Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Commercialism and Christmas

How to avoid the commercialism of Christmas? This year some news sources trumpeted, some lamented, the earlier-than-ever Christmas shopping season. Maybe it would rescue our sagging economy! But maybe it would catapult shoppers into a Christ-forgetting frenzy that no amount of “Jesus is the reason for the season” lapel pins could rescue.

Incessant electronic and print ads overwhelm. Gifts Under $50 lists abound in newspapers. Budget- and meaning-conscious families re-examine gift-giving traditions—It’s just too much, they say, so let’s draw names, or ban gifts altogether, or give only home-made gifts. It’s easy to see why people throw up their hands in surrender. Who even wants to enter this ridiculous fray? Just wave the white flag, march away from the malls, and kneel with the shepherds and angels before the crèche outside the nearest church.

I’ve been thinking about this question of what I might change to avoid commercialism and return to the true meaning of Christmas. Although I’m willing to, I don’t want to change our family’s gift-giving traditions, because for the most part, I believe our hearts are in the right place. Whether I spend $100 or $5 per gift for 20 people or 2 people, whether I pay sale or full price, whether I buy or make gifts—it comes down to the heart. It always comes down to each heart. I love choosing just the right gift for people I love; and I am touched to receive thoughtful gifts. Although I admit mixed motives, in the end, it’s not about the stuff; it’s a meaningful exchange. Changing the number of gifts we take to Christmas gatherings might relieve some holiday stress, but that alone does not point the heart toward God.

I am somehow oblivious to the fact that in this season I’m surrounded by evidence of greed and materialism. What the culture wants to do to the snow globe of my heart is shake me dizzy until I’m so covered with their alluring glitter that I want, want, want. But I don’t want, want, want. It’s heart-throbbing, button-busting JOY to give gifts. The scene in my snow globe generally remains tranquil throughout the season, despite Madison Avenue’s best efforts.

Now, about returning to the true meaning of Christmas. For the past 26 years, I have not departed from the true meaning of Christmas, the quiet welcoming of my Savior to this world. In December, lyrics wafting above me in church or in Walmart curl around my heart in warm caress. “He rules the world in truth and grace.” “Dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.” “Joyful and triumphant.” “Come thou long expected Jesus.” “Oh come let us adore him.” These are year-round sentiments, of course, but in the Christmas season I get to hear their poetic expression set to music. Sometimes I catch myself singing in a store. If I glance at the lady fingering wrapping paper rolls in the next bin, she’s smiling and singing, too. I like this.

Resonating with reminders of Jesus Christ’s humble obedience is what keeps my snow globe tranquil amid all the glitter, I suppose. What our gimme-gimme culture does with Christmas is jingle-bell us into believing anything but Christ satisfies the deepest longings of our souls. Every year my dependence on God deepens, I’m less inclined to believe this hollow promise. But people close to me still buy the lie; and this is painful to watch, especially while they are blind to their own deception. I am probably blind to some earthly attachments as well.

Having said all this, I must ask questions. What if our family celebrated only Christ on Christmas? What is the logic behind giving each other gifts? Do gifts remind us of the gifts the magi brought? Of the gift a Savior is to us? It seems the most meaningful gift we could give in this season would be to God. What would that look like? Attending a Christmas church service together? Spending some time mid-festivities for a devotional about the incredible gift Jesus is to us? Though I'd miss gift exchanges if we modified our tradition, the relative purity of focus would be a greater joy. On the other hand, joyful giving honors God. Extravagant giving honors God; God is extravagant with us. Generosity is a virtue. Treasuring the people God has put in our lives pleases Him.  Gift-giving is a love language. The other love languages, according to Dr. Gary Chapman, are words of affirmation, touch, acts of service, and time. Besides handing someone a physical bow-bedecked package, how else might we celebrate a loved one to honor Christ? What might we give to a stranger to honor Christ?

Can we reconcile commercialism with the true meaning of Christmas? It’s worth pondering. I think we can, but it all comes back to the heart. What’s in our hearts if our family does not exchange gifts? What’s in our hearts when our family does exchange Christmas gifts? In the end, is it clear what we’re celebrating?

I leave you with a picture of people—in the world but not of it—gloriously singing in a mall, right next to Santa Claus. Stick with the video to the end. :-)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Time-Travel Home

In Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury has captured childhood’s wonders like so many lightning bugs in a mason jar. A reader turning the book’s pages removes rusty lid to release twinkling magical miracles to flit and glow in the gloaming.

Summer of 1928, Douglas Spaulding was twelve. Numbered bottles of dandelion wine he and ten-year-old brother Tom make with their grandfather represent significant moments of that summer. A bottle with a June date reminds Douglas of the happy first day of summer; a later-dated bottle reminds him of the sad day his best friend moved away. Looking at Grandfather’s shelf of date-labeled yellowish bottles, Douglas thinks: “There’s the day I found I was alive, … , and why isn’t it brighter than the others? There’s the day John Huff fell of the edge of the world; why isn’t it darker than the others?”

Dandelion Wine delights on several levels: (1) The running tumbling wondering daring imagining sheer ALIVENESS of children refreshes my jaded outlook like a glass of ice-cold lemonade (or maybe dandelion wine, though I’ve never tasted that) on perspiring brow. (2) Thanks to Bradbury’s vivid language, I swirl the sweet-sour stuff from tip of tongue to curve of throat. It’s squeezed from freshest lemons, sweetened with purest cane. And I’m sipping in slightest breeze of creaking porch swing.

While telling readers simple, everyday events of small-town folks in 1928, Bradbury also shows the human condition—innocence and evil, youth and old age, life and death, curious imagination and complacent habit. Underlying all is each person’s aloneness, each person’s singular perspectives, attitudes, actions, and interactions. The summer of 1928 happens to be a time of both discovery and loss for Douglas, and his 12-year-old mind tries to figure its meaning. Though surrounded and influenced by family and neighbors, Douglas faces alone what that summer holds for him. As do we all.

I love not only the universality of Dandelion Wine’s story, but also Bradbury’s lively language. As his Douglas Spaulding gulps every moment of summer, he transports me back to childhood. Listen to Douglas’s vivid thoughts when his father asks him to explain why he needs a new pair of tennis shoes: “Somehow the people who made tennis shoes knew what boys needed and wanted. They put marshmallows and coiled springs in the soles and they wove the rest out of grasses bleached and fired in the wilderness. Somewhere deep in the soft loam of the shoes the thin hard sinews of the buck deer were hidden. The people that made the shoes must have watched a lot of winds blow the trees and a lot of rivers going down to the lakes. Whatever it was, it was in the shoes, and it was summer. Douglas tried to get all this in words.” Bradbury’s exuberant, excited-to-be-alive writing style makes me want to shake off decades of inhibitions, leave them in a gray heap on the sidewalk, and cartwheel off into green grass.

I just have to mention one other episode that enchants me. The neighborhood children were fascinated with machines. They imagined a happiness machine, wanted a fortune-telling machine, and sat spellbound by a time machine. How clever that they recognized one of their most elderly neighbors as a “time machine” who could take them back in time because he had been present at historical events. He regaled the children with personal stories of a 1910 variety show, an 1875 bison stampede, and 1865 Antietam, Bull Run, and Shiloh battles.

Part A Child’s Garden of Verses, part Norman Rockwell painting, Dandelion Wine itself is an enchanting elixir Bradbury concocts from a weed flower.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Encore Une Fois ~ Notre Julia (Once Again ~ Our Julia)

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia ChildHow many books about Julia Child can a person thoroughly enjoy? Three, it turns out. Having read Noel Riley Fitch’s biography, Appetite for Life, and Julia Child’s and Alex Prud’homme’s My Life in France, I wondered if Bob Spitz’s Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child might prove to be too much of the same. It did not. Though time line events were familiar, behind-the-scenes anecdotes and interviews were new.

Because of this third book about Julia Child, I think I understand her thinking and principles and decisions a bit better. Spitz presents more of her hard edges than the other books do. Whether his presentation of her driven, angry, rebellious, and earthy sides is out of balance with the real Julia Child, I do not know. Spitz also reveals business sides of publishing, television, and celebrity. As usual, my favorite take-away was renewed admiration for Julia Child’s belief in herself and her vision, as well as her exuberant taste buds and teaching passion.

The strength of Spitz’s biography is the stories. I didn’t want them to end. Conversations, negotiations, funny moments fascinated me. It is from many of these conversations that the book’s title came; Dearie was how Julia Child often addressed people. The book’s weakness, in my opinion, was a dearth of photos.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

If it feels good, do it

When I first heard the term situational ethics in a university sociology class in the late 1960s, I thought, “What freedom—to decide what’s right depending on the situation! How cool is that?” A few years later, I was thrilled to get an in-your-face-neon-green bumper sticker that urged If it feels good, do it. Although I apparently wasn’t convinced enough of its truth to boldly display it on my trusty ’64 Malibu’s chrome bumper, I did display it—taped on the inside of the lid of my portable gray metal file box.

Although the box contained mostly folders of paid utility bills, I also kept a small notebook of poems in it. When my boyfriend at the time discovered the little lock on the box’s front was locked and I wouldn’t give him the key, he deduced I must be writing poems about other loves, flew into a jealous rage, and kicked in the lid. Ironically, he did no damage to the If it feels good, do it bumper sticker, nor did he access my poems, which, also ironically, expressed my pained loneliness in my relationship with him. At least he did what felt right to him in the moment, though—despite the fact that by anyone but a sociopath’s standards, what he did was a violently disrespectful, damaging expression of anger.

In the 40-plus years since then, I’ve learned a bit more about standards. Those lessons have often come when I followed my feelings, in other words, practiced situational ethics. I’ve discovered it is not freedom at all. Here is just one example:

When my boss [Liz] told spiteful lies about me to my coworkers [In fact, she walked through the office singing those lies], horrified voices shrieked from my wounded heart that I should badmouth her to my coworkers. I knew I’d find sympathy among them, because Liz was in general small and unkind. In addition, temptations to quit this job I loved also began urgently squawking. By this time in my life, I’d decided I’d made enough If it feels good, do it mistakes to acknowledge my need for a Savior, Jesus Christ. I knew it would feel fabulous to sarcastically mention Liz’s mean spirit to even one coworker—and even more freeing to snarkily comment to all of them— but I would try to handle my hurt by God’s standards.

It took me months to do this. While in the process of giving my hurt to God, forgiving my boss, and habitually praying for Liz, I was still in bondage to my borderline hateful feelings. During those months, I went to work each morning with a heavy heart and strong desire to avoid her. At night I spat prayers at God. “God, you say to pray for our enemies, so I’m praying for Liz.” Period. Or, I prayed God would hurt her as badly as she’d hurt me. Funny thing, though, as I obeyed God’s rules about forgiving and praying for enemies, He somehow imbued me with compassion and love for her. My prayers became, “Oh Lord, I ask for your healing grace for Liz.” The morning I went to work with a glorious, beaming smile for this woman, I was truly free. Freedom didn’t come from If it feels good, do it. Freedom came from submitting to the wisdom of the God who created me and knows me best.

Cultural icons of the 1960s also touted the timeless truth “All you need is love.” What they didn’t tout was an overarching truth: Left to human devices, love is unattainable, especially if we do only what fickle feelings suggest. Questions of objective right and wrong are valid. I see now that situational ethics—and its bumper sticker—belong inside a bashed-in box with a lock that won’t open.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Colossians 3:13
… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … Matthew 5:44

Monday, November 12, 2012


The only success I’ve had consuming fewer calories necessitated feeling hungry. Not feeling hungry and reaching for a handful of nuts—rather, letting myself stay hungry. Assuring myself I’ll be all right—and better off waiting—until the next balanced meal is brand-new self-talk,  a new language, in addition to learning vocabulary like glycemic index and trans fats. Just as memorizing “La carte des desserts, s’il vous plaît?” before going to a Paris cafe brings pleasant surprise when the waiter promptly appears with a dessert menu, learning to say “I can make it till dinner without a snack” brings the happy reward of making it till dinner. 

Still, feeling hungry is an odd sensation. I am of course not speaking here of ribs-protruding, malnourished starvation. Nor am I speaking of a ravenous need for protein and carbs after running a marathon. I am speaking as a well-fed person on a normal day. My hunger is just a cute, furry, pipsqueak of a mouse quietly nibbling at my stomach. Its whiskers softly brush a nerve that whispers to my brain, “There’s a little hole to fill here—how about some nuts?” And I typically head straight for the almonds in my freezer. But if I’ve planned balanced meals wisely and no low-blood-sugar alarms clang, I don’t need those nuts, or the calories.

I don’t like to admit I am given to instant gratification. But when it comes to food, apparently I am. Eating less is good practice. It’s central to controlling my weight. Letting pipsqueak gnawing go for a few hours also takes self-control, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which reminds me of my need for God. As the song says, “Hungry I come to you, for I know you satisfy.”* And learning this new hunger language will help prepare me for necessary budget cuts in our home, which I’m really not looking forward to. Let me try out that new self-talk here: “I’ll be all right without buying expensive Christmas gifts this year. Even though I have two left thumbs and very little patience for crafts, I can make some very lovely gifts.” Do I sound convincing? No? How about a nice jar of almonds for everyone on my list? They’re already in my freezer; all I’d need is some shapely jars and wide red ribbon.

*Lyrics to “Hungry (Falling on My Knees)” are by Kathryn Scott.