Sunday, December 30, 2007


Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-23

What happens now? Although according to the Christian calendar Christmas continues for another week, for the commercial world and many of us, Christmas celebrating ended on the afternoon of December 25th. The New Year is upon us. One of the spiritual giants of the twentieth century was Howard Thurman. Born in 1900 of parents who had been slaves, Thurman was Dean of Chapel at Boston University in the middle decades of the twentieth century. When I arrived there for graduate study, Thurman had just retired. He died in 1983, but his eloquence and spiritual insight continues through his writings. He wrote these words for the moments after Christmas:

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the wise men and shepherds have found their way home,
[that's when] the work of Christmas is begun.”

What is the “work of Christmas?” After their visit to the stable where the Christ child had been born, the shepherds returned to their sheep on the hillsides "glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen." Now everything they did had new meaning, even the daily routine of caring for the sheep on lonely hillsides. They would never really be lonely again.

One wonders about the innkeeper who was perhaps too preoccupied with making a living to extend much hospitality to Mary and Joseph. Maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on him; maybe he gave what he had—a place in the stable. I wonder if he had any idea of what went on in that shed that night. Like many other busy people before him, he might have lived the rest of his life having missed the opportunity of a lifetime only a few feet away.

The Magi, who had read the signs, followed the star, and found their way to Bethlehem, offered their gifts and worshiped the Christ child. Their first "work of Christmas" was to go home "by another road." They had been warned in a dream to stay away from Herod. One suspects that it was not just the danger of Herod, but that all who find their way to the Christ child cannot but go home "by another way." These educated scholars could never be the same after the visit to Bethlehem. Would that it would be so for us after our visits to Bethlehem.

And, then, there was Herod. The "work of Christmas" for Herod was to find the Christ child, not to worship him but to destroy him. And just as he had murdered members of his own family because of his jealousy for power, so he didn't hesitate to order the murder of all the boy babies of Judea to get to the Christ child. Ironically, soon after the birth of Jesus Herod would be taken from the throne not by a rival but by death, a rival he couldn't kill. There are still those who are willing to trample on others in order to protect their positions and status.

What of Mary and Joseph: what was the "work of Christmas" for them? They had to go into hiding and become illegal aliens in a foreign country in order to protect the Christ child.

But what is the "work of Christmas" for us? The two Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke are like great paintings. We look at the paintings and see different things. We look at the paintings from different angles and in different light and see new things. As the writer of the Gospel of John struggled to find words to express the heart of the Christmas story he wrote, "And the Word became flesh and lived among us…" In some way that words can never express, God risked all the vulnerabilities of being human so that we could hear the message of love. God did not have to take this risk, but did because this God loves us. And because God loves us, we can love others.

This is not some kind of sappy sentimental love; it is love that takes risks; it is love that can give with no thought of receiving; it is love that can act on behalf of others even when it is not in our self-interest. If the expression of this love was God's work at Christmas, is not our "work of Christmas" -- now that the song of the angels is stilled, the star in the sky has gone, the kings and the shepherds have found their way home -- to tell the story of this great love, especially by modeling it in the way we relate to other people?

Modeling this kind of love is a challenge, isn't it? You can probably think of a hundred places where this love is needed. I hope you will also think about our nation after five years of war. The human toll these wars—both among families of soldiers here in this country and among the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan—is immeasurable. How do we model real love in the face of these realities? And then there is the presidential primary season that is upon us? How do we model real love in the face of this reality?

For people of good will who want to be good citizens and trust the political process, the question has been raised anew, "Is it possible for a person to act apart from his or her own self-interest?" Take care how you answer the question. If your answer is "No," then the promise of Christmas is a lie and we have no hope of modeling the love that God has shown us. If the answer is "Yes," then I think we know what the "work of Christmas" is.

In 1932 a theologian by the name of Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book titled, Moral Man and Immoral Society
[2] Niebuhr taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, but he was not an "ivory tower" theologian. For thirteen years, he was pastor of a church in downtown Detroit where he ministered to all kinds of people and also learned about economic and political realities in a large city. Like many others of his time, Niebuhr was frustrated by developments in Europe after World War I. The "war to end all wars" not only didn't end war, but Niebuhr could see Europe and the rest of the world moving toward the catastrophe that would be Holocaust and World War II.

In his book, Niebuhr argued his thesis that while individuals have the capacity to act morally, organizations do not. What Niebuhr meant by "moral" was the capacity to act beyond and even contrary to one's own self-interest. "Society," he argued, did not have that capability: organizations always act in their own self-interest, whether nations, political parties, or churches. That does not mean that they always act badly. For Niebuhr, though, it meant they could not act contrary to their self-interest. Only individuals have that capability, he argued.

Do not conclude that Niebuhr was an "idealist." He was not called a "realist theologian" for nothing. He was very critical of the liberalism of his day and the optimism of the pre-depression years that things were just going to get better and better. He wasn't an idealist when it came to the individual, either. He was fond of saying that "the doctrine of sin was the one Christian doctrine which could be empirically verified." An individual, he argued, has the capability to act morally, which is to act beyond and even contrary to one's own self interest.

Niebuhr died in 1971 at the climax of the Vietnam War. It should not surprise you to know that Niebuhr was vilified both by the political right and the left. He was unsparing in his criticism of the war, but he was equally critical of the "peace movement." Those who felt the sting of his criticism tended to dismiss him as old and tired. In retrospect, it seems clear that he simply understood the situation. No other theologian has had the impact on the social sciences that Reinhold Niebuhr had. You may not have known Niebuhr's name before today, but you probably knew these words of his, known as the "Serenity Prayer:"

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."

We began today with Howard Thurman's lines about the "work of Christmas. In the conclusion of his poem, he describes that "work:"

“to find the lost and lonely one to heal the broken soul with love,to feed the hungry children with warmth and good food,
to free the prisoner from all chains, to make the powerful care,
to rebuild the nations with strength of good will,
to bring hope to every task you do,
to dance at a baby's new birth to make music in an old person's heart,
and, to sing to the colors of the earth!”

Niebuhr reminds us that we can and should expect more of our political leaders and judges, that we can and should expect more of our pastors and church leaders, that we can and should expect more of ourselves; and that we should not expect more of others than we expect of ourselves. God has given us the capability to love, not just to love in safe ways, but to take risks and even to transcend our own self-interests in order to do what is right. When you do that, whether the matter is great or small, you will be doing the "work of Christmas."

[1] Howard Thurman, "The Mood of Christmas," adapted by Jim Strathdee into a song titled, "I Am the Light of the World," © 1969 Jim Strathdee, Desert Flower Music, Ridgecrest, California, 93555.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932).

[3] "The Serenity Prayer," The United Methodist Hymnal, 1989, # 459.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


Luke 1:26-38: Galatians 4:4

Advent is about waiting and preparing to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. It is also about waiting and watching for the God who has come in our past, who will come in our future, and who, even as we speak, comes in our present closer to us than the breath in our lungs. And when in some mysterious or plainly humdrum event that presence bursts in on us, how do we respond? Advent is about that too.

In your imagination travel with me once again back to the centuries before Christ was born. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and the people were carried away into exile in Babylon six hundred miles away, it seemed as if that might finally be an end to the people who Moses had lead out of slavery in Egypt and had come to be called “Israelites.” Nations and peoples with their own unique identities have disappeared from the earth, like creatures who move from the column of “endangered species” to “extinct.”

But it was not to be for the people of Israel. In a miracle of epic proportions, the people taken away in exile were granted the freedom to return to their homeland. Some of them did. They rebuilt the Temple and the Jerusalem city walls. But they did not find a restored political kingdom of David with the wealth of Solomon’s Empire. What their children’s children found was Persian rule replaced with Greek rule and then, about a hundred years before the birth of Jesus, incorporation – against their will, of course – into the Roman Empire.

Through the years of domination by one great power after the other the prophets’ visions of a Messiah kept the people’s hope alive. The great prophets -- Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel -- had seen visions of a Messiah, but it was the writings of Isaiah that captured the imaginations and kept the attention of most people. There are four or five poems in the book of Isaiah which envision the entrance of one called “the servant of the Lord” onto the stage of history.

Although you may not have recognized them as “Servant Songs,” you are probably familiar with some of them:

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
He will bring forth justice to the nations.” (42:1)

And in 49:6

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

If not these, then probably these lines often read around Easter:

“He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.” (53:3)

The identity of this servant has exercised the minds of scholars perhaps more than any other single Old Testament issue. The "servant of the Lord" is sometimes clearly identified as the nation Israel,
[2] while in other passages Israel is not mentioned and the reference seems to be to an individual.[3] It seems clear that the poet meant the "people of God," Israel, to be the servant of God, or a faithful remnant of them. And at some point(s) in time that faithful remnant might be reduced to one faithful servant. Think about it: a remnant of one listening for God’s direction. This was not pessimism, but rather confidence that in any given time there would be at least one person on whom God could count. There are those who look at Jesus as the one person remnant of Israel, the one person who was faithful to God.

These visions of the “Servant of the Lord” were so powerful, and so present in the hopes of the people down through the centuries before Christ, that when the New Testament writers looked back on the life, death and resurrection of Christ, nothing else so described him as these poems. Was the prophet Isaiah looking ahead over five hundred years to the coming of Christ? Or was the prophet simply faithfully describing the One God would send sometime? And why was it when Augustus was Caesar in Rome, when Quirinus was governor of Syria, when Herod was the puppet king in Judea, that was the time when God fulfilled the promise made to Isaiah? The apostle Paul said it this way: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent [the] Son, born of woman…” (Galatians 4:4)

In her book, The Gospel According to Abbie Jane Wells, Abbie Jane offers an interesting and important perspective on Paul’s notion of “the fullness of time:”

“Paul…and just about everybody else tends to forget that it took a “yes” from Mary before God could “sent forth his Son” – and if there is any truth to that “when the time had fully come,” it is that Mary’s time had come when she went into labor at the end of her pregnancy: that’s when the time had fully come – that is when Jesus’s time to be born had fully come!

“As for ‘Had Jesus come to a different people in a different place at a different time…’ I don’t think you can juggle his place in history – or Mary’s – that way; and since Jesus was born of Mary, you’d have to get her as well as Jesus into ‘a different people in a different place at a different time’ – which isn’t humanly, or Godly, possible.

“Of course, it is possible for God to have a Son of a woman ‘in a different people in a different place at a different time’ – but that wouldn’t be Jesus, for Jesus was Mary’s son as well as God’s – which lotsa people tend to forget at times.

“For all I know – for all anybody knows – God may have ‘proposed’… through the ages but, as far as we know, Mary was the first one to say an unqualified ‘yes.’… ’When the time had fully come,’ and the ‘Time had fully come’ only because the woman Mary said ‘yes.’”

That seems to be the way God works in history. God waits for “the unqualified ‘yes’” from the most unlikely people to fulfill God’s promises in the world. That should give most of us who see ourselves as “unlikely people” some hope. It should also give us some pause. For what unqualified “yes” is God awaiting from us?

That seems to be the way God works in history. God waits for “the unqualified ‘yes’” from the most unlikely people to fulfill God’s promises in the world. That should give most of us who see ourselves as “unlikely people” some hope. It should also give us some pause. For what is God awaiting an unqualified “yes” from us?

In the early 1870s, a young partially sighted girl known as ‘Little Annie’ was kept locked in a room in the basement in a mental institution outside Boston. This was the only place, said the doctors, for those who were hopelessly insane. In Little Annie’s case, they saw no hope for her, so she was consigned to a living death in a small cell, more like a cage than a room, which received little light and even less hope. About that time, an elderly nurse was nearing retirement. She felt that there was hope for all God’s children, so she started taking her lunch into the basement and eating outside little Annie’s cell. She felt that she might be able to communicate some love and hope to the little girl.

In many ways Little Annie was an animal. On occasions, she would violently attack the person who came into her cell. At other times, she would completely ignore them. When the elderly nurse started visiting her, Little Annie gave no indication that she was even aware of her presence. One day the elderly nurse brought some brownies and left them in the cell. Little Annie gave no hint she knew they were there, but when the nurse returned the next day the brownies were gone. From that time on, the nurse would bring brownies when she made her Thursday visit. Soon after, the doctors in the institution noticed a change was taking place. After a period of time they decided to move Little Annie upstairs. Finally, the day came when this ‘hopeless case’ could return home.”

This elderly nurse, without a name, said an “unqualified ‘yes’” to God and to Little Annie. She reminds me of so many nurses, teachers and parents I have known, persons whose “unqualified ‘yesses’ went far beyond what anyone might have expected of them.

There is one other thing about “Little Annie.” Although free to return to her parents’ home, she did not. She chose to stay at the institution so that she could help others. And she did. She gave an “unqualified ‘yes’ to God and another girl somewhat like her. And through her teaching of a little girl who was blind and deaf, the woman known as Little Annie became the teacher of Helen Keller. Little Annie’s real name was Anne Sullivan. She was able to break through the silence and darkness that surrounded Helen, and gave the rest of her life to teaching and caring for her, enabling Helen Keller to become a distinguished lecturer and one of the great heroines of this century. It was “Little Annie’s” unqualified “yes!” that made it possible.

On the fourth Sunday of Advent, we give special thanks for Mary’s unqualified “yes” to the angel Gabriel: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) We also give thanks for all those others who have gone before us whose unqualified yeses have contributed to who we are today. What unqualified yes is God asking of you for some task that only you—remember the remnant!—may be able to accomplish? Will you respond as Mary did with “let it be with me according to your word”?

[1] The “Servant Songs” are generally considered by scholars to be the following: Isaiah 42:1-4 (or 1-9); 49:1-6 (or 1-13); 50:4-9 (or 4-11); 52:13-53:12; and sometimes 61:1-3.

[2] 41:8ff; 43:8-13; 49:1-6; and others.

[3] 42:1-4; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12; and sometimes 61:1-3.

[4] The Gospel According to Abbie Jane Wells. (Thomas Moore Association, 1985) quoted in Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck’s A Guide to Prayer for All God’s People (Upper Room Books, 1990), pp. 32-33.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Ebenezer Scrooge had a heart colder than winter and a spirit dreary as the London fog. It’s been said even blind dogs crossed the street to avoid the man who preferred the company of money to all else. But, as Scrooge would discover, some of the world’s most profitable riches aren’t found in bank accounts.

After his journeys with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, Ebenezer Scrooge finally learned this lesson. His last journey, the one with the “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come,” was a confrontation with his mortality. More fearful than a vision of his death, the ghost showed him a future that was shaped by his actions in the past. We may be more uncomfortable with that vision than with the journeys through our pasts, however painful they were and are. What Scrooge learned is that we can’t change the past, and the future is not here yet. All we can change is the present, but changing the present creates the future. And that made all the difference for Ebenezer Scrooge.

From the sleep of dreams or a ghostly journey, Scrooge awoke. “Yes! And the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the time before him was his own in which to make amends! ‘I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!’ Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. ‘The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this!’”

I don’t know why it is so hard for us to hear this word from God. Maybe it is because we are ashamed, ashamed of all the time we’ve spent going to the markets where we thought we could buy happiness or buy our way out of disappointments. "I'd like to buy a friend," we said. "Well, we don't have any friends for sale, but we can sell you a companion for the night." "I'd like to buy a home." "Well, you can't buy a home, but we've got a nice house on the market." "I'd like to buy a little time," we said. "We can't sell you any time, but we've got a nice clock here." "I'd like to buy some happiness," we said. "We can't sell you any happiness, but the wine shop is just around the corner." "I'd like to buy some peace of mind." "Well, you can't buy peace of mind, but we can sell you some life insurance." "I'd like to buy some salvation." "Well, you can't buy salvation, but we have this nice Bible here we'll sell ya." It is embarrassing to go through life with a fist full of twenty-dollar bills only to discover at the end that the most important things in life are absolutely free by the grace of God. And it is true!

We can’t control everything that happens to us in life—the bad, the good, the indifferent—but we can control how we respond to whatever happens.

This year the week after Thanksgiving, I was sitting in a doctor’s office with Connie as she waited for her name to be called. The cell phone rang and it was news of the death of her mother in Fairbanks. It was not unexpected, but it happened twenty-five hundred miles from where we sat. Connie’s name was called. I watched other patients and their families come and go, none of them looking any more joyful than I felt. Besides that, there didn’t seem to be any interesting magazines with which I could pass the time. When the woman waiting a few seats down from me had her name called, she laid her magazine down on the table between us. It was a large print edition of Reader’s Digest. I’ll read the jokes I thought as I picked up the well worn magazine.
Instead of the jokes, my attention fell immediately on an article titled, “The New Science of Thank You.”
[1] Although I was not feeling particularly grateful, it was the week after Thanksgiving. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.

I was especially interested in a study conducted by two professors of psychology, Robert Emmons, at the University of California, Davis, and Michael McCullough, at the University of Miami. They took three groups of volunteers and randomly assigned them to focus on one of three things each week: hassles, thing for which they were grateful, and ordinary life events. The first group concentrated on everything that went wrong or was irritating to them. The second group focused on situations they felt enhanced their lives and for which they were grateful. The third group simply recalled what they did through the week.

The results of the study were striking! The people who focused on gratitude were “flat-out happier.” They saw their lives in favorable terms. They reported fewer negative physical symptoms such as headaches or colds, and they were active in ways that were good for them, spending almost an hour and a half more per week exercising than those who focused on hassles. “Plain and simple, those who were grateful had a higher quality of life.”

People around the participants noticed the difference. Of those who focused on gratitude, “they noticed that these people had more joy, more energy. They could see that they were becoming more optimistic.” The grateful group “even seemed to be perceived as more helpful toward others.” This surprised Emmons: “This is not just something that makes people happy… A feeling of gratitude really gets people to do something, to become more pro-social, more compassionate.”
After their study was published in 2003, the professors took their project a step further. Instead of having people focus on hassles or blessings on a weekly basis, they rounded up a group of college students to do it every day and had similar results. In a follow-up study, those who found something to appreciate every day were less materialistic—less apt to see a connection between life satisfaction and material things. They were more willing to part with their possessions. The bumper sticker that reads ‘The one with the most toys wins’ was unlikely to be found on any of their cars.

According to the Christian calendar, tomorrow, in the middle of the season of Advent, is “Gaudete Sunday.” Some folks know only that in some churches the Advent candle for this day is pink, not purple. That candle is always lit on the third Sunday of Advent. In the ancient church Advent was intended as a time for abstinence, self-examination, fasting, and penitence, all as a part of the preparation for celebrating Christmas. In Latin gaudete means “to rejoice.” Gaudete Sunday was intended as a break in the serious inner preparation of Advent to remember the joy of the event for which we are preparing.

Just in case Thanksgiving passed by too quickly, maybe Gaudete is an occasion for us pause in our Christmas preparations to be grateful. As I sat in the doctor’s office I decided I would follow up with one of the final suggestions in the article.

“Take a moment during the day—right before bedtime is usually best—to jot down three things that happened that day for which you are grateful. Anything that made you feel uplifted, that brought a smile to your face or your heart, or will contribute toward your future happiness, works.”

Writing before bedtime doesn’t work for me, but writing first thing in the morning does. There is now a special section of my daily journal reserved for remembering those things for which I was grateful on the previous day. It does have a way of making the day ahead look different.

But you already knew that, didn’t you? You probably learned it from Ebenezer Scrooge. If not, let this Gaudete weekend be a time of “Advent Attitude Adjustment.” You just might be changing the future!

[1] Deborah Norville from her book Thank You Power: Making the Science of Gratitude Work for You. (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 2007). Reader’s Digest, October 2007.

Friday, December 7, 2007


Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-6

Is there going to be anything new in your Christmas celebration this year? I don’t believe the old saying that “there is nothing new under the sun,” but I have a suspicion that new growth may well come out of old stumps.

The prophet Isaiah knew about “old stumps.” He saw the destruction of Israel at the hands of Assyria in 722 B.C., scattering whatever survivors there were to the ends of the empire. He then lived in the shadow of the threat that this most barbaric of all ancient powers would do the same thing to his tiny nation of Judah and its capitol Jerusalem. In the face of this threat and desolation all around, the prophet spoke for God: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

I think what the prophet Isaiah meant was that something new was going to come out of the old stump of David’s kingdom. Jesse was David’s father. David’s kingdom ended after his son Solomon’s death and the split of their empire into the two small nations of Judah and Israel. Although the two nations had their own kings, they were too small and weak to defend themselves against their more powerful neighbors, like Assyria and Babylonia. What the prophet saw is that out of the old dead stump of David’s empire will come something new, not just something but also “someone.”

Whether Isaiah is speaking about a king just coming to power, like Hezekiah, or perhaps speaking words written for the inauguration of such a king, is not clear. It may also be that this is Isaiah’s vision for a king in some unspecified future who would embody the Davidic royal ideal. Eight hundred years later followers of Jesus would see in Isaiah’s words a foretelling of Jesus’ coming. In either case, something new was coming from something old.

In the Gospel of Mathew, John the Baptist, like Isaiah, believed that something new was happening: the kingdom of God was coming near. It was John’s role to prepare the way by calling people to repent, or “turn around”, to pay attention to the new thing that was about to happen in history.

Can there be anything “new”? The people of Israel came to being in a world that was locked into a circular view of history, a view of life in which there was never anything new but just a recycled part of the past. The future would necessarily be a repetition of the past. In this world even gods couldn't do anything new. This worldview of endless cycles was not just in the Middle East, but worldwide. If we are to believe Thomas Cahill in his book, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, we and the rest of the world are in debt to the Jews for the concept of “new.” The God we worship is a God who does new things in history. Because of that, the future is not predetermined, but open to new possibilities.

The question about new possibilities is not so much a question about God as it is about us. In this season of Advent God seeks to break through our jaded and cynical spirits to remind us that NEW is possible; and we may be in special need of that word in this season as we approach Christmas.

If we are to believe Isaiah, the new does not just come out of the blue, but it comes out of the old. I would like to suggest that there are some old stumps in our Christmas traditions from which new growth is appearing, if we have the eyes to see.

The first old stump is our gift-giving tradition. Christmas is about giving; we remember with gratitude God’s great gift to us in Jesus Christ. The Magi brought gifts to give to the Christ Child. Gifts are ways we express love to one another. But in our society, I wonder if our practices have not become old stumps that need new growth. Given human nature and the commercialization of Christmas, "getting" sometimes seems more important than "giving," and giving to "our own" sometimes has more importance than giving to the one whose birthday we celebrate. Our practices of gift giving have also been affected by consumerism. As even The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette recognizes, "Today, in our materialistic society, the custom [of gift-giving] has grown to exaggerated absurdity...." I suggest that “exaggerated absurdity” might be the name for this stump: giving gifts that aren’t really needed; gifts that are given out of obligation instead of love; giving gifts that harm the environment, giving gifts that we cannot afford, etc. The list can go on and on. Is anything new possible, or are we forever locked into an old way of doing things?

Many people are discovering that genuinely needed gifts are ways to express love and caring. For that “person who has everything,” which is a euphemism for people who have more than enough and that includes a lot of us, an appropriate gift is a contribution to a good cause honoring the recipient and the one who’s birth we celebrate on December 25th. In one family I know well, the adult children are all receiving shares in scholarship for a young woman in Uganda in training to become a nurse. She wouldn’t be in school without it. The scholarship is in the form of a loan to be paid back and held for a future similar loan. Could it be that changing our gift-giving practices are new growth from an old stump?

What would happen if you talked with your larger family about doing something like this? You might be surprised. I can almost guarantee two different responses from different family members. First, there will be one who says that there shouldn’t be any change in “the way we’ve always done it.” But second, there will be one who says “Why haven’t we considered this before?” Are there any new shoots coming out of the old stumps of your gift giving traditions?

The second old stump is our Santa Claus tradition. Can anything new come out of that old stump? That tradition began with Saint Nicholas. Little is known about him except that he was the Bishop of Myra, in present-day Turkey, in the fourth century. Of the many stories about this saint, one of the most popular tells about his generosity in giving gifts anonymously to the poor. According to the story, this young monk learned of a poor family who had no money for dowries for their three daughters. Without dowries the daughters could not marry and would have to be sold into slavery because the family couldn’t afford to feed them. Nicholas, so the story goes, learned about the families plight, took gold from the monastery where he lived, then dropped three bags down the chimney of the family’s home so the daughters would each have dowries. From this came the Christmas tradition of giving to those in need and giving gifts anonymously.

Is it possible that something new might come out of recovering this tradition with our children? Perhaps this story of St. Nicholas could be told again to our children, highlighting the importance of imitating St. Nicholas instead of simply waiting for gifts from Santa. Perhaps children could be involved in family decisions about special gifts that honor the one who's birthday we are celebrating. Are there any possibilities for “new growth” in the “old stump” of our Santa traditions? You might be surprised.

The third old stump I think about is our family gatherings at Christmas. Can anything new come out of that old stump? Gatherings with families and loved ones at Christmas can be renewing; they can also be depressing. Part of the problem is the unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves for these celebrations. After all, we are daily bombarded by the mass media with scenes of “blissful happiness” of families gathered for the holidays. I call it the “Happy Family Syndrome.” Even though we know life isn’t like that, under the bombardment we may measure our families’ behavior by these false images. Is the new growth to lower expectations of these occasions? Is it new growth to find new ways to gather and find ways to include in our celebrations persons who would otherwise be alone? You might be surprised.

This past summer we stopped for the night in Squamish, British Columbia (think “Men in Trees”) on our way to Alaska. We planned on waking up for an early start but we were waked up by noise outside in the park next to the motel. Tents were being erected and fires were being built under large black pots filled with oil. The women were dressed in saris and many of the men wore turbans. A contingent of twenty-five or thirty Indians were preparing for an annual holy day for their God. They were doing it by preparing all manner of Indian food that they would offer free to the townspeople all day.

When we were packing the car to get on the road, they invited us to come have some of the delicacies they were preparing. A group of women were cooking an Indian version of tempura in large black pots. They insisted that we take some of the goodies with us and filled a large paper plate to overflowing and gave us cups of hot sweet tea with milk. I asked one of the men if they were all from Squamish and he said they were. They intended to have some kind of ceremony at ten o’clock but for the most part they were celebrating their most holy day by offering wonderfully prepared food for the town. Such hospitality! I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if on one of our most holy days (Christmas Eve or Easter morning) we went to the center of town, prepared our most special foods, and serve them to the people where we live.

The fourth old stump is holiday busyness. Do you suppose the term “multi-tasking” was coined in the Christmas season? Being frantic having to do so many things at the same time, or at least be thinking about them, may be a cherished holiday tradition for some. Recent studies of multi-tasking suggest that the result is that few of the tasks are done well.

I wonder if this old stump may result in what Susan Monk Kidd has called “an attention deficit disorder of the soul.” The author of the bestselling novel, The Secret Life of Bees, (one of the best novels I have read in the past ten years), has just published First Light, some of her early inspirational writings. She tells about arriving at the airport in Atlanta in the midst of an ice storm. The airport shuts down and she has to find her way to a relative’s house on MARTA, the city rail system. As she comes closer to the end of the line she notices a middle age woman sitting across from her who is crying. She wipes tears with the back of her hand and gazes at Susan. “She’s asking for my attention. She wants me to fling open my heart and take her in. I feel sad for her, but what can I do? She’s carrying her troubles and I can’t fix them. My inhibitions rise sharply, then blend into tiredness, anxieties about the storm, disappointment about not getting home. I look away from her, retreating into the murmur of the train. Quietly, uncomfortably unavailable.”

For the next two days, locked in away from home in the ice storm, she can think about little but the woman on the train. Even when the ice melts and she goes home, she can’t forget. One morning she comes on the words of the great Christian mystic, Mechtilde of Magdeburg:

“How should one live?
to all.”

She decides to practice being utterly available to the one before her, whoever that might be. She calls it “mindful availability.” “When you sit with a crying woman on a train, just sit with her. Do it with all your mind and heart and soul. Be fully present to her without this other agenda going on at the sidelines. In other words, do it without passing judgment on her, wanting to convert her to your point of view, desiring her appreciation, wondering what others on the train might think, worrying about the weather, or getting caught up in one’s feelings, desires, and opinions of the moment. Do it the way Mary sat at the feet of Jesus—with an undivided heart.”

Mindful availability is the new growth from an old stump that I want to nurture this season of Advent. How was it that some ancient in the 15th century put it in words translated from German:

Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse's lineage coming, as those of old have sung.
It came a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
when halfspent was the night.

This beautiful carol reminds me that God’s great gift to us was in the form of new growth from an old stump. Because God is a God who does new things in history, who brings new sprouts from dead wood, even life from death, I won’t be surprised to see new shoots even in the middle of the night in deep winter, even in the Christmas season. As we prepare to celebrate God’s gift, will you be watching and ready to nurture the new growth with which God is surely ready to surprise you?

[1] Susan Monk Kidd, First Light: The Early Inspirational Writings, (New York: Penguin Books, 2007) p. 48.

[2] Kidd, pp. 50-51.