What is a gift?
The first thing many of us thing of when we hear the word is a package, a three-dimensional object, generally decorated in festive wrapping denoting some kind of special occasion.
Our second thought is often of the more nebulous “gift” – a seemingly effortless, natural ability to play the piano, to paint, to nurture those in need. People with these talents are often referred to as being “gifted” or “having a gift.” Wayne has a gift of languages, or instance.
We think about gifts and giving and all that generally in December. March is not known by the folks at Hallmark Cards as a big giving month. Not many people buy St. Patrick’s Day cards. There is no major holiday in March that requires us to purchase presents for our loved ones or our co-workers. It’s just March. That long, desolate place between Valentine’s Day and Easter in the gift-giving calendar.
But I want to talk about the gifts we encounter every day.
What makes a thing a gift? Must it be something unexpected? That seems more the definition of “surprise” than gift. I think a gift is a thing that have, or perhaps receive, and we are glad for it. That can mean a gift of a new sweater or an ability to do a particular thing. The term “gift” indicates that he thing carries with it some positive emotion, that we are pleased to have this gift. If we are displeased, then it is a curse and not a gift. The status of “gift” then, is within us.
I am reminded of a story told by my Italian-American godfather. He was a construction worker, a proud member of Local 3, the Laborer’s Union in Boston. And he had been hurt. He lived with chronic and debilitating back pain, and he had to go to court to secure the benefits that were his. The opposing lawyer was casting aspersions about the legitimacy of Carlos’ injury, when my godfather told him “I am gonna give you a gift. I am going to put a hurt on you so that you can know what it is to feel what I feel. I am going to give you that gift of empathy.”
Now, in the true spirit of that exchange, my godfather was not promising that lawyer a gift. He was threatening to beat and cripple him so that he could know what it was to live with chronic and debilitating pain. I am sure the lawyer did not think Carl was offering a gift. The judge did not think that Carl was offering a gift, either, but Carl had couched his language so carefully that he could not be charged with threatening assault on an officer of the court because, technically, what he had promised to do was “give a gift.” He was duly warned by the magistrate not to actually “give that gift” to the opposition’s attorney.
I don’t think that really counts in the world of gift-giving. Nasty or unpleasant things are not generally considered gifts. By the same token, we must be careful about giving gifts and make sure that the person we wish to give to actually wants what we have to offer.
I am told that I give good hugs. Many of us are proud of our hugging skills and would like to share our gift with others. But we cannot simply approach someone whom we think needs a hug and embrace them. That is the kind of thing that requires the consent of the recipient, the hug-ee, if you will. Otherwise, it is being done to meet our own needs and not the needs of the person we purport to give the hug to. Then it is assault, or touch without consent, and not a gift at all.
Not everybody wants the gifts that we have to offer. Sometimes that can be difficult to hear. We are so happy about the gifts we have and want to share them with people we care about, but not everyone is always pleased with our gifts. My family recipe for creamed salt cod comes to mind. For me, it is wonderful food. For some, it is delicious. For others, not so much.
Let me tell you about a job I have been doing recently and some of the gifts that it has involved. Many of you remember David and Bill who first visited us here a couple weeks ago. Nice guys. They’ve bought a house in Ellsworth and have hired me to do some renovations. Well, the house was not lived in for a long time, at least by people, that is. A local population of raccoons did move in and seem to have lived pretty comfortably there for several years. It is quite possible that the raccoons thought the house to be a gift from whatever rodent gods there are – a sheltered, large place to live with relatively easy access and no humans to pester them, good neighborhood, hospital and restaurants nearby, plenty of foraging opportunities -- – truly, what more could a raccoon desire? See? Gifts are what we make of them.
So anyway, when Bill and David bought the house, the raccoons had to find other places to live, and they did. I came in with my tools and saws and a heater and lots of noise and proceeded to tear apart some portions of the house. Codes require certain kinds of construction in apartments, so that’s what I am doing.
When I tore down the ceiling though, in the upstairs apartment, along with the petrified remains of many years’ accumulated litterbox leavings, down came a petrified raccoon. CLUNK. On my head. And then onto the scaffold where I was standing.
The raccoon was petrified and hardened like an oversized rawhide dog chewie. Upon closer inspection, we discovered that he was in fact inside out. His head was on backwards. There was much speculation about how he came to be inside out, and none of it was pleasant. It is still relatively early on Sunday morning. I will spare you the details of that conversation. Suffice it to say, we had one very dead, very inside-out raccoon carcass on our hands.
I looked at Bill.
“This is gonna cost you extra,” I said.
Then I got out my cell phone.
“I know someone who’s gonna want this.”
Bill’s eyes grew wide. “Leave it to the lesbian to know someone who wants a dead raccoon.”
The person I called was not home, so I left a message. We named our new friend Rocky, of course: Rocky Raccoon in tribute to the popular Beatles song – and I protected him from being tossed unceremoniously into the Dumpster by either my employer or my helper.
The next day, my helper found suspicious bits of fur in a pile of litter mouldering behind the chimney. She pulled out a bone. And called for me to come inspect what she had found. Firmly wedged in an impossible spot was what remained of another unfortunate creature. I extracted him from his (to this point) final resting place from below, resulting in my second shower in dead rodent parts in two days. I called Bill and explained that there would be further adjustments in the week’s charges.
This guy had not had the opportunity yet to dry out and become rawhide like his peer. He was still composting. Ahem. I believe the term that most adequately describes the aroma is “cloying.” It is the kind of smell that gets into the sinuses and simply will not leave. Oh, it was bad.
BUT, the skeleton was in tip-top shape. The skull was perfect, the teeth all intact, and there was even enough of the pelt left to show the raccoon’s mask and some whiskers. It just looked like it was attached to a carpet that had been through the Boer War. This lamentable collection of degrading parts was dubbed “Rocky II” in homage to that regrettable series of boxing movies featuring Sylvester Stallone.
Cell phone came out again. This time I called our own Toby Alley Manring. See? I actually know MORE than one person likely to be interested in receiving a dead raccoon. In fact, the more I tell this story, the longer the list becomes of women (indeed – all women) who would like to receive a dead raccoon when next I find one.
So. Toby came and collected the raccoons with much appreciation and delight. I was nearly as happy to be rid of them as she was to receive them. We parted, both feeling as though we had received gifts. Toby got two cool raccoon carcasses that she will render (that’s a poor word here, isn’t it?) at some future date into beautiful art, and I got to get to know Toby just a little bit better, and that was very cool indeed.
We have since discovered Rocky III, and the body count seems to have stopped there. A friend from Portland has speculated that one more could make the Four Raccoons of the Apocalypse, but then I have very odd friends.
So this is where I talk again about how not everyone is going to be excited to receive the gifts we have to offer. Not everyone is going to be thrilled and excited to receive an inside-out raccoon carcass. Go figure. There’s no accounting for taste, I guess.
Emerson spoke of giving of ourselves, and truly that is the best gift we can offer. We can give of something that is inherently ours. We are often unaware of our own gifts, of what we have to offer. I am blessed to have an aunt who reminds me often of how fortunate I am. I can write. I can do a little public speaking. I can do a little organizing, I can rouse some rabble on occasion. I can tell stories. I am generous with my time and energy and my spirit. These are my gifts. They are as much a part of me as my pale Irish skin and my gray hair.
“You have so many gifts,” my aunt says to me “it’s a shame you can’t get someone to pay you to use them.”
It seems I may have found that vocation in ministry. But that is another story for another day.
Today we are talking about sharing our gifts, and I – and many others – would argue that the best gift we can give is that of ourselves. Like the little drummer boy in the children’s Christmas story, we can give of what we have. The kings brought gifts to the Christ child, gifts that were made by others, as Emerson described “ a cold, lifeless business when you go to the goldsmith’s. This is fit for kings, and rich men who represent kings, and a false state of property, to make presents of gold and silver stuffs, as a kind of symbolic sin-offering, or a payment of black mail.”
The drummer boy had no material wealth to share, but he had his drum and his hands and the music in his heart, and he shared that, without reservation. Who gave the greater gift in that story? The three men with enormous wealth who went to the equivalent of the Hallmark Store or the Middle Eastern Jewelers? Or the boy who had nothing but himself, which he offered completely?
Our hearts and our love can only grow as we share them. When love flows without interruption or impediment, we can feel the divine in it, in us, and in our works. When we give for the sake of giving, sharing of our hearts for the joy of the sharing and for no other reason, it is the work of the divine and worship in its purest form.
It is a delicate dance that we must do to know how and when to share of ourselves. We have to first recognize our gifts. We need to acknowledge that we have worth and that we are a blessing in our own right. We spend a lot of time fretting about affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every (other) person, but how much time do we spend affirming and promoting our own inherent worth and dignity? I suggest that such an effort would do us no harm. We are as worthy as any we seek to affirm. We each have our gifts. We each have something to offer of ourselves to our fellows.
The trick, of course, is that balance. How to give of ourselves without becoming a doormat? How to share of ourselves without becoming that unfortunate (and I would argue terribly codependent) Giving Tree so lauded by Shel Silverstein. The trick, I think, is to learn to be present with ourselves, and to be open to the opportunities that the world lays before us. To be ready with our drum to play from the heart, as the situation requires.
My gift to you this morning has been my storytelling, and your gift to me was your patience and attentive ear. It is not everywhere, I know, that I can tell a story of dead raccoons and make worship out of it, but this sacred space, and this community of souls makes it possible. This is our gift to each other and to ourselves.
Blessed be. Amen.
It is thanks – gratitude – that makes gift-giving and gift-receiving run smoothly. Gratitude is of course, and inside operation. We can choose to be thankful for the things around us and count them as gifts, or we can bewail our circumstances as not being ideal. As we leave here this morning, as we retire to the sumptuous repast that is made up of the many gifts of the many hearts and hands of the people in this room and others who could not join us for whatever reason, let us be grateful for the gift of self that each represents and receive it as the work of the divine in each of us. Let us breathe our own gifts into the air like the a flower offers its sweet smell to any who pass close enough to smell, and to the air when no one is around.