In my family room is a tree that whispers to me a secret story about Christmas. It is arrayed with colorful lights, festooned with shiny ornaments. But no matter how bright and beautiful we decorate it, the tree whispers to me its darker, secret story.
This morning, very early, I walked into the family room and stood before that story-telling tree. I could see its conical shape, but there was not a hint of color. Or light. Or sparkle. And the tree told me, once more, its story.
This tree belonged to a friend of mine named Barbara. Every December, the tree would watch as she slowly put it together, decorated it, and stepped back to survey her work. But no matter how many lights she wove through its greenery, all the tree could see on Barbara’s face was an expanding darkness. No matter how many beautiful ornaments she hung on its branches, still from her eyes fell those tear-shaped ornaments that leak from a broken soul. Barbara was trying her best to celebrate the Nativity, but that’s hard to do when you’re going through a divorce, struggling to find work, confused, sick, and alone.
Barbara’s tree is now in our family room; she gave it to us. When she moved into a smaller place, she gave away almost everything. She gave away furniture. She gave away decorations. She even gave away appliances. Looking back, I now think that she gave so much away because she suspected that she wouldn’t be giving anyone anything at Christmas except bitter-sweet memories of a life too soon lost. She was give out, giving up.
As I stood in our darkened family room before Barbara’s tree, I listened to the story of the other side of Christmas. The story of women like Barbara, whom darkness slowly envelopes until light seems a mythical wonder from a lost world. The story of children like my boyhood friend, Kent, who many years ago went into a dark closet right before Christmas with a gun in his hand. The story of people who would love to switch the date of this holiday from December 25 to February 29 so they’d only have to endure it every fourth year.
As I remember these stories of the other side of Christmas—where it’s not a wonderful life, where there’s no joy to the world, where silent nights are interrupted by screams and sobs and cursing and gunshots—I remember that this other side of Christmas is precisely why there is a Christmas in the first place.
Into what kind of world was God born late that night in Bethlehem? A world where…
Bruised children whimpered behind bedroom doors
Broken men groaned over fresh graveyard dirt
Babies wailed as they clawed at milkless breasts
Wounded soldiers howled into the blackness
Women of the night brazenly hawked their wares
Fists smashed into broken faces in drunken brawls
Wizened men wheezed final unintelligible words
And the blackened teeth of the homeless chattered.
Into what kind of world was God born? A world where Barbaras and Kents can see nothing in the future but a glaring midnight stare. A world full of hurting people who hurt each other, hurt themselves, and sometimes will do terrible things to themselves just to make the hurt stop.
For them, for you, God was born. For bruised children and broken men. For wounded soldiers and battered wives. For you—no matter your hurt, no matter how screwed up your life is, no matter what kinds of stupid decisions you’ve made, no matter how filthy and vile and useless you think you are—for precisely you God was born. He gladly left a bright and shiny heaven to plunge headfirst into the mud and muck of our world full of darkness and unbelief and tragedy. He didn’t stand in the light and beckon you out of the darkness. He invaded the night. He came in search of you.
You say, “But I’m a lost cause.”
Jesus says, “I specialize in lost causes, for I came to seek and to save the lost.”
You say, “But I just can’t go on.”
Jesus says, “You don’t have to. I will carry you onward. You don’t need to take another step.”
You say, “But I’m hopeless.”
Jesus says, “I have all the hope you need. I am your hope. I hold your past, your present, and your future in my nail-scarred hands.”
You say, “But look at what I’ve done. I’m dirty. Nobody wants me.”
And Jesus says, “I want you. Look at what I’ve done for you. I have taken your dirt and smeared it all over me. You are clean, I am filthy. See me dirty on the cross. See you clean beneath it. I want you—desperately, lovingly, crazily, I want you.”
Into this mad world, oozing with pain, racked with guilt, pockmarked with graves, God gladly and willingly was born to make you his own flesh and blood. The deeper you have fallen, the farther he will dig to find you. The darker your despair, the more light he will bring to seek you out. @@The farther away from God you are, the better he sees you.@@ No life has sunk so unfathomably deep that he cannot dig down to grasp you by the hand and climb out of the pit with you in his arms. That’s the kind of God who was born on Christmas. That’s the kind of God that Jesus is.
That tree in my family room tells its story. But I know a better one. It’s the story of a God who can turn our hurting stories around. The story of a God who never gives up on us. The story of a God who gives you himself at Christmas that, in him, you might have everything and more.