Sunday, July 02, 2006

Learning to receive

I was on the receiving end of a natural disaster this past week. River flooding is different from a hurricane, where there's more suspense about where it will come ashore and how bad it will be. When the river across the street from my home floods, we usually have about two day's notice. We know what's coming, and we have a pretty fair estimate of just how bad it will be. It is humbling to sit in your house (or, more accurately, run around your house trying to figure out what to save) knowing that big-time trouble is heading your way and there's nothing you or any other human being can do to stop it.

I also was on the receiving end of a tremendous river of caring last week, and that, too, is humbling.

We were traveling when the warning came, and there was no way we could get back home in time to do anything. The cell phone rang in our hotel room at 3:30 am with a call from our son, four time zones away, letting us know about the flood warnings and giving us until morning his time to think about what we wanted him to do for us. Making our list and finding Internet and telephone connections to communicate from a foreign city was certainly an adventure, but the real story is what happened back at home. I asked the people I work with for help, and our son asked other friends for help, and still other friends showed up at our house on their own. The group of a dozen or so that came together managed to move everything on the first floor of our house to the second floor--everything, that is, except a massive grand piano which they couldn't move and so raised on cinder blocks as high as they could lift it.

Thankfully, we were spared the worst of it. The water did not rise as high as the worst estimates, and it didn't quite reach the first floor of our house. Still, we can't drink the water from our well, we have to find someone to power wash and bleach the muck from the crawl space under our house, and we lost most of the contents of our refrigerator and freezer after three days without power. (And, of course, we have to bring everything back down put it back where it was.) Still, compared to many of our neighbors, we got off easy, and we experienced tremendous peace of mind knowing that no matter how bad it turned out to be, our family photographs and heirlooms would be safe. Of course they're all just things, and if we lost them life would go on, but they are links to people and times that matter to us, and we're glad we won't have to spend the next weeks carrying their soggy remains out to the street and throwing them into a Dumpster.

Some things I'm still thinking about:
  • Asking for help, asking your friends to do something really big for you, and having them respond by doing even more than you'd asked for.
  • Waking up in the morning not knowing where you will lie down that night; trusting that you will in fact find a place.
  • Knowing that however inconvenienced you've been, others have it much worse.
  • Seeing that people will help you in big ways without your having to ask.
  • Watching your 24-year-old son take total charge of a difficult situation and handle it gracefully and well, taking care of you when you are helpless to do for yourself (but our feelings about this are mixed; if it looks like evidence of our success as parents, it also suggests that the next generation is ready to start taking care of us now--does that mean it's all downhill from here?).

I still feel the glow of being in held in love by so many people, people who worked hard to save what they thought would be most important to us--though oddly, it also felt a little like surviving our own wake, knowing that friends from different areas of our lives were gathered together in our name, without us. And though I describe it as a glow, the truth is that it does not feel entirely comfortable. I'm not used to being so needy. I'm not used to being given so much, and I'm still getting used to it. Even Jesus said it's better to give than to receive. As a giver I may try to empathize with those I am serving, but the truth is that the giver has power, while the receiver has none. The giver is the one who is considered virtuous, who can choose to give or not to give. When you really need help, all you can do is accept whatever assistance is offered to you.

A long time ago I read a book by Alan Paton, author of Cry, the Beloved Country, called Creative Suffering. Paton made the point that those who suffer give a great gift to those who serve them by providing this opportunity for service. While I've come to realize this may not be a completely original thought, it made an impression on me then and I've thought about it many times since. As it happens, we've done a lot in the past to help one of the friends who came to help us last week. My husband has been worrying about what we can do now to express our gratitude for her help in our time of need, looking for some way to compensate her, and I told him that what we have given her is an opportunity to meet us on equal terms, to do something for us that we really needed and could not do for ourselves. He thought about that for a while and finally accepted the idea, but it was clear that being a receiver rather than a giver is something that doesn't come easily to him, either.

The flood has given us an opportunity to practice receiving, asking for what we need, accepting what's given to us with no expectation of payback, learning to look the giver in the eye and simply say thanks. Today's Gospel is also about asking for what we need. The woman with the hemorrhage and the synagogue official whose daughter had died didn't hesitate to go to Jesus for help, and they got it. We're always on the receiving end when it comes to our relationship with God. We can't escape God's love, but what would happen if we really opened our hearts to it? And no matter what I might try to do in return, there's no way I could ever earn what I am given. How good am I at saying thanks?


At 8:17 AM, Blogger Songbird said...

That's beautiful.
I'm glad you're okay!

At 4:58 AM, Blogger see-through faith said...

OH thank you for sharing this. Why is is that for us minister types that washing someone else's feet is so much easier than hving someone do the same thing for us.

I loved Paton's Cry the Beloved Country (taught it at IB level too) but haven't read the book you mentioned. It sounds good.


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