Here it is the middle of January and I haven't yet finished sending out thank-you notes for gifts I received in December!

It has me thinking about gifts - not about those I'd like to receive but about those I'd like to give.

Sometimes exchanging Christmas gifts leaves me feeling trapped by my sense of propriety. I keep asking myself, "What is a good gift?"

As I look for answers to that question, I think about a woman who was a member of a congregation I served years ago. She impressed me from the time I first met her, which was when she moved back to her home town where I served as a pastor. She was recently retired and had been a teacher in a large city in the eastern United States. Her devotion to young people led her to work with those who had handicaps by teaching them to ride horses and to trust horses and to share their vitality and strength.

She became a devoted member of our congregation, but often apologized for not being able to contribute more financially to its ministries. It was true that she qualified for government-subsidized housing that was located only a few blocks from our church, but she contributed to our study and our prayer and our fellowship in ways she probably has never fully recognized. Because I left that position we have continued to correspond with one another.

More than two years ago, I received a copy of her Christmas letter, in which she explained she had just sent off her last package with the postal service.

She described the contents of that package in this way: "One of my boxes goes to a household of my children, grandchildren and now a great grandson. The old church hymnal has been rebound for a daughter to enjoy along with her grandfather's working Bible. There is a Christmas table runner I pieced from fabric I purchased in Media in 1988. It contains the tag ends of a special Christmas blue to match the blue, rose and deep green of my earlier selection.

"For a grandchild there is an old tooled tin box containing a starter set of tableware for her new apartment plus tiny WARE animals for her collection. The 15-year-old grandson gets my favorite table games to lure him away from TV. Soap with a peace symbol goes to one; two whale pillows are there for another. These are backed with happy faces on nurses, doctors, and technicians, because she's just now starting her medical training. An antique silver pin, a rose vase fashioned of old spoons and knives, some hot spiced walnuts, the story of the armadillo taped by great grandmother along with some family lullabies complete the package."

What impressed me about Phoebe's gifts was how appropriately they expressed who she was and what she considered valuable. I knew that she already had given her home in Pennsylvania to her children. She now was dispersing what she had left of her most cherished valuables. She is blind, can no longer drive, and gets out of her apartment with great difficulty. From what I know of her, I would say she is giving good gifts, and her family probably feels the same way as I do.

The Apostle Paul wrote to new Christians, "I want you to desire the best gifts. So I will show you a much better way." The much better way is explained in what is probably the best known biblical chapter on love - 1 Corinthians 13.

This Christmas, my wife and I did our gift shopping at specialty shops in Astoria and in Seaside, but we also frequented North Coast Fred Meyer and Costco.

I too will eventually want to disperse my personal treasures, but whatever gift I give in the future, I hope my choice is enlightened by love. I'd like to fulfill another bit of biblical advice: "Each of you has been blessed with one of God's many wonderful gifts to be used in the service of others. So use your gift well" (1 Peter 4:10).

And as I return to writing my thank-you notes, I will carry with me this last affirmation: "Don't be fooled, my dear friends. Every good and perfect gift comes down from the father who created all the lights in the heavens" (James 1:16-17).

Doug Rich is the pastor of Pioneer Presbyterian Church in Clatsop Plains in Warrenton.

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