December 20, 2015
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
This past week, Stacy came home from her semester abroad in Spain and she helped me to decorate our Christmas tree. Actually, her help entailed sitting in the recliner keeping Cody entertained so that he wouldn’t take the ornaments off of the tree as fast as I put them on but it was an important job nonetheless, and we had enjoyable and relaxing hour. We invited Mathew to join us but he declined our invitation saying that he wasn’t into sentimental family time right then, and it is true that decorating our tree is rather sentimental. The ornaments on our tree are not chosen for their beauty but for the stories they tell about our lives. In fact, as I decorated, I pointed out to Stacy that I have at least six ornaments that John made as a child and two made by Mathew in some Sunday School project, but I didn’t have any ornaments from the hands of Stacy.
She immediately declared, “Well, I can fix that! I’ve got cotton balls upstairs — I’m sure I can make some sort of snowman ornament out of them.” She then pulled out her laptop and googled, “Homemade snowman ornaments,” and sure enough, Google spit out dozens of hits.
“Wow,” she said a little crestfallen as she scrolled through the sites, “these are all pretty complicated. I’d have to go to the store to buy fabric and stuff. And a lot of them need to be sewn. There’s got to be something simpler.”
I suggested she google, “I’ve got cotton balls, construction paper, and no patience. What can I make?” but even when she added the word, “easy” to her search for homemade ornaments, it was clear that most sites assumed that the average American homeowner is equipped with scroll saws, glue guns, C-clamps, felt, an assortment of buttons and beads, lots of glitter, and an abundance of self-confidence. Eventually, Stacy just glued her cotton balls to a cardboard backing to make a simple snowman without the internet’s help but the sheer abundance of do-it-yourself sites she encountered that day should have told her in no uncertain terms that her study abroad was over and she was back in the good old US of A. Because we are, after all, a Do-it-Yourself nation. No ornament is too fancy for us to tackle; no home project too complicated! We will build it, fix it, or make it from scratch “by the sweat of our brow and the strength of our backs and the courage in our hearts” (1) and no lack of skill or know-how will stand in our way!
Americans are known for our independent spirits and our determination to take charge of our own destinies. Last spring, the Pew Research Center surveyed people in 44 countries and asked whether or not they agreed with the statement, “Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.” 62% of people in other countries said that the statement was true but only 43% of Americans did. In other words, a majority of Americans believe that we are responsible for our own success or failure and there is little that is beyond our control. Even more telling, nearly 3/4 of Americans agreed with the statement that “working hard is very important to getting ahead in life,” 25% higher than the global median. (2) The emphasis on hard work is such a part of our American mentality that it is hard for us to believe that half of the people in the rest of the world don’t necessarily see a correlation between hard work and success. Apparently, many countries have no proverbial equivalent to things like “Keep your nose to the grindstone,” and “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again,” and “Just do it!” We, however, are awash in slogans, sayings, posters, and commercials encouraging our determination to persevere because we are Americans, taught from the cradle that people are capable of accomplishing anything we put our minds to! Look at Abraham Lincoln, our log cabin president, or the Wright Brothers, the bicycle salesmen who learned how to fly, or Steve Jobs, the college dropout who conquered the world! All Americans, by golly, and we too are Americans, members of the Do-it-Yourself Nation who can do anything anytime anywhere if we just work hard enough and believe! Hooyah!
Our hard work ethic and our self-confidence are great attributes to have… except when they are not. Except when they leave us frustrated because we can’t fix everything, or despondent because our hard work hasn’t paid off, or sullen and cynical because no matter how hard we try we just can’t make everything go the way we want it to go. The dark side of a Do-it-yourself mentality is the toll it can take on your sense of self-worth when you discover that sometimes you cannot create a perfect world with your own two hands. And the dark side of our do-it-yourself mentality is at the height of its power during the Christmas season.
In 1990, the economist James Henry wrote an essay in the New Republic called, “Why I Hate Christmas: The Grinch has it right.” He said, “Although for many years Christmas has been justified on the grounds that it is “merry,” rigorous quantitative analysis establishes that the opposite is the case. Despite claims advanced by proponents that the holiday promotes a desirable “spirit,’’ makes people “jolly,” etc., the data show that the yuletide time period is marked by …. inefficient uses of key resources [and a squandering of savings that yields little financial benefit].… Moreover, the number of people rendered “joyous” by Christmas is probably equaled or excelled by the number made to feel rather blue. In short …Christmas… fails the test of cost-effectiveness.”
Henry’s tongue-in-cheek essay resonates with many people who see in its satire an element of truth. They claim that Christmas is over-sentimentalized, over-commercialized, and never lives up to anyone’s expectations which means that the cost of the gift-giving and the holiday partying, and the time with family outweighs the benefits anyone receives from the day. Some people, such as those in the Facebook group, “I Hate Christmas”, have gone to the extreme of suggesting we just ban the holiday. Most Americans, however, with our Can-Do spirit, have taken the opposite tack. We decide that the solution to the Christmas problem is to put even more work into making the day perfect. We’ll put up more lights, more decorations. We’ll buy even more extravagant gifts. Or, we’ll handcraft all of our gifts, spending hours over a glue gun to make sure that we have infused the day with a personal touch. Surely if we just invest more time and more energy, our work will finally yield the results that we expect to receive from this day.
Now, many of you sitting here may be thinking, “That’s not me. I’m not obsessed with making Christmas the perfect day,” but what if I asked, “How many of you have at some point in the past couple of weeks thought, ‘I just don’t feel in the Christmas mood yet?’” Even if we think that we are not trying to create a perfect holiday, almost all of us are affected by the assumption that Christmas is supposed to be at least a time when we feel something special. We are supposed to be filled with the Christmas spirit and experience moments of wonder and bountiful love for family and friends. And when we don’t feel anything particularly different from our normal everyday ordinary sort of love, we look for reasons for that failure to feel what we are supposed to be feeling.
“It’s hard to feel Christmasy when I haven’t done my shopping yet,” we might say, or “After I’ve put up the tree, I know I’ll be more in the Christmas mood.” I have heard people in this church say, “It really doesn’t feel like Christmas until we light the candles on the wish-cakes at the Christmas party and sing ‘Silent Night.’”
We are waiting for the Christmas mood to come, and when it doesn’t come, we will work hard to manufacture it because that is the dark side of our belief that hard work yields success. If we aren’t feeling what we are supposed to feel at Christmas, if our hearts aren’t swelling with joy, wonder, generosity, and delight, if we haven’t created the perfect day for ourselves and everyone we love, then it must be because we didn’t work hard enough, because after all, we are the Do-it-Yourself nation, and Christmas is our do-it-yourself responsibility.
But you know what? You weren’t in that stable the night Christ was born. You weren’t there. I wasn’t there. Joe Dosch? Nope, not there. Deb Stephens? She wasn’t there. Joe Fasano, Stu Smith, Linell Soule, Wally Higgins? Not there. Melissa Jusianiec? I know it seems like she’s everywhere these days, but even she wasn’t in that stable that night. We weren’t there at the side of Mary and Joseph delivering the baby Jesus with one hand while googling “Do-it-Yourself Midwifery,” with the other. God managed without us that night: Christ was born into the world without our help.
This is the mind-boggling and liberating truth of the gospel message — we are not responsible for Christmas. Christmas is not a feeling; it is not a mood; it is not something that we create or manufacture or do for one another. Christmas is something that God did for us.
In Luke 2, after the shepherds have gone home and the angels have gone back to the heavens, Mary and Joseph take the newborn Jesus to the Temple to dedicate him and there they encounter Simeon, an old man who has been waiting for a lifetime to see God’s Messiah. Simeon wasn’t in that stable the night of Jesus’ birth. There is no ceramic Simeon in the creches that decorate our homes because he came on to the scene too late to be included with the shepherds and their sheep, just like us. And Simeon is not only too late to see Jesus’ birth but he’s too old to see how God’s whole plan is going to play out. He will die before Jesus preaches his first message or heals his first leper and he will never know about the cross or the empty tomb. There will be no chance for him to dedicate his life in discipleship and prove his love to his Lord through the hard work of faith. Simeon has just this one moment to look upon the face of Christ and the only thing that he can do is say, “Thank you.” And he is ok with that because he understands that at this moment, it’s not about him. The birth of Christ into our world is not about us — it’s about God. Christmas is the declaration that God has loved us so much that God has come into the world to show us the face of that love and there is nothing that we can do to make that happen. It has already happened. God has already come and every December 25th, God will remind us that love came into the world long long ago and became present with us.
Christ will be born with or without a Christmas tree in your living room.
Christ will be born with or without the perfect presents under that tree.
Christ will be born with or without carol singing and eggnog and Rudolph sweaters.
Christ will be born whether you are in the Christmas mood or not. You can be blue or grumpy or sick or sad or happy or giddy or cranky and mad. Your mood will not make Christmas because we are far far beyond the creche and we are not responsible for ensuring that Christ comes into our world. Christmas is not about us; it is about God, and the only appropriate response to Christmas is for us to bow our heads on December 25th and say, “Thank you.
1. from “Pirates of the Caribbean: at World’s End”