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Thinking about gifts on July 4

The other day, I heard that five percent of the world’s population lives in America. Being the ever skeptic that I am when it comes to stats, I dug around and found out, lo and behold, that figure was just about right. According to the CIA World Fact Book, 4.5 percent of world’s population lives in the U.S. The U.S. is the third largest country behind Russia and Canada and the fourth most populated (behind, in order, China, India and the European Union with Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Russia rounding out the top 10.) Yet the U.S. has one of lowest densities of population, highest wealth and longest life expectancy.

On this July 4, our nation’s Independence Day, I’m reminded that we live in a very, very wealthy country—and I suddenly feel a very grave and incredible responsibility. And those thoughts remind me of an editorial I read over half-a-decade ago: Dollars and Souls by Laurie Oswald, a former colleague from my working days.

Laurie is reflecting on her experience in Guatemala City, where she was attending a massive gathering of Anabaptist-related churches from around the world. As she sits on a plane headed back to the States, she reflects:
. . . I felt rich, though I had spent all my cash on souvenirs and barely had enough to pay the $30 tax to leave the country. Relationships forged at Mennonite World Conference meetings left me with this wealth - especially treasures from new African friends.

I pondered how people with few financial resources can so lavishly enrich souls around them with a passion for Jesus Christ, deep-hearted laughter, trusting friendship and wisdom and joy born from suffering.

When relating with people from such countries as Ethiopia or the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, I was the bigger recipient. Their huge love for God and people infused my North-American self -depleted from too many Wal-Marts and movies and too few relationships and prayer times with God - with fullness.

This fullness blessed me and yet confused me. It caused me to ask: What do I have to share in this relationship? What I brought from my North American context seemed shallow, spiritually and
relationally impoverished in comparison.
She talked with Pakisa Tshimika, director for MWC's Global Gift Sharing Project, a project intended to take an inventory of MWC's member conferences, including their spiritual and material gifts, professional capacities and human and institutional resources. In his work with the African countries, Tshimika reported that people found much wealth:
"They discovered how many people have theological training and an enormous amount of people trained in other ways," he said. "They found many small groups of people involved in community-based programs, and many women involved in microenterprises, from which they can share technology with other churches."

Until this exercise, they hadn't considered these human resources as gifts, because they're not listed in the Bible under spiritual gifts, he said. But the exercise helped them to see all their resources as gifts from God.

"When we recognize that all gifts belong to God and came from God, then the question of sharing them is not an option. It's a must," Tshimika said.
This—and another conversation—helped Laurie in her own ruminations:
Reflecting on his statement, I realized my angst in relating to my African friends was linked to feeling guilty about material wealth and shameful about who I was as a North American.

On the flight home, I met a Lutheran man who had taken youth on a missions trip to Guatemala City to work in a dump, where the poor found food and shelter in the garbage. Over breakfast, I lamented going back to the United States, where I had so many things and yet sometimes felt so spiritually impoverished. He wisely urged me to be grateful for North American blessings, for God hadn't given them to hoard but to freely bless others.

As the plane touched down, I looked out the window on our North American abundance and realized that we, like our African brothers and sisters, suffer from gift blindness. We also need to see and accept our gifts. Until we do, we can't freely give them away and humbly receive what others can give.

Perhaps North Americans have more riches in dollars and Africans have more riches in souls. But God isn't counting what we have - only what we give away and what we receive in trust. In his economy, generous, humble hearts are true wealth.
Today, I am reflecting on Laurie’s insights and talking about them with my children. Indeed, we are blessed with a great wealth both in money (the fact I am typing these words and you are reading them testifies to that) and resources—but with that comes great responsibility. Are we recognizing and accepting our gifts? More importantly, what are we doing with them? Good thoughts for a day like today—or any other day, for that matter.

(Image: Public Domain)