A Real Christmas

He’s been helping his mother with the Angel Tree ministry since he was a toddler, but he’s nine years old now and is beginning to understand what it’s all about. Wrapping gifts for another nine-year-old boy on behalf of a father who is in prison, he asks, “Mom, are all prisoners mean? Do they still love their kids?”

“Of course, they do. Prisoners are children of God, just like you and me. They just don’t have any way to purchase Christmas gifts for their children.”

“When will Jimmy’s dad get out of prison?”

“Not until 2066.”

“How old will Jimmy be?”

“He’ll be sixty years old.”


All across the country families wrap Christmas presents during December for the 2.7 million children in the United States who have an incarcerated parent. It’s a way in which we can make real the love of Jesus Christ to children who may not otherwise be able to celebrate Christmas.

The church where I pastor has participated in Angel Tree since 1996 when we served 75 children. This year we served 148 families, consisting of 363 children. Angel Tree was started by Prison Fellowship and is the only nationwide program that is directed toward the hundreds of thousands of children who suffer poverty and hardship because one of their parents is in prison.

The Salvation Army is the largest organization sponsoring Angel Tree, but many local churches across the country participate as well. Purchasing and delivering Christmas gifts to so many children is a huge venture in any church.

The kick-off is on the Sunday before Thanksgiving when individuals and families pick the names of children from the Angel Tree. The families, given to us by Prison Fellowship, live in our geographical area, although the parent may be incarcerated in any part of the country. Eligible prisoners for this program have to be a part of Prison Fellowship, which is a Christian ministry to incarcerated men and women. Prisoners are invited to send messages to their children that accompany the gifts.

After receiving names, church members have two weeks to purchase two gifts for each child, an article of clothing and a fun item, with a price limit of $30-$40. The gifts are wrapped by the families as if given by the incarcerated parents. If the children have siblings who are not biological children of the parent in prison, we include them as well, although it is not mandated by Angel Tree. That price limit is $10-$15. One family this year has eleven children. Only four are the biological children of the father in prison, but the other seven children received sibling gifts because it’s important to include everyone.

Paperwork filled out by the parent at home includes specific requests by the children and teenagers. Sometimes they ask for school uniforms, coats or sweaters. One child wrote, “My Christmas wish: ‘For Dad to come home.’” Another requested, “Books that I can read.” When children and teens ask for personal items like underwear or bras, it tugs at the heart. No one ever asks a stranger to buy intimate wear for them unless there is a critical need.

In early December church members return their wrapped gifts to the church. The flurry of activity is a sign to behold as hundreds of people deliver bags filled with brightly wrapped presents. In addition, three different missions groups in the church donate a total of $5,000, which is used to buy food for each family. The usual request is for breakfast and snack items since children are home over the Christmas vacation.


Each food bag contains approximately $35 worth of food as well as two additional items: a booklet from Prison Fellowship that describes God’s love for them and for the world and a card from the church that says, “Your friends at First United Methodist Church Birmingham are praying for you this holiday season. Have a blessed Christmas. You remain in our hearts and in our prayers. Jesus is the reason for the season.”

Our Angel Tree coordinators are present all week, along with dozens of volunteers who sort and categorize the gifts and assemble food bags for each of the 148 families. Meanwhile, a volunteer begins mapping routes so that the thirty-one drivers each deliver presents to four or five families on a Saturday morning. It’s a mammoth job. Families are asked to be home between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. If no one answers the door, another crew tries again on Sunday.

Angela has been the coordinator for the past eight years. “Why do you do this?” I ask. “Because Prison Fellowship is a great organization, and I love to help innocent children.” Angela remembers families who are served year after year and has fallen in love with the children, some of whom will not receive any other presents than the ones from the church. One year Angela delivered presents to Donovan. Donovan, a long-time recipient of Angel Tree gifts, is 18 now and has even come to the church to speak about what Angel Tree means to him.

Diane and her sixteen-year-old daughter are also present throughout the week. Diane started helping with Angel Tree when Skylar was just a toddler, and they haven’t missed a year since. Family vacations are even planned around Angel Tree. When I ask, “Why do you do this?” Diane says, “Angel Tree is a labor of love and puts all of life into perspective. By doing Angel Tree at the beginning of December, it sets the tone for the Christmas season. I am more realistic now about spending habits and don’t buy as much for Skylar.”

One prisoner thanked us by writing, “Angel Tree provides a special connection between my three sons and me at the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ and allows us to share in this celebration even though we are miles and miles apart. What Angel Tree does for incarcerated men and women embodies what Jesus did for all of us and the teachings he left for us. I am so grateful that through this program my sons and I can experience the gift of giving and receiving because my children understand what it means to give to others and to freely receive God’s love.”

The looks of wonder on the faces of the boys and girls who benefit from Angel Tree are etched in our hearts forever. We are signs of God’s love for children who feel abandoned and confused because of their parent’s incarceration. They hope that their parent in prison remembers them, and they need to know that through the love of Jesus, God can bring healing into their family.

Ultimately, we are delivering more than food and gifts. We are making real God’s love in the real world. Unfortunately, in Michigan alone, 16,000 children were waiting in eager anticipation but were not taken into the Angel Tree program last year. Every child deserves a chance, and every church can find some way to reach out to the children in their community at Christmas.


“Real isn’t how you are made,” says the Skin Horse in Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit. “It’ a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?’

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Real is incarcerated men and women loving their children, even from prison. Real is children experiencing both the pain of separation as well as the love of others who care. Real is other children who learn that not everyone receives more Christmas presents than they know what to do with. Real is disciples of Jesus Christ who know that when you are real no one is ugly, passed over or forgotten. How can you become real so that other can experience a real Christmas?


No More Bucking Up

I couldn’t figure it out. Recently, my dental hygienist scraped, poked and dug around my teeth for at least an hour before she even began cleaning them.

“What’s up with my teeth?” I finally asked.

“You have gingivitis.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s an inflammation of the gum tissue.”

“Really? I’ve never had that before. Where does it come from?”



“That’s not all. The inflammation around your teeth can also affect your heart, as sticky bacterial plaque can get into the bloodstream and injure major organs. You need to start using Sonicare. It’s an electric toothbrush that works much better than a regular toothbrush.You also have to start flossing daily. Not flossing daily can take ten years off your life.”

My hygienist put the fear of God into me, but I wasn’t 100% convinced. Just then my dentist came in to give my teeth a once over. “Jeff, I’ve never had gingivitis before. Where did it come from?”


My teeth gave me away. According to researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo, the University of North Carolina and the University of Michigan, emotional factors experienced in the previous twelve months play a significant role in the development of adult gum disease. The stress that we experience because of financial pressures, job loss, overwork, depression or relationship difficulties has to manifest itself somewhere, and it’s often in our body.

I ran across an Advent prayer this week that went like this: “Lord, even though I am under a lot of stress during this season of Advent, help me to just buck up.” Has anyone ever told you to buck up: to “deal with it,” “grin and bear it” or “just get over it”? Can you imagine telling John the Baptist to buck up when he announced to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Or Jesus when he said, “Woe to you, scribes and hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”

I have a new mantra for Advent. “No more bucking up.” No more pretending that all is well during Advent or any other time. No more allowing stress to destroy our mental, emotional or physical health. No more refusing to deal with difficult issues until they explode. No more acquiescing to those who would diminish, oppress or squelch the spirit of others.

The intensity of the stress in our country from decades of ongoing and unaddressed tensions between police departments and African Americans has escalated dramatically in the past few months. Regardless of the circumstances of the recent deaths of blacks by white police officers, what we are recognizing is a mistrust between community police departments and the people they serve. It also highlights the tension that builds when the make-up of these departments does not reflect the communities they represent.


For decades African Americans have been told, in effect, to “buck up” as America has attempted to live as one nation “with liberty and justice for all.” Protests and demonstrations have erupted all over the country in response to several grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers for deaths of African Americans. And on November 24, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer when all he had was a toy airsoft gun.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has a 17-year-old African American son, said at a news conference hours after the decision was announced, “I’ve had to worry over the years… Is Dante safe each night? … Is my child safe, and not just from some of the painful realities of crime and violence in some of our neighborhoods, but safe from the very people they want to have faith in as their protectors? That’s the reality.”

Ferguson, Cleveland and New York City are stark reminders of our call as disciples of Jesus Christ to admit the truth of what is happening in the streets of our country, recognize the ongoing challenge of racism, and commit ourselves to work for racial equality in every corner of the world. No more bucking up.


We find similar stress in the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations, all of which are struggling to reinvent themselves in a changing world. In The United Methodist Church we haven’t yet found a way to honor the global nature of our church by claiming a common theological heritage and at the same time allowing for varieties of biblical understanding and differences around social issues according to cultural and geographical contexts.

The fact that there is no body provided for in the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church where American United Methodists can make decisions about their own polity, structure and social principles mitigates at times against church vitality and effective disciple-making. In addition, we have not always been able to respect differences of faith and practice by seeking common ground. One consequent stress to the system has resulted in ecclesiastical challenges to our polity by those who decide to “buck up no more” by performing gay marriages. The result? Painful church trials and a “gingivitis” of the spirit that inflames rather than consoles.

We’re now in the midst of the season of Advent. It is not only a time of waiting and longing for the coming of Christ, it is also an occasion for repentance for the many ways in which we insist that others “buck up” when they don’t feel the joy of Christmas or think like we do. Some experience despair over race, immigration, health care inequities and poverty. Others are struggling with the stress of mental or physical illness, worry about friends or family members or dis-ease with the commercialization and misplaced expectations of a sacred holiday. “Buck up. Get over it. Don’t be a Grinch!” we are told.

How can we celebrate Christmas in a way that offers hope for our world instead of trite expressions of Christmas joy, mounds of stuff that no one needs or family customs that focus inward rather than extend Christ’s love into the darkest corners of our world? Instead of just bucking up, how can we transform our stress into positive actions that make a difference in the lives of others as well as bring health and wholeness to our own lives? I invite you to consider these suggestions.

  • Recognize how stress affects your physical, emotional, spiritual and dental health and dare to simplify Christmas so that you can truly enjoy the season.
  • Empathize with those who struggle at Christmas instead of providing glib solutions or insisting that they buck up.
  • Go deeper into the wilderness of your own life by a countercultural waiting in the embrace of darkness as you move through Advent.
  • Move beyond yourself this Advent and align your energies with those living on the margins or those who have been rejected, oppressed and need others to advocate for them.
  • Consider attending worship services such as Blue Christmas or Longest Night services that intentionally minister to those for whom this time of year evokes pain, grief or hopelessness.

As Mayor de Blasio wrote in an open letter last week, “Finally, in recent weeks, protesters and activists have adopted a phrase that should never have to be said, but that the stains on our country’s history demand we say: Black Lives Matter.” He also wrote, “There is much to be done.” No more bucking up.


The Hidden Message

Last week a massive snowfall in Buffalo blanketed upstate New York with more than eighty-six inches of snow in several storms. It will likely go down as the most extreme Lake Erie storm on record. The blizzard also reminds us of one of the greatest miracles in nature. In the midst of all the snow, the likelihood that any two of those snowflakes are alike is virtually zero.

Snowflakes form when water vapor condenses around a speck of dust high in the clouds. The shape of a snowflake when it lands on your face is determined by air temperature, how the water vapor condenses and where it falls. When the temperature is between 27 and 32 degrees, snow crystals take the shape of six-sided plates. As the temperature declines, needles form, then hollow columns and fern-like stars.

Did you know that certain types of water can also display beautiful crystals when frozen? Internationally renowned scientist Masaru Emoto discovered that water from natural sources produces a variety of hexagonal crystals. According to Emoto, who died on October 7 at the age of seventy-one, these crystals represent the balance, symmetry and life force of Mother Nature. Conversely, the absence of crystals in most tap water indicates that the life forces in that area have been compromised energetically.

Emoto also discovered that water exposed to classical music can result in well-formed crystals with distinct characteristics matching those of the music. The beauty of music actually changes water into a more beautiful structure. On the other hand, music that is angry and full of objectionable lyrics, such as heavy metal, results in malformed and fragmented crystals.


But Emoto went even further. When he wrapped a piece of paper with a positive word written on it around a bottle of water and then froze it, gorgeous crystals also appeared. Nothing happened with negative words, however. The Hidden Messages of Water, Emoto’s New York Times 2004 best-selling book, contains pictures of incredible crystals of water from all over the world.

Consider this: 99% of a human fetus is water. Our bodies are 90% water when we are born, 70% water when we reach adulthood, and 50% water when we die. Since we exist mostly as water, it makes sense that to stay healthy we need to purify the water that flows through our body. Water is truly a life force, transporting energy throughout our body, with a mysterious ability to cleanse and give life. Is it any wonder, then, that we humans are often drawn to water? Is it any wonder that baptism by water, a sacrament of the Christian church, is one of the fullest expressions of God’s grace?

In Emoto’s experiments the most beautiful crystals were formed when he taped the words “love” and “gratitude” around a bottle of water. Furthermore, he discovered that the vibration or energy given off by the gratitude crystal is more powerful and has a greater influence than the love crystal. That’s because gratitude comes first.

It’s interesting that gratitude and grace derive from related root words, gratus and gratia. Gratitude results from having been given something (i.e. grace) and from knowing that we have enough. Consequently, love, the giving of oneself to others, results because we first have gratitude.

The hidden message of water is love and gratitude. Emoto’s thesis is that if water responds to classical music and positive words, then human beings, composed of mostly water, will also become our best selves when we are treated with love and gratitude and when we express love and gratitude to others.

Thank You Crystal

Thanksgiving is this Thursday. It’s one of my favorite holidays because gratitude lies at the heart of human existence. When we drink in the water of gratitude, the beautiful crystals formed in our spirit enable us to send positive energy into our world. When we say positive things to others, energy flows outward to heal our environment and purify our water. But that energy also helps us and others fulfill our dreams.

Emoto writes, “So how can we go about finding our path in life? I have constantly stressed the importance of love and gratitude. Gratitude is the creator of a heart filled with love. Love leads the feelings of gratitude in the right direction. As the water crystals show us, gratitude and love can spread throughout the world. We all have an important mission: to make water clean again, and to create a world that is easy and healthy to live in. In order to accomplish our mission, we must first make sure that our hearts are clear and unpolluted.” (The Hidden Messages in Water)

The hidden message? Gratitude, love, thank you. This Thursday, as you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, I invite you to take a long drink of water before you dig into your food. Listen to some beautiful music. Share positive words with one another. Fill your home with love and gratitude. Write a few thank you notes this weekend. Pay attention to the unseen energy all around you. Become a crystal of beauty to someone else. Change the world.


P.S. I will be on vacation this week, so the next blog will be on Monday, December 8.