On Giving, On Receiving

We’re almost there, gang. It’s Christmas Eve Eve (historically noted as the longest day ever in the history of long days, especially if you are a child or the parent of small children). We’re *this* close to the culmination of all of our Advent waiting and there’s much hustle and bustle to finish up last-minute preparations.

All of that looks different this year, of course. Added to the anticipation of the holiday is some extra heartache and anxiety…you know, just to keep things spicy. It’s always easy to get caught up and swept away by this time of year and to lose focus of the bigger picture but this year has added stress in places most of us haven’t previously navigated. The shadow of the pandemic has created an environment of panicked searching of tracking numbers and shipping notifications. Many of us won’t be seeing our family and friends this holiday, so more emphasis is placed on exchanging gifts in a different way, more stress is put on the fear that things won’t make it in time, or there are too many gifts for one kid and not enough for the other one so now we have to take our lives into our hands and go back to Target, and why are we even doing a secret Santa this year anyway, and what’s even the point, and on and on and on.

To which I say, “Woah Nelly.”

Be still. Take a breath.

Let’s take a minute to break it down together and consider our relationship to giving and receiving in general.

Here’s what my pal, Henri, has to say.

A lot of giving and receiving has a violent quality, because the givers and receivers act more out of need than out of trust. What looks like generosity is actually manipulation, and what looks like love is really a cry for affection or support. When you know yourself as fully loved, you will be able to give according to the other’s capacity to receive, and you will be able to receive according to the other’s capacity to give. You will be grateful for what is given to you without clinging to it, and joyful for what you can give without bragging about it. You will be a free person, free to love.

Henri Nouwen

Okay, so why are we giving gifts? The obvious answer is that gift giving is a way to communicate love to one another. Taking the time to curate and research a lovely gift for someone is tangible proof of our thoughtfulness and consideration for them. Gosh that’s beautiful. It is such a good and valuable thing.

And yet.

As with many good and valuable things in our world, giving and receiving can so easily be twisted. Somehow what was initially a physical act of love toward our father-in-law becomes a competition with our spouse’s siblings. What was a way to show our boss how much we appreciate her becomes an opportunity to advance our career. What was meant to be a helpful gift becomes a physical manifestation of the way we think someone ought to be living their life. Worse, we often give out of obligation not real generosity, a motive that is easily communicated to the recipient.

The same goes with receiving. What was meant as a helpful gift from our parents is received as commentary on our lifestyle. That gift that is not equivalent to the one we offered is a physical manifestation of our value in the eyes of the giver. Perhaps we receive an extravagant gift and feel somehow less than, unworthy, or worse exploited. Did they really want to give me that huge present or are they using me to show off?

What was meant to be a good and beautiful thing for the other becomes about us: If he likes this gift enough, I’ll know that he’s really into me. If their gift is better than mine, my gift was not enough. I am not enough. If I give them this cleaning system, maybe they’ll actually take care of their home the right way. If the kids love these toys, they’ll love me. If they gave me this huge gift it means I will owe them something. I can’t accept that expensive thing because I don’t deserve it.

Deep breath.

Remember what’s true.

No amount of gifts or any signs of generosity can define us the way Christ does. Gifts do not serve to be trophies or monuments that prove our belovedness. They are, rather, tools to communicate that we see and love others right where they are.

Receiving an extravagant gift has nothing to do with our inherent value. It is not a commentary on our financial or social status. It shouldn’t challenge our view of our own worthiness. It is, perhaps, an opportunity to receive and by receiving, bless the giver. Allowing others to love us in the way that they are able is a gift in and of itself.

When we don’t feel worthy to receive a gift or don’t feel deserving of extravagance from loved ones, we must consider what “deserving” even means. None of us is getting what we deserve…at least I pray that we aren’t! We are all sinners, all fall short of the glory of God. Christ never gives us what we actually deserve, praise God. The entire point of Christmas is that we are given exactly what we do not deserve, the ultimate extravagant gift: salvation. So “deserving” shouldn’t really play into receiving gifts. It can be a humbling thing to receive a gift that we don’t feel worthy of. Let’s use it as an opportunity to embrace humility, remembering our Savior who offers us His precious body and blood specifically because we are not deserving.

The reaction of the recipient to our gift is not about us. We should give, not out of an expectation of approval from the person to whom we are giving, but purely to bless them and love them no strings attached. It sounds silly, but we need to give to one another with open hands. We need to give without expectation. Generosity doesn’t follow up two months later to see if they’re using that new Roomba properly or scan their social media posts to see if they’re sporting that new scarf. Generosity is giving with open hands, trusting that our identity and value does not rest in whether or not someone appreciates what we have to offer.

Whatever the next few days look like for you, I pray that you will take Truth deep into your core and settle into it. Giving and receiving are not about you. No pile of presents, no number of lost packages, late arrivals, or any offering that doesn’t quite hit the mark can touch the truth of who you are in the eyes of the Creator. You are good. Full stop. You are lovely and loved. Period. You are valuable and worthy just as you are, just where you are. So are the people you’re giving to this Christmas. The gift of yourself in all your imperfect humanity is the most beautiful offering you can give. Receiving the ugly, imperfect, confusing, frustrating humans in your life and loving them despite all that is receiving Christ’s call to us all.

I pray that we’ll all be able to give and receive with open hands this Christmas. My prayer as we round out this year is that we’ll find Him. In the absences at the table and the disappointments and the anxious fears about being good enough or making the right choice to travel or anger over how that uncle voted or worry that these people we’re related to don’t actually really know us, I pray that we will feel His presence.

He’s there. He really is. In the piles of wrapping paper and the beat up boxes that arrive three days late. In the sibling arguments and the absolutely awful presents, He’s there. He’s waiting for us. The baby will be born and laid in a manger and He’s waiting. He will grow up to be beaten, bruised, mangled, and murdered for us. He’s here in the midst of the hurt and the mess, in the giving and receiving of gifts, deeply present in these presents we’ve chosen that try to hijack our worthiness. He’s there quietly repeating the foundational truth of our belovedness: He came specifically for us. He chose this. He chose us.

Merriest Christmas, my beautiful friends. You are so, incredibly loved.

Mary Susan

Serving the Service Industry

I guess Carrie Underwood’s “Sound of Music” aired the other night. I didn’t watch it, not because I thought it would be horrendous (which, if Facebook is an accurate barometer, it was), but because we decided to visit the seventh ring of Hell, AKA the mall, for some Christmas shopping.

I usually don’t go to the mall anyway because, well, I’d rather be poking my eyes with a pointy stick or watching Carrie Underwood in a habit. Unfortunately for us, we had to return some things that Everett the giant baby never got to wear and we needed stuf that the internet couldn’t provide quick enough (Shock! Horror!). So, to the mall we went.

Poor Maggie was just way over-stimulated by the obligatory Christmas displays of crappy calendars and summer sausage everywhere. Nothing smells more like the holidays than perfume samples and cheap summer sausage intermingled with the scent of stale Chinese food and raw humanity. Does Scentsy offer that in a cube of wax? I’m pretty sure it’d be a big seller.

I was able to stave off a meltdown or seven by walking the girls through a jewelry store to check out the carpet. This is not your average mall carpet. Oh, no. This particular establishment has gone above and beyond to provide its customers with the most fabulous carpet imaginable. It’s blindingly sparkly, as though millions of diamonds were ground to dust and individually woven into the carpet strands. Basically, it’s spectacular and looks like it belongs in the Barbie Dream House and we walked through twice, much to the chagrin of the other shoppers.

To say that we don’t fit the jewelry store clientele is an understatement, as I’d assume most of their customers at least attempt to look like they’ve showered and few wear diapers while they shop…but maybe I’m just generalizing here. That store is probably erecting a sign right now that reads, “Carpet for Paying Customers Only!”

I’m not sorry in the slightest for going in there, though, because I’ve secretly always wanted to walk on that glorious carpet, so I can mark that off my bucket list. Done and done.

The upside is, with our returns and a sale at Macy’s, we managed to get Lily a coat for a whopping eight cents, which is probably what it cost to make it in the first place, so there you go.

The real upside is that the elevator in Macy’s broke so Maggie, Everett, and I got to ride the freight elevator, which is like a dirty alley, only the dumpsters contain overpriced Jessica Simpson clothes and the whole thing moves up and down.

If you’ve never been given the opportunity to visit the seedy underbelly of Macy’s that lies behind those “employee only” doors, I highly suggest it. It’s just as dismal as you expect and may give you some appreciation for the poor folks lucky enough to work retail this time of year.

Which brings me to the gloriously wonderful hybrid of ideas my mom and dear friend, Katy came up with. Katy’s got two girls who are pretty much exactly Maggie and Lily’s ages and they’re a family after my own heart. Katy is pretty much the best mommy friend I could ask for because she’s got great ideas and she’s brilliant and she doesn’t judge me for never wearing makeup and for sometimes calling my kids by the dog’s name.

Here’s our train of thought:

– We want a good way to start teaching our kids about service to others and giving.

-Mom saw this thing where kids gave out flowers to people outside a store and it was wonderful.

– But our girls are way little and we don’t want to confuse them about how to behave around strangers. Stranger danger is real, y’all.

– Enter retail employees, who are easily some of the most poorly treated people during the holiday season. They get miserable hours, they’re separated from their families and are forced to police the rabid hordes out for blood and “bargains.” These employees are on their feet all day long, thanklessly ringing up sale after sale for people who seem to think they can haggle for goods as though the Toys-R-Us is an open air market in Shanghai or something. Retail workers are yelled at, belittled, and completely under appreciated if you ask me, so…

– Katy had the brilliant idea to take flowers to people working retail this holiday season! Brilliant, I say, brilliant!!

This is perfect because it’s a service opportunity that is definitely overlooked. People do a ton of great outreach during the holidays, most of which is focused on the poor, elderly, homeless, etc. I love those kinds of projects, but a lot of them aren’t really feasible for us- two women with five kids between them, all under the age of three. We need something that can be specific, hold the kids’ attention and keep them engaged. There’s no end to the havoc we’d wreak on a nursing home or other traditional outreach group. I’m so excited about giving a different group some love, too.

We’ll be picking a weekend soon to go buy some pretty flowers and descend upon a few stores with some holiday cheer and lots of thanks. My challenge to you is to do the same!

Find a group of people in your community who works their tails off during the holidays and show them some love! Take some donuts to the grocery store and have a manager put them in the break room. Bring coffee or hot chocolate to a construction site. Stop by the Starbucks with some flowers for the folks who make one zillion peppermint mochas a day. Find a way to thank those in the service industry whether it’s your server at lunch or the pharmacist at Walgreens.

And when you do, report back here! I want to hear your creative ideas for loving on your community! I promise it’ll make your next trip to the mall way more enjoyable, even if they’ve got sparkly carpet. And service is always, always better than an evening of bad TV, right? Right!