Gifts. They are a huge part of Christmas and for the most part we love them. We love to give them and we love to receive them. Pastors often give their congregations gifts that the church never thinks about. Let me share with you our story concerning certain Christmas gifts.
When Debra and I went to serve our first church in Kelso, Washington, we moved away from “home.” All of our extended family lived in or around central Minnesota. When we came to our first Christmas and our first Easter it was the first time we did not get to celebrate either of those major Christian holidays with our extended families. So that first Christmas we bought a tree and set it up in the parsonage. We sent gifts to family through the mail and received several packages from parents, siblings and others who lived far away. It was our adventure, to start a new tradition in the Gary and Debra Witkop family. We would have Christmas with, at that time, just the four of us.
That first Christmas in Kelso, spending Christmas away from parents and grandparents meant making phone calls to several family gatherings more than 1,000 miles away. We made the best of it, but it did leave us a little lonely for the traditional Christmas of children, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and especially, grandparents.
For many pastors, missionaries and their families this is the life we are asked to live. Often a pastor is called to serve a church far from extended family. This is always true for our missionaries in other countries. This then becomes our gift to the churches we are called to serve. We give you the gift of being with you instead of with our extended families.
Debra and I believed that the two most important services in our churches were Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday. As a result, we made the determination that we would not travel home for either holiday. As pastor and wife serving a local church, we felt that we needed to be there for the two biggest events of the year in our church. For the most part we never looked back. This we did for 29 consecutive years gathering our children and eventually our first grandchildren at our home around a Christmas tree in our living room. It was Christmas at the Witkops’ and we made the most of it.
Moving forward 29 years, I received a call to become a Regional Pastor (RP). One of the first things the five newly minted RPs learned is that there are seasons of busyness in our work. But when the churches are the busiest, we tend to be less busy. After all, when the local pastor is most busy, he doesn’t need us getting in the way. So we tend to schedule fewer visits when their schedules are the fullest. As a result, after 29 years of never celebrating Christmas with our extended family we were given a gift. We became free to travel to see family.
We took advantage of that gift when my grandmother was 102 years old, and we knew it would be her last Christmas on this side of eternity. Debra and I bought airline tickets and flew to Arkansas and spent Christmas with my grandmother and aunt and uncle. What a delight! What a welcome gift to us! Grandma was unable to have Christmas in her home so we bought a small tree and ornaments and brought them to the apartment to which she had just moved. We went to the local Walmart and bought room decorations. We made her room as festive as we could.
On Christmas Eve we received a second Christmas gift: we found ourselves for the first time since graduating from seminary in a Christmas Eve service that I was not leading and in which Debra was not singing or doing a reading. At first it felt strange not working on Christmas Eve. Not being “up front.” Not preparing a message or planning the service was hard, but soon I was enjoying the Christmas message completely free from obligation, but fully aware of the gift the local pastor was bestowing upon us. He was not only proclaiming the message of a Savior who left heaven to bring salvation to those who did not deserve it… he was modeling self-sacrifice by leaving behind extended family to be with us on Christmas!
Now I have to be honest and say that there is a lot I miss about being a pastor of a local church. I enjoyed that work. It is hard being on the road as an RP, away from Debra who is busy teaching her third grade class. But there are also some things I, and I believe all the RPs, are finding new and gift-like in our work.
Gifts come in all sizes and shapes, but some of the best are not wrapped up in packages of any kind.
Rev. Gary Witkop serves the Church of the Lutheran Brethren as Regional Pastor of the Western Region.