“Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor 9:7)
This article looks at the practice of gift-giving on special occasions like Christmas, the motives behind our giving, and the best gifts we can give.
What does it mean to us when we hear that we are to be “cheerful givers?” It seems there are many answers to that question, which all come down to the attitude behind the gift-giving. Are our gifts given with a sense of obligation, or so that we can be admired and considered generous, or out of a sincere desire to show our love and appreciation?
One aspect of giving which Kevin touched on lightly in last month’s article, is that it is putting gratitude into action through generous sharing. This can, of course, take many different forms. For example, back in 1990, our young marriage was going through a difficult patch and we attended a Worldwide Marriage Encounter retreat to get back on track. The retreat was so life-changing that we spent the next eleven years actively helping to be part of the organization’s presentation team, lead a local community of married couples and contribute financially to ensure that retreats would continue for others. There was nothing that we would not do to show our gratitude to God and the ministry for the gift we had received. For us, as for many others, our gratitude led us to give of our time, talent and treasure. The attitude of gratitude can be a very profound impetus for giving.
Gratitude, of course, is not always the motivation. Unfortunately, there are times when we make obligatory purchases out of a sense of duty. Christmas gift-giving can sometimes fall into this category. The shops are filled ahead of time—especially in Western countries—encouraging the purchase of all types of options for lightening our wallets. Every holiday partygoer is expected to bring a gift to the hosts. Every family member or friend attending a Christmas celebration receives a gift of some kind, whether or not they need or even want anything. In the early years of our marriage, we would drive back to Kevin’s large immediate family with the trunk of our car bursting with gifts for each of his eight siblings, their spouses and their children. No one who knew me at the time would say that my attitude toward the preparation it took to purchase and wrap the items would say, “Oh, isn’t she a cheerful giver?” I was stressed and most often just happy to find something that might possibly please the recipient. Over the years, gifts I have received from others have often been just as generic. Last year, frustrated with the obligatory aspect of Christmas gift-giving, I proposed a “No gifts policy” which almost started a civil war between those family members who love giving gifts as a way to show their love for each other, and the other family members who were insisting that we all have too much stuff and let’s donate to a charity instead. It really brought out to me that for some people gifts are truly an important and meaningful way to express their love. And I must admit that, on certain occasions, the gifts that I have received have been extremely touching and meaningful. I suppose the difference is that the person truly entered into the purest form of anticipating what I would enjoy and appreciate. Two examples pop to mind immediately: several years ago, my sister made a cookbook of all of our family’s favorite recipes beginning with our grandmother’s; the second was when my sister made me a bag to hold my sewing projects, made out of leftover material of outfits my mom had used to make our dresses when we were young. Both of these gifts are priceless and bring a smile to my face every time I use them. The effort and the thoughtfulness are inherent in these examples. These gifts truly say “My sister loves me.”
At the opposite extreme is the person who gives a gift in order to be seen as generous and important. Unfortunately, this can be true whether the person is conscious of their motivations or not. This came to light last spring, at the wedding of the son of my dear friend Karen who had died a month earlier. Family and friends were still grieving and there was sadness over Karen’s absence in the festivities. Karen’s sister, who seems to frequently feel unappreciated, wanted to gift the young couple a framed picture of some local sports hero, and wanted to do so with a microphone and have it presented to them in front of all the wedding attendees. When the other family members prevented her from doing so, she was devastated and angry. It was sad to see how much she needed to be appreciated for her gift rather than focus on what was best for these newlyweds. I suppose the same could apply to a philanthropist who gives large sums of money to a hospital in order to have a wing of the building named after him, or to those who give only if it is possible to enjoy a tax benefit as a result. As generous as the monetary value of the gift might be, they are somehow tainted by the impurity of the motivation behind them.
Of course, not all gifts have a purchase price attached to them. There are times when our presence is the present. Whether it’s listening to a friend who is struggling with relationship issues, or babysitting so that a young mother can run errands without three children in tow, or sitting with a friend in the doctor’s office to help allay her fears, the gift of being present to another in their time of need is invaluable. I remember fondly all the ‘gifts’ I received when I was undergoing cancer treatment. There were phone calls to cheer me, cards sent to encourage me and meals made to free me from the work of cooking. My beloved husband brought me the Eucharist on the days when my immune system was compromised, which was the greatest gift of all. As a result, all of memories of this time seemed to land on the blessings rather than the struggle of treatment. It truly was adding God’s love to the actions of others and making them a divine gift.
As I read Crystal’s insights on gift-giving, it strikes me that growing in gift-giving can be a little bit like growing in holiness. As a young boy I can remember wanting to give gifts that I liked without concern for whether the receiver would enjoy or need it. After going through periods of seeing gifts as an obligation when I had no money to buy them, I came to understand that giving might require sacrifice. Eventually (perhaps after receiving the sixth or seventh coffee cup with pictures of our grandchildren printed on the outside) I have come to understand that the greatest gift-giving is that which is all about the recipient. What are his or her desires or needs? We don’t need to spend a lot of money if we know what is truly important to the ones we care about. And, finally, worth considering is that most meaningful gift which is not what might be given but in what we might have been withholding from a friend, family member or colleague. Reaching out to reconcile with someone who may have hurt us or slighted us and offering our desire to reestablish relationship can be a most powerful gift that costs us nothing other than a little swallowed pride. May we always be on the lookout for ways we can share the gift of God’s love with family, friends and enemies alike.
CRYSTAL AND KEVIN SULLIVAN
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