The gift of experience

In December, we predictably find a lot of articles on gift giving.  What should we give?  To whom should we give?  Why should we give?  Do we give too much to some people and not enough to others?  One of my favorite articles of this type was written by Matthew Yglesias for Slate, and posted late enough in the season to give most people an opportunity to view their own pile of packages with remorse.  It evaluated the “deadweight loss” of much giving (the difference between what the giver paid and how much it is actually worth to the person who receives it,) and asserted that gift giving should be “redistributive.”  It also made a good case for spreading out our giving through the year (particularly through serendipitous giving), rather than doing the majority of it during a brief window at the end of the year.

Another suggestion he made was that it was better to give an experience than an object.  This distinction – between object and experience – seems clear at first.  As the tagline at the top of the browser puts it: “Scarves, no.  Surfing lessons, yes.”  But on Christmas day, I found the more helpful advice to be the author’s broader: “embrace risk.”  After all, while the dichotomy between scarves and surfing lessons is clear, other objects carry experience within them.  And the gift certificate for surfing lessons may go unused, which would transform the certificate into the most worthless of objects – a used piece of paper.

My idea of a good Christmas, from a “what cool stuff did I get?” perspective, hasn’t changed very much since I was a child.  No matter what else I unwrap, I want at least one thing I can play with right away – that afternoon.  I want at least one object that carries an (immediately accessible) experience within it.  As a child, that was easy – there were any number of toys that I could begin interacting with right away.  As a grown up, amidst the alluring springform pans (make a cheesecake!), the exciting lessons (learn a new skill!), the brand new clothing (look different!), there are few items that fit the demand, “entertain me now!”:  a new gadget, new music, or (most often) a new book.

There is, of course, danger in giving a book – even a book that the recipient has asked for.  If they do not like it, the best case scenario is that it is transformed back into an inert object, collecting dust on a shelf.  The gift also contains the possibility inherent in all gifts: the incredulous “why did they think I would want that?” Giving a book that you have not yet read could result in discovering later some embarrassing content that you did not realize was there.  Then again, it gives you a defense (“Sorry! I hadn’t read it!”) that you do not have if you have in fact read it.  The latter can reveal a rift that was unknown until the recipient discovered something disturbing on page 173 – something that the giver blissfully glossed over when reading the book months earlier.

But in the best case scenario, the book is read and enjoyed, and so becomes (no less than surfing lessons) an experience.  The hours spent with the book are hours spent re-categorizing ideas and events, re-evaluating previously held beliefs, re-visiting other, older experiences.  The book inspires, the book moves one to speech, exclaiming, “Yes!” and then reading passages aloud to others in the room.  The book creates a sense of community with the author and with others who have read the book – a reassurance that the reader is not alone, together with a new, clearer articulation of the inchoate scraps of thought swirling just beneath the surface of her/his conscious thought.

Of course, Christmas is not primarily about gift giving – or at least it ought not to be.  It is a celebration of the Word made flesh for our salvation – the Feast of the Incarnation – a day for remembering the one who came for the purpose of bringing us back home to God.  As such, I would build on the economist’s idea that we “get the most bang for our gift-giving buck” – and suggest that in all of our giving (but particularly on Christmas), our aim should be to reveal Christ through our giving – to be the vessels through which others are brought closer to God.  There could be no greater return on our investment.

I don’t know how much of this went into my brother’s thinking (who is, himself, a Christian who holds a degree in finance), and how much instead he was simply struck with, “This is perfect!”  But his gift of William Abraham’s Divine Revelation and the Limits of Historical Criticism was all that my childish “entertain me now!” impulse might lead me to desire.  At the same time, it has revealed Christ to me anew, at a time when I was especially needing to better articulate what it means that God speaks.  Especially in the face of my conviction, growing over the past ten years, that certain “reasonable” limits accepted in modern theology exposed the functional atheism of many who wished to continue to proclaim Christ for whatever reason.

A book IS an experience.  Thanks, James, for giving me Abraham’s book, instead of surfing lessons.  Though I wouldn’t be surprised if surfing lessons top my adventurous daughter’s list in about ten years.

The Collect for the Day

When I was a student at Duke Divinity School, I had the blessing of studying worship with Dr. Karen Westerfield Tucker.  She was equal parts ecumenically minded and Methodist identified, filled with practical advice grounded in the scripture and the tradition, filling our heads (or at least our notes, when our neurons were overloaded) with resources, funny anecdotes about life as a pastor, and all sorts of important details.  It is because of her that I can sing the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, that I can walk into many Methodist sanctuaries and pinpoint their date of construction within a couple of decades, and that I found myself spending a lovely morning off feeding “leftover” blessed bread to the pigeons at Byrd Park, in utter defiance of my bird phobia.

One of the mnemonics that she taught us was a key to writing our own collects: “To, Who, Do, Through”: TO – in which we address God; WHO – in which we express an attribute of God; DO – in which we petition God; THROUGH – in which we name God in an explicitly Triune manner.  For instance:

God of Abraham and Isaac, who led your people out of slavery in Egypt, release [name] from the powerful bonds of addiction, and provide [her/him] with every aid [she/he] requires to step forward with confidence into the wilderness through which [she/he] will reach the promised land.  Through your Son Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit is worshipped and glorified.  Amen.

One of my many wonderful experiences as a local church pastor didn’t take place in the local church at all, but on the District level:  the erstwhile Portsmouth District began offering (roughly) quarterly Lay Academies, in which lay people (that is, not paid pastor people) could come and spend a Saturday morning becoming more immersed in one of four topics of interest to them.  I was asked to teach a class on the topic of prayer at one of these events.  Not too broad, right?  All about prayer in two and a half hours!

I wanted to be sure to talk some about private prayer and aids to prayer, about using our bodies in prayer, and about praying together in groups.  But I had been informed by the organizer that the reason he was wanting to offer the class was because so many lay people feel intimidated by the prospect of praying in public.  Which I easily identify with, because I myself had not been so comfortable with it before entering seminary, and my Dad was a pastor!  And so I decided to teach the group about how to write collects.  After running the ten or so students in my seminar through TO, WHO, DO, THROUGH, I gave them all a piece of paper with that heading on it (to remind them), and set them loose with a stack of church news magazines and recent issues of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot (our regional newspaper.)  Their assignment was to find an article that moved them to prayer, and to write a collect based on that news article.  Then we each shared our collects with one another – which is to say, we took turns praying before the group – leading the group in prayer.

I took both the local (weekly) and regional (daily) papers when I was in the parish, and saw reading them and praying over them as part of my job as pastor.  I tried a subscription to the Durham paper after moving here, but found that enjoying raising a child led to a stack of untouched tree corpses.  Which, having lived downwind from a paper mill, is not an abstract image for me.  So instead, these days, I buy papers one at a time only on those days when I know I have the time to read.

Somehow, not having that daily inoculation has given me a real newspaper sensitivity. Picking up the paper today to read over breakfast, celebrating my little one’s return to school, I found myself needing to pause to plead with God many times before I made it even to page A7.  Iowa Caucuses, the Keystone XL pipeline, unemployment, budget cuts in the public schools, ongoing killing of peaceful protestors in Syria, the routine acceptance of civilian casualties in war.  Arson, murder, PTSD as a result of military service, divorce and restraining orders…  I folded the paper and put my head in my hands.  It was too much, too much, too much.  As I say to my daughter when she is dithering, “Focus, Crocus!”  But when I am feeling bombarded with the unlovely and surrounded by the unloved, how can this one person choose where to put his focus?

To? Lamb of God  Who? Takes away the sins of the world   Do? Have mercy upon us  Through? In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Bread of Heaven

For at least four reasons that I can think of off of the top of my head, using bready bread – leavened bread – yeast bread – for eucharist is a matter of some importance for me.  I don’t have time to get into that today, but hopefully in a later post.  The point is, I have been generally opposed to wafers as the “bread” element for a long time now.

After some unreasonable hoping that the Episcopal church I was visiting this morning would run contrary to type, and that the rector would somehow produce a full loaf of challah from the sleeve of her robe, I found myself watching her lift up the large round wafer and thinking to myself, “this could be a deal-breaker.”

I have spent some time now not particularly expecting God to show up in worship, so that might be what opened me to be so thoughtlessly cheeky about the sacrament.  Or perhaps God has just become that small to me that I thought I could predict or even dictate when and where I might feel God’s presence.  Or maybe I am just an ordinary broken human being who, like anyone else, is riddled with hubris.

At the rail, I could not wait to get the wafer into my mouth, to let it melt there and to think about Christ and the medieval desire to honor him by making sure that not a crumb of his body might be lost between the floorboards.  When a priest came around with the cup and saw that my upturned hands were empty, he began to tip the cup towards me, and I drank – perhaps for only the second or third time.  “The cup which we share…” The wine, so unfamiliar at the feast to this Methodist, burst on my palate as if welcoming me home to a place I had never seen – a foretaste of the kingdom, a reminder of the already and the not yet that is this time between the times.  I leapt back from the rail and managed to make my unsteady way back to my seat; thought of pulling out a kneeler, but didn’t know whether it was allowed at this point in the service.  And then I burst into tears as I felt God clearly articulate to me, “Did you think that I could not show up for you here?”

After a couple of words to the rector, I decanted myself some decaf and made my way to the car. I felt so unworthy, so impossibly beyond redemption.  And at the same time, so near to God – reminded that my second greatest sin (after the first of thinking I no longer need to be redeemed) is the idea that I cannot be.