Gary Chapman related the following story: He was conducting a marriage seminar held at the NATO Air Base in in Germany. Most of the troops living at the base were there for a minimum of two years and so spouses and families also lived with them at the base.
During the afternoon he spotted a 13 year old Alex, sitting at a picnic table doing his homework. Wanting to connect with the community to whom he would be offering his family seminar, Gary Chapman went over to introduce himself and engage him in conversation.
After some small talk, Gary Chapman commented on the St Christopher medallion that was hanging on a chain around Alex’s neck. “My dad gave it to me on my 13th birthday” He went on to explain that his dad had given it to him so that when he was away on duty, it would be a reminder of him. Alex concluded by saying: “I wear it all the time”.
“Who was St Christopher?” inquired Gary Chapman.
“I'm not sure” said Alex, “Some saint in the Church who did a lot of good,” came the reply. Gary Chapman writes that he could tell that for Alex, the medallion had very little religious significance. But on an emotional level, it’s worth was priceless. It was a constant reminder of his father’s love. Gary Chapman writes that he has the sense that if he had to encounter Alex again 30 years from now, he would still be wearing that same St Christopher medal around his neck as a reminder of his father’s love.
What makes a gift a gift asks Gary Chapman?
He writes that gifts are visible and tangible evidence of emotional love. In a way, gifts are a kind of sacrament. In our Protestant tradition, we celebrate two the sacraments, the sacraments of Baptism and Communion, or Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper as some people call it.
When I was growing up, I was taught that a sacrament was described as an outward sign of an inward and invisible grace. In Baptism, the outward sign is water and the inward grace is the immersing and the washing in God’s Loving Spirit made known in Jesus. In Communion, the outward symbols are bread and wine, and the inward grace is the Presence and the Gift of Christ’s welcoming, nourishing and forgiving love.
And so even an ordinary gift can also be thought of as a kind of a sacrament, and outward sign of an inner grace and emotional love. In Gary Chapman’s words, a gift is a visible and tangible evidence of emotional love.
Gary Chapman writes that the Greek word from which we get our English word gift is charis, which means grace, or an undeserved gift. And so, by it’s very nature, a gift is not something that is earned or deserved. A gift is given because a person desires to share unconditional love with someone else.
Gary Chapman writes that when something is given with the hope of something in return, it is no longer gift, but rather it is part of a bargain or a deal. And that is fine, he says. There is room in life for deals and bargains. Parents would be familiar with deals and bargains, that are a necessary part of life and living in any home. If you clean your bedroom, then I will buy you a dress, or a new pair of football boots, or a chocolate. There is a place for bargaining and deals in life. There is a place and a time for asking children and teenagers and even adults to earn rewards by their behaviour. But we must never confuse these with gifts.
Gift giving is different from and needs to be seen as separate from deal making, bargaining or earning something. Deal making, bargaining and earning something are all conditional. If conditions are met then a reward is given. But gift giving, because it is by definition is unconditional, cannot have conditions attached to it.
Gary Chapman gives the example of Beverly and her 15 year old daughter Amanda. Beverly told Amanda: “If you go and clean your room, as soon as dinner is over, we will go over the mall and I will buy you that dress that you want.” Gary Chapman continues: “In reality, she was either trying to manipulate Amanda, or bartering a deal with her. “If you will… then I will…”. Or perhaps she was sick and tired of Amanda’s harassment about the dress, and this was her way of caving into the harassment while trying to get a little work out of Amanda in the process. At any rate, the dress was not a gift. It was payment for a clean bedroom. Beverly set it up that way. She may have thought she was expressing love to Amanda by giving her a dress, but Amanda would accept the dress as something she deserves – not as a gift.
And so it is important to draw distinctions between gift giving and bargaining. If we give a gift and place conditions on it then it is no longer a gift. And if we continue to pretend that it is a gift, then it has become tainted with a hidden agenda. It would have been far better to have called it a deal rather than a gift.
Secondly, Gary Chapman believes that gift giving should be done with some measure of ceremony. He says, Think back on a significant gift you received in the past. What was the gift? Who gave it to you? How was it wrapped? How was it presented to you? Was the presentation of the gift accompanied by words, touches or other expressions of love? Gary Chapman writes that the chances are that the more effort the giver put into the packaging and presentation, the more love you felt. He says that the purpose of gift giving is not simply to give an object from one person to another. The purpose is to express emotional love and that the person should sense deeply that we care about them and think that they are important and that we love and cherish them. He says that these emotional messages are enhanced when attention is given to the ceremony accompanying the giving of the gift. He suggests that when we diminish the ceremony, we diminish the power of the gift.
He gives the example of a teenager requesting a pair of sneakers. Mom or Dad drives the teenager to the shop and buys the shoes. The teenager wears them as he or she leaves the shop, and that’s that. No ceremony at all. Gary Chapman suggests that many teenagers have become accustomed to his procedure. He suggests that it does little to communicate emotional love and that if all gifts are given in this manner it creates an entitlement mentality. I’m a teenager. My parents owe it to me to get me whatever I want.
Gary Chapman asks us to imagine a different scenario. Imagine if the shoes are taken home, wrapped creatively, presented in the presence of other family members as an expression of love and accompanied with some words of affirmation and a possibly a hug or a gentle touch. Then, the gift suddenly takes on greater significance and becomes a strong vehicle of emotional love.
When we consider the person of Jesus, there are not a lot of stories to suggest that he gave many physical material gifts to others. In fact as an adult, he appears to have largely adopted a life-style of voluntary poverty and material simplicity. When you are poor, you don’t have the means to give material gifts and so at a surface level, Jesus wasn’t in any obvious way a gift giver. But when you read the Gospel stories, one gets the distinct impression that Jesus was deeply aware of this love language of gift giving. In one of our earlier sermons I had referred to the story of the women anointing Jesus head with an expensive perfume. While in that interaction, Jesus speaks affirming words to her, her actions suggest that giving gifts was quite possibly her primary language of love. For her, the value and expensiveness of the perfume which she pours out on Jesus, becomes an outward sign of just how important Jesus is to her. To have given a gift that cost her little or nothing would not have been a true expression of her love for him. It is precisely because of the enormity of her love for him that she brings out her most expensive jar of perfume to pour over him.
It reminds me of the story of King David in 2 Samuel 24 where David wishes to make an offering to God. Araunah the Jebusite offers to give King David everything he needs to the offering to God. David refuses to accept the offer. In vs 24 we read “No,” replied the king, “I insist on paying a price, for I will not offer to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”
The women who pours perfume out as a gift upon Jesus gives him the most valuable gift she has as an outwards sign of the depth of her love and appreciation for him. Jesus, seeing that this is her love language, the way she has chosen to express her love towards him, affirms what she has done for him, affirming the language of love that she has spoken to him in.
While Jesus is not recorded as giving many material gifts, all four of the Gospels recognise that Jesus, in his material poverty, speaks this language of love not in the giving of material gifts, but in the giving of the gift of his very life. John’s Gospel explicitly reveals that in the giving away of his very life for the sake of the healing of the world, Jesus, in the most profound way possible, speaks this 5th language of love: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And before he gives away his life in this way, he leaves them another gift by which his friends and disciples can remember him when at the last supper he takes bread and breaks and takes the cup and gives it to them saying: Do this in remembrance of me. This is a gift that will enable them to constantly remember him and to open themselves to his ongoing presence with them. I was very interested to read in learning more deeply about the Presbyterian tradition that John Calvin, one of the founding fathers of the Presbyterian tradition believed that communion should be celebrated every week, as did John Wesley of the Methodist tradition. It is one of those strange ironies of history that most Presbyterians only share in Jesus’ final gift of Communion twice a year, or at most once every quarter. But for today’s purpose we need only note, that communion, the breaking of bread as a way of remembering Jesus was indeed given as a gift as a means of remembering and celebrating that greatest gift of all, the giving of his life for the sake of the world.
I close again with a few brief questions: Who are the gift givers in your life, who bless you with gifts of love, sometimes material, and perhaps sometimes not. Even the gift of a lovely meal can be and expression of this love language. What perhaps is the most precious or cherished gift you have ever received from someone else? Who are those in your life whose primary language of love might be the giving of gifts? And what might it mean for you to learn to speak back to them in their primary language of love.