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Part One: Giving the Gift of Our Presence

My little grandson was sick awhile ago. When his little body ached and his fever raged and his head hurt, he didn’t want new toys or new clothes or a nicer house to live in. He only wanted to be held by someone who loved him. I was so happy to give him that gift for a few hours. His parents gave it for many more. Ralph W. Emerson, an American philosopher reminds us that rings and jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only real gift is the gift of yourself.

When I am hurting emotionally, I don’t want a nicer car to drive or a newly remodeled kitchen. I too want to be held by someone who loves me. At Christmastime the best gifts I receive are tokens of love and concern from those I care about and who care about me. So often the gift of time, of presence, is the best of all.

Parents communicate the value and wonder of their children by giving time, by giving their presence, by giving themselves. It takes a clear vision or what matters to give our children presence, not just presents.

The Need Never Goes Away

We never outgrow the need for love expressed by presence. Last Christmas my sister-in-law (a busy doctor who lives in the Seattle area and seldom visits) surprised her elderly parents by showing up at their door in Utah, Christmas bows hanging from her neck. ” I’m your present!” she crowed. Nothing she could have done would have made them happier or feel more loved than her presence.

No matter how old we are, the gift of time and attention is just as sweet as it was when we were children. Grown children need it from parents, parents need it from grown children. It is a never-ending cycle. We all need support and help from each other. We have the capacity to love and lift each one around us with our presence.

No One Can Take Your Place

I learned through hard experience that no amount of hard work or competent effort could make me irreplaceable in the workplace; I can always be replaced in that arena. However, I’ve found it sobering to realize that in my family roles no one can take my place. I am the only mother my children have. My grandchildren have one other grandmother, but I am the only one that can love them just the way I do. I may be the only one that notices a need, the only one who can fill it. I know for sure I am the only one who can give them exactly what I can give by my presence and by sharing what I am and what I believe after a whole lifetime of experience.

Maybe one reason mothers and grandmothers have padded curves is so they can mold their children and grandchildren to them in soft, loving embraces. One amply endowed grandmother told me her grandchildren loved to lay against her and said that grandma had her own built-in pillow.

Emily Woodmansee wrote, “The errand of angels is given to women; and this a gift that as sisters we claim. To do whatsoever is gentle and human, To cheer and to bless in humanity’s name” (Hymn no. 309). We can’t be absentee angels. We fill the errand of angels only by our presence. We cheer and bless mainly by our presence – our willing presence. Our presence that is wholehearted, not fragmented by unreasonably hefty to-do lists.

The Worth of Souls

How much is one person worth? We see over and over that people are willing to move heaven and earth to help one find one child who is kidnapped or lost. Whole wards and stakes and communities turn out to search the hills for a lost child. What a great thing it would be if a person is who is spiritually lost could experience a similar outpouring of love and concern – of the presence of those who care. The Lord said, “The worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” To line our vision up with His, the worth of each soul needs to be great in our sight, as well.

Only a parent’s or grandparent’s willingness to spend time with a child may give birth to his perception of his own lovableness and worth. It may be the only thing that will help him begin to believe in himself and to fight for his own soul, for his right to be who his is. This fighting spirit is vital when temptations are great. Only if he feels he is worth fighting for will he be able to tough it out.

In Alma 29:9, we read, “This is my glory, that perhaps I may be an instrument in the hands of God to bring some soul to repentance; and this is my joy!” We are instruments in His hands, and we may actually motivate repentance (positive change) by working and playing with children, praying with them, loving and guiding them. All these require our presence. It takes a leap of faith to decrease our time spent doing things that may bring more of the world’s approval and acclaim and monetary rewards and spend our time, instead, with those we love.

“Oh, that I were an Angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God” (Alma 29:1). We do the next best thing to speaking with the trump of God when we pray for our children and grandchildren, read to them, love them, bless them with a kind voice, a loving presence.

Part Two: Receiving the Gift of God’s Presence

There is a spiritual counterpart to the idea of giving the gift of our presence: the Lord’s greatest gift is Himself. Not only in some philosophical sense like giving himself as a ransom for the sins of the world, but in a very real sense: His presence in this very moment. I’ve always loved the message I first heard from Deanna Edwards: “Joy is not the absence of pain, but the presence of God.” The way the Lord gives us joy and best shows His love for us is by His presence.

December can be a time to think upon and choose to experience and receive the gift of the Lord’s presence. If we are open to it, sometimes the joy of Christmas music is a key that unlocks our hearts and minds to feel His presence. The Lord is so often near, but we must look up in faith to feel His presence. This principle is well illustrated by the story of Joseph Smith’s vision of some of the apostles on a mission in England. The apostles had been rejected, persecuted, cast out. They were hungry, weary, and discouraged. Joseph saw the Savior reaching down to them longing to comfort them. But dejected, they did not look up. They did not sense His presence.

The Choice to Look Up

So many times I sense the choice I make whether to look up to Him, to affirm and believe in His presence, or to look down – focusing on the things of this world.

One of the very most important choices I make with my God-given agency is whether to look up or down. I sensed the reality of that choice most vividly after my son died. I came face to face with the fact that I could in reality choose to wallow in misery, doubt, fear and self-persecution. Or I could choose faith and hope and the peace offered by the Comforter. I could look up and see that the Savior was reaching down to me – or not!

Sometimes I think it was not because I was strong and faithful that I chose faith and belief at that crucial time, but because the misery of the opposite choice was unbearable. There are times I do choose to stay in doubt and fear for a time. Why? Can I practice those negatives so they become the familiar, the known quantity that feels somehow comfortable? Can the Lord’s presence with all that entails become the “unknown” that seems scary just because it is so unfamiliar ?

Or perhaps I sometimes feel undeserving of the joy and peace of experiencing the Lord’s comfort and presence. Could I imagine it is only out there for everyone else, but not for me? One thing is clear: any thought or feeling that keeps me from experiencing the Lord’s presence comes directly from the adversary. He is well practiced in making me miserable and there is no better way than to get me to believe his lies. But the Spirit of the Lord is stronger and can always lead me back to truth.

The Choice Is Always There

I attended a superb performance of Dickens’ Christmas Carol recently. I came away feeling that in my heart there abides both Scrooges. I recognize the blind, earth-bound one when I choose misery and shut out the Lord’s presence. I recognize the open, loving, giving one when I feel His presence and extend His love to others in my words and actions. I choose each moment which to be. I choose my Christmas experiences. I choose my life. I choose whether or not to stand in holy places.

I can usually choose whether or not to look up and sense God’s presence. (I say “usually” because I know there are physical imbalances that can block my ability to feel His presence no matter how consistently I make right choices that should enable me to feel it.) I choose whether or not to accept His gifts always offered to me (one of the greatest of which is His presence.) I choose whether to be a source of His light to others or a source of contention. I choose whether to focus on giving “things” or a portion of myself. I choose what to sell my time for. I choose what to make my life count for. I choose whether to sleep through mortality or to awaken to its true meaning.

Awakening to the Lord’s Presence

The Savior atoned for the sins of Peter, James, and John even though they slept through his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He atoned for the sins of the whole world even though most of the world is “sleeping” in regard to the Savior and the Atonement. He loves us even when we don’t feel His love. He is near us even when we don’t sense His presence.

Joshua Steed, a character in In Gerald Lund’s The Work and the Glory series, has become real to me; I have seen and experienced the reality of his conversion experiences after so much stubborn resistance; they give me hope. For decades, Joshua was asleep to the Savior’s love. Even when he lost all his wealth, joined the trek West with his family, and became strangely drawn to read the Book of Mormon, he couldn’t imagine how the Savior’s love or atonement applied to him personally.

One evening (after about three months on the trail), he accepted a direct challenge from Brigham Young. He went off by himself and spent the evening praying to know if the Lord wanted him in the kingdom even though he felt so unworthy. He received no answer that night, nothing. The next morning as he and his family went about the business of breaking camp he became intensely aware of the great gift of his family – how precious they were to him. It was as if he were really seeing them for the first time.

The experience was capped by his young daughter singing words she had written just for him, reflecting her desires to have him turn to the Lord so they could be together forever. “I love you, Papa,” she said as she embraced him. Joshua was filled with a peace he had never before experienced. And the Lord spoke to his mind, saying, “If I have given you all this, how can you doubt my love for you?” For the first time he opened his heart to the Lord’s presence, and felt the love that had been there for him all the time.