I ran a beautiful 10K loop around a nearby lake last week. The lightly-traveled road that circles the lake winds through fields of goldenrod, milkweed, and asters. It is closed between September 30 and March 1, so I wanted to run it again before the opportunity vanished.
As I ran, I thought of the recent visit of my son and his wife, who live in Oregon, to attend the funeral service of my late father-in-law.
They made the 3,000+ mile (one-way) drive to Pennsylvania, no small sacrifice, to avoid flying in the time of COVID.
The day they left for the long drive home, we visited a bakery in our small town to get take-out bagel sandwiches for a picnic breakfast.
This son and I play an ongoing vicious game of “Who Will Get the Check?” The game has evolved from a simple, quick grab at the end of a meal to elaborate schemes designed to emerge victorious, the bill in the hand of the winner. To triumph now takes cunning, organization, forethought, and sometimes outright deceit.
In this family, we take our games seriously.
That particular morning, I made a rookie mistake and neglected to bring my wallet. I still had hopes of winning, however. I told my husband to ask for the check.
Bill, unused to the strategy needed to succeed, allowed our son to pay for breakfast.
“No!” I wailed, unused to losing.
“Just let him pay, Honey,” Bill consoled me. “He wants to treat us.”
I always taught my children that it is better to give than receive, of course. I just never thought they would take the lesson so literally, to use it against me.
The whole incident made me think of giving, receiving, and generosity.
I have always been uncomfortable with a debt of any kind. I pay off my credit card bills each month, make double car payments to reduce the span of the loan, and have never borrowed money from a relative or friend.
But when my “no debt” policy carries over from the financial to the emotional or spiritual realms of my life, trouble arises.
Being generous makes us feel beneficent. Poverty, real or implied, shames us.
By always reaching for the check, I am taking that feel-good moment away from my son.
When friends recently sent us flowers, plants, small gifts as sympathy offerings, my impulse was to return the gesture, to even the ledger, so to speak. I had to restrain myself from returning their kindness with some of my own. (OK, cards on the table: I did return one friend’s empty flower vase filled with homemade granola, but that doesn’t really count. I wanted her to have some granola.)
I am a better giver than receiver, it is true, but here is the thing about receiving that no one tells you: it makes you vulnerable.
To receive requires you to open yourself up and accept, to admit your need, your poverty.
You might open yourself up to give, but it’s not necessary. I have given away plenty of stuff that I just didn’t want – books I have read, clothes I don’t wear, vases that no longer fit in my overstuffed cupboards. It didn’t cost me anything to donate these items to the church-sponsored thrift shop in our town.
On the other hand, I have been the recipient of gifts that cost the giver something precious – time, talent, money, or all of the above.
Receiving something that we don’t deserve requires surrender, something I am still learning, even at this late stage in life.
When we receive unwarranted gifts from our family or friends, we call it abundance, fullness, profusion. When we receive them from God (or the Universe, whatever you name It), we call it grace.
To accept grace, then, I must make myself vulnerable.
I must recognize my neediness, my poverty, my want. The ledger is not balanced, and it never was. The playing field was always tilted toward me, with grace invariably sliding down the slope in my direction.
Someone else has already picked up the check.
The day my son won our game, I ate my bagel sandwich in the early Fall sunshine, humbled at my defeat, but glad he could feel the glow of generosity.
I learned that, the verse from Acts notwithstanding, sometimes it is better to receive than to give.
I just hope he doesn’t think this is going to become a habit. I am already planning my strategy for our next round of “Who Will Get the Check?”.
It’s going to be a doozy.
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