By Jenna Lampe
I’ve given my share of bad gifts: the toy the child already had two of, the computer case that didn’t fit the intended recipient’s computer (but fit mine!), and the hat for an adult that really only fit a child. One gift in particular, however, sticks out in my mind as the worst.
Juggling a job, graduate school and my first relationship was more difficult than I realized at the time. My job involved caring for women with disabilities in a group home and put me in a position of responsibility for others’ lives that I had never experienced before. At the same time, graduate school demanded a large portion of my time. And the relationship with my boyfriend was becoming an engagement, a stark change to my previous single way of life.
Although school was breaking for Christmas, two other priorities were trying to take their place. My manager wanted me to work during the holidays. My soon-to-be fiancé, on the other hand, wanted me to be present for the holidays, spending time with his family in another state.
After struggling to please both, I decided to put my foot down and stand firm on spending time with the man to whom I would be married the following year. This, in turn, caused work life to spiral downward. My manager was in a sticky place, trying to keep a hardworking employee but also trying to make the workload fair. We tried compromising, but soon threats were made to give me some sort of corrective action for not picking up a holiday shift. Going to work as Christmas approached was uncomfortable. Meanwhile, my manager decided to hold a bowling party for her employees. The plan was to have pizza, bowl, and exchange Christmas ornaments.
I had forgotten about the ornament exchange until the day of, and in truth, was not looking forward to taking time to go bowling (a sport I do not love) and being in close contact with the very people I was deserting over the holidays.
Therefore, it wasn’t until an hour before the event that I remembered the ornament. Looking around my room, I reached up to my ceiling fan and grabbed a red, sparkling star ornament I had gotten years before that I hung up for a random decoration. From a distance, the ornament was pretty but obviously cheap. Close up, it was dusty and you could see a piece of the ornament had broken off. I stuffed it into a gift bag I had lying around my room. I did feel a twinge of guilt knowing I had put no time into finding an ornament, but mostly, I didn’t care at that time. I knew most things exchanged at such parties were tossed to the side, and I hoped to get in and get out of the party as unnoticed as possible.
The party wasn’t as awkward as I had imagined it would be, but I was definitely looking forward to it being over. We gathered around for the ornament exchange at the very end. Ornaments varied between the cute, the pretty, and the purposefully tacky. Eventually, my gift came to the forefront, and it happened to be my manager’s turn to take the next one. She grabbed my gift bag, opened it up, and pulled the broken, dusty star out. I sweated a little, not expecting she would be the one to get it and worried she might think that I was giving the cheap ornament out of spite for the recent struggles we had been having. What she did and said I hadn’t ever expected.
“Thank you,” she said, as she smiled and tears came to her eyes. I was confused; this ornament was not worthy of such a response. She lifted up her head and said to all of us, “I’ve been having a hard time lately. This job, as you know, is stressful. But my family life has been difficult. I’ve been going through a divorce. My husband’s taken almost everything. This Christmas is turning over a new leaf for me and my daughters. All we have is a tree. This is the first and only ornament of our new life.” She ended silently crying.
She seemed to truly feel that this ornament had a special place in the next stage of her life. I felt horrible. The symbol she chose as the start of her new life was old and dusty, it was cheap, a piece had long ago been broken off, and, worse yet, the attitude of the giver was one of negligence and indifference. The symbol she had chosen was my afterthought.
Past gifts I’d given with the same attitude came to mind, making me feel selfish and uncaring. What is a gift when the person does not desire to give it? Giving a bad gift was more than just not finding the right item or miscalculating size. In this case, it was a symptom of a deeper problem: indifference towards other people. I felt like Cain, offering my apathy-tinged leftovers as a gift, not only to others but to God Himself.
How often am I like Cain? Or how often am I a person trying to offer my own works, dirty rags in God’s sight (insert: broken dusty ornaments), offering God my hour on Sunday morning and then hanging Him up in the closet with my church clothes? Rather than offering up all I have in the form of a copper coin as the widow described by Jesus, I offer up my copper coin and keep the riches to myself. I struggle to offer God my whole mind, heart, and body. The easiest thing is to keep myself for myself. Giving is hard. Giving everything is impossible for me to achieve.
When the rich young man in Matthew 19 asks what he still lacks in order to obtain eternal life, Jesus tells him to sell what he has and give to the poor. The thought of giving everything away made the young man sorrowful. How can we ever be enough, give enough of ourselves to others, give enough of ourselves to God?
The answer is beautiful: we cannot. The most beautiful ornament in the world would not be enough to patch up the wounds in my manager’s life or to make up for my sin. Christmas isn’t about the gifts I’m giving, it’s about the gift Christ gave to us. He gave his very own Son to be born of a Virgin, suffer for us, and die on a cross for our sins. He continues to give us His Word and Sacrament. He does so out of love. Although taking time to give a better ornament with more thought would have been a good and fitting thing to do, ultimately, my gift would not have been enough. What’s important is that God’s gift of His very own Son is enough, finally and forever.
Jenna is a life-long LCMS Lutheran who loves learning more and more about Christ and Christianity every day. She lives in New Mexico with an adventurous husband and an obnoxious Goldendoodle. While spending a lot of her time working as an acute care occupational therapist, she enjoys skiing, hiking, and being swept into whatever her husband's next adventure is.