Giving and Receiving

“It is better to give than to receive,” goes the old adage. But is that always the case?

Methodist theologian William Willimon offers a different perspective for us to consider as we approach Christmas. He wrote

The Christmas story is not about how blessed it is to be givers but about how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers. We prefer to think of ourselves as givers—powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. Which is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas. There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are.

Giving is good. Generosity is good. But I think Willimon is right that it is often easier to be the giver than the receiver; it is a much more secure place for us to occupy.

We are all receivers. As we celebrate the Incarnation, it is good to remember that all we are and all we have is gift.

[With thanks to Inward/Outward from whom I received the Willimon quote.]


We Choose Who We Let Walk Away and Who We Let Stay

During a particularly difficult semester in college, I went to see someone at Georgetown’s Counseling Center. After a few sessions, I decided I didn’t like the advice the counselor was giving me and so cancelled my last appointment. After I did, I got a short letter from the counselor, which said, “You can lead a horse to water, but…”

You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink. That – to drink, the horse has to choose.

As I was driving home the other day, it occurred to me that “you can lead a horse to water…” is a different, more secular, version of something someone had posted online recently:

God determines who walks into your life….
It’s up to you to decide who you let walk away,
who you let stay, and who you refuse to let go.

It is an important thing to remember. I think of all of the people God has put in my path at different times in my life. Some I have let stay, and they have been real blessing. Others, like the Georgetown counselor, who I probably could have benefitted from, I pushed away. God put them in my path, but gave me the choice whether to welcome them or reject them.

I have to remember the words in a different way as well – a way that is actually harder for me. Just as God puts people in my path, God puts me in the path of others, people who could benefit from their encounter with me. Some of those people will welcome my presence. We will grow in relationship and learn from each other, and they will benefit from my presence in their lives.

Others, however, will push me away, and when it happens, it is a really hard thing for me to accept. I need to remind myself that the fact that I think I have something to contribute to their lives doesn’t take away the fact that it is their choice whether to let me do so. I can’t force my presence on them any more than one can force a horse to drink (or any more than the Georgetown counselor could have forced me to take his advice). And I remind myself that even Jesus let the rich young man (and others) walk away from him. He always let it be their choice whether to go or stay.

God determines who walks into our lives. It is our choice who we let stay and who we push away.

My New Slippers

I have a new pair of slippers!

My friend Russ is a multi-talented and very generous person. One of the things he does in his spare time is make doll houses. Incredibly intricately-designed with wallpaper, molding etc. It takes him hundreds and hundreds of hours to make each one – and he has made many (no two alike) for his young relatives and children of friends. He delights in their delight when he gives the houses to them.

Another thing Russ makes is slippers – colorful, handknit, warm slippers. I admired his one day when I was visiting and Russ immediately said, “I’ll make you a pair.” And he did, with beautiful blues and purples.

When they were made, I was invited over to “felt” the slippers with Russ, which involved putting the slippers into a very hot washing machine until the knit both became “felted” and shrunk to the correct size of my feet. This required Russ standing at the washing machine and periodically pulling the slippers out so I could try them on. When they were correctly sized, he stuffed them with newspaper to dry them.

I share all of this, not as a “how-to” for readers who may wish to make slippers, but to share something of the time and energy Russ put into making my slippers for me.

What an amazing gift! The slippers feel wonderful and warm my feet. And I love the colors. But that is really only the secondary part of the gift. The real gift is the love and the labor of my friend. I wear my slippers knowing they are the work of the hands of someone who loves and cares for me. And that is an awfully nice feeling.

Fruit of the Earth

As I wrote on Saturday, every morning after breakfast at the retreat house, I take a bike ride. Nothing long or strenuous, maybe 20-25 minutes or so.

I discovered not far from the retreat house grounds a large field that is a community planting ground. I have no idea into how many plots the field is divided; the first day I saw it there were 8-10 cars parked at different parts of the field and scattered groups of people weeding, watering (from containers they have carried in) and otherwise working the land. They covered only a fraction of the available land. Every day since, I’ve ridden past the field, watching the people as I go by.

There is something compelling to me about seeing people work the land every morning. What I hear in my mind as I ride by are the words we hear prayed by the celebrant in every Mass: “Blessed are you Lord God of all creation, for it is through your goodness that we have this bread to offer, fruit of the earth, work of human hands.”

There is a holiness, a sacredness of the land that God has given us that I think is easy to lose touch with when people buy all of their food from the grocery store (especially food that has been processed). This is not just about the evils of our industrial agriculture system (about which I am known to talk about now and then), which is bad enough in its own right, but about a lack of contact with the source of our nourishment.

Now we are not all going to grow all of our own food, but I do think there is something good about anything that gets us closer to the source of what we eat. It might be a CSA farm that delivers only what is grown locally in that season increasing our cognizance of where our food comes from. It might be maintaining a small vegetable or herb garden, even if it is only a small supplement to one’s total diet. Something, anything, to help us remember that what we eat is the “fruit of the earth” that we have through not only the “work of human hands” but through God’s goodness.

Possessions vs. Things We Temporarily Possess

We’re just back from several days in Chicago. Although there were many positive aspects to the trip – two college visits, some great meals and a fun visit to the Art Institute, the last of which I haven’t been to in years (perhaps decades) – it was not a trip of unadulterated joy. Elena lost both her sunglasses and a ring. The sunglasses, which she admits cost way more than sunglasses should, was something she asked for as a birthday gift and she loved them and looked great in them. The ring was a gift from her best friend. She left the sunglasses at the booth in the restaurant at which we ate breakfast one morning and the ring appears to have fallen off her finger at some point during our visit to the Art Institute. (We checked lost and found at both places to no avail. Ultimately – just as we were leaving Chicago, the sunglasses turned up, but not the ring.)

Elena was quite upset at both losses. At one level I don’t have any difficulty understanding that. Both items were special to her for their own reasons. And she spend no small amount of time beating herself up over her carelessness.

As I reflected on her sadness and disappointment, however, it struck me that we might be helped if we could develop a different understanding of our relationship to our possessions. I think that for the most part we acquire things (by gift or purchase or otherwise) and develop the expectation that we will have them always. They are “ours.” We own them and we think we will always own them. We forget that the reality is that it is only a question of time before we will cease to own them. They will break…we will lose them…they will get stolen…they will be subject to ordinary wear and tear…or we may put them aside and forget about them.

As I contemplated Elena’s sadness, I thought: might it make a difference is we could develop a sense that what we possess, we posses for a time and only for a time? That the things we have are there for us to enjoy, but only for a limited period of time and when they are gone, they are gone. No sadness. No recrimination. Our time with them is simply over.

I don’t suggest that is easy. When I tried this idea out on Elena while she was still upset about her ring, she was skeptical. But I think there is something here that is not unrelated to the idea of the Buddhist idea of renunciation – we enjoy what we have while we have it…and don’t cling to it when it is gone. We posses our possesions while we posses them, and no longer. And when they are gone, we give thanks for what we have and let them go. It is a mindset that would save us a lot of heartache if we could manage it.

What Can I Give Him?

We’ve just finished the Christmas concert season of the various choirs in which my daughter sings. I have delighted over the last few weeks at the sounds of the choirs, admittedly taking particular delight in a solo Elena sang in one of her Chamber Choir songs and in her piano accompaniment of one of the songs for her High School Concert Choir. (It was a piece for four hands on piano and so she provided the second set of hands, playing with the choir’s normal accompanist.) There is something about young voices lifted in song that warms the heart and brings smiles (if not tears) to the face.

One of the songs Elena’s Chamber Choir particularly enjoyed singing this year was In the Bleak Midwinter, the lyrics to which are taken from a poem by the 19th Century English poet, Christina Rosetti. The last verse of the song asks a question we all might be asking in these final days before Christmas – What can I give Him? What gift can I lay before the creche on Christmas morning? The song not only asks the question, but provides perhaps the best answer one can provide to the question:

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him —
Give my heart.

It was only recorded with a flipvideo, so there are some imperfections in the sound, but you can listen to the Minnetonka Chamber Choir singing In the Bleak Midwinter here.

Sunrise, Sunset

I drove into work yesterday morning to a beautiful sunrise. The sky rippled with color and streaks of bright light and it was all I could do to periodically tear my gaze away to look at the road ahead. The beauty of it was with me all day. (I wasn’t the only one who noticed this: one of my “facebook friends” commented on the extraordinary glory of yesterday morning’s sunrise and, not only I, but several others responded that they had also seen it and had the same reaction.)

Each time I am confronted with such natural beauty, I marvel at the generosity of our loving God. God didn’t have to create a world with such beautiful colors. Or if He did, He didn’t have to create us with eyes capable of seeing them. There is no reason everything couldn’t look to us as it did to the people in the movie Pleasantville – all black and white and shades of gray.

The only reason for such beautiful colors is our pleasure and delight. Pure gift from God. So stop and enjoy the colors of the sunrise or sunset and in all of natural world created so lovingly for us by our God. And while you’re at it, pause and give thanks.

Precious Gifts

As I was walking along one of the paths on the retreat house grounds yesterday, I glanced down at a pin I am wearing on my shirt. It was a gift I received the other day from my “big brother” (I am the eldest child of my parents, but this very special friend has all the feel of what I imagine a big brother to be like) and when I look at it I am reminded that I walk with his prayers and love during these days of retreat.

As I glanced at it during my walk, a memory came up from my high school days, something I haven’t remembered in a very long time. I was a high school debater and my debate team spent many weekends traveling to tournaments in one state or another. I’m not sure who started this or when, but it developed that whenever we went off on a debate trip, the other students and our teachers would pin something on our vests. (Some of you at least will remember Catholic school uniforms from the 60s and 70s – plaid skirt, white blouse and either a jacket, or, in our case, a vest over the blouse.) Many girls pinned the pin with their name that was part of our uniform attire, others some other pin they usually wore on their own vest. We would carry these vests with us into the tournaments and they would remind us that we had the support and love of our friends while we competed.

Before one particularly important tournament – I think it was the state championship – an old nun came up to me. She had been my freshman Math teacher and had been teaching at the high school for enough years that she had also taught my mother freshman math back when she went to the same high school. This woman had made one great trip in her life – she had seen the Pope. (I don’t remember which pope – she was old enough that it could have been any of three.) And she had one prized, precious possession – a medal that had been blessed by the Pope that she never took off her neck, and frequently showed people.

She walked up to me and told me she wanted to give me something special to wear during the tournament. And she slowly started to unclasp the medal from around her neck. It was clear to me then, though perhaps not as clear as it is to me now looking back, what it cost her to do this – to take the medal off her neck and put it on mine. The thought of the medal being out of sight and the risk that something might happen to it must have been difficult ones for her. Yet, at the same time, she wanted to send me off with something special. And so she parted for that three-day period with the precious pin. And I knew how much love and care went into that act. And it was sweet to remember it during my walk on this retreat.

Maybe reading this will prompt you to recall a time, perhaps something you haven’t thought of in a long time, when someone gave you a precious gift. A time when someone gave without counting the cost. And give you an opportunity to appreciate again, and give thanks again, for the blessing of that gift.