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Christmas Day, 2011

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found.
—Isaac Watts, 1719

This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and give thanks in it.
—Psalm 118:24

The Ghost of Christmas Past and the Joy of Now

Christmas is different for us now, because of what happened to us last year. It was Christmas Eve and my wife and I and our three kids and our dog Toby were visiting my parents in my hometown in North Carolina. All my siblings were gathered there with their kids and everybody had settled into a big Christmas celebration.

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, everything seemed right. My mom’s brother was just leaving after a good long visit over lunch. We were beginning to think about getting ready to go over to church for the 5 pm Christmas Eve candlelight service, but then, I couldn’t find the dog. Toby wasn’t anywhere around the fenced-in yard, we figured he got under the gate… no problem. Toby was an explorer but he never wandered off too far, and we were in a quiet residential section, so not much chance of a collision.

We set out on foot around the neighborhood. Calling, whistling… no Toby. We got in a car to go a little further afield… no Toby. That creeping feeling of emptiness started to make its way into my heart. I loved that dog so much. We had spent so much time together, he and I. Our family had just celebrated Toby’s third birthday the day before, on “Christmas Eve Eve” as we call it. With every passing moment that numb feeling kept gaining ground, while my eyes kept straining for the healing sight of that little blond pup, tongue flappin’, barreling toward me, to the sound of my voice.

But that deep, earnest prayer — I’m sure you’ve prayed one similar — was not answered with a yes. I found Toby, lying in the middle of a neighbor’s yard, just a few hundred feet from my parent’s house. Motionless. I had driven by him once already, mistaking him for a brown pile of leaves. I ran to him. His eyes were open, no signs of being hit by a car. I picked him up, so glad to see him, put him in the car and raced home. We tried some CPR on him there but he was just no longer there.

Time for the church service came, and Toby was gone. It seemed like there was nothing to do but go to church and be with the Lord of All — of heaven and of this-confounding-earth. Don’t you know the Christmas Eve service was packed and arriving as we did at 5 pm meant we had to parade up to the only available seats… the choir loft! As we sat down, facing many of the people I had grown up with, tears streaming down my face, I felt like I was singing all these familiar Christmas songs for the first time, in some strange parallel universe. “Joy to the world…” but I wasn’t feeling any joy. “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” but I wasn’t feeling any glory.

I realized, openly weeping as I was singing “Silent Night,” that Toby had given me this Christmas blessing as his final offering of the deep love that can emerge from spending a lot of time with a dog, (which you will know about if that has ever happened to you.) I came to see in a new face-to-face way, the miraculous thing we celebrate at Christmas: God comes to us to understand our suffering, and to appreciate our inability to heal ourselves, and to recognize our limited ability to generate energy and good will towards helping others, especially when we are overwhelmed by our various situations of suffering. God comes to us to transform our suffering into joy. But of course if we are not aware of our brokenness, then we can’t fully know the joy of being delivered from that suffering.

So thank you, Toby, old friend, now resting peacefully in our backyard, for that hard lesson, leading me to see that “joy to the world” is not just words, not just a song, but a reality. And not a reality in an abstract, theological way, but something real for me, in my situation — in your situation — right now. “He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found!” Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will among the human family.

Merry Christmas, everybody…
--Jeff McArn,
College Chaplain