The subversive quality of generosity

I have only seen the very beginning of the movie Pay it Forward, but I remember that when the movie came out, the concept of "paying it forward" quickly gained hype: when shown kindness, mercy, or generosity, instead of trying to pay back the favor, you pay it forward by acting kindly, mercifully, or generously toward someone else. It's a chain reaction - the viral form of "random acts of kindness."

The movie might have already faded in our memories, but the idea of "paying it forward" has not:

This past weekend, I was unexpectedly blessed with three different acts of kindness and generosity. Saturday morning, I went to the farmer's market and stopped at a booth to buy some blackberries and raspberries. As I picked up my carton of raspberries to pay for them, I spilled a few off the top. The college-aged kid who was running the booth took my money, placed my carton of blackberries in a bag, placed my carton of raspberries in the bag, and then, with a glint in his eye, picked up a second carton of raspberries from the table and dumped them into the bag as well. "Shhh....don't tell," he said with a wink.

Sunday night, Matt and I took his parents to the Arboretum for an evening walk. Matt and I are members, so we get in free, but we knew we would have to pay for his parents. We pulled up to the gate, handed the woman our membership card, which she scanned, and then handed over cash to pay for Matt's parents. She waved it off and said, "It's your lucky day. The Arboretum is only open a couple more hours - enjoy!"

After the Arboretum, we headed to Coldstone for ice-cream-for-dinner. I ordered a delicious combination of coffee ice cream, Heath Bar, and almonds. The guy behind the counter asked me if I wanted to double the amount of Heath Bar, and I said "no." It wasn't really worth the extra money to me, and I wasn't terribly worried about the quantity of chocolate in my ice cream creation. He looked at my ice cream for a moment, and then reached his tongs back into the jar of Heath Bar pieces. "I'm giving you a second one anyway, for free. That first piece was too small!"

I sat down with my ice cream and commented to Matt's mom that I needed to now "pay it forward" three times over, in response to the three surprising acts of generosity that had been shown to me in two days' time. She responded, "Generosity is a powerful thing."

I started thinking about that statement. Generosity is powerful, certainly, but it is more than that. It is subversive, if you really think about it. It shakes up the balance of power. It shakes up your sense of pride or self-determination. It pulls control away from you, and you are left feeling surprised, helpless, undeserving...and completely thankful.

Sometimes it is strange to me (and humbling), that I am so easily surprised and elated by receiving an extra piece of Heath Bar in my ice cream or extra raspberries in my bag, but that I shrug at God's grace. Why have I let God's gift of life and hope and salvation become common? Probably because, after a lifetime of faith, four years of seminary, and a year of parish ministry, hearing about God's grace is a pretty regular occurrence. And it's pretty easy to take for granted God's grace because I expect God to be gracious. I don't often expect the cashier at Coldstone to be gracious, which makes it surprising when it happens. But we all just sort of expect that God throws around grace with reckless abandon, and so it is easy to stop being surprised by it.

But the real, honest truth is that God's grace is the most surprising thing of all. There's nothing in my power that I could do to create the world, or to sustain the whole of life. There's nothing in my power that I can do to make myself perfect or whole. There's nothing in my power that I could possibly do to make the infinite God pay attention to me, a tiny little blip on the radar screen of all mortal creation. And yet...God is gracious to me. That's a BIG DEAL. And perhaps the life of faith is then all about "paying it forward." Every moment that I live, every action that is borne out of faith, every compassionate gesture done in Jesus' footsteps is but an attempt to pay forward the grace of God to the rest of the world.

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