U.S. Army Capt. Cherise Neu, center, demonstrates how to properly check a horse’s teeth and health at a veterinary civic action project in Apia, Samoa, June 5, 2013, during Pacific Partnership 2013. Pacific Partnership is an annual deployment of forces designed to strengthen maritime and humanitarian partnerships during disaster relief operations, while providing humanitarian, medical, dental and engineering assistance to nations of the Pacific.

Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth!
By the Rev. Paul Graves | Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1uXn7NW)

INSIGHTS_NuturingElders_paulI’ve never been an ardent “horsey” person, but I know many people are. Yet my curiosity about where clichés’ come from has always included the aphorism “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Horse people undoubtedly know its origin, but I was intrigued when I discovered the cliché has to do with aging.

The gums of a horse recede as they age. (Unsurprisingly, so do ours, folks!) That gum recession creates the illusion of a horse’s teeth growing longer. (Did I also hear “Long in the tooth”?) So when receiving a horse as a gift, the giftee is discouraged from checking the teeth of the horse to determine its age.

Not surprisingly, it is considered bad manners for us to ask an older adult if we can check his/her teeth. We can assume a person is aging by other external observations.

But what also caught my attention about this cliché was the notion of “gift”. Are we to assume that the gift of a horse is conditional on the horse’s age? Perhaps. How does that translate to conditional ways we deal with the Gift of being human? Especially an aging human, at that? Other humans? Ourselves?

Sometime in this column’s past, I’ve mentioned to you the great worth of Joan Chittister’s 2008 book, “The Gift of Years: Growing Old Gracefully”. I don’t recall her ever talking on this gift-horse cliché; but I do think she goes well beyond the notion that a genuine gift has conditions. “Gift” is a non-conditional offering!

So let’s explore that affirmation some: “Gift” is a non-conditional offering. When you give a birthday gift to a good friend, do you expect something in return? Maybe you are in a gift-exchange pattern for your birthdays. But what happens if one of you forgets to give a gift?

Is the other person hurt? Maybe. But if you are good friends, the birthday-person can likely look beyond the unintended oversight and simply enjoy the gift of your friendships.

What about gifting within your family? That may be more complicated simply because family relationships are often so much more complex, and are not “chosen” in the same way as strong friendships are. Yet the question remains: Do the gifts given/exchanged carry some kind of emotional condition with them?

Hopefully they do not. So, if they don’t, why not? I suggest the “no condition” answer has to do the level of Love between the giver and the giftee.

Those wonderfully unconditional gift “exchanges” are small reminders of the “Gift of Years” we are offered every moment of every day by God. At least that Gift is offered us without condition. We often call that Grace!

But it seems so difficult for us to accept God’s gift of life without conditions. Somewhere in our religious and cultural upbringing, we’ve been conditioned to think God’s love is ours only when we do – or don’t do – certain things. And that seems to be one of the biggest challenges we face to maturing spiritually.

Trusting that God accepts us as we are is too good to be true. At least that’s how we act too often. So we play a destructive conditional-acceptance game, jumping through its moralistic and religious hoops, hoping to get through that obstacle course with our souls intact.

In the meantime, God – let’s personalize God’s image here – is patiently standing at the finish-line of that obstacle course, waiting to lift us up, hug us, and say: “You went through that tortuous effort all for nothing! Nothing you do or don’t do makes me love you any more or any less.

You are a gift to me. Why can’t you realize you are a gift to yourself – and others? I don’t check your teeth before loving you. You don’t need to either!”

The Rev. Paul Graves serves as the chair of the Conference Council on Older Adult Ministries.



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