This past Thanksgiving, daughter Mindy and grandson Sean 
Personal Notes from Mike
  • Cold here today:  single digits.  But we have very little precipitation, unlike many others in Illinois. Our only problem so far is one frozen pipe.  
  • Plans for Christmas are not set yet for our family:  still waiting on things like weather, pet care, work schedules, etc.  We will be here in Mattoon for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning worship.  Mindy will cook Christmas lunch in Champaign, and Sean will celebrate his first birthday the 26th in Naperville.  We plan to be in all those places.  Not sure yet where else...or who else will be here in Mattoon.
  • I'm giving a second look at Moises Naim's book, The End of Power:  From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States:  Why Being in Charge Isn't What it Used to Be.  This book sheds significant light on matters ranging from the 2016 election results to the decline of mainline denominations.  An important read...especially for people at the top end of institutions (like denominations and political parties and government) who are struggling so hard to make a difference.
  • Our church has a new website up and running.  You can see the church website if you CLICK HERE.
  • You can check out my personal website if you CLICK HERE.

December 18, 2016
Ways to be Santa Claus
I have yet to begin my Christmas shopping. Jie is dropping hints from time to time about what she might like to see under the tree on Christmas.  She herself has already been buying some stuff, purchasing things through the year and tucking them away...occasionally forgetting what or where or even whether she picked up something.  

(Daughters) Mindy and Scarlette are well along in their gift buying/making enterprises. When you make your own gifts you can't wait until Christmas Eve. Mindy starts becoming secretive sometime before Halloween gets here.  And Scarlette has been bugging me for several weeks (by text) about what everyone else in the family might want for Christmas.  I have no I just text her back that I will text her back. Alison makes many of her gifts too, but she is more laid back than her two sisters and would rather that we move the deadline back from December 25 to...well...Ground Hog's Day.  Alison was born two and a half weeks after her due date and has always felt the rest of the world is a bit antsy about everything.
Paying for Christmas gifts was a huge challenge in the early years of my ministry.  I had to have faith that my churches would "pass the hat" and give their pastor a Christmas bonus.  And they always would...and that always sufficed for purchasing everyone in the family something.  

Mindy was a Christmas challenge from her very beginning: she was born on January 13, not much recovery time.  This caused two difficulties.  First, we were so broke after buying Christmas presents that we didn't know where we'd get the money for her birthday.  (My congregations never caught on that I would have also liked a cash gift for Epiphany Day, January 6, mostly for Mindy's birthday.) The child never had to do without birthday gifts, but sad to say that they were often financed by serindipitous funeral honorariums.  I never told her that because I didn't want her to feel "blessed" whenever a church member died.  

As to what we got her, in order to distinguish Christmas from birthday, we settled on fun presents for under the tree and clothes for birthdays. By the time she was five, however, she was too embarrassed to wear any clothes that I had picked out for her.  That was when the girls started getting just cash for their birthdays. 

This year the challenge intensifies: grandson Sean was born on December 26, 2015.

It is quirky that I feel more parsimonious in December than any other month.  Normally I love giving things to people.  It is more fun spending money on others than myself. After all, I drive my cars more than a quarter of a million miles before Jie makes me trade them in; I paid for my last new suit in 1992; and I only buy electronics when the old ones get accidently dropped in a lake...or something.  My vacuum cleaner is older than my kids and my garden hoe is older than my grandpa.  So I'm pretty low maintenance on spending money for myself (with the exception of books and restaurants.)

I prefer to get things for other people...or just give them cash...or the sales receipt.   But when I'm expected to buy gifts, (e.g. at Christmas) then I get cranky.  This in turn causes me to put my gift searches off until the last possible minute.  Then I'll head to an insanely busy mall, scrounge through shelves of picked over treasures, take a deep breath, and buy something ridiculously expensive.  

You would think that I would be even more insufferable as I tote my newly purchased items out to a cold car in a December parking lot. But no.  There is this miracle, a strange warming of my heart instead:  a happiness that rushes through my spirit.  I miraculously flip from being a scrooge to being a beneficent angel.  Don't know how that happens, but it always does.  My irritability disappears and is replaced by a childlike eagerness to see others brighten at the sight of what I've found for them.
I'm really particular about not getting the wrong gift for someone.  A survey a few years back found that grandparents and aunts and uncles routinely give the gifts most like to get lost in the back of the closet.  So I determined that I would never get my nieces and nephews anything...not even a card.  They can come visit me anytime they want...but no gifts based on the advice from that newspaper article.  I don't know yet what I'll do about the grandson.  I may waste a little money on him...for a while.

The worst gift ever in our family was the one Mindy and Alison gave to Jie for her first Christmas in the U.S.  They wanted her to feel welcome, and it was her first winter in the U.S....and really cold that year.  So they bought her a matching set of hat, gloves, and scarf.  The first thing Jie opened was the package with the green hat in it.  How were they to know that "wearing the green hat" in Chinese culture is a euphemism for a person whose spouse is having an affair?  Not a good Christmas...that one. 
So I'll give it a day or two for the weather to warm up a bit, then head up the interstate to the one of those malls.  I really prefer to give my family practical stuff for Christmas.  But a AAA membership, dental insurance, or a coupon to a muffler shop just doesn't look all that good under the tree. Thus I'll again wander through crowds that peeve me, meander into stores I scorn, and spend more than I intend. 

Of course I could shop online, but somehow a trip to the mall seems an appropriate chastisement for my procrastination. When I inconvenience myself, somehow the mystery of expiation occurs: I feel my sins of stalling and grouchiness and cheapness are forgiven, and I am again freed to live generously and happily.  

Have a stress free week until next Sunday.  And Merry Christmas!  


 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS