As the season of gift-giving and celebrations of light and rebirth is here once again, the challenges of materialism and commercialism come to light in rather obvious ways. Many friends of mine express concern as to how to gracefully navigate this season with awareness, conscientiousness, integrity, and love, while avoiding cynicism and bitterness that can so easily creep in.
How does one address abundance, giving, and receiving without falling into the trap of greed and self-centeredness?
When I was a kid, I lived in Malawi, East Africa. My parents were conservative Christians and my father was dedicated to missionary work…as had been his father and his father’s father. Being a missionary and sacrificing everything for “God’s Work” was the highest calling one could have, according to both the denominational teaching and my father’s family. Their pride in our family’s sacrifice was evident.
As a missionary kid, I was taught that “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.” So giving, then, was an obligation. It was expected…not only as Christians, but as Christian missionaries. To have any material wealth was shameful, and to have more than the natives of the host country was even more so. And yet, whenever we went on furloughs, it was so painfully obvious to me that however wealthy we were in Malawi, we were quite poor by U.S. standards. The desire for more was definitely there, but I felt horribly guilty for those desires. I knew that ultimately, no matter how hard I worked and how much I made or accumulated, I would be required to give it away. Sacrifice is greater than love.
While living in Malawi had wonderful and beautiful aspects, some parts were challenging, to say the least. There weren’t a lot of amenities on our mission when we arrived…the tap water wasn’t drinkable, the phone system was crackly at best, and thunderstorms usually meant that the electricity would go out. All media was censored…including personal mail. Women were not allowed to wear pants, and all skirts must be long enough to cover the knees. Men couldn’t have facial hair or hair below the top of their shirt collar. Television didn’t exist unless you owned a large satellite dish…which we didn’t.
Even still, we had more than most…more than some other missions, who only had electricity by generator for 3-4 hours each night. We had clean air, close friendships, many adventures, opportunities for cross-cultural experiences through travel and friendships with people of other nationalities, and most importantly, participating in the culture of Malawi itself. I learned many skills that are invaluable to me…creative problem-solving, home arts such as cooking, baking, and sewing, I learned to play musical instruments, entertain and host guests at a moment’s notice, and adapt to wherever I happened to be.
My father being a printer, allowed us easy access to books. All of us love a good story, so the lack of amenities provided a hidden blessing: evenings at my house were spent in the living room in front of the fireplace…my sister and I doing crafts or building with blocks or Legos while my mom read out loud to us. Every night. When the Christmas season arrived, we set aside our regular book and pulled out her tan folder of Christmas stories…stories she had torn out of magazines over the years. We all had our favorites and often requested them multiple times during the weeks leading up to Christmas.
While at the time I didn’t understand why I loved this particular story, I do now. I didn’t consciously notice that this story contradicted the idea of giving out of sacrifice. Yet, the seeds were planted, and over the years, the value and importance of this story and its teaching on abundance has increased exponentially…to the point that it has become an integral part of who I am and my philosophy of life. Abundance doesn’t mean that I have to sacrifice anything for myself in order to help another…nor does it mean that it’s shameful to have a lot of a particular resource (love, money, time, health etc.) Abundance means that because I have a lot of a particular resource, my needs have been met first and now I have extra to share with another…with gratitude and joy…freely and willingly…because I don’t need anything more. To wish for abundance, is to wish to share.
This year, I realized that this story also teaches the most beautiful aspect of the Sacred Feminine through the character of the mother: the art and gift of being who you are. Even though I no longer consider myself Christian, the truths in this story are universal to all beings. I hope you are blessed this holiday season, no matter what tradition you celebrate.
To Be Continued…