Tag Archives: gifts

An iPad or Lots of Jesus for Christmas?

Over the last couple of years, I haven’t had much of a Christmas list. Of course that rendered the annual, “What do you want for Christmas?” conversation with family members a frustrating one. I’ve been told I’m difficult to shop for.

But this year was different. I experienced a conflict between my inner-child and my adult self. The inner-child Ralphiebegan to strangely resemble Ralphie from A Christmas Story. My internal Ralphie had his heart set on the impossible dream of Christmas gifts: an iPad. And believe me, the iPad ranked right up there with the “Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time”.

No, an iPad wouldn’t shoot my eye out, but I’ve never received a Christmas gift that extravagant. That just doesn’t happen. At the same time, my adult, more sober self kept saying, “You have all you need already. And besides, just as you’ve preached and taught so many times before, Christmas is not about getting a bunch of stuff.” Yeah, I know, I know…

So all through Advent the Raphie side hoped on for the elusive iPad while the adult side looked for greater, more intangible, spiritual things. What  came next were memories of Christmas Days I had in the past. What lessons did I learn then?

What stands out most from Christmas Days in the past were not the presents I received but the relational gifts. I remember getting up first thing in the morning with my siblings before my parents were awake to wait for that magical stroke of 7 AM when it was okay to wake up Mom and Dad. I remember warm, festive family gatherings at my grandmother Owens’ small two-bedroom apartment packed with 15 people for Christmas morning brunch followed by Christmas  dinner just a two miles away at my grandmother and grandfather Henderson’s house.

When I became a Christian, those beautifully powerful Christmas Eve services complete with carol singing, candlelight, Holy Communion, and inspiring preaching of the Christmas story stand out in my mind. I have loved the anticipation of the Advent wreathe with its subtle message that Christ is coming. I am captivated by the mystery of the Word of God made flesh and born to a virgin within a manger stall.

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nativitysceneSo this year I found Jesus in some powerful ways:

  • My church hosted a Blue Christmas worship service at the beginning of Advent. Far from an Elvis thing, it was a time for grieving people to come to terms with the holiday season. I love this service because we discover how the joy of Christmas is more than the trappings and festivities of Christmas. All of that gets lost on grieving people. Christ was born into poverty and pain and can be born anew in our grief, too.
  • During the second week of December, my church once again hosted 30 homeless men. Over the years of this ministry, I have looked more intently for the face of Jesus in our guests. This comes from something Jesus said about how the things we do for the least in our world, we actually do for him. Yes, I saw and encountered Jesus in some powerful ways. Strange as this may sound, I enjoyed doing the guys’ laundry. Blairlee came home every day with a few loads of the guys’ clothes. They were often every bit as smelly and grungy as you’d imagine. But somehow I found it to be an honor to wash these guys clothes, dry them, and fold them up. I got to do Jesus’ laundry, after all. One night I got to stitch up a coat that had gotten badly ripped, and as I sewed it, I spent time talking with its owner.
  • My family went through some rough times in December with illnesses and some emotional growing pains to work through. It unfolded into an experience of the healing grace of Jesus.
  • A week before Christmas, a clergy woman I had been guiding and coaching died. Her funeral was one of the most awesome send-offs I had ever been a part of. Far from the gloom and doom that characterizes most funerals, this one was packed with joy, promise, and worship. Jesus was there and his resurrection was front and center.
  • All of this made for some meaningful Christmas Eve services. Having experienced the reality of Jesus as Emmanuel (which means God with us), I had plenty of juice to preach the good news of the birth of Christ.

And what of the iPad? Well, that will have to wait, unfortunately. But all that I received from God of Jesus in this season of Advent and Christmas well overshadowed what I didn’t get from this world. That is well more than good enough.

(Of course, the ever hopeful Ralphie side reminds me that there are still nine days of Christmas left! I’m not all that optimistic, but who knows?)

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Those Anonymous Gifts

Yesterday morning I came into my office to find an envelope on the floor that someone had slipped through under the door. It was a card that said, “To Our Pastor” with a moving quote from 2 Corinthians 3:3 and an inscription thanking me for my ministry and for sharing my life. There was also a gift card for a local restaurant inside, too.

This time of year is Pastor Appreciation Day/Week/Month. (Honestly, I’m not sure which! It’s whatever Hallmark says it is this year, I suppose.) Regardless of that, after a bruising couple of weeks, this thoughtful affirmation was a timely, gentle balm for a tired soul. Then I looked to see who the card was from so I’d know who to thank. No name. No recognizable handwriting.

At first I panicked a little. “Oh no,” I thought. “This person will have no way of knowing that I’ve received this gift and how grateful I am.” You know. That’s what we’ve been trained to do since we sat in diapers. When someone does something nice, you’re expected to say thank you and if at all possible, return the favor. If you don’t, well, that’s being rude and ungrateful.

This beautiful gift began to haunt me. How can I find out who the giver is so I can give my thanks and appreciation? Maybe I should say something publicly hoping the person would hear. No. Then people might think I’m clamoring for more of this kind of thing for Pastor Appreciation Day/Week/Month.

Oh well… It was time get myself going for worship services anyway. So I let the issue go, still grateful for the gift, even if I was bit uneasy about it.

This morning as I was reading, it occurred to me that the most valuable gifts are genuine gifts, no matter their size or material worth. Genuine gifts are given with no obligatory strings attached. The gift is given, and the recipient is free to respond and do with the gift as she pleases. The giver’s joy comes from dreaming up the gift, preparing the gift, and giving the gift… and that’s it. A grateful response or a good use of the gift from the recipient is nothing more than a bonus to add to the joy. But that’s it and nothing more than that.

Working with basically all volunteers and a staff who could get compensated a lot more working elsewhere, you can imagine I’ve learned how to say a lot of thank you’s. My gratefulness lets the church know that I value who they are and what they do. That’s especially crucial when I ask people to give and serve, often in sacrificial ways.

Nevertheless, I’m sure we’ve all known those people who make us cringe whenever they come around to give or serve. You know what they expect. They want to be thanked in a certain kind of way. Or they have specific outcomes in mind for their contributions.  And if you don’t follow through with the thanks they expect or use their gift as they wish, you’ll most definitely hear about it.

Those are not gifts. Those are forced loans with interest. I’m sorry, but I don’t need any more of those. Do you?

But how often do we plop down a loan with interest into the laps of our recipients while disguising these “gifts” as helpfulness and generosity? What do you expect when you give or do something for someone else?
Then another revelation came to mind: God is the one genuine Giver. Jesus once said,

[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45)

According to Jesus, God blesses and gives to everyone– to the evil and good, to the godly and ungodly, to the believer and unbeliever. Returning thanks and worship to God is not a condition for receiving gifts and blessings from God. It’s out of tender passion for the creatures he created that God gives to us, desiring us to share in his love and life. But that’s a far cry from the ways we often portray God in our own image: a God who stands there, arms folded with a cross look and furrowed brow, impatiently demanding our thanks, pondering when to cut us ungrateful children off. That’s not the God I know.

When I talk with my atheist or agnostic friends, once in a while I’ll venture to share how grateful to God I am for healing, peace and strength, for patiently loving family and friends, for the ways God comes through for my family and me time and again… and on and on. My atheist/agnostic friends wryly respond, “Well, I have all those things, too, and I didn’t need to ask or thank any god for it.” So true. Do you see how faithfully loving God is to all his children? God gives to his children who not even believe he exists no less than to me.

I suppose the difference for us believers is that in addition to the gifts, we have the joy of knowing Who to ultimately thank as the source of all our blessings and to feel the embrace of a divine welcome. In God, we have the model of true gift giving, of joyfully giving to others with no strings attached.

Obviously, the giver of that Sunday morning card is well on the way of being a God-like giver of gifts. And my soul is grateful.

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Filed under Spiritual Growth and Practice