About thirty-five years ago, I lived in a community of a hundred men who kept everything in common. We literally pooled our money. Out of that pool we paid for our clothes, food, rent, and even our cars.
Before we had a non-profit name, the cars we bought were registered in one of the men’s names (usually whoever was convenient at the time). We had a little fleet.
One day I was in a car with Bruce (the first time I’ve used a real name) when he was pulled over for speeding. The officer sternly asked for a driver’s license and the car registration. We always kept the registration in the glove box; always … except this time.
Bruce told the office he didn’t have the registration, and the officer asked Bruce who owned the car. Bruce glanced at me red-faced, turned to the officer and stuttered, “Sir, I don’t know who this car belongs to.”
The officer replied incredulously, “Let me get this straight. You are speeding in someone’s car; you can’t find its registration. You don’t even know who it belongs to; but you don’t want me to think you are stealing it.” He strode back to his squad car.
A few minutes later he marched back with a speeding ticket. After handing the ticket to Bruce, he leaned in the open window and he dead-panned,
“By the way, sir, just in case you’re curious, this car belongs to you. You own it.”
I long to own so lightly
I long to hold onto my life (talents, and calling) the way Bruce held onto his car. What I admire about Bruce’s ownership is not his self-denial giving; it is his self-forgetfulness.
There are a whole set of services we offer to others out of conscious self-denial. Let’s not stop. The world needs people who give money to the needy and time to good causes. It is good and right for us to offer from conscious self-denial.
But there is a better way. There is unconscious self-forgetfulness. C. S. Lewis portrays the biblical vision of believers using their gifts as artists when he paints this picture,
God wants to bring us to a state of mind in which we could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) … glad at having done it ourselves than we would be if it had been done by another. (Screwtape Letters, slightly edited)
I long to live my life with this artistic self-forgetfulness, creating art for the sake of beauty not acclaim; I long to turn my service into art, and to give it freely.
Giving or getting
Has anyone ever “given” you something when the reality was they wanted to “get” something? It’s like the time a friend invites us to dinner and we discover—to our dismay—that the dinner is a network marketing promotion. We hoped for discussion with friends; we became a business target for entrepreneurs.
It’s easy to “give” our service—our art—in the same self-serving way, to feed our ego, to satisfy a thirst for applause, or to gain prestige.
We know people like this. There is a force field around them; there is a gravitational pull to applaud their “gift.” It feels like the goal of their giving is to get.
We not only know people like this, we often are people like this. But God is working to free us from this self-focus. Lewis continues,
God wants us, in the end, to be so free from any bias in our own favor that we can rejoice in our neighbor’s talents as frankly and gratefully as in our own—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. (Screwtape Letters, slightly edited)
God is shaping our hearts to offer service as art, and to appreciate it simply as beauty.
But how is he doing that?
Our giving to get—our cosmic self-consciousness—comes from a type of pain. When was the last time you thought about your elbow? I never do. Last week I slipped on the driveway and smacked my funny bone. Now I think about my elbow all the time.
When my elbow was working perfectly fine, it would bend and straighten and twist and turn beautifully, like an oiled machine or a work of art (can’t you see my beautiful elbow in the Louvre?). When my elbow worked, I enjoyed it with unconscious forgetfulness.
But when my elbow got banged, I noticed it’s every movement. The reason we “give to get” is our pain from a banged up heart; we look for applause to salve the pain.
God’s plan to salve our hearts with long term satisfaction is for us to know his love. Lewis describes this love:
To please God… to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness… to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in her work … it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is. (Weight of Glory)
As we come to know his love for us—indeed his delight in us—as his artistic masterpiece, it is then that we begin to receive the salve our heart has been longing for.
My friend—from the beginning of the article—lived in a community of men who shared their money, time, and their fleet of cars. Nothing was their own.
I long to offer to others what God has given me in a way that is simply giving; without comparing, envy, or restraint; not to feel good about myself but to offer beauty in a way that would delight me just as much if someone else had done it.
Someday God may knock on my window lean in and chuckle, “By the way, Sam, just in case you’re curious, this art belongs to you. You made it.”
Because I wouldn’t have known. Or cared.