The Surprising Reason Receiving Is As Good As Giving

“Where are my Christmas presents?” my son whined in the kitchen a few days before the holiday festivities began. 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 ears. But that was mostly for my benefit.

I want to be known for my generosity. And not just that – I want to raise children who are givers too. As parents, the last thing we want is to raise greedy, insatiable little mongrels who are obsessed with satisfying their every whim.

And while I knew the message of giving was true for my son, it wasn’t the whole story.

As much as generosity is a value we want to live and instill in our children, we don’t provide much education on 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 ought to be as quick to receive as we are to give. 

I’ve always thought of giving as the superior act. But it can get awfully one-sided.

After college, I hosted a weekly small group made up of women from all over the world attending a local university. In my efforts to prove how much I cared for the women in my group, I attempted to provide everything from the discussion topic and food to answers for their unresolved life questions.

Halfway through the school year, I attended a class on how to serve and connect with people from other cultures. The teacher told the story of a woman Jesus met at a community well, and his approach to service changed the way I thought of giving and receiving ever since.

Jesus seemed to think accepting gifts from people was an act of service to them, but he did it in his subtle, son-of-God way. Early in his teaching days, he found himself at a well in a region called 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 hope to avoid ever needing our groceries purchased.

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, advice or inspiration, we are giving value to them. We are placing them in a position of influence and power in our lives.

[Click for photo credit]
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Isn’t that incredible?

So what if we stopped feeling guilty when our neighbor on a fixed-income brings us a Christmas gift?

What if we gave a hearty “Thank you” to the family at church who just applied for welfare but insists on bringing us a meal when we’re sick?

What if we gave those with little the chance to give big so they can feel the sense of power we get when we give?

This is by no means a chastisement against generosity. I still love giving. I only want to encourage us to be really good givers AND really good receivers. 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.

When You Don’t Want to Wait Any Longer

It’s all so magical, the belly-warming glow of the lights juxtaposed with the sparkling winter chill, bells lingering in the air, chimed from towers and bell choirs, scheming up just the perfect gift for children and friends, imagining their faces a million times before they even open the gift: there is so much to love about Advent and the Christmas season.

I think the most reassuring part is the countdown, the knowing when Christmas and presents and family and cider and joy will finally be here. There is stress in the preparation and travel, but there is a knowing: it will be here soon, and it will all be worth it.

I am thankful for the ritual of Advent, to remind us that waiting has an end, that the thing we long for will come if we are faithful.

But I think our adorable Advent calendars with 25 little doors hiding tiny chocolates are a little misleading. Unless it is a pregnancy, a wedding, or the day of school starts or ends, there are rarely clear beginnings and endings to the biggest things in our lives.

We cannot count down until we meet our future husband or wife. We cannot schedule a date on the calendar for when we will finally be done with infertility and celebrate a pregnancy. We cannot put an end date to the painful season of unemployment when no matter how hard we try, nothing is opening. We can’t say of our estranged spouse or child, ‘Well, at least we know they will be home next year.’ Because we don’t know. We just don’t know.

Most of our lives, the crises, the hardships, the sorrows and joys promise no guarantee of beginning or end. We live day by day, just making it through, at times breath to breath, extracting every last ounce of grace to deal with the disappointment that we are not…there…yet.

This is why we need Hope so badly. We are lost without it. We give up on dreams and quit living when we lose our Hope.

The Pessimist, claiming to be a Realist, says, “Because it has not happened yet, it will probably not happen,” to which Hope replies with confidence, “Each day that passes is one day closer to the longing fulfilled.

Hope is not drunk on idealism, envisioning a perfect future and erasing the pain and ache of the waiting. No, Hope is a perspective, a lens through which to view the world.

Hope can co-exist with waiting, and when we wait in Hope and do not let the waiting jade us, then we can move through time and space toward our desire, all the while becoming the person we must become in order to receive it.

Pessimism feeds on the idea that waiting is empty, that time between now and the arrival of The Longed-For Thing is simply finger-tapping, clock-watching and gut-wrenching ache, all the while entertaining the idea of giving up on desire for fear of letdown’s freefall.

But when we choose to feed Hope and return ourselves to the truth of who we are and who God is, we grow the very thing that readies us for the blessing.

The struggle between now and the blessing we long for is the cocoon of hope and faith.

When we wrestle with our doubt and our anger, when we tenderly let ourselves feel our disappointment but keep it in check, always surrendering it beneath the tide of God’s goodness, the struggle ends with us as champion, released from the season of claustrophobic darkness into something we never knew we wanted: a kinder, bendier, more generous version of ourselves.

Sometimes it feels it takes forever, but in the end, we’ve either become the person who is ready to receive the desire-made-manifest, or in all our fighting, we realize what we thought we wanted all along wasn’t really it at all and discover a new longing to pursue. (I have seen this happen again and again with people who were smitten by someone, longing for their love returned, but as they got to know them, they realized this person was not who they thought they were at all.)

This cocoon of waiting is an essential process for our broken human hearts because imagine if we got exactly what we wanted the precise moment we wanted it? What a curse to get your every wish granted at your beck and call.

No, the waiting is full of becoming, of warring, sculpting, shaping. The edges come off, our truest priorities and values surface, our faces and hearts soften.

The waiting is not merely waiting. It is becoming.

This struggle of waiting, or let’s call it becoming now, is not as much about receiving the thing you long for as it is about engaging with the ache and letting it shape you, letting yourself grow all the stronger and wiser for having trudged this path or wrestled this giant.

So in this New Year, let us not discuss amongst ourselves or our friends what we are waiting for, but who we are becoming as a result of the waiting. Let us not move through life, mired in resentment and disappointment without allowing the wrestling between Now and Then to beautify and enrich us.

Let’s not simply wait, my friends. Let’s Become.

Happy Christmas, Happy New Year, Happy Becoming.

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What God As A Baby Says About Burnt Dinner And Broken Toys

Jesus, I’ve been waiting to talk to you. Waiting until the topic was big enough to matter. Waiting to hear your opinion on an issue more significant than laundry.

But the other day, while I folded my clothes before bed, I realized something. You’re not simply a God of big, abstract, distant things. You’re a God of the Small and Near.

That’s what Christmas really means, isn’t it? Emmanuel. God with us.

I know the songs and the Bible verses. I grew up around these sacred hymns that somehow lost their richness because I feel like I’ve always known them.

I often relegate you to the invisible, to the Shoulds and Should-Nots. I’ve made you the God of the faraway and celestial things, and in doing so, I forgot to talk to you about how discouraging it is that there will always be dishes at least three times a day, although I know I should be thankful for them. Or the fact that the baby is still sick after two weeks, and I don’t know if I should take him to the doctor or not.

Once again, I was wrong about you. You aren’t a policing theologian with a microscope, identifying character inconsistencies and whispering behind my back about how I should resolve them. Sure, you have opinions about which songs to sing in the worship service, or how to invite people to our small group, but you also know the best way to cook a steak or how to cure my baby’s diaper rash.

And you’re a little sad, as I was, that one of my favorite coffee mugs shattered into pieces at my feet when the baby grabbed it off the kitchen table this morning. But we are both glad no one was hurt.

The pictures we see of you throughout the year are ones of the grown-up Jesus, the teacher and the minister, a kind man but one with many constraints on his schedule. So I try to be efficient because we are both busy, and I don’t need to bother you with the small things.

But Jesus, this is the time of year when we remember you were not always a famous face, a man in demand.

The Christmas story is one we all know because it’s our story. It’s you and us, babies, at our most vulnerable. It’s so extraordinary but we miss it because it’s so close, the story of pregnancy and labor and birth and babies. We know it so we gloss over it, eager for the good part.

But that is the good part. Because what you meant to say by becoming a small thing is you care about all the tiniest things in our lives. The things we think no one cares about.

You are God of the Small and Near.

You are the God of rushing around to stash toys away before guests arrive. You’re the God of dirty diapers and muddy floors. You are the God of cups of coffee that used to be warm but I couldn’t sit down long enough to enjoy it. You are the God of fresh, clean sheets and stubbed toes. You’re the God of the poetry I can’t shake from my mind or the lyrics from that song I remember for years.

You’re the God of sex and so many negative pregnancy tests and finally a positive. You’re the God of the baby who wants to eat all night and the fumbling about in the morning dark, wishing for a few more hours in bed.

You’re the God of missing ingredients in the dinner recipe and getting the dryer running again. You’re the God of the new toy the baby loves and the acrylic paint that almost made it onto the four year-old’s clothes. Almost.

I hate that I’ve missed you in so many places when I thought you were only the God of prayer meetings and quiet times and Sunday mornings. Because you are the God of before and after church stuff, the God of falling asleep with the Bible open and the God of checking my son into nursery after the service already started. You’re the God of the long afternoons after the Sunday meeting because someone just needed to be heard, and you’re the God of takeout on the way home because just the thought of cooking after all that wears me out.

We know you as the man who healed, the God over our bodies and sickness, or the broken man on the Cross, declaring you God over death. And in the garden with Mary, you’re the God of the resurrected life and All-Things-Made-New.

But this Christmas, in our hearts and our stories, you’re a baby, a tiny baby at the start of your life, and you can’t even hold your head up. You blink at bright lights. Your mother teaches you how to breastfeed. You snuggle in close to your bed made of straw and sleep until the cold or hunger wakes you.

This Christmas, you’re not an important man with crowds crushed around you. You’re not a celebrity face plastered onto some giant billboard. You’re just a tiny little baby, and anyone could pick you up. You’re at the mercy of humanity, for better or worse, and we can’t believe this is your story because it’s ours.

You’re not just God of heaven anymore. You’re God of my life, my moments, my story.  It feels like you get me, like I have a friend who knows the sting of betrayal or the weight of grief.

As the God of the Small and Near, you are intimately acquainted with not only my sorrows and successes, my pain and joy, but also my fantasies and boredom and the daily chores that keep this little life going. Every last detail in the margins, the things even I don’t care about, you’ve made your business. You know it, you see it, and you are in it.

Jesus, I’m sorry I’ve missed you in the little, in-between places that make up my life. But I don’t want to anymore. I want to notice your presence alongside me. I welcome you into my daily doings, the sacraments of work and play and sleep and food that make up all my days. I want you to be the God of all the minutes, not just a few of them. I don’t want to crowd you out by scheduling you in.

Please come in to all of it. There’s room for you, Emmanuel.

 

 

How Tradition Heals The World

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This year more than ever, I am thankful for tradition. Not so much the ritual of it, but what it means. It’s a coming up for air, a gasp of relief. 

During the past year, I overcame a debilitating perspective of God and the world, life inside a tormented mind, a world I had never experienced. My actual life was perfect, as much as we would all dare to wish, but I was haunted by “what if”, a gruesome fantasy land.

It is Christmas time again, and I remember that last year, near Christmas time, I was not doing well. My hair turned dirty and gray from stress, and one of my eyes twitched frantically beneath all the tension. I worried my falling-apart soul was manifesting on my outsides.

When I look back at this photo from just one year ago, the day my family ventured out for a Christmas tree, I can see and feel all the wear on my face and in my soul. Life was a weary thing in those days, but I am in a different place now.

This year, when we went out to get our tree, I insisted we take another picture in the same spot because I wanted to see it. I wanted to look in my eyes and know the healing happened, know that I am not the same. And I saw it. I saw the newness, the strength, the peace and confidence that comes with a healthy soul. 

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Tradition is the gift that reminds me I am not the same: I am growing, becoming. I could not have imagined who I am now, but that wasn’t necessary to become her. And when the earth goes around, and I find myself back here in this season, I can feel the change, the space between who I was and who I am. And it is good.

Tradition is proof there is hope for humanity, that we are not a lost race. Proof that God has not given up on us. Because here we are again, despite all the pain in the world that frightens or distracts us. We are listening to Bing Crosby, sipping wine, telling our children the story of the first gift ever given, and how we are now Father God’s children because of this gift, Jesus. And how we give gifts because we so long to be like our Dad, the papa with the belly laugh like Mr. Fezziwig from A Christmas Carol. And this year, I can tell my sons with certainty that our God is a God of extravagant generosity and he loves so big, so much, and it is a special honor we have to follow behind and try to be like him. 

I can say all these things this Christmas because my soul has room to believe them. I have been planting truth in my soul, nourishing myself with quiet and learning, bravely, to simply let myself be loved. 

If I could give us all one gift this Christmas season, it is that we would let ourselves be loved, that we would take the boxing gloves off, that we would stop keeping score of our goods and our bads – God isn’t doing it, so why should we? I would give us the gift of gentle vulnerability, the kind that isn’t too strong to let love in, to receive the only gift your heart really wants, really needs, the thing that happens to be the the thing God longs to give you. 

Let traditions, another year around the sun, heal and nurture your soul this year. May you see all the lavish grace that has been poured out on you in the past year, even when everything felt broken down and busted up. May you live in this circle of the earth, this season of warmth and quiet, and may it heal you up in places you didn’t even know you needed it. 

Love to you. 

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