I learned one of the most important lessons in my life at a McDonald's in South Carolina.
The year is 2002, my senior year of high school, and I’m on the annual spring break trip for the varsity baseball team.
After one of the practices, we stopped at a McDonald's for lunch. We had just finished eating and were getting ready to exit the building, when one of the assistant coaches, Brett Kempema, stopped and motioned me, and two of my other friends, to come with him. He pointed to a young African American boy across the room who was leaning on the table with his arms folded, sleeping. He said, “Watch this.” He walked up to him and gently placed a baseball in the crease of the boys arm then walked toward the exit, putting his finger up to his lips, motioning us to be quiet.
When we got outside I said, “What were you doing in there?”
“The best gifts in life are the ones you give to someone who can’t say thank you.” He said. “Remember that.”
When I was 21, I decided to attend a school called YWAM (Youth With A Mission) in Lakeside, Montana. I went there with only half of my school paid, still owing about $2,700 for the mission outreach portion of the trip (2 months in Thailand). My parents had planned on being able to help, but when the due date came, they had struggles with a rental property and couldn’t help me. I felt panicked, stressed, and super sad. I cried and thought to myself, “I’m not going to Thailand.”
Because this was a normal occurrence for the school, they planned an event called ‘Giving Night’. Our class of 52 students and teachers gathered in the lecture hall to play music and sing worship songs. But instead of staring at a lyrics screen, there was another screen next to it; a board with the names of each person still owing money, and next to their name the amount they owed. At the bottom was the grand total. Our school owed around $54,000 if I remember correctly.
We were instructed to just worship and look at the names, and if you felt “led” to give any amount to an individual, you would walk up to a table where two girls sat, one holding a little bank box, and another girl an eraser and a marker. Each time someone gave an amount, they would go up to the board, erase the old balance and write the new one. Each time a new number was posted, the room would explode with cheers, clapping and shouting. It was epic. I’m getting goose bumps just remembering it.
But this cheering would not be for me.
I had not spent money well during the lecture phase. I took friends to town, ate out, went shopping and didn’t budget a penny for my outreach. I felt like an irresponsible, selfish guy who didn’t deserve to go to Thailand. I would be going home in a few days while everyone else headed to the airport.
I sat down at the back of the room, put my head between my legs and tried not to cry.
I couldn’t hold the tears back for very long because within a couple of songs a big explosion of cheers arose from the group and I looked up to the board. What I saw made me feel like I had just seen a ghost. My number didn’t say $2,700. It said $1,300. My mouth dropped and I looked around in disbelief, thinking it was a mistake. A couple of friends danced up to me smiling ear to ear and hugged me. I was frozen and shocked, but the event kept going.
The event went for over two hours. Cheers and tears. Cheers and tears. My $1300 turned into $700. Then $300. Then $0.
Our group’s $54,000 magically turned into $0.
When it hit $700 I sat down and cried like a baby. A baby who was so afraid just moments ago. A baby who felt like he didn’t deserve to go to Thailand. A prodigal son who squandered his wealth, returned home and his father just threw a feast for him. It felt so undeserved. A line of text went through my head, “I don’t treat you as you think you deserve. I’m better than that and you are too. Life is not about the math and keeping score. You’re my son and I’ll always take care of you.”
Something broke in me that night. A gigantic fear that Mother Earth kept score of every little thing I did, every penny I wasted and then summed up ways to make me learn my lesson “the hard way.” It was a cosmic voice but it was a communal voice. I had no idea who gave to my balance. No one talked about it and no one asked. The perfect gift. The baseball in the arm of a sleeping boy.
It was a divine gift, given through human hands.
When the worship service was over, a guy from a different school walked up to me. He asked if I still owed money and I said that I didn’t. He pulled out a check and said with a smile, “Well I guess this is just extra. I know the service is over but I was praying in my room across campus and I saw your face and God told me to give you $250. So here you go.” Boom! Round two, and another small voice, “Don’t be mistaken. I don’t just meet your needs. I give you more than you need.”
I returned to my room and there sitting on my bed was an item from my prayer/wish list: a Tacoma acoustic guitar. My friend Craig put it there and said he noticed how often I asked to borrow it, and since it was Giving Night and he didn’t have much money, he still wanted to give something. Round three! The goodness kept going, escalating to an almost unbearable degree. The voice again, “See, I told you. I don’t just meet your needs. I don’t just give you more. I satisfy you. I delight in bringing you joy.” I wrote my first song on that guitar and have since written over 300 songs in the last ten years.
The Tao Te Ching says, “The heart that gives, gathers.”
The book of Proverbs says, “The gift opens the way and ushers the giver into the presence of the great.”
Giving can be like a drug. Our entire school was on an injection high of giving and receiving for days after that. No chemicals, toxins or sugar. Just purely ‘giving what you have to someone who needs it.’
Through giving we silenced each others demons, danced with angels, drunk on the fruit of creation - love, expressed through gift.
I’ll never forget that boy in McDonald's, sleeping with a baseball tucked in his arm.
I’ll remember the cheers and seeing that new number, $1,300, for the rest of my life.
I’ll remember that the best gifts are not just the ones given that you can’t be thanked for, but the ones you received, knowing in your heart you didn’t deserve it.
I’ll remember that the whole thing is a gift. Every breath. Every sound. Every taste. Every moment. Every opportunity. The entire experience is a gigantic gift that I never asked for, never fully deserved, never earned, yet am given again and again, sunrise after sunrise - because life, god, spirit is the great giver using gifts to usher itself into “the presence of the great.”
Ronnie is an artist whose ideas have launched businesses, apps, music albums, and as of late, cartoons. He thinks outside the box but don't tell him that, he doesn't believe in boxes, unless you're in a movie cinema. Ronnie lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S.A. with his wife Anna and their three boys Jack, Griffin and Maverick.
See previous articles by Ronnie Herrema