Day 15 – A Sensitive Cynic’s Christmas Survival Guide
There will be many who can’t afford to give gifts to loved ones at Christmas. For them, giving their heart is the most precious, beautiful thing they can do. And then there are the millionaires, who can afford to give lavish, expensive gifts. Heck, they’re even expected to do so. Can you imagine the pressure? Those people have to work especially hard to give a gift rich in love. Because it’s not so much about the money, it’s about the thought and time and love that went into it.
Take the “wise men” from the nativity story. Boy, were they rich!
Imagine…. the Son of God has been born and they want to pay him a visit. They’re all ready to leave and one of them hollers –
“Hold your camels! What about a gift….?” They all look at one another, completely stumped…what does a rich man give to the newborn Son of God?
Picture this, in “Naomi’s Alternative Nativity in Rock” script, Act I, Scene 3:
Wise man 1 – “Well isn’t it obvious? Pure gold of course. It shows how stinking rich we are and looks good all wrapped up. It’ll certainly make an impression on the parents. A bit heavy, but that’s what camels are for. Agreed?”
Wise man 2 – “Hmmm, yes, that’s a good choice, but we ought to bring a little touch of the Eastern aroma to tickle his senses… you know, a little local indigenous fare. It’s the done thing really. But it needs to be something that’ll travel well over hundreds of miles in the blistering heat. I know, how about a little frankincense and myrrh?
Wise man 3 – “Make’s frankin-sense to me. Geddit? Guys…?”
Cue tumbleweed, eye rolling from Wise Man 1 and Wise Man 2, and shaking of head from camel.
Ok, I’m messing with you, I’m sure they were a bit more organised and serious than that, they were incredibly wise men after all.
Actually what they bought really was very thoughtful and insightful.
The wise men weren’t just loading their camels with stuff that might make them look kind and good and rich. They were giving practical, thoughtful presents that said an awful lot about what they believed about the baby Jesus, and how they felt about him. They had the means to bring lavish, extravagant gifts. But the point is, they didn’t just bring any old expensive treasure, their gifts contained an underlying, unspoken message that is from the heart.
Firstly, each gift was highly practical for the baby’s parents.
It’s quite possible that the gold came in very handy when Mary and Joseph escaped to Egypt to bring the baby into a place of relative safety, because Herod wanted him dead.
Frankincense and myrrh were widely valued for medicinal purposes, as well as for their ability to make people smell nice if they couldn’t wash. Always a good thing eh? Especially if you can’t find time to take a shower because you’re running away from a nasty Herod who wants to kill your baby.
On a less practical, but more relational note, each of the three gifts were an expression about who they believed this baby was. Yes, I dug around a bit and discovered that gold, frankincense and myrrh say quite a lot indeed about this tiny baby’s significance….
At that time, it was apparently good manners that if you were visiting a royal in a foreign country, you brought a gift of gold. We know that the wise men regarded Jesus as royalty because it was recorded in the Gospel of Matthew that they asked for the “king of the Jews” when they arrived in Jerusalem looking for the baby Jesus.
Putting one and one together, I’d say the wise men wanted to give a gift fit for a king. A gift of gold, the most precious of metals, would have made the statement that this royal babe was worthy of the most valuable thing they could offer.
So, that’s the gold, but what about the frankincense eh?
Frankincense is a beautifully fragrant resin when burned, often used during worship, as a symbol of the holiness of God. It’s interesting that, even though these men from the East were of a completely different culture, and maybe had a background of worshipping other gods, we read that they said “we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him“.
And so the underlying message I see in this gift is their recognition of Jesus’ divine status. I see their worship of the Christ, in whom “there is all of God in a human body” .
The most bizarre of the three gifts was the myrrh. This spice was traditionally used for embalming dead bodies, because it was a perfume, and worked very well to mask the smell of decay. It was also used as a painkiller when mixed with wine and consumed as a drink.
Soooo, they arrive with a narcotic substance you’d normally find in an undertaker’s cabinet, and give it to the newborn, who was very much alive and kicking. Bizarre indeed.
Not good manners really is it? Especially when bringing said weird gift to a baby believed to be divine and royal. But there must have been a reason.
Incidentally, 30 odd years later, when dying on the cross, Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh, but he didn’t take it.
And then when he’d died, his body was wrapped in a cloth saturated with embalming ointment made from er…. oh, that’s weird…..myrrh and aloes.
I think that myrrh was probably the wisest choice of all the wise men’s gifts, because it represented the true purpose for this royal babe’s 33 year visit to earth. To suffer and die.
Ooh, sorry, I don’t know what happened there, things got a bit, well, morbid, didn’t they? Rather serious. A little bit uncomfortable when we’re talking about a lovely newborn baby. But there it is, the elephant in the room. The dark twist in the story lingering backstage ready to shatter the illusion.
Ahem, moving swiftly on….it’s time for the Thought and Task for the day:
Thought for today:
So, what’s the moral of the story? Well, in a nutshell, by taking a look at the possible significance behind the wise men’s gift-giving, I have found a way to sculpt a new approach to gift-giving which I think has more meaning than my old attitude.
This year I’m going to try to give gifts to the special people in my life which are:
Practical – they can make use of it
Relational – it says something about who that special person is
It has my own character, culture, or personality stamped on them
And there we have it. It won’t always be possible. But it’s a helpful guide to have when choosing a gift, I think.
But what about a gift for the most special one in my life? Ah, yes, back to the elephant in the room. (Or the lamb, as it were….)
So, I’ve accepted Jesus’ gift to me. I did that a long time ago. And I’ve gotta be honest, it’s a cliché, but it really is the gift that keeps on giving. It’s like one of those magic boxes you hear about in fairy-tales – it doesn’t matter how many times you reach inside, there’s always more treasure to be found, more wonders to behold.
Sadly, all too often, we will take the gift, but then leave it on the shelf. Too many of us do that and we are short-changing ourselves. We want to be independent of our loving Father. We act like a toddler struggling to button up her coat, refusing help and declaring “I do it myself”.
Task for today:
Surely I have to give Jesus a gift back don’t I? Well, yes, I think I do. Firstly though, just to clarify, no, I don’t have to do him a load of favours. I don’t have to buy him gold or smelly spices.
Here’s what I’m going to give Jesus this Christmas…
I’ll give him my heavy load of cares and worries.
I’ll give him all the messes I’ve made.
I’m gonna give him all my pain, guilt, weariness and sorrow.
I’ll be wrapping up all my hurts and disappointments and handing them over to him.
He’ll love that. I know, it’s not very practical for him. What does he want all that stuff for? Well, he’s not going to be recycling that stuff next Christmas, I know that. He knows exactly what to do with it all.
But it certainly says something about who I believe he is, and it says something about me.
It says that I trust him with my deepest, darkest secrets because he is strong and true and faithful and trustworthy. It says that he loves me for who I am, no matter what. It says that I trust him enough to let go of all that stuff.
But I don’t think that’s enough. I want to give him more.
I want to tell him what he means to me. I want to express how much I love him. I want to just give my time, my thanks, my worship, my love.
I want to give him my heart.
And that is a beautiful, life-changing, scary, fulfilling, magical, daunting, non-conformist, risky-but-worth-it, costly gift to give.
PS: Rock artwork mostly done by husband Jason, after I failed one too many times, nearly ran out of rocks (which my poor family and I had had to search for on a cold, dark beach one recent Saturday night, to throw together a last minute Sunday School plan) and broke down in frustration. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I painted the faces on, around 1am. Mary’s expression was so utterly hilarious that we lost all control in hysterical laughter before painting over it in gold and trying again. Art is just not my thing.
Matthew Chapter 2 (the story of the wise men).
Colossians 2.9 Living Bible
So I’m back after a bit of a break to re-focus. I’m sure you enjoyed the break from me too. D’you know the first thing my husband said to me this morning?
“I think it’s two weeks today. You know, Christmas”.
It was just such joyful news to hear, that I jumped straight out of bed, opened the advent calendar, and punched the air with excitement.
Actually, I sighed, very deeply and buried my head in the pillow. A loooooooooooong list of things I should have done by the momentous “two weeks till Christmas” mark flashed up in the front of my mind in NEON LIGHTS, followed by a long list of expletives (silently, obviously).
This year was supposed to be different. But I’m being hard on myself really. This year is different. Not in terms of organisation, but in terms of my attitude. And that, I think, is a lot more important. I still haven’t even sent any Christmas cards let alone anything else, but this year, as my perspective changes, I’m starting to be more joyful in my chaos (aside from those PMT moments of course), rather than wallowing in it pitifully. Next year, I might write a survival guide for myself which gets me organised a little earlier, but I reckon I’d have to do the steps for that one in like… July. I’m not sure my new positive Christmas attitude is quite that evolved yet.
So, lets have a little look a what we have in store for Day 11 of A Sensitive Cynic’s Christmas Survival Guide. Let’s hope there’s some magical cure for getting my Christmas act together. Somehow I think I might be sorely disappointed on that front….
Day 11 – A Sensitive Cynic’s Christmas Survival Guide.
There’s a quote my husband often likes to tease me with (usually when I’m being a little “me-focussed”):
“Marriage is all about two givers trying to out-give each other”.
I’m gonna rephrase that, for the purposes of today’s step for survival….
“Christmas is all about givers trying to out-give each other”.
Picture the scene. It’s Christmas Eve. That friend knocks the door unexpectedly. You know that friend don’t you? The one who NEVER buys you a Christmas present and always forgets your birthday? I mean never, as in never before THIS Christmas. The colour drains from your face as you invite her in and she’s clutching a prettily wrapped gift with your name on it. You mentally go through all your cupboards trying to think of something you can wrap in a mad hurry while you excuse yourself to “use the bathroom”.
You quickly realise you have nothing except a bottle of wine, and that’s in the cabinet in the room she’s standing in. You already used up your last “emergency” gift yesterday. You feel like a rabbit caught in the headlights. She shoves said present in your hand. You didn’t even write her a card. This is BAD.
“Ah, that’s so erm, so kind of you. You know I’m so disorganised this year! I haven’t even got around to wrapping! I was gonna drop yours round later” you say, squirming.
“Oh don’t worry about wrapping it! I don’t mind, you can give it me now if you like”.
There’s no danger of you “outgiving” this friend. She’s already done you favours this year at a ratio of 20:1. You’re gonna have to spend the whole of January babysitting her kids to make up for this. It’s a serious “friend fail”.
Move on to Christmas Day, round the Christmas tree. A relative who’s “just visiting” hands you a gift…. “I just know you’re gonna love this!!!” they exclaim, grinning from ear to ear. Now, a few years ago, you got a new cat. So you quite like cats. Last year, this person bought you a cat ornament and a cat calendar. You try not to guess what’s coming…
“Oh how erm, adorable” you lie “it’s erm, a… what is it, exactly?”
“It’s a cat doorbell of course, look: (they demonstrate) it ‘miaows’ whenever someone’s at the door. And you can even set it to purr or hiss too! Isn’t it cute?
All you can think of is, “how on earth am I gonna get away with not putting this on my front door? Can I just do it whenever I know this person is coming over? What if they turn up unannounced?” (highly likely).
You knew this was gonna happen. Which is why you decided to buy them a hideous ornament of a horse to help with their horse-phobia. Miaow!
Ah, you’re just two givers trying to outgive each other. How lovely.
Seriously, this whole present-giving pressure does my head in sometimes. Even if the above doesn’t happen, it’s quite likely that instead of enjoying the whole process of giving and receiving, for some of us, our inner monologue will be running ten to the dozen with…
“Oh crap, he just spent three times the amount on me that I spent on him. He’s gonna think I’m so tight”.
“She always buys me expensive presents. I spent a fortune on her this year so I didn’t feel bad, and this year I get a pair of socks? Is that all I’m worth to her?”
“He didn’t even say thank you. Doesn’t he realise I had to practically get crushed to death to buy that on Black Friday and use my credit card? So ungrateful“.
“I really should have put a bit more thought into buying for her after what she’s just bought me. They’re gonna think I’m a terrible friend.” Cringe.
“Great, last year she bought for me and I didn’t buy for her, so this year I got her something. Looks like she didn’t buy for me this Christmas because I didn’t buy for her last year. Hmmm, well isn’t this just a bit awkward eh?“
Thought for the day:
Last week, in my post “A Damsel in Dis-stress” I mentioned that I wanted to get rid of some of the mindsets which actually add unnecessary stress to my Christmas:
“I believe that the weight of perfectionism, pride, unrealistic expectations, guilt and insecurity all end up tipping the scales towards breaking point.”
So this year, I don’t want to be a giver trying to outgive just because I don’t want to be the one who buys the cheap rubbish gifts. That’s just pride getting in the way. I want to give for the right reasons. I want to give from the heart, completely free from the shackles of pride, guilt, insecurity and unrealistic expectations.
I think that real, honest, stress-free gift-giving (and receiving) needs me to be real, honest and stress-free. Well that’s kind of obvious, but how do I do that?
I have to look beneath the surface at the mindsets and behaviours that steer my gift-giving attitude. The way I see it, I need to trade pride for humility, perfectionism for a willingness to fail, unrealistic expectations for realistic ones, and find an antidote for guilt and insecurity. Easy peasy right?
Task for today:
The only real, lasting way I know to smash destructive mindsets is firstly, to recognise that they are there, and then to recognise that I can’t change them on my own. I need God’s power. That power is so strong that it raised Jesus back from the dead. That power is available to me to destroy destructive mindsets before they destroy me. But I have to want to access that power. Ironically, there are many people out there who are too proud to ask God for help to get free of pride and be humble instead. There are people who are too obsessed with perfection to ask for God’s help to feel free to fail. There are people who can’t let go of guilt and accept God’s grace and forgiveness. And that is one big humungous shame.
I’m not saying that we can’t help ourselves. We HAVE to help ourselves. But trying to do it alone, without God’s help, will only get me so far. That’s like the difference between drinking a caffeinated drink to energise me, or making sure I have a regular intake of nutritious food and water. The caffeine helps in the short term and takes less time and effort, but I’m basically accessing my own reserves of adrenaline rather than drawing energy from a source outside of myself. It’s only going to get me so far before I run out of steam.
So firstly, I’m just going to be more aware of what’s going on for me emotionally, behind the scenes so to speak, when I choose and give a gift.
Secondly I’m going to draw on power that is outside of myself, to bring about real, lasting, deep healing and change. That’s a long process, and it won’t be over by Christmas, but it’s a case of getting started.
In the words of the apostle Paul: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith”.
Jesus is my greatest role model when it comes to showing humility, grace and love. He’s got the perfect antidote to guilt, insecurity and unrealistic expectations – that’s the fact that he loves me just as I am, and any stuff I do that’s bang out of order or just plain destructive, he offers complete forgiveness. That’s what he went to the cross to sort out, so I need to quit beating myself up and talking myself down. And as for perfection, well, he’s the only one who ever got to those dizzy heights, so I should really cut myself some slack on that one, and others too, while I’m at it.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time….
(Taken from The Serenity Prayer, by Reinhold Niebuhr)
(Bible verse taken from Ephesians 3.16)