June 25, 2008

The Best Gift

2008 1518 page25 caphat would you like for Christmas?” I’d always ask my mom, sometime in November. When you’re away at school, it’s a challenge to know for sure what’s wanted or needed, so I’d ask. However well-intentioned my question, she always—always—answered, “Just make sure you come home. That’s the best present.”
Once, years later, when I was gainfully employed, and buying her fairly spiffy gifts, I asked her if it wasn’t nice now and then to get a present from one of us kids without it being made of popsicle sticks or macaroni. She conceded that it was refreshing, but that none of them mattered as much as just having us home. And she meant it.
Now, my father was a hard man to buy for. I can’t recall him ever actually saying he liked any gift he received. He’d roll it over and over in his big hands appreciatively, saying things such as “Well, well . . .” or “So how do you like that?” Which always left you wondering, So, how did you like that? One year I really put on my thinking cap and ordered him a newspaper from the city and day of his birth. I thought I’d finally done it, because he loved reading the paper, loved New York City, and loved history. He responded, best I can recall, “Well, well . . . How do you like that?” My mother later told me it was his favorite gift and that he read every word of that newspaper in the week to come. Who knew?
2008 1518 page25My sister once gave the poor man the worst gift ever—a rock music album she wanted for herself. She couldn’t afford to buy it and also get him something for Christmas too, so she figured she’d give it to him, he wouldn’t like it, and then she could borrow it to play anytime she wanted. Sure enough, he didn’t, and she did.
Another sibling used to buy packs of anything in multiples—handkerchiefs, pencils, matchsticks—and wrap them individually for each member of the family. I remember once she showed her gift to our mother in advance. I said, “You know you’re going to give me one too, and now I’ll already know.” To which she replied, “So forget.”
Which is precisely what most of us will do with most of the gifts we receive in the course of our lives—forget. And that’s OK, because the greatest gift is not the item exchanged, but the relationship that prompts the giving. That’s why a popsicle-stick trivet can be as precious as a Cuisinart to a loving mother. And why an expensive gift from someone who never comes home can prompt more sadness than joy.
I believe that’s also true of our Father in heaven. Yes, I’m sure He appreciates every gift we offer, from the substandard to the sublime. But what He really wants is a genuine relationship with us. So what if our gifts are less sophisticated or less expensive than someone else’s? (Remember how Jesus valued the widow with the two mites?) Many of us are tempted to offer a gift in order to impress instead of to express. But when something is given with genuine love, the giver becomes the gift.
Give whatever you will to the Savior. I’m sure He’ll appreciate it. But just make sure you are in a relationship with Him. And remember that your best gift to Him will always—always—be that you want to come home to Him.
Well, well, how do you like that?
Valerie N. Phillips is the associate director of the women’s residence hall at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan (U.S.A.), where she has ministered to collegiate women for more than 25 years.