Sunday, December 28, 2014

New Year’s Examen: What Have You Been Given?

My Christmas this year was generous and joyful, with thoughtful gifts, far too much good food, plenty of time spent with dearly loved family,
from My Antonia, ill. by W. T. Benda, 1918

That has not always been the case. I’ve had Christmases with no gifts beneath the tree, Christmases with no tree at all, Christmases on the edge of homelessness.

In scarcity and plenty, there is still a moment,in the quiet hours of the shortest days of the year when most of us pause to look back at what we’ve been given, to consider what we’ll be called to give in the new year that confronts us.

This advent I’ve been working my way through Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s The World is Not Ours to Save. There’s a short chapter near the end of the book that offers a good examen, a way to look back at what’s been given, to look ahead to the challenges and callings of the year ahead. As Wigg-Stevenson notes, while the world is not ours to save, “the corollary to the truth that we are not everywhere and everything is that we are somewhere and something. We inhabit the portion God give us.”

What have we been given, that we can offer back to the need of the world?

Wigg-Stevenson’s personal catalog of gifts includes the gift of faith, ordination, marriage, family, health, plus:

  • Certain capacities for thought, analysis, communication and humor;
  •   A heart that naturally breaks to see others afraid or in pain;
  •   The rights and responsibilities of my American citizenship;
  •   The security and freedom derived from living in a society governed, however imperfectly, by the rule of law;
  •  The capabilities and opportunities afforded by my education;
  •  The love of friends and the support of colleagues in diverse fields around the world;
  •  Financial resources built through work and savings and a stable source of income (which cannot be extricated from complicity in an unjust economic structures);
  •  Breath in my lungs today.

from My Antonia, ill. by W. T. Benda, 1918
I find myself reading his catalog and considering my own: some the same, some different:

  • Experiences that have taught me mercy, humility, mistrust of easy answers;
  • Knowledge that my own experiences of injustice are more than balanced by my unearned privilege;
  • Discretionary time and energy I am responsible to use wisely;
  • Friendships that span the deep divides that too often hold us captive;
  • Opportunity to communicate outside avenues controlled by hierarchical structure or commercial enterprise. 
  • An unshakeable confidence in God’s love, grace and mercy far beyond human definition.

Wigg-Stevenson asks: 
What does your list look like? Some may enjoy gifts of fantastic power, wealth and status. Others will have more modest lists. For those whose lives are filled with sorrow, the list of God’s gifts may seem short and meager. Regardless of our respective lists’ specific and various content, their purpose is to be poured out for Christ’s kingdom and glory through sevice in a broken and sinful world. We hold our gifts in our souls and minds and bodies and hands and relationships. 
Inventorying these gifts we’ve been given seems to me a valuable practice, a good investment of time and prayer.

Discerning how best to employ them could be the work of a lifetime.

The chapter offers a series of questions, drawn from Micah 4. Here are some of those questions, a place to start:


·  Are we waking every morning with the recognition that the day is a gift of God and that until we die or he brings us to rest in the night, every second and breath should be an offering to the Lord?
·   Do we give our support in finances and time to effort that work for peace among the nations, according to the measure we have received?
·   Do we consistently seek to pour out any national status accorded to us, using our status to undermined the imbalanced and unjust structures that create status in the first place?
·   Where we are disadvantaged, do we refuse to be defined as victims/
·   Do we renounce or redirect gain that we receive from injustice, employing any benefit we might receive in the service of those who are oppressed?
·   Where we do not occupy a privileged status, do we conduct ourselves in a way that forces oppressors to encounter our full humanity, our being made in the image of God?
·   Do we stand firm in the face of unjust threat?
·   Do we refuse that anyone in our community be made to fear?
That last question alone is enough to give me pause.

What do I fear?

Where does fear keep me from using all that I’ve been given?

In what ways do I ignore the fears of others, to their harm or my own? 

Praying through my own gifts, I find myself thinking of others I know and talk with, friends and fellow-travelers who read this blog or share life with me in other ways.

Some have great gifts they’ve never recognized, amazing opportunities taken too much for granted.

Some have suffered losses they count as deficits, which seen from another angle could be occasions to know God’s grace more deeply.

Some struggle with fear or failures, unclaimed avenues into greater compassion or experience of mercy both received and given.

Some focus so sharply on gifts not given they miss completely the gifts received in the unexpected spaces.

Even as I think and pray of others, for greater insight into what’s been given, I acknowledge my own lack of sight: what are the gifts I’ve been given I still fail to acknowledge?  What pride, or fear, or misguided self-doubt keep me from fully receiving the gifts so freely given?
from My Antonia,
 ill. by W. T. Benda, 1918

Our reading today was John 1: 1-18, a reminder of the word made flesh, light shining in the darkness.

What gifts have I been given that allow me to hear that word, that could make that word more fully heard by others?

What darkness in me keeps that light from fully shining through?

We travelers, walking to the sun, can't see
Ahead, but looking back the very light
That blinded us shows us the way we came,
Along which blessings now appear, risen
As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark.

(Sabbaths 1999: VI. Given, Wendell Berry)





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