Lessons from the family tree

Unlike the decorated trees you see in a Neiman Marcus window or on the cover of Martha Stewart Living, our Christmas tree doesn’t boast uniform colored balls or hand-blown glass baubles. Our tree is a potpourri of hanging objects. Nonetheless, it is a thing of beauty. It’s a menagerie of memories. There are miniature frames containing photos of our three daughters’ first Christmas. A small, ornate metal frame brackets a picture of Wendy’s and my first Christmas as a married couple. There are handcrafted objects that our girls made in preschool.

Our tree is also decorated by symbols recalling activities that punctuated our kids’ growing years. A plastic ballerina. A soccer ball. A musical instrument. There are ornaments from Mt. Rushmore, Cape Canaveral and Disneyland that call to mind family vacations.

My oldest daughter’s post-college job as a Starbucks barista is documented by a tiny, white to-go coffee cup (complete with the familiar green logo). Our tree boasts significant national events we faced as a family. A pig ornament recalls the swine flu epidemic. Another homemade symbol recalls September 11.

The objects on the Christmas tree are like icons on a computer screen. Clicking on them with a glance opens up a season of life long since past. I hear voices and laughter. I smell the distinct fragrance of plastic Barbie dolls. I picture the promise associated with a new job. I visualize the pain of losing one unexpectedly.

On this the twelfth day of Christmas, I am reminded of how the Lord provided for us when income diminished as college tuition increased. I think back to how He shepherded us through the valley of death’s shadows when we had to put our much-loved Shih-tzu to sleep or when my dad passed away.

But of all the ornaments on our family tree, one unlikely object is my favorite. It is a non-symmetrical hunk of cold metal that is wedged between the boughs. It’s a reminder that the most important things in life are not purchased, taxed or wrapped and placed beneath a Christmas tree.

In 1991 while I was serving a congregation in the San Francisco Bay area, a wildfire swept through the Oakland hills. The inferno killed 25 individuals, destroyed over 3,000 houses and 2,000 cars and left some 5,000 people homeless. A couple of days after the fire had finally been extinguished, I drove my young family through the charred neighborhoods. Fireplace chimneys still standing indicated where multi-million dollar homes had once stood. It resembled a cemetery of brick grave markers.

Parking the car by the curb, I got out and walked along the sidewalk. Spotting a silvery object reflecting the sunlight, I stooped and picked up the cold hunk of metal. It most likely had been the metal grill of an expensive car that had become molten and then dried in its present shape when it cooled. The eerie looking object called to mind what really matters in life. Things don’t last. Homes can burn down. Expensive cars can, too. What it took years to save for in order to finally purchase can be destroyed in a few minutes. What matters most are the memories no one can steal and the people with whom we make them.

This year as you pack up your Christmas tree ornaments, take time to reflect on what each one represents. Embrace the emotions they call to mind. Thank the Lord for His faithfulness during the hard times. Ask Him to help you maintain a perspective of what really is important as you face the coming year.

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