We have two choices. Which will you make today?

Years ago when I was trying to get my first novel published, I met with an editor who pushed my synopsis back across the table towards me and said with a harumph, “It’s way too dark. Our readers don’t want dark. They’ve got enough of that. They want to escape.”

Eventually I did publish that novel, and it’s called How Sweet the Sound.

In fact, Tyndale House is re-releasing it this fall and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Still, that editor had a valid point.

There’s a lot of dark in the world. I’m frankly overwhelmed with how vitriolic our culture is, and I don’t remember a time since I’ve been on the planet where things have been quite this stirred up. Why read a story or see a movie or listen to music that’s dark, when we’re staggering around in pitch blackness all day long?

One reader of How Sweet the Sound commented that the title belies the dark themes of the story, and if you only read the first few chapters, she’s absolutely right. There’s nothing good or light or cheery about a family ravaged by generational sexual abuse. There wasn’t anything good or light or cheery about it either when Tamar, in 2 Samuel 13, suffered the same fate.

But by the end of the story, there is hope.

Loads of it. 

Three novels later, and I admit my writing tends toward some deep and painful themes. That’s because each of my stories begins with something–a news story, an historical event, an injustice–that breaks my heart. (Believe me, there are days when I wonder what it would be like to write cozy mysteries or Hallmark-style romances.)

And each of my stories ends with hope.

Not the sort of hope where everything is tied up with a big, red bow and all the characters ride off in the sunset. But the sort of hope that comes when you learn you’re not alone, and that it’s possible to find joy in the midst of pain and suffering.

Still, I learned something from that editor, and from several editors since.

Darkness and pain must be balanced with light.

In story.

In art.

In life.

The world is dying a little more every day because it is starving for the light and color God has given to us.

As a follower of Jesus, I write stories from a Christian worldview. And while I am often passionate about the need for stories which don’t sugarcoat pain and tragedy, I’m even more passionate about the call to bring hope to a hurting world. 

Even without a Christian worldview, the world needs goodness. The world needs kindness. The world needs hope. The world needs love.

And the world needs that from us, now more than ever.

As confusing as headlines and media can be, at the end of the day we are left with two basic choices:

We can spread darkness.

Or we can spread light.

We can be angry.

Or we can give grace.

We can hate.

Or we can love.

We were made to be light, dear ones.

We were made to be on this earth, here and now, for such a time as this, for a purpose:

To show the world the colors of life and hope.

We have to acknowledge the darkness, yes.

But we have to know that truth and love can obliterate it

if we choose

wisely.

Dear Lord, begin with me. 

***

img_2529

***

“Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16 (TMV)

Fear not, O Israel.

Because the yearly dates of Hanukkah are based on the Hebrew calendar, it’s not every year that Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve.

Tonight, Jews will light the first candle of their celebration after sundown, and at the same time Christians will light candles of their own at masses and sing Silent Night.

I can’t help but marvel at the significance.

To realize this, you might need to brush up on a little history (as I had to). In a nutshell, and although accounts vary, most of the sources I read agree that around 200 B.C. Jews in the land of Israel were not allowed to celebrate and practice their faith because of the tyrannical rule of Antiochus III The Great and his successor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

Thousands were massacred, and the temple was desecrated.

Jews lived in terror and were forced to worship false gods until a band of warriors led by Judah Maccabbee, the son of a Jewish priest, rose up and drove the Syrians out. They restored the temple, and menorah lamps were lit.

And the best part: Though there was only enough oil on hand to keep the sacred lights burning for one night, the oil miraculously lasted for eight days, and as such the Jewish people have celebrated the miracle ever since with Hanukkah. 

The significance is that the Lord accomplished two pivotal things then which still link our faith today:

1. He was faithful.

He delivered the Jewish people and their land from their enemies. As such, they were free to celebrate when just a little more than a century later Jesus was born, and he celebrated Hanukkah as an adult.

2. He kept His promise.

In Jeremiah 31:35-37 and many other places, G-d promises to bless Israel and that He will never allow them be wiped out. His call and mercy on believers are irrevocable, as it says in Romans 11:29.

At a time when Judeo-Christian values are increasingly under attack–and the land belonging to Israel continues to be threatened as yesterday’s news demonstrates–faith in ancient promises can seem imprudent. 

And yet, over and over and over again history shows times like these are precisely when G-d shows up.

***

***

As I mentioned in an earlier post this month, G-d works best when there’s not enough, through imperfect people, and at impossible moments to free and redeem.

“Fear not, O Israel,” G-d says over and over and over.

“I will strengthen you,” He says.

“I will help you,” He breathes.

“I will uphold you, because I have chosen you and you are mine,” He promises.

When G-d makes a covenant, He keeps it.

Not only that, He longs to show us mercy.

Tender mercy.

And to give a light to our dark and weary paths.

If ever there was a time when Jews and Christians need to realize their shared history, it is now. And though some say it might be a coincidence that Hanukkah and Christmas begin on the same night this year,

I don’t believe there are any coincidences with G-d.

When you light your candles during these holy celebrations, think about how the people might have felt who lit the first menorah after they took back the temple, or who ignited the first lantern in the pitch black stable in Bethlehem. Think about how much they had to overcome to keep trusting in G-d in each of those impossible situations.

Now think about your impossible situation.

You know the one. The thing you won’t talk about at the holiday dinner table. That one big failure. Your broken heart. Your overwhelming loss.

Don’t be afraid, He whispers. I’ve got this.

Better than that, He’s got you.

Because the same promises that were for the Jews in 168 B.C. are for us today.

The same promises that were for the Jews first, and then by His grace the Gentiles, when Jesus was born in the City of David are for us, too.

Promises to redeem us.

One to free us.

Break the silence.

Make a way.

Heal the broken.

Restore us.

Emmanuel.

Here’s a beautiful song by Michael W. Smith which talks about these promises. I hope you can find a few quiet moments to listen to it this weekend, and that we can all celebrate the One G-d who is always faithful to all His people, and even and especially to you.

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah, dear friends.

***

“Fear not, oh, Israel for there is peace still to come

A word to break the silence, a promise set to bloom

The promise to redeem us, one to free us

Break this silence in the violence in our lives

Emmanuel is sure to find us soon

The mighty rule to Jesse’s star of truth

And bring us unto glory, tell His story

Heal the broken and restore thee to His name…”

~Michael W. Smith – The Promise

Miracles at midnight.

I got my first pair of progressives recently.

Friends who’d already celebrated that midlife milestone warned me to go easy on the stairs. The eye doctor told me to get used to pointing my noise at what I want to look at. And I marveled at the modern miracle of watching TV and reading at the same time.

I had taken for granted the ability to focus on the near and the far simultaneously.

Me and my new progressive specs. (Photo cred: selfie)

I’m currently reading a rather long-haired, transcendentalist-style book by Annie Dillard called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It’s a book to be read in much the same way I imagine she wrote it…slowly, savoring each word, turning over phrases like she turned over rocks to study entire, unexpected squirming communities of life living beneath them. I’ve underlined and dog-eared half the book (and I’m only half-finished). I love it.

One phrase, in particular, stood out to me today:

“These are our few live seasons. Let us live them as purely as we can, in the present.” ~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Considering I’d just spent two hours at the local super store with half of the rest of my town, I was immediately convicted of the fact that I most certainly am not–nor have I been–living in the present. Part of it is the holiday season: no matter how determined I am on December first to have a calm and peaceful month, I always feel stressed by the end of it. Getting three kids through finals, Christmas budgeting and shopping, and my Scrooge-ish tendencies don’t help. The other part of it is the fact that…

…I just can’t reconcile the broken places of the world with the shimmer and shine and fuss and rush and packages tied up with strings.

Maybe you can’t either.

But maybe we don’t have to.

Maybe we’re not supposed to.

It’s hard to see life up close and apart from ourselves. And yet, no matter how many strings of light we hang or gifts we wrap or candles we light, no matter how many Christmas songs we sing or cards we send or Hallmark movies we watch, the broken world is still there. Our broken lives are still there.

No wonder our culture brazenly flings itself at all the distractions of the holidays. It’s a lot tougher to live real and in the present, after all. The present means being still long enough to notice the pain in others and in ourselves. The present means living with the tension of unfinished goals and imperfect loved ones and untied bows.

But the present and the broken, well, that’s where the miracles occur.

And that’s why so many of us miss them.

When we keep ourselves busy, we lack the focus needed to see that love didn’t come when things were fixed up and dressed up and fancy.

Love came to a world of hurt and mess.

Love didn’t come in a sleigh or on a stage or to an audience.

Love came to a girl in a barn.

Love didn’t come on a bright, sunny day.

Love came kindly.

Love came gently.

And love came in the pitch, black night.

It’s not easy to look up from our phones, to give up on the contest to give more, be more and do more in this season. To do so means coming face-to-face with our inadequacies and the dark places in our hearts we’d rather avoid. But to do so means discovering a whole new way of living. To do means seeing joy can co-exist in the near and the far, the past and the future, and the broken and the healed.

Miracles, after all, don’t happen in times of plenty.

Miracles come when we’re at the end of our rope, when there’s not enough oil to keep the flame burning, when there’s not enough of us to go around.

Miracles come at midnight.

My favorite Christmas song lines are from this stanza of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear:

O ye beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.

Rest, dear friends.

The road is weary.

My form is bending low, right along with yours.

But rest anyway.

You just might hear the angels.

Enjoy this beautiful rendition of the song by Sara Groves: