Sunday, January 3, 2016

What I’d Give You

Andrea Vertel, Hungary, 1969
Happy New Year!

Merry 10th Day of Christmas!

And blessings this Epiphany Sunday, the day in the church year when we celebrate the mysterious magi and their gifts, and remember that the forced journey of Mary and Joseph extended on to Egypt as King Herod assassinated baby boys in an attempt to thwart God’s plan.

I’ve been thinking of magi, gifts and migrants this Christmas season. Thinking of what we give, what we wish we could give, not just to those we know and love, but to those beyond the reach of our own human agency.

This Christmas eve our family reenacted the story found in Luke and Matthew: the narrative of Mary and Joseph, innkeeper and stable, shepherds and angels, magi and Herod.

We’ve reenacted that story for thirty years now, almost every Christmas eve. Some years there’s a baby to take the place of Jesus; some years we use a baby doll.  Some years the innkeeper is apologetic and gentle; some years indifferent and brusk.

Most years I’m an angel, draped in a white sheet, singing “Gloria.” My husband Whitney is invariably the narrator; his Bible is marked with spots to pause and sing, and he’s the one who organizes the cast, while my assistants and I gather props and costumes.

Our little pageant is a gift we give ourselves: a reminder that we’re part of a larger story. It’s a prayer that that story will take root in our youngest members. And it’s an opportunity to step away, for just a moment, from the focus on things and wrappings.

It’s an attempt to give what is never ours to give.

Those magi, traveling miles across dangerous terrain to greet an unknown king, brought gifts listed in Matthew’s gospel: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  We’ve all heard those words together, but most of us have no clue what frankincense and myrrh really are: tree saps, from two trees I’ve never seen. Frankincense comes from the deciduous trees of the genus Boswellia, and myrrh from some species in the genus Commiphora, both species native in northeastern Africa and the peninsulas of the Middle East.  

Frankincense and myrrh were burned in religious ceremonies, used for medicinal purposes, valuable in trade.  They’ve been found in tombs of kings. They were also used in embalming.  Not exactly an appropriate gift for an infant born in a manger.

Joseph Eugene Dash, 1925, Chicago
Did the magi bring them to signify the royalty of the one they came to find? Did they bring them to be used for healing, or worship? Were they given for their monetary value? Scholars have suggested that the gifts funded the family’s travel into Egypt as they fled Herod’s slaughter of the male infants of Bethlehem. 

Thinking of the magi’s gifts, thinking of my own gifts given and received, I’m conscious that our gifts are in many ways place-holders, or symbols, of what we’d most like to give.

The magis’ gifts signified honor, royalty, health and wealth, realities far beyond their reach.

My own gifts signify love, interest, affirmation, warmth, health, joy, peace.

That sounds a little grand. Yet, that’s what I’m thinking as I wrap a book about young scientists for a granddaughter interested in bugs and dolphins.

And what I’m praying as I mail off boxes of cookies to brothers far away.

The world is a needy place and what I have to offer is small.

A friend and her son were in a terrible car crash just days before Christmas. The call from the hospital as I gathered Christmas groceries reminded me how little I can do in the face of life’s realities.

Yes, get to the hospital as quickly as possible.

Yes, drive my friend home while her son was moved to a larger hospital downtown.

Yes – after some prayer and a few deep breaths – loan her my car so she could get to work, go see her son, somehow navigate Christmas with her four other children.

But what I most wanted to offer is light years away: complete health and recovery. Financial security. The knowledge that even in trauma, God is right there, closer than air, loving her, her injured son, the rest of her grieving family.

This past year I spent time helping launch an initiative in our state League of Women Voters to address injustice in our criminal justice system. I offered time, advise, research, creative energy. Others I know and respect offered more of all of those. Yet what we’d most like to give is far out of reach: real justice. Second chances for first time offenders. Restored families and communities. Equitable schools that make productive citizenship more attainable. 

In that effort, as in so many other arenas, what I have to give is very small, what I’d like to give is infinitely larger.

Milen Litchkov
I’ve posted about the park where I spend time, leading bird walks, hacking away at invasive vines that strangle native trees and shrubs. Our group put in two hundred hours this past year: a substantial gift, yet just a small fraction of what’s needed,  symbol and signifier of what we really would like to give: restored habitats for bird and bugs on a scale far beyond our reach. A globe set free from man-made hazards.

Some days I listen to the news and pray. Some days I leave the news off, and rest in the knowledge that the world isn’t mine to save, that the gifts most needed aren’t mine to give.

Last year, during Advent, I blogged about Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s small, deeply encouraging and challenging book, The World is Not Ours to Save. I finished with a post called New Year’s Examen: What Have You Been Given? Reading it over, I’m more conscious than ever that the gifts I have to offer are shaped by my understanding of the gifts that I’ve been given. I wrote then: 
Praying through my own gifts, I find myself thinking of others I know and talk with, friends and fellow-travelers who read this blog or share life with me in other ways. Some have great gifts they’ve never recognized, amazing opportunities taken too much for granted. Some have suffered losses they count as deficits, which seen from another angle could be occasions to know God’s grace more deeply. Some struggle with fear or failures, unclaimed avenues into greater compassion or experience of mercy both received and given. Some focus so sharply on gifts not given they miss completely the gifts received in the unexpected spaces. Even as I think and pray of others, for greater insight into what’s been given, I acknowledge my own lack of sight: what are the gifts I’ve been given I still fail to acknowledge?  What pride, or fear, or misguided self-doubt keep me from fully receiving the gifts so freely given? 
For months now, I’ve been carrying a sentence in my mind: “What I’d give you if I could.”

There’s a practical, political level to that musing:

What I’d give you if I could:
  • A new car to replace the one so badly smashed.
  • A better-funded school, with smaller classes and more attention to kids with special needs
  • Better housing.
  • A more supportive, less-oppressive work place.
  • A caring community that will hear you and listen.
  • An end to the wars and droughts and famines driving so many millions from their homes.

But what I’d most like to give, if I could, goes beyond the practical or political, beyond the possible fix or potential solution.

What I’d give, if I could:
  • An awareness of God’s love.
  • Foundations in faith.
  • Delight in creation
  • Wonder and wisdom
  • Assets and allies
  • Confidence and courage

During this Epiphany season (from now until the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, February 10) I’ll be blogging about those things I would give if I could.

And praying about the smaller gifts I might give, signifiers, symbols, steps along the way.

May the blessings of Epiphany be yours!

May God's gifts dwell in you richly. 

Vojtech Cinybulk, Czechoslovakia    

Earlier Epiphany posts on this blog: