January 27, 2021

Miracle on 34th Street Ecumenism

I love Christmas movies. We have many great family memories of watching Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas or singing “Sisters” and “Snow” with the cast of White Christmas. I have some personal favorites like almost any version of A Christmas Carol, the original Tim Allen Santa Clause and the strangely dark and mysterious Prancer.

I’m not a fan of the popular Christmas film Miracle on 34th Street. I’ve watched it 3 or 4 times, and maybe I just wasn’t quite in that particular frame of mind where a Christmas movie really appeals to me, but it’s never been a favorite of mine.

But there is something about “Miracle” that does appeal to me. We can call it “Miracle on 34th Street Ecumenism.”

In the story, the supposedly insane Kris Kringle (Santa to the unintitated) is inspired with a plan. The two large downtown New York department stores can change the way they compete with one another. Instead of making the other store the enemy, they could each take a more gracious view of one another. (At least at Christmas.)

How did that work? Each store did what stores do: they tried to offer the best products at the best prices to the most customers. But when the other store had a better product at a better price, you cheerfully sent the customer to the other store, with best wishes and the simple recognition that your store couldn’t do everything.

This change in behavior and attitude sparks a revolution in the retail jungle. Long time competitors treating one another with respect? With grace? With generosity? Actually recommending that someone go to the other store? And spend money?

Isn’t that unthinkable?

No…it actually sounds like Jesus and his upside down Kingdom. (It actually sounds like St. Nicholas, too. But that’s another story.)

What if Kris Kringle’s crazy idea became the model for ecumenism?

What if we all recognized that we get some things right, but we also get a lot of things wrong? And what if we recognized that some other traditions get the things right that we get wrong?

What if we recognized where others have been more Biblically faithful than we’ve been? What if we recognized that our pride can turn us into bullies when we ought to be friends? (We are all in this together, aren’t we?)

What if we recognized some churches feed the poor, or do liturgy, or preach faithfully or address the issue of race better than we do? And what if we weren’t afraid to point out those strengths?

What if we sat down and learned from one another? What if we sent some of our people to the other church to listen, watch, worship, pray, work and learn? And then come back and share the gathered wealth?

What if we embraced our brothers and sisters in Christ rather than in every point of doctrine? What if we confessed our common faith rather than constantly pointing out the deficiencies of the other tradition? What if we imagined what we’d do if all Christians were persecuted, imprisoned or tortured?

What if we extended the name of brother and sister to other Christians, rather than the theological labels that immediately advertise our differences…and our “rightness” in comparison to their “wrongness?”

What if we valued differing traditions as preserving different and valuable aspects of Christianity rather than seeing them only as competitors to be defeated and perpetuators of error?

If department stores could send a customer to the other store for a better price on a refrigerator, why couldn’t we send someone to another tradition to find what we’re out of, threw away, devalued or never had?

If department stores could take advice from Jesus (or Santa), why can’t we? The stores didn’t go out of business. They didn’t merge. They didn’t publish pages and pages of heated rhetoric about one another. They didn’t act as if their mission was to put the other store out of business.

They embraced something new. The embraced serving people; they embraced a higher sense of what it meant to do business. They believed a kind of radical, backwards logic that resembles what Jesus constantly calls us to. It is the transforming and surprising logic of the Kingdom of God, where the law of love says to love our enemies, to go the second mile and to wash one another’s feet.

Oh, I know….this is a ridiculous post. I know that I don’t exemplify what I’m writing about. I know there are a dozen serious objections and a hundred people waiting with their own stories of how badly they’ve been treated and misrepresented. Sometimes I’m the culprit.

But it’s a better way, and I think we all know it. We can’t conduct our relations with other Christians as if our books and arguments and podcasts are going to make them go away. A dozen books and a thousand blog posts aren’t going to turn Christians into Catholics or Calvinists or Lutherans or Charismatics or Baptists.

So, until Jesus comes back, why don’t we treat one another- as traditions and as churches- with the same crazy grace that Kris Kringle believed could transform department stores?


  1. You’re right, it is riduculous, but oh how the Body of Christ would benefit if we did this. I know that I tend to get defensive when our congregation’s short-comings get noted and that I’m far too gleeful when another’s get noted. I know that that’s wrong/sinful. You are very right to point out this problem and you offer a workable solution, if we will all, to borrow a phrase from a famous shoe company, “just do it.”

    People see enough fighting and cut-throat competion everywhere else, so why should the Body of Christ be mirroring the world instead of offering a healthy alternative?

  2. So what can we learn from another great Christmas classic: “Santa Clause Conquers the Martians”? (Look it up on YouTube if you haven’t seen it)

  3. Thanks Michael. My wife and I are considering joining an ELCA Lutheran church, even though for most of our lives we have been non-denominational evangelicals. Just this weekend I had the following conversation with myself: “Hey you big dummy, you know what? You’ve never ever agreed with EVERYTHING any church has taught! And you’ll probably never find a group like that. So, why not just participate in a church family that gets some main things right, and quit focusing on and fighting so hard against the rest. And why not express your appreciation for all those things you gained from the other traditions, and stop being so bitchy about what they got wrong?”

    This doesn’t mean I have to stop thinking or holding convictions. It doesn’t mean I won’t sometimes express criticism if necessary. It does mean maybe I’ll shut up more often. And maybe my attitudes and words towards others will be a little more generous.

    Thanks, MS.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I love Christmas movies. We have many great family memories of watching Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas…

    Here’s Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Bloopers on YouTube.

  5. Dear IM-
    You have made my heart leap with rejoicing! This is SUCH a great longing that I have. Oh, Lord Jesus, make this so!

  6. One of the reasons I joined my present church was because the (then) minister got up in the service and prayed for the local churches of other denominations — that God would bless their work. And then I found out that when people came to him looking for particular things from the church, if he didn’t think we were the best providers, he would recommend which local church would best meet their needs. He’s moved on (to Tasmania)now, but what an example!

    Oh, and BTW, I think they offer a few Christmas movies on tv here, but most of us never watch them (I’ve never seen any of the ones you named)because Christmas in Australia is high summer, which means we’re either doing outdoor things or watching the cricket!

  7. I love it: “crazy grace.” Isn’t it what we all need? Amen and amen.

  8. Preach on, brother.

    (and quit making me hungry for what cannot be, on this side of life).

  9. If the apostles and the very early church broke up into factions only a few years after Jesus, does that give any hope that we can find unity? It might be that these doctrinal points that keep us apart also, in some ways, keep the church more pure than it would be if we were more monolithic. I think we’ve been there already.

    But, it does seem that these doctrinal points mean less than they did say, 50 years ago. So, maybe we’re heading in the right direction. As Chaplain Mike eloquently pointed out, we will never fully agree with any church we attend.

  10. Because if you buy that train set at Gimbel’s you’ll go to hell.

    You’re right (and Kringle, in the movie, is right) but the thinking of quite a few churches—certain independent ones in particular—is that if you don’t have perfect orthodoxy, you don’t have Jesus, and sending people to less-than-orthodox churches is no different than sending them to pagans.

    Of course, this lack of generosity is also somewhat evident in their ministries and outreach, too. They tend to suck at giving to the needy.

  11. And what if we realized that the mission of the church was so big that it takes all of us working together to accomplish it?

  12. The relationship with church community can also be seen like a marriage and a family. It is long term, when you stay there a long time you see kids grow up, you see young people grow up and have kids, you see people die and go to their funerals. There is lots of love, it can be intimate, it is something you build up, and it is full of emotion.

    Yes, it is OK to have supper with another family once in a while. But if I want an open marriage,and have lots of different partners in order to “see what’s out there, to learn more” I might be creating more problems.

    The model of the church as a store is really what is so wrong about churches in America right now. I do go to other church worship services, and I believe in ecumenical study and worship and I do believe that ecumenical community work is good, but telling someone to go to another church to get something missing in my church can be seen like going to another spouse for what ever is missing in a marriage. We are not shoppers.

  13. Michael,

    This post is very much in the spirit of Eclectic Christian. Would you mind if I reposted it there?

  14. “….they embraced a higher sense?” A ‘higher sense’…….that would do it! When we continue to reject the Biblical notions of transformed minds and of perfect love, we doom ourselves to living up to the potential of fallen man… rather than living up to the potential of redeemed man. The ‘higher sense’ allows us to regain Eden life..or abundant life. Embracing the ‘higher’ places us on our faces on the ground and results in our preferring others before ourselves, in loving our neighbor as ourselves, and in passing, literally, from death to Life.

  15. Dunker Eric says

    Richard Foster has done a good job focusing on the strengths of various Christian groups and sending people out to learn from them.

  16. I share your dream, but on this side of eternity, that’s all it may be. I think one rule of fallen human nature is that there must be someone who is wrong – someone who is proof that ones own clan is right. Even the staunchest believers in relativism are guilty of this.

    With apparently the new “thing” in pastoral models being the macho, tough/trash-talking, alpha-male persona to attract men with a higher testosterone level to church, you bet there is going to be a felt need to kick sand in someone’s face. They won’t all be wearing biker boots, but the outcome will be the same.

    I guarantee that in those churches where the most fire-breathing against outsiders is occurring, there is an equal amount of abuse on the inside against its own members. It’s all so cool at first be a part of a group that acts like the top dog – biting, ridiculing and criticizing other groups, but those fangs will eventually be turned inside the group to uncover the “true” members. Then it’s not so fun.

  17. So you are saying that the “Universal” is just as important if not more at times the local personal differences? UMMM… I truly buy that!!! We are ONE body in CHRIST made of many memembers.(1 Cor. 12:12-27) Diveristy is God’s gift to mankind to show the different sides of our Great Father.
    Where has the LOVE gone so that others(world) know who we are? Have we sold it for a better product? Or even our very souls? Perspective in the grand scheme is that we are but a pebble of sand in God’s plan. Praise God! May His glory be revealed in the diversity of His body!!!

  18. Well it would be easier to get a long with other groups if they weren’t so by golly dadburn wrong about so much! Once they all agree with me I will love them unconditionally! After all you want to be righteous, not wrongteous.

  19. Joe M: “The relationship with church community can also be seen like a marriage and a family. … But if I want an open marriage,and have lots of different partners in order to “see what’s out there, to learn more” I might be creating more problems. … [T]elling someone to go to another church to get something missing in my church can be seen like going to another spouse for what ever is missing in a marriage.”

    I disagree, and I applaud IM’s wonderful post.
    I was in a church for many years that had the attitude of being the unique expression of the Body of Christ. We looked down on “poor Christianity” with all of its divisions and complications, and its shallow gospel. We believed that anything a person needed was with us. They did not need to go anywhere else for help, because our ministry, teachings, and practices were all-inclusive. You could definitely say that I was “married” to this church. And eventually, it became an abusive and controlling marriage.

    When I left that church, I honestly thought that I had left “God’s best,” and that my Christian life could only go downhill. It took several years for me to be comfortable meeting with a dreaded denomination, part of poor Christianity, part of Babylon.

    And there I found help that I never even knew I needed. My faith was restored, my love for the Lord was rekindled, and I began to deal with inward problems and frustrations that I had buried for years because I was too busy serving the previous church. I received help for my personal life, help for my marriage, and help for my following of Christ as an individual and as a member of a church community. My life has been “a tale of two churches,” from one extreme of sectarian legalism, to another extreme of love, grace, and forgiveness.

    The turning point for me in making me feel at home in the new church was when I heard the main pastor encourage everyone to be married to Christ, and not to the church. (After all, we are the bride of Christ.) He insisted that the goal of this church was not to gain people for the church’s sake, but to help people love and follow the Lord, and to take care of needs among the congregation and society at large. After so many years in a controlling and cultish sect, I was shocked when this pastor said, “There are many great churches in this city. If there is any place that would help you more, please go there and don’t feel condemned. We are here for you, you are not here for us. We are free in Christ and not in bondage to religious obligations.” It’s no wonder to me that with such a perspective, the Lord has blessed this church abundantly.

    If you see a particular church as your “spouse,” then a problem will come if the spouse becomes abusive or controlling. But we are not married to any particular church or congregation, we are married to Christ Himself. He has the freedom to lead us and guide us where our needs and His needs can best be met. My “marriage” to that first church was eventually like a shotgun marriage, and for many years I stayed out of fear and obligation, not out of an experience of grace.

    If in that first church, there had been the attitude of “we don’t have it all, there are other places that may meet your needs better than we can,” that alone would have been a protection to us. Our arrogance was our downfall. Some brothers and sisters needed particular help, but never received it because of our “one size fits all” mentality. They even felt guilty reading Christian books on marriage because they were written by people outside of our little sect.

    My new church is not something I’m married to, it’s simply an imperfect home where the Lord has brought me to enjoy a ministry of oil and wine, until He returns. No, we are not “shoppers,” but we are citizens of a heavenly kingdom that is greater than any sect or denomination. The Body of Christ is larger than our narrow little concepts. And those of us who follow Him should feel free to direct people to anywhere in the Body of Christ that renders them the most help, and that allows the Lord’s purposes for them to be fulfilled, so that He Himself can be satisfied.

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