Unlike Blanche du Bois in A Street Car Named Desire, I have not always depended upon the kindness of strangers, because I understood my purpose in life to be the stranger who performed the kindness. I was raised to mind my manners, ask for nothing special, and give from the heart with no expectation of reward, reimbursement or recognition. When you’re programmed from an early age to behave this way, you make a gift of your time, talents and treasures, for the most part, learning about generosity in its various forms. Generosity is a very good and meaningful habit. It’s what Christians are called to live out, daily. But in our daily wrestle to practice generosity, how many of us have also failed to learn to accept gifts gracefully, including God’s Grace? Learning to be generous to a fault leaves us incapable of accepting…anything.
Part of “Christian indoctrination,” at least according to the way I was raised in Luther Land in the 1960s-70s, was to instill in little Lutherans a strong sense of mission, selfless giving and neighborly outreach. We Lutherans are the “love people”: we love everyone, called by Jesus to love as God loves us, unconditionally, remembering that humanity is saved from eternal separation from God only by God’s grace. Like many Christians, we have not always loved everyone equally, or without judgment, or without placing restrictions and stipulations on others…we, too, are imperfect human beings. Which is why we Lutherans perhaps celebrate and assert God’s unconditional grace more than some denominations, because good ol’ Martin Luther never failed to remind us of our human failings, and the gift of God’s grace to eternally erase those failings.
Unfortunately, this particular Lutheran takes her human failings much too much to heart, and after 50-odd years of trying to practice selfless humility and constant charity, I have found it almost impossible to accept any type of gift, favor or kindness without immediately calculating its value, in order to reciprocate. I dash off thank-you notes almost before the gift-giver is out the door. I make a mental note when a friend does me a favor, pays me a compliment, or buys me a meal…never to be outdone, I can’t rest until I’ve returned the gesture in kind…usually with an extra flourish. Generosity takes on a one-upmanship that escalates until I’ve lost sight of both the gift, and the giver.
In truth I never really learned about unconditional giving until I became a parent: there is a huge distinction between giving of one’s self because one has been told one ought to do so, versus the authentic generosity of giving out of true, deep love that seeks nothing in return. In the past 16 years of motherhood, I have reflected a lot on giving, which has made me reconsider the real meaning of charity and generosity. I think I can safely say that I get it, 99% of the time.
But I still struggle with acceptance: not in literally taking anything, mind you, because we all love surprises, treats and gifties. Yet I find it so difficult to accept without keeping score, obsessively. Looking back, I realize that much of my inability to accept a gift in true grace has been linked to my own depression and low self-esteem: why would anyone want to give me anything? Including a God whom I could never, ever, repay?
My first real lesson in learning to simply receive without reciprocity came to me as sage wisdom from a very loving elderly woman in my church, a woman whom I’ve known since childhood. My mom and I stood in the church kitchen, helping to clean up after a reception, and my mom announced that she would like to take me to lunch when our work was finished. I mentally tallied that she had taken me to lunch nearly half a dozen times in as many weeks, probably as an excuse to see her baby grandson. I told my mom that the only way I would accompany her is if she allowed me to pay for us both. A little turf war ensued and my temper flared: Mom, it’s my turn to pay you back!
The wise woman who overheard my ridiculous outburst set down her dish cloth and took my wrinkly, wet, dish-pan hands in hers. “Listen to me, please,” she said quietly as her kind blue eyes bore into mine. “Your mother will not always be here with you. She wants to do something for you out of love, and she expects nothing in return. The best gift you can give her is to simply smile, and say ‘thank-you.’ Can you do that?”
I remember blushing and stammering through teary eyes, nodding my silent assent to this great friend and then to my mother, who hugged us both. I learned that day that accepting a gift is perhaps as important as giving one, but only if the acceptance is genuine, without the mental gymnastics that rush to calculate the cost of the receipt, and the future payback.
It was an important lesson that I continued to wrestle with as I tried to be a gracious recipient across the stream of days. 9 out of 10 times I’d feel that pang of unspoken guilt or obligation in my chest when presented with a kindness or a gift, but slowly, surprisingly, I learned to focus on the giver and his or her intentions, and gradually I was able to uncouple my car from the obligation train, and just enjoy receiving.
Yet still I could not, or perhaps didn’t take the time, to fathom my acceptance of God’s great gift in Christ. The mystery of Jesus’ salvation on my behalf was simply something I professed, but didn’t truly accept without Ugly Guilt or Low Self-Esteem rearing their heads. Until my first semester at divinity school.
One afternoon in the “Skill & Practice of Theological Conversation” class, we were trying to decipher and interpret Martin Luther’s essay, The Freedom of a Christian, in which Herr Doktor Professor Luther expounds on the real meaning of God’s grace within a Christian life. We are freed unconditionally from separation from God, that Augustinian definition of sin, through God’s grace in claiming us by baptism. But with this freedom comes great responsibility: not out of obligation for what God has done, but in gratitude and love for God who claims us regardless of our imperfections. Christian freedom means the responsibility to love others, not as the world would define love, but as God first loves us, without condition.
Many of my non-Lutheran student peers wanted to bash Luther over the head, in part for his archaic language, and in part for his masterful, circuitous arguments. After twenty minutes of futility, my wise professor raised his hands for silence. “Look,” he said, “it’s so simple. Luther points out that God baked this big cake, and just cut you a piece. God is handing you the cake plate, and all you have to do is take it, and enjoy. Just take the cake! It’s good! He made it for you, out of love! The cake is Jesus, and all you have to do is take it!”
We sat there, stunned. Such a simple concept, and who doesn’t love cake?
I sometimes still rush to calculate a suitable gesture of gratitude when presented with a gift or a favor, but that pang in my chest has been replaced by a feeling of enormous joy and acceptance borne from a new understanding of what God intends for me. At last, I think I understand…the God who creates us for relationship laughs when we smile and take the cake, whether it’s the grace of Christ, or a loaf of homemade bread made by loving hands. As the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson suggests, “Ours is not to reason why…ours is but to do and die.”
Jesus has already done the hard work of death for us, so scratch Tennyson’s last line. Jesus’ death on the cross for every human being in God’s creation brings life eternal when we believe: when we accept Jesus as God’s Son. So why do we question it? It’s like refusing the cake plate to ask God, “Is this gluten-free?”
Jesus reminds us in Matthew 7:7, ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.’ So whether it’s God’s grace, or a loaf of bread, next time you are faced with the astonishing offer of a gift, open the door, hold out your hands and smile. Believe, and take the cake!
Peace be with you until next time.