“Where are my Christmas presents?” my son inquired in a whining tone in the kitchen last week. A little nervous I was raising one of those kids, you know, the demanding ones, I reassured him Christmas was coming, but quickly tacked on a reminder that Christmas is not just about gifts. “We want to be givers,” I retorted to his distracted 4 year-old ears.
You’re probably like me – I want to be known for my generosity. And not just that – I want to raise children who are givers too. Don’t you? We don’t want to be seen as takers or raise greedy, insatiable little mongrels who are obsessed with satisfying their every whim. We’ve all met kids – or grown-up kids – like that. When I do, I can never get away fast enough.
But as soon as the words left my mouth, I knew while the message of giving was true for my son, that’s not the whole story.
As much as generosity is a value we want to live and instill in our children, we never get around to talking about how to receive. As a result, most of us are terrible gift-accepters. At least I usually am.
We can’t always be the givers though, and there’s one big reason why we shouldn’t be quick to reject a gift and try to give one instead.
I’ve always thought of giving as the superior act. But it can get awfully one-sided.
When I was in my campus ministry internship after college, I led a small group in a college dorm made up of girls from all over the world. I loved the women, but I thought my act of love for them was to provide the topic for the night and the food for us to enjoy. I wanted to have all the answers and the provision. After all, that’s what being a Christian is about, right, being the Wal-Mart with everything everyone needs?
Halfway through the school year, I attended a class on missions. The teacher told the story of the women Jesus met at the Samaritan well that changed the way I thought of giving and receiving ever since.
See, Jesus seemed to think accepting gifts from people was an act of service to them, but he did it in his subtle, trademark-Jesus way. Early in his teaching days, he found himself at a well in Samaria. He was thirsty from his trip, and his disciples had left to find food or water. He sat down at the side of the well and waited for them to return.
Before long, a woman approached the well with her water jar. They exchanged pleasantries, then he broke all the cultural norms: he asked her for a drink.
This was always part of the story I skipped over. It just seemed like a Jesus-style conversation starter, but it was far more than that. Receiving a drink from the Samaritan woman was an act of empowerment.
What we intuitively know about giving is that the giver is the one with power. The one who gives a tangible gift or information is the person who has something the recipient needs or wants. So when someone gives us something, we are in a humble and vulnerable position, a place of need.
This is why many of us are great at giving but terrible at receiving. We want to be the one to pay for the groceries, but we want to avoid ever having to be in the position to need it.
But we’ve mistaken receiving for taking. Taking something from someone is not necessarily empowering. Taking is similar to “grabbing” or even “theft”. When someone who has less than we do extends an offer or gift to us, it seems so natural to decline. After all, we don’t want to put them in a worse position.
Often, however, a person who may only have a little wants to give to feel that sense of influence in someone else’s life. And when we receive something from someone, a gift or advice or inspiration, we are giving value to them. We are placing them in a position of influence and power in our lives.
Isn’t that incredible?
This year, let’s use the same generosity it takes to give when we receive, knowing that our welcoming acceptance of the kindness of others is also a kindness to them.
It’s true that some people give out of compulsion or guilt. Some people are giving more than they can or should, running up credit card debt just so they can compete in the Christmas gift games. Of course, debt is not empowering. And we can feel the icky strings attached to some gifts that people give to you, only in hopes of getting something in return.
But what if we stopped feeling guilty when our neighbor on a fixed-income brought us a Christmas gift? What if I gave a hearty “Yes” to the family at church who I know applied for welfare last month but insists on bringing me a meal when I’m sick? What if you gave those with little the chance to give big so that God can bless and reward their generosity to you?
This is by no means a chastisement against generosity. I still love giving. I just want us to be really good givers AND really good getters. What if we could do both with great humility and grace? I think we can.
So this year, let’s use the same generosity it takes to give when we receive, knowing that our welcoming acceptance of the kindness of others is also a kindness to them.
Merry Christmas to you.