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presenceSo, what did you give for Christmas?

It provides a bit more insight to the character of a person when prompted to describe the gifts given during this holiday season. (Unfortunately for this writer, the insight is far too disappointing – but I digress.)

The question is particularly interesting in the context of recipients who, from all appearances, have every material thing they need. A similar relationship exists with persons whose needs far exceed the resources or abilities of the gift giver. Both dynamics pose the same question, what do you give someone who has no need for the things you can afford to buy?

The question makes us squirm, especially if the recipient is someone we care for – a close friend in emotional distress, an elderly parent, or a young person struggling with some health issue. All these are examples of someone with needs that can’t be met with a quick trip to Target or a McDonald’s gift card.

For these situations, it is best to consider some form of post-Christmas gift exchange.

After the wrapping paper is disposed, the gift ribbons removed from Fido’s head, and the gift socks packed away (for the only time they will be a matched pair, in my case), it may be appropriate to give those who are important to us, those who need us, the gift of our time.

These are days where families are ‘hyper scheduled’ with school and athletic events crowd out any free space on our calendars. These family calendars also contend with a new business world in which decisions must always be made, tasks completed, and problems solved as workers find themselves wired to a 24×7 global workplace.

The situation is even more compounded by a dynamic, though sometimes chaotic economy that sometimes scatters families to all corners of the country, leaving some of us to rely on e-mail and Facebook ‘likes’ to keep in touch with those around us in what are becoming increasingly  ‘virtual’ families.

And in the middle of all this comes Christmas, a hybrid religious/secular day when we challenge ourselves to give gifts of meaning to those around us. All the while, we all fully understand that the only real gift that means anything is the gift of our time.

I remember my days as a child – we lived in a house that was close enough to the airport where my dad and I could watch the passenger jets approach and depart. My dad sometimes worked three jobs to pay the bills. But there still were the occasional summer evenings when we would just sit on our back patio, he with a beer and a cigar, me with a glass of Vernor’s ginger ale. We didn’t say much, kind of just sat there, enjoying the summer evening with each other, watching the jets come and go. Some nights we would walk out of our driveway and just stare at the stars, my dad would say something like ‘have you ever seen anything so beautiful?’ — I would elaborate at length, ‘Nope.’

Funny how I don’t remember many of the Christmas gifts I received from my parents, but the moments with my dad looking at the stars, and with my mom as she worked in the garden, were all moments of few words, but deep connections.

And as my wife and I have watched our parents age and pass to the Kingdom, we have had the fortune to experience (all too infrequently) the joy of simply sitting with them, sometimes chatting, sometimes just listening to music, musing about the challenges of parenting, of growing old, of facing the inevitability of transition.

We have any number of different forces tugging at our schedules – yet the gifts of time we have given those whose only real need is time to share, are gifts that we learn must be given with joy.

I do not dismiss our secular tradition of gift giving. There is a true joy that people encounter as they stress to find the perfect gift for loved ones – I would even suggest that parents’ gift giving is a self-centered exercise, for nothing gives joy to parents more than the sound of squealing children as they bulldoze their way through their presents. And there  is real magic that happens when we successfully find  that special gift to celebrate the connection that exists with those we love.

But our faith also calls us to remember those around us who have needs that go beyond things given.

For those who spend the rest of the year alone, in physical or emotional loneliness, struggling with serious issues, or just dealing with a life that seems to have lost its luster, there is always a need for Christmas.

It wouldn’t take much work for us to think of those who could use such a gift — friends with ill children, with threatened marriages, friends or relatives who grapple with substance abuse, persons who feel their mistakes in life make them unworthy of any year-round present.

Pope Francis recently said that  “our life is made of time and time is God’s gift”. I suggest we  share that gift by using our fancy calendar technology to schedule a ‘gift  appointment’, three months, six months, nine months from now with someone who doesn’t need anything.

These may be scheduled or spontaneous exchanges, so long as they take the form of a real, personal visit, a short walk, a cup of coffee, a quick beer (and/or ginger ale),  in any setting that provides for the sharing of a few moments, be they moments of lively chatter, bantering about bygone days, or spent quietly looking at the stars.

Such a gift can be presented in any number of ways — with a note enclosed with those socks we were going to give, a family calendar with appointment dates already marked out, an automated invite spewed by that fancy calendar service we use, or maybe a socially networked message that arranges a meeting to remind us that there really is nothing ‘virtual’ about meaningful social engagement.

And when the gift is redeemed, sometime weeks or months from now,  both the gift giver and receiver will be reminded that Christmas was never meant to be a day, but an eternal fulfillment of a promise that we will never be alone.

Merry Christmas to all.