Lessons in Giving and Receiving

Photo by Bill Holland

Health challenges the last few months reminded me of a conversation I had with my sister, Carolyn, after my husband, Dave, died of a heart attack at 47. She said, “You and I were taught the Bible verse ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive,’ and we thought that it meant there’s something wrong with receiving. That’s not what it says or means. You need to get over it and learn to receive now.”

Slowly over the years, I have been learning to receive. Still, when Friends ask if I need anything, I usually say no. Then some of them, knowing me well, say, “I’ll bring you some soup.” Who can turn down soup, especially from people who I know can cook? And while the soup is always good, I realize that the real gift is the comfort that comes from being cared for: the visit and conversation that comes with a bowl of soup.

What makes it hard for me to ask for help when I need it? How do I learn to balance giving and receiving help? How do we create a community where we all give the gifts we have, as we are able, and know that when we need help, we can ask and receive it?

I remember a friend in meeting many years ago who said, “We’re a meeting with a bunch of martyrs and moochers!” She was exasperated at the lack of help from some people which created extra work for others. At first, I agreed and felt superior as a martyr before realizing I don’t want to be a martyr, nor do I want anyone else to see themselves at either extreme. I think that we all move along a continuum of ability to contribute to any community. Life challenges, the birth of a child, career changes, illness, or death in the family often mean we need help and have little time for other commitments.

My own life in Atlanta (Ga.) Meeting is an example. When I was grieving my husband’s death, I felt that all I could do was go to meeting for worship, and even then, I often sat crying for most of the hour. I’m grateful that it was a safe space for me to grieve. Gradually I realized that meeting for worship is a weekly lesson in receiving, a time to wait with an open heart for healing. Advice from Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice helped:

Come regularly to meeting for worship even when you are angry, depressed, tired, or spiritually cold. In the silence ask for and accept the prayerful support of others joined with you in worship. . . . Let meeting for worship nourish your whole life.

Several years later, I agreed to be clerk of the meeting and was ready for this greater commitment. Being clerk helped me realize again the danger of martyrdom and how easy it is to create and foster unhealthy dependency. It is often hard to work with and through others, leading me to believe it would be easier to do it myself. When I teach workshops on clerking, I also hear this challenge voiced by others. At a symphony concert performance, I realized how much better our meeting would be if, as clerk, I could be like the orchestra conductor keeping each member on the same sheet of music, playing their part and creating the harmony we all want.

Friend Jan Hoffman’s writing was also helpful when she described the role of meeting elder as a “midwife to the ministry of others.” I discovered that the role of midwife, recognizing and calling on the gifts of others, is essential to the life of the meeting and has helped me offer my gifts when asked. Even though I had taken workshops on clerking and had been asked by the Nominating Committee, I still hesitated at first to make the commitment. The prompt I needed came from my friend Sandy who said, “Mary Ann, you have to be clerk, and I’ll help you.” Her recognition and confidence in my ability gave me the clarity to feel called to the work.

More recently I led a retreat on building the beloved community, and decided to begin the first session with an image: a sculpture of an open hand holding a small bird. I invited Friends to think of themselves as sometimes the bird and sometimes the hand. Like the bird, we come to meeting for worship and retreats looking for a safe place to rest, be fed, and renew. And we are also the hands in the community of those gathered with us. I initially saw myself as just the bird, with faith that I am in God’s hands. Later I realized that resting in God’s hands allows me to be God’s hands when I am ready, like when I eventually answered the call to be clerk following the death of my husband. Now I often come to Sunday worship like the small bird, and resting for the hour renews me so that I leave ready to be the hand.

Perhaps my earliest lesson in finding the right balance to give and receive help in a faith community came from a childhood of memorizing verses in the King James Bible. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he reminds us that we are members of one body with differing gifts, and we are called to use them “according to the grace that is given to us” (Rom. 12:6). Moving toward a better balance of giving and receiving in my community is a lifelong journey, and I’m grateful to still be learning.

Mary Ann Downey

Mary Ann Downey is a member of Atlanta (Ga.) Meeting, recognized and supported by the meeting in her ministry for spiritual guidance.

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