Monday, December 24, 2012

Holiday Values Part 5

"Well, brother Matt, you sure have put a wrinkle in my stocking with all these Christmas posts-- extolling the Grinch and leaving poor plastic Nativity camels to fend for themselves and the like-- but you've been a little evasive on what you really think about the whole season. . ."

True enough, I've held back some cards for here on Christmas eve when visions of sugar plums are dancing through your head. . .

Wait. What's a sugar plum and when's the last time anyone's had one?

I have visions of many delicious holiday foods and on occasion have made them get down a bit in my head, but sugar plums have never made the soul train of my mind's appetite. . .

It's funny how many things surrounding Christmas time are slightly odd. . .

We cut down trees and put them in our homes and put lights on them. Or we get a plastic tree out of our garage and assemble it. . .

We hang over-sized socks from our mantels. And use the myth of an obese man in pimp clothes invading our homes as a deterrent to naughty behavior. . .

And how about those weird Christmas lyrics?

When's the last time you roasted chestnuts? Or brought corn over to someone's house "for popping"?
Have you ever staged a protest at a holiday party. . .that you weren't going to leave until you got some figgy pudding? And everyone pretends their Snowman is Frosty. . .I don't know who this upstart Parson Brown is. . .

I'd love to deck your hall but I'm all out of holly. I dropped it and ran when I say saw eight maids a milkin' and ten lords a leapin'. It was a bit disconcerting.

Many of our traditions and songs come from a different era with different cultural icons attached to the Christmas holiday. . .(back to this in a moment)

Much of the talk I hear during this season is about making sure we remember the true meaning of Christmas. . .and by the way it is said, it indicates that anything that isn't about baby Jesus in a manger is not the true meaning of Christmas. . .the "everything else" of Christmas is "in the way".

What if the other stuff doesn't have to be "in the way"? What if the figgy pudding, wrapping paper, and awkwardly placed mistletoe can be a part of the "true meaning" of Christmas?

Some words from the esteemed Englishman Clive Staples Lewis:
There is a stage in a child's life at which it cannot separate the religious from the merely festal character of Christmas or Easter. I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began 'Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen.' This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety. But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity. He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and festal aspect of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer seem sacramental. And once he has distinguished he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat. They will have taken on an independent, and therefore a soon withering, life.

Lewis makes the case we can find the spiritual in the festal, if we put the spiritual first. . .but if we do not put it first: everything takes on a withering (and I would say cynical and hopeless) life. . .

When we live under the gracious and loving rule of Jesus as Lord, we are living IN the Kingdom of God. . .and as we do that, we can, if we allow ourselves to respond this way, find the beauty and goodness in things and persons all around us.

We can delight in well-wrapped gifts and perfectly baked snickerdoodles and the squealing laughter of children when they unwrap the gift you said was too expensive or not worth it. . .

When we live in response to the Spirit's rule in our lives we begin to get our Garden of Eden eyes back. . .and as we do, we can see the wonderful and worshipful all around us in this Creation in which we have been placed. . .

So back to our earlier thoughts on Christmas traditions: What do they mean to you?

Are gifts acts of love? Or signs that we all have bowed down to the capitalist greed machine?

But, but, Matt did you know one time a tree symbolized this and that?

Does it now? My tree reminds me of all that is good in this season and all the nostalgic delight of what I experienced as a child.

People used to say "God bless you!" after you sneezed because they thought a demon had been expelled from the body! But it's not what it means now right?

Left-handed people were considered Devil's spawn at one point. . .but not so now.

We change meanings all the time by our motives and by the values we personally attach to things. And Christ the infant King is The Meaning Changer and the Value Bringer, The Gift Giver and the Grand Celebrator.

I don't even know what figgy pudding is but I have my own "figgy puddings" in which I can delight, and be like the small boy shaking those chocolate eggs. . .because I follow Christ and His ways. . .

Christians, we are the Feast-ers! The Extravagant lovers! The ones who can always find Jubilee in defiance of the darkness. The ones who can find Christ in the chocolate. Delight in the meaning of Christmas among you, because Immanuel has come. . .and His coming that first Christmas signaled the inauguration of a Kingdom that will culminate in an eternal Wedding feast!

So drink up the egg nog to the glory of God! Wear that tacky sweater for the Kingdom! Carve up the roast beast! And sing whatever songs bring you joy. . .even if their original meanings escape you! In doing so, you echo the true meaning of Christmas and are the harbingers of the Kingdom to come.

And if the esteemed Englishman CS Lewis is not your cup of earl grey tea, or my blog today did not make you don your gay apparel. . . perhaps the esteemed Englishman Mr. Bean will grant you some Christmas insight. . .

Grace and Peace to you.

Matt O.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Holiday Values Part 4

The Parable of the Missing Butter

I had been working on my chocolate chip cookie recipe through many batches and manifestations and finally felt I had arrived at the perfect cookie, the right ingredients in proper amounts, an oven heated to an exact temperature, and a timed amount of baking on a certain pan of specific thickness.

I had been baking all morning--for company was coming in the evening, the kind of company who knows their cookies. . .so I double checked each step, meticulously hovering over ever dollop of dough placed and every spatula swipe of cooled but still warm confections.

I was removing the final pan from the oven when my wife burst into the kitchen--she was agitated with some news of great import, I could tell, yet when she saw me amongst my sea of perfect cookies, she paused---

"What is it?" said I.

"Oh dearest," said she, "The cookies! Have you tried them?"

"I was waiting on you my darling!" said I, "You ask as if something is amiss!"

"It is! THEY have struck again, my charming chef! THEY have passed a law that no baked cookies may have butter in them!"

"Nooooo! How could THEY!?"

We both dashed to the counter of cooling cookies and each grabbed a scrumptious disc of culinary perfection, placed them in our mouths, and. . .and. . .

NO BUTTER!!! NOOOOOooooooo!!

How could THEY?? I remember clearly placing the sticks of softened butter into the bowl, it should be impossible for them to remove the butter once it's in the dough. . .how could THEY do that??

The answer is. . .THEY can't. If the butter is really in the cookie dough, then there is no way THEY can take the butter out of the batch.

"THEY" can't take the "Christ" out of Christmas either. . .anymore than "THEY" can take the butter out of cookie dough made in your kitchen. . .or take "prayer" out of schools.


Yep. If the prayer is really in your kids, then prayer will be in their schools. If you put the butter in, it'll be there no matter what. . .

But I have a little secret for you: I do know who can take "Christ" out of Christmas. . .

THE DEVIL!!!!!!!

Ha, nope.


That's right. . .you can take the Christ out of Christmas.

When we complain and whine through the season. . .
When we attack "THEM" for doing exactly what someone would do who doesn't know Christ. . .
When we are selfish, greedy, materialistic, impatient, unforgiving (with our relatives?), uncaring, argumentative, and smugly arrogant.

We can take the Christ out of Christmas.

Not THEM, not Hollywood, not Wall Street, not Liberal Media, and not even Wal-Mart. . .
We are the ones who can take the butter out of the cookies, because we're the ones in the kitchen.

So Matt, you're not bothered about the phrase Happy Holidays or Nativity Scenes disappearing?

Nope. Not one bit.

If the Nativity isn't in your heart, then cheap plastic light-up poorly made in China manger scenes (and biblically inaccurate I might add) aren't going to do anything to "win the community for Christ".

In fact:
Our job isn't to legislate into existence a Christian society, our calling is to demonstrate a Christ is the King community.

And I'm about to go all Grinch on you again (yes, in back-to-back posts!):
The Grinch did a whole lot more than change the name of Christmas--he took it all: trees, gifts, lights, roast beast and even the last ever-loving crumb from the last little mouse. And he didn't stop Christmas at all. . .not at all!!

You know how you stop "THEY" and "THEM"? You show THEM what a Christ-filled Christmas really is. . .even if they take the Baby Jesus ornaments off the tree in your own living room. . .you show them what Christ does:
He didn't whine when He was on the cross, when He was afflicted, mocked, ridiculed, naked and beaten. . .He said "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. . ."

How did "THEY" handle that? THEY didn't. . .and THEY still can't. . .

And when the Whos down in Whoville didn't blink at what THEY had done to Christmas but decided to have them some Christmas anyways. . .what happened to THEY's heart? It burst out of its shriveled condition and grew three sizes that day. . .

So, enough says I. . .

Come on Whos, rise up and have a Christ-filled Christmas no matter what THEY do and let's make some hearts blow out some rib-cages. . .

Our cookies are good. Period.

Matt O.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Holiday Values Part 3

I went through a pretty severe disillusionment with the Christmas season, mocking traditions, cynically declaring everyone to be consumerist drones, and pointing out to anyone who listened how Santa was eerily close in spelling to Satan, a coincidence I thought was intentional.

I had become Mr. Grinch, and although I felt my "spiritual" reasons allowed me to be a stink-stank-stunk kind of guy--I began to realize something was wrong in my heart. . .

"You're a rotter, Mr. Grinch!
You're the king of sinful sots!
Your heart's a dead tomato,
Splotched with moldy, purple spots,
Mr. Grinch!
Your soul is an apalling dump-heap,
Overflowing with the most disgraceful
assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable,
Mangled-up in tangled-up knots!"

 That's not my favorite verse in the song but the one which accurately describes the negative knot of anger and judgment I'd been brewing for several years. . .to bring in another Christmas icon, I was Ebenezer Scrooge and my "Bah! Humbug!" was potent and freely given. . .

"But Matt, I'm with you, everyone's spending all this money and making Christmas about stuff! It's horrible!"

But don't we say Christmas is about the best gift of all? And that's why we give gifts?
So, how do we acquire gifts?

"Well, ideally, we'd make something."

But friend, not everyone can make something. . .and even those who do-- pay for the materials they use to make said products. The amount of people making gifts for others using only raw materials they produced from their own land is a small percent of a percent.

To give gifts to those you love requires, for the vast majority of us, buying something.

Is it wrong to buy gifts for others? I do not think so. In fact, I don't think it's wrong to buy extravagant gifts sometimes. . .perhaps you remember this story from the life of Jesus. . .

Jesus was at Bethany, a guest of Simon the Leper. While he was eating dinner, a woman came up carrying a bottle of very expensive perfume. Opening the bottle, she poured it on his head. Some of the guests became furious among themselves. "That's criminal! A sheer waste! This perfume could have been sold for well over a year's wages and handed out to the poor." They swelled up in anger, nearly bursting with indignation over her. But Jesus said, "Let her alone. Why are you giving her a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives. Whenever you feel like it, you can do something for them. Not so with me. (Mark 14, the Message)

A gift given. . .
seemingly wasted. . .
so expensive it cost a year's wages. . .
the poor neglected. . .
. . .and Jesus blesses the giving of the gift. In the Luke recounting of the story, Jesus conveys she gave this gift out of gratitude and affection.

And on top of it all. . .it was perfume!! Perfume? A bottle of perfume worth my yearly salary? Are you kidding me? It's hard for me to think a plastic toy which costs $50 (outrageous!) is more wasteful than smelly liquid so expensive it could support my family for a year. . .

"Why are you baking those cookies?! You could use those hours serving in a soup kitchen! In fact, why are you even sleeping! You could be knitting socks for orphans in Africa right now!"

We can easily spiral out of control and become incredibly unhealthy when asking questions about gifts and Christmas and time. . .

The important question is: am I giving gifts in love this Christmas?
Sometimes love is sacrificial and extravagant and ridiculous. . .and those kinds of gifts are the best.

I'm not being the Anti-Dave Ramsey here and telling you to go into debt and buy your spouse the surprise Lexus (heck, most of us would go into debt just buying the red bow on that Lexus) nor am I being Mr. Support Sweat Factories By Buying Foreign Toys. . .don't hear me with your Grinch ears. . .
Jesus says our Heavenly Father know how to give us good gifts, but He says it right after He affirms that we know how to give good gifts to our children. . .I don't know if you've seen His endorsement for loving and blessing your kids there in that passage but I do. . .

God wasn't satisfied to just give us laws from Sinai or to just wipe our slates clean of our eternal debts. . .John says he lavished us with love and called us His children. Lavish. I like to say He smothered and covered us with His love. . .and here's another thought: as He bankrupted heaven for our adoption--there's millions of people who reject the gift and choose instead to play with the wrapping paper and cardboard boxes of this world. . .and He knew that would happen but He gave anyways. . .and He is still giving today. . .was God wasteful?

"But, but, Matt! You're being awful gracious--there's tons of greed, gluttony, selfishness, ignorance, and jealousy at Christmas that must be addressed!"

Ah, friend, those things aren't just present at Christmas, those are year round commodities, we Grinches just like to shine a light on it once a year. . .if we were really concerned about their pervasive presence we'd stand against them consistently and not just vocally during the Happy Holidays. . .

"Wait, you said Happy Holidays, are you one of them?!?"

Maybe. . .but you'll have to wait for Holiday Values Part 4 to find out. . .muhahahahaha.

Matt O.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Holiday Values Part 2

(Disclaimer: I'm about to write about family memories of Christmas gifts for kids. This blog is not an endorsement or value statement about how many gifts we should buy, how much money we should spend, materialism, etc. I will try to address the "consumerism of Christmas" a bit next week with Holiday Values Part 3. . .and now, on to our regularly scheduled blog. . .)

My parents did a great job balancing out the gifts between their three children every Christmas. If you had brothers or sisters, you know what "balancing out the gifts" means. . .

It means after the seven minutes it takes for child hands to shred open all those meticulously wrapped gifts and everyone is surrounded by Christmas morning shrapnel that when each child looks at their plunder and compares it to the plunder received by their siblings they think one of two things to themselves:
"I feel OK with the distribution of wealth in this place" OR
"I made out like a bandit. I'm clearly the winner this morning."

If parents can get each of their kids to think the kid version of one of those two statements then the gifts were officially balanced.

It is an art form and one my mom was brilliant at, because it's not just about the volume of gifts, it's about knowing how each kid ticks and what they really want. Mom would make sure we each got a "big gift"or a "cornerstone gift" as I like to think about it, and then filled in the rest of the haul with a deft combination of toys we wanted (GI Joe and Star Wars figures) and some stuff we needed (underwear and socks). The trick too was that if Mom knew she wasn't going to get you everything on the list to get the items that would joyously counteract and dismiss any temporal disappointment you may have at not getting the previously desired item. . .

I remember the only time when I did have a little discontentment, albeit very briefly.

My brother and I were already merging our menagerie of figures and vehicles into one grand storyline--the GI Joe jeep full of brand new characters driving up to the Ewok Village--and were busy determining who who would be the "good guys" and who would be the "bad guys" in today's exciting episode when I glance over at my little sister's treasure trove. . .

It was the year she got the Play Kitchen, you know the walk-in play kitchen with the oven that opened, cupboards filled with dishes and a vast supply of plastic groceries? My eyes went from her kitchen to our battlefield and I began to run some brief plastic to plastic comparisons and ratios and quickly realized how much more gift volume-wise she had received.

Here my brother and I were playing with a little world and there she was playing in a world. I almost got up and went over and asked if I could put the pretend muffin tray in the oven but then I remembered Han Solo and Road Block needed to put the hurting on The Emperor and Destro and my momentary pang of plastic envy receded. . .(the names in orange are links and are worth a click)

Unfortunately for many of us, we never get over the Plastic Walk-In Kitchen Envy I felt there for a few moments. . .we spend many days locked in mental bitterness that our plastic-to-plastic ratio is not fair or not what we wanted. During the Christmas season, it can be easy for our jealous eyes to lock onto the "perfect scenarios" that others have. . .from their income, to their families, to their traditions, to their seemingly drama free lives. . .

How do we combat this mentality?

I offer two brief thoughts:
1. Remember your Heavenly Father is way better than my mom at giving us what we need (and sometimes what we want!) and allowing us to know His goodness through His gifts. Gifts not made of temporary plastic but of more rich substance, the eternal elements of love, joy, peace, and hope.

2. After we three Orth children opened and played with our gifts for a while, we would pile up in the car and go to Grandma and Pappy Orth's house (of The Grandma Loop fame). The cool part was we could take our favorite toys with us and play with them there! So the gripping saga my brother and I had devised could go with us in the car. . .but guess what couldn't go with us? A big old honkin' plastic kitchen! When you look at others who "have it all" remember there is always more to their situation than meets the eye. . .more issues involved than just the illusion you see of the perfect life.

I'll leave you with Eugene Peterson's translation of Paul's concluding words to the church at Philippi:
I'm just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I've found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.

Matt O.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Holiday Values Part 1

Since debating ferociously about politics has become so passe, let's stir the pot with a bold subjective statement that I will declare as fact. . .

If you were a boy growing up in the 1980s, you grew up in the Golden Era of toys and every other era shrivels in jealousy at the glory of your majesty. . .

If this is a debate, I will make my opening three points:

Original Star Wars. Original GI Joe. Original Transformers.

Throw in the powerful sub-points of Masters of the Universe (He-Man), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Voltron, and Original Thundercats as well. (These 4 alone could stomp on the heads of every Pokemon and Yugioh character every fashioned by a fourteen year old Japanese Animator)

What's that ladies? You thought I was an egalitarian type blogger? You're right, I am..  .feel free to claim the above toys as your own as well. . .and although it's not my main argument I'll make a few brief points for your traditional case as well. . .

Cabbage Patch Kids. Strawberry Shortcake. Care Bears. My Little Ponies. (I'd love to see a herd of stampeding My Little Ponies take care of a few Furrbies.)

OK, OK, We hear you Matt O! Any closing arguments?

Rubik's Cube and Original Nintendo? I rest my case.

Did pride well up in you if you grew up in that era and played with those toys? Post-80s readers, did the spirit of debate raise its head to defend your toys?

We are quick to defend what we value. . .no more so than when defending cultural items of nostalgia. . .or our favorite bands, movies, or sports teams.

This Christmas season. . .what do you value? What have you placed supreme importance on?
What are you defending. . .in your actions or in your mind?

Expectations of the perfect holiday or perfect meal? Pleasing other people? The dream of having a stress-free zone? The opportunity to splurge and get what you want? Your right to judge the holiday and other people as materialistic? Your one season of Gluttony (ouch)?

One of the great parts of the Kingdom of God is that Christians are not called to defend it but to be a witness to it as we live in its truth, justice, grace, joy, peace and love.

May we manifest these values first and foremost this season, and may we lay down the inner stresses and conflicts created by defending temporary and immediate values destined to fade. . .like once treasured toys discarded and forgotten in a closet, waiting to be packed in a cardboard box and given away. . .

(Unless of course, you have an original Millennium Falcon in the package. . .you can still gloat about that a little bit. . .)

Holiday Values Part 2 on Friday. . .

Matt O.