The Whole Story: Being Charitable at Christmas

I like Hallmark movies because they always end well, but that’s Hallmark, not life. As much as I would like Christmas to be neat and no needles on the floor, it isn’t reality. There have been Christmases in my family where gifts were thrown out with the wrapping paper. A bummer! There have been toys that didn’t work right out of the box, and macaroni that was too soupy and turkey overcooked and dry. There have been too many deaths.

One family member’s funeral was on the day after Christmas. The death was sudden and shocking in many respects. The death occurred at a paramour’s house. The spouse was greatly disturbed by this and made sure that our kindhearted United Methodist minister was upstaged by a fire and brimstone preacher of a denomination that focused more on guilt than grace. Every other funeral in our family was pretty generic. But, since the spouse had the unkindly preacher dwell on adultery in his comments, for the first time in many funerals, we knew exactly who was in the casket.

It was the truth, but it didn’t need to be said. Payback makes for interesting actions. In the case I’m remembering from Christmas long ago, said spouse was finally “laid to rest” beside the wandering partner. The son of the wanderer made sure that the so-called “rest” didn’t last long, had the person uprooted and the person’s name excised from the granite marker, and his own name inscribed instead. Now, that’s payback.

That was a tough Christmas. We have all had them, and we all need more grace than guilt. Who has the moral high ground to denigrate someone else to the nether regions? Except for the grace of God, there go I. Every time I point my finger at someone else, the majority are pointing back at me. Can’t we cut everybody some slack – especially at Christmas? Nobody ever knows the whole story anyway.

The wonder and mystery of Christmas is that God knows the dirt on everyone, and still chooses to become one of us, live our lives, die our deaths, and rise so that we might rise, too. Sometimes in our fictionalized versions of Christ we make Jesus so majestic and powerful that He can’t identify with us in our weakness. This is much like Aslan the Lion in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Hear Aslan roar, but Aslan does die unjustly and the sacrificial stone is cracked, and he is finally resurrected. Aslan is still on the move today if we will notice the underdogs more than we do the magnificent.

Many have heard the story of Barrington Bunny. Perhaps you’ve heard it on Christmas Eve or Christmas Sunday. I almost want to say that I’m sorry that you did because the telling of it can become a preacher’s ploy to play to the “Chreasters,” you know, the Christmas and Easter folks who only come to church twice a year. That is so unfair and such a guilt trip. Thank God for the people who come on the high and holy days. At least they come then. Some of the best people I know are the unsung people who can only muster the time, good health, or energy to get here on Christmas and Easter. You are welcome to come whenever you can. I’d rather assume that you have good reasons, not bad ones, for your choices.

Nevertheless, you can find solace from the story of another underdog who gets the connection between Christmas and Easter and reminds us of Jesus. When most of us want Hallmark and perfect gifts and perfect lives, God dares to say to everyone, “It’s alright if the gifts don’t fit, aren’t age appropriate, or the food is a disaster.” Barrington Bunny is your hero, or, at least one of them.

Barrington is the only bunny in the forest and enjoys hopping about in the snow, perennially looking back to see his hippity-hop designs. He’s furry and warm, but he’s feeling all alone at Christmas, and doesn’t feel gifted or special at all. He hears squirrels chattering up in a tree and asks what they’re doing. They are having a Christmas Party. He wants to join them but can’t since Barrington can hop, not climb. He hears the sounds of joy coming from a beaver’s home as their family celebrates Christmas. Barrington invites himself to the frivolity but isn’t able to swim to get inside.

He is so sad. No parties, no family, just hippity-hop, hippity hop, and then he gets a visit from a great silver wolf. The wolf offers Barrington encouragement and tells him that all of the animals in the forest are his family, and that Barrington does have gifts to share. Then the wolf disappears, and Barrington decides to give gifts to his forest family. He puts a stick and note at the beaver’s saying, “A gift from a member of your family.” He scratches through the snow to find leaves and grass to make the squirrels’ nest warmer and again attaches a note, “A gift from a member of your family.” The wolf’s encouragement gives newfound purpose and family to Barrington.

However, a blizzard is brewing. Snow piles up and Barrington barely hears above the howling wind the small sound of a baby field mouse. The mouse is lost and freezing, but Barrington tells him that his fur is nice and warm and that he will cover the mouse and provide shelter. Barrington has two thoughts, “It’s good to be a bunny who is furry and warm. It’s also good that all the animals in the forest are my family.” The next morning the baby mouse’s family finds him alive and warm under the sadly dead body of Barrington Bunny.

On a cold winter night in Judea we were all given a gift that tells each of us that we’re a part of the same human family. God’s love is as sacrificial as Barrington’s. His gift to us cost Jesus his life when he grew up. May we love others as much and always be charitable. We all need it even if we don’t deserve it. Only God knows the whole story that connects you and me to both Christmas and Easter. What is your gift and who is your family?

barrington-picture

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To Judge or Not to Judge?

Weeds are a pain! It’s hard to distinguish them from good plants sometimes, and by the time you can tell the difference it’s too late to do much about them. I guess you can just use an herbicide to kill everything, but that throws out the good with the bad. Somebody said that the way to tell a weed from a valuable plant was to just pull on the plant and if it’s hard to pull up, it’s a weed. If it comes up easily it’s probably a good plant. From my experience, that’s pretty accurate!

Someone else said, “To distinguish flowers from weeds, simply pull up everything. What grows back is weeds.” Jesus had a different take in Matthew 13:24-30. He said that we should be hesitant to do any pulling up of weeds until the harvest when the Divine Harvester knows what’s what. He doesn’t say there won’t be a Judgment or that there aren’t any standards. I think what Jesus is suggesting is for us to be very careful in our assessments on this side of eternity.

Therefore, pulling up everything is usually counterproductive. So how do we distinguish the good from the bad? Haven’t you found yourself wondering sometimes what or who the “weeds” are? We have to ask questions daily that are judgment calls: “Is this opportunity legit?” “Should I vote this way or that way?” “Is this guy/gal the real deal?” Sometimes the answers are iffy, either pro or con, and we hedge our bets and try to abstain. Most often I try to stack up the plusses and minuses and go with my mental winner leaving a lot of room for intuition and God’s gentle nudges.

I know Jesus said to let the weeds and good plants grow together until the harvest and let God do the judging. But aren’t you challenged just a little, if not a lot, to try to go ahead and distinguish between the well intentioned dragons and the good guys, God’s best plans and the train wrecks? Doesn’t judging have as its goal the best interest of God and humanity? So, no matter what, aren’t we supposed to be careful fruit inspectors and discern a tree, a person, or an idea’s legitimacy? Jesus did say that we would know a person’s character by their fruit (Matthew 7:16).

Gosh, that last thought sounds a lot like unchristian judging to me, but aren’t we supposed to discern right from wrong? Paul was pretty plain about it in I Corinthians 5:9-13. He was addressing a situation in the Corinthian church where a step-son married his step-mom and Paul asked the church to show him the door: “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy, and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. Now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a person do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.’”

However, before we start expelling all the sinners from the church we must leave room for grace and forgiveness. Paul, writing about the same guy and situation, says in his next letter (2 Corinthians 2:5-11) that the man learned his lesson and says that the church should welcome him back, “I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” Both of these texts are helpful in how to be church! We do have standards and should not turn a blind eye to the shenanigans of fellow Believers, and, if we do our judging with an eye to reconciliation and wholeness, the offending party will find renewal with God and in the fellowship. It’s like parental love. You have to have rules, time-outs, and consequences or you’re raising a barbarian!

To take this a step further, I’m reminded of Revelation 2:1-7 about the church in Ephesus. They are accused of forsaking their “first love.” I have often thought that it meant their love of God, but if you go back and look at what’s written about the church at Ephesus in Acts or Paul’s letter to the Ephesians you might agree that their first love is about their care for each other.

A big clue as to the identity of this lost first love is found in Revelation 2:6 where it says about the Ephesians: “But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” Note that God didn’t say, “… the Nicolaitans, who I also hate.” We don’t know who the Nicolaitans were but we know that the Ephesians weren’t commended for hating the actual people, just their practices. My problem sometimes and perhaps yours is in hating not just somebody’s actions but the very person, too.

I guess all this is to say that we need to be very careful to separate how we critique things, so that in our judging we never cross the boundary between who someone is and what they do. If we get this right we might just be able to sustain civility and community even when we passionately disagree. The Bible isn’t against judging as much as we think. We must be careful, however, to do it with what’s best for the person and community in mind. That’s a major thrust of holiness anyway.

We have made holiness an anachronistic tired mean pharisaical word when actually it is the promotion of God’s own character in each other, plus it endorses lifestyles and actions that make our lives better. Holiness is not about who’s in and who’s out of our community as much as it is about how God wants us to best live and thrive. It’s like my grandmother who often corrected me by saying about the punishment: “This is GOOD for you.” I hate to admit it, but she was right! Indeed, judging is supposed to help our fellow strugglers know what’s best for them and how they can more clearly reflect God’s image and character.

Therefore, judge we must if we care about people and want them to have the best lives imaginable. The end game is to glorify God and love people. If we don’t stand for something we will most surely fall for anything. So what is right and wrong? I think for the most part we already know the answer to that question about any given topic, but we are either too guilty ourselves or too afraid to have the chutzpah to back it up. We aren’t brave enough to actually try to help somebody by pointing out their shortcomings, and we aren’t that interested in hearing it about ourselves. Well, whoever said being a Christian was for the faint of heart? We have work to do in our garden! Do we want weeds or fruit?

Weeding