What I Learned From My First 39 Christmases

During the next year, I will begin my 40th trip around the sun. So this year, I have been reflecting on what I have learned during the my first four decades of celebrating Christmas.

Through my Christmas celebrations I have learned from the Bible a lot about wise men and shepherds, prophets and priests, evil kings and arrogant emperors, a virgin mother and carpenter father, swaddling clothes and mangers. I’ve learned from the culture about Christmas trees, mistletoe, gift exchanges, jingle bells, Santa, Rudolph and workshops full of elves. Along the way I’ve also learned a little about life. And the sum total of all that I have learned in this time from the Bible, and the culture, and the peaks and valleys of life boils down to just one statement:

I have never seen anything like Jesus.

I have seen people love me far better than I could ever deserve and I have seen people I trusted let me down right when I needed them most. But I have never seen anything like Jesus who is always faithful to his promise to never leave us or forsake us.

I have seen the power of family as relatives look after one another and teach children their heritage and identity. And I have seen families torn apart by forces beyond their control and by poor decisions on the part of those who did not know how to control themselves. But I have never seen anything like Jesus who invites all to become part the family of God by becoming children of God who are born not “of blood or the will of the flesh, but of God (John 1:13).”

I have seen forgiveness set free victims of the most despicable cruelty. And I have seen resentment and the desire for revenge poison the souls of those whose physical wounds have long since healed. But I have never seen anything like Jesus who teaches us to forgive as many times as we have been sinned against by forgiving us as many times as we sin against him.

I have seen addiction turn loving parents into child abusers and petty criminals. And I have seen recovery restore them to sanity and rebuild bridges that were long ago burned. But I have never seen anything like Jesus who came to set the prisoners free and break every chain that binds us.

I have seen the fight for social justice enable our hearts and our laws to more clearly reflect the equality that God long ago placed in the souls of all men and women. And I have seen the same people who seem to courageously embody the cause of social justice in one setting, turn around and spew bigotry and prejudice in the next. But I have never seen anything like Jesus who came to love and level the playing field for Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.

I have seen poverty in third world slums where the only clean water is the rain that falls from the sky, in Appalachian hollers where worn out wood stoves try in vain to heat uninsulated cinder block, and I have seen inner cities where a sea of tiny brick apartments limit not only the living options, but too often the ambitions of their inhabitants as well. And I have seen people in those settings full of joy and love as well as people in the same settings who have given up and given in to their baser desires. But I have never seen anything like Jesus who said “blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

I have seen wealth and resources which boggle the mind. I’ve known C-level executives who were as down to earth, humble, and generous as anyone you would ever meet and I have known people who were born on third base and thought they had hit a triple. Still, I’ve never seen anything like Jesus who said it was harder for the rich to enter the kingdom than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle and then went out and called wealthy tax collectors to be his disciples and who upon meeting a very well to do Roman General said he had never seen faith like his in all of Israel.

I have seen the benefit of seeking emotional maturity, of learning from counselors and practicing techniques that help me control my emotions so they do not control me. And yet, I have seen that those who are seemingly most in control of their emotions are not always the ones with the most love in their hearts. And I have never seen anything like Jesus who came to teach us to love one another as He loves us and who occasionally lost his temper when he came across people who were disinterested in doing so.

I have seen the benefit in professional development – in learning skills and strategies to win friends, influence people, and make a dollar – in developing a strong work ethic and unshakable commitment to excellence. And I have seen workaholics with deep regrets for neglecting the greater things in life. I believe it to be true that all the castles we build in this life will amount to little more than grains of sand on the shoreline of eternity. And I have never seen anything like this Jesus who came to tell us of an everlasting Kingdom not made by human hands.

I have seen our desperate need for intentional spiritual formation and practicing the disciplines of the faith – prayer and fasting, tithing and community service, worship and communion. And I have seen prayer and fasting become empty mysticism, tithing and service become self-justification, and worship and communion devolve into absent minded ritual. Still, I have never seen anything like Jesus who taught us to prayer to “our Father”, who uses our gifts and service for his glory even when we offer them for ulterior motives, and who promises us he will be there whenever two or three are gathered and whenever we break this bread and drink this wine.

I have seen the joy of romantic love: the passion of youth, the commitment of marriage, the hard won security of a relationship that grows stronger through sleepless nights with sick children and tough decisions about careers. But on the day, my wife and I said “till death do us part” we acknowledged there was one journey on which I could not accompany her and she could not accompany me. And I have never seen anything like Jesus who said he went away to prepare a place for us on the other side of death’s threshold and that he himself would take us there.

I have seen my children in their first moments of life and as I held their tiny bodies I felt my heart swell with a depth of love I did not know it was possible to possess. As I have begun to watch them grow, I have felt a pride for which words could never do justice. But from the first night they came home from the hospital to sleep in our house, I knew a day was coming when they would want a house of their own and when they would have priorities of their own and when I would have to let them fight some of their most important battles on their own. Still, I have never seen anything like Jesus who promises my children and all children will always have a heavenly Father to watch over and guide them each moment for the entirety of their lives.

I have seen the church in all its glory and ambiguity. I believe the church is of God and will endure till the end of time. I understand why Jesus said the gates of hell would not stand against his church because I have not seen any other organization in this world that rivals the power of a group of ordinary people who gather for the purpose of embodying the extraordinary love of Jesus. I have seen churches rescue their communities from poverty, disease, and division. And I have seen churches argue about petty decisions like the color of the carpet or the music on Sunday mornings while outside a community desperately waits for the good news of the Gospel. I have seen denominations become distracted by institutionalism and I have seen churches of the progressive mindset and of the conservative mindset sell their souls to political parties while moderate churches struggle to find the courage to share the clear political ramifications of the Gospel at all. Still, I have never seen anything like Jesus who decided he would rather be known by the love of his followers than through miraculous spectacles like throwing himself off the top of the temple or parting the clouds.  And after he gathered his followers together, he called them: church.

I have seen Jesus do amazing things in others and I have seen him turn me into someone I never thought I could be. I have also seen myself turn away from him and from the values I hold most dear. But I have never seen anyone like this Jesus who never turns away from me, who never turned away on the long dusty road to the cross, and who never will turn away from one of his children in need. I have never seen anything like this mercy, this love, this grace.

All these experiences lead me to conclude the reason John’s Gospel calls Jesus the light in the darkness and the reason the darkness can never put out the light is because just as light helps you see everything as it actually is, so too does Jesus. Once you have seen Jesus, you see everything else differently. And having seen Jesus, you can never go back to the way you were before, you can never see things the way you saw them before. The light just keeps shining.

So this year when we look at the manger, I hope we can see beyond the manger to the Man. And when we make our hands a cradle for his body in communion, I hope we can know he is as present with us as he was in the manger that became his cradle long ago in Bethlehem. And this season, I hope we will not consider Christmas complete once we have heard the Christmas message. I hope we will spend our lives seeking to be the Christmas message for a world in need of nothing more and nothing less than Christmas.