Sunday, December 12, 2010

Re-gifting at Christmas

I once read a Dear Abby letter in which a reader lamented, “How do I get a person to stop re-gifting me? Often it's her used clothes, used decor and knickknacks that she no longer wants. This person can afford nice things, which is why she thinks I would like her old stuff. I find it insulting when I get it in the form of a gift. It is always wrapped beautifully and presented as though I should be so grateful.  How do I get her to stop?”  Secondhand Rose

     Abby's response was, "Dear Rose: If I selected a gift for someone and she didn’t keep it--or exchanged it--I would give it one more try. If it happened again, from then on I would send a lovely card to mark the occasion, or a bouquet or plant. And if I was really ticked off, I would re-gift her gift back to her." 

     I'd like to offer a slightly different take on the concept of re-gifting in general, based on my belief that at some level everything we give, at Christmas or at any other times, is a form of recycled gift.
     I first came to that realization years ago after I had finished leading the offertory prayer at my congregation. As folks were putting their gifts into the offering plates it struck me that some of those very funds would be given back to me as their pastor. In other words, I was at the receiving end of the church’s charity, a direct recipient of God’s money. And so whatever I gave or spent was a re-gifting.
    My next thought was that we’re all pretty much the same in this respect, that we are each gift receivers more than we are earners or givers. What these church members had given to the church was also in some way first a gift to them. Which means that in a sense we've all been on God’s welfare since conception, and are, at best, working welfare recipients.
     For a start, none of us has ever earned the priceless gift of life itself. And the privilege of being born to parents who loved us and took good care of us (at no charge), and of being born in a land of abundance instead of in some poverty-ridden country, were also things we could have never negotiated, bought or paid for. Besides, many of us received a free public school education, one paid for by others' involuntary gifts--in the form of taxes.
    Later some of us got to enroll in institutions of learning we could have never been able to create (or afford to attend) without the generous gifts of hundreds of unnamed donors. Add to that our good health, our sound minds (most of the time), and whatever talents or gifts we've inherited--all helped us get whatever positions we’ve had, and are examples of amazing, unmerited grace.
    When I was six, my parents were able to buy a farm with the help of a generous uncle who helped us with the financing. Here we grew and produced food for a living, but we could have never done that without the unearned blessings of God’s soil, sunshine and all of the other natural resources that makes a farm productive. In return for whatever we invested in money and labor for the harvests on our farm, we usually got sufficient payment to cover our costs, with some extra in the form of a gift known as profit. In the same way, whenever any of us buys or sells anything, this kind of gift-swapping takes place, grace for grace, blessing for blessing.
    So that’s how I’ve come to believe that all of life is just one big gift exchange, a re-gifting.
    Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s a good thing. I disagree with dour economists who say gift giving doesn’t make rational sense, in that whatever we choose to give seldom has the same value to the recipients as if they had been able to choose something for themselves, so things lose their value in the process. But that assumes that the benefit of being gift donors and gift recipients is based only on the market value of things, not on the serendipity that happens in the act of giving and receiving. I believe that in that exchange, value is added to value, and everyone is enriched. We are able to better realize our dependence on others, and our interdependence with all creation.
    I’ll never forget one of our sons, at around 9 or so, deciding to take his entire piggy bank full of gift money he’d accumulated to give as a Bible School offering one summer for Heifer International. We didn’t realize how much he had gotten caught up in the enthusiasm to help raise as much as possible to send a heifer or some goats, rabbits, or other animals to some needy families abroad.
    What he was doing wasn’t motivated by guilt. He saw it as an investment, a re-gifting for something he really believed in. He did it because it made him happy.
     Once we realize how much we’ve been given, it no longer seems like a burden to freely pass on what are, after all, undeserved gifts.
     I once read the story of a medieval landowner who came across a vagabond wandering across his estate.
    “Get off my property,” he ordered.
    “What right do you have to keep me off this part of God’s good earth?” the man asked.
    “I own the land. It’s as simple as that,” the landowner replied.
    “And how did you come to own it?” he asked.
    “I inherited it from my father.”
    “And how did he get it?”
    “He inherited it from his father, a general in the king’s army. He fought for it, and was given the estate as a reward.”
    “Then let’s you and I fight for it,” the man replied, “and whoever wins will own the land.”
    Point of the story? If you look back far enough and hard enough, you realize that everything is first a gift. At Christmas, that’s a good thing to remember.
    You and I just get to exchange. So let's pass good things around and around. Let's re-gift with abandonment.
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