farm’s CSA (community supported agriculture) program. We farmhands were given free rein to take from the remaining unsightly, broken, and marred produce. And what was left over—the fourths—was given to a ministry called “Jehovah Jireh, God the Provider.”
In the wash station, when asked about a wormy cabbage or punctured tomato, the farmer would shout back that it should be donated to the ministry: “Jehovah that ****!” Then the volunteers of Jehovah Jireh would distribute our fourthfruits to the poor, as if from the hands of God.
Just last week, I visited a clothing pantry run by a local church. As the pastor gave us the tour, someone asked if all the clothes were donated. “Yes!” he said, with gratitude in his voice.
“You know, people have yard sales, and then they give us what they can’t sell. Whatever is too far gone for us to use, we put in the world missions bin across the street. They take anything.”
Let’s count it out: The clothes that we like and wear are our firsts. We sell our seconds. The thirds are given to the local poor, and the fourths are shipped out of the country to be given to the poorest of the poor. The fourths are given to the least of these. Jehovah that ****.
To be totally honest, I’m not above doing the same thing. I have done the purge-sell-donate routine with my own clothing. I have cleared my shelves of stewed carrots for the local pantry. I, too, am among the many who give my fourthfruits to the poor. But, if we really are the hands and feet of Jesus, we have to ask what it is that we are saying about him with these donations. In these instances, through the hands of the church, God has given to the poor what wealthier people can’t wear, sell, or give away, what they won’t buy, receive, or take for free.
To make matters worse, in Matthew 25, when Jesus talks about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, he doesn’t identify himself with the giver but with the receiver. He says,
“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (v. 40).In this context, I am forced to ask: Are we more like the sheep or the goats when we give our garbage to the naked and hungry person of Jesus? And what are we saying about our abundant God when the body of Christ is giving gifts that are already used up?
I appreciate the impulse to not throw things away. It’s not necessarily wrong to give our leftovers to the organization Jehovah Jireh, God the Provider, or to world missions, or to a poor church in Michigan. It’s not wrong that a church gave us their old copier. But the truth is, it became another weight for us to carry. Perhaps the donating congregation might have bought us the new one and put up with their old one for a few more years. The idea seems almost ridiculous to me, but nevertheless, the Bible holds up examples of Jesus behaving in extravagant ways in the name of love. I want to see that same extravagant love in my own life and also the life of the global church.
Proverbs 3:9–10 says,
“Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.”What would it look like for us to trust the God of abundance and give our firstfruits instead of our fourths? It would mean that others could trust in him, too.