I could see the wreath lights glowing in the windows when I turned the corner to my folks home. This was an unmistakable sign that the Christmas spirit had arrived at "the parsonage". A rush of warm emotions welled up within me. As I turned into the driveway I could see the bright lights twinkling on the tree through the living room window. Dad had shoveled a path from the porch to the driveway which the wind had partially drifted in but a little snow on one's shoes was fitting for the occasion. The smells that greeted me as I opened the front door were heavenly - a light pine scent mixed with the tantalizing aroma of pecan rolls fresh out of the oven. Home for Christmas - there was nowhere in the world more beautiful. Mom had refined warmth-creation to an art form. Red ribbons adorned the window sills. Stockings hung in plain view just as they had when I was a child. The furniture was re-arranged to accommodate an eight foot white pine topped with an illuminated star. Carols played on the stereo console that was a special family gift from a previous Christmas. By Christmas morning my brother and sister would arrive and we would be together as family once again. Traditions, I have come to realize, are the treasure chests that store our important memories. They are the secure places to which we can return again and again to re-experience the magic and meaning of by-gone days. But traditions not only preserve memories, they anchor them to the bedrock of deeply held values. In my home, the warmth and beauty, the imagery and anticipation were bearers of a deeper underlying set of values - giving, caring, self-sacrifice and faith. These became part of me long before I was aware of their worth. And when I became a parent I attempted to pass their richness along to my children.
My neighbors across the street, Virgil and Tamara Brown, have a different idea about celebrating Christmas. They recently gave all of their living room furniture away (to a family down the street who needed it). Though their small home is adorned with pretty decorations and their three children will experience all the excitement of opening presents on Christmas morning, their living room will look very different from ours. It will be empty save for a Christmas tree in one corner, a portable TV and a few plastic stack chairs.
Virgil and Tamara have a special place in their hearts for the kids of our neighborhood. And the kids dearly love to "hang out" at the Brown's. Virgil's tough love and Tamara's nurturance attract love-starved kids like sugar draws ants. All hours of the day and night you will find young people in their home doing school work, using their computer, watching videos or just soaking up attention. This creates a bit of a dilemma since the Brown's small living room will not accommodate at the same time bunches of kids and over-stuffed furniture. And so they have gone with the higher value. They have chosen to empty their living room of furniture so that it can be filled with love.
The Browns decided that the values of giving, caring, self-sacrifice and faith can best be instilled by bringing community into their family tradition. They traded the charm of a well-appointed living room for the beauty of well-nurtured kids sprawled all over their living room floor. They have adopted the art of loving over the art of decorating. They have chosen warmth and beauty of a higher sort.
Faith in the city continues to surprise me. It seems to flourish in unlikely places where people struggle with the issues of daily bread. How naive it was of me to think that we were introducing the message of Christ's love into the inner-city when we moved in with our missionary zeal. It only took a few relationships with people like the Browns to make me realize that our call to the city was at least as much about our own discovery of Christ as it was about introducing Him to others. But then, I suppose that is what the Christmas story is all about - Immanuel breaking into our perceptions in unexpected and redemptive ways.
I want to do something very unusual this Christmas. Perhaps you would like to join me in it. I would like to surprise Virgil and Tamara with a Christmas present that would affirm and delight them like no other I can imagine. They have dreamed for years about adding a room onto their house just for kids - a study-computer-music-fellowship kind of room dedicated to nurturing neighborhood youth. Since their house was originally built by church volunteers, I think it would be fairly easy to mobilize groups of volunteers to do the construction. Other families in the neighborhood would want to participate, too, I am sure. I would like to go over to their house on Christmas morning, together with some other appreciative neighbors, and present them with a drawing of their new addition - completely paid for!
Sound lavish? I agree. But so was another Gift which we all celebrate on Christmas morning! Let me know if you would like to join me in this surprise expression of the love of God's people for each other. Swing a hammer, write a check, bring a meal, donate materials - all are gifts that will bring much joy to a special family. And joy to the Giver of the greatest gift of all.
Warm Christmas wishes, Bob Lupton