The Taser's Edge


Receiving Strange Gifts

For years, I have been hoping and striving to become a more joyful Christian.  The most miserable (in terms of the emotional aura she gave off) person I ever met was someone who talked freely of her Christianity to other drugstore co-workers and me, and it seemed like such a disconnect: publicly and openly bearing the bad news of the Good News of Jesus.

As for my own need for joy, I’m not a negative person, but I’m seriously serious.

[A word here on what joy is–it doesn’t mean all smiles and sunbeams, but it does mean a generally hopeful outlook, where, yes, cheerfulness is a regular occurrence.  I do not personally buy the set of popular theological definitions I have heard multiple times, where I’m told that joy and happiness are different from each other, that happiness depends altogether on circumstances, whereas joy has more stability.  Yes, it’s important to make some sort of distinction between the terms, and that one is helpful, but it misses something important.  Aquinas and a billion theologians with him let us know that ‘happiness’ is something we need to understand if we hope to understand ourselves or God (as Thomas and the billion also have described the after-life in terms of a blessed happiness in the experience of God).]

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Gustave Dore imagines wonderfully and surely poorly what the beatific vision might be.

Late last year I talked to my spiritual director about my pursuit of joy, and she definitely encouraged it (obviously, perhaps), as we had touched on it before in our then year-plus relationship.  Then she gave me some amazing advice.  In gist form, “When you seek joy in your prayers, don’t yourself set the limits on what joy might be.  Let God define the gift of joy which he gives you.”

Let that sink in for a second.

Since then, not only have I found this to be true of joy, but I keep seeing all kinds of life through the same lens.  How do we receive and then give thanks, rather than make our lives lives of demanding?  And how much of our unhappiness is due to the demands we make (to hear the Buddha’s sharing in truth) in our refusal to receive?

Maybe that’s because all that is life-giving is daily bread and manna from heaven, because life itself is received (both physically and metaphysically).

The problem, here, of course, is that if all we can do is receive, then what about the fact that for some of us what we receive just sucks?  Is there really no place for righteous complaint?  (I’m thinking here especially of the victims, the poor, the hungry, the abused, the disenfranchised, the homeless whether of nation or of shelter.  Is this a spirituality of roll-over-and-take-it-ism?)

Here I want to be clear that receiving from God is always a work of discernment, of “testing the spirits” (and I mean this literally).  We must ask, pray, discuss, struggle, moan, and sweat through certain questions when we claim that what we  are receiving is a gift of God.  What does what we are receiving have to do with the Bread of Heaven, that which feeds us and leaves us truly satisfied, never to hunger again?  What does what we are receiving have to do with the God who Jesus calls a good and loving Father who delights to give good gifts to those who ask?

Continuing the work of discernment, the idea of ‘receiving as gift’ requires that we have been given new eyes (in fact, that we have ‘received’ new eyes) to see things as they are.  For my own part, I write this post at the edge of eight months of unemployment, with host of unknowns and unsettled questions in my life.  To be clear, I would not have chosen this time for a second.  Except that I’m starting to see it all as a strange, wonderful gift, the kind you unwrap and then look at the giver trying not to be too rude with the “What is this?” look you can’t erase from your face.  The kind of gift that you talk to your significant other in the car on the way home from the gift exchange about how weird and inappropriate and useless a gift it is.  The kind of gift you start to set aside to take to Goodwill, and then decide to take just one more peek.  Five years later, you can’t believe how greatly and wonderfully it affected the trajectory of your life.  That is what I know that I will say of this time.

I am deeply thankful for this time, how I have found out more about my calling and had opportunities to see how following it doesn’t need to involve a paycheck (although it will be nice when this particular non-materially-paid season ends), how I have come to understand myself and love myself better in my identity in God, how I have been able to focus on my relationship with my wife, how I have truly received an overwhelming amount of joy.

This is just one particular gift.  Thankfully there are other things than unemployment that fit my description of good and strange gifts (although really, not all of them are actually easier than unemployment): a musical instrument, a long illness, a book that inspires you to write, a telescope, the end of a cherished relationship.

What are the things we will receive this day that we are actually being gifted by The Giver of All Good Gifts?  And are we willing to stay in relationship with the Giver and the circumstances which we receive long enough to find out what gift we might be being given?

That is the challenge and…the gift.

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