August 7, 2016 | Sharon and Roger Brain –
Twelve years ago, I was standing in an appliance store trying to decide whether we needed the refrigerator with the freezer above, below or side-by-side.
My cell phone rang.
It was our neighbor, Tara Kobewka, calling to say that our house on was on fire.
By the time I got home, the house had pretty much burned to the ground. We had lost all our possessions except the bag I was taking to the Thrift Shop.
At first I told people that it wasn’t so bad. It was only “stuff”. But over that angry, disoriented year that followed the fire, I came to understand how the stuff I had lost—a lifetime of photographs, Christy’s baby things, my wonderful brown boots—had created and maintained my sense of who had been and who I was. My possessions were in some way, my life.
People were kind and generous. But I was too angry and raw to be grateful. And I hated being the recipient of well-meant generosity.
As we started to rebuild, the difficulties we encountered brought me face to face with the hopelessness of thinking I could control what was uncontrollable.
And besides, how could I make decisions about faucets and tile knowing that life isn’t safe, that everything in my home could vanish while I was looking at refrigerators. I fell into a time of spiritual crisis.
So I started going on meditation retreats. I remember crying bitterly about my losses, about the nightmare of building our new house. The meditation teacher looked at me with deep compassion. He said gently: “No I, No me, No mine,–No problem!” Then he smiled.
At that moment, I caught a glimpse of the possibility of the relief of ‘no mine’, of simply giving it all away, even my own sense of who I was. I understood why Jesus tells us to sell all we have and give the money to the poor, and follow him. It’s not for ‘them’. It’s for us.
Freedom is possible. Giving it all away is the path. Simple. But not easy.
Luckily, the fire happened during the day so we were all away, except for our dog, Yogi. We were grateful. Things could have been much, much worse.
I had already considered retiring. I was only 60 but things had now changed, both outside and within me. I left my job within the year and began looking for a new life.
After a year of retirement, when I had slowed down, a deep sense of gratitude arose in me for all I had been given—my career, my health, my family, my life. With that came a desire to give back.
But how? Where?
At a 10-day silent meditation retreat, the teacher, Steve Armstrong, really impressed me, especially when he spoke about his experiences of living as a Buddhist monk in Myanmar (which you may know as Burma) for 5 years.
I discovered that he and his friend Duke were building a small school in a remote village there.
Steve wanted to do this as a way to thank his Burmese teachers. Duke had built schools in other countries and believed deeply in education as a means of changing the world.
The thought of working in Asia had never occurred to me, and Myanmar was one of the few countries I had never visited on business. I did know something about the country’s problems so I couldn’t imagine how we would make this work.
But I wanted to serve and now I had a community of like-minded friends to do it with. I was hooked.
So I went off to Myanmar.
When Roger went to Myanmar, I was frightened. The country was not the trendy tourist destination it is now. It was a closed society, run by a totalitarian government. Their human rights record was one of the worst in the world. Just having a picture of Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was dangerous. Even meditation students were being denied visas.
And wherever the three men went, they were followed by soldiers, spies and government officials trying to figure out what they were REALLY up to.
But once Roger had been there and seen the suffering of the people, he could not turn back. Quietly, he kept on building schools.
When we wavered about being in Myanmar, we remembered that a populace that can read and write and do basic arithmetic has far more possibilities than one that cannot. Schools matter. Girls who are educated to stay in school even one year longer make a difference in their villages. Education is always a subversive act.
Besides, I could see that the work was engaging Roger’s excitement. His compassion was building. Part of that was working with Steve and Duke. We now see that “Finding a community of like-minded friends” is essential to a vibrant generosity practice.
And besides, my scruples vanished once I went to Myanmar with Roger. I quickly fell in love with the children and I too learned that compassion spurs action. If you try first to find the perfect, safe, democratic, honest place to be generous, you will never start. But love just acts.
Bill Mathieson, a member of this congregation, says that to practice generosity you need the 3 T’s: Time, Talent, and lots of Toonies. After I retired, I had the Time available and I was ready to give the Toonies. But I was not willing just to write a check. I wanted to be involved. I wanted to use my Talent.
In my years in the mining industry, I had become good at getting things done. I can also find good people to work with. This was critical in a country like Myanmar, which was famous for corruption and bribery.
I wanted to be certain our money and any money people gave us was being well-spent. We began by working through the Sayadaws, head monks Steve had known from living there. They kept our money safe.
We found two contractors we could trust. These men now employ over 50 full-time workers, in good-paying jobs.
And there was lots of work to do, as you can see in these slides:
Slide 1 Here is a school that was in use when we came to this village.
Slide 2 Here is a school we built.
Slide 3 Here is a typical classroom in an existing school.
Slide 4. Here is a classroom in one of our new schools.
Slide 5 The teacher housing is usually very primitive.
Slide 6 We built these young women a better home.
Slide 7 We build new toilets
Slide 8 Often a clean water supply is essential for the children’s health..
Slide 9 At every visit, we give new uniforms to every student.
Slide 10 Our crews are the skilled workers. And the villagers provide additional labour and any material they can.
Slide 11 For the last ten years, I have gone to Myanmar every year for two to three weeks. We visit every school or clinic we have built or renovated or enlarged over the previous year. Then I visit all potential sites for the next year.
Slide 12 We have now built or renovated or enlarged over 100 schools. This has benefitted over 20,000 children.
Slide 13 We have received contributions from many people who are excited by the work we do. This beautiful school was built with funding from Ken and Joan Fowler, members of Mount Seymour United Church.
Slide 14. And it’s all been deeply satisfying and great fun.
How generous are we?
I come from frugal farming people and as a child I was taught that you didn’t talk about money. You gave in secret and did not “let the left hand know what the right hand was doing.” I am always afraid that we will be seen as bragging about when we talk about our ability to give.
Now I see that this teaching is to remind us not to get puffed up by our generosity.—always a huge danger in philanthropic work.
Another fear in talking about our generosity is that we will be blamed for the world’s inequities because we are part of the 1%. Roger would say that this group may actually be one of the solutions to the world’s more intractable issues.
But we had to talk about it, because as we did more, we needed a Board of Directors. And they needed to know all the details of how much we were giving.
The result has been truly surprising.
No one criticized us. Instead they have said: “We admire what you do.” (that’s where we can get puffed up.)
But they also say, “ We want to join you. Here’s what we can offer.”
And having people trust you with their money, watching people be generous, is a humbling experience.
You already saw Ken and Joan’s school. That’s an amazing gift.
And look at this. (show soccer balls.) This year we are taking a suitcase full of these sports balls (with pumps) to Myanmar thanks to the generosity of Susan and Ian Chubb. Can you imagine the delight these balls will bring to children who have no toys, no games?
And the people who know what we do also talk with us about what they support.
As well as building schools, we are building a community of giving.
We were taught how to be generous.
When we first went on a meditation retreat, we learned that the teacher was seen as having a ‘jewel of great price’ in the teachings of the Buddha. Students were expected to offer the teacher any support they could out of gratitude for the teachings they were given.
It’s a version of the eastern tradition of Alms Round we saw in Myanmar. Each morning at dawn, monks go out on the street carrying their empty bowls. People give them food because they value the spiritual work monks do.
So giving to our spiritual teachers became a habit during our years on the meditation path.
When we arrived at Mount Seymour three years ago, we went to see Nancy and told her we wanted to try to live our spiritual life in this community.
That included the generosity practice we had learned on the meditation path.
We knew what happiness giving brings.
And weren’t the ministers here–Nancy and Bethel and Sharon and Anne Ellis—wonderful teachers? Weren’t the Christian spiritual teachings we found here precious jewels?
Wasn’t this place the temple?
Were we not grateful to be welcomed here with such generosity?
Mount Seymour was just ready to start their building campaign when we arrived.
Encouraged by Meg Clarke, we started giving our Toonies.
I went on council and became Church Treasurer.
And I watched to see what Sharon might do.
Roger kept encouraging me to get involved here. But for quite a while, I didn’t see what I wanted to offer to this community. (I really wanted to sit here quietly and continue on my inner journey.)
Then one morning I looked over James’ Fulton’s shoulder and saw a building plan and a sparkle lit in me. I thought: “I’ve built a house. I have some Talents I could offer…”
And I got involved, giving my time and talents.
And it was wonderful. Except when it wasn’t.
You know that expression ‘Give till it hurts?’ That’s crazy. Don’t do it. Why would you give again if it hurts?
I once asked a teacher how much I should give. He said, ‘Give until you feel generous.’
Whether it is my time or my money, when I give enough so I feel generous, I experience a deep sense of happiness and well-being. That happiness feeds my generosity and my compassion and my ability to love.
And then I look for more ways to be generous so my love and happiness (and my generosity) will keep growing.
And if I don’t feel generous and loving, I know to stop giving until I see where the block is. I trust my inner knowing, my delight, to tell me how much to give.
I know my friends wonder why I spend so much time here.
I think it is always a stretch to understand what another person choses to do. For me, what and where I give is a result of my own particular life journey.
This community is a place where I get to practice being loving and being loved. That makes me very happy. Which then makes me generous. And the cycle goes on.
Love. Generosity. Happiness. Love. Generosity. Happiness. Most of all, love.
People often ask me: Why Burma? when the needs as great or greater here, right in our own back yard?”
It’s a good question. My answer is: “I do it because it makes me happy.”
Then I tell them, “But you should go where you are called. Where you want to serve.”
We both love the Burmese people and we believe that what we do, however small, will benefit them. Myanmar is a more open society these days. It has a new government that is trying to improve education and health care for the people. I began this work with a desire to give back, because I was grateful for my life. Now I want the children of Myanmar to have a better life than their parents. Every day, I work to make that happen.
I am doing what I want to do. Generosity gives me a change to practice love and compassion and giving back. It’s my labour of love.