Vol 3, Num 20 :: 2004.12.03 — 2004.12.16
When I noticed the announcement for this upcoming topic of gift-giving on catapult's writer's block
page, something immediately caught my attention, and I knew that I
wanted to write this article on it. This probably wouldn't have been on
my mind a year ago, but at the moment, I can't think of a better topic
to write on.
Let me explain. It seems that every year, I become more cynical as
Christmas and the holiday season approach. I see the countless ads on
the TV and Internet, telling me all the things I need if I am to be a
complete, whole person. I see people rush to the stores in mobs,
apparently listening to everything the ads tell them (and congesting
the roads and the stores, making even simple errand-running a major
task). I see meaningless, ridiculous, gaudy, and extravagant holiday
decorations put up earlier and earlier, sometimes even immediately
after Halloween, making Christmas (the "commercial holiday" as I
sometimes think of it) eclipse the poor, overlooked, underrated,
underdog holiday, Thanksgiving.
In my mind, Thanksgiving is a "pure holiday". Christmas has been
polluted and bloated to the point that it is frequently referred to on
the news in terms of sales figures and the GNP. But to me, Thanksgiving
has no negative connotations of commercialization. The worst thing I
can think of about Thanksgiving is how people give thanks to no one in
particular, saying that we should just "be thankful" instead of
thanking God. Well, that and the gluttony, perhaps, although it seems
that even massive amounts of food can be healthy every once and a
while. After all, times of great feasting and remembrance were God's
idea, dating way back to the Exodus. Of course, some people would also
object to Thanksgiving's annual turkey massacre, but I won't get into
So in my attitude toward Christmas, I have become in some ways the
Grinch, wishing to himself that all the stupid Whos in Whoville could
just quiet down and be a little more normal. But perhaps this year I
will be slightly less cynical. Why? In a word, grace.
She takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain…
She travels outside
Of karma, karma
She travels outside
She carries a pearl
In perfect condition
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stains
Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things
Grace finds beauty
Grace finds goodness
These are some of the lyrics to the song "Grace" by
U2. When I first heard the song, I thought, "nice song, but a bit
bland". But now, looking back at it, it's exactly what's been on my
mind. There's another song that's been on my mind, too, that will
perhaps help clarify my thoughts. It's "Karma Police" by Radiohead.
I've given all I can,
it's not enough,
I've given all I can
but we're still on the payroll.
I like the line in "Grace" about how grace "travels
outside of karma." Why? Because karma means getting exactly what you
deserve. Now, when I feel that someone has wronged me, I certainly say
that I want what I deserve. But to be honest, when I look at my life
with a wide lens, I don't think I want that want that at all.
Why not? Because I'm someone who has messed up. I've been selfish.
I've broken my word. I've done things that I know I shouldn't have, and
I haven't done everything I know I should have. If I really got what I
deserve, I'd be a bit like the speaker in the song "Karma Police",
lamenting that all the good I've tried to do and all I've tried to give
still wasn't enough to outweigh the crummy things I've done and the
haunting feeling that my payday is coming. Karma will come smashing
down on me, and if reincarnation were true, I'd come back as a "pig in
a cage on antibiotics," to quote another Radiohead song.
So when it comes down to it, I don't want karma. I don't want
justice. I want something better, something kinder, something far more
generous, something more extravagant than the most gaudy-looking
I want grace.
Undeserved favor, undeserved merit. I want someone to look at my
life through that same wide lens and say, "Heck, you've really messed
up from time to time, but I love you anyway," and give me a sincere,
I want a gift.
This year, as I've reflected a bit on grace, I realize that grace is
a gift, and all I've been given is a gift of grace. Do I deserve to be
born to a middle-class family in America, the land of opportunity, with
all the resources and intellect and health that I have? Did I choose
it? Did I work for it? No. It was something I can't ever say I deserve,
because I did nothing to deserve it. It was a gift.
Not everyone has such blessings. However, does the fact that I can't
give such gifts to everyone make the fact that I've been given it evil?
I don't think so. And truly, even those who are born into a far
different life in a developing nation have other gifts I don't have.
Theirs is sometimes a simpler life, blessed with a rich community and
close-knit family life that many of us in America, with our focus on
individualism, could probably envy at times. We are all blessed with
gifts, though not all in the same way.
After all, Jesus said that the Father "causes his sun to rise on the
evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the
unrighteous." Common Grace is the official term for this kind of gift.
It's the idea that all of us, regardless of race, religion, age, and
sex have been given something we don't deserve. And so we should be
thankful for our gifts. We should be grateful to the One who gave them.
And so we come full-circle, back to my underdog holiday,
Thanksgiving. We've probably all heard someone say that we should be
thankful the year 'round, not just once a year. It's clich?, but it's
So what does this have to do with Christmas? Well, Christmas is the
time that we celebrate the greatest gift of God's grace, the coming of
the Son of God, the Messiah, the Redeemer, the Savior, Jesus Christ. It
was an expensive gift. Anyone that's seen Mel Gibson's movie "The
Passion of the Christ" has at least some idea of what it cost. Jesus
took that wide-view lens of my life and the karmic payday that comes
with it upon his back in the form of bloody gashes, driven into his
head and hands and feet and side in the form of cruel thorns, Roman
nails, and a spear point.
So perhaps Thanksgiving and Christmas aren't too different after
all. And what about that seemingly shallow justification for
commercialization—something usually mumbled about how the Wise Men
gave a late birthday present of some gold and spices to Jesus two years
after he was born? Maybe it's not really even necessary. After all, if
we'd truly realize all that we've been given, why wouldn't we want to
give to others out of sheer gratitude to God and a desire to see that
same joy on another person's face?
Maybe what we really need is to get rid of the attitude that we
deserve everything we enjoy, that we're self-made men and women that
have evolved by our own sweat to the point that we're superior to
certain other people, whoever they may be. Perhaps we need to realize
we've all been given so much good by a gracious, gift-giving God. And
maybe we can give our own gifts of grace, now realizing that it is no
trivial matter of business, sales figures, and the GNP, but rather a
part of who we are, reflecting the very image of God the gift-giver.
As Christmas approaches this year, I'll be reminding myself of all
I've learned and trying to break, or at least bend, some of my old
habits. I'm sure at some point I might still mutter a "bah, humbug" or
two under my breath, but I hope I'll catch myself in the middle of it,
stop, and say a "thank you" instead. And as I give my gifts, I can try
to remember the many gifts of grace I've also been given by God.