Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A gift carefully chosen

Have you ever gotten a gift you really weren’t too sure about? You smile and show it around while you are thinking about the returns line.
Now, have you ever received a gift, like for Christmas, that didn’t seem to hit the mark when you opened the box and yet it turned out to be one of the best things ever?  That’s happened to me from time to time, and once these gifts became an occasion for change and blessing. Let me tell you about it.
When my kids were younger, they gave me ties. Now I don’t know about other men, but I am very particular about my neckties. I don’t wear them very much these days, but when I was a chaplain and director of pastoral care who went to work in a hospital every day it was part of the uniform of a middle manager so most days I wore ties. Now I have to say I am pretty conservative when it comes to ties. I felt that I had to uphold the dignity of my office. But my kids, well… they had different ideas. Maybe they wanted me to loosen up. I don’t know.
My son picked ties which were, well, sneaky. (Or should I say “crafty?”) They looked from a distance like an old school tie or something pretty basic but up close you’d find that they had Bugs Bunny or some of the other Warner Bros. cartoon characters on them.
Now my daughter went in a whole different direction. One tie had hand imprints in different bright primary and secondary colors on a navy blue background as if a child were finger painting, and included was the script “I love my Daddy.” (No fool she!) Another one had a hospital theme. It was of the Three Stooges dressed as doctors. Which no doubt sparked confidence to every patient who saw it. But the one I remember the most was The Christmas Tie. It was bright red and had images of Santa, reindeer, candy canes and Christmas wreaths, and… it was musical. If you squeezed it, it played “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” And once it started, there was no stopping it.
Now that December when I was going to work, she’d look at me and ask me if I was going to wear the singing tie. Yes, ma’am, I’d say. Now I could have worn it out the door and then changed it, but you know that…well, that’s just not right. So I sucked it up, put on The Christmas Tie and went to work.
Now a hospital chaplain’s job is to visit sick people, to listen to their stories, pray with them and bring them some measure of comfort and hope by helping them tap their source of strength and hope. And, as I said, I always wanted to put on a dignified, stable face on my ministry. But it is hard to do that when your tie has Daffy Duck or the Three Stooges or would suddenly burst out with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
But you know what? A strange thing happened. These ties, they made patients and co-workers smile. Doctors, nurses and other co-workers would ask me what tie I was wearing that day. And I will never forget the smile on the face of the otherwise very lonely older man when, in the middle of a very serious prayer, I bumped my tie and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” started playing.  His family told me it was the first time he laughed in ages—but because of the music or from my startled expression, I don’t know.
My kids were right about these gifts.  They taught me something very important about life and about the life of faith.
Christmas is a time for gifts. And gift giving is a very important job. You have to think about not only what a person needs but what suits a person’s personality. Getting a gift—even one that doesn’t seem quite right—is one of those moments when you know if the person who gives you the gift really knows you. It is also information: a gift carefully given tells us a little about the giver and how they see us.
A very wise priest who taught me when I was in seminary told me that “gracious people accept gracious gifts graciously.” I’ve never forgotten that lesson. Even if the gift does not seem quite “right” at first, it is still a gift and is to be accepted graciously.
Do you know why we give gifts at Christmas? All those Christmas gifts wrapped in pretty paper or found in stockings or exchanged at offices and classroom are more than just a custom. They teach us something. First, they teach us that gift giving is not merely a transaction, it is an act of generosity. For the Christian, the gifts we give point us to another gift. The gift God gave in Jesus Christ.
When we hear the story of Jesus’ birth from the Gospel of Luke, we discover that God is paying attention to people that most of us would sooner forget. The manger was a gift…an act of kindness by someone who decided that if the inns of Bethlehem would not open to Mary and Joseph…not because they were full, but because Mary and Joseph were not “our” kind of people. Someone had to open their heart a little bit to put the very pregnant girl and her husband up for the night.
And the shepherds.  They got a gift also. When the angels and heavenly chorus announce to them the Saviors birth, they are being given news despite the fact that they work in a job that puts them outside the boundaries of acceptable religious life. Instead of appearing to kings and priests, the angels go to everyday, working people, the poor and the outcast.
The gift of Jesus is that God is with us. Not far away in the some corner of cosmos tuning in every now and then. But with us right now, where we live sharing with us all the struggles of daily living.
The gift of Jesus is that he is God-with-us, a King over all Creation and at the same time joining us on the human scale. God shares what we experience: all the hope,  all the setbacks, all the hurt, all the relationships, and all the love. In Christ, we see and know that God participates in all of life with us. And because he would grow up and give himself to death on the cross, he will give us the gift of life with God forever. So with Jesus we have a new gift: purpose, hope, and holiness.
So if it is true that a gift carefully chosen tells us about both the giver and the gifted, what does God’s gift of Jesus tell us about God and humanity?
For one thing, God’s gift of Jesus tells us not only that God loves us, but that humanity is worth loving. Heaven knows we are capable of great evil—like Newtown or the firefighters who were ambushed in Rochester today—and we live in a world that can be predictably unpredictable—which we learned again through Hurricane Sandy. But for all that, we are also capable of great nobility, have great creativity and can be loyal. We are a bundle of contradictions, and the gift of Jesus tells us that God loves us so much that he joins us in all of that and helps us through it. God both knows our deepest failings and our greatest possibility.
Also, we find that God knows that our faith is sometimes faltering and inconsistent but that God meets us where we need God’s help the most. We may not know that we need God’s gift of Jesus. But God gives the gift anyway.  
I think that if God were to add stocking stuffers to the gift of his Son, it would be as the novelist Oren Arnold suggests: "To your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect."
Jesus is God’s gift to us. And if you accept that gift, there will come moments when you will know that Gods gift comes to you over and over, just what you need just and just how you need it, And then something marvelous will happen. As you live the gift, you will find yourself giving the gift back and becoming the blessing God knows you to be. 

Isaiah 62:6-12 
Titus 3:4-7 
Luke 2:(1-7)8-20 
Psalm 97

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