Friday, December 17, 2010

Good gifts from the good gift-giver

Ellen and I are what you might call gift-impaired. We’ve been known to buy presents for each other, but at Christmas we do our level best to avoid stores with holiday decorations and thereby largely opt out of gift-giving. Corvallis is fortunate in not having a shopping mall, which is a small miracle in this age of commercial overkill. That makes things easier for us: the not knowing what we’re missing. It also helps that we’re not big on watching TV. As our big indulgence, some time between now and Dec. 25 the two of us will visit our neighborhood Fred Meyer store to stroll the aisles for an hour or so and pick up small items that catch our fancy. We’ll wrap these things for our Christmas stockings, and then pretend to be surprised the next morning when we tear into them. (“Oh, look, a spatula!”) It’s a delightful, countercultural way to avoid the wretched excess that’s called holiday shopping.

Juxtaposed to all this frivolous gift-giving, and putting our little family tradition into its proper context, are the gifts we receive by virtue of simply being alive. These are the things that matter most—family, friends, health, our faith, the pungent smell of a cedar wreath, the warm glow of a wood fire. If it’s love that motivates us to give onto others, then imagine the love that lies behind the act that brought us into this world: the conception behind the conception. We received breath before thought and then, much later, think little more about it. Our chests heave, blood pulses through our carotids, retinas record the slightest glimmer of light—and we think these marvels are our possession, and not gifts? Despite resolute opinions of ourselves as capable, autonomous people, we remain the helpless recipients of grace. We are in the debt of the one who made us and all of creation. When the impulse finally dawns on us, we respond best by admitting our inability to return in kind. We need to let grace just be.

William Willimon, the Methodist writer and theologian, has said that this is how God loves us: with gifts we thought we didn’t need, which transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to become. There is mystery to God’s economy. With our advanced degrees, armies, government programs, material comforts and self-fulfillment techniques, we assume that religion is about giving up a little of our power in order to confirm to ourselves that we are indeed as self-sufficient as we claim. We didn’t ask for most of what he’s given, most notably his outrageously extravagant love. This keeps God’s gifts from becoming our possessions. When he gives them, it’s best to whisper thanks and then to ponder what we’re to make of them. There is purpose to his generosity. If he gives you a spatula, then perhaps you should be thinking about what it is you’re supposed to bake.

I was once of the opinion that my life was my own. I now know better; my days are lived in a state of grace. What I’m still learning is the art of receiving gifts from God open-handedly, and then discerning what I’m to do with them. It helps to be flexible on this point, and I try to gently accept what comes my way. Good gifts from the good gift-giver have no strings attached. They are given grace-fully. We should receive them in that spirit and be glad.

1 comment:

grsmouse said...

If we all agreed with you and practiced accordingly the preachers would have nothing to complain about, i.e. the commercialism of the season. I can remember using the little girl's prayer, "Forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us."