My parish has changed, which means I have traded pulpits so to speak, and now walk alongside persons with developmental disabilities and their families. On a recent visit to a home where four men and staff members live, I was joined with my wife and a friend of ours. I wanted to show off this house filled with men full of smiles and love and hope.
To be greeted with uninhibited enthusiasm and embraces of welcome is a beautiful gift of hospitality that is good for both the heart and soul. One of the residents, Al (not his real name), was eager to show us around his house and especially his room. For the most part Al’s room is just like any other bedroom among the many houses our organization supports: the wall was decorated with snapshots of visits to parks, sporting events, and family and friends; there were posters of athletes and teams that were his favorites; and on his bulletin board he had proudly tacked up and displayed medals from his years of participating with Special Olympics. Lined up along Al’s bureau were several bird houses he had painted. As he was proudly showing off the bird houses, and we were remarking how beautiful they all were, Al picked one up, thrusted into the hands of my friend and said, “Here, this is yours.” Of course my friend was overwhelmed at the gesture, but tried to say, “No, that is not necessary, this is too generous”, etc. But he was insistent. We all made quick glances at the residential host, who nodded that it was okay, and he made the remark, “Al paints many, many birdhouses, and he wants to share them.” My friend said the only thing Al really wanted to hear, “Thank you.”
Now I recognize that not many would see any significant value in that particular birdhouse, or any other birdhouse on Al’s bureau. It is painted clumsily with colors that usually do not go together. Furthermore the birdhouse is not seem very practical or functional to actually house birds. Let’s face it, at an auction or a flea market it would more than likely be ignored or quickly forgotten.
Yet Al’s birdhouse is a treasure because it symbolizes a core value of every human being: the need to give and the joy of gratitude. Henri Nouwen writes: “Our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving.” It’s true, isn’t it? We do not find value, real, lasting value, in what we can take or accumulate, but by what we can give away. And everyone, everyone, has a gift to give: an embrace, a smile, a welcome, a present, a handshake, a kind word.
When we receive a gift we affirm in the one who gives something that is deep and beautiful in their humanity. If we had to assign it a theological word, I suppose a good word would be “bless.” When you give and when you receive, you participate in the sacred exchange of blessing.
Here in the middle of Holy Week, followers of Christ are reminded that Jesus gave everything away. The world was violent then and the world, as the carnage in Brussels reminds us, is still violent. It is too easy to succumb to fear and greed and wall ourselves inside, hanging on to our thin sense of security. Jesus demonstrated that it is only in giving that we receive. Even life itself has to be given away in order to really live. Just ask Al.
I am grateful, so very grateful, to be surrounded by the many blessings that unfold in big and not so big ways. Gifts abound and I am a grateful recipient, and hopefully I am learning to walk more generously giving my life away.
The only thing that mildly disappointed me about that evening with Al is that I did not get a birdhouse! Maybe next visit.
Grateful, blessed and sharing this with you,
Matthew 5:3-9 (NRSV)
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.