Bills, and change

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For the past few weeks, the centerpiece on our dining room table has been the CRS Lenten Rice Bowl.   I remember it fondly from my own childhood: a cardboard box for collecting change and bills to help needy people in various places around the world.  Shortly after we got it, the boys went into their rooms and emptied all the coins from their respective china piggy banks to give to the poor.  “Look, Luke!” I overhead Matthew say, pointing to the pictures of the children on the side of the Rice Bowl.  “We’re helping her, and her, and him.”   The giving up of their change generated a great deal of excitement.  It did my mom-heart good.

Then just the other morning, I came out of the kitchen and Matthew said, “Mom!  I counted, and I have sixteen dollars.”

“Where?”

“In my piggy bank.”  I looked on the coffee table, and there was his china piggy bank, the one given to him at his christening.  Over the years, small bills have been tucked in there from time to time — by my mom, or by me, or occasionally by Matthew when we give him a random dollar.   The rubber plug on the bottom of the piggy bank was out, and the bills were lying on the table.

“That’s great, Matthew,” I told him.  “Be sure to tuck them back in so they don’t get lost.”

Instead, he took the bills to the dining room table and spread them out.   As I sat and watched, he pulled the Rice Bowl towards him.  He took a dollar bill and folded it very carefully in half, and then again, until it was small enough to put into the cardboard bank.

“Oh, you’re giving some more money,” I said.  “That’s so nice of you, Matthew.”

“I’m going to put all of it in the Rice Bowl,” he said.   And as I watched, he took another bill, folded it, and pushed it through the slot.

I am ashamed to admit this, but I almost stopped him.  Don’t you want to keep some of it for yourself?  I almost said.  If you keep half of it, you’ll still have eight dollars to use for something you really want to buy.  You don’t need to give all of it to the poor.   That money has been there for years, in his china piggy bank.  At various times he has taken it out and looked at it, but he’s never spent any of it.  And I thought of the things — new toys, books, or heck, even college tuition — that he could spend it on.

But I said nothing.  Because in a moment of sudden clarity, I realized that there is only one way to respond  in the face of  such innocent generosity, and that is to let it happen.  In that moment, I also realized how much I need to learn from my own child.

He folded every bill and inserted each one carefully into the cardboard box.  I stood with my arm around him and hoped he wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes.  I am not sure how I could have explained those tears to him.  I’m not sure how I could have said that I had almost, with my cautious adult pragmatism, disrupted the flow of a spontaneous act of pure goodness.

Jesus said that unless we change and become like little children, we won’t enter the kingdom of heaven.  I keep edging closer to understanding what that means.  It doesn’t mean that God will keep us out.  I think it means that we adults have a tendency to keep ourselves out.  We need children to show us what we’ve lost … and what we can regain.

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