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Sweaty gifts

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Or, “What’s in it for me?” is not such a bad question

Ever been to a gift exchange where the drawing of names and dollar limits had everyone so bound up with anxiety that it felt like more you were completing middle school busy work assignments in order to keep your grade from falling?

Ever known someone — or been someone — who seemed driven by conscious to out-give everyone in the room, as if it wasn’t really a gift unless it overwhelmed any normal sense of propriety?

I think our understanding of the church in mission is often caught on one of these poles. Giving either needs to line up as quid pro quo, or else it needs to consist of a unilateral flood that refuses to entertain any return — all quid, no pro.

NewPine1On Saturday of Easter Week my son and I went with a group of seminarians and parishioners from St. Julian of Norwich to help a recently retired couple who had lost their home to the Texas wildfires last Labor Day. We worked beside the homeowners, as well as the contracted workers their insurance could afford, carrying charred logs to the road for the county trucks to pick up, rebuilding a deck, digging out a drainage trench, and rebuilding a chain-link fence.

The results of the day were predictable: we laughed through our sweat, had a wonderful day, and went home tired and sore, feeling like we’d made new friends and gotten to know old friends better.

And all that is called grace, in Christian-speak. As the cheerfully long-suffering couple expressed their gratitude to us for the day of labor, we returned the thanks, trying our best to express what we all actually felt: that were going home having received beyond what we’d given.

All that is, it seems to me, exactly as it should be. “What’s in it for me?” sounds like a stock-exchange sort of question, and it can be, if we’re looking to balance our exports with our imports. But real giving, like what happened on Easter Saturday, is an excessive event in which all who participate somehow receive more than they’ve given. There was something in it for us, and we would have shut ourselves off from grace had we refused to acknowledge that. I am indebted to two homeowners in Bastrop Country, and to the contracted and volunteer workers now, just as they are indebted to me. Human beings, in so far as I understand these curious creatures, seem built for these debts of gratitude.

The giving of gifts, as my wife and my friend Doug have taught me (though I’m still learning the lesson), is a matter of great risk: to risk perceiving another, to risk naming my relation to that other with a material object. And receiving gifts is no less a risk: I become vulnerable to the one who has something to give, I risk seeing myself in the eyes of another. To receive grace like this is to surrender control of the encounter, to let the giver momentarily “exceed” me so that I can desire what she is holding out. This, it seems to me, comes very close the heart of our redemption story, and to our Eucharistic feasting. And also to what took place among the sweat and charred lumber last Saturday.

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