Last year my wife's grandmother died at Christmas time. It would be a difficult loss anytime of year, but it was particularly magnified in the midst of the merry holidays.
Ironically, a death or a Christmas crisis is part of the yuletide tradition for my family. We've spent so many holidays in the hospital that we even have a miniature Christmas tree that's easily transported. I'm not exaggerating when I say that every major crisis of my adult life has occurred between Thanksgiving and New Year's.
So, yes, I admit it — Sometimes I think like Scrooge: Christmas? Bah, humbug!
There is a darker side of Christmas that we rarely acknowledge in the church. We create this fantasy of the perfect homecoming that rarely matches reality — even in the best of homes. There are many of us whose Christmas memories are full of tension, not tinsel.
Some of us know that the holidays are just another excuse for Mommy to get drunk, or Daddy to be with his new family. It's a reminder that the one we love the most is far away — perhaps never coming back — or the relative we love the least will be placing his hands somewhere they shouldn't be.
Would it surprise you to know that the suicide rate is extraordinarily high in December, and that depression is as common as joy to the world?
Now, you may be writing me off as a total Scrooge, but I suspect there are far more people in your church who hurt at Christmas than you would initially imagine. They find misery in mistletoe, and they have a sneaking suspicion that "ornament" is rooted in the word "ornery."
For those tired of the hollow hope and the false fantasies that swirl around Christmas, let me remind you of the simple message from Isaiah 61.
The babe in the manger came to give you good news, and it's not the kind of good news that will dissipate tomorrow when the bad news arrives. You may be just hanging on by a thread, and you may not be able to see it yet, but the HOPE is here. Trust the baby in the manger.
That baby in the manger came to heal your broken heart. You may be bleeding inside, and for you Christmas is just another reminder of what might have been — the "if onlys." Jesus will heal your broken heart. You may not be able to feel it yet, but the HOPE is here. Trust the baby born in smelly, unsanitary, heartbreaking conditions.
That baby in the manger came to help you make the right decisions. You may be so captive to drugs, or alcohol, or pornography that you don't even know how you can get help, even if you're able to figure out that you do need help. You may be in so much bondage that you can't even see it, but the HOPE is here. Trust the baby, who did not stay in the manger, but grew to be a man facing difficult choices.
That baby in the manger will help you live above your circumstances. You no longer have to be prisoner to the "what ifs" of life — what if I had a better job, what if I had a better marriage, what if I had a better life? I know it's hard to see past the prison walls, but the HOPE is here. Trust the baby in the manger, whose circumstances led Him from a poor beginning to a violent execution.
He knows what it's like to be surrounded by bad news, to be brokenhearted, to be captive, to be a prisoner, to be in mourning. He knows what it's like to be misunderstood, to be unappreciated, to be abandoned, to love and not be loved in return.
Because He didn't remain a baby in a sanitized manger on an idealized night, brought to you by StuffMart with all the wrappings and trimmings. He grew into a man acquainted with sorrows, burdened with a life few of us could bear, and then He was killed for one reason and one reason only: He loved you, and He knew it was the only way to rescue you from your hopeless situation.
The HOPE is here, and Jesus Christ — the babe in the manger — offers a better deal than Santa Claus. He's not just here to give you presents; He's here to EXCHANGE the bad presents that you got for the wonder-filled presents He brought.
You're new Hope-filled Christmas carol should sound something like this: Bring Him the ashes of your life and He'll give you beauty; bring Him the mourning in your life, and He'll give you joy; bring Him the despair in your life, and He'll give you praise!
You may not be ready to make the trade, but nevertheless, HOPE is here!
Embrace the HOPE, and instead of having a Merry Christmas — have a HOPEful one!
Jon Walker is editor of Rick Warren's Ministry Toolbox, a free email newsletter for those in ministry. You can sign up by visiting www.pastors.com.