A Christmas Miracle


Well, this one is beyond explanation.

A family from the Real Life Church family contacted our Children’s Minister, Staci, to tell her that their house had been robbed.  The thieves got away with some cash that the family had set aside to send their kids to Winter Camp with the church.

Of course the church was ready to jump in and cover the costs for these two kids anyway, but the family told Staci to save the money.  The church might have to buy a new building this year – save the money for that.

This sweet family was about to sacrifice their kids’ opportunity to go to camp so that the church could continue in its mission.

What they didn’t know was that earlier the same day I had received a call from another member of the congregation who told me, “God is telling me to pay for a couple of kids to go to camp, in case anyone can’t afford it.”  The same day the house was robbed, even before it was robbed.

So of course, the kids are going to camp.

Now a skeptic might suggest that if God was behind this, he could have just stopped the robbery, right?  But think about that.  The family isn’t losing out on anything – they’re still going to camp, and not only that, they also know that God is watching out for them.  The donors aren’t out anything – they already wanted to give the gift.  Now on top of that, they know how special their gift is.  Even the thieves are not at a loss – they walked away with the cash, and, God willing, they are a step closer to finding out that money and theft will not lead to happiness.  If God had stopped all this from happening, we wouldn’t have this story to tell, and we wouldn’t have a deep sense of God’s hand in our lives.

So this is our Christmas miracle this year, and it’s my Christmas miracle, because what pastors want to see, more than beautiful services and shining smiles, is the powerful hand of God intervening in the world.  That is, after all, the story of Christmas.



A Very Messy Christmas



We like to wish each other a merry Christmas.  If we wanted to be real with each other, we would probably wish one another a messy Christmas, because to do so is more true to the biblical narrative and more true to the state of our lives.  Merry Christmess.  It would relieve the recipient of the burden of meeting the Norman Rockwell expectations  for family life in this season, achieving the proper level of Hallmark sentimentality, and imitating the magazine cover home decor.  Most of us would rather undo the top button of our jeans and watch football with the curtains closed.

The Christmas holiday is messy; let’s be honest.

The manger scenes on our front lawns are dishonest.  The wise men, who have just concluded an international journey on foot, are well-pressed and do not need a shower.  The shepherds, who are day-laborers, whom Aristotle referred to as the “most lazy” of all laborers, have the well-groomed gaiety of a barbershop quartet about to break out in song.  The baby, who was just born in a windy barn without medical assistance, well, “no crying he makes.” And Mary, who was not long ago threatened with divorce in light of premarital pregnancy, and Joseph, who finds himself in a generally unwanted arranged marriage, have on their faces the serene tranquility of a Buddha statue I saw in my neighbor’s garden.

Meanwhile, the houses behind our manger scenes are full of people who, by all accounts, are completely unworthy to approach such an immaculate gathering.

Christmas is messy.  The first one was messy, and the meaning behind it is messy.  God steps down into the mud and filth of the earth to join the species that had staged a rebellion against the Creator in the hopes of winning some converts back to the original side where, outrageously, they will be welcomed to return.  Christmas isn’t about a neat and tidy self-presentation.  It’s about being loved by the God who knows our mess so well that he joined it.

logo.jpgWhat if, rather than painting on our faces the rouge of artificial merriness, we settle for the messiness?  What if we accept one another’s messiness with grace? Christmas is not a time for appearances, it is a time for the authentic embrace of true humanity.  More than any other time, this season, we ought to love and accept those whose lives are a mess.

Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus

Xmasa Christmas essay by C.S. Lewis

And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from the other barbarians who occupy the north western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival; guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the marketplace is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest, and most miserable of the citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk about the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchaser’s become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think some great public calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush.

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, “It is not lawful, O stranger, for us to change the date of Chrissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left.” And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, “It is, O Stranger, a racket”; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.

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The fourth thing I want my kids to know this Christmas is actually one they will not consciously notice, though it undergirds everything they do.

A psychologist friend once told me that the way your family shapes your identity is like a potter shaping a ball of clay and then leaving it in the sun to dry.  Before it is completely dry, you can still leave fingerprints on it, but it’s hard to do much with the original shape.  Our families are that early potter that do most of the shaping of personality, habits, and drive.

As we gather for dinner at my in-laws house this year on Christmas day, I will go with my usual reservations.  They are a family that has a lot to say, and I generally hide quietly in the corner through most of our gatherings.  I will have had a couple of aspirin in advance.  I love my extended family, but you’re talking about dropping someone with the personality of a librarian into a fiesta.

But I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

And I want my kids to know that the nuclear family: dad, mom, and the kids, is an essential building block of all society that must be preserved.  I want them invested in the idea of family universally and the experience of their family particularly.  We continue to cheapen family in America by making marriage inessential and child-bearing optional.  First we assimilated divorce and then cohabitation.  Now there are flippant voices calling for the mainstreaming of adultery and serious voices reshaping marriage altogether.  Deconstructionists are trying to tell us that this is inevitable and only fair.

What we’re doing is messing up the best chance the potter has.

So kids, pay attention to how your grandparents act and what your aunties say and how the cousins are the same and different from one another.  They are some of the most sure access you will have to self-understanding.  And be sure when the day comes that you are making Christmas plans of your own with family members we have not yet met – family is essential.

Jesus, et. al.

This is the third thing I want my kids to know for Christmas.  As you grow up, you’re going to hear that out there in the world there is a pantheon of gods.  There is the god who revealed himself to Joseph Smith on some strangely misplaced golden tablets.  Another god whispered in Muhammed’s ear and led him to be a king.  There was a string of god who ruled the sea, the sky, and the elements in the ancient world, and many of the same kind by different names that still dominate the landscape of worship in India.

We are a race of polytheists.  Christmas is just the birth of another god.

But here’s the thing.  Christianity is not like other religions.  Religions historically come of certain stripes.  There are those that help humanity escape from reality, and those that help humanity define the forces that move reality.  Most of them empowered someone to be in charge of things.  Christianity is not like other religions.  In the story of this god, he becomes man in the name of love for a lost humanity.  He endures the indignity of humility so as to restore us to a relationship that we called off.

As a result, no one gets put in charge.  The forces that move reality are just a mystery and wonder as they always were.  And Christians are called to do anything but escape reality – we worship the God who joined the real world.

Rather than writing Christianity off as just another religious fiction, realize that all of these religions are attempted guesses that play on the human hardwiring that makes us go looking for our Creator.

Rather than writing Christianity off as an undeservedly elitist belief system that aims to dominate other worldviews, realize that it’s claim to authority only comes from the action of a humble God who spoke into history.

And rather than giving up on God in a world where specters and shadows of God abound, don’t give up your pursuit of him until you’ve found the real thing.  I suspect you’ll find it in a manger.