The Unwrapped Christmas Present

This is my contribution to the December issue of the Fishkill United Methodist Church newsletter.

I began this piece with an image of a well-lit and decorated Christmas tree with many presents under it.  No doubt I was influenced by the number of pre-Halloween Christmas sales.

For as long as we have celebrated Christmas, we have been giving and receiving Christmas presents because Matthew wrote that the Magi brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh as presents to the newborn Christ-child.

Tradition tells us that the gold was used to finance the family’s escape to Egypt when Herod issued his edict to kill all the newborn children, whom he saw as a threat to his power.  The frankincense and myrrh were to be used to prepare Jesus’ body when he died.

But the edict to kill the newborn did not occur until after the Magi left and I do not think the frankincense and myrrh would have lasted the thirty-some years between Jesus’ birth and death.  (And we should also remember that Jesus was quickly placed in the Tomb on Good Friday, without the proper preparation; this was why the women went to the Tomb on Easter Sunday).

We also need to remember that Matthew, writing some seventy years after the birth, would probably not have known what the Magi brought with them when they visited.  Yes, there were probably gifts that honored a new king, for that is what the Magi felt they saw in the stars that guided their travel.  But we will never know if the gifts they did bring were the gifts that Matthew recorded in his Gospel.

And what must the first readers of Matthew have thought about such expensive gifts being given to the child of a simple workman and his wife?

We live in a society and a time where our focus is more on the gifts themselves than why the gifts were given.

How do we see the gifts under our tree?  Our attention is almost always drawn to the fancy wrapped presents, the ones that glitter and shine. 

Is what is inside that wonderfully and beautifully wrapped present something I will love? 

Is it something that I need? 

Perhaps it is something that will allow me to do something I have wanted to do? 

Or is it that fruit cake I gave to my cousin last year and which he is giving back to me this year?

Until we open it up, we do not know what it is.

And for all the preparation and anticipation, it is all over.  We have the gifts we want, the gifts we need, and we can’t wait until we can send our cousin that fruit cake.  We gather all the wrapping paper together, saving what we can and putting the rest in a garbage bag.  We make plans to undecorate the tree and put it away if it is an artificial one or out by the curb for the trash crews to come by and get (unlike that one year when the snow came and came and came and came and the tree wasn’t picked up until March when the snow finally melted).

But there is always one present that remains tucked under the tree.  Because the wrapping is rather plain, it is almost unnoticeable.  Some years it doesn’t even get opened and ends up in the storage area, to be brought out the next year.

But this present is the real and existing presence of Christ.  It was the present given to us that first Christmas some two thousand years ago.  Despite the plainness of the wrapping, the contents continue to shine every day.


 Star Light, Star Bright | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (

“The Presence Under the Tree” | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (

Thoughts on Christmas, 2021

This is my seventy-first Christmas.  Each one different, each one the same.

I know that my first Christmas was in Lexington, NC, because I was baptized at the First Evangelical and Reformed Church in Lexington on Christmas Eve.  My parents would have been there along with my mother’s parents (Lexington was her hometown).  My father’s parents might have been there, but they were living in St. Louis at the time, and I don’t know if they made the trip.

Until I moved to Kirksville, MO, in 1968 to begin my sophomore year in college, Christmas was either at home (wherever that was) or in St. Louis at my grandmother’s home.  The young spruce tree in this photo (taken in July 1952) was known as “Tony’s Christmas tree”.

“Tony’s Christmas tree, July 1952”

Surprisingly, for all the moves that I have made, I never experienced snowfall on Christmas until I was forty years old.  Of course, when you spend many a Christmas in places where snow in December is a rarity, it is not likely Bing Crosby will be singing at your place.

For someone who turned 18 in 1968, I was lucky.  The only time I spent Christmas overseas was in 1953 when we lived in the Philippines.  Others of my generation spent Christmas overseas when they were bit older and in far more trying and hostile times.

I have seen my gifts shift from the toys of a young one to the needs of an adult.  I have gotten presents that I really wanted and presents that I really needed and presents that I absolutely hated but they, like all the others, were given in love, so they were accepted. 

I have tried to give presents that people wanted or could use many times.  And admittedly, in these recent times, the gifts have become rather utilitarian, allowing the recipient options.

Many, if not all, of these Christmas’ past have been days of joy and tradition.

But divorce and broken bones have also been a part of my Christmas past.  The darkness of those days makes the present shine a bit brighter.

But the constant in all these years of celebrating Christmas has been my family.  Even during the Christmas when I was technically homeless, my Christmas was spent with my family.

And one Christmas, I brought someone into my family and began a new one.

The definition of my family is more than just being with my parents and siblings or as a parent with my children.  For some twenty years, Christmas being with a congregation, either my own or as the assigned lay speaker/servant.

And that is what Christmas is about.  As we read the Christmas story, we note that Joseph had gone to Bethlehem because that was the place from which his family had come.  That meant, at least for me, that many of the people who were in town that time were relatives.

It is a time when we are with our family.  I leave it to you to define who is your family.  It can be your parents, your siblings, and/or your children.  It can be with those you love or share common goals and thoughts.  It can be with those at church or with those with whom you gather frequently.  And I hope that whoever you gather with lift you up and that you lift them up.

It is a time to remember that some two thousand years ago, a family was begun.  Perhaps the beginnings were not the best (after all, the ruler of the country would soon send out a hit squad) but we know that it was a family where love was part of the growth process and would be there until the end.

So, we gather for Christmas, in many places and in many ways, but also knowing that, like so many others over so many years, it is because Jesus Christ was born this day.

What Gift Will You Give?

This is a Christmas piece, but one not based on readings from the Gospel concerning Jesus’ birth.  Rather, I will be using some thoughts from Paul and some thoughts that Jesus gave during the Galilean ministry.

There is a little bit of Christmas in this piece because one of the pieces that many choirs sing at this time contains the line, “what gift can I bring?”

One would think that one must understand what gifts we have been given so that we know what gift we can bring.  Oh, I suppose that one could run down to the store at the mall or page through countless pages of on-line shopping to find the right gift to give the Baby Jesus.  But one is going to have to really stretch to give a gift that beats gold, frankincense, and myrrh, don’t you think?

I do believe that the gift we bring to Jesus is found in the gifts that we have been given.  In Romans 12: 6 – 8, Paul speaks of the gifts that we have been given:

  • Prophecy
  • Service
  • Teaching
  • Exhortation
  • Giving
  • Leading
  • Mercy

Each of these gifts is a product of how we received God’s Grace.  So the gifts that we give must and need to reflect those gifts that we have received.

And therein lies the rub, how much of those gifts will we give away?  There are so many individuals today who proclaim that they have received the gift of grace from God, yet their words, actions, deeds, and thoughts reflect the actions of the one servant who received the one talent and then buried it for fear of losing it.  Those who gave more of themselves in terms of the gifts and talents that they received found the return as great as what they had been first given.

And there will come a time when we must account for the use of our gifts.  If we look beyond the birth of Christ and beyond His death to the point of His return, then we are faced with the question of when do you use those gifts in my name?  How many times did Jesus challenge the people to see God’s presence in their lives outside the Temple?  How many times will our use of the gifts we have been given, in whatever form they may take, to help others find Christ?

What gifts will you share this year as your celebration of Christmas?

“The Christmas Story”

For those that don’t follow this blog on a regular basis, you have to know that my roots lie in the South (having been born in Virginia and lived in Alabama, Texas, and Tennessee). And as I have said on a number of occasions, when you mention places like Corinth, Rome, Mount Moriah, and Shiloh, I am more apt to think of Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee than I am places in Israel and the Mid-East.

For me, the Bible has and will always be about life today, not life two thousand years ago. So it makes sense to read a translation that is a bit more modern and tied up with archaic or out-dated language. And those two points, being Southern and having a sense that the Bible needs to mean something to me, lead me to the Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Jordan. If you have never read this translation, you don’t know what you are missing.

But what kind of hospitality would it be for me not to offer you a taste of this translation? So here is the Christmas Story as translated by Clarence Jordan for the Cotton Patch Gospels. (If you are even more interested, I included his translation of the story of the Good Samaritan with the message I posted back in July for the message “Who Will Be The One?”)

The Christmas Story – as translated by Clarence Jordan for the Cotton Patch Gospel, Jesus’ Doings (Luke)

“It happened in those days that a proclamation went out from President Augustus that every citizen must register. This was the first registration while Quirinius was Secretary of War. So everybody went to register, each going to their own home town. Joseph too went up from south Georgia from the city of Valdosta, to his home in north Georgia, a place named Gainesville, to register with his bride Mary, who by now was heavily pregnant. While they were there, her time came, and she gave birth to her first boy. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in an apple box. (There was no room for them at the hospital.)

Now there were some farmers in that section who were up late at night tending to their baby chicks. And a messenger from the Lord appeared to them, and evidence of the Lord was shining all about them. It nearly scared the life out of them. And the messenger said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid; for listen, I’m bringing you good news of a great joy in which all people will share. Today your deliverer was born in the city of David’s family. He is the Leader. He is the Lord. And here’s a clue for you: you will find the baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in an apple box.’ And all of a sudden there was with the messenger a crowd of angels singing God’s praises and saying, ‘Glory in the highest to God, And on Earth, peace to humankind, The object of God’s favor.’

When the messengers went away from them into the sky, the farmers said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Gainesville and see how all this the Lord has showed us has turned out.’
So they went just as fast as they could, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in an apple box. Seeing this, they related the story of what had been told them about this little fellow. The people were simply amazed as they listened to what the farmers told them. And Mary clung to all these words, turning them over and over in her memories. The farmers went back home, giving God the credit and singing praises for all they had seen and heard, exactly as it had been described to them. And when the day came for him to be christened, they named him Jesus, as he was called by the angel before he was conceived.

After they had finished carrying out the rules and regulations of the church in regard to the child, they brought him to the bishop in Atlanta to dedicate him to the Lord, just as the Scripture said: ‘Every first baby, if it’s a boy, shall be dedicated to the Lord.’ Also, they wanted to make a thank-offering — as the Scripture said — of the equivalent of ‘a couple of ducks or two fryers.

Now then, there was a man in Atlanta whose name was Simon. He was a sincere and devout man, and deeply concerned for the welfare of the world. Being a spirit-led man, he had been assured by the Holy Spirit he would not die before seeing the Lord’s Leader. Guided by the spirit, he came to the First Church. And when the parents brought in the child Jesus for the ceremonies, Simon picked him up in his arms and praised God. He said, ‘Now let your servant, Almighty Master, Slip quietly away in peace, as you’ve said. For these eyes of mine have seen your deliverance Which you have made possible for all of the people. It’s a light to illuminate the problem of races, A light to bring honor to your faithful disciples.’

And Joseph and Mary were really amazed at these things that were said about him. Simon congratulated them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Listen, this little one is put here for the downfall and uplift of many in the nation, and for a symbol of controversy — your heart, too, will be stabbed with a sword — so that the inner feelings of many hearts may be laid bare.’

Now Hannah, a lady minister, was there. She was from one of the best families in the South. She was quite old, having lived with her husband for seven years after getting married, and as a widow from then until her present age of eighty-four. She never left the church, worshiping there night and day with prayers and vigils. She came up to them at the same time and gave God’s approval, and started talking about the child to all those who were hoping for the nation’s deliverance.

And when they got through with all the church requirements, they went back to south Georgia, to their own city of Valdosta. And the little fellow grew and became strong. He was plenty smart, and God liked him.”

Why Should This Day Be Any Different?

As the song goes, “so this is Christmas.” Why should we pause and celebrate an event that many people say never happened? Why should we even think about something other than business matters or football games? Why should this day be any different from the other days of the year?

As I think back over the many Christmas that have been a part of my life, I cannot help but think that there has never been a day when there wasn’t a war or the threat of war going on somewhere. I was born during the Korean War and I grew up on Air Force bases, constantly reminded that the threat of nuclear war was just a few moments away. There was a war in Southeast Asia that stretched almost from the time of my birth to the years that I became a father.

There have been countless wars and conflicts in Africa and the Middle East over colonial issues, territorial rights, and land ownership problems that date back to long before Christ was born in Bethlehem.

I grew up and went to school in states that required students to learn the words of the Declaration of Independence, “that all men were created equal”, and then proceeded to destroy that statement by the structure of the very schools in which it was taught. I grew up and went to church in states where we sang “Jesus loves the little children, red and yellow, black and white” and then heard the pastor proclaim that Jesus only really loved the white children. If nothing else, I learned hypocrisy real well and real early

Somewhere along the line, the birth of a child in a country occupied by a foreign power, with a tax burden that exceeded anything that one might complain of today and with a religious establishment that was more interested in its own power than it was the needs of the people, doesn’t seem to matter.

And it seems to me as I look over the years, this day has become no different than any other day. Hypocrisy in the name of the church is still alive and well. There are those who proclaim equality in the eyes of God but will not let the people with whom Jesus walked and ate with into their churches. We still have war, even when we call Jesus the Prince of Peace.

There are those today who want to put Christ back into Christmas but they are the one who cry loudest for more war and whose voices are the most hateful and vitriolic ever heard across this land. They are the ones who see Christmas as the economic salvation of this country, not the spiritual salvation of individuals.

When you hear ministers tell us that the poor get what they deserve, that their sin is the cause of the poverty and we, the people, should not take care of them, you have to wonder why they celebrate Christmas when they have forgotten what it really means.

They would have us live in a land where they, the theocratic power elite, tell us how to live but allow themselves the right to do whatever they please. They would have the right to tell us how to think but not how to find the truth.

And there are those who would tell us that this is all a myth; that it never happened and, if it did happened, it happened in March. Christmas, to these individuals, is merely a sign of the selling out of the church. Perhaps it is; perhaps Christ was really born in March or April. But when they argue about the day Christ was born or, for that matter, if He was even born, they miss the point.

This day is different because a child was born some two thousand years ago. The actual day really isn’t that important but that child grew in stature and wisdom. And when He was old enough, his parents told me who He was. And He continued to grow in stature and wisdom.

And in a political and religious environment not so much different from the one we have today, He began to teach the people, heal the people, and tell the people that they were not forgotten. And the people told other people and those people continued telling the story.

Maybe Christ wasn’t born today some two thousand years ago; maybe Christ wasn’t born at all. But something happened and that one small thing changed the course of society. It is a story that has been told over the years from one person to the next and it is the story we need to be telling today.

That is why today should be different from all the other days of the year. In a world filled with war, violence, greed, hatred, persecution and oppression, we need to stop and think about that birth and what it means to each one of us.

It was a small and to many at that time, inconsequential occurrence. But from the birth of Jesus some two thousand years ago, a movement began. Each one of us is invited today to continue that movement. One by one, little by little, what we do will take down war, violence, greed, hatred, persecution, oppression and those who profit from such acts will be destroyed. It is not important that others make this day different; it is important that each one of us make this day and tomorrow different.

Does It Matter?

Here are my thoughts for this Christmas Day, 25 December 2006
Today is Christmas Day. But that doesn’t seem to matter when the news of the day focuses on deaths in a war half around the world. It doesn’t seem to matter that today is Christmas when we read of churches about to split apart because of differences in how we treat people. It doesn’t seem to matter when the lead financial stories seem to be how people are spending million dollar bonuses on fast cars and multi-million dollar houses. It doesn’t seem to matter when the sermon at last night’s Christmas Eve service was about the love and redemption that began in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago but the people complained because they didn’t sing the traditional Christmas carols.

But every story that seems to take away from the Christmas story gives further evidence that the Christmas story does matter. Every time a person puts their own interests before the interests of their friends, their neighbors, or the person they pass by on the way to work is another reason why the Christmas story matters.

We need not go out into the world and chastise people when they act in a manner that shows disrespect for God. There have been those who have sought to do this in the past. They were the forerunners to the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes of Jesus’ day. They are still present today, using incomplete quotes in the Bible to justify hatred, exclusion, and ignorance. As their hearts harden, their voices seem to get louder and it gets harder for each of us to hear the truth.

But we remember that the first to hear that the Savior was born were the shepherds, the lowliest of society. So it does matter that today is Christmas because we know that the story is the same for all and it offers proof that God cares for all, not just some. We remember that the shepherds left and became the first to tell the world that the Savior had been born. We remember that the wise men came because they sought the truth. They found the truth in a little child and they returned home via a different road because their encounter with the baby Jesus changed their lives. So it does matter that today is Christmas and that Christ was born this day so that we might win over sin and death.

And, it should matter that tomorrow, when all the trappings and decorations of the season begin to be taken down and every thing returns to normal, we do not return to normal. Through our lives, through what we do, what we say, and how we treat others that we come into contact with each day, we will show that Christmas and the birth of Christ continue long past December 25th. We are the ones who heard the angels singing this year; we are the ones who saw the star in the East and followed it this year; we are the ones who came to the manger this year. So we are the ones who will take the Christmas message out into the world tomorrow. Does it matter that today is Christmas? Most certainly, it does. But it will only matter if you don’t forget it tomorrow.