The Tangled Strings of Gift Giving

In the subtle art of gift giving, there is a careful balance that must be achieved between the two agreeable parties.  Often times, when a gift is being given on a mutually celebrated holiday, the two parties enter into an agreement, whereas when a gift is given, the accepting party must reciprocate with a gift of similar monetary value.  Additionally, an equal amount of enthusiasm must be expressed upon receiving said gift, or the gift-giver may feel slighted and insecure regarding the pleasurable nature of said gift.  If the holiday is one-sided (i.e. – birthday), the receiver of the gift must express a certain measurable amount of both surprise and enjoyment for the received gift in an attempt to raise the esteem level of the gift-giver.  If, after measuring the amount of enjoyment for said gift, the gift-giver is dissatisfied with the response, then succeeding feelings of jealousy and resentment may incur, which may be followed by events of bickering, brawling, and/or relationship breakups.

When giving a gift, there can often times be a lot of baggage that comes with it.  The above, although tongue-in-cheek, illustrates a point: that when giving or getting a gift, there comes a certain amount of worldly expectations.  When people give, they expect something in return, whether it’s another gift or some reasonable expression of gratitude.  String are usually attached.  And the expectation of gratitude comes not just from gift giving but from any time people go out of their way to do something for someone.  I can remember specific times when people have cooked something for me, and they hover over me waiting for the confirmation that I love what it is they’ve done for me.  Should I express anything less than absolute love for the food, there is immediate disappointment.

One of the main reasons as to why we attach worth and emotions to material things is because of the ownership we have regarding these items.  When we give something, we extend a part of ourselves, and if the person doesn’t respond as expected, we feel personally injured because of the selfish value we place on things and their worth.  We give, expecting to receive.   We become attached not to the selfless act of giving but to the emotional and material worth of the exchange.  As we are attached to our things, we measure our relationship based on this interaction.  Mark 10.25 cites the attachments we have to our possessions with this parable: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  In addition to our attachments, the verse suggests that human attachment to things directly connects with the amount of things we have.  The more we have, the more attachment there is.  Hence, when we give large, expensive, important gifts, we expect an equitable response.

Now, the verse is not suggesting that we get rid of all of our possessions.  In fact, if all we have is from God, then getting rid of them would be rejecting His gifts to us.  He gave them to us for a reason.  Instead, what the verse is suggesting is that we acknowledge our faults as people, becoming aware that we naturally become attached to our things.  If attachment is a default, then Christ calls us to a higher reasoning, imitating Him as he gave Himself to us, knowing that we would reject His gift.   Jesus had no expectations when he offered His body for sacrifice.  There was no agreement between us and Him.  He did it as a selfless act of giving and love, and we should similarly follow, denying our sinful nature and embracing His motivations by focusing on Him instead of the act.  As you give to others, don’t wait for thanks or gratitude in order to feel love.  Give selflessly because you want the other person to feel His love, instead.  Amen.

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Bruised, Tarnished, Cracked, and Broken

The day before my family’s annual Christmas party, the one where we take pictures of all of us dressed up together, my son’s best friend managed to nail him in the face with the handle end of a snow shovel.  Shortly after the incident, his eye and cheek began to swell up and turn a variety of attractive colors.  After some ice and tender care, I texted his grandmother to tell her of the incident, hoping that she had some Christmas décor that went well with the colors black and blue.  After time, the colors and pain will go away, but the memories, and photographs, of it won’t.  When we fondly look back at those Christmas moments, we will most likely remember the timeliness of his accident more so than the actual Christmas moments.

How is it that such a small blemish can outshine any and all other memories?  His black eye started me thinking about similarities to the long-lasting effects our bad deeds can have on our reputations.  As my father used to tell me, our name is our most valuable asset.  When we you have a good reputation, people tend to associate good things with you when they see your name.  I can remember getting rosters at the beginning of the school year and when seeing a familiar last name, being filled with excitement or dread based on the reputation of that name.  Like the black eye on my son’s face, our deeds can sometimes bruise and batter our reputations, causing others to see us not for who we truly are but for the things that we’ve done.  And like a minor black eye, a small misdeed can have long-lasting effects that don’t always heal well.  Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “glass, china, and reputation, are easily cracked, and never well mended.”  If I were to drop a glass, even with my best efforts, I can never make it seem like new.  The smallest imperfection makes the entire piece imperfect.

Likewise, one small misdeed can alter an entire life’s worth of charity, kindness, and love.  The author of Proverbs also knew the value of a good name when he wrote: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold” (22.1).  No amount of money can purchase a good reputation, as a good reputation is more valuable than anything.  I’ve often warned my students that if they are concerned about a good reputation, that they should live the way they want to be remembered.  The results of that reflection usually reveal their reputation.  If they don’t like the findings, then they should change their approach to life and live life not for others but to be known as they would like others to know them.

Now, in God’s eyes, the bigger problem is that because of sin, we all have damaged reputations and black eyes.  Our names have been marred, and we are now imperfect and broken.  No amount of good deeds can restore the shattered sinful lives we all lead.  But the strength in knowing this fact is also in knowing that there is nothing we can do to restore our reputation.  We need a redeemer, someone who is perfect and can restore any blight we might have on our souls.  Through Christ’s love, we are restored to perfection if we accept Him as our redeemer, but should we reject Him, we are worth no more than cracked china and broken glass.  By admitting our helplessness and need for a savior, we are then restored, saved, and covered in His love, and that salvation’s value is worth more than anything on Earth.  Amen.

Giving God Your Full Attention

I can usually tell when my students are listening to me or not.  Their attention is usually fragmented by any number of devices or distractions that surround them on a daily basis, so I must be aware when they are listening and when they aren’t.  Often times it’s some social media-like thing that they are immersed in, or they’re lost in thought about some problem they’re facing at home or with someone they’re dating, or sometimes both.  The issue is that because of the demands placed on them in life and the social expectations they should be living up to, there is too much going on for them to participate in active listening.  Although, I can’t really point the finger much.  At home, my wife often accuses me of only hearing every third word she says, as I often get the gist of what she is saying right, if not the details.  I suppose for my students, the same can be said about me in that I just have too much going on in my life and head to actively listen sometimes.

When we want someone to actively listen to us, we sometimes ask them to look directly at us when we are speaking, in an effort to make sure that they are listening attentively.  In my class, when I am saying something important that I don’t want to have to repeat, I often times ask them to “Listen with your face” so that I can make sure they hear every word and idea that I am saying.  Perhaps committing more than just your ears to hearing is the key to actively listening.  Since more than one sense is necessary in these situations, so it can also be said of worship.  When we pray or worship God, whether on our own or together, we can and should be committing more than just our minds and ears to Him.  In Romans 12.1, Paul doesn’t limit us to only those two commitments, but feels as if we should be using as much of ourselves to glorify Him. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”

Many years ago, I decided that it was not enough to just commit my voice to God in worship, but to commit as many of my senses to Him as possible.  So, when we would recite a prayer or song, I would make sure to not only speak it, but to commit my eyes to Him by reading along as well, even if I already knew the prayer or song by heart.  Additionally, I could commit my ears to Him by listening to the church body around me participating along with me in the song.  I can feel the power of His prayers and songs by touching the prayers and verses as I recite them aloud.  I could take in the smells of candles and incense, knowing that they are there to bring glory to Him.  And I can taste the communion wine and bread, remembering the sacrifice He made for me.  However, despite committing these five sense to Him, there still remains a sixth one that is most important: the heart.  We can utilize our sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch to glorify Him, but if our hearts are not for Him, then those commitments are meaningless.  It is the heart that guides our mind and actions, and without it, those senses and commitments are meaningless.  So, this week, let’s not only commit all our senses to Him, but our hearts as well, so that we can fully promise ourselves to Him in life and in spirit.  Instead of just listening with our faces, let’s listen with our hearts, too.  Amen.

Sore Throats and Hard Hearts

This past week has been a rough one for my health, as I just can’t shake this horrible cough.  It’s been keeping me up at nights, haunting me throughout my day, and tearing up my throat something fierce.  Blindly convinced that the problem lies solely within my throat, I’ve been guzzling honey and cough syrup in an attempt to get rid of it, but all to no avail.  Since my cough has been the most prevalent aspect of my illness, I’ve been focused solely on correcting that part, fixated on the one part that bothered me the most.  My exploration for a cause and cure has been narrow at best since the solution must be found within the symptoms of my cough, right?  However, what I soon found out was that I was neglecting congestion, which through negligence then allowed for an infection to set in, which was the cause of my throat being sore, thus triggering my cough.  In light of this new discovery, a little Mucenix was added and the infection and cough began to clear up.  If I had just taken a minute to expand my outlook beyond the cough and find what was truly at the root of my illness, I might have tackled it sooner before the infection had set in.  It wasn’t until I began to look beyond the coughing (the aspect of my illness that I was allowing to define my health) that I was able to see other aspects.  I just couldn’t look beyond the cough and see the larger picture.

The same can be said about how we view some people in our lives.  I have friends who have so much hatred for a particular person because of something he did years ago, that they now allow that action to define everything he currently does and is as a person.  There is an old adage that suggests that when you hate someone, everything they do is offensive.  Similarly, these friends can’t see beyond his past action, so now everything he does is tainted by that past choice.  Because they allow everything he does to filter through his unforgiveable past, they incorrectly see these well-intentioned current actions as an offensive affront and attack.  They have allowed an infection to set into their minds as they have refused to budge on their opinion of him, whereas if they could just see beyond this initial, seemingly defining aspect of him, they might see him for his current ideas, good choices, and insight.  By neglecting forgiveness, they have allowed for an infected mind and a hardening of their hearts to settle in.

We become so blinded by our own ignorance when we refuse to forgive others, that everything they do is infected in our eyes.  Ephesians 4.17-18 explains the dangers of blinded thinking: “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.”  When we choose to not forgive for past transgressions, minor or not, we harm ourselves and our walk, hardening our hearts in the process.  Then, we miss out on His blessings, and an infection of the mind takes a hold of us.  If we see past that issue and forgive, we allow for His work to be done in us, but it is only through willing introspection and prayer that we can avoid a hardening of our hearts.  This week, find those people in your life that you’ve defined by their one or two wrong actions from long ago.  The time has come to unburden your hardened heart and allow His healing to lift the infection that you’ve allowed to settle into your mind.  Amen.