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The Gift of Being Given To

December 20, 2008

I love giving to people. When I say I love giving, it isn’t  a quasi-modest pat on my own back about how sweet and loving I am. I truly enjoy it, regardless to how much it might bump up my karma or the needle on my “goodness”-o-meter. It feels extremely natural to me — perhaps that comes from being a woman and in many ways, very motherly. I will spend hours baking cookies for my neighbors or knitting someone a scarf, just to see their face when they taste a bite or exclaim at its softness as they wrap the scarf around their neck. I love making people happy and giving is such an instant return. Even if someone will never know that I did this or did that, just knowing that I am able to make the lives of others brighter brings me a sense of joy that I find in nothing else. It must be what God feels like when He sees us savor a sunset or our breath catch deep in our chest at the first sight of the sea. A feeling of pure and innocent joy, like a child hiding behind a curtain, watching your mother’s face break into a beaming smile at the painting you made her leaning against her pillow.

However, when it comes to receiving…well…I’m not too good at that.
I absolutely suck at letting other people be nice to me — I resist it like someone is dragging me down the street.

I’m bombarded with sensations of guilt and, well, pride. In the harsh spotlight of true honesty, I subconsciously feel myself above anyone else’s kindness or charity. I’m fiercely independent to a fault — I always protest when a guy will try to pay for me on a date or a friend buys me a birthday gift. “There’s no need! I can do that myself,” is always my response. In the process of my resistance, which I always assume is saving others a great deal of trouble and money, I end up depriving others of this beauty of giving that I indulge myself in so deliciously.

You read so much in Scripture about Christ’s giving — His charity, His generosity, His love for the beggars and the prostitutes and the lepers. When someone demands our shirt, give them your coat too, He tells us. Blanket people in the gift of love and see what wonderful problems it causes. Anger doesn’t make much sense when the person you’re targeting lays down their coat at your feet and refuses to stop giving of themselves, because you’re still their brother or sister and they love you, no matter how many stones you throw.

But one of the most beautiful stories that I go back to time and time again is not one of giving but of gift.

…………………………

“One of the Pharisees asked him [Jesus] over for a meal. He went to the Pharisee’s house and sat down at the dinner table. Just then a woman of the village, the town harlot, having learned that Jesus was a guest in the home of the Pharisee, came with a bottle of very expensive perfume and stood at his feet, weeping, raining tears on his feet. Letting down her hair, she dried his feet, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfume. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is falling all over him.”

…He ignored them and said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

-Luke 7:36-39, 50

…………………………

Back in those days, peoples’ feet would be absolutely, repulsively filthy. Covered in dirt and sand, stained with sweat and mud, callused and worn from miles and miles walked in leather sandals or even barefoot — it makes me wrinkle my nose to think how smelly and unpleasant Jesus’ feet probably were. But this woman, this town floozy that most people would have not even let alone in a room with their purse or husband, took the most precious thing she could buy and poured it all over His dirty, stinky feet as a sign of how much she loved Him. And His response was just to let her. Jesus knew the art of receiving, of allowing the love and grace of others to provide things He easily could have provided for Himself. He set for us an example of the humility it takes to receive. Not to grab and hoard in greed, but to allow someone else to provide for us without insisting that we be in control or repay them.

It’s easy enough to dance the circle of giving and receiving — you have me to dinner, I bring you a cake. You help me shovel my driveway, I give you money for the gas in your snowblower. But I don’t think that’s always the way it’s meant to be. While it can be a beautiful symbiotic relationship, it can sometimes deprive us of experiencing true love or grace. Rob did this fantastic teaching the other week (“Who Doesn’t Want In On That?”) about the language in Philippians, when Paul praises the people of Phillipi for providing for his needs so lovingly. In the language (Greek) it was written in, the terms Paul speaks in are economic ones — at that time, if someone gave to you, it was practically a legal obligation to return the favor. But Paul invites us to a new kind of living, that speaks of breaking free of the need to even the playing field– sometimes we have to receive, both from other and from God, just to remember what grace feels like.

I have this beautiful friend in Boston who is one of the dearest and most loving people I’ve ever known. His capacity to give is unending, like this deep, fathomless spring in his chest where love just keeps coming and coming (and how lucky am I, he’s one of several people I know like this). He’d just blush, refuse any credit and tell you it’s just the Holy Spirit, to which I would nod my head and say I agree — but source aside, he’s a truly sincere and amazing human being. Since we became friends several years ago, he has taught me so much about what it is to receive. Or as he put it once, “Sit down, shut up and let me be nice to you, will you?”

Last Christmas, he used a voucher for an airline he had to fly me out to visit his family in Connecticut and then we took a train up to New York City for the day. It was my first time taking a bite out of the Big Apple and it was like magic — glittering with lights, sounds and festive spirit. Seeing the Rockefeller Christmas tree all lit up made me so excited that I began squeaking, speechless, jumping up and down and repeatedly hitting him on the arm. He even treated me to a horse carriage ride through Central Park — I was floating inches above the ground all day, glowing like a Christmas tree. And he planned and paid for almost all of it — “I’m taking care of you today,” he told me. “Just sit back and enjoy it.”

It was a foreign feeling — while I chipped in here and there, it made me very anxious to just…receive. Other than the biscotti I brought his family, I had no way to repay him. I was pretty much broke at the time and he would have flat-out refused money anyway — he said all he wanted was my company.

It took a lot of bitter humility for me to let him take care of me like that — or to let anyone for that matter. However, once I finally let go, my pride and guilt melted in the soft pools of Christmas lights reflecting against the skyscrapers and in the company of a dear, dear friend. Understand what it is to allow myself to truly receive seemed to compliment my love of giving — to savor the giving and empathize with the grace of gift.

So listen up, all you control-freak, OCD listmakers who insist on doing everything yourself (myself included).

STOP.

Turn off the vaccum, put down your to-do list and remember that the joy of the holidays does not singly hinge on having three different kinds of fruitcake. Stop shoveling your sidewalk  and scrubbing the bathtub and just allow others to give to you.

‘Tis the season.

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