A few years ago, on Christmas Eve, I found myself in a rather dreary predicament. Plans had suddenly changed, and I was about to spend Christmas Day alone. Super depressing, right?!
Earlier that evening, I was getting ready for our church’s Christmas Candlelight services when my phone rang. I answered to hear my mother’s unusually raspy voice on the other line. She explained to me that she was feeling a little under the weather and after chatting with my sister, that we would cancel our family Christmas Day plans and reschedule for later in the week.
I was shocked. I got off the phone, placed my eyeliner I had just been applying next to the sink, and stared blankly at my reflection in the bathroom mirror…
“No Christmas morning with my family? No coffee and tamales around the Christmas tree? No opening of presents? No stocking stuffers? No Christmas cookies and Christmas music and afternoon naps followed by more tamales and perhaps a matinee movie? What am I going to do tomorrow? Oh my goodness, I’m about to be alone on Christmas! I’m going to stay at home all by myself eating a frozen TV dinner while listening to sad Christmas tunes like ‘Blue Christmas’ on repeat. I’m about to be a Christmas orphan!”
Tears started forming in my eyes, which was very inconvenient considering I had just finished applying my eye-makeup. But I pulled myself together. After all, I had Candlelight services to host that evening. Duty was conveniently calling at the same time I was about to have a pity-party cry-fest. I took a deep breath, regrouped, and headed to church.
I wish I could say that I enjoyed the services, but every Christmas hymn and creative special that should have evoked holiday cheer was now only triggering holiday gloom. I felt out of place, sad, lonely, and a bit embarrassed about my situation. I didn’t want anyone to know I was going to spend Christmas Day by myself. I just wanted to give people some hugs, wish them a Merry Christmas, and get back home and back to feeling sorry for myself.
At least that was the plan. After the services, I was headed to the parking lot when my pastor stopped me to give me a hug and wish me a Merry Christmas. After a little small talk, he asked if I would be with my family the next day. It was the question I had been avoiding all night.
There was just something about the way he asked it, something kind and fatherly and unassuming that well, forced a level of honesty and vulnerability on my part my pride would have much rather kept hidden. I choked up a little while telling him that family plans had changed, and that I was just going to enjoy a quiet day at home.
He told me to stay right there, and then hurried off. And he quickly returned with his wife Holly…
She smiled and grabbed me by the shoulders, “You are coming home with us! We would love to have you. Spend the night at our house and then wake up and spend Christmas Day with the family! Come on, it will be fun!”
After a lot of persuading, I agreed to join the Wagner’s for Christmas morning. Holly made me promise to hop in the car and head to their house as soon as I woke up. She also made me agree to show up in my pajamas and to bring a change of clothes for the rest of the day, because well, everyone in the Wagner family opens presents around the Christmas tree with coffee, cinnamon rolls, and in their PJ’s.
I went to bed that night feeling a bit sheepish about the whole thing. I was grateful that I now had a place to go for Christmas, and that Philip and Holly had opened their home to me. I was also embarrassed that as a grown woman trying to plan a fun Christmas, my best option was to spend the next day hopefully not intruding on others’ family time and family traditions. And I was sad that I wasn’t going to spend Christmas Day with my own family.
That morning, I held up my end of the deal and knocked on the Wagner’s front door in my bedhead, pajama-wearing state. I’ll admit, that felt a bit weird to me, but it wasn’t my house or my rules. While I waited outside for someone to answer, I silently prayed, “Please, Jesus, don’t let this be awkward. I don’t want to feel like a third wheel to their family day. Amen.”
Paris opened the door and before I knew what was happening I was enveloped in a bear hug and ushered into the living room. “Perfect timing, Colie! We are just about to open presents, and we saved a spot for you!”
I sat on the sofa next to the Christmas tree, and to my right was a freshly poured cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll waiting for me.
I sat back and watched each Wagner open a gift one at a time, hugging, laughing and showing genuine gratitude. It was pleasant, and I was happy to be in the room.
Suddenly, the gift opening took a pause as all eyes turned to me. I thought, “Oh no, what did I do? Is there a coffee-stache on my face, or did I spill on my shirt? This is embarrassing.”
“Your turn,” Philip said as he pointed to a pile of gifts to my left.
“Those are for you!” Holly announced with a big grin on her face.
She could tell by my raised brow, I still did not understand her meaning.
Holly explained, “Last night after we left church, we found a drug store that was still open. We all had so much fun running around finding gifts for you! It was pretty hilarious! They might not be the best gifts in the world, but we hope you enjoy them!”
I couldn’t believe it. Each gift bought and wrapped and placed in this small green and red mountain beside me had my name on it. These weren’t gifts given out of obligation or pity or reluctance. These were gifts bought and wrapped with kindness and cheer. I looked up at each of the Wagner’s, and every single one of them had these wonderfully cheesy grins on their faces. They had been waiting for this moment with giddy delight, the moment I would realize all these presents were for me.
In all my life, I had never experienced generosity like this. At that moment I understood: I wasn’t just given seats to this Christmas show; I was given an invitation to be a part of it. I was no longer observing this family display of love like it was some sort of anthropological study of an indigenous people group featured on a National Geographic program. I was in it. I was on the receiving end of this love. I was not just with this family. In a single moment of generosity, for this wonderful Christmas day, I had become part of this family. They had gladly opened not just their home to me, but their hearts.
That evening, I left with a pretty hilarious pile of gifts from the Wagner’s, from toothbrushes to hair ties to fuzzy socks and As Seen on TV products. And to this day, they are still some of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten. Maybe to someone else they would be just a bunch of random items, but to me they were extravagant displays of kindness. They were each puzzle pieces that together formed my very own Christmas miracle, one I will always treasure in my heart. Those small tokens of love forever changed me.
Love is often theorized in inspiring Pinterest pin-worthy quotes; or preached about with such eloquence that entire congregations stand to their feet in applause; or explored thoroughly in Bible studies and small group discussions. Love is often in our conversations, in our sermons, in our hymns, and in our prayers. And yet, if love is in our hearts, it will always be so much more than nicely formulated words; it will be acted upon in our everyday lives.
Love, like most things in life, is not something you just discuss; it’s something you experience.
Take for example, bike riding. If I want to learn how to ride a bike, it doesn’t matter how many books I read or seminars I attend on the subject. At some point if I going to learn, someone needs to sit me on a bike, place my hands on the bars, my feet on the pedals, and give me a good push. Why? Riding a bike is ultimately not a conversation piece or a research assignment; it’s an experience. And if all I ever do is study bike riding, but never get on one, I will unfortunately begin to believe the act itself is rather dull. This same danger exists in our perception of love. If we are not careful, we too can become bored by God’s love simply because somewhere along the way, we confused talking about love with the actual giving and receiving of it.
This Christmas, let’s do more than talk about love. Let’s put it into practice. Let’s hop on the bike, and speed full force into the wide-open spaces of generosity and kindness. Let’s give even more than we take. Let’s open our homes and our hearts to the people around us. Let’s make time for the unexpected moments of awe and wonder found in our everyday interactions with the people we meet. Let’s be on the look out for ways to surprise others with generosity. Let’s create a world around us where love is more than a word; it’s an experience.