Yuletide Yearnings

    Irving Berlin wrote the classic Christmas song, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”  Everyone knows it.  Everyone loves it.  Everyone sings it, though whether they admit to the latter is another story!

Did you know that Berlin wrote it while relaxing by a pool in southern California with a temperature of 84 degrees?  Yep!  He was reminiscing nostalgically for the snow-laden Siberia of his youth.  I hope a revelation like this doesn’t damage the song for you! 

Yearnings are universal, especially amidst hardship; otherwise, such longings parley into a more morally-ambiguous ambition.  They speak to something innocent and especially pleasing to the heart; too often, it is for something lost or no longer to be had.

Most of us yearn nostalgically for an earlier, fresher time in our loves, like a happy and secure childhood; one may even proffer the suggestion that such yearnings are personal expressions of a more pervasive sense of a lost Eden to which we all seem subject.

Anyone of age will hearken to a world that preceded September 11, 2001; more immediate, the grief-stricken parents, siblings and colleagues of Sandy Hook, Connecticut – indeed, an entire nation of grieving citizens – who now yearn for a world prior to Friday, December 14, 2012.

But was it any better?  Yes, we certainly had our loved ones with us before monsters and madmen took them from us; nevertheless, they were alive in a world that is egregiously fallen from God’s standard and separated from God’s holiness – in short, a very difficult and debilitated world, a world in which none of us are safe or sound.

We are, to invert the motif of Irving Berlin’s circumstances, struggling amidst a blinding snow- and wind-storm in the bowels of Siberia, dreaming of the near-idyllic conditions by that swimming pool amidst the more palatable climes of southern California.

Anything else is ultimately wishful-thinking, no matter what acculturated norms of thought and expectation.  History surely shows us that we have gotten it wrong, notwithstanding the episodic tides of progress by which some of us profit.

We progress by way of reams of new information, but regress in terms of wisdom.  We make tremendous strides when it comes to technology and medicine and physical comforts, but fall fast and far insofar as morality and ethics are concerned.  What to do?

First, we need to re-think our prevailing norms.  What is or has become normative is not necessarily helpful or true.  We think that more money or more education or more sex or more leisure is the ticket to the fulfillment of our dreams or of the human enterprise.

Dallas Willard, a professional philosopher and believing Christians, has addressed this in his invaluable book, The Divine Conspiracy:  Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God:
“Suppose, to illustrate, that the educators who guide our school systems seriously considered the possibility that the low attainments of American schoolchildren are not in spite of what is done with them in school but largely because of what they are taught and how they are taught.  Or suppose that our national legislature began to think that our failure to come to grips with the national debt or violence in the streets is not in spite of what the legislature does, but because of it.  It may seem hard to take such a suggestion seriously, but to do so might well provide a basis for genuine solutions to problems that now seem unsolvable.”

He has a point, and a vitally-important one.  We are awash in preconceptions and presuppositions that produce behaviors and attitudes, all of which need a profound re-think.  The tragedy in Sandy Hook, Connecticut on Friday, December 14, is illustrative.

We are all asking how this could have happened.  It is an honest question, replete with genuine tears and appropriate wailing.  It was as awful a day as our nation has ever known, as bad as September 11, 2001 and December 7, 1941.  Let no one deny it.

We take nothing away from the specific issues of mental instability and familial dynamics, but the President and the press now target gun manufacturing and ownership, but what about the media-driven wave of material that de-sensitizes our citizenry, especially our young, to violence.  It all plays out on a screen, not in real life; doesn’t it?

We have allowed the basic structure and safety of the family and run it into the ground, determining for ourselves that there are alternate modes of existence, yet there have been no studies done and no proof given that such alternatives will reap a fruitful harvest – indeed, all of the evidence suggests quite the contrary.

And we have asked God to leave our public domain, including and most notably our schools.  Our children are not being given a sound foundation, solid structure or safe and secure domiciles in which and from which to grow and thrive.  Why are we shocked when bad, even horrible, things happen?

We need help.  We need, to borrow a term from recovery ministry, an intervention.  We need, to speak biblically, salvation. 

It will not come from within ourselves, as we are compromised creatures.  We are, to quote Pascal, half-angel and half-beast.  We are our own source of struggle, not salvation.

Nor will our salvation come from the arena of education or government.  Nazi-Germany was the most educated society of its day and probably of history and look what happened to it.  And the Nazis were, to be direct, a government.

And our salvation will not be found by having more sex, greater freedom of choice or an insatiable supply of material good.  The debased fruits of the sexual revolution speak for themselves.  More choice often means more confusion and headache.  More material seems to translate, at least collectively, into diminished character and soul.
No, our salvation will come from outside of ourselves.  It will come, and has come, from God.  It may be a quotation from a “religious” source, and is therefore relegated to a minor section of a commercial bookshop, perhaps even excised from a public arena such as a library, and definite to cause consternation if cited at a public event, but here it is:

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid.  I bring you goods news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord’” (Luke 2:8-11).

One will do more than merely re-think upon the dawning awareness of the beauty and veracity of this historical narrative:  One will fall down in humility, gratefully beseech the divine throne, and rise up in joyful praise and with fresh hope.

It is no wonder that the music of this time of year is so resplendently magnificent.  The religious music that extols the coming and birth of Jesus is unparalleled.  The overflow is expressed in such delightful songs as “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Chestnuts Roasting on An Open Fire” is expressive of an expansive merriment.  And the smiles and sounds of little children are comparable to the flowers of the field in their implicit and exquisite beauty.  Is there anything else to compare?

Mary pondered and submitted.  Joseph struggled and submitted.  The angels gave herald and glory and the shepherds, like the wise men, sought out this little Savior.  I believe that even the animals were aware of something vitally different from the norm.

There were others though:  They went about their usual business, as did the inn-keeper and his patrons who indifferently denied the holy family a place to stay.  There was a king who had a great many babies killed in order to do the same to the baby Jesus.  And there were others who were astonished at the boy as He grew, but whether they were saved is not a matter of record.

King Herod yearned for power.  Joseph yearned for “normalcy” with a wife and children.  Mary probably yearned first for a husband and then for respectability after having conceived Jesus.  The mothers of the dead babies yearned from the depths of their souls for the return of their babies.  The shepherds probably yearned for significance.  The wise men no doubt yearned for applied wisdom.  To whom or what do your yearnings turn?

This can be said with certainty:  We are well-past the day of romantic idealism and cozy naiveté.  The notion of progress is a mixed reality at best.  The hard fact of a brutal world is besetting us with each passing day and with each headline in the news. 

Christians should be well aware of this.  Our Bible and our self-examination have already apprised us; thankfully, the Spirit of God both comforts and re-directs us.  He does not lead us into more-of-the-same; instead, He re-directs us in heart and intent.

Our society is not merely breaking down; it is rapidly melting away.  Christians need to lead the way by re-thinking and re-directing away from flesh and to God our Savior.  This will include some of the basic but faulty notions that we have embraced about even God and religion and church.

Historian Edward Hallett Carr wrote a classic piece of historical analysis entitled, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939, in which he wrote this of the breakdown of the European order:

“The breakdown of the 1930s was too overwhelming to be explained merely in terms of individual action or inaction.  Its downfall involved the bankruptcy of the postulates on which it was based.  The foundations of nineteenth-century belief are themselves under suspicion.  It may be not that men stupidly or wickedly failed to apply right principles, but that the principles themselves were false or inapplicable.  It may turn out to be untrue that if men reason rightly about international politics they will also act rightly, or that right reasoning about one’s own or one’s nation’s interests is the road to an international paradise.  If the assumptions of nineteenth-century liberalism are in fact untenable, it need not surprise us that the utopia of the international theorists made so little impression on reality.”

You will please pardon the perhaps undue intellectualism of the passage for the purpose of this reflection, but I believe that even amongst Christians, and especially amongst evangelicals, there is a great deal of utopianism afoot, most notably expressive at the level of personal and ecclesiastical yearning – often idolatrously so.

We want our personal dreams and aspirations to be met.  We are building our personal fiefdoms and ecclesiastical empires.  We will be unduly disheartened and unhappy if our longings go unfulfilled or get frustrated.  Yet we live in a world that is increasingly and pervasively frustrated and unhappy.  We have something better still.

We have a Savior.  We have Jesus.  We have keys to the Kingdom.  We have been given an abundant and eternal life, one characterized not by fickle happiness but by the impregnable joy of His salvation.  We have been vindicated and validated by God.

You Christians who yearn for God, hear this:  The world groans as it awaits its liberation, wrote the Apostle Paul (Romans 8:19), and its inhabitants yearn for a better life, which is why so many of them come to America, but which is also why we need to give them Jesus, first by showing them Jesus as He is present and at work in our re-directed lives.

They need the Savior as we have already received Him.  Let them yearn for the Savior you know and have.  Give to them, as you have already received, a very Merry – and a white, as in white-as-snow because of the pure, lily-white love of Jesus! – Christmas!

Bradley E. Lacey
December 22, 2012