The Gift

Our cat Winston has discovered the joys of Christmas.  He has taken to batting the ornaments off the tree, knocking over candlesticks, and playing hockey with one of the Wise Men from the Nativity.  The other day, he pranced into the family room, proudly presenting me with a furry pompom that he had liberated from the tree skirt.  He did not understand why I was less than grateful for this “gift.” 

Such is the nature of gift giving.  Amid all the beautiful expressions of love and “This is just what I was hoping for!” there are gifts that are unwanted, unappreciated, or that leave you wondering, “Why on earth did someone think I wanted this?”  (By the way, cats are the consummate unwanted-gift-givers. They always look so hurt when you don’t thrill to the half-dead mouse they have brought you.) 

Sometimes, though,  an unwanted gift can become a treasure.  When I was 18 and studying in Paris, I lived with a woman who was elegant, and always beautifully turned out.  For Christmas, she gave me a Hermès scarf.  Now, you have to know that the fashion at the time for college students was bell bottoms and platform shoes.  Not only did I not know the monetary value of this gift, I had no use for it in my life.  

Ten years later, when I was a young professional I discovered the scarf in my drawer and realized the treasure I had.  By this time, my uniform was smart suits and fashionable heels and a Hermès scarf was something chic young women aspired to own.  What I had dismissed as irrelevant I now cherished and proudly wore.  I still do.  

In a few days, we will celebrate the birth of Christ, a gift whose worth was not — is not — always appreciated.  It would have been hard to imagine that the savior of the world came in this way — small, vulnerable, powerless, ordinary.  It is easy to imagine that people would have thought, “This is not the gift I was hoping for.”  Even now, even after we know what this ordinary baby grew up to be and to do, people often don’t want the gift of a savior who suffers, who embodies humility, and who, instead of conquering our enemies, asks us to forgive them.  

And so, we take the gift and put it in the back of the closet.  We can forget about it for a long time until the day when a savior who understands suffering is just what we need.  We come upon it and rather than bristling at forgiving our enemies, we are grateful that God has forgiven us. 

The prophet Isaiah beautifully portrays this paradox of the gift of Christ.   He joyfully proclaims in Chapter 9, “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given..and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Who wouldn’t want that gift?  

And yet, in Ch. 53, he says this:

“.. He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not.”

In a few days, we will celebrate the giving of this wondrous gift — the unexpected, challenging, comforting, sorrowful, joyful gift of a savior.  May we recognize its worth and rejoice!


The Gift of Hope


This Christmas, I’m asking for the gift of hope.  

I don’t mean the kind of hope we casually toss about in our every day conversations. We say “I hope you feel better” and what we really mean is that we want it to be true, and — fingers crossed — maybe it will be. It is no more than a wish we might make on a shooting star.

That kind of hope is easy, cheap and useless.

No, the hope I want is different. Not a facile, throwaway pleasantry, the hope I want is grounded in certainty and expectation. When God’s people say they have hope, it means they fully expect something to happen, despite any evidence to the contrary.

In the times of trouble, when darkness whispers that there is no light and never will be again, people of hope hear another voice. Probably the most radical thing the Christian faith teaches is that even in these dark moments — especially in these dark moments — we can can hear that other voice, reminding us that God is faithful. Faint at first, then growing stronger and louder, we hear the words that say we can hope in God because He has never forsaken us and never will.

Although we can’t be certain how or why or when, hope says we can be confident that God will act.

Scripture is full of this kind of hope. The Psalms declare over and over God’s steadfast love and faithfulness; the Prophets warn of God’s judgement, but just as often remind us of his inviolable covenant with us. But for my money, if you want to know what real hope looks like, listen to Mary’s song in the gospel of Luke:

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

Now this is a young woman who has every reason to be afraid and worried. She knows that her pregnancy will, at best, make her the subject of gossip, snickering and shaming. She knows that at worst, it could lead to her death as an adulterer.  She has been given the unimaginable responsibility of raising the Messiah, something nothing can really prepare you for.

And yet she has hope — not the wishing kind that would have her saying, “Man,it would really be nice if God shows up!”

Her hope is the expecting kind, the kind that says, “I know what God has done in the past, and I know He will do it again.”

Confession: There’s a cynical world-weariness still lurking in dark corners of my soul that thinks this not something a real person could actually do or feel in times of trouble. The Mary I met in Sunday school was someone so impossibly holy that although I found her admirable, she was no more real than a princess in a fairy tale.

And yet, as I have grown in age and faith, I know that there are people — real people — who have the same kind of expecting hope as Mary. Real people who face uncertainty with the certainty that God will act. Ordinary people who face death — their own or others’ — with a peace that undergirds to their grief. And I ask myself, how do they do it?  How did Mary? 

The answer lies in the angel’s declaration to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”

The power of the Holy Spirit is what will make the impossible — a virgin conceiving — happen. It is also what makes it possible for her to have the joyous hope she sings about in her great song of praise.

Her expecting hope is nothing less than a gift of the Holy Spirit.

My jaded reaction that having this kind of hope isn’t something that real people could do is partly right: it isn’t something that comes naturally to us, or something we can manufacture. It is a gift we receive from God, a gift we can ask for and that will be joyfully given, a gift we can nurture, a gift that is nothing less than a beautiful mystery.

This gift allows Mary and us to do two things: remember God’s faithfulness to the individual and the community.   First, the gift of the Holy Spirit reminds her of what God has already done for her:

“For He who is mighty has done great things for me”  

Second, the Holy Spirit reminds her of what God has done for her community:

“He has shown strength with his arm…
he has exalted those of humble estate …
he has filled the hungry with good things …
He has helped his servant Israel …”
This Christmas, I’m asking for the gift of hope. I’m asking the Holy Spirit to come upon me and the power of the Most High to overshadow me, as He did to Mary.   I am praying Paul’s powerful prayer from Romans Chapter 15 over myself and over a world sorely in need:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit, you may abound in hope.”

Seeing Red

Social media has been abuzz the last two days over coffee cups.

That’s right, coffee cups. Specifically, Starbucks’ “holiday” coffee cups, which this year are plain red. No Merry Christmas. No Happy Holidays. No reindeer, snowflakes or jingle bells. Someone posted a video online railing against them for removing all references to Christmas and accused them of “hating Jesus.” The mainstream media are reporting that Christian groups are calling for a boycott, when in fact, no “group” has done so. I think this whole kerfuffle tells us more about the disproportionate power of one cranky guy with a cellphone video than it does about some grass roots, widespread outrage that a coffee cup doesn’t say Merry Christmas on it. I also think it speaks volumes about media and our culture’s image of who Christians are, but that’s a story for another day.

Still, it got me thinking. It doesn’t bother me at all that a commercial establishment isn’t wishing me Merry Christmas or Happy Hannukah or Joyous Kwanzaa. In fact, I kind of like it. The “holiday season” as we are now to call it, has become an unrecognizable mash up of traditions, beliefs and customs of these three holidays.

The only thing they have in common is gift giving, which is I suppose why retail is so invested in celebrating and promoting them. These December holidays celebrate different things and mean different things, and yet by accident of timing, find themselves squeezed into seats in the middle row of an airplane, sharing armrests uneasily, on a very long flight.

They do have one other thing in common. They all have an element of joy and love, and so I guess it’s natural to want to acknowledge this to people you encounter during this time. But what do you say?

Giving holiday greetings can require a kind of “spiritual profiling” that is risky business.

How do you know who will welcome a “Merry Christmas” and who will not? I guess this is the dilemma that the bland “Happy Holidays!” is meant to solve. (I don’t really mind it, except once, in church, someone wished me a Happy Holiday and my head almost exploded. I mean, come on, if we can’t say Merry Christmas in church then all is lost.)

I do understand the need to find some generic way of acknowledging the disparate celebrations that share a month. I can live with Happy Holidays because it’s a fact of life: there are several celebrations going on at the same time and the speaker often doesn’t know which one (if any) you celebrate. Not an elegant solution, but it’ll do.

What does bugs me is when we try to redefine things within any of those traditions. Case in point: Holiday Tree. It’s not a holiday tree. It is a Christmas tree because it is part of the tradition of celebrating that particular holiday. Now, you don’t have to be a Christian to have or appreciate a Christmas tree, but the fact is, it is inextricably bound with that Christian tradition. You don’t see anybody trying to call a dreidel a holiday spinning toy, do you? Well, maybe that’s next.

Finally, two scenes came to mind when I starting seeing that Starbucks red cup all over Twitter: The first was in a parking garage where the cashier was Muslim (it seemed so by her dress and headscarf. Spiritual profiling is tricky). As she handed me my change, she said, “Merry Christmas!” Next, I’m walking in the Old City of Jerusalem on a Friday morning. I asked someone for directions, which she gladly gave and as she left she said, “Shabbat Shalom!” Both of these women made assumptions about who I was, what I believed, what I celebrated. Neither offended me. Quite the opposite. Each of them offered me warm human connection. Each offered me a blessing. They made me smile.

So, I welcome all expressions of good wishes and blessing, regardless of whether you “guess right” about what holiday I will be celebrating next month.

Or, if you’re like Starbucks, and you have no celebratory words for me, that’s fine, too. I prefer to get my blessings from people, not coffee cups.