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

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Life is a Gift (Part 2)

(I suggest reading my post from yesterday for more context.)

Yesterday I wrote about the challenges of accepting gifts. I’m also interested in discovering how to more practically accept my entire life as a gift. My opinions on the matter are undoubtedly linked to theology.

You could argue that grace is perhaps the central message of the death and resurrection of Jesus (you could argue that other theological themes are central too, I recognize). In the cross, which Christians understand to be God’s redemption of humankind, or salvation, or atonement, or forgiveness of sin, or restoration of the Divine-Human or Human-Human relationship, God has done something that God had no obligation to do.

Even with fancy arguments made about the things God “must” do to avoid suggesting God could contradict God’s own nature, I don’t really believe it is necessitated that God must keep humans around and go out of God’s way to ensure everything turns out alright with us. I don’t think that’s a great way to think about God’s grace toward us. I think it’s much more truthful to acknowledge God’s action in Jesus as pure gift, pure grace.

But as Barth and Buechner have at different times reminded me, our very existence is grace. Grace goes further back in our history than the earthly life of Jesus, all the way to our initial creation, and is also something happening in this present moment.

I’m aware of the presence of grace in my life, but can quickly forget its reality when I walk out of church on Sunday (I’m sort of “going to church” again for the first time in over three months, so I can say that). I suspect this might be because most sermons (and worship songs) I’ve heard on grace seem to have the goal of reminding me of what God did on the cross but fail to train my heart and mind to recognize the experiences of my day-to-day life as a gift.

I very quickly forget amidst the normalcy of my life that our planet is a gift to us. The initial act of creation is a gift to us. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the communities we are a part of, our unique life situation with all the various factors that make us unique—our culture, family, genetics, personality, life experiences, friendships—all of this is a gift from God. If that sounds a bit anti-science, it's not meant to be; I think I have a healthy, synthesized view of the way my life has come about and has been sustained. I believe I owe my ability to breathe in this very moment to both the breath and sustenance of God as well as to things like hemoglobin and the free market.

Just as I wrestle with how to receive gifts from others well (as I mentioned yesterday), I feel compelled to consider how I can truly cherish my life as a gift. It’s one of those realities that I only occasionally get, such as a week or so ago when I had a sort of epiphany while jogging and seemed to more fully grasp and “see” for a moment what an extraordinary gift my life is.

What I don’t feel I can do, to the likely disagreement of some of my Christian brethren and “sisteren” (the English language may be widespread but it’s got its shortcomings), is simply continually say “thank you” to God until I’m out of breath. I feel like I have to do something in response to God’s gift of grace to me and the entire human community. But I can’t really equally repay such a gift. It’s both absurd and not really in my power to “create” God or “save” God, which seem to be the only equivalent paybacks. But simply acknowledging the gift, which seems to be the emphasis of a lot of Christian preaching, is lacking for me.

I don’t have a fully developed answer to my question yet, other than that it has something to do with “paying it forward” and finding ways to replicate in some small way the same kind of grace I’ve been given. I actually believe this to be some part of the mission and purpose of the Church—to freely extend the same kind of acceptance and grace and love that we believe God has showered on us.

This is part of the language of “covenant” used in both Old and New Testaments, I think, where we are in some sense in a partnership with God that involves perhaps not demands but at least expectations from God about how we ought to live in light of God’s actions on our behalf. I don’t think we have to earn favor from God, but I do think that part of truly receiving life as a gift involves much more activity than passivity.

The challenge I’ve felt in the past couple weeks is to enter more deeply into this question and discover what it means to more fully receive the gift and gifts that make up my day-to-day life. What might that mean?

Maybe it means more frequently thanking God for my friends and family and putting more effort into loving these people well; counting every minute of my job as a privilege and not a chore; increasingly becoming grateful for my health and doing what’s necessary to maintain it; laughing more and not taking myself and others so seriously when doing so is more life-sucking than life-giving; more slowly eating food to savor it; telling people more often of my appreciation for them, which likely would cause me to think about and treat them differently.

Maybe accepting life as a gift means cherishing my intellect and more frequently stimulating it; more readily dropping what I’m doing to give attention to people who might initially feel like burdens; being thankful for my financial situation while also considering how I might assist those in more dire circumstances than myself; more deeply cherishing those people whom society often sees as a burden as gifts to me and to all of us (the elderly, those on welfare, the physically and mentally disabled); noticing that flower, or those colors, or my capacity to appreciate music or recognize beauty or enjoy humor; relinquishing the need to control things I can’t; and more deeply embracing my own uniqueness by spending less time living with a covetous and jealous attitude toward people who possess what I don’t and, in so doing, abandoning any sense of entitlement that causes me to forget that I really “deserve” nothing.

May I more fervently seek and knock and question that I might more fully discover what Buechner calls the “fathomless mystery” that is life. For life is a gift, filled with countless moments that can be embraced as gifts—be they my beating heart or a 10% off coupon to some obscure sandwich place given to me by a student who may or may not be messing with me.

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