In my last post, I discussed the way that our living lives of generosity, forgiveness, forbearance and long-suffering are meant to reveal the generous love of God for his world. That we are to reflect God’s “astonishing generosity” through our own.
As my family and I traveled this summer, I thought about the witness of astonishing generosity quite a bit. We were keenly aware and often talked about the fact that we spent most of our time around people who had no obvious Christian faith. When people would hear that I was a pastor and that we were Christians they were often a bit uncomfortable, so we decided that we’d go out of our way to walk our talk and show our faith before we spoke of it. And the phrase “astonishing generosity” kept coming back to me.
When we were in Costa Rica, we intentionally focused on being as generous as we could to everyone we met. I tipped waiters and taxi cab drivers a more than the "tourist guides" recommended. I worked at being extra respectful to the people I met, trying to exhibit more patience and gentleness than a lot of the American tourists we saw along the way. Beth and the kids befriended a little girl whose life was obviously far different than ours. And all the while, I kept thinking about being a person who meets the world with “astonishing generosity.” I bought smoothies for all the med students in our Spanish classes one day. And when we left Costa Rica, I bought 20 pound of coffee from a local merchant as an expression of support and generosity both for her and for my coffee-loving friends back home.
Over and over again I thought about the Lily Foundation that had given me a grant that was paying not only for all the costs for my family and me, but also all the extra costs for the church back home. They had given us almost $43,000! (Talk about generosity!) Beth and I were genuinely awed and even astonished by all that we had received, it seemed like all we had been doing to show generosity to others paled in comparison.
As I studied, I also grew in the conviction that in a world that is desperately in need of seeing the difference that God makes in a human life, generosity, especially toward those who don’t deserve it at all, is a clear witness to a life that is living for God. I found myself genuinely wanting to be this kind of person.
I’d like to say that throughout the summer, I was consistently generous, if not astonishingly so. But alas…
Beth and I had pulled in to Park City, Utah, on day two of what would be twelve days together (without the kids for the first time in over a decade) and 3 more weeks with our kids visiting some of the most beautiful country in our land. At the hotel, a bellhop named Eric met us with a big grin. He took care of my bike, he efficiently and with great warmth saw that our bags made it to our room, when we inquired about catching a shuttle into town for dinner, he volunteered to take us in hotel van himself and when we finished our night on the town, all we had to do was call him and he’d pick us for the return trip. He was a delightful, earnest, hard-working young guy.
Later that evening as we were riding in Eric’s van back to the hotel from dinner, we found out that Eric was actually a trained massage therapist and that he had only started being a bell hop because he needed to make some extra money. He then told us that in fact, he had become engaged to be married earlier that same morning! Here he was, on the day he got engaged, working a job that was way out of his field to make enough money to begin his life with his bride-to-be on the very day that he got engaged.
At that moment, I had this weird sensation that I have come to know is the voice of the Spirit. I felt a “spiritual nudge”, if you will, to give Eric $100 tip for all that he had done that day. I had the money in my pocket and all I needed to do was to reach in, grab the folded bills and give it to him. A little extra “almost astonishing” generosity for a guy who probably wasn’t expecting more than a five dollar bill.
But I didn’t do it.
Immediately my mind raced with all the reasons why I couldn’t give him $100. So, Eric got at $5 tip and a big handshake. And I had missed my chance. I am sure that he didn’t give it a second thought, but I sure did.
In fact, for the next five weeks as we traveled, I couldn’t get Eric the bell hop out of my mind. Every time I would pray for him and for his bride-to-be, I felt like God asked me, “so why couldn’t you be as generous with him, as I have been with you?” Many times over the next five weeks I felt this stab of conviction. When I thought about how much we were receiving, about the generosity of my church back home that had given me this sabbatical, about the Lily Foundation, about my supportive friends all around me, and I kept thinking: Why couldn’t I have parted with $100 when I so clearly felt the Spirit’s prompting? What was making me cling with a closed fist when I should be one of the open-handed, big hearted people through whom God could bless the world?
God may very well have put me in Eric’s life at that moment to bless him and I wasn’t able to do it. Why? And that phrase “astonishing generosity” just seemed to mock me. What would it take for me to become a person of astonishing generosity? And if I couldn’t even be generous with a young, hard-working man who never even asked anything of me, how could I possibly become a person who reflects the generous love of God to those who ask of me or to those who hurt me?
Later, I realized that I hadn’t been generous with Eric because I was afraid.
I was afraid that since it was the second day of the trip I would run out of money. A ridiculous fear indeed when you consider that I was talking about being generous with less than ¼ of 1% of what I had been given as a grant, as a gift and that I had a secure job and so much more back home. The fear felt foolish and I could release it.
I was also afraid of what others would think of me. I know that there are those who think that being generous is being foolish, squandering, lavish. What would my congregation or the foundation think if they found out that I spent some of the money I had been given on big tips for bellhops or buying coffee and smoothies for med students or whatever?
I also realize that a small part of me just wants to cling to the stuff that I have because I fear that I may have used up all the grace that God is going to give me. He has been so generous to me, maybe this is all there is.
Then, I was reminded of the lavish love of God, shown in the face of Jesus, hanging in front of me on the cross. As Paul wrote in Romans 8:32, He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?
At the end of the trip, I found an envelope in the car with the address of the hotel where Eric worked on it. I realized that I had been given a second chance. And so I sent him a note telling him that I was a Christian—a pastor—that God had told me to bless him but that in fear I had held back. That I was sorry and that I hoped that he hadn’t undergone any hardship lately because of my fear and lack of generosity and that I would be praying for him and his new bride. And I tucked in $100.
Four weeks later we received an invitation to his wedding reception in Park City, immediately after the wedding in the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake.
You know what was really astonishing: The God who astonished me with a second chance to do what I was too afraid to do the first time.