That Reckless Christmas

christmas wrapping

I planned for the Christmas of 1988 for at least 7 months. It was my senior year in high school, and I knew everything in my world would be changing. Soon, I’d leave home for college and I’d move into new orbits and of course, I’d be scraping pennies for the foreseeable future. So beginning in May, I revved up the lawnmower and went to work, cutting yards all summer and squirreling away almost every dollar. In December, I reached deep into the top drawer where, for months, I’d stashed my loot and pulled out fistfuls of greenbacks. I spread the treasure onto the floor, mouth agape. There I was, like Scrooge McDuck, rollicking in all the wealth. I counted $1250.

For the next two weeks, I went on a buying spree, intending to surprise my family (including my grandparents and Great Grandma Sparks) with the most lavish gifts on Christmas morning. I don’t remember a thing I bought, save one. At Service Merchandise, I found a combo tape player/radio deck that mounted under the kitchen cabinet, above the counter. My mom, a musical soul if ever there was one, could listen to Perry Como or the London Philharmonic while whipping up her chicken, broccoli and rice casserole or her parmesan chicken bites.

While I don’t remember most of the gifts, I remember the feeling. I remember wrapping those boxes and slipping them under the tree, so eager for everyone to catch first sight of them and wonder what in blue Christmas blazes was going on. I remember my joy at watching them unwrap their presents, the joy at doing something that felt, to a 17 year old, outrageous.

Some of us poo-poo gift-giving this time of year, and I acknowledge we’ve run amuck with our lust for more. I can only say I’m so glad I spent a summer sweating and saving, that I blew every dime I had, saying “I love you” in one grand, extravagant gesture that, for me, felt like tossing a match onto a pile of cash. And I think my mom was grateful too; she kept that tape player in the kitchen long after cassette tapes were overwhelming landfills the world over. It stayed right there until the day mom and dad said goodbye to that old house. I like to think that some days, after I was off in Colorado or South Carolina with a family of my own, that she would stop and look at that worthless pile of metal and plastic and smile and maybe put her hand to her breast and remember.

Bounty

Levi, now in his eighties, held his words with wonder and frugality, the same way he took care with those rare shiny nickels when he was a boy. There were never more than a few in his pocket, and he surrendered them only with great care. And since Levi prayed the same as he lived, Levi’s prayers were short and direct, never more than three or four sentences. Levi might express bewilderment “at the meanness of things” or ask God to grant kindness to Margie or Duke or the Simpson family as they faced their troubles; but whatever sentence or two might populate the meat of his daily petition, Levi always concluded with exactly the same affirmation: And God, we thank you for the bounty. Amen.

Bounty was a word out of favor, but Levi clung to it. It was not that Levi viewed the world through a rosy tint. God knows he’d lived through more than one man’s share of sorrows. Rather, Levi believed grace was abundant, that grace would surprise you with its persistence. Levi could not agree with modern sentiments grounded in fear, scarcity and exclusion. There was always enough faith, enough hope, enough love – even if some folks misappropriated God’s name and muddled these truths.

Levi assumed that his one-line prayer would do little to alter the stampede of popular opinion, that his prayer was likely only a protest in vain. Levi figured all this was not his concern, that God was more than salty enough to handle his own affairs. So Levi simply kept on. Levi considered this his duty, to speak this one word every day of his life: Bounty.

God Thinks Like That

There is a dog I sometimes take for a walk
and turn loose in a
field,

when I can’t give her the freedom
I feel in debt.

I hope God thinks like that and

is keeping track of all
the bliss He
owes
me.

                                       {Rabia of Basra}

I wonder when exactly my boys will figure out how easily they could take advantage of me. I challenge their mettle and help them stretch their courage and their strength and their patience, all the things necessary for becoming a good man, a good person. But what I really love best is to give them good things, to be extravagant, to delight them, to watch their faces break wide open with some unexpected pleasure. Thanks to a gift from friends, we’ll have a late Friday night taking the boys to the Parachute concert. In a couple weeks, I’ll be taking one boy to a Clemson game while the other boy will get party weekend with mom. When we were at St. George Island, I walked them to the surf shop so they could each pick out new boogie boards, and we spent hours and hours immersed in sand and water. These things are by far the better part of parenting, way better than the necessary duties – making the kids do their chores and monitoring video game consumption.

God knows exactly what I’m talking about. James tells us that God gives generously to all, without begrudging the gift. In fact the word translated generous includes the meaning of something done ‘in simplicity’ or ‘without reserve.’ In other words, God has a laser focus. God’s face is set like flint, fully intent on showering us with divine-sized largesse. It must be hard work for God when God must provide other kinds of grace, those things necessary if we are to be whole — but nothing so good as simple, lavish kindness.

So, the 7th century mystic-poet Rabia of Basra can rest easy. Apparently God does think at least something like that.

 

 

Enough

“From Jesus’ fulness,” says St. John, “we have all received, grace upon grace.” The truth of our world is abundance and plenty. Lies produce scarcity, miserliness and greed.

On December 26th, we set out on our Northern trek to visit my sister and her family in Michigan. As we backed out the driveway, flurries hit the windshield, and it occurred to me (with Miska’s help) that I had failed to check the weather. It turns out we were driving directly into an East Coast blizzard – meteorologists had christened the storm with a name for crying out loud. 7 hours yielded 113 miles, and we gave up in Pittsburgh with plans to regroup for a second go the next morning.

Somewhere during these travels (or was it during our 2 hour dead stop on I-70 while 4 tractor trailers were hauled off the guardrail and out of the ditch), our two boys entered a protracted dispute carrying financial implications. Miska halted the melee, insisted on their attention and said, “Guys, the only question you need to ask is this: right now, this moment, do I have enough?

Do I have enough? Enough love for the hour? Enough dollars for the day? Enough hope for the next stretch?

When we believe we are okay, that our life is in God’s hands and that truly, in the end, all will be well – then we are able to unclinch our fists and live God’s generosity toward others.

This past year, my hope has been to grow more profuse with my energy and money and time, more large-hearted. I’ve been given multiple opportunities to stretch into this way of living. On several occasions, I’ve blown it magnanimously; but I’ve also shined in a few places too. Even these reviews of glories and blunders teach us, for generosity always includes being generous with yourself.

Abundance

My dad is the most generous man I know. When I was living at home, there were several stretches when my dad didn’t take his salary because the church was having trouble paying the bills. A time or two, this went on for months, but I only found out afterwards (and by accident) what the family had endured. We had food on the table, and I never saw any letters from the bank stamped in red. Being a dad now, I can look back and see some of the strain my dad carried. But he never let on. Our house didn’t traffic in glum. Whenever I’d ask dad about money problems, he’d say, “God will take care of us, Winn.” That was it, God will take care of us.

Hearing this refrain, my sister Vonda decided she wanted to give an extravagant gift to God, something that would cost her dearly and require great faith. My sis was four, and she didn’t give a hoot about money. Bubble gum, however, was her gold bullion. So one Sunday, with firm resolve, she carried her treasured pack of Bubble Yum to church. When the deacon brought the collection to our row, Vonda set her face like flint and solemnly pulled the pack from her pocket and placed it in the plate. Even the widow with the mite would have stood hushed.

Months later (which is like decades to the four-year-old memory), our family was in St. Augustine, Florida touring the grounds of the Mission of Nombre de Dios, built in 1565 as one of the first Spanish missions in the new world. Near the old ivy-covered stone chapel stood a shrine of the Virgin Mary cradling baby Jesus. My dad walked with Vonda, hand-in-hand, when she stopped abruptly. Vonda stepped closer to the statue and, with arms resting on her hips, spoke directly to the babe: “Jesus, what did you do with that bubble gum? You eat it?” We give, but we do not forget.

One more thing you should know from this story: back on the afternoon of that Sunday when Vonda made her momentous gift, a women dropped by our house. She knocked on the door, and when my mom answered, the woman handed mom a bag. “I was at the grocery story,” she said, “and remembered how much Vonda likes gum. I thought Vonda should have this.” In the Kroger bag was a family pack of bubble gum, totaling forty or fifty sticks of awe and pleasure for my sister.

You can say coincidence if you want. Maybe. And certainly God is no bubble gum machine. But I imagine God bent over, with great jowls of laughter, as Vonda buried her hands in piles of gum knowing, in ways only a four-year-old can, that God will take care of us.

Brueggemann says abundance is the truth; scarcity is the lie. With God, there is always enough. I want to believe that. I need to believe that. God, help my unbelief.

 

Raucous Rabble

I do not believe in dour Christianity. Following Jesus surely means we are to surrender all we possess to the God who reigns Almighty. However, we’re dealing here with the one who, as St. Paul says, became poor so we might be made rich. The eternal tale of pauper to prince.

I do believe in a faith of raucous joy. I believe in the God who instructed Israel to an annual tithe solely for the purpose of funding a flamboyant party. I believe in a God who invites us, each week, to a feast of wine and bread. I believe in a God who laughs and who, every now and then, pokes us until we can no longer stay grim but instead succumb to the Holy Jester and let loose a ripping guffaw.

God is not sparse or frugal. God lavishes abundance. While we are right to resist rampant consumerism, let us not make the tragic mistake of replacing it with the faith of miserly prudes. While we are right to join the poor, let us always arrive singing of how our God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, which in our day must at least include a few city blocks housing fine restaurants that know how to lay a dandy spread and how to rearrange the tables so dancing and music can pour into the night.

Whatever our take on matters of economy and Christian discipline, let us never forget to laugh. And party.

A Human Word

I sat in a coffee shop last week, within listening distance of a chiseled man in a grey suit and perfect hair. He was interviewing another man for a job. This second fellow obviously brought his A game to the poker table: I’ll see your $800 suit and immaculate hair and raise you one power tie. After a firm shake and a “hello,” chisel man’s first words were to tell power-tie man how he’d been at the gym at 4:45 that morning. I’ll admit it, he said, I’m intense. He couched it as confession, but I’ve never seen a man so eager to step into the booth. They talked numbers and mergers and acquisitions. After another firm (and slightly awkward) handshake, they parted ways. With all that exchange, I’m not sure if they shared a single truly human word.

It’s easy for me to be smug. I’ve never owned an $800 suit, and hell will freeze over before you find me in the gym at 4:45. My mercury refuses to acknowledge – much less rise to – that intensity level. Yet I’ve had many a conversation where I neither asked for nor offered anything truly real or truly human. I can breeze in and out of a space with the best of them. But what do I miss with that shortsightedness? I hope I see chisel man again. I’d like to ask him what he finds so fascinating with pre-dawn sweat and how he keeps that beautiful jet-black mane in impeccable shape.

Generous With Me

Years ago, I was wronged by an ego-driven boss who, after manipulating me and lying to me, topped off the painful experience by sending me off with acrid words. More years came and went, and I found myself replaying those events and imagining outrageous scenarios where I triumphed on a public stage while he writhed in obscurity and ignominy. Bitterness rankled my soul. One day, it was clear to me what, if I were to live free, I had to do. I had to write a letter, and in this letter I needed to forgive. I needed to acknowledge places where I had been wrong, and though he hadn’t asked for it and didn’t for a moment believe he needed it, I was to pour out forgiveness. I was to release him. I was to be generous.

This is the sort of thing we imagine when we hear the call to generosity. We forgive an enemy or a friend. We offer what we have to someone who has less. We loosen the reigns on our time or our energy. True, every single one. However, this generosity always points outward, never inward. Generosity towards others is difficult; but for many of us, generosity towards ourself is impossible, laughable. Letting my boss off the hook was hard, but not nearly as hard as letting myself off the hook.

Do you recall Balfour’s words: to yourself, respect. He snuck that in there, didn’t he? We mustn’t miss it. To treat ourselves with respect is to listen to ourselves well, to not make severe, reactionary judgments about our thoughts or our emotions or our motives. Rather than heap shame on our souls, we nurture the freedom to be playful and curious. I respect you and choose to think the best of you. I also respect me and choose to think the best of me.

Generosity means being patient with ourselves, giving plenty of space to explore and growing more and more comfortable with dead-ends and foolish turns. Generosity means being kind to ourselves, refusing to heap hard words upon ourselves that we’d never allow to land uncontested if they were aimed at our child or friend. To be kind is to be gentle, tender. Generosity doesn’t traffic in self-contempt; we refuse to loathe the person God has made us to be. Generosity doesn’t nurture a litany of failures and misjudgments. Generosity traffics in hope, not fear.

To review, generosity toward self is patient, kind, not rude, not easily angered. It doesn’t keep a record of wrongs. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. My, generosity sounds a lot like love.

To be generous with yourself is simply to receive and dwell in God’s generous love for you.

Generous Goes the Love

Generosity is another way to talk about love. Love doesn’t insist that the punishment meet the crime. Rather, love is always on the lookout for a left-handed way to slide someone an extra helping of mercy. Generous love plays a late game of chess with the boy who’s had a whale of a day, the same boy who’s lost his mind more than once this weekend, the same boy who made his mom and dad pull the tag-team card. Hey, Miska, you crawl into bed with the book, I’ll take the next round.

Generosity doesn’t hold back, waiting until one’s whims (or demands) are sated. Love looks for what particular grace another needs; and then, as best one’s able, love gives that costly grace away. I love Francis Maitland Balfour’s words: “The best thing to give to your enemy is forgiveness; to an opponent, tolerance; to a friend, your heart; to your child, a good example; to a father, deference; to your mother, conduct that will make her proud of you; to yourself, respect; to all people, charity.”

Find out what you can give, and go give it. And if you’re having trouble deciding, just give away love until you figure it out.

 

Generous

I’ve mentioned that a word or two arrived on my doorstep, asking me to come out and play. I said yes, and I think we’re going to have a grand time. The word leading the way is generous.

Most of us could be more free with our funds and our belongings, me too. But the generosity that’s got me leaning forward is a generosity of heart, a free spirit that allows me to live with curiosity, to see the best in another, to believe deep in my being that there is plenty for us all. Plenty of mercy. Plenty of joy. Plenty of success. Plenty of time. Plenty.

A generous life is a spacious life, a circle plenty wide for everyone, even for the odd ducks and the ones so insecure they can’t help but preen. I can shake my head; I can even provide a firm nudge when appropriate (a good nudge can be immensely generous), but there’s no need to get ruffled. Nothing’s at stake. Generosity brushes past all that nonsense. The generous one knows there’s a difference between being a foolish fool and a holy fool — but sometimes not so much difference as one might think. There’s room for all of us to grow up and become who we are.

When I’m generous, I’ll give away my words, flinging love and hope in all kinds of places. I’ll tell people what I see in them, what they’ve meant to me. I’ll be a blushing idiot. I’ll give away my words, but I won’t believe I must speak to everything. In a stingy world, we push forward our opinion, our words, our authority. Sometimes, amid all the blabbering, generosity sits over by the pond and feeds the birds and listens to the water and knows the sadness for the beauty that’s being missed.

When I’m generous, I believe in others and cheer on the good of others. I cheer on your good. I have nothing to protect because my heart knows that more for you doesn’t mean (at least not in any way that truly matters) less for me. As Brueggemann says, scarcity is the lie; abundance is the truth. You have your voice and your vocation and (I truly hope) your vast success. I raise my glass high, raucous cheers to you. I want to help you get where you need to be going; and as you arrive, I’ll arrive too.

When I’m generous, I don’t judge my success alongside yours. I don’t hold myself back, concerned that I may be left standing on the outside. I don’t parse or protect. When I’m generous, I walk the road ahead, thankful for whoever walks with me and for whatever strange and glorious sights we encounter.

image: zela