“Does your family have any plans for Christmas?”
“Well, this year my parents are taking my brother and sister and me to visit our grandparents in Florida.”
“Yeah, no fear of getting snowed in out there! How about you guys? Any plans or traditions you’re looking forward to?”
“My family always goes to look at Christmas lights on Christmas Eve and then we decorate cookies together.”
“Yeah, it’s my favorite tradition.”
“How about you?”
“Nothing special this year. Just enjoying time with my family.”
“That’s always fun. And you, Clara?”
Clara felt every eye in the room fall upon her where she stood staring out the window at the steady rain. She tried to sound lighthearted as she replied, “Oh, we don’t have anything special planned, either. Just dinner and time together.”
“You don’t need to do anything special,” one girl spoke up. “My favorite part of Christmas is just spending time with my family.”
A few other students echoed their agreement, then returned to their conversation. Clara looked back out the window, glad they hadn’t pressed any further.
The six college girls were gathered in the dorm lobby, waiting to leave for home or the airport. Christmas break had begun that week, and the students had fled school as if there were wolves at their heels. Only a few remained this morning, and all seemed eager to leave—except Clara.
Ding! The elevator doors opened, and a girl emerged with three bags. “I think this is everything,” she huffed. “You guys ready?”
“Yes!” “Let’s get going, Rachel!” The others began gathering their suitcases and tugging on their coats and Clara pulled herself away from the wall to join them. Stepping outside, each girl readied her umbrella and dashed for the white car sitting before the steps. They tossed their bags in the trunk and jumped into the seats, dumping their wet umbrellas on the floor.
“Whoo!” Rachel said, slamming the driver’s door. “It sure is wet out there!”
“Yeah, and cold!” a girl called.
Rachel turned the car keys and the engine sprang to life. “Let’s turn up the heat.” She fiddled with a few buttons, and air began blowing through the car. “Everyone ready?”
“All aboard!” Rachel pushed on the accelerator and pulled out of the parking space. “And we’re off! First stop, Laura’s house!”
Laura, who was sitting beside the driver, laughed. “Thanks so much for driving us!”
“You’re welcome. What time’s your plane flight, Andrea?”
“What about you, Clara?”
Clara turned her head from the window. “2:00.”
“Good. We should get you both there in plenty of time.”
“Since we’re headed home for Christmas…” Laura plugged her phone into the car and began flipping through music. A few minutes later, Christmas music was blasting through the car, adding to the noise of screeching windshield wipers. The girls alternated between singing and chatting as Rachel’s car bounced down the road.
The only silent occupant was Clara. Nobody spoke to her and she didn’t speak to anybody. The others seemed like a nice group of girls, but she didn’t really know any of them and she didn’t feel like getting to know them. Her friends had left earlier that week, while Clara had delayed as long as she could. This was the last available ride to the airport, though, and Clara knew she had to go home eventually.
About an hour later, the car pulled up in front of a small house. Laura dashed for the home, where a child opened the door and threw her arms around the older girl, squeezing tight. As the car pulled away, Clara saw Laura’s mother and father embrace her and pull her inside.
Half an hour later, Rachel dropped off another girl at her home. Then, fifteen minutes later, they arrived at the airport. Andrea and Clara yanked on their coats before jumping out of the car, grabbing their bags, and dashing for cover. They waved goodbye to the departing car—Andrea because her friends were leaving, and Clara because she didn’t want to seem ungrateful. After all, it wasn’t their fault she dreaded going home.
Inside, the two girls parted ways with polite smiles. Alone, Clara worked her way through security and to the gate where she sat down to wait for her flight.
Clara watched the buildings growing larger below the airplane. Then she glanced at the clock on the television in front of her. The plane was scheduled to arrive on time.
She had hoped the rainy weather would delay her flight, but it was a desperate hope with little foundation. The plane had left punctually and now, with a jolting bump, it landed punctually.
When the flight had officially ended, people all around Clara leaped up. The air was filled with the sound of bags zipping, overhead bins opening, luggage landing on the floor, and people chatting while waiting for the exit door to open.
Clara sat watching the business, content to wait until everyone else had filed out of the plane. Finally, she dragged herself to her feet, picked up her bags, and shuffled towards the door.
She found the baggage claim before exiting the building into California sunshine. The warm evening was the complete opposite of the rainy college she had just left. However, the change in scenery couldn’t chase away the gloom inside Clara.
All around, people were hurrying. People hurried out of the airport towards the road; people in cars hurried up to the sidewalk; people said hurried hellos; people hurried to load up cars; and people in cars hurried away.
Clara watched the arriving cars for her ride. A moment later, the small black car pulled up. Clara rolled her suitcase to the back, the driver opened the trunk, and Clara placed her suitcase inside. Then she opened the passenger door.
A teenage boy sat in the driver’s seat, looking as if he wished he were miles away. “Got everything?” he asked.
“Good.” The boy pulled away from the curb.
The drive home was quiet. Neither of the passengers said a word to each other, despite the fact that brother and sister had not seen each other since August. Clara stared out the window, watching the cars and buildings speed by. The boy stared out the windshield at the road, watching signs and moving from lane to lane.
An hour later, the car pulled up in front of a small house. It was snuggled in a small neighborhood with many other small houses. A bright green lawn rested in front; multiple trees lined the sidewalk, each one stretching golden-clothed arms towards the sky; and plants marched along the pathway towards the front door.
The boy jumped out of the car and walked away without a backward glance.
Clara, however, remained sitting. The sun set early this time of year, and already the Christmas lights around the neighborhood were sparkling. White lights dangled from the rooftop of Clara’s home, while red bows hung around the lights and a wreath decorated the front door. The curtain in the large window near the front door was open, and Clara could see a woman inside, reading. When the front door slammed shut behind Clara’s brother, the woman looked up. She said something to the boy, and he must have answered disrespectfully because she shut her book and stood up in anger.
Clara closed her eyes for a moment. I wish it would all go away.
The car door creaked as Clara stepped out. The trunk complained, too, when she opened it. “Yeah, don’t try to tell me you have problems,” she muttered to the vehicle. She locked it, and it let out a beep!, as if scolding her for her cross remark.
Clara turned and trudged up the pathway. She reached the front door.
She paused for a moment.
Then, she opened it.
Immediately, she heard the sound that had rung through the house for too long, the sound she had run from, the sound she had tried to forget.
Mom was lecturing Drew about something. Drew had pulled out his phone and was ignoring her. Dad had popped into the room to say something about “keeping the noise down”. When Clara stepped inside, though, they all stopped and looked at her. She stopped, too, and looked each one in the eye.
Silence ate away at the air for too long before Mom finally faltered, “Hello.”
Clara took her bags and walked down the hall to her room.
Deck the halls with boughs of holly!
Fa la la la la, la la, la, la
‘Tis the season to be jolly!
Fa la la la la, la la, la, la
Clara opened her eyes. Daylight was dancing upon her ceiling, the rays chasing each other across the room like playful boys. Outside, Christmas music wafted from some source while inside she could hear someone making breakfast. The faint sizzling and familiar smell suggested eggs.
A moment later, the girl slipped out of bed, found an outfit in her suitcase, brushed her hair, and applied makeup. When she was satisfied by her appearance, she tidied her bed and opened the curtain. There. At least one room in the house would look a little cheery.
In the kitchen, Clara found Dad eating breakfast—which was, indeed, an egg. He muttered a “good morning” before sipping his coffee. “Good morning,” Clara murmured back. She approached the coffee pot to make her own drink. Then, she popped a piece of toast into the toaster.
By the time she sat down at the table, Dad had left. Clara was glad. She could eat her food in peace and think about what she would do that day. She needed some excuse to stay away from her family. She had some reading to complete before returning to school; that would make a decent explanation. Perhaps she could also start writing the next paper. She didn’t need to work ahead, but that would keep her busy and give her more time to spend with her friends once she was back at college.
A grunt disturbed her thoughts. Drew entered the kitchen, clearly grumpy. Over what did not matter. Clara knew he would be snappish and angry for a while.
Of course, at that very moment, Mom had to walk into the room. “Good morning,” she said, with cheerfulness that felt as sticky and fake as a lollipop.
Neither child responded.
Clara began wolfing down the rest of her breakfast. She knew this feeling too well—this tension, this sense that the room was a pack of dynamite and at any moment someone would drop a match.
She had to get out before the explosion.
“Drew, dear, could you hand me the milk?” Mom asked as she set a cup on the counter.
Drew pulled the glass container out of the fridge and shoved it across the counter with more force then was necessary. Mom grabbed it just in time and frowned at Drew. “Careful!” she instructed him.
Drew rolled his eyes. Grabbing a bowl of cereal, he headed for the door. “I’m taking Dad’s car this morning.”
“Where are you going?” Mom asked as she took a drink of milk.
“Out with my friends.”
Drew stepped into the doorway.
“Stop it right there, young man!” Mom had had enough. “If you go out with Jack and Ben again, after I told you not to—”
“So what if I want to hang out with Jack and Ben?” Drew said. “They’re my friends, it’s my life, and it’s my decision!”
“You’re my son and I told you not to!”
“So what?” Drew turned to leave again.
Mom slammed her cup on the counter. Drew looked back in surprise. Clara wished she could jump through the roof and fly away.
“What’s going on in here?” Dad poked his head into the room.
“Drew’s going out with Jack and Ben again, after I told him not to!”
Dad frowned. “Who are Jack and Ben?”
“You know what?” Drew blurted out. “It doesn’t matter! I don’t care what you think! I’ve had enough of Mom trying to micromanage my life! If I want to hang out with my friends and you happen to not like my friends, well, too bad! Now leave me alone!”
Drew pushed past Dad and darted out of the room. “Drew!” Dad called. “Come back! Come back!!”
“Well of course he’s not coming back!” Mom said.
“What?” Dad looked at her.
“‘Who are Jack and Ben?’ You don’t even know who your son’s hanging out with! You’re so selfish you don’t care what happens to your kids! Your son could hang out with criminals and you’d have no clue!”
“Now wait just a minute—”
“Stop it! ”
The room fell silent. Mom and Dad stared at Clara in amazement. She was surprised, too, at her own outburst—but more angry. Very angry. Her fury and frustration had been building up for years, and now someone jostled her so that it all began to spill out.
“How do you expect Drew to turn out all right if you won’t give him a good example?! How do you expect him to obey you when all you do is yell at him?! You’re always arguing and demanding, Mom, and Dad you’re always hiding off by yourself, never getting involved except to yell at us and tell us to be quiet!! And yet you get mad at me and think I’m wrong for not wanting to spend my Christmas break here—in this, this, this mess of anger and division! You think it’s wrong for Drew to spend time with those boys—whoever they are—but you don’t provide him a better alternative here!”
Clara stopped, having run out of words but not anger. She turned and marched out of the room.
In her bedroom, the girl yanked on a pair of shoes and grabbed her purse. Then she stomped to the front door, grabbed the car keys, and slammed the front door behind her.
Mom’s car was still sitting in the driveway. Drew had already left with Dad’s. Her parents might need a car later; Clara didn’t know, but she didn’t care.
The poor car complained even more than yesterday as his doors were slammed and a pair of keys jammed into him. Clara forced him on, jerked the parking brake off, and pulled out of the driveway. She didn’t know where she was going, but she didn’t care. She had to get out of that house.
I hate it! she thought as she drove. I hate all the anger and yelling and arguing and division! I hate it! Why can’t it all just go away?
As she sped down the street, angry thoughts filled her mind; angry words she wished she could hurl at her parents ran through her head; and angry tears escaped from their prison behind her eyes.
She dabbed at the tears with her sleeve. Why are they so angry all the time? What is wrong with them? Why can’t they just stop?
It didn’t use to be this way.
As she moved from one lane to the next, memories began to pass through Clara’s mind. She had pleasant memories—many, actually, of when she was younger and her family was happier. She could remember going on long trips with her family to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon; they had pictures of the four smiling before some scenic view. She could remember Dad helping her with homework at the kitchen table while Drew worked quietly beside her. She could remember making dinner with Mom while listening to fun music. She could remember playing with Drew, laughing and inventing the strangest stories or games.
She could remember Christmases where they had been happy . They had decorated the Christmas tree together and hung up lights outside and made Christmas cookies and gone shopping and kept secrets and sung Christmas songs together. They had enjoyed life; they had enjoyed each other. Of course, they hadn’t been perfect; there had been anger and arguments and selfishness, just like every other family. But despite all that, they had loved each other.
Then, about two and a half years ago, it changed. Clara didn’t even know exactly what happened, but upon beginning his sophomore year of high school Drew became stubborn and rebellious. Clara, then a senior, had been shocked by the change in her brother. As children, they had always been close, but now he seemed to be pushing her away.
Worse still, Drew pushed his parents away, and they didn’t strive hard enough to pull him back. Dad tried, at first, but when he didn’t seem to be gaining any ground, he just gave up. His passive stance shocked Mom, and that was when she first began to fight with him. He wouldn’t get mad at her like she was at him, though. Sometimes he argued, but most of the time he stood in silence or left the room. Mom then began to argue with Drew, trying to get her rebellious son back under control. Drew wouldn’t listen, though. Mom grew mad at Drew. Drew was mad at Mom and Dad. Mom was mad at Dad. Dad wouldn’t do anything, except yell at them when they argued too loudly.
Caught in the middle of it all was Clara. She became a field where any family member could unleash their feelings, because she didn’t know how to stop it. Her parents would yell at her, Drew would yell at her, they would argue with her and around her, and she hated it all. By the end of her senior year, she felt desperate. Something needed to leave her home—either the anger or her. Since the former wouldn’t, she did. She fled. She went to a college far from home. She never called her mother or father or brother. She didn’t put their picture on her desk or talk about them with her friends. She tried to forget the arguing and the anger. She tried to forget it all. It wasn’t too hard to take the silent stance; no one really asked the right questions to help her open up, and nobody else talked about their family struggles; thus, she thought she could be successful at blocking out all memories of home.
But she never could. And, somewhere, deep inside, she knew it was because she was looking for the wrong solution. It was like trying to get rid of weeds by covering them with a blanket. Even though she couldn’t see the problem, she knew it was still there, and it would continue to bother her until she ripped it out.
Clara turned on her blinker. She didn’t know where she was going, but here were multiple stores gathered around a small parking lot; surely something would be able to provide a temporary distraction.
There—nestled between a flower shop and a grocery store was a tiny shoe store. Clara pulled into a parking spot and took a deep breath before stepping out of the car. She didn’t really need shoes, but she liked them. Anyway, it’d give her a chance to calm down.
She wandered up and down the aisles for a minute until she found her size. There, she scanned the shelves for something cute. High heels; very impractical in winter…slippers; she didn’t need those…sneakers; she had a nice pair…oh, now here was something promising.
Clara looked at the line of boots, each box packed tightly next to each other. She reached for the first pair and pulled them out. Hmm, those weren’t quite her color. She put them back and looked at the next pair. Nice, but when she tried them on they didn’t fit right.
She slowly worked down the row until she reached a practical black, solid, rainproof pair of boots. That would be handy at college. She slipped the boots on. Hmm…a little too tight. She pulled them off and grabbed a pair one size bigger. Ahh, those fit better. Clara grabbed the shoebox, tucked the boots inside, and meandered towards the check-out counter. She was feeling calmer now, momentarily distracted from her problems.
A wail filled the store. Clara looked down the aisle beside her and saw two children sitting on the floor. The older of the two, a girl, held a stuffed dog in one hand and a truck in the other. The boy, who had evidently just lost his toy, was crying angrily. “Mine!” he shouted, grasping for the toy.
The girl hit him across the head with her dog. “I want it!”
“Emily! Andrew! Stop that right now!” A lady hurried towards the children, snatching both toys out of the girl’s hands.
She began to howl. “Mommy! That’s mine!”
“If you can’t behave in public, then we’re leaving.” The mother grabbed her two children by the hand and dragged them, both sobbing, towards the door.
Clara stepped aside and let them pass. Even after the door had closed, she couldn’t help but stare outside, her peace shattered.
The scene had reminded her of home.
Is that how we look to other people? she wondered.
“Can I help you?”
Clara started and noticed the smiling salesman. “No, thank you,” she stammered. “I think I have what I need.”
“If you’d like, I can ring it up for you.”
Clara followed the man to where the counter was snuggled in the corner like a cat curled up for a nap, while walls lined with shoes marched away on either side. Another woman stood at the counter already, holding two boxes.
“Excuse me for a minute,” the man said. “I’ll be right with you.”
“Take your time.” Clara watched the man step behind the counter. Then, she looked down at the box in her hands. Discouragement crept into her head. What’s the use? it whispered. You came here to be distracted from home, and it failed. You’ll never be able to forget it all. You know that.
Clara sighed. Maybe she shouldn’t get the shoes. After all, she didn’t need them. She already had enough shoes.
So why was she still standing here in line?
She opened the box’s lid again and stared at the shoes. They wouldn’t help. She knew that. It was silly to think that shopping could help with her problems; it couldn’t.
The woman at the counter stopped mid-sentence and Clara looked up. The lady was holding a flyer out to the man, explaining something, and for some reason the man seemed annoyed about it.
“You don’t have to come,” the woman said. “I just wanted to tell you, in case you wanted to. After all, you never know what will happen.”
“No, thank you.” The salesman’s voice was cool.
“All right.” The woman set the flyer down and finished her purchase. A minute later, she gathered her belongings and, smiling, said, “Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas,” the man mumbled.
The woman gave Clara a smile as she stepped away from the counter and headed out the door.
“I can help you now.” The salesman’s voice was a little kinder.
“Thank you.” Clara set the box on the counter. The man scanned it, then reached for a plastic bag to pack it in. Finding none, he knelt to retrieve more from beneath the counter.
As Clara waited, her eyes were drawn to the counter. There, lying beside the cash register, was a flyer. The woman must have left it.
Clara looked a little closer. She couldn’t help but notice the large letters in the middle of the flyer: DO YOU NEED HOPE?
“Oh, don’t mind that.” The man grabbed the piece of paper and dropped it into a trash can beside the counter. “It’s nothing.”
A strange sensation fluttered within Clara, as if part of her didn’t want him to take it away.
“Would you like to pay with cash or credit?”
“Um,” Clara tried to pull her thoughts together. “Cash.” She pulled out a few dollar bills and handed them to him. As he fiddled with the money, finding her change, her eyes were again pulled downwards. The top of the flyer was sticking out of the trash can. From here, she could see the words, now upside down: DO YOU NEED HOPE?
It looked as though it were waiting to be grabbed.
The man dropped a quarter. Muttering something, he knelt to retrieve it. Something nudged Clara.
She scooped up the flyer and tucked it in her purse.
“Here you go.” The man handed Clara her change.
“Thank you.” Clara took the shoes and walked away.
In her car, Clara set her purse and the plastic bag on the passenger seat. She turned on the car, started the heat, and sat still.
The words rang in her head.
Do you need hope?
Do you need hope?
Do you need hope?
And everything within Clara cried, “Yes!”
She knew she needed hope. Hope for her world, hope for her family, hope for herself. Hope.
Was there such a thing?
What if it was all fake? Lots of people claimed they could give hope, and it was always fake.
The discouraging voice crept forward again. It’s probably just another strange group of people trying to make themselves feel better about life. It’s likely nothing.
Clara reached over and pulled out the flyer, just to prove to herself that there wasn’t really anything that could give her hope.
The first thing she noticed was that it was a lovely flyer, even if its message was fake. The background was a dark blue, like the night sky, while pencil ribbons of red and green danced around the inner edge. In the center were several sentences, the largest of which rested in the middle and echoed in her head: DO YOU NEED HOPE?
That was in the center. Above it and below it were several other questions: Are you tired or empty? Do you wonder about your purpose? Do you have despair or discouragement in your life? Do you long for peace or joy?
Clara felt a strange leap inside her chest. She turned the flyer over.
Please join us on Christmas Eve as Pastor Steve Johnson reminds us of the message of Christmas and the hope it gives us all.
“the message of Christmas”? Hope?
Beneath the sentence was an address and a time, and at the bottom some more words: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
Clara lay on her bed, staring at the ceiling, having just finished a silent, tense Christmas Eve dinner with her family. The clock to her right ticked along, approaching 7:00. To her left Clara’s hand lay on the quilt, clenched around the flyer.
She couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s probably nothing, she told herself over and over again. She almost believed it. But she couldn’t make herself want to believe it was nothing. She wanted it to be true. She wanted someone to have hope and peace and joy and healing. She wanted it to be true. She needed it to be true.
Should she go and see?
Clara struggled, her mind bouncing between positions like a ping pong ball.
Finally, she sat up.
If it’s fake, then at least I’ll know for sure. Besides, it’s an excuse to get out of the house.
A few minutes later, she was driving away from home. Her phone GPS had the address entered in, and every few minutes it sang out a new direction. The flyer was tucked in her purse.
After about twenty minutes of driving, Clara arrived at an average-sized white building. White Christmas lights danced along the roof, while a few strands of lights decorated the trees nearby. Two Christmas trees stood beside the doors, and in a little alcove was what looked like a small barn with glass figures standing around it.
Clara turned off the car and stepped out. Then, she paused. A breeze played with her hair as she watched the building. A few other people were hurrying towards the structure—a husband and wife, a man with three young children, an elderly woman, and a teenaged boy. Two people standing beside the doors welcomed them and opened the doors.
Clara walked forward, a bit nervous. The man and woman at the doors smiled, though. “Merry Christmas!” they called as the man opened the door.
“Merry Christmas,” Clara murmured as she stepped inside.
She was met by the sound of singing. It sounded like a Christmas carol, one that Clara had heard a few times before but didn’t know the words to. Something about the lines seemed to grab her, though: “Joy to the world!”
Joy? To the world? What?
The room was lined with chairs. A corridor ran between two aisles towards a stage, where a band sang and played. The people filling the rows were standing and singing; some lifted their hands, while others swayed back and forth with eyes closed.
Clara watched the scene as she found two empty seats in the back row and set her purse down. She remained standing, because she would be more noticeable if she sat down, but she didn’t sing. She didn’t know the words, anyway.
As the song came to a close, the people clapped. Then the band began another song. This one was also rather joyous: “Hark the herald angels sing / Glory to the newborn king…”
Those are strange words. Hark? Herald angels? Newborn king?
“Peace on earth and mercy mild.”
Peace…it sure would be nice if there was peace in my life and in my family.
“God and sinners reconciled.”
Wait, what? Who’s reconciled with who? Clara didn’t know, but “reconciled” sounded nice. Perhaps her life could use a bit of reconciliation.
“Joyful all ye nations rise”
Joy—there’s that word again! Do these people really think they have joy? Do they really have it? Why? How?
And so the music rang on. Clara watched the lyrics on a screen near the stage, intrigued. She had never heard anything like this before.
Every once and a while, she glanced at the people around her. They were still singing and raising their hands. The woman two seats over had her eyes closed and her hands raised high, and Clara could catch her voice even in the middle of the loud singing.
A word began to take shape in Clara’s mind: Passionate. That seems to describe them. And…peaceful and joyous. How? Do they not have any struggles in their lives?
The music ended amidst clapping, and as the people settled down a man stepped forward. “Good evening,” he greeted them, setting a few papers on a podium.
The crowd murmured a “Good evening.”
The man looked up at the audience. “For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Pastor Steve, and I’m the head pastor of this church. I’ve led this church for about ten years, and I have a beautiful wife and three daughters.” A picture appeared on the screen of the man and his family, each member smiling or laughing. Clara sighed inwardly.
“My second daughter is five years old, and her name is Hope. Now,” the pastor stepped to the side of his podium as he began his story. “About a week ago, my wife was shopping, and she had all three of our daughters with her. Our baby was in the cart and our oldest daughter was helping fetch groceries. Hope, however, easily gets distracted. She sighted something across the aisle, and began to ramble away. My wife turned around, and saw that Hope was wandering off. ‘Hope?’ she called out. ‘Where’s my Hope?’ ‘Here I am!” my daughter cried, and bounded back towards her mother. After that, my wife plopped Hope in the shopping cart so that she could no longer wander off.” A slight chuckle spread through the audience as several moms nodded. Evidently they had used the same method to keep their children safe.
“Now, I believe that many of you here have asked the same question as my wife. Of course, some of you have children, and some of you don’t; but I’m not talking about asking where your child is; I’m talking about the question, ‘Where’s my hope?’”
Clara sat up a little straighter. All of a sudden, it seemed as if Pastor Steve were talking straight to her.
“In fact, I ask you that question tonight: Where is your hope?” He paused and looked around the audience. “Where is your hope?”
Silence invaded the sanctuary as the pastor turned back to his notes. “We live in a world of hopelessness.” He looked up again and continued. “This past year has reminded us of that over and over again. All around the world, there have been troubles. We’ve heard of protests in Hong Kong that have stretched on for months without end and the horrible acts connected with that. We saw a terrorist attack in New Zealand early in the year and another in Britain more recently. There’s the ongoing persecution in China and North Korea and elsewhere of people from all religious groups. But even here in America, we have enough pain to keep us busy. We’ve seen reports of disasters, from fires in California that destroyed homes to shootings at stores and schools that took the lives of innocent people.
“And again and again I can’t help but wonder, is there hope in this world?
“This year, we’ve seen politics in a mess. In other countries, there’s been division from things like Britain’s struggle to leave the EU. Here in America, though, it seems like there’s always someone yelling at someone. Every time I turn on the news, I seem to hear some new story of political parties arguing with each other and calling names. Over and over again, I’ve seen stories of division and anger. We’ve heard cries of foul play from both sides; calls for impeachment and resignation from all parties; declarations of lies and injustice from all political groups. Our country is divided and angry. It makes me wonder, are our government and country lost forever in division, corruption, and anger? Or is there hope for our country?
“And beside all the anger, there is physical pain and disease and poverty. There are literally thousands of people living on the streets, with no home, right here in America. Yet this is only the beginning of the pain in the world. In other countries, millions of people live in poverty. Diseases claim the lives of mothers, babies die of malnutrition, children spend their days working for food instead of going to school, and fathers abandon their families because they can’t take care of them. And I wonder, is there any hope in this world?
“Is there any hope for the poor? Is there any hope for the lonely? Is there any hope for the sick? Is there any hope for the hurting? Is there any hope for the angry?
“And I can stand before you today and say yes, there is.”
Clara stared at the pastor, unable to tear her eyes away. She was stirred inside. Her heart cried out, “Truly? Is there hope? Is there hope for me?”
“There is hope for everyone. There is hope for the alcoholic, the depressed, the suicidal, the criminal, the rich, the poor, the sick, the healthy, those who have their lives all together and those who don’t; there is hope for the man or woman who is at the end of their selves and don’t know where to go; there is hope for the orphan who’s alone; there is hope for the family separated by war or distance; there is hope for the family that is falling apart from anger and pain; there is hope for every man and every woman and every child because of Jesus.”
Near the front row, a woman watched the pastor, her husband. A child sat on either side of her while the third, a baby, was settled on her lap. As she listened, the woman prayed. There were people in the audience who needed to hear this message.
“Lord, open their eyes,” she asked. “Let them see the hope that comes only in you. Let them see that, though you won’t make their lives completely free of trouble, they can have hope even in their troubles. Let them see that, no matter what they are going through, they are not too far gone; that you still love them and will embrace them. Let them see that they need you, that you are what they have truly been longing for. Open their eyes and move in their hearts. I pray that every person here would see the truth today.” She continued to speak with God as her husband continued to speak to the audience.
And God continued to work.
Pastor Steve was not a phenomenal man. Nothing about his appearance was striking. Nothing about his voice was startling. Nothing about his delivery was astonishing. However, as he gave the message, Clara was moved like never before.
The pastor shared a simple message about earth-shattering events when God himself became a human and lived and died and rose again, all so that He could save mankind and have a personal relationship with each and every person. Christmas and the events around it mark the beginning of God’s “rescue mission”, the pastor said with a smile. Christmas is more than presents or lights or Santa or food or even family; Christmas is about God’s plan to rescue mankind and know them and be with them. “God with us,” Pastor Steve said over and over again.
Clara felt as if she had awoken from a lifelong slumber and, for the first time, saw reality. She saw who she really was. She saw what she had really wanted. She saw what she really needed. She began to see who she really needed.
She had come to this church hoping (even though she wouldn’t admit it to herself) that the pastor would say something that could help her family. For years, she had longed for peace within her family, a solution that would bring back the love and unity they had once had. Now, however, she realized that, while Jesus could fix her family’s problems, what she really needed even more was for him to enter her life. She needed him in the middle of her problems. She needed him in the middle of her life. She needed her sins forgiven. She needed to know him personally. She needed to let him change her.
She needed Jesus.
So when Pastor Steve said, “Would anyone like to accept Christ’s gift today?” Clara slipped out of her chair and walked forward.
The neighborhood was filled with lights. They skipped across rooftops, twinkled from the trees, and sparkled beside driveways. A few houses had inflatable decorations that waved in the wind, while wooden reindeer pranced in front of another home. Overhead, the sky had hung its own Christmas lights; the stars twinkled and winked across the darkness, and the moon was their leader.
Clara’s car meandered past the bright houses and turned into her driveway. She turned off the ignition, and then paused. Through the window, she could see Mom cleaning up the living room. The other car was in the driveway, so Clara knew Drew and Dad were home, too.
The young woman closed her eyes for a moment, reflecting on that evening. She had known her world and family were in turmoil, but that night she had learned that she herself was in turmoil, lost in a sea of rebellion against the God she needed. She had hoped for peace with her family, but that night she had realized that she needed peace with God; a restored relationship with him. She had wanted reconciliation in her family, but that night she had realized that she needed reconciliation with God—and she could only have that through Jesus.
The sound of voices inside the house drifted out to Clara. This time, though, she didn’t feel anger at them. If God loves me, then he loves them, too. If God died to save me, then he died to save them. If God can change my life, he can change my family. If there is hope for me, there is hope for my family. In fact, there’s hope for everyone.
Clara gathered up her purse, now minus a flyer but plus a Bible, left the car, and headed towards her home.
J.I. Packer, “The Christmas message is that there is hope for a ruined humanity–hope of pardon, hope of peace with God, hope of glory–because at the Father’s will Jesus became poor, and was born in a stable so that thirty years later He might hang on a cross.”