Paying Well: Tipping the Scales Toward Love

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When it comes to an issue like tipping, the amount of money we leave on the table or scribble onto the receipt is nothing less than a symbol of who we are and what we hold to be true.

They were in the cold interior of the Mazda. As the driver backed out of the gates of the salon compound, Aunty Uju gestured to the gateman, rolled down her window, and gave him some money.

“Thank you, Madam!” he said, and saluted. She had slipped naira notes to all the salon workers, to the security men outside, to the policemen at the road junction.

“They’re not paid enough to afford the school fees for even one child,” Aunty Uju said.

“That small money you gave him will not help him pay any school fees,” Ifemelu said.

“But he can buy a little extra something and he will be in a better mood and he won’t beat his wife this night,” Aunty Uju said.

~From Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie

Resources Aplenty

For most of our fourteen years of marriage, my husband Rob and I have lived on the edge financially. Thanks to the generosity of family and friends, we’ve never gone hungry, but we’ve struggled—not because of any kind of cycle of poverty or discrimination but by choice. When I think back on our years of dating in our late teens, I can see now that we were shaped just as much by the social justice commitments of the adult Christian mentors who surrounded us as we were by films like Fight Club and American Beauty—films that in some way expressed our generation’s psychological (if not always actual) rebellion against vacuous consumerism and the meaningless jobs required to sustain affluenza. In practice, these influences led us to make scrappy and creative choices about how to make a living. For many years, we both worked part-time in order to volunteer the bulk of our working hours for causes close to our hearts, including two non-profit organizations we co-founded.

In the fall of 2002, our non-profit habit led us, like other Gen X economic refugees, back into the family home—in our case, into my grandparents’ cottage in Three Rivers, Michigan. Though I had come to the small town of Three Rivers my whole life for family vacations, I had never really seen the place before. With only dial-up Internet at the cottage, I went through the slim rural phone book and circled places we might like to explore. We had no money to spend but intuitively sensed that there was a richness to be found here if we applied other resources that we had aplenty, like curiosity and patience and openness.

Fear and Faith at the Dip and Dunk

I clearly remember the day we ended up at the Downtown Dip and Dunk. The communities we had grown up in didn’t have any spaces like this: Civil War-era row buildings leaning against each other unevenly. Inside the café, the exposed brick and polished wood floors infused an early winter brunch time with warmth. A hulk of a man bent over a sizzling grill in a tiny kitchen, calling up orders to Darlene, the singular waitress whose superpower would be a magical combination of speed and slowness, with small, quick steps blending into graceful, practiced movements—wiping down a table, retrieving the ketchup from its shelf, sliding an order ticket into its clip.

I remember the awe of this moment specifically. It was a feeling I can only describe as “home.” But even without a specific memory to draw on, I can tell you more generally what happened at the end of our meal because it’s happened hundreds of times over the course of our relationship. The bill arrived, placed on the table nearer to my husband than to me as usual, and despite our egalitarian efforts, I let him pay. Almost every time we go out for dinner, I let him pay, and I know why: it’s because his generosity is bigger than my fear.

I can’t deny that I have experienced many moments of fear over the years when I was acutely aware of how much our financial liability outpaced the pittance in our bank account. The alchemy of that fear combined with an instinct for self-preservation always produces the small-mindedness of scarcity. And oddly enough, the question of what we cannot afford is rarely so immediate to me as when I apply myself to calculating the percentage of a tip. It’s an act that tests us more than we often acknowledge: with no set amount to hide behind, tipping is a cultural ritual that reveals not the size of our wallets so much as the quality of our character.

I was considering the topic for this writing assignment on a recent Sunday in Advent when the lines of a hymn, based on a poem by Christina Rosetti, jumped out at me:

Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine.
Love was born at Christmas—star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead, love incarnate, love divine.
Worship we our Jesus—what shall be our sacred sign?

Love shall be our token, love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and neighbor, love for prayer and gift and sign.

Many would rightly argue that our Christian faith beckons us to a system of values that is much different from one based on quarterly profits and personal net worth. And yet, when it comes to an issue like tipping, the amount of money we leave on the table or scribble onto the receipt is nothing less than a symbol of who we are and what we hold to be true. It is one of myriad daily acts that, at its best, can belie a belief in the incarnation—a token, a sacred sign.

On Tipping and Salvation

Now, this is not to say that the only measure of success is whether we drain the balance of our bank account to zero as gratuity for every burger or beer or haircut. That would be like suggesting that the only way to live as a Christian is to read the Bible 24 hours a day. But it does suggest that tipping is, like many other practices, a formational activity that has the power to conform us to the image of the Christ who is not known for perfunctory fairness, but for extravagant, self-sacrificing love. If we can become the kinds of people who give two dollars when just one would do, perhaps we can also become the kinds of people who would give up the security of an unjust job or advocate for the oppressed even though it puts us in harm’s way or sit with a friend who is grieving even though the only gain is sorrow.

I’ve learned many things from my husband over the years, and one of those lessons is that tipping well is a matter of salvation—not in the sense of checking a box that will add up to heavenly admission some day and not for saving others either (how many in the service industry have gotten a crummy tip accompanied by a tract?). Rather, it’s about living in the world as if the Good News we’ve heard is true: the Kingdom of God is here and there is more than enough to go around.


Paying Well

After we published a week of content with the theme heading Making Money, we received a message encouraging us to consider the flip side, as well. What about Christians who fail to pay well, who complain about leaving a tip or who balk at paying an honest rate, especially when doing business with other Christians? What does the Bible have to say about this, and what is fair to expect when doing business with Christians and non-Christians alike? Is there a difference? Should there be? What has been your experience? Join us for this series, Paying Well, as we consider personal stories and biblical instruction for leading well as Christians in the world, especially when it comes to determining what to pay.