Ordinary holiness: The ‘Lay Away Angels’

Barry Kough AP Dozens of families across the state are benefiting from secret Santas who are paying their layaway bills … Continued

Barry Kough


Dozens of families across the state are benefiting from secret Santas who are paying their layaway bills for Christmas toys. Debbie Byram, seen at the Lewiston, Idaho, Kmart on Dec. 18, 2011, will have an unexpected and unforgettable Christmas after a Christmas Angel paid enough of her layaway to get her daughters’ presents home in time for Christmas.

Anonymous donors are paying off lay away accounts at big box stores around the nation. These so-called “Lay Away Angels” have paid off the balances on the accounts of struggling families saving for toys and children’s clothes. From Oregon to Michigan to Washington, DC and points in between, Americans are stepping up for each other, helping in the most practical way possible—paying the bill so the kids can have Christmas.



Kristen Sepulveda and her daughter Skylar Sepulveda, 9, become emotional after learning that an anonymous donor had paid off the balance of the family’s Christmas gift purchases at the Kmart in Costa Mesa Monday, Dec. 19, 2011.

This is ordinary holiness. It’s different than the image people sometimes have of what makes something “holy.” Isn’t the holy supposed to be something spectacular, a miraculous event accompanied by the sound of trumpets with the heavens opening to reveal a shaft of light? Not really. The holy often looks like the widow who wants to do something nice to remember her deceased husband at Christmas, so she tells the young father at the Kmart lay away counter, “No, I’m paying for it.”

It really is a holy night (and day) when people really carry on the spirit of Christmas as giving to each other, giving not only to family and friends but also to complete strangers.

Ordinary holiness is more common than we think. It’s happening when there is kindness instead of callousness, sharing instead of greed, and compassion instead of hard-heartedness. In the ear-blistering negative rhetoric of a presidential campaign season, it’s easy to miss the sound of one neighbor quietly helping another.



Yoneira Noriega, left, and her mother Anna Noriega leave the Kmart layaway department with their gifts Monday, Dec. 19, 2011 in Costa Mesa, Calif. The happy shoppers arrived at the store to learn that an anonymous donor had paid off the balance of their Christmas gift purchases.

This story of the “lay away angels” is much needed right now, not just because of the political negativity but even more so because of the economy. This has been a difficult year for many Americans with joblessness, home foreclosures, benefit reductions and the anxiety that comes with not knowing what’s next for you or your family. People anonymously helping each other is inspirational.

The thing about ordinary holiness is that it’s catching. I was inspired, when I first heard these stories, to go find a big box store and contribute a little toward someone’s lay away. I hope you will too.

Make this day and night a little more holy for someone.


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • revtgerst

    there are some such angels around akron, ohio, too, who have helped with utility bills and rent this season. so the rooming house lady and the abused single mom have roof and heat for the holidays. few gifts, perhaps, but there’s a christmas eve meal at the church and a holiday meal at the dopr-in center, a bit of good will towards all on the poor side of town. appreciate the article, susan. peace to you this, and all, seasons!

  • ccnl1

    “Lay Away People of the Greater Good” would be the better term. Why?

    They are called the Infamous Angelic Cons:

    Joe Smith had his Moroni.

    Latter-day Saints also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah.”

    Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God;

    Mohammed had his Gabriel (this “tinkerbell” got around).

    Jesus and his family had Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day demon of the demented.

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other “no-namers” to do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these “pretty wingie thingies” to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

Read More Articles

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.