Message 150, “A Charlie Brown Holiday: It is About the Tree”, 12-8-13
(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reservedcharlie brown tree


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Robert Hoge was born in Brisbane, Australia in 1972 with two severely deformed legs and a large, fist sized tumor in the middle of his face. The tumor altered the development of his skull so that his eyes were pushed to the outside of his head and his nose was an indistinguishable mass of flesh. He was the fifth child to his parents but his mother reacted to his appearance with shock. She was overwhelmed by how he looked. She did not want to bring her son home. A supposedly helpful pediatrician encouraged Mary Hoge to quietly put her child in a home for disabled children and forget about him. She almost did.
But Mary and her husband consulted their four children. All of them did not hesitate – they begged their parents to bring Robert home. He was their brother. Mary documented her reactions over succeeding years in a remarkably honest diary. As Robert grew older, she allowed he and his siblings to read the diary to understand for themselves Mary’s struggles and emotions about her son. She described deeply loving Robert and being fiercely protective of him, as most mothers would be. But she also could not keep herself from despair at his terrible disfigurement. Robert underwent numerous surgeries to try and remove the facial tumor and reshape his face. At age 14, doctors reported they could do more to improve his looks but that with each succeeding surgery, the risk grew that the procedures would render him blind. Robert’s brother pointedly asked what good would it be to improve his appearance if he could not even see himself. For the young Robert, that was an epiphany moment. He chose not to have more surgery as he also began the long effort to come to terms with his appearance. As he said, “This is actually a conversation I’d like to have about disability, and about beauty and about ugliness, and the first person I had to have that conversation was with myself.”
Robert is an amazingly understanding man. Now being a father himself, he says that he sympathizes with his mother’s reactions. Every parent wants their child to be perfect, he says. Robert became a journalist, later moved into politics and now serves as the media adviser to the governor of the Australian Queensland province. He and his mom wrote a bestselling book which includes many entries from Mary’s diary. He regularly speaks throughout Australia as he honestly accepts how society uses appearance as a primary criteria to judge a person. He rejects the notion that everyone, no matter their appearance, can easily be accepted. But his attitude, his warm, friendly, intelligent and wise demeanor directly confronts the notion that he is somehow ugly. As his boss, the governor of Queensland put it, most people very quickly no longer notice Robert’s outward appearance. It seems the real beauty inside Robert clearly shines through.
As we launch into a three week message series using the theme of a Charlie Brown holiday, I want to look at some of the ideas expressed in what is now considered a classic television special. The show, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was created in 1965 after CBS executives asked the Peanuts comic strip creator Charles Schultz to develop a seasonal special based on his cartoon. The show was quickly written and animated – within about six months time. Even its music, which many consider to also be classic, was quickly composed. CBS executives, after first viewing the show, were upset. They did not like the story, its inclusion of the character Linus reciting from the Bible and its focus on holiday depression. They predicted a flop but went ahead with airing the show. It was watched that first year by over two-thirds of all homes in the US – by far the most watched TV show that year. Its been translated and shown in many countries around the world as it also won both an Emmy and Peabody award. In the almost fifty years since its debut, it has been shown on American TV during every holiday season. Its simple story of how Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang find the real meaning of the holidays still strongly resonates.
As most of us know, the story is about Charlie Brown being deeply depressed with Christmas and its emphasis on commercialization and mindless frivolity. Even his dog Snoopy gets caught up in holiday commercial euphoria by entering a home decorating contest. His sister Sally brazenly tells Santa in her wish list letter to him, “If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself – just send money. How about tens and twenties? All I want is my fair share!” And Charlie’s friends are solely focused on creating a celebration pageant replete with perfect decorations, music, food and dance.
Charlie finds himself seemingly alone in a world gone mad as it forgets the intrinsic values of the holiday. Suffering from deep holiday depression, a subject which was groundbreaking for its time when such subjects were not openly shared, Charlie cannot understand why his feelings about the holiday are so dissonant with the culture. Why is he the only one who does not share a striving for Christmas excess – gifts, money, lights, parties, uninhibited merriment? Is the problem his, or that of the culture?
After agreeing to direct the school Christmas pageant, Charlie still faces roadblocks to his vision of the holiday. His classmates want rock and roll music, dancing and a Hollywood style retelling of the nativity story with Lucy, Charlie’s arch nemesis, demanding to play the Queen of Christmas. Throwing up his arms in disgust, Charlie plaintively asks if anybody understands the real meaning of the holiday. His friend Linus then recites from the Biblical book of Luke the account of the first Christmas. Charles Schultz insisted on including this scene, against CBS objections, believing that it best represented his own quest, like Charlie’s, to rediscover holiday values.
With Lucy, Sally, Schroeder, Pig-pen and all of the other Peanuts kids still wanting a huge Christmas party show, they put Charlie in charge of finding a suitable tree to decorate the stage. Charlie and Linus travel to a tree lot where they find countless large trees plus many artificial ones – trees of the 1960s that were a made of shiny aluminum. Charlie rejects all trees until he spies one sad little tree in a corner of the lot – one that is barely a pine twig stuck on a stand. Proudly, he buys it and returns to his friends with the tree he had chosen. He is immediately laughed at, scorned and mocked for his inability to do anything right – even picking out a tree. Charlie picks up his ugly tree, is followed by Linus clutching a blanket and sucking his thumb, and the three misfits walk out into the snow – only to come across Snoopy’s garish and brightly decorated dog house with a first prize ribbon affixed to it. For Charlie, that is the final insult. Even his dog, supposedly a boy’s most loyal and understanding companion, has rejected him. He drops his tree to the ground in final defeat.
While Charles Schultz’s Christmas TV show has obvious Christian themes and symbols, ones that subtly underscore that religion’s interpretations of Jesus’ birth, it nevertheless highlights more universal values similar to those that Robert Hoge and his mother struggled to find. Ultimately, the two stories – one fiction, one true life, describe the eternal human quest for authenticity, dignity and power in the face of a very strong human propensity to worship the superficially beautiful and fake.

The Charlie Brown Christmas story is all about that pathetic little tree. Robert Hoge’s life story is all about his outwardly horrifying appearance. The story of the first Christmas is all about one born into poverty, with no belongings, no money, and no family status. Indeed, the theme of Jesus’ life story is about how weak and ugly things are made beautiful – the unwed mother visited by God, the baby born in a barn, the poor laborer who becomes a famous itinerant preacher, the lepers and outcasts who are made whole, the enemy of Rome nailed to a Cross who is resurrected. Three stories about ugliness and weakness – the Charlie Brown tree….Robert Hoge….Jesus. For each of us, our stories are much the same. Our lives are, ultimately, about the ugly little tree in us.

But that little tree in the Charlie Brown story ironically has power. It is immeasurably strong. It’s greatness is found not when the Peanuts kids decorate it and turn it into one of beauty. Instead, it’s found in it’s transformational power to change hearts and minds. It is far more powerful than any twelve foot high tree or one made of metallic durability. Robert Hoge, likewise, is an amazingly beautiful man. The ugliness of his deformity has become something powerful as he, his mom and society confront uncomfortable truths about how we judge others – mostly based on outward qualities like beauty, wealth or power. And so too was the prophet Jesus scorned and humiliated, one who triumphed not by strength and status but by humility, non-violence and advocacy for the poor and sick.
Christmas reminds us, then, of an eternal truth. To be fully human is to be vulnerable and frail. To be fully human, is to be much like a helpless child, one in need of nurture, community, love and attention. To be fully human is to be riven with imperfections – troubled with fear, doubt, insecurity, denial and sadness. One of the human affects we adopt is to put on a mask to be more than we are. We hunger for validation and security in things superficial – money, power, knowledge, beauty, status, material possessions, entertainment, drugs, sex, food, religion. We make our holidays into episodes of excess with expensive gifts, extravagant decorations, and of mindless busy-ness, all in a futile attempt to find real meaning and lasting joy. We grasp and claw and work to be anything but who we really are – pitiful, limp trees – ugly, misshapen bodies – lonely, misunderstood seekers. That is our reality. That is us.

But Charlie Brown, Robert Hoge, the helpless babe in a manger, the naked prophet nailed to a tree, they all tell us a different story about humanity and about ourselves. There is strength in weakness. There is greatness in frailty. There is power in lowliness. There is beauty in the ugly. Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, the hungry, the poor, the addicted, the depressed, the outcast. The world calls you ugly, a failure, a misfit. But inside us all is a mustard seed of redemption – one of beauty, truth, service to others, goodness and love.
Those who are outwardly wealthy, arrogant, intelligent, beautiful or strong – they find false security in life. Smug in trappings which hold no lasting greatness, they fail to see how they too are hungry and poor. We must therefore embrace our ugliness and weakness. Out of the depths of despair, in the pit of loneliness, in the pain of disease or poverty, we can discover lasting truths that transcend all our masks and all of the superficial things of this world.
Being in authentic community with others heals.
Sacrificially serving people and causes beyond ourselves is a real path to meaning and purpose.
Humility is a way to find grace.
Forgiveness brings redemption.
Empathy creates understanding and peace.
And, unconditional love for ourselves and for others is the greatest power in the universe.
In this message, I speak to each one of you individually. I also speak to myself. In our heart of hearts we know our struggles, our flaws, our disappointments, our excuses we use to cover up pain. Some of us mask ourselves better than others. But we are all weak little Charlie Brown Christmas trees. We are all as ugly or uglier than Robert Hoge.

We are all running from something – fear of being unmasked, insecurity about our own potential – sadness in our loneliness – regret and despair over past lives and decisions. This holiday season – for the next three weeks – for the new year – we can default into what Charlie Brown fought against. We can run to shopping malls and restaurants and parties and vacations in a vain attempt to find satisfaction and joy. We can cook and decorate and spend our way into a numbed sense of fulfillment that will soon feel empty. We can celebrate the superficial all around us – in people, in events, in things. We can console ourselves in a stupor of depression, isolation, overeating, overwork, soul-less charity, empty religion, or mindless use of alcohol, sex or drugs.
To you the addict, to you the one depressed, to you the fearful one, to you who has built walls around your heart, to you who is angry at family or friend, to you who cries silently in the night over unmet needs and broken relationships, to you who wraps yourself in a smug cocoon of superiority, to me who hungers to feel liked and loved, there is hope this Christmas. There is hope, after everlasting hope, after hope. A resurrection awaits.
There is strength and greatness and dignity in each of us. But we must first admit it and believe it. We must believe it. There is goodness and beauty in each of us. But first we must show it. We cannot be loved unless we first love ourselves. How many of us self-destruct in so many ways with anger, isolation, addiction, arrogance, self-hate? We cannot truly love and respect ourselves unless we practice the timeless human verities of which I listed earlier. We each know those truths. We know they are a means to overcoming our weaknesses. At any time of year, they are more essential than ever. Deeply connect with people. Serve and give to others more than to yourself. Humble thyself. Let go of anger toward anyone. Listen to and understand your enemy. Love yourself and others. Simple to say. So difficult to practice.
This holiday season, indeed for the next new year, let us tap into what is authentic and great in us. Let us embrace and love who we each are as flawed individuals. But let us see the wondrous beauty in us. May we find our quiet dignity. We each have so much more to give the world. We each have so much yet to do in life. Inside you, inside me – is a small, pathetic little Christmas tree waiting to burst forth – waiting to be crowned with a shining star on its top – waiting for its time as a thing of authentic strength and beauty and power…
I wish you all very happy holidays.

I want to make some brief comments about the passing of Nelson Mandela. In so many ways, he exemplified the topic of my message this morning. Tried for crimes against the South African state, he was convicted at age 41 and sentenced to prison on the notorious Robben island – a former leper colony located seven miles off of Cape Town – for the rest of his life. It was a bleak existence where inmates spent their days in hard labor and confined at night to small, cold prison cells.

But Mandela refused to allow his situation to defeat him. During the 27 years of his life in prison, reduced to the humblest of living conditions and at his seemingly weakest, he somehow triumphed. His quiet dignity, his force of mind and spirit – such attributes ,drew whites and blacks to him. White government cabinet members and other officials began traveling to Robben island to negotiate with Mandela – a man they thought they had banished forever. He became a leader not by his call to hatred, revenge or revolution – but by his humble yet insistent demands that the black majority be given equal rights. In return, he personally promised reconciliation with whites and a refusal to seek revenge by blacks once they took power. From the the bleak conditions of his prison cell, his stature increased until the African National Congress and other South African black leaders made his plight and his words the rally cry for an international movement. “Free Mandela” echoed around the world.
Mandela will live forever because of his legacy – a prophet and advocate of non-violence equal to Jesus, Mohammad, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. If we are to honor him in any way, I believe it is to live out his ethics in our own lives – to pursue non-violence, to refuse – as he long advocated – to hate anyone, particularly our enemies, and to reconcile with and forgive others. He championed such ideals on the world stage but we have smaller stages on which we can act – with others in this church, with our families and friends, in our politics and how we act in daily life. Banish anger. Rise above our petty demons. Forgive. Act and speak with peace. Work in the cause of justice for all. Mandela was a great man despite white efforts to diminish and eliminate him. His life exemplifies the truth that strength is found in humility and weakness.

I welcome your comments on my message about the Charlie Brown Christmas tree or about Nelson Mandela.