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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)

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.

On Gifts and Calling

October 24, 2008 2 comments

In my wistful moments, I’ve dreamt of being a poet. And in the gentle mornings hours, there’ve been times when that dream took form in words and cadence and poor articulations from a voice that longs to speak something real in iron and stone.

But my poetic voice comes and goes, and I realized at some point that while I delighted in the expression, my writing was not great art. But rather scribblings of soul trying to follow in faltering steps a call that haunts me.

I once dreamed of speaking to large crowds who would sway and fall under the weight of my words. But those large crowds have often taken form in a handful of folks in my living room or in one friend during an extended lunch.

It seems that when God called me, He called me out from the successful and ever-growing church as I knew it, and into the lonely quiet of caves (better known as cubicles).

For a season I fought this exile by reminding myself that my intellect would one day reap great acclaim from audiences far and near. Over time, I’ve come to realize that I know far less than most people and understand even less of what I know. My only formal training was rhetoric, and I am a dismal failure as a rhetorician.

Whether in writing or speaking or thinking, I’ve come to peace with the limitations of my abilities and opportunities. And yet, following Chesterton’s advice, I continue to delight in all three because “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”

Every so often I am reminded of the gifts and calling that I bear. Rather than being called to soar to great heights of profound erudition, I’ve been given the simple gifts of laughter and tears.

These are the two small gifts that I can give to the world. As I grow older, the tears fall more and more easily and often in embarrassing moments (when I would like to restrain). And oddly enough, I might be unaware of the laughter if it were not for people turning there heads toward the sound of my voice.

It is in laughter and tears where I am most vulnerable and most human. The sheer joy of being alive is not something I actively cultivate but something that overflows as a gift from the Father above. And that joy only stops when I fill the well with dirt because of my own pains and self-focus.

The tears flow as reminders that I live and breathe and enjoy as gift gracious gift from my Father above.

In the quietness of this moment, I am fully aware that beside the gifts of laughter and tears, I offer little to the world around me. And I am at peace with God’s grace working in the midst of that. Yet I know that a few hours from now, I will struggle once again with longing for respectability and honor and glory from the people around me.

By God’s grace, I would pray that I “would not think of myself more highly than I ought” but rest in the form which the Lord Himself has created and called forth into His glory. And may I live but for the word and blessing and acceptance from my good and gracious Lord.

Categories: meditation Tags: , , , , , ,

Gifts with strings attached

March 26, 2008 Leave a comment

Just because a gift comes with “no strings attached” does not mean that it is a better gift than one “with strings attached.” A gift can come as an expression of invitation to a deeper relationship. By deeper relationship, I am indicating some greater level of exchange in shared intimacy. The gift of an engagement ring is an invitation to a deeper relationship with greater levels of intimacy.

If the invitation is a welcome one, the person receiving the gift delights in the “strings attached.”  This is a way for me to being thinking through the idea of covenantal gifts.

The ten commandments come not as a weight but as gifts of life (invitations to relation) with expectations of responsibility. This covenantal picture in the commandments is sometimes pictured as a marriage between Israel and YHWH. Thus the imagery in Isaiah and other places of the marraige with God’s people (and in the New Testament as the bride of Christ).

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