By Tina Teng-Henson
In late July, I came across a thoughtful op-ed by David Brooks in the New York Times in which he describes “the gift economy.” The gift economy is characterized by interdependence, sympathy, generosity, and gratitude. His conviction is that this nurtures better lives more sweetly enjoyed than the ones you’d otherwise find in the capitalist meritocracies we find ourselves in. Brooks doesn’t want us merely settling for transactional society, forged by “self-interested, utility-maximizing creatures.” So he writes the following:
“In the capitalist economy, debt is to be repaid to the lender. But a debt of gratitude is repaid forward, to another person who also doesn’t deserve it. In this way each gift ripples outward and yokes circles of people in bonds of affection. It reminds us that a society isn’t just a contract based on mutual benefit, but an organic connection based on natural sympathy — connections that are nurtured not by self-interest but by loyalty and service.”
I came across this, as I said, in late July — about a week after the birth of our second child. And I felt grateful for David Brooks having put into words the strange economy of profound generosity that was lavished upon us, over and over again. Gifts of home-cooked meals, plenty of hand-me-downs and brand new boy clothing, gorgeous bouquets of flowers, cards sent from family and friends near and far…
I am undone by these gifts, these bonds of affection, that have caused a ripple effect in me. I am not naturally a gift-giver — it is more in me to give people the gift of my time, the gift of affirming words, encouragement. But something in me has become so touched that it compels me to want to live and one day finish my life having given it all away. To recognize that in our short lives, it really doesn’t matter what we’ve accumulated or come to possess. Far more important is what we’ve given to others. What we have shared out of all that we’ve been given. It will matter that we have loved much and shown that love tangibly to others.
I came across this same concept in my quiet time devotion the other day as well. In Luke 3, when John the Baptist is “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 3), it struck me that those listening are urged to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” — and this fruit is not some self-defense based in Abrahamic ancestry, some self-justification based on talk, background, or pedigree. The crowd is convicted and asks, “What then should we do?” They understand that something is required, something needs to be done. And it struck me that morning as I read this passage, that John is all about making repentance concrete, embodied, tangible, actionable, and in many ways, supremely simple: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” That’s repentance? Wow. It doesn’t get any more tangible than that.
To the one who has none.
Anyone who finds themselves with something material – be it in excess or otherwise – should give to the one who has none.
I’ll be honest, there has been a part of me that’s thought, “it’d be great to have giftcards or cash instead of more clothing for our little one” — as the hand-me-downs alone have him pretty adequately covered! (And some have thoughtfully done just this, which we have appreciated) Another part of me is thinking, “who can I regift these brand new 3 month onesies to? Who else is having a baby boy soon?” (and there’s nothing wrong with that!) Or, “is there a gift receipt so I can exchange this for something else we need?” Or, “gosh, how will I ever repay everyone for their kindness to us? Oh good, they’re getting married in the fall, we can give them back something really nice then.”
And there’s nothing wrong with all this, but I recognize that these responses within me are more reflective of an economy of repayment and return…and not the pay-it-forward gift economy of unexpected kindness. And I fundamentally don’t want to be about the “utility-maximizing” sensibility of the capitalist meritocracy — that wants to store up in barns, feel security and control in having everything saved up, set aside for the future, equally transacted at the right time. That part of me feels too focused on what makes sense; it has forgotten how to pause and simply receive the love and care conveyed by these simple gifts. Food, clothing. To receive it all in gratitude and trust that it’s come my way for a reason.
So what I want to take away from this season of lavish love poured out on us is this:
Our little boy’s covered. He’s got food, clothing. He is literally all set with what he needs for his first year of life and then some. And the good and generous God of all creation, whose spirit has prompted his people to be so good and generous to us… he and they will continue to cover for this little baby — in every respect.
And so here am I, a witness, observer, and receiver — of this beautiful gift economy. This precious kingdom of God which has infiltrated our petty human world and undone its practicality and smallness of heart with a super-abundance of goodness, an overwhelming downpour of grace. It is changing me for the better. And with God’s help, this will ripple outward to others, paid forward to our community and beyond — yoking all of us together with bonds of affection and love.
Tina Teng-Henson has been blessed to learn + grow alongside so many different people, in so many places: Long Island, NY — Harvard College + the South End of Boston — Nairobi, Kenya and Lanzhou, China. Tina, her husband, and two children live in Santa Clara, and she just completed her MDiv at Fuller this June.