What is the greatest gift you have ever received? For me it was the gift of a child through adoption. Other than an organ donation, it’s hard to imagine a greater gift. How can you possibly top that? A few years later, my son’s birth mom donated a kidney to her former mother-in-law! Often when we receive, we feel the immediate reflex to want to give back. But how can you repay such a sacrificial gesture, except by returning the love?
Gifts that Keep Giving
It reminds me how God sacrificed his son for his people, despite them not “deserving” such a gracious gift. Not everyone believes in a savior or feels the need for one. But maybe you know how it feels to receive a gift you could never obtain yourself or repay. Perhaps you, too, have felt saved from something. A young mom saved me from the pain of infertility and pregnancy losses. In gratitude, my husband and I invited her to become part of our lives: we wanted to share this precious gift.
When my son located his birthfather after DNA testing, the gift kept giving. His birthfather received the gift a son he did not realize he had! And my son received the gift of a relationship in return. Some people thought my husband and I would feel slighted or threatened by this. We received the same reaction when we chose open adoption, like it was a co-parenting arrangement that would diminish our role. But once again, I was happy to share the love! I was grateful my son loved himself enough- and was assured enough of our love- to accept whatever results his search revealed.
A person once asked me, during our adoption process, “What if you get a lemon?” Our child was not an unwanted castoff, like a second-hand special! It took much love to choose a more secure future for him. Most people have not experienced the gift of an organ or an adopted child, but likely know the experience of receiving other generous gifts. Often our first reaction is to say, “You didn’t need to do that!” or “You shouldn’t have!” I had no such words when gifted with a son. I could only humbly receive. But why is it so hard to be on the receiving end of gifts?
Receiving Gifts with Grace
Granted, some gifts are hard to receive graciously and to give thanks for. I remember a onesie my mother-in-law gifted me when my husband and I began dating. After stuffing my limbs into the arms and legs, I resembled a giant bunny, like Ralphie in The Christmas Story. But then I focused on the fact that she cared about my comfort while lounging about in a frigid dormitory room. It’s best when writing thank you notes -a lost art!- to focus on one key attribute. The bunny suit was plush and could double up as a pillow in a pinch.
The oversized outdoor thermometer was another well-meaning gesture. We started our marriage in a tiny top floor apartment of a Boston Victorian with a rickety set of stairs to the back street. Thus, the escape-rope ladder my mother-in-law gave us for Christmas was a more practical choice. Thankfully we never had to use it! Once again, her concern for safety was touching, and I focused on that, instead of building a narrative that equated her love with the gift choice. The same sentiments might apply to that that electric drill set from a partner, when you preferred a pedicure.
In giving a gift, we can focus on the joy or use it will bring to others. And show grace when good intentions go awry. We need not “keep score” or best someone else. At Christmas, I used to fight the urge to compare boxes under the tree or the compulsion to dash off for another gift. In some countries, according to Globesmart’s Guide to Gift Giving, it is considered rude to open a gift in front of others. (This avoids the comparison game.) A gift is sometimes refused multiple times as a sign of modesty and manners.
Anonymous Giving: The Power of Good
For many cultures, there is a sense of reciprocity: we naturally want to give back when we receive. Yet the most amazing gifts are those from people who choose to remain anonymous. I once received $200 cash in a Christmas card when money was tight, and the card was simply signed, “The Christmas Angel.” I never learned who the giver was, but it came at just the right time! It made me perform random acts of kindness as well.
Just before World War II, a 30-year-old stockbroker rescued 669 children whose lives were in imminent danger. Seeing the escalation of violence against Jews in Czechoslovakia, Nicholas Winton matched at-risk children to host families in England and Sweden. “These were the only countries willing to take the children,” he said. These evacuees never knew who the benefactor was until Winton’s wife discovered his scrapbook of the children 50 years later!
Many of “Winton’s children,” who owed their lives to his humble war-time efforts carried on his goodwill contributions to others, as did their children. Years later, strangers of all ages were also inspired by his actions and continued to spread the love.
For many years, life-giving gifts like adoption and organ donation remained anonymous. But over time, people felt compelled to search for the people who provided these sacrificial gifts. One of these persons was Jorge Bacardi, of the historic Bacardi rum company. He received the gift of a new set of lungs from a teen who died of a brain aneurysm. To honor this young man, and his family who he later met, Bacardi gifted the Mayo Clinic with a hospitality house. The Gabriel House provides housing and support for families undergoing transplants and cancer treatments. Many of these families continue to volunteer monthly at the clinic to support others.
The Humility in Receiving
The bigger the gift, the more indebted people feel. It is not the size of the gift that matters, but the sacrifice. Many of the orphaned WW II children noted that the poorer their new families were, the more generous they were! My father-in-law noticed this same spirit during his travels and mission efforts in North Korea. Many rural communities that he serviced struggled to survive yet would present visitors with gifts of oranges and nuts. There is no monetary value to such a sacrificial gesture.
The best gifts are those we give because we want to, not because we feel obligated to. And the ones that are received with the same gracious spirit they are given with. In Japan the giver present gifts with both hands and the recipient waits until later to open it. I love that humble image: it reflects how I ought to receive God’s love and gifts to me.
Regardless of the enormity of the gift, we can all learn from the hospitable gestures of the North Koreans and the compassionate actions of Nicholas Winton. We can gift others with our time, our friendship, our expertise, our talents, our attention, our enthusiasm, or our encouragement. And even something so simple as a smile. How might you spread love to others? In a world of increasing isolation, the gift of compassion and community are perhaps the greatest gifts of all.