There’s a little girl hidden in my closet, tucked in near my mom’s wedding china and grandmother’s good silver. There she is protected and safe, a secret friend known only to me. Because I am the opposite of a packrat, she is one of only two mementos saved from my childhood. She is four inches tall, with pigtails and a floppy-looking hat, hands stuffed into her pockets and wearing a slight smile. She was given to me the Christmas I was 11, and is the best Christmas gift I ever received.
What is the one Christmas gift you’ve gotten that stands out above the rest? Why is it special? What about it makes you smile?
Usually, gifts we love are not treasured because of monetary value but the thoughtfulness that inspired them. Especially in light of the current economic state, let’s take a moment to pause and think about what goes into the making of a good gift. After all, we give gifts at Christmas because we are celebrating God’s good gift to us—the sending of His Son.
Distilling the season down to its essence, we find the best gifts are ultimately not about doing, but about being. As we approach gift-giving this season, let’s look to the nature of God as seen in the story of Christmas and keep those qualities in the forefront of our thoughts. Five of those characteristics are creativity, commitment, courage, care and quietness.
Gift #1: Creativity
For two millennia, people have wondered why the Messiah was born to a teenager, in a dirty stable, in dusty town, in the middle of nowhere. Add some outcasts (shepherds), foreigners (wisemen) and singing aliens (angels) and you’ve got the makings of a very strange plot! It’s a tale chock-full of intrigue, scandal, special effects, corrupt government and narrow escapes. Only a highly creative Person could have come up with all that!
Thinking creatively is as natural as breathing for some people and as painful as tooth extraction for others. In order to apply creativity to Christmas, I’m not suggesting you pull out some amazing artistic feat for every person on your list. But why not branch out and think of at least one creative gift you could give this holiday?
This is one of those areas where it’s the thought that counts. For example, one year I had just finished reading a psalm and wanted to respond in a creative way. I got out some watercolors and started painting. I have no artistic training (unless you count one class in high school) and had no idea what I was doing. Still, a scene emerged—a snowy hill with a bare tree, a dark sky with scattered stars.
The Lord nudged me to send it to a friend who was going through a tough time as a tangible reminder of God’s peace. I wrote the psalm reference on the back, slipped it into an envelope, tucked in some chocolate and sent it off with the hope that my friend would be encouraged. It wasn’t special, but it was heartfelt.
Creativity takes many shapes and forms. One friend of mine received a very memorable Christmas gift from his grandmother. She had gone through all of her boxes of photos and created albums for each of her grandchildren, hand-selecting the pictures she thought would be special to each one.
What spoke to him most was the time she invested. She could have simply copied each photo and made a generic one-size-fits-all album, but instead she personalized them. He recognizes the effort and love that went into it and is deeply touched by this simple gift.
Our family also has a special album made by a grandmother. It’s a heavy, red scrapbook given a place of honor on our piano every December. It contains Christmas stories written by my husband’s “Gramma” when he was a little boy. Each story is either penned in cursive or typed on a manual typewriter (no backspace!) and illustrated with pictures she drew.
There are also poems and original songs—the creativity in those pages astounds me. My favorite picture is toward the back. It’s a watercolor of Jesus on the cross, with the words “The price that was enough” written across it. It’s a wonderful heritage she left for us. Although Gramma passed away years ago, she is still very much with us at Christmastime.
Gift #2: Commitment
Whether looking at society, our families or even our church communities, we can see that commitment does not come easily to people. Have you ever wondered if commitment comes easily to God? I would hazard a guess and say no, not when you look at the kind of people he’s committing himself to!
When the virgin’s egg and the Holy Spirit met, God’s commitment to people reached a whole new level. In the different seasons of life, we are also given multiple opportunities to recommit or renege.
My friend Jeff met his wife, Sara, online. Both were employed with a website that monitors sex offenders, and they needed to communicate via e-mail for their jobs. As they got to know each other through more and more frequent e-mail exchanges, Jeff started wondering if Sara was the wife he had been praying for.
Both came from previous marriages that had ended badly and wanted their relationship to be solid from the foundation up. Jeff’s pastor began to mentor them. They started reading books and talking on the phone every night to discuss their growth. After meeting Sara in person, Jeff was certain she was the woman he wanted to marry. He started making plans for a cross-country trip to propose.
Heading out alone in his car in mid-November, he planned to arrive on Sarah’s doorstep at the start of the holiday season. He told me, “All I could think is that my bride-to-be was just an arm’s length away; but I failed to realize it was much farther than I expected.”
Crossing through state after state—in the dark, in the rain, through stretches of emptiness and tangled up traffic—he started to wonder if he would even make it. Finally, he arrived at her doorstep at 11 p.m. on a Friday night. The moment he saw her, he hit his knee and proposed.
Jeff and Sara found themselves having to fight for their relationship on many fronts, from hostile family members to job changes and financial difficulties. Even when their moving plans fell through, they didn’t just give up and start sharing a bedroom. They were dedicated to getting it right.
Years later, they both agree they never experienced a moment of doubt or regret. They have the marriage they always wanted—but it came with a lot of prayer, hard work and a commitment to integrity.
Christmas is a perfect time to get on board with what God is doing in our lives and to leave our fears in the dust. Whatever we are called to do— whether as large as a marriage proposal or as small as returning a library book— there is joy to be had in the giving.
Gift #3: Courage
Courage might not be the first word that springs to mind when thinking of Christmas. Yet, certainly there was great courage involved not only for Jesus to come to Earth, but also for the Father to send Him. God’s sacrifice was motivated by love but made possible by courage.
During the holidays, perhaps more than any other time, people can feel deep undercurrents of sadness, loss and loneliness. These painful feelings are in direct contrast with the carols ringing out, proclaiming a season of peace, joy and goodwill. The truth is, during the holidays, people are often in dire need of encouragement.
In the spring of 2008, my husband, a Foursquare pastor at The Grace Place in Fresno, Calif., was invited to be the campus pastor for the local Joni & Friends Family Camp, a retreat designed for families living with disabilities. One morning, one of the fathers led the parents in a special worship service. His name is Brian Doerksen, and he is the writer of “Come, Now Is the Time to Worship,” “Refiner’s Fire” and many other well-known worship songs.
Brian spoke transparently about the impact special-needs children have on his life and ministry, and the concert infused all the parents with courage, like a much-needed hug for our souls. Brian and his wife, Joyce, have six children, ranging in age from 9 to 20—four daughters, including a set of twins, and two special-needs sons. Both sons have a condition called Fragile X Syndrome, the most common inherited cause of mental impairment and autism.
Every song Brian writes passes through the filter of his experiences as a father. While his ministry calling is to sing songs of worship over the nations, he has made a conscientious choice to limit his travel. Many invitations from around the world are turned down; the price his wife and children would bear in his absence is simply too great.
It takes a special kind of courage to say no to dream opportunities. There is also a very real cost. Saying yes to his family and no to travel means selling fewer CDs and making do with less income. But he says, “I believe that God is way more interested in faithfulness; He is way more interested in our character than in our success.”
Even at Christmas, the Doerksens have needed to adapt in order to accommodate their family’s unique traits. Brian’s favorite way to celebrate is with a candlelight worship service. However, because one of his sons becomes anxious in crowds, it simply doesn’t work for their family. Instead, they’ve found a new way to celebrate. They have a birthday party for Jesus—complete with cake and gifts to organizations that work with the poor.
I asked Brian to explain why his sons are a gift, and he replied: “My boys are such a gift, because they are fully present in the moment. There have been times when I have been really broken or sad, and then I go hang out with my boys. They simply give me such love in their embrace. They are so transparent, too; if something upsets them they cry. Once they have cried out their tears, they get back to laughing and making mischief. They inspire me to live in the moment.”
This Christmas, let’s look around and truly see people. Perhaps we’ll be given the chance to simply hug someone who needs it—the kind of embrace where we wrap our arms tightly around the person and let her cry out her tears until her smile is found again.
Gift #4: Care
My brother, Brian, is the person who gave me the little figurine that remains my favorite Christmas gift of all time. After contracting a rare and deadly form of meningitis, Brian had been in the hospital for five months. Every day, my mom would pick me up from school, and we’d go be with him. I would do my homework, followed by dinner in the hospital’s cafeteria. (I think I ate a cheeseburger every night for five months.)
When December came around, the doctors pronounced Brian stable enough for his IV line to be removed. This meant he could be given a pass for Christmas, allowing him to come home for one night. Oh! The celebration that year was miraculous! The songs sounded sweeter, the food tasted better, Granddad’s jokes were funnier. Brian was weak, but he was there.
When I opened my brother’s gift, Mom said, “He picked it out himself.” She had wheeled him down to the hospital’s gift shop the week before, because Brian had insisted on picking out my present. Is it any wonder it became my most cherished childhood possession?
To another person, the figurine wouldn’t seem special at all. Actually, in looking at it, the most obvious thing about her is a long crack and a large gap from where she was broken and glued back together. Bits were smashed beyond repair, and she was left with a hole in her chest. I used to try to disguise it, but there came a day when I realized the injury she sustained was just as important to who she is as the rest of her features.
To anyone else, the damage makes her worthless. But to me, she is valuable and precious, not in spite of her flaws but even more so because of them. I suppose, over the years, she has come to symbolize my own sense of self—in many ways, I’m also a broken and repaired girl.
The reason I was, and still am, so deeply touched by his gift, is that somehow in the middle of a fierce battle for his very own life, my brother still thought of me. Twenty-nine years later, the care he put into the purchase of a small gift continues to impact my life.
Gift #5: Quietness
I grew up attending The Church On The Way in Van Nuys, Calif., with Pastor Jack and Anna Hayford. Many of my memories of Christmas as a child are wrapped up in the way it was celebrated there. From twinkling white lights in every tree to the annual jazz concert, from family night stringing popcorn and watching movies to the staff Christmas parties that were rumored to be hilarious—Christmas was enjoyed!
There was a reason for the exuberance. Cognizant of the fact that there are always people in church with painful memories of Christmas, Pastor Jack and Anna felt it was one of their jobs to get people to realize that Christmas does not have to be ruined by their past. The happiness, joy and celebration of it can be regained—not because of the decorations but because of Jesus. And so, every Christmas, they would go all out.
Because I grew up at their church, and because I was a friend of their daughter (and because I may have TP’d their house a time or two,) Anna remains an influential person in my life. Knowing she has always been a very busy woman, I wanted to talk with her about this concept of being in the midst of all the doing that seems to go along with Christmas.
As we talked, one thing she said struck me as very profound: “I can go all day or I can go all evening, but I cannot go all day and all evening. A certain amount of quiet time has always been really important for me. I need to have some ‘drawing aside’ time.”
To allow for quiet time, Anna has learned to plan well and delegate. Whether it’s having teams of women help with decorating or hiring students to run errands, she has learned to roll with the punches and has found out that people are willing to help.
One day, her granddaughter Emma spotted a pile of gifts on the kitchen table waiting to be wrapped. She said, “Grandma, you have a lot of gifts to wrap. I can wrap gifts very well, and I’m a little short on cash.”
So began their special tradition. Emma comes each year to wrap gifts and earn some pocket money. Anna made up little business cards that say, “Wrapped by Emma,” which are tucked in with each package. I heard this story and thought to myself, “Ah, now here is the wisdom of a woman who gets it.” In the middle of all her responsibilities, she found a creative way to spend quiet time with her granddaughter.
She and Pastor Jack also find ways to have quiet time. They try not to travel much in December, and many times they end the day simply by sitting near the Christmas tree, enjoying the lights and worship music, and not even saying a word.
This Christmas, let’s not forget to be quiet. The birth of Jesus was an understated event in an out-of-the-way place. God is ever calling us into those quiet, secret places, just to be with Him. If indeed we want to become people not wrapped up in doing but instead focused on being, how can that be accomplished except that we set apart some time for drawing aside?
It is not realistic to expect every gift this Christmas to be life-impacting to the recipient. But if we keep in mind that God gave of Himself, how would it influence the way in which we go about giving gifts this season? Rather than leaving the resolutions for New Year’s, why not invite the Lord to work through the season of Christmas to shape our character, causing our lives to be a good gift to the people around us.
Lucinda Chumley lives in Fresno, Calif., where she and her husband, David, pastor at The Grace Place, a Foursquare church they planted four years ago. She started attending a Foursquare church at age six.