Our family went to a wedding this past weekend. We didn’t know the bride or groom but a friend of ours thought that we should experience a Malawian wedding, so we went. We already knew a little bit about what we would experience because our colleagues, Joel and Rebecca Sherbino, had written about it. Make sure you go and check out some of their sweet moves. Seriously, check it out.
The whole reason that Joel and Rebecca got married again was because Malawian weddings involve people showering the couple with cash. It was a fundraising event that was built on the common tradition of money showers.
Naively, we did not anticipate participating in the money shower. Instead, like good Canadians, we would give a card with cash. This apparently was quite appropriate but also notable for two reasons. First, the card was difficult to find and relatively pricey. When we got there no one else had brought a card. The couple got their gifts very publicly. The privacy and anonymity of a card were traded for the public nature of tossing money on the couple. The second reason why it was appropriate was because the majority of the gifts on the wedding day are cash. We did not see any gifts besides cash. Our friend said that they may have received other presents on another day, but the expectation was that most of the presents would be cash.
At one point the MC sought out 20 people willing to give 1000 MK each (about $2 CDN but in relative terms more like $50 CDN). Given our relative wealth, after consulting with our friend, we felt obligated to be one of the 20. Birdboy brought the 1000 MK up to great celebration. In addition to having to dance at the front of the hall in front of hundreds of people, he was interviewed about giving 1000 MK. No privacy, no anonymity.
Combine these two: the lack of privacy and anonymity with cash gifts, and that leads to something we didn’t expect. We were to present our gift of the card and cash to the couple. Our friend informed the MC host that Mr. and Mrs. Bertrand had a special present (we were so thankful that he didn’t identify that I was a minister which would have brought the whole situation to another level). The MC came up to us and asked if we had a special song that we wanted played while we presented the gift. Not knowing any Malawian songs, we said no but it dawned on me that I was now committed to dancing down the aisle of the hall (which contained well over 300 people).
And dance we did. There is video evidence somewhere because the sight of this white guy dancing was worthy of cell phones getting pulled out all over (my moves are no where near as good as Joel’s; see above video). Wild Child abstained but everyone else in the family danced down the aisle. To my relief a number of Malawians took pity on me and joined us. I presented our card while others were tossing small bills in the air. Shortly after, while still dancing and tossing, the MC said something in Chichewa and then started to read the card out loud. Vivian’s tasteful message of congratulations was read out to oohs and aahs. I could tell what was coming next but was unsure what to do. The MC read out the amount of the gift.
That moment was the most stressful of the day. My over riding fear was that it was not enough. I had witnessed hundreds of people dancing forward multiple times, joyfully and with abandon tossing cash onto the couple but I had no sense of how much each was tossing. It also wasn’t clear how much someone like us was expected to give. I had more money in my pocket if it wasn’t enough but how could I tell? In North America the size of the gift is partly calculated by the closeness of the guest to the couple. The closer in relation or friendship the larger the gift. Getting invited to a friend’s cousin’s wedding means that the gift could be quite small and still be appropriate. In Malawi though, my sense was that the size of the gift was more determined by the means of the giver. As white folks we are seen as being rich and therefore the size of our gift would need to be large regardless of how well we know the recipient.
Turns out our gift was appropriately sized. When he announced it, people cheered and there was much more dancing.
The relief I felt prompted some introspection regarding giving gifts. The act of giving a gift is philosophically and theologically freighted. There are many good and deep reflections on it and the experience prompted me to re-read one them, Miroslav Volf’s Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Volf presents his thoughts simply but they have a depth that I’m continuing to explore. I haven’t arrived at any conclusions yet but I’ve been finding the journey very enlightening.
In Canada we tend to think of gifts in terms of the qualities of the recipient and their relationship to the giver. We give gifts to friends and family because we see them as worthy. At Christmas time we might give extra gifts to those who have done something for us like teachers or the kid who delivers papers or the minister. It isn’t a bald business transaction because we don’t give the gift in recompense for a service rendered. But without the service rendered we would not be giving a present. We don’t give presents to just any teacher, any paper deliverer, any minister; we give gifts to our teacher, our paper deliverer, our minister.
The experience of publicly showering money onto people we do not know does not make sense in this understanding of gift. The privacy of our gifts comes from their personal nature. It is embarrassing to know what others give because it calls into question our relationship with the recipient. They gave that much? If it is “too much” then we wonder if they understand their relative stance in the relationship. We wonder if they want to be closer to the recipient than they are, buying their way into a friendship. If it is “too little” then we judge them for not fulfilling their part of the relationship. We would expect more from them because of their closeness to the recipient. We avoid these judgements of “too much” or “too little” by keeping gifts private.
The Malawian tradition of gift giving comes with its own problems so I’m not suggesting that instead of giving and receiving presents this year that you shower your friends and family with money. It would be very awkward for a child to come into a class room and pelt their teacher with loonies.
Volf makes the important point that gifts from God do not depend “on the truth, beauty, or goodness of the beloved.” Rather, “as Luther stated, because God’s love isn’t caused by its object, it can love those who are not lovable, ‘sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong.’” The couple at the wedding did not deserve to be showered with cash because they were beautiful; we do not deserve to given the grace of God with us because we are good. We need not keep this gift a secret because it does not fit into some cosmic calculus of gift giving. We will never be worthy of the gift of God’s person and the sooner we can unashamedly come to grips with that, the sooner we might be able to live gracefully in our own lives.
I have been drawn again to the language that we so often use at Christmas that Jesus is a gift. The jarring experience of giving a gift much differently has opened my mind and heart to the fact that there are many dimensions and layers of meaning to God’s gift to humanity in Jesus Christ. As we experience Christmas in another country this experience has brought into focus that the Gospel comes to us in new ways.
It is our prayer that you might receive the gift of God, Jesus Christ, in all its fullness this season. Merry Christmas.