I am a little late with this. I should have posted it January 1. I am this month’s devotional writer for Today in the Word and the topic is People of Prayer. You can watch my interview about it below with my friend and colleague Jamie Janosz, who is Today in the Word’s managing editor. If you would like to read the devotions, you can find them here. The devotions are short, so if you want to catch up, it should be pretty easy. I also write the monthly “Practical Theology column for Today in the Word and you can find it by clicking on the tab at the top of my web page. Speaking of prayer, I am thrilled to be writing a monthly column on the subject for Mature Livingduring 2023.
All of this might give the impression that I am an expert on the subject of praying. Well, I suppose that as a preacher, former pastor and Bible college professor, I am a professional. That is to say, I know how to pray out loud in a group. But I’ve never felt like an expert. My personal prayers have always seemed like a bit of a train wreck to me. Or rather, as I often like to refer to them, “awkward conversations with God.” That’s why my January column on the subject in Mature Living was entitled “Prayer for Amateurs.” On the one hand, when it comes to prayer, we are all experts in the sense that most of us have cried out to God in one form or another. Yet most of us feel that we aren’t very good at it. Go ahead and pray anyway. The secret to praying is not in the way we frame our requests but our confidence in the fact that God hears (1 John 5:14).
I am excited about the upcoming release of my latest book, entitled When God is Silent: Let the Bible Teach You to Pray. It should be coming out in August from Lexham Press but you can preorder your copy now at Amazon. I’ll be talking more about in in the coming days in my posts.
In Charles Dickens’ AChristmas Carol, the first spirit to visit Ebenezer Scrooge is the ghost of Christmas past. Scrooge notes the spirit’s small stature and asks, “Long Past?” “No. Your past,” the ghost replies.
Dickens is on to something here because this spirit often visits us at this time of year. The season of Advent, by its nature, implies a forward trajectory. It celebrates humanity’s long wait for the arrival of the promised seed of Abraham. In reality, we seem to spend most of it looking back. Ostensibly, we are looking back to the first Advent by recalling the details of the Christmas story. But more often, as Scrooge’s ghost observes, it is our own past that is the real focus of attention.
If you doubt this, look at the ornaments on your Christmas tree. If yours is like most people’s, it is a little like an archeologist’s dig. Your family history hangs in layers before your eyes, with ornaments that commemorate special events or have particular meaning for you. There are the ones with pictures of your children in elementary school and the threadbare elves who no longer have their arms but used to hang on your mother’s tree. Our ornaments trace the fads and passing tastes that have gripped us down through the years. Places we have visited, hobbies we attempted, tastes we acquired and then abandoned. For many of us, Christmas isn’t just a celebration of the past. It is, at least as far as the tree is concerned, a celebration of our past.
But there is more to it than this. When Scrooge asked what business brought the spirit to his bedside, the ghost answered that it was his welfare. “Scrooge expressed himself much obliged, but could not help thinking that a night of unbroken rest would have been more conducive to that end,” Dickens writes. “The Spirit must have heard him thinking for it said immediately: ‘Your reclamation, then. Take heed!”
Here, too, I think that Dickens is on to something. But the trajectory of our own stories moves in the opposite direction. The aim of the spirits in Dickens’ tale is to save Scrooge from his past. Our goal is to reproduce it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this other than its futility. The world that nostalgia longs to generate is one that is self-constructed. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as reconstructed.
In his essay “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis characterizes nostalgia as “the inconsolable secret” in each one of us. He describes it as a longing “for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.” If he is correct, then the nostalgia of Christmas is not the desire to reproduce the Christmases of the past so much as it is a longing to experience Christmas as it should have been.
Not only does this explain why the actual holiday so often disappoints us, despite our furious preparation and our genuine anticipation. But it also clarifies why we return to it each year with an optimism that a more objective observer would probably call naive. The conviction that drove old Marley, though “dead as a door-nail,” to haunt Scrooge was the hope that his appeal would procure his former partner a better future. But we expect the ghost of Christmases past to heal the present.
Whatever dysfunction has dogged our heels in the past, somehow, each time we reenact the passion play that is Christmas, we expect things to go differently. We think that people who have been at odds all year long and often for decades will endure one another’s presence with grace and even pleasure. That sibling who never calls and never visits will show up on our doorstep smiling, and with arms full of packages. The seat at the table that has long been empty will no longer prick our hearts. The drunk will miraculously arrive sober. The prodigal will come home and not in rags. We will be a “normal” family, if only for a brief time.
It matters very little that the Christmas Spirits’ many brothers were unable to fulfill this expectation for us. Our hope in Christmas’s power to recast the past and somehow heal our present seems to be born each year anew. There is a kind of sad beauty in this fact. But there is a danger also. It is that we will fall into a kind of idolatry. Lewis captures its essence in his critique of nostalgia–or rather his critique of the longing the word so often represents. “The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing,” he writes. “These things–the beauty, the memory of our own past–are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers.”
And yet we are not wrong to expect Christmas to reclaim our past and redeem the present. We are only mistaken about the timing. This annual cycle of longing leading to expectations that are never quite met is very much in the spirit of Advent. It is a kind of living plainsong that forcibly reminds us that we are still waiting for Emmanuel, who having come once to redeem, “will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Heb. 9:28).
When that day comes, salvation will reach back and reclaim our history in its entirety. All our longings, all our disappointments, all our successes, and yes, even all our failures will be drawn into the redemption that Christ accomplished at His first coming. I do not know what form they will take as they are drawn into the new creation. Perhaps they will be absorbed and replaced as all things are made new. Or maybe, like ornaments hung on the Christmas tree, they will bear joyful witness to God’s faithfulness to us in the past. On that day, as the prophet Isaiah predicts, the Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces and remove His people’s disgrace from all the earth. We will have the celebration we have longed for all our lives and say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation” (Isa. 25:9).
After his wife, Joy Davidman, died of cancer, C. S. Lewis kept a journal of observations about the grief he felt. It concludes with her final moments. Lewis writes, “She said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me.”
I remember being disturbed the first time I read these words. They seemed to speak of despair rather than hope. But the description is so like a sentence Lewis wrote in “The Weight of Glory,” that I have come to believe I was entirely mistaken about this. The sentence comes in a section of the essay where Lewis discusses the nature of glory. Lewis seems to be saying that the essence of this glory is a kind of recognition. The glory we hope for as Christians is to be known and recognized by God. More than this, according to Lewis, it is to be appreciated. This, Lewis explains, is what we long for–“to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son.”
It is this recognition or sense of belonging that we hunger for when we are caught up in longing, and it is the feeling that we are trying to create by the attempted reconstitution of our past through nostalgia. It is the sense of finally coming home. It is what compels us every year to go to such measures to create circumstances that will produce the feeling and whose subsequent failure so breaks our hearts that we aim for it again and again. “For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing,” Lewis explains. “Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance.”
“She smiled,” Lewis observed at his wife’s passing, “but not at me.”
It seems right to speak of death in the same breath as Advent because Advent is the season of ghosts. It is that rolling time of year when the spirit of Christmases past rises up to remind us that the world is still broken and that the home for which we long has not yet arrived. It has not come. But it is on its way.
 Charles Dickens, The Christmas Books, Vol. 1, (New York: Penguin, 1971), 69.
 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, (New York: HarperOne, 1976), 29.
Christmas was important to me even before I called myself a Christian, though admittedly, this was mainly for non-religious reasons. I’ve long suspected that I have always loved Christmas more than any other holiday, not because of its spirituality but because it purchased my affections. It’s true that I loved the music and the pageantry. The glow of the lights and the smell of evergreen seemed to transport me to another world. But it was the presents that clinched the deal. When it came to gifts, Christmas was the motherload. Far better than birthdays or any other holiday.
When I became a follower of Jesus, I expected the change to transform Christmas the same way it transformed the rest of my life. I assumed the season, which seemed magical to me already, would become transcendent. It did not. If anything, the change somehow managed to dim the glow.
Perhaps this was because of the church culture to which I had become attached. The church tradition I joined was what is commonly described as a “low” church. Apart from Christmas and Easter, we didn’t follow the church calendar. Even the attention paid to those two days seemed grudging at times. We were proud of this bare-faced approach that disassociated us from Roman Catholicism, with its robes, smoke, and long lists of feasts that never seemed to involve actual food.
Of course, we had our own list of special days and celebrations. So I suppose you could say they were feasts of a sort. There were potlucks and suppers, the annual Valentine’s day banquet, and a church meal after every funeral. There were also a vast variety of informal meals, usually related to specific events or the passing of the seasons. But, in retrospect, it occurs to me that most of these occasions were more social than religious.
Christmas, on the other hand, was overtly religious. By it, we aimed to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. We did this with a measure of reserve. There were a few decorations, but they were not elaborate. A handful of evergreen sprigs and the occasional wreath decked out with red and green ribbons were usually enough. Some churches, which would normally have eschewed putting up a Christmas tree in the sanctuary because of its pagan roots, even constructed a large tree-shaped scaffold for the choir and covered it with pine branches.
Christmas Eve was the only time we allowed candles in the sanctuary. Instead of lighting them for the dead like Catholics, we held them in our hands. We dimmed the lights and sang Silent Night as the wax dripped on the upholstery of the pew in front of us. I liked the flickering shadows but hated the song, not because of its content but for its familiarity. It bored me. As a rule, my tastes in Christmas music tended toward the medieval. I would rather sing Prudentius or some repurposed Gregorian chant.
The low church tradition in which I still worship appears to have overcome its reticence about candles and greenery. Advent candles, midnight services on Christmas eve, and strung lights are so common these days that we hardly notice the difference anymore. The church I currently attend piles so many Christmas trees into the place of worship that it feels like we are at a campground instead of in the sanctuary. I have even visited a church that broadcasts Chuck Berry singing “Run, run, Rudolph!” through loudspeakers outside its front door. On the stage in the auditorium where the congregation meets, a smoke machine generates a thin shekinah of mechanical fog.
As for me, my tastes in worship, like my tastes in Christmas music, tend toward the minor key. I have always felt a little envious of my high church friends who, when they lift their eyes in worship, see arches and stained glass instead of ductwork. I have wondered what it would be like to preach a sermon wearing vestments. It would be refreshing to attend a church that feels like a church instead of feeling like I am visiting a shopping mall, an office complex, or a repurposed grocery store. But God, I suspect, does not really care. Even the tabernacle, raised by divine command and meticulously constructed according to the pattern revealed to Moses on the holy Mountain, turned out to be only “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (Heb. 8:5).
We hunger for a sense of the presence of God. But tend to confuse transcendence with ambiance. In its worship practices, the church seems to struggle to find the happy medium between Puritan austerity and baroque gaudiness. This struggle is further complicated by differences in culture, style, and taste. Not every church celebrates Christmas the same. Indeed, as far as Scripture is concerned, we do not need to observe Christmas as a holy day at all. There is certainly no evidence in the New Testament that the first Christians did. In his book Ancient Christian Worship, Andrew McGowan contrasts “the colorful calendars of feasts, fasts, and saints that churches of the fourth and fifth centuries celebrated” with “the relative silence” of the New Testament on such matters. The apostle Paul criticized the Galatians for “observing special days and months and seasons and years” (Gal. 4:10). In Colossians 2:16, he warned the Colossians not to let anyone judge them “with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” Christmas, it would seem, is not the queen of days. We are free to observe it or not observe it as we wish.
Meanwhile, when God’s presence does show itself, it is more likely to be on the periphery of our daily experience than in the church sanctuary. God seems to inhabit the corners and shadows, preferring the unnamed days of ordinary time to the high holy days from which we expect so much. He does not come with fanfare. But as the carol says, silently, and in the places where all our hopes and fears meet. “No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”
This is the message of Christmas. It is the old, old promise whispered in the Garden, shouted by the prophets, and trumpeted to shepherds on a hillside near Bethlehem. It is the good news that God has drawn near by taking on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He came with a real body to the real world. He came to die, rise, and will one day return. Only then will we know what it is like to experience God’s presence in its fullness.
 Andrew B. McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 259.
It’s getting to look a lot like Easter. Which, frankly, isn’t saying that much. Between Christmas and Easter, it’s plain to see which holiday is the favored child of the church calendar. The advent of Christmas is announced months in advance with music, decorations, movies, sales, and anticipatory feasting. We light candles, open doors on the advent calendar, and generally work ourselves into a state of hysterical glee and exhaustion.
In the past couple of years, I have noticed that periods of social unrest are often accompanied by a corresponding outbreak of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am referring, of course, to the accompanying blizzard of memes on Facebook and Twitter that display a quote famously (and probably incorrectly) attributed to Bonhoeffer: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
When I was a pastor, I noticed that my visits with people occasionally made them nervous. Maybe it was my personality. Perhaps I didn’t make enough small talk. But I think the cause lay elsewhere. I think they were sometimes uncomfortable because they saw me as a symbol of something else. Or, perhaps I should say, I was a symbol of someone else. One woman told me that she spent the whole day cleaning before I arrived. Then she said, “When the pastor visits, it’s almost like having God come to your house.” My wife, Jane, who had come with me, answered her with a laugh. “The difference is that God already knows what your closets look like.”
A few years ago, it was popular for some Christians to wear wristbands with the initials WWJD on them. The letters stood for the question, “What would Jesus do?” The question is probably a good one. But it seems to assume that what Jesus would do is always evident to us. This isn’t always the case. In fact, the question the disciples asked more often than not was a very different one. Instead of wanting to know what Jesus would do, they asked, “Why did Jesus do that?” The disciples were often puzzled by Jesus. They were as confused by His actions as they were by His teaching.
Jamie Janosz, managing editor for Today in the Word interviewed me about this month’s devotions from the book of Philippians. If you would like, you can read the devotions here. You can also check out my monthly Practical Theology column here.
For me, Christmas is pretty much over on December 26th. By then, I am ready to see the tree taken down and the decorations put back in their boxes. But for others, the celebration continues into January with the observation of the feast of the epiphany. It’s also sometimes called the feast of the theophany or the feast of the three kings. It celebrates the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ. This year, those who observe it will do so on January 6th.
It’s that time of year when we tell the story of Christ’s Nativity. Then someone writes an article, publishes a book, or posts an exposé on social media telling us that everything we thought we knew about the old, old story is wrong. Yesterday, I saw one in my newsfeed shouting that Jesus’ family wasn’t poor after all. Joseph was a skilled tradesman who could afford to rent the stable because the inn was full. According to the retelling, it turns out that the stable wasn’t as rude and bare as the songs say. It was clean and private. I think it had wifi too.