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Our Christmas angel

By Lillian Sparks

In 1984, my husband, Stephen, and I were living in Rhode Island with our four children. We enjoyed full-time teaching positions on the staff of Zion Bible Institute, our alma mater. We felt a certain kinship and “specialness” about returning to New England. I was born in Hyannis, Mass., and Stephen was born in the potato farmlands of Aroostook County — the northernmost part of Maine.

Classes had ended for the fall semester, and the 350 students joyously packed their few belongings to rush home for the holidays. For the first time in four months we were enveloped with a welcome peacefulness.

Forgetting the stacks of finals that had to be corrected, Stephen and I determined to spend some valuable time with our children and include everyone in our traditional activities. Bryon, age 10, was put in charge of unwrapping and sorting all the handmade tree decorations. Leann and Jenell, ages 6 and 4, each donned one of Mommy’s large aprons and helped to roll out, cut and decorate Christmas cookies made from Nanny Sparks’ all-natural butter recipe. Brent, the newest addition to our family, a bubbling 1-year-old, kept busy by licking doughy beaters, taking ornaments off the tree, checking the surprises in all the stockings and testing the blinking lightbulbs to see if they were really hot like Daddy said.

To encourage the real meaning of Christmas, we placed a little manger, lifelike characters and Baby Jesus on a table in the living room. Stephen juggled four squirmy kids on his knees as he read the Christmas story from our family Bible. We also initiated a special project for needy youngsters in our church by packing a box full of baked goodies, handmade toys, crafts and a favorite game from each of the children.

Yet, we knew that deep inside each young heart was the certain longing for some of those “wished for” items under the tree. The children had presented us with personalized lists.

Part of the uniqueness of Zion Bible Institute was the “faith policy” that was instilled in the students and exemplified by the faculty. Since the school’s beginnings in 1924, founder Christine Gibson had never refused a student who did not have the finances to pay for his or her education. Students were accepted upon the principle that as God supplied their personal needs, they would in turn give to the school. The faculty and staff did not receive a stipulated salary, but a small “sharing” after all the school bills had been paid. With our four children, that “sharing” was never enough.

We passed by aisles of toys, dolls and athletic equipment at Toys R Us, glancing at our list and checking the price tags.

“Honey,” Stephen said, “you know we can’t afford these toys. The children will just have to understand.”

I sighed in agreement and together we chose a few small gifts within our budget.

On Sunday evening, December 23, I was discouraged. I thought of the loving congregation and comfortable nine-room home Stephen and I left to come to a “faith school” and live in a cramped five-room apartment. The sacrifices were great, but I reminded myself that the rewards were greater.

At exactly 6 p.m., one hour before we were to go to a candlelight service, we heard a diligent pounding on the outside front door. Caught in the middle of dressing the children and combing their hair, I ran down the hallway in my housecoat to answer the steady knocking. I threw open the heavy wooden door and a frozen gust of Nordic air blew into my face. It had been snowing heavily all afternoon. The wintry blanket covered the campus like a picture postcard.

The woman standing in front of me appeared to be in her late 50s. She was warmly dressed in a dark blue wool coat and a brown scarf pulled tightly over her wispy gray hair. Her blue eyes sparkled and her gentle smile warmed my heart. In each gloved hand she held shopping bags filled with beautifully wrapped gifts.

Who could she be looking for? I wondered.

Interrupting my thoughts, she inquired, “Do you know where the Sparks children live? Their names are Bryon, Leann, Jenell and Brent.”

I swallowed hard with disbelief and replied, “Yes, well … they … I mean … the Sparkses live right here.”

“Wonderful!” she exclaimed. Her smile radiated heavenly joy. “These gifts are for your children!”

Frozen with astonishment, I finally choked out, “Well, who do we thank for these gifts … please tell me your name … and where you are from.”

Shaking her head, she firmly replied, “No, no … that’s not important. When you look at the gift tags you will discover who to thank.”

I picked up a gift and peeked at the card — “Love, from Jesus” it read.

I trembled with excitement and begged her to wait one moment while I ran to get my husband. He would certainly have to help carry the parcels inside. I found Stephen in the middle of shaving his face; white cream remained on one side of his chin. He wasn’t anxious to go to the door, but I refused to take no for an answer. With some difficulty, I dragged a half-shaven, bare-chested man down the hall. He stepped ahead of me and gazed out into the cold.

“Honey, there is no one here,” he said.

As we stood together peering out into the quiet night with the bags of gifts at the door, we noticed that there were no footprints on the stairs or sidewalk … no tire tracks in the street. The snow lay untouched by human presence. A holy hush and divine wonderment filled our hearts. Suddenly, we knew that we had been visited by a very special Christmas angel. I like to think it was one of the angels who announced the Savior’s birth some 2,000 years before.

I wished the gentle woman could have stayed and watched our youngsters on Christmas morning as they opened those packages and found the exact things they had wished for — a Cabbage Patch stroller, a little pony stable, a set of C.S. Lewis books, complete outfits of clothing (everything fit perfectly), and much more. Yet, in my heart I knew that our angelic visitor was very much with us.

Even now, years later, we fondly recall that Christmas. At times, when we have experienced a tremendous need, someone always reminds us that God will take care of us.

“Remember our Christmas angel?” one of the children will reminisce. “If God can do a miracle once, He can do it again.”

He has.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, NASB).

Abridged from Parents Cry Too! by Lillian Sparks (St. Louis: Plus Communications, 1990). Reprinted with permission.

Lillian Sparks, an ordained minister, author, retreat speaker and former national director of Women’s Ministries for the Assemblies of God, and her husband, Stephen, national Senior Adult coordinator, reside in Springfield, Mo.

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