(The “Insights” column will take next week off between Christmas and New Year’s. It will return the first week of 2022. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!)
Christmas Eve worship service was a tradition for our family growing up. It was one of my favorite traditions. We lived close enough to walk to the church sanctuary, nestled in the middle of the small town of Waxhaw, NC. There was something sacred, special, and holy about walking under the clear, star-filled December night on December 24. The moon would cast long, but vibrant shadows across the streets. The chill that filled the air was brisk and fitting. The smell of fire logs in fireplaces filled the neighborhood and permeated the atmosphere with a pleasant aroma. The sound of carols and laughter spilled out of the neighbor’s houses and on to the streets. It was easy to understand why it was called “O Night Divine.” I would make the walk as a child, looking up into the sky, reflecting on the wonder of it all.
Worship services would be followed by a family meal together, exchanging a few presents, a reading of Luke 2 about the birth of Christ, a prayer, and the grand finale of going out into the yard to look for Rudolph’s nose and Santa’s sleigh in the cold, December sky. It never failed, we always saw him. Upon the sighting, we darted back inside the house, down the hallway, and straight to bed. I was left there to battle my overflowing excitement all night long. My excitement always won, and I’m glad it did. I never slept on Christmas Eve. I still don’t. Too much excitement! But somehow, I managed to doze off just long enough for Santa to come each year. Christmas carols would fill the house all night long. It seemed to be the perfect setting.
This is all a true story. That’s the way it actually happened each year to some degree or another. While it seemed perfect, there were also times when the reality of life seemed to stain my picture-perfect, Christmas card existence. There was a time in my life as a child where I judged the success of my Christmas based on how many presents I received from Santa. Such is the life of a little kid. But as I grew into adolescence and my early teen years, there was also a time in my life where I judged the success of my Christmas based on whether my dad was sober on Christmas Eve. If he had not been drinking, success. If he had been drinking, well there’s always next year. It didn’t matter to me what else happened. That's the other side of the true story.
To be clear, there were far more good times of sobriety on Christmas Eve than ones where he had been drinking. In fact, most were like that. My dad was not abusive in any way when he had been drinking. He just wasn’t himself, and that was enough to affect the barometer I used to measure Christmas, as wrong and dysfunctional as it may have been. Anyone who has ever lived with an alcoholic will know what I mean. It simply is the reality in which you do your best to exist and cope.
One Christmas Eve, while in my teen years, we had made the short trip over to the church sanctuary for the Christmas Eve Service. My sister and I made the beautiful, divine walk through the neighborhood to the church sanctuary. All seemed to be in the usual, perfect, divine order. It was also one of those Christmas Eve’s where I was hoping against all hope that my dad would not have been drinking.
We walked into the Sanctuary. It was illuminated brilliantly with Christmas candles and soft lighting. The lights from the tree glistened throughout the room. Christmas carols were playing over the speakers. I was sure there were angels present in the room. Up front, just in front of the altar, sat the minister. That year, the service was a drop-in Communion. Each family came at their own convenience. Upon entering, the minister invited us forward as a family with other families who arrived at the same time. He wore a white robe that seemed angelic, given the setting. His deep, radio voice was comforting. We knelt at the altar and he began to administer the communion elements to us. We partook, we bowed, we prayed. All seemed so holy.
As the minister completed his prayer over us, he dismissed us. As we turned to leave and exit, I saw my dad lay a large sum of money on the altar. He was always faithful in his giving to the church. He then pressed himself up against the altar rails and turned to leave. As he did, I watched him stumble in a drunken stupor. Thankfully, he caught himself on the front pew and disaster was avoided. At that moment, I knew he had been drinking. Immediately, the first thoughts that came to my mind were, “Of all nights, Christmas Eve, how could you do it, on the most holy of nights!?” I thought about the money he laid on the altar and immediately thought God would not accept it.
Of course, all of my thoughts were driven by my disappointment, hurt, and wounding. I regressed to the usual thought, “Oh well, there’s always next year.” We walked out of the sanctuary. I requested to walk home alone that night. As I did, I prayed for my dad and I prayed that the rest of Christmas would go well. It did. It always did. God was always faithful to redeem even the worst of situations for me.
As the years and the Christmases have gone by, I have thought back to that time period of my life, and to that Christmas Eve many times. For many years I envisaged that this is not the way Christmas was supposed to be, and on the surface, it’s not the way it’s supposed to be. But that does not mean God was absent from my less than perfect, broken Christmas. In fact, there is something much deeper about Christmas that was on display that night, even though it took me years of wading through my wound to realize it.
That night, and during that time period, the minister of our church was a recovering alcoholic himself. He answered the call to ministry later in life, after God had delivered him into sobriety years earlier. According to his testimony, his alcoholism ruined his life and was much deeper rooted than even my father’s struggle. But he gave his life to Jesus and God delivered him, even calling him into ministry and to being a Pastor.
So, as I think about that Christmas Eve, underneath the surface of what I thought was a broken Christmas, was the fullness of grace and “second chance” on display, right there in that little sanctuary in Waxhaw, NC. A former alcoholic preacher, who had been set free and given a second chance, was giving communion to a father who was in the battle with the very same thing. No, it wasn’t ideal, but it was the definition of Christmas more than I knew at the time. Hope, second chance, redemption, right there in the middle of the messiness and brokenness. After all, isn’t that why Jesus came? Isn’t that why we have Christmas? While they are nice, it has little to do with family meals, traditions, rooms full of toys, and perfect settings. It’s hope, hope, and more hope in the midst of even the most broken of settings.
That same Pastor is the same one who gave me my first opportunity to preach in public, right there at Waxhaw United Methodist Church. I preached on Satanism, and everyone there that hot Summer day had to endure it. It’s quite possible I did more to turn people off from grace that day than my father ever did with his battle. The Pastor even let me come back another time to preach. If that isn’t grace, I don’t know what is.
Pastor Larry Lambeth has long since passed and my dad has long since been delivered of his alcoholism. God answered my prayer that night about my dad, even though it would be several years later. My prayer was not in vain that night, nor were my feelings. It wasn’t perfect, but hope, grace, and second chance were on display that night, more than I could ever know. One broken man who got a second chance, offering hope to another broken man who would find his second chance. And one broken kid praying to "Emmanuel, God With Us." Yeah, I'd say that’s Christmas, even if I couldn't plaster it on a card.
The years have passed since those days. Those days helped to build my faith and make me who I am today. Those experiences still give an authentic definition to my Christmas experiences today.
If there’s one thing I do know about Christmas it’s this…no matter what your situation may be, no matter how bleak or broken it may seem, God is never absent. Never. He is "with us" in our brokenness. That's the true message of Christmas. Never give up, never stop praying, never stop praying. He’s always doing something bigger than we can see, and there is always, always hope. I know this to be true. I learned it on a broken walk home in Waxhaw, NC one Christmas Eve. O Night Divine.