One of my least favorite conventions of the holiday season is the struggle to make sure gifting among family members and friends is commensurate. You don’t want to give Aunt Suzy a $5 gift card only to arrive on Christmas Day and find that she spent $50 to buy you a new juicer! We always pass along sincere “thank you’s” when we receive offerings from others…but are we really grateful when our first thoughts lean toward how to pay the person back?
One of my favorite scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird takes place at the Finch household the morning after the Tom Robinson verdict. When Atticus notices the unusually extravagant breakfast, Calpurnia summons him into the kitchen: “You better step out here and see what’s in the kitchen, Mr. Finch.” We followed him. The kitchen table was loaded with enough food to bury the family: hunks of salt pork, tomatoes, beans… Calpurnia said, “This was all ‘round the back steps when I got here this morning. They-they ‘preciate what you did, Mr. Finch…” Atticus eyes filled with tears. He did not speak for a moment. “Tell them I am very grateful…”
I talk about the beauty of this scene in “The Parable of the Great Depression.” There is certainly something special about offerings from those who have little to give. It is the only time in the novel that Scout tells us her father tears up. He knows that the gift offered to his family from the African-American community is quite a sacrifice in hard times and he responds with gratitude.
I have spent quite a bit of time writing and talking about the importance of giving; I often forget how difficult it can be to receive. There is a simple grace in this scene found in Atticus’s expression of gratitude. Isn’t it challenging to receive a gift and not automatically begin thinking of a way to pay the giver back or return the favor? We are compelled and conditioned to live under the yoke of the great scorecard. This is also a considerable challenge for me in my spiritual life; I wrote about it in an article for Relevant Magazine.com:
“We are conditioned that we must pay for anything of value. It is true that the problem many people have with our faith, the problem many church people have with God, is that His grace is freely extended. We are consumers; we want to pay for it; we are suspicious, skeptical and distrustful of anything too good that is free. For so many of us, faith is an act of working to fill our spiritual bank account with good deeds or positive karma. We live life with the attitude of every good consumer–we believe we get what we pay for, we get what we deserve–yet nothing could be further from the truth.”
On many levels to respond with simple gratitude is to swear off our temptation to view the operation of the world as a bank account of good-will, money, resources. It is the simple acknowledgement of the independence and grace of the person (or people) who offer the gift. Atticus reminds us that the way we receive is just as important as the way we give.