A couple of months ago, my wife and I got disgusted with our cell phone carrier’s bad service and decided to go with a different company. Both of us also got new phones. Mine came with a $50 rebate, which would be paid with a gift card.

Sure enough, the prepaid Visa card arrived, and sooner that I expected. Right away, we used it for lunch out. A couple of weeks later, we tried to use it again in another restaurant. It was rejected, despite multiple attempts. The manager of the place, though, was able to get a special code from his home office that enabled the card to go through, and we got another lunch on our cell phone carrier.

Knowing that the card balance was getting pretty low by now, we decided to check how much was left. What a surprise I got when I saw that the company had charged not only the actual amount of our lunches to the card, but also had authorized a 20% tip, which was deducted from the card whether we put a tip on it or not!

Disturbed and puzzled by this, I called the 800 number on the back of the card and was told that I should not use it in restaurants, hotels, and salons because of the deduction of the tip. That practice had in fact sent the card over its value in our second attempt to use it, and thus it had been rejected. The excess charge, if unused, was not added back to the card for two weeks or so.

The “gift” had come with strings attached. It was fine for groceries or a movie or a prescription purchase, but not for what we most wanted to use it for. The devil was in the details, the fine print on the back of the sheet on which the card had come.

I guess that’s always the way it is in the world. Gifts aren’t really gifts. They come with some sort of fine print, obligation, catch, some expectation (no matter how much denied) of reciprocation. As they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Only the gifts of God are unconditional, given freely and solely out of love with no expectation of anything in return from us. Fortunately, he doesn’t send us something ephemeral, like money, in whatever form. He gives us himself. And that sustains us when everything else is gone.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

Joy…is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking). _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Earlier this month I was out in the back yard cutting the grass. Suddenly all around me there were dragonflies, darting, circling, dipping. I had never seen so many, merely the odd one here and there, and always in the front yard. The photo I feature here, by my wife Susan, is of one such insect that was basking in the sun and stayed still long enough on our front walk for the picture to be taken. dragonfly

I was so impressed with the sight of so many of these beautiful insects that I decided to try to find out if they meant anything special to cultures ancient and (post)modern. What I discovered was fascinating.

In ancient Japan, the presence of dragonflies meant a good rice harvest; they were also believed to bring good luck in battle. In paintings, they represented new life and joy. They continue to be symbols of courage, strength, and happiness in contemporary Japan.

Native American cultures also saw the insect as a symbol of life, featuring it on their ceremonial pottery. One story tells of a dragonfly made of corn and straw that came to life as a messenger of the gods and saved the people in a time of drought and famine.

Other and more modern interpretations focus on the dragonfly as an old and adaptive insect or as an inhabitant of two realms, namely, air and water. So, according to this way of thinking, if you have the dragonfly as your totem (spirit guide, patronus), you may be emotional and passionate in early years, but gain more balance and control in maturity. The insects are also associated with creative imagination and our calling to reflect the light of the divine image in us. They stand for the power to gain vision, to change and grow.

Whatever they may mean, they were a gift from God to me that particular day. The sight of them filled with me with joy, hope, and excitement. They came unbidden and unexpected, and I only saw them once more, the next day. But that’s how the gifts of God are. He grants what we need for the moment, whether a marvelous sight or extraordinary boldness, strength to keep going or sudden insight into a difficult problem. Indeed, he is as gloriously unpredictable as the flight of a darting dragonfly reflecting the light of the sun.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham