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.
There’s a hip, sort of melancholy, song called “Lost In My Mind” that I listen to now and then. The song feels like therapy in a way. Of course you’d probably like a peek into my addled psyche to understand why. Not a chance! The point is that even sappy sad songs can lift our spirits. Thank God for music and the joy it bestows. And yet many of us often discover that joy, other than ephemeral joy, is elusive because we don’t always perceive our purpose, place, calling, raison d’être, as clearly revealed to us by God. That’s me! Oh don’t feel sorry for me (OK you can send some flowers if you like); I’m simply searching for the truth. Yes, yes, I know the struggles and disappointments to finding joy via purpose are just byproducts of what Christianity calls our fallen world. Don’t get me wrong, there have been times when I felt God touch my life and point me in the right direction. And God can be experienced in other ways, as well. I just returned from four days at Lake Tahoe, California, and let me tell you the greatness of God was clearly evident in the granite mountains surrounding the Lake; granite that took eons to sculpt by the slow grinding pressure of ancient glaciers on enormous mountains populating heights where the air is thin (God is extreeeemely patient, unlike me). But on a personal level, I’ve often heard it said in the church that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Well, with more than two score years under my belt, I’m still waiting to see what the main plan looks like. I know that sounds a bit negative, but it’s honest. The tedium of life can discourage the most stout-hearted soul as the years drag by while it appears God has forgotten us. I envy folks who have the hand of God clearly on their lives, directing them and using them in astounding ways. They often seem full of joy, energy, and a positive spirit. They accomplish extraordinary things. But what about the rest of us, are we doomed to a life without God opening doors or using our skills and passions to help advance his mission? I don’t know! Even I doubt now and then. I occasionally wonder is God real. But anyhow, based on what I’ve read in the Bible and observed in the church, it seems like God’s love and design often work just under the surface as we trudge through the days of our lives (is that soap opera still on TV?). King David was used by God at an early age. Moses was used by God later in life. But they both had a season of preparation when they likely didn’t think much would happen as orchestrated by God. Of course they were selected for leadership. So what about the rest of us, the worker bees? Where do we fit in? Does God really have a plan for each person’s life? I hope so. I hope God uses us even when it doesn’t feel like God is using us. Before uniting with Christ, or at least before taking him seriously, we chase the proverbial pot of gold. After taking him seriously, many of us chase the blessing of knowing his plan for our life. I hope he’s pleased by that desire to be used by him. I hope he has something special for each person, not just a select few, to accomplish in his service. Yep, hope is a wonderful thing.