What Is a Gift?

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What Is a Gift?

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What Is a Gift?

A Reflection/Action Resource

by Carolyn Hardin Engelhardt


Even as young children, we learn the importance of giving to others. Throughout our lives, we give gifts at Christmas, birthdays, weddings and other times. Have we ever stopped to ask, "What is a gift?" Everyone knows the answer. Or do we? If it were an easy question with an easy answer, we wouldn't need a resource such as this.

These hour-long experiences were designed to lead adult study groups into a more meaningful spiritual season. Before your group begins these exercises ask people what a gift is. You will probably be surprised at the answers.

It seems almost contradictory to say that giving a gift is hard or challenging or demanding, but that may be our experience. It's hard to know for sure when a gift to someone is not a gift, but a bribe, a self-congratulation, or actually a gift to oneself. It is difficult to make the process of choosing gifts and giving gifts consistent with our faith. Because living our faith is challenging and demanding, giving gifts that come from our faith - from whatever depth, breadth and authenticity our faith has - is also challenging.

Giving gifts to loved ones has not always been a central part of Christmas. Could it be that we associate gifts with Christmas now because something in our spirit wants to integrate what is meaningful into a cohesive whole? Due to this need to be faithful and to make sense out of all of life, Alternatives has worked for two decades to encourage responsible, life-giving celebrations. The celebrations of our faith give us opportunities to bring more of life into alignment with our values.

At one time or another, almost everyone has been troubled by something concerning gifts and presents. That disequilibrium makes very fertile soil for growing in personal faith and for transforming lives. There may be moments of risk, embarrassment and lack of clarity as we examine our lives and gifts. Remember, gifts from God are ready for us to receive as we consider "What is a gift?"

Making small changes and finding some new answers, or even some new questions, can bring new meaning into your Advent and Christmas celebrations. Welcome the questions! Welcome the reflection! Welcome the gifts of God!


1. Distribute HANDOUT No. 1. Ask participants to mark each of the statements TRUE or FALSE. Allow 15 minutes.

2. Now ask everyone to stand along a line down the center of the room. Indicate that one end of the line is FALSE and the other end of the line is TRUE. Ask people to stand closer or farther from TRUE or FALSE to show their opinions. Say, "Stand at this end of the line if you feel this statement is false and at this end if you feel this statement is true. You may also stand an appropriate distance between to show whether you think it is more true or more false. Be prepared to share your reasons for standing where you are."

Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above. . . . (James 1:17)

3. Read James 1:17 in several translations.

4. In partners or small groups, identify similarities and differences between what you've indicated are true statements and what this Scripture says.

5. Pray: God of all the Universe, we give thanks for your continuous gifts to us from the abundance of your Creation. Let us remember to be good stewards as we manage your resources in the way you intend. Guide our decision-making and our gift-giving. May the gifts we share be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

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1. In partners or small groups, ask each person to describe a gift s/he has given.

2. Then ask each person to tell what the consequences were for her/him and for the receiver of that gift.

3. Read aloud the story of the announcement of God's gift in Luke 1:26-38.

4. Encourage the people in each group to compare their experience of giving a gift with God's experience of giving a gift to Mary. Ask them, "What is similar and what is different? What response does this comparison call for?"

5. Pray: God, help us to know that in giving gifts we have the opportunity to participate with you in bringing good things to birth in our lives and in the lives of those to whom we give. Help us to see gifts as a means of working with you to bring about peace with justice on earth. Let us be partners with you in this process. Help us to see gifts as ways of setting prisoners free, bringing good news to those who need it, bringing sight to the blind, letting oppressed persons be free and being your servants through the gifts we give. Amen.

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1. Ask participants, "Have you ever given or received something that was called a gift but really seemed more like tribute, homage, reward, bounty, bribe or trade?" Allow 10-20 minutes for people to describe (or draw) their experiences of receiving something that was called a gift but really seemed more like tribute, homage, reward, bounty, bribe or trade.

2. Ask people to describe (or draw) the results, outcomes, or consequences of that experience for them or for others.

3. Read aloud the following passages (you may want to read from several translations and read what comes before and after to understand the context) - -Psalm 72:10; II Samuel 8:2 and 6; Psalm 45:12; Matthew 17:24-27; Proverbs 15:27; Ecclesiastes 7:7; Exodus 23:8.

4. Break the group into pairs or small groups and encourage them to compare the experiences they drew or described with those read about in the Bible. Ask the group, "What similarities to or differences from your experience do you see?"

5. Then ask, "As you consider your experience in dialogue with that in the Scriptures, what does God's spirit call forth from you in response?"

. . . it was of their own accord that they made their gift, which was not merely as far as their resources would allow, but well beyond their resources; . . . it began by their offering themselves to the Lord and to us at the prompting of the will of God. (II Corinthians 8:3, 5)

6. Pray: God, in your presence we examine our motives. We know that nothing is hidden from you even when we are unclear. Help us to know what motives are right for sharing and giving in all the situations in which we participate. Help us to see those cultural practices which need correction and those which need affirmation. We bring to you our motives and our cultural practices for your refining. Guide us in our reflection and in our action. If there are changes we need to make, give us the insight and courage to make those changes. Amen.

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1. Write each of these words on a chalkboard or newsprint: gift, present, offering, sacrifice. Pass out four blank index cards to each person. Ask individuals to write their definition of each of the above words on separate cards without stating on the card the word they are defining. Mix everyone's definition cards together. Choose a card from the pile and ask people to guess what word the card defines.

2. Read aloud the following Scriptures: Numbers 18:8-19; Ecclesiastes 3:12-13; Ecclesiastes 5:17-19; James 1:16-17; II Corinthians 9:6-15; Matthew 5:23-25; Matthew 23:13-32; II Corinthians 8:1-6; Deuteronomy 16:16-17; Amos 5:21-27.

3. In small groups, compare the definitions with the Scripture references. Ask, "How are the definitions we wrote on cards similar to or different from the understandings of these words in biblical times?"

5. Discuss the following questions: As you think about your understanding of the words you defined as well as what you read in the Scriptures, what response is called forth from you? Are you called to give gifts only? Is it okay to give bribes, offerings or sacrifices at times? Are all of these words appropriate descriptions of what Christians might do at some time? Why?

6. Pray: God, we are thankful for the messages in the Bible that have guided persons of faith for thousands of years. In this year, help us to know which of these timeless messages are particularly important for personal and group reflection. Through these ancient texts, help us to hear your penetrating truth for our times. Help us to be your obedient partners with our gifts this year as we continue to grow in wisdom and understanding. Amen.

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REFLECTION EXPERIENCE FIVE: Suggestions for Giving a Gift

1. Hand out paper and pencils. Ask each person to: a.) list the persons or causes to which s/he gave gifts last Christmas; b.) list beside each name why s/he gave to them; c.) list what s/he gave to them; d.) list beside each what the result was of giving that gift.

2. Break the group into twos. Allow partners to share with each other their discoveries in making these lists.

3. Read aloud Acts 3:1-10. Participants can follow along in their translations while one translation is read. People may want to comment on differences in the translations which bring new insight to them.

4. Ask people to talk with their partner about how this story is similar to and different from the lists they made earlier in the session.

But Peter said, "I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene - walk!" (Acts 3:6)

5. As a whole group, talk about how the giving we do in our culture at Christmastime is similar to or different from the giving in this Scripture. Ask, "Should our Christmas giving be more like this story? Should year-round giving be more like this story? Is this a primary role model for our giving?"

6. What response does this story call forth from us in our giving? Pass out 3X5 unlined index cards and felt pens. Ask each person to write a message about giving on a card. Exchange the mini-posters as gifts to each other - gifts with a message.

7. Distribute HANDOUT No. 2 (page 7) to each person to read silently and take home.

8. Pray: God, we want to make a different kind of gift list this year. Help us to know to whom we should give gifts as we make our lists now. (Allow time for writing names.) Help us to know more clearly the feelings and thoughts that should be expressed by each gift. (Allow time for that to be added beside each name.) Help us to know what an appropriate gift is for each. Is it time? Is it an object? Is it a thought? Is it something else? (Allow time for people to add possible gifts that are appropriate for each person on their lists.) God, we offer these lists to you, and the revisions we will make in them. Let them be a song of praise for your gifts of Creation and for the relationships we experience. Amen.

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REFLECTION EXPERIENCE SIX: The Time and Place for Christmas Giving

1. Give everyone a piece of paper (long, narrow adding machine paper would emphasize the theme). Ask people to list all the events that happen between Thanksgiving and January 6, but not at other times of the year - events that are unique to the Christmas season. Participants should list the events in the order in which they occur. If the event is one of primary importance to the person, he or she should place a star next to it. Some events may occur repeatedly along the timeline.

2. Distribute HANDOUT No. 3 (page 8) for partners or small groups to reflect on while sharing their timelines.

And they came into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and worshiped him; and opening their treasures they presented to him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11)

3. Read Joshua 24:13-26.

4. Ask participants to redraw their timelines in light of this Scripture.

5. Pray: God of all time and of all places, help us to know what to do about gifts and time and places so that we may walk more faithfully with you. Be the guide of our lives as we make plans this year for celebrating your Child's birth. Let our celebrations be worthy of being called celebrations of that birth. We acknowledge your presence in all of life. Help us to live through this season being an incarnation of your spirit where we live, work, and worship. Amen.

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REFLECTION EXPERIENCE SEVEN: Questions to Answer As We Prepare to Give a Gift

1. If possible, give an empty gift box to everyone in the group. Ask people to write on a piece of paper a gift they plan to give or have given to someone. Ask them to place the slip of paper in the box.

2. Distribute HANDOUT No. 4 to participants for personal, silent reflections. Allow 20 minutes.

Do not model your behaviour on the contemporary world, but let the renewing of your minds transform you, so that you may discern for yourselves what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and mature. (Romans 12:2)

3. In the group, ask people to identify which questions were most interesting, challenging, affirming, and why.

4. Read Romans 11:36-12:2. Ask participants to share other translations. Share ways this Scripture affirms and/or challenges group members.

5. Hand out pieces of paper. Ask people to write down some reflections from this experience. Have them put the paper inside their gift boxes.

6. Ask each person to hold her/his gift box while everyone reads Romans 11:36-12:2 aloud at the same time (even if translations are different).

7. Pray: God, we are thankful for the persons and causes to which we give. We are thankful for the creativity of humanity that allows organizations to be formed to express your concern for all. We thank you for the ways in which so many people express your love in their dealings with us. Remind us to express that gratitude in the relationships that we have with those persons throughout the year. Let our sharing with others be an expression of our understanding of them, of your purpose for all Creation, and of your will for us. Amen.

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Mark each of the statements TRUE or FALSE. If you mark a statement FALSE, change it so that you could say it is TRUE. Do this by choosing one of the following words to substitute for "gift" in the statements below: PRESENT, DONATION, FAVOR, BOUNTY, CONTRIBUTION, GRATUITY, TIP, CHARITY or REMUNERATION.

A gift is:

_____ something the receiver wants

_____ something that fits the person's personality

_____ something the receiver wouldn't get for herself or himself

_____ something the person would enjoy

_____ something that shows I was thinking about the person

_____ something that reminds me of that person

_____ something that is a part of me

_____ something that will make a positive contribution to the world as the person uses it

_____ sharing something of myself

_____ letting a person know something that I admire about her/him through my gift

_____ a contribution to that person's well-being, personal development or growth

_____ a contribution to someone's well-being through the payment of the gift

_____ an affirmation of someone's culture

_____ an affirmation of an individual's lifestyle

_____ something that promotes peace, justice and well-being for all creation

_____ a responsible use of the world's resources

_____ something that can be understood as coming from God's grace

_____ something I am required to give

_____ something I am not obligated to give

_____ something that builds relationships

_____ something that can be viewed as "doing a favor"

_____ not earned

_____ not deserved

_____ an offering

_____ a reward

_____ not a reward

_____ contains concepts I believe are important

_____ something whose full meaning cannot necessarily be seen

_____ something whose cost has an implied message

_____ something that shows my hospitality

_____ something that conveys an understanding of our relationship

_____ something that is given without expecting something in return

_____ something that cements a relationship

_____ something given anonymously

_____ equal to other gifts given

_____ most appropriate when there is one in exchange for mine

_____ unusual between persons who do not know each other

_____ given in return for favors received

_____ given in anticipation of favors

_____ something appropriate to the status of the recipient

_____ proportionate to the blessings we have received from God

_____ an opportunity for reflection

_____ not a gift if there is any injustice involved in its production or acquisition

_____ something that implies reciprocity

_____ something that helps us deal with our guilt and sin

_____ a gift only if the giver is aware of any cost to humanity that it involves

_____ renewing

_____ sometimes a sacrifice

_____ always an offering

_____ part of our stewardship of resources

_____ a thanksgiving

_____ based on merit

_____ related to a tithe

_____ a prayer we can see

_____ one's response to God

_____ not something we ask for

_____ an evidence of God's spirit

_____ free

_____ something that indicates we know we belong to God

_____ an opportunity for us to acknowledge all we have is really God's

_____ something that shows everyone deserves to have material well-being

_____ an acknowledgment that there is enough for all


Read these suggestions silently. Take this home with you to review as you plan your Christmas giving.

A. Before buying a gift, think about the person to whom you plan to give the gift. What does the person value? What does s/he care about? Really give time to think about that person. What can you do to affirm that person's individuality, creativity, concerns, lifestyle? What can you do to extend that person's concerns? What can you do to make it easier or more meaningful for people to live the life that embodies their values?

B. Only after reflecting on the individual should we ever look at catalogues and advertisements. You might say catalogues are important for helping us know what is "out there" that this person might appreciate. That may be true, but reflecting on the individual should come first. (Consider seeking out those catalogues which supply products that make for peace, justice and well-being for all people and for all of the planet.)

C. Consider making a card to go along with the gift that shares your thoughts as you prepared to give the gift. You might say something like: "I thought about you and what you value and how you contribute to all of us. As I thought about you, I wanted to support what your life shows is important. This gift comes with my prayers and thanksgiving for who you are and my hope that this gift will enhance your way of living with us." It may be that this note will be appreciated as much or more than the gift itself.

D. Think about your understanding of gifts and giving. Repeat this every year as you change and grow as a person, renewing and reforming your commitments. If possible, discuss your ideas and commitments with others. In addition to finding support, you may also influence others' concerns. In any case, people will be more prepared to understand your choices even if they do not participate in those choices.

E. Think about or discuss your feelings about "grab bags," drawing names and gift exchanges at workplaces, clubs, church groups and organizations. Are these words consistent with the values you are trying to live by? If such practices are not consistent with your understanding of gifts and giving, do you raise your concerns with those in the group? Do you choose not to participate? Do you participate because you are part of the group? When we find ourselves in situations which are inconsistent with our values, we are called to examine our beliefs and make difficult decisions. If we choose not to talk about our concerns, others may miss an opportunity to examine their values.

F. Remember that giving purchased gifts is not the only way to give a gift. If relatives or friends (even those with whom you are very close) live far away, buying items may not be the answer. It is difficult to buy items for long-distance loved ones: gifts may not fit into their home decor or personal wardrobes; items may be inconsistent with their interest at the time. Consider discontinuing buying gifts for each other. With the resources you save, you might feel more free to spend time together, using visits as gifts to one another. You might also feel more free to give spontaneously when you think of an appropriate gift. I have found this a mutual and very appreciated decision in my birth family. We use our money to share meals and spend family recreation time together.


Reflect on these questions with your partner or group as you share your timelines.

A. When do you participate in making a list of "what I want for Christmas" or making lists of what others want? Do you drop hints about what you want? What is the effect of these practices?

B. What does the frequency of shopping for gifts say about our Christmas celebrations?

C. Do you, or should you, start putting gifts out for all to see very early in the Christmas season? Do you put them under the tree days or weeks before Christmas? If so, what does that do to the focus of the Christmas season? Is that good?

D. Do we speak of "having Christmas" as the time when gifts are opened? Is that what we intend Christmas to mean?

E. What does the time we choose to open gifts say about our priorities concerning Christmas? What does it say about our priorities if we decide to open gifts on Christmas Eve, on Christmas morning, during Kwanza, on December 6th, on January 6th, or at some other time?

F. Does opening gifts prevent our participation in the worship and celebration of our congregations on Christmas Eve, on Christmas Day, or on Epiphany? (Does the gift of God to us all collectively mean that we should celebrate that gift in the presence of the congregation rather than only in some devotional experience in our homes?)

G. What reminders do we, or should we, have in our homes about God's gifts or about gifts for people other than close friends or family?

H. What should be the relationship between the Christmas tree and the nativity scene figures we might have in our homes? When in our timelines do nativity scenes, Christmas trees, and Advent calendars appear?


Use the following questions for personal, silent reflection.

A. What does this gift say about how I understand the one who will receive it?

B. What does this giving say about how I understand myself?

C. What does this gift say about how I understand the world?

D. What does this gift say about the poor and about our "share" in the world's resources?

E. Is this a gift to God as well as to the person receiving it?

F. What could I give that is not purchased?

G. Does this gift point toward justice and equality for all God's people?

H. What does this gift say I value?

I. Does this gift show I am "not conforming to this world, but being transformed by God's spirit"?

J. Should job-related giving follow the same standards as my personal giving?

K. Should my giving within community groups and organizations follow the standards I have for my personal giving? (Be aware of the corrupting possibilities of gifts: Proverbs 15:27, Ecclesiastes 7:7.)

About the Author

Carolyn Hardin Engelhardt, a Diaconal Minister of the United Methodist Church, is a consultant, trainer, educator and writer.

Make copies of this resource under the Creative Commons attribution, not-for-profit license.

Page updated 11 Sept. 2013

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