Monday, December 3, 2007

Giving and Receiving

        If you’ve come here looking for me to join the flood of religious people reviling the retail orgy that Christmas has become, you probably want to go back to Google now. Not that I don’t think that the consumer orgy isn’t insane: anyone who skips Thanksgiving dinner to wait in line for a big sale the next day clearly worships something other than the babe born in a stable. But in all the craziness, I think we’re losing sight of what the whole giving of Christmas gifts thing was supposed to signify -- love, generosity and caring.
        While frantically schlepping from mall to mall to find something -- anything! -- for the 23 people on your list can hardly be called a spiritual experience, it doesn’t have to be a soul-sucking horror, either. I think the difference is the spirit in which we seek.
        My mother is the poster-child for the joy-of-Christmas-giving club. She adores Christmas shopping. It is a source of absolute delight to her to seek something special for the people she loves. There’s no sense of obligation there: even the gifts she has chosen for professional colleagues over the years have been selected with a fond eye towards the unique human beings she works with.
        In the process, she mostly seems to skip the guilt that appears to drive so much of our retail-driven Christmas shopping. She doesn’t buy gifts because she has to, and she doesn’t feel driven to spend more than she ought out of fear that she might look cheap. It actually is the thought that counts. And so her Christmas giving comes from a place of joy, love, and generosity.
        And it’s that spirit that also makes it a joy to receive a gift from my mother. Because you know how much love she puts into them, it’s really easy to be pleased by any gift she gives, even on the rare occasion when she misjudges your fondness for the current fashions. Her joy in giving is infectious.
        Which brings me to receiving. We talk often enough about giving as a spiritual discipline, but rarely is the spirit of receiving mentioned. But I’ve discovered that graciously receiving can be a spiritual gift as well.
        I have a friend who is more often on the receiving end than the giving end: she lives on a fixed income, and because she doesn’t drive, is dependent on others to be able to participate in social and church events. She is also a devoted and careful thank-you note writer, and her appreciation for assistance is genuine and warm. She lifts up and recognizes the gift of your time and care for her in ways that make you glad you were able to help.
        Being with Ellen has taught me that receiving help graciously is a gift, too -- one I don’t possess. I am a doer, and I find it difficult to allow others to do for me. I’m embarrassed when I have to ask someone to look after my kids because I have a late day at school, even though I gladly and frequently watch others’ children in similar circumstances. I feel guilty when someone offers to take over a task I’m finding I don’t have time for, even thought I’ve done the same thing for others many times. And I’m always apologizing to people who find my things -- my prayerbook, my Bible, my gloves -- and make sure I go home with them.
        I’m not alone in this. Lots of very capable people have trouble allowing others to help them. In my experience, clergypeople may be the worst offenders: those called to ordained ministry tend to have a sincere and deep desire to serve, and as a result, we tend to resist being the ones served. I’m certainly in that category: I am one who serves, and so I struggle with seeing being served as a failure of my calling by God.
        Except that we are all -- each and every one of us -- called by God to serve, to love one another as he loves us. God didn’t create us in two categories, the servers and the served. He created us interdependent, meant to serve and be served. The others I serve cannot be fully complete as long as they only receive; for those I love to be able to experience fully the joy of service, I must be a gracious recipient of that service, of that gift of themselves. Learning to receive graciously requires an admission of vulnerability and need, which is also a gift of humility and shared humanity, one that opens us up to deeper relationship with each other and with God. We are served and serving, and love abounds.         So this Christmas season, my prayer is for all of us to give with gladness and love, and to receive with joy. Whether it’s home baked cookies, a fur coat, an offer of babysitting or a ride to church, or a really ugly tie that you can’t believe Uncle Herbert bought, may giving and receiving both be a source of abundant life for you and yours.