Monday, October 29, 2018

The Generosity of Friends and Strangers

I grew up in the rural midwest, in a culture shaped by the bootstrap-pulling frontier work ethic, with grandparents who were mostly second-generation German immigrants. Everything about my heritage instilled in me values of independence and self-sufficiency. Some of that is good - it certainly helped my ancestors who moved into the rugged wilderness and worked it into fertile farmland. However, much of it is toxic as well. Independence very easily becomes a prideful lie, making us regard as noble things like emotional repression and a refusal to seek help for our problems.

One of the symptoms of this self-reliant birthright is a discomfort with receiving charity. In the culture I inherited, you always helped your neighbor and never took payment while never letting them help you and always insisting on paying if they did. On the surface, this looked virtuous. Underneath it was just another way to puff up the ego, albeit one colored by the quiet severity of the Great Plains. To be needed by others without needing them is to come as close as a human might to being like God.

Only as the Lord in His good providence has repeatedly cut our legs out from under us have I begun to recognize the wrongness of this attitude. It started years ago, with the birth of our daughter and the months we spent with her in the hospital. The gestures of love we experienced in that time, whether it was meals on our doorstep or gift cards in the mail or even just having to come to professors and say, "I can't get this done on time;" accepting each of them felt like a little death. While we were grateful, I was also in my heart irritated by these acts.

Only in retrospect did I realize what bothered me was that each of them was a little chip or crack in the statue of myself I had erected in my mind. I was conditioned to think I needed to be a superman, to be one of those pioneers striding across the prairie as the earth quaked beneath my feet. Every undeserved kindness was a reminder that I was all too human and all too frail.


If those days were chipping away at that idol of self-sufficiency, the last few years have been a sledgehammer reducing it to pieces. Between the practical struggles of having a wife at times incapacitated by chemotherapy and the emotional debilitations of grief, we have been forced to rely on the help of others. That has at times been a painful process. It has also been deeply freeing and beautiful, and it is that freedom and beauty I want to celebrate in what follows.

In the first place, people are incredibly generous. We often have a sense that the world is hard-scrabble and self-involved, and there are parts of it where that is true. However, there also gems in it. Sadly they are gems the public rarely gets to see because, in their appropriate humility, their altruism remains invisible. I get glimpses of it as a pastor - there are individuals who spend an unbelievable amount of time loving and caring for others. I could name them, those faithful saints who visit the sick and elderly, who perform practical acts of service for the infirm, but they would be embarrassed and it would be a violation of their wishes.

Instead, I just want to express some of the wonderful charitableness we have experienced. Some of it is simple: the meals that have come, twice a week, throughout both of Elizabeth's half-year chemo treatments, the constant offers of help with childcare, or the ladies who faithfully come clean our house every week. Some of it has been more shocking: cards with money to help with medical bills, or the trip to Disney World we are about to embark on with our children, paid for by a few unbelievably kind folks who insist on anonymity. On top of that are the constant kind words, prayers, and small graces serving as little lights as we walk through the dark forest of her terminal cancer.

By insisting on our independence, we actually deprive ourselves of experiencing and seeing the glory of this generosity. I suspect that part of the pessimism people express about the world is really just a product of never giving ourselves an opportunity to see anything better. It is only by opening up our hearts, admitting our needs, and sometimes asking for help that we get chances to see it.

This has also embodied for us something in which we have always believed: the value of the local church and of deep community. One of the great tragedies of modern society has been the isolation it creates; while we might enjoy having nobody in our business in the good times, it also means we are cut off in the hard ones. This is true societally, where anonymous urban neighborhoods easily leave those who struggle nameless and unknown. It can also be true of the church. The consumer mentality of many when it comes to their faith, where they show up to get their Jesus fix and then separate out into their lives, can create this same isolation.

By approaching the church not just as an activity but a community, by really seeking to know and be known by our fellow members, what we have discovered is a system of support and love that embodies Christ for us. I'm not just talking about the present moment - in His mercy God has given us several such church homes, and many friends from them continue to offer us love and support. When we go to the places we have lived and see brothers and sisters with whom we have shared lives over the decades, we are continually moved by the way their hearts are now with us in our struggle. Living a life of openness and connection with others has costs, but when life's teeth are bared, we discover those costs have really only been investments in the tools we need to fight.

Most of all, in receiving the generosity of others, I have been forced to learn more deeply the reality of God's generosity to us. My problems with receiving kindness from others - and believe me, for all that I've been learning, it is still a real struggle in my heart - have always really just been a byproduct of my problem with receiving kindness from God. The posture of the gospel requires us to own our neediness, and midwestern independence is poison to such a posture. Too often I come to God just like I wish to appear to my neighbors - ready to serve Him, to earn His appreciation, to protest and argue and then finally accept the payment of heaven which He offers for my work. In such a posture mercy is impossible, and mercy is what we all desperately need.

Every act of human generosity we receive is a parable of and a preparation for receiving the grace of Christ. He comes to us with forgiveness and welcome and purpose and an inheritance, and none of them are owed. We don't earn or deserve any of it. He sees our helplessness and stoops down and offers us life, free of charge. The great danger in our hearts is that we will not take it because we'd much rather pull ourselves up through our own grit and take care of things ourselves.

So while it is hard, for His sake, I want to give thanks for all these acts of charity we have received. We are not strong enough or faithful enough or determined enough to make this on our own. I am grateful for the generosity of friends and of strangers, because all of it is but a whispering of the great song that is the generosity of God.

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