The capacity to give cannot be greater than the gifts one has received; and, a gift given is incomplete until it is truly received.
We have all probably played a version of the game ‘Best’ at some point in time whether intentionally of it just happened spontaneously as part of a gathering of friends. There is a touching scene in the movie The Way We Were. A group of longtime friends gathered in the moments soon after the United States had declared war on Germany. The future was uncertain at best and to salve their pain and anxiety they began to reminisce about their times together – not the worst of times, but the best of times. Isn’t that what we do in the angst of facing some daunting task or future event? Abandon the moment and run for some perceived safety in the warm fuzzy feelings of the past. So they went on the best movie, best afternoon, best year, best week, best party and on and on. Their spirits were lightened and the feeling of love and connectivity was unmistakable.
If we stop to ponder both the secular and sacred gifts we encounter the list is quickly recognized as inexhaustible. If we focus for any time on the contents of that list we will probably experience that most of our pains have been pushed down or away. Miraculous in a way, wouldn’t you say? Grievances and gratitude do not coexist in a moment in time.
Packages wrapped to glitter and glow, some in brown paper, some not wrapped at all. A loving touch, the shake of a hand, a shared umbrella on a rainy day. A handkerchief to wipe a tear away. The earnest question seeking new understanding. The silence of listening, the glory of hearing. Music to raise the spirits or steady the soul. The gift of employment – so taken for granted. Those times of peace when nothing else mattered. Shelter from the cold as numbness set in, a smile from a stranger. Kittens being born, puppies, mother’s suckled milk faded from memory. The sun going down, seeing the glow all around, children laughing, people singing, the man in the moon. Squirrels gymnastics, a slow steady rain, a sunny autumn day, the first season’s snow. Waves at the beach, a story well told. Love in all its forms, food with all their tastes, wine from the grape, oil from the olive, water from the well. Ducks on a pond, flowers in a vase, the scent of perfume, blindness to race. As you can see the list goes on in an endless parade past the inkwell dry.
So now we can pause to reflect which gift for us was the very best.
And how well was it received?
More than a few years ago I received a call asking that I be a youth Sunday school teacher – specifically, the eighth grade. I had only recently been what could be considered a regular attendee at West End United Methodist Church and I puzzled at the request. I was in my mid-forties, had no children, possessed no foundational knowledge of the Bible, and the thought of the regimen of the commitment and the responsibility to the youth, their families, and the church frightened me. Other than that I was very comfortable with the whole proposition. Why I said I would think about it was beyond me. I remember doing the math. Eighth grade. You start school when you are either five or six so in September when you start the eighth grade you are either twelve or thirteen. True I didn’t have children and wasn’t in any regular contact with children, but I was one, I thought. True, I didn’t know much about the bible, but I wanted to learn. Every Sunday morning? No sleeping in? No rolling over and acting on not being in the mood? Fast forward. I said yes and it began one of the more profound and enriching experiences of my life.
A few years later I was preparing a two-part lesson plan for the senior high class which I was leading at that time. Advent was approaching and I had this idea to have a discussion about ‘giving’ and ‘receiving.’ A favorite Christmas story from my own youth had been The Little Drummer Boy and its message had resonated more deeply than I was really aware all through these years. One beauty of those Sunday mornings that had evolved over the previous couple of years was discovering that so many of these youth were more well connected and centered spiritually than the majority of adults I encountered. The general formats for our classes were roundtable discussion based as opposed to lecturing lessons. Jeff Hoffman and I were in our second year of teaching together at the time. We would explore with the class engaging questions, examine old and new testament related references to the topic, and attempt to understand how those issues and insights were playing out in their lives at school and at home.
It was Thanksgiving and the season was about to be upon us and four advent candles later we would be celebrating the birth of our Savior, the quality of Santa Claus’ efforts, or both. This time of year has always been special to me for many reasons, not the least of which is the general outpouring of generosity, love, and goodwill that marches to the forefront of human interaction. Questions were ablaze in me. Were we conscious of our daily interactions with one another? Did we realize that all we did every waking hour was give and receive to and from others – and ourselves? Had we truly received God’s grace and love in the gifts of Christ and the Holy Spirit? Were we all on some cosmic induced automatic pilot that had put to sleep our consciousness? These and a few other light-hearted questions drove my thinking during the lesson planning.
A short digression. At the inception of my acceptance to become involved with the youth, I discovered a great teaching aid. I needed more than a Bible and less than a library to help frame my own learning and study and to lead the discussions with the youth and be prepared with some on the spot answers to questions that I knew were far beyond my grasp. I found a great reference bible and it was not at all unusual for me to read the footnotes in class as we were exploring various passages. Several years later in a Discipleship Bible Study, unrelated to the youth, it became commonplace for the members of the weekly class to ask me to read the footnotes in my Bible.
Well, it was Saturday morning, my usual time for preparing the lesson plan and situated at my desk with coffee, Bible, and notepad at the ready I began the process. I first looked in the index for passages related to ‘giving’ and finding some thirty-five or so I settled in to read them all. Before finishing it came to me to keep the focus of the scripture passages on God’s greatest gift to mankind, Christ. To describe the wonder and the love that I felt in reading those passages from the ancient prophetic texts, through the gospels and the birth stories, and finally to Paul’s writings was then and is beyond my grasp of language and words to describe. But if ever preparing a lesson plan was a chore, this was no chore it was pure delight.
When I had finished making the selection of giving passages and quite excited about the whole idea for this discussion I refreshed my coffee and returned to my desk and looked up receiving. The word was not to be found and I sat there stunned. My poor brain was awash in thoughts of amazement and bits of confusion. Questions drilled through me. If the fundamental law of all things under the sun is cause and effect, then how can one acknowledge the need to refer to giving without receiving. Is a gift even possible without a recipient? What purpose would there be in giving if there were not a corresponding need or want. The questions did not stop there but continued like an avalanche through not only the morning but the rest of that day. My lesson plan had taken a decidedly different turn. I kept going back to the index, sure that I must have overlooked the word. Have you ever misplaced your keys or some other common object and then searched all the regular places with no luck, only to go back and look in the same places again. I always feel silly when I do that but must admit that it has happened on many occasions. Or what about those times when the electricity is knocked out by a storm and you go into another room and reach for the light switch and actually flip it thinking something is going to happen. Rainbow, reason, rebuke, receptiveness was there with one reference of Joseph to God in Matthew, recreation, redemption, relatives, reliability, and relief. All there but no receiving.
What began for me that morning was and continues to be, a rather profound sense of discovery, questioning, and observation. This is not a book of answers and strategies for living, but rather an unfolding of passages in time intending to help searching souls in understanding, perhaps from a child’s perspective, the nature of our being; and perhaps in the mystery of better discovering the true nature of giving and receiving.
I wrote at the time these words were first written and shared, ‘May this giving be blessed by your receiving and bless all your relationships.’
Graham Greene, the noted British novelist, and playwright, said once that there were only three great themes to be considered: sex, money and God. He is quoted in his 1943 book A Ministry of Fear, “Behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities: God is good, the grown-up man or woman knows the answer to every question, there is such a thing as truth, and justice is as measured and faultless as a clock. Our heroes are simple: they are brave, they tell the truth, they are good swordsmen and they are never in the long run really defeated. That is why no later books satisfy us like those which were read to us in childhood—for those promised a world of great simplicity of which we knew the rules, but the later books are complicated and contradictory with experience; they are formed out of our own disappointing memories.”