Much of our shopping during this time of year consists of buying gifts for others. We give gifts at Christmas because God gave the gift of his son and because the wise men brought gifts to baby Jesus. These gifts are of a different sort than those we wrap up and put under the Christmas tree, though. God's gift to us was to be present with us--to put on flesh, walk among us, eat with us, teach us, and finally to give his life for us. Though the wise men gave tangible gifts, these pale in comparison to the long and dangerous journey they took to be present for the coming of this most precious child. Perhaps we should follow more closely the patterns of giving that God and the wise men provided. Perhaps the best gift we can give to those on our shopping lists is not a wrapped present but our loving presence.
I recently had a conversation with my daughter-in-law, who was having her children (my grandchildren) go through toy catalogs to come up with things they would like for Christmas. They already have plenty of toys, though, and she's concerned that always giving them more will have a negative effect on them. I think that she is concerned about the children learning to define themselves according to their possessions, to see themselves primarily as consumers. When we consume, we use something up, then want more. We end up in a constant state of craving for things that won't satisfy our deepest needs.
Though perhaps I shouldn't, I will look at the Amazon wish list on which my daughter-in-law has recorded the children's suggestions and select something to purchase for each of them. I'll do it, I guess, out of habit and as a way of showing that I care for each of them. It's a pretty weak way of showing caring, though. If it was the only way I showed that I care, they would get the messages that possessions are what is important in life and that giving gifts is the way to show love to others. They would learn that you don't need to be present with someone, listen to them, or empathize with them; you just need to buy them something.
I went to visit my son and daughter-in-law in November. The day before I was supposed to come, the two youngest grandchildren were off from school but both of their parents had to work. I rearranged my schedule so I could be there to babysit. Willa, the youngest, got sick the morning I was there, so I comforted her and took her to her doctor's office. Over the next few days I played games with her and her brothers, read them books, listened to what they had to say, and helped them negotiate disagreements with each other. When my grandchildren think some day about their Grandpa Bob, I hope that those are the times they remember, not the moments when they opened a present from me. Such presents may produce momentary delight but they will soon lose their appeal and eventually be consigned to a yard sale or donation bin.
Giving the gifts of time and attention is not only important for young children but for older ones as well. Teens may appear to reject parental attention, but more often than not they just dislike having it imposed on them. When they are the ones who take the initiative in relating, they often demonstrate a hunger for connection that belies their professed indifference. And adult children haven't outgrown their need for parental attention and concern.
So invest your time in others. Ask questions about their life and world. What excites them? What scares them? What worries them? How do they spend their days? More importantly, how do they feel about the things they talk about? Notice their emotions and name them. Let them feel that you've gotten of glimpse of how they experience the world. Let's be intentional about sharing our presence with those on our Christmas list. Toys, books, clothes, electronics--even if they are appreciated, they neither touch the heart nor have a lasting impact the way that listening, engaging, empathizing, affirming, and praising do.
Presents are temporary; a loving presence is forever.