I’m pretty sure I offended him. Eliazar tried to explain to me why he didn’t want the money. I understood him, but I wasn’t really listening to him. Eliazar, a bit rebuffed, turned to Emily and said, “Kurt’s trying to pay me for this but I never did it so that you guys would give me money for the work. I just did it.” In my defense, this wasn’t “hey, let me watch your dog while you’re away for the weekend” or “anytime you need something out of my garage just grab it” kind of neighborliness. This was, “hey, I just quarried this limestone while excavating a basement, loaded it up into my truck by hand, and by the way, how about the next 3 weekends I use it to rebuild that crumbling, 100-year old retaining wall in front of your house?” You know, chattel slavery kind of neighborliness. He did amazing work on it, so I wanted to give him at least something for it. And I knew he needed the money. We’d helped him buy the house next door to us and we’d sold him our old car and he was a bit behind. I acted like I was bantering with friends, seeing who was going to be the big man to pick up the bill at Applebee’s and I, the victor, wrestled it from his hands and unilaterally settled on writing down some of his car loan. Emily gave me this look of bewilderment and said, “Kurt, let him do this for us.” Finally I got it. Building this wall was certainly about Eliazar’s generous spirit. But it was also about a man standing up and asserting his own agency and maintaining his own dignity. This wasn’t just dinner between friends, between “equals”. It was about me not being the benevolent benefactor for once, and he not being the gracious recipient. It was his chance to level the playing field to make us equals, and make way for true friendship. And I doltishly tried to take it away from him.
Last week in my Economics of Development class, one of my classmates noted that India refuses most international aid even in the face of catastrophic events like the 2006 tsunami and in the face of much poverty. Others chimed in with suggestions as to why this was the case. My friend, Jeff, reminded us that even after Hurricane Katrina, the US accepted foreign aid remembering the Mexican army convoys that delivered food, water, and medical supplies. It was the first time Mexican troops had been in US borders since 1846. Even the United States. I was so struck by that phrase. It doesn’t fit our story. That isn’t really the image we want the rest of the world to remember about us. Everybody knows we’re the ones who help out everybody else. We’re the generous ones, the ones who step in and save the day. We don’t need Mexico’s help, we have all of their people climbing our fences because they’re such a disaster over there and can’t get their stuff together. When everybody else is whining for some kind of bailout here and another civil war is breaking out there, at least the world has someone who can be counted on to be stable and dependable. How disarming and equalizing to see the US receive aid from Mexico! If only for a moment, the power dynamics were reversed and the typical roles of benefactor and recipient were subverted.
While it might be true that it’s better to give than to receive, it’s a whole lot more difficult to receive than to give. While gifts can infuse a relationship with unanticipated new energies and can strengthen and nourish relational bonds, gifts can have the opposite effect when the roles of benefactor and recipient are cemented and sustained for too long. Gifts have power. They make a claim on the recipient. That sense of indebtedness that a recipient feels can, in the short run, draw us closer to the gift-giver for their generosity. But in the long-run, when we’re constantly reminded that we’re dependent on another, those claims can make our lives bitter and resentful.
I used to be enamored with images of a self-sufficient, omnipotent, glory-hungry God who was intent on making sure the rest of creation knew exactly how great he was too. A God who called all of the shots, a God who was demanding, no doubt, but also generous enough to let us in on a piece of himself too. I think I used to be enamored with a glory-hungry God because I was enamored with power myself. It said more about my own ambitions than it said about God’s. And then came Christmas.
The irony of Christmas is that in a world where we amass more and more power, where we strive to be self-sufficient and independent so we can be generous and benevolent–more “like God”, at Christmas we see a God who becomes as utterly dependent on another as a creature can possibly be. At Christmas we celebrate a God who found his home, sucking his thumb in the fetal position, bathed by the warm, amniotic fluid of his mother, soothed by the sway and the sweet lullabies of Mary. By what divine invention do we find a God so desperate for human union that for 9 months he tethers himself via umbilical cord to a teenage girl whose own being is upheld every moment by God’s own? By what comedy do we see a God who is so willing to give of himself to humanity that he’s willing to let us change his sodden and soiled diapers?
I don’t think God’s advent was about changing tactics with humanity. It’s not as if that first go at connecting with humanity was a flop–that being the tough, demanding father wasn’t working. The advent of Christ was conceived before it all began, the mystery itself, held within the Triune womb of God, waiting in long expectation for humanity to receive the gift that has always been ours. Immanuel. God with us. This is the secret “that we have to whisper because it is so beautiful, it should get stuck in our throats while we say it”. God doesn’t want to be our benefactor. Christ’s coming doesn’t change the fact that we are utterly and helplessly dependent upon God or that he is deserving of all glory. But it’s precisely the fact that God himself, out of a desire to be with us, became so utterly helpless and dependent upon us and made a way that we too might give God a gift. It’s because of this that we can say with no hesitation that God is indeed deserving of all glory, all of our love, and all of our affections.