POSTED ON DECEMBER 8, 2010:
Shall I Say 'Christmas' or 'Holiday'?
Either way, it isn't what it used to be
William Wilberforce, the man credited being the most important figure in bringing about an end to the slave trade in England in 1807, once said, "Prosperity hardens the heart."
For the last decade or so, the Christmas season has seemed cheapened to me. I still enjoy the season, but it is characterized by an increasing numbness of which I become more aware every year.
Why do I have to focus so hard to find deep meaning in Christmas? Back in the day, I could feel delight building on the inside from Thanksgiving forward. It wasn't just about presents or days out of school. It was everything -- from the weather, to the music, to the family time with relatives we didn't see too often during the year. I'm not just being nostalgic. Something is wrong here, and it's getting worse annually.
Why? I'm not exactly sure, but I think it has something to do with a lack of self-awareness. Is it possible that many of us have focused so much on controlling the more obvious vices in our lives that we have allowed one to conspire against us right under our noses? Many of us have a growing, unchecked desire to be selfish during this time of the year. Make no mistake about it; our children will pick up on it.
May I present some signs that your "most wonderful time of the year" has been eclipsed by selfishness? I propose three N's:
1. Not enough. You are more aware of what you don't have, or didn't get, despite the fact that you accumulate more every year.
2. Never as good. You have a seemingly uncontrollable impulse to compare everything you receive to things others have.
3. Next thing. Things move so fast that it is almost surreal, leaving you almost incapable of savoring the sweet moments of the season. You are left thinking instead, "What's next?"
If you are still having doubts, consider something else that seems to be getting worse every year: "Black Friday." For me, Black Friday is a paradoxical day when Americans walk a fine line between bargain-hunting genius and certifiable psychosis. Who wouldn't enjoy a day filled with thousands of dishonest gimmicks, artificial price cuts, and maniacal shoppers who actually drag their young children out of the house when they should obviously be sleeping?
If that's not enough, let us reflect on the lowlights from a number of news stories about behavior around the country on Black Friday this year: mob scenes, break-ins, shouting matches, lockdowns and numerous arrests for threats, thefts or the use of weapons.
Does anyone consider the cost-benefit ratio of these purported savings? No wonder the American dollar is losing its value overseas.
I thought about asking whether or not we could imagine Jesus standing in one of these lines, but that idea is laughable. No matter what you think about Jesus, we can all agree that the Western celebration of this time of year has its roots in his story. Since that's true, perhaps his words could have some meaning for us regarding our worsening and maddening selfishness.
This will probably sound familiar: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20:35 TNIV) Interestingly, these words are not recorded as a part of Jesus' sayings in his biblical biographies -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This quote is actually cited by Paul the Apostle in a farewell speech to some dear friends. For Paul, Jesus' words were a description of his time among the men and women with whom he had served.
They were more than descriptive, however. They were a fond memory. That's what I want to get back. The truly fond memories. Let us take Jesus' concept, "It is more blessed to give than to receive," and apply it to the pettiness that characterizes the holiday for most of us.
What if Christmas was defined more by what I gave than what I received? Obviously, most of us give a great deal more to our loved ones than we are given; so let me take this a step further. When I give to those to whom I am closest, I am actually benefiting too. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but there is a fuller sense of virtue that accompanies giving generously to someone who has no ability to meet even one of my needs. On the other hand, perhaps the act of giving to that person is EXACTLY what we need to help break the spell of selfishness that seems to dominate our culture unbeknownst.
What are the signs that your "most wonderful time of the year" will be defined by generosity? I propose 3 N's, forgive me if you've seen these before:
1. Not enough. You could spend yourself for countless hours and still not get enough.
2. Never as good. No matter what else you get, it is never as good as the satisfaction of putting others first.
3. Next thing. The addictive nature of serving others makes you long for the next opportunity to do it all over again.
Eric Costanzo is Minister of Community Ministries and a teaching pastor at First Baptist Church in downtown Tulsa.
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