Monday, December 17, 2018

What makes a good gift? Part II

In the our last post I argued that a "good gift" is one which invites the recipient to move into a closer relationship with the giver. This invitation to relationship demonstrates the value that the gift-giver has for the recipient, and that value is integral to the happiness that comes with receiving the gift.  These dynamics of "invitation" and "demonstration of value" are present in the smallest of gifts (a child's art project given to a parent) and the largest (an engagement ring).

From that starting place, our questions today are: How do the above principles of "invitation" and "demonstration of value" play out at Christmas and in the gospel? And what might they mean for us as gift-givers and disciples of Christ?

First, Christmas is the celebration of God's gift to us: Jesus Christ, the very embodiment of God. The gift of the infant Jesus was driven by God's desire to be in right relationship with us... In fact, the gift of God's presence itself created the means for the relationship to develop. Note here that the gift is obviously given in expectation of a return: God expects humans to respond to his initiation of relationship by giving themselves in return to know, follow and love Jesus.

Second, we often hear in descriptions of the gospel that the gift of God's grace is "free" or "unconditional." While it is true that God's grace (more concretely, the gift of Christ's death on our behalf) cannot be earned and is given without any prior conditions, it not "unconditional." The gift is given with an expectation of a return. Humans are to respond to the gift by moving closer to God relationally, namely, by surrendering their lives to Jesus and giving him their loyalty and obedience. The gift of God given through the death of Jesus is the ultimate gift, as it gives the highest possible value to the recipient- the value of the life of God's Son- in order to create the possibility of reconciliation in the relationship between God and humans.

If we understand God's gift-giving at Christmas and in the gospel of Jesus we can come to a few conclusions about our own gift-giving and discipleship:

1. The greatest gifts we can give require giving of ourselves. In other words, if our gifts are to be significant they will mean giving time, energy, empathy and attention to the recipient. We imitate Christ when we give of ourselves to another. Of course, this can be very inconvenient, messy and costly, which is why it is also uncommon. I challenge all of us to take time to consider how we will be open (or to pray for the grace to be open!) to deepen relationships with the people who will receive gifts from us. If we can't be open to deepening those relationships, both theoretically and logistically, then we might ask why we're giving them gifts...

2. A fitting celebration of Christmas is all about our acceptance of God's invitation to deepen our relationship with Him. We can go through all the trappings and churchy events of Christmas, but if we're to busy to actually take this invitation to move closer to God then our celebration is hollow. Can we put our surrender to Jesus' will (what would make for a good celebration in His eyes?) ahead of our expectations (demands!) and desires for our Christmas celebrations?

3. The task of a disciple is to imitate the master. The primary method that Jesus used for making disciples was giving of himself. Before any teaching, training or directing Jesus gave of himself to the people God sent Him to. The very foundation of His mission was His presence; Jesus was constantly sacrificing in order to be present and give His time, energy, attention and empathy to His people.

If we claim to be Jesus' disciples, then we too are called by God make disciples. I believe our first question in that process is, "Who am I sent to?" After we answer that- and before anything else- our task is follow Jesus' example and begin giving of ourselves to that group of people. It is our job to demonstrate their value, and invite them into relationship, through the gifts of our time, energy, empathy and attention. May all of us disciples of Jesus take this Christmas lesson, that God's work begins with sacrificial giving, and boldly give of ourselves to the people God has sent us to through this Christmas season and into the new year ahead.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

What makes a good gift?

In case you hadn’t noticed, Christmas shopping is kind of a big deal. Small and mid-sized retailers make 20-40% of their annual profits during holiday season. Over 55% of all American consumers participate in holiday sales beginning on Black Friday alone. And, drum roll please, about 25% of Americans are still paying off their Christmas debts from last year (scary!). As I said, it’s a big deal.

There are many reasons for this annual binge in gift purchasing. There’s tradition: it’s just what we do for Christmas, right? And there’s obligation: we don’t want co-workers and extended family members thinking we’re stingy, right? And of course there’s a great amount sincere desire to bless others and mark the holiday as well.

Lost in this craze of finding and buying (and financing!) gifts is a rather important question: what makes a good gift?  There are as many different answers to this question as there are gift purchasers, but here are a few common answers to the above question…

Answer One: It’s helpful.
Utility is often our go-to for gift giving. What does this person need? Surely, if I can correctly identify the need and supply a gift-wrapped solution I will have blessed and served the gift recipient, right? There is much to commend in this strategy, as it seeks the betterment of the other and is not overtly driven by the tastes of the gift giver. However, this strategy of gift purchasing, for all of its pragmatic appeal, usually falls flat. Frankly, most people are not great at determining the needs of others and finding a good solution for them. Remember, nobody likes being fixed! And, the most pragmatic gifts (money and gift cards), do not always indicate a high degree of investment in the gift giving process. While they are always nice, they are not always thoughtful.

Answer Two: It’s what they say they want.
There’s a lot of overlap here with the first answer, the only difference being that this option avoids the “let me fix you” issue. The same issue arises with regard the problem of (potential) thoughtlessness, and, this answer sometimes boils down to a utilitarian agreement in families (“you get me what I want and I’ll do the same for you”). This strategy, while efficient, hardly exudes the Christmas spirit. (It should be noted, however, that if there are “interesting” family dynamics at play this is a safe place to land!)

Answer Three: It’s a surprise.
What this answer really points to is the truth that a good gift brings a sudden, and positive, emotional response. The surprise gift is all about the moment of discovery, and the happiness it creates. I believe all great gifts offer this “moment of discovery.” However, the element of surprise is not enough in and of itself, as we’ve all gotten surprise gifts that were not helpful, not wanted, thoughtless and not good gifts.

Answer Four: It required a sacrifice.
Okay, now we’re closing in on a good answer. If you receive a gift that you know required sacrifice to give you are almost always going to be touched by it. That’s true even if you don’t like the item given. The sacrifice made will make an emotional impact on you and you’ll recognize the significance of the gift. That being said, even sacrificial gifts can flounder, particularly when the actions and attitudes of the gift giver do not align with the sacrificial nature of the gift. When these two are out of line, the gift is met with cynicism and suspicion. If a sacrificial gift is given, therefore, it must be partnered with a relational commitment (more on this below).

Answer Five: It seeks nothing in return.
For many people this is the ultimate answer, and many people believe a true gift requires nothing in return. What is celebrated in this answer is the idea of gift giving as a wholly selfless act, designed only to bless the recipient. Much of philanthropy falls (or wants to be seen as falling) in this category, and the “anonymous gift giver” is often put forward as the ideal gift giver. BUT, there is a major problem with this answer. While this gift giving style avoids some of the obvious pitfalls of bad gift giving (forced reciprocity, exerting relational control, shaming, self-promotion, etc.) it ultimately prevents the gift giving process from arriving at the proper goal, which is explained below…

My Answer: A good gift invites the recipient into deeper relationship with the giver.
Our reaction to the great gifts that we’ve received reveals the answer to our question. What do we do when we get a meaningful or wonderful gift? We immediately go to the giver! We look at them, we smile at them, we hug them, we call them, we write them-  we move relationally toward them. A great gift invites us deeper into relationship with the giver. We feel this invitation given through many of the answers discussed above (sacrifice, helpfulness, no self-promotion, effort in making a surprise, etc.). Furthermore, it is this invitation to relationship which ultimately communicates our value in the eyes of the giver. Their valuing of us, demonstrated by a gift or giving process that invites relationship, is the most significant part of the gift giving dynamic.

If a gift is given without any relational invitation then it will probably not be meaningful to us, and can be potentially offensive. This dynamic is where so much charity, governmental and “mission” work fails, as it is devoid of relational invitation. On the other hand, all sorts of gifts- large and small, surprise or anticipated, helpful or purely sentimental- can be wonderful gifts if they demonstrate to us the desire of the giver to be grow closer to us.

In our next post I will discuss how this concept of gift giving lines up with the Christmas story, and indeed with the gospel as a whole, and how we might leverage it to better love our neighbors.

Until then, and as always, I invite your thoughts, concerns and rebuttals!

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Update Time!

Well faithful readers, I know I owe you an apology... I have been seriously slacking on the blogs! But, it's never too late to turn it around, so here are a few tidbits about what's been going on with Burning Bush Communities...


November was a big month for Cultivate, our youth ministry in Pine Manor, as we had many new students from the neighborhood join us. While the kids are always ready for dinner and usually ready for some high-energy and messy games, they also continue to engage with us in discussing serious topics. Over the last six weeks we've had some meaningful discussions about relationships, the power of words (for good and bad), God's hopes for our lives, and the reality that we all have to deal with our selfishness.

Please continue to pray for our students and leaders. Our students face an enormous amount of conflict in their lives, particularly in their neighborhood, and our constant prayer is that they would be protected from those who would harm them and that they would make wise decisions. Please pray that our boys walk away from those who want to fight, and avoid the spaces where fights are inevitable. For our leaders, pray that we grow as team (everyone using their gifts) and that we are energized as we serve.

Welcome to the team, Lauren!
Over the last month we are thrilled that two of our local missionaries have kicked off their efforts! Carlos and the Sensible Outreach Solutions team are joining us to serve in Pine Manor, and are working to gain trust with an eye on establishing a community dedicated to walking with families through crisis situations.

And our south Lee County missionary, Lauren Salmon, is working diligently to establish her presence at Discovery Village at the Forum, where she is launching a choir for residents this month! Way to go Lauren! We love your heart for sharing Jesus with our overlooked neighbors!

At long last, our building renovation is almost complete! We are hoping to be inspected by the end of next week, and cannot wait to get in. We've had some great conversations recently with folks who have a dream to use the space to share Christ's love with their neighbors, and are excited to see what doors God opens once the space is fully available.

Baby Steps into Mission: Presence, Part 2

Faithful readers, I apologize for the long delay in getting this blog up. Between summer vacation, official cross country practices starting...