Weekly Edgework #39 - Mar. 29, 2005

The Gift of Receiving

It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).

It is difficult to confess that perhaps the greatest service we can offer to our fellow man is to receive and allow him the happiness of giving (Creative Ministries, by Henri Nouwen, p.16).

It happened sometime in the mid-seventies in rural Bolivia while on a mission assignment there. I must confess that I never was very comfortable living on a mission compound with its comfortable houses and sporting its own power plant. Most of the people who came to the clinic on the compound lived in desperately poor homes – such a far stretch from our modernized oasis of comfort. Many of these same people attended a church three miles down the road that our mission had started. I often dreamt of moving off the compound to live closer to where these people lived. I went so far as to pick out a spot of land where I hoped to build a simple house close to the people. However, when I floated the idea with top mission brass, it got thrown back on shore.

Nevertheless, we did begin developing friendships with some of the people in the region, especially through our church connections. One day Pablo and Maria arrived at our doorstep to invite us over for almuerzo, which is the main Bolivian meal of the day eaten at noon. On the specified day, Ruth and I arrived at their home on our 125 Honda motorcyle. After being greeted warmly – Bolivian style – with hearty handshakes, slaps on our backs, and big hugs, they invited us to be seated on a log outside their grass-roofed hut while they finished preparing the meal.

While we sat there waiting for our meal, we could not help taking in the context in which we were now immersed. Pigs, chickens and dogs roamed freely in and out of the mud-walled house. A number of small children sporting only ragged T-shirts were playing in the dirt under a large tree offering some relief from the hot sun. Their bellies were bloated – a sure sign of being filled with worms. Flies buzzed around everywhere. And the color of most everything is sight was either green or the chocolate color of the ground.

We had expected to have almuerzo with Pablo and Maria. But that was not to be. Presently they appeared with two bowls of piping hot peanut soup that they presented to us. No almuerzo in Bolivia is complete with out a bowl of soup! They encouraged us to enjoy the soup while they prepared the main course. So we sat on the log slurping a very tasty soup indeed. When we were done, Pablo and Maria appeared again with two large plates filled with rice, chicken and vegetables. Again they invited us to enjoy the meal. We protested weakly that perhaps they could also eat with us. But they would have none of it. They were serving us almuerzo in grand Bolivian style. They would eat later they said.

When we finished eating – probably twice as much as usual, since in Bolivia it is considered impolite to leave food on your plate – we continued our animated dialogue with Pablo and Maria for quite some time. It was clear that they would not eat until we had left. So after some time we began our ritual of departure. As we got up off the log, thanking them profusely for the delicious meal and the good visit, Pablo told us to wait for a moment. He had something he wanted to give us. He disappeared into the darkness of his mud hut and presently emerged with two eggs in his hands. Here, he said, we want you to have these. It is our way saying thank you for coming.

Everything within me revolted at the thought of taking those two eggs home with me. The children needed the protein they contained – that was clear. We had already eaten far too much and we knew that the family would eat less that week because of it. We were rich beyond their wildest dreams! Was the meal we had “stolen” from their livelihood not enough for one day. Again I attempted a bold protest, but Pablo would have none of it. We want you to have these eggs! And now I had them in my hands. They would never take them back. We left on our motorcycle after offering them our best wishes and blessing.

The tears in my eyes on the way home came not only from the wind in my face. They were fed by a deep inner well of frustration, confusion and even shame. How could I have taken those eggs so badly needed by the children? When we arrived home I wept openly. Somehow I felt I had wronged Pablo and Maria and their hungry family.

But sometime later, after reflecting on that special day, I began to realize that God was teaching me a lesson hard to learn. Since childhood I had been trained to make sure that I would be in a position to give to others instead of receiving from them. After all, the Bible does say that it is more blessed to give than receive, doesn’t it. Yes it does. But I also began to realize that I had been trained to hoard that blessing for myself.

I began to imagine myself being in a situation where I never would be allowed to receive the blessing of giving. Always I would have to swallow my pride and receive from others. Would I not feel cheated by the fact that only the rich could inherit that blessing? Is that how Pablo and Maria had felt so many times before? Was it their search for “the blessing” that motivated them to treat us the way they did and then throw in two eggs to boot?

This is a lesson I am still continuing to learn. If it is indeed more blessed to give than receive, why should I be so intent on hoarding that blessing for myself? If I want to bless others, sometimes it will mean that I have to be a gracious receiver. It is in the act of receiving that we proclaim our need for each other and our place in the human family. If we can cross this bridge a whole new world awaits us on the other side. But are we willing to cross that bridge?