Saturday, 6 December 2014

Who Needs Presents? The Gift is the Joy

“The Gift” by David Blanchard

"Sometimes I think I can teach my children things that will make life better for them as they grow up. I want to believe I can protect them, or that there is some way for me to do their learning for them. This line of thinking is routinely floored, not because I am not always the best teacher. Despite my efforts to avoid repeating mistakes, I’m still learning things I thought I knew. Just last year I mistook a gift for a present.

This gift was a homemade potholder woven of colourful scraps of cloth. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t beautiful. It wasn’t particularly unusual. Accepting it as a present, I placed it into service besides the stove.

Four days before Christmas I was called to officiate at a memorial service for a friend. Talking with her five–and nine–year–old daughters, I asked what things they liked to remember about their mom. What things they did together? What had she taught them? They were busy, deep at work on a gift-making project, but they expressed some memories that mattered, and recounted some gifts their mother had shared with them; making cookies…snuggling in bed…being their Brownie leader…planting bulbs. Then the nine year old looked down and said, “And she taught us how to make these potholders!”

Of course! A gift! How could I miss it?

Presents are the sort of things that fit on lists, complete with size and color preference. Presents are the sort of things we are smart enough to ask for. Gifts are altogether different. We don’t usually think to ask for them, perhaps because we think we don’t deserve them, or don’t want to risk expressing the need. Maybe we don’t even recognize the need ourselves. Gifts differ from presents because no matter what form they take, they always represent something greater, something deeper, something more enduring; they are about things like love. Respect and affirmation.

Gifts given are often woven into some simple token. And sometimes protecting our won comfort, we give them in disguise. They can be easy to miss.

Now I try to give more gifts than presents, and without too much camouflage. Be gift bearers yourselves. Give them along with presents, and look carefully for the gifts others are trying to give you."

When I came across “The Gift” by David Blanchard, it touched a part of me, deep in the heart of me. I just love the way he distinguishes between a gift and present. How the gift has a far more deeply spiritual and heartfelt significance than merely a present.

Now of course the word “present” is something the spiritually inclined are obsessed with in our present age. So many talk of the gift of the present moment, that this is where life is. I’m certainly not one to wish to argue with these thoughts. That said I do wonder if sometimes we become so obsessed with the present that we forget about the gifts we carry with us that we have been given in those many moments in the past. Too often we wish to lose what has gone before in our intense focus on the present that we fail to embrace the gifts that have come throughout our lives. I have come to believe that to truly embrace the moment, to be truly present requires me to be fully engaged with every moment of my life, for there the true gifts of life emerge.

Perhaps to truly live in the present moment is to bring our whole selves, every breath of our lives and perhaps every life that has made our life into this sublime moment.

This year I have reflected much on my life, perhaps more than I have for some time. I suspect that this is one of the gifts of grief. I have thought much about the gifts I’ve been given throughout my days. Gifts I have not always appreciated at the time. In fact many I failed to notice when they were given. Now I’m not really talking about the material gifts here, more the gifts given by the precious people I have shared my life with, some who are no longer physically with me. The things they took the time to show me, how to do things and just how to be; the times they made me laugh and cry; the joy that they brought to my being. Gifts given freely from their heart to mine.

I’ve also been thinking of the many gifts I was simply born with, that I have not always made best use of, the Graces of life. I have been contemplating how can I make better use of these the ultimate of free gifts, not just for myself but for the good of all?

These thoughts started to form as I shared a prayer in worship last Sunday. A prayer I adapted from a source I cannot recall...The following words have been settling deep into my soul this last week...

Now is the moment of magic,

and here's a blessing:
we already possess all the gifts we need;
we've already received our presents:
ears to hear music,
eyes to behold lights,
hands to build true peace on earth
and to hold each other tight in love.

How do we make good use of the gifts we have been given from the beginning and throughout our lives? How do we bring these gifts to life in this beautiful present that is right here, right now? How do we make best use of the gift of life?

Perhaps that is something to ponder in this season of Advent...

For most of us Christmas is about the giving and receiving of presents, but not necessarily about the gifts we both give and receive.

I suspect that the tradition of giving and receiving gifts at Christmas time is linked to the three gifts of the Magi “Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh”. Gifts of great value 2,000 years ago, although only gold has retained its worth today. Now in early Christianity the journey of the Magi was celebrated on the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January, the 12th day of Christmas, hence the Carol “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree”…etc...

The early Christian church did not celebrate Christmas as we do today. The tradition of giving Christmas presents is really a modern one. By Victorian times the culture of gift giving and the mythos of Santa Claus was beginning to take hold, immortalised in the fiction of Dickens and the like. As the twentieth century moved on into the twenty first this culture developed into mass consumerism. Today it would seem that buying, wrapping and giving gifts has become nothing more than a mechanical chore and one of the worst examples of mass consumerism going. Is this really what Christmas is about? Is this really giving by heart? Is this really the spirit of Christmas?

I certainly do not think so. The spirit of Christmas is found I believe in those simple words from my favourite carol “In the Bleak mid-winter”…

“What shall I give him? Give my heart”

Gordon B Mckeeman once said “Christmas is not so much a matter of explanation and interpretation as it is a mood and a feeling. It is a time in the cycle of the year set apart by hope and fellowship and generosity. Christmas is the season of the heart.”

I agree with Gordon I believe that the true spirit of Christmas is the heart, that this is the gift of the season. Christmas above everything else truly is the season of the heart. When we truly give our gifts to others we are giving them our hearts and as I said only recently I believe, as Desmond Tutu believes, that we each of us possess a piece of God’s heart within us. Therefore when we give from our heart to another we are somehow bringing that heart of God alive and that spirit is once again incarnating in life.

This is the religion, the spirit, that can still be discovered beneath the ribbons and the wrapping paper. This is the spirit that can once again come alive if we engage in the giving and receiving of gifts and not merely presents.

A funny thing occurred to me the other day as I sat in Café Nero, laptop in front of me, drinking coffee and listening to gentle Christmas songs and taking in all the people all around, it occurred to me that each day I believe in Christmas more and more than ever did before, even more than when I was a child. When I was a child I believed in this benevolent creature that would leave gifts for me in a white pillow case if I was a good enough to receive them. I carried on pretending to believe in this long after I knew it was nonsense. I think the main reason was not to break my older brother’s heart who believed far longer than me. When I look back now by the age of about six or seven I had rejected all magic, I just didn’t let anyone know. Over the years I rejected everything until there was nothing left to believe in, not even myself and certainly not humanity. Nihilism is an ugly state of being, I promise you.

Nowadays I believe in everything and somehow more than everything, but please don’t ask me to explain it. I can’t I can only really experience it. I see the magic, the miracle and the joy in the universal Christmas mythos in everything and more, even the horror gosh and there is so much of that too. I suspect though that the horror is really a result of that rejection of everything, the nihilism that is a part of humanity. That other part of us that mocks those bells at Christmas time.

Christmas is about the hope and potential of what human life can be. We can bring that love alive in our lives, but it aint easy. It takes real courage to rise above the cynicism of our age and time. Hope takes real courage.

We can bring the gift of Christmas alive and it comes by giving our whole hearts, whole heartedly. In so doing we can once again truly know and experience joy, but not in childish way, in a childlike and yet mature way.

You see the true gift of Christmas is to truly experience joy, something that can easily be lost in life. Joy you see is at the heart of all of this. Joy is the real gift of Christmas and it is the joy that so many people have given me in my life that I need to bring into being and thus allow the gift of Christmas to incarnate in the present moment.

To allow the gift of joy to come alive in our lives we have to believe in life, or at least that is the gift that life has kept on teaching as I have kept on journeying on and on and on…not really going anywhere just wandering round the circle of life.

Now this joy I am speaking of is described near perfectly by Carl Scovel in what he has called “The Great Surmise”. In a talk delivered at the 1994 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly he described what he meant by it:

“The Great Surmise says simply this: At the heart of all creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, and to which we shall at last return. This is the supreme mystery of our lives. This goodness is ultimate-not fate, not freedom, not mystery, energy, order, finite, but this good intent in creation is our source, our centre, and our destiny...Our work on earth is to explore, enjoy, and share this goodness. Neither duty nor suffering nor progress nor conflict-not even survival-is the aim of life, but joy. Deep, abiding, uncompromised joy.”

Joy I believe is the gift we are meant to bring alive at Christmas time. This is the gift of life to bring this to life in everything we feel, everything we think, everything we say and everything we do…

Whatever I have been given materially in my life has never lasted and has certainly never enabled me to connect to all that is, all that has ever been and all that has ever been. That said the joy and love I have been gifted throughout my days, when I take time to really feel it, has truly allowed me to not only celebrate but experience every precious moment.

This is the gift, to bring joy to our world, because by gum it needs it…

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