“America should be a compassionate and generous nation.” These words are actually haunting me. They’re clinging on to my shoulders, and I can’t shake them.
They have also completely changed my Christmas wish list.
Every Thanksgiving since I can remember, after my family and I gorged ourselves with the usual fare, we sat around the living room like stuffed turkeys and forgot the whole reason we were together in the first place. We moved from, “What are you thankful for?” to a clean sprint into the next order of family holiday business: “What do you want for Christmas?” Did you catch it? The irony? Until this year, I didn’t either.
Typically, we’d wade through the newspaper ads right after pumpkin pie—what they’re starting to call the “Black Friday” ads. It sounds really ominous, considering moms of all ages roll out of bed before dawn just to stand in line in the cold morning air outside the mall, waiting for “the deal of the century” to be their own. But after pie we’d cull through the ads, looking for the gifts we’d like others to buy for us. We’d write down lists of desired items or circle the pictures with our assigned color. It’s a very helpful exercise, because you always want to get the right gift, right?
Then there’s figuring out what you want to receive as gifts. How big and/or expensive can I get away with? Should I ask for lots of little things or that one big thing that everyone can go in on together? It starts to get your imagination going, like visions of sugarplums dancing—only they’d be things you could show off to your friends.
This year I felt sick in my stomach. My head was spinning. I couldn’t tell them anything that I wanted for Christmas. I didn’t have a wish list, because I’d just seen the face of generosity, and after seeing him I couldn’t bear to ask for anything more.
A few weeks ago I met Shane Claiborne at a friend’s house. My friend had been in contact with him about getting together for lunch while he was in town for a speaking engagement, and it turned into a small group discussion on living in community and living life generously. He shared some of the ways that he and the people in his community live life simply and strive to give away as much as they can. If they see a man without a coat on the street in the wintertime they will take off their own and give it away. If someone needs a meal or a warm spot of the floor to sleep on, they will take him in. When he got an extra paycheck from extra work it was actually superfluous to him, so he gave the money away (actually handed it out) as an expression of the love of God.
I’ve met lots of other people like Shane, people that are making their faith more than a Sunday morning activity. They have given up their “promising futures” and “marketable job skills” in the quest for something more extravagant. They are moving to the places “you just don’t move to.” They are loving on the homeless, the poor and the silenced. Following Christ for them becomes an incarnate existence, where daylight brings chance after chance to be a blessing to others with what they already have. Every good and perfect gift really does come from God, and it’s meant to be given away. Every single day.
In the face of this generosity, though, I felt completely embarrassed. Ashamed. To hear story after story of people making the world better by simple living and sincere generosity was overwhelming. It left me second-guessing my every shopping decision. My shoes were too nice. Dinners out seemed like a waste on myself now. Why did I go see that movie? I’d certainly have to make excuses for the company car I drive. I’m sure he’ll see it on the way out.
But no one asked me to explain. The truly generous never do.
So now I’m swimming in the sea of pictures of people who are beautiful and smiling because they are in sharp clothes or enjoying their new plasma TV or joyfully watching a movie on their 80 gigs worth of Video iPod in the back seat of their luxury SUV with a big red bow on top. All with well meaning family members looking for clues on which pictures make me the happiest. But I haven’t given thanks for anything yet. I’ve hardly finished the pie. I feel like the Rich Young Ruler, who already has so much and still isn’t satisfied. And there’s the irony: Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful for all that we already have, yet Black Friday, and the ensuing Christmas wish list, is about our lust for more.
This year I don’t want more stuff. I am wishing for a simpler life. A generous one, where what I have is enough, where I can spend more and more time giving of what I already have, and less on wishing for things I don’t. So this year my list is really short, and I couldn’t be happier.