But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.. --I Peter 3:15
At a winter retreat in northern New England, three large groups on retreat from different Christian circles found themselves sharing a noon meal in the cafeteria of a conference center buried deep in the woods. Through large plate-glass windows, we ate our lunch in awe, mesmerized by the beauty of the large snowflakes drifting down outside, adding yet another layer of white to the mounds of snow already covering the grounds. The lake below was frozen, but the ice was only visible where some enterprising guests had cleared a patch so they could ice skate.
The sounds and smells of the wood burning in the large fireplace added to the magical feel, and gradually the room filled with cheerful chatter amidst the clink of glasses and the sounds of forks and spoons tapping plates as we ate. At our table, one of the men decided to engage us all in the same conversation by asking the question "What was your favorite Christmas gift ever?" A large man seated next to me seemed eager to answer. "That's easy," he replied, as he glanced at an older man on his other side. He then told his story.
"A few years back, I finished college thinking I was a sure bet to play professional football. I was so sure, in fact, that I'd already begun spending in my head the huge amounts of money I just knew I'd be making. To make a long story short, it soon became apparent I was the only person who believed I'd be playing in the NFL; as no one drafted me and I got zero invitations to tryouts. Zero! The harder I pushed to get a shot, the more candid the answers grew until finally one coach sat me down to show me---us---using game films I'd sent him---precisely what an average player I'd always been. 'We see you all the time,' he said firmly, 'small high school leads to small college leads to big dreams because you're a big fish in a little pond. Well, son, this is the ocean here' he said, pointing to the NFL facility, 'and here you'd just get gobbled up as bait.'"
"I was devastated...," he told us as our whole table listened quietly. "...and I was ill-prepared. I was so cocky throughout college that I never even bothered to seriously pursue my degree, which I hadn't completed when my football eligibility ran out. And I was angry. I blamed everyone but the one person I should have blamed: Me. Things went downhill from there. Bitterness ate at me and I shared that bitterness with anyone who tried to help me."
Just then a leader at another table tapped his knife against his glass to get everyone's attention. Succeeding, he announced a need for the praise band to gather as soon as possible for a once-through on the afternoon music.
"That's me" our storyteller told us, "so I'll cut to the chase. On the second Christmas---and second season without football--- I went to a Sunday evening Christmas play at this guy's (pointing to his seatmate) church. Not because I wanted Jesus, but just to see my niece in her Christmas pageant. IIt's hard to describe what happened because it sounds silly, but right in the middle of that kids' play, I felt like I needed to be with those shepherds and angels meeting Jesus. When that crowd finished singing 'Silent Night', I just sat there weeping, not knowing what to do but knowing I didn't want to leave."
With that, the big guy stood up to head off to his praise band practice, but not before reaching down and squeezing the shoulder of the guy next to him. "I got my best Christmas present ever that very night, when this guy, who saw me crying, sent his family home without him so he could tell me how to meet Jesus...which I did." With that, the big guy rushed off, leaving us all feeling like we wanted to hear more.
It was then that the guy who led this man to Jesus piped up, cheerfully, "And that, guys, was MY best Christmas present ever."
This Christmas, as we go about picking the right clothes for church and the right gifts for family, may the joyful simplicity of the story of Jesus' birth be the story we tell anyone who will listen. For hearing and telling that story is the real reason for this Season, and for many of us, it remains the greatest gift we've never given.