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Beowulf contains a great many lessons relevant to daily living. First, don’t go to sleep near the hero or the monster will eat you. Second, after you kill a monster don’t go to sleep before knowing whether the monster has a mother bent on vengeance. If you don’t take care, she might use your head to decorate her yard.

Following all this practical advice, the saga also contains more spiritual wisdom. As you get older, don’t get proud and cheap . . . keep giving presents to your old and new friends. A favorite gift at the time of Beowulf was a ring and so a good lord gave a good many rings as gifts.

Advertising advises giving ourselves gifts. We shop and so it becomes hard to know what to give the “man who has everything.” It is true that many of us can afford to buy our own rings, but in doing so we harm ourselves and others.

Recently, Hope and I have tried to give away stuff. We came to California with eleven boxes (not counting books), but even after hauling out many more than eleven boxes we still could go for another round. I noticed something interesting as we tossed and lightened our material load. It was easy to part with the things I purchased for myself, but it was rare to throw away a gift.

On one of my office book shelves there is a sculpture of a daddy rabbit carrying his baby rabbit child. It was given to me by one of my children, I know whom but am not telling, and nobody would describe it as great art. My guess is that it came from the “AWANA Store:” a place where Bible memorizing young people can spend “AWANA bucks” accrued as a reward for learning Scripture. AWANA is very Wesleyan: kids do well by doing what is good. My kids often used their AWANA bucks to buy Christmas presents and so a rabbit sculpture moved from the Ninety-Nine Cent Only store to the AWANA store to me by way of John 3:16.  

I will never throw it away. My masterful child acted as a young lord or lady should and gave it to me as a gift of esteem and love. It is more than the sum of its parts: it is one of the first rings a child gave to express thanks for service.  What is the value of such a gift?

Isn’t my rabbit sculpture fairly worthless? This is true only if you forget what it is through ignorance. Even a barbarian knows that sentimental value is real value and that family relationships are part of the framework that shapes objects into prized possessions. A skeptic might declare that the sculpture only has value to me, but this is also wrong. It is only ignorance of my child or my family or a failure to understand the importance of any child or family that easily could discard such a gift.

This ignorance can best be conquered by telling the story of a gift. The two rings on my hand, one from my wife and one from Torrey, come with a tale: the first romantic, the second one of friendship. Because I did not buy them, this is a tale I can tell to the praise of the giver of the rings: my beloved Hope and the Torrey class of 2004.

Things I buy for myself may have a story, though most objects purchased do not, but this tale is not so safe for me to tell. I was the giver of the ring and the recipient of the ring. Modesty would forbid my telling the tale!

We hope someday to have a house filled with gifts or mementos from others and to give away as much as we get. Sparse possessions are a sign of youth in such a system and a hall full of gifts the mark of a happy old age.

Beowulf reminds us that the hall full of gifts must not stay full of gifts. My mother and father have taken to giving my brother and me gifts that are family heirlooms. I can now hang my ties on my grandfather’s tie rack, an object I saw him use as a little boy. The previous rack was fancier, but this rack is ringed by precious memories. It brings my youth and middle age together and reminds me of those heroes gone before me.

Give gifts. Our Lord said it was more blessed to give, than to receive. Try it and see if He was right. As much as is possible give gifts that are the product of a shared history. Then spend some evenings gathered in the living room talking about the objects in it. If your living room is filled with priceless or merely functional objects, then you don’t have a living room, but a place to sit.

There is caution needed, however, in the giving and receiving of rings. If we plan to be blessed by giving, we shall have to take the risk of receiving. J.R.R. Tolkien reminds us that it safer to give rings than to receive them. If the lord of rings gives you one, make sure the lord is a good lord. If he is merely a glowing eye, then don’t take the gift. A gift always creates a bond, an obligation. Be cautious about the persons that you will allow to give you gifts.

Ring giving need not be the exclusive sphere of the rich, though the rich are blessed to get to do a great deal of it. One of the lordly givers of gifts I have known was a woman at the foot of the hill where we lived in West Virginia. She loved beautiful things, but gave them away generously. We were not in her family, but she still gave us objects with a rare insight into what my mother, a very young woman at the time, would cherish. Those gifts still grace my parent’s home.

She was not a rich woman, but she was a great ring giver.

The rabbit sculpture on my bookcase and the rings on my finger give life a “back story.” The back story of my life is what gives the present moment depth and the love behind each gift points to eternity. This gives my life hope.

I think I will go give something away.

More on: Literature

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