When I was a kid, Halloween was the most important day in the Fall. We lived in a small community where everyone participated in trick-or-treating. We kids dressed in simple costumes and went door-to-door, while the adults stayed home to hand out candy bars and homemade treats, all of which were assumed safe to eat. Our subsequent sugary feast lasted for days.
In recent decades a different holiday has become more significant to me this time of year – All Saints Day. It began when I worked with people with AIDS, and each year brought reflections on the many friends that had moved on to whatever comes next. Then a decade ago my parents died just over a year apart. I thought about them often in those first years, and All Saints Day became a special time for reflection and ritual. On that day it often felt as if Mom and Dad were in the room with me again. I couldn’t see them or hear them or smell them, but they just felt more real on that day than the rest of the year.
This year All Saints Day came with a different twist for our family. Jim Ginn’s father passed away just a month ago, and he is dealing with that fresh sense of loss and grief. In the process of helping him I’ve noticed an unexpected change in my own experience. My parents don’t feel real any more. They’ve become very abstract in my memory. I still remember them, but I’ve lost the sense of communion that I once had. This change doesn’t make me sad. It just reminds me that things keep changing, that I keep changing.
In some ways I appreciate my parents more now, in an abstract sense, than I did when they felt so much closer. Individual ups and downs, blessings and hurts, have mellowed into a pleasant stream of memories. These days what I recall most are the great lessons in life that I learned from Mom and Dad.
They taught me the joy of serving others, and the value of working not just for pay but for a sense of fulfillment. And each year when Seattle First Baptist has our Stewardship Drive, I remember their lesson in the value of giving.
Mom and Dad were far from wealthy. We were poor throughout my childhood, and in retirement they lived on Social Security and the small income Dad got by working well past the age of 65. But as early as I can remember, they taught us to give of what we had to others, regardless of how little we had. I learned to tithe – to give 10% of my income away – before I went to school. On Saturdays I got my 10-cent allowance, and on Sunday I put a penny in the collection plate.
My financial fortunes have been different from those of my parents. I certainly had my share of lean years, working my way through college and moving from career to career in the years immediately after graduation. I remember snickering when I was unemployed that it was easy to tithe when my income was zero. Eventually I fell into a career in Information Technology that paid me well for several decades. Through all those times, I kept giving 10% of my income away as my parents taught. The money hasn’t only gone to a church. I also support community non-profits and causes that are important to me. But my giving has always been the first “bill” I pay each month, and the only one that I actually enjoy paying.
While I have given what to me is a lot of money away, I’ve received far more in return. Giving money away frees me from its power. Even in the leanest of times I rested assured that I had enough, rather than constantly worrying about having too little. Giving helps me feel generous rather than needy. I find hope in knowing that I am doing something to help make our world a better place, even when direct evidence of that is hard to find. Tithing frees me from being imprisoned by my own possessions and desires.
I don’t really miss the days when I felt a more tangible connection to my parents on All Saints Day. There is something comforting about moving on to a different relationship, one that is more abstract but still very meaningful. These days it is enough to feel immense gratitude for my parents, and to honor the lessons in living that they taught me while we were together on this earth. Because of their faithfulness, I learned the true value of giving - it opens my heart and hands and allows me to be truly free.