Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Jesus Our Brother, Kind and Good

“Jesus Our Brother, Kind and Good”
Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church
December 25 2011
Dr Gaye Ortiz

Sophia Fahs, in her story about the birth of Jesus in Long Ago and Many Lands, writes about the confused aftermath of the visit of the Magi:
When indoor and alone with their babe, [Mary and Joseph] (the two) could talk again. Did not the strangers know that Joseph was just a poor carpenter? And that Mary was only the daughter of a village farmer? How could their baby ever be a King?

This, then, is the old, old wonder tale about the birth of Jesus. What really happened no one can now know.

We do know, however, that this child of Mary and Joseph never became a King. Nor did he ever wish to be made a King. Jesus was a poor man by choice. When he was grown, he did not even have a home he could call his own. He was a teacher who traveled from town to town, teaching people how to live and what being good and doing right ought to mean.

Most of those who lived in that long-ago time have been forgotten, but Jesus is still remembered.
[Excerpt from Sophia Fahs, “The Birth of Jesus, A Story from Palestine”; from Long Ago and Many Lands]

We all know the power of a newborn – yes, power. That might be a strange term to use for a helpless and vulnerable creature, but a baby just born is a wonder of nature, and that holds a power for many of us. Not only is it a powerful experience, but a magical moment in time when we wish the best for this new child of the universe: what will she grow up to be? Who will he look like? What a tremendous responsibility we, as parents and grandparents, realize is contained within that tiny form.

The UU minister Erik Wikstrom wrote in his blog about St Francis, who we just spoke of in relation to the Christmas crèche. Quoting from a book by Franciscan priest and poet Fr Murray Bodo, he says,

"At Christmas it was the infant Christ who was born again in human hearts, and it struck Francis that God came to earth as a baby so that we would have someone to care for.  Christmas was the dearest of feasts because it meant that God was now one of us.  Flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, this child we could approach without fear.  We could be silly and uninhibited as we sought to make Him laugh.  We could be totally ourselves because a child accepts us just as we are and screams with delight at our little performances on his behalf.

Someone to care for, someone to try and please, someone to love.  God, a helpless babe… We come out of ourselves if we are aware, because we now have responsibilities for God.  Not only the earth to till and creation to subdue, but now God to care for."”

It seems strange to think of God as a baby, but if you are a Christian and believe in the Trinity then it is not so far-fetched to think of the season of Advent as a time of preparing to welcome a baby God into the world. Except that the Puritans, one of the groups from which we trace our Christian heritage – were not terribly fond of the idea of celebrating the birth of the Christ child at this time of year. Did you know that during the time when Puritans ruled the English Parliament, they banned Christmas? It was replaced by a day of fasting, because the Purtians saw it as a pagan festival – and of course, they were correct about its December origins as the feast of Yule – and they called it a ‘popish’ festival that had no biblical basis. If anyone cooked meat for the Christmas feast they ran the risk of their home being raided and the meat confiscated by the Army! Ordinary Christians resented this kind of treatment, to the extent that it provoked riots in Kent. 
In both England and the American colonies the Puritans attempted to ban Christmas: here, celebrating Christmas could result in a fine levied against you. Christmas was still not widely celebrated by the time the Declaration of Independence was written, and in Scotland Christmas was only recognized as a legal holiday in 1967, thanks to the dropping of objections by the Church of Scotland.

But for Unitarian Universalists today – even as we happily sing about Jesus Our Brother, Kind and Good – we may be feeling uncomfortable, not with the pagan origins of the mid-winter celebrations, but with the other Christological baggage that comes along with Christmas. The claim that Jesus was divine; the claim that he was sent to become, as an adult, a sacrifice for our sins; the claim that he is in heaven with God the Father. How do we reconcile the image of the lovely baby Jesus – as the Rev Keith Goheen calls him, “The Christ child, the star child of the Light, [who] calls forth the heart's wisdom through the power of innocence” – with the Savior/Messiah of the Gospels?

Let me begin by saying that Christianity is one of the sources for our Unitarian Universalist faith; and if you were to be transported back a hundred years to sit in a very cold Unitarian church pew, say, in Boston, you might not recognize the Unitarianism as today’s with which you are familiar. For if there is one thing about our faith, as it has developed historically, it has evolved theologically – and our ideas about Jesus are no exception to that shift. What I will attempt to do this morning is to give a series of alternative perspectives on Jesus, not just from Unitarian Universalists, but from Judeo-Christian theology as well.

According to Dr Thomas D Wintle on the website uuchristian.org:
There is a group of UUs known as ‘Classical UU Christians’
who find the dogmatism of rigid orthodoxy to be unacceptable, and pure secularism to be unsatisfying; theirs is a low-keyed Christianity that focuses on the human life and ethical teachings of Jesus. They see doctrines such as the Trinity and the Atonement as unnecessary; the Bible, interpreted with reason and modern scholarship, provides the myths and symbols and stories that enable them to speak of God and to instill moral values.
Believing that theirs is “the religion of Jesus, not the religion about Jesus,” they see the Galilean as a great teacher and the exemplar of a life of love to God and love to humankind. In the words of one layperson: “Jesus is the leader you don’t adore, but can’t ignore.
To be a Christian, they might say, is “to follow Jesus.”

It sounds as if these UU Christians have tried to tiptoe their way through the 2000-year-old minefield of Christology! ‘Following’ Jesus – which Jesus?

In answering that, we need to go back to the Unitarians in the 18th century on both sides of the Atlantic, who were at the forefront of a sea change in how Christianity was viewed. They played a big part in the Radical Reformation, and at this time were grappling with two issues to do with authority: dissent and the established church, and the role that reason plays in revealed religion. The development of liberal religion saw the rejection of the Athanasian creed, which Unitarians rejected because it was not true to Scripture or to reason.

Then the divinity of Jesus became an issue in the early stages of liberal religion. An Irish Presbyterian minister named Thomas Emlyn produced an antitrinitarian argument that separated Jesus from God, based on evidence from Jesus’ own words in the New Testament. Emlyn argued that Jesus could not be God because Jesus appealed to a God other than himself, for example, when on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And when raising the dead, Jesus said he could do nothing on his own. Emlyn was arrested for his blasphemy, but he was the last dissenter to be imprisoned for denying the Trinity – the tide was turning.

The next century saw the Unitarian rejection of Christian doctrine, seen as having deviated over the centuries from that of the original Gospels. Thomas Jefferson – who, although admiring of Unitarians, never became one - wrote in 1822, “Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian.” (David Parke, The Epic of Unitarianism, Skinner 1957, 99) In fact, most of you will know that Jefferson compiled his own Bible, called “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”. It leaves out any mention of the miracles surrounding the birth of Jesus – no angel Gabriel, no virgin birth, no angels or shepherds or Magi (37).

Beacon Press published it as The Jefferson Bible in 1989; in his foreword, Forrest Church wrote that by Jefferson’s reading, it was Jesus’ “unusual life on earth that truly mattered” (viii).
For one famous Unitarian author, the central ideas of 19th century Unitarianism were the basis of his work: “ the belief that Jesus was a human being who exemplified a truly religious life; the rejection of materialism and the rejection of a God of stern judgment; the rejection of dogma; an inclusive rather than an exclusive religion, and an emphasis on doing good works” (Michael Timko, “Ebenezer Scrooge’s Conversion, UU World, Winter 2005, 80).

This Unitarian was, of course, Charles Dickens. Doug Muder, writing in a fable called “Ghosts of Unitarian Christmas” (UU World 2009, 22-5), imagines Dickens as a ghost of Unitarian Christmases Past who visits the central character, a young man named Ben, and tells him,

“When I wrote A Christmas Carol, I wasn’t really recapturing the lost spirit of Christmas. My Christmas wasn’t about the birth of one sect’s savior, it was about the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people. It was about compassion and friendship and family. Universal values.” To which Ben responds, “It was a Unitarian Christmas!”

Dickens wrote his own Life of Jesus, entitled The Life of Our Lord. It was not published while he lived because it was written especially for his children in 1849; it finally was published by his descendants a century later. Dickens concludes this work with a summary which sounds quite like something Muder’s fictional ghost would say:

Remember! - It is christianity TO DO GOOD always - even to those who do evil to us. It is christianity to love our neighbour as ourself, and to do to all men as we would have them Do to us. It is Christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to shew that we love Him by humbly trying to do right in everything. If we do this, and remember the life and lessons of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and try to act up to them, we may confidently hope that God will forgive us our sins and mistakes, and enable us to live and die in Peace.

But there were other ideas at the time about who Jesus was that not only stressed, but praised, his humanity. John White Chadwick, in the 1894 book “Old and New Unitarian Belief”, defends the Jesus who is ‘only’ human, saying that using that term with any inference of contempt or disrespect is to belittle the amazing nature of humanity:

Such is man’s body, such his mind, such his affections, such his conscience, such his sense of infinite and eternal things, that within the scope of his terrestrial and immortal possibility there is room enough for all that Jesus was and did to swing with easy motion, like planets on their heavenly way. Not ‘a mere man,’ but a man, and such a man that, when we have torn veil after veil of mythological illusion and come face to face with him at length, or as nearly as may be, all our minds go out to him in gladsome recognition of his spiritual genius, and all our hearts in loving admiration of his broad humanity, his compassion for the poor and miserable, his demand for inward holiness, as well as outward homage to the moral law. (162)

In the 19th century biblical scholarship became focused on digging into the origins of Gospel accounts of Jesus. It became clear to many scholars that Mark was the earliest Gospel to be written, and that Matthew and Luke were drawing upon a common source that became know as Q (from the German word for source, Quelle). 

There was a trend to strip away all additions to the story of Jesus and to get back to ‘primitive Christianity’. During the 1800s there were a number of Lives of Jesus – most by German authors, leading up to the publication in 1906 of one of the most famous, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, by Albert Schweitzer. In the US this trend influenced a Baptist minister, Walter Rauschenbusch, to publish The Social Principles of Jesus in 1916, which placed Jesus in the context of a social rights advocate who, if here today, would fight for workers and labor unions and even feminists. According to this perspective, the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount served as the primary grounding for Jesus’ teachings.

The historical trend of the twentieth century has, among other things, identified Jesus as a teacher; the focus for the biblical scholars in the 1950s was to find the original sayings of Jesus, and the Quest for the Historical Jesus movement attempted to separate these sayings from the myth built up around Jesus. In addition, redaction criticism became another focus for scholars, who explored how the authors of the Gospels interpreted Jesus through the theology of early Christian communities, such as the Greek and Jewish Christians. In the 1960s and 70s Jesus became for scholars a wandering charismatic who preached and healed, leaving his family and home and relying on support from the rural communities he visited. Liberation theology at that time suggested a picture of Jesus as rebel and liberator. The Jesus Seminar, begun by Robert Funk in 1985, is a series of meetings, with scholars who vote on the historicity of the Gospels after analysis using the latest in New Testament scholarship. The seminar’s conclusions point to Jesus being a ‘peasant sage’ who verifiably spoke only “90 out of the 1500-odd statements attributed to him by early Christian texts” (Charlotte Allen, The Human Christ, Lion, 1998, 276). The most well-known Jesus Seminar scholar, John Dominic Crossan, sees Jesus as an advocate of egalitarian, anti-patriarchal society, who breaks bread with social outcasts (279).

Then we have the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the mid-20th century, which are providing a new line of scholarship, re-situating Jesus within a Jewish context and helping to correct anti-Semitism in some Christian teachings. Jesus from this perspective follows the pattern of Hebrew prophecy, in that he taught much that fits into a Jewish ethical framework but at the same time, his appeal to divine authority is in tension with some Jewish laws and even to some extent, the Torah.

So which Jesus is laying in the manger for you? Did you ever think that it would be so complicated to consider the nature of this tiny child born in humble circumstances? Maybe the Jesus that Unitarian Universalists most identify with is none of the above…and instead, is very much like what most of us imagine each of us is, a non-conformist. Although as a congregation we are walking together in a common covenant, the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson on our movement has made us UUs very proud to be individualistic, mold-breakers, not likely to follow along in any movement where we are herded like sheep. One of our most ardent social activist ministers from the 1950s, the Rev A. Powell Davies, wrote about the credo of the nonconformist – which sounds like a contradiction in terms!
He argued that Jesus very plainly demonstrated that

“he was a non-conformist--as he was bound to be, since he was a spiritual and ethical genius. He attacked prevailing views. He stated his own views clearly and emphatically. And the people who heard him recognized that they were hearing voices out of their own minds and memories. When he said that we should love and not hate, he said something that his hearers already recognized as a thought which they themselves had almost entertained. So with most else that he said. When he spoke, he was reinforced by insights that his hearers had rejected.

Religion has always been in need of non-conformists. And never more than now. The old ways are not meeting the new needs, and they cannot meet them. There must be fresh thinking, adventurous and yet deeply realistic thinking--which is only possible if the old patterns are challenged and the weary, unsufficing creeds of yesterday discarded. Yet, the non-conformist is greatly feared and misunderstood.” [http://www.dmuuc.org/Davies/CredoNonconformist.html#ixzz1hKMiN5MA]

Davies wrote these words in April of 1954, and in November of that same year another activist minister took up the theme of Jesus as non-conformist: Martin Luther King Jr used Romans 12 verse 2 as his proof text:

“And be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind
[Martin Luther King, Jr, “Transformed Nonconformist” Nov 1954 http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol6/Nov1954TransformedNonconformist.pdf]

This sermon came shortly after King was installed as pastor in his Montgomery church:

The spiritual strength and moral courage of Jesus amid the temptation in the wilderness is our eternal challenge. Jesus was born at a time when the majority of people thought of the Kingdom as a political kingdom and thought of the Messiah as the one who would restore this political kingdom with all of his power and pomp and riches. And all of the temptations that Satan offered Christ were temptations to fall in line with this type of material political kingdom. In other words he was urging Christ to conform to wishes of the mob. But in the midst of such a plea we can hear Christ saying in no uncertain terms “Get thee behind me Satan.”  As if to say, “I will not bow, for I have orders from an authority not of this world to build a new kind of kingdom, a kingdom that will one day rock the world, a kingdom that will shake the hinges from the gates of the Roman Empire. It will not be a kingdom political in structure and materialistic in outlook, it will be a kingdom of the spirit.

I realize that at this time this type of kingdom does not conform to the majority opinion. But I will not bow.
Who will take the attitude of Jesus and be a sincere nonconformist? Today we stand on the brink of moral and physical destruction and the great need of the hour is sincere nonconformists. Men who will stand amid a world of materialism and treat all men as brothers, men who will stand up in a world that attempts to solve its problems by war and declare that he who lives by the sword will die by the sword.

So Dr King encourages us all to be non-conformists like Jesus. Forrest Church wrote in A Chosen Faith (Beacon, 1998, 7) that “the important thing about Jesus is not his supposed miraculous birth or the claim he was resurrected from death, but rather how he lived. The power of his love, the penetrating simplicity of his teachings, and the force of his example of service on behalf of the disenfranchised and downtrodden is what is crucial. The Apostles’ Creed and other such statements of dogmatic theology entirely miss this point. They seem to suggest “if you believe in Jesus, you can live forever”, not “if you believe as Jesus, you can live well.”

We know that Jesus paid for his non-conformity with his life…so did Dr King, and so do people still all across this planet who are searching for freedom and justice. If this is the Jesus we find in the crib, a Jesus who speaks out for truth, for peace, for justice, for love, then we welcome him gladly this Christmas morning.
May it be so, Blessed Be, Amen.

Nativity http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/62/Geertgen_tot_Sint_Jans_002.jpg/180px-Geertgen_tot_Sint_Jans_002.jpg
Thomas Jefferson

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Unplug the Christmas machine!

“Unplug the Christmas Machine!”
Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church
Sunday December 4, 2011
Dr Gaye Ortiz

Warning! There are a lot of people – mainly conservative Christians – intent on ‘taking back’ Christmas. The assault on the phrase ‘happy holidays’ has been one part of this campaign – remember how we’re told that Merry Christmas is the correct greeting. Another part that began a couple of years ago was when one holiday décor company began advertising the CHRISTmas tree – an artificial Christmas tree with a giant cross where the trunk should be.

Now some of us may know that the cross did not become the dominant symbol of Christianity until about the 9th century – so the CHRISTmas tree is an interesting mix: the Christmas tree is a nice, happy symbol of decorating and gift giving – the ultimate gift of a baby being born and the star of Bethlehem and angels singing. The cross is a grim reminder of that baby’s eventual end as a betrayed prophet.

What is it that rings your bell about Christmas? Is it a bell of joy or of alarm? Do you feel an increasing dread about this time of year because you realize the enormity of gearing up for a pre-Christmas marathon of shopping, cooking, cleaning, decorating?

Figure 1. Unplug the Christmas Machine http://www.harpercollins.com/harperimages/isbn/medium/5/9780688109615.jpg 

Well this morning’s sermon is inspired by a book called ‘Unplug the Christmas Machine’, written by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli back in 1982 and revised in 1991. If anything, the power of the Christmas machine has increased since then; there are more commercial messages that appear “as promises that bring tears to our eyes” (10).

But back to the reminders that Jesus is the reason for the season: look at the history of Christmas, and you might come to another conclusion! If we go back to 336 A.D. we see that December 25th to the Romans was a festival day. The end of year celebrations that honored Mithras as the God of Light, and Saturn as the harvest god, were echoed by other harvest season festivals across Europe. Europeans made special foods, decorated their homes, gave gifts, sang and danced…and continued to do so as Christians! So the reign of Constantine, who dedicated the Roman Empire to Christ, legitimized the festivities but gave them another focus, so that by 1100 A.D. Christmas was the most important religious festival in Europe. Add to that the feast of St Nicholas, who distributed gifts to children, and the month of December was a whirlwind of Advent celebration. (Taking IT Global, www.tigweb.org/youth-media/panorama/article.html?ContentID=6722&print=true)

In the early 20th century Christmas shopping became increasingly important when companies began the manufacture of Christmas ornaments, lights and Christmas cards, and correspondingly stores and shops began to hire extra employees during the season to handle the increased sales. This year’s holiday spending is estimated to rise slightly from last year by about 3%, according to a Gallup survey of November spending – each of us expects to spend $764 for gifts (www.advisorperspectives.com/dshort/commentaries/Gallup-Holiday-Spending-Survey-111116.php ).

And now we’re to the point – as you might have seen reported this week – that it would cost us over 101 thousand dollars to buy everything mentioned in the song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’! The price hike from last year’s cost of $97 thousand is mainly due to the sky-high cost of the partridges and the turtle doves, both of which have seen double-digit price hikes in the past year.
There is a serious point to this – a fraction of the money Americans spend in stores just in the month of December would supply the entire world with clean water. This figure comes from Rick McKinley, a pastor from Oregon, who is one of the leaders of the Advent Conspiracy, a movement that has 1500 member churches and organizations, as well as over 45,000 fans on Facebook. The Advent Conspiracy offers an alternative to how Christians spend their Christmas shopping money – they are urged to spend, but by giving donations to organizations such as Living Water International, which digs wells in developing countries.

Now UUs might see themselves in a bit of a quandary here: we might agree that consumerism is the American Mammon and therefore a Bad Thing; but do we want to align ourselves with conservative Christians who cast ‘secular consumerism’ as the enemy? The Rev David Bumbaugh writes:
“…the commercialism of the season and the secular quality of the season are equally ancient. The Saturnalia was an aggressively secular celebration in which all the ordinary rules and expectations of society were overturned, in which traditional pieties were mocked and traditional virtues flouted. The Kalends Festival was dominated by conspicuous consumption. [] Libanius, a non-Christian philosopher of the fourth century, [] details the extravagance with which the rich and the poor alike strove to celebrate the occasion. And as early as the fourth century, Christians were denouncing the Kalends festival for its commercialism and its lack of a concern for spiritual values. Thus, our discomfort with this ancient seasonal festival is older than Christmas itself, and elements which provoke that discomfort have not changed much over the centuries.” (www.trumbore.org/sam/sermons/sac1.htm )

Well if we are really uncomfortable, we might cast our lot not with the conservative Christians but with the social activists who came up with “Buy Nothing Day,” which this year was November 25/26 – Black Friday and Saturday. The first “Buy Nothing Day” came in 1992 in Vancouver Canada, created by the anticonsumerist magazine Adbusters, to help people reflect upon the issue of over-consumption. Last summer, the longtime editor of Adbusters, Kalle Lasn, felt that the Arab spring uprising and the convulsions felt by some of the world economies might herald an opportunity to tap into the frustration simmering in the circles of the American political left.
So building on the smaller “Buy Nothing Day” campaign, he decided to create and brand a larger campaign. On July 13, he and his colleagues created a new hash tag on Twitter: #OCCUPYWALLSTREET.

Figure 3http://robj98168.blogspot.com/2011/11/buy-nothing-day.html

Since the “Buy Nothing” campaign began in 1992, people in more than 65 nations have participated each Black Friday with public protest, engaging in activities like:

  • A credit card cut up: people stand in a shopping center or mall with a pair of scissors and a poster inviting shoppers to put an end to their mounting debt with just one snip. OR…
  • A Zombie walk: zombies wander around the mall with a blank stare and in this reflect the faces of the shoppers, their fellow zombies – when they are asked what they are doing they explain Buy Nothing Day. OR…
  • The whirl-mart, where participants push their shopping carts around in a silent conga line without putting anything in the carts.
But the biggest Buy Nothing Day activities have a philanthropic flavor: the winter coat exchanges that occur in several states have locations where coats are collected and anyone who needs a coat is welcome to take one. (Wikipedia)

So there is a growing movement from different corners in our country to get away from the over-consumption that seems to plague Christmas, but are we fighting against something that – to be honest - we consider to be as American as apple pie? To quote Dave Barry, “Once again, we come to the Holiday Season, a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice” (http://thinkexist.com/quotation/once_again-we_come_to_the_holiday_season-a_deeply/202544.html).  Or is chronic shopping a gender thing, genetic in women? To quote Elayne Boosler: “When women are depressed, they eat or go shopping.  Men invade another country.  It's a whole different way of thinking.” (http://thinkexist.com/quotation/when_women_are_depressed-they_eat_or_go_shopping/205590.html)

Or should we consider over-consumption to be accepted as just human nature? To quote Rebecca Parker, ‘Economically, the dominant worldview regards human beings as self-interested individuals, motivated only by their personal desire to consume” (Blessing the World, 147).

Recent research into Christmas shopping has uncovered an affinity that some shoppers have with fairy tales. They “seriously enjoy Christmas gift shopping” because they see the activity as a consumer fairy tale “in which consumers employ magical agents, donors and helpers to overcome villains and obstacles as they seek out goods and services in their quest for happy endings”. ‘Triumph over hardship’ is a major theme of fairy tales, and so the challenge of having the perfect Christmas involves some of the same types of struggles and sacrifices as can be seen in Jack and the Beanstalk or Hansel and Gretel (http://news.illinois.edu/news/03/1211xmas.html).

Researchers from the University of Illinois and the University of Texas tracked four women for 7 years as they did their Christmas shopping, and then interviewed them about their “Christmas lives”. They found that the women were not content to have a ‘tolerable’ Christmas, but instead tried to outdo themselves each year, to create a more memorable Christmas than the previous year – a ‘fairy tale Christmas’. This term to them meant a Christmas in which they seek ‘happy endings for their celebrations, like those fairy tales that end with a joyous family reunion, the acquisition of precious goods, or recognition for creativity and cleverness’ (http://news.illinois.edu/news/03/1211xmas.html).    Using the terminology of fairy tales, these shoppers, who could be cast as ‘heroines’ in their shopping experiences, had ‘helpers’ like Santa, (typically their mothers). And sometimes the ‘villains’, who interfered in different ways with the heroines’ ‘quest’ for harmonious family celebrations, were their fathers.

The key to this study seems to be what makes these shoppers happy: Ezra Klein, writing in The Prospect about Christmas consumerism, says that when he reflects at Thanksgiving on what he is thankful for, “no matter how much cool stuff I purchase…all I remember…are people” (www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=winning_the_rat_race_by_quitting_it). He goes on to quote an economist at the London School of Economics, Richard Layard, who is a professor in the emerging field of ‘happiness studies’ and is the author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (Penguin, 2005). Professor Layard says, “Family, colleagues, community – we are basically social animals, and most of our enjoyment comes from other people”.

This desire to be happy, funnily enough, is what drives us to want the holidays to be wonderful – because we love our family and friends so much. And this drive is manifested in an unstoppable force in our culture, what Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli call ‘the Christmas Machine.’ According to their book Unplug the Christmas Machine:

The Christmas Machine has this power over us because it knows how to woo us; it speaks to the deepest, profoundest, and most sacred desires of the human heart. If it appeared as a monster, we would rise up and stop it. But the commercial messages of Christmas appear as promises that bring tears to our eyes.
Look at the bounty we are promised by the December magazines and the glowing Christmas commercials: Our families will be together and happy...Our children will be well-behaved and grateful...Our wives will be beautiful and nurturing...Our husbands will be kind, generous, and appreciative...We will have enough money...We will have enough time...We will have fun...We will be warm...We will be safe...We will be truly loved.
No wonder we stop, we listen, and we want to believe. The problem comes when we buy into the notion that what we long for can be procured by the buying and selling of goods...[we believe] that if we buy and receive more Christmas presents our inner lives will be fuller, and we will finally be safe in the world... (10-11)

The vulnerability that we carry within us is exploited by the Christmas machine, and we can’t help wanting to please our loved ones, especially in these types of scenarios:

The working mother who lives day in and day out with the nagging feeling that she should be doing more for her children is an easy target. When she sees an ad that tells her she can ensure her daughter’s happy memories by buying a hundred-dollar doll, she is extraordinarily open to the suggestion.
The husband whose self-esteem is fragile because he’s just been passed over for a promotion may find himself going into debt to buy diamond earrings for his wife as a testimony to his ability to provide. (Preface)

Unplug the Christmas Machine suggests that there is an elaborate, unspoken code that governs our gift giving during the holiday season. Listening to these ten hidden rules of gift-giving may be instructive and sound familiar to a lot of us:

The Ten Hidden Gift-giving Rules:
1 Give a gift to everyone you expect to get one from
2 If someone gives you a gift unexpectedly, reciprocate that year
3 When you add a name to your gift list, give that person a gift every year thereafter
4 The amount of money you spend on a gift determines how much you care about the recipient
5 Gifts exchanged between adults should be roughly equal in value
6 The presents you give to someone should be fairly consistent in value over the years
7 If you give a gift to a person in one category (e.g. a co-worker or neighbor), give a gift to everyone in that category, and these gifts should be similar in value
8 Women should give gifts to their close women friends
9 Men should not give gifts to their male friends – unless those gifts are alcoholic beverages
10 Whenever the above rules cause you any difficulty, remedy the situation by buying more gifts (92)

Some of these seem to be tongue-in-cheek, but most of us recognize how these rules can complicate our lives. It can make for an awkward social situation if we don’t play by these rules!

Figure 4http://simplyxmas.files.wordpress.com/2008/12/victorian_christmas.jpg

When we begin to examine what motivates us in our efforts to create the fairy tale Christmas, we can quickly see that unplugging our Christmas machine needs, as Baldrick, in the British comedy Blackadder, says, ‘a cunning plan’. The key to unplugging the machine is knowing what you REALLY want, according to Robinson and Staeheli. Do we want to change some of the ways we celebrate Christmas and, in particular, some of the ways we are driven to behave when buying gifts?

Unplug the Christmas Machine suggests that we take four steps toward making any change to our upcoming Christmas celebration. First, we realize that any plan we make will not be our only instrument of change; we shouldn’t feel that it is set in stone, because there may be other changes that are spontaneous, and any moment-by-moment decisions may well add to your enjoyment of the celebration.

Second, set small and specific goals. We can’t change everything at once and people need time to adjust to new ideas. Our traditions and rituals are important, and they play a special role in our lives, which are subject these days to a great deal of change and uncertainty; most people don’t want to completely transform the way they celebrate Christmas; they may only want to clear away a few things that have lost their meaning or look at how they can add more depth and meaning to established rituals (132).

 Third, planning takes time, and if you start in mid-summer you can plan some fairly detailed changes and talk to all family members about them. If however you start on the 4th of December, you need to keep your focus on changes that can be put into action at the last minute, like adding a family walk the day after Christmas to help everyone wind down from the excitement of Christmas Day.

Fourth, you’ll have a good chance of success if you either focus on a goal that you can accomplish independently, or on one that has the likely support of everyone. Robinson and Staeheli give this example: …if you are bothered by a relative’s excessive drinking you will probably be frustrated if you define your goal this way: “I would like to encourage my father to drink less this Christmas”. A more realistic goal statement is: “I would like to add activities to our celebration that would take the emphasis off drinking”. This second goal would be more achievable for you to accomplish even without your father’s cooperation. (132) Your goals need to be realistic, have support from those people who are involved, and you should still be able to enjoy all those parts of your Christmas celebration that still have strong emotional appeal to you and others (133).

So how do you phrase your goals? Well, when Unplug the Christmas Machine  has been used as a tool for workshops, people have come up with statements like:

I want to minimize Christmas preparations
I want to feel more relaxed this holiday season
I want to simplify my gift giving
I want to spend more relaxed time with my children this Christmas
I want to give less commercial gifts

How are you going to reach goals like these? Look at your goals and think of one or two activities that will help you achieve them: what are you going to do and when should it be done? For example, if you want to simplify gift-giving, then you might contact the other family members who are usually present for gift-giving in plenty of time for changing the pattern, asking them to agree to only give gifts to the children at the upcoming Christmas celebration.
If you want to spend more relaxed time with your children – big or small – think of activities you and others have enjoyed in past holiday seasons: card playing, game playing, singing, reading aloud to each other, attending concerts, winter sports, telling stories about the family, cooking together, going for walks. Which of these would you like to do this year? Many of us realize that we often neglect many of our favorite activities at Christmas. Adding just one enjoyable tradition is sometimes all it takes to have a more rewarding celebration (96).

So maybe if we are interested in making our celebrations in the holiday season even more meaningful – or if we want to unplug the Christmas machine – then what better place to start than with the Christmas pledge? Unplug the Christmas Machine offers us this pledge:

The Christmas Pledge
Believing in the true spirit of Christmas,
I commit myself to
Remember those people who truly need my gifts
Express my love in more direct ways than gifts
Examine my holiday activities in the light of my deepest values
Be a peacemaker within my circle of family and friends
Rededicate myself to my spiritual growth. (13)

Figure 5http://www.dearskysteward.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Man-pledge.jpg

The Christmas Pledge asks us to commit ourselves to remembering those who are in real need of gifts; the efforts of the Advent Conspiracy, which I mentioned earlier, aim to do just this, asking people to spend their money on water projects in developing countries.

The pledge asks us to commit ourselves to express our love in more direct ways than gifts – the Beatles sure had it right when they sang, ‘Money can’t buy me love’!

The pledge asks us to commit ourselves to examine our holiday activities in the light of our deepest values: we can begin to do this when we come up with a plan to make our celebrations more meaningful to ourselves and to those we love.

The pledge asks us to be peacemakers among our family and friends – we can begin to do this when we disregard the often problematic social code of gift-giving; we can spare ourselves and others distress, embarrassment, resentment and conflict.

And the pledge asks us to rededicate ourselves to spiritual growth: whatever your faith perspective leads you to feel about Christmas, it can be seen as a time of new birth – as Sophia Lyons Fahs writes: ‘…each night a child is born is a holy night, a time for singing, a time for wondering, a time for worshipping’ (“For So the Children Come,” http://www.seafarerpress.com/works/for_so_the_children_come.html

The holiday season is also a time in many faith traditions of light in the midst of darkness – as with Hanukah and Solstice, and we have a ‘Blue Christmas’ service coming up on the 19th that will explore that theme further.

In closing, the Christmas pledge asks us to believe in the true spirit of Christmas – and as we sing in the Advent hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” this will be with us when love, truth, light and hope come to dwell. These are the gifts of Christmas that matter most, and in the words of Richard S Gilbert: “Gifts that matter have no weight” (Rejoice Together, 81).

Blessed be, Amen, May it be so.