One Christmas years ago my mother-in-law (now of blessed memory) gave me two gifts. She gave me a copy of the then-newly published edition of Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal and a painted metal watering can in the shape of a pig – the water comes out of its snout when you tilt it just-so. I’m not a gardener, which is fine because it turns out the watering can is not water-tight. It’s decorative. One of these gifts was easy to write a thank you note for and one was a struggle.
I’ve been given untold gifts in my lifetime, many wrapped and presented for special occasions: books and art and scarves and a watch and sweaters and mugs and stationery and tea and gift cards and, well, the list goes on and on. I’ve also been given gifts that weren’t wrapped, and some that weren’t even intended specifically for me. My parents gave me an extraordinary education and a stable and secure home. Women stood in the way of the expansion of the interstate fifty years ago and gave me (and anyone else who’s been there) the Old Forest in Overton Park. A teacher named not a skill but an inner strength at a time when I didn’t even know how much I needed that to be pointed out.
I’ve also been given itchy, ill-fitting things along the way, gifts that make me wonder if the giver has ever met me, gifts that have challenged me to receive as gifts. And again, these have arrived both tied up with string (like the aforementioned decorative pig-shaped watering can) and in more amorphous and surreptitious ways. A donation to a hateful organization in my honor, art I didn’t want to look at every day, unsolicited advice that hurt more than it helped.
On this kinda-sorta-snowy Epiphany, we’re staying home instead of gathering together to tell the story of the arrival of the magi with their strange gifts. It’s a good day to find online memes about how if they’d been women they might have asked for directions and brought casseroles and other more appropriate gifts. But the story we have is that they arrived later, if not late, and they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The traditional interpretation is that these represent Christ’s kingship, his priesthood, and his eventual death. Sure, but still strange gifts for a baby shower. I’m guessing that Mary in all her careful pondering might have preferred a fresh set of swaddling cloths.
Sometimes we are given strange and even off-putting gifts. And my mother would say we have to write thank-you notes for those too. It’s a good day for me to finish writing the overdue Christmas notes, and also a good day to consider what other gifts you and I might take another look at from the lens of gratitude. And not just the stuff of our lives, but the gifts and qualities that make us who we are. There are skills and gifts I have that I appreciate in my life, and plenty of traits I tend to hide or critique. Maybe there are pieces of you that people praise and elements about your way of being in the world that make you cringe. Consider this story of the wise people showing up with their odd offerings as a suggestion: that in the wisdom of God the strange and awkward elements are just as important to the story, just as important to the work God needs from me and you.
Sometimes it’s an esteemed writer’s collection of prayers, and sometimes it’s a pig-shaped watering can that doesn’t hold water. Sometimes it’s your kindness, and sometimes it’s your impatience. Sometimes it’s gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and sometimes its diapers and lasagna. Sometimes it’s up to us to figure out what to do with the strange gifts God has given us.