This week after Christmas is often a let down. The presents are all opened and some already broken. The weariness from all the buildup and activity settles in. We might draw a deep breath and reflect about what really matters.
In that frame of mind, I thought of times when a grandchild has been sick. When a little body aches and fever rages and a little head hurts, that child doesn’t want new toys. He only wants to be held by someone who loves him. When I am hurting emotionally, I don’t want my husband to give me a gift. I too just want to be held and reassured I am loved.
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. At Christmastime the best gifts I receive are usually visits: 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 how much they value their children by giving their time, their presence. It takes a clear vision of what matters most to give our children our presence.
The Need Never Goes Away
We never outgrow the need for love expressed by presence. One Christmas my sister-in-law (a busy doctor who lives in the Seattle, Washington, area and seldom visits) surprised her elderly parents by showing up at their door in Utah with Christmas bows hanging from her neck. “I’m your present!” she crowed. Nothing she could have done would have made them feel happier or 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 experience that no amount of hard work or competent effort could make me irreplaceable in the workplace. However, in my family, no one can take my place. I am the only mother my children have. I am the only grandmother who can love my grandchildren just the way I do. I am the only one who can give them exactly what I can give by my presence and by sharing who 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 cuddle with her and said that grandma had her own built-in pillow.
Emily Woodmansee wrote, “The errand of angels is given to women; and this is 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, wholehearted, not fragmented by unreasonably hefty to-do lists.
The Worth of Souls is Validated By Our Presence
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 spiritually lost person 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 parents’ or grandparents’ willingness to spend time with a child may convince him of his own lovable-ness and worth. It may be the only thing that will help him to believe in himself enough to fight for his own soul. 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, guiding them. All these require our loving presence. It takes a leap of faith to decrease the time we spend doing other things and increase the time we spend with those we love.
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 Lord gives us joy and best shows His love for us by His presence.
This past Christmas season was ideally a time to think upon and choose to experience and receive the gift of the Lord’s presence. Has the joy of Christmas music been a key to unlock our hearts and minds to feel His presence this year? The Lord is so often near, but we must look up in faith to feel His presence. This principle is well illustrated by the Church History 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
One of the very most important choices we make with our God-given agency is whether to look up or down. Moment by moment we choose whether to look up to Him, to affirm and believe in His presence, or to look down, focusing on the things of this world. 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 chose faith and belief mostly because the misery of the opposite choice was unbearable. Other times I chose to stay in doubt and fear for a time, but avoided letting those negatives become the familiar, the known quantity that feels somehow comfortable. I knew that the Lord’s presence with all that entails can become the “unknown” that seems scary just because it is so unfamiliar,
Sometimes I felt undeserving of the joy and peace of experiencing the Lord’s comfort and presence. I could imagine His presence was there for everyone else, but not for me. One thing is clear, however: any thought or feeling that keeps me from experiencing the Lord’s presence comes directly from the adversary. He is well practiced in making us miserable and there is no better way than to get us to believe his lies. But the Spirit of the Lord is stronger and can always lead us back to truth.
The Choice Is Always There
The last time I attended a superb performance of Dickens’ Christmas Carol I came away feeling that both Scrooges are alive in me. I recognize the blind, earth-bound one when I choose misery and shut out the Lord’s presence. I recognize the transformed, giving Scrooge when I feel the Lord’s presence and extend His love to others in my words and actions. I choose each moment which to be and each year I choose my Christmas experiences.
Sometimes, the choice to look up seems limited by physical imbalances that can block the ability to feel His presence no matter how consistently we make right choices that should enable me to feel it. But in general, I choose whether or not to accept the gift of 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 stubbornly resisted feeling the Lord’s presence for himself. 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 desire 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 Joshua opened his heart to the Lord’s presence, and felt the love the Lord had been offering all the time.
Receiving and Giving
While the sacred music of Christmas is still vivid in our minds and the message of Christ’s birth is fresh and clear, may we think upon the wondrous gift of God’s presence. May we be willing to receive it, to open our hearts to it and really feel it. Then we will have so much more to offer others, and can experience joy in our willingness to give the gift of our presence to those we love.