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A Shout From The Attic: Church Building Mission - 6

Ronnie Bray recalls learning an important lesson learned from his children during an austere Christmastide.

Unless you have spent Christmas alone you will not appreciate the pall that spending Christmas by yourself throws across the
world, casting a long shadow over every bright bonny thing and sweet tinkling sound of all that breathes Christmas.

Nor will you have felt the false spirit of Christmas mockingly convince you that you are a worthless Scrooge unless you have experienced the humiliation of shopping for presents, your pockets depleted by chronic impoverishment.

Christmas is a warm fuzzy time when strangers are drawn closer to others. When family members, though spread considerably abroad, head for home to share in cosy glories that weave their way like golden threads through the laughing spirits of Christmas people, and when hearts and doors are thrown wide to welcome black sheep and other unspeakable pariahs back into the passionate centre-circle of family life.

It is a time when conflict is laid aside and forgotten as the angelic message, peace on earth and good will to men, connects with, at least temporarily, the vital centres of habitually selfish beings. It is this abandoning of self-interest that shows itself most clearly in what we experience as Christmas in our hearts. And for these reasons it is all the more sad when the generous heart experiences self-denunciation as a miser for giving so little to those he loves the most.

It was Christmas 1963 when I visited Andy and Curt and took them shopping for their Christmas presents. I was serving as a Church Building Missionary and was on the point of being transferred from the Ipswich chapel site to the Southampton site so that I could see more of the children, who lived in Bournemouth thirty-five miles west, and increase my chances of seeing more of them in an upcoming access hearing.

My income at that time was ten shillings a week pocket money. Missions are voluntary and without recompense. My ten shillings bought me a return train ticket from Southampton to Bournemouth the bus fare to Kinson and back into town with the kids, bus fare back to Kinson, then back into Bournemouth to catch my return train to Southampton station, from where I made the five mile trip to the Talbot home on Mousehole Lane by foot, as I had commenced my journey that day. Train and bus costs left me with five shillings to spend on the two of them. That was a half-crown each. Almost a miserable nothing.

With the cunning wisdom of the prudent, I steered them into Woolworth store. Woolworth’s was known then for selling a wide variety of goods at very low prices. Their wares were spread on large mahogany counters with fancy carved edges, presenting an attractive display to childlike minds, one of which I possessed. Then, as now, I was fascinated by trivia. Together we wandered inside the grotto of cheap dreams, through the Aladdin’s Cave of paupers and the unambitious. I dreaming of better, more expensive shopping ventures to come, they full of the simple joy of choosing what they wanted within my price range.

Eventually, we emerged from the Dream Emporium, my beloved daughter and son clutching their packages. If I remember right, each of them had four cheap objects that they chose with enthusiasm without reference to cost or quality. We walked past shops whose windows were overstocked with glittering prizes at prohibitive prices clamouring to be bought. I hoped that they did not notice the lavish gifts being purchased by people who had probably never had a half-crown in their hands. I was pleased that Andy and Curt seemed contented with their gifts, but was nagged, and still am, by the unspeakable feeling that I had let them down badly.

Yet, their faces told a different story, showing no dissatisfaction. They were the happy faces of children having a good time with their stranger-father. I wondered why I could not feel as happy as they felt. After some thought, I concluded that I was selfish by believing what I felt, when I should have been grateful for what they felt. The gift of Christmas presents is not to be valued by what it costs the giver, be that little or much, but by the wealth it adds to the life of a grateful recipient, who receives the gift and does not count the cost.

That is the Spirit of Christmas Presents, and it is a lesson I have gratefully learned from two young children. And that
understanding, coming gradually into my troubled heart one cold December day when I was so poor amid so much opulence, is the greatest Christmas Present I have ever had. The meanest gift is as a king’s treasure if the heart is in it. Rich or poor, who can give more?

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