Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas: Learning to give the first gift of true love

It is the season of Christmas for Christians, and hearts at this time are outstretched to those around us and even far away. Hopefully, this enfolding of our hearts happens all year long--no matter our religion, creed, or opinions. I have seen literal and transformative changes in people as they give, and because I am Christian, I see it no more clearly than at Christmas. Some of my fondest memories, if I could chronicle them, are at Christmas when my own heart has shed all layers of any misconceptions or generalizations. It is a time when our hearts learn how to grow.

My husband, when my daughters were small, dressed up on one of their first Christmases. Christmas has always brought us closer together because both of us were taught how to give true gifts as children by our own parents.

For Muslims (and because I live in a Muslim country), I am touched at their giving at Ramadan to those who are unfortunate. Our friend in Turkey always gives many sheep to others who are unfortunate so they may eat lamb meat. When I lived in Asia (Taiwan, China, Philippines, and Thailand), I needed to be very careful if I complimented someone on an object I liked. Unfailingly, I would then be given the item that I just admired. The scarf or necklace would often be taken off of them to give to me.

My Jewish friends, it seems, are very intent all year long to make the world a better place, contributing with money and service. One friend, a very talented attorney, was on our school board in St. Louis. He saw the distinct need that some high school kids needed to learn math and science better, but they had no one to tutor and help them. Every morning he was at the school to mentor them about math and physics--the subjects he loved so well. A few years later he retired early so he could teach at an inner city school. He is passionate about all children having the same educational opportunities.

Last night we asked each other (our children are older now), "When was the first time you remember how wonderful it was to give than to receive?" Sometimes the answer was simple, and the gesture was spontaneous. In other words, a simple exchange of hearts did not require much planning or fanfare. Perhaps it is when we are ready or prepared to receive that flow of compassion and love that is always there to gush in--if we have not diked the wall. But sometimes it was when we had planned an outing or activity. One son remembered in 2006 when the Cardinals won the World Series, we went to a men's shelter that Christmas Eve Day. One older man pleaded to sing, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." I can still here him singing in a beautiful tenor voice his requested song:

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ, Our Savior, was born on Christmas Day. To save us all from Satan's power when we have gone astray. O Tidings of Comfort and Joy...."

There were not many dry eyes in the crowd when he finished the cherished Christmas carol. Afterwards, I went up to talk to him, and he told me he had not long been out of jail. Those few moments at a men's shelter that Christmas changed my life. A man who had known "dismay" and the feelings of going "astray", but now had comfort and joy. And then with jubilant glee, he asked us all to sing "Take Me Out To the Ballgame" to remember our beloved Cardinal World Series win a few months earlier. My blind father-in-law, provided the accompaniment of the song on his harmonica.

 I have to say St. Louis came together that Christmas Eve Day. Our hearts and our children's hearts were different as we walked out of that shelter. Any rifts, chasms, or even fears that were in our hearts when we entered the shelter had evaporated as we unitedly sang together. A complete joy replaced skepticism and tentativeness.

When I look back on the years we raised our children, it is the moments of when their hearts were opened that give me the greatest satisfaction. To see them become new people, and I along with them,  are some of my favorite memories.

It is Christmas, the time to cast off misgivings, grudges, and yes, even despair--to learn how to live that way all year long. It is time to remember the lonely, the poor, the hungry, the disconsolate. As Howard W. Hunter said, "This year mend a quarrel. Seek out a forgotten friend. Dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust. Write a letter. Give a soft answer. Encourage youth. Manifest your loyalty in word and deed. Keep a promise. Forgo a grudge. Forgive an enemy. Apologize. Try to understand. Examine your demands on others. Think first of someone else. Be kind. Be gentle. Laugh a little more. Express your gratitude. Welcome a stranger. Gladden the heart of a child. Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth. Speak love and then speak it again."

As my father-in-law would say, "We all need it."