"Take it!" the elder woman said to me as I graciously refused a $20 bill she
was giving me in the hall of the church.
"I know you need it, please take it. No one else will know." she said.
"But it is more blessed to give than receive." I countered even though she
was right. I had not eaten in a whole day and I was in the hall heading for
the repast after the Sunday services..
"So, YOU would deny me the benefit of God's blessing upon my giving? God
loves a gracious giver, but He needs gracious receivers in order for
everyone to be blessed."
I didn't know what to say. I feebly smiled as I accepted the folded bill
and I slid into my pocket so that no one would see.
I did not speak of the incident for years, but it made an impression. It
wasn't until after my ordination that I finally told someone of the
incident. Coincidently it was to someone, like myself, who needed
assistance but would not accept it - at first.
The Native Americans have a tribal custom that I participated when I was
studying in Northern Wisconsin. Even though I look very European American,
I am 1/16th Native American by blood through my mother and grandfather.
Nevertheless, I was included in the custom despite my European look.
Every year several of the tribal elders take all of their most treasured
items and lay them on a blanket. Then the people walk by and take anything
they may need. I couldn't believe this at first. I asked if the elders kept
anything at their home. "Nothing of value" I was told. By the end of the
line, most of the items were gone. There was a silence as the elders sat by
their empty blankets.
A new line formed and began to walk by the blankets. This time the people
gave anything the elder would need - blankets, sacred items, food, cash.
Not only did most of the items return, but the blankets would be
overflowing. I was astonished at the simplicity and the powerful lesson of
giving and receiving, of letting go of what is valued in this world and
trusting that needs will be met.
The three wise men who came to Bethlehem and saw the new-born Savior of the
world brought gifts symbolic of the noblest of our possessions. The
scripture is clear that these gifts came from their treasure, from their
security, their savings. But if that was the only place from which they
were offered they would not have been worthy. These wise men fell down and
worshipped him and offered their gifts out of the love that was expressed in
their actions. This love is the common source of all genuine giving and
receiving. Armenian Catholicos Karekin II wrote in his book "In Search of
Spiritual Life" (NY 1994):
"Had their gifts not been proceeded and motivated by the act of love
expressed in kneeling, adoration and worship, their value would not have
been as great and as authentic as their material wealth would suggest."
Gregory of Narek, the greatest mystical poet of our Church, says:
not upon the gift but upon the giver."
"It is the spirit of the gift that
makes the real gift, gives color and quality, meaning and value to what is
given. A gift in which there is no self-giving is no gift; a gift in which
love, care, sacrifice are not wrapped, is a show of gift but is not a gift
in Christ-like spirit and form, a genuinely true Christmas gift."
Yes, indeed the gifts of the wise men were graciously received.
A lot of giving and receiving seems to happen at this time of the year.
However, much if it is merely buying and selling. Often it is only trading
capital investment in material objects for emotional security of the
affection from others. There is in this culture too much of the buying and
selling mentality. The gift lists are usually related to who is likely to
expect a gift, likely to give one back, likely to appreciate our giving. Of
course, I participate in this annual giving tradition, but I keep in mind
the lessons I have learned about giving and receiving.
My wife and our family gave to a soldier without family; to a family in
poverty and to the long term success of a village in poverty. As a small
mission, we give of our resources to the poor, the oppressed, the suffering.
Many of us volunteer or work to the soothing of human suffering. We give
our hands to the service of our fellow human beings. Yes, we also gave
presents to individuals and to each other. But none is more important than
the loving gift that blesses both the giver and the receiver - that doesn't
wait for Christmas or tragedy to give. Although, these are not bad reasons
Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese poet, wrote:
"You give little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of
yourself that you truly give."
May all our gifts so bless others and may we be gracious receivers so that
others may also be blessed. Sometimes the gift of humane presence is of
greater value - the bowing in adoring service to Christ-light of everyone
born (John 1:9).