What Child Is This?: The Intersection of Faith, Learning, and Christmas

Orthodox Icon of the Nativity

Orthodox Icon of the Nativity

When Christmas finally arrives we have been anticipating the day for an entire year. Our experience is profoundly different from that of the people we encounter in the Matthean and Lucan Nativity narratives. In an earlier essay (“What is Really Real?: Ktisis as Ontology,” October 14, 2015) I noted the disjunction between the phenomenology of an infant in an feeding trough and the ontology of a divine invasion of the kosmos. The sovereign Lord of the universe could have imposed his will on a rebellious world in the form of crushing might; instead he brought judgement and salvation through the vulnerability of a baby born to a poor, simple couple. Luke was not alone in recognizing the incongruity of the elements of the Nativity. In a remarkably different (though compatible) account, Matthew reported the incredulity of Joseph and he described the fear and fury of Herod in the audience he granted to the magi.

In an attempt to assuage our enlightened discomfort with such incredible impossibilities, some exegetes have attempted to sweep the miraculous from the biblical texts by explaining that the people we encounter in the Bible lived in a prescientific culture. Living in a “demon-haunted world” (as Carl Sagan described such a primitive worldview), they could accept such indefensible claims as a virgin birth. As we engage the biblical texts, we must be cautious not to fall into this trap, thus demeaning the people we encounter there. Writing in approximately the time of the assassination of Julius Caesar (44 B.C.), Cicero explained lunar eclipses as the result of the Moon passing through the shadow cast by the Earth and solar eclipses as the result of the Moon blocking the light from the Sun (On Divination 2.6.17); in both instances his answers would satisfy Carl Sagan the astronomer. In the same century Vitruvius explained a method to confirm that a surface is level using a channel of water. After describing the procedure, he conceded that the surface of the water is not actually flat; rather that surface is a segment of a sphere whose center is at the center of the Earth (On Architecture 8.5.3). The world is not flat, and the ancients did not automatically attribute all wonders to the acts of gods or of demons. Cicero and Vitruvius (and, presumably, their readers) were not the simple primitives that we “enlightened” people might imagine them to be.

If we allow science to be the measure of all “genuine” truth and if we, in our ignorance, claim that the ancients were blind to that “obvious” fact, we will never comprehend the profound wonder of the Nativity. Joseph (betrothed husband of Mary) was not the simpleton modern skeptics have imagined him to be. He might not have been equipped to explain eclipses or the spherical shape of the Earth; nevertheless, he comprehended some of the basics of human reproduction. Confronted with the news of Mary’s condition, this “righteous man” who “did not want to expose her to public disgrace” decided “to divorce her quietly” (Matt 1:19 NIV 1984). Though Joseph could not have provided us with a scientifically accurate account of human conception, he was familiar enough with the process to know that a man was supposed to be involved intimately in the event (and that he was not that man). Even this carpenter residing in first-century Nazareth recognized the impossibility of a virgin birth. A nocturnal encounter with the Angel of the Lord allowed him to believe despite his unbelief. In our most honest moments we confess that we know this mélange of faith and doubt.

Istanbul (Constantinople): Portrait of Mary and Jesus over the Ayia Sophia altar Portrayed with a crown on his head, the child Jesus is recognized as the true King.

Istanbul (formerly Constantinople): Portrait of Mary and Jesus over the Ayia Sophia altar
Portrayed with a crown on his head, the child Jesus is recognized as the true King. (Photograph by R. Warren Johnson)

Herod’s wrath is notorious, but the Slaughter of the Innocents is undocumented outside of Matthew’s Gospel. Possessing such meager evidence, can we trust the veracity of this account? In the late decades of the first century A.D., under the patronage of Emperor Vespasian, Josephus composed a pair of histories intended to make his Jewish nation more comprehensible to a Roman audience. In both Antiquities (16.392-394) and Wars of the Jews (1.550-551) he narrated the tragic fate of a pair of brothers: Alexander and Aristobulus. Though they were sons of Herod, the king perceived them to be political threats. Their mother, Mariamne, was descended from the ruling family that had preceded the reign of Herod; therefore, these brothers had a more authentic royal genealogy than did their father. After an extended court intrigue, Herod had these two sons executed and buried next to their mother, who had herself been executed earlier on the order of Herod, her husband (Antiquities 15.231).

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him (Matthew 2:1-3 NIV 1984).

With their seemingly innocent question, unwittingly the magi had sealed the fate of the infant boys of Bethlehem. Alexander and Aristobulus had learned the destiny of those born with a better claim to the throne than that of Herod. The “one born king of the Jews,” though a child, was an intolerable threat to the one who wielded the weapons of this world. Only Matthew documented the horror that followed what might seem to be a simple inquiry by the visitors from the East, but his account matches what we know of the character of the Roman puppet who would slaughter anyone, including his own sons, whom he perceived to be a threat. Joseph and Mary would need a sturdy faith to endure the challenges ahead of them as parents of the Messiah.

Even a narrative as seemingly preposterous as the Nativity can endure careful scrutiny and critical examination. In fact, the depth of the narrative is revealed most clearly when such inspection is conducted. In the end, however, that analysis is incomplete if the learned study is not coupled with faith.

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.

. . .

So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come, peasant, king, to own him.
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The babe, the Son of Mary. (Will­iam C. Dix, 1865)

The analysis is incomplete if the learned study is not coupled with faith . . . and worship.


Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1996.

Joy to the World*

First, I would like to thank the ETBU Center for Excellence in Christian Scholarship for allowing me to take part in blogging this semester. It has been an excellent experience and I hope that this particular project continues long-enough that I eventually have another shot at it. In particular, I’d like to thank Elizabeth Ponder for keeping us all in-line.

For weeks I had roughly sketched out that this final week I would write about missed opportunities and unanswered prayers, noting ETBU’s focus verse for this year (Proverbs 3:5-6). I was going to talk about several instances of my life in which I had reeeeeeally wanted something and it did not work out, but in the end it was a blessing: jobs I didn’t get that were downsized within the year, opportunities that I was sure were “the big break” that didn’t happen but were replaced by something better, relationships that (thankfully) did not pan out…

But something else is weighing on me: “My trouble is Christmas.”

“You know, Santa Claus and ho-ho-ho.”

***Disclaimer: If you are under the age of 10 or so, there is a MAJOR spoiler in today’s post so you probably won’t want to read it.***

Reader, I have questions you need to consider:

What are you going to tell (or what do or did you tell) your kids about Santa Claus? How will/do/did you answer these questions?

  • Who is he?
  • What does he do? How does he get into the house?
  • Is he white or black or Hispanic or what?
  • (At the mall) “Mommy/Daddy, is that the real Santa?”
  • What about Rudolph, Frosty, Jack Frost and all of the other peripheral characters?


So anyways, I attended the Texas Lions Camp in Kerrville, TX several summers as a pre-teen and teenage Type I diabetic. The first couple of times I attended, the camp was long-enough that it ran through Sundays, and I remember one Sunday in particular that has stuck with me a long time.

There was an optional “Sunday service” I attended, and even as a youth I recognized that something was wrong about it. It was like expecting Dr. Pepper and getting watered down Mr. Pibb. There was no specific talk of God, no prayers (just something like “silent reflection”), and no songs…except one. The only reason I stayed for the entire service was that on the program, for some odd reason, there was Joy to the World. I thought, “how ridiculous…a Christmas song in July. But at least it is Christian.” We got to that point, and with all of my pent up frustration, as soon as I started loudly blurting “JOY TO THE WORLD, THE LORD IS…”


That’s right…it wasn’t “Christmas song” Joy to the World blaring loudly through the speakers, it was Three Dog Night’s Joy to the World (I don’t remember having ever heard that song before in my life to that point, but I probably had).

In hindsight, adult me knows that the Texas Lions Camp could not quite offer a “Christian worship service”, but why fake one if it isn’t going to be the real thing? I mean, good grief! The song talks about drinking wine and “making sweet love to you”. Many of us hadn’t hit puberty yet, so what were we meant to be worshipping?! (And furthermore, who thought “this is a great idea!”)

Despite probably being well-intentioned, the “Sunday Service” did nothing to center worship on God. Instead, it distracted from those things that were important.

(I don’t recall there ever being another “Sunday Service” in my subsequent years at the camp, but that might be because the camps shortened to not overlap on Sundays, they stopped doing them, or I simply repressed ever seeing that option offered again.)

“All I want is what I… I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”

I take those earlier questions about Santa Claus and use them in my M.Ed. coaching class. I present them as if I am asking out of context for student opinions on how I should proceed with my own kids, and then I move on to a thorough discussion of what sorts of ethical restraints they might have in Pee-Wee coaching versus professional coaching. This leads to a discussion on moral relativism versus moral absolutism (“Why do you have significant differences between what you think is acceptable for Pee-Wee versus pros?”). Then I ask these two questions:

Question #1: Was Robin Hood a good guy or a bad guy? Was he right or wrong?

(and then I nail them with the next transition…)

Question #2: Why is OK to lie to your kids about Santa Claus? How can you then expect them to believe some of the more-important things you say?

Now to you, the reader…why DO we lie to kids about Santa Claus? That is what we do. Really, think about it. What good reason is there to lie to your kids about the existence of Santa Claus? We expect kids to believe that a red-coated fat man at the North Pole delivers toys to children around the world in one night on a sleigh pulled by magical reindeer, and that’s before you get into the entire backstory of Frosty the Snowman, Jack Frost, Elf on a Shelf, Yukon Cornelius, the Island of Misfit Toys, and the whole variety of other characters that have been somehow equated with a Christmas story. Eventually, they find out it isn’t true and there is a level of trust that is violated. “But Will, it is innocent and there is no harm done.” Is that true?

“Let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.”

Now before you label me a Grinch, I recognize that my complaint isn’t a new one. The entire point of the original Charlie Brown Christmas special was that commercialism and secularism should not take the focus away from Jesus on Christmas, and that show was released in 1965 (nearly fifty full year ago!). That said, I wonder how Charles Shultz would feel about this sort of thing happening with his creations?

Week15 Snoopy Christmas Airplane

In fairness, my kids currently do receive one gift from Santa each year, if for no other thing than them having an answer when someone asks “what did Santa Claus bring you?” This concession was the result of much deliberation in my household. I believe that we should give each other gifts, as a commemoration of the gifts the wise men are said to have given baby Jesus. However, I also believe that we should not extort behavior from our kids (by proxy of a fictional character) by saying things like: “you might get that toy, but you’ll have to hope Santa thinks you are a good-enough boy/girl to deserve it.” It should be emphasized that gifts are given at Christmas out of love to commemorate the birth of Christ. Period.

“What kind of a tree is that?”

Week15 Star and Crescent Tree TopperThis is for sell at our local “big box” store: star and crescent tree toppers.

I consulted several individuals much-more qualified than me to speak to this, and there was no consensus on the intention, but all agreed that the star and crescent is most-definitely a non-Christian religious symbol. Some I consulted noted that people buying it might not be aware of what it represents to certain groups, and this is probably the truth. I just want to point out that this is a product that exists. Is Christmas now so secular of a holiday now that families with those belief systems do not feel threatened celebrating it in their households? I doubt that, but one must admit that this could be evidence to the contrary. At the minimum, this may show the cultural ignorance of those that purchase the tree topper, unaware of its meaning to billions of people.

“Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

When we lie to our kids about this entire fantastical “Christmas character” alternate universe, they will eventually find out it isn’t true. If we as parents and as society are willing to lie to our children about that, should it surprise us that when they are older they don’t believe us when we tell them that 2000 years ago, a baby was born in a manger under fantastical circumstances, that the carpenter’s son went on to perform supernatural miracles, that was He was the Son of God, that He died for our sins, and that He rose from the dead on the third day? Because really, “That’s what Christmas is all about.”

Luke 2: 8-14

8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field , keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo , the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid . 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold , I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes , lying in a manger. 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying , 14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Thank you for reading this semester.


Jesus, Africa, Refugees, and a Retelling of the Christmas Narrative

As you reflect on the Christmas story do you celebrate and affirm its connection to Africa and refugees?

Photo Credit: withrow via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: withrow via Compfight cc

Each semester in “Introduction to the New Testament” I ask students to corporately retell the Christmas story.  Working together students generally note many of the more commonly known elements: the inn and its lack of room, angels, shepherds, wise men and a brilliant star.

Most semesters, however, students neglect the tyrannical attack unleashed on the town of Bethlehem by Herod that would rightly be labeled today as genocide or more accurately – infanticide.  This seems to speak to a collective desire in many western cultures to minimize atrocity.  This is unsurprising given the response of many to the recent influx of 50,000 Central American unaccompanied minors to the United States who are primarily fleeing a context filled with gangs, drugs, rape and violence.  This further corresponds to a general lack of media attention to the more than 1 million Syrian child refugees fleeing from war who even now face the onset of winter.  It is perhaps easier and safer to avoid drawing a direct connection between one of the most celebrated biblical narratives to these and other similar realities.

Most semesters students also fail to include the journey to Egypt.  Matthew 2:13-15:

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Throughout the Old and New Testament the Jewish people looked to Egypt as a place of safety and refuge.  Africa has long played an important, though often undervalued, role in the broader history and development of biblical faith.

How long did the “holy family” stay in Egypt?  The Bible is unclear but it is safe to assume that the first few years of Jesus’ life were spent in Africa.

Where did they go when they arrived in Egypt?  The text is unclear but there was a sizable Jewish immigrant population in Alexandria so perhaps they relocated to northern Egypt.

How did Joseph and Mary feed Jesus and reconstitute their home in a new country?  Again, the text is unclear but two assumptions are probable.  First, there were surely individuals who helped them along the way and so entertained unaware the Son of God.  Second, it is possible that Joseph and Mary used the gifts from the Magi to help them in this difficult process.

What is clear is that the holy family had to flee for their lives from a deranged governmental system and they found safety and security in the arms of Africa.

It is not possible to know the kinds of interactions, if any, Jesus had with people around him while an infant in Egypt.  But it is reasonable to assume that Alexandria was filled with business interactions and cultural exchanges between the immigrant Jewish population, local Egyptians, people from the broader Roman world and Sub-Saharan Africans navigating the Nile, the life blood of the region.  Certainly this impacted the development of Joseph and Mary who may have later recounted to Jesus how they were saved and lived at that time.  We cannot know the influence of Africa on Joseph, Mary and Jesus but it is reasonable to assume that it significantly impacted this family.

Moreover, part of the reason why this text is compelling is because it so clearly states that Jesus was at one point a refugee.  At Christmas we celebrate many titles for Jesus – Messiah, Immanuel, Christ, Prince of Peace, Son of God – and these are all powerful and true names.  But Jesus is also the refugee, the one forced to flee his home, the politically betrayed and abandoned one, scared and fleeing in the night, nervous at the border, wondering how life will go on.  Jesus, Joseph and Mary were all refugees.

We do not often celebrate Jesus the refugee.  What would it mean this Christmas for churches to affirm that Jesus was a refugee protected by Africa?

Reflecting on this passage the Africa Bible Commentary notes:

The fact that Jesus was a refugee on African soil should teach us many lessons.  God was not ashamed to let his son become a refugee.  By sharing the plight of stateless refugees, Jesus honoured all those who suffer homelessness on account of war, famine, persecution or some other disaster.  There are millions of refugees on the African continent and many of them have a terrible life…  The sad thing is that far too many Christians are either unconcerned or believe the lie that every refugee is a troublemaker.  Yet the Bible is full of men and women who knew what it meant to be refugee.

Jesus as refugee is good news to many this Christmas season.  We can turn to those experiencing true difficulty and say, “God has not abandoned you.”  Jesus is one who understands as one without home, without wealth, at one point even without a country.  The Gospel is good news to the broken and the suffering in this world.

Photo Credit: 10b travelling via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: 10b travelling via Compfight cc

Jesus as refugee is also a challenge to Christians this Christmas season.  If Jesus was a refugee today would the church welcome him or miss him altogether?  If was Jesus was a refugee, might we find the Spirit of God still at work in refugees today?  If Jesus was a refugee, might we also have a responsibility to help others who find themselves in such a situation?

If the church is unwilling to help refugees then who will?  If the church is unwilling to step into this difficult kind of situation and offer the love of Jesus then where is the hope of the Christmas season?  The church must be willing to step into the most difficult, most broken, most challenging spaces because the light of Jesus shines brightest in the darkest of contexts.  We must train and mobilize our churches to be politically and consciously aware of this biblical mandate.

According to recent statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees there are approximately 43.3 million refugees worldwide today.  Jesus was a refugee.

41% of the refugees are children.  Jesus was a refugee child.

26% of all refugees are in Africa.  Jesus was a refugee in Africa.

There are also likely refugees in your community some who may be recently resettled.  Would you consider searching out a resettlement agency in your area and partnering with them this Christmas season?

Each Christmas we worship, though we may not always state it clearly, the refugee Jesus.  This season let us acknowledge and affirm the special connection shared between Jesus and our brothers and sisters from Africa.  This season let us also pray, minister and befriend those with whom Jesus specifically identified: refugees.


A Change is Gonna Come

You know how at the end of a season of your favorite show all the characters are usually pictured alone in a room staring off into space, or comforting each other after a big ordeal, or sharing a congratulatory hug right before the music changes and the next monster/bad guy comes into the picture?

MASH TV Cast, 1974

MASH TV Cast, 1974 / Source: Wikipedia

Whatever the ending, it’s usually not very conclusive.

I always have the  “whew, we made it through that” feeling, but never really know what’s coming next.

That is exactly how I feel at the end of this semester. Whew – I made it through my fourth semester at ETBU!

I taught some new classes and some that I had taught before. I met lots of new, great students. I moved into a new house on campus, and started as the new Faculty  in Residence for Ornelas Hall.

**Insert congratulatory hugs**

But there are lots of loose ends left untied…

**Insert music change**

funny-pictures-dramatic-cat-asks-where-the-sting-of-death-is by zebedee.zebedee
on FlickR

We still do not have a new President for ETBU, and Dr. Dub’s shoes are still just as daunting to fill.

We are losing one of the great staples in the ETBU community. A much-loved professor, Centennial Hall FIR, and personal mentor: Dr. Elijah Brown. God has led him to another great opportunity, but who will step in here?

What are we to do when the future seems unclear? I trust God, but still I worry/wonder.

Hebrews 13:8 seems especially helpful here:

Appreciate your pastoral leaders who gave you the Word of God. Take a good look at the way they live, and let their faithfulness instruct you, as well as their truthfulness. There should be a consistency that runs through us all. For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself.

The authorship of Hebrews is unknown, but many scholars think it was written by Paul.

Whoever it was most certainly wrote this letter to the Hebrew people, encouraging them to trust Christ, explaining who He can be for them, and showing how much better life can be with Him.

I’m not from Hebrew,  and I already trust Christ. But it is nice to be reminded how steadfast Jesus is – completely unchanging.

In our lives, change is inevitable. The end of a semester, the end of a season, the start of something new.

But God is always there, and He never changes. We even celebrate His birthday on the same day every year 🙂

Speaking of, I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas! Thank you to all the readers of this blog. It has been fun sharing thoughts with you!

Even though the soundtrack to our little show may seem a little tense right now, we can all take comfort in God, and know that Jesus is taking care of us individually and as an ETBU family just like He always has.

Who knows? Maybe next season/semester, all plot lines will be settled!

Merry Christmas everyone, and have a great break!!

An Ironic Christmas Song

14 - Christmas Child

Photo Credit: murilocardoso via Compfight cc

Band Aid 30 is a 2014 charity music group featuring a range of top-selling British pop musicians including One Direction, Chris Martin of Coldplay and Bono of U2.  The group recently released a song entitled, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”  This is an update of a 1984 song by the same title rewritten for the twenty-first century in general and the Ebola crisis in West Africa in particular.  They lyrics read in part:

It’s Christmas time – there’s no need to be afraid
At Christmas time – we let in light and banish shade
And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world at Christmas time

But say a prayer, pray for the other ones
At Christmas time, it’s hard but while you’re having fun
There’s a world outside your window and it’s a world of dread and fear
Where a kiss of love can kill you
Where there’s death in every tear
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight we’re reaching out and touching you

Bring peace and joy this Christmas to West Africa
A song of hope where there’s no hope tonight
Why is comfort to be feared, why is touch to be scared
How can they know it’s Christmas time at all

Admiringly, 100% of the proceeds of the song are being contributed to the ongoing Ebola crisis in West Africa which according to recently released numbers by the World Health Organization has sickened more than 16,000 people and killed almost 7,000.

Nonetheless the song has come under persistent criticism for a paternalistic approach and a music video that jarringly moves from Ebola-stricken patients in Africa to smiling celebrities in a first world context.

From a world Christianity perspective the song is certainly wrapped in irony given the increasingly secular nature of most western countries and the exploding Christian growth in many African nations.

I have just recently finished teaching a core section on world Christianity at East Texas Baptist University that along with other scholars such as Andrew Walls and Philip Jenkins postulated the following thesis:

The key Christian development of the 21st Century is the maturation of churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the emergence of African, Asian and Latin American Christians as the normative face of Christianity and the predominant proponents of Christianity.

Andrew Walls writes, “The majority of those who profess the Christian faith are now Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, and Pacific Islanders; and they substantially outnumber the professed Christians of Europe, the old Christendom, and its North American outcrop.”

Miriam Adeney describes:

At least eighty million Chinese in China name Jesus as Lord.  So do millions more Chinese outside the country.  In Africa four hundred million Africans praise Jesus.  There are fifteen times more Anglicans worshipping in Nigeria every Sunday than there in Britain.  There were more Free Methodists in the small countries of Rwanda and Burundi than there are in the United States.  There are forty-five million evangelicals in Brazil supporting 4,700 Brazilian missionaries.  In Latin America there are more Christians than in all of the United States and Europe.  The same is true in Africa, and again in Asia.  By 2025 there will be as many Pentecostals as there are Hindus, and twice as many Pentecostals as Buddhists.

It is estimated that by 2025 approximately 25% of the world’s Christians will be white Euro-Americans while a stunning 70% of all Christians will live in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  The case for Africa is particularly telling.

Douglas Jacobsen notes that never before in the history of the world has Christianity expanded so quickly in any region than it has over the last 100 years in the continent of Africa.  In 1900 there were 10 million Christians in Africa while today there are 400 million.  In terms of overall population Christianity expanded from approximately 10% of the population in 1900 to 46% of the entire population in Africa today.  50% of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa already have majority Christian populations.  African Christians are increasingly sending African missionaries to Europe and North America in a process loosely known as missions in reverse.

Statistically, a more normative face of Christianity would be a West African female than would be a group of predominantly white British pop musicians asking, “Do they know it’s Christmas?”

This is especially true given the secularization around the Christmas holiday in Europe and North America and the growing embrace of a generic spirituality and materialistic celebration tempered with feel-good benevolence.

The biblical narrative calls for a far more radical reorientation of our lives around Immanuel, born in a manager, crucified on the cross, resurrected from the grave.   Seen from a world Christian perspective the question and focus of the song perhaps ought to be reversed: do we know that it is Christ-mas?


Frank and Ace

It’s been an honor to share with you this semester.  Thanks for reading.  I wanted to leave you with a Christmas thought for this final entry.  Blessings to you all.  Hope you have a wonderful Christmas!


I’d just marked Thanksgiving off the calendar when suddenly Santa Clause and reindeer and wise men and shepherds marched into my neighborhood.  A plastic Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus even showed up across the street. But on this particular morning, none of the good cheer or “peace on earth, good will toward men” could penetrate my Scrooge-like armor.  This may have been because I’d just finished teaching Sunday school, and my wife was dragging me to Target to buy a gift for a bridal shower she was attending later in the afternoon.

I was hungry.  But Sharon was ready to shop. I feared lunch was going to be a long time away.

We entered the store and headed to the gift registry computer where Sharon typed in the bride’s name.  The machine spit out seven pages of possible gifts.  In situations like this, my buying strategy is simple. Get the list.  Locate the cheapest gift.  Buy it.

My wife’s approach is, of course, profoundly different.  First, Sharon examines the list and comments on the various items—“Oooh look, she wants sterling silver flat ware.  And steak knives with cherry wood handles.  Oh, and look at this, a Hamilton Beach blender . . . and she wants a red one!”

After commenting on each possible purchase, the browsing begins.  “We’re shopping,” she explains, “not hunting.”

I picture myself hunting.  I picture myself in the great outdoors cooking lunch over a campfire.

My wife’s voice pulls me back to reality.  “We’re looking for the perfect gift,” she reminds me.  Then she asks if I can hold the seven page printout and mark off the items we’ve examined so far.

About an hour into our excursion, my Sunday morning just-taught-Sunday-school smile was beginning to fade.  And when we finally approached the check-out line with our gift selection, I had only two thoughts left in my head: How much is this going to cost me and where are we going to eat?

We left the store and headed for a cafeteria down the street. We entered the restaurant only to confront a line winding around the aisle dividers reaching all the way to the front entrance.  I was not in a good mood.  A family near the front couldn’t make up their minds whether they wanted their fish baked, grilled or lightly breaded.  My stress level was escalating.  And then I heard a voice behind me.  I turned around and saw an older gentleman wearing a powder blue jump suit.  “I was trying to beat the church crowd,” he explained, “but I don’t think I made it.”  I acknowledged his comment by mumbling something indecipherable and then refocused my attention on the slow-moving line.  My plan was to ignore the man in the jump suit.  My wife, however, had other ideas.  Sharon turned around and struck up a conversation.

I listened half-heartedly.  And after about five minutes, Sharon asked the question.  She voiced it suddenly and without warning.  And it went something like, “Would you care to join us for lunch?”  Those eight words lined up like the box cars of a swiftly moving freight train, and before I could derail them, they rumbled over the tracks right past me.  But then something extraordinary happened.  I watched as the man in the powder blue jump suit grabbed each one of Sharon’s words and held onto them tightly.  The invitation was a treasure to him—a precious gift.

His name was Frank.  He’d been married twice.  He lost his first wife to cancer after 25 years of marriage.  And his second wife of 34 years had just passed away.  Her death had left him reeling.  I asked him if he went to church, and he said that he didn’t anymore.  He was having a rough time making sense of the loss.  And he was having a rough time making sense of God.  Then he said quietly, “You know, my boy—my only son—he told me the other day, ‘Dad, you just seem mad at the world.’”

I looked at Frank and wondered what it would be like to be 84 years old and suddenly alone, and during the Christmas season, no less.  The sadness that settled in my chest tightened its grip.

But then the conversation brightened.  I looked up and Frank had a smile on his face for the first time.  Sharon had asked him if he had any pets.  He did—he had Ace—a white miniature schnauzer.  “In fact,” Frank explained, “Ace goes everywhere I go.  He’s in my truck right now.  I leave the engine running with the air conditioner on to make sure he stays comfortable.  It eats up all the gas, but it’s worth it.”  The tone of his voice seemed almost cheerful, and his eyes danced a bit as he talked about his little white dog, the only companion he had left.

After lunch, we all walked outside, and Frank invited us to meet Ace.  When we got to the truck, he opened the driver’s side door.  There, with feet planted firmly on the leather seat, stood the little schnauzer.  Sharon reached out to pet him and Ace snapped at her hand.  She screamed and we all laughed.  Frank dared me to try.  I approached Ace with my hand outstretched in a non-threatening manner, the back of it turned toward him.  Ace sniffed my hand.  I felt smug.  But when I attempted to stroke his head, he went for me too, with bared teeth and a gutsy growl.

The little thing was protective.  But it made sense.  After all, Frank needed protecting—he’d been hurt and was suffering deeply.  As we said our goodbyes, Frank climbed into the truck, and Ace settled onto his lap.  Sharon smiled, waved gently, and said, “Merry Christmas, Frank.”  He looked at us one last time, and softly closed the door without saying anything.  I watched Frank back out of the parking space and drive away.  Suddenly I wanted to run after him—I wanted to yell out—“God loves you Frank.  No matter how mad you are.  No matter how far or fast you run, God’s love is running after you.  God’s love wears sneakers Frank, and that love won’t rest until it catches you.”  Sharon and I both stood in the parking lot until Frank’s truck was a distant speck on Loop 281.  Finally, Sharon took my hand and we walked quietly back to the car.

On the drive home, as we passed Christmas lights and nativity scenes, I thought about God—the giver of gifts.  And I pictured God commenting on each item on His gift list—meticulously choosing the best ones for us.  I pictured Him as a shopper, not a hunter. And I thought about that first Christmas 2,000 years ago when God gave us the ultimate gift—not under a tree but in a manger.  Not wrapped in red and silver paper but in swaddling clothes—“good news of great joy for everyone” (Luke 2:10).

So, Frank, if I could see you again, I would tell you, “God is so in love with you.  Accept His gift this Christmas.  Open it.  Embrace it.  A Savior.  The Lamb of God.  The Wonderful Counselor.  The Prince of Peace.  Peace, Frank.  Real peace.”