Monday, May 31, 2010

Gifts from above, gifts from below

Have you ever found it difficult to accept a gift? I'm not talking about that ugly plaid shirt that you got for Christmas a few years back but just don't have the heart to toss. I mean a gift that is too wonderful, too extravagant, an embarrassment of riches. Like a pair of tickets to Paris. When presented with this glorious opportunity, what would you do? Skip and laugh? Dance around like a crazy person? These would be appropriate responses. Alas, the human heart is a complicated thing.

I burst into tears.

What, you say? Paris? "This is a happy thing," my husband gently reminds me, stroking my back. Yes, I know. I have no idea why the emotion wells up, spills out of my eyes. But I think it has to do with the nature of gifts and the way I receive them. I sat down at my computer to type out a thank-you and ended up wiping a whole new wave of tears off the keyboard.

Humans by nature are not very good at accepting help. Some of us are blessed and cursed with an additional dose of self-sufficiency. For me, the root of this is old-fashioned, uncreative pride. No, I'll do it myself - it's just simpler that way. This reflex resonates through my spiritual life as well. Granted, I do not happen to mentally assent to the gospel: "God helps those who help themselves". Our pastor recently launched a juicy retort over the pulpit: "that phrase is not in the Bible." Later, I looked it up in Bartlett's quotations. It is attributed to Sidney Algernon and repeated by a number of proverb-collectors, including Ben Franklin in his Poor Richard's Almanac. Poor Richard. If only he had simply owned up to the fact that he WAS poor, because that's the real starting point. We don't reach down for the bootstraps first. We reach up for God Himself. And actually, we can't reach very far (witness the Tower of Babel), which is why He came down in Jesus Christ. This is my general view of the gospel and also sanctification, or the daily road I walk to become more like Christ. In everyday practice however, I still balk at His astounding gift. And gifts.

And so, at the beginning of a summer when we expected to be buckling down to life and work in Minnesota, we find ourselves about to be teleported to That Other Place. (Not Narnia, but France.) We track down housesitters, inquire into the availability of floors to crash on an ocean away, scratch out to-do lists, delightedly tap over Skype with our soulmates about how soon we'll see one another, privately ruminate over the imminent proximity of fine cheese. Doubtless, the Lord has more to fulfill through us on this trip than a hearty consumption of bleu d'Auvergne and baguette. Regardless, they are gifts all, from the monumental to the microbacterial. We will uncover a handful of His infinitely wise purposes during this go-around. As for the rest, we'll have to wait for the other side of eternity.

Last night, I read (with more tears in my eyes, I guess they keep coming) the introduction by Andrée Seu to her recent collection of essays Normal Kingdom Business, in which she describes a friend's gift of a trip to a beloved place. The complicated barrage of emotions that came in tow were a clarion echo of my own experience:

I had been feasted sumptuously. I wanted to pay - a croissant, a taxi fare, something. But Lynn explained it was a gift. And I could see the truth in it. And how we like to pay our own way, not because we are so good but because we are so evil. Never mind, she will be repaid on the day that the books are opened (Revelation 20:12).

We like to pay our own way...because we are so evil. Hobbled by pride and a misplaced notion of equality, we frantically look for a way to justify things given. "Well, I spent about as much money on their birthday gift as they did on me." Or, to a drink paid for by someone else: "I got you next, ok?" Or, that Midwestern specialty, "Ohhh, don't go out of your way." The explicit horror of "putting someone out" rules many of our decisions. Why? When I'm being stoutly honest, I hardly think this impulse boils down to good citizenry or making sure I'm still a productive member of society. No one wants to take advantage...or is it appear to be taking advantage? A glimpse into my own murky motivations tends to reveal the latter.

The cultural anthropologist Marcel Mauss tells us that gifts are never really free, but they always impose upon the receiver certain obligations. He came to that conclusion studying indigenous people groups in faraway places like Polynesia, but his observations could have been gathered from the habits of Minnesotan wives and their mystical system of tupperware and muffin exchange. Or "friendship" bread.

And so our lives have been so orchestrated over the past few years so as to learn how to enter into God's strange and marvelous system of gift culture, which is nothing like man's. I am becoming suspicious that the more I find myself in this awkward position of recipient, it is to gently rebuke me of more pride. For some of us, parents are an apt analogy, and one that Jesus explicitly uses: "Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7: 9, 11). Even those whose had a mother or dad who were outwardly evil or non-existent have to own up to the fact that the gift of life is something you can't repay.

Mauss may have insight into man's relationship to man and his selfmade religion. But he did not factor in Jesus Christ. "Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe." What can you give to the Owner of the Universe? From this position of utter dependence, we then cast our eyes to our neighbor's lot."But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" (I John 3:17). Living with others, inviting others to live with us. Accepting a pound of hamburger meat, giving food to the street guy on the corner. In out, in out. It's like learning how to breathe in a new rhythm, say for playing a piece on a wind instrument or swimming laps in the pool. For now, let's call it humility.