"I'm tired of not being enough - not disciplined enough, good enough, pure enough, smart enough. All religion has done is given me a sense of shame and failure." - Anonymous
Have you ever received an anonymous gift? My wife and I recently received a lovely snow globe that lights up, but because of the way it came to us, we’ll never be able to know who gave it to us. While there’s a sense of delight (“Someone appreciates me!”) to this, for me there’s also a sense of unease, because I know that I’ll never be able to reciprocate, and reciprocation is a value that saturates our culture: “tit for tat,” “there’s no free lunch” and even, “it is better to give than to receive” - all these phrases indicate that, at the least, it’s appropriate to give more than you receive. In such a world, receptivity to unconditional gifts, freely given without expectation of anything in return, is a hard concept to embrace. ”Quid pro quo” is the greater reality defining us.
Here’s the problem though.
The Christ of Christmas gives to us without condition or expectation. Period. Hard stop. Here are some of the gifts we receive:
The air we breathe
The water we drink
The sunrises and sunsets that spill colors, declare beauty, and evoke emotion
The rhythms of the ocean
The infinite, never repeated beauty in each snowflake
The baby, sleeping, laughing, growing
Each bite of food
The rhythm of work and rest
The beauty of the beasts
The loyalty and unconditional faithfulness of our pets (but… cats? Not sure)
The capacity to love, and create, and bless
The list goes on, nearly infinitely, and everyone receives! No worship, or tithing, or law abiding, or any other sort of holiness required. They’re not even just “free for the taking.” They’re already ours; all of ours! Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Q Anon folk, Christ followers, gay, straight, transgender, conservative, liberal, terrorist, pacifist, vegetarians, bacon lovers et al.
I’m convinced this is the starting point of what Christians call the "good news." Sadly though, we don’t usually start there - we start with human sin, skipping over both Genesis 1 and 2, and Jesus‘ life of pouring out gifts without condition! Yes, there are calls to “shoot the moon” and risk it all in following Christ. There’s ”lose your life to save it” and lots of other “next steps” that are articulated, not as a burden, but as guidance for us to attain the life for which we’re created.
The starting point though is to wake up and pay attention to the gifts pouring down all around us every day. I’m convinced that most of us don’t do this. Lacking this posture of “gratitude and receptivity as our home page” means we’re trying to energize our lives on the fuel of obedience, hard work, and performance. This is like trying to use high octane gas in a diesel engine which, to put it mildly, is unsustainable. Yes, we’re made to do stuff; give, serve, create, bless, even obey.
But it never starts there!! The first thing is always a posture of receptivity, awe, and wonder. Maybe the problem is that we consider those first things as a sort of “first base” from which we must surely move on if we’re to score meaning in this life. I get it. When we were kids we received unconditionally. But now, according to conventional wisdom, we need to grow up and become the givers, the responsible ones.
Here's the challenge to that line of thinking: Receiving isn’t something you ever “get over” or something from which you “move on.” Every day gifts are raining down on you. They're not earned, or even for sale. They’re given freely.
Two habits will help us become children again, as Jesus says we must
Wake up and Pay Attention - The gifts, given to all humankind on a 24/7 basis, are intended by our Creator to move us out of self-pity, fear, greed, anxiety, and all else that is destructive. It’s like these gifts are a door offering passage into a world of hope, joy, peace, and quiet confidence. We’ll never really get into that other world, not in our daily experience, until we first see the gifts that are right here, right now - ever present even in the midst of injustice, loss, suffering, and pain.
We'll never get to the gratitude stage until we see, with eyes of wonder, all the gifts we're continually receiving. Everything starts with seeing, which is why Jesus laments that the prevailing condition of humankind is "having eyes, they don't see." I've been in the wilderness, surrounded by all the gifts of creation that are testifying of beauty, love, abundance, interdependence, and joy. In my worst moments, though, I pass right through all this without paying attention. Lost in my myopic fixation on some personal, or cultural problem, I fail to see the doxology of creation unfolding all around me. How can I be so blind?
Paying attention to the revelations of this present moment is foundational to everything that's good in life. If we take this seriously, it will change our relationship with our phones, TV's, and even our inner thought life. Perhaps while driving we'll step away from our regrets regarding the meeting we just attended, or our internal fantasy world of lusts for food, sex, or romance. Maybe we'll turn the radio and podcasts off, so that we're not baptized by yet more news about the world, or the latest sports trade, or someone's podcastable thoughts on something. None of these things are inherently destructive, but they've conspired to steal our capacity to see the gifts God is sharing with us daily, and when we don't see, we can't respond. It all starts with seeing. Pay attention to the small ones in your home this Christmas, the kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews - especially those under five. They see!
Give Thanks - Seeing needs to be accompanied by gratitude if our lives are to escape the anxiety, anger, greed, and fear-inducing elements of the cultural ocean in which we swim. Our Creator says that the most natural and life giving response to seeing God's gifts is the response of gratitude and worship. Our failure to give thanks for the source of all these good gifts leads to the hollowness of declaring the gifts themselves to be the point of it all, but they're not. All the gifts are displays of love from our Creator. The gifts will pass away, as we ourselves will pass away, as heaven and earth, and nation states, and economic systems, and cultural artifacts will all pass away. But our Creator's love remains, and we also remain, forever in a vast eternal family where love, healing, beauty, and intimacy, are ours forever -- not as merits for obedience, but as gifts, freely available to all, but experienced only by those who not only see the gifts, but see the Source behind the gifts, and who respond with gratitude and worship.
In the coming year, I'll invite you to join me in developing habits, and the first habit needs to be clearing away space in our lives to pay attention so that we can see the gifts we're swimming in each day. Next we'll work on responding with conscious gratitude. That'll keep me, maybe you too, busy enough to get us started. I hope you'll join me, both here, and on the YouTube channel.
This is the season when we celebrate the Christ child, the gift above, beneath, around, and within all gifts! The Source. The Logos. Like Mary, may we have eyes to see this supreme gift as given to all of us, and hearts to respond with her same spirit of receptivity and gratitude. There's nothing to earn. No payback required. No quid pro quo. Simply. Receive.
Note: A resource that will help you develop habits of paying attention, seeing, and giving thanks, is my book "Forest Faith" available here. I hope you enjoy it.