I'm a 43-year-old American Christian male with two kids in "the sweet spot," a lovely faithful wife, and a major crush on Christmas. So I don't know much anymore, but I do know what's awesome about this holiday, and what regulations I've placed on myself and my family to ensure we, like the reborn Scrooge, know how to keep Christmas. In no particular order, here are my 25 Christmas Rules:
1. If you don’t like something about Americanized Christmas, like it anyway (the 'keep the Grinch away' rule). The whole idea for this article started on Black Friday, when I arrived home about 5 p.m. and wrote the following Facebook status: “I always loved Black Friday. But that was before it was called Black Friday, and before stores started opening at midnight, or Thursday evening. What I always loved was simply "day after Thanksgiving shopping at the mall." And with a great open-air mall right across the street from our neighborhood, it's still a great thing here. I slept in until 11:30, and the four of us went mall-ing around 12:30. Smiling kids. Hot cups of Starbucks in our hands. Salvation Army brass playing Christmas songs. Daddy saying yes to a couple small impulse buys (like a Frozen t-shirt for Lauren). The Boy weaving an RC car in and out of customer's feet in the toy store at the urging of a store clerk. Learning what Mommy looks gorgeous in (clothes from White House | Black Market). Sunny but chilly. Chasing each other around the giant Christmas tree. Washed down with a hot meatball sub from Jason's Deli. Yep, Black Friday ain't so bad...”
2. Go easy on the snacks. Nothing ruins a feast like gluttony; nothing squelches festive cheer like being overly full and weighed down. Take it from one who knows and is only now learning.
3. Every year is someone’s last Christmas. So go all out. Rent that cabin in the mountains. Make up with that long-lost friend. Pray with that parent who may not have as many years left as you think.
4. Santa rocks. And Santa stinks. If either is your position, I agree with you and support you. Because I know that if you think Santa rocks it’s because you find mystery and magic in Christmas, that you appreciate who Nicholas of Myra was as a real person, and you love the idea of a benevolent, generous person in charge, and Christmas is in these things. And because I know that if you think Santa stinks it’s because he’s mostly Madison Avenue, a distraction from the Incarnation, and a morality-based record keeper, and Christmas is not in these things.
5. One present at a time. This is non-negotiable, and always has been. If you can’t watch someone else opening his or her gift with nearly as much anticipation as you have opening your own, you need a cheer adjustment.
6. Leaving work after dark is no fun, but coming home after dark is. We’ve never even put lights on the outside of our house (neither did we when I was a kid), but this is still exciting. There will be little people jumping up and down, and hugs, and probably soup. Soup is very Christmas.
7. It’s not about the destination. In fact, life hardly ever is. I estimate that 73% of my Christmases have been spent in Tucson, Arizona or Abilene, Texas. Nobody sings Christmas songs about these places. Yet I have an amalgam of Christmas memories as wide and deep as anyone’s. Why? Because while setting and experience are important, Christ and people are primary.
8. A Christmas Carol is the reset button I press to remember who I want to be as a Christian. Not because I am afraid of the doom that awaited Scrooge if he remained a miser, or because I think I can earn my way, but because there is no better depiction of what it looks like to replace greed/self with giving/others.
9. Make your Christmas movie Mount Rushmore. Mine includes the aforementioned A Christmas Carol (doesn’t really matter the version), Christmas Vacation, and two films that take place at Christmas but are more about love (but Christmas is very big on love) – The Family Man and Love, Actually. It’s not really Christmas until I’ve seen all four.
10. The older I get, the less I want. Or rather, the less I want to spend and get, and the more I want major needs to get met elsewhere. I’m not fighting this, even when relatives threaten me with pain if I don’t get a wish list to them by November 15. If you’re in that much of a rush to finish your shopping, put my name on a donation to your favorite Christian charity. Seriously. (We all know I’m going to buy myself that pair of pants, that eBook, that piece of exercise equipment next time I need it anyway).
11. Christmas is family time, but if intolerable dysfunction is ruining your family Christmas gathering, have it out. HAVE. IT. OUT. I’m not kidding, Frank Costanza was on to something with the Airing of the Grievances at Festivus. It won’t be easy and it won’t be pleasant and it’s probably unfair for me to list this here when a whole article could contain my explanation, but the year my family locked everyone in the same room and put all the cards on the table was, in hindsight, a time of healing and understanding, and makes that Christmas feel enriched, not ruined (and this story gets even better when my wife tells it, as she was in the bathtub when the shootin' started, and we were so loud she assumed we were in the living area right outside her bathroom, when in fact we were downstairs. So she stayed in that tub turning into a prune for two hours, when she could have come out unseen at any time).
12. Outside is the best. Fresh, brisk, cold, invigorating. Seeing Christmas lights, smiling at neighbors, throwing snowballs (where applicable), and remembering that Christmas began outdoors, among animals and shepherds, and probably wasn’t in Winter.
13. Inside is also the best. Fires, blankets, movies, Charlie Brown, hot cocoa, and remembering that Christ came to make his home inside each of us, and give us peace.
14. Be a kid at some point. It doesn’t have to be prolonged. Ain’t nobody got time for an immature 40-year-old demanding presents and sneaking bites of sugar cookie dough and ruining carols with questionable lyrics for 25 days. But at some point, act like Will Ferrell in Elf about going to the mall, or making dinner, or seeing an old friend, or spending a team-building day with fellow editors traveling to the local amusement park all lit up for Christmas (we're going tomorrow! Ohmigoshohmigoshohmigosh!).
15. Let a Christmas song bring you to tears at some point. I know it’s gonna happen, I just don’t know the moment. What will probably do it is “Fall on your knees” in O Holy Night or “I’ll be home for Christmas (if only in my dreams),” or, of all things, Boy George belting out, “Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime!” in Do They Know it’s Christmas?
16. Faith has to be a part of this. Let me get preachy (preachier?) for a moment: if you aren’t attending church during Advent, when are you fellowshipping? If you are going to celebrate Christmas without Christ… wha? Why? If you are beyond considering, like Charlie Brown, what the whole point of it is, you’ll never know what the whole point of it was. Your faith tradition is doing something this month. Be a part of it. And say "Merry Christmas," but not because I angrily insist upon it as some horribly self-righteous clod ready to sock you in the gut with the fruitcake of condemnation (that's a favorite phrase stolen from my boss Stephen McGarvey). Say it because it's not like you won't say "Happy Halloween" to someone, even though we know you don't really believe in or celebrate the religious meanings of Halloween...
17. Create wonder. Whether you have kids of your own, or just nieces, nephews, or neighbors, do something to put stars in their eyes. Take them to the Nutcracker. Or, if that isn’t your thing (sorry, the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies scares me in the same way clowns do), wake them up one night around 11 or midnight with the following items already in hand: tons of blankets, a thermos of hot chocolate, and a telescope (and maybe a Bible and a flashlight?). Come home one day with an early surprise present for the whole family (“It’s a puppy!”). Pull them in on creating a surprise gift for Mom. Or even just take them on a pajama ride for egg nog ice cream and a few neighborhoods full of Christmas lights when they thought they were bound for bed.
18. Put up an Advent calendar. Let the kids fight over whose turn it is to open a day. Change up the things that are found there – Scripture verses, challenges, treasure hunts, coupons for cookie baking, tasks like cookie-taking, stories about faith, and lessons about those who have less.
19. Adopt. This one little word is so full of meaning for the Christian. We have been adopted into the family of God through the miracle of what began at the first Christmas. And this is truly the ultimate way to give a gift – offering a sense of belonging, of family. This can be done literally, of course, by adopting orphans, and remembering families who have. Or symbolically, through charitable organizations around the world. Or you can offer to let someone far from home share in the warmth and festivities of yours. Or you can rescue a pet. Or…
20. Make money manageable. We like to let our kids in on the family finances. We wondered if, at Christmas, this might rob from the magic a bit. But it hasn’t. And I suspect it has been the same way for many of you. I have seen a lot of “proud parent” moments on Facebook in the last couple years, kids who volunteer to give up all presents so children in Africa can have mosquito nets… sons who tell their mom at bedtime one evening that one gift is plenty… daughters who urge their family to try Advent Conspiracy this year… and so on. Part of the joy of letting kids in on money is a smaller, more intimate Christmas, but one punctuated by saying yes to a few impulse surprises like dinner out or a used Wii game.
21. Let your spouse off the hook. Whatever pressure you can relieve is only going to make the whole experience better for everyone.
22. Prepare your heart. Some of us don’t like how early the Christmas decorations come out in stores, or how soon the Lite or Kiss station changes over to all-Christmas tunes. But really, this holiday season isn’t long enough. There’s only a good 3-4 weekends if we’re lucky. Most of those get booked in September with parties, travel, and other requirements. So if you don’t wake up each morning with at least some sense of optimism or reflection, you’re going to miss it. My own strategy at this stage of life is to be the kids’ alarm clock. Every day at 6:30 I wake them with hugs and kisses and encouragement and some sense of what it means to celebrate Christmas and know Christ. I think I get more out of it than they do.
23. Load up your pockets. You know it, Ebenezer, it’s time to be prepared to fill that Salvation Army kettle with loose change from your car or couch, and hand that suspicious looking homeless guy an extra fiver or fast food gift card at the very least.
24. The best toys never go out of style. Legos, Crayolas, board games, karaoke machines. Give ‘em, and break out the old ones all December long.
Candid Christmas photos (even ones taken when someone isn’t looking) are much preferable to stiffly posed pictures of twenty people in front of a fireplace, tree or church. (Okay, this is a personal bugaboo, but I love my mother-in-law anyway. And I didn't include it as an official number in the list).
25. Finally, go with the flow, Dad. We’ve all seen what happens when Clark Griswold insists upon taking control and forcing square people into the round hole of his “fun old-fashioned family Christmas.” So, sure… I liked my birth family’s Christmas morning madness and unkempt hair more than my married family’s rule that everyone showers and shaves and puts on make-up and eats a full breakfast and takes a nap and runs to the store and does a load of laundry and checks email and talks about the weather and goes to the bathroom one more time before a visit to the living room can be made, much less a present opened. But it’s all good… it’s all good…
Publication date: December 5, 2013
Saw a bumper sticker on the morning commute that read:
"The Church without Christ is where the blind don't see, the lame don't walk, and what's dead remains that way."
I'm generally not a big fan of bumper stickers, of advertising platitudinous tweets or angry opinions with my vehicle. But this one caught my attention because I had just spent the previous day at work mulling over the Trinity, mostly because I had just posted this video on our site:
And so I wondered why the creator of this bumper sticker hadn't said, "The Church without the Holy Spirit...", because after all, Christ himself didn't remain physically with us in the church, he left us with the Spirit.
Semantics. I fully understood the point. Without Christ as the focus, any church, "the" Church, is left uselessly lame, hopelessly blind, and pathetically dead.
But how would the bumper sticker have read if the word "Christ" had been substituted with either of the other members of the Godhead, or with other words?
Maybe something like...
"The Church without God is where the building improves while the hearts crumble, where behavior supercedes grace, and the right kind of members make us forget our mission."
In other words, worshipping God is what keeps us from becoming our own little gods.
"The Church without the Holy Spirit is where the fire grows cold, the air is foul, and 'living water' is just a nice story."
The Spirit is like a mighty wind. Jesus promised he would fill us with an outpouring of water. Where God is active in the Bible, you find fire. These elemental essences of the Trinity are what move our bodies of earth and clay to holy action.
These are just off the top of my head, but I'll spend most of the rest of today mulling about other fill-in-the-blanks such as...
The Church without You is where _________________
The Church without Love is where _________________
The Church without Outreach is where _______________
The Church without Money is where _________________
The Church without America is where ________________
The Church without Enmity is where ________________
On the Wednesday morning following the 2012 presidential election, I found myself musing peacefully about what's important in life. I was finding out, through realizing how little the outcome affected me, how little stock I'd had in the result personally. I was neither dancing in the streets nor cursing the fates. How was that? Apathy? Ignorance? Internal focus? Eternal security? Just a really easy morning sending the kids off to school?
Then it hit me. It was the theological virtues. I began to compose what became a Facebook status:
"...I do find Faith and Hope such interesting concepts. They're so powerful. They allow so many to get on with their lives. They inform our decisions and give us empathy for others. They point us towards purpose, toward wrongs to be righted and away from what would harm us. They seem to be in short supply sometimes, even among those who proclaim them while venting frustrations and fears they'd not utter to your face, but they shine brightest in tough times if you let them. And they're most famously tied to Love. They are still here this day, even if it doesn't sound like it, for they are the virtues that 'abide.'
"So I ask regardless of political persuasion: Do you have Faith to loan to the one today who has lost his, or placed it in something temporal and disappointing? Can you spare Hope for one who doesn't understand that Despair is the only place hope functions?
"These virtues are superior inoculations against whatever goes on around us, the very infusions that make possible a mission of bringing joy, mercy and laughter into the world every day, that elevate 'I can endure all things' above a mere platitude. They task one with a job that'll get you up in the morning, any morning. They bring to our eyes opportunity: chances for justice and charity, and the exercise of freedom. And, good news for me, Faith-Hope-Love is beautifying, for I can think of none who ever saw the application of these virtues - call it Grace - in action and said, 'Ugly.'"
It wasn't long before I was tasked with the charge I had just set before others. A forlorn friend messaged me.
"I honestly need prayer. I am sincerely requesting it. I do not feel love, I do not feel any desire to "get past it and heal and show love more now than ever." ...I am disheartened to the point of despair. ...I don't want to feel this way but I do. And it's been getting worse all day. Please pray for me. ...Considering your FB post earlier, I came to you with my request because I thought that at the least you'd understand."
After a moment of prayer I responded:
"I have already been praying for you ever since waking early and noting that you were 'heart sick.' It can start to feel like a lonely place but you are not alone. I won't try to talk you off the ledge politically because the timing's not right and there's no point in anyone else's opinion when what's killing you and eating at you so bad is how 'uninformed and wrong' all the opinions out there seem to you. I only hope you can get to the bottom of why it gets to you so bad.
"In microcosm, it reminds me of a HORRIBLE flight to Newark I shared with two of my co-workers back in April. I was convinced that nasty flight was going down. I even posted ugly things about it publicly. I was SO MAD that while I was holding on for dear life while the plane bounced (yes, bounced!) around the sky, none of the other passengers seemed to mind. At least not much. I wanted to scream, 'Come on, people! This isn't right! Why did they put us on this plane in these conditions, and why are you taking this jostling?'
"On the other hand, my friend [and christianity.com editor] Alex really couldn't understand why I would fret at all. After all, what is the worst that can happen to the believer? Death has no victory, so it's not that. And fear? What is fear except that from which we've already been delivered (death, sin, destruction, loss)? And sovereignty - what does my angry fretting reveal about what I believe about the nature of God?
"Hey, I think it's quite possible, biblically speaking, and regardless of the results of this particular vote, that things will happen in this country that are 'undesirable.' But I also know that through them and despite them I will cherish every moment with my family, try not to hold too tightly to anything eaten by moth or rust, and look for opportunities to help, and to live out my faith, purpose, and morality individually.
"I have no doubt you will be out of this slump at some point. But it may take a while. I daresay you may even want to talk to a counselor about it (I say this as someone who's done it).
"In the meantime, the simplest (yes, I know that can mean 'most naive') thing is to consider experience a good teacher. Nothing yet political, economic or electorial has befallen you or this country that killed either of you. In your 40 years, you have amassed great blessings; do not forget them, or Job 3:25. If you could erase everything in your mind and wake up today to discover the life you have, would your sky be nearly so dark right now?
"Rejoice! Get out of town. Go for a drive in the country with the top down. Go ahead, tell God he'd better know what he's doing allowing for the kings and counselors of the earth which he has ordained. And then leave it alone for a while. Go the indirect route. Study/read/pray about something else. Help someone else, even by just sending a note or letter to someone you know.
"These are the things that help me when I'm down, when I start hating my own people.
"Speaking of which, I sent friend requests to both ______ and ______ today. I figure it's time I stopped damming what would flow from my own heart. So please let me encourage you not to start. Much love!"
These words helped my friend, a little. This letter gave me a chance to be the hope to one person I'd challenged others to be. This day of lost faith for some became an opportunity for so many others to talk about theirs. And you know what? Today is no different.
For the waves of death encompassed me, the torrents of destruction assailed me… (2 Samuel 22:5).
Your wrath lies heavily upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves (Psalms 88:7).
I have many times stood upon the shore of a peaceful Atlantic ocean gazing East to the sunrise, pondering the vastness and the depth of God. This was not one of those times.
Today, I wanted to catch some fish. It was my only two hours of alone time during the whole week of family vacation to Isle of Palms. I decided to bike down to the point I’d walked to earlier that morning. This was mistake number one. I popped the chain on that old bike about half-way down the beach, and ended up having to push it the rest of the way with one hand while holding my fishing pole (and trying not to hook myself) with the other.
When I finally got there the waves had risen to a height I’d not encountered in any of my last four seasons on Atlantic beaches. I could barely cast my lure over them, and if I did succeed, I’d soon get knocked over. So, alright. You know what? I’ve been wanting a showdown. “Let’s see whatchya got,” I said, to either myself, God, or the forces of nature. I took my pole back to shore and I waded out to war.
I adopted my best linebacker stance and stood up to the 6-foot waves as best I could. I tried body surfing and nearly swallowed a gallon or two of seawater. I tried jumping over, diving under, and shouldering through. And while I was doing all of it I was telling God or whoever would listen how hard a time I’d been having of it (“Sure,” you’re saying, “a week of luxury beach vacation with the family, you’re really struggling.” But it’s true).
Why do I put on weight so easily? Why do you not seem to hear me anymore? Why am I not satisfied in my soul? Why do my simplest desires – like to ride a bike down a beach and catch a fish – result in such discouraging and powerful setbacks? Why is my faith bruised and how do I start to care for the people of God again? Huh?!
Nothing. Just wave after wave after pounding after pounding.
The good news is I was exhausting myself, getting this out of my system, and ‘praying.’ That I was again getting a sense of myself in this rough place called The World and how puny I am in relation to the created universe.
The bad news is I was becoming more dejected. When I finally gave up and told God I recognized his bigness and my smallness, I sat in the surf and tried to really connect, to really give it all to him, to really make this the milestone day from which everything was different for the rest of my life.
But it was just words. Nothing seemed to rise. I couldn’t make my heart climb into my prayers. And I couldn’t figure out how or when I had lost it, or what to do about it.
I paced to shore defeated and dejected. What progress had I made? At best today was a humbling, at worst a humiliation. My head drooped, and I looked down.
What I saw further discouraged me. For a length of several yards, the shallow foam washing back out was running at the same pace as my strides walking back in. The optical illusion was one of getting nowhere. Moving, but remaining in the same place.
That’s when, finally, this: “You know you’re making progress. You know, despite how it looks, that you’re getting closer to shore with every step. Likewise, today was progress. Tomorrow will be a step. As will the next. My grace is a wave infinitely more powerful and cleansing than these, and My footprints don’t wash away.”
I sighed, but I smiled. “Step by step you lead me, and I will follow you all of my days…” Step-by-step is exactly how I got home that day, beaten, extremely chafed, shoeless, pushing a bike and carrying a pole. And, I'm happy to report, that’s exactly how I’m getting back home in my spirit as well.