“Stolle-en Moments” — When a Christmas Tree Caused Pain

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Christmas Day — a day that is celebrated around the world! Believers take joy in the fact that Jesus came to earth, took on human flesh, and ultimately sacrificed His life to save ours. We celebrate Christmas Day as the day our savior entered this world on his mission to save us.

The fact that Jesus came to earth and died for me to pay the price for my sins is humbling. This brings me immense comfort and joy!  I have no way to repay Him, but I can do my best to live for Him. I try to do that daily.

Part of my journey tells of a different experience of Christmas. One that is personally painful.

Our son Jimmy, who is affected by severe autism and associated disabilities, seemed not to understand the concept or didn’t have the desire to open presents. He wasn’t interested in them at all. He didn’t care about tearing through the wrapping paper to see what was inside. When his gifts were opened for him, he would be disinterested.

Tom Stolle says, “I know that God has Jimmy in his hands and that Jimmy is far more capable than I sometimes believe!“ (Photo courtesy of the Stolle family)

It may not sound like much to some, but for me, this was extremely painful. I felt Jimmy did not understand what the gifts represented and how the giving of gifts represented the gift of Jesus to us as the ultimate gift. I also felt hopeless as he seemed not to grasp such a simple act, the opening of presents. Christmas became a reminder to me of how little the son I love could do and how little he understood. It became a day that I was visually reminded that Jimmy would struggle his entire life with the most basic of tasks. It became a day that I would find myself thinking, “If he can’t understand or embrace this, what will happen after my wife, Shelley, and I pass away?” Parents like Shelley and I face these scary thoughts often — thoughts that can capture you and bind you up if you let them.

For more than ten years, I refused to put up a Christmas tree in my home. Shelley wanted one, but I just couldn’t. It was too painful for me.  I couldn’t bear the pain of watching what wouldn’t happen when presents were under the tree. I couldn’t bear the thoughts and fears of what my son couldn’t do and what would ultimately happen to him. For me, the Christmas tree was a monument to the pain I felt as a father of a child affected by disabilities. Having no Christmas tree for me was an escape. It represented something that I could control.  In a world of raising a child with complex disabilities, so much felt out of my control. I could attempt to mitigate my pain by controlling the Christmas tree. Was that weird? Maybe, but for me it’s where I landed.

Fear and worry about Jimmy’s future landed me in a place of incredible pain on Christmas morning. Holding on to that fear and worry about my son wasn’t what God wanted for my life. Many times, we hold the things we love the most tightly, and if we aren’t careful with that, we can also find ourselves holding all the associated baggage tightly.

What did my fear and worry accomplish? Nothing good. It denied my wife the joy of seeing a Christmas tree each morning and the joy of opening presents under the tree together. It created not a day of celebration of what Jesus did but instead a day of reflection on what my son could not do. My fear and worry were poison.

How did this cycle break? God gave me a gift. One day at Sunday morning worship, our church had presents under the tree. Not real presents, just empty boxes wrapped as presents. Jimmy walked up to the tree during the church service and began to unwrap the boxes….all of them!  I was amazed. There was no prompting. He just did it. He looked inside each one, obviously looking for an item. He went through all of them!  Jimmy didn’t receive a gift from one of those boxes that morning, but I received a gift. I saw my son understand and do what I foolishly thought for years he couldn’t do or understand.

The Bible says in Psalm 94:19 (NIV), “When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.“  God sure did this in my life!

Now, every year, we put up a Christmas tree. Sometimes Jimmy will open presents, and sometimes he won’t. But I know he understands, and I know he can if he wants to, and that’s enough. I know that God has Jimmy in his hands and that Jimmy is far more capable than I sometimes believe!

I’m glad that we serve a God who knows that in His strength we are far more capable than we believe, for our God says, “I am able to do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13 CSB)

I thank God for the gift of Jesus. He is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Tom Stolle serves as the executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware.