The true meanings of Christmas

This post is almost as long overdue as it will be long. But a couple weeks ago, amid the stress of chasing down entertainment stories, driving cross-county in a nasty freezing rain and barely making it on time to back-to back interviews, I got a couple doses of the what Christmas is really all about. To some people it might have been an overwhelming amount of God-talk to digest in one night. For me, it couldn’t have been more refreshing …

First, I met a family who, as only a journalist can understand, will go down as one of those that will have a lifelong impact on you. This family of four, which included the young couple’s vivacious daughters and intelligent daughters, has been through more, especially in the last couple years than few people can imagine. The girls’ father, Greg, in October had his seventh transplant -- that’s five kidneys and two livers. … Up until the transplant, Greg was basically clinging to life, and his wife was actually praying he might die and find a better place in heaven. But instead, the family relentless prayers brought a new life for Greg and -- even though they had to give up a lot, including sell their house -- -- they have everything to be thankful for this Christmas …

The story (although slightly edited for length and the purposes of this blog) I wrote appears here …

Listen to Greg talk about the last few years of his life and it seems as though he’s accumulated a lifetime’s worth of wisdom.

At only 36 years old, he’s witnessed the faithfulness and steadfast love of a spouse that some people don’t experience in 50 years of marriage. The adversity he’s faced is shaping his 9 and 11-year-old daughters’ characters even now. And he’s discovered the importance of having a generous church family who was always willing to help his family.

They’re things that only a man who’s faced the kind of adversity he has might understand. They’re things that only a man who received his seventh organ transplant in October might understand.

"Some people are like, ‘Are you crazy? Seven transplants,’" says Greg’s wife of 13 years, Maggie. "Surely people are going to say, ‘How can you say you believe in God when he’s had seven? What, weren’t the first two good enough? You know, couldn’t get it right the first time?’ But it’s just an example of God is willing to give opportunity after opportunity. Chance, after chance. As long as we have breath left, there’s always going to be a chance."

Greg’s problems, of course, started at a young age with kidney failure. By the time a team of physicians met him a few years ago, he already had sustained four failed kidneys and been on dialysis.

"Clearly he’s not your average transplant patient," Greg‘s doctor said. "Most patients only require one."

As a child Greg began suffering from ureteral reflux, a condition that occurs when the valve between the ureters and the bladder does not work properly, allowing urine to flow backward from the bladder and into the kidneys. At age 10, he had to undergo reconstructive bladder surgery and doctors assured him he would be on dialysis someday.

Dialysis began for Greg six years later in 1985 and by early 1987, he had received three kidney transplants. Kidney No. 4 came in 1995 and he continued dialysis.

Then, in 2003, Greg underwent his fifth kidney transplant, in addition to receiving his first liver transplant. His new kidney worked fantastically and he no longer needed dialysis. But the liver caused problems that made him sicker than he’d ever been.

He acquired hepatitis B and developed cirrhosis, a condition that occurs when scar tissue replaces healthy cells and causes the liver to fail. Additionally, Greg began developing constant infections in his bile ducts.

Doctors tried to correct the problem by inserting several drains in his bile ducts, but the infections only got worse. The problems forced Greg to check into the hospital more than 15 times during 2004 and 2005, and he spent much of that time in the intensive care unit.

Worse, he went into septic shock, a severe condition occurring when overwhelming infections limit blood flow. The brain, heart, kidneys and liver may even cease functioning.

"There were like three months of in and out of the hospital and being on antibiotics like five times a day," Maggie said. "Late to bed, early to rise. It was kind of this bad marathon."
Greg admits now there were times he thought of giving up. He believed death was so imminent he bought journals, which he planned to write in and leave for his daughters.

Maggie actually prayed Greg might die in hopes that he would no longer suffer.

"I actually hoped and prayed and said, ‘OK, look, will you please take him?’ because I knew what was in store for him," Maggie said. "It’s horrible to be completely powerless to do anything. There’s no relief. There’s nowhere to run to, there’s nothing you can do. You just have to suck it up and just keep going until something breaks."

Several times, doctors thought they had controlled the infections and sent Greg home, only to return days or weeks later, Franco said. There was no technology available to fix the bile ducts without having to remove the liver.

"So the decision was rather easy to make," the doctor said. "We knew we could provide a better quality of life than he was having."

On Oct. 27, a new liver was delivered after the son of another patient at the same clinic, who also was suffering from cirrhosis, died in an industrial accident.

"It kind of closes the circle in that here’s a patient who may some day require a transplant and in this time when his son passes away he remembered the importance of organ donation and donates (his son’s) organs to another patient he doesn’t know," the doctor said. "Nonetheless it’s quite noble and good on his part to remember how important organ donation is."

Today, Greg will again ingest 30 pills, taken from a pallet of 17 different medications. But that doesn’t compare to what he’s already dealt with.

"Compared to being hooked up to a machine, or dead, I’ll take the pills," he said.

Now he can look forward to oil painting and woodworking. He’s anxious to be active again in his church. And he and his family already are buzzing about traveling and watching sunrises again.

"I’m glad I went through what I went through because I wouldn’t be who I am today," Stricker said. "My character has been sharpened and challenged and who I am as a person has been confronted. So yes, it was difficult and I don’t want to go through it again, but I wouldn’t change it because I’ve known a nearness to God, that I think only people who suffer get to know."

The entire experience also makes this Christmas season more special for the family, Greg said, recalling John 3:16. "The most well-known bible verse is ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only son -- " Greg said, his voice trailing off and allowing his 11-year-old to complete the verse.

"That whoever believed in him should not perish, but have everlasting life," the youngster said, squished into a living room chair with her little sister. "How can you forget it?"

Flashing a smile that’s full of pride, Greg continues, "The bottom line is he gave his son for us and I’m grateful for that above all else. Somebody gave their son and daughter that I could have life again through this transplant."

* * *
From meeting Greg and his family, I rushed about 30 miles west along the rural country roads of our county and arrived about 30 minutes late to the OakVue Farm. Waiting for me inside the farmhouse were about 40 family and friends of the host, whom we’ll call ‘Farmer Ed.’ …You see all of them have been actually acting out the Christmas story for 15 years and we’ll be doing it again this year.

Their story (again edited) appears here -- and Ed’s first quote could not have been said better …

For 15 years people attending the living nativity at OakVue Farm have discovered two things: anything can happen and they’ll see an inspirational portrayal of the story behind Christmas.

Now in its 16th year, Ed, his wife, and a cast of nearly 50 family members, friends and volunteers, are preparing to share the Christmas story again. The group will present their living nativity four times Friday and Saturday, with hot chocolate and cookies served afterward.

"In the day and age when Christ is being taken out of everything, they want to do away with Christmas, you can’t play Christmas carols and all that -- this is one place that will never happen, ‘cause it’s our place," Ed said. "That’s why we keep doing it."

While some area families have made it a holiday tradition to see the living nativity, attendance continues to increase, reaching 800 people. A log Ed’s family keep is filled with audience comments like "What a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday season" and "I want the children to always remember this and not just Santa and presents."

The nativity has even attracted people visiting from several surrounding states and even countries like Germany, Australia, Jamaica, Peru and Canada.

"We’ve had people calling asking ‘Are you going to do it because my family’s coming?’" Ed said. "We get people that come out to this thing, that might not even go to a church."

Set in a barn on the farm, the 35-40 minute program involves family members and friends portraying Mary, Joseph, the innkeeper, angels, shepherds, wise men and King Herod to tell the story of Jesus’ birth. A narrator also reads bible passages, a choir sings Christmas hymns and live animals stir in the barn.

Although, the animals have been known to try upstaging their castmates. Chickens have run into the audience and even unplugged the star one year. Another year, a goat got loose and last year a donkey wouldn’t move.

One woman who participates in the nativity as choir members said they enjoy the nativity for the lessons it teaches her four young children, including a 5-year-old daughter who has begun begging to be an angel.

"I think this is the real meaning of Christmas," the woman said. "We did this before we had kids and now we have four. And it’s so nice for them to see that Christmas is not about what presents you get, but it’s about God left heaven to be born in a dirty stable, a dirty cold stable, and how he did that for us."

* * *
And finally …

“What To Get Jesus For Christmas” by John Sumwalt, a United Methodist pastor, a writer, the author of Shining Moments: Visions Of The Holy In Ordinary lives, and my father-in-law.

Fox News Anchor, John Gibson, author of "The War On Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought," has done all of us Jesus followers a great favor, although surely not in the way he intended. By bringing these so called "attacks on Christmas" to the fore, Gibson has helped us to see clearly that all of these “the sky is falling” clich├ęs and rumors of Christmas wars have less merit than we thought. When Gibson gushes, “It is no longer permissible to wish anyone Merry Christmas,” one wonders about the reliability of his sources. Do you know anyone who has been arrested, chastised, demoted or fired for saying Merry Christmas? If this “political correctness” taboo were rampant in the U.S., you would think all of us would know someone who had been harassed by the “Christmas police” or at least know someone who knows someone who has been spirited off to some “secular humanist” torture chamber and forced to watch all of the dread Michael Moore movies.

Yes, there are plenty of horror stories of crimes against Christmas that are recycled daily in ever increasingly shrill tones by radio and TV shock talkers who fill the airways with their Chicken Little patter. And to be sure there are some school boards, city officials, and corporations that have foolishly implemented rigid rules regarding Christmas symbols, and as Gibson reports, “even the colors red and green.” Anyone who would ban the colors red and green in a silly attempt to stamp out Christmas deserves to be ridiculed in a “war on Christmas” book. But, “a carefully organized conspiracy... a cabal of secularists, so called humanists, trial lawyers, cultural relativists, and liberal guilt wracked Christians?” Come on John, get out of the studio and take a look; the sky is not falling!

I write this as one who is a radical, conservative, evangelical follower of Jesus. As such, I am committed to living by the fundamental root meaning of Jesus’ teachings and conserving the ancient truths of the scriptures as he did when he confronted the hypocritical religious leaders of his day. I was raised in a conservative evangelical church where I learned to study the Bible diligently, to seek in every way to live as Jesus did, to seek to be loving and kind and generous in all of my relationships, as Jesus was. I want to stand firm against those evils that Jesus condemned and to rise up with hot anger against those same injustices and idolatries that incurred his rage. Gibson, though raised outside the church, claims to have been “taught to respect people’s religious practices,” and that he is uncomfortable with “those who mock and denigrate religion,” makes a curious exception when he declares “Some institutional backers of the war on Christmas are Christian churches such as the United Church of Christ (UCC) who celebrate Jesus Christ's humanity and leave the room when the discussion turns to his divinity.” It just isn’t true, as almost any of their 1.3 million members could have told him, or as a quick check of their Web site reveals: the preamble to the UCC constitution refers to Jesus “as the Son of God."

There is at least one thing, though, that Gibson is honest with himself and his readers about; many of the fiercest combatants resisting what they believe to be a vast anti-Christmas insurgency are not church goers, but “secularists” for whom Christmas is an “American holiday of a higher rank than, say, Super Bowl Sunday, but still secular.” The trappings of Christmas are dear to their hearts, but they have no need for Jesus who is the “reason for the season.” Those Christmas crusaders who are avid followers of Jesus often speak in angry tones, referring to anyone who disagrees with them as “messengers of Satan” or “the anti-Christ.” Nicholas Kristoff wrote: “Theirs is a religion of denouncing others not loving them.” They are demanding boycotts of stores with employees who say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. What happened to “love does not insist on it’s own way but bears all things, and endures all things?” Have we forgotten that Jesus said, “Love your enemies and bless those who curse you?” Over the centuries it has been extraordinary love that has drawn people to the church. During the plagues in the dark ages, when everyone else was putting the sick and dying out into the streets, Christians were taking them into their homes.

Even if John Gibson and all of those who support his views were proven to be absolutely correct that “A free expression of Christmas in this age is fast becoming impossible,” it would amount to little more than a tempest in a communion cup, because Jesus wouldn't care. The scuffles over the proper expressions of Christmas are piddly concerns compared to the sufferings of the poor in America and around the world.

I’m with Mel Wheatley who writes in Christmas Is for Celebrating, “Some people have been greatly disturbed lest we lose Christ out of Christmas. I am concerned lest we lose Christ in Christmas.” I think the early Christians would be shocked by our modern celebrations of Christmas, both the materialistic orgy emphasized in the secular world and the sentimental “all is calm all is bright mentality” in many churches. “The earliest Christian writer, the Apostle Paul, makes no mention of Christmas. Christians in the first several centuries of the church knew nothing of the Christmas traditions that are so popular today, most of which were adapted from pagan celebrations many centuries later. If Jesus was ever concerned about how his birthday should be celebrated or talked about, it was never recorded in the Gospels.

If we are serious about celebrating Christmas in a way that would give Jesus joy on his birthday, we would do what he did: feed the hungry, dine with outcasts, heal the sick, support the rights of women and foreigners, care for prostitutes, the mentally ill and the homeless, cleanse the corruption in our modern temples, set prisoners free, help the blind to see, hold the rich accountable for sharing their abundance with the poor, and put a stop to executions, perhaps inviting those who are without sin to make the first injection as Jesus did. It is a long list and well documented in the Gospels.

Instead of going to war over “Happy Holidays,” we could select one item from Jesus’ list and get him something he wants for Christmas this year. Perhaps it should be a gift that liberals and conservatives from red and blue states could easily agree upon. How about a war on disease? That would be the perfect gift for a healer.

Americans have given generously in response to the Tsunami that took 200,000 lives last Christmas and recently to several hundred thousand Katrina evacuees. Why don't we all give 1 percent of our Christmas budgets to do something about saving the 165,000 throughout the world who die of malaria every month, and the 140,000 of diarrhea and the 240,000 of AIDS? Even $5 from every American would go a long way toward eradicating these perennial killers. It isn’t really very much considering the piles of expensive presents that will be under most of our whatever-you-want-to-call-them trees. But then it is the thought that counts. Merry Christmas, Jesus! Or should it be Happy Hanukkah? After all he is Jewish.

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