When I was a teenager, I remember watching adults fight over who would pick up the check at a restaurant and thinking, “Are you people crazy?! You could be getting this for free!” I couldn’t understand why adults would want to spend money when they could just let the other person pay for them. As a kid, receiving generosity is incredibly easy too. You have no ability to provide for yourself anyway, so the generosity of adults feels more or less like something you’re entitled to. Or at least, it did to me as a privileged child who never worried about where her next meal would come from. I’ll be the first to admit that I walked right on the line between grateful recipient of generosity and spoiled brat.
The years I spent in between college and seminary felt like years of self-sufficiency. I worked full-time, paid for my own bills, and had the means to extend generosity to others. Of course, when I look back a bit closer on that time of my life, it’s easy to see the countless ways that I was being taken care of my family and community. Still, I loved feeling like I could do it all on my own. I loved not having to rely on others.
That all changed when I decided to go to Seminary. I quit my full-time job, moved across the country, and had to rely almost completely on the generosity of others. I relied on the generosity of Columbia Seminary’s donors for my full scholarship, on the PC(USA)’s supplemental scholarships, on the Seattle Presbytery’s support, and on the Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation. That was all just for educational costs.
I remember my first days of Seminary thinking, “I can’t believe I get to do this again for three whole years.” Being a full-time student, particularly a financially-supported one, is an incredible privilege. It felt so selfish after three years of working at a church where I was focusing on giving and serving to focus just on myself. My time in Seminary suddenly was all my own. I decided what to study and when, what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. It was such a lavishly generous opportunity to even be there.
Over those three years, I was also the recipient of all sorts of informal generosity. They were small acts of kindness, like the families who paid me a bit extra for babysitting because they knew the extra $20 would make a big difference to me. They showed me kindness and generosity through free places to stay, free food (a necessary staple of a student’s diet, in my experience), invitations to holiday meals when I was far from family, and help with things big and small.
Receiving so much generosity can be overwhelming. I feel immense pressure to make good on everyone’s investments in me. I want to prove that the scholarships, the kindness, the benefit of the doubt were all worth it. But then I remember, that’s not what true generosity is about. True generosity is a gift.
Having had the means to be generous, I know how gratifying it feels. Money and privilege can be dangerously alluring or a heavy burden to steward well. Using it to bless others is the most freeing thing in the world. I’ve had to remind myself that by accepting (with great thankfulness) generosity, I am allowing others the joy that comes with being generous. Receiving generosity is so humbling, but it is also a reminder that we all give gifts to one another. Someday, I will get to welcome broke students in my house, get to pay babysitters a bit extra, and give generously without expectation and I will remember all the people who made it possible for me to do so, in ways big and small.
I will always be grateful for what I received at Columbia Theological Seminary— a fantastic theological education, to be sure, but also the space and time to grow and learn and become who I am today. I was freely given more than I could repay, but the words that come to mind are Jesus’ words from throughout the gospel, “go and do likewise.” Go be generous. Go give without expectation of repayment. Go be kind, whether people “deserve” it or not. Go out into God’s beloved world with the generosity of the God who loved us while we were still sinners.