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Toy Soldiers and Tin Men

When I was a boy, Christmas meant a whole lot more to me than perhaps to my friends.  The reason is that I grew up poor.  I jokingly tell people that every time my Dad got a raise at work, they increased the poverty level index also.  So Christmas was that special time of the year when we received presents out of the blue.

We didn’t get the really exorbitant gifts.  And we did get clothes sometimes.  But we still were delighted to receive the “abundance” of toys and games and treasures which I could use to pay off my mortgage if I had saved them to sell on Ebay nowadays.

Christmas wasn’t much about giving.  True, we did give occasionally.  But on a very limited income, we kids didn’t have a lot of cold hard cash floating around.  (The most I understood liquid assets was a good glass of milk.)  Most of the presents were one-way from parents to children.  They gave, we received.  We liked it that way.  Mom usually ended up with a handcraft from elementary school — a photo of me stapled into construction paper with glitter on it.

Do you remember some of your favorites gifts you received as a kid?  I do.  I think I’d still like a good Tinker Toy set — to play with my kids, of course.  I also remember my first successful case of genuine begging — or nagging — for a gift.  The local dollar variety store had some really cool Civil War plastic toy soldiers.  I let my Mom know that I wanted those for Christmas.  My mother was encouraging me to consider a more economical set of green Army men.  But those were so late 1960s.  I had to have the Civil War figures.  So I begged, cajoled, pleaded, begged some more.  You know the routine, I imagine.  “Pleeeeeaaaasssseeeeee!” repeated over and over and over.

When my Mom checked out with her purchases, I caught a glimpse of those soldiers.  I felt a strong degree of satisfaction:  I had won!  I was getting what I wanted!  But even at such a young age, I felt a pang of guilt.  I wasn’t satisfied with something else which fit the family budget.  I had to have the more expensive item.  It’s amazing what a very young mind really can comprehend.

When I opened the package on Christmas day, I knew what I was getting.  I can’t say I didn’t enjoy playing with them.  I did.  But they weren’t as sweet of a childhood triumph to me as I had imagined.  They were, after all, only plastic figurines.  I’m not sure I was even really thankful for them.

Fast forward a few years, some jobs, some relationships and even some kids thrown in the mix.  I even heard a sermon or two on giving.  I began to understand that there was indeed a joy in taking my hard-earned money and using it to bring pleasure to someone else.  I remember buying my Mom a dress (there’s a long story in that one) and giving it to her for Mother’s Day.  (Hmm.  Wonder if SHE remembers that one…)  I remember seeing the delight on my first child’s face when he would open up his Christmas gifts.

It brought a deep sense of satisfaction to me.  Weird, huh.

Jesus once said that “You receive a greater blessing when you give than when you receive” (Acts 20:35).  That’s certainly an upside down view of Christmas than the one I was raised with.  To be truthful, it’s an upside down view on the facts of life most of us were taught.  Yet, there it is, words of Christ in red in the appropriate version.

Does it make sense?  Should it make sense?  I guess it depends on whether or not we are like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz.  He longed to understand things, but he didn’t have a brain.  Sometimes we just don’t use ours.

Looking at things from God’s perspective, He created us in His image and likeness.  God is the Creator, the first Giver, the Originator of all life.  He created and gave a perfect environment to mankind, and then He gave throughout history all the way up to the cost of His beloved Son’s life to buy back our lives from the foolish and selfish things we had done.  In the midst of His darkest hour, Jesus didn’t clench a tight fist but offered an open palm and gave His blood while we tried to take His life from Him.

The only way His life can be fulfilled in us is for us to let it flow OUT of us to others.  That is the heart of giving:  to let God’s love do what it was meant to do, to flow from person to person in this sick and weary world.  Only then can we be truly fulfilled.

This Christmas season, I urge you to take a real look at what you are doing and ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?”  If it is more blessed to give than to receive, then it’s time that we begin to even look at WHAT we are giving instead of just buying stuff that may not work in a month.

Grandparents, instead of spoiling your grandchild with too many toys, why don’t you instead give them a real piece of your own life.  Wrap up a favorite tool, write down a family recipe, or give a coupon for a special outing.  Then spend time with the grandchildren and talk about what that tool meant to you, how you used it and how it came in handy.  (WAIT!  DISCLAIMER!  DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT give a six year old boy a hatchet!)  When you share the recipe, arrange a time to show how you make it, and then make a double batch that you and your grandchild can give to someone less fortunate.

Parents, remember that it’s not about competing with the neighbors.  Take it from a poor kid:  we learned to have fun with minimal toys, and we developed our imaginations and interaction with each other in the process.  Maybe it’s time to teach your children about the joys of giving by having them participate in local efforts for food banks, Christmas boxes for children whose parents are in prison or even for orphans.  There are still orphans around, and James reminds us that visiting the fatherless and widows is the essence of pure, unblemished devotion in God’s sight.

Children, if you can read this, you’re not too young to understand that your parents have a lot of stress on them.  What can you give them to really make their hearts happy?  A clean room without being asked?  A set of coupons for chores to be cashed in throughout the coming year?  Or here’s a novel thought:  tell Dad and Mom that you would like to use your Christmas gifts to help someone else who is less fortunate than you are.

Hey, Christian!  You call yourself a follower of Jesus.  What do you have to give to others?  Is it a kind word instead of impatience?  Is it an apology that you feel like you don’t truly owe in order to mend a broken friendship?  Is it stooping to wash someone else’s dirty feet and feeling the awkwardness of the situation?

Families, what about taking this beyond the “once a year feel-goodisms” and making it a goal of serving one family per month in some way.  Whether it’s taking over a cooked meal, offering to help with a project at their home or even babysitting their children so Dad and Mom can have some couple time, surely we can use that brain that God gave us to come up with creative ideas.

Finally, don’t forget the Lord’s words to give in secret as much as possible.  Your greatest joys can come when no one else but God knows what good thing you did to help someone in need.  And unlike selfish children and selfish adults, He never forgets when we do something to honor Him.

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