July 21, 2004
Giving and receiving

At one recent Bible study, we were discussing the beginning of the Last Supper scene in John where Peter protests when Jesus tries to wash his feet. The different reactions my pastor and I had to it probably say a lot about us.

I thought of it as strictly a status thing. Peter sees Jesus as a superior, and doesn't want to see his hero act like a slave. My pastor saw it as a reflection of a problem he has -- that he likes to do things for others but has trouble accepting service from others.

This led to a general discussion about people we know who have the same problem. The story I most remember was about an elderly woman who'd always been the one to visit and bring a casserole or some such to anyone suffering an illness or loss. When she developed some chronic illness of age, someone wanted to let the church know so they could return the favor. She adamantly refused, saying, "I'd rather die than let that happen!"

This is not a problem I've ever had, personally, and I struggled to understand it. It sounded to me like there was something less than Christian about all her years of giving. Indeed, like she had contempt for those she was helping. As if behind her smiles and friendliness she was thinking, "Poor thing, I'd rather die than be in the position I'm putting you in right now."

Humans being what we are, gift giving can be highly political. It creates and reinforces networks of obligations. In premodern societies, especially ones without a real money economy, this is fairly explicit, and the line between gift exchange and commerce is less than clear. There is power in being the one who has something to bestow. I used to have a roommate who loved to cook, and I could see quite plainly how he used his cooking as a social implement. He'd bring his victuals to new neighbors to make friends, make himself a desirable invitation to a potluck or a picnic, and generally give people something to praise him for. If it sounds like I'm being too hard on the guy in making him sound that manipulative, well, you didn't try to live with him. When I said after a while that I'd rather decline his cooking than owe what he expected me to do in return (like all the dishes, for instance), he was apoplectic.

Or maybe this is just me thinking of things in terms of status and power again. Perhaps the woman simply couldn't face her own mortality and weakness. It still seems kind of strange to me because when I'm contemplating what to do for a person in trouble I usually try to imagine what I would want in their place, and imagining that means accepting that you might be in their place. But I guess a lot of people don't think about it that much. When someone has a serious illness or a death in the family, you bring a casserole, because that's what good church people do.

One woman at the study said that when she lost her husband to cancer, the folks at her previous church overwhelmed her with kindness, bringing enough food to keep her in stock for about two months. It did, she said, help her bear the pain. So I suppose that while Christian giving may be far from perfect, sometimes those nice church ladies with their casseroles are just what you need.

Posted by Camassia at July 21, 2004 03:13 PM | TrackBack

I think to key to this question rests in empathy, rather than in any standard doctrine. As you point out, it is no kindness to give a person something that they don't want. Before inserting ourselves into the lives of others we should consider not what *we* might want under those circumstances, but rather what we understand, through our paying strict attention to *who* that other person really *is*, to what *he/she* is most likely to want. And then that insight should be subtly tested by asking a few strategic questions, before any action is taken. All of this is contingent upon knowing the person over time, of course; but those are the folks we are most often in a position to help directly.

Posted by: Rob on July 22, 2004 06:29 AM

As someone who can identify with the old woman in your story as well as your pastor, I'm saddened that you find something less than Christian in their attitudes towards giving and recieving. Like them, I can't stand being showered with gifts and support, especially in times of pain. I think this is because I'm an incredibly shy person by nature and feel very uncomfortable being the center of attention. I realize the kind of giving you're talking about helps a lot of people cope with life's difficulties, but when it's my turn to deal, I'd rather be left alone or with the small group of people I'm closest with. Being the center of attention just adds awkwardness to the list of emotions I'm already feeling.

Posted by: lalalandrover on July 22, 2004 06:46 PM

Rob: Oh, you're right, and I don't automatically assume everybody would want what I want. (That is why, ideally, they would just tell me what they want!) But I think putting oneself in their place is a good starting point, especially if you haven't seen that person in that situation before.

Lala: I know what you mean, I'm a shy person myself and don't really like people to be all over me like a cheap suit when I'm in difficulties. But the thing is, my pastor isn't a shy person, and it doesn't seem to me like a sign of shyness to always be the one showering attention on other people in church. It seems strange to me to be so eager to give attention and have such a positive horror of receiving it. But like I said, I don't really understand this phenomenon, so maybe I'm putting too cynical an interpretation on it.

Posted by: Camassia on July 22, 2004 07:11 PM

Makes me wonder, becuase I have a hard time not thinking about it in power categories either. Can one give a gift and put themselves in a place of debt to the receiver of said gift?

Since seems to me so much of this Christian walk is inversely paradoxical, it might just be the case.

Posted by: JosiahQ on July 23, 2004 10:05 AM

I think that a thing can be a "gift" without being a "boon"--a gift being something freely given, while a boon is something *beneficial* that is given. A thing is not beneficial if it is unwanted, even though it may be a gift and, in itself, a good thing. It is relatively easy to imagine scenarios in which one person attacks another by giving him a "gift"--heaps hot coals of kindness on his head.

Posted by: Rob on July 23, 2004 01:21 PM

I've always thought of St. Peter not wanting his feet washed in the same way you did. I've never even thought about it from your pastor's point of view. Interesting.

Posted by: Nathan on July 23, 2004 10:30 PM
Post a comment
Hi! I'd love to know your thoughts, but please read the rules of commenting:
- You must enter a valid email address
- No sock puppets
- No name-calling or obscene language


Email Address:



Remember info?