A week and a half ago, I took a risk.
I went to the bank, and I withdrew a sizable stack of $1 bills, some $5s and $10s, a few $20s, three $50s and three $100s. Each individual bill was then placed into its own sealed envelope. The next day, at a Gordon College chapel service, I asked for the envelopes to be randomly distributed to the nearly one thousand students in attendance. (My years as a professor only barely prepared me for the audience management skills necessary to placate a large crowd of young adults tearing through envelopes filled with cash.)
We were reflecting that day on Jesus' Parable of the Talents. In this story, three servants are charged with managing their master's finances for a time. (A "talent" was massive unit of currency in the Ancient Near East, equivalent to as much as $500,000 in today's standards.) One servant is given ten talents, another five, and the third is given one. When the master returns, he commends the first two servants for returning to him double his investment. He then reprimands the third servant, who hid his one talent in the ground and returned to the master no more than what he received.
The message here, of course, is an invitation to be fruitful with the treasure we've been given. I don't just mean financial treasure. I'm talking about how we give of our whole selves: our time and energy, our unique abilities, our compassion and support, and yes, our material wealth.
Our giving habits matter. Giving has a way of freeing us up. It breaks the gravitational pull of possessions and self-involvement. The ways we do or don't spend these resources for the common good have a profound impact on our personal character, and on the character of our culture. And yet we so rarely speak openly on this topic.
As the roaring flutter of paper died down, I told these students that the contents of their envelopes was a personal gift from Rebecca -- my wife -- and me. I told them I wouldn't force them to do anything in particular with the money. I did, however, challenge them to take what they had been given and invest it in something worthwhile, something that would have a positive, multiplicative impact in the world. And I challenged them to do it in the next seven days -- before they got used to the weight of an extra talent in their pockets.
I should stress: this gesture was not motivated by whimsy or showmanship, nor am I interested in congratulating myself for it now. It's about empowering a spirit of generosity that already existed within our community -- a realization that whatever we have, and however much of it, we have what it takes to make a difference. This is a lesson of vital importance for this next generation of college students.
I want to share how incredibly encouraged I have been by our students over the past week. When I handed over a sum of money to our student body, I took a risk. I hoped they would do more with it than Rebecca and I could accomplish on our own. They might have pocketed it, or spent it foolishly, but they didn't. They found creative, compassionate ways to take action, to give and to grow that investment. What follows are only a few examples of the hundreds of opportunities these young men and women -- some of whom did not even receive envelopes, but wanted to get involved anyway -- found to bless those around them over this past week:
Many students decided to pool their resources together to support a common cause. Some gave their funds to orphanages in nearby Boston or across the globe in Kenya; another group donated over $350 to the work of Partners In Health; still others chose to support a number of national and global networks that combat human-trafficking, child and community sponsorship programs, or AIDS relief efforts. Some made microloans to developing world entrepreneurs through Kiva. Students thoughtfully selected organizations they could trust to faithfully steward their money for the common good.
Other students put their money into acts of service -- buying coffee and donuts and serving breakfast to morning commuters at a train station, or sharing a meal with some of Boston's homeless. One student used his $1 to cover the transaction fee to send $100 of his own money to a financially struggling friend in Southeast Asia. A group of Gordon's young women purchased children's books for Gordon's College Bound elementary homework help program, and they have committed to adding to their material gifts a pledge of continued volunteer service.
All of these gestures of giving are, on their own, inspiring. Taken together as the sum effort of a whole community realizing its potential to make an impact, it's truly overwhelming.
What if today we realized what great potential is held in that dollar, that bright idea or that spare half-hour -- that talent we carry around -- and what if today we harnessed that potential to do something good?
Follow D. Michael Lindsay on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GordonPres