Kent and I slept through the same sermons every Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Shamrock, Texas. Our butts bruised their way down many a ski slope together. We hunted turkeys by day and raccoons by night. And we bragged about how many girls we'd kissed (though I'm pretty sure we both grossly inflated the numbers). Kent was a little guy but a force to reckoned with on the football field or basketball court. He was smart, likable, an overall good kid and great friend. I was unloading a truck at the feed store in town when my mom pulled up one day in late December to tell me that, on his birthday, Kent had put a gun to his head and pulled shut the door to life. Were I to outlive Methuselah, it would still seem like yesterday. It’s one of those moments welded into my memory. Shock and fear and anger and guilt and emotions I didn’t even know were in me—they all came cascading out. A few days later, I, but a teenager, helped bear his teenage casket out of the church, into a world that blinked at us with a potpourri of festive lights that seemed a blasphemy of joy in the vortex of our grief.
Almost a decade later, the parsonage phone rang way too early one Saturday morning. I knew the instant Dale began to speak that whatever he said next would be wounded words. A police officer had knocked on the door of the family's country home earlier that morning. Dale and Roxie's twenty year old son had fallen asleep at the wheel, hit a guardrail, and been thrown from his pickup. Snow and ice blanketed the town on the day we laid Dewayne’s body to rest. It was December 26. And the day before, as I and my fellow mourners at St. Paul Lutheran church pretended to celebrate our Lord’s Nativity, every happy hymn, every joyful carol, was dragged from our lips like a dirge, and the sanctuary liquefied into one vast sea of tears.
I think, for most people, Christmas is the best of times and the worst of times. When I was a boy, I was unacquainted with the cruel nonchalance with which evil disregards the festival calendar. I knew nothing of tear-laden birthday parties and pill-popping Christmases. I sat on Santa’s lap and told him what I wanted under the tree. My family was all together on that happy morning. We all had colorful wrapping paper strewn about our feet when it was all over, new toys to play with, a feast to consume. Christmas was the best of times. And for those sweet boyhood memories, I am everlastingly grateful.
But I know now the darker side of Christmas, the gloom beneath the glitter, a side many of you reading this know all too well. Every December I think of the family of Kent, and the family of Dewayne, and the what-might-have-been memories that must rise to the surface every time the tree goes up and carols flood the airwaves. And though the grief is of a different kind, I think of all the families of broken marriages, of which mine is a part. The Hallmark scene of eager children waking their mom and dad early on Christmas morning to open the gifts isn’t possible when dad is living hours away, and mom’s newest boyfriend doesn’t appreciate some kid jumping in bed with them, especially when he’s nursing a hangover.
Perhaps part of the mistake we’ve made is in forgetting that the first Christmas, the actual birthday of Jesus, started out as the worst of times. Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because of taxes, because the money-hungry, tyrannical Roman overlords had forced them to undertake this journey when no pregnant woman should be on the road. No warm, sanitized room awaited them after their trip, but a cold, dark barn. When this young mother went into labor, where was she supposed to lay down to give birth? On rough hay littered with cow crap? Where’d they get light? Warm water? Cloths to clean up the blood? It’s a wonder both mother and child didn’t die that night. The original crèche must have looked like a rural crime scene. This is not the way any baby, least of all Jesus, should have been born.
And yet it was. Far from home, in the dark, in the cold, in the mess, in the blood, in the crappy conditions of our screwed up world, God was born.
That’s a Christmas story I like, for it’s one I can identify with. More than that, it’s a story that gives meaning and hope to our own dark, cold, bloody, crappy stories of Christmases that seem anything but merry. For it was on this night that God began to teach us that we don’t need to have a Hallmark Christmas to find peace and contentment and joy in him.
For Christmas is not about presents. It’s not even about family and friends. It’s about God taking on our flesh and blood, being born as one of us, to share our grief, to bear our sorrows, and to unite us to himself, that we might find him in our grief and sorrows. There’s a reason he’s called a “man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief.” The first sound leaving our newborn Lord’s lips would have been a cry. How fitting is that? God knows what it means to weep, to hurt, to suffer loneliness, anger, loss, and, yes, even the pangs of death. You do not have a Savior unable to sympathize with your weaknesses, but one who has experienced them all, so that no matter what your own hurt, he redeems it, and carries you through it.
All I want for Christmas is a God like that.
If you enjoy my writings, please consider purchasing my newly published book, The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems. This poetry gives voice to the triumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world. Whether you weep, rejoice, struggle, or hope, through these hymns and poems you can speak to God with honesty and fidelity. By buying a copy, you will also aid mission work, for 25% of the proceeds from book sales go to benefit Lutherans in Africa. Click here to purchase your copy. Thanks!