As we head toward a new year, it is helpful to look at last year and make some intentional decisions about 2012 and beyond. We all would like for things to be better for ourselves and our loved ones. But does a better future just happen, or can we effect some changes in ourselves that will help improve our future?
Christmas time is always a very stressful few weeks. Our culture has constantly trying to find ways to squeeze more money out of the end of the year, and often has little concern for why we give gifts. There were Christmas displays in several stores as early as October 1 this year. Many retailers have said that they make up to 40% of their profits in November and December. The impact of people willing to spend their money is reflected in the attempts of other faith and cultural groups making appeals to the public during the season. It is perhaps most simply demonstrated by the Jewish owner of a convenience store who was selling pine trees on his parking lot in early December. His orthodox rabbi happened to stop to by a soda and said to the owner “Rudy, I must say I am disappointed that you have decided to recognize the faith of another group by selling Christmas trees.” The owner’s reply was, “Rabbi. those are not Christmas trees – they are Hanukkah bushes!”
The question is do we really understand what we are doing and why? If all we want to do is help others increase their profits then perhaps the economy is helped. On the other hand, if we want to show others that we care about them, why do we only do it at Christmas? There are two examples that are very similar that I think reflect how our attitude during the season. But more important, if we really believed what we say the season is about, it should change the way we treat each other all year long. Maybe if we did things a little differently all year, we would be treated differently all year long.
The first event happened at the grocery. A couple who could be your grandparents were moving very slowly through the aisles. She was using one of those electric carts, very skillfully indicating some experience in driving that cumbersome device. They were sticking very closely to a shopping list, and checking each selction against a packet of coupons. They were discussing the product labels, obviously concerned with one or more health issues. No sugar, low salt, etc. At times they were discussing whether changing to a different size or different brand would save money. And each item was entered on a ledger with a running total.
For all their efforts, after the checker rang up the order the payment machine would not accept their debit card. It was one of those cards issues by the government unemployment system. As they tried to identify the problem, the man began systematically removing items to give back in order to reduce the total. Everything they had was basic – there were no sodas, no chips, no beer. A couple at the next register observed part of what was happening and came over to ask the cashier what had happened. He explained that the couple apparently had miscalculated and did not have enough to buy the groceries. The second couple exchanged very few words and then produced a debit card and pain the bill. They would not identify themselves, but merely said “Merry Christmas” and left.
Scripture says that when we give to others “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” That is do not give in order to be recognized for your gift. That is giving with strings attached. If you want to give then give from the heart. If you travel some neighborhoods on the day after Christmas you will find computers and big screen TVs still in the box in the dumpsters. This is because the gifts were given to a person who had all those things, and the person presenting the gift did not think about what the receiver needed. All the thought that went into the gift was that it was big enough to earn the receiver’s thanks. That is not giving from the heart. Instead, it is actually a rather selfish act.
The second is a similar story, again at the grocery. This time, the couple went to the self checkout line. The cashier helping customers was noted to being particularly attentive and helpful, helping scan items and placing them in bags. He was very conversational that day. He had seen this couple in the store many times. Sometimes they had come to the self checkout lane with a gallon of milk and taken a lot of time. He observed them with a bag full of change, much of it pennies, feeding them into the coin slot to pay for the item. He knew things were not easy. The cashier reached into a pocket in his apron and produced a gift card, which he scanned in order to pay for the small purchase. A customer had asked him if there were people that he recognized in his line who were struggling financially and he responded that there were. So that customer bought a gift card and gave to the cashier and asked him to use it to help people that needed it. What a blessing!
The question for us today is, why are we this way only at Christmas? Do people like the convenience store owner only recognize the season to make money? Or is there an underlying concept that gets twisted around and we end up looking like a culture of greed? Maybe the answer is “yes” to all of these.
If we step out in the faith that is the foundation for the Christmas atmosphere, then we live the same way all year. Perhaps we go beyond the norm during the season of Christmas, but the foundation should be living in us all year long. The basis for the giving does have its foundation in the Christian faith, whether others want to accept that or not. Look online for the story of the original St Nicholas and you will see that our very commercial Santa Claus comes from a very deep belief. And, a conviction to be like Santa Claus all year long – in fact, for a lifetime. You can wear a red suit and grow whiskers anytime.
So, who will you be in 2012? The one who wants to know what his company will give him, who he can overcharge to increase profits, what he can get from the government? Or the one who says – daily – I see someone suffering; what can I do to make their day a little better?