As various people stood up to share, I could hear people quietly weeping all around me. The organizers were brilliant for anticipating the gush of tears. Boxes of tissues were strategically placed for the convenience of all attending. Of all the sharing, the mother's reflections and the reading of Angela's will, unleashed the most tears. I was particularly moved when I hear Angela's will being read out. She willed all her soft toys to her family, and everything else to be sold for the benefit of others, as she did not need them anymore. The will was only discovered after Angela died on Nov 20th, 2009.
As I thought about it, there is much to learn from a 15-year old High school student. Things are frequently not as important as we place them to be. Sometimes, it takes an illness to reveal the true humanity in all of us. In a society where money and possessions seem to be the primary concern of people, this young life is a glowing testimony of love and kindness. Sometimes, simple joys bring about the most satisfying experiences. One thing that impresses me most about the service is how a simple key of 'giving' can unlock the wealth of human goodness. This reminds me of Miroslav Volf's beautiful book, "Free of Charge," which talks about the need for human society to give and to forgive in a 'culture stripped of grace.' It is fitting for this first day of Advent to think about Christ coming down to earth.
If we get out of our homes these next couple of weeks, we will be inundated by the materialism surrounding Christmas, Santa Claus and season of gifts. Volf suggests that we first learn to respond to the great Gift of God in Jesus by exercising 4 obligations:
1) Faith in receiving.
Do not simply think God gives us gifts expecting something in return. The gift is plainly and simply 'free of charge.' Too often, we fail to exercise faith when we receive or give gifts with an expectation to do things for others. I learn long ago that true giving is in giving to others who cannot pay back in return. Faith in receiving is as simple as receiving things without suspecting other people's ulterior motives. True giving does not have a fineprint hidden somewhere. True giving implies a free gift, expecting nothing in return. We can only practice such giving when we have first received love from God. Give people the opportunity to see us as people who have freely received Christ.
2) Oblige to gratitude
Receiving God's gifts correctly means responding with a grateful heart. This is something freely given and received, not demanded. This means that even as we go through the festive period, shopping or joining the throng of busy shoppers, let us be thankful for everything. Again, we need to recognize and appreciate what Christ has done for us, before we can adopt a thankful heart. My readers, receive this Gift of God. Give people of your thankfulness.
3) Oblige to be available
How can our Giver bestow gifts on us, if we are too busy? If we are always not available, we will miss the soft gently whisper of love. My readers, the act of receiving requires our availability. Perhaps, the ones closest and nearer to us are ready to give us something. A child waiting to hug us? A friend ready to buy us coffee? This Christmas, practice being available. Give people of your time.
4) Oblige to Participate
This means that when we receive gifts, we are not to let the receiving be the end point. It is actually an invitation to participate in the joy of giving. Give others the encouragement by joining with them for common causes.
All of these obligations are evident in the life of little Angela. I do not know her a lot. I have seen, shook her hands and prayed with her before. Yet, I felt there is something Angela's passing has taught me. All of the above.
In faith, she receives the gift of life, and the readiness to die. Freely she received, freely she gave. Her gratitude shows forth in the way she gently love her parents, teachers, friends and many people. Her keen awareness that people mean more than things, shines through in her will. Despite her eight years of illness, she was available to give others strength and encouragement. In fact, her brave fight to the end, gave all of us a reason to cherish our own lives. Finally, her dying brought so many people together to reflect and to love Who she loves: God.
This is the true power of giving. Yet, this giving itself is only the beginning. When we exercise the 4 obligations of Faith-receiving, Gratitude, Availability to people and the willingness to participate in community bonding, we move even further. Much further.
The world tells us: "Christmas is a time for giving," let us remind ourselves that the act of giving entails 4 responses:
- Receiving the discernment to know when to give and to receive
- Receiving the wisdom to be thankful in our hearts as we see life;
- Receiving the humility to be available for loved ones and friends;
- Receiving the willingness to help one another build the kingdom of God, by community participation.