We are living in a time of unprecedented economic disparity between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots. Masses live in poverty so that a handful of people can live as they wish. The world’s three richest people own more than the combined economies of 48 countries. The average CEO in the US is making 400 times the average worker.
Even people who knew Anna Kurzweil well wouldn’t have guessed she was a millionaire. She grew up on a farm outside of Kansas City, the youngest of eight children, and entered the convent for a few years but spent most of her life as a schoolteacher. She earned less than $20,000 a year, cared for her elderly mother, and eventually retired — on a pension of less than $1,000 a month. She died in 2012, just shy of her 101st birthday.
Like a lot of people, I love giving presents almost as much as receiving them. And the best gifts of all are ones that come with a clear understanding of the recipient in mind — ones that involve thought and care. Maybe a weird record with cover art only your best friend would love, or a necklace that goes perfectly with your mom’s favorite dress.
But spending that much effort on gifts for every single person on your list can be exhausting. Handmade gifts sometimes take weeks to plan and make in advance, and you don’t always have the time (or gas money, for that matter) to spend an entire day driving all over town searching for the perfect present, as romantic as that sounds.
Luckily, there are plenty of great resources out there to provide you with excellent gifts that give back. You can find some of them listed in Sojourners’ Just Giving Guide, which offers options ranging from clothes and jewelry to coffee and pecans (yes, pecans!). And if you just can’t find that special something, there are also plenty of choices for giving a donation in honor of a friend or loved one.
James was playing cards with several other nursing home residents in a room that doubles as their dining area. The “stakes” for their game was a stash of candy from a Christmas party earlier in the day. He saw me and waved me over. James grabbed one of the candy canes in his pile and offered it with his right hand, the one that had L-O-V-E spelled out on the backs of his four fingers with a self-applied tattoo.
“Would you like some candy?” he said.
James was short, thin, in his 40s. His most distinctive features were those homemade tattoos on his fingers, hands and forearms. And the outline of a metal plate protruding from his lower right leg.
An auto accident left the leg mangled. He didn’t have medical insurance to cover the enormous hospital bills. He couldn’t stand on the leg as it healed, so he lost his job as a cook. And soon, his apartment. He was living on the streets, sharing needles and drugs to deaden the pain in his leg. He wound up sharing someone’s AIDS as well.
But that’s not why he was dying. He’d developed cancer. There was nothing they could do.
I got to know James as part of my work as a hospice volunteer. He only slowly warmed to me — all that time on the streets made him wary of people and their motives. He didn‘t trust very much.
But now he was offering me a candy cane.
Atheists and others who don’t adhere to a religion often say they can be good without God. Now, three new studies appear to back them up.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley conducted three experiments that show less religious people perform acts of generosity more from feelings of compassion than do more religious people. The findings were published in the current issue of the online journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Their results challenge traditional thinking about what drives religious people to perform acts of kindness for others.
“The main take-away from the research is that there may be very different reasons why more and less religious people behave generously, when they do,” said Robb Willer, an assistant professor of sociology at Berkeley and a co-author of the studies.
Those two words bring to mind two very contrasting images from recent headline news: One is the shocking image of University of California at Davis students seated on a pathway, arms linked in peaceful protest, as they are repeatedly doused with pepper spray by a zealous campus police officer. The other is of the equally zealous shopper on Black Friday who sprayed her fellow Walmart customers so she could buy a discounted X-Box.
On the one hand we have an image of the power of nonviolent protest to expose injustice, and on the other an appalling image of consumer greed.
These are the signs of our times.
To me, "unexpected" is at the heart of how I understand grace. It is the unearnable gift, the divine reversal and sacred surprise, the still small voice that drowns out the din of the maddening crowd, the little bit extra that my Cajun friends call lagniappe, the very thing we "deserve" the least but get anyway. From God. From the One who created the world and the audacious, indescribably power of love.
Taking a cue from Nell, here are just a few of the unexpected blessings I am grateful for today:
For God's fingerprints that cover every inch of our world, seen and unseen. And for the moments where I can almost make out the holy whirls imprinted in the sky, the ocean, the sunlight, and on the faces and stories of each of us.
For the generosity and selflessness I see so vividly — all around me, all the time — even in these lean, nervous days. I saw it in Zuccotti Park, where strangers prepared and served food to other strangers. I saw it in the sober faces and strong arms of the men who helped 84-year-old Dorli Rainey to safety after she was pepper-sprayed at an Occupy rally in Seattle. I heard it in the prayers lifted at the White House, at North Park University in Chicago, and in the basement of a church in Spanish Harlem where kind, mighty souls formed Human Circles of Protection last week and stood in solidarity with the poor, the vulnerable, and the least of those among us. I watched it on display at border crossings, immigration rallies, refugee camps in the Horn of Africa, and at a glass blower's studio in my hometown of Laguna Beach where strangers arrived with shovels and wheelbarrows to help dig out an artist and his artwork from the muddy ravages of a flash flood. I saw it in the fresh coat of paint on the front steps of my elderly parents' home in Connecticut that my cousins had applied for them with great care and kindness when my brother and I couldn't be there to do it.