So many others have tried their hand at putting together a story of the wonderful harvest of Scripture and history that took place among us, using reports handed down by the original eyewitnesses who served this Word with their very lives. Since I have investigated all the reports in close detail, starting from the story’s beginning, I decided to write it all out for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can know beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of what you were taught. Luke 1:1-4(MSG).
So it all started with a story. And a need to tell.
Even as a young child, I had an affinity for stories. The really, really good ones, the ones that didn’t get worn in their retelling-those turned my head. And at Christmas, well, at Christmas those stories caught my breath, widened my eyes and called my name.
Stories aren’t limited to written and spoken word, for how could we contain words from joining notes that turn into choruses, refrains and bridges sung and played into being, calling to the deepest parts of you and me?
Despite the fact that I love a party, love to turn a space into something magical, and have an eye for the dramatic, it is simply two tools that make the retelling of our stories real. Words. And music.
For my birthday, my husband gave me two tickets to the Michael W. Smith Christmas tour concert. So Thursday night, after an appetizer of our city sidewalks jeweled with lights, we feasted on two hours of finely tuned instruments; voices, strings and percussion.
MWS is a childhood friend, not the I knew him kind of friend, but like between him and Amy Grant, I had two music BFF’s who I could count on to write, play and sing the very words my heart and head were hiding. At this concert, Michael (we’re on a first name basis after all these years), told a story about when he was nine years old. He recounted playing all the good standard Christmas LP’s on the turntable (just like me!!), and as a way to intro his song, he shared that it was from his all time favorite record, The Andy Williams Christmas Album. (Just. Like. Me!!!)
I can pull up that album on Spotify and in a breath be drifting back over Polaroid pics, family movies on film, and sometimes, just for a moment, I’m there.
A little girl tucked into her covers, warm in her flannel nightgown, eyes squeezed shut so that sleep and morning would come faster. A kid who couldn’t wait for the magic to arrive in the tinkle of sleigh bells she might hear outside her window. A girl in between child and teen, lying beneath the Christmas tree every night just to let the lights blur and take her away to imagined storied and snowy lands. A teen glowing with the excitement only a gift from a boyfriend at Christmas break can bring. A young married wife, full of expectations past and future for an album full of picture perfect postcard Christmas’s forever.
And then, a woman hiding her tears, concealing from all gathered, the truth that on this day that is supposed to be full of the miraculous, she was again, for another month, not pregnant.
My Christmas stories have seemed to me to be written from birth. Born on a snowy day, December, 11, 1972, two weeks before Christmas. Small but determined to enter this life. Held by a new mother and father whose arms had been empty for too long. The name I was given, gifted by my dad, Hollie Joy.
The other day, a December afternoon, my sister, over with her two-year old Hudson, said that it’s going too fast. I agreed. I just thought that adults didn’t get it when I was young; the hard, hard waiting for the one day a year built up to be the explosion of all tidings of joy and cheer and Cabbage Patch kids and Atari.
Turns out, it was just another old saying that is as true as it sounds. It goes by too fast. Every year.
That doesn’t mean though, that some years, the time of Christmas doesn’t slow to a grinding halt.
Christmases that you never ever expected, and wouldn’t dream of for anyone. When the money runs out. When you find no spouse beside you, again. When your holiday traditions are forever changed by the terrible and swift hand of tragedy.
There has been one or two of those that have cruelly veered into my story. The kind where nothing will shut out the pain, grief and never-ending what-if’s and this cannot be real’s.
On the MWS Christmas tour, he brought along a mini orchestra and his collaborative friend and composer, David Hamilton. And so, woven between Christmas carols and covers were pieces from Michael’s two instrumental records. One of the albums, Freedom, I remember all too well, and a strain from the middle, a note from the beginning, a chord from the ending can swiftly take me back to a snowy, dark, awful week, two weeks before Christmas, the first year of our new century. I still cannot speak of who was taken, my grandparents, and how, an accident on a slushy highway, without tears gathering and the injustice of it all filling my heart until it hurts. My mom and her brother were left without parents in one moment, and in the next, our family was forever, deeply changed by the cavernous places grief dug into our souls.
That is how powerful notes and words bound together become. They are just as emotive as a picture, a fragrance, or a voice.
December has marked two more birth-days on the calendar since mine.
One, at 11:42 p.m. on December 1st, 2005, after driving through a snowstorm shut down city, shivering with the realization that our second baby was going to be born four weeks early, that night. Curled up in a ball of sweet softness, Liam took only a second to cozy himself up into my heart. And several hours later, after it was discovered that his oxygen sats were too low, I cried for hours in an empty bed, hooked onto too many wires and tubes to go to where he was, in the hospital nursery, attached to his own wires and tubes. And then, twenty-four days later, on Christmas Eve, I rejoiced as I was able to remove Liam from all of the bulky oxygen equipment, as God freed Liam for Christmas.
The next one came two Decembers after that one. And it ended up taking much, much more than is fair.
It may have been the thing that saved my mind; that broken ankle from fainting, from losing far too much blood, from losing our nine week old twins, born and lost all in the span of a day without explanation, leaving behind wreckage; physical, emotional, and mental that would take seven years to finally find space to grieve, to begin the work of piecing back together a story I could tell.
There wasn’t music that time. Mostly silence. And much of what I remember is threads of a story that was too long in its living, too many characters painfully touched by events of those three days.
I do have, as a gift, one clear memory. Sometime during my blood transfusion, in and out of foggy sleep and medication and visitors, I had what I can only describe as a vision. And in it, my grandparents, whole and smiling and radiating love, each held a child, one boy, and one girl. It is as vivid now as it was then, and as it was in the lonely weeks after. The two pairs of my loved ones, one set known for three decades of my life, and one set known only for a matter of weeks, had reunited.
That Christmas was seven years ago. This year my three boys are eleven, nine and six. And I am 42. What stories to do we tell them? We share bits of some Christmases and pieces of others. When they are older, and the time is right, we will share the whole story, of who isn’t here, and why, and how much they would have loved who is here. But for now, they are still collecting memories.
We see it, this holiday season, through such different lenses, they and I. Theirs, wide-angle, high-resolution, waiting for a holiday of epic proportions. Mine, close up, focused in, everything comfortingly blurred around the edges, trying to snap as many moments as I can to save for later, after the hours have slipped us into another 365 days ’til.
Some years we decide on the stories we will tell from our past, and the ones that will be carried into the future; how much or how little celebrating, maybe cookies for Santa, which candlelight service.
And then there are the years where the those choices are made for us, with or without our permission.
As much as I hate writing this, it is the terrible Christmas years that I remember most. There is a vivid imprint of mingled grief and hope pressed deeply into my heart from those years.
The good years, they are a nostalgic jumble of caroling and candy canes, laughter and lights. Those were the raucous shepherds running to tell whoever would listen of what they saw, heard, lived. The good times, the joy, the frolicking falalala Christmases.
The painful, still hurts to touch seasons, those were the doubts and fears of Joseph, the traveling to a crowded city to be counted, the young girl laboring a first born son in a place far from the comfort of home and family.
I like the Christmases where all is calm, and all is bright. That seems to fit. It’s supposed to be a celebration, a birth-day for a King. Everyone playing their festive part. A party planned, prepared and flawlessly performed.
We know that for many, most Christmases look nothing like Pottery Barn, but much more like an actual barn. Straw and dirt, not boughs of holly. The pungent smell of animals and earth, not gleaming balsam candlelight.
No, for most, Christmas year in and year out mirrors the storylines of the people of the First Christmas. Not airbrushed, cleaned up, ready for a selfie.
It was pain, blood, dark, dirt, sweat, tears and cries of the Light searing out of the darkness, the Word putting flesh on the Story that had been there from the start, waiting to be told. And when the time had come, God wrapped His Son’s birthday in the everyday, soiled, unknown and vulnerable.
And in a song and a story.
You have a story. Your own Christmas story. It looks nothing like mine, and maybe nothing like the Nativity scene. But you need to tell it.
Maybe you have been asked to set aside what you knew to go to a new place, one where nothing and no one is familiar.
Maybe you feel like you are on the edge of the crowd, always on the outside looking in, where no one sees or cares about you.
Maybe what has happened to you has left you alone, and the object of ridicule and gossip.
Maybe just one too many unrealized dreams have stripped you of hope.
Or maybe, maybe you have just been waiting too long.
Let me remind you of this. You have a birthday. You have a name. He has counted you. He has claimed you by writing a plot twist so radical that it still stuns us, inspires us, and moves us in ways that only a real and riveting tale can.
In this story, God has the audacity to say that you and He are from the same hometown, the same neighborhood, that He has your back.
And that when all is said and done, it is the heartbeat of the King who has paid the price for your story.
He needs you to tell. Share. Because your song, your story, you, will be testimony to someone else, some time, who needs to know beyond the shadow of a doubt the steadfast and firm truth of what you were taught.
That in a stable, on an ordinary night, Love came to town in the most unanticipated of ways to redeem our stories. To redeem yours.
-I pray that blessings of joy, hope and love pour out over you and yours this season and coming year! I’m heading off to crazy land for a few days now, with two days to finish all the fun/not so fun I’ve started for Christmas. I’ll find my way back here soon though, to take a breath.
But Mary treasured up all these things, and pondered them in her heart. Luke 2:19
1974: Uncle Hal, Aunt Nancy, Grandma & Grandpa Johnson, me, my mom Gail, dad Jerry