Perfectionists have a terrible time buying gifts. At least this one does. I have some truly awesome people in my life – dear family, friends old and new – and the love I feel for them is so deep and wide that sometimes I cry tears of gratitude for them. Seriously.
When Christmas comes around, my desire is to take all that love and gratitude, all that admiration and affection, and find the one perfect gift for them that will convey the entire weight of that emotion. I want to wrap it up and present it to them as a total representation of my utter devotion. It should be something that makes them grin from ear to ear and declare from the newly-warmed cockles of their heart, “Wow! This is perfect! You really do love me, don’t you?” You see my problem, right?
So I try to start my shopping early in the season. But that just allows me more time for indecision, second-guessing, and angst. I wander the aisles or the websites for hours, asking myself, “Is this good enough?” “Would this be better?” I lie awake at night, wondering, “Red or blue? Which would she like better?” Taking a deep breath, I finally make a decision and a purchase. Gift receipt firmly in hand, I walk away thinking, “Maybe I should have bought the other one.”
Some people make Christmas lists. This wasn’t part of my childhood. I was raised by serious and practical people. We weren’t encouraged to ask for specific gifts. The giver was completely in charge of the gift, not the receiver. If they got it wrong and you were disappointed, you smiled and said thanks and hoped for something better next year.
Christmas lists take the pressure off gift-buying, that’s true. Shopping off a list is much like choosing food off a restaurant menu. People get exactly what they want, no more, no less. There’s no having to hide disappointment behind a fake smile, no hassle of return lines, no worries about if it will fit and be the right color. Also, none of that occasional hurt that comes when someone who should have known better gives you something thoroughly unlikable.
But lists take the pleasure out of gift buying as well. You lose the experience of bringing that person to mind and imagining what might please them, the excitement of anticipating the opening and (potential) delight. You know, the part that makes it fun!
Here’s the thing. All good gift-giving is rooted in love. The kind of love that comes from having made time enough and paid attention enough to really know the other. Not just in their role - husband, child, friend - but as a separate person, with desires and preferences of their own. When you’ve dedicated time, money and energy to knowing and pleasing them, and when you get it right, wow! It’s not just the object, it’s the recipient’s joy in being known and loved. That’s the best kind of gift!
But oh my friends, we love so imperfectly. Our attention to our loved ones is fleeting and often distracted; our seeing is clouded by our own egos and biases. We’re so quick to presume we know someone, and we don’t, really. We make judgements, and we judge wrongly. “Who are you, really? What would make you happy?” These questions take patience and humility to answer. It’s hard work. It’s time consuming and self-sacrificial. And that’s before we even begin the work of shopping and find out that generosity is harder than it looks.
We love imperfectly, so we give each other imperfect gifts. Oh, once in a while we get it right. Most of the time we come pretty close. And God willing, we’ll have another chance at it next year. It’s important that we give and receive gifts with an abundance of grace. Of course, any relationship that lives or dies based on right gift-giving isn’t worth the effort anyway. I don’t remember what my husband got me last year, or most of the forty-two Christmases we’ve shared. But I’ve never, in all those years, doubted his love and commitment to me, which he shows in thousands of non-gifting-buying ways.
Truth is, any and all human gifts are pale shadows of the one great gift we celebrate every year at this time. The One God who in the beginning spoke the world into being, who created us in our mother’s wombs, who is intimate and infinite, transcendent and tender, the source and end of all life – that God – is the ultimate gift-giver.
God listens, watches, knows our darkest secrets, and our highest hopes, attending to us as beloved children – all day, every day, our whole lives long. God desires what is best for us and longs for our pleasure. God’s generosity knows no bounds. In God, we are completely known and unconditionally loved, just as we long to be.
And so we come to Christmas again, not just to give gifts, not just to stumble and fret over our own gift-buying challenges, but to celebrate once more the very best gift: The great God of all creation wrapped Godself up in frail human skin and gave us Godself. The perfect gift. Once and for all.
Susan Weaver is a retired ELCA pastor, a spiritual director, a former parent educator and teacher. She is grandma to two beloved little girls and loves to read, learn and think out loud with others. She blogs occasionally at pastorgrandma.com
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