Generosity: A Way of Life

Photo of wooden heart ornament beside the words "Generosity: A Way of Life."

I was in my first few months as a student chaplain, in an internship that would last a year.  My areas of pastoral responsibility were the Trauma Center, the Medical, and the Surgical Intensive Care Units. One morning, I was paged to a room in the MI. I checked with the nurse before entering the room. She told me that the patient, an elderly man, was near the end, and both he and his wife were requesting that his breathing tube be removed. 

In this hospital, some twenty years ago, it was not the norm for a patient or their next of kin to ask for the voluntary removal of a lifesaving (or we might now say, a life-extending) measure. So, the staff called for help. They wanted me to verify that this couple knew what they were asking for.

I entered the room, announcing myself as the chaplain. I then spent nearly that entire day with this couple, staying with them until the man took his last breath and his heart stopped beating. 

Those hours would change their circumstance and change my views about myself and about my course in life.

Perhaps you have a similar story. Perhaps you have a story of spending a few hours, a few moments, and without realizing the full scope of what happened until later. Perhaps, like me, you have stories of having entered a formative space, unsure of yourself, and on the other side of that formative space you realized you had become who you needed to be. 

That rarely happens in isolation. 

I invite you to remember those few hours, or months, or minutes, when you were propelled into a journey to be more fully yourself, to move closer to the potential for whomever you were born to be. And that happened because of others, others who were practicing generosity.

Unitarian Universalists have traditionally believed in what we often call “original blessing.”  Rather than starting with original sin, we say that all babies are born with a uniqueness that if fulfilled can be for the greater good.

We are all born with an original blessing. 

That original blessing can lie dormant for a long time. It can be crushed. Or it can be nurtured, reinforced, drawn out… until it becomes a force for good that touches other lives.

In that hospital room, I found a man dying, being kept alive by a breathing tube. I found a woman, who told me as soon as I introduced myself that she and her husband were believers… ready to go to heaven; in fact they were eager to go. They were ready. He was ready. I just needed to help him go where he was destined to go.

I took them at their word, left the room, and told the nurses it was okay to remove the breathing tube.

While that procedure was going on, the wife and I went into a waiting area.  I asked her to tell me more about her husband. She told me that he had been a gospel preacher for years, since he was a teen. And that she had herself become a teacher of the good news later in her life. She described how hard her journey had been. How she had finally achieved what she was sure was her calling. But it had been difficult… because she was a woman, she ran into other’s preconceptions of who she was supposed to be and what she was supposed to do in her life.

It was clear to me from the words she used and way she described her religious beliefs that she and her husband were the kind of evangelicals who, if they realized I was a liberal lesbian, would probably not accept me as a chaplain, much less their chaplain.

So, I kept my religious views and my identity to myself.

We went back in her husband’s hospital room, and continued our conversation, while he lay there… now without a breathing tube… ready to go when that moment came.

It was going to be a while. The wife talked and talked about herself and their life together. Eventually, she asked about me. It was then that I became so frightened of the judgment I was convinced was about to come my way, I faked my pager going off, and left.

I had to take a break from the intensity of my own fears. 

That kind of fear can be paralyzing. 

But I somehow had the good sense to know that fear doesn’t make good decisions, even though fear must be respected. I was afraid of that woman’s judgment, fearful that I wasn’t (in her eyes) good enough.

I returned to the room. 

Now her husband’s breathing was labored, and his heartbeat was slowing down. We waited at his side for perhaps another hour, waited for the time when his body would finally stop serving his soul. For him to go to “his reward.”  (Those were the words they used.)

His wife kept talking… and talking. She continued to tell me about herself and I tried to do my best to engage in active listening without giving away my fear of being found out….

At some point she just stopped… looked me in the eyes, and told me I needed to “claim a blessing.”

She did not know it, but years before this, when as an undergraduate studying religion in America, my major paper had been on Pentecostalism. Her terminology was familiar to me, but I didn’t know exactly what she meant.

So, I asked, fearful of the answer.

She said, “You are called to the ministry, but you have yet to claim it, to stand in it, to become who you are meant to be. I know you are afraid, but you needn’t be. I’ve been where you are…. You are becoming, and part of becoming means that you are not only blessed and have always been, but that you must claim that blessing. It doesn’t matter who you are, it matters who you were born to be.”

She told me of that she had been in the same place. When she first tried to answer her calling as a good news teacher, she feared she was going to be judged because she was not a man, not the head of her household, not educated, a divorcee. (The man in the hospital bed was her second husband.)

She said we were the same; flawed human beings without the proper credentials, yet blessed with a role to play for the greater good.

“Claim it,” she said. “Claim the blessing that is already yours.”

She taught me that day how to claim a blessing. How to live into a generosity of the spirit. To be the bold in expecting the person you are with to live into the fullness of who they already are. To see them in that fullness.

She taught me that our fears aren’t important, although it is wise to respect them. What is important is our generosity, our willingness to accept who we are, and who the person standing with us is, a common traveler on this journey. It is important to be claimed by the fullness of being. It is important to live according to the spirit of generosity, kindness, charity; openness to original blessing, as our Universalist forebears would say. May we be free, free to claim our own original blessing, free to respond to that blessing by generously blessing those we meet.