Reading: The Gift by Unitarian Universalist, Reverend 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 flawed, not because my children are poor learners, but because I’m 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 colorful 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 beside 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 did they do 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 cookiess…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 thing that fit on lists, complete with size and color preference. Presents are the sorts of things we are smart enough to ask for. Gifts are altogether different. We don’t usually think to ask for them, perhaps 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…They can be easy to miss.
When preparing for the service today, I came across this reading about the difference between gifts and presents. I wondered how often I notice that difference. At Thanksgiving, the ritual is that my mother puts a piece of paper on the refrigerator and everyone is supposed to write what they want for Christmas and their sizes and color preferences. Then on Christmas day, we generally get some of the things on the list. But the unexpected, thoughtful, or confusing gifts are much more fun. Isn’t that true for you too? My aunt has been making pottery now for the past couple years, and everyone in the family gets something that she has made: plates, bowls, wall hangings—most of which have a Cajun theme or New Orleans theme. They have crawfish or beads or floats or Mr. Bingle on them. These gifts are reflective of who she is and of our family’s heritage. In addition she makes sure to send something she has made especially for each of us. A one of a kind item that often we have no idea what to do with, but love none the less.
Recently, let’s say in the past few weeks, I have come to realize that gifts are not limited to things, just as Reverend Blanchard realized. I have been going through a lot, and many of you, realizing this, have given me a number of gifts, not presents, gifts, things I didn’t think to ask for, wasn’t sure I deserved, or didn’t want to risk expressing the need for—either to myself or to you. Gifts of love, respect, and affirmation. Someone invited me on a walk in the woods and then gave some wooden worry birds he had carved; you know you hold them in your hands and rub them while you think, reflect, or worry; rubbing the wood is soothing and calming. And someone offered me a helpful discussion on how to manage grief. Some have offered hugs and some reference letters. I didn’t even think about asking for reference letters until one of you came into my office and asked if I needed one. Others of you have offered to go out to lunch, or dinner, or a coffee just to talk, not about anything in particular, just to talk. These gifts--offered in the spirit of love—are things I very much appreciate and I will remember.
I know this might sound strange, but these gifts made me stop and consider how lucky I am, how blessed I am, how much abundance there is in my life. I have more than things than I need, I have more love in my life than I could have ever hoped to have. I am blessed by the Universe or the divine or by life. Now this might sound strange coming from a Unitarian Universalist minister, but here’s the thing, I believe that there is an abundance of grace in the world in every moment, if we just take time to mindfully take it in. Grace is the unexpected, undeserved, wonderful, (often needed things) often unwarranted kindnesses that life offers. I don’t think grace is found; I believe that grace is there for us to notice.
Unitarian Universalist Reverend Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar wrote in her book Fluent on Faith: “A cartoon in the New Yorker a while back shows bicyclists in four panels. In the first, a young man in sleek cycling attire pedals away while the balloon over his head captures his thinking, “Fitness.” In the second, a woman with baskets and saddlebags filled with bundles thinks, “Environment.” In the third, a teenager thinks, “Independence.” And in the last, a young child, smiling ear to ear, thinks simply, “Wind.”
When I read about this cartoon, I remember how when I was in college at Texas Christian University, I used to take walks on winter nights, often all by myself, from my dorm to a little park about a six blocks away. I remember the joy I felt just breathing in the cold air. I felt the cold air was an unexpected special gift, invigorating me, making me smile, something just for me that I needed though until I breathed in I didn’t know I needed or even wanted it.
Right after that memory popped into my mind, I left my office here and went outside. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The cold air filled my lungs and I felt the same joy that I did all those years ago. I smiled and let my mind wander, opening my mind to all the other unexpected, undeserved, wonderful things that pass through my life every moment of every day. The sound of a bird turweet turweet turweet. The breeze against my skin. Even the wonder of being able to balance on two legs or even one. I know these may sound like little things, but they bring joy to my heart when I just stop and notice them.
In these past few weeks I am taking more time to notice the little things, embrace them, feel gratitude for them. And I am feeling the abundance of gifts and grace in my life. I have more than I need and my spirit is full. I have more than enough to share.
When was your homemade potholder or Mr. Bingle plate moment? When was your last “wind” or “deep breath of cold air” moment? Life will continue to offer these moments every day. It's up to us now to stop and notice.