Christmas. It is a season encapsulating all the best and worst of life. It is a muddy-clear river, a confluence where the streams of filth and purity mix. As a Pastor, Christmas is my busiest time, full in schedule and overflowing with commitments. It is a good time: full of child-like wonder, moving songs, and transforming Spirit. Good movies come out at Christmas. Proclaiming, “Unto us is born this day in the city of David a Child…” always moves me. As the lights twinkle, we all try to be kinder to each other, and think about giving more. Our eyes tear up as we join Cindy Lou Who singing, “Fah who foraze, Dah who doraze, welcome Christmas.” Christmas is joy and hope and love!
But wait. Can I be gloomy for a second? Christmas is also corrupted with the oil slick of humanity’s rubbish. “I bring you great tidings of joy” is not so angelic these days. Co-opted by Macy’s, it is now joyful tidings of, “last minute savings on thousands of gifts and free shipping!” To arrive today, the Christ-child must wander through over-stuffed mall parking lots, push past angry shoppers, and skirt a national heart fueled by spiritual barrenness. The city’s Manger scene has been replaced by a blow-up Santa decreeing “Happy Holidays.” There is still no room at the inn. While families gather to share the season, others assemble to rip the scabs from the old relational wounds they carry. Charitable giving rises around Christmas, as people remember how blessed they are. But so do stress, depression, abuse, and suicides. My counseling load becomes bludgeoning. Joy and hope and love seem bagged by the Grinch and carried away.
No wonder we feel torn at Christmas. In reality, Christmas is a time of great blessings and also of great emptiness. As I write, my heart feels a little more vacuous tonight, as if something drained away a bit this year. Time is a mixed blessing. It is a muddy river. Such is the tale of our lives. Life is good and difficult, both full and empty. For example: as a teenage boy, I was a mess. (Most of you are not surprised.) Pony-tailed and barefooted in all seasons, I came from a divorced, muddled family. Unsure of myself, I looked for attention at every turn. While successful in academics and sports, deep inside I felt lost and broken, as if I had misplaced some essential part of life and couldn’t remember where I had left it. I hungered for some place to feel at home. God’s answer in part came through the father of my high-school sweetheart, Sue Mears. Dr. William Mears was a graduate of the Virginia Military Academy. In contrast to my long shagginess, his hair was cut high and tight. He seemed all Army—he had been the first Army flight surgeon to be sent to Viet Nam during the war, and had excelled in his military and medical career. When I met him, Colonel Mears was Chief of Ophthalmology at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital. I called him, simply, “Sir.” But it was the softer side of Dr. Mears that changed me. He accepted me as I was—even allowing this untamed boy to date his daughter. He saw past the outward Brad, and welcomed me into his home without judgment. He even invited me to come to church with them. This invitation began a time of my life when Christmas became more than lights and presents. Sitting next to them in church one Christmas season, I met the Person of Christmas, the living Jesus. The reality of Christmas began to fill the emptiness in my heart. Dr. Mears’ generosity and love were an essential part of this faith growth in me. Sadly, Dr. William Mears, 76, went to be with his Lord on October 10th of this year. All I can say of him is, “Thank you, Sir. You were willing to set aside yourself to change my course for eternity. May I be more like you.” I will miss him; I feel full, and empty.
Another example: on an especially trying day, I had preached a failed sermon in Seminary chapel. Within a few hours, a Seminary leader sent me a note: “You have no business as a pastor. I am embarrassed you are even a student here. You should leave.” Seeing the agony on my face as I walked in the rain past his window, a grey-haired gentleman responded. He called out to me, and then, with a gentle linking of his arm in mine, he led me to his office. I remember his words as if they were yesterday. “This is not really about you, Brad. There are other issues going on here. Don’t be discouraged. I believe in you. We will work together to make you the best preacher and pastor around.” Then with a twinkle he added, “You may not know it, but I have some limited credibility around this place.” Thus began my mentoring relationship with Dr. Vernon Grounds, President Emeritus and Chancellor of Denver Seminary. For 18 eighteen years, Dr. Grounds coached and cajoled me into a bit of the pastor he was. He made time for me, and I grew. He became my friend. Dr. Grounds went home to heaven this September, at the age of ninety six. To him I say, “Thank you, Vernon. You emptied your schedule to find time to mentor a young man into a Christian leader. May I be more like you.” I miss him. I feel both full and empty.
As I write this, a young woman in my church, Tricia, is trying to understand Christmas. Her husband, Robb (34), died unexpectedly a few hours ago. His flu bug of yesterday became her sobbing of today. As I hugged her, I looked at their Christmas tree and my heart tore—two small boys will have to limp through this Christmas, and others, missing their daddy. The church and family have rallied around her. Still, I feel the emptiness now. And yet, somehow, I am also thankful and full.
This Christmas, we must remember that this Season is—at the source—a time of emptiness. In Philippians 2, we are reminded that Jesus voluntarily left heaven, emptying himself to become one of us. The Unchanging and Omnipresent Son of God became limited to one place in space and time: a little town of Bethlehem, Palestine, in the first century. The Greatest, most Powerful required feeding and changing. The One who created everything in the heavens and on the Earth—warm tides, rain forests, and every manner of life—immersed himself in the decaying scents of a barn-yard stable, in the chill of a winter’s wind, in the struggles of a world full of turmoil and war. The Eternal came to live and die. For Christ, the Christmas process involved an unimagined emptying. Followed by the hope of great fullness. His purity mixing with our dirt, to sanctify it. His emptying becoming a path to our fullness.
The emptiness of the Baby Jesus has stripped from death the final victory. Eternity is now laid out like a Christmas dinner, waiting for all who believe to gather. Tricia and boys: Robb is still alive, finding his seat at the table. Dr. Mears, Dr. Grounds, and others find their chairs. Empty and full; it is a Christmas mystery. The birth of Jesus changes everything! I sing with Whoville, “Welcome Christmas!” Welcome, Lord. May we be more like you!
If emptiness, or muddiness, or depression pursue you this Christmas, take hope. Filling is always preceded with a tipping of the cup to emptiness. God has not forgotten. He seeks. He loves. He comes. Wait for it. Feel the emptiness, but seek the pouring in of Christmas!