True Gifts

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
— James 1:17, NIV

Can you remember the joy of Christmas morning as a child? The expectation and wonder of it all? I remember waking up ridiculously early on Christmas morning after a late night at my grandparents’ house for Christmas Eve.

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It’s interesting being on the other side, waiting, not to get presents, but to give them to my kids.

As I write this, it is four days before Christmas. Last night my wife said that she couldn’t wait for this Christmas because of a couple of things that the kids are going to get. She can’t wait for their reactions and neither can I.

Our oldest has largely achieved that detached high school phase of being somewhat above all of this. I think that he’s going to be a bit surprised. Sierra is too young to have given up the wonder. Nathan, well, Nathan is the best of us all when it comes to presents, there can be absolutely no doubt.

It’s been that way for Christmas and birthdays as long as I can remember. Nate cannot suppress what he is feeling—good or bad—about anything. He cannot dissemble and make you think that he is patiently waiting, or you got him the best thing ever when in fact he really doesn’t like it. No, whatever Nate thinks, you are going to know. If it’s great he exclaims with glee, grins as wide as he can, and poses for a picture holding the present up in front of himself. If the present is okay but not terribly exciting, the process is much quicker, and he’s on to the next one.

One Christmas, we got him a movie that we knew he liked. As soon as he opened it we knew that we had made a miscalculation. “That’s the wrong present!” he loudly protested with no concept that he was making his mother feel bad, that it is not polite to say such things, or that he is supposed to be grateful that someone wanted to buy him something they thought he would like. Concrete thinker. Concrete problem. Concrete solution. Let the world know that this is not right. And I do not exaggerate by much when I say world.

We thought that we solved the problem by getting his older brother to trade DVDs with him: Monsters Versus Aliens for Kung Fu Panda. It seemed to work. The day went on; I seem to recall that it got better. At least we stopped the immediate crisis. And then it started.

For the next several weeks Nathan decided that he needed to tell people that he got the wrong present. After the initial shock, we could laugh about it. When he tells grandma, who adores him and does a very good job of getting him to act appropriately, it’s one thing. You can smile and have a laugh because it is delivered in such a matter of fact manner.

It feels a lot different when he decides that he needs to tell the random clerk at the store, or the librarian, or someone at church—people who have no context or clue who he is, much less why he would be volunteering such information. It can get a bit embarrassing. Disheartening. And while there is no rational need to do so, you feel like you have to explain the whole story. What happened, and the fact that he has autism, so he’s still obsessing in it two weeks later. Three months later. Occasionally over a year later. It’s amazing how long things stick.

The difference between Nate and me is that I can hide my disappointment. He can’t roll with the punches or make someone think that the gift they thought was so great was indeed just that great. I can. All the while I am wondering what on earth they were thinking. This? Really? I got the wrong present! Perhaps I am not so different from my son.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I am not alone. On my worst days I must admit to wondering if James 1:17 is true. Does God really give us good gifts? Perfect? Really? I don’t think so. Have you really noticed what my son is going through, God? Do you really care? How is this child a good gift? My worst days. I love my son, let’s be clear. But the stress and the anxiety and the sheer exhaustion of it all pile up. And I know that I don’t have it that bad. I know people who have to deal with far worse things, far more taxing things.

But I said that Nate is the best of us at presents. The DVD episode was certainly not that. But the same honesty regarding that one gift is the reason he is the best. When Nathan turned nine or ten, we had a party with my family for him. He was opening presents, making out like a bandit, when he came to a specific present. The present that everyone in the room knew he was getting. The present he gets every year.

Every year Nate gets paper and markers because he loves to draw. Everyone knows he’s getting them. Everyone knows that he loves them. None of us were prepared for his reaction.

The wrapping paper came off and I could hear the smile on his face even though I was standing behind him. He read the label with glee, “Plain white paper! My favorite!” Yes. You read that right. A ream of printer paper. One with a label that literally read “plain white paper”. I think that everyone in the room about died laughing. I almost wept.

The truth is that Nathan is a gift. A gift unlike any I could have imagined.

I’m not much for surprises, but sometimes the best gifts are the ones that surprise. The ones that don’t cost a lot or come in fancy boxes. They aren’t things at all. Read the entire first chapter of James and you’ll get an entirely different sense of what is important and what a good and perfect gift might look like.

Our wants and desires change, they shift like shadows. What we want one minute is not what we want the next. Most of the time we don’t even know what we want. We need to learn to trust our Father of heavenly lights. To see that the gifts He gives are the best kind. He is the one who redeems us in our imperfections. Who uses the very things that are our weaknesses to confound the wise (and us, I might add). Who shows us what He can do with our imperfections and those of our autistic children.

My other children love their presents (mostly). But neither of them can hold a candle to Nathan’s wonder. He is brutally honest. He can be embarrassing in his reactions in front of strangers. And then you get hit right smack between the eyes with the two by four of “Plain white paper! My favorite!” And you realize that the best gifts are not the ones you thought they were.

And that is why Nate is the best at getting gifts. (Just wait ‘til he sees the Lego mug!).

Written by Kevin O’Brien

This article is a shortened version of Kevin O’Brien’s writing in Life On The Spectrum. To read more from Kevin and the other authors of Life On The Spectrum check out or order the book below.   Because no two people with autism are the same, Life on the Spectrum’s authors all bring their unique perspective and experiences to the table. Their honest, raw and heartfelt stories show how God is at work in the real-world struggles of families impacted by autism.

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Kevin O’Brien is a husband, father, ordained minister, writer and volunteer theologian. He holds a Master of Divinity and Master of Theology from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary where he won the Th.M. award in 1997. He has also done graduate work at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. He is currently a brand manager on the Bible team at Tyndale House Publishers. During his time at Tyndale he has helped to develop several Bibles and has written articles which have appeared in The Way, the iShine Bible, and the Illustrated Study Bible. He also wrote a series of devotionals for WAYFM’s World’s Biggest Small Group and is currently at work on a devotional series and several unfinished novels which WILL be finished someday.

Kevin lives in the far western suburbs of Chicago with his wife, three children, a dog, and a cat. He would prefer to spend his time reading, writing, woodworking and watching the Chicago Blackhawks.