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Unwrap and Give
December 26, 1971

First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto

Not everyone is having a merry Christmas. The commercialism of our day with its technological ability to confront us on every hand with the gaeity of Christmas often enhances feelings of loneliness, isolation and misery. There are actually some who dread Christmas, who hate to see it come. Not everyone gathered around a tree with a full circle of family. Many have witnessed the break-up of their family due to death, divorce, separation, alienation, hurt feelings or imposed separation due to the military, prisons, or employment. Many with personal problems and anxieties--unemployment, tensions, depression--find it difficult to relate to Christmas.

To any of you who are finding it difficult to enjoy Christmas this year, and also to those of you who are finding this season to be gay and jolly, don't overlook one of your gifts. Have you opened them all? Is there one still hiding beneath the tree, wrapped so prettily, waiting to be opened?

Last week we heard an excellent sermon on God's great gift to the world of his Son, an expression of his love for all of us. God gave his very best, his only Son, Jesus Christ. God has also given us many other gifts. I invite you to consider one of those gifts this morning; a gift often never unwrapped, waiting to be opened, to be shared, to be enjoyed. Namely, the gift of YOU! You are a gift from God. In a very real and profound sense, life is a gift, an unearned, unmerited, undeserved gift. You did not ask to be born. You performed no great feat for which you were honored by being given life. Life is beyond your control; it is a gift. Not just the wonders of creation, the sky, universe, and nature are gifts from God, your life is also a gift. You with your idiosyncrasies, your looks, your temperament, wrinkles, blemishes, personality, all that you are, you are a gift.

What usually happens when you receive a gift, especially an unexpected gift; at least what happens when I receive such a gift, I like to savor the moment. I like to hold it, turn it around, admire it, shake, rattle, smell it, and reflect on the giver. In this season of Christmastide, the season of giving and receiving gifts, I invite you to do the same with the gift of your life. Hold it, savor it, admire, ponder and reflect on the gift and on the giver. What do you think of the gift?What do you think of yourself? Do you like yourself? Are you happy with the gift God has given you? What are you doing with the gift? Usually not too much time lapses before a decision must be made regarding a gift. We cannot hold and admire it forever! A decision must be made about the gift; likewise, a decision must be made about our lives.

Sadly, too many persons decide not to unwrap their gift. They decide not to enjoy or to share their gift. Some when they receive the gift of their life decide they would rather exchange it for something else. They decide to go down to the store and trade it in for something else. They would prefer to be someone else. "Oh, if only I had money, or better looks, or more intelligence." This line of' thinking leads only to chaos, disillusionment and despair. Even if you don't like the color, the shape, the style, the size, you are you! There is no one like you; there never has been, there never will be another you.

To try to trade you in on a new model is to deny God’s creation. You are beautiful, you are good. Would you deny the goodness of' God's creation? The first chapter of Genesis in vivid and majestic poetry praises God’s creation and pronounces it good. God’s gifts are beautiful. When you are depressed, disillusioned or discouraged, especially at Christmas, re-read Genesis l, and capture again the sense of wonder and magnificence of what God's can do. Take a look again at the splendor of the Bay Area, the mountains, bay, the ocean. Look at the snow in the Sierras; look at the trees, flowers; look at the animals and birds. Be inspired again at the magnificence and grandeur, of God’s creative ability. And then go home and look in the mirror and marvel at what’s there. Look in wonder; not in vanity or pride, but in wonder. You are alive. God has made you, and you are beautiful. What a denial of God's creative purpose if you seek to exchange your girt, exchange your life, and be someone else. A "pox" on parents who try to make their children into copies of themselves; or to fit their social and cultural outlook; or who try to make their children into copies of the neighbors.

There are even some in theological circles who tell us that Christians are "to be like Jesus”, to imitate Jesus. Some say Jesus desires to live his life through us. I'm not sure what is meant, but if to be like Jesus means to deny me or deny my life in any way, to inhibit or stifle me, that theology is a denial of the purpose of God creating me. God created me to be Douglas Norris. God created you to be you, not to be Jesus.

After you have read Genesis 1, go on to read Genesis 2. When the ancient Hebrews looked at the world and marveled at the splendor of God's creation, they asked, "What has gone wrong? Why is there evil, suffering and sin?'' Thus came the story of Adam and Eve, an intriguing story. Do you remember what the serpent said to Eve as he seduced her into eating the forbidden fruit? "Eat it," he urged, “You will be like God.” That is sin—to want to be like God. That was their sin; they wanted to be someone else. They denied their lives, denied their existence, denied their finitude, denied what God had given them and where he had placed them to live their lives. They tried to exchange gifts, and it doesn't work.

The only real thing you have to give is yourself. The unique thing about you is you. If God had wanted anything different, he would have made us all carbon copies, or run us through the Xerox. God didn't make us to sing and play in unison. We are given individual strengths, talents, moods, tones, and are called to be directed by him in a celestial symphony orchestra. He made us sing like the choirs of First United Methodist Church—such singing we heard at the Christmas Eve services 5:00 and 11:00. How inspiring to see the choir loft full of enthusiastic, dedicated children, youth and adults who bring all they have and sing with everything they have. That's how we are to live this life we have been given; giving what we individually have been given to the fullest, with all the enthusiasm we can find.

Some persons try to exchange their gifts, rather than unwrapping them. Others, rather than unwrap their gift, add more paper. They take their gift and wrap and wrap. They so cover up the original gift that it becomes almost unrecognizable.  And they use such drab, dreary, colorless, even tragic wrapping paper. A favorite wrapping is inferiority, “0h, I'm just not good enough. Others are so much more capable than I.  I just can't do that. I’m no good." They wrap themselves in “Poor, little old me!” Wouldn’t you like sometimes to rip off the paper and say, “Come on, shape up!” Or how about envy,  bitterness, resentment, hostility?

One of the popular wrappings and the most insidious and vicious is self-pity. I directed ninth grade camps for the district. Ninth graders would come from many different churches and communities. Even at the ripe old age of "ninth grade", we would encounter cases of homesickness. I remember one girl in particular. She arrived on Sunday afternoon with the rest of the campers. She came from a small Minnesota town. After supper that evening, she started to cry. Her counselor told me the next morning that she had cried practically all night, sobbing into her pillow. We discussed her homesickness and decided that as counselors our best procedure was to ignore it and attempt to encourage her participation in the activities. We felt the less attention paid to her homesickness, the sooner she would recover. But, Wednesday morning she entered the dining room with red-rimmed eyes, proceeded to play with her food, wiped her eyes, and sat all hovered over her plate. Her shell completely wrapped around her, she was oblivious to anyone or anything in the dining room. She presented a forlorn, desperate, pathetic picture.

I decided I had to do something besides ignore her, so I invited her to take a walk. During the walk, I told her three things: 1)  You are 14 years old, not four, and this week affords a golden opportunity for you to experiment with what it is like to be 14 years old. Furthermore, the camp is tired of your whimpering, slobbering and crying. You are diluting the oatmeal! 2) Under no circumstances are you going home. I am not going to call your mother and tell her to come to get you. You paid your money, You committed yourself to a week at this camp, and you are not going home. That is not your choice. Your choice is to cry or not to cry. If you choose to cry the rest of the week, I'll order in a truckload of Kleenex!  3) You are denying the rest of the camp your life. The entire camp is missing something. We are missing you and what you have to give to us because you are shutting yourself up in self-pity.

Well, it is a beautiful story! If it didn't work out, I wouldn't be telling it to you! On Saturday when her mother came, she again cried because she didn't want to go home! She had a great week, and she participated as much as she was able. In many ways, however, she was only four years old. We had to play with her in the lake as if she were a pre-schooler. We splashed, ran, giggled with her because she had no idea what to do in a lake, or what to do with water. I have always hoped that the week in camp helped her to face her life, helped her decide to unwrap the self-pity and discover the beautiful girl inside.

I believe that only on rare occasions does a person need sympathy. There are times, of course, when support is needed, but not as often as we would like! Sympathy encourages feelings of self-pity. And never does a person need pity. Pity is demoralizing and dehumanizing. We need encouragement to live our lives, not to feel sorry for ourselves. Too many of us spend our days, even Christmas, sniveling, whimpering, enjoying self-pity—“Poor, little: old me!" How tragic! What a gift God has given you, and you feel sorry for it!

I often remember Mrs. Kessler, a member of one of the four churches I pastored just out of seminary. We were there five years and Mrs. Kessler only missed worship when she visited her sister which wasn't often. Sunday after Sunday, Mrs. Kessler faithfully sat there in the center of the church. I don't know how many years before or how many years since, but I know that for five years Mrs. Kessler was in church. She came in blizzards, sleet, rain, hail, wind, snow, heat (Californians have no excuse for weather!) Five years she came, yet she never understood one word. She was almost totally deaf. The only way to communicate was to sit two feet from her and have eyeball to eyeball contact. She could hear the congregation singing around her, but she never heard a word from the pulpit. She could have sat in her little house and felt sorry for herself. She could have complained about the church acoustics, but she never complained or griped or criticized. She had too much to do and too many places to go to be hindered by negative feelings. I asked her once why she came to church every Sunday even though she couldn't hear. She replied, "It is good to go to church. Everyone should go. And I want everyone to know whose side I'm on." Now there is beautiful woman who was living her life. She had a witness to make. She had a life to live. She took her frailties and her handicaps, accepted them, and did something with her life.

Don't try to exchange gifts and be someone you' re not. Don't add ugly wrappings of self-pity, inferiority or envy to your gift. Unwrap your gift. Discover yourself to be the beautiful person God made you to be. Look at all he has given you. Accept yourself. Unleash the potential within. Develop those talents. Train your mind. And give yourself to the world. Now it is not really possible to unwrap the gift without giving it away, for it is in the giving of your life that you really unwrap it. Your life must first be given to Christ. Commitment to Christ means to give your life back to him who first gave it to you in the prayer that his will be done with our lives. You need his power and grace to cut through all the wrappings, to be the kind of person he made you to be. You need the word stamped upon you, "You are okay. You are all right." Jesus used different terminology when he walked through Galilee. "Your sins are forgiven." "Come, follow me." "Take up your bed and walk." "Open your eyes and see." "You are the light of the world.’' The Apostle Paul used words such as saved, redeemed, reconciled. They all mean "you are okay". Bring your life to God and confess, "I have my life all wrapped up in ugliness. I tried to exchange it. I have sinned." And God will take your life and give it back to you restored in a new way, enabling you to live to the fullest.

And then God gives you as a Christmas gift to the world. You are a Christmas gift to those around you in your neighborhood, in this congregation. You are a Christmas gift. They don't need a fake imitation, they need the original! They don't need your wrappings, they need you. They need you and your joy, your love, your goodness. They need what you alone have to give. Take your gift, your life, unwrap it and give it to the world. Merry Christmas.

© 1971 Douglas I. Norris