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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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Those Anonymous Gifts

  1. “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.”

    AHA! The challenge is issued, the glove thrown down! I shall see about rising to the occasion.

    But not here.

    here I will comment on the idea of the anonymous giver.

    I like to give gifts anonymously (also unexpectedly). In doing these two things I hope to give the recipient greater joy (I think that surprise and mystery add something to the experience of getting a gift) but I will admit that I have a second, more self-centered motive. In giving a gift anonymously I free both the giver and myself from any thought or worry about reciprocation.

    When I give a gift to someone I DO want it to influence them. I want it to make them happy or satisfy a need that they have or amuse them or help them out in some way. But I also secretly hope that my giving of a gift will influence them in the future to find a way to give a gift themselves – not to me, but to SOMEONE – in order to make that someone happy or satisfy a need that they have or amuse them or help them out in some way. I don’t want the effect of my gift to get bounced back to me. What I want is for my gift to be like a stone thrown into a pond, causing ripples to go out in all directions to touch the lives of other people – people I don’t even know and will never interact with – so that the effects of my gift spread from one person to another to another.

  2. Regarding atheist reactions towards God as the ultimate generous giver of gifts, I must say that I would certainly never argue with you regarding the idea of generosity being a good one. But I don’t think the real conundrum for us lies in showing that we have many good things in our lives that we didn’t have to ask for. There is a simple explanation for that – here in the United States we live in one of the richest and most advanced nation states the world has ever known, and we are very fortunate to do so. Our country may not be perfect – it may not have the most efficient government, or the most egalitarian taxes, or the best health care, or the finest educational system in the world, but it is a very nice and safe and healthy and prosperous place to live, far more-so than the rest of the world.

    No, I look at things from the other side of your argument. If these things, these wonderful things that make our lives so comfortable and easy and happy. if these are indeed gifts from God, why doesn’t everyone have them? If God is so generous that he will give these gifts even to atheists and agnostics here in the United States, why will he not also give them to faithful Christians living in poverty in South America, Africa, Asia, Micronesia?

    If these things you cite are, in fact, gifts from God then it makes no sense that the are distributed unequally around the world. If it was the will of God that, for example, all people on earth should have clean water to drink, surely no human agency could prevent that from occurring.

    I have always felt uncomfortable with the idea of physical blessings coming as gifts from God simply because such things seem to be so unfairly distributed.

    One of the things that I notice when talking with my theistic friends is that frequently this inequity doesn’t seem to bother them. Many times I am met with either a platitude such as “We cannot understand God’s ways” or an annoyed brush off. I always feel that this answer is a) lazy and b) inappropriate. Christianity is based on a very in-depth and detailed analysis of God’s ways, from original sin to the origins of the messiah to the reasons for and consequences of the messiah’s death and Resurrection to the relationship of those who follow Christ’s teachings and accept his sacrifice to the law of the Hebrew Bible. The God of Christianity never seems to be at all opaque or inscrutable when there are good or kind actions or beliefs ascribed to Him. Many Christians claim to have a very close and personal relationship with God – one that is far more intimate than in most religions. But for all this closeness, for all this knowledge, for all this personal interaction with God, when it comes to some very concrete and obvious problems such as the fact that some people have a lot and others have too little, God is suddenly “mysterious”. and acts in ways that are incomprehensible to humans.

    It seems to me that the only reason that Christians don’t understand how God works in these particular ways is that most Christians simply don’t care to look.

    Why must Christians start from dogma rather than starting by looking at the world we live in and experience for evidence of God’s existence and nature? Why do Christians have to look at every job offer, every surgery, every windfall as a gift from God? And having done so, why do they never ask, “if the birth of my baby is a blessing from God, why does God let so many other babies die, and why to they disproportionately live here in the United States and disproportionately die in sub-Saharan Africa?” Why do Christians always seem to be thanking God when they come out of a surgical procedure OK, but so seldom think of thanking the doctor who performed it, the teachers who trained the doctor, the researchers who developed the procedure? It often seems to me as if you are so focused on God that you simply cannot look at the accomplishment of humans with appreciation anymore without somehow deifying them?

    It seems to me that there are only a few basic explanations for this problem on unequal distribution of God’s gifts

    1) God is just and fair and good – therefor if He gives less blessings to some people than others it must be because they are less deserving

    2) Some people receive more of God’s blessings than others, and this distribution does not seem just or fair – therefor God is not just or fair (or good, which I believe requires being just and fair)

    3) God is just and fair and good – but the distribution of blessings is not just and fair and good. Therefor, these so-called blessings are not distributed by God at all. Some people are fortunate and some people are unfortunate.

    4) God is just and good, but the distribution of blessings does not appear to be just and fair and good. Therefor our perceptions about the distribution of blessings is wrong – it is, indeed just and fair and good, but in ways beyond our mortal comprehension.

    Personally, I reject #1 because it makes no sense to me, and because it reeks of prosperity theology, which I despise. I believe that #2 violates some pretty core beliefs of Christianity, and I reject it anyway because I have no interest in worshiping an unjust God (and I doubt many others do either). I reject #4 (which seems to be the most popular Christian view) because I believe that if God exists it makes no sense for Him to have sent his only son to redeem humanity and for Christians to have a personal relationship with Him, but for him to be opaque on a topic of such importance.

    That leaves #3. That’s my choice. It fits the evidence I see in the world, it is logically consistent while still allowing for the existence of a just, fair, and good God, and it puts the welfare of all humanity right where it belongs – in our hands, not the invisible hand of a capricious deity who seems to like Europeans a lot more than Africans.

    Hopefully, this screed hasn’t been too long or too disjointed (I’m having a touch of insomnia tonight, as you may guess by the time stamp). In any event, I hope I haven’t offended. It was not my intent to argue an atheist position here – though I cannot argue as anything other than an atheist myself – but instead to point out some inconsistencies I perceive to be common in the belief (particularly the American belief) that God constantly intervenes in the lives of everyone to bless them.

    Going to bed now.

  3. Jody

    And god loves thinking up and creating the gifts, just as you described!

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