Recently I had an interesting e-mail exchange with a favorite long-time reader. On my blog entry for Thanksgiving he saw a photo of our dinner table and guest. He wrote: “Your Thanksgiving dinner and your home both look impossibly warm, cozy and homey.”

Ha ha, fooled him. Our house, cozy? Silly man. I wrote back, “LOL – our home is a fixer-upper with half the walls stripped, unpainted or missing.  If you look closely at the panel behind our friend’s head, you’ll notice it’s actually not there.  What’s showing is pink insulation. One of these days we’ll fix it up. …”

He wrote back a scolding note: “Sheetrock doesn’t make a home.” He related the story of a wayward child who had caused him much heartbreak through her bad choices, but who had straightened out her life and returned to the fold, to his great joy. “Trust me, Patrice,” he concluded. “That beats the hell out of sheetrock any day.”

He’s right, of course. Absolutely positively dead-on right. I needed the kick-in-the-pants reminder.

You see, for a moment I’d fallen into the classic trap: That externals count more than internals. That things are more important than people. That happiness is defined by income, not relationships. That a beautiful home supersedes those who live in it.

It’s kind of like the Tiger Woods syndrome: You can be the richest and most successful person in the world, but if your personal relationships are shot to hell, then what good is wealth and fame?

Advertisers are very clever at making us feel inadequate if we don’t have the Perfect House, the Perfect Tree, the Perfect Presents and other Perfect things during Christmas. Madison Avenue shows us beautiful skinny people dressed in designer clothing surrounded by adorable and well-behaved children opening beautifully wrapped gifts under a tree laden with exquisite hand-made ornaments in homes that could be lifted from the pages of Architectural Digest.

They never show people sitting around in ratty sweat clothes with toys scattered on the floor, dirty dishes in the sink and major decorating defects like decades-old avocado-green appliances or scarred walls. They never show a lopsided Christmas tree under which are inexpensive gifts wrapped in brown paper grocery bags with bows saved from last year. They never show walls with missing sheetrock or no paint.

It’s the job of advertisers, after all, to make us feel defective, because only then can they convince us our defects will be cured by buying their product. As soon as our living environment achieves the shimmer and sophistication of the images they project, then we’ll be … Perfect.

What no advertiser can admit, though, is without a peaceful relationship with family, friends and our Maker, no amount of “perfect” will ever cut the mustard. Just ask Tiger if you don’t believe me.

We have some low-income neighbors who live in an insulated metal barn. There are seven of them crammed into 1,400 square feet with a concrete floor and only two windows. The home is decorated with recycled finds from thrift stores and yard sales. Everything is cramped and crowded to accommodate the needs of children ranging from 2 to 19, all schooled at home (except the oldest who now works as an EMT).

Yet people line up to visit this family because of the love, warmth, happiness, joy and hospitality that spills out of the structure and envelopes the neighborhood. When we visit, I’m invited to sit in a shabby chair near the wood cookstove, drink tea from chipped china cups (picked up at thrift stores), smell the cookies or bread or pot roast or soup that are always in the works, have my shoelaces chewed by their Newfoundland puppy, watch their toddler bump his head on a corner (and be comforted by siblings and mama), have my kids come in with muddy knees and scraped hands from playing with their children, and generally sink into the happy clamor of a warm family life while having a lively conversation with the mother about world events or family matters. What a blessing.

Would I prefer to sit on designer furnishings in a home out of Architectural Digest with its unsociable children and a coffee table you can’t prop your feet on? Ha. Don’t make me laugh.

After all, what good is expensive furniture if your teenager is sullen, on drugs or sexually active? What good is a perfect house if your 8-year-old is an out-of-control brat except on Christmas morning? What good is a big-screen TV or diamond earrings if you hate your spouse?

In this time of economic adversity, the last thing we should be worrying about is whether our homes or possessions – or even our jobs – reflect the absurd and unrealistic expectations of society. We should count our blessings instead. Even those facing dire financial situations have more good fortune than they realize. We should be nurturing gratitude for the tangible miracles we do have – food, clean water, shelter, medicine. We should be cultivating firm discipline in our children and warm relationships with spouse, family and friends instead of worrying how we’re going to pay for those diamond earrings or that big-screen TV we didn’t need in the first place.

Remember, folks, it’s like the Grinch said: Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas – perhaps – means a little bit more.

Or as Solomon said: “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.”

So even if your floors are ratty and your walls lack sheetrock, if your paint is peeling and your laundry is piled high, I wish you every happiness this Christmas with your spouse and children, your friends and relatives. I wish you the bubbling joy and goofy laughter that comes with being with those you love. I wish you the richness of homemade Irish cream, the beauty of a candlelit service and the majesty of hearing the second chapter of Luke read out loud. I wish you the shelter from the storm our homes represent, and the love of our Savior during this Christmas week.

Amen.

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