Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Christmas Basics: Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward All

We have a little problem in the Bucher house: Elijah, our five year old, has discovered Santa Clause.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those Santa bashers. People who are down on Santa Clause don't know the story of the fat man's origin. St. Nicholas was a fourth century Greek Orthodox bishop who was considered a great friend of the poor. His willingness to give what he had to those in need contributed to his legend, which continued to be, and still is, celebrated in church history. The fact that St. Nick is now associated with materialism isn't his fault. Chalk that up to Madison Avenue working for businesses whose fiscal years are broken or made in the final six weeks from Thanksgiving to New Years. The basic idea of celebrating generosity, particularly to those in spirit and/or material need, should be a part of the season, and taught to our children. St. Nicholas, or Santa Clause, is a good way to convey that message.

So it's not the idea of Santa that bothers me. It's just that Eli, who never paid a whit of attention to Santa Clause until this year (thanks to "The Polar Express"), thought that the reason we celebrated Christmas was because it was Santa Clause's birthday.

Now, let me say that I am relieved that my children, at least up to now, haven't been held to a higher expectation of behavior because of who their Dad is. I see this happen too often to pastor's kids, and the results haven't been pretty. Heck, my brother, who is twelve years younger, used to hear about how great I was at our home church and was asked on more than one occasion"why he couldn't be more like me", and he's just my brother. Besides, when I was a kid I was no saint. People have short memories. I could tell you some stories. I wasn't always a pastor. You can take that to the bank.

The Shawnee community hasn't laid a guilt trip on my kids because of what I do for a living, and for that I'm grateful. But, that being said, there is a ripple of dread that goes through you as a Christian minister as your own son tells all who will listen that Christmas is Santa's birthday. The curious examinations for the mark of the beast on my son's forehead are exceeded only by the disapproving glares I get from those same people who wonder what in the world the Methodist preacher has really been teaching his children.

In any event, because Eli has been a bit confused, we have taken up the Christmas story and it's true meaning with a new vigor at the Bucher house. Instead of repeatedly at bedtime reading the normal favorite Bible stories (Samson kills a lion, David killing Goliath, and any story about Elijah the prophet which is a favorite for obvious reasons) we have gone back to the story of Gabriel, Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, a manger in Bethlehem, and scores of angels singing in the skies about God's goodwill toward all and peace on earth above a remote pasture where sheep lay napping. We just want to make sure that not only Elijah, but our two-year old Toby know whose birthday it is this Christmas morning, while reminding our older two that Xbox 360 games aren't the reason for the season.

This Christmas we've gotten back to the basics. Peace on earth. Goodwill toward all.

Now, if you ask Eli, he'll tell you whose birthday Christmas is and get it right. Of course, if I ask he still says Santa cause he know it will get a rise out of me.... which does not bode well for both of us when he becomes a teenager. But I tell you this on Christmas Eve because as we as a family have had to get back to the basics during this season of Advent, and tonight I'd like to invite you to do the same.

Some of you might think I'm too late. Your Christmas spirit was pounded out of you either at the mall, the grocery store, or if you were brave and didn't plan well, Toys R Us. In between terrible remakes of Christmas songs broadcast muzak style at your local department store and the growing frustration at not being able to figure out what gift to buy Aunt Mildred's new husband who you've never met, all that's irritating about this time of year has beat the goodwill out of you, and whatever peace you might have had went with the Christmas cookies whose dough you forgot to put sugar in. And further more, not only are you not interested in celebrating Jesus' birthday in the same spirit of St. Nicholas, but at this point you could very well be tired of getting tapped, no matter how good the cause, by the guy with the bell next to the Salvation Army kettle, the empty "Toys for Tots" boxes, and, yes, even at your church's Christmas Eve service.

That's kind of the irony, I think, of the latest attempt by the greater church to combat the materialism of this season. We've challenged people to take the money they would have spent on gifts, and contribute it to some worthy cause to try to teach people that the season isn't about money and stuff. It's a worthy undertaking, but it still puts at the heart of the season, cash, and now to some degree, guilt... neither of which, as far as I can remember, were at the heart of the original story. Good stewardship is biblical, but it's not at the heart of this message. In fact, both Mary and Joseph are extravagant with their love and resources beyond societal norms. And Jesus is supposed to free us of guilt and sin, hence the singing of the angels and the excitement of the shepherds. You don't have to buy a clear conscious by writing a check to a charity while someone else writes one to Macy's.

Shoot, I can tell you after an evening at the Dollar Store with Max and Xavier, that pagans know that it's better to give than to receive. As I overheard a father talking to some friends about how he was going to celebrate Christmas tonight (there are spirits involved, just not the Holy Spirit), I also heard him lecture his son about the true meaning of Christmas: Giving instead of receiving. Then he turned to his buddies and started talking about how selfish this generation was. No lie. If that's as far as the message of this season goes the meaning of Christmas hasn't been lost.

But that's not it. At the first Christmas, the receiving on our part was much better than anything that could be given. Better than frankincense, myrrh, or even gold.

The message of Christmas is simple: It's a time of where the message of great tidings and joy, that God has sent us a savior as a means of expressing His goodwill toward us, and the peace he desires for everyone on earth, is celebrated, and passed on. It is, in full view, a clear picture of who God is, and what God wants us to know about Him: That he favors and loves us, and desires for us, peace. Often, that gets lost this time of year, and maybe, even as you sit there, it has for you.

But, I want to tell you.... it's not too late. The true spirit of Christmas, embodied by the birth of a man who was, and is, exceedingly generous to us, can still be captured tonight, and tomorrow. And who knows, might even carry over into the new year. You just have to get back to the basics.

A woman. A man. An angel. A stable. Some shepherds. Some more angels. And, most importantly, a baby, whose birth created such great excitement in the cosmos that in all four corners was sung, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, God's peace and goodwill toward all."

Peace and goodwill toward all from a loving God, is a pretty good reason to be joyful. That's not been the predominant message in most every religious tradition throughout history. Most gods and goddesses have been painted as being largely unconcerned or even hostile toward us humans. We celebrate a God who doesn't give us diseases to punish us or because we were bad or because he lost a bet. We celebrate a God who with us, wants to make our hearts, and our world, right.

That's good news you can't wrap in a box, send via facebook in the form of a gift card, or even buy with a contribution to some local charity.

Before you leave this evening, or morning as the case would be, on tables out in the hallway and the Commons, you have available to you small pieces of paper and various pens. Pretty soon, we're going to take the next step to getting back to the basics of Christmas. We'll light candles, remembering that Jesus told us that we shouldn't hide our light under a bushel. We'll sing "Silent Night", remembering that what makes Jesus life so powerful isn't the string of supernatural miracles, but his willingness to endure the fragility of human mortality and all that has to offer, including being a newborn infant sleeping in heavenly peace. Then we'll sing "Happy Birthday to Jesus", cause we're corny midwesterners, and we'll blow out our candles even as the light kindled, or maybe re-kindled within, stays aflame.

But when you leave, ,I want to challenge you to take this "getting back to the basics of Christmas" one step further. As we celebrate God's goodwill toward us, and the peace that can be found in Jesus, I'd like to do one more thing:

Step up to those tables, and pass on that message of goodwill and peace to someone desperate to hear it.

A little over a year ago I received a phone call from a teacher from Cridersville Elementary School regarding a six year old boy who had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. We asked you to help out Jack, his mother Shannon, and his little sister, Grace, by making donations which could be used to fund the numerous trips that would have to be made by a single mother with one child receiving treatment in Columbus, and another child still here at home trying to live as normal a life as a little girl can under difficult circumstances.

Shawnee UMC, your response was overwhelming. Even after numerous gas cards, meals, car repairs, and the like, we still have funds available to help the family. So, as you leave keep your wallet in your pocket and the checkbook in your pocket. We already hit you up during the offering, and for your generosity, we give thanks. It's just that more toys or gift cards aren't going to convey most fully the message a few humble people long to hear.

You see, what was supposed to be nine months of treatment for small polyp tumors in Jack's lungs, and a large tumor in his liver, has now stretched out to thirteen months... and still no clear end in sight. The lungs, which were the subject of much treatment in the hopes they'd be clear and a liver transplant secured, are still not clear. The benefits of drugs used in the past have been exhausted, and now an experimental drug is being employed with physically demanding side effects.

She won't say it, because she's his mom. He's her only son and he's seven years old. She wants to see him play Little League, sing in the school Christmas concert, get his drivers license, take a girl to prom, make an honor roll or two, graduate from high school, and figure out what he wants to do with his life. She won't say it, because she can't, but this little boy is has been fighting a long, long time, and his options are not as numerous as they were a year ago.

I asked her what we could do. She asked us to pray.

Pray for her son. Pray for her daughter. Pray for the doctors as they figure out what do next. Pray for her, a mother, worn down by the suffering of a son. Prayer. That's what she wants.

Tonight, don't worry about money or presents. That's not what it's about. Don't worry about Christmas carols or trees. That's not at the heart of what we're celebrating here.

We're getting back to the basics: Share a message of goodwill and peace to all people, even a family facing down cancer.

Just stop by one of the tables in the hallway or commons, and write a note of encouragement to express some goodwill to Jack and his family. Or construct a simple prayer of peace for a mother who loves her son. And tomorrow, when you are doing whatever it is you are doing, remember that Christmas isn't Santa's birthday. It's the birth of peace on earth and goodwill to all, because that's how the angels told us God rolls.

Peace. Goodwill. To you and me and Jack and his family. All of us. Believe that, and I guarantee, your Christmas, and everyday, will be transformed forever. It's the heart of the message of Christmas. Let's get back to those basics.