Sometimes I am treated with such grace and generosity that any notion of “repayment” just falls to pieces, and the only thing left to do is marvel that I should be so blessed to have encountered something so rare and profound.
But it kind of ruins my day.
You see, reciprocation is easy. You only have to quantify the approximate value of what was given to you and respond with a gift of your own, a pure-motive token of appreciation that also levels the scales and removes the lingering weight of obligation.
But what happens when you can’t reciprocate? When not only the worth of what you received is too great but any attempt to “break even” would somehow corrode the beauty of the gift?
I turned 23 two weeks ago. On that day, I was called into the apartment of one of the orphanage’s cooks whose daughter is attending medical school with some support from my family. She handed me, amidst numerous apologies for the paucity of the gift, a large coffee mug filled with candy.
I wanted to cry.
She had figured out when my birthday was, remembered it, and then gone out of her way to communicate to me that I was known and appreciated. It was totally unexpected, totally unnecessary, and totally wonderful. And now I can drink 50% more coffee each morning without trespassing into the realm of the addict’s “third-cup.” I was suddenly staggeringly deep in grace-debt, and began trying to think of at least a small way to say thank you.
Then, a week later, she assassinated any chance of “getting even” like some sort of master hospitality ninja.
As I picked up lunch for the kids she asked if I would be able to stop by the kitchen around 6pm that night “for a surprise.” Right on time, I walked into the magical wonderland of food production expecting, I don’t know, cookies or something.
But these cookies looked suspiciously like a tabled covered in a white cloth and laden with all my favorite food.
Oh no she didn’t.
Apparently for the past month she’d been slowly manipulating me into confessing what I loved to eat here and simply needed to wait for a time when she and her daughter would both have the dinner shift so they could make it all for me. Eggs covered in a meat sauce, black beans with cream, fresh bread, rosa de jamaica to drink, and, dear lord, a cheese cake from an amazing nearby bakery. It was all perfect.
I really, really wanted to cry.
We ate the overly lavish meal together at the makeshift table, laughing and trading stories as I also tried to express how thankful I was in as many ways as I could. But eventually I needed to return back to the house to help with homework. Saying goodbye and, for the millionth time, thank you, I stepped out into the chilly night air.
And I cried.
I couldn’t handle it. It was too much for me. Gratitude was crackling through my synapses and inciting such a firestorm of emotions that I could only stand and stare up at the roiling, misty sky and wonder what on earth was left for me to do.
The obvious thing would be to look for creative ways to thank them, and I’m doing that. But the sheer force of their hospitality and generosity requires something greater of me.
It requires that I change.
It requires that I become the kind of person whose life reflects and embodies the grace I have received.
When I left Wheaton, I felt the same about the mentors who poured hours and hours into me, sharing wisdom and passion far beyond their requisite classroom quota. I can no longer just stop by their offices whenever I have questions about life, purpose, God, human origins, political witness, inspiration, wealth, social justice, sexuality, or whatever else, but I can be someone who treats each topic with care and solid theology, always with a commitment to growing in love, never losing sight of what truly matters. I can be someone who learns with the grace with which they taught me to learn, who goes out of his way to communicate to others their overwhelming worth, even when they may not believe it themselves.
When I left South Africa, I felt the same about my coworkers and clients and new friends who welcomed me into their lives. I can no longer walk down the streets of beachside Muizenberg to the rehab clinic or chill in one of the many wonderful coffee shops talking about the bewilderment of existence, nor can I sit by the waves and listen to men and women who have been through numerous hells often of their own design speak of the cataclysmic power of the gospel, but I can be someone who doesn’t allow another’s brokenness (or my own), self-inflicted or not, to fully limit the hope I have for them in the present and future, to dull my holy imagination that sees into and beyond their chaos-fraught lives.
And now, as I am in the slow process of leaving Guatemala, I am daily confronted by my need to be someone who includes others with a free and easy joy, who goes out of his way to affirm and encourage, to give and to help. My time here has been as wonderful as it has because blessed men and women made me a part of this place.
Basically, what it all comes down to is that I need to become the kind of person whose life does justice to the innumerable gifts of grace that have been given to me. I can never say thank you enough to adequately communicate my gratitude, but I can try to embody that gratitude in a life spent in loving service of those around me; I can demonstrate my thanks by allowing their actions to shape and conform me more into the likeness of Christ.
And that is the ultimate example, isn’t it? Because of the infinite worth of his life and death and resurrection, for my and our salvation, there is no hope of repayment. But that’s not the point. In the wake of his lightning intervention we are to live as he lived – we are to allow his existence and work to form us, to be people who display the grace of his gift by living a life “worthy of the calling” we have received in which we become like him in his love.
And maybe that kind of life starts by buying that precious women some flowers.