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.