Thursday, December 23, 2010

Out of Her Poverty

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)

Priced a partridge in a pear tree lately? If that's what's on your true love's list this year, you'd better be prepared to shell out a little more than last year. They'll run you about $160 – a twenty percent increase over 2009.

Every Christmas, Pittsburgh-based PNC Wealth Management compiles its annual Christmas Price Index, a whimsical look at the cost of living through the lens of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” For most of its 27 years, the Index has mirrored the Consumer Price Index. This year, though, it grew 9.2 percent over last year. The Consumer Price Index only increased 1.1 percent.

If you're looking to purchase the number of items specified in the song, you can expect to shell out $96,824. High gold prices have pushed five golden rings up 30 percent to $649.95. The cost of hiring entertainers has increased as well, so expect to pay more for drummers drumming ($2,552) and pipers piping ($2,356). And, surprisingly, the cost of birds could, well, “fowl” up your gift-giving budget. Seven swans a-swimming will set you back 6.7 percent more than last year, at $5,600. Two turtle doves will run you 78.6 percent more than last year at $100, and three french hens have ballooned a whopping 233 percent, to $150.

The most expensive item on the list? Nine ladies dancing will make a $6,294.03 dent in your bottom line, up 15 percent over 2009. (Though that might depend on where you hire them from....) The cheapest is the partridge, a bargain at $12 despite a 20 percent price increase. The prices of four calling birds ($599.96), six geese ($150), and eight maids-a-milking ($58) all remained steady at last year's levels. (So, maids, now is not the time to launch a career a-milking....)

Lords a-Leaping (ahem) jumped 8 percent to $4,766 – though PNC does not specify who these lords are, or how one could convince nobles to leap for so little.

While I'm doubting that many of us will have the gifts from the “Twelve Days of Christmas” under our trees this year – a good thing, considering the mess six geese could make – I imagine that most of us will have some gifts under our trees. If you're like me, you'll have a pile that's almost embarrassing. And it's probably safe to say that for the last several weeks, (or months, if you're one of those “Christmas shopping in July” kinds of people) a good deal of your attention and your budget has been taken up with what to give the people on your list. Everyone wants to give the perfect gift – maybe even more than we want to receive it. You want her to break down in tears over the piece of jewelry she's unwrapped. You want him to stare open-mouthed at the car in the driveway. You want the kids to call you the coolest Dad ever.

Understand, I'm all for the giving of Christmas gifts. (I can't imagine a better time of year, or a better reason, to give to others.) I just think that the way we often go about it winds up detracting from the joy of Christmas as much as it adds to it. Somehow, our nation's economic health has come to depend on whether we buy dad the 42-inch flat screen, or the 48. Somehow, we've come to believe that the degree to which we love our family and friends is denoted somewhere in the bar codes on a price tag. Somehow we've gotten the idea that being Bob Cratchett at Christmas can atone for being Scrooge the rest of the year.

We're wrong, though. Jesus knew that the price of a gift mattered much less than its cost, that the generosity behind a gift gave it value and not the price tag on it. That's why he could look at a widow's two pennies in the Temple treasury, and all the expensive gifts of all the wealthy people in Jerusalem, and say with a straight face that the widow gave the more extravagant gift. The wealthy “gave their gifts our of their wealth,” he explains. “But she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

“Out of her poverty.” It occurs to me that most of us budget for Christmas gifts. Those come out of disposable income, or at least after the urgent bills are paid. That's as it should be, but maybe this is a good time to rethink what it means to give a gift. As we sit back and survey the mounds of stuff that we've given and received, and thank God for enough economic security to do so, let's consider some places where we're less wealthy. And let's consider what it would look like to give out of our poverty.

If you're like me, you're time-poor. You always feel pressed for time, always tyrannized by the next deadline. Being time-poor makes us very good at prioritizing and multi-tasking. But it makes us terrible at knowing what's really important – particularly if it's something that doesn't come with an obvious deadline.

So maybe what the people around us really need is some of our time. Our kids, our spouses, our friends, our churches – maybe what they need most from us is for us to unplug, turn off our phones, and connect with them. Our kids need us to play a game with them, go to their recitals, sit around a dinner table with them. Our spouses need us to talk to them, listen to them, laugh with them, hold them. The people in our lives need us to give them some of the resource we think we have so little of: our time. They'll recognize the value of a gift like that.

Let's give from the limited supplies of energy we have. Let's give hospitality. Whatever you think you can't possibly afford, start imagining that just maybe that's what God wants you to give. Imagine the horizons of faith that will open as you trust God enough to give out of your poverty, and see him bless your gift and make it more than you could possibly have imagined.

And you won't have to worry about how to ship a partridge in a pear tree.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Play Misty For Me

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15)

This week, on the same day, two families I know said goodbye to parents.

In one of the families, middle-aged siblings gathered with their mother to comfort each other in the sudden death of their father. He was older, and had been experiencing some health problems, but his passing was still a shock for them.

In the other family, there was only one child, a fifteen-year-old daughter. With her father, her grandparents, two aunts, and some friends from school, she mourned the sudden loss of her mother. She was much younger, and there was no warning – in the time it takes a heart to stop, this girl's life changed completely and irrevocably.

Such different situations. While death almost always leaves grief in its wake, one of those losses probably seems to you even a little more tragic than the other. It's one thing to lose a parent in middle age – it's even something we expect. It seems much different to lose a parent as a teenager. There's more to grieve, somehow: not just the loss itself, but the moments and events and time together that's lost as well. Such different situations in so many ways.

So alike in one way. One fundamental way.

Both families were shocked and caught off guard. Death is particularly good at sneaking up and surprising us, and neither family knew it was nearby. I think that's a good thing, actually; I can't imagine that always anticipating the death of the people we love – or our own – would be any way to live. Who'd want to live with an hourglass attached to your forehead, or a countdown clock implanted in your palm? And who'd want to see the sands running out or the minutes counting down on a parent or a spouse or a friend or a child?

The surprise with which death comes can often be a great blessing, I think – as shocking as it may be when it happens. It prevents us from being preoccupied with death, from focusing so disproportionately on life's end that we fail to see the beauty and joy in each day.

But it also means that we're prone to living as if death doesn't exist.

When we live that way, we also fail to appreciate life. But for the opposite reason. To live as if we and the people we love will live forever, to fail to recognize that there is a horizon to our lives, is to devalue the present. When we don't acknowledge our mortality, we imagine life as an endless vista of attainment and achievement. “We'll go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money,” James pictures us as saying. And he rebukes for our foolish assumptions, for the arrogance of believing that our futures will unfold in exactly the way we imagine and plan. We should know better, seeing as how all around us is testimony to our mortality. And yet somehow we don't.

“Mist.” That's what James calls human life. Mist, of course, is already in the process of evaporation. And so are we, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. We appear for a little while – 80 or 50 or 30 years, or whatever – and then we're gone. We don't know how long we have, but we know there's an expiration date.

So how do we live with the knowledge of our own mortality without obsessing over it? James suggests that we live an “if the Lord wills” sort of life. Make your plans, he says – just make sure to leave room for God to cut them short. You can schedule that business trip, but scheduling and making it are two different things, and you're not in control of the variables. Buy your plane tickets, set your wedding date, take care of your health, pay your insurance premiums, plan to dance at your granddaughter's wedding: but just know that you may be with your Father before the flight leaves or your granddaughter walks down the aisle.

I've known people who affixed the words “Lord willing” before nearly everything they said about future plans. Truthfully, I used to think that was a little excessive. I'm not as sure now, though. Now, I think maybe those folks are testifying to the fact that ultimately it's God who's in control of our lives – beginning, middle, and end. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of affirming, out loud, that the plans we make, the futures we imagine, are firmly in his hands.

That's how you live with your “mistiness.” That's how you live with your mortality, and the mortality of the people you love. It's really a great relief to know that our intentions and imaginings aren't the last word. And it's good to remind ourselves – out loud, sometimes – that it's only by God's will that we live and do the things we do.

So while you have today, make it count. Tell the people you love how much they mean to you. Better yet, show them. Do something that will make a positive difference in someone's life. Listen to someone who's hurting, pray with someone who's afraid, help someone who needs it. Look around you and thank God for all the blessings you have, before you rush right in to telling him what you want. When you make plans for tomorrow, ask for God's guidance. And when those plans are “final,” remind yourself that there's really nothing final about them until God says so.

It's OK to be mortal, because God isn't. It's OK to not be certain of our future, because God is. It's even OK when we die, because even then we're not out of his hands or beyond his care. It's even OK when death surprises us, because it's no surprise to God.

And resurrection surprises death even more.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matthew 24:42-44)

I can still remember it clearly: sitting on my bed in the darkness, looking through the window into the night sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. My sister was sleeping in the bottom bunk, so I think my grandmother must have been there and sleeping in her room. But she was asleep, either convinced by the song that “he knows when you've been sleeping, he knows when you're awake” or just worn out from the excitement. But I was older, more worldly, at 6 or 7. I didn't think he could possibly keep track....

So there I sat, as Christmas Eve 1974 or 75 turned to Christmas morning. At some point, I'm sure, I gave up and fell asleep. But I kept my vigil as long as I could, hoping to see him. It wasn't a foggy night, so I didn't know if he'd have Rudolph in the lead. We didn't have a chimney, so I didn't know if he'd land on the roof or in the back yard, near the door that Dad promised to leave unlocked. But I knew I'd see him. All I had to do was stay awake. (I guess it didn't occur to me that he might come from one of the three cardinal points of direction that the window I was staring through didn't face. Come on, people. I was 6 or 7....)

In the intervening years, I've gone from staying up late to see Santa, to staying up late to put together toys, to getting up early with a young child who was just as excited as I had been, to trying to figure out what to buy a son who's just on this side of the teen years. I've learned some things about Christmas. One is that you never see Santa coming, no matter how late you stay up. And that if you sneak downstairs and see Mom kissing him, then either Dad has a Santa costume or there's something that he needs to know. I've learned that we're supposed to grow out of our childish preoccupation with new stuff, and that sadly a lot of us never do. I've learned that those of us who do outgrow it usually only replace it with a preoccupation with what we're going to give this year, or depression when we discover that this year won't be the perfect Christmas either. I've learned that the most important things about Christmas have nothing to do with shopping and can't be found at a mall.

And I've learned that I was waiting for the wrong person that night.

Not that there's anything wrong with Santa Claus, the Church Lady notwithstanding. He has the sleigh, and the elves, and he brings the presents. He has a lot going for him. But, at the risk of a lump of coal in my stocking, I have to state the obvious: it's Christmas, not Santamas.

It's true, of course, that the Bible doesn't mention Christmas, and one way to avoid obscuring Jesus with the commercialism and consumerism of the season is simply to declare Santa the winner and enjoy the Holidays for what they are. Or ignore them altogether. But functionally, abandoning Christmas to the retailers robs Christians of an obvious opportunity to witness to the gospel. At a time when the people of the world come from near and far to worship at the House of the Lord and Taylor, the one thing those of us who believe in Jesus should under no circumstances do is mute our voices and march in lock-step through the check-out lines.

Jesus was born at a crossroads of hope and anticipation. He was born when people were waiting, waiting for they knew not what, and arguing and fighting about their different ideas of what that hope looked like. For some, it was renewed personal piety. For others, a strong Roman emperor. Some looked for a renewed Jewish nation led by a rightful king of the House of David. Some waited in the desert for a coming apocalypse that would purify the people of God and leave the righteous in charge. Different visions, but everyone was waiting.

And it's not so different now. Everyone is still waiting, and now, as then, what they're waiting for is Jesus. Even those who don't know it. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” the song rightly says; but it's the church who knows it best. And that's why Jesus left us with the promise of his return and instructions to “keep watch” and “be ready” in the meantime. Because he's coming to finish the work he began, and because he's left the church with the task of witnessing to his work with our words and actions.

He doesn't call us, though, to sit and watch through the windows. Being ready means being busy doing his business with what he gives us. It has a lot to do with whether or not we notice the conditions in which “the least of these” have to exist and do something to alleviate their suffering. Sometimes in church we give the impression that being ready is all about asking Jesus into your heart, or being baptized, or prayer, or communion, or personal holiness. Jesus seems to assume those things; for him, being watchful has to do with speaking the words he would speak and doing the things he would do in the dark and waiting world around us, in order to clarify just what it is they're waiting for.

I like that the church is figuring this out. Whether it's turning Black Friday into Buy Nothing Day, or Advent Conspiracy's efforts to give Christians an alternative to overspending during the Christmas season, or a hundred other efforts in a hundred places, followers of Jesus are learning what it really means to wait expectantly for his coming.

In this time of waiting, may we remember who we're waiting for. And may our lives be watchful, and may we be witnesses to the gift that God gives in Jesus: “so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.”

Don't go to sleep now.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.