Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Fear of Mice
Discovering Possibilities for Giving, Love, and Friendship

"Try to discover the gifts of other traditions ... Try to go out and discover the best in them." Br. Emile, in this outstanding video

To do what Br. Emile says here is likewise a great gift.

Gifts are strange things. Beautiful to receive. Requiring so much courage to give. The courage of gift-giving must overcome fears of rejection and the general propensity of our culture toward ingratitude. I very much doubt the genuineness of what I'm calling cultural ingratitude - insecurity wears ingratitude like a shield - which is to say I recognize that expressions of gratitude also require vulnerability and courage. Indeed, they are gifts, too. So both giving and receiving gifts well require the courage and love belonging to self-offering. This is why gift-giving is more than a byproduct of loving community. The exchange of gifts creates loving community, the Eucharist being the most true occasion of this (indeed, the occasion that makes all the others true).

Pope Saint John Paul II often talked about the way the exchange of gifts functioned at the heart of ecumenism and reconciliation - indeed, at the heart of every friendship. The trick, he said, is to discover within oneself gifts for the other that the other can also recognize as gifts. It is important, he said, to identify (and avoid) what he called "dead mouse" gifts - gifts like the gifts of a cat for her owner. At the same time, Brother Emile reminds us that many times there exists an untapped possibility for charity in the gracious reception of unfamiliar gifts. As Br. Emile observes earlier in the video linked to above, much ecumenical work is no longer doctrinal, but is also - if not chiefly - psychological, choosing to love the ones we have trained ourselves not to love. Of course, these possibilities are possible only with the help of God.

Jean Vanier makes this last point this way when, in Community and Growth, he writes that the person who enters the community for any reason other than to forgive and be forgiven seven times seventy-seven times will soon be disappointed.

I am thinking about gifts today, in part, because the UW Episcopal community is preparing to welcome and receive Bishop Oscar and his wife, Agnes, in worship and fellowship over supper. (It's actually an open event - October 12, 5 p.m. at the St. Francis House Episcopal Center, and one aimed at bringing all Madison-area young adults together with the Bishop and Agnes.)  Anyway, I've been anxious because part of hospitality means giving a gift, and I want to give a good one - both a meaningful token of new friendship, and also by the hospitality of our community.

I am also thinking about gifts because of a recent conversation with young adults in which we wondered together why gifts can be so hard to own. Fear of the appearance of boastfulness prevents many of us from naming and owning our gifts, we decided. Also, and in the other direction, to claim a gift is to become accountable to one's community for "coughing up the goods." Sometimes the fear of this accountability reflects an externally unfounded personal insecurity, that the gift is not good enough to give. Many friends, however, have also experienced the church as a place that will seek to trap or tie down gifted individuals in the place of their gifting. A dear friend of mine once shared with me that he was ambivalent about his new appointment as the organizer of the lay readers in his local congregation because, he observed, all of his predecessors in that position had died their way out of it.

To the latter fear, we must pray that the church rediscovers a proper gratitude for the gifts of her members, demonstrated in the acknowledgment that gifts develop, change, and find new seasons. To receive well the gifts of our members requires that the church promote and preserve the conditions necessary for those gifts to be given, freely. Seasons must be celebrated.

I sometimes wonder if the other primary concerns raised by my students - pride and inadequacy - require a deeper appreciation of the gifts we have to give. That is, our gifts are first gifts of God to us before they are gifts of ours to others; God gifts the community through the gifts of each member. If I believe this, boasting is straight out. Interestingly, though, so is inadequacy, for even my desire to give in a particular way or to develop to a place where I might give in a particular way becomes a gift to receive from God and honor with humility. As Br. Emile says near the end of the video, Br. Roger found himself constantly encouraging young people not to way, but to act on the little bit of faith they had received, trusting that the rest will come.

This semester, the teacher of my daughter's primary class is playing the guitar for her class every day. Ms. Melissa doesn't know how to play the guitar; she's just begun learning. But Ms. Melissa has come to believe that the vulnerability of sharing her learning and love of music is itself a gift for the class. (In fact, she believes this gift is a more valuable gift than her playing the flute, at which she's already very good.)

If even inadequacy can be a gift for others, we trust God's love to perfect the exchanges that create and constitute our friendships. We begin to relent, to surrender our own selves, to the community - the communion - of love, even the church, which God gives as the first gift of the mystery of Christ.

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