Sharing two contemplations for this time of year.
A Gift Freely Given
Daniel R. Vertrees
In Christianity, we hear of the “Gift Freely Given” which is usually a description of God’s Grace: Salvation freely given to humanity through the person of Jesus Christ. In our usual human way, we contaminate the gift. During the Christmas Season, we are called to celebrate the gift freely given, and we do so through our traditions of gift giving. Ah, but there is the human rub.
“I gave you that gift and if you don’t use it right I can take it back.” Variations on that threat are common whenever a gift is given. We do not give gifts freely – they have a price, a string or two, an obligation attached. Even something as mundane as Christmas Cards, about as human a concoction as is possible to splice onto a holy time, are given with strings.
“Did we get a Christmas card this year from George, honey?”
“No. We most certainly did not.”
“Well cross him off the list for next year then.”
Even in something as meaningless, in the overall scope of creation, as a Christmas card is laden with costs. It is not a gift freely given.
When a gift is freely given, it becomes the possession of the recipient. It is theirs to do with, as they will. If they want to grind it up into paste, it is theirs. It may not be in keeping with your expectations, you might mourn the loss, you might be angry, but the reality is that if it is freely given, then you can have no say in how the person uses the gift, nor should you want to.
I gift that comes with conditions is a loan. It is the recipients to use, but under your conditions. It is a gift that is never truly theirs.
I was once in conversation with the Marc Andrus who was Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, and now serves as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Francisco. I was asking the old concern of why we send people to mission out of our area when there are so many in need close by. He explained that when you do something for people far from you there is no bond of obligation formed. Bond of obligation – “well I helped them now why are they not helping (me, you, others). Bond of obligation – a condition placed on a gift given.
I am hard pressed to remember receiving (or giving I suppose) a single gift that did not have an implied bond of obligation, a string, a condition attached. God’s gift freely given was given without strings, the sole purpose was to provide salvation and, if there can be said to be a bond, it was a bond of love, support, reconciliation, and life. His was a gift freely given full of hope, opportunity, love, commitment, and support from God to us. His gift freely given, combined with the Freedom of Will to do with that gift what you wish, is God’s model of a gift.
Just once this year, try to provide a gift freely given to a friend or loved one, or stranger for that matter. See how you respond to the receipt and use of the gift. Then ask yourself – are we capable of the gift freely given?
And the corollary:
A Gift Truly Received
A Corollary to The Gift Freely Given
Daniel R. Vertrees
Most of us were raised with the expectation that we would follow some form of proper etiquette regarding the response to a gift. A “thank-you” in person with a follow-up “thank-you” note at a later (but not too much later) date. We are imbued with the automatic obligation attached through tradition to receiving a gift. It is just plain “good manners” to thank someone for a gift, a stipulation of receipt, a validation of the magnanimous nature of the giver.
Aunt Millie would give and then expect acknowledgment. Sometimes the message was, “if you do not thank Aunt Millie, she will not send you any more gifts.” Therefore, we are bound in our own strings that we place on gifts. If a gift is freely given, the sender will not expect or demand even a thank you. The gift comes with no strings.
It seems an impossible task for many of us. We try to figure out how much the gift cost so we can match it in return. We try to figure out that if we are invited to a four-course meal that we must reciprocate with at least five courses. If we work under the assumption that the gift is given freely why do we struggle with the concept of a simple acceptance of that gift.
We respond in such strange ways. “Oh you shouldn’t have,” we say. What is it that they shouldn’t have done? Given you anything because you are unworthy? Do you believe that or is it some convoluted, perhaps false, modesty. Perhaps they shouldn’t have given you anything as tacky as that. Well, somehow they thought it was appropriate for you!
The most tragic, in my opinion is to follow the “you shouldn’t have” with the decline of the gift. “You shouldn’t have – I just can’t accept a gift for the paltry thing I have done.” The giver may hear that the gift is unworthy, or inappropriate, or that no matter what they give it is insufficient, or that you allow little worth to the person making the gift. It also moves the recipient into a superior place of power – “I don’t need the gift, and I will choose what gift is appropriate for me.”
I saw an advertisement prior to one Christmas that was a metaphor for our social mores. A woman asked a young girl how it was that her Dad always seemed to get the right gift for her Mother. The girl responded, “Mom goes to (name of store) and puts what she wants on layaway. Then Dad pays for it, wraps it and gives it to her. That way everyone is happy.”
I guess we have evolved past the gift-as-thought stage and are deeply embedded in the gift-as-appropriate-possession stage. Even the church is compelled to send out an accounting of all the ways are gifts are accounted for.
What to do?
Perhaps just say a simple “Thank You”.
Consider: the parable of the Widow’s mite is not so much about “cheerful giver giving all she had” (guilt, guilt – you hold back on your gift), but it is about a gift that holds no bond of obligation, freely given to the depth of her wish to honor the recipient.
“Go and sin no more” is not an obligation; it is a release, given freely, in reconciliation and love, accepted without a word.
Put that on layaway.