Fort Greely Chaplain's Corner

My first Christmas as a college student coming home for the holiday, I purchased a gift for my mom, wrapped it as carefully as I could, and surreptitiously placed it under our tree. My gift was large, rectangular, and extremely heavy (40 pounds, to be precise). It generated a fair amount of curiosity from my mom, who was generally omniscient when it came to Christmas gifts for everyone, including my gifts to her. After all, she probably funded the purchase in the first place. But as a young adult coming home for Christmas for the first time I wanted to up my Christmas gift game, which I did in wildly successful fashion. On Christmas Eve, mom unwrapped her mystery gift with what I like to believe was true anticipation, surprise, and delight. On my college student budget, I had purchased her a 40-pound box of her favorite, Sears and Roebuck, powdered laundry detergent! She absolutely loved it, and for years afterward remembered that Christmas gift as one of the best she ever received.

Recalling the success I had with giving mom a huge box of laundry detergent for Christmas, a few years later I applied a similar gift-giving formula when purchasing a present for my wife Karen’s 21st birthday. We had only been married for a little more than two months and I did not want to swing and miss on my new bride’s milestone birthday. When I tell this story at marriage retreats, this is where I pause to emphasize the point of the story: we tend to give gifts we want to receive. I took a swing at buying Karen a birthday gift, but missed badly when I presented her with a snazzy, new, gas-powered weed trimmer. That gift is also remembered in my family, but for all the wrong reasons. 

In addition to noting that couples must think hard about giving gifts their spouse or partner truly would enjoy, consider that an even more fundamental dynamic than the “what” of gift-giving is the “why” we give gifts. In her book “Grateful,” Diana Butler Bass explores the darker side of giving a gift. She writes, “For eons, gratitude has been understood as an obligation to repay a favor or gift.” This type of obligation was called “reciprocal gratitude.” The idea of reciprocal gratitude has been in the public eye quite a lot lately. You’ve no doubt heard it being referred to by its Latin name, “quid pro quo.” The phrase’s literal translation “something for something” aptly describes the “why” some gifts are given. As Butler writes, “A gift incurred a debt, and the recipient owed a response – an act of gratitude – in return.” In the world of politics, this sort of gift-giving is often manipulated to create a sense of indebtedness that the giver exploits for the purpose of exerting political control over the recipient.

Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” The gift of God’s grace is not a quid pro quo. There is no “something for something” or “this for that,” only a “this”: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God’s gift of grace was not given to create a sense of indebtedness that God exploits in order to control humankind. It is simply God’s perfect gift of love. All we are required to do is receive it.

For God and Country!

The Fort Greely Chapel community is a traditional, protestant Army chapel service meeting on Sundays at 10 a.m. with a weekly Communion observance. Interested? Please call (907) 873-4397 or “Like” our chapel Facebook page at www.facebook.com/FGAChapel.

Lt. Col. Paul Fritts is the chaplain at the Fort Greely Chapel. He can be reached by email at paul.d.fritts.mil@mail.mil.