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My first year of teaching high school, I was faced with the question of why we read and teach the books we teach. What makes them worth reading?

Well, they’re classics, right? They’ve been around for a long time, lots of people have read them, so they must be worth reading, right?

But that can easily become a circle to get stuck in, can’t it? We read these classics because everybody always has. And they read them because everybody always has.

So. I began making a list of the qualities that give these books staying power.

Don’t worry. I won’t treat you to the whole list, but if you think of the movies that your family watches every year at Christmas time, you will most likely be able to figure out some of the qualities I discovered.

Unique characters–what is it about George Bailey that keeps us watching his wonderful life again and again, even though we could quote all his lines for him? Though no one will ever be able to breathe the life into those lines like Jimmy Stewart did. _It’s A Wonderful Life_ gives us two characters for the price of one!

Engaging characters–Elf, the Ghost of Christmas Present, the Grinch and Cindy Loo Who, Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit, Tim Allen’s Santa Claus, Clarence Cloudbottom: they touch our hearts and lives because they are like us or like someone we know . . . or even wish we knew. Somewhere along the storyline, we find a person that we can connect to through our own lives and experiences. And as we grow and our life experiences broaden, we experience these stories in a new way.

Universal themes–How in the world did _The Sound of Music_ become a Christmas classic? There’s nothing remotely Christmas-y about it! But it’s been shown on tv at Christmas ever since I can remember . . . and I can remember watching it from a rather young age! Perhaps it’s because at Christmas time, families want to come together to watch something good and something filled with hope and joy and love and something worth believing in. And the story of the Von Trap family–both the true story and the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein version we all know so well [I’ll bet you’ve sung along with it at some point or another yourself!]–their story is full of those things. Something worth believing in so much that it’s worth risking one’s life and livelihood for. Hope and love: “A dream that will need all the love you can give/ Every day of your life for as long as you live.” And, of course, joy.

Timelessness–some stories can only be enjoyed once or twice through before they are put on the shelf and never really thought of again. Some are good again if you are experiencing them with someone to whom the story is new. But some. Those classic some. They are good again and again. There are new things to notice, new connections to make each time we experience them. They grow with us. We connect with the story and characters in different ways as our experiences follow the path of time that we all take. Scrooge today is a rounder character to me than he was when I was a middle-schooler reading _A Christmas Carol_ on my own for the first time. And though in the past I have been more touched by his own personal redemption story, my attention was caught this year (as Dickens would have had it, I’m sure) by the poor and the needy and by the way that Ebenezer did what he could to remedy the deficits. Timely story indeed.

Unique characters. Engaging characters. Universal themes. Timelessness.

Do these apply to THE Christmas story? The one that started it all?

You know what my answer should be, of course. The “Sunday School answer” that I should give as a good Christian.

But I hate giving answers just because they’re the expected answers. Not even the First Christmas story should be locked into a cycle of meaninglessness: “we read it every year because everyone reads it every year because it’s the classic Christmas story.”

Is it worth reading every year? Should not the Author of the Universe do work excellent enough to withstand scrutiny? Is the First Christmas story timeless enough to be heard again and again each year with ears both familiar and new at the same time?

This will, of course, depend on the other three qualities we have just mentioned. In this post I will leave you to ponder its universal themes while I take the briefest of looks at the characters.

We don’t know a lot about them. Some of the principal players are known only by their occupations and titles. And even those around whom the story swirls are sketched with minimalist lines. Yet it’s an old actor’s adage that character is action. And from the actions that make up the plot of the story we can derive the characters. What kind of a person kills all the babies in a town to try to get at the one he fears may one day grow to take a throne he will, by then, be too old to hold? What kind of men rush from fields to search a sleeping town for a little baby? And what kind of person sends his only son into a hostile world?

The story of the First Christmas is a story of many different reactions to the same gift. Were we in their shoes, what response would have been ours? In whose company would you find yourself?

Steven Curtis Chapman was exploring that question himself one Christmas, using those thoughts to write his song “I Am Joseph (God Is With Us).” And on this Christmas Day, I leave you with that question: where are you in the Classic Christmas story this year?

Steven Curtis Chapman “I Am Joseph (God Is With Us)”

Steven Curtis Chapman “I Am Joseph (God Is With Us)” lyrics

Broken wounded hearts
Stars seemingly numberless
He knows all their names

jmc 1-30-2011

This song was just what I needed to hear today. And with the approaching anniversary of September 11 approaching, it seems to be appropriate for the time, too.

Beholding glory
Comfort, trust, sufficiency
God raises the dead
2-8-2011
Christ arose and was seen,
Forerunner of believers:
We live through Him
2-5-2011

This last portion of the poem deals with the one word that seems to be impossible–hope. Because that is the message of the Resurrection. Hope. Hope for new life that springs from the inside and changes us for eternity. Hope because the One who knew no sin became sin for us so that WE MAY BE MADE THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD IN HIM. That’s hope. And not the wishful-thinking kind. It’s the hang-your-hat-on kind. The lay-your-every-waking-moment-on-the-line kind of hope. Expectation.

I’m standing at the tomb
His tomb
My tomb
Your tomb
Dare I hope to see an angel
Announcing over empty grave-clothes
The Impossible has happened?
Where does my heart,
My death-wounded heart go
to find Your Resurrection?
Like Martha, I believe
You are Who You Are—
God, the Son of God,
The Resurrection and the Life.
Can this belief become
the spice I bring to mourn the dead?
Here is where we dwell:
We dwell with Death—
death of loved-ones, hopes, and dreams
Should I really be
Surprised that You should die?
It’s not ok
But I’m used
To it, to death
There’s always one more tomb.

But Yours is empty
Empty, hollow, vacant—
Incomprehensibly absent
Is the corpse I came to find.
“Because I live, ye shall live also”
Was Your promise,
A promise just as impossible,
Just as improbable—
Teach me to believe!
For now, just help me trust
In You, the One I’ve come to know.
I know You’ll read my message
When I send to You saying,
“Lord, the one You love is sick, is dead.”
You’ll come, e’en though he’s dead,
Because You love him, too.
I’m waiting for the glory of God
Promised by You,
Incomprehensibly impossible.
Hoping, waiting, believing
That You defeated Death.

Nov 29, 2010

I was wrestling the other day with a wrong (or perhaps a series of wrongs), committed by a loved one. I wasn’t sure what to do with them in my own mind. When I read Psalm 62, verse 12 jumped out at me: “Also unto Thee, O LORD, belongeth mercy: for Thou renderest to every man according to his work.” Of course, this is going to sound like I am stating the obvious, but I realized that no one is big enough to handle the consequences of his wrongs. And I didn’t want that person to pay for the wrongs. I truly did (do) want mercy for that person.

But I also want the consequences to be taken care of, the wrongs to be fixed or made ok or made right somehow. Because it’s not only ourselves that must deal with the consequences–it’s those around us.

As I talked with God about it (or perhaps just TO Him at that point), He brought the Ultimate Payment to mind. Jesus’ death pays all debts. But the question I still have is this: if I stand here with the wrongs in my hand, can I truly accept the exchange of those wrongs for Christ’s blood and suffering? I mean, do I really want that? His death? His blood? I don’t want blood. I don’t want more suffering. That’s just one more wrong to be made right.

Maybe I have the wrong idea about the exchange. Maybe the exchange isn’t wrongs for blood; maybe the exchange is wrongs for grace and mercy. Mercy for the one(s) who wronged me; grace for me as I grapple with the consequences. And maybe living through the consequences is part of entering into the sufferings of Christ–following His lead as He entered into our consequences: “surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”; “but He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed.” [fyi: those last two verses were quoted from memory, not carefully copied, so the punctuation, at least, is prob not quite right]

And I have been trying to follow His lead; I just seem to be doing a poor job, slipping and tripping a lot.

Every time I lay me down to sleep,
I give myself to You, O Lord, to keep;
Your arm my shield while I rest, unaware;
I place into your keeping all my care.

Dec. 17, 2009

When another one falls,
not falls, but stumbles,
not stumbles, exactly,
but trips, and catching
his façade on a protruding edge,
rips it away for us to see
the things that lie inside—
Death rules again,
And I seem to see
You again, cold and lying
in Your grave enwound with
grave clothes and embalming spices.
I find myself at Your tomb again
Bringing spices, mourning You
Wondering
Was everlasting Life all a Dream?

With deathful Sin triumphant,
standing, gloating, leering,
mocking all our hopes—
now dashed with cold reality—
Who will roll the stone away?

And once the tomb is open,
letting out the stench of death,
exposing to our eyes the
lifeless shell within,
where will we find You?
You are not there, the corpse
that was Your body
cannot now be You—
Your spirit’s gone.
And where You’ve gone
We do not know
And cannot follow.
The memory of You fades
to a dream of something
we thought we had.
But we were mistaken.
What hope is there?

Resurrection?

Rising from the dead?
Just doesn’t happen
Impossible
So improbable that our minds
Cannot conceive the thought:
“Your brother will rise again.”
“Yes, Lord, someday he will
when life as we know it
comes to an end and
You make all things new.”
“I AM the Resurrection
and the Life,” You reply;
and, though my mind believes,
my heart still cries:
“Lord, if You had been here,
My brother would not have died!”
I cannot help but weep.
And You weep, too—
You, who are Life itself,
Weeping over Death.
I know by Your weeping
that You loved him, too:
that Death can touch Your heart,
divine though You may be.
Perhaps Divinity is wounded
more by Death than is Mortality.
And for this moment,
once again, Death
trumps Victory.
And so we weep together.
What comes next?

“Where have you laid him?”

If I show You,
if I show You where he is buried;
if I take that long, slow walk to his tomb again;
if I take that long, slow walk with You—
if we take that walk together, even though he’s four-days dead;
if I show You where he lies decayed,
What then?

I’m standing at the tomb
His tomb
My tomb
Your tomb
Dare I hope to see an angel
Announcing over empty grave-clothes
The Impossible has happened?
Where does my heart,
My death-wounded heart go
to find Your Resurrection?
Like Martha, I believe
You are Who You Are—
God, the Son of God,
The Resurrection and the Life.
Can this belief become
the spice I bring to mourn the dead?
Here is where we dwell:
We dwell with Death—
death of loved-ones, hopes, and dreams
Should I really be
Surprised that You should die?
It’s not ok
But I’m used
To it, to death
There’s always one more tomb.

But Yours is empty
Empty, hollow, vacant—
Incomprehensibly absent
Is the corpse I came to find.
“Because I live, ye shall live also”
Was Your promise,
A promise just as impossible,
Just as improbable—
Teach me to believe!
For now, just help me trust
In You, the One I’ve come to know.
I know You’ll read my message
When I send to You saying,
“Lord, the one You love is sick, is dead.”
You’ll come, e’en though he’s dead,
Because You love him, too.
I’m waiting for the glory of God
Promised by You,
Incomprehensibly impossible.
Hoping, waiting, believing
That You defeated Death.

Daddy, something isn’t right today.
I’d tell You if I knew just what it was.
If I knew, I’d run to You, sobbing out my woe
Or spread it out before You, talk it over,
Trusting that You’ll fix it,
Taking from You the power, the strength
To live despite the brokenness,
The knowledge and wisdom to live within its sphere.
I’d leave it with You and step out
Confidently–confident in You, confident
In what You’ve told me, confident because
We’ve talked it out.

Daddy, something’s just a little wrong today,
But I can’t put my finger on just what!
A monster ‘neath my bed or in my closet?
A lingering headache, cold, or flu?
A bruise? A broken friendship?
A gaping hole, invisible, in the fabric of space and time?
Am I sensing someone else’s pain?
Or is it mine?
You’re so big and wise, I’m sure You’ve seen
Already what it is–before I even have the words to know.
Please let me snuggle down with You to watch
Until You show me. Your nearness
Gives me confidence in facing the unknown.

2-8-2010

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas Day,
To save us all from Satan’s pow’r
When we were gone astray;

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.

Am I the only one that finds this song ironic? It tells of rest and comfort and joy in a minor key and is sung either as a funeral dirge or as a race to the sales table (depending, of course, on who is leading the song). In fact, my favorite arrangements of this piece give the sensation of being swept off my feet and into . . . the great swell of traffic on the freeway . . . the harried atmosphere of a busy workday . . . the frenzied rush to finish things before due-dates . . . any moment but a restful moment.  I don’t dislike the song. I enjoy it (especially an older arrangement on a cassette tape with the Mantovani choir we had when I was a child). I simply find it ironic. Ironic like the whole Christmas season: in what other season of the year do we rush around desperately trying to make life simple, beautiful, and peaceful?

“Rest . . . Let nothing you dismay . . . Remember . . . Comfort and joy”

The Christmas season, like no other season in the year, reminds us of the important things in life: generosity, peace, love, and simplicity. We set out to make it a special time for ourselves and those around us, planning the perfect party, seeking just the right present, focusing on giving rather than on receiving. Yet, we find ourselves so tired. Somewhere in the midst of it all there is no rest–not physically, not emotionally, not spiritually. Somehow, in the midst of the focus on giving, there is little peace. And in a season that is supposed to be merry, many of us are left feeling disappinted somehow. By the end of the Christmas season, we are left wondering where in the world the “comfort and joy” could have been hiding. Did we miss them at the store? Were the malls sold out of them? Are these “tidings” no different than the sale ads we see on television and get in the mail? Maybe the comfort and joy are in limited quantities: only those who are first in line for the food at the Christmas party get them; only those willing to camp out on the steps of the stores the night before the sale can afford them.

But the God of the universe couldn’t possibly be that way, could He? Wouldn’t He have enough to go around to everyone–with more to spare? Enough rest for everyone? When He grew up, this baby proclaimed “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” That’s a wide-open welcome. A sale that never ends. Maybe it’s like a batch of brownies: it doesn’t exactly fit the description of what we usully think of when we hear the word “cookie”; it doesn’t take a lot of work on our part; we simply bring the few ingredients we need to add and combine them with the mix (yes, I make brownies from mixes) then bake at the right temperature. Most of it’s been done for us. And around the Christmas season, I feel a little short on ingredients–time, for one! And so, maybe, having comfort and rest and joy is about bringing my few ingredients to the Chef and adding them to His mix: as simple as that! Could it really be that easy?

But are brownies allowed at this cookie party?  I can only really rest when I am comfortable and when I know that things are ok between me and those around me. And that is something we are short on–the knowledge that we are “ok,” not in the sense of mediocrity, but in the sense of acceptance. Are we allowed to come as we are? Somehow nothing in life seems to be good enough or done enough. And so we burn the midnight oil to accomplish the things that we feel ought to be done. And we have trouble being comfortable enough in God’s presence to rest.

Victor Hugo is quoted as saying this: “Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.” Maybe I’m so busy trying to find my peace and joy and wrap it up and put it under the Christmas tree for others (and maybe a little for myself) that I won’t take the time to unwrap God’s gifts to me–the very things I am looking for. Maybe it’s time to realize that I don’t have to be perfect to be accpeted by God. I can get into my comfy clothes around him and rest. Maybe it’s time to do that this Christmas.

And have a brownie. It’s ok.

Oh, God of dust and rainbows, help us see That without dust the rainbow would not be. ~ Langston Hughes

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