Jenny hurried across the snow covered parking lot, and because it was 7:30 on the Friday before Christmas, there was hardly an open parking space to be found. Her arms full of Christmas treasures, she could hardly see over the tall box which held the loveable and loyal character Woody from the movie Toy Story. She had found the last one in all of Spokane, and they had paid dearly for it. Apparently, the matter of the monetary value of Woody was of no consequence. If Woody were not under the tree on Christmas morning, she had been informed by her 6-year-old son, then life as we know it would cease to exist. Stars would fall from the sky and something akin to the greatest apocalypse since the beginning of time would be unleashed on all of mankind. It was the earnestness of his explanation, with the wide-eyed wonder that only a six-year-old can muster, that sent both of his parents to search every store until closing time. They had become detectives, armed with a checkbook instead of handcuffs, to capture the elusive cowboy. She had success, and had made it out with only minor scrapes and bruises, and one pretty hard jab to the ribs. But it was well worth the effort, she assured herself, to save the planet from certain calamity. She had texted her husband, Michael (aka “gumshoe Mikey”), a picture of the captured cowboy, and she could hear the relief in his words, ‘This means I can go home now’?

Jenny made her way to the dark blue SUV, pushing the key fob to hear the chirp of her car’s alarm calling her back to itself. It was times like this she was thankful for technology. With the huge boxes in her arms and the snow falling harder now, she maneuvered mostly by hearing than by actual sight. She loaded the precious cargo into the back and slumped into the worn leather seat. She leaned her head back on the headrest and closed her eyes. The car stood idling while she waited for the heater to work its magic and defrost her frozen limbs with its warm breath. She needed a small breather, a few minutes in the stillness and comfort of her warm car before tackling the icy roads home. Although she had been pleased at the success of finding the toy, her happiness had faded as quickly as if it were the ebbing of a tide pulling a paper cup out to sea. She had that uneasy sense of what her husband would call ‘a Twilight Zone moment’ that had lodged itself in the pit of her stomach. She could not shake the feeling that something was amiss.

She heard a commotion outside just a few spaces away, so she wiped the condensation off the window with her jacket sleeve and looked into the parking lot. There stood a tall lanky man with a bright red sweatshirt that proudly proclaimed: ‘Jesus is the Reason for the Season’. Beside him stood his gaunt and wearied looking wife and two preschool aged children. He stood shouting and cursing at an older couple for having pushed their shopping cart too close to his Mustang. “You idiot! I guess you left your brains back in the checkout line, along with all the other morons that I have run into tonight! Can you actually see, old man, or are those glasses as ancient as you are?” The older man walked away with his head down and mumbled an apology under his breath, taking his wife’s arm and hurrying her away as quickly as he could. All the while the sweatshirted man’s children stood sobbing and clutching his pant legs, and his wife was pleading with him to get in the car. Mr. Wonderful (as Jenny had come to think of him) then turned to his son and told him to grow up and quit being a whiny brat. “Son,” he boasted, “this is how a real man deals with stupid people. Better grow up otherwise you will end up being a doormat. If you don’t start standing up for yourself now, you’ll be a mama’s boy your whole life!” He ushered him into the car and slammed the door. She could still hear him yelling, now having turned on his wife. The engine roared as he spun out of the parking lot, and he barely missed hitting a stop sign. She watched the car speed off down the road, the red taillights fading out of sight. Ironically, she had caught a glimpse of his bumper sticker before he had sped away. The cracked and faded Ichthys (the Jesus fish) had thankfully faded so it was hardly readable. She felt as if she had been punched in the stomach.

Jenny looked to see if anyone else was as disturbed as she was, but apparently they were not. Most people hurried on their way doing their best to avoid eye contact with anyone else, lest they may have to get involved or speak to some unknown passerby. She moved her gaze and looked into the store windows, brightly lit and with promises plastered on every smooth surface that they could beat any price. The fluorescent lights had a plastic and garish look to them that she had not noticed before. Two teenagers clad in hoodies and smoking vape pens harassed the Salvation Army Santa as he rang his bell and tried to smile and sound as merry as possible.

The whole scene washed over her. She had been so focused on her mission that the un-Christlikeness of it all had totally escaped her notice. Her head was now aching with the sounds of Christmas music that had been blaring through the overhead speakers in the store. Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, jingle all the way…all of a sudden it was too much. She could hear her eighth grade French teacher, Mrs. DuBois’s clipped accent, “Jenny, c’est inacceptable”. It was unacceptable, all of it. She found some small comfort in the fact that her feet were finally defrosting. She felt ashamed, as the man in the Jesus sweatshirt kept coming to her mind. He was the epitome, the personification of all that the postmodern American Christmas had become. All that her and Michael’s Christmases had become. She was sure that the if Jesus Himself had stood before Mr.Wonderful, His words would be something like, “Woe to you hypocrites! These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”  

She was not so sure that his words to her would be any better. Not because of the harrowing mission to find Woody, but simply because she had forgotten that Jesus is truly the reason for the season. But what did that even mean anyhow? She knew what it meant, same as the sweatshirt clad man understood the actual words. But they had no effect, there was no rejoicing, nothing to change him. They were dead words.

She reached over and pushed the on button that controlled the satellite radio. The warm neon blue dial lights came to life. The radio D.J. came through the speakers in his quiet and soothing voice, “This is for all you harried and harassed Christmas shoppers and present wrappers, as we take a moment to stop and remember what Christmas is really about.” It was meant for her, and she knew it:

O Holy Night

The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope

The weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees

O hear the angels’ voices

O night divine

O night

When Christ was born

O night

O night divine

 A tear rolled down her cheek. For the first time in a few years, she actually heard the words. It was as if a sword had pierced through her soul. She remembered her first encounter with this divine Savior in a manger. The first time her soul felt His worth.

As a young child she did not have a Christian upbringing. Her father had been a well respected man in the field of Physics and was unyielding in his views on anything religious. He was a stanch atheist who worshipped at the alter of Humanism and Pragmatism.  He allowed no folly of ‘Christian Absurdity’ in their home. So only by the plea of her mother, her father finally relented and she was allowed to celebrate Christmases with Jolly ol’ St. Nick and his many curious reindeer.

And it so happened that when she was twelve, she was invited to take a trip with one of her classmates to her parents’ cabin. Had Jenny’s parents known that they were “ignorant Christians,” they would have never let her go. But such is God’s providence, and they set out for the three-hour drive to the snow-capped mountains where their cozy log cabin was nestled just outside of Aspen, Colorado. To her delight and wonder, they sang Christmas hymns all the way. Not only did they sing of this wondrous and holy God, but Jenny learned that the very God who created the world out of nothing is the same God who makes salvation, forgiveness and eternal life possible through this baby named Jesus. This was a God of such amazing love that He clothed Himself in the weakness of human flesh, in the humbleness of a suffering servant, and died the agony of a death on the cross for her sins that she might live. Not just live for the sake of being alive, but to live for Him.  That very day she had met the Eternal One, and He had shone the light of the good news of Christ into her dead and darkened heart. The Lord in His infinite mercy had planted divine life into her soul. A spark of celestial fire, a living and incorruptible seed, that no one could take away from her. Not even her father. And for that she was eternally grateful.

It had been the best weekend of her life, a time when she comprehended the value of a true gift. Her friend’s parents had given her a Bible, and she had faithfully read it every morning and night, hiding it under her mattress so she would not be found out by her father. Remembering the joy of those days brought tears to her eyes. She grew up and faithfully attended church after moving out of her parents’ home. That was where she had met Michael. Then the Lord blessed them with their first son. But diapers and school meetings, along with a million other things, had gotten in the way, and Jenny had forgotten her first love.

She was now the hypocrite, the lady in the Jesus sweatshirt, going through the motions of religion, but her heart was far removed from Him and cold. And now, sitting in the warm SUV, the conviction that was being wrought in her soul at this moment was immense. The emptiness of what her faith and devotion had become gripped her and threatened to tear her in two. She was wounded in her soul, but, amazingly, she felt that old spark of celestial fire again. It felt good, more than good, it felt right. For even through the pain of His rebuke, Jenny knew the Lord was calling her back, back to Himself. He had not forgotten her like she had forgotten Him.

Jenny pulled onto Rolling Meadows Circle, their street for 15 years now. It was a quiet little cul-de-sac, now enchanted with the first real snowfall of winter. The white glistening flakes whispered a silent song as they drifted each to their humble resting place.  She was seeing something she had never seen before in all their years there. Christmas carolers stood on the sidewalk, all dressed in red and white. They were complete with hymn books and ear muffs and fuzzy scarves. She thought for a moment that she had been time warped to a Norman Rockwell painting. Michael and her two sons clad in their flannel pajamas, stood on the porch. Everything had a surreal radiance about it. She pulled in the driveway, and proceeded over to the carolers, joining them in their song. And she sang with all her heart:

Hark the herald

Angels sing

Glory to the newborn king

Peace on earth and mercy mild

God and sinners reconciled….

Joyful all ye nations rise

Join the triumph of the skies

With angelic host proclaim

Christ is born in Bethlehem

Hark the Herald angels sing

Glory to the newborn King!

She did not care that she was singing off key, nor did she care that her husband and son were looking at her as if she had lost it this time for sure. What mattered to her was that now she was adoring Him once again and singing with her whole heart the songs that had introduced her to her Lord so many years ago.

The value of a gift is not determined by its amount, but by the sacrifice and spirit of the giver. She and Michael had spent a lot of time and money to bring home the perfect gift for their son, but could they have possibly comprehended giving him up as her Father in heaven had given up His Beloved Son for her? She looked up into the night sky and the stars of His heavens bloomed in the velvety black darkness. One dancing star shone more brightly than the rest. A diamond among the lesser gems of the sky. Was it His very own luminary, the star of Bethlehem shining more brightly than ever? She did not know, but tonight it shone just for her.

So this Christmas as you go about your holiday tasks, the shopping and the wrappings and the tinsel and the tree, keep this in mind:

 “Jesus, the very thought of you

Fills us with sweet delight,

But sweeter far your face to view

And rest within your light.

No voice can sing, no heart can frame,

Nor can the memory find

A sweeter sound than your blest name,

O Savior of mankind!

O Hope of every contrite heart,

O Joy of all the meek,

How kind you are to those who fall,

How good to those who seek!

But what to those who find?

No tongue or pen can show;

The love of Jesus, what it is,

None but His loved ones know.”

Bernard of Clairvaux 1091-1153

Until next time, salutations and selah

2 thoughts on “The Value of a Gift

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