Simply paying it forward

David B. Whitlock - Contributing Columnist

When the waiter first told us someone had picked up our check, I didn’t understand him.

“You mean our check is at the counter?”

“No sir, someone paid for it,” he repeated.

“Someone paid for it,” Lori echoed his words to me, slowly enunciating each syllable like she was talking to someone who had difficulty hearing.

The waiter pointed to the booth next to us, as if I needed further clarification: “They did it,” he said.

I tried to remember the people seated next to us: Beyond a casual glance, I never made eye contact with them during lunch; nor did we exchange greetings.

“He said you ministered to his family. He said you preached his dad’s funeral.”

“Ah,” I thought.

But I still couldn’t recall the man or his dad’s funeral. I’ve lived here a few months shy of 14 years. His dad’s funeral could have been any time during that time. And it seems as though in recent years, I’ve ministered at more and more funerals for people who are not members of the church I pastor, making it even more challenging to recall those related to the deceased.

Later that afternoon, I commented to Lori, “If the man had wanted me to know who he was and why he paid for our meal, he would have said something to me, like ‘You may not remember me, but you preached my dad’s funeral,’ and then he could have told us he was going to pay for our lunch, expecting us to thank him. But he didn’t do that. He was just wanting to say ‘thank you’ in an anonymous way.”

“He kind of ‘paid it forward,’ ” Lori observed.

“Kind of” because “paying it forward,” isn’t exactly the same as “paying it back.” When someone does a good deed to you, instead of paying them back you pay it forward by doing a good deed for someone else, like when someone pays for your coffee at the drive-through, and then you pay for the coffee of the person behind you. There is even a Pay It Forward Day, April 28. The website for Pay It Forward Day has suggestions for paying it forward: Pay for someone’s coffee, or pay for someone’s toll or gas or food, or donate to a charity or cause. It generally refers to selfless giving.

Lori and I figured the person or persons who paid for our lunch fit the category of paying it forward since they did it anonymously and therefore selflessly. They didn’t leave instructions to the waiter to tell us. What I knew, I discovered by asking the waiter.

Not all giving is such. Gifts sometimes come with strings attached, that is, with some expectation of giving back for the gift or favor, whether the pay back is in the form of time, attention or preferential treatment.

In reality, that’s not giving; it’s trading.

Most of us have been guilty of that, expecting some form of praise for the fact that we’ve given.

It’s all to easy to turn our gifts into little monuments, even if imaginary ones, in honor of ourselves. Jesus praised the widow who gave two coins (the widow’s mite) not only because she gave “out of her poverty” (Luke 21:2) but also because she gave from her heart and not for any personal recognition.

I read this quip from Albert Malvino: “This book is dedicated to my brilliant and beautiful wife without whom I would be nothing. She always comforts and consoles, never complains or interferes, asks nothing, and endures all. She also writes my dedications.”

Most of us have our none-too-subtle ways of letting others know when we’ve given.

Our meal had been paid for. But more importantly, someone had said, “Thank you,” for something I did some time ago, even though I didn’t know exactly when or where or to whom.

G.B. Stearn said, “Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone.”

Even though the people buying our lunch were silent about it, we heard their attitude of gratitude loud and clear.

Thank you.

David B. Whitlock

Contributing Columnist

Reach David B. Whitlock at

Reach David B. Whitlock at

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