The Ghost of Christmas Presents

George, NC-SA

George, NC-SA

I entered the local Game Stop store to pick up a gift card for a young family member. There were people everywhere and a line wound from the checkout. I’m not sure why this surprised me.

Finally near the front, one of the cashiers caught my attention when he stepped back to the counter with a video game in-hand that had been under lock-and-key and addressed the customer.

“This video is rated ‘M’ for Mature,” he advised. The man stood there with his young son. “It has sex, violence, blood, and gore. Is this O.K.?” The man quickly nodded, gave a half-hearted smile, and replied, “Yeah.”

The purchase was finished and when father and son turned to leave, the young boy now held the video game and gleefully stated, “Thanks dad!” I left the store bewildered and then hoped that the gift card I had just purchased for my great-nephew would be used to buy something wholesomely fun.

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The Gumption to Take a Stand

CC BY-NC, NewHour, Flickr

CC BY-NC, NewsHour, Flickr

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” 

Martin Luther King, Jr, April 3, 1968

One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I will speak up when it counts. I am usually not looking to be the leader or to make waves; it just happens. I think it stems from my belief that all authority can be questioned.

I hated when friends would grumble about things but reject options and solutions I offered them or chicken out when I took a stand.

Likewise, it always unnerved me when friends from other nations ridiculed America, expressing their own patriotism, but opted to remain in and enjoy the fruit of America rather than to return and make a difference in their homelands. That may sting but there is truth at the heart of it.

Women in Afghanistan

Change and reform are necessary in our world and relationships; and it’s due to the condition of the human heart. We would like to believe in the goodness of everyone, but too often people betray their own capability for doing right.

A problem arises when we think that changing people is something easy to do, like setting a broken bone or leveling and rebuilding a part of the city. It’s never that simple. Humans are intricately caught up in the weave of good and evil.

Unfortunately, our penchant leans toward immorality.

I was watching television and heard something that really surprised me. A gentleman explained that not long ago women in Afghanistan bore far more rights than they exercise today and were more educated, being doctors, professors, and scientists.

Afghanistan? I thought.

I performed but a small research and discovered a generous women’s rights history in Afghanistan during the 19th and 20th centuries. It all screeched to a halt, however, in the late 1970s and 80s with the influx of communism and war—and the rise of the Taliban, which ultimately ended the forward progress and returned Afghan society back to the strong patriarchalism it once knew.

Although there has been some improvement in the condition of women and children over the last 15 years, post-Taliban Afghanistan, its women and children, remains badly disenfranchised and dehumanized.

Do Something!

Listen, change, like the change needed in Afghanistan, costs something. And it costs someone something. It’s necessarily personal—no way around it. I can only loathe those who expect to sit back and let others bear the consequences for their ease without understanding the price for that ease.

Change is never pleasant; it is uncomfortable at the least. And those who never see the problem and see it as their problem usually do when it finally spins their direction tearing things to shreds. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

For me to have discovered the details about Afghan women and reacted with a self-centered I’m-glad-that’s-not-me attitude, in my opinion, would be to approach grievous immorality in my heart and become part of the problem. It is to participate in the evil, if only by nonchalance.

Hopefully, something in our personal and social constitution—and certainly in our Christian faith—teaches us that our individual well-being finds haven and security in the well-being of the cluster. It’s a collectivist approach that can teach us much. (Psst!—Jesus lived in that type of society.) It would do us well to grasp that we all become better as we hurt, fight, heal, and finally rise together.

Two excellent links on Afghan women and education: 

“I Love That Line!” by Guest Writer Nate Smith

CC BY-NC, Israel Defense Forces, Flickr Israeli paratroopers on Mt. Hermon enjoying the season's first snowfall

CC BY-NC, Israel Defense Forces, Flickr
Israeli paratroopers on Mt. Hermon enjoying the season’s first snowfall

This is the fourth and final post in the “I Love That Line!” series that features writers’ reflections on their favorite Christmas carols. Nate Smith, writer of Breaking the Silence, reflects on two stanzas from “Winter Snow.”

It is hard for me to imagine a non-hectic Christmas. Just the mention of the word used to leave a sour taste in my mouth having worked retail on-and-off for ten years and then in restaurants. People swiping cheap gifts off metal shelves to satisfy their family’s greed—(It’s a watch.)—and others: “I cannot believe you’re working on Christmas!” and my unspoken reply: It’s because you’re shopping, you idiot!

It’s the busyness of the season that caused me to hate Christmas. There was always another party to attend, another person to help, another gift to buy that dragged my savings account back to zero. Each act didn’t feel like giving either; instead, it felt more like an obligation to appease those high on the Christmas spirit.

Quiet, Soft, and Slow

The idea of slowing down during Christmas is not usually signaled by numerous texts and e-mails inquiring, “What’s your new mailing address?” So the arrival of a greeting card reminded me not only of those who love me, but also the fact that my address has changed every year for the past seven years.

It was me with the vagabond status that was also not slowing down. But how do you slow down when every year you’re readjusting to a new place? My heart was unsettled in many ways. The Christmas rush was always a stark reminder of feeling left way back in the mix. The season’s great anticipation was simply lost in the chaos.

“Winter Snow” captured my heart last year. The verses explain all of the ways Jesus could have come to earth. It could have been like a storm, a fire, a tidal wave, among other ways. Indeed, it would have been so easy to make a big statement in a region overrun with turmoil and war.

“But you came like a winter snow,
Quiet and soft and slow,
Falling from the sky in the night
To the earth below.”

It was so simple. Jesus entered quietly, a whining newborn lying softly in the manger distanced from war. His was a refugee status that proclaimed to the world that somehow the kingdom of God was now here.

Everything about it was gentle and unexpected, nothing rushed. A nine-month pregnancy cannot be rushed but birthed with patience. And like the snow when it falls, it changes everything it touches. It brings silence and silences the crowds, for winter has come.

Thy Kingdom Come

I see in my many address changes an odd approach to how the yearning human heart seeks after God. And it prompts me—vagabond spirit, unsettled nature, and all—to slow down and really notice how the Kingdom comes.

Now escaped from Christmas greed, I can see the beauty of Christ everywhere—in the laughter of those frolicking in the snow; in the warmth between a couple strolling and admiring Christmas lights; in the anticipation of gingerbread cookies almost done.

“Oh, no, your voice wasn’t in a bush burning.
No, your voice wasn’t in a rushing wind.
It was still; it was small; it was hidden.”

Read more by Nate on his blog Breaking the Silence.

“I Love That Line!” by Michael Stephens

CC BY-NC, WanderingtheWorld (www.ChrisFord.com), Flickr

CC BY-NC, WanderingtheWorld (www.ChrisFord.com), Flickr

This is the third post in the “I Love That Line!” series that features writers’ reflections on their favorite Christmas carols. Here I reflect on a line from “The Christmas Waltz.”

Christmas is a season of slowing. In spiritual formation, slowing is the habit of literally slowing ourselves down and resisting haste (Selah). I’m happy that Christmas, specifically, is that rest, like a musical interval, the world uses to breathe and regroup. Holidays of national identity and other observances just aren’t capable of offering the repose we desperately seek.

Instead, it is themes of thankfulness, giving, and spiritual reflection that best express who we are as humans and how we are supposed to function in an essential way. The Christmas season, more than any, helps us rediscover ourselves. I consider it a remarkable work of God and human custom, so good for the soul.

The Christmas Complex

It is why I especially love a line from “The Christmas Waltz”:

“It’s that time of year when the world falls in love,
Every song you hear seems to say
‘Merry Christmas! May your New Year dreams come true.’”

And no one sings it better than Frank Sinatra, for whom it was written. His robust yet silky-smooth voice seems to slice through the apathy and rigor of a year almost done, holding forth something in our faces almost too wonderful to behold, maybe even an invitation—This is what you’ve been seeking.

Why we fall in love with this time of year is something I don’t fully comprehend. It’s so nuanced…and I like it that way. Of course, hardliners will preach, “Jesus is everything about Christmas!” Obviously, the birth story is central to it all. Jesus’s advent is significant for Christians and the unreligious who identify with Christianity. Yet those who understand the role of lore in human culture appreciate the narrative, also.

Simply put, with or without a religious attachment to the season, we still find ways to participate in its wonder.

Christmas transports many of us back to our childhood and the days before we lost our innocence to a life of making a life and the woes that attend it. For others of us, Christmas is a celebration of family and the only time we ever see our families. And who doesn’t love gift-giving, surprises, and festivity with loved-ones?

Christmas is cheerful because we make decisions to set aside grievances, forgive, and show grace (think Snoopy and the Red Baron). Some go even further and find in the season a perfect opportunity for acts of service and humanity to others.

Wonder in a Tune

If there is one expression inclusive of all these significations and the many more we don’t see, it is surely Christmas music—“Every song you hear seems to say, ‘Merry Christmas! May your New Year dreams come true.’”—isn’t that so true?

Christmas music, I think, is one of the quickest ways to get in the Christmas spirit. It gladdens me up instantly, and I think it does the same for many of us. The implication resounds: we seem to derive our greatest joy from motifs of fellowship, love, giving, faith, and family. Undoubtedly, these humanize us and enliven cold hearts that have often calcified with indifference and distress throughout the year.

You see, Christmas may be a single day on the calendar, but the spirit of Christmas can and should be a yearlong reality. “Oh, that we could always see such spirit through the year.” Well that’s a personal choice, and it should wait no longer.

A Christmas done right adequately prepares us for a new year. Our focus has hopefully fixated on substantive things. And for all the rest we’ve desired and forsaken and loved yet lost earlier in the year, we can now set real goals, not mere resolutions, and hopefully fill the new year with more Christmas as we attain them.

“I Love That Line!” by Guest Writer Kathleen Becker

CC BY-NC-SA, jpc101, Flickr

CC BY-NC-SA, jpc101, Flickr

This is the second post in the “I Love That Line!” series that features writers’ reflections on their favorite Christmas carols. Kathleen Becker, writer of Coming2Him, reflects on two stanzas from “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“Tomorrow is Christmas! It’s practically here!”
Then he growled, with his Grinch fingers nervously drumming,
“I MUST find some way to stop Christmas from coming!”
For, tomorrow, I know all the Who girls and boys
Will wake bright and early. They’ll rush for their toys.
And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!
There’s one thing I hate! All the NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!”

(Dr. Seuss, How The Grinch Stole Christmas)

Halting Christmas

I’ve looked in the mirror and seen the Grinch. It was a slow progression.

When my children were young, I experienced Christmas through their sweet, innocent eyes. Christmas was a wondrous time—every song was meaningful; every decoration pointed to Jesus; every gift was a blessing; and every baking day was itself seasoned with stories of God’s love.

As years passed, however, the songs became rote, the decorations dusty and clutter, the gifts too important; and there was no time for baking together.

The quest for the nativity scene, perfect CD, fresh inspiration, new perspective, and heart-rending story to instill deep meaning all began to consume my Advent season. I wished to challenge and grow my family’s faith. After all, Christmas was important.

Yet the busyness of the season was rushing in all the while. And, trying to fit it all in, I found myself competing in shopping blitzes, scrambling to concerts and pageants, and throwing up decorations that often looked like I had literally vomited them out!

Still, the ‘tomorrow of Christmas’ loomed and so did deadlines for packages to be mailed, gifts to be wrapped, and neighbors to be…“cookied.”

“I MUST find some way to stop Christmas from coming!”

    • Until I can find that perfect something that will spread love, joy, and peace in the hearts of my family
    • So I can capture Christmas wonder in my own heart again
    • Before it’s over and, like last year, I miss the opportunity to inspire others with Christmas cheer

Christmas…Today

Yes, I officially became “Grinchy,” dreading the tomorrow of Christmas, growling at the calendar, drumming my fingers, and covering my ears to all the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!

“It’s too much! I can’t make them see. I can’t create that perfect spark to ignite the flame of spiritual passion,” I cried.

But taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and finally allowed the Whisperer to rest a comforting hand on my weary shoulder. Softly, a melody from my childhood broke through. Exhaling and unclenching my fists, I was reminded about the ‘today of Christmas’:

“How silently, How silently
The wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his Heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,

But in this world of sin

Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

Christ Born Within

Christmas no longer looms ahead of me; it’s today…right now. I can walk in the Now enjoying the activities of the holiday season because my heart and hope rests in the joys of my salvation. My peace, cheerful countenance, and life in the “blessings of his Heaven” are now my Christmas witness to those around me. That fire reignited in my soul radiates out to those I love, familiar and unfamiliar alike.

The fuzzy green now gone from my complexion, my own heart rejoices in the today of Christmas, for the Lord has come.

“The great, glad tidings tell:
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord, Emmanuel.

Read more by Kathleen on her blog Coming2Him.

“I Love That Line!” by Guest Writer Lisa A. Tuttle

CC BY, VinothChandar, Flickr

CC BY, VinothChandar, Flickr

This is the first post in the “I Love That Line!” series that features writers’ reflections on their favorite Christmas carols. Lisa A. Tuttle, aka “Sparky”, writer of Hey Sparky! What Time Is It?, reflects on a verse from “Welcome to Our World.”

Okay, call me a sap, but I love Christmas music. Old English carols, traditional church carols, holiday pop music—I like it all.

Well except for that song “Christmas Shoes”.  It brings out my “Grinchiness.” And although the spell checker indicates “Grinchiness” is not a word, I can spell it and use it in a sentence—and admit to it. You know exactly what I mean. So “Stink! Stank! Stunk!” on you, Spellcheck, and fiddle-dee-dee! and fa-la-la!

Anyway, other than the aforementioned song about holiday footwear for deceased family members, I like it all. Typically, I like the older songs a bit more than the newer ones; but that’s a generalization, not a rule. That detail was broken eleven years ago…big-time.

Welcome, Lord Jesus

In July of 2002, a CD was released by a new artist. Oddly enough, he included a single Christmas song on his otherwise non-holiday recording.

I will never forget the first time I heard it. I got goose bumps listening to this song with lullaby for a tune, sung by a voice that felt like warm honey. The words were simple yet powerful and unlike anything I’d heard before. It stirred a deep aching in me and brought tears to my eyes. All these years later, it still has that effect on me.

The song is “Welcome to Our World” by Chris Rice.

The lyrics of this song are beautiful and replete with a haunting sweetness. The last stanza explains why Jesus came and what it meant for him to do so.

 “So wrap our injured flesh around you;
Breathe our air and walk our sod.
Rob our sin and make us holy,
Perfect Son of God.”

Identified with Us

The Delight of Heaven laid aside the glory of his deity to become a baby and assume our human frailties.

My frailties.

Instead of being worshipped and adored by angels, he became surrounded by rough-skinned, wounded-hearted humans. He wrapped himself in an earth suit prone to breakage and damage.

It’s a mind-blowing thought that God could now be bitten by a fire ant or drink contaminated water and spend the next week running to the waste pit. He could get a sore throat or drop something heavy on his toe and lose his toenail. He could get one of those maddening itches in the middle of his back, the kind you can never reach and isn’t really satisfied by scratching anyway.

Somehow this both comforts me and offends me. I’m offended because I know who he is and what he deserved. A smelly stable birth doesn’t qualify. A fallen body doesn’t qualify. The company of bitter religious men doesn’t qualify. A government hostile to his people doesn’t qualify.

Jesus, the Humble Servant

Yet Jesus knew it would be that way and he came anyway. In the most helpless, dependent form possible, he came and then lived among us submitting to the processes of the human body, soul, and spirit. He didn’t skip puberty; he didn’t skip the mean kids on the playground; he didn’t skip catching colds; he didn’t skip outgrowing his shoes.

He became one of us and never once threw down his “God Card”, not even when he was surrounded by aggressors and betrayers who closed their eyes to the wonder of what a man rightly related to God could do. The signs, wonders, and miracles he showed them meant nothing to them when his goodness threatened their personal religious kingdoms.

When darkness prompted those same aggressors and betrayers to publicly accuse, humiliate, torment, and kill him, he didn’t fight them; instead he voluntarily gave up his very life-breath—and made an incomprehensibly amazing transaction.

Born to Save

Jesus took our diseases, grief, and death-destiny and gave us in return his holiness, cleanness, and honored heavenly position. He made a way to the Father for us that cannot be cancelled or blocked by darkness. He robbed the power of sin leaving it destitute and slack-jawed; and he watched as all that is good and perfect about him was transferred to us as a gift. Ours is an identity we could not achieve for ourselves.

But on that first day when Mary held him, grunting and squeaking in her arms, who could have known any of this?

Indeed, welcome to our world.

Read more by Lisa at her blog Hey Sparky! What Time Is It? 

“Hard Candy Christmas”

This week The ‘Mike’ is reflecting on Christmas music. I’d like to share this one with you before starting. You might know it already—“Hard Candy Christmas” by the great Dolly Parton. I love this song. It’s a tender tear-jerker, not unlike Dolly’s delicate voice and emotional delivery.

A ‘hard candy Christmas’ described the holiday for a family so poor that parents could only afford a cheap bag of hard candies to give to their kids; and Christmas was the only time for such a splurge.

My hope is that you’ll think of someone else this season, if only by remembering them in your prayers. Everyone’s not happy like most of us, for different reasons. And many are like the narrator of this song—just getting by.

Yet circumstance doesn’t have to take the merriment out of Christmas. Listen and reflect.

Christmas Series—“I Love That Line!”

CC BY-NC, emily.bluestar, Flickr

CC BY-NC, emily.bluestar, Flickr

Once again The ‘Mike’ is celebrating the holiday by showcasing the writing of its friends. The Christmas week will feature me and three guest writers all reflecting on our favorite Christmas tunes. Who doesn’t love Christmas music, right? So if you do, chime in with us and share your thoughts. Let me introduce you to my guests.

Lisa A. Tuttle, aka “Sparky”, is the writer of the whimsical Hey Sparky! What Time Is It? I’ve described her blog as “a little humor that gets T-boned by profound truth (and vice versa)”—and it’s true. I’m always smiling (or laughing) after reading Lisa’s posts, or reeling from the rich insight she whips out. I cannot wait to see what she’ll share with us.

Kathleen Becker is the writer of Coming2Him. I wanted Kathleen as part of this series because her writing is perspicuous, sincere, and richly insightful. That kind of writing enjoined with this season is a recipe for a meaningful reflection. If you aren’t familiar with Coming2Him, I’m happy to introduce you.

Nate Smith is the writer of Breaking the Silence. I love Nate’s eclectic style, genuineness, and determination for God. Nate’s writing is sometimes light and fun and at other times very probing, intimate, and honest. His blog features a little of everything: poetry, travelogue, confession, reflection, and devotion. Let’s see how he’ll reward us!

I hope you’ll return and share a little of our Christmas spirit. By the way, what is one of your favorite Christmas songs or lines?

My Favorite Christmas Gift

CC BY-NC-ND, sparkieblues, Flickr

CC BY-NC-ND, sparkieblues, Flickr

What was the best Christmas gift you ever received?

Mine is a set of Bible commentaries I wanted for about three years. I had desperately needed more study tools and was overdue for a commentary. So I subscribed to Christian Book Distributors and found a set I heard mentioned at a church conference.

The retail price for the 14-volume library was listed as $500, but the wholesaler offered it for $99! Over time I watched the price fluctuate between $129 and $79, yet I never had the extra cash, or guts, to do the deed.

Truthfully, I was trying to talk myself out of the purchase. The commentary couldn’t be as wonderful as the glowing description or as useful as the pastor had suggested. And the retail price: it probably wasn’t true—first $500, now $99? I went to my local Christian bookstore, which I knew didn’t sell the set, and had them price it. Indeed, it was $500 to purchase at face-value. Now there was only one thing for me to do: steal the deal or pretend to need something more.

I mentioned the set to my sister as something I’d like for Christmas, but only as a joke. I was certain no one would be interested in giving me books or wish to spend as much on a single item for me when there were several others to buy for; but I was wrong.

What Is This?

In the chaos of Christmas Day at my mother’s house, I was handed a heavy box from my sister and uncle, which was odd. There was no shaking this solid package. I opened it but it took me a while to figure out what I was looking at. But then I recognized that it was the commentary set, and I froze. My heart began to race and I lit up like the Christmas tree! I couldn’t believe it and felt like crying. As far as I was concerned, Christmas Day could have ended right then.

I am still asked these many years later whether I use the books, and the answer is absolutely and regularly. The volume—Barnes’ Notes On The Bible—has been one of the greatest enrichments to my Christian life. First printed in the mid-19th century, they are indeed classics on the scripture replete with academic study, reflection, and conviction.

Although the volume is still available for purchase, it can be used online free of charge—along with so many other classic sets and tools. This helps when studying and working from the computer, which I’m doing more, although I prefer books.

If there is someone you know who loves the Word of God, consider a gift that will help them study academically and develop an enhanced knowledge of scripture. It would be a gift that never stopped giving.

What was the best Christmas gift you ever received? Share your story.