I've been blessed with many wonderful Christmas gifts over the years. A silver charm bracelet from my mother. A gold locket from my husband. The most memorable gift I've ever received, however, came from a surprising source, and under very unusual circumstances.
The summer I was nine years old, my best friend, Marty, invited me to go to a movie with her family. It was a big deal. My parents were fairly conservative in their Christianity. There wasn't a drop of alcohol in our house, rock music was frowned upon, and going to the movies was a rare and carefully monitored treat.
Still, to my delight, Mom and Dad said yes. Before Marty's parents picked me up, my mom gave me the usual set of instructions—stay close to a grown-up at all times, be polite and respectful, don't forget to say "thank-you." Then, as Marty's family's car pulled in front of our house, my dad tucked a five-dollar bill into my pocket. "Use this only if you need to pay for your ticket or popcorn," he explained. (Yes, back then five dollars would have covered both!)
"Okay," I agreed, already halfway out the door.
At the movie theater, Mr. and Mrs. Bernard insisted on buying my ticket, as well as popcorn and soda for Marty and me. As I was standing at the glass counter, waiting-politely—for my snack, I saw it.
For some reason, the theater was selling a small assortment of stuffed toys. Nestled between a spotted dog and a gray elephant lay the most beautiful little lion cub I'd ever seen. With plush tan fur, golden brown eyes, and pink ears, it was irresistible to a stuffed-animal junkie like me. I had to have it.
As I fingered the bill in my pocket, two voices competed in my head. One reminded me rather shrilly that the money was only to be spent on a movie ticket. The other, smooth and sweet as honey, pointed out that since it hadn't been needed for the ticket, the money should be mine to spend.
I knew it was wrong. But I pushed my guilt aside, handed over the five, and cuddled that soft little cub in my arms.
My enjoyment was brief. Back at home, my parents spied the cub immediately. Dad was furious when he realized that I'd deliberately disobeyed him. My punishment was swift and—to my nine-year-old self-harsh: Dad confiscated the illicit lion cub and sent me to my room.
Devastated, I sobbed into my pillow. Losing the toy was bad enough. But what really hurt was the anger and disappointment I'd seen on my father's face.
That was June. In August, my father was in a car accident as he was coming home from work. He was killed instantly. The months that followed were some of the most difficult I've ever experienced as I struggled to adjust to life without Dad in it.
Christmas came, bittersweet without Dad's presence. Coming down the stairs that morning, I saw something familiar poking out of my stocking where it hung by the fireplace. Soft tan fur and golden eyes. As I pulled it from the stocking, I noticed a tag attached to the bow around its neck: To: Dawn; Love, Dad. I blinked back a rush of tears.
"He felt terrible about having to take that from you," Mom said as she slipped an arm around my shoulders. "That very same night he told me that he wanted you to have it for Christmas."
"But he was so mad at me," I sniffed.
She smiled. "He loved you."
Many years have passed since that Christmas, but every time I look at that silly lion cub I remember Dad and how much he loved me—not just when I was a "good girl," but when I made a poor choice and disappointed him.
It also reminds me how blessed I am that God is that kind of father. When Adam and Eve betrayed him, breaking the only rule he'd asked them to follow, God was understandably ticked off. Yet despite that anger, his love never wavered. Even as he punished them for their disobedience and sin, he was planning for their redemption through the sacrifice of his only Son.
When I mess up—frequently!—and disappoint him, I can cling to the knowledge that God still loves me. That doesn't mean I get off scot-free. Like any good parent, he holds me accountable, and sometimes it can feel as if he's abandoned me. Those are the times I'm most grateful for his promise that "neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate [me] from the love of God" (Romans 8:38-39).
So this Christmas I'll celebrate not only the birth of Jesus, but also the living reminder he is that nothing can separate me from God's love.
And that's truly the best present ever.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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