I scratched this post last week because I was still working it out in my heart. I want to preface “Before you give” and next week’s “Before you receive” posts with the caveat that I do neither well. So it’s coming from a broken place. They also take a great deal of privilege for granted. Talking about gift giving assumes you are not at war, or barely surviving. It assumes you have someone to give a gift to, or someone to spend a holiday with. It assumes that there is enough space in your life to think about this extraneous part of the holiday.
My sister and I have a birthday three days apart. We mostly celebrated together, and I often received the same gift as her for both birthday and Christmas, even though she was two years younger. If I put something attainable on my list, my parents always bought it for me—I don’t have hurt there. But I didn’t always have a request. My sister was better about goals and knowing what she wanted. When I was around eight years old, she presented me with a gift at our joint family party. She would have been six. It shocked me because I hadn’t even considered getting her something. Who helped her? Where did she get the money? So, I went to my room and crawled out the window. I walked to the store and bought her a notepad. It wasn’t special or pretty, just something to ease a feeling I didn’t have words to explain. I got in trouble when I came home because I hadn’t told anyone where I’d gone. This doesn’t mean I bought her something the following year. I honestly can’t remember.
I enjoy giving, I really do. But maybe because I don’t function with clutter in my space, buying trinkets feels like I might burden someone. But then I think of the Christmas (and other) decorations I’ve been given, and I renege. I am a little jealous of people who bring beautiful things into their world. Nevertheless, it makes me slow to shop in December. I actually prefer to give money, but it’s quite anti-climatic when two people exchange checks. I’m also a little jealous of people who give well.
The surplus of it all
I’m sure I’ve mentioned the book When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett before. A favorite revelation for me was that westerners tend to associate wealth with material goods, but ignore other shortages like poverty of community. America is just as impoverished as the rest of the world, but we value our wealth and dis-value theirs.
A friend once told me that her church took up an offering “for the poor.” She went through her own possessions to contribute to the box waiting in the foyer. But when the church’s collection bin arrived at her house, she realized (for the first time) that her family was poor. Here’s a pull on internal organ-strings: the items were mostly unfit for the secondhand store, used and worn out.
Poverty. She didn’t know she was poor until someone else decided her family needed more crap.
Hallmark has informed me I should slow down at Christmas and focus on what truly matters, but I still struggle with the same first-world mindset that abundance and lack are tangible things. Abundance means parties, decorations, food, and gifting, more than pondering Emmanuel. At least holiday abundance does.
I don’t pretend that Christmas is another skirmish in the war—since it was a pagan holiday first, and Christ was likely born in September. (Also, our role isn’t to mandate God’s Kingdom of peace, but that’s another topic.)
It helps me to think of Christmas as redeemable, not reclaimable. I know those are practically synonyms, but I mean making something that is broken into something whole…as opposed to reclaiming control over something that “used to be good.”
If you ever think, meh, this month…know that you don’t have to glorify December to be a Christian. Neither is one day or month enough to contemplate that Almighty, Eternal God took on the boundary of human flesh. “God with us” calls for year-round awe and wonder.
In the past, I’ve bought books as gifts. I love books even if I’m more likely to loan them out than collect them because that requires clutter or more shelves. But, when I’ve given books that changed my paradigm, they were seen as backhanded insults. Granted, a title like “The Emotionally Destructive Relationship,” might seem to imply that the recipient had a need I could see and they don’t. When in reality, it’s just that brain candy books don’t often challenge my perspective.
All this has made me ponder the statement that it is more “blessed to give than receive.” I’ve always assumed that was because you had something to give instead of being the one who was in need. And isn’t that a blessing? Again, that’s through my lens of abundance and lack being tangible things.
Giving without a weird motive
You’ll always have a motive when you give. Sometimes you just want to perform recompense and take part in tradition. Usually, you want to surprise and bless someone. Most often, you want to give them something they didn’t know they needed or wanted. But motives go deeper. Sometimes you want to convey that you know them. And you want to show them how much you really see them. This becomes more difficult the further you are from the person in either proximity or relationship.
In this case there’s always the candle:
A few years back, someone at a shop I frequented gave me a lengthy complaint about her kids regulating what she was permitted to give her grandchildren that Christmas. She said they wanted gift cards, outings, or money. So entitled! It incensed her that she couldn’t wrap something up and watch the kids open it. She felt like her children were stealing joy from her. Mid-rant, she switched gears to talk about how cluttered their house was and how many toys her grand kids had. She wanted the joy of giving them something they didn’t know they needed or wanted, but she didn’t see her family’s needs and wants herself.
The only time you can really give someone something that they didn’t know they needed or wanted is when there is a great disparity of wealth and knowledge. Like when your kids are less than five years old.
And thinking there is disparity can originate from either kindness or arrogance. That’s something else in the book “When Helping Hurts.” When you descend upon someone, claiming that you understand their lack and know how to fix it, yet are blind to your own lack—then you cause harm. When I gave books that were important to me, I think I made the gift about me instead of about the recipient. (Next week’s post will talk about receiving.)
You can donate year-end gifts to reduce your tax liability, or you can donate out of compassion. The motive affects you, but it does matter to God as well. You can give because you feel obligated, because you want to receive thanks, or because you know what they need and what will improve their life. And, for all of you who give well—you can give because you love. You give because you want to. The recipient still gets the gift.
Giving without control
We had a youth pastor as a friend who mentioned that he never gave to his own ministry. He said if he did, he would still have control over the money. He believed the point of tithing was to relinquish control of your money because it is humbling to let power leave your hands and to say to God that he is more valuable to you.
Giving gifts is like that. If you give, the recipient doesn’t have to treasure it. They don’t have to thank you. They can sell it and spend it on riotous living. If you are concerned that the gift will be spent on cheap thrills and fast food, don’t give it. Because once you have handed it over…it’s theirs to re-gift, discard or put on a shelf. The difference your motive makes takes place inside of you. There is nothing wrong with the simple motivation of tradition. But since I will always have a motive, I want to check it honestly.
And sometimes gift giving includes paying for something you don’t value or want spend money on, because it is what the other person really wants.