As I write this, I find that once again, the Holiday season is nearly over, and the annual “Christmas Chaos” is all over for yet another year. Don’t misunderstand me; I am not referring to the real reason for the Christmas Season, the celebration of the birth of Christ, but rather all of the trappings which have come to be associated with this time of the year, an odd combination of Christian heritage as well as traditions with roots in Pagan culture and the celebration of Yule.
It has become somewhat of an orgy of gift giving and decoration in many cases, and my heart goes out to those who work in retail (I have been there, and I know what it’s like!) In any case, it can get a little hectic. This year, as I was thinking about the concept of Spiritual Harvest and giving back to God, I spent some time evaluating what Christmas means to me, and how it has represented many things to me, but most of all the Spirit of Giving: both the gifts we give to one another – not just material things but the kinds of gifts no amount of money could ever purchase, and the gifts which God has given to us which are valuable beyond anything.
When we are children, Christmas is often all about the excitement, about Christmas morning and opening the presents (who we initially surmise are from Santa Claus, but later mature to understand that it was really Mom and Dad playing the role of Santa and elves), the Christmas Tree, driving around and looking at the diverse displays of holiday decoration and colorful lights, sugar cookies and hot cocoa, and having faith in the idea that reindeer can fly. For me, it was certainly about all of those things, although I did know the real reason for the season.
I recall that every Christmas Eve a part of our tradition was that my parents would read me the Christmas story, either that in Scripture, or from an adaptation of those Scriptures in the form of a children’s book, complete with neat pictures of the wise men. Although I would giggle at the idea that while other children would get toys at Christmas, Jesus got gold and something called Frankincense (which I always laughed irreverently at because it sounded like Frankenstein) and Myrrh, and I did not really understand the implications of what a “Savior” was at that time, it did stay with me. Although at the time I didn’t know of Jesus much more than he was about love and kindness and a really nice guy like I learned in Sunday School, I knew there was something very Sacred and important about what happened way back then, “Away In A Manger.”
As I grew older, and had matured and long since abandoned my faith in the idea of Santa Claus the way I later abandoned my faith in the idea of a God who sits in constant judgment of humankind (who shares many strange similarities to the literalistic ideas of God held by some Christians – watching everything you do, judging those who are “naughty and nice,” and rewarding the good while punishing the bad, only with eternal hellfire instead of lumps of coal!), I still got a lot of meaning from the gift-giving traditions which have become associated with Christmas.
But while many of my friends would look forward to what they were going to get for Christmas (and it’s funny how as we age, we still get excited about new “toys” at Christmas; I have seen older “kids” get as excited about a new i-Pod as little ones get about the latest toy fad as December 25th draws near each year), my greatest enjoyment of the Holidays has always been getting gifts for other people. I found that I loved “playing” Santa Claus for everyone, and I loved giving gifts better than anything. My joy at Christmas is not so much in unwrapping presents, but in getting them and wrapping them up for other people and seeing their happiness upon receiving them.
It is a joy to recall that special thing a person has mentioned to you in casual conversation during the year and then forgotten all about until you surprise them with it later, or in knowing the interests and needs of loved ones and friends and being able to give them a little something that would bring them a smile, and that they would see as an symbolic expression of your caring for and valuing them. And the greatest joy I think I have ever experienced for the Holidays is when I have been able to help out a total stranger by donating either toys, food or time to those who would have no part of the usual celebrations without the kindness and generosity of another.
At this stage in my life, Christmas still includes the usual traditions, but it has a much deeper meaning to me now. Sure, I still enjoy the gift giving and the carols and the goodies that I would not normally indulge in all year long. But as I have matured spiritually through the years, it becomes a time that I want to honor and to celebrate the greatest Gift that God ever gave to humankind, the birth of Christ, Who taught us the way to know God. The gift of His Life, His Ministry, and His Spirit which I believe lives on today in our hearts should we choose to open them to it. The gift of showing us that Heaven is not some far off place, but as close as our own hearts and it is well within our reach to create Heaven on Earth if we try. The gift of showing us the value of the best way to live, one of Peace and Forgiveness, not anger and fear. The gift of letting us know that not one person or group of people is favored by God or possesses a monopoly on the truth about God, but rather that each and every one of us, with no exceptions, is a precious, sacred and equally loved child of God no matter what differences (of opinion, life journeys, or who we are) that we as people may at times allow to attempt to separate us, or give the illusion that we are separate.
Of all the gifts God has blessed us with, I feel that the Greatest Gift of all was the one God gave us in Christ, and in my opinion, I do not see it as God giving a child for a blood sacrifice to “pay” for sins or to be bartered for our salvation; I just cannot view God in that way. Rather, God sent Jesus to become our Savior from our fears, our feelings and illusions of separation from God’s Love and one another, to give us hope, and show us a better way. It was a dangerous mission, for which He eventually gave his life for, dying so that we may live more fully; yet His Spirit continues to live.
I think that is true for many others as well that as we become older, we learn that what we celebrate as Christmas is about so much more on a Spiritual level. One meaning is certainly in celebration of the birth of Christ (no matter how you see Him, as wholly human, Divine or both and regardless of whether or not you adhere to the concept of the Virgin Birth), another is the idea of taking this time of year to put aside differences and become closer to what He represented through promoting and practicing Peace and Good Will to others, and yet another is the tradition of exchanging gifts, be that giving things to another that we think and hope they will treasure and see as a token of our caring for them, or at other times, giving of ourselves.
That is what I want to talk about: the Spirit of Giving. Giving back to God in thanks the way we might give our loved ones physical gifts or give to them of ourselves during the Holidays, but a sense and a way of giving that lasts for more than one day or a few weeks out of the year and to me is the greatest and best way we could celebrate the birth of Christ, every day.
I think back to the gifts that have meant the most to me through the years, and I think that very few of them were things that could be packaged, wrapped up, or be on sale at Wal-Mart or any other retailer. These are treasures that have no price, that are not material, but are worth more than any physical gift I could ever receive and they did not always come at some special time like the Holidays, but all the time – and usually when I needed them the most. They were the gifts that God gave me through others; the gifts of love, of acceptance, of compassion, of belonging, the ones that gave me a better awareness of the reality of God in my life and God’s unconditional love for me and all others.
I think of gifts I have received such as friends who were there for me in times of need, who honestly took the time to listen, and be compassionate rather than judge. I think of times when I was feeling at my lowest and a family member was there for me, unconditionally. I think of the person who had no physical gift to give but who spent time with me on the Holidays, when I was feeling alone. The gift of someone taking the time to care enough to ask how I was feeling, and to offer encouragement when I was feeling low, or assisting me in a time of hardship.
There was the gift of discovering that God loved me as I am with an Unconditional Love, and of finding a church and other Christians who thought about God differently than I had been taught by more legalistic and literalistic understandings of the Bible and Christianity. The gift of coming to know that all life – including my own, everything I feel and know, and who I am – is all the result, in some vast and inexplicable way, of God’s Creation. The gift of those who introduced me to the concept that God is to be embraced as loving Creator and Provider rather than feared as judge and angry father. The gift of learning the true Message of Jesus, which to me is one of Hope, Love and Peace; not concerned with a massive list of religious ritual, rules, or stipulations and conditions for being loved and accepted by God, but rather concerned with showing us that the way to become closer to God was to allow God’s Love to flow through us to others. The gift of knowing that it was okay to stop being concerned about whatever the nature of life beyond this life is and be concerned with God’s Presence and Purpose for me here and now. The gift of being able to read the Bible with an open heart and mind, and discern the true Loving teachings of Christ.
There was the gift of the love, acceptance and support I got from both other Christians and non-Christians when I came out as a bisexual, and later on when I discovered that bisexuality for me meant that I needed a relationship with both a female and a male partner. The gift of self acceptance and knowing, after much prayer, seeking and searching for the answers that I was not flawed, sinful or unacceptable to God due to my sexuality, sexual orientation or desires but that these too were gifts, and part of the way that I was made and that I merely needed to find a way to express this in a way that was not harmful or hurtful to anyone. The gift of discovering new and more positive ways to think about God, sexuality and sexual orientation, and knowing who I was not to be unnatural or bad, but merely different and another small part of the grand diversity with which God created humankind. The gift of knowing that I didn’t have to choose between one gender or the other, nor did I have to lie to or betray another or myself (and that was not even a choice I would have considered in the first place) but that there was a way to honestly live the Truth of who God made me to be with the most love and respect for all others possible, and the only choice I needed to make was find a way to do this and the gift of finding that. The gift of discovering that I could be faithful to two partners, as impossible as that concept may seem at face value to some people. The gift of being blessed with those relationships, and the gift of all the love and acceptance and support from family, friends and others.
And that does not even begin to cover the gift of life itself, the ability to think, to feel and to reason, and all of the wonders of life and the world, gifts for which I am grateful for every day. The blessing of being able to share and offer love and support to others, express my feelings, and all that God has done for me.
What I have concluded is that no matter who gave them to me or how they expressed them, that all of these gifts and blessings ultimately came from God, flowing through others, whether they were actually aware of the fact or not, of that I have no doubt. It fills me with so much love and gratitude that sometimes I don’t know how to express it. Certainly, one way to express our gratitude to others for what they have done for us is in a material way, via gift giving. There is also the common belief in tithing as a means by which to express our Gratitude to God, as exemplified and expressed in the Hymn sung after most offerings, “Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow” but I think it is a lot deeper than that. Although I feel it certain that it is a good thing when we are able to give generously to a charity, or to our churches, organizations who are working to secure equal rights for the LGBT Community and so on, I do not feel such actions are actually required by God. The God I know is far too beyond our scope of thought to be overtly concerned with something like money or what percentage of our financial earnings we can or cannot give; and sometimes there are no funds to give, especially in these difficult economic times. What do we do when we have little, to nothing to give of ourselves in this way?
I have often heard it said that “the best way to say thank you is to show it”, and that is the primary reason I am motivated to follow the ethical and spiritual teachings of Christ, out of sheer gratitude for all that God has done for me. I cannot put it into words how grateful I am to God for all of life-the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the sadness and tears and the laughter and joy-simply for the ability and the privilege to BE. I cannot begin to fully understand God, or define God, but in my heart I know that God is responsible for everything I know and in my existence.
My entire reason for doing the best that I can to follow the Great Commandment of Christ to Love my Neighbor as myself is to express that Gratitude and Love for God that I feel. As I have said numerous times, I think that it is in fulfilling the Second part of the Great Commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves, that we fulfill the first – to love God with all of our heart, soul and mind.
But it goes further than that. It is about showing my gratitude that all God has done for me by passing on the love, inner peace and acceptance I have been blessed with to others who might need it. I realize and understand that my perspective is a unique, perhaps even a controversial one to some but if I have reached out to just one person who felt as lonely and afraid as I once did and given them hope, then that is the greatest gift of all to me.
I am reminded of one of my favorite Scriptures and Teachings of Christ in regards to giving:
“Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A widow who was poor came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then Jesus called the disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” -Mark 12: 41-44
To many, at face value to some, that teaching is stating, “even if you only have a few pennies to your name, give them to God by putting them into the offering plate.” While I wholeheartedly agree and can say from my own experience that I have many times given of myself financially when I was struggling, and then suddenly later found myself blessed with financial help when I needed it most, I gain a much deeper meaning to this Scriptural verse. To me it says that when we give, to understand that how small that the individual gifts that we give to others may appear to us on a personal level, they could be a treasure beyond imagining to another.
To explain what I mean, let me give a little history of where I am coming from.
Back when I was going through a difficult time, struggling with issues of both spirituality and sexuality, and praying and searching for acceptance and support, I remember typing in the search terms “Christian” and “Bisexual,” and the first thing that came up at that time was this website, and an article written by someone whose name I had seen in the Bisexual community before. Sure, I had seen Christian websites which were gay and lesbian friendly, but Whosoever was one of the few that was not afraid of being inclusive of the “B” and “T” in “LGBT,” and openly, unashamedly and non-judgmentally represented Bisexual and Transgender Christians as well. I decided to investigate further, and was able to find a few articles written by people who had experienced the same struggles that I had and who had come to terms with who they were and with God.
I was particularly moved by several testimonies, several from other bisexual Christians and even one from a woman who had been able to accept herself as a bisexual and who had found happiness in a marriage to both an opposite gender and same gender partner and peace with God at the same time. I had during this time found other websites which were supportive of those who were both bisexual and Christian in similar relationships and had made a few online friends, doing other searches for liberal minded and LGBT Friendly Christians, but when I found Whosoever, it was not only the testimonies of people who had shared a similar path to my own that reached out to me, but all of the different stories and perspectives, from LGBT Christians who shared liberal to moderate to conservative views that really reached out to me and especially the idea that I felt a sense of love and acceptance as a bisexual, where I had experienced rejection at times from Christian communities where gay and lesbian Christians were welcome, but the idea of bisexual Christians was considered “too controversial.” I found myself filled with an ongoing sense of gratitude for what I had found which carries on today.
I had been doing some writing and sharing about my faith in God and my understandings of Christ and Christianity at that time, but had shied away from talking about my unique perspective of what it is like to be both a Christian as well as a bisexual in loving and honest relationships with two people. I had talked about the issues briefly in private messages and message boards with others, including a couple of sites directed at other Christians in similar relationships, but found that while there were a few who were in open relationships, there were not as many who identified as bisexual who were faithful to one female and one male partner (which my partners and I have often come to refer to as “bi-nogamy”). While there was much discussion of these issues that offered some new ideas and insights regarding reconciliation of spirituality and sexuality, there were things I desired to express but was not sure how to express in a way where I would not come across as being judgmental of those who had chosen different paths than my own or write about how I had applied Biblical concepts and spiritual ideas to my own life and found hope and inspiration in the Bible where others had found rejection, condemnation, and fear. I had never really thought to sit down and write about a topic in a way that it would express spiritual views and how they related to my life as part of the LGBT Community and perhaps give hope to another who found themselves on a similar path to my own.
I was a faithful reader of Whosoever for a long time without actually writing, and one day I happened across the “topics” page and I saw the sentence: “Wouldn’t it be great to see an article that focuses on God’s saving grace for bisexual persons that is aimed directly at them and not mention as a side note in a paragraph written for and directed primarily at gays and lesbians?” and something clicked in me. Here was an opportunity for me to share, and reach out to others who were in need who may have dealt with some of the issues that I did. I felt safe writing and sharing here and made my first contribution to Whosoever for the first issue of 1999. That was seven years ago, and I have tried my best to do at least a little something every time. Writing has become a labor of love for me, and a small part of my giving thanks to God for such a wonderful, inclusive and accepting ministry – one where I feel truly accepted and not merely “tolerated.”
In the time I have been contributing, even more blessings have come to me tenfold, whether it was some of the columns in the “Seeds Of Hope,” some of which were answers to prayers of my own, testimonials from other LGBT Christians and all of the wonderful points of view that have given me food for spiritual thought in each issue, as well as letters saying that the magazine gave them hope. The mail I have gotten here and there from someone saying “thank you” for sharing my story and my ideas is worth more to me than anything – not for personal satisfaction, but knowing that sharing part of my journey, no matter how few may actually share the same path, has given hope to someone else. Hope was restored to me at a time when I felt hopeless through the sharing of others, and I want to offer that back to others whenever and however I can if I can.
I admit, sometimes I feel a bit like the “odd man out” when I write and share because while I feel there are more than a few who may share some of my less radical spiritual ideas and concepts not directly related to reconciling being both bisexual and Christian, I don’t know for sure if there are a great many bisexual Christians out there reading, let alone those who are in non-traditional forms of relationships or marriages or who can relate to my perspective. But that doesn’t matter to me, and I am not out to try to assert that what I have found to be true in my own life need be truth for anyone who does not wish it to be. The only Truth which I feel to be Universal is that God is Real, God is Love, and that God was alive in Christ and still is alive in His Spirit that dwells in the heart of all those who are open to it.
What I think is most wonderful is that this is a place where all of us who identify as LGBT and Christian can share our journeys, our stories of faith, our personal beliefs, understandings and ideas about God without fear of judgment and learn from one another, agreeing that no matter what our individual beliefs may be that God is Love and that Christ spoke for God, and agreeing to disagree on the particulars where need be. And I remain forever so grateful for the privilege, opportunity and gift to share my faith from my unique, possibly controversial, and different perspective in such a loving, non-judgmental environment as this, it is one of the greatest gifts and blessings in my life and truly an answered prayer.
These are difficult times economically, and I regret to say that aside from the few dollars I can contribute to the offering, my writing and sharing, as well as being there for others, is the only thing I can offer. God gave me a gift not only to know myself, but to express myself. When I contribute, it is about showing my gratitude that all God has done for me by passing on that love to others who were where I found myself at one point and who might need it. I realize and understand that my perspective is a unique, perhaps even a controversial one to some but if I have reached out to just one person who felt as lonely and afraid as I once did and given them hope and the openness to the possibility that God Loves them as they are and is there for them, then that is the greatest gift of all to me as it meant the world to me when I received it. No matter how small or miniscule the number of people who may share my perspective is, if it makes a difference to just one person who struggles as I did, then it means a lot to me to know I have reached out to and somehow helped someone in need.
And that goes back to what I interpret from the verse in Mark: no matter how insignificant we may believe that which we are giving or have to give to be, it could be a treasure to another and make all the difference in their lives.
But it is not just by sharing my stories, feelings, or thoughts that I want to or can show my gratitude to God for all of the wonderful blessings in my life. I honestly feel that regardless of who we are, one of the reasons we are here on Earth as “spiritual beings having a human experience” is to actually be the answers to the prayers of others; to allow ourselves to be vessels of God’s Love to others.
And it is in doing so that we give the Greatest Gift back to God that we could possibly give; whether we give it back in the form of something as small as a hug, a smile, or a kind word, support and acceptance to those who are in need of it, or something as large as a Ministry reaching out to many others, a book or a song written by another that touches someone or many, or an organization that actively pursues equality and justice for all people.
One of my favorite Hymns, “Pass It On,” says it all on how I feel about the issue of giving back to God in the lines, “The Lord of Love, has come to me, I want to pass it on.” And in doing so, we connect yet another person to the Love that God has Given us, and they pass than on to another – which brings us one step closer to the Heaven on Earth that Jesus alluded to as being possible. The joy and sense of gratitude that I feel is too great to keep inside of me, and I feel it is no coincidence that the more of the joy God gives us that we share with others, the more that comes back to us; that which we sow, we also reap.
While I think that giving things back to God is not required, everything I do comes from a place of sheer gratitude, not because I have to, or feel obligated to, or think God will “punish” me if I do not, but because I honestly desire to and cannot “not” do it, thank God. It truly is that I feel that we are doing God’s work in the world in passing on our blessings and providing the peace and hope to others that we ourselves seek, in doing so I feel we are fulfilling our purpose and finding that we ourselves feel a little closer to God in the process.
In the coming year, try to think of tithing in a different light; and if you have little or nothing to give others financially, then consider the idea that God is less concerned with monetary gifts than greater gifts, which have no financial value, gifts of helping others in need or being the friend that someone needs. Think of the gifts with which God has blessed you, the things you can share with another in a time of need, such as understanding, acceptance, compassion, love and support or random unsolicited acts of kindness, or maybe something so simple as listening to another without judgment when they need someone to talk to. You never know when the kindness you pay a stranger could completely restore their faith in God or in Love or restore hope where they were finding none.
Everyone has their own story and unique path, and I believe that somehow everyone’s path has a special purpose in the fabric of the Universe God Created. In living the Truth of who God made you to be while following the admonition of Christ to do so with love and respect for all others, rather than hiding the gifts that God gave you, you could be making all of the difference in someone else’s life. It may not always be easy to be giving, but God will provide the strength when we find it difficult to find if we have faith.
It is in giving that we so often receive the most, and the greatest gifts of all are those God gives us through each other. God is in all things and people, and big enough so that there is more than enough Love to go around. In giving of ourselves we extend the Love of God to others, and in reality are giving back the Love which God has shown us in the greatest way possible and the demonstrating not only highest form of gratitude for our blessings but our Love for God. And those are the gifts – gifts from the heart and Spirit, flowing from God, through us and to others – that truly do matter and mean the most. They are the gifts we forever remember, long after the Holidays are gone, every day of the year as we walk with God and one another.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.