Catch Your Breath (12/12/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Christmas is only two weeks away—13 days to be exact—and this is the next-to-last Sunday before Christmas. So it is good that we are celebrating Christmas this morning, with great holiday music, a tastefully but festively decorated sanctuary, and perhaps most important, tonight, the church’s adult Christmas party!
There is something really ironic about the Christmas season. The whole point is to prepare our hearts for the arrival of Jesus into our world—the baby Jesus. This is one of the more pleasant and peaceful images in our faith tradition. At Christmas time, we don’t think about that final week of Jesus’ life which was anything but pleasant; we don’t think about his hometown synagogue chasing him out of town and trying to throw him off a cliff; we don’t think of Jesus entering the Temple and driving out the moneychangers. No, Christmas is a time for Jesus meek and mild, lying quietly in a manger, gazing up at his parents with the same wonder we’ve seen in the eyes of our own children.
Ahhh. How relaxing. So why is it you don’t look so relaxed? In fact, most people I see at this time of year are about as far from relaxed as it gets. People are probably more stressed out at this time—about two weeks before Christmas—than at any other time of the year.
Young children, for the most part, aren’t so much stressed as they are excited. It doesn’t get any better than this. Why do kids love this time of year so much? Because everybody is rushing around, frantically decorating the house, buying groceries for what promises to be a major feast. All the relatives will be together. It is the most happening time of year! The smells, the bells, the sights, the sounds… and to top it all off, in a few weeks there will be all sorts of toys scattered around the living room floor.
Why are parents so stressed out? Because everybody is rushing around, frantically decorating the house, buying groceries for what promises to be a major feast. All the relatives will be together. It is the most happening time of year! The smells, the bells, the sights, the sounds… and to top it all off, in a few weeks there will be all sorts of toys scattered around the living room floor.
It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it! But one thing is certain. This time of year brings forth a literal flood of emotions, whether you are two or one-hundred-and-two; whether your memories of Christmas are filled with joy or pain; and whether or not you admit the emotional power of the season or pretend it doesn’t affect you. It does… inside… The season has a power all its own that you just can’t escape.
So we hide from our emotions by doing what Americans are supposed to do to celebrate the arrival of the Savior into our world; we spend ourselves into massive debt. We buy the biggest Turkey we can possibly find. I mean, how embarrassing would it be to run out of Turkey (or Ham, as the case may be) on Christmas Day! And then, of course, three weeks later we are still trying to choke down the leftovers.
We shop for the latest fashions for our children, spending exorbitant prices to make sure we purchase the correct brands. How strange that in the name of the one who wore nothing but sandals on his feet, we must buy athletic shoes that have the correct logo on the side. And we are willing to pay an extra fifty bucks to make sure it is the brand with the logo that is “in” this year.
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By this point in time—two weeks before Christmas—most of us are starting to panic. We’ve spent twice what we can afford already and haven’t even got half our shopping done. And it’s not like we haven’t had enough time to think about these matters. I used to think stores were jumping the gun when they put out their Christmas displays before Thanksgiving. This year I was stumbling over Christmas trees and holiday decorations in the department stores while I was looking for Halloween decorations—in October!
So we’ve had lots of time to think about all the things we should have already bought, and if we still have any disposable income lying around somewhere, we are clearly late getting into the Christmas spirit.
Maybe the reason the Christmas season has been moved so far forward is because retailers know we need to start hiding from our emotions early on. There’s nothing like spending a little money to make us feel better. And I’m as guilty of this as the next person. Usually the purchase of something as simple as a Swiss army knife will lift my spirits when I’m felling a little blue. Deeper depressions have resulted in the purchase of things like wine racks and lawn furniture. And I’ve had a couple of spells that only something as significant as a new car could chase away the blues. For a while. For a while.
And there’s no denying it—Christmas gives us the blues. We think back on some of our happy Christmas memories, which can be some of the most powerful and joyful memories of our lives, and we get the blues. Too many of the people who made those memories special are no longer here to make new memories.
Then we reflect on those Christmas memories that are not so great—the ones where our family seemed a bit more dysfunctional than other years—and we get the blues. And yes, no matter how much we wish it were not true, none of us have experienced an unmarred string of perfect Christmases. None of us were raised by Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, and most of us have done a poor job of imitating Ward and June Cleaver as we raised our own children.
In the real world, there are those parents who treat their offspring like objects to be admired by the neighbors more than children to be loved without condition. And even the best of parents, and the best of families, have seen a dark pall set in over a holiday meal as some cousin, or uncle, or grandparent decides Christmas dinner would be the perfect occasion to let the rest of the family know what a disappointment they’ve been over the past year.
So we just can’t win when it comes to Christmas. All the emotional baggage of human life hangs heavy on our Christmas memories. And we can’t go back to any of those memories and make them better, or more joyful, or less painful. They are what they are.
But there is something we can do. The old saying goes, Today is the first day of the rest of your life. There’s a lot of wisdom in those old sayings. That’s why they stick around long enough to get old. But I’ve got a knew one for us, right here, right now, about an hour shy of noon 13 days before Christmas. Today is the first day of the rest of this Christmas season.
And with that little nugget of wisdom, I would like to suggest some ways we can all make this Christmas season one of the best ever—ways we can create memories in the next two weeks that will be among our most cherished.
First, let’s catch our breath! Stop running. The Christmas season is like a microcosm for our entire lives. We run run run trying to get everything done that needs to get done and before we know what has happened it’s almost over and we didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as we should have. Let’s slow down. Let’s slow way down. Try some deep breathing exercises. Really. We have a limited number of breaths left in these bodies of ours. Let’s try to enjoy as many of them as possible.
Second, after we catch our breath, let’s look around. Stop. Look. Listen. That’s what we tell our children to do before they cross the street. Well, we are crossing Christmas. And it is wonderful. Go ahead. Look at the sights—the lighted trees, the silver bells hanging from light posts, the decorated store windows. If we really look, we can almost recapture the magic of this holiday world through the eyes of a child.
And while we are looking, we shouldn’t forget to bring our other senses into play. Listen! The music, the bells, the laughter—what other time of year compares to this? And the smells! Logs in the fireplace, turkey in the oven, the clean crisp night air. There is a lot to experience—a lot to miss if we don’t slow down and allow our senses to take it all in.
Third, let’s not worry about gifts this year. Let’s not spend ourselves silly. I remember my parents buying some big toy for my brother and me when we were quite young. They thought it would be the highlight of our Christmas. And it was, in a way. We played with the box it came in for a couple of weeks. We loved that big cardboard box. I can barely remember the toy itself.
And honestly, we aren’t that hard to please as adults either. None of us are. Another one of those wise old saying that has stood the test of time concerns gifts, and it goes, It’s the thought that counts. That really is true. Here’s my suggestion: Let’s pray before we shop. Let’s ask God for help in finding a thoughtful gift. It really would put our minds and hearts in the right place for shopping… and it just might have the added benefit of saving us a wad of cash! Even if they don’t like what we buy, they can still play with the box!
My fourth suggestion for creating great memories this Christmas season: Don’t hide from old memories. And I don’t think I need to say much more about that. When we slow down, and look around, we’ll find those memories popping up from dozens and dozens of past Christmases. That’s okay. Embrace them. They are worth the tears.
And finally, my fifth and last suggesting for making this the best of Christmas seasons, another old saying: Don’t forget the reason for the season. None of this would be happening if Jesus of Nazareth had not arrived in this world two thousand years ago. For us—for Christians—that baby, born in poverty to a teenage girl in a backwater nation in the ancient world—that child became the very center of human history. It is by his arrival in the world we measure time. It is by the words he spoke that we measure our lives. And it is in his spirit that we live our days, knowing the love of God is with us always, and praying for the day when the world we inhabit becomes the world he envisioned.