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Every year at Christmas I take a week of vacation either before or after the holiday. This year I took off the week before. Knowing that things might be hectic in the church office I thought I had everything lined up and taken care of related to adopted Christmas families, the weekly food program and everything else that takes place during the week. I really needed a break to get myself ready for Christmas.

I wanted to enjoy the holiday knowing that I had everything prepared. I even said, “I didn’t want to feel anxious and chaotic this year!” I did most of my gift wrapping a few weeks prior to my vacation. I had decided I wasn’t going to do any extra baking. We are all trying to lose weight plus it makes a big mess.

Our family had taken our yearly Christmas light drive and found an especially wonderful new light display. We watched some of our favorite Christmas movies and I slept in as much as possible.

Of course my “best laid plans” for having everything left in good order at church went awry. Early in the week I started receiving phone calls about the weekly food program. There seemed to be confusion about when the food bags were picked up and who was supposed to fill them. Later in the week one of our adopted persons called because the gift cards that were given to her for Christmas shopping had been stolen. And then, Sunday morning at church I was given the name of a woman who had called needing gift assistance at the last minute.

I went home so frustrated. I was still on vacation. I really needed time to prepare for the holiday. My plans for Sunday afternoon did not include last minute Christmas shopping for two children that I did not know. I asked my family if they thought I should call this woman or not. I called the Salvation Army and asked if they could help her, they said, “Call back tomorrow.” As I sat in our kitchen, frustrated and selfish, I heard my daughter say, “Mom, Jesus put this in your path for a reason.” I began to have an ethical dilemma.

What if I didn’t act on this request? What if her story was legit and she had tried calling “everywhere” and no one would help her? What if she was just a last minute manipulator working the system? Would there be anyone at the Salvation Army to help her on Christmas Eve? As a Christian and ordained clergy wasn’t I supposed to respond to this type of call? But I was on vacation, preparing myself for Christmas!

With a Scrooge attitude I called the woman with the request. A friend answered the phone and said that the grandma was resting. She explained that she had just come home from the hospital. “She has cancer and her son was murdered this past summer and she is just trying to do something for her grandchildren. We don’t know how long she will live but she’s worried about them.” I asked for the children’s sizes and what kind of stuff they liked. As I put on my boots to head out into the snow for last minute shopping my head said, “God prefers a cheerful giver.”

My husband and I took the gifts to the grandma’s home. She answered the door in her robe, slippers and a scarf covered her head. She apologized for having the scarf on and said, “I have no hair.” She then showed me a picture of her son and the worship folder from his funeral. She told me she had really gone down hill after his death and she wasn’t sure that she would live through Christmas. She shared that he was an organ donor and they were able to use most of his organs. We prayed together before I left her house and I told her to believe that she was going to live. I left her home, got in the car still somewhat grumpy and began worrying that I had purchased the wrong size of clothing.

I woke up this morning overly burdened about the clothing sizes and called the grandmother. She immediately asked, “How are you?” I told her I was fine but I didn’t think I purchased the correct sizes. I told her that I would go exchange the clothing and get it back to her if I needed to. She said, “They will fit.” Then she asked me to keep praying for her. I apologized for calling so early and she said, “You can call me anytime.”

As I hung up the phone tears started streaming down my face. I prayed for forgiveness. Who gave the best present to whom? Was it me who took gifts to a dying grandmother for her grandchildren? Or was it the grandmother who reminded me that Christmas is about providing hope to hurting lost people in a broken, painful world?

This Christmas Eve morning I’m thankful for a God who works through all people and shows up in unexpected places. I’m humbled by the mysterious birth of God’s son which happened for me this year through the face and hand of a dying, grieving woman. I’m enormously grateful for a God who reaches in and prepares our hearts for Christmas over and over again.

Kathy Pickett is associate pastor at Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.

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