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What’s Your Favorite Christmas Gift?

As soon as I heard the question, I knew it would not be easy to answer.  I’ve never been quick to answer questions that force me to choose a favorite.  My dilemma is that I always seem to have far too many favorites.  I still smile every time I think about a pastoral visit I made several years ago to a young family with small children.  As I was getting ready to pray, I opened my Bible and said, “Let me share one of my favorite verses with you.”  No sooner had those words rolled off my tongue then the young girl looked up, pointed to a Bible verse painted on the Living Room wall and said, “Hey!  The last time you were here Pastor, you said that was your favorite verse!”  Evidently, choosing a favorite has never been one of my strong points.

The question was meant to be an icebreaker, a way for us to get to know each other better: “What was your favorite Christmas gift as a child?”  No one else seemed to have difficulty coming up with their answer.  But as soon as I heard the question at a recent gathering of pastors, I thought to myself, “Not one of these questions again!  Do you really expect me to choose a favorite from a lifetime of Christmas memories?!”  I waited for nearly everyone else in the room to answer the question before I even ventured to respond.  And in the waiting, an image slowly came to the surface of my memory.

My favorite Christmas present did not come in a box wrapped in beautiful paper and topped with a bow.  It was not something that you could order on line or buy in a department store. One of my favorite Christmas gifts came in an act of kindness and love that I could only understand and fully appreciate many years later.  As a young boy of eight years, I was diagnosed with both pneumonia and German measles.  What my parents thought was a cold, suddenly turned into a life-threatening illness.  My pediatrician quickly admitted me to St. Joseph Hospital where I was placed in isolation.  As I only understood years later, my life was hanging between the present and eternity.  I was so ill, I have very few memories of that hospital room.  The high fever impacted my cognitive abilities.  However, I have one profound memory that I still only see in shadows: a woman sitting at the edge of my hospital bed praying through the night.  Naomi was one of my mother’s best friends.  She was a grieving mother who lost her son, David, to leukemia several years earlier; and Naomi identified with my mother’s pain when the hospital doctors told my parents that I might not come home.

Naomi came to the hospital.  She told my parents to go home because she understood just how desperately they needed to rest; and she promised to stay with me through the night as she assured my parents that I would not be alone.  She did what my parents were too weak and too tired to do.  In her prayer vigil, Naomi begged God to do for my parents what did not take place for her child.  She asked God to heal me and give me enough strength to go home for Christmas.  Weeks later I did go home, and I know her prayers were part of my healing.

Whenever I remember Naomi’s gift of selfless love, I think of how inept I feel when it comes time for my annual trek to the mall at Christmas.  Much to my family’s disbelief, I can spend hours wandering from one store to the next, only to come home empty handed because I can’t find a gift that seems just right for the people I love.

Looking back over all the Christmas gifts I’ve ever received, I remember very few.  But there is one I’ll never forget.  It was the gift of a loving, caring person who sat with me night after night when I could not even understand how sick I was.  Naomi offered what my family needed most: the gift of comfort, love and prayer.  This year, when I make my annual last-minute journey to the shopping mall, I hope I can cling to Naomi’s example.  For truly, her gift is one I will never forget. 

© Adrian N. Doll, Green Valley Presbyterian Church, 2017

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An Amaryllis Plant: A Lesson in Waiting

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We started decorating our home earlier than normal this year. It was the day after Thanksgiving to be exact. Being new to Nevada, my family and I have been eager to celebrate our first Christmas in the Desert Southwest. In part because we know the traditions our family associates with Christmas will bring a sense of the familiar to what still seems so new. Finding the right spot for an ornament we’ve hung on our tree every year for the past 25, hanging the framed needlework given to us by a special friend with its words, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” or setting up our Christmas Nutcracker collection – all of this helped to connect this year’s celebration of Christ’s birth to meaningful memories from Christmases past. But there was one important thing missing: our annual amaryllis bulb.

We found an amaryllis bulb at our local Trader Joe's; we brought it home; and now it sits in a glass jar in our living room as we wait for it to bloom. For more years than I can remember, we’ve waited less than patiently for an amaryllis to present its beautiful bloom in late December. And perhaps this is why I have come to so appreciate an amaryllis bloom. Even though we know the bloom is coming, we have to wait; and there is little, if anything, we can do to force the plant to flower.

Waiting isn’t easy for most of us. We live in a culture that idolizes speed and efficiency.

During the season of Advent, we’re asked to get in touch with the discipline of waiting. Advent is a journey that invites us to step back from all the busyness of life, to quiet ourselves and consider what God has given to us in Jesus Christ.

This weekend we light the first candle of the Advent Wreath in our worship services. In many traditions, it is called the “Prophecy Candle” because it reminds us of the prophets of Israel who spoke of the long-awaited Messiah’s coming: 

A voice cries out:                                                                                    

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Isaiah 40:3-5

As we begin our journey into Advent once again, we’re invited to enter into a journey of hope. We prepare ourselves to celebrate our Lord’s Advent – the Savior’s coming into our world – knowing that we, too, need his gifts of grace, hope, peace, and joy. And we wait with longing hearts for the day when Christ shall come again and establish God’s kingdom in all its fullness and all its glory.

Waiting is never easy; but there are always signs of hope along the journey of faith just like the growing Amaryllis stem with its promise that a flower will bloom one day. And in the waiting, God invites us to receive the Savior anew so that we will be ready for Christ to receive us when he comes again.

How silently, how silently, The wondrous gift is given, So God imparts to human hearts, The blessings of His heaven, No ear may hear His coming, But in this world of sin, Where meek souls will receive him still, The dear Christ enters in.

                                                                                 O Little Town of Bethlehem    

       © Adrian N. Doll, Green Valley Presbyterian Church, 2017

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