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THE MEANING OF GIFTS

December 20, 2015

On Christmas Eve, Jeff and his extended family gathered in the living room of his grandmother’s home.  The family had grown so large that they had decided to draw names instead of giving gifts to everyone.  Aunt Ethel didn’t want to draw names.  She was a wealthy spinster who could afford to give everybody a gift.  She seemed to delight in selecting gifts and wrapping them. A gift from Aunt Ethel was like a work of art.

When Jeff received the elongated flat box decorated with a Styrofoam snowman, he thought he knew what Aunt Ethel had given him.  In early December, she had phoned to ask Jeff what he preferred.  He carefully opened the box, keeping the cleverly crafted snowman intact.  He was horrified!  His gift from Aunt Ethel was perhaps the ugliest necktie he had ever seen.  It looked something like a Purina Dog Chow bag.  The pattern of large red and white checks was hideous.

Jeff’s face must have revealed his shock and disappointment.  Everyone in the room was astonished when he lifted the tie from the tissue paper in the flat box.  Jeff looked into the empty box to be sure he hadn’t missed something.

Aunt Ethel asked brusquely, “Don’t tell me you don’t like it.”  Then she added, “It’s exactly what you said you wanted.”

Jeff exclaimed, “Aunt Ethel, when you asked me if I preferred a large check or a small check, I didn’t know you were talking about a necktie!”

The story of the Magi tells of unusual people giving exotic gifts under strange circumstances.  The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, as odd as they may seem, were actually quite appropriate.  Gold is the gift for a person of royalty; frankincense is incense for a priest; myrrh is an embalming spice for one destined to die. In gift-giving it is not only the thought but also the meaning behind the gift that counts.

Well-chosen gifts need not be as extravagant as those of the wise men.  One Christmas our children and I enjoyed building and giving bluebird boxes as presents. The experience of making the nesting boxes, delivering the gifts, and knowing we were improving the environment brought triple satisfaction.

Our family enjoys treasures that have been given to us in Christmases past.  Cross-stitch pieces, wooden serving trays, crocheted dish cloths, and hand-thrown pottery are pleasant reminders of friends and family who have taken the time to make a gift.

O’Henry, a master storyteller, was renowned for his surprise endings. One of his best-known stories is the Christmas tale “The Gift of the Magi.”

A newly married couple, James and Della Young, were very much in love with each other. Because they were starting out with few resources, they had no extra money to purchase gifts for each other at Christmastime.

Jim wanted to give Della a set of silver combs for her long, beautiful flowing hair. Della wished she could give Jim a gold chain for the fine gold watch he had inherited. As Christmas approached, try though they might, neither Jim nor Della was able to accumulate enough money to purchase a gift for the other. They each came up with a secret plan.

On Christmas Eve, Della had her lovely hair cropped short. She sold her tresses to be used to make wigs for other women. With the money she received, Della purchased a gold chain for Jim’s treasured watch.

When Della arrived at her home that night, her husband was, to say the least, quite surprised to see the new hairstyle. Della reached in her purse and took out a small package, which she handed to Jim.  When Jim opened his gift, he was astonished to see the gold watch chain.  When Della encouraged him to attach the chain to his watch, Jim hesitated and then gave his present to Della.

Upon opening her gift, Della was flabbergasted.  Jim’s gift to her was a set of expensive filigreed silver combs. She wondered how her husband could afford such a fine gift. She could have used those silver combs when her hair was long. Then Della realized that Jim had sold his watch to purchase a gift for her. They laughed together at the irony of their Christmas gifts to each other.

The two gifts perfectly represent sacrificial love. Jim and Della received material gifts that were of little value for the moment. But the gift that endured was their love for each other.

The best gifts are selfless, and sometimes enduring gifts come from unexpected sources.

Gene Lassiter, the former pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Spartanburg, had a custom of dropping by the church’s Soup Kitchen from time to time. He often helped by serving the meals. Some of the people who ate meals at the Soup Kitchen came on a regular basis.

Gene told me a story about an encounter he had with one of those repeat visitors, a homeless man who often had multiple needs. Over the years Second Presbyterian had ministered to this man in a variety of ways, but it was as if the church could never help him quite enough. I doubt if any church could have ever helped him sufficiently.

One Christmas Eve the church held a worship service that concluded about 9:00 P.M. Gene had preached the sermon at that service, and he was the last to leave the church. Just as he was locking the door and removing the key, he looked up and saw this particular homeless man, walking across the lawn of the church directly toward him.

Gene just knew the man was going to ask for help once again, so he waited. The man walked up the steps to the church, reached out, and shook Gene’s hand. Then he said, “Pastor Gene, I just came by to say thank you for the many things you have done for me and to tell you Merry Christmas.”

With that, the man turned, walked back down the steps, and disappeared into the darkness of the night. Gene said he was astounded. The man had not made a single request on Christmas Eve. He had simply come by to express appreciation and to wish Gene a Merry Christmas.

The gift of gratitude is a special Christmas blessing.

At the heart of the Christian celebration of Christmas is a gift. It is a present, not wrapped in colorful paper with a big bow, but a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. That gift is a relationship. It is a present of presence.of presence. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. He is Emmanuel, God with us. For those in the Christian faith Jesus is the ultimate gift, the gift of God’s presence with us.

One smart fellow I know assembled paper ornaments and hung them inconspicuously on the tree in his home. On Christmas morning, as presents were opened, the family wondered why they found no gifts from Dad.  After all of the other gifts had been unwrapped, the father presented the paper ornaments to his family. Inside each ornament was a personal note. To his son, he gave a three-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, just for the two of them.  To his daughter, he gave a three-day skiing trip, just for the two of them. To his wife, he gave a two-week Caribbean cruise, just for the two of them.

The dad was a contemporary wise man.  He not only gave presents to the people he loved, but he also gave the gift of presence, time to be spent with them.

This Christmas consider fretting less about presents, and concentrate on giving the gift of presence.

Clare joins me in wishing for you a blessed Christmas.

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