The Very Best Story

Christmas has all the best stories (and OK, to be fair, some of the worst schlock.  If in doubt, sample some of the unknown Christmas movies on Netflix this year — you’ll see.)  There’s a little bit of everything in a Christmas flick: magic, longing, delight, sometimes tragedy, always wonder, more often than not hilarity.  Will Farrell and Chevy Chase will surely be playing on a continual loop all December, competing for the stupid hat prize and making us spew hot chocolate out of our noses.

One of our family’s favorite Christmas movies is The Polar Express.  I have to admit, when it first came out I wasn’t enamored with the weird Tom-Hanks-as-cartoon thing they have going on, but the original Chris Van Allsburg book was brilliant, and the story is great.  Against a backdrop of classic train and frosty snow, we meet this skeptical kid at the “critical age.”  Is this the year he gives up on the whole idea of Santa?

Our young hero meets a hobo on the train, if you remember, and they have the following conversation on the speeding locomotive’s rooftop:

Hobo:  What exactly is your persuasion on the big man, since you brought him up?

Boy:  Well, I – I want to believe.

Hobo:  But.  But you don’t want to be bamboozled.  You don’t want to be led down the primrose path… Seeing is believing, am I right?

Is it a dream?  Everything about the scene is dream-like — from the leering hobo to the midnight train itself.  It can’t be real, right?

But it is real, at least in the context of a Christmas movie.  And the journey continues over mountains and frozen seas, all the way to Santa himself.  Seeing Santa is the main event, the reason for the kids’ frenzied excitement.  And our little skeptic wants to see him.  But while all the other children cheer, our boy can’t see.  Try as he may, he can’t catch a glimpse.  And when an elf shakes the sleigh bells, he can’t hear it, either.

Finally, he takes a deep breath.  It flickers across his face — he is making a choice that flies in the face of logic.  Tentatively, he picks up a bell, whispers, “I believe.”133697288_silver-polar-express-sleigh-believe-bell-elf-deco-box-.jpg


The Kindly Conductor sums it up:  Sometimes seeing is believing, and sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.

So what’s the most real?  Not, certainly, Santa Claus.  But the most real story, the most important one, is sometimes the hardest to believe.

Of all the stories, this one’s the best.  It’s achingly beautiful.  Like all the others, it has a pinch of tragedy, a sprinkle of hilarity, a huge dose of wonder.  It has a crazy cast of characters:

  • A pregnant teenager with a wild story
  • Her skeptical fiancé
  • Some scruffy shepherds
  • A trio of foreign astrologers
  • And even a heavenly choir

It’s chock full of impossibilities, every bit as farfetched as a magical toy workshop at the North Pole.    For Pete’s sake, it has a virgin birth, a huge new star, supernatural messengers and ancient prophecies.

How could a story this crazy possibly be true?

by Leonid Afremov


A few years back Sara Groves put out a great Christmas album with a mix of old carols and some new tunes.  In one of the new ones, she sings,

In your heart you

Hope it’s true

Though you hold no expectation

In the deepest part of you

There’s an open hesitation 

We all want to believe.  It’s hardwired in us, the desire to connect with something bigger.  Humans have this ridiculous capacity for wonder (it gets us into all kinds of wide-eyed trouble, but it’s also what makes us great storytellers.)  Across the ages, across all cultures, we love a good tale.  It’s like we’re meant to thirst for what is beautiful and true.

Do you ever stop to wonder why we want that kind of faith?  I believe it is because God wants us to want Him.

It was the mathematician Blaise Pascal who famously said we all hold a God-shaped void in our hearts, and C.S. Lewis who said that our desires point to what can logically fulfill them.  So we hunger because we need food.  We lust because we need love.  And ultimately all of our unrequited desires point to God.

There is a phenomenon among pregnant women called pica.  It’s a curious craving to eat things which aren’t edible.  Pregnant ladies have been known to crave mud, clay, laundry starch, burnt matches, stones, charcoal, moth balls, coffee grounds, soap, baking soda…  Weird, right?  They crave these illogical things because they actually have an iron deficiency.  What they really need is spinach, beef, raisins, but somehow they’ve got their wires crossed, and they’re hiding in the closet eating paper.

Maybe we all have pica.  Maybe the longing that shows up again and again in Christmas stories — for Santa, elves, romance — is really a signal that we were made for something more, something that (unlike a gingerbread house) can really meet a need.

We want to believe.  But there are some major obstacles.

Sara Groves again:

Heard it told you

Think it’s odd

The whole thing fraught with complication

The play begins with 

Baby God

And all His blessed implications

But it’s true

Kingdoms and crowns

The God who came down to find you

It’s true

Angels on high

Sing through the night Alleluia

How could this possibly be true?  Maybe it’s the very impossibility of the story that makes it so believable.  If you were going to write a story about God coming to earth, well, you’d make it spectacular, right?  The fairy tale version would surely have palaces, princesses, a royal ball.  Sleeping Beauty, you know?  Instead we’ve got a stable full of stinky animals, a feeding trough for a cradle, an unwed teenaged mom.  Who came up with this story?

You know, the Wise Men seem to make sense.  At least they smack of royalty, and they come bearing gifts.  Gold seems fit for a king.  Frankincense, for a religious scene.  But myrrh?  Myrrh was used for burials.  Who brings myrrh to a baby shower?  Well, it’s a great gift to honor sacrifice.  A great gift for a Savior – not so much for a baby.

What kind of crazy story is this, that it evokes so much wonder and delight and longing in our hearts?  What child is this?

Could it be Christ the King?

As the Christmas carol goes on to say:

So bring him incense, gold and myrrh, come peasant, king, to own him;

The King of kings salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone him.

The best thing about the Christmas story — the real story, the best story — it’s not just for kings.  It’s for peasants.  That is to say, it’s for all of us:  pregnant teens and old ladies and migrant workers.  Not just to listen and wish, but to own!

This king, who left palaces and crowns behind to be born in a stable and laid in a manger — for ME.

In The Polar Express, the little boy’s friend sings, “I’m wishing on a star, and trying to believe that even though it’s far, he’ll find me Christmas Eve.”

My prayer for all of us is that even though it seems impossible, He’ll find you this Christmas, with room in your heart for the wonder, and the hope, and the faith it takes to believe.

It’s True, by Sara Groves

Photo by DominusVobiscum on Visualhunt /  CC BY-NC-SA

One Small Prayer

platitude, noun:  a remark or statement (especially with moral content) that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.  Cliché.

It has happened a hundred times.  At gravesides, hospital beds, over coffee.  Tears are falling, someone is looking for answers.

He won’t be with us much longer.  

I’m going to lose the baby.  

We’re living in our car.  How did this happen?  

It’s really over this time. 

Where is God?

The questions come fast and thick, stumbling over one another in the race to be asked.  A lifetime of doubts and puzzles have accumulated and been ignored too long; now, in the moment of crisis, they all rush out at once.

Is God good?  Does God care?  Is God powerful?  Can He help?

We stand tongue-tied and awkward in the force of the deluge.  How can we adequately respond?  What can we say in the face of cancer or abuse or prison or divorce that can possibly reach wide enough to embrace that kind of hurt?

And we know, we really know, that it isn’t enough to say the usual things.  “It’ll be all right.  I know what you’re going through.”  Will it?  Do I?

And so, yesterday.  Again we turn on the radio to hear bad news, the senseless kind, the how-did-God-let-this-happen, is-He-on-His-lunchbreak kind.  And we most of us stand there kind of stunned and try to think what can possibly be said, while a few of us, the Important People, are handed a microphone.  And deep down, they’re feeling the same way.  What can they say?  How can they help?

So they say the only thing they know how to say, they mouth the words.  “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims.”  And no doubt they, too, have the same flood of questions behind the brave face:  where is God?  why has this happened?  when will it end?  But Important People aren’t afforded the luxury of confusion.  Important People need to have all the answers.  Important People need to DO something.


Of course, that’s just ridiculous.  Because none of us have any answers, do we?

Or maybe we do.  Maybe prayer is the right answer after all.  And when we’re stumped and we don’t know how to pray, we look to the pray-ers of the past.  We cry out, “How long, O Lord?” with a chorus of heartbroken voices.  We call out, “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.”  We name our fears, our despair, our confusion, and we rob them of their power over us.  And then we name our Deliverer.

“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love.”

“The name of the Lord is a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.”

“The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me.”

We kneel precisely because we know the magnitude of our problem and our complete inability to fix it.  How could we?

What is it the Important People are expected to do?  Heal the broken and bleeding human heart?  Turn anger and hate into kindness and love?  Legislate hope?

But there is a vast difference between real prayer and “good thoughts,” between kneeling and posing for the camera.  I saw someone sign off a webcast the other day with the closing line, “vibes to you.”  I’ve been laughing about that ever since — vibes, baby.  But it’s a sad thing when we send our positive and encouraging willpower across the miles as though there is any whiff of restorative power in it, any chance of redemption unfurling in our fond thoughts.  When candidates send empathy over the airwaves or tear up for a photo op, it’s no wonder it makes skeptics cringe.  No one’s fooled by vibes.

A god that stood aloof and watched tragedy multiply through the ages, the unmoved mover, well, prayers to that god wouldn’t fix a thing.  Prayers to a cold and stoic deity would be an exercise in foolishness, spitting in the wind.  But a God that hears?  A God that, say, gave up His throne for a manger and exchanged a palace for a broke-down stable?  That God, who endured the senseless violence and suffered the bad news personally?  Well, that’s good news.  That’s great joy.  And we name that God,

“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  For to us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders.

We name that God Emmanuel, because He became one of us, and yes, He did fix us.  Anyone who wanted fixing, that is.

And so I pray today to the Lord of Broken Hearts, the Lord of Sacrificial Love, the Blood Donor God who split a vein to pour out hope for all of us.

How long, O Lord?  We wait for You.