As a teenager, I was startled by an older friend’s observation to me: “Your parents are some of the most generous people I’ve ever known.” My first thought was, My parents don’t have the money to be generous. By this time, I was aware that a rented John Deere combine didn’t exactly harvest cash.

Throughout my childhood, my family feasted on the quality-rich life—financially not so much—of our family farm. Our elderly farmhouse languished peacefully on the southern edge of two and a half acres of black Midwestern soil, handed down to my father from his father.  My parents logged endless hours cultivating a living out of corn, soybeans, and hogs for our family of six, who as providence would have it, were all female except for my dad. Even through Sundays and our camping vacations, animals needed to be fed. And the closest vigilance was subject to capricious market prices and weather.

But I don’t remember feeling poor. My parents kept their buildings tidy despite the steep and steady demands of upkeep. As I now wrestle with my own grocery budget, I have a new appreciation for the value my mom squeezed from each dollar (and a wide garden) to feed four girls, a hungry farmer, a hired hand, and herself. Despite the potential isolation from country living of the distinctly non-glamorous variety, I didn’t feel lonely. Instead, I grew up with an enthusiasm for wide-open spaces, work, the life cycles of plants and animals, getting my hands dirty, and close-knit relationships with my sisters. My parents had renewed to-do lists with each sunrise over the cornfields. But just as constant was the flow of people filtering out to our farm. It seemed my folks were always helping someone.

Ever since my friend made her observation, I’ve been watching my parents.  What was this generosity that was so obvious to others?

For starters, they had loaned my friend one of our cars after her parents were in a debilitating auto accident. I noticed that my dad’s time was often spent giving away whatever he had: his meticulous bookkeeping as the treasurer at the church, leading game time for the kids every Wednesday night, or repairing whatever was broken there.

Over the years I’ve seen my dad continue to save people thousands of dollars by giving them free labor to rehabilitate their ailing vehicles. Most of these work for non-profit organizations. Some are single women. He assists the latter in the sale of their old cars, then helps shop for replacements, ensuring honest deals on quality vehicles. The rest of his time is often consumed with mentoring young men, some of whom are in troubled marriages or addictions. In fact, he left the family farm to work for FamilyLife, moving for the first time ever at age 41 in order to help people full time.

My mom has poured out her resources in our home before I was born. When I was a girl, it seemed like she was always making a meal for someone just out of the hospital, or caring for a friend’s children. For several years, she provided “Cradle Care” to infants waiting for adoption. She would feed them throughout the night, then rise cheerfully to help us get on the bus and get a head-start on her other responsibilities. As I got older, she brought me along to help clean a house for someone who couldn’t, stuff newsletters for missionaries in Africa, or organize a funeral for a family whose son died of AIDS. Proverbs 31:20 was being lived out right in front of me: “She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.” For years now my mom has mentored abuse survivors, those healing from the pain of abortion, and other women.

As I started to count the older children who have cycled through our home over the years, I was amazed by the breadth of ethnicities: Japanese, Russian, African-American, Rwandan, Caucasian. Our holidays are dotted with the presence of guests we’ve just met. Though we frequently entertained guests on the farm, with my parents’ new occupation—and despite their empty nest—their home might as well have a revolving door for the travelers who find reprieve in the spare bedrooms. The warm overflow of love in their home has a near-magnetic quality.

One of my sister’s friends from high school stayed for a short while during difficulties in her own home; she was certainly not the first. And now, after years of gathering advice and comfort during stays of varying lengths, participating in family birthdays, holidays, game nights, and eventually vacations and  trips to see family, she calls my parents Mom and Dad.

I am astounded by the fact that even now, as empty nesters, my folks’ time, cash, and energy are held out open-handed to God. They don’t view any of their resources as their own. They’re not afraid to rest, but they’re in the midst of a new kind of “harvest time”: the opportunities for ministry are ripe and waiting.

As I chronicle my parents’ stream of generosity, I’d be remiss if I didn’t see how they were generous to me. I saw much of this open-handedness in the way they parented: with discipline cushioned by grace; with picnics, storytimes, conversations, loud singing in the car, and practical lessons in both kitchen and garage. Their goodness to me was financial in small, well-placed ways.

That goodness occurred in the context of their overflowing faith, their commitment that all they had was given to bless other people…that their time and love, too, were for giving. They weren’t doormats. They just loved God and His people deeply.

Now they give to another generation. My mom watches her grandkids one day a week so my sister and I can take a breather and help some people ourselves: my sister as a nurse, and myself at FamilyLife. (My other sisters are overseas: One teaches inner-city children art; one helps Burmese refugees.) My kids think their day at Grandma’s is the best day of the week … and it just might be one of mine, too! I’m grateful that my kids have a chance to learn and hopefully carry on that key trait: that generosity has little to do with what’s in your pocket, and a lot more to do with what’s in your heart.

Copyright 2012 by Janel Breitenstein.  Used by permission.