What’s the greatest gift you have ever given anyone? I can’t decide between two. The first was a £25 fountain pen I gave my Grandad for his 60th birthday back in 1987. It cost me a whole year’s worth of pocket money- I was 8 when I started saving for it and 9 by the time I picked it out from the Parker counter in Selfridges. Every birthday card I received from Grandad after that said ‘signed with THE pen’!
My other favourite gift was a black Labrador puppy, which I gave my husband for our second Christmas together. Simba, a joyous bundle of oversized ears and paws. The look on my husband’s face told me that this was a good gift.
My husband had spent our entire relationship up until that point trying to persuade me to get a dog. I desperately didn’t want one so my first Christmas present to him was a different kind of pet- two prize-winning chickens. I thought I could fob him off with the eggs and the fact they didn’t need walking but it didn’t work. He returned the cockerel after a fortnight of being woken at 5am.
It’s replacement didn’t bring a lot more joy. We got the eggs but Sage and Onion were adept escapees. I would often come home from work and find various uniformed officers trying to force our fowl away from their military quarters. At least I could always find them- I just had to follow the poo.
Souvenirs of The Good Life
My husband was in Iraq when Sage laid her last egg. When I told him of his hen’s demise, he didn’t seem upset by the news but then he had never wanted hens.
It’s obvious really- the best presents to give are those that are the perfect fit for the recipient, not the giver. It’s not about what we like or our taste. I always thought fountains pens were a faff but my Grandad loved them. I wasn’t a dog person but it would be hard to replicate my husband’s delight when he was given a puppy.
That’s why Simba’s last present to me before we moved overseas wasn’t well chosen. He didn’t think about me as the recipient- it was very much a personal, canine choice.
I had gone on a walk with my neighbour and friend, Jill. We both had our babies on our backs as we stomped through the fields by our quarters, chatting away. Part way around, I realised I had lost Simba. I screamed myself hoarse calling for him but he was nowhere to be found. I decided I would go home, get the car and drive around looking for him so we walked back, me shouting all the while.
I let myself into my house and Jill let herself into hers. I shut the front door, baby still on my back, and went on the usual palaver that is the car-key-hunt. And then I heard a loud thud on my porch. I did a quick Tiger-who-came-to-Tea rundown of elimination.
It couldn’t be the Sainsbury’s man because he came on Fridays. It couldn’t be the postman because he would ring the bell and run a mile (like me, he wasn’t a dog person). It couldn’t be the Amazon man because I hadn’t ordered anything, unless somebody else had ordered me something. I opened the door to discover that I was sort-of-right.
There, sitting on the front step, was Simba, looking so pleased with himself. He almost seemed to nod towards the mat. ‘There you go, Mum, a present.’
It was a deer’s head, severed at the neck, antlers intact, eyes staring up at me. I was grateful for the thin piece of military wall separating my hallway from Jill’s. My renewed screams brought her to my side in a moment. Cool as ever, she looked at it and then at me: ‘Where do you want me to put it?’ I love Jill. She’s military. We all need a military friend in our lives.
Later that week, other parts of that beautiful animal were found strewn around the field. It seemed someone had been out poaching. How horrid. What a waste. It was most certainly not a good gift, even if Simba thought so.
I later realised that my reaction to Simba’s offering was similar to the way I have received many of God’s gifts. God has dropped blessings into my lap that I didn’t even realise were gifts, some of which I took to be the very opposite, as disasters.
Coming here to the desert is a good example. When my husband mentioned the idea, we laughed and I carried on making dinner. What a crazy, stupid suggestion, not worth my consideration. It took a few more prompts to start unwrapping the gift- to see the opportunities it offered.
Another example was the discovery that I was pregnant when I had recently had our first baby. I struggled with the prospect of the new arrival during those early months. Now I regard that pregnancy as one of the three best gifts I’ve ever received.
Military housing is another. How I have moaned over the years about our various quarters, overlooking the fact that they have allowed us to live in some of the prettiest counties in England, meeting brilliant people. I could go on with my long list of misinterpreted gifts.
The Bible tells us in Matthew 7:11 that God loves to give good gifts to his children. He is the perfect gift-giver because he knows us better than we know ourselves. But there can be two obstacles to receiving God’s gifts.
The first is so basic- it’s simply identifying the gift. The Bible shows us repeatedly that God is not only mindful of our comfort, he is also concerned about our character, which means his gifts might not feel like a comfortable fit. In fact, they might not feel like gifts at all.
I remember being asked to go to court to represent someone after extended maternity leave. I felt so nervous and out of practice that I cried as I prepared for the hearing. My parents prayed that I would be able to cope but the prayer I simultaneously offered in my head was that the hearing would be cancelled.
And as I was praying, I pretty much knew what was going to happen. I wasn’t going to get my way. And I was right. The hearing went ahead and I emerged from court, having done my job, knowing I could cope with returning to work.
My family and God wanted me to build character, I wanted the comfortable option. God knew what was best for me. Those with children might think of all those things we gave them that they didn’t want (injections, reading practice, their first day at school), knowing they were good things.
I have a significant birthday coming up and I bet if God and I swapped birthday present ideas for me, our lists would read very differently… I may not like his list very much- I bet there are things on it I’d strike off. When the things God lines up for us aren’t what want, or what we think we want, it can be hard to be a gracious recipient, or even to identify the gift as being a gift.
If we are being given gifts we don’t want, the second obstacle in accepting them may be our view of the giver. When I found myself in that court room, or on a plane headed to the Middle East, or dealing with an 11 month old whilst almost full term, it was hard to believe God was going to come through for me. I thought, if he wants to shape and refine my character, then maybe he isn’t going to be good to me. Maybe he’s going to be hard on me. And a seed of doubt was sown in my mind about whether he could be trusted.
My Bible notes yesterday looked at Psalm 147:11- at its reference to people who expect God to be loving and kind. A small, unremarkable verse in some ways but potentially challenging. I think a lot of us, even those with a mature faith, sometimes doubt whether God will be loving and kind. We may not trust his gifts and we not trust him.
But if we remember Matthew 7, we remember that God loves to give good gifts. Good ones. We can trust him. He will be loving and kind. Easy to say but the proof of the pudding is in the tasting and I can say that he was good to me in that courtroom, on that plane, during my pregnancy.
The Bible tells us that God’s greatest gift to us is Jesus. In some ways, many of us receive that gift as I did the deer’s head. A man dying on a cross is upsetting, maybe shocking, messy, non-nonsensical, a grotesque gift, if it can even be described as a gift. We don’t want it. But maybe the problem isn’t the gift or the giver but our understanding of them.
Shortly before we moved here, I saw another deer in the field by our old house. It was twilight. Under partial cover of the creeping darkness, I stood watching, so close to him. And then he looked up and saw me, mysterious and majestic as he held me in his silent gaze.
It’s the mystery, the majesty, the reality and the proximity of the living Jesus, the one who holds us in his gaze, that makes him a gift worth unwrapping.