Invariably, about this time of year I start thinking about gift giving. What? You say we only have HOW MANY DAYS until Christmas?


I must admit that shopping gives me the heebie-jeebies. Call me gift-idea challenged.

For instance, there was the time I gave someone special a backscratcher for her birthday. Now, this was not just any backscratcher. It was a handcrafted Ozark backscratcher with a beautifully stained wooden handle, a built-in telescoping shaft, and prongs resembling bear claws! The giftee smiled and politely thanked me, but I got the impression she was underwhelmed. My daughter Abby gave this same person a drawing that went over much better. At least I tried.

All joking aside, I know of an especially good gift, one that’s appropriate for anyone on any occasion. I’ll tell you about that shortly, but first I’d like to share a little about something my wife Julie and I did recently.

Our church is one of more than 20 congregations participating in Family Promise of Pulaski County. The congregations serve as hosts to homeless families with children under 18 years old, offering the families places to stay, transportation, food and other necessities. While the children are in school each weekday, the adults can go about such things as going to work (or finding work) and looking for permanent homes. Each participating congregation serves as a host for a week about every three months.

So, during a church service one morning a volunteer sign-up sheet was passed around, and Julie signed us up to serve as hosts for an evening, a mere three-hour commitment. “It just seemed like something we could do to help out,” she said.

Turns out that evening was one of the most special times I’ve ever had.

We met the families, which included four small children, late on a Wednesday afternoon. One girl, who was 4, won my heart immediately when she walked up, smiled, and gave me a hug. Then a boy of 7 asked me to record him with my smartphone as he went through a series of martial arts motions. He had lightning moves.

Soon it was time for us all to go up to the fellowship hall, where other volunteers served us dinner. We had a nice time getting further acquainted over meatloaf, hearing about each youngster’s day at school.

Afterward we adjourned to our Sunday school classroom, which for that week had been converted into a lounge, providing a refrigerator and pantry area, plus a couch, a television and tables. Nearby classrooms had been converted to bedrooms.

Julie sat at one table and looked at books with a couple of the girls, then played a board game with one of them. I sat at another table with my aspiring martial artist, whose interest now had turned to very meticulously coloring in pictures in a coloring book. We chatted, and he occasionally asked my advice on what to color something. We decided a horse looked best in blue. I learned that he liked math and English.

We also talked with the parents and were struck by at least three things: how engaged they were in their children’s lives; how hard they worked; and how dedicated they were to trying to make a better life for their families through this program.

Then the next two hosts showed up. They would spend the night at the church. And so it went that week, the families stayed until Sunday morning, then moved on to another church.

This brings me back to that especially good gift. Julie and I gave several families some of our time one evening. While neither of us went into the situation expecting anything in return, what we received was extraordinary. I will not soon forget that 4-year-old’s smile and hug. Nor will I soon forget the sincere gratitude of struggling adults, knowing they have a roof over their heads and food for their families, or the feeling of spending time with a boy, so full of life, who liked to punch and kick the air (reminding me of my own son when he was that age).

If you’re unsure about what to give someone this season, I recommend you give your time. Just being with someone, giving them your undivided attention, is the most precious present you can ever give. And the beauty of it is that you benefit from the gift as well. In the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “For it is in giving that we receive.”