For more than a century, the SSJE Brothers were entrusted with the stewardship of a large property in the woods of Massachusetts. At the property’s edge was a freshwater pond which would occasionally become bracken. The reason? Beavers. At times the beavers would build a dam blocking the inflow of fresh water; at other times the beavers would build a dam blocking the outflow of fresh water. In either case, the pond would become bracken. I don’t fault the beavers for their way of life, but what works well for beavers can be quite devastating for humankind. We need fresh water to flow through our lives.
For us to be fully and freely alive, we need the inflow of God’s provision, and in many forms; however we also need a complementary outflow of God’s provision, from our own life to others, otherwise our soul will become bracken. We have been created in the image of God, who shares life with boundless generosity. It is of our essence to be generous. We participate in life on God’s terms by cherishing the gifts of life, not clinging to them, not hoarding, but sharing from God’s bounty entrusted to us to steward. There is always more. Our generosity enables others to know life as a gift, and invites them to live their own lives thankfully. Gratitude transforms life; generosity enables it.
The English word “generosity” comes from the Latin, generosus, which means of noble birth, magnanimous, munificence. This is royal-sounding, which is so reflective of the source and reason for our own generosity: God. William Stringfellow, the great lay theologian, lawyer, and social activist of last century, said that “to be a Christian… means living in such a way that life is welcomed as the extraordinary gift which life is, and, then, honoring that gift by extravagance: by giving one’s own life away.”[i] We need to be generous – not just for others’ benefit, but for our own. Giving our lives away mirrors the generosity by which God has created and shared life with us. There is a freedom to be discovered in giving our lives away, If we don’t find the freedom to give our lives away, then, inevitably, we are taking our own life, which is death. Jesus said that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”[ii] Rather than hearing Jesus’ words as a command, hear them as a promise that we will know God’s blessing in the generous sharing of our life.
The opportunities to be generous are countless; however the challenges we may face in being generous probably date back to our family of origin. By word or deed you were taught about the bounty and custody of things: whether to save and cherish, or to share and expend. Most of us learned a combination of both. Some of us were also introduced to fear, whether there would be enough. That kind of fear is irrespective of the quantity of resources at hand. You can be predisposed to be fearful and hoard whether you come from poverty or plenty. No matter how we were formed (or deformed) around living life generously, we have the invitation to cultivate our growth in generosity. Generosity mostly has to do with a habit of heart. The apostles Peter and John encountered a lame man who asked them for alms. Peter responded, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you.”[iii] The invitation is always to have a generous spirit, and this sometimes also takes on tangible form. In the 18th century, John Wesley said, “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, in every place you can, at all the times you can, with all the zeal you can, as long as ever you can.”[iv]
We are greeted by endless intangible invitations for generosity in how we anticipate and greet people’s successes and failures. A good many people have been set-up to be failures. For them, failure is an internal state of mind which may have little to no relationship to with how their life and their efforts are perceived. They learned at an early age they were never good enough. Because of this, they will live with that verdict for the rest of their lives – unless they are rescued and told the truth about the beauty and wonder of their lives: who they are and what they do. When you meet people who are living their lives as an ongoing apology, pray for them. Pray for the intervention of God’s light, and life, and love into their lives. If you have continued access to them, pray that you be God’s emissary, to mirror God’s light, and life, and love onto a person’s countenance. Pray that if it is opportune, to find the right words and right way to embody this. Be oh-so-generous to people who are living life as a failure.
Sometimes the most generous and helpful gift we can offer others is compassion: from the Latin, compassio, literally “a suffering with another.” We suffer with these people – all the people who show up poorly on our list – because we could so easily be them. We may well be them on another person’s list. We are all so similar. People simply do not wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “How can I screw up my life?” “How can I make things really, really bad for me and for my family and my colleagues?” Life isn’t like that. Bad things happen to bad people and good people alike; and even good people are prone to make some very bad decisions. All of this can have terrible, sometimes inescapable repercussions, like a tsunami of the soul that a person has started but cannot stop. Rudyard Kipling said, “I always prefer to believe the best of everybody. It saves so much trouble.”[v]
Some days, the most generous thing we can offer to another person is compassion – whether or not we actually communicate this to them. My own rule of thumb is that if I find no compassion for a person, I probably do not know enough about them. Jesus said, “be merciful, as your heavenly father is merciful.”[vi] The theology which Jesus confronted in his own day can still surface in our day: that people get what they deserve. I hope not. I certainly hope not – for my own sake. The ancient Jewish mystical, the Kabbalah, says if you give without checking too carefully whether the recipient “truly deserves it,” then God may give to you without checking whether you “truly deserve it.”
Be equally generous with people who are living with success. “Being successful,” by whatever standards, often comes with a cost of alienation, being regarded with jealousy, and with others’ impatience. Those close to us especially need our praise, admiration, and affirmation as they live with success. Generously affirming others’ success does not in any way diminish our own sense of worth. There is room and need for all of us to be successful.
What challenges or impedes your own generosity? There may be several obstacles. One factor may be the enormity of the need of which you are already aware. In whatever type of need – be it with family life and social opportunity; racism and discrimination; access to food, healthcare, education, housing, or employment; whether it concern ecological stewardship; or whatever – the needs are so great and you are so small. Whatever it is you have to give, give it all, all you’ve got, and give it teeming with love. Edward Everett Hale, a 19th century historian and minister in Boston, said, “I am only one, but still, I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” Pray for clarity about your role in provision for some need, in whatever form, and always be generous. Kindness alone is a form of generosity and that, some days, will change someone’s day and maybe their life. And kindness is a provision of which there is always more, as long as we are willing to offer it.
Another obstacle we may face within ourselves is because of what we cling to. An ancient word in the vocabulary of the church is “detachment.” Detachment is not about apathy or indifference; detachment is about cherishing life with freedom, and participating in life on life’s terms. Life is passing. We cannot keep life by clinging to it, no matter how tightly, no matter how hard we might we try. Instead, we learn to truly appreciate the gift of life when we let it go, let it flow from us, in a stream of generosity.
We can grow in generosity by detaching ourselves from the perception that we are the center of things. Life is not all about me, nor is it all about you. We may well live through seasons where we are given a prominent role in the play of life; but that role will inevitably shift and that part will be given to someone else. Be ready to applaud others when that happens, and it will. This is to hold our life, precious as it is, in open palms. Not to clutch. Clutching squeezes life down to smaller proportions. Open palms allow our life to keep growing.
I have friends, a couple, who decided to downsize in their retirement, and their first act was to give away the things they love. What freedom! As for you, hold lightly onto your life and all that gives it meaning – both the tangible and the intangible – preparing to give it up. By giving it up, I am not suggesting you discard or belittle your life. To the contrary, hold your life as precious and give it up as an offering to God, for God to use, in God’s way on God’s time. In the ancient vocabulary of the church, this is called an “oblation,” which is an offering, the presentation of a gift. Live your life as a gift to be shared. St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, Virginia, has as its motto: “What we keep we lose; only what we give remains our own.”
I think of a now-departed friend of the SSJE Brothers who was a husband and father, a naval officer, a priest, a brilliant academic, and a prolific author.[vii] He became a seminary president and diocesan bishop, and, both because of his charisma and by appointment, he had a huge swath of influence in both church and society, a man revered for his many, many gifts. In his late life, having grieved the death of precious loved ones; having retired from being a centerpiece in public life; no longer with access to financial resources; having lost his ability to walk, his fluency in speech, and his ability to bathe and dress himself, he was in assisted living. He had been impressive in so many stages of his life, but in this final phase, he impressed me the most: because of how he had readjusted his mission in life. It was a smaller venue, but embraced with his enduring tenacity and energy. Every day his mission was to bequeath his bedside caregiver with dignity, kindness, and gratitude, and with the greatest of generosity. And that he did.
Jesus leaves us with a promise that he is with us to the end. Unless we end our lives suddenly, we will approach the end with diminishment, and much of what we have and hold in earlier life will no longer fit. Review the intangibles that you possess, or that possess you: your access to power and influence, and how you are regarded and included. Recognize these things for the gifts they are, gifts whose use will inevitably change. Give up – that is to say, make as your offering – what you have and hold which you will part from at death, if not before. Let go of these possessions so that you have space to generously participate in the next season of life, which will be, in its own way, just as adventurous as before.
Here are some questions for your own pondering and prayer. You also may find this meaningful to share in conversation.
- As you grew up, what were you taught – in word and deed – about generosity? Did you have enough? Did you have more than enough? What happened with that?
- In what ways do you find yourself able to be freely and fully generous? Why is that?
- If you were to set aside your good name, your resources, your other accesses to power and influence, how would you be generous? How do you imagine God’s invitation?
Jesus said, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” Luke 6:38
[i] William Stringfellow (1928-1985) was an Episcopal lay theologian, lawyer, social activist, and prolific author.
[ii] Acts 20: 35.
[iii] Acts 3:6.
[iv] John Wesley (1703-1791), Church of England priest and a leader of a revival movement, “Methodism.”
[v] Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), an English journalist, poet, and novelist.
[vi] Matthew 5:7; Luke 6:36.
[vii] This is John Bowen Coburn (1914-2009). The Coburn Hermitages at Emery House are named in honor of John and Ruth Coburn, his wife.