12/24/2012 03:11 pm ET Updated Feb 23, 2013

Toward a Purpose Driven Christmas

When my children were growing up, one of the most treasured rituals of the Christmas season was setting up the manger scene on the dining room sideboard. We actually used the same set of crèche I'd grown up with, including the lamb who had been making it through Christmas on three legs since about 1967 and the Wise Man whose head had to be super-glued back on about every third year. But every December out they came from the box with the tissue and the bubble wrap -- ready to play their annual parts in the Christmas drama.

And I'm remembering one year when we had a little more "Christmas drama" than usual. It was the year my younger son, Brian -- who was probably about 7 or 8 at the time -- decided to "expand" the cast of that year's Christmas crèche.

We'd set everything up "as usual": Mary and Joseph were in the stable with the donkey and the cow staring soulfully (Mary and Joseph, not the cow) at the empty-til-Christmas Day manger. The shepherds started out on the west end of the sideboard and edged their way toward the stable as Christmas approached while the Three Wise Men and their two camels did likewise from the east -- what with striving for historical accuracy and all.

And lo it came to pass that one morning over breakfast my older son Jamie, who is still the detail guy in the family, noticed that something was not kosher in Bethlehem. Joining Mary and Joseph around the manger was Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo and three Star Wars Storm troopers.

Jamie was not amused. In fact, he was pretty irate. "Who let them in?" he said, as if he didn't know the culprit was across the table from him slurping up Honey Nut Cheerios. "There are no Star Wars guys the Bible!" But Brian, not missing a beat, said "Yeah, well, there wasn't any Little Drummer Boy in the Bible either and they let him in. These guys are just waiting for Baby Jesus like everybody else. Get over it."

Jamie must have gotten over it. Because as I remember it, Luke, Hans and the Storm Troopers were still there when I retrieved Baby Jesus from his hiding place and put him in the manger late that Christmas Eve when I got home from the midnight service and they were fast asleep.

That was Christmas then and this is Christmas now. It's been a long time since I had boys young enough to argue over adding characters to the nativity scene, but in retrospect I see that year's Christmas crèche as an icon of a core value of my church, All Saints Church in Pasadena: "Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith there is a place for you here." And it seems to me that the little drama between my kids at the breakfast table over who gets to decide who gets to "come let us adore Him" was a little microcosm of the challenges we still face in our churches and in our nation.

Because there is Christmas temptation greater than all the Eggnog and Christmas Cookies in Christendom: and that is the temptation to "put Christ into Christmas" only to leave him there: to receive with joy the gift of the Word made flesh on this Christmas Eve and then fail to live as the Body of Christ the other 364 days of the year.

For the shadow side of our beloved Christmas traditions is that we risk making them more important than the message they represent. We risk being like my 10-year-old Jamie -- so worried about where the Kings go on the sideboard that we aren't willing to make room for everybody at the manger. The danger of the Christmas story is that it IS so familiar that we can lose the amazing impact of its glorious message in the frenzy that surrounds the Christmas event.

It's ironic, isn't it, that the very season that offers the message of Peace on Earth, Good Will to All brings instead Stress on Earth, Bad Temper to Many. The challenge is to balance the traditions that manifest the joy of the season with the gift that is the reason for the season: and that gift is of course Love. And the work of Christmas -- OUR work at Christians -- is to make that love tangible, as Howard Thurman describes in what has become my annual Christmas meditation:

When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To teach the nations
To bring Christ to all
To make music in the heart.

And that, I believe, is not just the work but the purpose of Christmas. And so let me enter into the record this important note: I am all in favor of living a purpose driven life.

But here's the thing: Let's make sure that the purpose that drives us is turning the whole human race into the human family -- not limiting those who can "Come let us adore him" to those who look like us, think like us, vote like us or believe like us. And then let's get to work on the "work of Christmas" all year long: challenging budgets that prioritize bombs over bread, policies that favor profits for corporations over healthcare for children, and purpose driven agendas whose purpose is to write discrimination into our constitution.

And let's make sure that if we're going to preach family values that we practice valuing all families as we work together to realize that dream of Peace on Earth, Good will to all -- God's kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Merry Christmas!