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scary donuts

The scary donuts
This past term I taught a course on Christian Spirituality at the university and Friday was the last class. I wanted to do something special for the final time we would meet as a group, besides giving a rockin' concluding lecture about incarnational spirituality, so I tossed around a few ideas on Thursday night. Give everyone a book on Francis of Assisi? Too expensive. Go on a field trip to a nearby church? They had already done their own field trip as an assignment. Bring chocolate? I did that for the Valentine's Day class. Go out for drinks afterwards? Not everyone would be able to make it due to exams and other classes, and since it would only be 11:30 am, maybe not the best idea. A cake? I didn't really have time to make one. Bring donuts? It seemed like the best solution. Everybody likes donuts, right? Well, maybe not. I had observed that quite a few of my students seemed to be on a health kick, bringing fruit, smoothies, and nut mixes to class. Perhaps some were even gluten-free or diabetic. No doubt I wouldn't be able to please everyone, but donuts seemed like the best option to lend a bit of a festive, celebratory air to the last class.

I still wasn't sure I was going to go through with it when I stepped off the subway at 8:20 am on Friday. There was always a line-up at the donut shop that time of the morning, so I decided that if that was the case, I wouldn't bother. Surprisingly, there were only a few people in line that morning, so I stepped up to the counter and ordered 2 dozen donuts, enough for every student in class plus a few extra. It took a few minutes for the server to place the sweet, sticky, fried orbs in large, flat boxes and then he handed them to me.

After taking a minute to adjust everything I was carrying so that the donuts were gently cradled in my arms, I started down the underground hallway which led to the building where my classroom was. And as I walked, I became aware of a range of emotions washing over me. I felt conspicuous, self-conscious, almost ashamed, exposed, stupid, ridiculous, insecure, and afraid that my students would view this as an inelegant and clumsy gesture on my part. My stomach lurched, my heart rate increased, my breathing became shallow and rapid, and I had the urge to flee, to drop those blasted boxes and get as far away from the despicable donuts as I could.

What was was going on? How could a few donuts scare the heck out me?  Where was all this anxiety coming from? Did I not buy enough Boston creams? Or was this really, truly a stupid idea and I was just awakening to that realization now? It didn't take me long to identify the cause of my mini panic attack: I was putting myself in a vulnerable place, a place where I was not in control. Giving a gift is, at its essence, offering someone a part of yourself. Doing this in a professional setting with a group of people you don't know very well...that's risky business. Many years ago, I brought some food to a work gathering and as the evening progressed and my snacks remained virtually untouched, it slowly dawned on me that my contribution to the refreshment table was the most homely, unsophisticated item there. It made me feel ashamed.

Gift-giving or true generosity makes us vulnerable. Our gift can be rejected, ridiculed, deemed inappropriate, and ultimately, change the dynamic of a tenuous relationship. And this means that we are subject to rejection, being ridiculed, and feeling out of place and alone. Gift-giving is not for the faint of heart. True gift-giving is not about good taste and a big budget; it is about tremendous courage, because giving a gift is opening our hearts and letting someone see our soft spots. It is holding out the things we value most for others to scrutinize and evaluate. Gift-giving opens us up to a variety of negative and hurtful responses. And that's why those donuts scared me that Friday morning.

Gift-giving is at the heart of God and this extravagant generosity is most evident in the person of Jesus. Here we find God incarnate in paradoxical divine vulnerability, carrying the largest box of donuts ever to a world which would rather have chocolate croissants and espressos. To a world which is likely to take a few bites of the humble apple fritter and then spit it out. To a world which might sneer in disdain at the chocolate glazed donut because it has bumped up against the maple glaze and the colours have run together. I will stop with the bad donut analogies here, but hopefully you get my point. All we can ever offer is what we have in our hands, what we hold close to our hearts. People may not think it is enough, and it probably never is, but Jesus is enough. And Jesus can be part of every gift we give. He is gift incarnate.

My students were reservedly happy when they saw the donuts. One student asked, "Can we eat them?" Another student said they appreciated the gesture but didn't want one. A few shyly came forward and picked out their favourite. At the break, some boldly returned for seconds. I saw smiles on many of their sticky faces. After the class ended, I wandered the halls, offering the leftover donuts to a few students. They all looked at me with suspicious glances and politely said No. I understood. It is hard to accept a random donut from a too-friendly stranger in a pink scarf. I headed over to the IT department and dropped the box of donuts on the counter while I fished out the key I had to return. I saw the eyes of several techies fixate on the box. "You want some donuts?" I asked. They were silent, timid in their desire. I said, "I'll just leave the box here and you can do what you want with them, okay/" Smiles all around. The girl at the counter responded, "Really? That's so nice of you!"

And then I walked away from the scary donuts, the donuts that taught me a little bit about courage.


Shelley said…
scary and terrifying! oh my have I ever been here. But sadly not often enough, since this is such an unpleasant feeling - over the years I have curbed my generous urges to what feels like an acceptable level.

This post reminds me to move back toward this vulnerable place.

Thank you.

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