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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

for AJB šŸ™‚

When I was growing up, “I love you” meant “I like you”–only on a deeper and safer level. When my mother told me she loved me, it never occurred to me to wonder if she liked me on that particular day. It was all part and parcel of the same thing.

Growing up means learning that not everyone views things the way you do.Ā Like learning that for some people the statementĀ “I love that person but I don’t have to like him” is more than merely a theoretical statement. AndĀ that whether or not they like you can change from day to day and moment to moment.

This alternate perspective has taught me that loving and liking are not the same thing and has also brought many questions to ponder. Questions such as these:

~ Can we truly love someone without at some point discovering that we have come to like them, too? Is it really love if it holds the other at at disgusted distance?
~ If someone really truly likes you, will that liking change based on what you do on a given day?
~ Does God like us? or does He just love us?

I have to thank Steve Hong from Kingdom Rice for introducing me to this Mr. Rogers song during a message he gave at my parents’ church. I never watched Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood as a child, though I had seen a snippet here and there to make me familiar with the show and its host. (In fact, I sometimes laughingly told people that the show had made me throw up once. In actuality, it was the flu I had at the time that did the trick. It just happened to coincide with my aunt turning on PBS and Mr. Rogers to entertain the sick girl and her baby brother.) Like Steve Hong, it has only been in my adult years that I have become impressed by Mr. Rogers.

Mr. Rogers has helped me to answer some of those questions in his song “It’s You I Like.”

 

In this song, sung to Tonight Show host Joan Rivers, Mr. Rogers conveys the essence of the way God must look at us. And the way that Joan Rivers reacts to him makes us laugh but also reveals how genuine his message is. The more I look at the interactions of Jesus with other people, the more I watch their reactions to Him, the more convinced I am that God really likes us. Look at Zacchaeus: Jesus went right up to the person that no one else in the town liked at all and invited Himself over to eat with the man! The whole town was shocked at Jesus’ act of friendliness towards this unlikeable man (and for good reason, too, as Zacchaeus himself alluded to after dinner with Jesus). (Luke 19:1-10)

God likes us. He doesn’t just love us out of duty [“I’m God and and I guess that since I’m love and all then I’d better provide for these nasty people I love. But they’d better not come near me!”]. He really likes us. God made us in His image. Each of us uniquely reflects Him in a way that no one else ever will. No one else can be you; you have something to say to the world about your Creator, and no one else can say it as eloquently as you say it just by being yourself. He enjoys the unique person you are. He’s glad you’re in the world. If you could see His face when you enter a room, you’d see it lighting up as you come in. God really likes you.

 

So. I’ve come to these conclusions:

First, loving and liking are two different things, but they belong together. Liking can grow into loving; loving can’t be complete without liking.

Second, Jesus likes me, this I know, for the Bible SHOWS me so.

Three,Ā if I tell you I love you, it means that I very much like you, too. And it means that I will to do my best to demonstrate that to you–even though I will never do it perfectly, I will not stop trying.

Finally, liking you means liking the real you, not just the superficial things such as clothes and hair and charm and wit and friendliness. It’s not how well you play the saxophone or the how well you perform in school. It’s not your carrying my bags or giving me hugs. I may enjoy all of those things; I may communicate that enjoyment to you. All of those are an expression of you, but they aren’t you. It’s YOU I like. You make my world a better place just by being in it. You.

Even on your worst days.

 

“Mary’s Boy Child”

Long time ago in Bethlehem,
So the Holy Bible say,
Mary’s boy child, Jesus Christ,
Was born on Christmas Day.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A new king born today,
And man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
Them see a bright new shining star,
Them hear a choir sing,
The music seemed to come from afar.

Now Joseph and his wife Mary,
Come to Bethlehem that night,
Them find no place to born she child,
Not a single room was in sight.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A new king born today,
And man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

By and by they find a little nook
In a stable all forlorn,
And in a manger cold and dark,
Mary’s little boy was born.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A new king born today,
And man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

Trumpets sound and angels sing,
Listen to what they say,
That man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

~ Jester Hairston
arranged by Frank Gallagher

In wondering what to write today, I was listening to Charlotte Church’s Christmas CD Dream a Dream, and the above song began to play. And God put the pieces in place for me. I knew what to write.

Christmas is the holiday we spend with my dad’s side of the family. We used to see them more often when I was little–we would see them in the summer as well as at Christmas. Now, it’s primarily at Christmas. This year we will be going to Michigan to be with my grandmother and my dad’s two sisters. Grandma is getting too old to travel, so we make sure we go visit her (rather than making her come see us if she wants to see us!). As she grows older, tiredness has settled into her body, making it harder for her to do the things she has always loved to do when the family is around. Gradually she stopped doing things: cooking for the family meals is left to my aunt, now; buying gifts for us “kids” is my mother’s job now. But one thing that Grandma still does is make cookies. Chocolate Chip cookies.

Being at Grandma’s house has always meant having cookies. I can picture the two of us at bedtime one night when I was staying alone with her at her apartment: in our pj’s and eating a cookie apiece with a cold glass of milk before bedtime. This November, at her apartment, I raided her box of cookies again, tasting the taste that will forever be associated in my mind with her and her home. And even though she makes other cookies, even though she keeps other cookies on hand (Danish butter cookies–yum!), nothing compares with her chocolate chip cookies.

We have tried to duplicate them at our house. We use no other recipe. They’re Dad’s favorite cookie, and he loves it when we make them. But somehow they never match Grandma’s cookies. And it’s not just Dad remembering “the good old days,” either: one look at Grandma’s cookies, one taste, and I realize just how good they are and how unique. Mom has tried to make them match Grandma’s cookies, people have raved about the cookies coming from that recipe; blue ribbons have been won with it (well, at least one). The cookies we make from the recipe are not bad–in fact, they’re pretty good; but no one makes Grandma’s cookies quite like Grandma does. They’re almost crunchy, but not quite. They’re almost chewy, but not really. They’re thick and have the right proportion of chocolate chips in them–just enough to be wonderful. They’re small enough to dunk in a glass of milk without having to break them, but big enough to eat in more than one bite. And they beg you to eat more! An unseen conversation goes on in my brain when I open the box to get one out:
me: I think I’ll have a cookie.
brain: With milk?
me: Naw. I’m not really hungry; I’m not going to make a big production out of it. I’ll have milk and another one later, maybe.
I take out a cookie and eat it.
brain: Wow! That’s good.
me: Hmmm. It was better than I expected. I think I’m going to have one more.
brain: Great idea! With a glass of milk this time, ok?
me: Ok!
And there I am standing with a glass of milk and a couple more cookies, having made a big production of it after all!

Yes, they’re that good.

So what does this have to do with Christmas? What does this have to do with the song “Mary’s Boy Child” (that contains such bad grammar–yes, I’m aware of the grammatical errors, and the slight factual error, too)? That’s what I was asking myself this morning. And that’s the missing piece that fell into place for me. Uniqueness. The Christmas story is unique. No religion in the world can boast a God who gives Himself to His creation in the way Jesus Christ has given Himself. No other person in history has the power to change lives as He does. No other story in the world gives such hope and such peace, warming cold hearts the world over.

Oh, the story has often been imitated: in fact, Dickens, one of my favorite authors, models his themes off of the themes in the Christmas story. But no sacrifice nor generosity in any story can completely match the real Christmas story. It is unique. It is hard and real–cold, bare facts of a factual story. It is soft and gentle–warm, pleasant thoughts of God’s love to the world. It is thick with suspense and has just enough mystery in it to make it wonderful.Ā  It is concise enough to read in a night (unlike my blog posts!), yet it’s big enough to spend an entire lifetime pondering. And I find that I keep coming back for more. More than I ever expect each year–I wonder if there’s anything I can possibly get out of it this year as Christmas approaches, and each year I see it in a new way. It’s just as good as I remembered. No, better! Like Grandma’s cookies.

And like Grandma’s cookies, it’s not really satisfying to think about eating them or to read about how good they are. Only the real thing satisfies. Other re-tellings and comment may help us see the story in a new light, but they are not the story. There is no substitute for reading the words–God’s words, His telling of what happened from His point of view–and hearing the way He connects it with the hopes and fears and questions I bring with me to the reading of the story.

May you find yourself devouring more of His word this Christmas than you expected to. May you sample again the “real thing” and find it more satisfying than you remembered.

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

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