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Christmas Presents

December 30, 2008 Leave a comment

Yesterday, I heard a man say “Merry Christmas” and then apologize switching to “Happy New Year” instead. But he was really right the first time. We’ve entered Christmas “time,” and today is only the sixth day of a 12-day feast. During some seasons, Kelly and I have chosen to exchange a gift for each of the 12 days, helping remind us of the extended season of feasting.

Since I love getting presents this makes for a good tradition. While I realize that it is better to give than receive, I find it delightful to get…lots of presents. Presents and Christmas just go together. Some of my fondest memories from childhood include sitting under the Christmas tree and stacking up all the gifts that were labeled, “To Doug.”

During my early childhood, we’ve lived up in New Jersey. Every year we’d receive several large boxes from Tennessee, and each box was filled with presents from all our relatives.

What a delight I had to tear into the boxes, unpack the gifts and stack them under the tree. During the days leading up to Christmas, I’d sit by the tree and gather the “Doug” gifts, shaking, weighing and wondering upon the contents of each pretty package.

Sometimes I think I enjoyed the presents more before I opened them. The fancy papers, the colored bows, the odd shapes, and the varying weights all were a feast for my young imagination. Augustine’s idea that true happiness is found in anticipation of the good was being proved even in my childlike world of wonder.

In a way, this may be why Christmas sometimes seems like a letdown for some children and adults. The anticipation of the event is far more delightful than the actual experience. We discover like Augustine that the good we longed for is still ahead of us and not found in the mere gifts we exchanged.

As he reflected upon our longing for the “good,” Augustine came to believe that this good must be outside of us or we wouldn’t long for it. Then he assumed it must be something greater than what our outer world could supply. Because all our earthly goods never live up to the longing we have.

As he wrestled with this unfulfilled longing, Augustine came to see this greater good as something or someone that would fulfill the “desire” within us that drives us to long. And eventually Augustine came to realize that this “good” must be God, and that true happiness was found on earth in the anticipation of God who is beyond us.

For him, true earthly happiness was found in the longing for the “beautiful vision” of God. We merely touch hints of this vision in present life and will only enjoy the complete vision in the life to come. So even in the delight of a Christmas present, Augustine might see hints of God’s wondrous love.

I like that because my delight with Christmas presents might be seen as an act of spiritual devotion. Then again, it might be my unbridled selfish desires. And oddly enough, I suppose it is really a mixture of both. And God in his grace is working and transforming me in spite of my selfish motives.

But for now, let me go back to the presents! I have a question for you. What is the most memorable present you have ever received? I asked myself this several days ago, and oddly enough, it’s not an easy question to answer. All the presents blur together in my mind. Sweaters and pants and shirts and toys and boxes and bows all jumble together in one confusing mix.

So I’m not sure I can answer the question. After a few days of consideration, I have begun to remember the Bozo riding in the Bozo car that still sits in my house to this day. Then I remembered a Fisher Price circus set and a golf ball yo-yo and a train. Oops now the memories are flooding my mind: multiple race tracks, G.I. Joe dolls, magic tricks, a chemistry set, and a Tootsie Roll machine. Now I can’t stop. On and on I could go for pages listing trinkets and toys that delighted me for seasons of my childhood.

I failed to mention that the first gift which came to mind was a broken toy: a little car with broken wheels. I hated this gift but remember it more than any other gift. My sister and I were attending a youth choir Christmas party. We exchanged gifts using numbers we drew from a hat.

When I opened my little package, I was shocked to find a used and broken toy. Sad to say, I burst into tears. “Why me Lord?” “Why in heaven would someone have given me a broken toy?” As usual, my sister came to the rescue. She quickly pooled some money with another girl, and they ran down to the bookstore to buy me a puzzle.

I appreciated her kindness but somehow always felt a tinge of guilt playing with that puzzle. Why was I so sensitive and selfish over such a small thing? The memory stills haunts me on occasion.

I still wonder, “What is the story on that broken car?” Who thought bringing a broken car as a gift was a good idea? Were they too poor to buy something? If so, maybe this little broken car was actually a treasured gift, and they were giving me something of great value.” I’ll never know the story before it came to me, but I can tell you the story after I received it. Discarded. Trashed. But not forgotten.

Every gift is not simply a gift. It is actually a story in motion. It had a story before I got it and in one way or another it becomes part of my story once I receive it. For every gift that someone bought for me over the years, there was a moment or many moments of wondering, “What would Doug want?” Or possibly, “What can I get the best deal on?”

A whole series of thoughts might have occupied someone’s mind: “What size does he wear?” “What color does he like?” “Maybe I’ll just get him a goofy toy and call it a day.” For every gift someone bought for me, a thought or series of thoughts passed through their mind about me.

Now I realize something rather odd about the gift. It is actually an extension or symbol of the relationship I enjoy with that person. They took a few minutes to think about me and to find a gift for me because I am in relationship with them (even if that relationship consists in simply feeling some obligation to buy something).

Now this might seem odd, but I come to realize that gifts are but symbols for persons in my life. The wonder of gifts might not only point to some deep longing for the God, they might also point to the wonder of human relationships.

Looking around me at all the people in my life, I realize that I am surrounded by all shapes and sizes of gifts. Some talkative. Some quiet. Some big. Some tiny. Some friendly. Some a bit grumpy. And yet, in the mystery of God’s grace all these people are gifts of love and relationship God has granted me in this life: hints of His divine and all-surpassing love.

I can admire the packages. Or I can open up the gifts. How? I listen, enjoy, appreciate the wonder of the people around me. I can realize that each of these people have a story that extends far beyond me. But in some mysterious way I am part of their story and they are part of my story.

Every person in my life will change me and I will change them. I can celebrate them and thank God for them, or I can act like I got a bunch of broken toys. And ask, “Why me?”

I hope I’ve learned that even broken toys have mystery and wonder and stories that may unfold surprising hints of God’s goodness and grace.

As I celebrate the 12 days of Christmas this year, I am opening up gifts. Not physical boxes, but the amazing wonder of people in my life. From family and friends to the mystery of the stranger in the story, I am surrounded by gifts of wonder and glory. May I have eyes to see this wonder and sense the stirrings of a love from deep heaven that binds us together in grace.

Doug Floyd

“From a human perspective, when you compare [God] to the other gods of the other religions in the world, you have to say our God is really sort of odd. He uses the most common of people, people that aren’t any different from any of us here; he comes in the most common of ways, when by his Spirit an anonymous young woman is found to be with child. And the strangest thing is that he comes at all—he’s not the Above-Us-God, too holy to come down. This God’s love is so immense that he wants to come down. And he has proven his love by the fact that he did come down and touch our ground.”
James R. Van Tholen, Where All Hope Lies (cited from ChristianityToday.com)

Merry Christmas!

December 24, 2008 Leave a comment

Winter.
Beautiful destruction blankets the old world
in white death.
Baptism.
All the world is buried beneath
the terrible whiteness of God’s love.
Silence.
Laughter, tears and non-stop chatter cease
in the bleak mid-winter night.
Stillness.
One cry breaks the chilling
night of bone cold death.
Baby.
Jesus tumbles down in dead of winter,
coloring this white world with heaven’s light.
Spring.
Love’s fire melts sin’s icy sting,
Raising a new world into vibrant life.

A Christmas Carol

December 23, 2008 Leave a comment

I still remember the shock I first experienced when Ebenezer Scrooge (in the guise of Mr. Magoo) saw his name on the tombstone. In some strange way, this odd slightly scary image is one of my earliest impressions of Christmas. And I think of it fondly.

Mr. Magoo introduced me to the wonder of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and for that I was always be grateful. I can barely imagine Christmas without the wonder of this marvelous story.

Over the years, I’ve watched almost every version of “A Christmas Carol.” And yet, every year I find another one I haven’t seen. This year I had the pleasure of discovering a haunting 1935 version with Seymour Hicks. Drawing elements from German expressionism, this version captures the terrible wonder of this story.

I believe the master storyteller Charles Dickens in all his flaws was graced by God to bless the world with his rich legacy of penetrating stories. (Here is a little essay I wrote on Charles Dickens in the early 90s.)

Dickens saw the suffering of the world first-hand. As a child, his family went to the poor, but Dickens was left behind to fend for himself. For several months, he drifted through a nightmare of existence.

His nightmares became the stories I’ve loved so deeply. Dickens doesn’t hesitate to portray the gritty ugliness of our world and the people in our world. And yet, his loves those people. He loves Scrooge. So he can’t leave him in his dis-grace.

A few friendly ghosts will rescue the old man in his misery. During of night of visions, Scrooge encounters the ugliness of his soul, his need for redemption, and the heart of Christmas joy. While “A Christmas Carol” does not explicitly detail the story of Christ, the image is never far from the surface. Listen to Dickens own words as he talks about his image of Christmas:

What images do I associate with the Christmas music as I see them set forth on the Christmas tree? Known before all others, keeping far apart from all other, they gather round my bed. An angel, speaking to a group of shepherds in a field; some travelers, with eyes uplifted, following a star; a baby in a manger; a child in a spacious temple, talking with grave men; a solemn figure, with a mild and beautiful face, raising a dead girl by the hand; again, near a city gate, calling back the son of a widow, on his bier, to life; a crowd of people looking through the opened roof of a chamber where he sits, and letting down a sick person on a bed, with ropes; the same, in a tempest, walking on the water to a ship again; again, on a sea-shore, teaching a great multitude; again, with a child upon his knee, and other children round; again, restoring sight to the sick, strength to the lame, knowledge to the ignorant; again, dying upon a Cross, watched by armed soldiers, a thick darkness coming on, the earth beginning to shake, and only one voice hear, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Dickens saw the “writing on the tree” so to speak. He saw what Christmas envisioned. The birth, life and death of the Savior for all humanity. The only hope in a world darkened by human violence and human oppression.

Alongside Dickens, we learn to love Scrooge as we witness a man wounded and damaged in this world of sin. Scrooge, the grumpy bah-humbug truly becomes the “founder of the feast” that Bob Cratchitt has called him. In his redemption, Scrooge comes to exemplify the very spirit of Christmas present. Joy and generosity overflow from the man who once was a pit of stinginess.

In the 1970 musical version starring Albert Finney, Scrooge is so deeply transformed that he tears up his debt book (bringing up images of Zacchaeus after he encounters Jesus). Then Scrooge dons a Santa outfit and proceeds to pour out gifts and laughter and joy upon everyone in his presence. Wherever Scrooge goes, he brings the celebration with him.

That spirit of abundance, of generosity, of overwhelming joy inspires me to bring the joy, and not to wait for someone or something else to make me happy. I’ve tasted the secret of joy in the goodness of God’s grace, and I want to spread it to all people I meet. Just as Cratchitt loved the unlovable Scrooge, I want to love and call for the best from the people around me.

When Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” the London Times hadn’t mentioned Christmas for over 30 years. But Dickens saw the possibility of what could be, and he wrote about it. Chesterton rightly calls Dickens the “founder of the feast” because he fell in love with the despairing people around him and wrote a vision of their transformation.

Sounds a bit like the wonder of a God who loved and loves his enemies. And his relentless love transforms our dark and hateful souls into something wondrous. Oh Lord, grant me eyes to see your love for the people around me. Just as my haunting memory of the Mr. Magoo Scrooge facing a tombstone, I know we all face a tombstone.

We have a brief sojourn before ascending. Let us love deeply and widely and unreservedly. Let us pray and hope and expect the grace of God to penetrate all the Scrooges in our world.

Advent – Rejoice!

December 23, 2008 Leave a comment

The feast is upon us. For those who’ve kept the advent fast and for those who forgot. For those who’ve been watching and for those who fell asleep.

Suddenly an angel appears announcing, “Good news!” And the dark night becomes a festival of light. Thousand and thousands of voices join in the song,
“Glory to God in the highest,
Peace on earth
Goodwill to man!”

What? You don’t feel like singing? You don’t have the Christmas spirit. Your back hurts. You’re in a bad mood.

I would suggest that for all these reasons, you must sing. Sing out! Pierce the darkness of dis-courage-ment with the light of courage to praise. Even now God’s redemption draws near to you. Today is the day of salvation.

It’s a day of good news, great tidings, delicious, delightful, happily-ever-after news. God has declared “Peace!”

In spite of our warring hearts, in spite of our false loves, in spite of our constant failings, He declares, “Peace and Joy!” In the miracle birth of baby Jesus, we behold the Heavenly King who comes to make all things new—even your sad story.

The story that you thought was a story of failure has become a grand adventure. A love story. A song and dance. A fairy tale that out fairy tales even Snow White and Cinderella combined. For the Prince of Peace wakes your dead soul with a holy kiss and invites you to the Wedding Feast.

Even now He is present and the angels are singing all around you. In fact, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of voices have joined in the song. The saints of the ages have joined in the glorious refrain,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.”

He has not forgotten you. He did not abandon you. Even now He calls you by name. Even now He looks upon you as His beloved.

For the babe Jesus came as King, as Lover, as Healer, and Lord and Redeemer. He did not simply come to restore the people of Israel, He came to restore all of us into His life of love.

Let us join the angel song.

This rejoicing. This singing. This praising. This is why we have our tongues. For once let us use them for their real purpose, to sing hilariously to the good God of Heaven who enters our world of sin and death and pain and suffering, so that we might enter into His world of love and life and joy and peace.

So get up and let us all light up the darkness with the joy of singing, dancing, laughter and love.

The Secret of the Christmas Spirit

December 15, 2008 2 comments

As we wait and watch for the Son, Advent moves from yearning to celebrating. The joy of Christmas penetrates our hearts as we begin to experience the wonder of God’s love. Our culture tries to bypass the desert of Advent longing and enter directly into the fun of Christmas play.

Sadly this often results in hollow celebrations: celebrations that are not really celebrations at all, but festivity to keep the darkness at bay. The twinkling lights, Christmas songs, and Holiday parties don’t seem to work the magic they once did. How often I hear the same refrain, “I just don’t have the Christmas spirit this year.”

In this lament, adults may be acknowledging that there is a joy to be had, but they don’t have it. Children have it. Frosty and Rudolf and Santa bring a laugh to their lips and a sparkle to their eyes. These stories capture the luminous wonder surrounding the Christmas feast. As G.K. Chesterton so often pointed out, fairy tales are food for the child’s imagination. These magical stories invite the children into a world beyond our world, revealing parables of truth as well as intimations of heaven’s love.

But as we grow older, these stories can no longer feed the soul. We enjoy these stories now through the remembrance of childlike joy. It is looking back, remembering, the nostalgia of longing for the innocent wonder of childlike faith we once had.

But something has changed in us. What once nourished our imagination no longer satisfies. As a result, many adults struggle with a slight disappointment in Christmas. Everything is over so fast. The tinsel and the lights and the music fail to satisfy a longing, a craving, a hunger deep inside us.

I might suggest that our lack of “Christmas spirit” may come from not entering far enough into the story. The fairy tales kept us lingering at the gates of wonder when the real and deep joy is “further up and further in” as C.S. Lewis might say.

During Advent, we learn to enter into the story. Not simply the story of a birth, but the story of death and new life. We discover the story of a people, God’s people who’ve been scattered into exile in Babylon, Assyria, Egypt and the uttermost parts of the earth. They have been forgotten in the “valley of the shadow of death.”

As we reflect on their exile, we may come to realize that it is our exile. For we also know the valley of the shadow of death. In this place of trial, we have faced our own disappointments, our own struggles, our own pains, our own sins. Only in the “valley of the shadow of death” do we come to realize our desperate need for a Savior.

If we are not rescued, we will die in our grief, in our sinfulness, in our unforgiveness, in our suffering and sorrow. The only way out of the valley of the shadow of death is through death. So we look to the king who has conquered death. And now finally we may discover that Advent is both a season of the year and a season of our life.

For it is in the advent season in our lives, the season of waiting and longing and grieving and weeping, that we discover the grace of God flowing down like deep joy from a far country.

This is the joy that stands in the face of sin and death and says, “No! The victory has been won!” This is the joy that cannot be shaken. Heaven and earth may come crumbling down around us, but we can still rejoice for our God is faithful and He will not forsake us. This is the joy of Israel when released from her captivity.

Psalm 126
1 When the LORD brought back the captivity of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
And our tongue with singing.
Then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
3 The LORD has done great things for us,
And we are glad.
4 Bring back our captivity, O LORD,
As the streams in the South.
5 Those who sow in tears
Shall reap in joy.
6 He who continually goes forth weeping,
Bearing seed for sowing,
Shall doubtless come again with rejoicing,
Bringing his sheaves with him.

This is the joy that we offer to our weak and weary world. Our world is sin weary, war weary, and tired from the long exile. Every day we meet desperate people in desperate positions. We are surrounded by people who question their worth, their purpose, their meaning in life. We come as the people who’ve passed through the valley of the shadow of death. We come bearing news, good news of great joy!

Isaiah 9:6
6 For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

We don’t wait to feel the spirit of the season. The Spirit of the God of the season dwells in us. And by His Spirit we bring the joy to the feast. We bring the joy that the world longs for. Our kingdom is a kingdom of “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

As Demos Shakarian wrote many years ago, “We are the happiest people in the earth.” Let us for forth this season and bring good news of great tidings to all the world. Let us laugh and sing and rejoice.

For we know the secret of deep joy. We know the laughter that echoes beneath Frosty and Rudolf and Santa is the laughter of the God who rescues His people from death and bring us back to new life. Let us make merry for our God in heaven is good and great and most worthy of an extravagant celebration!

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The Advent Conspiracy of Giving MORE

December 4, 2008 3 comments

Last week’s news brought a disturbing picture of the American Christmas with gluttony of buying, resulting in at least one death. The picture of ravenous shoppers does not seem to reconcile with the image of God entering history in the humiliation of a manger. I wrote some posts last week on Christmas time vs Business time, and I had one more thought about responding to our consumer intoxication.

Angie’s post discussing the Advent Conspiracy video reminded me to write this up. The video challenges us to step back from the uncontrolled purchasing frenzy and spend more time relationally, serving the poor, etc. Angie responds:

The video says “Jesus gave himself relationally, incarnation, time, space presence.”

Exactly! Jesus also gave us climbing roses, puffer fish, Chianti, thunderous waterfalls, the aurora borealis, ladybugs, rosemary, penguins….he gave us gifts extravagant, needless, beautiful, abundant. Then He gave us the most priceless gift of all–Himself. Why not celebrate that in grand style?

And then later she suggests,

I’m inclined to think, though, that some (not all) may embrace this “Advent conspiracy” stuff as a way to justify their own laziness and/or curmudgeonliness. To those folks I say: stop griping about the celebration and start celebrating! Put up an extra strand of lights. Give your kid a little trinket every day from Christmas through Epiphany (the twelve days of Christmas). Buy extra hot chocolate and marshmallows for the family to enjoy while you have your Advent devotionals and singing.

Thanks Angie. Excellent points. I believe the proper response to our consumer-driven Christmas is to give MORE, not LESS. Christmas seems overly commercial because we celebrate it too little and not too much. The whole world is a pulsating expression of God’s extravagant giving. He overwhelms the saint and sinner with gifts of life and goodness.

I grew up in a family that practiced extravagant  giving. In other words, when we woke up on Christmas morning, we could barely see the tree for all the presents. My parents overwhelmed us. Some would say that spoiled us. They gave physically, tangible gifts that we as children enjoyed: trains and guitars and dolls and forts and more. And yet, the giving was NOT a substitute for time. They gave a time extravagantly as well. They played with us, told us stories, and listened to our stories.

They gave us so much, we couldn’t help but become givers. That’s right. The extragence was not simply self-induglence. It was celebration. It was an overflow of the joy they had in raising us. That joy continue to flow as we grew up. Our house became the center for all the lost friends and souls who had no where to go on Christmas (or any other holiday).

The party kept extending outward and inviting others into a celebration.

Did they give us too much? Of course (and they still do). In my parents, we learned the true intoxication of giving of everything. Presents, time, laughter, and life.

The answer to our outward culture’s selfishness is not inward selfishness (either in miserliness or in self-righteous judgment of those around us). Rather, it is in giving even more of our life, our love and our STUFF. Once we get the hang of it, giving is so fun that you can give anything away. Our hands open and we can freely give to the deserving (and undeserving), to the poor and needy, and even to the selfish.

So instead pointing fingers at all those evil shoppers. Let’s love them. Let’s love the down and outers. Let’s love the spoiled kids. Let’s love the forgotten kids. Let’s extravagantly enjoy the goodness God’s creation and give ourselves into a fit of uncontrolled hilarity.

Christmas Time vs Business Time

November 30, 2008 1 comment

Some “times” we think that all time is the same time. This is one of the illusions of living “under” the rule of business time. What is business time?  We may speak of the normal business “hours” to indicate a 9 to 5 workday Monday through Friday. These “hours” and “days” are designated for business. But business time extends far beyond these hours.

Living under the rule of business time becomes a way of thinking that defines each moment of our existence as either billable or non-billable time. We are either “earning” money or not “earning” money. We reduce time to pursuit of the dollar. We reduce economics to money as opposed to relationship.

In this way of understanding our time, we think that we don’t own our time while we are working for someone else. They’ve purchased that our of our time. And when we aren’t working, it is “free time.” Time that is free because we earn no money but it is also free because we are free to do what we want.

By living under this time, day after day, year after year, we attach personal value to the “business time.” The more money we earn, the more bonuses, the more successful we perform in “business time,” the greater sense of worth we have. Our personal worth is attached to performance.

If we live under business time, we may lose some of our humanness, our wonder, our capacity to love and our need to be loved. We may lose our power to choose, to define the times. We may lose our power to say, “No!”

I would suggest that we can move between times. We don’t have to live “under business time.” We can move between business time and other times such as Christmas time.

More later.

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