Sunday, January 29, 2012

Earning mercy?

January 29, 2012

Dear friends,

The connecting thread of January’s blogs spins out of the story I recorded on January 8. That’s nearly a month ago, so a brief synopsis may be helpful.

The story began with my friend’s out-of-town guests who, in my opinion, presumed upon her hospitality, and, following bad behavior with worse, expected her to pay for their dinner together the evening of my friend’s birthday. I complained about their behavior, thinking with secret self-righteousness about my gift for my friend that I had already stashed in the stairway storeroom.

My friend, wise in goodness as well as good sense, simply noted that, whatever her guests’ attitude may have been, the gift of dinner was something she chose to do.

This friend has enriched my life with many gifts—meals together, shared time, laughter, trips to the mountains, trips to the car wash, a hundred useful gadgets that I would never have noticed in a shop (or guessed how practical they would be once I had them home). Shared accounting skills; shared produce from the farmers’ market, shared meals (“I made enough for us both”), shared projects, shared jokes, shared books and ideas—shared prayers and times of worship, shared quiet hours of companionship. She gives from her heart as a way of life without keeping account, neither needing nor expecting return.

In turn, I seek to invest openhandedly in our relationship. I give as I am able, but I am conscious none-the-less that I am debtor to her generosity and thoughtfulness—I receive richly what I have not earned.

You understand the significance of this: it was in the context of this relational pattern of my friend’s gifts to me that I complained about my friend’s gift of dinner to her acquaintances. Like the “good workers” in the story Jesus told in Matt. 20, I objected to her GIFT to them because, in my opinion, the people to whom my friend chose to be generous had not “relationally earned” their dinner.

Huh? We “earn” gifts?

To my great benefit, God rarely permits behavior like that to pass without a pointed conversation about it. Our conversation in this instance included on my part a sober re-reading of Matt. 20. As I read, I sensed that, like the landowner in the story, God was asking me, “And what is your problem with your friend’s gift?”

My problem was, of course, the people to whom she proposed to give the gift. I had judged these people to be relational slackers, and, significantly, slackers who had done less relationally than I had done. After all, didn’t I have a birthday gift ready and waiting? Hadn’t I planned a dinner for my friend? Like those six o’clock workers, hadn’t I done it “right”? Why should those who had not done it “right” get a gift? Certainly only those who (like me) had done it “right” should get a gift.

You can see, of course, that the issue between God and me was my desire that my friend act toward those who were the relational slackers (my judgment) in a way that demonstrated my “superiority,” my status as the one who, in contrast to their negligence, did it “right.” Consequently, I certainly was a better person than they, and my friend should act in a way that made my superiority clear to everyone. (My judgment of my friend’s acquaintances proved later to be woefully incorrect, but that’s a story for another day.)

When we think about the ways in which expectations shape our relationships with one another (and with God) there is something both amusing and sad about this moment.

How silly—it was, after all, my friend’s money, and her choice—what difference did it make to me what she did in relationship with these other people?

Sadly, what I unconsciously wanted was both humanly understandable and relationally destructive. I wanted—just for a moment—for my friend to act in a way that made these people show up as the slackers they were and me appear to be what I (at least for a moment) behaved as though I were—clearly “better” than they.

When unconsciously we expect a relationship to provide reassurance of our superiority (morally, socially, and/or spiritually), we inevitably set the relationship up for failure unless we identify and change our behaviors.

The actual conversation in which the problem occurred probably took less than two minutes. Later, however, when I realized that what I had done was destructive, I called my friend. I said, in effect, that I was very glad she was generous to people who did not deserve her gifts, specifically and especially including me. I acknowledged that I was regrettably like those six o’clock workers in Jesus’ story, and I told her I was quite sorry that I had said what I had said.

She laughed, and then said, “You’re forgiven on my part, and I am glad that we are friends.”

Grateful with you that good relationships are not about doing it perfectly.

However. . .

Since this is so, loving mercy and distributing it generously seems both wise and logical.

We never know when we in turn may need that gift.

See you next week.


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