For Christians at least, the Magi—those “wise men from the East”—made the first pilgrimage, journeying to Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. They bore with them gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and ever since, giving gifts has been an indelible part of the Christmas season.
I hate getting gifts.
Okay, that may be a tad melodramatic, but there have been many times in my life when I’ve felt I owe the giver something I’m not rich enough or clever enough or loving enough to repay, which, instead of making me grateful, makes me feel second-rate, resentful.
I expect my problems with receiving gifts go back to my alcohol-fumed childhood. When he’d had enough to drink, my grandfather would try to give me one of his rifles or a hunting knife. Usually, my mother would head him off at the pass, but I remember when he talked her into letting him give me a 7mm Mauser and then showed up the next week to take it back, only to give it to me again a year later.
Grampy’s ex-wife, who unfortunately never heard of Al Anon, the 12-step program for families of alcoholics (and wouldn’t have gone if she had), was apparently convinced that her grandchildren could never love her unless she brought us a gift when she visited. Sometimes, it was cheap, like the model airplane that broke the first time I flew it. Other times, she’d spend money she couldn’t afford on presents such as a Hopalong Cassidy cap pistol in a genuine leather holster. Either way—if the wing fell off the plane or Nanny couldn’t pay her phone bill—I felt I was to blame. And no matter what the gift, I could never act happy enough. “Mmph. He must not like it,” Nanny would say to Mom, as if I wasn’t standing between them. “I don’t know why I bother.”
Which probably explains why, of all the teachings of my faith, the one I struggle the hardest with is grace: that God’s gifts come to us with no strings attached. At Christmas, I’m expected to believe that God became human solely out of love, not because of anything we’ve done to earn that love. I’d rather believe “God helps those who help themselves.” I’d rather be the transformed Scrooge, buying the biggest turkey in the market to give to Tiny Tim, than I would Joseph, standing off to one side of the manger, welcoming a baby he hadn’t fathered.
Ironically, it’s been the death of my daughter that has helped me see—although as “through a glass, darkly”—how grace works. Like every parent who’s ever lost a child I suppose, I kept asking “Why?” Why did my previously healthy daughter, who didn’t drink or smoke, didn’t even eat meat for God’s sake, die from this rare cancer?
Then, maybe ten years after Laurie died, I had coffee with a woman who’d recently watched her son die in a fire. The first thing she said to me was, “How have you survived?” I thought her question was extreme, until I recalled Stan, whom I’d gotten to know a little when we were in grief counseling together (he’d also lost a daughter), who had committed suicide. Recently, I’d read about another grieving father who hung himself in his garage.
How had I survived?
I recalled all the clergy, spiritual directors, and mentors who appeared unannounced in my life just when I needed them most. The way my wife, whom I’d barely known when we decided to leave our spouses and live together, and who by all logic, should have left me years earlier, stayed by me. Why had these people appeared when they did? Why did Mary Lee remain? I had no more answers than I did for why Laurie died.
Thus, I took my first steps in trying to live, in the words of the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, “without why,” which, even if we’re not mystics, is what I expect all of us who’ve lost children learn to do.
Since then I’ve been better about being open to grace. Pilgrimages have helped. I think of Paul, a young priest in Jerusalem, who gave Mary Lee and me a personal tour of the Old City the first night we arrived; of an Agape service on the island of Iona in Scotland, where we shared raisins and water while a young man standing in an alcove in the ancient abbey played “Round Midnight” on a saxophone; the large gray fox that visited us every night under a full moon at the Desert House of Prayer in Arizona.
Still, it’s hard not to want to be more active, set things right, help those I see as having less than I do. What’s even more difficult is to ask for something specific for myself. Unless I ask for the impossible, like having a healthy daughter back, or the generic, like world peace, or try to be funny by asking for broader shoulders, I feel selfish, sinful, not to mention dependent and needy.
But Jesus often asked people some form of “What is it that you want?”
How would I answer him?
The best I can do is to fall back on the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
And, I might add, the eyes to see the grace that surrounds me.