a blog about faith and life by Rev. Cindy Maddox

Archive for December, 2011

The Teacher

ImageIt’s Christmas Day, and the house is quiet. The rest of the family is asleep. No, it’s not early morning; we were awake at six. But after two worship services last night and another this morning, none of us got enough sleep. So at 11:30 we all were sent to bed for a nap.

But I couldn’t sleep. So instead of the nap I need, I’m getting some quiet. After this busy week, maybe I need the quiet more.

I’m sitting here surrounded by abundance. Each of us has a pile of gifts, with way more than we need. We are not wealthy by any stretch of the American imagination. Our daughter’s “haul” will undoubtedly be less than that of many of her friends. Still, we have so much. I wonder if she’s grateful. Oh, she said “thank you” several times, and she is very aware that other kids aren’t as fortunate as she is. Of course, she is equally aware that some kids have more, too. I know she appreciates her presents and the effort we put into getting them. But are we teaching her to be grateful?

How do you teach gratitude? How do you cultivate it? How do I, as a person of faith, express my gratitude? How do I, as a pastor, teach it to others?

During Lent last year I invited members and friends of my church to keep a gratitude journal. Every day they were asked to write down something specific for which they were thankful. A number of people kept their journals on Facebook, which was wonderful because we all got to share in one another’s joy.

But gratitude isn’t all about joy.

Take, for example, the trees outside my window. When I was younger, I used to hate winter. The bare trees were so stark and depressing. Now I look at these trees and I realize how much better I can see the squirrels and birds when they’re not hidden by foliage.

Similarly, I remember a time when I took a drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway near my home in North Carolina. I stopped at a scenic overlook and watched a storm blow in across the mountains. It was breath-taking. Then some tourists stopped, took one look at the view, complained that there wasn’t any sunshine, and got back in their car. I wasn’t sorry to see them go, but I was sorry for their sake that they couldn’t see the beauty in the storm.

Maybe this is part of gratitude. Being aware of the beauty in the storm, the joy in the pain, the hope in the turmoil.

Well, my daughter is up now. She has been uncharacteristically quiet for the past ten minutes. I’ve been watching her, so adorable in her panda hat, so intent as she writes in her new journal. Sometimes I am so overcome by my love for this child I didn’t give birth to that I just cry. It’s the only response I have to a heart so full.

I don’t know if I am doing a very good job of teaching her gratitude. But she is doing a wonderful job of teaching me.

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An Upside Down Christmas

I was in sixth grade and my sister was in ninth when my family moved from northeastern Ohio to Miami, Florida. We moved in December, just in time for Christmas. And everything in Miami was just wrong.

They put Christmas lights on palm trees. The advertising flyers showed Santa in shorts. The youth Christmas party was a pool party. It was just wrong.

That was the year my sister and I did something highly unusual: we united for a common cause. We were not going to tolerate that mangy old artificial tree my grandmother had given to us when she was tired of it. After all, our parents had moved us to the very end of the earth, and we would never again have a white Christmas—unless you counted the sand. And that was just wrong.

We put our collective feet down, and with reluctance our parents agreed to purchase a live tree. The only problem with live Christmas trees in Miami is that they aren’t exactly local, which makes them very expensive. I can still remember the look on my parents’ faces when they saw the price. $49.99 for a Christmas tree? This was 1975. According to the inflation calculator I found, that’s $210.21 today. We were a one-income family. Besides, when my dad was growing up on a farm in West Virginia, he used to just go into the woods and shoot one. $49.99 for a Christmas tree? That was just wrong.

Although money was tight, my parents knew what their daughters needed. Our worlds had been turned upside down. Christmas felt upside down. If having a live tree would make it better, they would find a way to buy us a live tree.

Subsequent years in Miami were easier than that first year, but Christmas always felt weird. To me, it always felt like an upside down Christmas.

In recent years, upside down Christmases became something of a fashion trend … or at least upside down Christmas trees did. Have you seen them? The upside down Christmas trees? They are designed to be stood or hung upside down. The advantages are that ornaments show better, the tree fits better in small spaces, and there’s more room under the tree for presents. An article I read online said they’re all the rage this year—although the article was undated so I have no idea what year “this year” might have been.

Upside down Christmas trees. My apologies to anybody who has one, but that’s just wrong.

But, in a strange way, they are kind of appropriate, I guess . . . because the Christmas story is all about turning things upside down.

A young teenage girl is entrusted with heaven’s greatest gift.

A young man marries her even though his religion tells him to stone her.

The King of Kings is born in a barn.

The heavenly birth announcement goes not to the noble and elite but to shepherds, the lowliest of the low (not to mention the stinkiest of the stinky).

By entering human history in this way, God identified with the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed. And to many people, that was just wrong.

To many people today, that’s still wrong, but God is still doing it. God still welcomes the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed. And we darn well better, too, if we intend to do that whole “following in the ways of Jesus” thing.

Yes, it’s a world turned upside down. But if we do it we just might hear an angel choir sing of peace on earth, good will to all.

A joyful season?