Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Man Who Forgave Debts

"Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." Matt. 6:12

Most people have never heard of Edward Tuckerman, Jr. I never had either, until I started researching the founders of the Massachusetts Bible Society for our bicentennial this past year. Artists might know him, since his portrait (pictured here) was painted by Gilbert Stuart, but the only other people who might know him are those who have studied the history of bread.

Edward Tuckerman, Jr. was a baker. He was born Dec. 27, 1740 and spent 50 years as a baker in Boston's south end, taking just a bit of time out to be a second lieutenant of the train of artillery in Boston during the American Revolution. What set Mr. Tuckerman apart as a baker, however, was not his longevity in the field, but the fact that he discovered how to keep biscuits fresh on long ocean voyages.

That discovery meant that his business grew by leaps and bounds, and soon he had over 300 employees and was serving all the ports of New England. He had many notable accomplishments, was a founder of several charitable societies and was even a state senator, but I'm writing about him here at the threshold of the New Year because of what Edward Tuckerman, Jr. did every New Year's Day.

If you owed Mr. Tuckerman money as the books were closed out for the preceding year, you got a call from Mr. Tuckerman. If any delinquent borrower, whether an individual or a business, could show that they did not have the ability to pay, Mr. Tuckerman forgave the debt. Large, small, didn't matter--every dime was forgiven. Not put on a payment plan, not deferred, forgiven. Debtors prisons would not be abolished until the middle of the 19th century, but Mr. Tuckerman took a higher road, perhaps because he followed a higher law.

Edward Tuckerman was an Episcopalian, active in Trinity Church in Boston as was his father before him. He would have known the Lord's Prayer since childhood. As a baker, I have to wonder how often he thought of "Give us this day our daily bread" in relation to his business, and of course the very next line is "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors."

While many churches, including my own, substitute "trespasses" or "sins" for "debts," the word in Greek is an economic term. As hard as it is to forgive sins, I think there are more people willing to forgive sins than there are willing to forgive debt. Not so with Mr. Tuckerman, and if it had a negative impact on his business, it was not enough to impact his ability to give generously to the Massachusetts Bible Society, the Charitable Mechanic Association, his church, and others in need.

Edward Tuckerman was able to forgive all his debtors every New Year's Day for two reasons. The first is that he was not deeply in debt himself. He did not need to collect the debts of others to pay off his own debts. He built a business through persistence and creativity over 50 years, not through a capital loan overnight.

The second reason he was able to forgive debts, however, is because he knew that neither the bread he made nor the money that came as a result really belonged to him. He was a steward of God's resources, and knew that the opportunities and inspiration that made him a successful businessman were God's gifts to him. God gifted him so that he might in turn pass God's gifts along to others. So for 50 years, Edward Tuckerman, made the daily bread upon which people depended. And when they could not pay, it became a gift. He did not just pray the Lord's Prayer, he lived it.

Edward Tuckerman, Jr. died on July 17, 1818 and his obituary called him "one of Boston's most worthy, useful, and respectable citizens." I'm sure he had his flaws and, like all of us, I'm sure his life knew sin as well as the good. But I'm also sure that when he met God face to face, it was all forgiven, even as he had forgiven others.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Card

Nope...not a reflection about Christmas cards, although there's plenty to reflect on when you look at them all. I find it a stretch to think that Mary looked that refined after a 70-80 mile ride on a donkey that ended with giving birth in the smelly stable of an over-crowded inn. But hey...we think what we think, and the sentiment of this e-card is certainly what I wish for all of you.

Click here for your e-card.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

When the Church banned Christmas

"It is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county."
From the Records of the General Court, Massachusetts Bay Colony, May 11, 1659

It's that season again when communities get all worked up about holiday displays and what can be shown there and retail clerks get ulcers worrying about whether or not they can say, "Merry Christmas" to those who come into their stores. In churches there is often the angst around who gets to be Mary in the Christmas pageant, whether a Christmas tree should be in the sanctuary and, if so, how it should be decorated.

Church programs are at full tilt, pastors prepare for multiple services, choirs are hard at work on cantatas, and church leaders fret that town regulations no longer allow hand-held candles at their candlelight services. And of course most everybody, both inside the church and out, is participating in keeping the economy afloat by buying things for people who, in most cases, don't really need them.

As many Christians get all worked up over "Keeping the Christ in Christmas," I've come to wonder if Jesus really would want his name associated with the holiday as it stands. And as I wondered that, I remembered my early experience as a Reference Assistant at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

The JCB is a rare book library specializing in Americana up to the year 1800, and in my time there I volunteered to work on a Christmas exhibition for our reading room. What I discovered in my research, however, was that Americans did not celebrate Christmas before 1800. In fact, the celebration of Christmas was actually banned in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659 and anyone caught celebrating had to pay a five-shilling fine.

And who got it banned? Why, the Christians, of course.
The ban lasted 22 years, but it wasn't until the middle of the 19th century before Christmas celebrations were really accepted as appropriate in religious circles. Consider this statement by the Rev. Increase Mather in 1687:

"The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those holidays (as they are called) after an holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth ..."

Consider also the very earliest Christians. Christmas was not an important festival in the Church for several centuries after Christ's death. The three big Church festivals were Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. Jesus' birth was relatively unimportant compared to the events that revealed his nature (Epiphany), his death and resurrection (Easter), and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost).

All of that makes me wonder if Christians perhaps should quit worrying about keeping the Christ in Christmas and simply let it be the time of warm sentiment, festive parties, and economic activity that it has become. Suppose we took the Christ OUT of Christmas and instead put Him back in Epiphany where He belongs?

Honestly, are even our Christmas Eve services accurately described as "holy"? They are sentimental, to be sure, and that is fine. I love a beautiful candlelight service as much as the next person. But I wonder sometimes if all our cooing over a baby Jesus isn't a way of guarding ourselves against the older Jesus. Jesus as a baby can't make us uncomfortable. He can't overturn our tables or tell us to love our enemies or to put away our swords. He just smiles at drummer boys, receives expensive presents from important people, and (if you're to believe the carols) doesn't even cry! Who wouldn't want a baby like that?

But the baby grows up, and as he does, the crowds of Christmas dwindle. Those who want to keep the Christ in Christmas often do not want him intruding at other times of the year. Like tax time, for example. We're only back again when Jesus has gotten through His life and that nasty execution and is safely resurrected and ready to offer us eternal life. Presents given to Him at birth are returned to us in Easter salvation and we get to avoid all those difficult lessons in-between.

Keep the Christ in Christmas if you will, but personally I think it's more important to put Him back in the rest of the year.

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