The gift of presence

There’s something about the holiday season that makes us extra nostalgic.

To clarify, when I say the holiday season, I am referring to the period of time beginning with Thanksgiving and ending with Christmas.

There are many factors I believe play a role in our propensity to look back at days gone by. Over the next several weeks, we will be consistently reminded of precious moments from our past. It will bring up some incredible feelings of joy and perhaps the sting of sadness as we make our way through a time defined in large part by time-honored traditions.

My family got an early jump on the festivities, as is usually the case. The week following Halloween, I made my first foray into the attic above our garage to retrieve our Christmas tree. We inherited it a few years ago during a cleanse at First Baptist Church. It used to stand awkwardly in a hallway of the church. I would regularly go look at it because it reminded me of a tree at the home of one of our West Virginian families, the Downeys.

It has a real wood trunk, complete with bark, and there are pine cones on many of the branches. Every time I look at the tree, I think of my West Virginia family and the many football games we watched in the light of that tree. Again, it makes me miss my friends and all of the fun we had together.

Even the ornaments on the tree itself carry meaning and memory. Many of our ornaments have dates and represent important life events, such as our first Christmas as a married couple or our children’s first Christmases. Others were handmade by various members of our family. Others still were personal gifts from close family and friends, many whom we don’t see very often, if at all, anymore.

There’s certainly a sweetness to these memorials, but there is an undeniable sting of sadness — one might even say a sense of personal loss.

This also is a season when we look forward to what’s to come. This past weekend, we set up a tree in my daughter’s room. I have every intention of turning those lights on every night. They will serve as a reminder for us that though she isn’t here in the house at this moment, in a few short weeks, she will be home with us again.

I’m looking forward to having her with us for a long break. I’m looking forward to driving around and looking at Christmas lights on houses around town with the whole family. And while Christmas presents aren’t as big of a deal as they once were, I look forward to watching my family open gifts on Christmas Day. The glow of the lights in her empty room will serve as a source of hope as we anticipate her return in the days ahead.

It’s so easy to get drawn in by the simplicity and certainty of what was. In truth, the past does hold a great many wonderful memories. This time of year allows us to look back and remember good times with great friends and loving family.

On the other hand, it also is a season of looking ahead in anticipation of the hope of what is to come. It is a time to look forward to the memories that are yet to be made and the joy of being with those who make the memories worth remembering.

Time continues to march on, though, and if we’re not careful, we can get lost in our longing for the glory of what was or dreaming of the wonder of what could be. If we’re not careful, we can miss the miracle of what is right in front of us in the process.

In the church world, our current season is referred to as Advent. The term means “the coming.” It has a double meaning and involves a looking back but also a looking forward.

During this season, we look back on the day when the son of God, Jesus Christ, came into the world more than 2000 years ago. It’s a time to remember the greatest gift of God, the baby born in a manger, the very presence of God with us.

But it also is a time to look forward to the day when Christ will come again. It is a reminder that the hope of days gone by also is the hope of days to come, that God has not finished his work in this world. The light that came into the world to bring life to all of humanity still shines today, giving joy in the present and hope for tomorrow.

As we put up our trees and hang our decorations, we remember with gratitude the joys of the past. At the same time, we continue to look forward to the good things we hope are on the horizon. But may we do so with a sense of awe and awareness of the grace that God gives for today.

It’s OK to feel the sting that comes with remembering what was and will not be again. It’s proper to celebrate as we anticipate what is yet to come. But as we do, let’s make an effort to be fully present in the moment, taking in the experiences and sensations with the people and places God has blessed you with in the present.

There is an old quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that feels incredibly trite but also very true: “Today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” May we both receive and give the gift of presence as we experience the grace God has in store for us during this season of hope.

The Rev. Jeremy Myers is the lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Seymour. Read his blog at Send comments to [email protected].