“Did you know that everyone in the whole world is a gift to the world?” I smiled as the four year old who had asked to help me gather shells spilled a little wisdom on me. “Well, that is beautiful,” I exclaimed, “who told you that?” “No one told me,” he answered, “no one had to tell me. I just knew. There are thousands of people in the world and every one of them is a gift to the world. Even you. You are a gift to the world.”
It was one of those – “Are you kidding me? Is this actually happening?” – kind of moments. He was a bit off in terms of the number of people that populate the world, but the rest was spot on. I dutifully obeyed the kid for the next couple hours, collecting shells and building an epic sand castle, unable to stop thinking about his endearing words. Regardless of what his reasons were for saying what he said, I was pretty sure that God had reasons for me hearing it, and I couldn’t stop smiling. I taught him what the word Eleuthera meant – freedom – and then I had to teach him what freedom meant. Meanwhile he taught me that it doesn’t take too much knowledge or age or experience to know the important facts in life. “You are a gift to the world. Each person is a gift to the world.”
As the sun set and we headed home in our respective directions, I thought about what it meant to be a gift. My mind returned to a conversation I had almost five years ago, not long after I graduated seminary, with the man our class called “The Bishop.” He was “The Bishop” not because he sought it, although many at Duke are known for doing so, but simply out of deference for the spiritual wisdom he exuded. He was the kind of person you would wish was your bishop. He had pulled me aside that summer as I tried to discern whether to take a job at a mega-church, or remain in the unpaid position I currently held and continue to build ministries with young urban leaders. “You are a gift,” he had told me, “but you have to be opened in the right place by the right people.” In the end, I stayed at the Isaiah House, remained in unpaid, urban ministry, and kept working the nightshift so I could minister during the day. That choice, in many ways, altered the direction of my life. Ever since then, whenever presented with two options, I almost invariably choose the harder one. It is one of the many things about me that both delights and annoys people.
That’s just me. I like a challenge. I accept that about myself.
I’ve been learning something new here on Eleuthera, however. Being willing to take on a challenge, doesn’t mean that you need to take on every challenge. Just as you are a gift and I am a gift, so also is life a gift and everything that comes our way. In order to live life to the fullest, we need to discern which challenges to open and which to decline. Sometimes “no” is the right answer. Sometimes “stop” is the right answer. Sometimes “not now” is the right answer. Especially when you are young, people are more than willing to use your time and youthful freedom and flexibility to try out the experiments they are too established to risk themselves. That time and freedom and hope and joy – those are your gifts, among many other things – but you don’t have to let just anybody open them and use them.
Knowing how and when to use your gifts, and saying no to being used by others, has an awful lot to do with knowing who you are.
If ever there was a place for me to be reminded of that, it was here in James Cistern. The wonderful thing about people here on Eleuthera is that they really do not care where I went to school, or what my resume says, or whether I am ordained or not. The aspects of me that people usually think make me a gift – my experience, my education, my credentials – mean nothing here. Here they care only care about who I am, how I treat, them, whether I show up, and what I contribute to the community. Here I am judged on who I am – my character, my sincerity, and my integrity. They care about the things that make me a human, a child of God, and a servant of God. They do not value me because of what I have accomplished, or who I can introduce them to through my connections.
Oh Lord, how incredibly healing it is to be judged on those kind of scales, and to be found to be valuable and worthy of love and respect. It actually makes a person believe that they are worthy of love and respect. If you can respect me when I have not showered for three days; and tell me that I look better without make up anyway; and expect me to “produce” nothing more than compassion and growth – then you are the type of person that I want for a friend. Then you are a gift.
A couple years ago, I was sitting in my ordination mentor’s office, and admired a framed quote on her wall. So she took it down and gave it to me. Howard Thurman, one of my favorite theologians. “Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Well, Mindy, it has taken me a while to stop loving that quote and start living that quote, but here we go. It is time to know me. To be me. To do me.
At the end of the day, I have learned, what you accomplish is not what is most important. If you are not living into your freedom and calling, then you are just proving what you are capable of doing, not revealing what makes you come alive. You can look pretty darn good, shiny paper and all, and still just be a gift that has not been unwrapped.
If ever there was someone who needed to know that, it was me. If ever there was someone who needed to be taught by these good people of James Cistern that I – in and of myself – am worthy of love, it was me. They unwrapped me. They took off all my shiny paper, and bows; took off all my certificates, diplomas, credentials, and cvs; and all that was left was me. Not Rev. Bonner. Not PB. Not this or that title. Just Hannah. That is what it means to have your gift opened; to meet people that are blind to all the wrapping paper and bows and just see what is inside.
Maxine and Pauline, you looked right through me, to my heart, and you loved me. I know your respect does not come cheap, please know I treasure it; it is as valuable a gift to me, as the gift you made me believe I am. Thank you.
I found out recently that Pauline’s husband, Edmund, was one of the greatest pitchers the Bahamas has seen. It took me two months to find that out; and they didn’t even tell me when I finally did find out; I saw a picture and someone else explained it to me. Unbelievable. But it makes sense, because like I said, accomplishments are not what makes you valuable here. Who you are and what you contribute to the community is what matters. What a humble and gentle man Edmund is. If I had to tell you what I thought his greatest accomplishment was, I would say his marriage to Pauline and the way they support each other. Even after knowing he is a world class pitcher, I would still say that. I guess James Cistern has gotten into my head. They have taught me to see what is really valuable and what is really important here.
So I am going to do my very best to be me, to do me – and I encourage you to do the same. I have found out that being a gift that needs to be unwrapped in the right place did not mean what I thought it did, and it probably did not even mean what “The Bishop” thought it did. It does not mean finding the right challenge to take on and resolve. It meant finding the right people who could see past all my pretty distractions and show me who I really am. People who looked at me when I was stripped of all the things that I thought made me beautiful and valuble, and still told me that I was both. That is their gift to me.
We, my friends, are gifts to the world, according to my four year old sage. So, open up that gift this Christmas. Strip away everything you think makes you who you are – your clothes, your job, your history, your friends, your home – imagine yourself too without a job and without a home, on an isolated island that is rapidly depopulating for the holidays – what is left when all is stripped away? That is you, that is your gift. Be you, that will be enough.