“Giving and Receiving”, February 18, 2018, with Jack Gaede
But when we’re feeling alone, hurt, overwhelmed, heartbroken, and discontent, that is when we need community, that is when we need church.
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Imagine with me for a moment that we are coming off of some hard winter months and you are feeling particularly low. Let’s call it a combination of cabin fever, winter blues, and news nausea. The weather hasn’t been overly biting, but it hasn’t been exactly tropical. Every few days, it seems, your phone or TV is dinging or droning with news headlines that depress you, infuriate you, and shock you. And they go on at a constant pace. It seems like there is more shockingly bad news than ever before. It seems like it might continue ad nauseum. And every few days as the headlines keep breaking and tragedies, suffering, scandal, and injustices continue, you feel a little less shocked. At some point, it becomes exhausting to continue the outrage. Your reservoir is drying up, and it doesn’t help that you have some personal battles as well. Maybe a loved one is sick or dying. Maybe a child, employer, or acquaintance is being particularly difficult. Maybe you are beginning to doubt your career change or struggle in a romantic relationship. With all this overwhelm, it wouldn’t be surprising if a certain feeling of numbness comes over you. That is understandable. You are not Atlas. You cannot hold the world on your shoulders. On these days of overwhelm, where do we turn? What breaks this funk?
Do any of you ever have these days? These days where no matter what is happening around you or what exciting-seeming things are right next to you, you just can’t get happy. You can’t force a smile. You just feel an ever-pervasive sense of discontent. Well, don’t worry; you’re not alone. We’ve all been there at one point or another, but what I’m curious about today is what we do when we’re there. We have the choice in those hard and lonely moments to isolate or to connect. And believe me, I know that for each and every one of us, a part of us will always think it will be easier to isolate. Self-protection. Independence. Self-sufficiency. These characteristics that we love and laud so much. And they aren’t all bad. There’s a time and place for those protective qualities. But when we’re feeling alone, hurt, heartbroken, and discontent, that is when we need community, that is when we need church. It can be such a balm to our souls to connect with this ragtag group of people held together in love by a beautiful covenant. A covenant where we pledge to walk with each other through good times and hard times.
Have you ever witnessed one of these life-giving connections that sometimes occurs here at All Souls? Maybe it is a retired widower who has extra time on his hands with stories to share, wisdom to impart, and an overflow of love to give because his grandchildren are far away. He becomes a Coming of Age mentor to a youth whose grandparents are maybe too busy or out of town. The youth is looking for connection and acceptance. He is looking for a role model, for stories from an older generation, and for ways of being that are different from his grandparents’ way of being.
Or maybe it is a middle-aged person who is recovering from addiction who also loves to quilt. They are looking for ways to use their hands, to occupy their time, to make amends, and to pass on a better legacy than before. And they team up with others to make a quilt for a new member who is a single parent, who is raising a 5-year-old and a toddler on their own with no help from their parents. The church throws a quilt shower to finish compiling the quilt squares and to show the single parent a radical and profound sense of community and acceptance—all wrapped up in a single piece of fabric stitched together with love and intention.
This is a beautiful picture, and of course, we all desire our churches to be this space where want is met with plenty, where needs are met with fulfillment, and where this spirit of giving and receiving flows freely. But when I close my eyes and wonder about some of the obstacles that might get in the way of our giving and receiving, I think about the fact that sometimes we resist the urge to express our needs and desires. For you to receive the thing or the things that you need from this gathering of people, you need to know (and admit) that your body is tired. It becomes so vital for us to have the self-awareness and the courage to come together and express honestly where we are, we must name courageously our needs and desires. I am beginning to understand that the vulnerability and risk needed to build and strengthen a community is not only the risk to love people boldly but also the vulnerability to let yourself be known and loved.
I heard an excellent sermon over the holidays about the skill and practice of gift-giving, and yes, it was preached by your senior minister Kendyl. She spoke about the importance of gift-giving as a form of social bonding, a social contract of sorts. And it really got me thinking. The gift-giving that happens in friendships is not some kind of transactional exchange, where credits and debits are listed in a real (or imagined) ledger to see which friend has given the most often or given the most expensive gift or even the most thoughtful gift. And if I know anything about friendship, I know that the last thing that I want to hear when I give a friend a gift is: “Thank you so much. I will be sure to give you a gift of equal or greater value soon to repay you for this kindness.” And yet…I’m sure that some of us still do feel the need to repay kindnesses and reciprocate the giving of gifts.
For the past few years now, I’ve been consistently making the same joke whenever I find myself in a particular situation. The situation is this: when I am confronted head-on with someone’s generosity, and I do not have the ability to repay the kindness at that time. Between being a seminary student and being an intern, I have had many needs…the need for conversation and companionship, thought partners, money, silliness and distraction, and just plain old food and coffee. Many friends have been coming out of the word work to help meet some of my needs and give me gifts. And I have been so overwhelmed with gratitude. The joke that I keep making is: “Well…I guess this is the universe’s way of teaching me how to graciously accept gifts that I can’t pay back.”
But I made the joke enough to start really thinking about it, and it reminded me of this time when I was in a pickle. I had run into some financial troubles and was in a bit of credit card debt. I was living in a very expensive city, and I was in that precarious post-college period where budgeting wasn’t priority #1…or even really priority #10. Some of my friends had extra money and offered to loan me money so that I could get out of credit card debt quickly, and they worked with me to create a budget and repayment plan. These friends (as you can imagine) were not just smarter than I was financially, they were also wiser than I was about the importance of giving and receiving. They had the wherewithal to know that many of us are not super comfortable talking about money, and they wanted to be clear about opening up a strong channel for communication. They didn’t want their loan to get in the way of our friendship or to create such a sense of debt in me that I started to internalize shame or to avoid them or any other number of possibilities. They knew intuitively the truth that it is really challenging to receive large gifts. It takes a special skill to express a need (especially a need that I was ashamed of) and to accept help when it was offered. And the beautiful part of that whole encounter was a thing that none of us had planned for. As it turned out, that loan was just the beginning of a number of ways that they showed their love and care for me. And the more I received from them, the more I gave to them. Not out of debt or the need to reciprocate, but out of closeness and intimacy. Our giving and receiving went back and forth, and it deepened our bonds. They had trusted me with a large investment, and I trusted them back. I visited them overseas. I was in their wedding. To this day, their children still call me “Uncle Jack.” Our capacity to love and care for one another has grown exponentially since those early days, but looking back, I can see that their initial trust in me and my acceptance of their gift were vital to the deepening of our friendships. What does this look like for you? When have you given greatly? When have you received greatly? What has happened when you tied the strings of connection to someone close to you?
And what will it look like for this congregation to be a people who consciously give and receive gifts? And not just gifts for the holidays. The gift of your financial support to the life of this congregation. The gift of your time and attention, your intentional presence. The gift of sharing your stories—the joys and the sorrows. We invest in each other and in communities in many different ways, and the investment isn’t only financial—it’s relational and challenging and emotional.
I have a final challenge for all of you today. If you are a person who mainly focuses on giving to the church, will you focus for just a moment on what you receive from the church? What ways do your fellow congregants support and nurture you? If the answer is “They don’t nurture me,” then today’s challenge is to dig deep for the courage to name one way that they can nurture you and then tell someone. If you are a person who mainly focuses on what you get from church, will you focus for just a moment on what you can give to the church? What ways do your fellow congregants needs support? If the answer is “I’m not sure. No one’s telling me,” then today’s challenge is to listen. Maybe even find a friend and gently ask them, “What do you need today?” Let’s be a community of giving and receiving. May it be so and amen.