Yesterday I wrote about the importance of receiving as an act of community. For folks like me, no act of community (besides "asking for help" — a heightened risk and experience of receiving) is more difficult. Why is receiving gifts (and asking for help) so difficult for so many?
• Personal tendencies and struggles: shyness, insecurity, insignificance
• Our independence (the James Bond myth that so many of us live out where we like to imagine or portray that we can handle any contingency) is threatened
• Fear of being "known" — the fear of being truly in community
I believe that all of the above are true — they are all true in their application to me and my life on occasion. But, here is another possible answer with some significant implications for life in the church and Christian community —
• We've been hurt, manipulated, and even violated by the "gifts" of others!
How often have gifts come with strings, conditions, or expectations? Every day we receive such "gifts." Jack Caputo, a Professor of Philosophy recently at Villanova University, led seminars at this year's Emergent Conventions (emergentvillage.com or youthspecialties.com) entitled "Why the Church Deserves Deconstruction." Our theology of gifting, receiving, and faith is one of the reasons he cites as justification for a bit of deconstruction. As background, he mentioned that the word for "gift" in many languages is also used on occasion for "violence" or "poison." So often gifts are used to burden, manipulate, or control the lives of others to justify this expanded range of meaning for the word. In most societies, we limit gifting and forbid those who hold certain offices or positions from receiving gifts for this reason.
This link between gift giving and receiving and conditionality is fully engrained in our experiences and expectations. When given random or unexepected gifts, we are hardwired to ask, "What does the giver want?" This expectation and fear certainly thrives in our theology and Christian practices. How often do we think of God's gifts from the vantage points of expectation and obligation? Our thoughts or language of "God deserves," "I know I ought to...," "the church expects," or "I feel guilty that..." generally betray a theology of conditionality. Our theologies of conditionality can turn God into a manipulative or even violent giver. This seems so contrary to the ministry of Jesus who gave to so much to so many who understood or practiced so little. Jesus' harshest words (not offered to his executioners or the crowd who demanded his death) were reserved for the religious elite who lived in a world of received conditionality from God and taught conditionality to the people (see Jesus' "brood of vipers" rant in Matthew 23!).
The most sacred elements of our theology can be expressed in this dangerous conditionality.
• "My faith is a result of my wise or lucky responses to God."
• "My salvation is a condition of my response to God."
• "My participation in Christian community is the result of my choices, maturity, knowledge, gifts, or fruitfulness of my actions."
Each of these expressions can diminish God as a conditional giver.
Perhaps this is why we fear receiving from God or God's people. Maybe we can't live up to the expectations. Maybe we've ignored the prerequisites.
I have a friend who has family who manipulate constantly through gifts. This friend has the following recurrent nightmare and "rest dream." The nightmare is that every time this person leaves home, he or she returns to new gifts of furniture piled up in the remaining living space of the home — the hellish experience of having the soul space of life choked by conditional gifts. The restful dream involves wandering through his or her home and occasionally finding previously undiscovered and empty rooms — the heaven of discovery and freedom of space and expression.
This latter dream fits Jesus' portrait of God — a reckless, foolish and obsessive giver (reckless and foolish because we are the recipients and the gifts are given without expectation — without having us sign on the dotted line!).
The sacred acts of Christian community include the discipline of giving without conditionality and receiving without fear! I believe that a life rule that included these practices would be utterly transformative.