I had not really thought much about it until my friend mentioned it in his remarks to me and some of my younger student friends. He is a pretty “big person” in our part of the world. He is a name of national prominence. I feel fortunate to have a good relationship with him. Apart from a good friendship, I don’t get any special things from him. The best thing is his willingness to take time to speak to my student friends.
The “it” he mentioned was in the phrase, “paying it forward.” There he was in front of us saying the real reason he was spending time with us was to “pay it forward.” It was appropriate. He did not have to do this. He wasn’t going to get anything personally from doing it. In fact, we could actually be seen as a pain in the neck for him! But he wanted to pay it forward.
Most of us know what this means. Usually it comes out of recognition that somebody or, even, a few others did things for us when we were younger. It could have been opportunities for something we might not have managed on our own. Sometimes it is as simple as introducing us to someone and suggesting that person look out for our welfare. Personally, I have been graced by a few people who were good mentors. They paid it forward for me by taking some time, having some interest in me and offering me a chance to learn from their experiences and mistakes. In most cases this was not something I could have learned in the classroom.
So there was my friend “paying it forward.” He was offering insights from his own experience. He was making suggestions. They were more like suggestions than advice. Too often, advice is given, but it really does not mean much. One of the best things my friend did was to use himself as an example to show us what it meant when people “paid it forward” for him.
Long after the event, I began thinking about this experience, but this time from a spiritual point of view. It became clear to me that “paying it forward” can appropriately be seen in the spiritual context. Obviously almost everything that has been said so far can apply to the spiritual context. We can have spiritual mentors. We usually benefit from spiritual suggestions.
As I thought about it, I realized there was even more to “paying it forward” spiritually. Let me put it simply. “Paying it forward” has dual directionality for me. From one direction “paying it forward” means that I have be graced from God and from others. God looked out for me before I started looking out for myself. Others had my welfare and best interests at heart even before I was too concerned for my spiritual best interests---and began work for those spiritual best interests.
This kind of grace is not just a historical event---something that was done for me in some time past. It is not like some kind of inoculation shot that you get and it covers you for life. To the contrary. This kind of “paying it forward” grace happens in the past and happens in the present. To stay with the metaphor of shots, I can get a booster shot of grace any day---any time or all the time. Grace is the kind of resource that can never be depleted and will never run out. Like God’s love, it is inexhaustible.
On the other hand, “paying it forward,” means for me a kind of ministry. Here I am the actor and not the recipient. Ministry is a matter of paying it forward. Ministry is my grace for others. The good news about grace---either for me or for others---is grace is always a gift. The question of whether you deserve it or not doesn’t enter the picture. In my ministry to others, my call is to be gracious. This is a relief. I do not have to calculate whether the other is worthy of my grace in ministry. I don’t have to worry or get mad if they do not seem to appreciate my ministry for them.
My ministry is service. It is care---a form of loving. I do it regardless of how it is received. I give it unconditionally. This is a radically free place for me. I “pay it forward” because that is my commitment in ministry. Therefore, I have done my duty. I have been responsible and obedient.
I know some times my ministry might be effective in creating positive things. But I also know that some times the ministry goes out to folks who are not ready for something different. Ministry is gift, not coercion. Ministry is gift, not manipulation. My simple calling is to “pay it forward.”
In summary, I am glad to know that I am in the middle of “paying it forward.” I realize some others are continuing to “pay it forward” for me. I know this is exactly what Jesus, the Buddha and other religious giants have done. My call is to do my part by “paying it forward” in my ministry. I will never be confused with Jesus or the Buddha. Being them, however, is not my calling. Being me---fully and authentically me---is my calling. Being me happens best when I realize what others have done for me, and what I am to do for others.