By Julia Howell
Early in the holiday season, right around Thanksgiving time, I always feel a stirring of excitement in my heart. It reminds me of the unbridled joy I felt as a child anticipating the “most wonderful time of the year.” With visions from Southern Living dancing in my head, the decorations come down out of the attic and I begin to plan for our best Christmas ever. Inevitably, however, the Grinch comes along, and before I know it I have lost all sense of the true reason for the season. I find myself lost in a flurry of shopping, Christmas programs, and parties. By the time the last note is sang in the choir program, the last present is wrapped (for which I paid way too much), and the last dish is baked, I cannot help but feel disappointed at the emptiness in my soul.
This year, though, an unexpected phone call and an invitation from the associate pastor at our church became the catalyst of change: “We are in need of another woman to serve as a counselor during the Lighthouse Foundation’s toy store give-away. Are you interested?”
I was already a bit familiar with the work of the Lighthouse Foundation, a local Christian effort that reaches out to the less fortunate children and youth of our community. At Christmas, they arrange for parents who have no means of providing toys for their children to visit a “toy store” and choose gifts. Through an application process, those selected are scheduled a time, prioritized by need, to visit the store. The parents (usually single moms) are taken to a room when they arrive and presented the gospel message. Those who desire more information are separated out of the group and sent to see an invitation counselor—which is where I would serve.
“I’d be glad to!” I heard the words come out of my mouth before I felt the nudge of fear in my heart and my head remembered I would have to take a leave day from work. “But,” I added, “Let me pray about it.” It didn’t take much prayer for me to become convinced this opportunity was God inspired and I agreed to do it—even though my comfort zone was severely threatened.
The morning of the giveaway arrived and we were blessed with unusual spring-like December weather. About eight of us gathered at our church for a van ride to the mission. In a few short minutes, we had left the more opulent area of our town and arrived at a small non-descript metal building in the midst of small non-descript rental housing. No fancy holly wreaths or lavish decorations here. In their place, steel bars secured many of the neighborhood windows. I could not help but marvel at how two vastly different cultures could co-exist only a few miles apart.
We were met at the door by event organizers, briefed, and ushered into a room to begin. Without separate counseling rooms available, each counselor would need to separate themselves from the group and find a place in the room to talk quietly with those sent to us.
In less than five minutes, the first group entered. I noticed Michelle from across the room—a young, blond girl with tearful eyes and stooped shoulders. Even before she was introduced to me, I knew she was the one out of the group God had chosen for me to counsel. We found our “spot” and I tried to place her at ease.
“I have a daughter about your age. May I ask how old you are?” I smiled and gave her a hug, because she looked like she needed someone to show her love. With her hair in a ponytail, she appeared so youthful it was difficult to imagine she was here to get toys for a child of her own.
As we talked, some of her barriers melted away and a flood of pent up sorrow poured forth. I discovered she was indeed my daughter’s age- all of 19-years-old. She shared through sobs that she already had two children under the age of three, and her live-in boyfriend had recently skipped out of town. She had moved in with her single mother who was trying to support them on next to nothing. “I really do want to change,” she assured me, “But I don’t know how. I’ve made such a mess of my life that it seems hopeless.”
By the time we finished our talk Michelle had prayed to surrender her life to Jesus Christ, and she promised to find a church to attend. I smiled as I watched her walk away. No longer stooped, she stood tall and had a new bounce in her step. My own heart soared to new heights. Before the day ended, the Lord allowed me to share Him with four more women who accepted Him as Savior.
Our group sat in contemplative silence as we returned to the church. Funny that I didn’t notice the housing on the way back—my mind was on a baby born in a stable in a “non-descript” section of Bethlehem. The true Blessing of Christmas had come into this world without fanfare or wealth to become our Savior. Each of our group had experienced a blessing today, but the blessing had not been in the giving of ourselves, our time, or anything we had done. The giving of the blessing was all God’s doing; we who had desired to bless others had become the blessed.
Christmas morning arrived and my family gathered around our tree to open gifts. In the midst of all the ohs and ahs as we examined our presents, my thoughts traveled back to Michelle. I wondered how her Christmas morning was going and if her children were excited with their toys. And I wondered if she was rejoicing that her once empty soul was now full of hope, even as I marveled at the joy that filled my own.