December 2009

Others

Thanksgiving is just behind us, Christmas just ahead.  I don’t know why this never occurred to me before, but just moments ago, I was struck by the awareness that Thanksgiving focuses on what we have received (looking back), and Christmas on what we can give (looking forward).  Receiving and giving, twin aspects of the life of faith, are both opportunities for gratitude and joy.

I confess that I have not yet done my Christmas shopping.  I’ve always been one of those last minute shoppers you see out on December 24th, making my purchases before heading off to church for the Christmas Eve service.  It’s a little bit nuts, but it’s also a lot of fun, finding gifts for others in those last hours as the fullness of Christmas fills the air.

Gifts for others.  We give gifts to others at Christmas, perhaps in memory of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that were given to the Christ child; but more centrally, in gratitude for, and in imitation of, the gift God has given to us in Bethlehem’s babe.  As we have received the gift of God’s love, so we give gifts of love to others.

One of my favorite stories told by Dr. Arthur Caliandro at the Marble Collegiate Church, was of a Christmas card he received from one of his dear friends, Amos Parrish.  When he opened the envelope and drew out the card, there was only one word printed on it: “Others”.  As Dr. Caliandro would say, that one word summed up the whole message and meaning of Christmas for him.

Who are these “others”?  For me, they have been my family, near and far.  They have been my dearest friends and trusted colleagues.  They have been good neighbors, and people who provide caring services to my family.  These are the “others” who people my gift list at Christmas.  These are the regulars.  Then of course there are those “others” who are the beneficiaries of various ministries and service agencies which I like to support with my year-end donations.  For weeks, the appeals arrive by mail and I collect them in a basket, until at Christmas when I sit down to write them checks.

As the years have passed, my children have grown up, and we all have more stuff than we know what to do with.  Our families and friends are generally in the same position.  There’s nothing we really need that we don’t get for ourselves when the need arises; and we’ve all grown far more aware of the often desperate needs of others.  With time, we have gradually moved away from expensive gifts for one another.  We may exchange some small token of our affection, but we prefer to make donations in their honor to causes that would be meaningful to them.  Matching the donation to the person in whose honor the gift is being given, is a big part of the fun, as is also the accomplishing of something good for those who truly need it.

Most recently, I have felt a need to give something for Christmas to someone in a more personal way.  Though the donation to Habitat for Humanity, or Doctors without Borders, or the Heifer Project, accomplishes great good, it can feel a bit impersonal.  I will continue to make gifts to them in honor of loved ones.  But I also find myself keeping an eye out for some person or persons with particular needs for whom I can do something to help.  Then the fun is working out a way to make it happen, and to ensure that it happens anonymously.  Some call it “Secret Santa”, for me it is the Christ Spirit.  It is the attempt to give with no thought of return, no expectation of reciprocation or a thank you.  It is giving for giving’s sake.  The focus is no longer on me.  It is “Others”.  I believe such giving gives God joy; I know it gives me joy.  It is my Christmas gift to myself and perhaps also to God.  Who are the “Others” for you?