Early in my teaching career I was blessed with a mentor who, for reasons I never fully understood, took a special interest in my life and learning curve. Her radiant intelligence came forth not only in the stories she told with wit—and sometimes wicked humor—in poetry, prose, photo essays, and ad hoc speeches to colleagues of a much duller persuasion, but also in her astute listening skills. Every few weeks she would call with no apparent agenda, beginning the conversation with not so much as a “Hello,” in a voice rich with traces of an early life in the deep South: “Well honey, how are you?” She wanted to know. She didn’t want to chat—she wanted to hear how I was faring in my work, in my various puzzlements about particular students, in my struggles to balance family, writing, and spiritual reflection.
What Can You Afford?
One of the words she taught me that serves me still is “afford.” To a complaint about a frustrating difference of opinion with a colleague she might say, “You can afford to let him do what he needs to do.” To my anxieties about tensions with a child that remained undispelled despite my best efforts, she might say, “You can afford to give it some time.” “You can afford to let that go.” “You can afford to say yes despite your heavy schedule.” “You can afford to let people think whatever they’re going to think.” The word served always to remind me that I had access to a deep reservoir of grace and goodness, and, as Jesus reminded his disciples, need not be afraid, nor be anxious about anything.
She didn’t incline to the language of faith, but her advice—and she was not shy about giving it—echoed biblical wisdom: Open your heart. Give all you have. Step out in faith. Watch and wait. Weep with those who weep. Consider the lilies (or the small, beautiful, amusing gifts of any given day). Pay attention to the still, small voice. Choose life. She lived by her own best insights, simply, but elegantly. She laughed often. She did not suffer fools gladly, but was never mean spirited. And she spent her considerable energies lavishly on those she’d been given to guide or teach or befriend.
Living with Courage, Generosity, and Humility
When, with cruel irony, throat cancer forced her into painful final months of silence and separation from most of the people she loved, destroying the resonant voice that had been a vehicle of so much kindness, she bid her good-byes in short, wobbly written sentences that made the effort it took to write them heartbreakingly visible. In a short note to me she wrote two simple, memorable sentences that have served as her legacy: “Live boldly. Live generously.”
The marriage of those two ideas aptly summarized her own way of being in the world. More than that, they have given me occasion to reflect on the courage generosity requires, the humility boldness requires, and the exuberance that is the fruit of these two habits of mind and heart.
The Light Step of Bold Generosity: The Widow’s Mite
My friend’s words came back to me two Sundays ago when the Gospel reading was the story of the “widow’s mite.” Jesus is actually the focus of the story, which begins, “And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box.” The widow’s act, walking forward and dropping her two coins into the box, takes a single simple sentence. The few remaining sentences are Jesus’ tiny sermon to the disciples, whom he summons to reflect on the woman’s remarkable act of bold generosity. It is gesture of radical trust—that she will be cared for by the community to which she gives what she can, that God will honor her gift, that she need take no thought for the morrow. It is also an act that is humbly, not showily, public. Unlike the scribes, just mentioned in the previous story—who “like to walk around in long robes,” or, say, Armani suits, “and like greetings in the marketplaces,” or, say, photo-ops—she walks unpretentiously but boldly through the crowd to make her small offering, demonstrating, among other things, the difference between humility and humiliation. Unlike those of us who sit in pews and can drop a folded check or a few bills in a closed envelope into the offering plate, she had to take what must have been a dauntingly public walk past more than a few condescending eyes, and drop into a box coins whose money value could be easily calculated by anyone who cared to listen to them fall.
“[W]e receive life from an extravagant God—one who, as Robinson Jeffers put it, chose to “fling rainbows over the rain” and scatter grace like manna, to be consumed and shared, but not stored.”
I think there is value in imagining what might have fallen away from her as those coins fell: perhaps the anxiety that clings and clutches had to be released. And whatever vestigial pride of possession or illusion of self-sufficiency she might still have harbored. And the self-protective embarrassment that is the flip side of pride, that hides from the public eye, afraid of public judgment because in some corner of the mind, one’s self-judgment is rooted in the same stern false righteousness. I imagine her walking out of the temple with a lighter step, innocently unaware of how her story would be lifted up as an example for generations. I imagine her prayer of trust and thanksgiving as that of a blithe spirit, unafraid and expectant. I imagine her going home to bake the last of her flour into daily bread she trusted would be given again.
That widow lived into the paradox of bold generosity knowing she could afford to do this thing that flew in the face of all common sense, because hers was an uncommon sense of divine providence and care.
Flinging Rainbows Over the Rain: Receiving from an Extravagant God
My friend walked with that same light step. Her dying words, which were also her living witness, came from a deep awareness that we receive life from an extravagant God—one who, as Robinson Jeffers put it, chose to “fling rainbows over the rain” and scatter grace like manna, to be consumed and shared, but not stored.
Among her many pleasures was improvisational theater. She could launch into performance with any willing partner, staging spontaneous scenes in a classroom or on a street corner or by the buffet table at her eightieth birthday party. One of the cardinal rules of improv is “Say yes.” Whatever happens, say yes, but not just yes: say “Yes, and…” and move in whatever direction consent takes you. If someone hands you five small loaves and says “Feed everyone in the coliseum,” say yes. If you find yourself directed to pause by a beggar and become an agent of healing, say yes. If you find yourself directed to sell, move, give, relinquish, receive, speak, or stop, say yes. This kind of “yes” is not indiscriminate, but deliberate, responsive to the call of the moment that comes clearly to those who listen for it. It’s a “yes” given in freedom, rooted in trust, confident of grace, sure of abundance. It’s a bold “yes.” It’s generous.