Monday, December 21, 2015

what is a good gift?

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Christmas is always a challenging time for me. In many ways, the gift-giving practices (and accompanying consumerism) surrounding the season seem to clash with nearly everything I find in the story of Jesus' birth. And yet, I don't want to become cynical and miss out on all that is good in our present-day traditions. The benefit of my yearly angst is that every December I find myself going back to the basics, reminding myself once again what is important, what is true, and what is good. I try to put into practice the directive Paul gives to the Philippians: "Fill your minds with beauty and truth. Meditate on whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good, whatever is virtuous and praiseworthy. Keep to the script." (Philippians 4:8-9a, The Voice). Well, my script this year included two well-known stories.

You might be familiar with the century-old short story, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. You can read it here. Published in 1905, it tells the tale of a poor, young couple, Jim and Della, who desire to give each other the perfect gift on Christmas. Alas, they have no money to spare. The only two things of real value in their household are Jim's gold watch, passed down from his grandfather, and Della's long, cascading hair. Della decides to sell her hair in order to buy Jim a gold chain for his precious watch. When Jim sees her without her long hair, he is stunned, unable to take it in. Stella gives him the gold watch chain and explains that she couldn't bear not having anything to give him for Christmas. Jim confesses that he sold his gold watch to buy her jeweled combs for her beautiful hair. In the end, they are both left with useless gifts, but the reader intuits that somehow, they both gave very good gifts.

Another story of giving is found in these familiar words: "For God expressed His love for the world in this way: He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him will not face everlasting destruction, but will have everlasting life. Here's the point. God didn't send His Son into the world to judge it; instead, He is here to rescue a world headed toward certain destruction." (John 3:16-17, The Voice)

These two stories help me recognize what a good and perfect gift looks like.
1. A good gift comes out of love. Essentially, a gift is love in action.
2. A good gift is costly; it involves giving up something which is precious to the giver.
3. A good gift invites a response; it is not detached, indifferent, or anonymous. Because....
4. A good gift expresses a desire to be close(r) to the recipient. A good gift is about establishing and/or deepening a loving relationship.
5. A good gift benefits the recipient; it is not superfluous. A good gift should actually make someone's life better in some way.
5. A good gift has no strings attached. In other words, it is not part of an obligatory exchange. It is a free offering of love, a bestowal of worth on the recipient, so to speak.
6. A good gift invites transformation. Because a gift is based in love and invites relationship, ideally, it does not leave the giver or the recipient unmoved and unchanged.

Admittedly, every material gift we give is imperfect and falls short on many of these points. In addition, I am imperfect and miss the mark when it comes to my motivations for giving. However, reminding myself what a good and perfect gift looks like helps to re-orient me in the right direction, to remember why giving gifts is important and necessary. When we give a gift, we are essentially giving ourselves. When we receive a gift, we receive the other person. Both sides of this equation are present in the person of Jesus. God gives himself to humanity, and at the same time, receives humanity into himself. That's pretty amazing. This is how I remember what is good and beautiful about Christmas.

This Christmas season, may I give myself more freely to God and to others and may I also freely receive God and others in whatever way they choose to give themselves to me.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

a few words on wisdom

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This morning I taught a class on the topic of spirituality, specifically, Christian Spirituality. People can have varied, muddy ideas of what constitutes spirituality these days, so I always try to bring a bit of clarity to the topic. Spirituality is that dimension of life which is engendered (comes out of) and empowered by (derives energy from) the Spirit of Christ. It finds expression in how we live, act, and interact with others every day. It is not merely an interior, isolated journey (though that is certainly an element of spirituality), but an integrated life guided by the Spirit of God. It is a quest for meaning, for the sacred, for the mysteries of the universe, for the purpose of life, and for a life which flourishes. It links the question "Who is God?" with "Who am I?"[1] It addresses queries like: "Why do people do what they do?" and "What values are guiding them in their decisions and actions and relationships?" In certain institutions of higher learning, the study of spirituality is called Practical Theology.

One of the best ways to study spirituality, aside from embarking on a spiritual journey oneself, is through people's stories, looking for patterns of repentance and transformation. There is much wisdom to be found in studying the lives of the saints. Miroslav Volf writes that the task of religion is to "help people grow out of their petty hopes so as to live meaningful lives, and to help them resolve their grand conflicts and live in communion with others."[2] He goes on to chastise those of us who consider ourselves religious or spiritual: "If we as religious people fail to share wisdom well, we will fail our many contemporaries who strive to live satisfied lives and yet remain deeply dissatisfied, and we will fail those who draw on their religious traditions to give meaning to their lives and yet remain mired in intractable and often deadly conflicts."[3] You will note that I don't make any significant distinction between spirituality and religion, mostly because it is a bit of a false dialectic. Religion refers to a particular system of faith and worship. Spirituality is the expression of that faith and worship. Totally connected. Our culture's emphasis on individual spirituality has caused us to uproot spiritual pursuits from their proper place within a religious community - a place where people with shared faith engage in spiritual practices together.

But I digress. What Volf is saying is that we as followers of Jesus need to bring wisdom to the world. It is our vocation. If you are like me, you are quick to whine, "But what do I know? What wisdom do I have to offer? And who would listen to me if I did have something to say?" Well, let's look at Volf's explanation of wisdom. First, wisdom can be viewed as concrete pieces of advice for particular situations. Okay, that's pretty straight forward. Second, wisdom refers to "an integrated way of life that enables the flourishing of persons, communities, and all creation."[4]  That sounds a lot like spirituality, doesn't it? Moving on. Third, wisdom is a person. In proverbs she is a woman; in the gospel of John, wisdom is Jesus Christ. We could say that wisdom is God incarnate showing us the way to live an abundant life. Fourth, wisdom is a gift. We cannot thrust it upon people nor coerce them to be wise(r).The best way to share wisdom is to be a witness to it; to practice it ourselves. Wisdom is not something we primarily teach, it is something we live.

The idea of gift is crucial to wisdom: as followers of Jesus, we must respect those whom we view as receivers, be it of the gospel message, of our generosity, of love, of truth, of freedom, or of wisdom. Unless we view ourselves as potential receivers as well as givers, we exit the realm of gift and set up a power dynamic instead of a relationship which allows for (but does not demand) exchange. The ones to whom we wish to impart wisdom may end up imparting wisdom to us, if we can receive it. Wisdom, like love, is ideally not a one-way street. Volf concludes that sharing wisdom is an act of neighbourly love.[5] Wisdom does not seek to change people to our way of thinking as much as it desires to see them flourish in every aspect of their lives.

Wisdom is not unsolicited advice. I have been on the receiving end of that kind of advice (and sadly, too often on the giving end) and it hardly ever goes well. This is because unsolicited advice is not a true gift; it comes across more as nosiness mixed with bossiness with a sprinkling of arrogance on top. I am learning that in most cases, wisdom in the form of loving action (being a witness to the person of Wisdom) is a much better approach than giving advice. Sometimes wisdom is being silent, sometimes it is listening well and letting someone know they are heard, sometimes it is being present without pressure, sometimes it is showing someone a better way by example, sometimes it is restraint instead of trying to fix a problem, sometimes it is waiting. Yes, wisdom can also be good counsel, but I have found that this is best received when it has been specifically requested, and even then, it can be disregarded or ignored. Remember, wisdom is a gift. We cannot force anyone to take it; we can only offer it. But it is the gift which we have to offer the world.

So how do I give the wisdom of living an abundant life when I am not experiencing it myself? Sometimes wisdom is being honest about our lack and the need for Wisdom from above. I ask for divine wisdom pretty much every time I write something or speak/teach or meet with people or talk to someone on the phone about a challenging situation. And when I don't rely on my own insight or experience, when I let my wisdom void just gape wide open, it is amazing how the Holy Spirit of Wisdom enters into the gap. Often, wisdom is giving the all-wise One space to speak and teach and transform. And not interrupting.

If you don’t forsake Lady Wisdom, she will protect you.
Love her, and she will faithfully take care of you...
Cherish her, and she will help you rise above the confusion of life—
your possibilities will open up before you—
embrace her, and she will raise you to a place of honor in return.
She will provide the finishing touch to your character—grace;
she will give you an elegant confidence.
(Proverbs 4:6-9, The Voice)

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure and full of quiet gentleness. Then it is peace-loving and courteous. It allows discussion and is willing to yield to others; it is full of mercy and good deeds. It is wholehearted and straightforward and sincere. (James 3:17, The Living Bible)

1. Philip Sheldrake. Spirituality: A Brief History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 3-13.
2. Miroslav Volf. A Public Faith (Brazos Press, 2011), 100.
3. Volf, 100-101.
4. Volf, 101-103.
5. Volf, 113-114.