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Elf on the Shelf's War on Christmas

Several times over the past couple weeks I've heard people refer to "Elf on the Shelf," the theologically obscenity that doesn't seem to be going away. 

So I want to repeat something, with modifications, that I wrote about a year ago, which is that besides being psychologically creepy ("taking in all the daily activities around the house," we're told, "the elf makes his daily report to Santa,") (YOU. ARE. BEING. WATCHED.), "elf-on-the-shelf" is about as bad a theology around Christmastime as you can get. 

If there is one thing Christmas is NOT about, it's NOT about who is on who's "nice" or "naughty" list.

People talk about "a war on Christmas." 

Well, there is one. Except it's not the the perceived hostility to the celebration of Christmas that some hyper-ventilating news commentators and others get all worked up about - the way Christians are supposedly being persecuted because people say "happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" and that nativity scenes aren't being permitted on public grounds and religious-themed Christmas carols are no longer being sung in public schools.

No, despite the histrionics, we Christians in this country at this time are not being persecuted (or even very much inconvenienced) as we practice our faith; rather, we're being reminded that we live in a pluralistic, richly diverse nation. Which, by the way, from our very constitutional origins has wisely held "freedom of religion" in tension with opposing any attempt to establish any official state religion, for the benefit of everyone, Christians or not.  

That's not the "war on Christmas" that's going on. 

Nor is it the "commercialization of Christmas," either. Granted, our culture has, in the last fifty years, turned a simple, Thanksgiving-like holiday into a two-month-long orgy of consumerism. Granted, it is ironic that we spend billions of dollars to wish one another a Merry Christmas, a holiday which has as its origin the birth of one born in a feeding trough. To poor parents. And who spent much of his adult life warning humanity about the lure of wealth and love of riches.

No, the "war on Christmas" that I'm referring to is the way that Christmas has become, for many people and in the eyes of our culture, about rewarding good behavior...about deservedness...about earning affection.

It seems innocent enough: "Have you been a good little boy or girl this year?" we ask in high-pitched tones to worried children.

But think about it. Over and over again this time of year, we are inadvertently (or worse, quite deliberately!) reinforcing the idea that good behavior brings "gifts" and bad behavior doesn't.

People! The whole idea of a gift is that it is freely given. A "gift" that is given in return for good behavior is not a gift. It is "payment for services rendered."

Stop it. Stop it right now.

Again, I thank God that this theologically obscene "elf-on-the-shelf" trend wasn't around when our kids were little.

Mary and I are not perfect parents, and I'm not a perfect husband, and so I do not pretend to know how to raise psychologically healthy children or guarantee a psychologically healthy marriage.

But (to paraphrase my mentor William C. Placher), I do know one sure way to screw up your children and your marriage. It's really quite simple. All you have to do is make your love - your affection, your gifts - conditional. Just let them know that IF they do X, Y, or Z, you will love them, and if they don't, you will not.

That's not how God loves us. 

And that's not how we are called to love one another.

God's gifts of love - and the gifts we give each other - are just that: gifts, freely given. Un-deserved. Without condition.

Remember: Jesus was NOT born in the Ritz-Carlton of his day: in fact, there was no room for him in that Inn.

"Those who are well have no need of a physician," he said.

The Light shines in the darkness...not where there is already plenty of light.   

"Long lay the world in sin and error pining/
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth."
                                                      (O Holy Night: John Sullivan Dwight)

That first Christmas, God did not need a clean, well-swept place to be born into.

And this Christmas, God doesn't need it either: a messy, smelly, more-often-bad-than-good, more often naughty-than-nice heart, and life -- like mine and yours -- will do just fine. 

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