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Children’s Christmas Poems; Doing the Right Thing

December 23, 2013

As a bonus today, I am including wonderful original Christmas poems by the children of my congregation, shared yesterday in an unscripted Christmas musical. These were written as if the kids were the various witnesses from creation, such as animals and heavenly bodies, to the birth of Jesus. They were done during church school as a collaborative effort with their teacher and with each other for the most part, but each child finished the poems on his or her own.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the manger/not a creature was stirring except me—the Christmas mouse!/What I saw that night was such a delight,/for I could see the bright light./Jesus was born in the manger that special night./Our savior was born right there in my sight (by Will Hathcote).

I am the dove/watching baby Jesus from above/with a heart of love./That’s what Christmas is made of (by Lucy Laird).

I am the little lamb who lay in the hay/right beside baby Jesus/on the very next day./I kept him warm all through the night./As I snuggled close,/he warmed my heart./I could tell something special happened that night./Our savior was born, and I was there from the start./Because he loves me with all his heart (by Sara Davis).

I am donkey that Mary rode/from Bethlehem/what a heavy load/to bring the savior for all (by Alex Coats).

I am the star that shined so bright,/that led the shepherds on such a dark night/to the manger where the baby lay./I cast a bright ray upon the sight/on that holy night (by Eli Hathcote).

Follow me and you will see/the savior that is meant to be./So you the kings can bring them gifts/while all the angels sing (by Makenzie Davis).

I am the camel, with a great big hump/delivering the wise men and all their stuff./We followed the star, it led the way/to baby Jesus lying in the hay (by Ruby Laird).

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh./I am the gifts brought to him and her (by Sophie Laird).

© 2013 First Presbyterian Church. All rights reserved.

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“Doing the Right Thing” Matthew 1:18-25 © 12/22/13 Advent 4A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The third anniversary of Daddy’s death was about two weeks ago. On the day, I happened to be driving animals for the Humane Society to a vet about 15 miles from Starkville, so I had plenty of time to reflect while the dogs whined in the back of my SUV. I remembered how as I grew up, he and I has less and less to talk about, so greatly did we disagree about the things important to us, namely, religion and politics. But though we couldn’t see eye to eye on the specifics, in the larger picture we were on the same page. Daddy taught me by word and example to live with honor, integrity, and honesty, and above all, to do the right thing, no matter the personal cost.

I’d like to think that Joseph’s father Jacob influenced him the same way, instilled those fundamental values. But what was the right thing? It was his need to answer that question that had led Joseph to study the Torah—the Jewish law—so diligently and thoroughly. His goal was to make the proper choice in every situation.

His learning had never failed him—until now. For some reason he couldn’t think clearly. What had happened to him? Why couldn’t he decide this question as rationally and objectively as he had all the others? He knew what the legal choices were. Divorce Mary or stone her. The latter was not even a remote possibility. His concern for the Law did not mean he had become mean-spirited and cruel.

The former option—divorce—seemed the only one open to a man who was just yet wanted to assert his rights. But even here, he would act with mercy. He would simply find two witnesses, then privately hand Mary a writ of repudiation. He would further spare her shame as an adulteress by making up some excuse for the break-up.

His insides were a churning mass of conflicting emotions. He was so mad at Mary’s betrayal sometimes he wanted to put his fist through a wall.

But more than his anger, Joseph felt a deep terror. Something inside told him there was mystery here, something beyond his understanding. And not comprehending scared him more than anything.

Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, he tried to get some sleep. But his was not a peaceful slumber. In a dream he saw an angel, who sought to reassure him. The baby Mary was carrying had been conceived by God’s power. Joseph was to claim the child as his son, and take Mary home. The boy’s name would be “Jesus.”

It’s hard to discount the enormity of the challenge this righteous man faced at that moment. Joseph was being asked to forge a new path, to go beyond mercy to grace. Steering such a course would be full of risk, and the carpenter was more afraid now than ever. But he was a man of faith and a man of action. He would do this thing, set out on this radically new way of following God, embrace this third option no rabbi had ever thought of. His neighbors and friends wouldn’t approve or understand. But it was more important to trust and obey God than to have community support. Mary would be his wife. Her boy would be his. And he would teach Jesus the trade he knew, along with the love of the Torah. Joseph had no idea how this baby was going to save his people from their sins, but that was the promise of God, and he would do everything in his power to see that word fulfilled.

None of us, of course, will ever face the same situation Joseph did. His challenge was unique in all of history. Yet his story can provide principles to guide us when we, too, are faced with hard and heavy decisions and seek to do the right thing.

First, let me suggest that doing the right thing is not so much a matter of rules as it is of relationships. The decision Joseph made in obedience to God was not in accord with even the most liberal, most lenient interpretation of the Torah. To love Mary and her baby, to take them as his own, he had to break the rules or really, make new ones. And these new principles valued caring for people, especially those over whom one had great power. They operated not in the abstract, but in the real world where very little is ever clear, because people and their feelings and needs are complex and messy.

If we learn from Joseph, we will recognize that all decisions about ethics and morality are made in a particular context. They concern real people, places, things. What is finally decided by an individual or group of individuals may have far-reaching consequences, even global ones. But every decision begins with someone, somewhere, with particular feelings, relationships, commitments, and values. No two situations are alike because no two people or groups of people are alike. That’s why there are no answers in the back of the book; they aren’t written down somewhere to be quoted chapter and verse or paragraph and sub-section. Solutions to the problems, answers to the questions real people face arise only from the living of life with others and from an intimate relationship with God. Whatever it is we perceive our duty to God to be, even if we call it an absolute duty or believe in an infallible Bible, love always complicates things, always introduces a shade of gray into our black and white picture.

It’s because our theological forebears in some sense came to terms with that reality that they said that God alone is Lord of the conscience. Joseph was following the Lord, not a rule-book, when he accepted Mary, whatever the consequences. We, too, are called by that same Lord to follow our conscience, accepting the outcome of our actions, risking our very selves for the sake of the right.

And that brings us to the second principle we follow when we seek to do the right thing. We may have to sacrifice ourselves or something important to us to see it happen. That could be time or money or reputation or status or livelihood or even life itself. Joseph gave up his rights and did not insist on the preservation of his honor or privilege. If he had refused to take Mary as his wife, everyone would have thought he acted properly. But staking a claim for himself would have led to disaster for the world in the long run. The right thing in this case could only be done by Joseph becoming a servant in the household of God and submitting to God’s will and way.

Presbyterian minister Carol Howard Merritt has warned us that dwelling on being a servant can be destructive, depending on who you are and how people already see you (see end note). But having said that, we still follow the One who became a servant, who put aside his privilege and power and glory to be born in a humble household, who spent most of his time away from a settled home as he proclaimed good news. Today, the self-giving of disciples may take many forms. We might forego certain luxuries in order to spend our money on meeting the needs of others. We might adopt priorities in life different from those of our neighbors. We might sacrifice our freedom for a time to care for an aging parent. Ironically, the purpose of such actions is never to point to ourselves, but to bring justice, peace, and compassion to the world, if only in our little corner.

Doing the right thing, then, means thinking in terms of relationships rather than rules. It means giving oneself for the people with whom we are in relationship, knowing that there is a larger picture to consider. But, third, it means being willing to be misunderstood, maligned, persecuted, ignored, and ridiculed by those who want to simplify everything, who have small minds, who believe following God is a list of do’s and don’ts.

I was not exaggerating the kind of ostracism Joseph was going to face for doing what he did. Everyone would expect him to think within the box. Like Jesus after him, Joseph could end up being branded as against order, an enemy of law, a traitor to the good, a threat to The Way Things Are.

The sort of people who are threatened by Joseph and Jesus have been with us in every age and are still numerous. In fact, I think they are increasing in number in both government and the church. Complex arguments, moral ambiguity, deciding matters case by case, following one’s conscience drive these people mad, in both senses of the word. But despite their indignation and their insistence on reducing everything to a neat list or grid from which we can pick the right answer, life doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t move consistently in a straight line; choices are not always clear-cut. If you dare to say such things aloud, watch out! You may just be branded as lacking in clear convictions or solid values. You might be called a lone ranger or a heretic. But in fact the affirmation that decision-making is messy can be an intentionally held conviction, not the absence of conviction. Sometimes, often, things are not simple, and the will of God may lie deeply concealed beneath a number of possibilities. The voice of God may only be heard clearly by a few. Or one.

Because our lives are so complex, doing the right thing is in the final analysis a matter of faith and trust in the God who guides us. Joseph got clear assurance from God that he need not be afraid. He could keep going in confidence that whatever happened, God was with him. He could welcome Jesus as his own; he could give up his rights; he could assume responsibility for Mary and this Child, and God would be with him.

If there is one message that keeps coming through the Christmas stories, it is this: “Do not fear.And the reason we don’t have to be afraid is because God is with us; Jesus is our Emmanuel. We can make our decisions, knowing that God is with us. When faced with great personal issues or the hard questions of our time, we can know that God is with us. We risk disagreement and error, knowing that God is with us. Joseph took a chance on God, trusting what the dream messenger said. Because he did the right thing, which is to say, the grace-full thing, the world was saved. You were saved. I was saved.

That is the invitation of this story to us as well: to welcome Christ into our hearts, to take the risk of faith, to act so people may be reconciled and saved, and may hear the good news of Christmas: Do not fear. God is with us. The Savior of the world has come.

Note: http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2013-11/servants-predators-and-too-entitled-pastors

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