Thirty-six years ago this month, I learned a lesson in generosity that inspires me to this day.
I was 23 years old, had just completed a bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of New Mexico and was heading to Fort Worth for seminary. As I was concluding my work as assistant editor of the Baptist New Mexican newspaper, my mentor there, Editor J.B. Fowler, called me to his office. It must have been mid-morning, because I recall that the radio was tuned to the local classical station that was airing “Adventures in Good Music” with Karl Haas. That was the backdrop to what happened next.
“What will be the cost of tuition for your first semester of seminary?” he asked me.
I explained that it would be about $350 (imagine that!), which in 1984 was still a large sum of money for a 23-year-old.
Upon hearing that, he opened his desk drawer, pulled out his personal checkbook and wrote me a check for $350. “Wanda and I would like to pay for your first semester of seminary,” he explained.
I was stunned — speechless. This was an unimaginably generous gift that I never could have anticipated. I couldn’t think of how to say thank you appropriately. This seemed to me to be the most lavish gift anyone ever had given me.
J.B. died two years ago, but the legacy of his generosity lives in me to this day. The investment he and his wife, Wanda, made in me has continually inspired me to be generous with others.
I’ve been thinking about this lavish generosity lately, as we approach the end of the most cataclysmic year of my lifetime. COVID-19 has created a sharper world of haves and have-nots — both among individuals and institutions. Some individuals have fared well because of secure jobs and reduced expenditures during our isolation. Others have teetered on the brink of homelessness or insolvency because they had no safety net. Some churches and nonprofits have carried on about the same as before, while others have slashed budgets and face uncertain futures.
“If ever there were a year for lavish generosity, this is it.”
Which brings me to the point of this trip down memory lane: If ever there were a year for lavish generosity, this is it. To those of us to whom much has been given, much is required.
There are four days left in this year that will make or break some churches and nonprofits financially. And there are dark days ahead for too many American families living with unemployment or reduced incomes leading to evictions and food insecurity. If ever there were a year for lavish generosity, this is it.
Here’s what you can do: Make some extravagant gifts this week. Surprise yourself and others with the joy of giving beyond what you thought was possible or prudent.
If you’ve fallen behind in tithing to your local congregation, that’s the best place to start. Help your church finish this year well and continue its work as a beacon of light where you live. After that, make an additional gift to a nonprofit that does the kind of work you believe is important — whether that’s a food bank, refugee ministry, counseling service, the arts, education or whatever. And then, if possible, think of someone you know — or someone you’re aware of — who faces a particular need this year and lighten their load with your generosity. You can even do that anonymously if you want.
“There’s not a better way to finish this dreadful year than to light hope with unexpected generosity.”
As a pastor, one of the greatest joys of this time of year was when a congregant came to me and said: “I’ve got some money I’d like to give to a person or family in need this year. Would you please take this and share it with someone who has a need?” To be the conduit for that kind of generosity is one of the happiest things a pastor can do.
Of course, there are as many creative ways to give as there are needs. Find the way that’s best for you — and undertake your generosity with joy. There’s not a better way to finish this dreadful year than to light hope with unexpected generosity.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.