“Make sure you take time to connect with the people you’re working for,” our parish priest advised us as we prepared to depart for our home improvement mission work deep in the hollers of Kentucky. We had our project lists in hand, our tools at the ready and our trucks loaded with supplies. All 22 of us were eager to dive in to the manual labor required over the next five days. But our pastor wisely counseled us to put down our hammers and paintbrushes and invest in the relationships with the homeowners we were serving as well.
That advice paid off for me. In green beans.
I am blessed and I know it. I have money to pay our bills and even put some away for the future. I have shelter. I have clothing. I have health and family and friends. While I do not have what anyone would consider a wealthy or high-class lifestyle, and I do have my own particular life challenges, I want for nothing. Nothing. And I have always been taught to share what God has so generously given to me through tithing, donations and volunteering. For these opportunities I am extremely grateful. But over the past year or so, my giving had started to become too planned and programmed. It was a duty that had found its way into my checkbook software program and was mindlessly and wordlessly completed. And every once in a while (*winces*) I would catch myself “patting myself on the back” for my focused attention to that almsgiving. Yep, I got a little prideful with what I thought was my oh-so-generous giving from my abundance on a regular basis. Talk about twisting a good thing into a sinful thing!
But then God sent an elderly man who lived in a shack in the hills with no bathroom and no running vehicle and no reliable income to jolt me right out of my self-righteous la-la-land. I was doing as we were instructed—getting to know our homeowners as we worked to convert a room into a bathroom, replace doors and flooring and put up insulation and wallboard. The man’s wife was easy to converse with and she was a joy-filled, saint-in-the-making witness of service as she cared for her adult grandson with special needs. But her husband was a different story. His behavior was a bit unpredictable and we weren’t sure how to best approach him. When he mentioned his patch of green beans growing behind the house, I followed a Holy Spirit nudge to talk with the man about our mutual gardening interests. He lit up when I asked to see them. He led me to a fence behind the back porch where he had expertly strung twine and about a dozen rows of vines were producing gorgeous green beans by the bowlful.
“Here!” he said with a big grin as he picked a handful of beans and held them out to me. “You can have the first ones.”
I was dumbfounded. “I can’t!” I sputtered. “They’re yours!” I knew this man had gone hunting the night before in order to have meat for the table that day. I wasn’t about to take any bounty from his garden.
“Take them,” he insisted. “The Good Lord wants me to share what I got.”
Well, shoot. Didn’t I just get knocked off my high horse, as my dad used to say. Here was this man with few resources offering me the first fruits of his garden without batting an eye, while I had sat in my air-conditioned office the week before, calculating my annual gift-giving totals that really didn’t hurt my bottom line much at all. Ugh. Suddenly I was on the wrong side of the lesson Jesus taught about the rich people giving from their surplus versus the poor widow giving her two mites from her poverty. I was deeply moved and deeply humbled.
Generosity is not supposed to be complicated or executed out of a sense of obligation; it’s a virtue. It’s supposed to come from the heart, spontaneously and simply and as a lifestyle practice, the way my Kentucky friend does it. It should be born of a sense of abundance, no matter our circumstances, because we have a foundational trust in Jesus as our provider and sustainer. And because we realize that everything we do have has been given to us. But I had forgotten all that. I had turned giving into a checkbox on my to-do list, an assignment to complete, and had consequently drained the task of all its essence. “Without love, deeds, even the most brilliant, count as nothing,” said St. Therese of Lisieux. My mindless, wordless, arm’s-length giving is in need of an injection from the Holy Spirit, I wrote in my prayer journal the following morning. Sharing what I have should come from a place of love and gratitude. It should encompass practical efforts like giving money or food, and also include sharing time, words of encouragement and praise… and my faith. I needed this unexpected “green bean benevolence” reminder that my life should be a living, breathing, constant “thank you,” which consistently compels me to be joyfully generous every day and in numerous ways.
I sincerely thanked my teacher for the unexpected gifts he bestowed on me and, fighting back tears of conviction, I put the beans in the dashboard of our truck so I could take them home and set them on my desk. They are a reminder that I can do more and I can do better. And I can do it with greater love.
After all, the Good Lord wants me to share what I got, too.