When I was little, at the beginning of every holiday season, my mother and I would make an excursion to a local store or mall and I’d glimpse it: the familiar red Salvation Army kettle. As I listened to the bell ring I’d fumble in my tiny purse for change or accept the folded bill my mother handed me, then dart up to the kettle with my little offering.
In that way, my mother taught me to associate both Thanksgiving and Christmas with the joy of giving. And I know I’m not alone; every year around this time churches and Christians all gear up to participate in what I call “the ministry of things”: the giving of material goods to those in need. At my church alone I’ve already seen notices about Operation Christmas Child, donations for Thanksgiving dinners at the local food pantry, Angel and senior tree announcements, and countless other opportunities. With that in mind, then, a few thoughts as high season for “the ministry of things” kicks off:
1. Do your research. Most of us are fortunate enough to participate in giving through our churches, who (ideally) vet the charities and organizations to whom they are giving. But for those who give beyond such organizations, or those who want to know where their money/goods are going, do your research! U.S. News offers a handy guide on how to tell if a charity is legitimate, or you can use Charity Navigator to investigate a charity of your choice. Additionally, please beware of charitable scams during the holiday season, which are often targeted at the vulnerable among us. Read up on how to identify a charitable scam at the Federal Trade Commission’s website here.
2. Don’t abandon “the ministry of heart” for “the ministry of things.” In my experience working with small groups and youth groups during the holiday season, I noticed two unsettling truths. First, it’s fairly simple to get people to give items: participants would bring in canned food and coats and money and turkeys by the truckload. Secondly, it’s fairly difficult to get people to give time. Whenever I’d try to plan an excursion to a local nursing home or hospital, I came up short on numbers. At this time of year, giving material things is certainly necessary. But material goods cannot meet the needs of the heart. As we gear up to donate and give and gather material items, we must also remember it’s important to donate our time and energy to people who might not need food, but instead a listening ear, a smile, or simply some company. And if you find yourself unable to give materially as much as you’d like, please don’t get down on yourself. Your presence can be just as nourishing as any money or item you could offer. Visit a nursing home or a hospital. Spend time with a senior member of your congregation. Offer to babysit a neighbor’s children.
3. Don’t let giving become a substitute for spiritual growth. For people with any sort of financial abundance, giving is easy. Chucking a few dollars into a kettle, buying a Thanksgiving dinner for a family in need, or donating your old winter coats: those are all pretty non-demanding tasks. Giving does not make us good Christians; rather, good Christians give as a natural manifestation of Christ’s love within them. Don’t fall into the trap of feeling that what you donate or do ensures your good standing with God or makes you a “good” believer. And especially at this busy time, don’t abandon your relationship with Him nor your desire to cultivate it through prayer, Bible study, and the general work of love.
4. Don’t abandon “the ministry of things” with the leftover wrapping paper. I’ll be the first to admit that I love this season. Starting in November, people do seem more generous and more loving during the holidays; it’s a rosy time. And yet with the arrival of January, all our charitable work and impulses often recede or lessen drastically. That isn’t how it should be. Pace yourself. It’s easy to get caught up in a frenzy of holiday giving only to find yourself “give out” by the end of December. But the spirit of Christlike generosity that inhabits the holidays should exist year-round. Resolve to yourself that the giving won’t disappear this year when the gifts do.
May you have ample opportunities this year to participate in “the ministry of things,” and may that ministry always be an outward manifestation of your heart-relationship with Christ.