Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Thing About Christmas

Yesterday I stood before a display rack of Christmas DVDs that must have included more than forty titles - cartoons, comedies, and classics. Most of them I'd never seen, but the story was likely to be predictable: a child / adult / animal is depressed / unappreciated / "difficult" or "different" and encounters / undergoes / confronts an experience / situation / challenge that is unpredictable / impossible / rare which thereby transforms / undercuts / alters the context / understanding / shape of their local world / life / reality.

Life's common themes prevail. And Christmas is a time when these common threads of life experience become focused and intense, concentrated around the story of the birth of Jesus, that quiet bursting forth of actual and potential immensity of life, love, and learning "in the bleak midwinter, long time ago." No matter the circumstance, it seems to say, transformation is possible because transformation lies planted within the deepest roots of things, and something beyond "mere" transformation has become incarnate, a reality in our midst.

Children hint as these things on a daily basis, as do those who approach life simply, radically, and with daily wonder (those I've met with Down's Syndrome come to mind, as do those I consider holy men and women). Their comments, gestures, and actions regularly burst forth with genuineness and passion; very little is lukewarm or artificial. Yes, they're not warm and fuzzy all the time. But they're all out there all the time. Like God.

That's perhaps the greatest challenge we have, to be more and more like God, to be more and more in love with our lives, our circumstances, our immediate neighbors, our daily challenges, and dare I say, even our enemies. Boy, is that one difficult, even for those who really try. But it's possible, unpredictable, and providential. 

Take one example. Radical love may perhaps be best exemplified in that strange thing called forgiveness, without which salvation and Christmas itself would have no meaning beyond the warm and fuzzy.

In her book The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom tells the story of her family’s efforts to help Jews in Holland and their later suffering in a Nazi death camp, where her sister Betsie died. Following liberation, Corrie, an avid evangelical Christian into her old age, lectured and preached throughout Europe on the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. After one of her talks, a man came up to her. He did not recognize her, but she recognized him immediately—he had been a particularly cruel SS guard at the Nazi death camp who had repented after the war and become an active Christian himself. She writes of their meeting:

How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,” he said. “To think that, as you say, [Christ] has washed my sins away!” And suddenly, it was all there— the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face. ... His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often about  the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. And even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile. I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer, Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.

As I took his hand a most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.  And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on [God’s]. When He tells us to love our enemies, He  gives, along with the command, the love itself…. It is a joy to accept forgiveness, but it is almost a greater joy to give forgiveness.

Sounds like God is in the building. 

This Christmas, imagine that it may be God's greatest joy to be able to bring forgiveness, to be able to bring it to birth in Jesus Christ and, through Christ, in each of us. What a great notion! And as we find joy in accepting forgiveness, there's a whole world of new joys to be explored in giving forgiveness, difficult at that may seem. Talk about real love in action.

May you have/find/seek the grace/hope/love that will burst through like a supernova - quiet, largely unseen, but HUGE - bringing true life to everything and everyone you touch.

[For those interested in my Christmas Newsletter, it's HERE.]