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Our Father’s Gift
We enjoyed the usual Christmas traditions growing up, but like most families, we had our own unique holiday rituals. The Osteen kids, all five of us, slept under and around the Christmas tree on the night before Christmas, telling stories and laughing and trying to guess what gifts we might be getting until we’d finally fall asleep. Still, we celebrated Christmas Day a bit differently from many families. For us it was really a big birthday party because my father and mother emphasized the holiday’s Christian origins as the birthday of baby Jesus, God’s perfect present to us. If ever there were a gift that keeps on giving, it was this one.
We did exchange Christmas gifts like most families. We laughed and carried on through huge dinners of turkey and all the fixings. One thing we didn’t do, though, was eggnog. Instead, real early Christmas morning while our parents were still nestled all snug in their bed, the Osteen boys and girls climbed out of our sleeping bags and made home brew—coffee, that is. I probably should explain to you first off that caffeine runs in our family’s blood. We were a coffee-drinking bunch before Starbucks ever ground its first bean. Every one of us started drinking it at a young age because of our dad, a pastor who started each day with a Bible in one hand and a mug of strong coffee in the other.
Dad’s morning coffee was his little taste of heaven on earth. Each day, he shuffled out of bed and headed to the coffee pot first thing. Before he shaved, showered, or dressed, he had to down at least one mug of good old Folgers “mountain grown, the richest kind of coffee,” as the commercials said back then.
Our father, John Osteen, didn’t just drink his morning mug of coffee; he savored it the way my wife, Victoria, relishes Godiva chocolates. For him the best part of waking up was definitely Folgers in a cup. He really made a big production of his morning coffee. I’m still not sure whether it was for his own enjoyment or for our entertainment; probably it was both.
I would sit with my older brother, Paul, and our sisters, Lisa, Tamara, and April, around the kitchen table each morning and wait for our dad to join us with his steaming mug. Watching our dad love up that very first sip of the day was a highlight of our morning, especially his first slurp. He’d put his lips to the cup, take a long, slow sip, and then hold the mug in the air with his eyes closed and a smile of contentment stretched across his face.
Finally, as we sat on the edge of our chairs waiting, Dad would take a deep breath, hold it, and let go a sound normally heard only from Saturday-morning cartoon characters.
We’d all giggle like crazy, and then each of us would take a sip of our own cups and chime in like the children’s choir:
Without fail, Dad made the same deeply satisfied sound after his first sip every morning. We laughed each and every time as if it were our first viewing of our father’s morning ritual. Do you know, to this day every one of John Osteen’s grown-up kids makes the same sound after our first sips of coffee each day? Some of our own kids, members of the next generation, also have adopted the Ahhhhhaaahaaaa! coffee habit handed down from their parents and grandfather.
This is of course just a small part of the legacy left by my father, who passed in 1999. You are likely aware that he founded Lakewood Church, which he and my mother, Dodie, built up from a small congregation packed into an old feed store. As we’ve grown older and become parents ourselves, my brother and sisters and I notice more and more how deeply our parents’ influence comes through in our daily lives in other ways big and small, on holidays and every day too.
Paul was talking recently about our dad and his coffee habit and how he would come to breakfast each morning in his thick terry-cloth bathrobe, shuffling along in his house slippers, hair a mess, sleepy look in his eyes. Dad would cinch that robe’s belt sash tight and way up high on his solar plexus, making him look like he weighed three hundred pounds even though he was not overweight at all.
We often teased my father about how rumpled he looked in the mornings. Paul especially enjoyed doing this, but my brother admitted awhile back that as he was walking to breakfast one recent morning, he caught sight of himself in a mirror.
“There I was, in a big old robe knotted way up high on my belly, shuffling in my house slippers and my hair a mess,” he said. “I realized I’d become our father!”
Another Osteen family tradition handed down from our dad is at the heart of this Christmas tale. First, though, I should tell you some of my father’s history so you’ll get the full picture. Dad grew up on a farm outside Paris, Texas, back in the horse-and-buggy days. They didn’t have television with shows like American Idol back then, but they did have singing contests on the town square on Saturdays, when the farmers and their families rode into town for supplies.
My father’s sisters thought he should enter the contest when he was all of five years old. Before they took the buggy into town, they tried to fancy him up to look more like an entertainer. His thick hair wouldn’t stay combed the way they wanted, so his sister mixed in some egg whites as a down-home hair gel to do the trick.
Unfortunately, the hot Texas sun beat down on Dad’s egged head during the long ride into town. By the time he made it up on stage, the rotten-egg smell in his hair was so bad that instead of singing for the crowd, he threw up on them! Our father told us that put an end to his dreams of being a singer, and I’m pretty sure he stayed away from egg-white hair gel after that too.
In his younger days, Dad worked picking cotton on the farm owned by his father, my granddad Willis Jackson Osteen. Granddad was a successful cotton grower until the Great Depression. Like most, his family lost everything. They called themselves “dirt poor,” but they lost even their land when the banks crashed and Granddad had to give up farming. He didn’t give up on life, though.
Through his friendships with other farmers, he was able to gather fresh produce, load it into his old open-sided truck, and drive into Fort Worth and Dallas, where he sold homegrown vegetables on the streets in wealthy neighborhoods. Still, times were hard, and Dad and his two brothers and two sisters didn’t have much, growing up. My father often talked about going to bed hungry, having to put water on his breakfast cereal because there was no money for milk, putting cardboard in his shoes to cover the holes in the soles, and wearing hand-me-down clothes and pants that were too short.
BICYCLES FOR TWO
Despite the hard times, Dad had a mostly happy childhood. His family home had no electricity for the longest time, but they made the best of it. They’d sit on the porch, and Granddad would play the fiddle and make up songs. One time when my father was a boy, his sister Mary was holding him as they listened to music by the fire. She lost her grip, and he fell into the fire, injuring his fingers so they were scarred for the rest of his life. Music didn’t seem to be a very healthy thing for my father as much as he enjoyed it.
Dad often talked about the fact that around the holidays his family was one of those to rely on charity baskets for Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. Most of the time, he and his brothers and sisters didn’t receive Christmas presents. I think that’s why my father later on took so much pleasure in buying us gifts himself. Growing up, we didn’t hear a lot about Santa Claus. In part, I think my mother and father wanted us to stay focused on the Christian meaning of the holiday, but it also may have been that my father wanted to be the one to give us Christmas gifts because he received so few as a child.
Most parents sneak around quietly and buy Christmas presents, hide them, and then on Christmas morning tell the kids that Santa brought them down the chimney. Our father often took each of us Christmas shopping one at a time so we could help him pick out gifts for our mother and the other kids. It was funny; we were like Dad’s little helpers on those shopping trips, but he never would allow us to carry the packages. He took so much joy in buying them that I think he just wanted to savor the feeling of carrying them to the car and into the house. Maybe that, or he was afraid we’d peek!
Early one December when I was about eight years old, Dad took me and April, who is two years younger, to look at bicycles. We didn’t buy anything, and our father didn’t say that day even who we were shopping for; we just looked at bikes together. A few days later, Dad pulled me aside and told me that he’d bought April a bike. I was really excited for her, so he took me out to the back patio where he’d hidden her new bike under a bedsheet. I wanted to look at it, but my father told me not to lift the sheet.
I was so thrilled for April, I went back every couple of days just to make sure her bike was still there. I asked Dad a few times if I could see it, but he’d say: “No, it’s a surprise. You have to wait until Christmas.”
I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t let me see the bike, but I never lifted the sheet. I managed to stave off temptation, though I did keep an eye on the back patio to make sure April didn’t wander out there.
The night before Christmas all the kids slept in the den around the Christmas tree as usual. When we woke up around seven, Lisa put the coffee on so we could each have a little sip. Then our mother and father joined us, and once we’d all had our Christmas coffee and done the day’s Ahhhhhaaahaaaa!, Dad said to me and April: “Let’s go out back; I want to show you two something.”
Finally, I thought; he wanted me to see April be surprised at her new bike, but when Dad pulled back the bed sheet, there wasn’t just one bike. There was a purple Sting Ray girl’s bike for April and a boy’s cool ten-speed for me! I realized then and there why I wasn’t allowed to pull the sheet back. Dad had bought a new bike for me too.
Needless to say, I was just as excited for me as I’d been for April! Maybe even a little more (sorry, April). My ten-speed was a fantastic bike, and the fact that it was my father’s Christmas surprise made it all the better. I rode that bike for many years, zipping all over the neighborhood and cruising the cart trails of the golf course down the street.
When I think of that Christmas, I’ve often thought that my father’s real gift to me was a test of faith. God often works in the same way. He tests us without revealing His full plan for us to see if we’ll obey Him and stay in faith just as my father tested me with that bike. Sometimes we don’t understand why we are waiting. Often it is because God has something great in store, it’s just not the right time.
THE GRAY BOX
One of our father’s most special presents to us was the gift of a humble gray box. My father kept this metal container in a drawer in his desk at home. It was a very simple metal container, but that box and its purpose have taken on more and more meaning for us ever since the Christmas of 1998, the last one we were able to share with Daddy.
On a very basic level, the “gray box,” as we always called it, was just the place where our father kept cash for us when we needed money and he wasn’t around. There was never more than thirty or forty dollars in it, usually half of it in change. The gray box served as our private little Osteen family bank. That’s how we saw it as kids anyway. Later, when we all had families of our own, we came to see that simple box as much more than a storage place for quick cash—our private ATM. We realized that it was a symbol of our father’s love and caring and a symbol of security, created by a man who’d grown up without much, to assure his children that he would always provide for them what they needed.
Our father’s love for us was unconditional and unlimited. We grew up drawing on that deep reserve of love, knowing that it could never be drained. As much as we took out, it was always replenished. God’s love for His children is the same, of course. The depth of His caring is beyond anything you and I can imagine.
Our mother still has the original gray box, and I’m surprised we didn’t wear out the hinges on the lid as we were growing up. Whenever we needed cash for school lunch, a pizza, a football game, or a class trip, or to go bowling or skating, our parents would tell us to go to the gray box.
When we look back now, it seems amazing that even with five of us drawing from it day after day, no one can ever recall finding the box empty or even short of cash. I don’t remember ever seeing my father or mother put money into it, either. Yet the metal box always had funds when we needed them.
There was never a formal set of rules regarding withdrawals from the gray box, though there was something about its being for needs, not wants. If we were making a big withdrawal for some out-of-the-ordinary purchase, we’d leave an IOU note saying we’d pay it back or at least explaining what we were doing with the cash. The thing about the gray box was that it created this sense of abundance; this feeling that there was enough for us all to share in and that our father would always make certain we were taken care of.
Dad often said that his family never had enough and he didn’t want us ever to feel that way. As kids and teenagers, we more or less took for granted that there would always be cash in the gray box. We didn’t think about the possibility of its ever being empty, and that was what our father wanted.
Our parents had built Lakewood Church up to more than fifteen thousand members and a huge television audience. Dad was respected as a pastor who welcomed all into his church, which was widely known as an “Oasis of Love.” This was a description of our family’s church, which appeared on billboards all around Houston and was well known to people, but it was far more than a motto or slogan; it was a reality. My brother and sisters and I grew up in that oasis. His caring for us never let up.
Even after we’d all moved out and started our own families, he was always thinking of ways to reach out and assure us that we were loved and supported. As Christmas 1998 approached, Dad told Mom that he had a special gift in mind for each of us and our families.
“Dodie,” he said, “can you help me find gray boxes for each of them?”
That Christmas, each of us—Paul, Lisa, April, Tamara, and I—received a gray box from our parents as a gift. With each of the boxes came this note typed on my father’s old typewriter:
Dear Precious Children,
I know that you remember the Gray Box we used to have, where you could get lunch money or spending money whenever you needed it. Well, Daddy and I wanted you and your family to have your own gray box. So you could get money if you run out. We have stocked it—this time, but it is up to you to keep it filled up!!!!
We are so blessed to have children and spouses who have brought us so much joy through the years. Ones that respect us and honor us, and love us though we may have made mistakes through the years, and even though you still have fingernail scars from me pinching you!!!! Please have a great holiday season and a wonderful year 1999.
Much love, Mother and Daddy
I can’t remember a Christmas present ever having such a powerful emotional impact on me—not even that ten-speed bike affected me so deeply. My brother and sisters and I have often talked about the thoughts that went through our minds as we each unwrapped the surprise gift that Christmas. It’s interesting how similar our responses were. We each felt this overwhelming sense of being loved by both our parents and our heavenly Father too.
Lisa said that when she opened her present from our parents that day, she thought about how our father had always continued to honor God as he moved from an impoverished childhood into financial blessings. We serve a God who blesses and takes care of His people, and when we serve God and obey Him and give to Him, He will always take care of us.
Our father wanted to be sure that we each carried on the tradition of the gray box. We have done that, though we’ve all noticed it’s a lot tougher putting the money into them than taking it out! My brother and sisters have embraced this family tradition as our father’s parting gift. He left us with so much, but we are especially grateful for his legacy of love and security, the sense that in an often chaotic world that can seem uncaring, we are blessed with an abiding sense of being loved and cared for by our father on earth and, now, in heaven.
Dad had always been very active and healthy despite high blood pressure, but then in the late 1990s his kidneys began to fail. Doctors put him on dialysis treatments, but they hardly slowed him down at all. He said he’d be preaching into his nineties, and we all believed that was true. Dad’s faith in God was so powerful, and his spirit was so strong.
Just about a month after we each received our gray box Christmas presents from him, our father unexpectedly departed this earth. He died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-seven on January 23, 1999. We were not at all prepared for his passing, but thanks to his determined efforts, we were well prepared to carry on his loving legacy. We grew up living on the oasis of love created by my father, who taught us not only that we were blessed by God but that we should be blessings to others, because when we focus on that, God makes sure we are all blessed with an abundance of peace, joy, and fulfillment.
A few months before my father went to be with the Lord, we drove back to Paris, Texas, where he was raised. Dad wanted to reminisce and show me where he had grown up. We visited the old homestead farm and the memories just came flooding back to him. He showed me where the well was and where he’d picked cotton and other sites from his childhood.
Then he asked if we could drive around to look for any of his old friends who might still be around. I’ll never forget, driving up to this one run-down and weary old house, nothing more than a shack, really. An elderly gentleman was sitting out front on a log just passing the time of day. Dad went up to him, softly said a name, and asked if he was that person.
“I am,” he said.
“I’m John Osteen,” my father said. “We went to school together.”
They hadn’t seen each other for more than fifty years. They talked and talked about old times for a half hour or so before saying their goodbyes. Then we drove around a little more and found several more of Dad’s classmates living nearby. All of them seemed to be barely making ends meet. One man about my father’s age said he’d been laid off when he was twenty-eight years old and he’d never held a job after that. Most of them were on welfare and had no vision for a better life.
It seemed a shame. They were good people, but for whatever reasons, they’d never made their way out of poverty like my father. Visiting with them gave me an even deeper appreciation for all my father had accomplished.
It’s amazing how one person can make a huge difference by committing his or her life to the Lord. When you live with integrity, when you dream big, and when you have a giving spirit, you can make a difference not only in your life but in the lives of others. My father touched people all over the world. He made a decision to rise out of poverty and defeat and a limited mind-set. As a result, he rose above his circumstances and helped countless others do the same.
My father’s legacy was a Christmas present for all time. His message was for us to do good on this earth, to constantly be a giver, to sow seeds of love, seeds of encouragement, seeds of hope, seeds of healing, and seeds of blessings into the lives of His children and all of God’s children.
© 2010 Joel Osteen