After my grandmother’s death two years ago, I received a note from my grandpa, a 96-year-old retired pastor from Iowa whose “paychecks” much of his life came in the form of milk and eggs from congregants’ farms. “Out of the abundance God has blessed me with,” his words said, “I want to bless you, Jeff.” Folded beside the note was a check for $50.
The money was significant. After my grandpa covers nursing-home room and board and other fixed expenses, he has very little money left over. The 50 bucks? He’d saved for months to fund that gift. More astonishing still, he called his reality “abundance.”
I keep that note on my desk. I read it every day.
To Get, or to Give
I hadn’t planned to be in Colombia last year, but when one of Compassion’s staff invited my wife and me on a pastors’ vision trip, I couldn’t think of a single reason not to go. I’d heard Wess Stafford, Compassion’s then-president and CEO, speak at a conference years prior and had been compelled to research the organization’s approach.
What I’d discovered back then was impressive to me: a full 80 percent of donations going to the children themselves; one-on-one communication with those receiving the funds; local church-sponsored child development centers staffed by nationals; an emphasis on meeting not just material needs of children, but spiritual and emotional ones too.
Eager to partner with Compassion, my wife and I had gone to their website, scanned photos of children awaiting sponsorship, and settled on Simeon, from Togo, Africa.
“We were already sold on Compassion,” I told both Wess and Jimmy Mellado, Compassion’s current president, who was also on the trip, “but this just seals the deal.”
Seeing firsthand their work in that region of South America, and encountering children in the program face-to-face … my wife and I were undone. The staff, the kids, the parents of those kids—to a person, they exuded joy. So much was still lacking materially for them, and yet a sense of abundance prevailed. Generosity isn’t about how much you give, it turns out, but rather how little you hold back. As I watched dozens of children and their family members sing and dance and laugh and engage, their grateful, generous presence signaling that they were holding nothing back from our team, I thought about my grandpa. Like those kids, he’d focused less on getting than on all he could give away. I came away determined to live like that. And to compel the church I serve to do the same.
The Winding Road to Ministry
I swore I would never be a pastor, even as I seem genetically predisposed to the line of work. My great-grandpa, my Iowan grandpa, and my own father all pastored local churches. Partway through my pursuit of an accounting degree, I became keenly aware that God had other plans for my life. And that despite my plans, the thing that had delighted my forebears—church work—would be what delighted me too. I switched my major to Pastoral Ministry, I graduated and jumped headlong into ministry, and I never once looked back.
That shift took place 21 years ago, and the thing that compelled me then compels me still today: there is no endeavor quite as satisfying as seeing those in darkness step into the light.
Holding Fast to a Lesser Dream
Since the days of Adam and Eve, if there has been one deterrent to “finding that light,” it is the propensity to focus on self. Our human nature drives us to promote ourselves, to comfort ourselves, to seek power for ourselves, to collect possessions for ourselves, and here lately, anyway, to post it all on Instagram. Those of us who call Element Church home are not immune to the temptation to spend our days and our lives racking up and bragging about personal wins, even as a world of needs go unseen, unmet.
A few years ago, I sensed in our congregation a real struggle with letting go of selfish concerns. Like a car whose alignment is out of whack, if we don’t consistently practice valuing others above ourselves, as the apostle Paul talks about in Philippians 2:3, we will eventually veer off the road.
Our church had already participated in one Compassion Sunday event, where I had aired a pre-produced video from Compassion that exposed the need of those living in poverty around the world. My wife and I had stood before our congregation and shared our own story of sponsoring Simeon. I wondered, Would others choose to sponsor children too?
Momentum At Last
I would describe the church’s response as curious. They were interested. They longed to know more.
My wife and I decided to sponsor a second child that Sunday, Agnes from Indonesia. Our two oldest kids decided to take money from their allowance to sponsor another child from Indonesia, Indra. Several families from our congregation decided to sponsor children too.
Then came Colombia, and as I returned from that trip, I knew that we as a church were still holding a whole lot back.
There was a world of people living without food or clean water, bedding down each night in a grass hut. Would we see them? Would we come alongside them? Would we care for them? Would we engage fully, or would we hold back?
When Generosity Has Its Way
I registered us for a second Compassion Sunday, and a third Compassion Sunday the following year. And what began as mere curiosity has grown into utter captivation today. Of the 1,500 members of Element Church, a full 300 now sponsor kids. Individuals are participating. Couples are participating. Teenagers and small groups and usher teams are banding together to participate. And in this way, high-flying business owners and single moms on government assistance alike can extend a helping hand. It’s not about how much you give, but rather how little you hold back.
Further, I learned that when we factor in family members and neighbors of those 300 children, our church’s sponsorships positively impacted 15,000 people. Each month, as our people prayed the prayers, crafted the letters, and wrote the checks, a group 10 times the size of our entire congregation reaped staggering, life-changing rewards.
And yet I have to wonder if the benefit to us hasn’t been more beautiful, more profound: The process of serving children in need is serving a deep purpose in our lives too. With Compassion as our guide, we’re learning to become more generous. We’re enjoying holding less and less back.
Sharing with Those in Need
Not long ago, I came across a verse in Ephesians 4 that struck me in a fresh way. “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer,” Paul said, “but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need,” (v. 28).
Those words were intriguing to me. Our usefulness in life, Paul was saying, was connected to sharing with those in need. (This is the heartbeat of Compassion’s work—of that much I am sure. “There’s nothing wrong with us having what we have here in America,” Wess had told me on that Colombia trip. “What’s wrong is when we’re unwilling to share it.”)
Based on what I’m seeing unfold in my own congregation, I’m observing this connection of Paul’s firsthand. Our people are finding fulfillment not in getting more for themselves, but in giving more of themselves away.
The lesson here?
And the me-myself whims that monopolized your thoughts will be eclipsed by nobler concerns.
“Out of Abundance, I Will Bless”
Near the end of that site visit in Colombia, a woman on our team was stunned when a Compassion staff member turned to her and said, “We have a surprise for you.” Approaching from the back of the room was the little girl the woman had sponsored for years, along with the girl’s mom, grinning wide.
As the three of them fell into a teary embrace, I glanced at Wess, who was seated beside me. There were tears in his eyes too. “This never gets old for me,” he said, shaking his head. Then he said something I won’t soon forget: “This is a picture of what heaven will be like, you know? Unity. Nothing held back.”
I think of the incarnate Jesus, who also held nothing back. And I re-up my commitment here. “Out of my abundance, I want to bless you,” Grandpa had written.
Out of my abundance, I too will bless.