Why gifts shouldn’t make you feel guilty
My siblings and I all love a good surprise. We especially enjoy the surprises that end in an emotional display of some kind—big enough to earn a few tears or screams, or if at all possible, both.
My brother caused a sensation two years ago by arriving in his Navy uniform during the rehearsal dinner speeches before my sister’s wedding. We weren’t expecting him make it; he was across the country. We all screamed, rose up in unison, burst into tears and surrounded him while he stood with his arms open wide like some kind of rock star. He loved it, and we did too.
Last year, I announced that I was pregnant around the lunch table at home, by handing a present to my dad on Father’s day that contained a tiny pink set of pajamas. Screams. One individual burst into tears and left the room.
Surprise for the win.
This past Sunday, we pulled off another.
My Mother, the Francophile
Quick background: my mother loves Paris. She’s talked about it for as long as I can remember. She talks about Parisian architecture and Parisian Instagram accounts; she buys French hand soaps and admires French wine and was one of those people a few years ago who was telling everyone that French Women Don’t Get Fat. She is a Francophile, fully and absolutely. This year, my sister and her husband went to Paris, and well bless me if she didn’t talk about that trip more than they did.
I watched her gush about it the day they got on the plane, and I thought to myself something that I’ve thought before: “Someday, if I ever have time and a lot of loose cash, I’ll take Mama to Paris. She really ought to go.” Then my next thought was, “Yeah, right.” And the thought after that was, “Okay, wait a second…”
Mama doesn’t have a lot of loose cash on her. But she sure does have a lot of kids. Those kids don’t have a lot of loose cash either, but they might have some. They might have just enough, if they pull together…
So a month later found us sitting at the lunch table in my parents’ house, all of us doing our best impression of people who aren’t paying much attention to the fact that the meal was ending and it was gift time. After a month of scheming and planning, we had casually gathered to celebrate my mother and sister’s birthdays.
We then noticed that despite trying to act natural, we’d let the room go quiet. One of us had a video phone hidden behind the cake stand. Another was pretending to check FB and was actually ready to take pictures. Another was FaceTiming with the Navy brother so he could see.
“Chew your food before you open it, Mama,” somebody said. Mama seemed pleased; she must have realized we were all excited about the gift.
“Okay,” she joked. “I guess I need to be ready so I don’t choke if it’s, like, a first class ticket to Paris.” She laughed at her little witticism but it only produced a few nervous, staggered chuckles from us.
“Okay, open it,” somebody said in desperation.
She did. Laughing, she opened the box. Then she got very serious. She covered her mouth. She pulled her hand away. “Is this a joke?” She picked up the large home printed card.
Mama, it’s time to pack a beret.
Susan Ann is your traveling buddy for 10 days in Paris. May 16-26, From Your Kids.
She lifted the card and saw the plane tickets underneath. Then she covered her mouth and burst into tears (check), got up from the table (check), and left the room in one swift motion (check).
Surprise for the win.
Yes, we like surprises. Once she recovered herself (with my dad’s help), we spent the afternoon enjoying the feeling of secrets no longer being kept, and repeating to each other, “Can you believe she said that thing about the ‘first class ticket to Paris? What are the odds?”
“It was the craziest thing I could think of!” said my mom.
In the day or so since then, I finished reading a book I’d been working on for a few months. The Things of Earth, by Joe Rigney. Fantastic book. And as I finished I made a connection with the Paris surprise that I’d been feeling around for throughout the planning process.
The book is all about material blessings—the ‘things of Earth’ that we taste, see, touch, own, experience, and enjoy. It makes a scriptural case for the role these things play in the spiritual life of the Christian. Rigney argues that loving the things of Earth for the sake of the God who gives them to us, and accepting them with thanksgiving, is an act of praise.
The book has been very helpful to me, as your average American Christian who struggles with low-grade guilt over owning anything at all. There has always been a vague discomfort in my belly about the Things. What if I love them too much? (I often do.) What if I am a materialist and don’t know it? (I’m sure I have been.) Why haven’t I sold everything but the clothes on my back and given it all to the poor? (Couldn’t I always live on less?)
Rigney makes a great scriptural case for enjoying the ‘Things of Earth’ with thanksgiving as an act of worship. He does it without falling into a prosperity gospel. He does it without letting the reader off the hook when it comes to giving—to missions, the church, and other causes. He does it without forgetting to address the fact that God often takes away, just as He gives, or ignoring the fact that we are currently living in spiritual wartime.
And he talks about giving gifts to other people as well.
So as I contemplated, with deep and quiet satisfaction, the process of watching my siblings band together to give Mama that trip, I connected a few precious dots.
We experienced blessing in taking the time and effort to think about what Mama would want most, in making a few budgetary sacrifices, and in presenting the Paris surprise to her. We each experienced a blessing that we’ll look back on with warmth and enjoyment for many years. We were sending a message, a message of honor and love. We were acknowledging what we know to be her personality and passions, and cashing in on the right to bless our mother. In a thoughtful and careful way, we took Things of Earth that we had been given and we spent a small portion of them in a way that will deliver a long-term dividend of mutual enjoyment.
There was a spiritual kickback.
Mama, in her turn, experienced blessing of a different kind. If she had shifted monies around in a tight financial time to make a trip to Paris, she would have still enjoyed the trip, but not in this particular way. She received it, and as she received it from her children, she also received it from her Father. In accepting the gift, she experienced one more message from the heavenly places: “I am your Father. I delight to bless my children.”
Another spiritual kickback.
Everybody experienced blessing in this particular interchange. Everybody got a spiritual kickback.
But that still begs the question, for the guilt-ridden gift givers among us: is it right for me to be experiencing pleasure by spending this money in this way? My short answer to this question is yes, I believe so. Yes, we should ask hard questions about the way we spend our gift budgets, just as we ask hard questions about the rest of our budgets. Yes, we should be ready to go cheap in any number of areas in order to tithe, to support good causes in other lands, to help the poor in our own lands, to save, to plan, and to lay up treasure in heaven instead of on earth.
But this doesn’t rule out giving thoughtful gifts to people we know and love.
Vintage AD 30, Cana
To deny the validity and worth of physical things, and to default to guilt and guilt-tripping when we are tempted to enjoy these things, is to deny a very obvious fact about God himself. God made all the Things. Then he made us with physical bodies, and put those bodies smack-dab in the middle of a physical world. We are made of Things, and in order to live we have to eat, drink, breathe, stand on, shelter in, and wear Things. God’s world is a world of Things. A world with a spiritual dimension, but a world that only exists through the medium of matter.
If we hate and or distrust every enjoyable physical thing in this physical world around us, we won’t only be ignoring attributes of the Father God. We’ll also be ignoring a crucial and obvious thing about the Son God.
God the Son didn’t just affirm the physical world, he swam in it. His hands were full, at different times, of wood and hammers and wine goblets and donkey hair and figs and cloth and sand and something that he was using to trim his beard. He squinted his eyes in bright sunlight. He liked his bread a certain way, presumably. When he was baptized, he got river water in his ears. There was even a wedding in Cana where he became a vintner and made a vintage AD 30 that probably rivaled the best thing coming out of Bordeaux.
He didn’t avoid the stuff. He didn’t even ‘hate the stuff, love the stuffer’ in a sort of ascetic’s corruption of the old sin/sinner dichotomy. In this way, He lived as all the other men live: in a created physical world of Things.
When my mother gets on an airplane with her friend, and eats butter and drinks wine and gazes at Monet’s waterlilies and smells the air on one of the bridges over the Seine, she will be eating and drinking and gazing upon and smelling Things that God made. These things will stir her soul, and if she is obedient, she will respond in worship. If she is sensitive to them, she will have cause to wonder what pleasures like these say about our Father.
NOTE: The issue of how to treat money and other material things is a complex issue, with ditches to fall into on almost every side. I can’t possibly bring balance to a question like this in a single blog post. For a balanced treatment, I’d pick up the Rigney book. Get it here.