Black, velvet sky melts into night-time darkness. It’s something below freezing. And I think to myself, ‘here we go again’. It’s another ‘up-too-late’ week-night, and I find myself driving snow-dusted roads riddled with pot-holes. This is becoming a habit I wish I could break; that is, the custom of making lesson plans in a creepy building where toilets flush spontaneously and every creak and whistle is felt like a chill. I glance at our passenger side floor mats that are gently speckled with frost. Makes me shiver. I’m glad for the double insulation tonight in the form of two pairs of pants, a warm coat, gloves and a hat.
All the houses I pass look warm and inviting. That’s where I should be right now- at home, cuddled up with a good book and a cuppa something hot. I notice to my right a curtained bay window that partially hides a glimmering Christmas tree. Seriously, I mutter. Already? White lights sparkle as if to inspire. But rather than stir the heart strings, it stresses.me.out.
I am not ready for Christmas. And I admit it: I am not at all excited about the upcoming Christmas season which lies just around the corner.
When I conjure up images of the Season, thoughts always turn to giving. That notion of giving has been ingrained in me from a child, and truly giving is something I have come to believe in as worthwhile and necessary. Of course, I learned how from the very best. My parents- the epitome of sacrificial ‘life-givers,’ having devoted their every breath and good intention to the families and people they served in full-time pastoral ministry.
My mother with a permanent curvature in her spine from having spent more hours than a person could recount on the phone, counseling women- young and old alike- she has lost years of sleep praying over women. Lifting their names heavenward when she could have been deep in slumber. Her life has been a gift freely offered to those she has mentored, prayed with, loved and befriended. She has been and continues to be an inspiration.
My dad, just released yesterday from the hospital, has Parkinson’s. A trip years ago to the Lahey Clinic in Boston confirmed that indeed, Parkinson’s is related to full-time ministry work. Many of those patients studied came from a life of stressful, full-out, service to the people they assisted. That’s my Dad. He was a wonderful pastor. Throughout my growing up years, his minutes, hours, days and weeks were devoted to The Calling. But years take their toll. And then some. What my parents had, they gave. And they gave over pretty much everything.
And what of their offspring? Are we treading similar paths? Yesterday, I found myself on the way to school yet again with the gritty taste of a broken tooth in my mouth after having pulverized yet another molar into dust. The grinding a result of stress acted out in restless dreams. The daily circus- running here, there and everywhere- and for whom? For what? And why?
It’s all getting to me.
Yes. I have seen with my own two eyes what havoc self-less living can wreak on lives that place great emphasis on generous service, duty and responsibility more so than on intentional acceptance. Even if that giving was done with the right motives. There were years when we kids waited, as hours ticked by, for a Dad who willingly made hospital calls on Christmas morning- knowing that this Calling of his and my mom’s was 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That’s just how it was. So when I think of Christmas, of Christmas trees- lights shimmering in the dark. Of presents underneath and happy, cheerful voices. I think of my parents. How they gave freely from the heart- year-round- and gave from what little monetary value they had. Their time, their resources, their lives. All characterized by self-less giving. And it has surely caused us as their children to be the better for it.
I am now an adult on that same side of the fence as my parents were once, and I am coming to realize indeed that giving is important. But that there are drawbacks when it comes to giving. Yes, there is amazing joy to be found in giving. And truly giving gets our eyes off ourselves and focused on others. And while I will always believe that giving is truly a worthwhile portion of the whole, I have come to believe that there’s more to the story than this. Because many of us, if we’re truthful, find this part somewhat easy. Giving- we know how to do that. It’s part of our culture. But when it comes to receiving back from others, well- that’s another story. It’s harder somehow. It’s hard to accept the gift with humility and gratitude. Shamelessly reveling in the pleasure of the offering. There is just something about a person who can with acceptance receive the gift with unabashed abandon. Just like a child seeing Christmas for the very first time.
It’s receiving that is hardest, in my books, folks. And this year, I’m just not ready yet to give more of me. Stripping my resources to the bones, wiping myself out so as to outdo what I might have done last year. I’m not sure if I’m ready yet for Christmas if what I have to look forward to is wearing myself thin, turning myself inside out, holding my emotions upside down all in the name of burning out for Christmas cheer.
If Christmas means giving more and more, then I’ll take a pass, thanks.
This year, I plan on receiving. I want Christmas to wash over me in all its glory. This year, I want to focus on receiving Christmas.
And I am coming to realize with the passing of years that there is a point of no return. A point when reached that one realizes they just can’t give anymore. Something else has got to give. But yet the paradox seems to be that while one is coming to the end of the proverbial rope with giving endlessly to seemingly worthwhile causes, that one can at the same time find it difficult to place themselves square on the receiving end of the gift.
To be sure- through the years, we’ve been inundated with the message that it’s better to give than receive. That God loves a cheerful giver. That it is in giving that we find true joy. That there is no better exercise than reaching down and lifting people up (John Holmes). That it is through giving we are blessed.
And most of us give- maybe not until it hurts, but we do know how to give. We give to charity, to community and church service. We tithe. We place ourselves on the altar of sacrifice for our children. But when it comes to receiving something back ourselves, don’t we have a hard time accepting that we’re really worthy of the gift? That we’re worth being sacrificed for, worth being the object of someone else’s blessing? It is humbling to be in the passive role, accepting that I am at times: needy, lacking and without. It is humbling to be the receiver when encountering one with something to offer me. Because I like to be in control. Being the receiver puts me at a distinct disadvantage.
Being on acceptance end of the gift-giving reminds me of my frailty. It reminds me that I don’t have everything- I’m sometimes at a disadvantage. It reminds me that in receiving, I have cause to be thankful. It reminds me that I am loved. It reminds me that I am the route to someone else’s blessing. I am the pathway to blessing for the one who gives to me.
And it is a humble reminder that I should never stand in the way of that. Of letting someone else feel the joy of giving.
It’s hard to receive. It’s hard to receive when we know the cost. When we know what it truly means. We hate to impose, to bother- to be that burden on another. For we know the price of time, of scarce resources, of money spent. We’ve been the giver so many times before. And don’t we sometimes just feel so unworthy? Not worth the offering. Such a nuisance.
As if the gift was never meant for us.
Almost 2000 years ago, God sent a gift. It was His absolute delight to do so- and what a gift that Baby was. That Child came to give so that we might receive. It was a gift, His birth. A gift to all those that witnessed the spectacle. A gift to Mary- and Joseph. A gift to the shepherds, the village people, the wise men. It was truly the Ultimate Gift- a gift that keeps on giving. Even today.
And I don’t know about you, but I am starting to feel ready to let that gift of peace and hope and love and Light and good will toward mankind wash over me this Christmas. I don’t need to give up, give out, give away or give over to receive this gift- I just need to accept it. I don’t need to burn myself out chasing after it- it already came. Hand-delivered. And the Gift is just waiting for me to unwrap it.
So I don’t want my focus to be giving this year. I don’t want to sell myself out, burn myself out, using up all my energy playing Christmas. I want to receive the gift. With absolute, awe-filled wonder.
I want to receive Christmas. As if it was my first Christmas ever.