Years ago I worked as a chaplain at a hospital where a group of women from a nearby church provided a very unique resource: they hand-stitched baby clothes for infants who had died. Specifically, these were babies who were born tragically premature, so early they couldn’t survive. The babies were tiny, smaller than your hand, and no store-bought clothing could serve them. So these ladies would make tiny garments, and if parents so desired, they could dress their child in these clothes to be laid to rest.
I think of this ministry from time to time, as I reflect on what it means to give a true gift, from the heart. This time of year, our consumer society is obsessed with purchasing and presenting extravagant and exciting Christmas presents. People are motivated to shop for wonderful things to family and friends, often out of love and a desire to share joy, but also out of social pressure and the daunting need to measure up. We place a lot of our hopes and insecurities into the gifts we give. We want our gift to make someone happy, or to show how much we care, or to make another person grateful and appreciative of us. At the very least, we don’t want to fail to meet expectations in a holiday season that revolves around packages wrapped with fancy bows.
The gift of handmade clothing that the women at that hospital gave over and over again, would never satisfy any of these motivations for giving. If a mother and father received this gift, they were receiving it on the worst day of their life. There would be no joy in receiving the gift. The gift had no power to heal their broken hearts, or take away their tragedy. They would never meet or know the givers – the ministry was completely anonymous.
But of course, despite the fact that their giving is nothing like what we see in holiday commercials this time of year, I can’t think of any gift that’s truer than theirs. What they offer is extraordinary, a great treasure of compassion.
The seamstresses don’t give with any concern for what they might get in return. They receive no acknowledgement, no thanks, certainly no reciprocity. Because they give in secret, their concern is only to offer some small grace to a neighbor with a shattered heart, and to honor a child who never got to grow up.
Of course, it’s not actually true that they get nothing in return for their gifts. What they get is a sense of meaning and purpose. They understand in a deep and abiding way that it is good to extend kindness to someone who is suffering, and it’s good even if your kindness cannot end their suffering. These women know that human beings are most fully alive when our words and actions are guided by compassion.
If we live in a consumerist society like the United States, we each have to make our own judgment calls about how much, and in what ways, we’re going abide by the pressures and norms of buying stuff for our people at the holidays. I rarely talk to anyone who is completely comfortable with the way they have managed to navigate the commercialism of American Christmas, but I also buy plenty of Legos and candy canes every year.
Still, in the moments when we feel disillusioned and out-of-touch with the holidays, because cynical materialism seems to have taken over the whole experience, we’d do well to remember that the spirit of giving itself is not the problem. If we decide to take a breath and withdrawn from the commercialism, or, for that matter, if the circumstances of our lives prevent us from participating in it very much in the first place, this has no bearing on our capacity to share kindness, and to give, from the heart.
To give a gift that is true, all you need is compassion, goodwill, and a bit of affection. A generous spirit, a heart for others.
The Table is a Christian church in Davenport, Iowa, seeking transformation:
from greed toward generosity
from violence toward peacemaking
from isolation toward neighborliness
from fear toward faith
Worship Sundays at 5pm
Christmas Eve Service, Tuesday Dec. 24 at 5pm
102 E. 2nd St. Davenport