They give us gifts. I wish they wouldn't. They can't afford it - they struggle to keep their heat turned on. They show up at our door at Christmas time wearing big smiles and hand us boxes, sometimes hastily wrapped, sometimes in shopping bags. Darrell and Brenda came by yesterday with a Christmas present for Peggy - a crucifix with multi-colored lights blinking all over the cross and hovering cherubs haloed in delicate glass fibers that changed colors every few seconds. We "oohed" and "aahed" and thanked them profusely and told them they shouldn't have done it. But there was no way we could refuse their generous act. No matter that Darrell had lost his job earlier in the week. My gift was on order, he assured me. It would be here by Christmas.
It is all very humbling. We are so well-off compared to those we serve among. We have never had our water cut off, never had our car repossessed, never received an eviction notice. In our family it's a yearly challenge to find Christmas gifts for each other that we really need - most of our wants are even satisfied. So when our neighbors, who barely manage to keep their noses above water, lavish us with gifts they cannot afford to give, it humbles us.
In truth, it makes me feel a tinge of guilt. I should be the one doing the lavishing. After all, I am the one with the abundance. I try to reassure myself that I give in other ways - with housing and job training and youth programs. But, honestly, I do all this through organizational structures that allow my personal finances to remain separate and untouched. This way I can both serve and stay on a budget (as well as get a tax deduction). I can help those in need and at the same time put money aside for retirement. It is good stewardship, I tell myself. It is managing my household responsibly.
I persuade myself that the discomfort I feel when gift-bearing neighbors show up at my door is a compassionate response - a frustration that arises out of my desire for them to budget their meager resources and avoid the endless string of crises that seem to plague their lives. But there are other reasons for my uneasiness. There is always the implied obligation to reciprocate when one receives a gift. Receiving means being obligated. And besides, what are we to do with gifts that don't fit our decor? But there is more.
The gift bearers at my door are an uncomfortable reminder of another Gift, a most extravagant Gift, One that was lavished on the least worthy of earth. An uncomfortable reminder, I say, because this One who offers us life in the full also told us to stop worrying about tomorrow's provisions, to even give away our extra clothes - tempting ideas but ones I find nearly impossible to apply. This Gift is my invitation to a life of faith, of letting go of anxieties over an uncertain economy, of release from the stresses of ever-increasing property taxes and fears of diminished earning capacity. And while something deep in my spirit longs for such freedom - even take a measured faith-risk from time to time - I choose most often to be responsible and work my plan. Those imprudent givers at my door, eyes dancing, hearts spilling over with gratitude and joy, who neither budget nor save nor plan for retirement, embody a faith that I catch only faint glimpses of. Is this why the One we celebrate at this season announced: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God"?