Generosity and Two Wolves
I suspect many of us have heard some version of the old Cherokee legend known as The Story of the Two Wolves. One version of the story goes something like this:
A grandfather and grandson were out hunting one early morning, and they came upon a ridge on the mountain they were walking on. Over the ridge was a large clearing below, where at a distance, they could see two wolves fighting furiously. They watched as the wolves attacked each other in battle. The grandfather narrowed his eyes, and said slowly, "Ah, yes, this is the way with all of us; within our hearts, each and every day."
The grandson asked, "What do you mean, grandfather?", to which his grandfather replied: "Always in our hearts, every day, is a struggling battle, like those two wolves down there. One is the wolf in us who wishes to do bad things, and the other is the wolf who wishes to do good and honorable things."
The grandson listened more intently now, with a look of slight recognition, and deep concern. His grandfather continued, "Sometimes, the bad one seems to win.... and at other times, the good one seems to take a stronger lead. When we see honorable people who do good deeds, and make sacrifices for the good of others, we know that the good wolf's spirit is strong within their heart, and is the winning spirit in the person. Each good and honorable deed they do gives this spirit more power within them. This in turn, empowers them to do even more good and honorable deeds."
The boy smiled, as the grandfather continued to speak, "But when we see those people who turn to badness, and hatred, doing terrible and dishonorable things, things that tear down and hurt others and destroy, we can know that the bad wolf within them is strong - and each bad and wrongful deed they do, gives the bad wolf more power over them, until it has won, and has utterly consumed them."
The young one's face fell with a look of slight, shuddering inner fear. So, the boy thought long and hard on these things, as he continued to watch the wolves battling below. They both battled fiercely, giving no quarter - neither one backing down. Seeing this, he looked within himself, and saw the truth of his wise grandfather's words, and it made him very concerned for himself with a great, deep fear.
"But grandfather," said the boy, "How will I know which wolf will win within me?" His grandfather smiled, looked at him with an understanding eye, and after a moment, told him, "the one you FEED.”
I’ve used this story very effectively several times in different pastorates; always in the general sense of the internal struggle many of us experience as we try to be better followers of Jesus in a world filled with opposing forces. I recently heard it again; however, this time it occurred to me that this story not only speaks to our overall struggle (à la Paul in Romans 7:14-25), but it also speaks to our struggle to live into our God given generous nature.
We can also interpret this story to be about a struggle within us between the wolf of scarcity, greed, selfishness, consumerism, extraction, individualism, and clenched fists versus the wolf of abundance, generosity, unselfishness, sharing, cultivation, community, and open hands. The society and economic system we live in constantly feed and encourage the former while giving only ‘leftovers’ and often actively discouraging the latter. Hence, the scarcity wolf is strong and well developed within us, whereas the abundance wolf is often weaker and less developed than it could and should be.
In an earlier Reflection I wrote about how we, humans, are created by God to be generous. That generosity is in our divine DNA and inherent within us. Yet, we don’t always behave generously. (Living More Deeply Into Who We Were Created To Be, May 5, 2020)
Generosity is something that needs to be cultivated and nurtured. We need to FEED it. As Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson write in The Paradox of Generosity regarding generosity, “It is a learned character trait that involves attitude and action entailing both the inclination and the actual practice of giving liberally.”
Like the muscles in our body that grow stronger through frequent and regular use, our generosity ‘muscles’ grow stronger through regular, frequent use. Conversely, like our body’s muscles atrophy through lack of use and neglect, our generosity ‘muscles’ atrophy through lack of use and neglect.
Advent and Christmas are seasons of generosity, seasons of giving, seasons when we prepare for and celebrate God’s gift of Godself becoming incarnate in human flesh. It is a time when we ‘pay forward’ God’s love and generosity toward us by being especially loving and generous toward others.
It is also the beginning of a new liturgical year. I invite – indeed urge – us to make a liturgical New Year’s Resolution to feed the abundance wolf within us more frequently and, if possible, with larger portions, so that our abundance wolf can grow stronger and overpower our scarcity wolf.
I encourage us to share the different talents, treasure, and time under our care more regularly and generously with others, including but not limited to our local church and the Conference; to have more open hands and hearts; to build community and connection; to more frequently think beyond ourselves and employ the Golden Rule.
I give thanks and praise God for the many and various ways you, the good people and churches of the SNEUCC, have been feeding the abundance wolf within yourselves during this pandemic. A few recent examples include: the United Parish in Brookline paying ‘royalties’ when it sings spirituals composed by enslaved Africans*, people making contributions for Silver Lake Camp sponsorships, the SNEUCC Board approving a $100,000 grant to help Connecticut communities welcome Afghan refugees, and the Faith In Our Future Together program. Countless people’s lives and scads of communities have been positively affected by your generosity!
Yet, we cannot be satisfied with ourselves or rest on our laurels. Because of our social and economic context, the scarcity wolf within us is continually being fed, remains strong, and as Paul reminds us, poses an ever-present threat.
As we begin a new liturgical year with the seasons of Advent and Christmas, seasons illustrative of God’s love and generosity toward us, may we resolve for the next year and beyond to strengthen the good wolf within us by more frequently feeding it through acts of generosity, compassion, love, and connection, and thereby not only being transformed ourselves, but also being instruments through which others and our communities are transformed.
Your brother in Christ and fellow traveler on the journey,
P. S. One tangible way to begin and would be very much appreciated is with a financial gift to your local church, one of the SNEUCC’s options (https://www.sneucc.org/donate), and/or the UCC’s Christmas Fund (https://www.pbucc.org/christmas-fund-home)
* The full story may be found here: https://www.wgbh.org/news/arts/2021/11/16/this-church-is-paying-royalties-when-it-sings-spirituals-composed-by-enslaved-africans?fbclid=IwAR3AYnODk-OJpGrpVytHEo2oiDbTANeqG4IBQwfen7a58vQ1YJ20ItwFOXE
Rev. Dr. David Cleaver-Bartholomew is the Director of Stewardship and Donor Relations for the SNEUCC.