About Pastor Steven Wright

True Pilgrims, True Thanksgiving


Once again, the Thanksgiving holiday is upon us and our minds are filled with images of pilgrims and pumpkin pie. All across our nation it is a time of family gatherings, feasting, and football. Such celebration can be good and godly, but it can best be these things if we remember the holiday’s origins and truly enter into the spirit of giving thanks. The pilgrims have much to teach us about thanksgiving.

Who were these people we know as the pilgrims? They were Puritans who felt conscience-bound to separate from the Church of England when that church in 1604 demanded strict conformity to the Book of Common Prayer in worship. These Puritans longed for a more thoroughgoing Reformation in order to worship only in ways clearly mandated in Scripture. At first, they worshiped secretly in homes in England, but persecution was on the rise. One such group in the town of Scrooby soon realized that they would have to leave the country in order to worship freely. They went first to Holland, but troubles there signaled time for another move. When the Mayflower set sail for America in 1620, 37 of its 102 passengers were Puritan Separatists from Scrooby that had settled in Holland. Many in the community stayed behind in Holland with their pastor, John Robinson, intending to join their friends and loved ones in America later on.

The two-month trans-Atlantic voyage was often rough and miserable, and things only got worse when they reached the New World in November. They began building their settlement in the midst of a deadly winter, through which only 55 of the 102 passengers survived. Eight children who had come with at least one parent now had none. Of 18 adult women, only four survived. Many reunions planned with those left behind in Holland would now take place only in heaven. It was a bitter beginning.

Spring and summer brought a peace treaty with the Indians, who helped teach the settlers how to farm in the New World. Crops were limited but sufficient for survival when combined with the fruits of foraging and hunting. When the harvest came in, there was a three-day celebration by about 50 settlers and 90 native Americans. It was a time of feasting, recreation, and giving thanks to God for the blessings of the harvest. This celebration is commemorated by our Thanksgiving holiday.

How was it that these settlers could be so thankful after all the tragic losses of the previous year? I suggest it was because they were true pilgrims. They didn’t generally refer to themselves in this way. The closest they came to doing so is a statement by William Bradford in his book, Of Plymouth Plantation:

So they left that goodly and pleasant city [Leyden in Holland] which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to heaven, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.

This language echoes that of Hebrews 11.13-14, which speaks of believers as “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” who “seek a [heavenly] homeland.” The Separatists from Scrooby were pilgrims in the same way Bunyan’s character, Christian, was a pilgrim. They were pilgrims on earth making their way to the Celestial City. That eternal perspective made it possible for them to experience such great sorrow through the winter and yet emerge thankful for the good things God gave to them.

If we would celebrate Thanksgiving in the spirit of these early settlers, we also should cultivate an identity as pilgrims on earth making our way to the heavenly city. When sorrows come to us, we can know that God is with us in them and that they will not last forever. We can give Him thanks for every good gift He sends our way.

When you gather with your family and friends on Thanksgiving Day, remember these pilgrims and their harvest feast of celebration before God. Review the past year with its blessings and hardships, and reflect on God’s faithfulness to you in it. Offer sincere and specific prayers of thanksgiving to the Lord who is leading you on your pilgrimage. And then, like those pilgrims of old, enjoy the feasting and fun that should characterize your Christian faith.

Pandemic Worship Protocols

We are gathering in person for our morning worship service with modifications to address coronavirus concerns. This includes physical distancing in sanctuary seating, having offering plates in the back, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper with pre-packaged elements to avoid passing plates. No nursery is being provided, but young children are welcome (as always) to sit with their parents in worship.

Sunday School is offered for all ages following morning worship, and we have Sunday evening worship at 5 PM.

All are encouraged to wear face masks when entering and leaving the sanctuary. Face masks are optional during the worship service.

I was glad when they said to me,

‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’

(Psalm 122.1)


Martin Luther King on the Complete Life

In the summer of 1958, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered two devotional addresses to the first National Conference on Christian Education of the United Church of Christ at Purdue University.[1] I would like to revisit the second address entitled, “The Dimensions of a Complete Life.” In it, Dr. King helpfully provides a balanced view of how we are called to live as followers of Jesus Christ.

He begins by recalling John’s vision of the New Jerusalem descending to earth in Revelation 21. Dr. King notes that the completeness of the city was symbolized the equality of its length, breadth, and height – which make it a perfect cube. From that observation, he proceeds to discuss three “dimensions” of life to which we are all called to attend.

The first dimension is the personal, “in which the individual pursues personal ends and ambitions.” While moving too far in this dimension may lead to narcissism, it is nevertheless appropriate to have a proper self-regard and ambition. Dr. King describes how this should be the case in the vocational aspect of our lives: “No matter how small one thinks his life’s work is in terms of the norms of the world and the so-called big jobs, he must realize that it has cosmic significance if he is serving humanity and doing the will of God.” This is a helpful corrective to false thinking that views some callings as more significant than others in the eyes of God. He provides an effective illustration to make his point:

To carry this to an extreme, if it falls to your lot to be a street-sweeper, sweep streets as Raphael painted pictures, sweep streets as Michelangelo carved marble, sweep streets as Beethoven composed music, sweep streets as Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street-sweeper who swept his job well.”

In the personal dimension of life, we are called to be the best that we can be when that is kept in balance with the other dimensions.

The second dimension of life has to do with others. It is absolutely essential that we attend to it: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” Dr. King relates Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, comparing what thinking might have been behind the responses of the priest and Levite on the one hand and the Samaritan on the other:

I imagine the first question that the priest and the Levite asked was this: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Then the good Samaritan came by, and by the very nature of his concern reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” And so this man was great because he had the mental equipment for a dangerous altruism.

Dr. King warns against focusing exclusively on our personal concerns, instead calling us to recognize “that we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Like the Samaritan man in the parable, we must be willing to place the needs of others above our own – at times even engaging in “a dangerous altruism.”

The third dimension has to do with our relationship with God. Dr. King observes that some people master the first two dimensions without ever getting around to the third. When they do this, “They find themselves bogged down on the horizontal plane without being integrated on the vertical plane.” No life is complete that leaves God out of the picture. And yet, he notes that it is easy to forget this in our modern world:

We so often find ourselves neglecting this third dimension of life. Not that we go up and say, “Good-by, God, we are going to leave you now.” But we become so involved in the things of this world that we are unconsciously carried away by the rushing tide of materialism which leaves us treading in the confused waters of secularism.

How that description rings true to the temptation that comes to those of us ensconced in the middle class American lifestyle! When our basic personal needs seem always to be provided, we often have little thought for God. But, as Dr. King writes, “Without him, life is a meaningless drama with the decisive scenes missing.” Hence, he issues a call for all to seek and to nurture a relationship with God.

Not only is this presentation helpful in terms of it personal application in our lives; it is also salutary when we look back and evaluate the life and work of Dr. King himself. Because of his leadership in the Civil Rights movement, it might be thought that his attention was focused exclusively on the second dimension – raising the life conditions of others who were being mistreated as victims of racial prejudice. But he was also interested in the first dimension, challenging every individual to embrace his or her calling with a larger vision in mind. And the third dimension was absolutely essential to this ordained minister. The ultimate goal for all people involved not just horizontal equality but vertical reconciliation. No life could be complete without a right relationship with God.

Consider, in closing, Dr. King’s summary of his vision of the three dimensions of the complete life:

Love yourself, if that means rational, healthy, and moral self-interest. You are commanded to do that. That is the length of life. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. You are commanded to do that. That is the breadth of life. But never forget that there is a first and even greater commandment, “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy mind.” This is the height of life. And when you do this you live the complete life.

[1]All quotations are from the published version of these two addresses: Martin Luther King, Jr., The Measure of a Man(Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2013).

Christmas and the Conquering Christ

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever.  
Isaiah 9:6-7 (NKJV)

Birth of a Conqueror

Christmas celebrates the birth of a mighty conqueror. It is easy to lose sight of this amidst the sights and sounds of the season, and it is not just commercialism and the secular trappings of the holiday that can have this effect. Ubiquitous nativity scenes and carols focused on the baby Jesus can lure us into a kind of sappy sentimentalism that forgets just who this baby was and why He was born in Bethlehem all those years ago. Even many unbelievers join in the holiday spirit, because they don’t find anything threatening about a baby in a manger (though they should). Earlier generations did not forget the truth that Jesus came as a mighty conqueror. This theme finds exquisite expression in John Milton’s poem, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” composed in 1629.

Christmas Victory Over Pagan Gods

Milton’s 27-stanza ode celebrates Christ’s birth as a time of victory over pagan deities in all their forms. The poet provides a veritable catalog of ancient competitors to Christ. He speaks of deities we read about in the Old Testament, such as Baal and Peor and Moloch. He references mythic beings like Nymphs and the gods of Egypt, Libya, and Rome. All of these, Milton proposes, began to be swept aside when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We get a taste of Milton’s art in a stanza that begins by speaking of the Egyptian god, Osiris, and goes on to mention Typhon, a giant monster in Greek myth. Speaking first of Osiris, Milton writes:

He feels from Juda’s land

The dredded Infants hand,

The rayes of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;

Nor all the gods beside,

Longer dare abide,

Nor Tryphon huge ending in snaky twine:

Our Babe to show his Godead true,

Can in his swaddling bands controul the damned crew.

The “Godhead true” of baby Jesus exposes as false the pretensions to godhead of all the pagan deities. Even in “his swaddling bands,” Jesus had the full power to “controul the damned crew.” Milton rightly saw in Christmas the victory of Christ over all His competitors.

Christmas Victory Over Satan

Chief among these competitors, of course, is Satan himself. Milton anticipates the perfect bliss that will come with victory over the devil at the last judgment, but he sees that bliss beginning to be realized in Christ’s nativity:

And then at last our bliss

Full and perfect is,

But now begins: for from this happy day

Th’ old Dragon under ground,

In straiter limits bound,

Not half so far casts his usurped sway,

And wrath to see his Kingdom fail,

Swindges the scaly Horrour of his foulded tail.

Jesus was born to vanquish Satan’s kingdom (“his usurped sway”) and to establish the Kingdom of God. This is the testimony of Scripture. Immediately after His baptism, Jesus confronted Satan in the wilderness and wielded the Word of God as a weapon to resist his temptations. When Jesus cast an unclean spirit out of a man in the Capernaum synagogue, the spirit cried out:

“What have we to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Did you come to destroy us? I know who You are – the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24, NKJV).


When Jesus approached the Gadarene demoniacs, the demons cried out:

“What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?” (Matthew 8:29)

The demons clearly recognized Jesus for who He was, and they knew He had come to rout them. With every exorcism, Jesus displayed His power over Satan and his forces. When some scribes from Jerusalem accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, He responded:

“How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end. No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. And then he will plunder his house.” (Mark 3:23-27, NKJV)

This is exactly what Jesus was doing – binding Satan and plundering his house. During His earthly ministry, Jesus bound Satan for a thousand years so that he would no longer deceive the nations (cf. Revelation 20:1-3). Milton referred to this when he wrote:

Th’ old Dragon under ground,

In straiter limits bound,

Not half so far casts his usurped sway.

The Ongoing Christmas Conquest

With Satan now bound, the gospel is going forth in power, and people from every nation are coming to faith in Christ. We read in Revelation 20 not only of Satan’s binding in history but also of his fate at the end of history:

The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Revelation 20:10, NKJV)

This is where history is headed as Jesus vanquishes the kingdom of Satan and builds the Kingdom of God. This victorious march through history began when Jesus took flesh upon Himself and was born as a baby in Bethlehem. Milton reminded us of the Person and the power of the newborn child in Bethlehem:

Our Babe to shew his Godhead true,

Can in his swaddling bands controul the damned crew.

It is good and right to celebrate the birth of Jesus each year. There is surely a place for nativity scenes and carols about the little baby. But as you see such sights and sing such songs, remember that this baby who looked so helpless was in fact a mighty conqueror born to despoil Satan of his kingdom. He was God the Son come in the flesh to establish an everlasting Kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy (Romans 14:17). He is your great King, and you will honor Him this Christmas as you bow before Him in worship and in wonder.

Art Matters: In Defense of John Calvin

A few years ago I read an engaging essay by Lauren F. Winner entitled, “The Art Patron: Someone Who Can’t Draw a Straight Line Tries to Defend Her Art-Buying Habit.”[1]In it, she offers an apology for Christians spending money on art even when there are other good ways such money could be used. I appreciate what she says and am sympathetic to her perspective. But one thing about the essay grated on me. She writes, “Granted, there is a strain in Christian theology that is hostile to visual art – that says art is a waste of time, or an indulgence, tantamount to idolatry.” I was nodding in concerned agreement as I quickly turned to the endnote to learn what modern fundamentalist scoundrel she cited to justify this statement. I was shocked to find that the note reads in its entirety, “See John Calvin, InstitutesI.xi.” That raised my Presbyterian hackles. Was Calvin really the enemy of the arts that Ms. Winner implies him to have been? The answer is decidedly, “No.”

That chapter in the Institutes of the Christian Religion is entitled, “It Is Unlawful to Attribute a
Visible Form to God, and Generally Whoever Sets Up Idols Revolts Against the True God.” The
entire section is a critique of idolatry, especially of making visible representations of the invisible God to be used in worship. Calvin pulls no punches in condemning such idolatry, but
he also makes clear that he is not thereby condemning artistic creation per se. He writes:

And yet I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images permissible. But because sculpture and painting are gifts of God, I seek a pure and legitimate use of each, lest those things which the Lord has conferred upon us for his glory and our good be not only polluted by perverse misuse but also turned to our destruction.

In the clearest of terms, Calvin declares the visual arts to be “gifts of God” which He has given us “for his glory and our good.” These are hardly the words of one who “says art is a waste of time, or an indulgence, tantamount to idolatry”! Calvin affirms the goodness of art while warning against its abuse.

The fact is that Reformed theology, historically rooted in Calvin, provides fertile soil in which the arts can thrive. Abraham Kuyper noted this in his Stone Lectures at Princeton in 1898:

[I]f we confess that the world once was beautiful, but by the curse has become undone, and by a final catastrophe is to pass to its full state of glory, excelling even the beautiful of paradise, then art has the mystical task of reminding us in its productions of the beautiful that was lost and of anticipating its perfect coming luster. Now this last-mentioned instance is the Calvinistic confession…. Standing by the ruins of this once so wonderfully beautiful creation, art points out to the Calvinist both the still visible lines of the original plan, and what is even more, the splendid restoration by which the Supreme Artist and Master-Builder will one day renew and enhance even the beauty of His original creation.

Kuyper’s statement doesn’t constitute a full-fledged Christian aesthetic, but it does demonstrate how Calvinistic thinking comports with a very positive view of the arts.

Writers of the Calvinian school have been among the most active in modern times in developing and promoting Christian aesthetic concerns in evangelical circles. In this regard, one can cite Reformed scholars such as Hans Rookmaaker (Modern Art and the Death of a Culture), Calvin Seerveld (Rainbows for the Fallen World), and Nicholas Wolterstorff (Art in Action: Towards a Christian Aesthetic). At the popular level, Francis Schaeffer (Art and the Bible) powerfully challenged Christians to have an interest in art and to be supportive of artists. I suspect that, directly or indirectly, Ms. Winner’s appreciation of art as a Christian owes a debt to such heirs of John Calvin.

We certainly want to acknowledge that debt and live up to our heritage when it comes to the arts at Covenant Presbyterian Church. We reject Art (with a capital “A”) as a religion unto itself, but we affirm the arts as an arena in which we can honor God and bless those made in his image.

To that end, our Reformation Conference this year will be dedicated to the theme, “The Reformation and the Arts.” Musician/pastor/author Kemper Crabb will speak about how the Reformation provided liberation for art to flourish. And he will share his own artistic gifts with us through a musical concert on Sunday night. Please plan to join us with our special guest, Kemper Crabb, on Sunday, October 27th.

[1]This appears as chapter 3 in W. David O. Taylor, ed., For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a  Vision for the Arts(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2010).

Kemper Crabb Concert

Covenant Presbyterian Church is pleased to host Kemper Crabb in concert on Sunday, October 27th at 5 PM. The concert is part of our celebration of “The Reformation and the Arts” and is free and open to all.

Kemper has written of his vision as a Christian artist:

All of creation is the Ultimate, Ongoing Work of Art. God is the Ultimate Artist, and we, created in His Image, make Art that, like everything else, reveals God. It is also true that, as Christians called to be artists, we are specifically called to utilize our gift … in such a way that men see God, His Glory, more clearly in Creation, and are thus affected by that vision.

Kemper Crabb has more than four decades of experience as a Christian musician. His first band, Redemption, released an album in 1974 that exemplifies the “Jesus Music” of that era. Redemption evolved to become ArkAngel whose Tolkien-influenced 1980 album, Warrior, is considered a classic by believers and non-believers alike. In 1982, Kemper blended Medieval and Celtic themes on The Vigil.

From the 1990’s on, Kemper has been actively performing and recording. Among a number of releases are two Christmas albums: A Medieval Christmas (1996) and Downe in Yon Forrest (2009). The latter is the soundtrack for his Christmas concert broadcast on PBS. He has performed and recorded with the bands Caedmon’s Call and Atomic Opera. His 2010 album, Reliquarium: Future Hymns from the Ancient World, was produced to honor and raise funds for his father’s missionary work.


A solo performance by Kemper Crabb is a rare treat, and we hope you’ll join us!

Church Address: 3720 N. Highland Ave., Jackson, TN 38305

Communicant Membership Class

Beginning Sunday, September 8th, our Sunday School time for children in grades 1-6 will be devoted to a Communicants Class. In the Presbyterian Church, children of members are considered non-communicant members until they make a profession of faith before the elders of the church. Upon approval by the Session, they become communicant members who may partake of the Lord’s Supper.

It is a joy to see covenant children come to the place in their lives where they can make a profession of personal faith in Christ and be admitted to the Lord’s Table. This is an important event in the life of each child for which he or she should be prepared. Our denomination’s Book of Church Order addresses this in a way that can provide helpful guidance for parents and elders to work together in the nurture of covenant children. Here are some excerpts:

When [believers’ children within the Visible Church] are able to understand the Gospel, they should be earnestly reminded that they are members of the Church by birthright, and that it is their duty and privilege personally to accept Christ, to confess Him before men, and to seek admission to the Lord’s Supper. (57-1)

The time when young persons come to understand the Gospel cannot be precisely fixed. This must be left to the prudence of the Session, whose office it is to judge, after careful examination, the qualifications of those who apply for admission to sealing ordinances. (57-2)

The Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks to the prerequisites for taking communion:

Q. 97 What is required to the worthy receiving of the Lord’s supper?

A. It is required of them that would worthily partake of the Lord’s supper, that they examine themselves of their knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, of their faith to feed upon him, of their repentance, love, and new obedience; lest, coming unworthily, they eat and drink judgment to themselves.

Another element in becoming a communicant member is the taking of membership vows. A child must be able to profess these vows with understanding and a commitment to keep them.

When we put all this together, we begin to get a picture of what is expected of children as they make a profession of faith. They must have an understanding of the gospel as well as a credible testimony to embracing the gospel through personal faith in Jesus Christ. They should demonstrate an ability to examine their own lives in order to recognize and repent of sin. They should also be able to understand and meaningfully affirm the vows of church membership. While it is understood that a child will not be able to articulate all these things in the same way as an adult, he or she should nevertheless be able to do so credibly in an age-appropriate way. The elders suggest parents are in the best position to determine when they believe their child is ready to take this step.

Our Communicants Class will be taught by Pastor Steven and his wife, Allegra, and will review the gospel and the basic teachings of the Christian faith using the Bible and the First Catechism. Each week, review sheets will be sent home so parents can help their children become grounded in these important truths. Our hope is that this will help children who have faith in Christ to be able to understand and articulate that faith.

Any child who wishes to become a communicant member must be examined by the Session. Completion of this class does not obligate a child to pursue communicant membership at that time nor does it guarantee a child will be approved by the Session. Nevertheless, the class will hopefully be one more means of covenant nurture for the children that participate as they prepare one day to make personal professions of faith and become communicant members of the church. May God bless all avenues of covenant nurture in our families and church so that our children grow up to be faithful men and women of God.

Parents with questions about the Communicants Class or communicant membership are encouraged to speak with Pastor Steven.

A Time for Tears

“Rivers of water run down from my eyes, because men  do not keep Your law.” (Psalm 119.136)

It is not hard to discern that we live in an age of shaky moral standards. From entertainment to advertising to news stories, we are confronted with images and messages that challenge Biblical morality. The murder of unborn babies is justified in the name of choice. Immigrants are vilified in the name of patriotism. Sexual mores have been cast aside in the name of personal freedom. Greed and oppression are justified in the name of capitalism. How are we as Christians to respond when people around us reject the principles of God’s law?

One possible response is to rally the troops so we can loudly and publicly denounce all that we perceive to be ungodly. We can take to the streets with slogans on banners and fists in the air. There is no doubt that this approach yields results. The media love to focus their cameras on the faces of angry Christians and to thrust their microphones before those who are ranting and raving. The louder and loonier you are, the easier it is to get attention. Yet, is this what God would have us do?

The psalmist points us in a different direction with the testimony,  “Rivers of water run down from my eyes, because men do not keep Your law.” Why was weeping his response to the law-breaking of others? Why was he not satisfied simply to keep the law himself? The answer is that he was filled with a profound love for God and neighbor, which is what Jesus said the law was all about (Matthew 22.37-40).

If you really love someone, you take offense when others treat him with dishonor. God is the great lawgiver, and His law is an expression of His character of holiness, justice,  righteousness, and love. When men and women ignore that law, they are thumbing their noses at the Lawgiver (whether they realize it or not). The psalmist’s love for God causes him to grieve when others don’t give God the honor He is due.

If you really love someone, you also want the best for her. God is our Creator, who knows what is best for us and has revealed that in His revelation in Scripture. When our neighbor is defying God’s law, she is missing out on the blessings that God has in store for her. The psalmist’s love for neighbor causes him to weep when others aren’t experiencing the benefits that attend obedience to their Creator.

We can learn some important lessons from the author of Psalm 119. The next time someone who is defying God’s law gets your attention, ask yourself a few questions before you respond. Is my primary concern in this situation the honor of God? Will my response be motivated by genuine love for the one with whom I disagree?  I fear that if we were honest, we’d have to say that the answers to these questions would oftentimes be “No.” It is all too easy to act out of self-interest that is perceived (often justly) as self-righteousness. We can be consumed with concern for our own honor (not God’s) and love for self (not neighbor).

This is not to say that it is never appropriate to take a public stand on moral issues of the day. Love can require this! But how we express ourselves is all-important. We should always and only do so with weeping. That may or may not involve literal tears, but that image should express the disposition of hearts driven by genuine love for God and others. It may not put us in the headlines, but we are far more likely to have a positive moral impact in society if we lead with love and not anger. If we never take time for tears, then the most productive thing we can probably do is remain silent and pray that God would soften our hearts.

Christmas Gifts: Redeeming the Routine

“What did you get for Christmas?” That was a question I heard many times as a child each year in the days following December 25th. It invited a rehearsal of all the gifts I had received in my Christmas stocking and around the Christmas tree, and I was more than happy to respond with a litany of my Christmas loot. After all, I had been anticipating the annual rite of ripping into the wrapping paper for many months. Finally, items from my wish list were really mine to own, enjoy, and talk about. It sure is fun to receive gifts!

My good friend, Tom, used to tweak the typical post-Christmas interrogation by asking a slightly different question: “What did you give for Christmas?” He would not place any emphasis on the word “give,” and quite often people would misunderstand and respond with a list of things they had received. Tom would smile, interrupt the excited recital, and say, “I didn’t ask what you got for Christmas. I asked what you gave for Christmas.” He didn’t do this to play the part of Scrooge but to challenge folks to find joy in the other side of the gift exchange equation.

I, for one, appreciated Tom’s gentle challenge. To be sure, I like to receive gifts and am still known to compile a wish list as Christmas approaches. But I’ve found increasing joy in giving gifts at Christmas and on other occasions. Gift giving is quite an art. To be done well, it requires really knowing the recipient and reflecting on what would be meaningful to him or her. Such gift giving is not perfunctory; it is an expression of love and friendship. “Success” is found in the expression of joy on the recipient’s face that says the gift was well chosen (or at least that the attempt was appreciated!).

The world tries to commercialize Christmas, making the exchange of gifts a veritable sacrament of capitalism. We’re told that we need to spend a lot, since the price of a gift is supposed to be a measure of its worth. To that I say, “Bah, humbug!” We can give without breaking the bank, when giving is an expression of love based in knowledge of the beloved.

As Christians, we know that God gave the greatest gift ever when He sent His Son into the world to be born in Bethlehem. At Christmas, we commemorate the birth of our Savior – surely a cause for festivity and the festive exchange of gifts. As that day approaches, let us look forward to it with joyful anticipation. But let us be careful that ours not be a materialistic joy rooted only in what we expect others to give to us.  Let our gift exchange be a true celebration of the gift of our Savior and not an expression of the worst aspects of capitalism.

Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20.35). With that in mind and in homage to my late friend, Tom, I ask: “So what are you going to give this Christmas?”