"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Friday, February 11, 2011

Life is a Gift (Part 1)

A gem from Buechner: "Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace." (from Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation)

And from Barth: “(God’s free grace) is of such a nature that even when proclaimed in a stupid manner it has a way of producing…(people) who are in fact free, that is, nimble, humble, questioning, seeking, asking, knocking…" (from God Here and Now)

It seems like everybody has their own way of receiving gifts, often with a bit of discomfort or awkwardness. Some enthusiastically try to assure the gift giver that no greater gift could have possibly been given. Some express guilt, feeling like they haven’t given an equivalent gift and can’t enjoy the gift unless their feeling of indebtedness is gone. On rare occasions, some don’t hide their distaste very well, though mostly this is limited to children (one of my nephews once said with great disdain, in response to a gift, something like: “why would somebody give me this?”)

I think it’s a unique challenge to receive a gift well, with different dangers to avoid. At one extreme, I think I would be receiving a gift poorly if the result was annoyance with the giver, or feeling like I owed the gift giver a gift of equivalent worth, or refused the gift. But at the other extreme, it would feel like a mistake to accept the gift with something like indifference, forgetting the giver, or somehow not cherishing the gift in a way that was both honoring to the giver and the act of giving.

I’ve been thinking about this partially because of gifts I’ve been given, and partially because of recent theological reflection about grace, which I understand to be one of the ultimate gifts. The recipient of grace can claim no sense of entitlement to that grace. The giver of the gift—as I understand the nature of gift-giving—is not owed anything.

Gifts related to my teaching experiences are coming to mind at the moment. A student from Mexico recently brought me a key chain from his hometown—not a flashy gift, but touching because of the simple thoughtfulness of it. Yesterday another student gave me a 10% off coupon for a sandwich place I’ve never heard of and will probably never visit. I thanked him for it. I’m not sure where I put the coupon, and probably won’t look too hard for it. He may have just been messing with me, I’m not sure. He has a pretty good sense of humor.

Another student tried to buy me coffee yesterday. I insisted he not buy it for me, and he insisted that he do so. We had a lengthy back-and-forth “insistence battle” that I eventually won. Now I might normally have let a student buy me the coffee, as I don’t have serious qualms with taking gifts from students, despite the potential dangers in that.

But this case was different. My boss and I recently confronted this particular student about some out-of-the-classroom, social/cultural issues that left him feeling shamed. I could sense he feels the need to win back my favor, though I’ve insisted that I’m not holding anything against him. Letting him buy me the coffee felt like validating his need to win my approval. Another time, maybe; in this particular case, I discerned that refusing the gift was more appropriate.

I’m also thinking back to China. My students gave me several gifts before I came back to the States. One was a cross-stitched picture that appeared to have taken a long time to create. To honor this and other such gifts, Joann and I have made one of our bathrooms China-themed, displaying the artwork and various trinkets I was given, so that I will frequently remember my relationships with those in China. I think this—remembrance—may be one of the things these students want most from me.

I stayed a couple days with the family of a student near Shanghai during the Chinese New Year month-long break. And upon my departure, the student’s father gave me 1,000 Yuan (about $140-150, though that money often goes far, especially with food). He wanted me to have the best experience possible during the rest of my vacation around China, and I think also wanted to show his gratitude to me for visiting and teaching his daughter. And as an unabashed lover of money, I think he felt that he could give no better gift.

I tried to refuse, but he insisted. I actually didn’t know if I was supposed to keep refusing, in case culturally this was just the game you played (in my experience, Chinese people more aggressively fight for the bill than Americans—it’s a matter of honor). But I accepted. I used about 5-10% of the money to pay for a taxi for his daughter (who was traveling with me part of the way to visit friends in another city), but spent the rest on various services in other cities. It really did enable me to have a little bit more fun on my trip, eating at more upscale restaurants than I might have without the money.

I was tempted to save the money and continue traveling cheaply. But he had told me that its purpose was to give me a more pleasant travel experience in Guangzhou and Hong Kong (my next stops). It felt like honoring him and his gift meant honoring his wishes. Thus, I tried to be constantly mindful of his gift as I was spending the money on various things, be they buses or restaurants or museum passes. And I told my student to make sure her father knew that I had a great trip, in part because of his gracious assistance. I felt empowered to savor the trip a bit more deeply.

My family is very thoughtful and gracious in the way they give to me. Joann is also very thoughtful and enjoys gift-giving. I think I have a so-so track record of how well I receive her gifts (my opinion, not hers). There are some gifts I’ve made good use of, treasured, made it known repeatedly how grateful I was for the gifts. There are others that are collecting dust, which I probably have not given adequate attention to, in light of the time and/or thought that went into the creation or acquisition of the gift. Though, Joann also occasionally gets me quirky stuff and knows it.

These examples of experiences with gifts from others connect to my whole question here, which is both theological and practical—how do I receive a gift well? And related, how well am I doing at cherishing or enjoying the gifts I’ve been given? Why is such “cherishing” important? Do I really believe life itself to be a free gift...to be grace?

I think this is an important theological issue, as Christians over the centuries have seemed to get pretty worked up when it comes to their opinions on all matters related to grace. I’ll share more thoughts on that tomorrow.

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