Monthly Archives: December 2014

A Norman Rockwell Christmas Eve?

FallenLadder300x400 I am in a mixed marriage. My wife is a Douglas Fir Christmas tree person whereas I grew up in a Silver Tip Christmas tree tradition. (If I had only known before saying “I do.”) Compounding the precarious nature of our relationship is the fact that my wife was a Lutheran and I was a Baptist. How our marriage survived is a testimony to the power of God’s grace and the pharmaceutical industry. Over the years we have learned to compromise. For instance, I learned that drinking wine was not necessarily a sin (which sort of spoiled it for me) and she learned that full immersion baptism was pretty cool.

These days, Cindy and I attend one of those contemporary churches that has almost no similarities to a Lutheran or a Baptist church. As for Christmas trees, well, we still argue about that . . . until this year. But before we get to that, some history is in order. As a young couple, we would go up to the wilderness and cut our own Christmas tree. We were fanatical believers that only a real Christmas tree should grace the halls of our home. Anything less was evidence of a general lack of character. In our minds, it simply was not possible to have a warm Christmas experience in our home without a real Christmas tree. But as the years passed, we eventually stopped going to the wilderness to cut our Christmas tree, opting instead to venture into a more urban environment to acquire our real tree—The Home Depot. Here is a typical exchange between Cindy and me when we have narrowed the selection of trees down to two finalists in The Home Depot Christmas tree lot:

Me: I like the slim tree.
Cindy: I like the fuller tree.
Me: You mean the fat tree?
Cindy: Why do you have to be such a male pig?
Me: Maybe it’s my environment. Do you think it hurts the tree’s feelings to call it fat?
Cindy: I doubt it, but I know where to hurt you!
Me to the clerk: We’ll take the fuller tree.

You see, compromise isn’t so bad. Anyhow, after last year’s warm fuzzy exchange in The Home Depot Christmas tree lot, I began to slyly suggest to Cindy that we should consider purchasing a realistic fake Christmas tree. (Yes, I know it is an oxymoron AND a betrayal of my values.) During my research of fake Christmas trees, I discovered that there are fake Christmas trees that look fake and there are fake Christmas trees that look real. Can you guess which trees cost more? Yep, the fake ones that look real cost waaaay more. Naturally, Cindy would only consider the high-brow version. Fortunately we found a realistic fake tree that was deeply discounted. We took it home, set it up, applied our handmade decorations (Martha Stewart would be proud) and flipped on the lights. It was beautiful, and not the least because we didn’t have a single disagreement while trimming the tree. And something even more miraculous happened: I got the same warm feeling looking at that fake tree that I did with all of our real trees. Does that make me a shallow person?

Here’s my point. God shows up during the Christmas season in some unexpected ways . . . if we step up and invite him (yes, we humans can actually influence whether God shows up). A few years back, Cindy and I were visiting family in Deer Park, Washington. On Christmas Eve our family members invited us to attend their Catholic Church for a special service. I was a little hesitant because my faith tradition has often been a bit dubious towards Catholicism. But Cindy and I went with an open heart and a spirit of anticipation for the service that night. The parking lot was packed to overflowing. It had begun to snow, but not just any snow. It snowed those big fat snowflakes that fall so elegantly to the ground. A hush descended with the snow. Families walked inside and crowded into the pews, and nobody seemed to care that we were packed in like sardines. Stillness fell over the congregation. The worship music was so exquisite and spirit-filled I thought I would break down in tears. The priest preached a traditional message about Christmas and invited all the children to come forward and sit on the steps of the altar. He asked them questions about Christmas and Jesus. Some of their answers sparked chuckles from the adults, as only children can do. I felt the powerful feeling of community among the congregation but I also felt God wrap me up like a warm blanket that night. It was one of the most holy moments I’ve experienced in all my years of attending church. It was like something Norman Rockwell would envision.

I pray that every believer has this experience with God and his people at least once, or many times in their life. Don’t place limits on God and He may just surprise you. Cling to Christ, cherish your family and love others. These things will lead you to peace, joy and even happiness. But there is one thing that is often left out of this equation: to love justice. In other words, strive to live ethically. We will not always succeed, but that is ok. Justice is an essential element in achieving the peace, joy and happiness that is part of the promise of Christmas.

Have a merry Christmas!

Oh Holy Night of Retail Sales

Nativity Scene at Night A couple days after Black Friday, I ventured out to the stores with my family for some reconnaissance of the shopping scene. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle I spied a lady entering Petco with a large German Shepherd on a leash. The dog was incredibly well behaved. He walked calmly beside his master and sat patiently when she stopped to look at items on the shelf. When I take my fell beasts to Petco, the experience is not so pleasant: there is lots of lunging against the leash, piddling on the floor, and growling at other customers. And my dogs are ill-mannered, as well.

Anyhow, this time of year we get the annual bemoaning of how commercialized Christmas has become in our society. Granted, it nauseates me to see WalMart erecting Christmas displays before I’ve purchased candy for Halloween. How far ahead on the calendar can stores go when peddling their Christmas wares? Can they start on Labor Day? How about Independence Day? I’m not a prognosticator, but within my lifetime I expect to see store Christmas displays on the 4th of July. Uncle Sam and Saint Nick in bed together with big retail would make a most unholy union. But I digress.

It’s easy to decry the commercialization of Christmas. Why? Because the commercialization of Christmas is indeed taking the sacred and turning it into something well beneath its dignity. Most Christians instinctively know this. Yet here in America we seem especially susceptible to commercialization of sacred things. On the other hand, it is unlikely that we would have the same high quality of living were it not for retail commercialization. We can stick our nose in the air about the commercialization of Christmas, but the truth is commercialization and consumerism affords us with toys and essentials such as our iPads, smart phones, movies, music, thousands of food items in grocery stores, a comfy bed, a solid roof over our heads, and the indispensable tushie warmers in the seats of our cars. Without commercialization and consumerism, we’d be slaving away on a subsistence farm or we’d be forced to join a group of hunter-gatherers trying to eke out an existence in the wilderness.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank, consumer spending comprised 71% of the U.S. economy in 2013. A large chunk of that spending happens at Christmas time. Can a society continue forever to base its economic foundation so heavily on consumerism? I doubt it. But I haven’t heard of any viable alternatives to date. My point is that we can focus on divine and sacred things at Christmas without letting the commercialization aspect become anything other than a tool or a means to an end. The gifts the Magi brought to the Christ Child were beautiful, representative of sacred things, and practical. Those gifts likely helped fund Christ’s family for a period of time when they were refugees in Egypt. The Magi likely had to purchase or trade for those gifts in a market SOMEWHERE. Granted, not ALL gifts we give and receive at Christmas need to be purely practical. Even at age 58 I don’t want socks or underwear for Christmas. But beauty and/or practicality can be found amidst the commercialization if we choose our gifts wisely and avoid buying (or making) gifts devoid of creativity or lacking any usefulness. I understand that not everyone can afford to give fancy gifts from Nordstrom’s or Tiffany’s (me included . . . though my wife will be so disappointed), but everyone has something precious to give, even if it is simply time and friendship. Commercialization need not corrupt our Christmas as long as we remember that we give our gifts as a symbol of the gift of Salvation that Christ brought to the world.

So, it’s ok to go out and shop and it is ok to put one of those cheesy blow-up Santa’s in your front yard (as long as you don’t live on my street). Just don’t forget to keep the nativity scene front and center of it all.

The Warm Glow: And other dangers

Dog vs. Polar Bear - by Alberto Panizza - Carters News

Dog vs. Polar Bear – by Alberto Panizza – Carters News

The dog in this picture is attacking the biggest problem at hand. He is not concerned with whether another dog is sneaking off with his supper. He is not distracted by, say, a cat wandering through his turf. He is not ignoring the Polar Bear to chase a squirrel.

Of all the dangers that confront churchgoers, the one seldom mentioned to beginners is the outreach program to feed the poor. In my neck of the woods, the re-birth of the church food pantry and various feeding endeavors is usually designed to provide meals to the homeless and disadvantaged on a weekly or monthly rotation. But do such programs really apply resources where the problem is greatest and do they present any obstacles to our spiritual life?

One potential problem is that we like the feeling of breaking new ground by catching a vision and implementing that vision to serve the poor in OUR community. It is a worthy endeavor, though it might be misguided at times due to duplication of services. There is also another potential problem related to these types of programs, one that can stunt our spiritual growth. What is it, you ask? Well, we humans like to be paid even when we volunteer. Allow me to elaborate with an example. My daughter manages volunteers for a well-known Christian organization that has served the poor every day of the year for almost 150 years. People often approach her wanting to volunteer with feeding the poor and homeless, but with a condition: they want to be the person on the front line who physically hands the plates of food or the bags of groceries to people in need. When my daughter explains that the organization has plenty of servers but that they desperately need people working behind the front line, the would-be volunteers vanish like flatulence in the wind. My daughter and I can’t presume to know for certain their intentions and motivations, but it seems like conditional volunteers mostly want the “warm glow” effect. Was their desire to volunteer about the poor, themselves, or a little of both? Was their focus on the greatest problem (remember the Polar Bear)? Probably not. Oddly enough, many Methodist volunteers don’t seem to mind working behind the scenes and out of the lime light. Maybe we non-mainstream protestant types (i.e. evangelicals) require some soul searching.

When a church considers whether to open a food pantry, or any community service program, the vision casters and would-be volunteers must proceed cautiously with the good feelings and warm accolades from the poor that the idea of the program will generate. Powerful emotions can lead to mistakes. Also, would the hours of labor have more impact working behind the scenes with an already-established program at another church or Christian organization in the same community . . . perhaps at a place where the problem is larger and more people are in need? (Focus on the Polar Bear.) Perhaps there is a church a couple blocks away that already has a ministry to feed the poor and homeless. Duplication of effort could be wasteful. If there is a need that nobody else is filling, and you have the passion, skills and calling to meet that need, by all means go for it and start a food pantry or feeding program. (Focus on the Polar Bear.) Just remember it is one thing to have a vision to serve the poor, it is another to make sure our motives are really about the poor and not so much about ourselves. Don’t get me wrong. I am not preaching that the “warm glow” is a sin. I LOVE the “warm glow.” I am saying it doesn’t last as a motivator and if we rely on it too much we can slip into the sin of doing good deeds solely for selfish feelings instead of doing them because we love God.

I know what some of you are thinking: Grady, you’re such a negative Nelly, a naysayer, a downer, a prophet of doom, a pooh-pooher of all things noble and wholesome. You might even think I’m just one of those negative church people who shoot down every idea or vision from the pastor. Granted, I don’t aspire to be an acolyte of the Norman Vincent Peale way of life. I come from the perspective that wearing rose colored glasses ALL THE TIME guarantees that Satan will screw you . . . and maybe a lot of innocent people with you. Yes, I crave the “warm glow” and I know it is a great motivator, but I am done with following leaders simply because they have a great idea wrapped in enthusiasm and presented with warm fuzzy intentions. Can we please, please, please find a deeper way of serving God and humanity with a pure heart that isn’t blind to the dangers of hype and our own errant intentions? I simply crave something more . . . anointed by God. Okay, I’m off my soap now.

The article below demonstrates how the human heart’s desire for too much of the “warm glow” effect can have tragic consequences for humanity: