There’s freedom in spontaneous generosity

I was taking my son, Mattias, to the train depot recently as a reward for good behavior. Of all the places in the world, he is obsessed with the depot downtown. I hardly discourage him, partly because I love trains as well, and also because it’s free and still makes him happy. Talk about a win-win.

On our way down the street, I was approached by a man asking for some money. I told him I couldn’t help him out because I was out of money. I was out of cash, but I had my check card with me, and we stood less than a hundred yards from a place where I could have easily bought him lunch.

Having grown up in a big city, I experienced requests like these a dozen times a day or more, to the point that I became somewhat inured. I followed in others’ footsteps who assured me the money would only buy drugs or alcohol. This could easily be remedied by buying the person food, but this takes time.

Time being an equally precious commodity, we’re often as reticent to part with it as we are with our money. We especially don’t care to spend time with someone that might smell bad or make us a little uncomfortable. So it’s easier to tell a white lie about our lack of funds, or convince ourselves we’re just too busy.

Generosity is a curious thing. There’s this basic gut-level part of us that hesitates to let go of what we have, and seeks to horde as much as possible to allay the fear that we’ll run out of – well, anything. We can always come up with excuses for why we don’t have enough, and why someone else wouldn’t use our resources as well as we would. When it comes down to it, the motive is protecting our own: a very natural but very un-Christian thing way to think.

We had a car wash and barbecue at our church recently, where we cleaned cars and fed guests from off the street for free. Many tried to pay us, but we simply wanted to do it as a service to the community. By people’s expressions, you’d have thought we were roasting their household pets on the grill, rather than burgers and hot dogs.

“So, what’s the catch?” said one woman.

“What’s wrong with that?” asked another, not quite able to articulate her confusion.

Some in the church were hesitant to pass up a fundraising opportunity, which is understandable since we’re a relatively small and new church. But the more cars we washed and the more food we gave away, the more excited we all got. We’d clap and wave our hands in the air like idiots when someone would pull in the parking lot for a free wash. We got sunburned, wet and filthy, but everyone left excited about the work we’d done.

I learned something that afternoon. I discovered that generosity as a regular discipline, such as tithing, is not enough. There’s a gift to be found in spontaneous generosity, letting loose of something you never intended giving away, just at the moment someone asks for it.

We can’t control what’s done with our resources once we give them away, but in that vulnerability, there is freedom. For one moment, we’re focused not on what we have and how to keep it, but rather on the unexpected joy of being free of our own wants.

As we walked away from the man begging for lunch money, my two-year-old son looked up at me with the trust that only a child can muster and asked, “Daddy, what did that man want?”

I lied and said I didn’t know, to embarrassed to tell him that the man only wanted something to eat. If I had, the next question would have been, “Why?” and I just wasn’t ready to try to answer that.

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