Two of the most important celebrations of the year, Thanksgiving and Christmas, happen at this season. During these times, workers jockey for time off, families come together from all over the country or world, food is prominent, and hopefully a good time will be had by all. I know, this isn’t starting out as my
typical article, but then this has not been a normal year. So cut me some slack for a moment.
A Time for Giving Thanks
The history of Thanksgiving is shrouded in myths because it is an invented tradition that didn’t originate in any one event. It is based on the Puritan Thanksgiving, which is a religious Thanksgiving, mixed with the traditional harvest celebrations of England and New England, and other ideas like commemorating the Pilgrims. All of these have been gathered together and transformed into something larger than the original parts. The colonists in the New World didn’t even call it Thanksgiving.
In the year 1621, sometime between September 21 and November 11, the original feast took place. After a hard and devastating first year in the New World, the Pilgrims’ fall harvest was very successful and plentiful. There were fruits, vegetables, fish packed in salt, and smoke-cured meat. They found they had enough food to put away for the winter. Unlike our modern holiday, their celebration lasted three days.
The Pilgrims had beaten the odds. They had built homes in the wilderness, raised enough crops to keep them alive during the long coming winter, and were at peace with the neighboring native inhabitants. Their governor, William Bradford, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving that was to be shared by all the colonists and the nearby Native Americans. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed a national day of thanksgiving.
As Americans, we have much for which to be thankful. September 11, 2001, reminded us how precious our freedom is and how easily it can be taken from us. Still, I wonder if some of us don’t take patriotism too far and place country over God and Christian values.
When you add to the word “American” the word “Christian,” our reason for being thankful goes off the chart. Christians have more to be thankful for than anyone else in the world. (I know some of you will challenge this statement, but it is how I feel. So there.) Unlike the first Thanksgiving that was a “thanks”
for survival, Thanksgiving for Christians is giving thanks to a God who cares about us enough to be involved in our world. And that brings us to Christmas.
A Time for Giving Oneself
I used to think Easter was the most important celebration of the Christian faith. And for Christians it is. However, for those of us who yearn to reach the new Gentiles of the postmodern world, Christmas has become the most important Christian celebration. Look at Christmas for a moment through the eyes of the skeptical, cynical postmodern.
Christmas – the declaration that God cares enough about the creation called earth to actually take our form; enter our space; and share our hopes, dreams, and failures to make the abundant life possible for people who don’t really deserve it.
Christmas – the time when God dramatically makes it known that God will not give up on this creation, period. That whatever it takes, God will redeem us.
Christmas – the time of year when we should look deeply into ourselves and see what God sees, a creature of ultimate value.
Christmas – an action so powerful that no one can seriously doubt his or her own personal worth and value.
Christmas. Everything about it flies in the face of 9-11. Peace can be found amid the rubble of our lives.
Christmas declares that no one is beyond God’s love, not even the bin Ladens. Can you and I really hear that? This is the part that I struggle with and I know our President is struggling with, and I hope you are also. Christmas, however, has its price: for God, for us, and for bin Laden. Such love cannot go ignored without consequences – not for us, not for anyone.
All of this is music to the postmodern’s ears. To know that we are loved with such a love, and to know that God has not only accepted humanity but has taken the initiative to form a relationship with us, is crucial to a postmodern’s hearing the Good News.
This was not always the case. Modernity’s worldview was not based on cynicism, skepticism, and self-doubt. According to modernity, “everything in every way was getting better every day.” But postmodernity’s worldview is just the opposite. So to know that God cared enough to take the first step in reconciliation is a mind-blower.
A few years ago my wife and I received the most unusual Christmas card we’d ever seen. The outside of the card depicted only four clay water pots. On the inside of the card were the words “Imagine it! Such a treasure in earthen vessels like ourselves.” Then 2 Corinthians 5:19 followed: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.”
In an earthen vessel like ourselves, God chose to reveal himself. Of all the great religions of the world, ours is the only one in which God chooses not to remain aloof and distant from us. Our God became involved in our world in a human being just like us. Ours is a God who loves us so much that he cannot keep his hands off us. He must dwell among us; touch us; experience our pain and suffering; laugh with us in our joy; even share our bodily functions (I know, I went too far here, unless, of course, you’re a postmodern). Christmas says that God has totally immersed himself in our situation. The postmodern needs to hear this (and doesn’t worry about my use of the word “he”).
But this does not go far enough. Not only did God choose to dwell in us, he chose to dwell in the lowliest of us, surrounded by animals and dung. He chose not to enter our world as a king, but as one whose parents could not even find adequate shelter in which to birth their child. Christmas speaks of homelessness, poverty, outcasts, and as such it challenges the greed and practices of our modern-day Christmas. Somehow it doesn’t make sense that Americans either save all year or go into hock to buy presents for people who have everything. Most of our loved ones would rather just spend a good day with us than get a present. God gave us himself; maybe it’s time we did the same.
One of the central facts of Christmas is that God is a Giver, and thus Christmas becomes a time for giving. So, what’s wrong with presents on Christmas? What’s wrong is who gets the presents. In the original version, Jesus got the presents. Somewhere along the way we lost the point of Christmas. We should be giving our gifts to God, not one another. Why not this year, either not give presents and give to the church the amount you had set aside for buying presents, or at least give the church a gift equal to what you spend on the presents? At least that would cut down on the extravagance of our giving.
I know, you might say this isn’t fair to children. So let me tell you a story from my childhood.
My family didn’t go to church when I was growing up. I knew nothing about Christianity. When I was about twelve, my family spent Christmas with an aunt and uncle who were devout Christians. They had a practice of not giving gifts to each other. Instead, everyone in their family, including their twin boys who were about my age, gave a financial gift to the church. I thought that was sooooo stupid. I remember rubbing it in on Christmas morning that I got presents and they didn’t. Yet their practice left a mark on me that I never forgot, and it became one of many things over the years that prepared the way for my salvation. Later, when my wife and I got married, we carried on the tradition of not giving each other presents and giving a special gift to the church.
And what about the twins? They became missionaries and died on the mission field, serving the Jesus they loved.
When I was a pastor, I seemed always to wind up Sunday afternoon on the couch, catching up on Snoopy’s antics in the “Peanuts” cartoon. One of my favorites was a one-frame cartoon in which Snoopy stood in the rain, soaking wet. The caption read, “There must be a lesson somewhere in this?”
You may be asking that about this article.
· Thanksgiving and Christmas are two of the best times to call Christians back to the basics of their faith. If you can’t do it during this time of the year, you can’t do it. Why not have a re-committal service?
· Thanksgiving and Christmas are two of the loneliest times of the year for many people. What can your church do to respond to the lonely? Why not have an open house and invite people in the area to a free dinner?
· Thanksgiving and Christmas are two of the most suicidal times of the year. In the presence of such celebration, many find life unbearable. How can you address these needs? Why not put some solid information about your area’s suicide hotline in the worship folder and website?
· Both Thanksgiving and Christmas are times when people tend to be more generous. How can your church leverage this inherent generosity? Why not take a special offering for one or more of the projects you know should get done but you don’t have the money to do?
What can you and your congregation do this Thanksgiving and Christmas to show the world through your actions that God is a Giver and so are you?