Saturday, December 24, 2011

the gift of giving

"it is more blessed to give than to receive."  ~ luke 20:35

it is the hours before christmas and i think this just might be my favorite part -- the wild
beat of anticipation.   oh how i love it.  and how i love watching it billow up and blow
warm through my children.  in these hours of waiting i hear them toss around phrases like, "i can't wait until we build the gingerbread houses" and "i can't wait to light the christmas eve candles and sing silent night." and i get questions like, "mama, did you remember our christmas eve pajamas?"  never a year has been missed, but yet they ask, even the very oldest,  because they are still children and they want to be sure and, even more, they want to be reminded of the good things which will soon come.  they want to anticipate, to long for the lovely. and it tickles my mother-heart because i know it is evidence of some kind of sweet remembering nestled deep in this growing up brood of mine.

one part of these days before christmas which i especially treasure, is watching the pile of presents grow under our tree.  the children fill its space with the things they bring.  you might think that a  rather shallow and strange statement.  and you might even ask why in the world i would admit this, let alone, write it.  but let me explain:  it is not about the presents and it is not about what is inside those oddly shaped gifts, but about watching my children GIVE. it is about watching them stop clasping what is theirs and start opening their hands to each other.  hearts soften and unlatch in the act of giving -- in the art of gifting.  i watch them parade through my kitchen with small boxes and big bags and an assortment of presents pieced together with too much tape and remnants of cast off wrapping. they head for the tree, carefully bringing their carefully selected treasures.  and as the mother standing by, i love this christmastime coming and going. i observe them doing something which doesn't come naturally -- they are giving.  and what's more, they are enthusiastic in their giving.  in the few days before christmas, they all scurry around trying to buy that certain something special for sisters and brothers and mom and dad. it is almost a rite of passage,  heading off to target or the mall with their allowance clutched tight in hand or jingling loose in pocket.   and when they return, triumphant, i can hear them up in their rooms sharing tape and scissors across the cluttered hallway.  shouting at each other,"don't come in here.  don't you dare look!  go away...i'm wrapping!" there is an energy in the house which, at least for a little while, doesn't have anything to do with what's in it for me? nothis is about pouring themselves into something which will be placed under an evergreen and then given away.  

these are no gifts of the magi.  some years, the presents set under the branches are wrapped in leftover paper from birthdays or baby showers. bows are always optional.  sometimes the children forget to add tags, and come christmas morning, we have to play guess that gift.  my middle girl, sarah, loves to wrap and she'll hunt for extra bits and pieces to attach to her gifts -- a small ornament, a piece of pine, some jingle bells, a cinnamon stick.  she puts great amounts of time into preparing these presents.  and i love this about her.  but again, it is not about what hides least not what hides inside the gift wrap. but it is about what hides inside the hearts of my children. it is about the glimmer in their eye and that hint in their heart unravelling and unwrapping as they bring their gifts. and like the wise men, sometimes they must travel from afar to bring things.  bringing gifts isn't always easy.  in a world which promotes everything ME, it is downright difficult for our kids (who am i kidding), it is downright difficult for all of us to consider others first.  but oh what can happen when we do!  there is the joy-- the christmas joy.  the real joy.

years ago, we began the tradition of encouraging our children to think of each other on christmas.  they were just tiny, tiny things when all this began, barely able to see over the counters. we would take them to the dollar store and let them pick items out for our family.  we never questioned their purchases.  never questioned the animal figurines or the plastic flowers.  needless to say, we've all gotten some rather strange things over the years.  but oh the delight in the giving.  that's what we want to grow in them.   not the need for the perfect and most practical present, but the joy of stopping to think of another and the thrill of giving from the heart.   as the kids have gotten older, we've tried to suggest things homemade.  i am always telling them those things mean the most. of course they raise their bewildered eyebrows in disapproval.  no mom, i disagree. a homemade blah-blah-blah is absolutely not better than this marshmallow-shooting-thing-a-ma-gig-cool-one-of-a-kind-contraption. i try to tell them there's no need to go spend allowance money, but be creative:  build, paint, mold, sketch, glue, carve, capture something...what a wonderful opportunity.  clearly, i am a mother. and they go and gather the dollar bills they've squirreled away and head to the closest shopping mall.

my sister, just this week, sent us homemade sugar cookies in a tin all the way from oregon.  when we unwrapped them i got kind of teary-eyed.  i realize they were only sugar cookies, but my youngest sister's hands created these cookies in the warmth of her kitchen, probably with her own three little ones perched on stools nearby.  mixing. rolling.  helping. giving. my sister who lives over 2500 miles away.  my sister who i hardly ever see and won't see this christmas.  and perhaps it is a sign of me getting old, but i loved getting homemade cookies this week from her.  i didn't even realize how much i miss my family, until opening that tin.  with us staying put this christmas and no extended family coming, i needed that touch of my sister -- that gift of her giving. it may have been a small tin, but it largely unwrapped some warmth in my heart.

someday my children will bring christmas gifts not from their bedrooms, but from their own homes.  maybe with small ones of their own hanging from elbows and attached at their knees.  i am full aware my five will someday scatter -- i hope not too far.  but we'll want them to go -- to get on with what God has designed them to do.  if it is down the street or two towns over, we'll be thrilled.  and if it is across the country or on the other side of the world, we'll have to accept that as well. (big sigh).  but now, this morning, this year, this christmas, i have them all in my home.  they sleep upstairs as i write, tired from these christmas days.  my always prayer, that while in our home, they are learning to give from the heart...and when they leave some day, they'll take with them the act of giving, art of gifting, the sweet blessing unwrapping.

(one of my favorite stories about giving....)

A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman.

"I've been thinking," he said, "I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone."  
 ~ the wise woman's stone  -- author unknown

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