December 1, 2011 Volume 25, Number 12
Spreading joy to the world
from the column "Beyond Us and Them"
By Glen Shepherd | ChristianWeek Columnist
COURTESY THE SALVATION ARMY IN CANADA
It was an unpleasant December dayno snow but a cold, raw wind. I had been standing at a Salvation Army Christmas kettle outside an upscale store in downtown Toronto for nearly an hour, waiting for the other person with me to return and spell me off. I was uncomfortable from standing all day and bored stiff.
The monotony was broken when two people stopped by the kettle. They worked for a local newspaper, they explained, and were writing an article on Christmas in the neighbourhood. "Can we ask you a few questions for our article?" they asked. I enjoyed the attention, as well as the relief to my boredom, so I agreed.
"What do you like least about Christmas?" was their first question. I motioned to the environment around us: the lights, the tinsel, the shoppers. "I think the commercialism of Christmas bothers me more than anything else," I answered.
They carried on with their second question, "What do you like most about Christmas?" I thought about our children, aged eight and three at the time, and the trip we would soon be making to my wife's parents' home to spend Christmas. "Oh, I think it is the time spent with family," I ventured.
Their last question was, "Do you believe in Santa Claus?" I leave you to guess my answer.
They took my picture and then melted into the late afternoon darkness, leaving me alone with my thoughts. They hadn't gone half a block when I realized how I had blown the opportunity.
There I was, standing on a busy downtown corner and wearing the uniform of The Salvation Army, clothes with an unmistakable Christian connection. I had been asked by two strangers to tell them what was the best part of Christmas for me. And the answer I gave them was, "Time with family." They could have asked anyone coming out of one of the stores and received the same answer.
I felt a sense of embarrassment, and then a sense of shame because I had missed an occasion to give the true answer about Christmas. Moments of opportunity come and it is so easy to let them get away. Every year around Christmas I replay the tape of that afternoon in Toronto. If it ever happens again, this is what I would say.
What do I like about Christmas? Christmas means "Emmanuel: God with us." In a world of multiple faiths, where moral codes and a belief in some sort of force beyond us still prevails, where people are reaching for something that transcends the everyday, Christmas can provide fulfilment to those deep longings at the centre of our being.
What makes Christianity unique is that while we were looking and reaching out for some sort of god, God came to us. That is the importance of the baby in the manger. And that truththat God loves me and came to Earth to save meis the only true source of my ultimate dignity!
In this column, we often explore the shared links between the community of faith and the world that surrounds us. We start from the common human longing, realized or unrealized, for the values of the Kingdom of God. After all, as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, "He has put eternity in the hearts of man" (Ecclesiastes 3:12). The essential argument is that we should not put unnecessary barriers between ourselves and the world around us.
At the same time, if we really care about our neighbours, we will find respectful ways to tell them about our source of purpose. And we will answer their questions with grace and clarity.
That afternoon I made a promise to God that I would never again let an occasion like that get away. So whenever I receive a request for The Salvation Army band I conduct to be part of a civic Christmas event in the Montreal area I accept. In a world of "Rudolph" and "Frosty" we can remind our neighbours that there is joy to the world, because the LORD has come. That is the best part of Christmas.
Glen Shepherd is the president of Health Partners International of Canada.