Since putting up our company billboard on December 11th, we have been overwhelmed with the response. Our intention was only to put out a simple message of “Merry Christmas”, underline Christ, thereby proclaiming that we want to keep Christ in Christmas. We were not trying to create controversy and we were definitely not expecting the reaction which led to coverage on local, as well as national, television. After listening to the media coverage, we felt that our story has been improperly billed as antagonistic and controversial. Again, this was not our intent. I therefore want to tell my version of this story. It is significant that “we” has changed to “I”. The employees of Johnson Nursery provided and paid for the billboard, which resulted from a comment that I made at a company meeting. In order to tell this story properly, I need to explain the motivation of my comments.
This story began during the Christmas Season two years ago. I was in a local store and picked up an approximate 8 page full color Christmas brochure. The problem was it never mentioned Christmas. It promoted season wrapping paper and holiday lights but not one word about Christmas. It even had a holiday tree. At that time I had never heard of a holiday tree and remember feeling very offended. Our community in southeastern North Carolina has benefited tremendously from the influence and support of the vast number of Christian Churches. Why would any business in our area be fearful of offending anyone by mentioning Christmas?
After this experience I began to pay attention. It has gone from bad to worse. Rarely does a commercial on television mention Christmas. It is usually holiday this and season that. I even heard of a school in the North East that was taking their students to the Nutcracker Ballet. One parent heard there was a Christmas tree on stage and complained so adamantly that the school canceled the trip. In late November, I saw a story on both local and national television that displayed a billboard posted by atheists. It had a photo of a cute little girl wearing a Santa Clause hat and saying “All I want for Christmas is “Not to go to church. I don’t believe in fairies.”
At my next Sunday school class at Emma Anderson Memorial Chapel in Topsail Beach I shared these observations. I also shared them with a much smaller group on Monday, December 1st. On this evening, Kelly Keifer invited the Young Life adult leaders out to the Surf City Park for a time of prayer. My wife, Jill, and I met with Kelly that evening. Before we prayed for Young Life, I again shared my concern with many not wanting to proclaim Christmas. After some discussion, we prayed aloud outside in the Surf City Park. The significance of this part of my story is that I specifically expressed my concern with many wanting to take Christ out of Christmas and asked God to show me how I could be a voice regarding this concern. Little did I know.
Two days later, on December 3rd, we had a rather significant lunch and meeting with all of the full time employees of Johnson Nursery. It was so significant that we took our daughter, Annie, out of school so that she could attend the meeting. On the way to the meeting, Jill, Annie, and I once again discussed our concern with taking Christ out of Christmas. It was during this trip that we first considered our own billboard stating Merry Christmas underlining Christ. Seeing that it was already December 3rd, I suggested that we consider this for 2015. Jill immediately wanted me to consider putting it up for this Christmas; I was doubtful. This is unusual- usually Jill is the doubter and I am the one that wants to rush into everything.
With all of this in mind, we went to the company lunch. Before lunch began, I once again shared my frustration with Christ being taken out of Christmas and gave the same examples listed above to my employees. I shared the idea of our own billboard stating Merry Christmas underlining Christ. Teresa Smith, an employee of over 20 years, had a prayer for our meal and we enjoyed a great lunch. During lunch and immediately after our company meeting, which had nothing to do with the billboard, employees began handing me cash. Over the pursuing week I was given contributions for our company billboard in amounts ranging from $10 to $100.
After the meeting, I had a lot of cash but needed a billboard and design. I contacted a billboard company and, to shorten this part of the story, the billboard was up on December 11th. I doubt there are many eight day turnarounds on billboards.
In the eyes of the employees of Johnson Nursery this billboard simply says Merry Christmas. Christ is underlined because we do not want to lose our celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. For some, Jesus is a man born of Joseph and Mary of Nazareth. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He lived, was crucified, died, and was buried. This is all historical and as factual as the life of any other historical figure such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. For Christians, the story is so much more. We believe that Christmas was started as the celebration of the birth and life of Jesus. It has been celebrated word wide for centuries. The employees of Johnson Nursery do not want this celebration changed by calling it a holiday or simply a season.
Our message of Merry Christmas is also presented as one of hope, love, joy, peace, and generosity. There is nothing negative or controversial in any of this.
The story could have ended here and it would have been a story worth telling.
On the day the billboard went up, I emailed a copy of our billboard to the local television station, expressed our concern with Christ being taken out of Christmas, reminded them of the atheist billboard they had reported, and explained that the billboard was provided by the employees of Johnson Nursery. Within four minutes of sending this email I was contacted by the local television station and was asked to do a segment about the billboard. I agreed.
The local television billed the story as one business man's answers to the atheist’s billboard. My point to all of the above is that this is only part of our story. Nevertheless, because the story was billed as a battle between atheists and Christians, it became newsworthy. One day after the local station ran the story, I was contacted by national television.
Now that all of this has calmed down a bit I am left with a final thought or two. First and foremost, there should never be anything controversial about Christmas at least from a Christian’s perspective. This celebration is all about peace, joy, comfort, and results in the most generous time of the year. These emotions are shared between families, friends, co-workers, and across all boundaries including physical and spiritual.
There are many awe inspiring and God glorifying outcomes of this experience. Many of these are shared with testimonies posted on our website. Perhaps the most interesting is the email received from an Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem. I anticipate meeting this gentleman in January of 2015. I have no idea where this new relationship will take us; whatever the outcome, it would have never happened without the billboard.
The final thought is that none of this would have happened without the atheists. This part of the story actually parallels the initial spread of Christianity. Upon Jesus’s death, He was buried in a tomb, which was actually a cave. The Pharisees and other Jewish leaders were fearful that Jesus’s followers were going to steal His body from the cave and claim that Jesus was resurrected. To prevent this, the Jewish leaders sealed the tomb with a large boulder that took many men to move. They also convinced the Romans to post guard outside the tomb. Three days after His burial, the tomb was empty. All of the precautions made by the Jewish and Romans soldiers were proof that the body was not stolen and therefore evidence that Jesus Christ was resurrected. God used unbelievers as witness to His glory.
Our billboard all by itself would have never created much attention outside of our local area. As intended, many cars would pass by the billboard over the four week period, see our Christmas message, and hopefully receive the message in the spirit given. When the media billed this as a battle against the atheists the story went viral. In essence without the atheists our story stays local; with the atheists, our story is heard across the United States and as far away as Jerusalem. This is just another example of God using ordinary people and an ordinary message to do extraordinary things.
God Bless and Merry Christmas,