… Christmas is not only the mile-mark of another year, moving us to thoughts of self-examination: it is a season, from all its associations, whether domestic or religious, suggesting thoughts of joy. A man dissatisfied with his endeavours is a man tempted to sadness. And in the midst of the winter, when his life runs lowest and he is reminded of the empty chairs of his beloved, it is well he should be condemned to this fashion of the smiling face. Noble disappointment, noble self-denial are not to be admired, not even to be pardoned, if they bring bitterness. It is one thing to enter the kingdom of heaven maim; another to maim yourself and stay without. And the kingdom of heaven is of the childlike, of those who are easy to please, who love and who give pleasure. (from “A Christmas Sermon” by Robert Louis Stevenson)
Sometimes we think we are doing good when we are our own worst critiques. We count ourselves “noble” to set unattainable goals then feel miserable when we fall short (and repeat the cycle, or do even worse the next time). We see this a lot this time of year, with new year’s resolutions, promises we make to ourselves or vows we make to others that this year things are going to be different.
I have a number of regrets in my life.
– I regret I’ve not been a more loving father.
– I regret I’ve not been a more attentive husband.
– I regret I’ve not been a more effective pastor.
I have so many regrets and now, perhaps foremost among them, I regret most that I have so many regrets.
In his “A Christmas Sermon”, Stevenson shows that this human instinct to become embittered with ourselves when we fail only leads us to be even more critical of others. This was precisely the thing Jesus accused the Pharisees (the religious leaders of his day) of doing. Trying to live not only by the letter but by the brush strokes of each letter of the law, they wound up enforcing it on others and overlooking ways they could improve themselves.
So what do we do instead? Does this mean we set no goals, have low standards or no standards at all. I don’t think so. It means we re-direct our focus away from ourselves and to… children. Children, says Stevenson, are easy to please. They love. And they give pleasure. (I would only add that children properly raised display these “natural” qualities. When you see a child whining about getting clothes for Christmas instead of electronic toys, you have to wonder what’s going on.)
But children can be good teachers. Not that they are innocent, but they are more at ease being in a dependent relationship, being grateful for what they are given, sharing love freely instead of trying to bargain for something at a price, being pleased and giving pleasure. Laughing for the sheer joy of laughing.
As I celebrate this Christmas season and look forward to a new year, I’m still going to set some goals, but I’ll base them on the right models.
Goal #1: I’m going to be more grateful for what I’ve been given.
Goal #2: I’m going to love more freely.
Goal #3: I’m going to be pleased – in God, in others, and in myself.
How about you? What are your goals this Christmas season (and beyond)?