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Piel: ‘What did you give for Christmas?’

Our neighbor George recently attended a family gathering. He remarked that the question he heard most of all was, “What did you get for Christmas?”

While it is nice to get gifts and give them to someone you love, George asked, what does our faith say about giving or receiving gifts not as a seasonal gesture but as an outreach of your beliefs?

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It was interesting that several weeks before Dec. 25 we received a number of phone calls from people who were in the “Christmas spirit.” They asked if we knew of any “poor” families that could use some holiday gifts or financial assistance. The callers stressed that it would be nice to find out if there were children in the family so they could also provide something for them. That same thing happened right before Thanksgiving Day when we were asked if we knew of any family “in need” who could use a turkey.

The one we liked the best was the person who called to ask if there were any Thanksgiving food dinners for the needy where they could volunteer. The caller was told that we had all the volunteers we needed (actually more than we needed) but suggested that later in the year like spring or summer would be nice to volunteer. We reminded the caller that people need food in May or an electric bill paid in October. The response came back “thanks but no thanks — I wouldn’t be in the spirit then!”

Is the “Thanksgiving spirit” or the “Christmas spirit” simply a seasonal thing or is it a faith concern for people all year long?

Should the question (for the faith community) be “what did you give to make someone’s life a little better” instead of the traditional question “what did you get for Christmas?”

In an article about “the joy of giving” the author writes that there is joy in receiving a gift but too often that joy is short lived. “Our lives are richer when we share and that great inner joy comes from helping others to better their lives. Truly giving from the heart fills your life with joy and nourishes your soul. Giving provides an intrinsic reward that’s far more valuable than the gift.” A key phrase is this “giving takes you out of yourself and allows you to expand beyond earthly limitations. True joy lies in the act of giving without an expectation of receiving something in return.”

Our lives were changed in an incident that happened in the first congregation I served. We heard that there was a lady on the other side of town who had five children and was badly in need not only of Christmas gifts but financial help. For some reason her husband spent most of his time on the road. We purchased a little red metal wagon (I had problems just putting it together) and filled it with some toys but also much needed personal items. We took it to her while her children were in school. We told her that she could tell her children that Santa brought it or that she had purchased those items herself or whatever. They didn’t need to know that it came from us. This simple act of gift giving changed the lives of this young pastoral couple.

At the same time there is a little more to the story. A friend heard about this family from us and offered to make a financial donation to help with the fuel bill. It was a generous gift. After making the gift he waited for a thank-you note which never came. He asked us if we had received a note of appreciation and we said that we hadn’t but it didn’t bother us because we knew she was thankful and maybe even more important our gift helped their lives. That was enough for us. “Well,” he said “it bothers me so much — so make sure that she knows that is the last time I will help her.”

We did not assume that she was too busy to write or just didn’t care but maybe she didn’t realize that a thank you note was necessary. As the comment in the article “Joy of Giving” puts it “true joy lies in the act of giving without an expectation of receiving something in return.”

Author Thomas Moore wrote “People complain that gift-giving becomes empty, frantic, and annoying. But the problem may not be the giving of gifts but the way we do it” then adds “anything you do without soul will feel empty and meaningless.”

Is it possible that we are called to reach out beyond ourselves not because there are others who are needy but because we are “the needy?”

Moore adds “gift-giving with purity of heart represents the Jesus way.” Gift giving should be a response to the love we have received from our loving Creator and then we are called to give it away. We give not because we need to be loved or the gift reciprocated or it makes us feel good but because we have the “need” to follow in the dust of our rabbi. We are called to give as an expression of love not just at Thanksgiving or Christmas or when we feel in the mood but whenever the need arises.

In “The Art of Loving,” Erich Fromm wrote: “Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.”

Let the dialogue continue. We only ask that you think on these things.

The Rev. Dr. Wm. Louis “Lou” Piel is pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Finksburg and can be reached at julo1@verizon.net.

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