(My wife, Kathy, and I had the privilege of meeting one of our favorite people, Dr. James Dobson, at the American Association of Christian Counselors Convention in September!)
I grew to know and love the Lord at an early age. In high school I began to date the young lady that I would eventually marry. Our early marriage consisted of both of us going to Ohio State University, but after an unsuccessful experience, I quit and worked to help my wife finish. After she graduated she encouraged me to try schooling one more time. All it took was her emphasizing to me that she believed in me, and I was back at school. I graduated after completing eleven straight quarters with a degree in elementary education.
During my years as a teacher our three biological children were born, and we got full custody of our then, foster son. Throughout my teaching career I thoroughly enjoyed the teaching aspect and making a significant difference in young people's lives, but I always felt there was more that God had in store for me. It was also during this time that I had an incredible passion to help marriages. Because of that passion, I became involved in our church's marriage retreats. There were also times when I would be sitting at my desk after school grading papers and a fellow teacher would walk in and want to talk about their marriage. It was experiences like these that made me think that God had another plan for my life.
Finally, after much prayer and wisdom from those I trusted most in life, I resigned from teaching and enrolled at Ashland Theological Seminary to pursue a degree in pastoral counseling. It was during this time that the Lord helped me start the origins of Heritage Christian Counseling Ministries. I would work at my job forty hours a week, attend seminary full time, and still spend about ten hours a week building Heritage.
After graduating from seminary in 1997, Heritage became a full time ministry. In 1998, Heritage became a Prepare/Enrich ministry and in 1999, it became a member of The American Association of Christian Counselors. It has been on a steady growth pattern ever since, and I find it to be very fulfilling.
With the holiday season upon us I ask myself, "What makes a valuable gift? What is the criteria for a valuable and lasting Christmas gift?"
Growing up I thought that a valuable and remembered gift was one that cost a lot of money and made my friends envious. It was also a valuable gift if it took work convincing my parents that I really wanted it. Begging them for a basketball game and then actually receiving it made it all the sweeter. I remember getting a football one year for Christmas and thinking that was the ultimate gift. However, Christmas came every year and there were so many gifts that I don't remember other than the fact that they quickly became more things that I had to put away when I was cleaning my room.
Commercials portray a valuable gift as one that is bought at great expense. I am reminded of the commercial that depicts a new Lexus as being a valuable gift. The husband surprises his wife and she feels loved when she sees that he has bought her a new car, complete with a big red bow. How many of us can afford a gift like this? These commercials make us feel like if it's not a new Lexus, how can we possibly have a successful Christmas? Home improvement stores want us to believe that it won't be a good Christmas for Dad unless he has a new workshop full of tools. We feel like we can't possibly have Christmas without this. And of course children are encouraged to believe that they won't be happy unless they have latest video games, Barbie dolls, or computers.
I recently asked our young adult children, ages 20 - 25 (I think) what they remember about Christmas, and not one of them mentioned the many gifts they convinced their mom and I they had to have over the years. Their memories suggest other, perhaps more important gifts.
All my children remembered things like our tradition of ordering pizza on Christmas Eve before the family attended the Christmas Eve service at Grandma and Grandpa's church. Then Grandma and Grandpa coming to our house after church for eggnog, Christmas cookies and more fellowship.
My daughter and I reminisced about her memories of going to Wirick's Christmas tree farm and cutting down the Christmas trees. She remembered how her mom and I would turn her loose and she would look at every tree before we would hear this faint voice from several hundred yards away over the second hill say, "Okay Mom and Dad, I found it!" and we would follow the sound to find her and cut down the perfect tree.
Our oldest son remembered how his sister tried, unsuccessfully, every year to convince us that last year we allowed her to open a present on Christmas Eve and would we let her do it again this year. Although we never did this, I am quite certain she will start that as a new tradition when she has her own family.
Our second son recalled the Christmas he received new golf clubs; however, it wasn't the clubs he remembered so much as the fact that he and I decided to go golfing that afternoon so he could try them out. Of course it was freezing cold and there was even snow on the ground. We had to use our irons to pound the tees into the frozen ground. Needless to say, after about two holes we decided maybe we should wait for a better day when we wouldn't be shivering quite so much.
They all remembered that on Christmas morning they had to sit at the top of the stairs and wait for us to take a family "pajama picture" before they went down to see the presents. And they remembered that before we would open our presents we would always read the Christmas story out of the book of Luke.
These memories have one thing in common. They all show that the time we spent together was more valuable to them than any of the presents they ever received.
As I thought about my children's memories, I was reminded of a few of my own that again suggest there are more valuable gifts than those bought with money. I remember the year we gained permanent custody of our foster son after what appeared to be a hopeless battle. It happened just a few days before Christmas and he told us that was the best Christmas present he would ever receive. That is a lifetime memory for him, as well, and one we often celebrate together.
Another memory I have is of helping the "Brighten A Christmas" families from the News Journal. Our children learned the true gift of giving as we helped put together gifts for families in need.
One year, while I was attending seminary, I worked with a group of children at Down's Hall to put together a Christmas for a family whose dad was in prison. Seeing the look on the family member's faces that day will be a gift to the givers that will always be remembered. The feeling that they got as they made Christmas possible for a family that wasn't going to have one was one that made their Christmas very special.
So, apparently, gifts that come from the commercial side of Christmas are not the ones that leave life long impressions. Gifts of time spent together, gifts of love, gifts of acceptance, and opportunities for giving to others are the gifts that are truly valuable and most likely to provide life long memories of Christmas.
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