One springtime some years ago I was asked to lead a graveside committal service for an 89 year old man from Florida who had passed away earlier that winter, and whose dying wish had been to be buried in the cemetery of our little town in Maine where he was born and raised, with the service led by the pastor of the church where he’d grown up; this despite the fact that he hadn’t even visited our town, or the church, in at least 70 years. However, this was the one place he’d always thought of as home and it was very important to him that at the last, he would return there. When I spoke with the man’s widow about the service itself she suggested that perhaps I could look through church records to find some “historical reference” to her late husband’s activity in our congregation those many years ago; a task that in all honesty I was already thinking was going be like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack!
And I’ll admit, it was difficult; in fact, all I could manage to find was a reference to this man’s third-grade Sunday School class being presented with Bibles on a church “Children’s Sunday” way back in 1908! It wasn’t much at all, but it was enough; in one of those wonderful moments of grace that can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit, it turned out that the man’s family had brought with them that very same bible so they could show me!
The service ended up both a fitting memorial and a true celebration of life; and when it was all over, the man’s widow came up to offer her sincere thanks and presented me with an envelope which contained a very nice financial gift which was meant as her family’s contribution to the church’s work. I thanked her very much for her generosity, passed on the money to our church treasurer and figured that was that.
Except it wasn’t: a few weeks later, I get this registered letter from some legal firm in Florida which contained another check from this woman in the amount of… well, let’s just say, a rather sizeable amount of money; designated specifically for the church’s restoration project. Moreover, the enclosed letter explained that there were to be more checks coming to the church in the future, the only request being that the money be put to good use and that the giver remain anonymous. And if that weren’t more than enough, for a number of Christmases that followed Lisa and I would find this huge box of Florida grapefruit delivered to our doorstep, accompanied by a handwritten card from this same woman wishing our family well!
It was, to say the least, a wonderful series of gestures on her part; in fact, one day a couple of years in (!), one of her lawyers called me to confirm the church’s address; and in the course of our conversation, I made the comment of just how incredibly generous she had been to us. The lawyer simply laughed and said, “Oh, Pastor, you don’t know the half of it!” He went on to explain that some years before this woman had determined that her children and grandchildren were all financially comfortable on their own and thus in no need of her or her husband’s money. So since as the saying goes, “you can’t take it with you,” she was determined to use up all that money before she died; making donations to countless charities, schools and churches, all with the stipulation that no “big deal” be made out of it. The lawyer went on to describe how this old woman (who was in her 90’s at the time, mind you!) would walk into his office once a month with a brand new list of places for him to send more of her money, adding with a chuckle, “I’ve never seen anyone so happy about giving everything she has away!”
Even all these years later, I still smile when I think about it; and I have to confess that the memory of her extravagant giving always puts me in mind of the gospel story of the “Widow’s Mite” (Mark 12:40-44). Granted, there are fundamental differences in these two widows: unlike the poor woman that Jesus honored for her supremely sacrificial gift at the temple treasury (“two small copper coins,” says Mark, “which are worth a penny.”), our benefactor from the Sunshine State was most definitely not poverty stricken and certainly had an abundance of resources at her disposal; so perhaps her giving was not wholly sacrificial. Nonetheless, there was in her own motivation a joyful exuberance for giving that both praised and served God; an utter gladness about what she was doing which was surely grounded in a true and active faith. One thing was for certain: all we who were the recipients of that gladness were most certainly blessed because of it!
In a smaller church like the one I am now privileged to serve, where budgets are always tight and stewardship is an on-going concern, so much of the important work of ministry we do together is both equipped and empowered by this same kind of exuberant giving. Of course, these things don’t always happen on the grand scale of what I described above; most often around here it’s done quietly and without much fanfare, usually as a response to a specific need in the church or the result of someone taking notice that something wonderful could happen in our midst “if only” there were the proper resources available; sometimes it’s simply been an instance of good people showing up to help out at exactly the right time!
But no matter the variety of the gift, I’ve found that there’s always this joyful extravagance in the way that it is given; and as a pastor, I stand in wonder at just how representative it is of the kind of exuberant, faithful giving that not only builds up the church, but also ends up a true expression of the Kingdom of God in our midst.
Certainly by any measure, that makes us supremely blessed indeed!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry