We talk a lot about gifts in the religion business. Gifts we've received from God, how we use our gifts, surprising gifts of grace from others, gifts as talents....you get the picture.
I am not the first to have thought of this, but it strikes me that the giving of gifts is in itself a pleasurable gift, and it is one we often enjoy more than the receiving. I am as subject to that as the next person.
Don't get me wrong - I do like to get gifts. But it is easier to give...then I'm doing the nice thing, and the burden is on the one who receives to appreciate it or respond in some other way. The response is sometimes hard work.
Like for instance, the time that PH got me perfume one Christmas. Bless him, he went to the department store and smelled twenty different perfumes before he picked one he thought I would like. So Christmas morning we opened the gifts, and I got to the perfume - a brand I didn't recognize - and oohed and aahed, and then opened it up, because of course you can't tell what a perfume is like until you open up the package. That, of course, renders it impossible to return. How bad could it be? said I to myself, hopefully.
Bad. Very strong. Very, very, very....everything. But he had that beautiful hopeful look on his face, so what could I say but "Thank you, sweetie. This is wonderful."
So I lied. It wasn't wonderful. The thought was wonderful, but the perfume itself was not.
It was a gift of love. What could I do but receive it with something approximating grace?
Turnabout fair play here. I've failed at the gift-giving end of things, too. Shirts he didn't really like, a CD of music that just wasn't his cup of tea, man-stuff for the grill that really wasn't useful. And he did the same thing that I did...receiving it with something approximating grace.
We've come to an agreement about gifts now, after being together many years. We tell each other what we would like...give each other ideas and options so that the gift we receive is what we want or need. Less of a surprise, but also less chance that it will be the bad-smelling perfume or the stupid grill accessory.
This works well in a marriage, of course. But gifts in the realm of theology are often unexpected, uncomfortable, not necessarily what we think are a good fit. What God gives us carries expectations - we are expected to use the gift from God. We can't return it to the department store, although sometimes we're tempted to put it in the back of the closet (as I did with that perfume) for a couple of years .
Actually, sometimes we put it in the back of the closet until we're ready to try it again...at which point we discover it actually may be a better fit than we thought. The funny thing about the perfume is that when I took out of the closet a few years later and tried it, it was actually pretty nice. I don't know whether I changed or it changed over the intervening years, but I was able to receive the gift differently. Yet another gift, I would say.
Sort of like a call to ministry. Didn't feel like a fit. Put it in the back of my mental closet for several years. Talked myself out of it time and time again, until God peeled away all the objections I set for Him and for myself. Finally, when I was brave enough to take another look at this gift, I realized it fit me better than anything else that had been a part of my life before.
The corollary to this, of course, is that we worry about giving the perfect gift to someone else, and often their reaction is not what we would expect. God has no such problem. God gives, and waits patiently for our response, knowing God's gifts are always the right ones, even when the receiver of the gift doesn't understand.
That's the thing about gifts. They carry more than the immediate and obvious characteristics that we recognize. Like a perfume that our noses don't like right now, but which might grow on us if we actually try it on, it is our response to the gift in the long term that truly matters.
The good thing is that God is willing to wait.