Sunday, January 11, 2009

THE GIFT OF SACRIFICE

It's one of the most overlooked but common graces we receive and give throughout our lives

GIFTS THAT KEEP ON GIVING. I conceived of a mid-winter faith exploration series called “Seven Gifts that Keep on Giving.” These aren’t gifts that are given to be consumed, or received to be singularly possessed. These are gifts that enrich us even as we give them; and receiving them, we are inspired to offer them to others. Such gifts are distinctively Biblical and central to Christian life and witness. Consider these gifts that keep on giving: sacrifice, solitude, peace, acceptance, hospitality, friendship, and fellowship. I’m sure there are more than the seven I’ve chosen to focus on, but these are, to me, striking.

GIVING IT AWAY FOR LOVE. Sacrifice is one such gift that keeps on giving. Though hardly ever described as a gift, sacrifice is nonetheless one of the most common expressions of grace exchanged throughout our lives. Here I am not referring at all to the deathly excesses that have involved animal and human sacrifice--whether in ancient religious rites or contemporary battlefields (a Google search of images for "sacrifice" is ugly). On a more common scale, whether it’s taking time out to read to a child or foregoing one’s own goals for the sake of a greater outcome for others, sacrifice is part of a rhythm that makes life sacred. I like the way Frederick Buechner puts it: “To sacrifice something is to make it holy by giving it away for love.”

FOUR OBSERVATIONS ABOUT SACRIFICE. Here are four basic observations I’m developing about sacrifice as a gift to be given and received. Each has robust testimony in the Bible and a plethora of life applications.

1. Sacrifice is a voluntary choice to yield one’s own immediate desires for the sake of another’s greater, long-term good.

2. Sacrifice is powerful because it is risky, costly, and has no guaranteed outcomes.

3. Joyful sacrifice is possible only when we are confident that, beyond visible evidence, we are infinitely loved.

4. Sacrifice, worship, and daily living are bound up together in a way that sanctifies life, transforms people, and blesses communities.

LAYING DOWN OUR LIVES. Common Purpose is, to me, the most profound book on the power and promise of good social work in America. In it, Lizbeth Schorr delineates what works and what does not work in efforts to change lives and turnaround communities in some of the nation’s toughest arenas. Schorr describes a “new spiritual practice” for social work. She doesn’t describe initiatives that necessarily preach Jesus or call for conversion. She notes that the only initiatives that are transforming people’s lives are ones in which people recognize that someone is laying down his or her life for them. In other words, sacrifice is central.

ENTER INTO THE JOYFUL MYSTERY. “Life without sacrifice is an abomination,” writes Annie Dillard in Holy the Firm. I think she’s right. But sacrifice that is demanded or forced is not sacrifice. We sacrifice volunarily and for love or not at all. And the sooner we stop thinking of sacrifice as religious thing, stop thinking of worship as a Sunday thing, and stop thinking of daily living as my thing, the sooner we’ll enter whole-heartedly into the joyful mystery of giving and receiving that sanctifies common life.


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