• For years we would drive past that spot only to discover that our handiwork was still evident. Did anyone else wonder why the blue spruce near the National Forest sign had the top six feet cut off of it?

One Christmas when I was a child, I came home from school and found the house empty. My mother had not returned home from work. The castle was mine. Long live the king!

And there it was. Shimmering in its toy-filled brilliance: the Sheely Christmas tree. It beckoned me. It lured me with its delectable temptations. I was powerless.

Armed with a pair of scissors, trusty Scotch® tape and pre-adolescent lust, I jumped into the sparkly pile and carefully unwrapped each gift marked “To: Steve.” A Swiss watchmaker would have admired the skillful devotion to my craft.

Of course on Christmas morning I had two problems. First, I already knew what I was getting so no happy surprises for me. Second, I had to pretend like I was surprised. Apparently my acting ability paled in comparison to my unwrapping skills. The jig was up.

But I was not punished for my crime. My parents knew I was suffering enough. Actually, they laughed about it.

Looking back, I regret what I did. But it is not the only Christmas memory that I wish I could change. The time my “gag gift” backfired, for example. Or the time I cut an illegal Christmas tree out of the San Isabel National Forest. Or every Christmas since my parents died.

Over the years my Christmas experienced has changed. What used to be a joyful season of exuberance and toys has become a joyful season of nostalgia and gratitude…but not always happy. Today I look at the baby in the manger and feel overwhelmed that God would give His son to someone like me: a man with regrets and imperfections who struggles with grief and sadness.

Tomorrow night at 7:00 a remarkable group of people will gather. Each year my church hosts a Candlelight service for those who have lost a child (of any age). For them, Christmas can be especially painful, even on top of the grief they bear each day. These parents, grandparents and loved ones are the most courageous people I know. I often wonder, ‘”How do they keep going? How do they ever smile again? How do they risk loving again?”

In most cases I know the answer. Yes, their faith has undergone excruciating changes since their loss, but like many of us hope still flickers even in the coldest winds. I do not know what regret or pain you carry this Christmas, but let me encourage you to push aside the distractions, take a deep breath and stop. Stop and look again into that manger. See that baby – with tiny fingers and crusty eyelashes – who has crossed the universe to tell us “Don’t give up. Love is here. Forgiveness is here. And everything will be made right. Don’t give up.”

Your presents might not be a surprise this year. Or maybe you are one the run (perhaps from the Forest Service). Or maybe there are empty seats at your table this Christmas. But, no matter what happens, the manger is still there. It is always there.