I work in conjunction with individuals, charitable organizations, and churches who serve the poor all the time. Frequently (in fact I think maybe 100% of the time) those I work with toot their own horn with selfies on Facebook, power points at fundraising events, or promo photos on the nightly news reflecting their gifts of time, money, and energy. And it almost makes sense, really – except for the fact that Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount (see Matt. 6:1-4), instructs his disciples not to do that. And, ironically, that seems to make sense too.
The Fat Beggars School of Prophets joined Agent B’s secret agent network back at the beginning as a way of trying to have the best of both ways of giving. Agent B (you can visit his ghost blog here) gave me the idea years ago of muting his own identity so as not to take credit for his good deeds, but still he published the need and his work addressing it in a way that called attention where attention is helpful without puffing up his own ego.
This way of talking about the work is not perfect. It still is not “giving in secret” as Jesus instructed, nor is the anonymity 100% full-proof. But, it certainly provides for a way of discussing the work, calling attention to the need (rather than the giver), and even of celebrating healing and help received. And that seems worthwhile – after all, even the Gospels tell us of all the wonderful things Jesus did. Perhaps it is most important that someone else tell the story rather than the giver. But even that is not secret, as the sermon instructs.
What to make of all this?
Well, just this week, the issue has twice come up for me. First, the preacher at the church I’ve been visiting preached from Matthew 6 last Sunday. And next, I exchanged with a fellow blogger who desires to publish one of my essays on his blog, but he insists on not publishing anonymously without good cause.
I share concerns about social abuses that hide in anonymity. It is easy to take unfair shots at people in public (or even in private) and hide behind anonymity. No one mastered that better than the Ku Klux Klan, and the internet is full of such now days everywhere you turn. I am not immune from the temptation myself, especially since I am a critic! But at this point, if I decided anonymity was not worth the risks, then I would delete my blog entirely and have no more to say.
But as I reflect on last week’s sermon, I recall how dramatic and powerful the preacher presented his point to us. He actually bragged to us about the church’s giving in our community and abroad. This church supports several missions in Africa, where he went to visit recently. He saw the fruit of our giving first hand, and described how important our support there is for advancing the Gospel and encouraging believers there. But then his remarks morphed subtly into bragging about his own giving – how he personally bought meals for the students there when they went out to eat. He told of how he purchased their books and school supplies from his own finances. And as his bragging reached a crescendo, a fever pitch, he stopped and asked if his tale was becoming uncomfortable for any of us while the video monitor displayed a young girl reading Matthew 6:1-4! Then he asked us to consider at just what point we began feeling uncomfortable about it.
I have not stopped thinking about his dramatic demonstration all week. And I am mindful that some of the ministries and charitable organizations I site on this blog are featured in the lobby of this church on large bulletin boards. At one level the bulletin boards beacon church members to “get involved” and offer direction on how to go about it. And that is entirely appropriate. But at another level, those bulletin boards are bragging! They are a pat on our own back! They shout to any visitors who might see them that we do good deeds and show them off!
In fact, this particular church meets in a grand facility with the name posted in huge letters on the side of the building as well as flashing across the electronic marquee on the busy city street out front. The place very much calls attention to itself as a church. And it looks shiny and new (it’s only ten years old) occupying property on the newly developed “white-flight” side of town! And considering it is just down the road from a very large Methodist church, and a very large Baptist church among several others too, all of which appear new, shiny, and attractive, I can’t help but see it as competing for attention in a keep-up-with-the-Jones’s mentality. And since it is a church, one expects it to be involved in ministry even before we know what ministries in which it engages!
So, here I am taking this lesson from this preacher who represents this church in this setting, and I have been second-guessing myself for days. But suddenly I sense that there are dimensions to this none of us have considered yet.
Here’s what I am thinking:
I really don’t know how to live this to the fullest. But I sense strongly that if I take a stance suggesting I am hot stuff because I help someone, then that is definitely wrong. If I promote myself in (or by) giving, I am definitely wrong. I think of Coca-Cola sending trucks into hurricane disasters with their name plastered on the side, getting free advertising through media coverage. Sure, they are providing real help to real needs, but really they are making sales and promoting themselves at the bottom line. Likewise, I think of charitable organizations reaching out for public support and listing all the people they have fed, clothed, housed, or whatever, and I think that is just one step back from the Coca-Cola example. I think of grand church buildings with their marquees and bulletin boards, and I think they are one more step back.
Muting my identity behind a pseudonym is not keeping my work secret, nor is it a full-proof way of maintaining anonymity, but I hope it honors Jesus as it points to him instead of me. I could be anybody. I could be the guy sitting next to you in church on Sunday, or I could be the bum holding that sign you drove past at the red light.
Thus, I operate with Prophetic Anonymity.