The $21 Lesson (worth millions)

Over ten years ago, walking down Van Ness I happened upon a small coffee shop owner the day before his grand opening.  The Coffee Shop?  Philz.  The owner?  Sammy, Philz’ brother-in-law, who stood outside prepping for the big day.  We hit it off instantly and before long he was sharing how great a risk he took in opening the new café, walking away from his career of over twenty years.  

“Will you be my first customer?”  he asked.  

Before I knew it I was blessing and praying over the café.   A couple months later I walked by and the line was down the street.   Sammy motioned me in and said, “Look at this.  This place is so blessed.   Your prayers worked!   We are doing better than I could ever have imagined.  Thank you.   Anytime you come in there is a free coffee for you, always on me.”   I demurred his offer, expressing that I could pay for my own coffee.  I think it hurt him and created a bit of awkwardness.

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A couple months ago I sat outside Saint Frank Coffee on Polk, a gentleman quipped, “Who said its cold in San Francisco?  Looks like you and I are the only true San Franciscans.  Sitting outside sipping coffee, while the rest of the softies huddle in-doors!” 

Steve, a commercial property owner in San Francisco in his sixties, and I started something right then and there that I can only describe as a divinely connected friendship.  

Within thirty minutes we knew each other’s occupations, passions and were digging each other’s personality.   I never take connections like this for granted.  And when they happen in San Francisco they are especially electric.   

About 30 minutes later Jeru, my daughter, took her barista break; she jumped in the conversation with her effervescent little self.  Steve loved it.  I was quite proud.

The next day he showed up at Lighthouse.   A week later we connected again.  Before we knew it Wednesday meetings had become a ritual thing for us. 

Steve’s this adventurous free-spirited San Franciscan breeze that just rushes in and out of a place.  He’s embarked on sailing around the world in 80 days in his sailboat.  Several years ago he suffered a stroke and now has a dream of sailing from San Francisco to Hawaii with two other stroke survivors.  Well, I say it’s his dream but I’ve kind of owned it with him.  I have prayed and committed to seeing this dream of his come to pass. We are an unlikely duo—a San Franciscan pastor and a commercial property owner who isn’t too sure about “JC.”  I just love it!  

Steve loves his family.   He speaks fondly of them.  He is really really proud of his brother.  There isn’t a week that goes by that he doesn’t brag and boast about his brother.   They are cut from the same self-made cloth, tenacious, creative, and share an everlasting bond of brotherhood. 

Last Wednesday something happened that I want to share with you.   Steve taught me two lessons.

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All the Saint Frank seats were taken downstairs and outside so I offered to take his Almond Milk Mocha upstairs.  

“If you carry my coffee upstairs, I’ll give you a dollar,” he said as I laughed.

Sitting down he slid THE dollar bill across the table at me.   I say “at” intentionally, it felt like it was coming AT me.

“No thank you, Steve.” I pushed the dollar back.

“Let's forget the property lessons today.  I want to talk about money and attitudes toward money.”

“Why did you reject my dollar?  There can be a lot of reasons why you would reject money, maybe you feel sorry for me, maybe you think its just a dollar, maybe you want to be seen as unneedy . . . .   I don’t want to be presumptuous, but all that can be distilled down to not feeling like you are worth it.  Do you think you are not worth money?”

I sat there, loving the fact that Steve was schooling me and agreeing with his perceptive insight.

“You are worth it!  Each Wednesday you sit here, give me your precious time.  Share yourself with me.   Don’t you see, you are worth much much more than this [holding up dollar bill] and if you cannot see you are worth the money, the money will seek out someone else to go to.   First lesson, Jeff, you are worth more than money so receive it.”

What you don’t know as the reader is—I do this ALL THE TIME.  For the life of me I do not know why.   Perhaps I do not want to be beholden to people.   Or I don’t want to be a charity case for someone.   Or I want to be the one giving money.   I’m not sure why, but no matter how you cut it the gut of the matter is I do not feel worthy of someone’s money.  Ouch!

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Steve wasn’t quite done.

He then pulled out a $20.00 bill.   “I am going to give you this twenty . . . .”

(So I am thinking to myself, don’t reject the $20.00.)

“The condition is--go out and burn the $20.00 bill!”

“Sure, but, ” I was confused.

“The second lesson about money is—it doesn’t own you, it's not your god, it doesn’t control you.  I know a lot of poor people with a lot of money!  They are poor because the money owns them.  They see their worth and value in terms of their wealth.   Their money controls their lives.   Dictates what they do, when they do it, how they look at other people and at themselves.  And when money owns you, you are its slave. Once you are free from its power it respects you.  You aren’t desperate for it.”

“Steve, this second lesson reminds me of early and primitive worshipers and their attitude toward their assets, provisions, and commodities.   In a more primitive age, simple worshipers grabbed the most valuable prizes of their culture--livestock and sacrificed them on a stone altar.   Patriarchs and Matriarchs literally burned these offerings into thin air, leaving nothing but scorched and charred remains seared into the stone.”

The living animal—a valuable asset,
lay dying—a voluntary deficit,
the dead animal— smoked into an ascending haze,
up up up into the air,
into the space where God reigned. 

Worshipers gave it back to God as a way of saying,

  • "This does not control me!"   
  • "You are worth more." 
  • “This is not my god, You are!”  
  • "This cost me, but not near as much, as you mean to me."   
  • "I trust you.  I don’t put my trust in this.”   
  • “You provided this for me.   You will provide tomorrow as well!"   
  •  “I am placing you before my work, my successes, my good fortune."   
  • "I love you more than this."    

The ashes and smoke, a visible reminder of something quite literally given to God.

Weeks or months later that little whisper of smoke, a vaporized sacrifice, would return in the form of a dark cloud, laden with water, that would rain upon the crops and fields and water the herds and animals.   

Our primitive ancestors saw this as a kind of call and response.   Just like when they sacrificed a seed to the soil and back up sprouted 100 more, so when they sacrificed something to the air God rushed back with clouds filled pumped full of water, a feast for crops.  

 Steve agreed with me.   And added, “If you apply these two lessons you will live as though you are worth every penny that comes to you and yet you are not owned by one of those pennies that comes to you. ”

There I sat with my $21.00 lesson.   If I applied it, it would be worth millions.   Heaven was speaking to me, just that week, I was had been confronted by Psalm 62:10, " If you achieve wealth, don’t let your heart get attached."

I’m a mystic.   None of these lessons get past me any more.   I live in the wonder and awe of each day, each lesson, each divinely inspired shift and shaft from God’s gracious providence.    The $1 bill reminded me, in a humble way I was worth it at an elementary level.   Steve didn't offer me twenty as a reminder that I am worth money and a $1 bill to burn.  That would defeat the purpose of the lesson.   The $1 was simultaneously humbling and empowering.  I was worth it in its most reduced form.  And no matter how many of them there were, in this case, 20, they could be burnt, because I was not owned by money.

Here’s the thing.  If you can hold it with an open hand, a grace for what comes and goes, a gratitude and generosity, respecting your divine value, you are free.

As I got up to leave Steve smiled.  He knew this was going to challenge me before it was over.

MORE TO COME... (stay tuned for the burning, the fallout . . . )