Gifts of Delight and Wonder
What’s the best present you’ve ever gotten? And what’s the present you were the most proud to give?
Join Dan and Rachael in today’s episode as they explore the nuances of gift-giving during the Christmas season. They share insights into their personal approaches to selecting and presenting gifts for their loved ones, while also navigating the complexities of holiday expectations, addressing grief and heartache that can come up, and emphasizing the importance of self-honoring.
The conversation extends beyond material presents to the importance of “presence” – both in relationships and in connection with the divine during the holiday season.
Dan: Rachael, a question I want to begin with is, do you think much about your gift giving?
Rachael: Yeah, I do.
Dan: You do, I know that.
Rachael: Yeah. Yeah, I do. I don’t always, it feels like in the realm of the curse because it feels that sense of, I genuinely want to gift people in that way that makes them feel like seen and known and anticipated and surprised.
Dan: Lemme give you an example. Lemme give you an example. Why don’t you describe what you purchased with our team, but you were the primary lead for a point of celebration, at least in my life.
Rachael: Well, you and our friend Cathy Loerzel wrote a book called Redeeming Heartache, which was a labor of love to capture so much of your life’s work, Cathy’s life’s work up to that point. And it happened to be written in a season just fraught with a lot of suffering in the larger world, but also in our world, in our small world. And I know that our team is not always great at stopping to celebrate and actually pause and celebrate good labor. So we wanted to do something for you, but you’re not an easy person to gift in the sense of, it’s not that you’re, it’s just, I think in some ways so many people experience you and see you and have access to parts of you, but may not actually see deeper parts of you. It’s the nature of having a public presence. So we wanted to gift you really well. We knew that you have some Chagall prints hanging in your home, that that’s an artist that you love. He captures very well the beauty and brokenness, the holy and horror. And so we got you a Chagall… It’s not called a print, I forget what it’s called because it actually has, it’s one of the few reproductions that an artist will do of their original print where they actually sign it, I forget what it’s called.
Dan: Sign it with his actual pen.
Rachael: Yeah. Again, the person Chagall, if one has ever read any of the biographies, it’s not a human being that I would honor, but nonetheless, the reality of his creation, primarily from what is called fabulous, a kind of playful, a lot of the figures are floating in the air, and the particular print you got was of a husband and wife. So for me it was the reality of the love of my life, and that is my wife, but also a painter that in his Hungarian and Jewish roots and Russian roots holds something of the tapestry and story of a wild community. So it couldn’t have been, there just could not have been a more honoring and sweet gift. So back to the point, how do you work to create a gift giving mentality on behalf of the people that you love and your family? I mean, this was part of what I was going to say is I think the nature of this season to me always brings about what it feels like futility, because you’re pushing against so much. Because what I most long for in this season, to be quite honest, and in some ways my immediate family and my extended family, we’ve moved toward more simplicity is I actually, the greatest gift I long for in the Christmas season is to be with my people and not be dissociated and stressed out and frantic going through the motions of getting everyone gifts. But rarely do you have the time and resources because you can get inexpensive gifts that are priceless, but that takes planning, it takes intentionality, it takes time. So I often in the Christmas season, feel the inevitable bind of the disappointment that I have been thinking for a long season of ways I want to gift to the people I love, and I’m not going to have the time resources to actually make it happen in a ways that if I had more time could without having to spend a ton of money that I don’t have. And so part of how I approach it is just pondering what would make someone feel seen, delighted, in known. And again, that element of wonder and surprised, and I guess in my idealistic self, I think that’s part of bringing the gift of the incarnation in a tangible form. God came to be with us in a way we needed more than we could have ever known. We know, but could have never really believed someone would come to be with us and to do on our behalf what Jesus has done. And so I like to think of in my idealistic self Christmas gifts have the potential to do that. And then I also just have a very realistic self that is still somewhat caught up in capitalistic mayhem and wants to get my sister the sweater she’s been wanting and wants her to feel that joy. So both are true. I don’t want to come across sounding like I’m like the saint of gift giving because I’m not.
Dan: I’m sorry, I can’t, I can’t. The saint of gift giving. Holy moly, it’s hilarious. That is just, I don’t want you to have to be set up to be perceived that way. But I do think you spend the kind of time in the pondering, the kind of time in the living in the real world, but also in a theological frame. So I think one of the first things that we’re wanting y’all to consider is do you bring a theology to your gift giving? Because if there isn’t, then it leaves you in one sense, back to almost pure commercialism and materialism. But that notion of what would bring light, I think a lot of people operate on, and that’s a good thing. It’s at least a deep reality. And I would call it the already, what do we know what is within the purview of your experience of delight? My family knows I fly fish. And so I expect, notice the lack of wonder, I expect some fly fishing gear, which I didn’t purchase because I don’t want, if I wanted it and thought I needed it, I wouldn’t be waiting until December to get it. I would’ve purchased it before. So it’s delight, but not a lot of wonder. So to live into the stretched labor of actually living with that question of what would bring delight, but what also would bring wonder, that’s surprise. And to me, that’s the language of the not yet. It is the not yet of Jesus’s return and the full and complete restoration of all things. Now, again, I don’t want to create a category of giving that only saints like you can achieve, but at least to be in that position of going, can we ponder this? If I can get a gift of delight, I’ve done darn well, but let me press a little further to go. What would surprise them? What would give them the taste of the coming not yet? Does that make sense?
Rachael: Yeah. I will say early in my step-motherhood, one of the best Christmas gifts I got was a little piece of paper from a 10-year-old with free tickets to play chess with him because he was teaching me how to play chess. And again, does that mean other gifts I received I didn’t love? No, of course I loved them. And they always come with something of that sense of delight and care, but the wonder of being invited to future games that a child is teaching me how to play and they’re getting to use their skills of teaching that they were expressing, I want to play more games with you, like priceless, priceless gift. And again, we can move in another perfectionist way that becomes the how do you one up that every year in this ritual of gift giving, if you give a really good gift, it’s almost like, oh crap, do I have to do even better in the next season? And I think, no, no, there are going to be seasons where that kind of gifting comes really easily and there are going to be seasons where it’s a little more challenging or where you need to move towards simplicity. Like simplicity can still bring wonder. And that’s why I would say in this particular season of our lives that are hectic and crazy with our kids being in so many multiple sporting activities at school and robotics and having a 15 month old and living far away from family, honestly, most of our gift giving in this season that are the bigger gifts is going to be paying for travel to visit family. So it actually liberates us then to be able to say, Hey, we’re not going to participate in the normal, okay, we’re spending a bunch of money on gifts that most people at the end of the day could take or leave. But how can we be creative to say we do have some gifts to bring? And I think for us, that will look like what’s a game we want to take with us to gift Nona and Papa to keep at their house, that we can all play together when we’re there. So there are ways, but I do think it’s hard to think theologically about this, especially in a season again, that we don’t actually have a lot of time to stop and be present with ourselves, let alone all the people in our midst.
Dan: Right there, you’re hitting the key issue for me at least, and that is, do I have the resources? There are gifts that I would love to give my family, I don’t have the money for. On the other hand, there are gifts that I don’t know yet what to give, but it’s going to take the pondering to actually step into what is the season, what is the life experience? What are the current vicissitudes of this particular person? And how can I add something that, again, back to those two keywords that I think are really imperative to underscore delight and wonder if you can create wonder. My guess is you’re getting close to the word delight, but the sweater that is just such the proverbial category of the sweater that they would enjoy that brings delight. But in that, what more might bring wonder? I don’t know. I mean, I think we can give objects, and that’s a good thing. It’s a way of honoring that implied sweetness that you have thought about me and knew that you knew that I would’ve enjoyed this. But then to be able to go what you just described with regard to the 10-year-old who invited you into a game, but also a game of intellect and play and competition. Oh, it’s just perfect. So how do we give experiences and because an experience probably has that intersection of delight, but also of more potential for wonder.
Rachael: Yeah, it does. And again, I’ll say just honestly, sometimes we’ve done that thing well, even with the chess game, how often have I actually taken him up on that gift?
Dan: Yeah, well, how… have you?
Rachael: Some, but not as much as I could have.
Dan: Yeah. So did you win or lose?
Rachael: I lost.
Dan: Great. See delight and wonder.
Rachael: Greatly lost because chess is so intense and it’s like you have to be watching for multiple strategies and I’m just trying to learn the one. And every time I would be so focused on one and then he’d be like, checkmate. But I want to ponder this with you because I think this is, I know on the Allender Center podcast so much what we talk about comes back to grief, but I don’t know we around it because I think to really be in the already not yet is to have engage grief. I think that’s what I by saying, there’s a lot of futility, in being in the ground of the curse, the initial curse of when we lost that union and freedom, and there’s a sense of futility to some of our labor. It’s just how many of us get to this Christmas season? And even if we talked last week about how there’s things we look forward to and we anticipate and rituals that we have from the past, there’s nostalgia that we have, but there’s also ways we recreate rituals that hold a lot of meaning and call us to something more. But there’s also something about futility and feelings of redundancy that can also feel exhausting in this realm. And that is something of what we also face in this season where the wonder we long for and we’re made for the delight we’re made for the connection and community and love we’re made for isn’t always our reality and we’re up against so much. And so it can also be exhausting to feel that pressure of is a gift… could a good gift for this particular season for some people to say, we’re going to actually take a Sabbath for gift giving in this season, and we’re going to celebrate the fact that there are people that aren’t waking up with their children or waking up with their spouses, and we’re going to really soak in what we have as an act of delight and wonder instead of needing something more. So I think that can also be an option and offering for people.
Dan: Well, in that sense of wonder is another word for the word awe. And awe has that potential to be the word awesome, but it also has the potential to be the word awful. So we’re in a gift giving season where the world feels like it is in more trevile and in more war than ever before. Now, that might be not true for somebody who was celebrating Christmas in 1942 or 3, but the reality of where we are culturally, where we are as a nation, as we look into the year 2024, and the implications of chaos with regard to our political system, all that to be able to say, we’re not talking about gift giving as a way of trying to escape, but actually enter more deeply into desire. And whenever you talk about desire, it is that intersection of the already, I know you and I know you would have something sweet in this gift, but also something implied of there’s a larger world, a larger world that has something awful in it and awesome in it. So here’s my example of what I’ve been thinking, and I’m hoping two things don’t occur. One is that the person I’m thinking about listens to this podcast, and the other is someone who we have very dear to our hearts who might listen to this that I’ve not directly asked. So those are my caveats. My daughter-in-law, Sassy loves essential oils. And so I’ve planned at least to get her a couple kind of good resources with regard to that. But she loves learning. This is a human being who I have never in my life, even though I’m around really brilliant, gifted and just love to learn human beings like you and others. Nonetheless, I’ve never been with anyone who loves to learn more. So I’m thinking if I get essential oils, then I’m going to pay our beloved Jeanette White, who is brilliant and well-trained in the issue of essential oils and pay for an hour appointment with Jeanette to be able to explore why these particular oils work in a particular way and why they are in one sense, an invitation into a realm that she loves and knows a lot about, that is my daughter-in-law, but not at the same level that Jeanette knows. So to be able, in one sense, to take her into a new world, but a world she’s familiar with, but a world that will be expanded just by an hour of conversation, oh, it feels delectable. I’m just so excited to get her oils and this connection with someone whom I know and love and know that when I’ve got questions about essential oils, there’s somebody I would rather go to than our boss, Jeanette. So that feels like for me, at least with one person in my family, the ability to hold the already and not yet to invite her into the unknown, that will thrill her, but also in one sense provide her with even greater skill to be able to engage the object itself.
Rachael: I love that. That’s a very good gift.
Dan: Well, guess when I thought about it
Rachael: When we were having other podcasts interview and someone mentioned the essential oils.
Dan: No, I thought about it just now
Rachael: Really? During this podcast?
Dan: Absolutely. Oh yeah. Just trying to take the categories, because I don’t know how much preparation people think we make in these, but in this particular one, your word delight, but also wonder, it’s what spurred that… Oh my gosh. Essential oils. I happened to be looking at a few right in front of me that it was like, oh my gosh, this would be such a sweet entry into something very comparable to your beloved 10-year-old taking you into… So the fun part of this is ideas will come and sometimes at least when I’ve pondered my, not terribly vast, but still large family, there’s just times where I’m going, I’m just going to get Jeff a sweater that I know he is going to take back and just, I might as well just give him a check. Or Here, here’s 50 bucks, have a happy Christmas. And there is a place for being able to go. I really don’t have the time, energy, effort, resources to be able to ponder each and every human being within my family. Maybe I should, but I don’t. So there is this freedom. We don’t want to set up such a sainthood here that it creates a level of exhaustion, but it’s fun. The idea that just came together is freaking fun. I’m so excited. I mean, everybody else’s Christmas gift will probably suck, but at least I’ve got one that overall feels like, oh, that’s life-giving.
Rachael: Even as we’re having this conversation, I guess some of the people that are coming to mind to me would be the people who would say, again, we’re talking about gift giving. We’re talking about the already not yet around a specific season and moment that for a lot of people actually just brings a lot of heartache and they really are just trying to make it through the holiday season. Whether that’s because there’s loss and remembering and creating new celebration without someone just feels agonizing or whether it’s because there’s just a lot of heartache around this season. There’s maybe relational heartache or just real realities of suffering and grief. And I guess I would ask Dan, what encouragement? What if you would love in, but you’re not in good relationship right now, or it doesn’t feel safe or honoring, and then that just brings up all kinds of agony, or you’ve never tasted something of that kind of gift giving in return so you can bless out of your own poverty, but it still has this aching desire for someone to want to gift you in that way. What words do we have?
Dan: Well, I think, again, not that there is an answer to that superb question, but the beginning for me is what we’ve attempted to be able to say about the nature of nostalgia. Nostalgia as not a rounding off of the jagged edges of our heartache. It’s an ability to say, oh my gosh, I want so much goodness for my family. And there are seasons, birthdays, special events, Christmas, where culturally we have this norm of gift giving. And in that some of the gifts of the duds, I just think in terms of Becky and I a couple years back, just basically looked at one another and said, let’s stop this. Because I mean, historically there have been very few gifts I’ve been able to give her that she just goes, wow, now did do one last year that was pretty spectacular, and I have it within me, but it’s like one out of 20. And so we just came to a point of going, look, if there’s something you really want for Christmas, buy it. And if it means something to you, I’ll wrap it. But the way I wrap is so contrary to her own sense of aesthetics that she wraps it herself and then we open it up and then we pretend to be surprised. It’s just almost, again, a kind of play. But what you’re getting to is can we lean into the heartache that no Christmas is as we would wish, no gift is fully as we would desire. I’ve given my girls, Andrew does not want it, so he said, no. But I’ve given my girls usually the opportunity, I will take them out to eat once or twice during the year, and that we each choose one book that we talk about at that meal. Now the great value to them is the meal, and they have conceded that, yeah, I know what you’re really looking to is just to get to know us. So we like that kind of, we do. But it’s such a privilege to be able to go, I can sit with a daughter for several hours and talk about something that stirs hours upon hours of conversation. And I think about those who hear that and go, my daughter would never want to do that with me. And to go, I’m heartbroken. Then if you can’t give a book or select a book that you have a conversation about, could there be a five minute conversation? Here’s what I want for Christmas. I want to sit with you and look at 10 pictures of you growing up and hear your thoughts about what you remember during that particular moment or season in your life and in our life, that invitation to say, I don’t need money. I don’t need you to make something. I want 15 minutes of looking at 10 photos. Your adult daughter might, alright, but there will be something in her heart that will, maybe it won’t be for a long season, but will have said, oh, that was kind of nice. We didn’t have to pass money, we didn’t have to pass gifts and we didn’t have to make it hours of conversation in a restaurant, 15 minutes looking at 10 photos. Just hearing a little bit about what it meant for you in that particular moment in life. Again, I don’t think there’s any gift greater than self-giving, but giving that is mutual, meaning we each have pleasure in the engagement and buying a sweater and seeing delight and having that person be grateful, I’m all for it. Totally, totally. But that’s why I’ve said to my kids, look, if I wanted the sweater, I would’ve bought it. Just give me money. And if you don’t want to give me money, give me time. That’s what I want. I want time, a half hour phone call, but where it’s not chatting about how’s your job, how’s the kids? But it’s a half hour where we engage, for lack of a better word, meaning our lives, our relationship where you are in your own relationship with life itself and with God. That to me is the interplay of the already and not yet. Well, any other directions as you think about your gift giving now?
Rachael: You kind of had a mic drop, so I was like, oh, that was really stunning. So my silence was just taking in what you’re saying, but I think about just how do we gift ourselves, honor. Honoring where we’re at, honoring our capacity and just moving toward honoring our desire in ways that can start really small. And we say this a lot like being faithful in the small. So maybe this advent season and Christmas season, you’re feeling an invitation to change some of the culture around the holidays because you find it actually doesn’t gift you at all and it’s insane. And maybe that has to start really small. I’ve seen that in my own family with my dad basically saying, some of the ways we celebrate this holiday, I feel like are starting to be life sucking and not life-giving. Can we create some different rituals? And that was a really painful, disruptive conversation initially, but it’s led to some really beautiful ways we gather as a family that we had never done before that I think we all look forward to. And so I just, again, I mean I’m laughing. I was thinking, oh yeah, last Christmas Michael and I gifted each other running shoes, new running shoes because we’re four months postpartum. Our bodies were aching and we were realizing we got to get in better shape so that we can keep up with this really young, vibrant, active little person. So let’s get new running shoes because our shoes are like three years old. And so we went to the Brooks store to get our new running shoes. And of course I ended up leaving with new running shoes because I found a pair that worked. And Michael is a desirous man, and there was a very particular color he wanted that they didn’t have in the store. So he was like, I’ll get them later. Guess who almost a year later still doesn’t have running shoes. So I’m laughing. I felt like I wanted to share that story just in case anyone was still wanting to put me on the pedestal of the Saint of Christmas gift giving. I bought Michael running shoes that, hey, I’ve never actually bought him and he doesn’t have. And anyhow, we in a very similar way have tried to move away from this pressure to get each other the perfect gift and try to think about more creative ways we want to play together in the season head. One thought I did have when you were talking is I was thinking what is one of the best Christmas gifts I’ve gotten? And I can tell you, my sophomore year of college, my mom got me a razor scooter, which is when those little scooters were all the rage I opened that I was not expecting it at all. I don’t even know how she knew it’s something I would so love. But I opened that thing up and I jumped up and ran around the house like a child for about 20 minutes. I just couldn’t believe it. I was so excited that I was going to get to take this back to my college campus and ride it around. And I felt so seen and so loved and celebrated for really playful parts of me that were a little bit goofy for a 20-year-old to be living into. And I do remember, I was just thinking, so I was going to ask you, Dan, just is there a gift you remember receiving in this season that felt like it captured that sense of delight and wonder?
Dan: Yeah, I mean, the idea of having time with my daughters did not come from me. It came from my oldest daughter, Annie, who gave me a night out at a really fine Seattle restaurant that I would… way more expensive than I would ever take myself to. So she paid for us to go, the two of us to go to the restaurant, but she said, I want to read or reread, I can’t remember now. The Brothers Karamazov. And I want particularly to deal with two core chapters, the Grand Inquisitor chapter. And I want to hear from you how it’s you still believe in God given the suffering. And I’m like, oh, daughter, you could not have purchased for me anything more sweet than a banquet with you. And the opportunity to read a book that was certainly very central to post-conversion, but engagement with the core questions I still have and still have today about the goodness of God. So that gift, I would say is probably the best gift I’ve ever received in my life. And both daughters would say, oh yeah, now we’ve got to go out to eat and talk about a book with dad. I still think they kind of enjoy it, but I think the reality is that if I had not been given it, I wouldn’t have had in one sense the wisdom to give it in return.
Rachael: Yeah, that’s really beautiful. And it’s taken me back to, it’s going to feel so cheesy, so just go with me. But I feel this encouragement I want to give to our listeners and to myself and to us. It’s going to that cheesy, the greatest gift of all is Jesus. That’s what I feel like is about to come out of me. But I’m thinking about how much presence and presence like someone being in our presence with an intentionality and with their face turned toward us and engaging us in a way that we’re most meant for where our hearts are being drawn in. And I’m just thinking about just for those of us that need, in some ways, we do need that cosmic reminder that we’re not alone. We are not alone. And that to me is what the greatest gift of this season that we remember the incarnation that Jesus came to be with us, but in this already, not yet as we wait for the return of Jesus to come and make all things right in this season that is just so full of horror and suffering and heartache and in ways that we feel complicit in because of the nature of the systems of our world, and there’s work we have to do. I’m just thinking about how one of the greatest gifts Jesus gave to us was the presence of the spirit, a comforter to be with us as we wait and be already not yet. And there is something about presence and about the presence of God with us in a palpable, accessible way that I hope, even as we’re pondering, how do we want to gift the people we love, how do we want to, in some ways, part of gift giving is like how do we want to push against evil? How do we want to push back against heartache and horror and fight for what it is we’re made for? What are we fighting for? What are we rebuilding towards that we have the presence of the spirit with us, for us all around us? And so even as a cheesy, as a practice, it could be, I think I am going to ponder with the Spirit, how do I most faithfully, tenderly, delightfully, wonder-filled, grief-filled and all the joy and sorrow and all of it mixed together, like enter this season with the people I love and that I am grateful for.
Dan: Well, and to underscore how cheesy, and I personally love cheese, but how cheesy it can be heard yet when we bring something like, well, the reason for the season and then just want to slap myself even saying it out loud. But again, to be able to come back to what we’re really wanting to give as a taste of we have received. And what we have received is adoption. We are the sons and daughters of God. And in that process of delight, and I go back to your two keywords that I think are brilliant, delight and wonder, it sets up a strong, but I don’t think impossible standard, we can’t achieve it with each person over every Christmas or every gift giving process. But at least it captures enough to be able to say, may you shop well, folks, may you shop well.