Saturday, December 26

Reflections on Christmas Day 2009

I woke up Christmas morning to temperatures in the upper 30s. The snow in the driveway had turned to slush. With a forecast of rain and temperatures in the low 40s and with the weather turning colder and bringing snow in the evening, I knew I should get out and shovel the slush.

It was quiet and overcast, drizzling lightly, as I shoveled. I paused every now and then, and not just because this was “heart attack” slush—wet and heavy, but just to enjoy the sounds of the morning. As I shoveled, I thought and prayed. I am so grateful to have what I have and sought that peace of contentment.

I came in and set the timer for 2 hours as I wanted to check my slush level after it had “warmed up” a bit more. I turned on the radio and smiled as I heard “O Holy Night,” one of my favorite songs of the Christmas season. I settled at the kitchen table with a cup of tea (Earl Grey) and the paper and when I finished with the paper, I started on a stack of magazines. I seem to read my magazines in spurts and because so many of them are weekly newsmagazines, I get to catch up and fill in some gaps about what has been doing on in the world. I got up to replenish my tea when the light in the kitchen changed and I realized the sun had come out. I looked out and yes, there was a bit of blue sky and that misty-looking winter sun. A gentle, soft light less about physical warmth than spiritual and emotional affirmation.

Mine is a solitary Christmas and that is by choice. The past few years I’ve been out of the country at this time of year—I love the cold and snow and go places I can explore and tromp in the snow. This year I started a new job on November 30 which made vacation time impossible. By the time I had negotiated some options at work, it was too late to make the extensive travel plans I had considered: time with dear friends; a visit with my folks; and a celebration of birthday, the holidays, and the New Year with my sister and her family. Instead, as I have for so many years, I get to spend Christmas alone, which seems sad and pitiable to many, but I like this time alone to think, to reflect, to listen to Christmas music, to pray, and, of course, to watch Christmas movies. I’ll get to spend some time with my folks just after the Christmas holidays, when the weather is no less predictable and holiday travel may be only moderately less stressful. I’ll be back in Florida in mid-January so may get to see my friends then. And I’ll try to travel to Texas in spring to see my sister and her family.

I thought more about Christmas and its meaning as I read. The newspaper had its fair share of “feel good” stories, much like those I’d been hearing on the radio for the past week. Like millions of others, I’d watched several of the Christmas movies: It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bishop’s Wife, and White Christmas.

And I really thought nothing of all of those stories and their themes of peace, contentment, giving, and love until I read an interview of Bill Maher in Newsweek in which he spoke of his plans for Christmas and his disinterest in celebrating “the whole baby-Jesus thing.” While he has good memories of Christmas as a child, he believes it’s a good time of year for people to assess where they have been ethically over the year, though I would think one might do that kind of assessment throughout the year. The statements that stopped me were these: “That’s the problem with faith, Joe [Scarborough]. What it does is kind of screws up your priorities. Your priorities shouldn’t be saving your own ass, which is the focus of Christianity. The focus should be, I’m a good person, and I do that just for the sake of being good.” What disturbs me is his perception of Christianity, though I can understand why he might see it that way.

But then he hadn’t read the story of the Muellers, who were struggling to care for their children but who always received a check or a job or something they needed when they needed it. The Tribune ran a story on them in September and there was an immediate outpouring of generosity, and yet the moments of miracle continue to occur. In this story, Mrs. Mueller spoke of her faith in terms of Philippians 4:19—“And my God will meet your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” The coolest part of the story, though, is this. A man who had had his own large family calculated how much it would cost to buy enough milk for a year. . . and wrote a check. Of his actions he said, “I think it’s really more the miraculous way [God] provides for those who have faith. I’m just the middle man. God provided for them. They put their faith out there. It was my job to affect the depth of their faith.”

And while the Muellers are cared for, at least for now, I was reminded of the pain that remains in the world. For every family of Muellers, there are too many yet in want and need. For every individual who writes a check to help buy milk for children, there are those who refuse to extend a helping hand. For every Secret Santa who acts in the legacy of Larry Stewart, there are those who can and don’t.

At the end of my day of quiet indulgence, I thought again about how fortunate I am and I am thankful for all of those who give of their time and their money, whether they are famous and can help draw attention and resources to a crisis or willing to act in anonymity. I don’t know and can’t know what moves some of people to act generously. Perhaps it is Bill Maher’s philosophy of acting ethically and being what they consider a “good” person. Perhaps it is because they are being used in wonderful and mysterious ways. Perhaps it is because they realize it is their jobs to affect the depths of someone’s faith.

As with so many other holidays, this one encourages us to stop and consider the act of giving, to think about what it truly means to bring about peace on Earth and good will to all. I hope that, in spite of the drama of the season, of the air incident in Detroit, of all of the other emotional baggage that hangs over this holiday and lingers for months after, we can continue to find ways to sustain those sensibilities of giving, of caring, of sharing hope.

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