Getting Back to Joy and Wonder
DECEMBER 1, 2021
I miss Fred Smith, my mentor and friend.
I miss many things about him, especially his sense of wonder and fascination with almost everything—business, science, theology, philosophy, and what makes people tick. Fred had a withered hand, and growing up, he was often lonely. During those times as a boy, he would go out into the woods and think, There’s more here than they’re telling me. Fred said that he spent the rest of his life finding out what they weren’t telling him.
One of Fred’s friends was diagnosed with a terminal illness and appointed friends to help him through that difficult time (e.g., one for finances, one for health, one for religion and theology, etc.). Fred asked his friend what he wanted from him. “Fred,” he said, “I want you to oversee it all and to be my BS filter.”
Fred was that for me, too. He helped me see life’s priorities, what was important and what wasn’t, and the difference between nonsense and wisdom. And even though he never flinched at reality, Fred always looked at life with fascination and wonder.
I have another friend, Tony Campolo, who is sort of like Fred. Tony told me once that every morning he wakes up and asks, “Lord, what kind of neat things have you planned for me today?” That continues with Tony even now as Tony and Peggy go through some rough challenges with physical issues. It is a childlike wonder that always amazes me.
Some people begin their day with “Good morning, Lord,” and others begin theirs with “Good Lord, it’s morning.” Tony and Fred fit into the former category, and I fear that the latter one is a good fit for me at least a good deal of the time. I sometimes think I’ve been doing this religion thing for so long that it’s lost its luster. David prayed for God to “restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:12). I sometimes pray the same prayer.
As a young pastor, a Catholic undertaker liked me. So, he asked me to do all the Protestant funerals when the family didn’t have a pastor. There were so many funerals, and he paid me $25 for each one. I know, I know . . . but I had small daughters and had to put food on the table. Besides, the church I served had a mission from God to keep their pastor poor.
Nevertheless, after a while, I quit doing those funerals. It wasn’t because I was so spiritual. Frankly, in those days, I didn’t know Jesus very well. I gave them up because the sadness and mourning stopped touching me, and the deceased became . . . well, just another $25. Even back then, it simply didn’t feel right.
Steve, it’s Christmas time, and you haven’t even mentioned Christmas yet.
I’m getting there. Stay with me.
Every year I hear (and sometimes say) that we need to put Jesus back in Christmas. No, we don’t. Jesus is Christmas. Every believer I know gets that, attends Christmas worship services, follows family traditions, and spends time reading advent devotions that focus on Jesus and his incarnation in Bethlehem. We already know. No one needs to remind us. It’s everywhere.
Jesus doesn’t need to be restored to Christmas. We do!
Not only should we plead for God to restore the joy of our salvation, but we should plead for him to restore to us the joy of Christmas. Contrary to what some of us believe, we can’t get restored by being more religious, going to more Christmas services, or reading the Christmas story as powerful as that is. God gives the gift of restoration to those he loves. If we aren’t careful, we’re apt to lose a sense of awe and wonder at Christmas. Frankly, there isn’t a thing that you can say, sing, or preach about Christmas that I haven’t already said, sung, and preached a whole lot of times. It’s sort of like doing too many funerals.
As you know, I don’t deal with Christmas very well. There are many reasons for that—childhood family issues, being a pastor for so many years with all that Christmas involves, and my awareness that Christmas is hard for many people I love. Some have lost loved ones, others are going through difficult financial problems, and others find that their struggle with depression, shame, and guilt are magnified—not helped—by Christmas.
Let me tell you something that might surprise you about this “old Scrooge.” My favorite worship service every year is Christmas Eve. That was true of all the years when I was a pastor and conducted those services, and it is still true now when I attend them. All the hassle is over, the presents are bought (if not, it’s too late), the stores have closed their doors, and Santa has left the building. But that’s not entirely it. Vendors have to make a living and the Christmas season is when they make it or break it for the entire year. I don’t begrudge those who don’t know Christ their parties and silly songs about celebrating a celebration. I don’t think the Christmas Eve service is just a respite from all of that or the reason it’s my favorite service.
What happens in those Christmas Eve services is a gift. Just as something supernatural and wonderful happened that first Christmas, it still does in every subsequent Christmas that follows. Jesus comes . . . and with him, the joy and wonder of the reality of Christmas. It is a gift that you can’t earn. Frankly, in our heart of hearts, we don’t like gifts much, from God or anybody else. When God gives us a gift, we want to say (but don’t), “Please, Father, tell me what I owe you.” When God says, “Nothing,” it can be quite irritating.
I was recently at a restaurant and, when I asked the waitress for my check, she told me that there wasn’t one because another customer had already paid for my lunch. I asked the waitress who he was, but she didn’t know, and he had already left. So, if you happen to be the one who paid for my lunch and are reading this, thank you. Just don’t do it again, or at least let me take you to lunch so we can be even.
You can’t be even with God for his gift of wonder. But the wonder and joy of Christmas isn’t only a gift; it’s a particular gift. It isn’t the message that God loved the world, and love came down at Christmas. It’s the awareness that God loves me. It isn’t that the incarnation made provision for redemption, forgiveness, and mercy. It’s the realization that I’m redeemed and forgiven, and the beneficiary of mercy upon endless mercy. It isn’t the doctrine of adoption and that Christmas made adoption possible. It’s my being adopted and knowing it. In short, Christmas isn’t just for the world. It’s for me. Now that is wondrous.
The wonder and joy of Christmas isn’t only a gift and a particular gift; it is also a factual gift. Do you ever wonder if we made this up just to enable us to feel better about a dark world? One time, Erik Guzman explained to his daughter (when she was little) about Christ’s resurrection. “Daddy,” she asked, “who makes this stuff up?” In our efforts to make it real, it’s easy to create a mythical fable out of Christmas. Our Christmas pageants are nice, but they’re too clean and together. The Christmas sermons (and I’ve preached many) are too orderly with three points and a poem. And our Christmas carols all rhyme with catchy tunes.
Maybe we need the smell of manure.
If you had been there on that first Christmas, you would have smelled manure, and you would have been cold, too. Maybe we should have our Christmas services in the cold front yard of the church instead of inside the warm sanctuary. And during the service, we should sit on the cold, hard ground instead of on a cushioned pew. Do you think it would be more real, and we could identify with Christmas more if we gave everything away, and, like Mary and Joseph, wondered where we would find our next meal without a McDonald’s?
Nah, not me.
But there is an alternative. We can put in a request to our Father. We can ask him to take all of the Scripture, the songs, the services, the pageantry, and the celebrations, and add to them the supernatural wonder of Christmas. God does that for people he likes . . . and he likes us a lot.
John began his biography of Jesus with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 9, 14).
That isn’t a text. That’s a fact.
Bottom line, let’s quit trying to work up the Christmas spirit we don’t feel. Stop pretending to be joyful when we’re just tired from all the wrapping, shipping, and parties. Give up trying to generate emotions we have a hard time feeling.
Instead, let’s just ask and be still.
He wanted me to remind you.