Monthly Archives: December 2011
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”
—1 Timothy 3:15
In February of this year, Lisa and I traveled to Israel for a whirlwind tour of places we had previously only read about in the pages of the Bible. (Lisa’s mom went above and beyond by staying with “the gang” for two weeks.) When we returned home, I began writing a series of meditations in an attempt to process everything we had seen and experienced. The result is a 31-day devotional called Feet to Follow, Eyes to See which I hope to have published soon. This Christmas, I’d like to share with you the meditation I wrote about our visit to Bethlehem:
Ever seen a Christmas card depiction of Bethlehem? It is usually portrayed as a quaint little cluster of mud-brick buildings—most flat-roofed, but a few with graceful domes—surrounded by green fields dotted with grazing sheep. If it is shown at night, those domed roofs are silhouetted against a clear sky, brilliantly lit by the natal star. We imagine Bethlehem to be a peaceful place. We sing about Jesus’ birth on a silent, holy night. We’re so enamored with this fantasy of a peaceful nativity, that even when we imagine the baby Jesus waking to the sound of lowing cattle, we tell ourselves, “No crying he makes.”
A visit to modern Bethlehem presents you with quite a different picture. The area around Manger Square is noisy and chaotic, with Muslim street vendors hawking cheap jewelry and touristy kitsch. You bustle past them to arrive at the Church of the Nativity, which preserves the traditional location of Jesus’ birthplace. The building itself is a bewildering compound made up of two churches—one controlled by the Greek Orthodox and the other by the Roman Catholics. The Grotto of the Nativity is located beneath the Greek Orthodox basilica.
Entering the grotto was an exercise in holding one’s ground as countless pilgrims tried to squeeze into the narrow doorway. I must confess I was more focused on preventing a pushy French couple from shouldering their way past us than I was on contemplating the birth of my Savior.
The floor and walls of the original cave are completely covered with marble and stone. A silver star marks the spot where Mary is believed to have given birth to Jesus, and pilgrims crowd in to press their hands or lips against it. In order to enable the members of our tour group to snap unobstructed photos of it, we acted as blockers for each other, holding back the other pilgrims until each of us had taken a turn. I imagine they had to be thinking, “Who do these pushy Americans think they are?”
Of course, we were only there a few moments. We yielded the floor and were carried out of the Grotto by the inexorable flow of humanity.
Visitors who expect Bethlehem to be idyllic and pastoral are sure to be disappointed by the relative chaos of the place. All the people there are seemingly at cross-purposes with each other. Different religious groups control different areas of the site. Some Christians are there to venerate a spot they regard as sacred. Others merely want to visit the place where Jesus entered the world. Some Muslims want to profit from the tourism Jesus brings. Others want to assert the supremacy of Islam. Then there are the political tensions of this Palestinian area of Israel.
Modern Bethlehem is a far cry from what we see on Christmas cards, but it may be far closer to the Bethlehem into which Jesus was born. That Bethlehem was crowded with Jews who had traveled there to take part in a Roman census. Some of the local residents would have been thrilled at all the extra business, while others would have resented the disruption to their daily lives and the constant reminders of Roman supremacy. The Romans meanwhile, wanted to keep the peace and further their careers among a people who despised them. Mary and Joseph just wanted a place to have their baby. As it is today, first-century Bethlehem was all bustle and cross-purposes.
Jesus also arrived in Bethlehem with cross purposes: He “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), drawing them to Himself by being lifted up on the cross (John 12:32–33). Shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus made it clear He had been born for that hour:
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop. … Now My soul is troubled. What should I say—Father, save Me from this hour? But that is why I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name! (John 12:23–24, 27–28)
Our Christmas card mythology presents us with a tranquil Bethlehem and a joyous nativity, but Christ’s birth foreshadows His cross. The death He died so that we might live is the reason we rejoice in His birth. Worship Him today for accomplishing His cross purposes for you.
While Lisa and I enjoyed every moment of our time in Israel, our greatest joy was returning home to our children. Whether your Christmas this year is as idyllic as a Christmas card Bethlehem, or as chaotic as the real one, we pray that you will cherish your family and worship your Savior.
The Lang Gang
David, Lisa, David, Caleb, Bethany, Alexa, and “Jo Jo”
Every year at Christmastime, we receive cards and letters from dear friends, family members, and people about whom I have to ask my wife, “How do we know these people again?” I’m sure you get them too. In the days before blogs and social media, cards and letters were how people kept up with each other, and the mailing of these things became somewhat obligatory around major holidays like Christmas. It’s a nice tradition, and I would argue that it’s still more fun to get something in the mail than it is to receive a push notification about someone else’s Facebook status. Yet there is also a darker side to this holiday custom: some people use it as an excuse to brag, and to do so quite shamelessly.
I figure it started innocently enough, with parents writing letters to grandparents telling them how much the kids had grown and what they were up to; but at some point, this sort of catching up turned toxic. Now people seem to think it okay to send letters which could reasonably be subtitled, “Christmas with the Perfects.” You know the kind of letter I mean: one which details Mr. Perfect’s business successes, each child’s athletic victories and extracurricular activities, and Mrs. Perfect’s ability to balance a million responsibilities while still finding time to knit sweaters for needy children in Outer Mongolia. Oh, and there’s usually a paragraph or two detailing the latest family vacation to Europe or Hawaii.
It’s not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with sharing good news or counting one’s blessings. I’ve read a few letters which manage to do that in an entertaining and heartwarming way. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Christmas letters simply read like an exaggerated résumé. They don’t give a real picture of the character of a family, but a carefully Photoshopped one in which every blemish has been removed. The net effect is to make people who are well aware of their own blemishes feel downright inferior.
Having read far too many “Christmas with the Perfects” letters, I’m determined never to write such a letter myself. Instead, I try to write a Christmas letter which reads more like a devotional than a yearly catalog of my family’s accomplishments. When I talk about my family, I try to give an honest glimpse into what life with the “Lang Gang” is really like. I would much rather share a funny story or two than boast about something we’ve done. After all, the best thing about my family is not the amount of time we spend atop some award podium, but the love we share and the Lord we serve. He’s the only “Perfect” worth bragging about—especially in a Christmas letter.
Last night, after I got our two-year-old to sleep, I came downstairs to find my wife watching the movie Marley and Me. It was near the end of the movie, when the family dog, Marley, is showing signs of age and infirmity. His owner knows that Marley does not have much time left, so he takes Marley for a walk through the Pennsylvania countryside. When Marley gets tired, they stop and sit on a hilltop so the dog can rest a moment. As man and dog sit looking out over a peaceful vista, the movie soundtrack becomes touching and sentimental. It’s a signal to movie watchers to pay attention to a special moment—a moment of tenderness, intimacy, and deep emotion.
As I sat there watching that scene, I found myself thinking it would be nice if such sentimental music would play whenever we experience those kinds of tender moments in real life. Perhaps if a soundtrack kicked in whenever we had an opportunity to really connect with someone, we would pay closer attention to those moments, remembering to zoom in for an extreme close-up, gazing at our loved ones with a flattering soft-diffuse filter. Hollywood uses those kinds of effects to manufacture emotion and indicate pivotal moments, but we receive no such signals in our daily lives. We simply have to pay attention, and when we get the opportunity to connect with a spouse, a child, a friend, or a family member, we need to slow down and savor the moment. We need to look them in the eyes, listen to their words, and realize that such moments don’t necessarily come along every day.
Or do they, and we simply miss them because we don’t hear the soundtrack?
I love Christmastime. When the house is all decorated and lit up, it has a warm and magical feel. We play Christmas music almost continually, and when it’s not playing, at least someone in the family is singing some carol or other. We cycle through a bunch of Christmas movies, from the deeply moving Nativity to the wacky and irreverently sweet Elf to classic favorites like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life. At every turn, we are reminded how blessed we are to have Christ as our Savior, and how blessed we are to have each other. Personally, I tend to go through the month of December in a state of quiet euphoria, knowing that mine truly is a “wonderful life.”
Yet I’ve also experienced enough of the flip side of Christmas to know that not everyone is euphoric at this time of year. There were years before I met Lisa when Christmas was marred by loneliness or the sadness of a recent breakup. Then there was the Christmas after our nephew, Chad, died of leukemia. His death left a gaping hole which was even more keenly felt at Christmas, and even though the years have dulled that pain, it never fully goes away. Those experiences of loss at Christmas have helped me realize that some Christmas greetings are spoken through clenched teeth and muffled sobs.
Knowing that, I almost feel guilty for being as happy as I am at Christmas. My heart is so incredibly full, and I want to voice my joy and gratitude. Yet I don’t want to rub salt in someone else’s wounds by being too vocal in counting my blessings. Is it wrong to be happy at Christmas? Is it insensitive to say with Mary that the Lord “has done great things for me?” (Luke 1:49).
My favorite movie portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge is that of Alistair Sim, done way back in the 1940s or ’50s. Sim brilliantly captures Scrooge’s extreme ugliness before his redemption as well as his absolute giddiness after it. After Scrooge has apologized to Bob Cratchitt and promised to help him and his family, he scowls and says to himself, “I don’t deserve to be so happy!” Then he breaks into another wide grin and chuckles, “I just can’t help it!”
I understand how Scrooge felt. Sinful man that I am, I know I don’t deserve to be so happy. I know there are better men out there who have to deal with difficult situations and hard providences they didn’t bring upon themselves. I know people who feel the pain of divorce, abandonment, loneliness, sickness, and devastating loss at this time which is supposed to be joyous. I also know that I just can’t help the joy I feel this Christmas.
Is it wrong to be happy at Christmas? If it is, I’m afraid I don’t want to be right.