My junior year in college I studied for a term in London. The year before, I had started dating the prettiest girl you’d ever seen. She was as smart as she was beautiful. If I wasn’t in class, I was spending every waking moment with her. And so, though I was excited to be traveling halfway across the world to another country, I also realized in horror that she would be halfway across the world from me, in another country. I worried that she’d forget me. I worried that some other boy would take advantage of my absence and crowd in. Mostly, I simply yearned to be near her. This was before the age of email, and during my months away we wrote letters to one another on those robin’s egg blue, fold-over “aerograms.” Even though a letter was ten days old by the time I received it, I awaited the mail each day eagerly. And occasionally the English postman would bring more than a letter. Occasionally there’d be a package, a small box full of dime store trinkets, novelties really, and none worth more than a dollar or two. But to me, those small gifts from Jill Benson—now Jill Thompson—were precious.
I have a writing pen that I use, a black ink ballpoint. To be honest, its line of ink is not as fine as I prefer, and the pen’s thick bulk is clumsy in my hand. For writing, I actually prefer the disposable Pilot V Razor Point pens Nelda keeps stocked in her desk. But the pen reliably in my jacket pocket is the ballpoint. Every six weeks or so I misplace it, and I conscript the sextons to help me turn the church upside down to find it. The pen is carved of the wood from a one hundred-year-old, felled oak tree in Flatonia, Texas, where my great-great grandfather was mayor in the late 1800s, and from where my great-grandmother moved to Houston. The pen was given to me by my father. Despite the fact that it may not be, strictly speaking, the ideal writing instrument, it is precious.
Yale theologian and friend of this cathedral, Miroslav Volf, writes[i] that, in our lives, we alternately seek meaning and pleasure, and most often we assume that we cannot at the same time pursue both. We either engage in pursuits that are meaningful but doggedly difficult and not what we’d construe as pleasurable, such as, perhaps, working with the homeless at the Beacon. Or, we give up the pretense of meaning altogether and instead pursue a pleasurable life that satiates our appetites but ultimately lulls us into aloofness and apathy about the world. There’s a problem with both options, of course. Of the dichotomy, Miroslav Volf says, “Pleasure without meaning is vapid; meaning without pleasure is crushing.”
We know this. Our meaningful pursuits soon burn us out. Our pleasurable pursuits ultimately leave us feeling trivial and shallow. Volf says our response is to try and wed meaning and pleasure, but when we do, the result is often a bare shadow. Volf says, “We project the power to give meaning into the [pleasurable] finite goods that surround us—the muscle tone of our bodies, steamy sex, loads of money, success in work, fame, family, or nation.”
We attempt to convince ourselves that our pleasures have deep meaning, but in the dark of night when things get quiet, we have serious doubts, and we begin to feel existentially empty.
What, then, is the way out of the conundrum? How do we find that elusive authentic wedding of meaning and pleasure that sages and mystics have for so long referred to as joy? Miroslav Volf believes the answer is to be found in gifts. This is a particularly intriguing notion on this day of all days, the First Sunday of Epiphany, the Baptism of Our Lord, when the gifts of the Magi still sparkle in our mind’s eye, and when the dove descends from the Father’s heaven to alight upon the Son.
But when Volf speaks of gifts, he is not referring to the casually purchased, double-click item on Amazon.com nor the obligatory glitzy Galleria fare that we snag the week before Christmas or one’s birthday. Those are simply things exchanged. They are baubles, though sometimes very expensive ones. True gifts, Volf counsels, find both their meaning and their pleasure not in the objects themselves, but in the social relationship between the giver and receiver. That is why I still keep a box of twenty-two year old trinkets sent to me transcontinentally by the girl I’d recently come to love. It is why a ballpoint pen made of old wood is a treasure. Jill’s little gifts, boxed and mailed across an ocean, said to me, “You are remembered, even so far away.” My father’s pen says, “You have a history, a place on earth and a people to which you belong. You are part of something that you have now inherited.”
These gifts bear meaning, and they give pleasure, not because of what they are, but because of the relationships they embody. They are, in theological terms, sacraments. They impart a particular kind of grace. Returning to Miroslav Volf, they serve as “carriers of the presence of another.”
We know this. Consider: Why is the inferior painting on your wall infinitely more meaningful to you than a canvass of one of the masters? Why does it give you such pleasure when you gaze upon it? Why else, except that it is a fifth grade drawing by your son, or the result of your spouse’s first art class, or the expression of your own internal soul? Meaning and pleasure coalesce as joy in the gift that bears the presence of a cherished other to us.
But, precious as these kinds of individual things are, they are small, in both meaning and pleasure. They brighten a day, but they rarely inspire a lifetime of joy. What if, however, we were willing, deeply and vulnerably, to expand our recognition of gift? What if we were to allow ourselves to see each life-giving thing we receive—from the air and water that sustain us to the very relationships that bring us those small daily joys—as gifts from God, as bearers of the relationship with one who loves us.
It is a lover’s love. That’s what our reading from Isaiah today underscores. Hear these words again, not as dusty scripture but as a love letter, neatly sealed and sent not across the ocean but from heaven to earth. To the ancient Israelites, God says, “I created you. I formed you. I have called you by name, and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you walk through fire you will not be burned. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, whom I created for glory, whom I formed and made.”
Where might we find joy revealed in the world if our New Year resolution, our Epiphany resolution, were to encounter the creation and all things in it as gifts from the God who expresses such love? How might the first stretch and breath of morning, the first ray of sunlight creeping through the window, the embrace of a friend or brush of a lover’s hand, serving at the Beacon, earning our daily bread, or even acknowledging the pains and pangs of growing older—how might each of these things impart deeper meaning and pleasure, deeper joy—if we received them as gifts from the One who promises to walk through fire and water with us, who says we are precious above all else? How much more precious would all these things, and the human relationships bound to them, become for us?
Today we will baptize seven children. That gift, that holy rite of water and anointing oil, is the first sacrament, by which God seals us forever to the one who was visited two thousand years by the Magi with gifts of their own. It is the gift by which God says to each of us, as God said to Jesus, “These are my beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” through which, scripture tells us, God finds meaning and pleasure, and in which we find our joy.
[i] Volf, Miroslav. “The giver and the gift,” The Christian Century, January 6, 2016, 10-11.