What do you do when you are given a present – you know, a proper one wrapped in shiny, coloured paper? Bunches of flowers and bottles in bags count too, of course, but the ones that you can’t guess are the ones I mean – the ones you haven’t really asked for and weren’t expecting, made to look glamourous and mysterious. I know that they can be a disappointment – especially at Christmas when it turns out to be a pair of socks from your aunt or an unwanted CD from someone who has NO idea what your taste in music is – but just imagine that isn’t going to happen and that you are going to be really pleased and grateful: in fact, try to remember what it is like to be a child.
Last week I gave someone an unexpected present for her birthday. I didn’t have to buy it, I just wanted to: those are the best gifts, really, given with pure love and delight. I’d been shopping and was on the look out for something but when I saw the pink and blue pyjamas it was as if they had her name and a big arrow on them. I wasn’t really sure which size to get, but the conviction that this really was the perfect pressie took me to the till. That evening, having swathed them in bright blue paper and added the card I presented my offering with great amusement. I really wanted her to open it in front of me, but there were others there who probably hadn’t got her anything, so maybe because she didn’t want to embarrass them or just because she was busy serving drinks I had to leave it… Even though I missed the actual moment it was great the next day to get her text: I LOVE THE PAJAMAS!! (sic). I just knew she would – they were made for her! 🙂 The pleasure of giving really can be more than that of receiving!
We have had a tradition in our family since the children were small. At birthdays and Christmas we all sit round the individual in a tidy room with their pile of cards and presents and take a photo, capturing that moment before the presents are opened. Then they have to be opened in a certain order – the least important friend or cousin’s card first and the parent’s ‘big’ present as the climactic event at the end. Yes, it’s more than a bit controlling – me wanting my record of events for the photo albums, I take full responsibility for it! – but after all these years it is just ‘the way it’s done’ 🙂 Christmas is the same, each one given our own pile from under the tree by the ‘postman’ (always Becca) and then the ‘opening ceremony’ in the prescribed way, taking it in turns, as eager to watch the reactions to the things we have given as we are to remove the wrapping from our own surprises. These are moments of joy, fulfilment, love and sometimes tears of happiness – worth every penny and usually recorded by the camera as well, to be relived again and again.
But imagine someone surrounded by their presents and refusing to open them, putting it off, going away to do something else, ignoring the gifts so carefully chosen and presented. At Martin’s last birthday his small collection of 10 cards and 3 presents sat on the kitchen table and I hovered impatiently while he dressed and shaved: come on! I want you to open them! I want to see! Imagine him saying, “Nah, I’ve got to go to work, I’ll do it tonight” – even more unlikely, imagine a child doing that… well, you can’t because they wouldn’t: it used to take our little ones all their control to wait for me to get the camera 😉
But last week in a quiet moment of thought and prayer I had a fleeting image of someone surrounded by lots of shiny, coloured boxed gifts – but not opening them. She was busy doing lots of tasks – tidying up, finishing off her jobs, making sure everything was ‘just so’ – bustling around, ignoring the presents, ‘distracted by many things’. She was deliberately brushing them away, denying herself the time for pleasure, the time to receive and be glad. How sad and how ridiculous: it’s obvious the presents are there to be enjoyed! The donor must be impatient – eager to see her face and share her joy – so why isn’t her heart in it? Doesn’t she think she deserves these gifts or are her priorities so set there is simply no time for thinking of herself? I should know the answer – the woman was me.
It hit me hard – I knew what it meant. That’s why I took myself out for that autumnal bike ride, trying to respond to the call to stop, relax, receive – and I have been pondering it over the subsequent week as well. There is something wrong with this picture! There is something wrong with my priorities if I cannot let go long enough to meet the Giver of all Good Gifts as he passes me a parcel to open. It has more than a passing resemblance to a story Jesus told about a man throwing a banquet and when it was ready the guests making excuses that they had too many other things to do to attend – everyday life called on their time, looking after their own affairs was more important. That’s a pretty serious challenge! God’s priorities are not necessarily the same as mine, nor what I would expect them to be. He isn’t so bothered about perfection as I am! He called the miserable, resentful older son to the prodigal’s party – and he wouldn’t go; he told Martha sitting at His feet was a better choice than being a servant and cooking dinner for everyone.
Apart from that call to freedom, joy and feasting, rather than rules and regulations, this image of unopened gifts gets right to the heart of the way I often behave toward my ‘inner child’ – or if you don’t like that idea, just call it the part in all of us that wants to laugh, play and have fun. Anyway, now I have seen it I can’t ‘un-see’ it: it has become an unavoidable painting on my imagination. While some people are really good at relaxing, kicking back, throwing themselves whole-heartedly into having a good time, it’s true I am usually worried about something else – trying to be ‘good’ and responsible, looking out for everyone else, making sure all the jobs have been done, tidying up, staying in control… etc, etc. Just like Martha I don’t often choose the better part – and I am the one that suffers for it – or perhaps I should say, part of me is like Martha and she suffocates the little one who does want to sit still and daydream, who has got time to stop worrying and smile back at heaven.
What am I going to do to resolve this? I am going to open these presents! One is a sunny day and another is a day out, the green one is an hour sitting in the garden and the red one a morning in bed – a pyjama day in fact 😉 I am going to stop trying so hard, take a deep breath and give little Sally the run of the house and she can play pass the parcel with Jesus, unwrapping blessings and surprises with gratitude and amazement at a life filled with riches and love.