Sorry to say it, but it’s my least favorite time to go to church.
Perhaps because the memory of that December so many years ago in college is still fresh. I was angry at God and had decided to become an atheist. But I was too scared and ashamed of it to tell my parents or friends. So I went to church. And it was just so disgusting. Why the heck were these people singing these stupid songs, playing stupid games, eating food, having generic sermons about how we love to receive gifts, but we have forgotten “the real gift” of Christmas, seeing kids dress up in sheep costumes, and wearing absolutely horrendous looking sweaters?
I think I was angry because I was looking for proof. I didn’t want to be an atheist. I wanted to believe there was a God. But I was just so bitter, angry and frustrated… perhaps I didn’t want proof of His existence, I just needed to know that He cared. In retrospect, I was probably more likely an agnostic that was posing as an atheist out of my passive aggressive way of expressing anger. I was yelling. And even if I was yelling at thin air, I was hoping the swear words I yelled got to some higher divine being.
Those Christmas celebrations made me angry- not because I felt displaced, but because deep inside I was desperately hoping that they could turn me back to God, and instead they were just a bunch of people trying to act drunk without alcohol. They talked about some real gift of God, but really nobody cared. They just wanted to sing some carols haphazardly. I had to sit through so many of those Christmas pageants, awkward parties… Is that really what Christians thought of God? Was God really a God of awkward parties and bizzarre children’s Christmas plays? This hope that they say was fulfilled on Christmas… just seemed so fake. Perhaps hope really was a socially constructed reality that we were all fooled into believing to keep us sane.
But really, I shouldn’t be so down on Christmas. It was the depth of my frustration, anger, and (dare I say) depression. But it was also where God met me.
I rolled around sleepless in my bed on Christmas eve after one of those aforementioned awkward church Christmas celebrations, wondering if hope and heaven were real… and every time I got close to being okay with hope being real, I remembered how angry I was at God, how bitter I was. When it came down to it, even if He was real, how would I be able to be sure I could trust in Him? How could I be sure that He loved me?
And then something strange happened. I heard a foreign yet familiar whisper. Remember…
and it kept repeating, hauntingly, yet lovingly… remember… remember…
As I sat in bed, it’s hard to explain what happened. In fact, every time I try to recount it, I just have no words for it and verbally stumble around (which is rare for me)… but I can describe it simply as… I remembered. I can’t really describe it, and I’ve been trying for these last 7 years to figure out how to explain it, and the best I could come up with was that… I remembered. I remembered His goodness. I remembered the times I saw Him tangibly act, when I could feel Him. I remembered when I saw Him heal. I witnessed Him when he changed people’s hearts.
For some reason, I remembered the orphans I had worked with that summer in China. And how many were now actually going to college and getting jobs… often an impossibility for handicapped orphans. And how they sang to God saying,
For You are the song that makes my heart sing,
For You are the strength that lifts my hands in praise,
For You are my God, I offer You my life,
Now I am Yours, Your precious living stone
And in that moment, I remembered hope was concrete, it actually transformed. It was more than an abstract idea, but it was a personal, powerful and tangible force. It was a hope I could no longer ignore. My resentment, anger and frustration melted. I surrendered to that foreign yet familiar whisper. I stopped running away. I stopped resisting. I could not keep saying “no” to this unrelenting love.
During that Christmas, as annoyed as I was at God, at His people… I received the real gift. And the real gift of Christmas is that God couldn’t stand the separation between us and Him… that He is not the deistic divine being that stands back in unrelatable aloofness, but actually reaches out to touch us, to be with us, to speak with us, to heal us. What makes this gift even deeper is that we can throw in all the anger, bitterness, swear words, middle fingers or plain ignorance… and He keeps reaching out to us in love. There is something tireless about the way He pursues, and that He would go to any length to be with us, even if that means being born into a stinky box meant for putting in the feed for cattle, in the bloody ugliness and pain of human birth, if that meant being born into the family of a lower class laborer in a abandoned desolate corner of oppressed empire, if it meant suffering an execution on a cross on account of false accusations… He did it, and would do it again so that we could tangibly experience the God named Emmanuel, which literally means “God With Us”.
So this year, as I sat in the second of at least 5 Christmas parties, chugging down on my second cup of hot cocoa while playing Christmas carol pictionary, I felt the old scars in my heart. But as my fingers ran over those scars, I didn’t just remember the pain associated with those scars… I heard that familiar (and no longer so foreign) whisper again… remember… and I also remembered the healing each of those scars represented, that He actually would pursue, come close and redeem my pain and my anger.
I smiled and snapped out of my introspection as I recognized the bad drawing of my tablemate and yelled out the answer for pictionary. Lame or not, I was going to win this game :).