December 16, 2013

Priceless Gifts

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!  The church’s all-purpose room is filled with tiny white lights, a beautifully-decorated tree complete with a lighted star on top, and an over-sized wreath hanging on the wall.  The chatter in the room almost drowns out the sounds of the Christmas carols playing.  The tables are all set for what promises to be a feast.  At first glance, it appears to be a festive holiday party.  A time for merry-making and laughter.  It could be a scene straight from Currier & Ives.

The ladies of the church have worked tirelessly to make this day special.  December is a crazy-busy time of year, and yet they made room in their crowded calendars to plan this special event.  Preparing the menu, decorating the room, setting up tables, and pressing the linens.  They have created a room that practically glows with all of the love and service that was poured into it.  They have provided, if only for a brief afternoon, a respite from life’s problems.  They created PEACE.
Look a little closer and it soon becomes apparent that some of the details of this holiday picture don’t seem quite right.  The children, the little ones looking all cute in their finest clothes, the older ones wearing everyday jeans and hoodies, are not laughing or playing.  They are just sitting there with the their hands in their laps, trying not to fidget, their eyes looking straight down at their laps.  Why are they not excited about this, the most magical of seasons?

This has been a difficult year for these children.  They have each experienced their own private version of loss, pain, fear, rejection, uncertainty.  For some, this is their first Christmas without their parents.   They have recently entered the terrifying world of foster care, and they are still reeling from the shock of it.  They haven’t yet had time to adjust to the new people sitting next to them, the ones who now call themselves “family.”

For others, the older ones especially, this day is nothing new.  They attend this party year after year, and every year the thought of belonging to a forever family diminishes a little bit more.  The harsh realities are setting in, and dreams are slowly dying.

The buffet table is ready, and it smells amazing.  Roasted chicken with savory spices, corn swimming in butter, fresh rolls still hot from the oven.  Volunteers from a local business stand behind the table, carefully ladling food onto each plate as the line slowly inches forward.   They smile and offer Christmas cheer as they serve.  They help carry plates for the families who are balancing young ones on their hips.  They fill water glasses and help clean up spills.  They too have sacrificed a precious Saturday to be here today, giving up their holiday season to serve people they don’t know.  Their presence, their service adds bright points of light to this day.  They are serving JOY.

The fathers and mothers here are wearing ties and scarves and sweaters in holiday colors.  A new pair of earrings here.  A sparkling hair band there.  Although their clothes match the holiday spirit, their eyes can’t quite hide the truth:  it’s been a difficult year for them as well.  

New foster parents have been licensed, and they now have a new “placement”, a stranger living in their home.  Although they started out with fresh excitement and enthusiasm, their inexperience and naiveté has caused them to be overwhelmed.  This wasn’t quite what they expected.  Will they ever be able to reach this hurt, injured, broken child who now lives in their home?  Where do they even begin to undo bad habits and retrain healthy, appropriate behavior?  What have they gotten themselves into?

Other foster parents are noticeable because of their absence.  This was they year that they have raised the white flag, finally admitting defeat.  The burdensome responsibilities simply took too great a toll on their marriages, on their families, and on their personal lives.

A few faces are familiar.  The “lifers”.  The foster parents who have committed their lives to this ministry.  Year after year they faithfully come, bringing with them whatever children are currently living with them.  They’ve experienced loss this year as well: several precious, beloved children have moved on, leaving a gaping hole in their homes and in their hearts.  This holiday season just won’t be the same.

“Ho! Ho! Ho!”  That voice!  That universally-recognized voice that means magic and wonder and little shivers of excitement.  He’s here!  He strides into the room, carrying a big bag over his shoulder, waving and chuckling, his plump belly jiggling.  Larger than life. 

The adults all know, of course, that underneath that beard is one of the social workers, but still, it’s impossible not to smile.  For foster parents, it’s tempting to become cynical when you see the dark side of society, the unspeakable horror that can damage an innocent child.  It sometimes seems as if the whole world is filled with anger and hate and abuse. 

But here in this room, knowing that an army of generous, kind-hearted people, people they will never meet . . . knowing that they donated and shopped and wrapped and collected all these gifts for Santa to distribute?  Well, it’s a wonderful reminder of the good that still lives in people’s hearts.  They wrapped LOVE.

One little girl, who only moments before was starting to squirm with impatience, now stands in her chair, straining to see, her face full of anticipation and delight.  Her troubles are momentarily forgotten, and she remembers how to be a child again.  She knows, she just knows that somewhere in that bag is a gift with her name on it.

Bikes!  Santa brought bikes?  A little boy near the back of the room clasps his fingers together near his chin, closes his eyes, and silently mouths over and over again, “Please, please, please.”  How he wishes to the depths of his toes that one of those bikes are for him!  A bicycle of his very own is all he’s ever wanted.  For a few precious minutes, he is able to forget how terribly he misses his mother.

A sullen teenager, forced to sit with his foster family in the front, has spent the afternoon slinking down in his seat in an attempt to be invisible.  This is the last place he wants to be.  This fake Christmas cheer is a bitter reminder of previous holidays with his family:  visiting his grandparents up north, wresting with his siblings on the living room floor, eating all of his favorite foods.  Why, oh why does he have to be stuck with this foster family?  He wants to be with his real family for Christmas!  But now, his eyes lift and his face softens.  When he hears Santa call his name, he can’t help but smile.  Of course he knows that none of this is real, but it’s hard to be angry when you’re receiving gifts.

When Santa walks into the room, carrying all those gifts, he delivers HOPE.  Hope that these precious ones have not been forgotten.  Hope that maybe, in spite of broken families and wounded children, just maybe these patchwork families will share a special season together after all.


The ladies who decorated the church and spent countless hours preparing the feast?  They gave the gift of PEACE. 

The community volunteers who gave of their time and refllled the drinks and served the meal?  They gave the gift of JOY. 

The families who donated that mountain of toys?  They gave the gift of LOVE.

And when these dear children, the ones without families this season, the ones who think they have been forgotten . . . when they hear Santa call their name, and when they open the gifts that have been chosen just for them, what happens?  Their eyes sparkle.  Their faces shine.  They have been given HOPE.

For one afternoon, at least, hurting children are given a reason to smile.  The loss and heartaches of the year are temporarily forgotten.  The many, many people who worked tirelessly and selflessly to make this day special for them?  How can we ever thank them enough?  They may never know the value of what they gave.  Their gifts are priceless.

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