Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Happy Days of Christmas!

As you probably know, I love Christmas. I love the music, the decorations, the pageants, the get-togethers, and yes, all kinds of Christmas movies and TV specials. Over the past couple years, I've written about some of my favorites - everything from The Grinch to Ernest Saves Christmas - because the Advent and Christmas season is just one of my favorite times of the year!

A quiet Christmas with the Cunningham family
(including the older brother, Chuck!)
Recently, I rediscovered the first Christmas episode from the classic TV show, Happy Days (from Season 2), and it made a huge impression on me. In the episode, Ritchie's father, Howard, wants nothing more than for his family to have a nice, quiet Christmas together. He wants them to take part in all the classic family traditions, and most importantly, he wants their celebration to be family-only. After all, this, Howard later says, is "the whole point of Christmas Eve"!

And I would imagine that for many families, this is exactly what they believe - that Christmas is about families spending time together and having a nice dinner and trimming the tree and reading "Twas the Night Before Christmas" together, and showing their love for one another by buying each other as many presents as they can afford - or as many as they can get on credit!

But then there's Fonzie...

The Fonz is one cool guy. He brings presents to Arnold's Drive-in to give to all his friends, and he gives without expecting anything in return. Yes, on the outside, Fonzie is one tough character, but as one of the waitresses at Arnold's puts it, "There is a heart under all that leather!"

But for all his Christmas spirit, Fonzie is one lonely guy. He lives by himself and has no family nearby. It must be especially difficult around the holidays for those who are alone like Fonzie, but I submit to you that there are many who find themselves in the same place. Some are living in nursing homes, some in the hospital, or in homeless shelters. Others have had a death in the family, or they just ended up living far from all their relatives. Children grow up and move away. Friends take a promotion and get transferred to another city. And sometimes, when you're missing that one important person, you can even feel lonely in a crowd of people.

Of course, Fonzie is too cool to let his friends know how lonesome he is. When Potsie invites him to dinner, The Fonz has other plans. He'll be joining his cousins in a neighboring town later that evening for a huge Christmas feast - lots of food and family and presents - or so he says. He doesn't dare to tell the truth. He doesn't want to be a burden on others. It wouldn't be cool to let himself look vulnerable. He doesn't want to be somebody's charity case, anyway, just because they feel guilty or something!

Thankfully, later on, the Cunninghams' family car breaks down. I say, "thankfully," because Fonzie just happens to still be in town, it's a relatively simple repair the car needs, and it provides Ritchie with an opportunity to learn the truth about Fonzie's situation. As Ritchie and Howard are about to leave the garage where Fonzie works, Ritchie remembers that he has a present to give Fonzie. When he goes back and looks in the door, though, he's frozen in his steps by the sight of Fonzie sitting down by himself to eat ravioli from a can.

Ritchie catches Fonzie
eating alone at Christmas
"Who would be eating ravioli from a can if they're supposedly on their way to a giant feast," Ritchie wonders. "And what kind of a way is that for someone to spend Christmas?" He doesn't do anything about it right away, but thankfully (again), those questions plague Ritchie until he has to do something!

I think God orchestrates those chance encounters for us on purpose. When you run into the homeless person on the way to work, it's not an accident. When you pass the Salvation Army bucket on your way into the store, there's a reason. Or when you find out that someone is lonely or depressed or going through a hard time in their life, it's on purpose. God is giving you an opportunity! This is your chance to do something great in the name of Jesus!

Maybe that great thing is as simple as smiling at someone or giving them a hug or praying for them. Maybe it's an opportunity to let them get something off their chest, or to speak healing into their life. Maybe it's as big as giving someone a hand up so they can improve their situation. Or maybe it's as small as inviting them to share a meal.

"For we are God's handiwork,
created in Christ Jesus to do good works,
which God prepared in advance for us to do."
- Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)

Eventually, Ritchie and Howard end up at Fonzie's apartment, and sure enough, he's still there. Now, even though The Fonz had insisted both at Arnold's and at the garage that he was on his way to his cousin's house, Ritchie feels confident in his suspicions. After all, Fonzie has missed several opportunities to catch a bus out of town! Still, The Fonz is too proud to admit the truth. He can't be made to look like a liar!

I wonder how many people we pass every day are putting on a happy face to mask their hurt. How many people live in continual pain because their pride prevents them from accepting help? And how often do we look the other way because we don't want to offend or embarrass anybody? I think, if we're honest with ourselves, we know the Scripture is true:

"Even in laughter the heart may ache,
and rejoicing may end in grief."
- Proverbs 14:13 (NIV)

Fonzie's pretty lucky to have a friend like Ritchie who sees past the facade. But how do you help someone when their pride gets in the way?

That's a tough question.

Howard has an answer. Even though it means giving up his family-only Christmas, Howard steps up and does the right thing: he offers Fonzie a graceful way out. Instead of saying, "We know you've been lying to us," and putting Fonzie on the spot, Howard asks for help fixing the family's outdoor Santa decoration. He finds a way to help Fonzie while allowing him to keep his dignity.

Why is that important? Because sometimes you can do more harm than good, even if you have the right intentions. Sometimes, you can hurt someone, even when you're trying to love them. Yes, sometimes, you have to speak up and be persistent in order to see that people get what they need, but at the same time, we remember that real love is patient and kind, and never arrogant or rude (1 Corinthians 13:4).

Howard shows love by making it easier for Fonzie to accept the invitation to spend Christmas with the family without having to look vulnerable. And Fonzie appreciates what is offered to him. He becomes enthusiastic about jumping in to help around the house and joining in with their celebration however he can.

"Hey, God? Thanks!"
We know that Fonzie's spirits have truly been lifted at the end of the episode, when the family is sitting down for Christmas dinner, and they ask Fonzie to say Grace over the meal. Instead of bowing his head, he looks up to the heavens and simply says, "Hey, God? Thanks."

Now, isn't that what Christmas is really all about?

It took sacrifice on Howard's part, and it took a spirit of deep compassion and persistent love, but wasn't it worth it?

Decorations are nice. Family time is wonderful. I enjoy the songs and the movies and the stories... But as Christians, the whole point for us is to remember what it means that God sent his Son for us. Philippians 2 puts it so beautifully when it explains that Jesus emptied himself so that he could be born as a man, and Paul says, "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus."

Jesus came to be the ultimate example of God's love (Romans 5:8), and when he was born, he came to a poor family. He was born into the lowliest of circumstances. The first people to see him were shepherds - working class folks who were generally looked down upon by the majority. And in his ministry, Jesus made a point, over and over, to associate with lepers, prostitutes, the very old and the very young, people with disabilities, outcasts of every variety. No one said, "I need to see Jesus," and found him unwilling to reach out to them, because he came to be Emmanuel - "God with us" - so we could know without a doubt that every single person is loved!

A heart and life full of love, compassion, and sacrifice - this is what Jesus showed us, and that's what he calls us to. And as we share with others the blessings God has given to us - as we make a point, even, to seek out those who are hurting and offer them the same love we've received - then maybe we can inspire them, the way the Cunninghams inspired Fonzie, to lift up out of their sorrows and give the glory to God in the highest!

That would be something worth celebrating! Can you dig it?

A Merry Christmas to all!

For more Christmas-themed posts, check out these articles:
* The Real Santa Claus - Why it's OK for Christians to believe in Santa (sort of)
* Putting on the Santa Suit - A look at The Santa Clause and the meaning of a changed identity
* Loving Charlie Brown - A Charlie Brown Christmas reminds us to love those who feel unloved
* Is It a Wonderful Life? - It can be, when you remember that God made you for a purpose!
* Overcoming the Grinch - Don't let Satan steal your Christmas joy!
* The Cure for Scrooge-itis - A 4-part prescription for what ails you!

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