Christmas Crackers

Our family Christmas traditions include ongoing collections of vacation ornaments, unusual Santa Clauses, and one-of-a-kind manger scenes. The latter is the tradition I cherish most.

One creche consists of basic two-by-fours, with felt pieces awkwardly glued on to make the holy family. When it’s one of your preschool children who created such a piece, it becomes irreplaceable! There’s a fragile creche of china, gifted by a couple I ministered to when they lost their baby. Cherished! A hand-carved wooden creche, with wild African beasts and people, was bestowed on me by my doctoral supervisor upon his return from a sabbatical in Tanzania. Treasured! 

But the Nativity display which means the most was made by my father. There are two-inch tall carvings of Mary, Joseph, and a baby Jesus. There are also three magi and a shepherd. All were hand-carved out of balsa wood, and they’re joined by stable, straw, and manger. String looks like rope, a wire looks like a shepherd’s crook, and facial details are painted on each piece. 

Somehow, the whole scene has survived sixty-plus years, seven moves, and one cat attack. 

Nevertheless, the hands that made it denied the divinity of the One whose story it depicts. 

My father spent his entire adulthood professing to be an atheist. In soul-to-soul conversations, he’d admit and progress to agnosticism. “But in the scope of the universe, what am I? Just a speck of nothingness. Why would any almighty God care anything about a nothing?” 

On the other hand, there are signs that maybe there was once faith. My dad was baptized and an active member of his hometown’s First Church. He enrolled in college to enter a missionary-preparation curriculum. He would later say he was following a gal, with whom he was madly in love. When they broke up, he continued university elsewhere, graduating to go into the U.S. Air Force, and eventually serving during the Korean War.

One letter from Korea, saved and shared by my mother, reads:

. . . I learned that one of our planes just went down. You could see the glow of its burning, flickering on the bottom of the low-hanging clouds. They sent a helicopter after it, and it went in, too, with another big flashing explosion. Knowing the R.O. [Religious Officer, i.e., chaplain] almost makes sleep impossible. . ..

The chaplain was a dear friend, and when he was killed in the rescue mishap, my mother said Dad just left his already waning faith behind.

The last year of his life, struggling to fight pancreatic cancer, we danced around faith some more, but not to my satisfaction. As he lay in bed, unconscious and in the grip of death that I knew he would never come out of, my brother read scripture out loud. I prayed. My father suddenly made some guttural vocalizations that had just the right number of syllables for me to imagine he was saying, “I hear you. I hear you.” Meaning, “I do believe. I do believe.” 

And then there were the neighbors at his memorial service. They shared how during the many hours standing out in their pastures, leaning against fence posts, they talked with my father about God and faith. They testified, “You don’t have to worry. He was saved!” 

Could it be? Dad’s rejection of Jesus drove us crackers. My family had prayed to exhaustion for his conversion. If he did believe, why didn’t he tell us? Could human pride, or shame, have prevented him from testifying?

I’ll never know . . . on this side of heaven. 

One early Christmas morning, when I was the chaplain on call at a local hospital, I responded to the need that a father had just died, and his family was all there. I wondered during the drive to the hospital, how I could possibly bring any comfort to the survivors—ESPECIALLY since it was Christmas morning. Wouldn’t Christmas be forever damaged, remembered as “the day their dad/husband died”?

When I walked into the room, it immediately became clear that this family had been preparing to minister to ME. They had accurately predicted my agony. Their immediate words still echo in my mind. “Chaplain. Thank you for coming! We were just talking about how awesome it is that our father has gone to see Jesus, on the very day we celebrate that Jesus came to see us!”

I may not be able to confidently echo those words about my own father. But when I look at the Nativity scene passed down to me, I am not without hope. The tiny scene preaches the big Christmas Truth: God came as Jesus to demonstrate He loves us. All we need to do is put our trust in Him. 

Whatever my father’s state of grace at death, whatever happens with new surges of COVID or new pandemics, whatever happens with . . . whatever—I will keep my trust in the Lord Jesus to love me and see me through. 

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