I’ll admit it. I love books. I enjoy diving into a world I’ve never experienced before, learning about a place or a person I would never meet otherwise. I’ll read a few books a week during the year, even twice as many in the summer or on vacation. But periodically, I’ll come across a book and be transformed.
The week of Thanksgiving 2009, my mother-in-law gave me her copy of Jason Wright’s The Christmas Jars to read. I’ll admit that I was skeptical at first, because her book group was reading it – and I’d ignored the previous year’s worth of selections. But something about the way she spoke about the book made me open to the first page, and a few hours later, I’d finished a book that is one of just a few books I’d say changed my life.
In the original story, written by the Shenandoah native in 2005, a poor, young family collects money in a jar all year for its gift giving to each other. On the night they decide to go Christmas shopping, their young daughter sees a woman sitting alone and heartbroken on a bench. She reacts immediately out of kindness and mercy to give the woman their Christmas jar. The family has no money for gifts that year, but the impact of her decision reverberates for decades. A tradition of giving a jar of coins and cash to people, secretly, without receiving credit is born in the little town. While the gift is financial, the amount is never too much – it fits in jar – but the impact of the jars on the life of each character is exponential.
The giver and the receiver in each ‘transaction’ recognizes that there is something in giving, in passing it on, in paying it forward. Each person recognizes the beauty and truth of Micah 6:8:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Justice. Mercy. Humility. Earmarks of the disciple, right? Earmarks of what we are called to be when Jesus calls us out of the lives we live without him into the life of the kingdom of God.
Here, on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, I am left wondering what it would look like if we embraced that holy triumvirate of virtues, if we sought to live out our lives with the life of love and grace that the prophet Micah spoke of.
But how can we? What qualifications or marks might we look to when determining how to direct our work, our home lives, our church, our community? Consider these words contained in the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline.
The Social Creed of the United Methodist Church
We believe in God, Creator of the world; and in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of creation. We believe in the Holy Spirit, through whom we acknowledge God’s gifts, and we repent of our sin in misusing these gifts to idolatrous ends.
We affirm the natural world as God’s handiwork and dedicate ourselves to its preservation, enhancement, and faithful use by humankind.
We joyfully receive for ourselves and others the blessings of community, sexuality, marriage, and the family.
We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of all persons.
We believe in the right and duty of persons to work for the glory of God and the good of themselves and others and in the protection of their welfare in so doing; in the rights to property as a trust from God, collective bargaining, and responsible consumption; and in the elimination of economic and social distress.
We dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom for all people of the world.
We believe in the present and final triumph of God’s Word in human affairs and gladly accept our commission to manifest the life of the gospel in the world. Amen.
Are we the living embodiment of these things? Are we pursuing the kingdom of God in a holy way? I must admit that some days I don’t know how to start.
I wonder if serving in the community, whether it be coaching a little league team or volunteering at a school makes a difference.
I wonder if giving financial help to one person makes a difference in the life of the community.
I wonder if one word spoken can make a difference in the day of a person or group.
I wonder if taking a stand on an issue in one corner of the world can make a difference in another.
And then I remember the Christmas Jars, how one book challenged me and changed our church.
See, the Sunday after I read Jason’s book, I preached on it. I talked about what it would look like if we stopped seeing missions as a way to give money away over there to people we didn’t know, to people we didn’t have to interact with, to people we didn’t have to be empathetic to, only compassionate for.
I talked about what it would take for us to do good even if we couldn’t get credit for it because Christmas Jars are supposed to be anonymous. Christmas Jars were an abundant outpouring, a connection with someone else, that we wouldn’t ever get the satisfaction of their thanks.
Christmas Jars were about our Thanksgiving, not the recipient’s.
And then, that Sunday, I shared about some real-life Christmas jars, because Jason’s story isn’t just a story, it’s a movement. Jason’s website, www.christmasjars.com, has story after story about people who received jars, and people who gave them. It has stories of people who were going to commit suicide the day they received a jar, and of people who thought they had lost everyone and everything before receiving a jar and realized they were not alone.
Stories like these:
I was diagnosed w/a brain condition called Cadisal in 2010. It is a really rare neurological disorder that can cause loss of some functions in a persons body and/or memory loss, both long and short term. It is a calsification of brain matter and most people are born w/it and are diagnosed until they are about 50. Many of the symptoms are just assumed to be normal physical manifistations everyone goes thru as we grow up/age. Until one is diagnosed you have no clue these things are actual symptoms of a disorder!!
Anyway, because of this I had occasional auras and seizures as well. Finally, in November 2015 I had a grand mall seizure and hit the basement floor, causing a concussion and a broken left arm. That put me out of commission. My friends and family all over here and across the country sent me cards and letters, as well as in this case a copy of the book and a jar filled w/coins.
One day we found several boxes of groceries that had been left by someone in our garage w/o a note or any way of knowing who to thank for such a generous gift. W/i the next week a ziplock baggie was found on our back porch with a Christmas card, unsigned; a copy of the book by Jason Wright and a jar filled w/coins. We opened this jar and dumped it into a bowl, with the coins were two little balls of green paper. We unfolded the balls and they turned out to be $100 bills!!!! Yep, two $100 bills. Again, no signature on the book, card or in the baggie to let us know who did such a generous thing for us and just after I had the seizure and got my las paycheck from my demo job at Walmart. This was like winning the lotto to us. WOW.
Or from Purcellville, Virginia:
I received a jar this Christmas while I was at physical therapy for my daughter. She’s eleven with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, to name a few. I also have an eight-year-old son. Their father has passed on so I’m a single parent. This jar has changed my life. I too said that surely there had to be a more needy person than myself! The message behind it has moved me deeply. They gave it to her therapist to give me. Whoever my angel is, we thank you and God bless.
There are hundreds of stories like these, spread around the country. But I know from firsthand experience – from giving and receiving Christmas Jars – that the jars will change you.
See, within a week of that first sermon, I had ordered dozens of copies of the book for people who wanted to read it. Within the first month, there were jars flying around the church, to those in need throughout the community. People were making change just to fill jars!
By the end of the first year, the church’s mission had grown, to include annual Christmas jars, to include Christmas and Thanksgiving baskets for the country, to include an ongoing benevolence fund for those who visited the church in need.
All because of one little book. All because of one fictional little girl who was thankful for what she had. All because of one man’s faithful imagination. All because of one Christmas jar.
Today, I invite you to start filling a jar, to begin finding a tangible way to express your thanksgiving for what God has given you abundantly. And I encourage you to start praying for the person in your life who you’re supposed to bless.
Each coin, each prayer, will change you.
It’s the thought that counts, put into action, that can change your world.