This week I attended the annual celebration of generosity in our community and was one of the several recipients of awards for philanthropy. It’s an old line to say “several people have asked” but in this case it is true that a number of people asked me to publish the remarks as this week’s blog.
“Thank you for this. However, it would be more accurate to call me an accidental philanthropist. As some of you know, I am a Sunday School teacher and Scripture has a very clear admonition and warning for teachers. You should watch out for those who like to walk around in flowing robes, be greeted in the marketplace and have the most important seats and place of honor at the banquets. There is a good chance the floor will open up and I’ll disappear suddenly. So, I will make this quick.
All my adult life I have lived more like a trapeze artist than anything else. I would let go of one, hang for an anxious moment in midair, and then catch the next ring or - as most often happens - be caught by the strong hand of the catcher swinging toward me. It was in 1996 when I was in midair between one work and whatever was next that Jeff Buford called and said, “So what would you like to do?” I told him and his response was, “I’ll back you.” It was that simple and stayed that way for twenty years. Any philanthropy I have done of any scale in this community at all has been because of Jeff Buford. He was the most well-known anonymous philanthropist in Tyler for many years and if he were here he would be waving me off. However, it is true. For twenty years we worked together because I believe we both felt called to this place. We both had made a choice to live and work here.
My family came to Tyler 40 years ago. Not long after we arrived I had the privilege to meet and come to know men and women who had carried public and charitable responsibility in this community for decades and did so until they died. I don’t know if all of them would have described it this way but to me they had a deep call to this community. They had wealth but along with it they had an ingrained sense of caring for people and institutions of Tyler. They had allowed this community to have a claim on their lives.
Allowing others to have a claim on your life is what money is meant to free us from isn’t it?. It is supposed to give us options and freedom to choose our life. For some it does. They pursue unconnected lives of constant travel, enjoyment of rare experiences, and the knowledge they are free from being tied down to any particular place with all its limitations and complications. We often call that the good life. But that is not wealth. That is the subtle deceit of being merely rich. Wendell Berry in his fine book “Jayber Crow” puts it this way. “And so I came to belong to this place. Being here satisfies me. I had laid my claim on the place and had made it answerable to my life. Of course you can’t do that and get away free. You can’t choose it seems without being chosen. For the place in return had laid its claim on me and had made my life answerable to it.” That is what these men and women who had become a part of this community had learned about the difference between wealth and mere riches. Riches too often isolates through the illusion of self-sufficiency. On the other hand, wealth joins you to a community with an invisible web.
Scripture often talks about “wealth and honor” in the same phrase. They go together. God-given wealth and God-given honor are inseparable. But honor is not merely recognition for being rich. It’s far more than that. The Hebrew word is kabod – which means weight or substance. It means when God gives wealth He also gives weight and substance to a person’s life and a sense of responsibility for their community. You can be rich and irresponsible. You can be rich and weightless but wealth means you have accepted the responsibility that goes with it. Merely rich is about counting money. Wealth is concerned with what counts in a life well-lived. You can be independently rich but you cannot be independently wealthy because your community has a rightful claim on your life.
In Tyler we have both don’t we? We have merely rich people and genuinely wealthy people. As I have been a part of this community for almost half my life we have an abundance of wealth and weight. Wealth and substance. Wealth and commitment to our community. Many I met years ago have passed away but they have been succeeded by new generations of men and women who have taken on their roles of leadership and commitment. It’s natural to desire riches but it is better to desire wealth. All of us can choose to be merely rich or accept the calling and the claim of being wealthy.
The word “outstanding” has a number of connotations, doesn’t it? It can mean distinguished or eminent. However, I think another definition is a better fit. It is an unfulfilled obligation or a debt that has not been fully paid. That is how I would accept this today. My obligation to this community is not fully paid and I have an outstanding balance I need to take care of still.
A few years ago Whit Riter asked me a question that has haunted me a bit since then. “Is the amount of light worth the size of the candle?” It’s the right question for organizations but also for each of us as individuals. How we answer that question matters.
Again, thank you.”
Art by Robin Moline