Now that most holidays are over and gift giving is focused mainly on birthday gifts, I started thinking about gifts. These are something that we give to each other, but the rules, customs and items vary enormously…to the point that some variations on the theme are not considered gifts at all. These variations include such common practices as re-gifts; repurposed gifts; reconditioned gifts. I wonder if it is true that all gifts are judged as soon as they are opened?
I was working in Paris for a couple of weeks just before Christmas and my evening routine involved snuggling into my warm bed to watch some television programming before falling asleep. I considered this a kind of gift to myself for a day’s work well done. French programming of major programs is set at approximately 8:00 PM (news and weather); 9PM (movies and talk shows); 11:00 (educational shows and American police shows); 1 AM (movies). The gifts I gave myself came at 8 and 9:10.
Between programs are ten minutes or so of advertisements. Sometimes, these publicities are repetitive to the point that one starts to pay attention to them. A recurring theme during my stay was the suggestion to spend less money on more of a gift. The constant example of giving reconditioned gifts was portable phones. The idea is that you will give ‘more bang for your buck’ if you give a reconditioned iPhone from two generations ago. It makes sense to me, but it doesn’t consider the immediate judgement of the recipient. I’m thinking that someone who is expecting to receive a cell phone would be expecting to receive the latest, the greatest cell phone. Instead, the advertisements showed absolute pleasure with a reconditioned product. Really?
I understand the concept of buying reconditioned gifts, but tradition has it that they are a personal choice and experience. I choose to buy a reconditioned phone, a used car, day-old bread, but I don’t typically give them as gifts. I am reminded of being a young boy when my dad took me to a store to buy a bicycle. Of course, I was expecting a shiny, new 10-speed bike, but instead we went home with a used bike with embarrassingly fat tires. There was nothing wrong with the bike, to be sure, but in my mind the gift was going to be something completely different. You see, my immediate judgement impaired my gift-receiving ability, not the gift itself.
Years ago, a classmate in Paris was given approval by his dad to buy a moped. I joined in the excitement by looking around in what was at the time the area to buy motorcycles, bikes and mopeds, the Avenue de la Grande Armee. We looked and looked, and the only requirement of my friend was that the moped should be brand new. I suggested that a used one might give him what he wants at a lower price. His response, “My dad said that when you buy a used product, you are buying someone else’s problem.” I have always remembered that advice but have not always followed it.
Judgement of gifts is not what we are taught as children. Most children are either so enthralled or shocked by the gift they open that mom or dad must encourage a word of gratitude. “What do you say?” the child would hear in a gentle tone. Well-trained adults should be aware of the gratefulness that is to be expressed, but it is true that we often miss the magic word. This is the case whether we receive a gift that is brand new, reconditioned, repurposed or regifted.
Judgement of gifts comes with growing up and this is what makes gift giving difficult. We want to give the best possible gift to a child, but their reaction tells us right away that we missed the mark. Some children toss the gift aside and dive into another. Some kids start to cry with disappointment and even anger. This kind of behavior is not necessarily taught, but it reveals the pure emotional result of judgement.
Some say that gifting is impossible because no one in some societies really needs anything. Hence the question, “What do you give the person who has everything?” Strangely enough, this is also an introspective question, “What do I want or really need?” The honest answer in both cases is probably ‘nothing.’ Yet, the impulse to gift remains.
This year for Christmas my sister played along with my request that I receive nothing because I was travelling and would have little spare space in my luggage. The other side of the agreement freed me from having to pack gifts to give. It was liberating. Of course, as impulse would have it, I received a few gifts from my sister and her husband and even from their two dogs! All the gifts were edible and could be shared during my stay. What a perfect set of gifts! We enjoyed them during my stay.
Of course, a gentleman of sixty-six does not need or want too much more after a life of attaining and of ridding. As the expression goes, “Christmas is for kids.” This does not mean that gifts are no longer a means of expressing love, but it does mean for sure that love is the best gift. Symbols of love, like gifts, eventually wear away for adults. Symbols are no longer needed, but only the mystical expression that it is.
To this end, one of the themes I often preached at weddings would be taken from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: He wrote, “Strive eagerly for spiritual gifts. But I shall show you a still more excellent way (I Cor 12:31). To summarize Paul and to speak to the bridal couple, I said that they would be receiving lots of gifts like toasters and blenders, but it would be up to the couple to eagerly strive for the higher gifts, the gifts that are invisible yet always available to those who have the stature (the desire to receive) to reach for them.
Paul teaches that these spiritual gifts come without judgement of the recipient and that the recipient’s positive judgement of them is simultaneously evident as they are sought. In other words, we would not grasp these gifts if we had not already judged their value. Paul also makes it clear that the ‘still more excellent way’ to reach for spiritual gifts is the ‘way of love.’ The gifts we receive and give during our lives then are reminders of what really counts as a gift, love. Gift giving is a wonderful thing.