One of the basic ingredients to the holiday season, especially Christmas and Hannukah, has to do with gift giving.
In order for there to be gift giving, there must be gift purchasing or making…which requires decisions…and often leads to some anxiety. A certain amount of that ingredient – anxiety – is a necessary part of the season.
One of the questions that we do well to ponder, to one degree or other, is ‘How and when do we learn to give?’
We who bring children into the world, or adopt them, or who have grandchildren, feel a responsibility to help them learn how to give.
We’re afraid of raising a selfish child; we know that there’s a human tendency toward selfishness, and in the extreme it is narcissism.
But there is another side of the ‘gimme, gimme, me, me, mine, mine,’ part of life. There is, I believe, a deep need to give. It’s a need that can be satisfied, or left unsatisfied. We need to learn how to give. It’s not a lesson we learn and follow for the rest of our lives, because our situation changes – children grow up, we grow older, we have more or less financial resources, we may be unemployed or retired. So we need to learn how to give as things change. It’s a life-long process.
We think a lot about what to give; we do well to ask about the why question…and the how question.
Let me share an experiment I conducted with pre-school children when I played Santa, which I’ve done many times. You know the routine: the children take turns sitting on Santa’s knee and Santa asks, “What do you want for Christmas?”
The child expects it. He’s thought about it…planned for it, knowing how busy Santa is…so he knows he needs to be prepared to click off your list while he has Santa’s ear, ever so briefly.
Every kid knows that Santa brings presents, so, naturally, you have to let Santa know what you want.
My experiment was simple, and I repeated it over the course of a few years. As each child sat on my knee I greeted them, asked their name and then I popped the big question: “What would you like to give someone for Christmas?”
Some children didn’t miss a beat and immediately said with great enthusiasm, something like, “I want to give my mommy a new book – she loves books; and I want to give my daddy a car…a brand new car…” The excitement was electric, as if I had plugged in to that deep need to give.
Some of the children ignored the question – or the question simply didn’t register, so it was as if it hadn’t been asked, and they simply started to tell Santa what they wanted to get for Christmas.
Some paused in confusion, looking at me as if I had made a mistake…the way an actor on stage might respond to another character who muffed a line so he simply says his line to get back on track.
I won’t belabor the point, except to say that there’s something in us that wants to give.
Whitman says it in a poem: “The gift is to the giver and comes back most to him; the song is to the singer, the teaching is to the teacher, the preaching is to the preacher, the acting is to the actor or actress – it cannot fail.”
The primer lesson in the process of learning how to give is to take advantage of the opportunity to give.
You don’t have to be convinced that you should give, any more than you need to be convinced that you should eat, and that you should sleep and do whatever you need to do to take care of your physical needs.
But we’re here to talk about spiritual needs, and the need to give is one of those spiritual needs.
Rabbi Hillel famously put it this way: “If I am not for myself who will be? If I’m only for myself, what am I, and if not now, when?”
The need to forgive is another issue. (Isn’t it interesting that the word forgive is a combination of the two words ‘for,’ and ‘give.’ But that’s a topic for another sermon. Or maybe it’s the essential ingredient of every sermon! Suffice it to say that the inability to forgive means you hold on to resentment, and resentment leads to revenge, and revenge is like the man who takes poison and expects the other guy to die.)
Forgiveness is a gift that comes back to the giver as well as for the recipient.
But I was going to say, before ‘truth broke in’ with her comments about forgiveness and resentment, we need to keep learning how to give. We don’t learn how to give the way we learn the alphabet, once and for all. The requirements are different for grandparents than for parents; the requirements are different as life changes occur.
Holiday gift giving can be extravagant, as you know, and maybe it needs to be a bit extravagant – that’s what makes it precious! Being extravagant is like going the extra mile, doing more than the minimum, more than is expected.
The opposite of extravagant is frugal, which has a non-judgmental connotation until it’s extreme frugality and then it becomes miserly, which is personified in Scrooge before he learns how to give!
Scrooge felt coerced into giving Bob Cratchit a day off with pay. He complained, “You’ll want the whole day I suppose.” “If convenient, sir.” “It’s not convenient; it’s just a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December!”
Coerced giving is another name for taxation!
Then again, maybe there’s always some subtle degree of coercion. We need to be loved, and the only way to get the love we need is to give love, as St. Francis said:
“Make me an instrument of peace – where there is hatred let me sow love, where there is injury, pardon…for it is in giving that we receive and in pardoning that we are pardoned…”
Generosity is one of the cardinal virtues. We give in order to be virtuous…to be good…to have a good life.
In the old Christmas story the Three Wise Men brought Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to the stable, and the humble stable became a sacred place.
The story says that they brought their gifts and fell to their knees to offer them to the twelve-day old child…they fell to their knees…humbled themselves…these kings, who were used to having other people fall to their knees!
There’s something about giving that requires humility – humility is another one of the cardinal virtues. The word humility shares its root-meaning with other words, like humus—earth, or earthy, or down-to-earth; it shares its root-meaning with the word human.
Humility is the key to spirituality.
Psalm 72:11, “May all kings kneel down before him”.
Maimonides, the 11th century rabbi, illustrated the various aspects of giving using his ladder of giving as metaphor.
The bottom or lowest rung of the ladder is where the giver has knowledge of the recipient and the recipient knows who gave. It’s not ‘low,’ in the sense of having a diminished value, it’s ‘low’ in the sense of being ‘basic;’ close to the ground…earthy.
The next rung going up Maimonides ladder of giving is where the giver has knowledge of the recipient but the recipient does not know the source of the gift – doesn’t know who gave.
The next rung up the ladder is when the recipient knows the source of the gift but the giver does not know the recipient.
The next rung up the ladder of give is where neither the giver nor recipient know the other – it’s anonymous.
But Maimonides suggests that the highest rung on the ladder of giving is an interest-free loan the purpose of which is to break the cycle of poverty, enabling the needful person to establish themselves as independent and productive members of society. It’s about empowerment.
In recent decades, micro financing has become popular, offering small loans to help the recipient establish a small business to become ‘independent and productive members of society.’
Lately we’ve been learning about some of the problems attached to micro-financing, but that too is a topic for another sermon.
The point is important, however: a loan, as opposed to an outright gift, is a the highest rung on the ladder of giving since it avoids the recipient being reduced to a ‘charity case,’ which is less about humility and more about a form of humiliation…a word that shares its root with humility, humus and human.
On the surface of things, it looks like giving is easy, but when you dig into it, giving can get complicated, which is why we have to learn how to do it well.
This brings to mind a Russian proverb that says, “Why should I be angry at him, he never gave me anything.”
I’ll let you ponder that one for a few years, but I wanted to mention an aspect of giving that’s not about gift-giving per se, but is certainly about giving, and learning how to do it well – our Small Group Ministry program. Each month there is a topic with an outline to stimulate group discussion, there are quotes and so forth. This month’s topic is presents.
Ministry means service, or serving.
The Small Group Ministry program provides an opportunity to connect on a deeper level than coffee hour provides. It’s a connection deeper than chatting – which is the mother of texting. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a good chat or text message.
But deep listening is a gift to the one doing the talking and the one doing the listening.
Good listening is often referred to as ‘active listening.’ It’s not passive. It’s not waiting to take your turn in the conversation.
Something happens to us when we feel we’re being listened to; that is to say, when we feel that the other person is trying to understand; that they’re not judging or waiting to criticize, but that they are fully present. (Notice the use of a synonym for ‘gift,’ in the phrase about being ‘fully present.’)
Good listening is a gift given to the one sharing their ideas, or their opinion, or their concerns, or their joy. It’s a form of therapy to the extent that therapy is an ingredient of all good relationships.
Whitman got it right: “The gift is to the giver and comes back most to him.”.
The basic ingredient of the Small Group Ministry program is the commitment to spend time together. Notice the word ‘spend’ in that phrase. To be in a committed relationship is an investment…
We say that a person is ‘generous with their time.’
We say that we spend time doing this or that – we invest in whatever we spend time doing; we pay attention. We’re not talking about money, but we use the words for money: to spend, invest, pay, etc.
The point is that good listening means spending time carefully paying attention – it’s about a generous spirit, about being fully present. It’s a religious experience.
Learning how to listen effectively is a spiritual practice. You know the old anecdote about the young person asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall,” and the wise old New Yorker says, “Practice! Practice!”
To practice good listening is part of the process of learning how to give. Another line from Whitman comes to mind.
He says, “Behold, I do not give lectures or a little charity, When I give I give myself…. I do not say these things for a dollar or to fill up the time while I wait for a boat,(It is you talking just as much as myself, I act as the tongue of you, Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d.)”
Whitman brings us back full circle to one of life’s basic questions – about learning how to give.
Look again and you’ll see Santa Claus, the quintessential symbol of giving, with roots in the legendary St. Nicholas, who is said to be the patron saint of children. He’s also the patron saint of sailors, offering protection from storms as evidenced in Greece with icons of Nicholas in sea ports and sailors instead of wishing good luck say, “May St. Nicholas hold the tiller.”
St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of those in prison who have been wrongly condemned – he is said to have a strong concern for justice, influenced, no doubt by his having been falsely accused and sent to prison.
St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of young women seeking a marriage partner. “Even today young women who wish to get married still come to the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy” to pray for his help and offer three coins as an expression of gratitude.
It seems appropriate for us to close a sermon about giving with Clement Moore’s famous poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas…it calls up the spirit of the child in all of us:
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!
“Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.
His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”