A Christmas Witness

It’s a Wonderful Life is the best Christmas movie ever and an accurate description of how I feel about my life. As I get older and older, I treasure more and more the things that Mom and Dad did to make my life a wonderful event – from my first memories right through today. As I have grown old, each Christmas season as I reminisce about wonderful Christmases past, I am again reminded of the importance of family in shaping our lives – from beginning to end. So, for the past few years, I have tried to pass along some of that heritage. This year is no exception. Consider this to be a long letter, or maybe a short non-story, to the descendants of Mom and Dad. It is written with the hope of passing along some of the things that make life wonderful. I hope you will find it at least interesting – or maybe even insightful.

In spite of great cultural pressure to believe otherwise, Christmas is about the birth of Christ – the first and greatest Christmas gift. This gift was sent to everyone, but you have to know the sender and “sign for it” to accept it. When and where I grew up, nearly everyone believed in God, the creator of everything. Not so in today’s culture. Since before Adam bit the apple, man has wanted to be the most intelligent thing in the universe and today’s intelligentsia is pretty certain that they are. Not me. I’ll believe that when the Scientific Research Community recommends that we shutdown research funding because there is nothing left to learn. Today’s geniuses are next century’s forgotten people – every century. So, believing in God in today’s world starts with believing that, somewhere out there, there must be something smarter than us. The next step is to believe that whatever created it all, including us, must really love us. I believed this is the case. Otherwise, He wouldn’t have put up with for us this long.

That Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s birth was made clear each Christmas by Mom and Dad, all of our family, our church and the whole community – nativity scenes and pageants were in abundance. But as a kid, I was really more excited about what Santa was going to bring me than the “reason for the season.” Santa had a tough time in those days. Pearl Harbor occurred a month before my sixth birthday and from then until I was 10, we were on a wartime economy and that meant the only new toys available were made from wood or cardboard. Even so, Santa managed to bring me some pretty neat stuff— some used, some new. I remember killing “Japs” with a wooden machine gun, but there were no BB guns to be had. And this, for me, would have been the gift-without-equal.

When peacetime consumer items began to be produced again, they were bought-out immediately, so merchants kept a first-come-first-served list on each of the scarce items they had on order. Before Christmas of ‘46 Dad signed all the BB gun lists in the nearby town and by Christmas Eve he had two BB guns. Santa brought me one and – miracle of miracles – Santa left the other for one of my best friends, a poor kid who Santa never left anything he really wanted. Mine was a Daisy Red Ryder – what a Christmas Day – the gift of my dreams.

This was a great event in my life. Partly because of my Daisy Red Ryder, but more importantly, I was as excited for my friend as I was for myself. What a wonderful thing for him and what a valuable lesson Dad had taught me. The joy of giving – especially unexpected or anonymous giving. From then until now, the highlight Christmases for me are not about gifts that I receive but about special gifts that have been given to others by me, other family members, or both. Some that come to mind:

  • Mini three wheelers for our 2 sons – left by Santa at Grand mom’s where they would be discovered hours after the boys thought they had all their Santa gifts.
  • My wife’s saving her “sewing money” so Santa could bring our daughter a piano.
  • Our older son saving his money to buy our younger son a bicycle for Christmas.
  • Returning home after our Christmas week with our parents to find a new refrigerator – installed, cold and with all the food transferred from the old one.
  • The many “Nanny” surprise gifts, especially the rail fence installed around her garden on Christmas Eve night after she was asleep.
  • Our younger son transporting my grandfather’s old roll-top desk a few hundred miles to where he lived and reassembling it from literally hundreds of pieces. Then sneaking it back into our house for a surprise Christmas gift for me.
  • Our 50th anniversary gift from our kids and grandkids. A whole-house TV system installed while we were on a Christmas cruise and accompanied by a surprise party awaiting us when we walked in the door upon returning from the cruise.
  • The several anonymous gifts given by me or family members that I know about, and undoubtedly many that I don’t.

My Christmas perspective from earliest memories until now has progressed something like this:

From the beginning it has always been about the birth of Christ but what captivated my attention has gone something like this:

Gifts to me

Gifts to others

Then, for most of my life, special gifts to others

In recent years I came to realize that, while what happened on the first Christmas is in Matthew and Luke, The best understanding of God’s great gift is provided in John.

Over the last few years I have come to know what an absolutely fantastic gift God gave on that first Christmas. I have accepted this in my mind for most of my life but only in the last few years have I felt it in my heart. I sort of got my arms around John 3:16. Imagine, the creator of all that exists, the all-knowing, all powerful, and always present God loves me so much that he gave his only son that I might have eternal life. Coming to absolutely believe that in my heart was the pinnacle heart-warming experience.

In the last couple of years my understanding of this gift has changed significantly. I had thought of eternal life as life after death and put little importance on the part of eternal life that occurs before death. From my earliest memory I have accepted the fact that God is always present, but – for most of my life, I have thought of that more in the judgment role – the “he-is making-a-list¬and-checking-it-twice,” role - than in the loving father role. I am in the process of understanding the great value of this loving-father role and have made good progress in understanding it in my mind, but not so much in the more important feeling in my heart. An important first step for me was to understand the real value of having a loving father always present. As I try to understand God’s relationship in our lives, I use both Scripture and real-life observations. Jesus’ Ministry described throughout the New Testament is about this relationship. He addresses God-with-us directly in His lengthy discussion with the apostles at the Last Supper (John 13–17). Below, I offer short versions of two real-life examples that I found to be very helpful in making me understand the great value of this “Greatest Gift” in our lives here on earth:

  1. A minister who was the volunteer Chaplin for a hospital told me about his being called to console the family of a preteen boy who had just died. A local man had taken his son and nephew for an afternoon of boating on the lake. When the outboard motor stopped running, the two boys moved to the back of the boat to watch the father work on the motor. When the motor was thought to be repaired it was rotated back into the water and the father gave the starting cord a “test” jerk. He had inadvertently left the throttle fully open and engine started, propelling the boat forward and throwing all three into the water behind the boat. They were all wearing life jackets but the boat continued to circle at full throttle and, in doing so, ran over the nephew giving him a head injury that proved to be fatal. Neither the uncle nor the boys nor their families were Christian. In fact they had no concept of God or an afterlife. So, when the minister tried to console them he found that there was not much he could say that would be of much help. Think of the different perspective the family members would have had if they had believed in a loving, forgiving God. If they knew in their hearts that the nephew was in heaven and if there was forgiving love within the family.

  2. In October of 1994, a family moved from northern California to our area of Tennessee. They had few possessions and little wealth. They made a down payment on a rural lot where they planned to live in a tent until they could build a house – the husband was a master carpenter. They saw no problem living in a tent in the winter; after all they were in the “sunny south.” They were to learn differently. Soon after arrival, they showed up at our church’s Coffee Time with their five children, ages 3 to 15 and including three-year-old triplets, in tow. Well, it’s a long story, but to say the least, the Church welcomed them with open arms. This included providing interim housing and volunteer help – and financial support – in building a house. Even with the help, the family income was marginal for supporting such a large family and, after a few years of struggle, they moved back to California into a house owned by the wife’s family. Early in their struggling years here, their teenage son wrote the following Daily Devotional for the church’s 1995 Christmas Advent booklet:

    “But if it were I, I would appeal to God; I would lay my cause before him. He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted.” Job 5:8–9

    “Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” Job 5:17

    Sometimes life is really hard. Sometimes I just have too much homework. Sometimes difficult relationships are just too much. Sometimes I just feel like I can’t take any more. As a teenager (he was in the 10th grade at the time) I am still learning how to deal with life situations and often I find myself lost. When that happens and I have nowhere else to turn I have learned that all I can do is put it into God’s hands and trust He knows what He’s doing. And of course He always does because whenever I’ve relied on Him, He always comes through for me. Whenever I trust only in myself and keep everyone else away (including God), I find myself going down the wrong path and soon things aren’t working out the way I want. But God somehow sends me a personal reminder of who I am, and I realize what I’ve been doing wrong and correct it with God’s help. I realize that I cannot live my life without God and that I need Him in everything I do. This is my prayer to let God know I’m relying on Him:

    Lord, you are my shepherd and I need you to lead me. I have lost my way on life’s difficult path and need you to show me the right direction. I know I cannot live without you so please help me in my time of need. In Jesus’ name…

    While this family still lived here, the teenage son won an all-expense-paid, four-year scholarship to Mercer University. At last report he was in Stanford Medical School.