Joy To The World

The Small White Envelope

- It's just a small, white envelope stuck among the branches of our Christmas tree. No name, no identification, no inscription. It has peeked through the branches of our tree for the past 10 years or so.

It all began because my husband Mike hated Christmas--oh, not the true meaning of Christmas, but the commercial aspects of it--overspending, the frantic running around at the last minute to get a tie for Uncle Harry and the dusting powder for Grandma, the gifts given in desperation because you couldn't think of anything else.

Knowing he felt this way, I decided one year to bypass the usual shirts, sweaters, ties, and so forth. I reached for something special just for Mike. The inspiration came in an unusual way.

Our son Kevin, who was 12 that year, was wrestling at the junior level at the school he attended, and shortly before Christmas there was a non-league match against a team sponsored by an inner-city church, mostly black. These youngsters, dressed in sneakers so ragged that shoestrings seemed to be the only thing holding them together, presented a sharp contrast to our boys in their spiffy blue and gold uniforms and sparkling new wrestling shoes.

As the match began, I was alarmed to see that the other team was wrestling without headgear, a kind of light helmet designed to protect a wrestler's ears. It was a luxury the ragtag team obviously could not afford. Well, we ended up walloping them. We took every weight class. As each of their boys got up from the mat, he swaggered around in his tatters with false bravado, a kind of street pride that couldn't acknowledge defeat.

Mike, seated beside me, shook his head sadly, "I wish just one of them could have won," he said. "They have a lot of potential, but losing like this could take the heart right out of them."

Mike loved kids--all kids--and he knew them, having coached little league football, baseball and lacrosse. That's when the idea for his present came. That afternoon, I went to a local sporting goods store and bought an assortment of wrestling headgear and shoes and sent them anonymously to the inner-city church. On Christmas Eve, I placed the envelope on the tree, the note inside telling Mike what I had done, and that this was his gift from me. His smile was the brightest thing about Christmas that year and in succeeding years.

For each Christmas, I followed the tradition--one year sending a group of mentally handicapped youngsters to a hockey game, another year a check to a pair of elderly brothers whose home had burned to the ground the week before Christmas, and on and on.

The envelope became the highlight of our Christmas. It was always the last thing opened on Christmas morning, and our children, ignoring their new toys, would stand with wide-eyed anticipation as their dad lifted the envelope from the tree to reveal its contents.

As the children grew, the toys gave way to more practical presents, but the envelope never lost its allure. The story doesn't end there.

You see, we lost Mike last year due to dreaded cancer. When Christmas rolled around, I was still so wrapped in grief that I barely got the tree up. But Christmas Eve found me placing an envelope on the tree, and in the morning, it was joined by three more.

Each of our children, unbeknownst to the others, had placed an envelope on the tree for their dad. The tradition has grown, and some day will expand even further with our grandchildren standing around the tree with wide-eyed anticipation watching as their fathers take down the envelope. Mike's spirit, like the Christmas spirit, will always be with us.

May we all remember Christ, who is the reason for the season.--By Marilyn Jensen. Previously published in "Christmas in the Heart, Part 2."

Angels in Indiana

- In September 1960, I woke up one morning with six hungry babies and just 75 cents in my pocket. Their father was gone.

The boys ranged from three months to seven years; their sister was two. Their dad had never been much more than a presence they feared. Whenever they heard his tires crunch on the gravel driveway, they would scramble to hide under their beds. He did manage to leave 15 dollars a week to buy groceries. Now that he had decided to leave, there would be no more beatings, but no food either. If there was a welfare system in effect in southern Indiana at that time, I certainly knew nothing about it.

I scrubbed the kids until they looked brand-new and then put on my best homemade dress. I loaded them into the rusty old '51 Chevy and drove off to find a job. The seven of us went to every factory, store, and restaurant in our small town. No luck. The kids stayed, crammed into the car, and tried to be quiet while I tried to convince whoever would listen that I was willing to learn or do anything. I had to have a job. Still no luck.

The last place we went to, just a few miles out of town, was an old Root Beer Barrel drive-in that had been converted to a truck stop. It was called the Big Wheel.

An old lady named Granny owned the place and she peeked out of the window from time to time at all those kids. She needed someone on the graveyard shift, 11 at night until seven in the morning. She paid 65 cents an hour and I could start that night.

I raced home and called the teenager down the street that baby-sat for people. I bargained with her to come and sleep on my sofa for a dollar a night. She could arrive with her pajamas on and the kids would already be asleep. This seemed like a good arrangement to her, so we made a deal.

That night when the little ones and I knelt to say our prayers, we all thanked God for finding Mommy a job. And so I started at the Big Wheel. When I got home in the mornings I woke the baby-sitter up and sent her home with one dollar of my tip money--fully half of what I averaged every night.

As the weeks went by, heating bills added another strain to my meager wage. The tires on the old Chevy had the consistency of penny balloons and began to leak. I had to fill them with air on the way to work and again every morning before I could go home.

One bleak fall morning, I dragged myself to the car to go home and found four tires in the back seat. New tires! There was no note, no nothing, just those beautiful brand-new tires.

"Had angels taken up residence in Indiana?" I wondered.

I made a deal with the owner of the local service station. In exchange for his mounting the new tires, I would clean up his office. I remember it took me a lot longer to scrub his floor than it did for him to do the tires.

I was now working six nights instead of five, and it still wasn't enough. Christmas was coming and I knew there would be no money for toys for the kids. I found a can of red paint and started repairing and painting some old toys.

Then I hid them in the basement so there would be something for Santa to deliver on Christmas morning. Clothes were a worry too. I was sewing patches on top of patches on the boys' pants, and soon they would be too far gone to repair.

On Christmas Eve the usual customers were drinking coffee in the Big Wheel. These were the truckers, Les, Frank, and Jim, and a state trooper named Joe. A few musicians were hanging around after a gig at the Legion and were dropping nickels in the pinball machine. The regulars all just sat around and talked through the wee hours of the morning and then left to get home before the sun came up. When it was time for me to go home at seven o'clock on Christmas morning I hurried to the car.

I was hoping the kids wouldn't wake up before I managed to get home and get the presents from the basement and place them under the tree. (We had cut down a small cedar tree by the side of the road down by the dump.)

It was still dark and I couldn't see much, but there appeared to be some dark shadows in the car--or was that just a trick of the night? Something certainly looked different, but it was hard to tell what. When I reached the car I peered warily into one of the side windows. Then my jaw dropped in amazement. My old battered Chevy was full to the top with boxes of all shapes and sizes.

I quickly opened the driver's side door, scrambled inside and kneeled in the front facing the back seat. Reaching back, I pulled off the lid of the top box. Inside was a whole case of little blue jeans, sizes 2-10! I looked inside another box: It was full of shirts to go with the jeans. Then I peeked inside some of the other boxes: There were candy and nuts and bananas and bags of groceries. There was an enormous ham for baking, and canned vegetables and potatoes. There was pudding and Jell-o and cookies, pie filling and flour. There was a whole bag of laundry supplies and cleaning items. And there were five toy trucks and one beautiful little doll.

As I drove back through empty streets as the sun slowly rose on the most amazing Christmas Day of my life, I was sobbing with gratitude. And I will never forget the joy on the faces of my little ones that precious morning. Yes, there were angels in Indiana that long-ago December. And they all hung out at the Big Wheel truck stop.--Barb Irwin. Previously published in "Christmas in the Heart, Part 3."

Christmas is for Love

- Christmas is for love. It is for joy, for giving and for sharing, for laughter, for reuniting with family and old friends, for tinsel and brightly decorated packages. But mostly it is for love. I had not believed this until a small elf-like student with wide, innocent eyes and soft rosy cheeks gave me a wondrous gift one Christmas.

Mark was an 11-year-old orphan who lived with his aunt--a bitter middle-aged woman greatly annoyed with the burden of caring for her dead sister's small son. She never failed to remind young Mark that, but for her generosity, he would be a vagrant homeless waif. Still, with all the scolding and chilliness at home, he was a sweet and gentle child.

I had not noticed Mark particularly until he began staying after class each day (at the risk of arousing his aunt's anger, I later found) to help me straighten up the classroom. We did this quietly and comfortably, not speaking much, but enjoying the solitude for that hour of the day. When we did talk, Mark spoke mostly about his mother. Though he was quite small when she died, he remembered a kind, gentle, loving woman, who always spent much time with him.

As Christmas grew nearer, however, Mark failed to stay after school each day. I looked forward to his coming, and when, as the days passed, he continued to scamper hurriedly from the room after class, I stopped him one afternoon and asked why he no longer helped me in the room.

"I miss being with you, Mark. Is something wrong at home?"

Those large gray eyes eagerly lit up. "Did you really miss me?"

"Yes, of course. You're my best helper."

"I was making you a surprise for Christmas," he whispered confidentially.

With that, he became embarrassed and dashed from the room. He didn't stay after school anymore after that.

Finally came the last day of school before the holidays. Mark crept slowly into the room late that afternoon with his hands concealing something behind his back.

"I have your present," He said timidly when I looked up. "I hope you like it."

He held out his hands, and there lying in his small palm was a tiny wooden chest.

"It's beautiful, Mark. Is there something in it?" I asked, opening the top and looking in.

"Oh, you can't see what's in it," he replied, "and you can't touch it or taste it, but Mother always said it makes you feel good all the time, and warm on cold nights, and safe when you're all alone."

I gazed into the empty box. "What is it, Mark?" I asked gently. "What will make me feel so good?"

"It's love," he whispered softly," and Mother always said it's best when you give it away." And he turned and quietly left the room.

So now I keep a small toy chest, crudely made of scraps of wood, on the piano in my living room, and only smile as inquiring friends raise quizzical eyebrows when I explain to them there is love in it.

Yes, Christmas is for gaiety and mirth and song, for rich food and wondrous gifts. But mostly, Christmas is for love.--Laurie.

Jessica's Gift

From "A Treasury of Christmas Miracles," by Karen Kingsbury

Nestled in the heart of the town of Cottonwood, Arizona, behind the post office in an unassuming house, lived a little girl named Jessica Warner. In many ways there was nothing unusual about Jessica. She was five years old with naturally curly, golden blonde hair and blue eyes that shone with unfettered joy. She had a smile that brightened any room even in a town where the sun shone almost every day of the year. And she had a favorite doll named Molly, tattered and smudged and loved into a raggedy state.

The Warner family loved everything about living in Cottonwood. It was a town where parents visited at weekend soccer games and people waved at each other up and down Main Street whether they knew you or not. Joe Anderson, the barber, and Steven Simmons, the paint store manager, hung signs in their windows stating, "Mingus Rocks!" as a way of cheering on the Mingus High School football team, which every year toyed with the idea of a state title. It was a town where doors went unlocked, children played safely on their rock-garden front yards, and teens complained about having nothing to do.

Although the seasons didn't leave their mark on Cottonwood the way they might in a Midwestern town or a seaport along the Atlantic Ocean, the Warners savored the subtle changes. Sparkling spring days, when the sun played on the distant red rocks of Sedona; the heat of summer, when great monsoons would sweep into the Verde Valley; and fall, when the wind kicked up and Yavapai County Fairgrounds played host to the annual Harvest Festival.

But really, the months were like a yearlong crescendo building their way to the Warners' favorite time of all: the Christmas season, when the high-desert town of Cottonwood came to life as miraculously--the townspeople suspected--as Bethlehem had some two thousand years earlier.

The official arrival of the Christmas season was marked each year with the ritual of the city manager and his deputy climbing up the ladder on Ernie Gray's fire truck and stringing the "Happy Holidays" garland across Main Street. Between then and the morning of the Christmas parade, homeowners around town took part in an unofficial house-decorating contest that was usually won by someone living in the prestigious community at the top of Highway 269, not far from Quail Springs at the base of Mingus Mountain.

Jessica's mother, Cindy, knew they'd never have enough money to compare with the decorating in Quail Springs, but they decorated all the same. At least they used to.

As Christmas drew near, it was clear to everyone in the Warner home that this year would be different. And so, when the garland was strung up along Main Street, Jessica began to pray a special prayer out loud in her bed at night. Long after saying good night and being tucked into bed--separately--by her parents, Jessica would close her eyes and raise one hand high above her head, reaching out to God. "Dear God," she would whisper, "I'm not telling Mommy and Daddy about this, so please listen good. It's Christmastime and that's when You listen really hard to little girls' prayers. My teacher told me so. My prayer is this, God: please make Mommy and Daddy love each other again."

Though they were no longer churchgoers and prayer was something forgotten in the Warner home, little Jessica prayed the same prayer every night that season. And in that way, she was like many boys and girls in many homes all across the country praying for their parents to love each other.

But Jessica was also very different. This precious one could neither run nor skip nor hopscotch with her girlfriends. She could not jump rope or play hide-and-seek or run three-legged races. She couldn't even walk.

Jessica had cerebral palsy. It was something the townspeople of Cottonwood both knew and understood. Something that made them protective of little Jessica, causing them to go out of their way to wave at her in the aisles of Smith's Market or tousle her beautiful blonde curls as they passed and remind her that only angels were as pretty as she was.

Jessica was something of a fixture around Cottonwood, and the people who lived there felt richer for her presence. The child was too young to understand all of that, but Cottonwood was her home, her town. And Steve and Cindy Warner knew their daughter wouldn't want to live anywhere else for all the world.

That year, sometime after the garland was hung, Jessica asked her mother why her legs didn't work the same as those of other children. Cindy bent down and hugged her daughter close, her chest trembling as she tried to control the tears that welled up at the question. Gently, she helped Jessica to the living room sofa.

"I'd like to tell you a story, okay, honey?" Cindy ran her hand over Jessica's silky hair.

The little girl nodded and clutched more tightly to her Molly doll. "A story about me, Mommy?"

Cindy blinked back tears. "Yes, Jessie, a story about you. About what happened when you were born."

Then Cindy told her daughter of how she had been born a little too soon, before she was ready. Doctors had tried to stop Cindy from delivering but it was no use, and Jessica Marie was born ten weeks early, fighting for every breath. Three months later, when she had gained enough weight to go home, it was with this warning from her doctor: "I'm quite certain Jessica has some cerebral palsy. This is not something she will outgrow; but it is something that can be worked with."

Cindy paused. "You're very special, Jessica. God told me so Himself the day He gave you to me."

The rest of the story Cindy kept to herself. How for that first year Steve and Cindy had refused to talk about their fears, and how they'd blamed Jessica's low birth weight when she didn't roll over or sit up or crawl like other babies her age. How in the days and months and years since then they'd anchored deep on opposite sides of Jessica's health issues.

The truth was they'd stopped taking Jessica to church after her first birthday only to avoid the curious comments and questions from their friends.

That was the year Steve purchased a pair of pink ballet slippers and hung them on a hook above Jessica's crib. "You're my perfect little princess," he whispered to the sleeping child. "And one day you'll dance across the room for me, won't you, honey?"

But doctors assured the Warners there would be no dancing for Jessica. The cerebral palsy did not affect her mind, but her motor skills were severely lacking. She would be doing well to be using a walker by the time she entered kindergarten.

When it became clear how great Jessica's handicap was, Cindy quit her job to stay home and work with her daughter. She helped the child through hours of stretching routines and exercises, and both mother and child were often exhausted by the end of the day.

"You're wasting your time," Steve would tell her. "She doesn't need all that work, Cindy. She's going to outgrow this thing. Wait and see."

And so they remained. Cindy's days were spent helping Jessica live with cerebral palsy. Steve's were spent denying she had it. Worst of all, in the midst of their miserable lives, their love for God grew cold and distant. In time, the only member of the Warner household who listened to Bible stories and prayed to Jesus was Jessica, who after her second birthday went to church each Sunday with her grandparents.

The years had passed slowly, and in all the ways Steve and Cindy could see, Jessica made little improvement. Days before her fifth birthday, she learned to spread her knees wide and crawl across the floor in a series of short, jerky motions. It was a victory, no matter how small, and Steve and Cindy shared Jessica's excitement.

"That's my girl," Steve told her. "One day you'll outgrow that cerebral palsy and wear those ballet slippers."

But that night after Jessica was asleep, Cindy broke down and cried. "Her progress is so slow," she admitted. "I've done all the exercises, all the stretches. I've watched her diet and read every book on the subject. I've done everything I can. Why isn't she making more improvements?"

"I've told you, Cindy. You have to be patient. She'll outgrow this thing when she gets older."

"She'll never outgrow it, Steve," Cindy screamed at him. "If we work with her, she can make progress. But you're never going to come through that door one night and find her dancing in those silly ballet slippers. Don't you understand?"

Steve didn't understand, and after that their lives grew even more separate. They communicated only when necessary and began socializing in separate circles. Cindy joined a cerebral palsy support group and finally found the understanding she'd been missing. The members of the support group did not deny Jessica's problems but rather brainstormed with her for solutions.

Meanwhile, Steve had been given a promotion and with it the task of organizing after-work events. His office friends were cheerful and upbeat, and Steve was often the life of the party. He liked them because they didn't know about Jessica's cerebral palsy, so they never talked about muscle coordination, support groups, or daily exercises.

Often, entire weeks went by where Steve and Cindy saw each other only minutes at a time, silently passing each other like strangers in the hallways of the Warner home.

It was in her fourth year that Jessica had noticed something was wrong with her mommy and daddy. They didn't kiss and hug and hold hands like other parents. And by this Christmas, Jessica knew there was only one answer. So each night before she fell asleep, Jessica would whisper her simple prayer, asking God to make her mommy and daddy love each other. But it hadn't seemed to make a difference.

Finally, two weeks before Christmas, Steve took Cindy's hand gently in his own and studied her face. "It isn't working between us, is it?" he asked her.

Tears sprang to Cindy's eyes, but her gaze remained calmly fixed on Steve's. "No, I guess it isn't."

"I'll talk to a divorce lawyer," Steve said gently. "But let's wait until after Christmas. For Jessica's sake."

As with most children, Jessica could tell things were worse between her parents. She talked it over with Molly, her beloved dolly. "I'm asking God to make them love each other," she said. "But they aren't very nice to each other anymore. I'm scared, Molly. Really scared."

At dinner one night, Jessica broke the silence. "Please, can we all go to church together this Sunday?" she asked. "Preacher's going to tell the Christmas story, and he said the whole family's invited."

Steve and Cindy exchanged a cool glance and then looked away, embarrassed. Steve cleared his throat. "Yes, sweetheart, that'll be fine," he said. "We'll all go to church together this Sunday. Like a family."

When Sunday came, they dressed Jessica in a white satin dress and sat beside her for the first time in years. The service was put on by all the Christian churches in town and held at the high school auditorium as it was each year at that time. The message was of hope and joy, the story of the Christ child born to a weary world so that men might live forevermore. It was a message that was tried and true, and in their private prisons of pain, Steve and Cindy quietly realized the mistake they'd made by walking away from their faith.

"God gave the greatest gift of all, the gift of pure love wrapped in flesh and bones, the gift of His Son," the minister's voice rang clear. "But what of you? What will you give to the Savior this year?"

There was silence in the auditorium.

Tentatively, Steve ran a single finger along Jessica's stiff legs.

"I urge you," the pastor added quietly, "to take time these next few days and lay something at the Savior's feet. Something you love...or something you need to leave behind. Perhaps something that should have been laid there a long time ago."

On the way home that morning, Jessica turned to her father. "Did you hear him, Daddy?" she asked. "He said love is the greatest gift of all."

"Sure, honey," Steve said, staring straight ahead at the road in front of him.

"That's what I'm getting for you and Mommy this year," she announced merrily. "A whole lot of love."

Jessica thought a moment and then continued. "Preacher also said to give something to Jesus, something you love very much. Isn't that right, Mommy?"

"That's right, honey."

Steve and Cindy forgot about Jessica's conversation until the next morning as they were getting ready for the day. First Steve, then Cindy, spotted something near the nativity scene set up on the living room floor. It was Molly, Jessica's precious baby doll. She had laid it tenderly at the feet of the baby Jesus.

That afternoon while Steve was at the office, Cindy studied Jessica as she napped. "What was the point of the pastor's message?" she wondered. "If love was such a great gift, how come her marriage was dissolving? How come Jessica had cerebral palsy? The child loved God enough to give Him her Molly doll, but what had God ever done for her, for any of them?"

Cindy returned to the main room and sat alone listening to the haunting sounds of Christmas carols on the radio. She wanted to believe, but still the thought remained: What had the Christ child ever done for them?

When Steve returned late that night, Cindy was already in bed. But before he slipped under the sheets next to her, she felt him do something he hadn't done in months. He leaned over and gently kissed her good night.

The next day was Christmas Eve, and Steve was gone to work when Cindy woke up. She climbed out of bed, fixed breakfast for Jessica, and led her through two hours of stretches and exercises. Only then, just before lunchtime, did she again notice something unusual about the nativity scene. Molly's doll was gone, and now a manila envelope lay at the foot of the manger.

Curious, Cindy approached it and took the envelope in her hands. There on the outside were these words scribbled in Steve's handwriting:

"Lord, I have something to lay at Your feet. Something I love very much. I give You my word: from now on I will accept Jessica as she is. I have been horribly unfair to my family by pretending she will one day be different than who You made her to be. I understand now. Jessica can only learn to live with her cerebral palsy if I learn to live with it first."

Cindy opened the package, and there, inside, were the unused pink ballet slippers that had hung on Jessica's wall for four years.

Cindy curved her fingers around the slippers and allowed the tears to come. She cried because her little girl would never wear them, never dance as her father had once dreamed. But she also cried because if Steve was finally ready to accept the truth, then maybe he was ready to work with her and not against her. Maybe there was hope after all.

She wiped her eyes and looked at the carved figurine of the Christ child, and suddenly the answer to her question became clear. Jesus had given them Himself. Because of Him they could learn to love again. With Him they could survive as a family. And through Him they could live eternally in a place where Jessica could run and play and jump with the other children.

Cindy fell to her knees and hung her head. "Forgive me, Lord." And as she stayed there, she began to wonder what a flawed woman like herself could give to one so holy.

Her tears slowed and quietly she tiptoed into Jessica's room and watched her napping. This time she felt no bitterness toward God as she studied the small girl. Golden ringlets softly framed her pretty face and Cindy saw only peace and contentment there as deep in her heart a light dawned. In that moment, with all her being, she was absolutely certain about what she would give to Jesus.

That night when Steve came home, the house was dark but for the lights around the nativity scene. He studied the figurines standing around the Christ child and saw that his envelope was gone. In its place was a smaller white one. Steve crossed the room, set down his overcoat and briefcase, and slid a finger under the flap. Inside was a single sheet of paper and something small wrapped in tissue paper. Steve read the handwritten note with tears in his eyes:

"Dear Lord, I give back to You what You--five years ago--gave to me. I have held on too tightly, Lord, forgotten that this precious gift was never really mine. I let another child take the place of the one that lay in a hay-filled manger that cold night in Bethlehem. And now love has all but died in our home. I'm sorry, Lord. I've tried to make her something other than what You made her, but no more. I'll love her always, but I understand now that she doesn't belong to me. She belongs to you. Now and forevermore."

Steve unwrapped the tissue paper, and there inside lay a single small picture of Jessica.

Steve heard something and turned. With Jessica perched on her hip, Cindy was watching him from the doorway. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears and Steve went to her, hugging her tightly as Jessica wrapped her arms around them both.

"We can't throw it all away. Not when we haven't even tried," he whispered. "I'm ready to work with you, Cindy."

She nodded, choking back a sob. "All my efforts and all your denial and we almost missed the truth," she said. "When she put Molly at Jesus' feet ... Steve, she's perfect just the way she is. She loves more perfectly than either of us ever has. She reminded me of all that God has done for me, for all of us."

"That's her Christmas gift to us, right, sweetheart?" Steve lifted Jessica's chin and kissed her forehead.

Jessica nodded and grinned, first at her daddy and then at the tiny statue of Baby Jesus in the nativity scene. She did not understand everything that had happened between her parents and the Lord that Christmas. Only that the town of Cottonwood felt a little like heaven that week because her prayers had been answered. The preacher had been right.

Love really was the best Christmas miracle of all.

Home for Christmas

From "A Treasury of Christmas Miracles," by Karen Kingsbury

Barbara Oliver was the only one of her five siblings who never quite fit in. When her four sisters played sports with their only brother, she watched on the sidelines. When the girls grew older and began dating, Barbara stayed at home and watched television; she felt too shy and unlovely to mix with the boys her age.

She struggled with her weight and often sat alone at family get-togethers, feeling too self-conscious to participate. And so her peers and even her immediate family often forgot about her, finding it easier to involve themselves in their own lives than to take time to figure out why Barbara was so quiet.

During those crucial formative years, Barbara appeared to have few opinions and even fewer social graces, but inside her lived a young woman nearly bursting with the desire to be loved and cared for. For that reason, from the time she was old enough to walk, she idolized the two men in her life: her brother, Lou, and her father, Hank.

Hank Oliver was a small-town doctor during the years when his family was growing up in Glenview, Illinois. He was the type of practitioner who still made house calls and who allowed his patients to pay him by whatever means they could--even if that meant trading a handpicked bag of produce for one of his visits. He had the lowest charges in town, and while most doctors would only prescribe medications, he was willing to teach people nutrition and preventative measures for improving their health.

Everyone in town loved Doctor Hank, as they called him. The feeling was mutual, and he often spent seven days a week engulfed in his practice. Just a handful of people in Glenview ever wondered if Doctor Hank loved them in return, and they lived under his roof.

"Don't you ever wonder, Lou?" Barbara asked her brother one day when they were in their early teens. "He's gone so much of the time that I'm not sure whether he really loves us or not."

Lou's eyes fell, and he stared at the baseball and glove in his hands. His father had promised to play ball with him that day, but once again he'd been called away for a medical emergency.

"Yeah," he said after a while. "I know what you mean. If he loves us, then why can't he spend more time with us? It seems like he should want to be with us more than with his patients."

Hank was such a happy, good-natured man that the children felt foolish voicing any complaints at all except to each other. But still they missed their father and once in a while continued to wonder about how much he loved them.

Time passed, and Hank's health declined rapidly. He had been diagnosed years before with a disease that made him prone to seizures. But it wasn't until ten years later that he began degenerating and finally had to give up his practice.

He finally succumbed to his illness after making peace with each of his children. Throughout the final days of his life, it was often Barbara and Lou who took turns waiting on him and comforting him.

"What are we going to do without him?" Barbara asked her brother not long after the funeral. "I can't imagine living in a world where he's not around."

Lou nodded. Their family had been raised to love God and obey the Bible. He knew that his father was in Heaven, but still, the pain of losing him was almost too much to bear. Especially after coming to understand in his father's final years just how much the man loved him.

"I don't know, Barbara," he said, putting an arm around her shoulders. "But I know that what Dad taught us is true. He's in Heaven, and one day we'll go to live with him there and we'll all be together again. What a homecoming that'll be, huh?"

Barbara smiled through her tears. "Yeah, and in Heaven he won't have to make house calls."

In the decade that followed, although the rest of Barbara's siblings all went their own ways, Barbara became very attached to her brother, Lou. Shortly after Lou joined the Navy, she, too, joined. When Lou finished serving his time, he married, taught college, and eight years later moved to San Diego, where he began working on his second master's degree at the University of San Diego.

After serving a double hitch in the Navy, Barbara also moved to San Diego and found a house just a few miles from Lou's. She, too, began attending the university.

Lou worried about his sister's lack of independence. "I know she wants to get married and have a family of her own," he confided to his wife, Anna, one day. "But all she does is go to school, work, and sit at home in front of the television set. She can't expect to meet someone living like that."

Anna angled her head thoughtfully. "I think it's just going to take more time with Barbara. She's starting to come out of her shell some, and once she has her degree she'll feel a lot better about things. Don't worry about her."

Besides, it wasn't as if Barbara didn't have a family. She did. Over the next 15 years, Lou and Anna raised four children, and Barbara was always at the center of their family outings.

Over time, Barbara earned a bachelor's degree in rehabilitation and began working in an alcohol-recovery center. Her patients ranged from hopeless adults to troubled teens, and Barbara worked tirelessly with them.

As Barbara became more involved with her patients, Lou and Anna began to notice a change in her.

"You know," Lou said one night as he and his wife washed dinner dishes together at the kitchen sink, "all of us kids growing up used to think there was something wrong with Barbara. We thought she'd never amount to much, I guess because she was so alone and never did the things the rest of us did."

He paused a moment before continuing. "But that isn't true at all. She's got her education and a wonderful job. She gives hope to people who have none, and for dozens of her patients she's the greatest gift God has ever given them."

"I told you, Lou," Anna said warmly. "You used to worry so much about Barbara."

"I still worry about her because she has no family of her own. All she's ever really wanted is a family."

"She's growing at her own pace." Anna smiled, drying her hands on a nearby towel and setting it back on the countertop. "For now, though, it's not like she has no one. We're her family. But one of these days, when she's ready, she will meet the right person and then she'll have her family. She has plenty of time yet. Watch and see."

But a few years later, Barbara was diagnosed with breast cancer. At 43, she was younger than most breast cancer patients, so doctors were at first hopeful she might survive. They removed a cancerous section of her breast, and when the cancer continued to spread, they performed a mastectomy. The surgery was followed up by chemotherapy and radiation treatments, which caused Barbara's hair to fall out and often left her violently ill.

Still, she continued to work, staying home only on the days when she felt sickest. When she was at work, she put her personal troubles behind her and concentrated only on helping her patients.

"That woman is amazing," Anna said one day as she watched Barbara making dinner for her family in the kitchen.

Lou stared thoughtfully at his sister. "She's a fighter, all right. But I'm so worried about her."

"The cancer?"

Lou nodded. "She talked to the doctor yesterday. It's spread into her lymph system."

Anna hung her head and sighed, and for a long time neither of them said anything. There was no need. They both knew what the news meant. When cancer spreads through the lymph system, as it had in Barbara's body, the outcome was too often certain.

That was in the spring, but Barbara continued to work through the first part of November before succumbing to her illness and taking a leave of absence. The cancer had continued to spread, this time beyond her lymph system into her entire body, and doctors didn't expect her to live more than six months.

Now, when Lou visited Barbara at her apartment, their time together was painful for both of them.

"You've got to hang in here and pull through this," Lou would tell her as he sat at the edge of her bed and helped her take sips of ice water. She had lost a lot of weight and her skin looked gray and lifeless.

"I'm trying, Lou, really I am," she would say, never complaining about the effort it took to muster her strength.

When Lou would leave Barbara's apartment, he would often bow his head and pray before driving home. "Lord, please help me see Barbara through this terrible disease. I pray that she lives. But if her time has come to go home to You, I pray You make the transition easy. Please don't let her suffer, Lord."

Throughout November and much of December, Lou got off work early and stopped to visit Barbara. Although her body was obviously deteriorating, she was not bedridden, and Lou was thankful for that. After their visits he would normally return home for dinner and then go back to see Barbara later in the evening, sometimes bringing her a plate of whatever they'd eaten that night.

"It's getting to me, Anna," he confided to his wife one morning. "I hate to see her falling apart. One of these days she's going to be too weak to get off the couch, and then what are we going to do?"

Anna thought a moment. "Well, we could have her come live with us."

Lou had thought of the possibility, but knew it would be difficult to make it work. Each of their three bedrooms was being used, and there wouldn't be anyone home during the day to take care of Barbara. Still, he wanted her to feel welcome. If there was any way they could figure out the logistics, having Barbara come live with them was really the only option Lou could imagine.

That week--two weeks before Christmas--he told Barbara about the idea.

"No way, Lou. Not on your life," she said, trying to sound firm. "You and Anna and the kids have been my family for such a long time; you've done so much for me." She continued, struggling with each word because of her weakened condition. "I'm not going to impose on you now and make you change your whole house around just so I can come there to die."

"Barbara, don't talk like that," Lou chided her gently. "You're going to pull through this. You've had hard times before, but you've always fought it. I want you home for Christmas so you can turn the corner on this thing and get better."

But both brother and sister knew there was no truth in his words. That much was clear as Christmas drew nearer and Barbara finally became unable to leave her bed except for a brief period once or twice each day.

"Listen, Barbara, if you won't come live with me and Anna, then you need to move to the Veterans' Hospice or someplace where you can have help around the clock," Lou said. "It's eating me up knowing you're here alone and going through so much pain by yourself, especially at Christmastime."

"I'm fine," Barbara insisted. "I can reach my medication, and I have water by me all the time. I get meals delivered to me and whatever you bring me. That's plenty of food. I don't need any help."

Lou disagreed, and his sister's situation weighed heavily on him. He prayed that afternoon about a solution for Barbara's living arrangements, asking God to show him what to do for her.

"God, You know her heart, and I pray You convince her to give up her independence. She needs help, Lord, and I can't provide it all. I don't want her living alone, so please help us to work things out. Help her to be willing to move if that's what is necessary. Amen."

Finally, one afternoon later that week, Lou left a message for Barbara's doctor, Dr. Sylvia Sanchez, to call him. He planned to ask the doctor to have a talk with Barbara. Maybe she could convince Barbara that she needed to leave her apartment and get help.

The next morning, December 22, Dr. Sanchez returned Lou's call.

"Yes, this is Barbara's brother, Lou," he said.

"Hello, Lou. We're all very fond of Barbara," she said politely. "How can I help you?"

"First of all, I think she's getting worse very quickly and I'm concerned about her," he said.

"She's lost some mobility," Dr. Sanchez explained. "But I still think she's got another three months or more."

"That's why I'm calling. See, I've asked her to come live with me and my family, but she won't do it. She thinks she'll be in the way, and I haven't been able to change her mind." Lou drew in a deep breath. "I called because I was hoping you might be able to talk some sense into her. If she won't come live with me, she needs to be at a hospice or a group home, someplace where she can have help around the clock."

Dr. Sanchez thought for a moment before responding. "Have you considered helping her move in with your father?" she asked.

Lou's face twisted in confusion; he was not sure he had heard the doctor correctly. "What?"

"Maybe it's time for her to go and live with your father," the doctor repeated. "Sometime around October, I got a call from your father. He wanted to know how she was doing, and he seemed very knowledgeable about her particular case. I was surprised and asked him if he was a doctor, which he said he was. It seemed odd to me that Barbara had never mentioned it before. Anyway, we chatted for a few minutes. Before we finished talking, he told me he'd never gotten to spend enough time with Barbara when she was a little girl." The doctor hesitated. "He told me that when things got really bad, people shouldn't worry about Barbara, because she would be going home to live with him at Christmas."

Lou had no idea what to say.

"Mr. Oliver? Are you there?"

Lou cleared his throat. "Dr. Sanchez, my father died many years ago. There's no way he could have made that phone call."

"How strange," she said. "Wait just a minute." There was a rustling sound of paper as Dr. Sanchez located Barbara's file.

"Okay, here it is. Let me see. Yes, it's right here. On October 15th I received a call on my cell phone from a Dr. Hank Oliver. The man said he was Barbara's father and that when she got toward the end of her illness she'd be going home to live with him."

Lou shook his head, trying to make sense of the situation. "That's fine, Dr. Sanchez, but my father's been dead for almost 30 years. Obviously he couldn't make a phone call."

"Is it possible it was an uncle or some other relative or friend?" she asked. "As I said, the man was very knowledgeable about Barbara and her condition. Is there another doctor in your family? I never mentioned the call to Barbara because I assumed your father had discussed it with her before calling me."

There was silence between them again. "Doctor, you're sure the man said he was Barbara's father?"

"Definitely. I remember the call very clearly. I'm sure it must have been an uncl anymore e or something. Either way, why don't you look into it and let me know. It sounds like somewhere there's a family member who is expecting her to come home to live with him. Meanwhile I'll work on Barbara and try to convince her that it isn't wise for her to be alone."

"I'd like her home with us before Christmas, Doctor."

"Don't worry; I'll call her this afternoon."

Lou hung up the phone and sat staring at it, wondering who would have made such a strange call. There were several uncles in the Oliver family, but none of them knew Barbara very well, and certainly none of them would have identified themselves as Barbara's father. Nevertheless, he spent much of the day contacting every male relative who knew Barbara and asking if anyone had called Barbara's doctor. By that evening he had learned that none of them knew anything about it.

Suddenly he remembered his prayer. He had asked God to work out Barbara's living arrangements, and now he had discovered that Dr. Sanchez had received a phone call from someone claiming to be Hank Oliver. Was it possible that God had answered his prayers by letting him know that Barbara was eventually going to be going home to Heaven, where she would be reunited with their father?

Lou told Anna what had happened, and she, too, thought it might be possible. Perhaps, she said, the phone call was God's way of letting them know Barbara was headed for a better place.

"But that doesn't help us right now," she added. "We still don't know where she needs to be for the next three months until she dies. Christmas is in two days. She needs a place to live, Lou."

"I know. That's the strange part. If it's an answer to prayer, then what do we do about the next three months?"

The answer came quickly.

Early on Christmas Eve--the day after Barbara agreed to go home with Lou and Anna--she died peacefully in her sleep. She had been completely bedridden for just two days.

Dr. Sanchez and the others were baffled when they heard the news. Although she had been very clearly dying, they thought Barbara should have had at least another three months to live.

At the Oliver home, Barbara's death sent Lou and Anna on a roller coaster ride of mixed emotions.

"I'm going to miss her so much," Lou said, his eyes brimming with tears. "But she was no longer able to live alone, and God knew it was time for her to come home. Home for Christmas..."

"It makes you wonder, doesn't it?" Anna asked.

Lou raised an eyebrow. "About the phone call, you mean? Yeah, it does. The more I think about it, the more I believe it just might have been Dad making that phone call."

"Maybe so."

"Really," Lou continued. "I believe God wanted us to know everything was going to work out fine. Barbara wouldn't need a place to live because she was going home to Heaven."

Anna was silent, lost in her own thoughts.

"You know something, Anna?" Lou said. "I always wondered if Dad really loved me. Barbara wondered the same thing. But now I feel like I can put that behind me. God knew that I wondered about my dad, so He answered my prayer and let me know that Dad did love both of us. He loved us so much that he was looking forward to welcoming the first of his children home."

O Come All Ye Faithful

God bless you and Merry Christmas
Almondtree Productions