Everywhere I go people are wearing bands. One of the reasons I know this is true is because I am too, and I am self-evidently everywhere I go. But even leaving myself out of the equation, these bands are everywhere. Not that they are a new thing in themselves. Even before that day long, long ago last Wednesday when I started wearing a band, WWJD wearers had been doing bands for over a decade, silver ring girls for years, and David Beckham for at least seven months. As a nation we may not want to wear out hearts on our sleeves but increasingly we're happy to espouse a cause on our blouses or shirts, our fingers or indeed on our wrists.
Could this possibly be a sign that Britain is growing more caring? Are we genuinely more concerned about poverty because millions of us are wearing white bands with Make Poverty History on them? Does the massive popularity in school of a rainbow coalition of coloured wristbands - pink for breast cancer, blue for anti-bullying, black and white against racism - suggest a sea change towards a more concerned and engaged populace? And if people are not hugely engaged with the political processes that might engender change, then are they at least more concerned about the issues?
Or are these ringlets merely little flags we fly to salve our consciences, or even to express genuine solidarity in a context where more radical change seems impossible to us. What, after all, can we do as individuals to stem the march of global material inequality, global warming and a global Aids epidemic? At least, when we buy a Make Poverty History band for a £5 donation to a school charity in Brazil, we know that if we haven't turned back the tide, we've definitely helped someone get through next week, or next month or next year.
Not all impulses are bad. It's certainly no bad thing that UK citizens gave so quickly in response to the Tsunami appeal but such highly publicised cases of instant generosity probably only amounted in the end to £2 or £3 per person in the UK population. That's about the cost of a Valentine card. Good news but not quite a national outpouring of sacrificial giving.
Alongside the direct bona fide fundraising appeals come many other initiatives where the motivation and impact seem less clear. What precisely is my motivation in going to an all-day concert in the Millennium Stadium where the costs are so high that the net gift per person amounts to less than the cost of a ticket to a Rugby match in the same arena? Wouldn't it have been easier, quicker to simply write a cheque, or made a credit card donation? Certainly, the stars gave their time and, no doubt, cheerfully, but it did a number of the lesser musicians no harm to get national coverage and sing, play, and do their fandango before a massive live audience.
More bemusing still are those sponsored walks/treks/expeditions to fabulously exotic, interesting places which people do to raise money for charity. Here's how it works: they go somewhere fabulously exotic they've always wanted to go to. When they've been to this fabulously exotic place, you get to give some money to a charity they're concerned about.
Leaving such schemes aside, why, we might ask ourselves, do we need all these incentives to share our bounty? What does it take to generate generosity? Run a marathon? Or run a marathon in a hippo outfit?
Something is certainly better than nothing. What is perhaps more interesting in the aftermath of the Tsunami was the alacrity with which governments seemed to want to outbid each other. (Or was that just the way the media presented it?) If Germany can guarantee so many hundreds of millions, why can't we? And when Germany does, their international standing may rise and their population may feel better about their government. And indeed themselves. However, that may only be because no one is telling them that they and Japan have historically been the two G8 countries most deeply entrenched against cancelling the unrepayable, inert debt of very low income countries.
The reality is that however laudable the spontaneous response to disasters is, what is actually required is a much more concerted, long-term effort if we are to have any impact on any of the major global issues that affect us all. We can do something. And we can do really big things. In the 19th century, when people overseas died of starvation it was a tragedy. With a few exceptions, there wasn't much the global community could do about it because we found out too late, had too little surplus ourselves and lacked the transport technology to respond with enough speed. Today, we have the information, we have the food surpluses and we have the technology.
In that regard, one particularly encouraging recent sign has been the way governments seem now to believe that there is electoral mileage to be had in being concerned about poverty. In other words, governments now think that enough people in the affluent nations are concerned about global poverty for them to feel the need to be seen to be doing something about it. Or to put it less cynically, enough people in affluent nations care about global poverty to give governments implicit permission to do something about it. That has always been a key dynamic in effecting long-lasting change. Governments can lead, and it is their job, but enough people need to be behind them for something to happen. Still, it is sobering to remember that when Paul was trying to raise money to alleviate the poverty of the Jerusalem church, he was essentially asking the poor to help the poorer, and that's a very different thing than asking the rich to help the poor.
Nevertheless, if there is such a shift towards greater concern about poverty in the UK then that certainly has a great deal to do with Blair and Brown. You have to go a long way back in British politics to find a Prime Minister and a Chancellor who have so long and so often put domestic and global poverty on the agenda. And whilst Britain has been slow to actually meet the overseas aid target we set ourselves, at least progress is being made, and at least it is clear that the current Labour Party is determined to get there.
This long-term governmental commitment does not however obviate the essentially impulsive nature of charitable giving in the UK. In reality, we are probably giving less as a percentage of GDP than in the past, and we are probably giving in a less systematic way. Instead of taking out a standing order for save the Children we wait for Pudsey Bear to appear on the TV and allow ourselves to be cajoled into giving.
This kind of media exposure may and often is a good way to generate new donors but it makes it hard to sustain projects and charities over the medium and long-term. The same applies in the Christian sector where anecdotal information suggests that the amount of giving that organisations can be sure of in any given quarter is going down. And that's bad for projects, and bad for staff morale. And it can mean that more time, more creative energy and more money has to be put into generating funds rather than helping those who need it.
Essentially, the Christian view of generosity is not about 'oughts' and 'musts', it is not about Pharisaic calculations about whether we should tithe our pre-tax income or our post-tax income, it is about reflecting the character of God and engaging in his purposes. What's God like? God is generous. God is lavish. God doesn't hold back anything - even his Son.
And that is why Paul says that God loves a cheerful giver. A cheerful giver is someone whose heart has been changed, whose heart has become the way God wants our hearts to be. You can write a big cheque, or indeed a small cheque, and not rejoice in the opportunity to give. But the one whose heart has been changed loves to give. It's in their nature. As it is in His. We are wired to give and that's why it feels so good. We are created in the image of a giving God and when we give we find our true selves.
When Jesus decides to go and stay in the house of Zachaeus the tax collector, Zachaeus is transformed. (Luke 19: 1-10) He not only says: "If have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount," he also announces, "Look Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor…"
The first statement reveals two things:
Zachaeus was essentially an honest tax collector otherwise such a promise would have spelt financial ruin, particularly since he was one of the chief tax collectors in a largish community like Jericho.
Zachaeus has an almost aggressive desire to be right before God and right with his neighbour.
The second statement reveals a king-like generosity. Doesn't King Artaxerxes say to Esther, "What is your request? Even up to half my kingdom, it will be given you." (Esther 5:3) Does not Herod say to Herodias' daughter? "Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom." (Mark 6:23)
For both King Herod and King Xerxes 'up to half my kingdom' was simply a hyperbolic turn of phrase but when you meet the King of Kings hyperbole becomes reality. When we encounter the king of kings we become like true royalty. And there's no doubt about Zachaeus' sincerity. Jesus affirms it in the most startling terms: "Today salvation has come to this house because this man, too, is a son of Abraham."
Zachaeus, the excluded one is included. The marginalised find themselves sitting with the King of the Universe. In sum, the encounter with Christ, the understanding of Christ's heart and Christ's purposes leads to spontaneous generosity. Zachaeus understands what God is concerned about and he expresses what God is like.
That is why Paul says that God loves a cheerful giver. You can write a big cheque or indeed a small cheque and not rejoice in the opportunity to give, but the one whose heart has been changed loves to give. It's in their nature. As it is in God's nature. We are wired to give and that's why it feels so good. We are created in the image of a giving God and when we give we find our true selves.
When Jesus says that today salvation has come to this house, he is saying that Zachaeus has been restored to right relationship with God and with the true Israel. He is saying that one of the manifestations of that is the way he reflects God's character in his generosity. He has been liberated to become who God intended him to become.
That's why giving makes us feel good. It's what we're created to do.
Just as the great Scottish runner Eric Liddell can say in Chariots of Fire:
"When I run, I feel God's pleasure." So too with the cheerful giver - for God loves the cheerful giver.
And this is why it is a tragedy that people in the UK get so little teaching on money - because it prevents them from experiencing God's joy in this area. It withholds a blessing from them. And it prevents them from the experiencing the joy of being a blessing. And this dearth of understanding can have a terrible impact on the Christian entrepreneurial imagination. It leads to a defensive, fearful, scarcity mentality in terms of vision and imagination. "Oh, there's no money around so there's no point in daring to think of some great project that God might want done." How easy to forget that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills.
Ultimately, the issue for Christians is not whether we give spontaneously or in a planned way but that we live generous lives in line with God's purposes and His agenda. Nevertheless, the generous life is likely to be one in which we plan to give, give in line with our plans, and, when disasters strike, respond to need with a cheerful, compassionate heart.