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Home For Christmas: Some Christmas Memories

December 24, 1994 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando |

God is so good, and it is so good for me to be here this night with the people I love. You may know, or you may not know, that my 22-year old son, John David, was killed on Wednesday. It is so good for me to be here this night with the people I love.

No one loves Christmas more than I do, but my son loved it every bit as much as I do. So tonight, I want to simply beg your leave and your grace to break open my heart and let you see, if you will see, a glimpse of the grace of God, as that grace has worked in my life.

This is for my son…

Let us pray.

Lord, nothing in my hand I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling. Amen.

Christmas is a time for remembering, and, if we remember at Christmas, we shall discover that Christmas is also a time of renewal, a time when we see the star shining high in the sky, a time when we hear the sound of distant angels singing, a time when we welcome the Babe of Bethlehem into our hearts again. Christmas is a time of joyous laughter—yes, absolutely! Joyous laughter. But it may also be a time of quiet crying. Sometimes, it may even be a combination of the two. A gentle smile, through a veil of tears. So it is for me this year.

I wish to share with you three of my memories. Though they happened years ago, this night, especially this night, they seem so bright and clear that they might as well have happened yesterday. They are memories of love, of children, and of a trip to Bethlehem.

The first memory I share with you is the memory of the Christmas of 1964.

Thirty years ago this coming week, on December 29, 1964, Trisha and I were married in the First Presbyterian Church of Shreveport, Louisiana. For the life of me, as I think about it now, I cannot imagine how our parents allowed something like that to occur in the midst of such a busy season. I was in seminary, at the time, in Louisville, Kentucky, and Trisha was teaching school there. Therefore, all of the wedding preparations were left to Trisha’s mother. Trisha had four younger brothers living at home at the time, and all of the hustle and bustle of Christmas had to go on as normal for their sake. To this day, I do not have any idea how Trisha’s mother managed it all. But, somehow, she did. My father, being a minister, had to face all of the Christmas services and activities and festivities in his church in Mobile, Alabama, before he could leave with my mother and travel to Shreveport, Louisiana, to perform our wedding ceremony. Somehow (I know how, it was by the grace of God), we managed to get through it all. It was a beautiful Christmas wedding—holly, candles, exquisite music, bridesmaids dressed in dark green velvet dresses. My memories of that time remain clear and priceless. And, yet, as I reflect upon it now, 30 years later, I am more and more grateful for the immense sacrifices made by those around us who loved us and who made it all possible. Then, I guess, there’s a sense in which that’s what love always means: sacrifice. I remember that this Christmas Eve.

The second memory I would share with you is the memory of Christmas, 1969.

When Trisha and I married, we expected a full life in the ministry, and we expected a full life in our home, with a family. Three years in seminary and one year of post-graduate study in Scotland made necessary the postponement of a family. Then, at long last, the schooling was over, and we accepted a call to the First Presbyterian Church of Kilgore, Texas. Life was good; life was so good for us then and, in fact, we could not even imagine it being otherwise. It was a feeling that could not, and would not, last. Ultimately, we discovered that we would not be able to have children of our own. We were devastated. We wondered how both our faith and our marriage might survive the shock of it all. But we learned a lesson then, a lesson which we have never forgotten, and a lesson which we have reclaimed for all we have been through these last several days. The lesson is this: at the very moment when we felt that God was so far away, in fact, God was never closer. He reknit the binding ties of love, He strengthened the sinews of faith, and He set our feet in a new direction—adoption. We worked with the Edna Gladney Home of Fort Worth, Texas, and, after a long process, we were approved as adoptive parents and then there became an even longer wait for a child—an infant, longed for, hoped for, prayed for. As the weeks and months passed, we prepared ourselves mentally and emotionally for the role of parents, and, all the while, our congregation prepared us practically, providing a baby crib for the nursery and diapers and layette and all of the other things that a baby just days old would need. There was great excitement and anticipation in that congregation because it had been decades since there had been an infant in the Presbyterian manse in Kilgore, Texas. And then came the unexpected. On December 18, Thursday, 1969, the Edna Gladney Home called to say that they had encountered a most unusual situation. They had two little girls who were sisters, and they wanted to know if we would consider adopting them. We were stunned into uncomprehending silence. They went on to say that it would necessitate a three-day stay in Fort Worth to see if the match would work, and, furthermore, it was a decision that required an immediate response; it was not something that could be mulled over during our leisure. I can tell you that our minds and emotions nearly short-circuited. Questions cascaded upon us. Practical questions: how in the world could we go to Fort Worth for three days? It was Thursday, the week-end before Christmas was coming up, my duties at the church were extensive, and, not only that, but on Sunday evening, there was a city-wide candlelight service scheduled, and I was to be the preacher. Ah, but then, much more importantly, there came the deeper questions. This was not what we had hoped for, longed for, and prayed for. Is this what we really wanted? Could we handle it? Would we be up to it all? In the midst of it all, somehow, we managed to piece together enough presence of mind to ask the Edna Gladney Home if we could wait and come after the week-end, to be there on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, even though Wednesday was Christmas Eve. The answer was yes, and so we moved through the hours of that week-end, doing the things we’d been called to do by God but feeling very much isolated from the world about us, because we couldn’t share this with anyone, because we did not know if it would work out or not. But we weren’t alone. God was there. He was there with us on our emotional rollercoaster. There was excitement and fear and frustration and happiness, all of it in double measure. On Monday morning, we drove to Fort Worth to meet the little girls for the first time. One was almost two, the other was six months. I can tell you that the very first moment that we held them in our arms the questions vanished. We heard the will of God so clear, so clear it might as well have been written on the wall. We heard God say to us: “I have chosen these little girls for you and you for them. Take them to your home, and take them to your heart.” So we did.

Tuesday night, we called our family and our friends at the church to let them know that, suddenly, we had two children, not one, and that we would be bringing them home on Christmas Eve. On Wednesday, we set out from Fort Worth with nothing for the girls except the clothing on their backs, nothing for ourselves except a building case of anxiety about being parents. For the next two hours in the car, Trisha and I never said a word to one another. Somehow (I know how, by God’s grace), the sound of the car engine lulled the little girls to sleep. And so we never said a word to one another, ostensibly because we didn’t want to wake up the girls, but, actually, it was because fear had put our brains in overdrive and choked off our ability to form words. We drove the whole way in silence. When we reached the city limits of Kilgore, suddenly, barely-controlled panic took over. What were we going to do? Everything we had at home was for an infant, days old, and everything we had at home was for one. And tomorrow was Christmas. What would we do about that? We settled that quickly; we decided to forego it. But the other was a different matter. And, just then, we turned the corner toward home and looked up to see what I shall never forget for as long as I live—the house covered with signs of welcome! The people in that church had gone into our home while we were away. They had added a youth bed to the nursery. They had taken all of the clothes back to the store and swapped and exchanged and gotten the right sizes and doubled everything. They had stocked the kitchen with food for a Christmas feast. They had purchased a veritable wonderland of toys. And they had carefully and lovingly wrapped Christmas presents for every single one of us and placed them neatly under the Christmas tree. Trisha and I stood there in the midst of all of that, each one of us holding a new daughter in our arms, and wept tears of joy, that there could be a God and that there could be a people of God who could love like that. Every year on Christmas Eve since, sometime during the day, I slip away quietly to be by myself, and there I remember what it was like to stand in the midst of that love of God and that love of a people of God and to weep those tears of joy.

Now, this Christmas Eve, I pulled aside. Just a short while ago, I went to the spot where my son was killed. I placed there the candle I used in the service earlier this evening and wept tears of sorrow, yes, but also tears of joy, because there is still a God and there is still a people of God who love me like that. I remember that this Christmas Eve.

The third memory I share with you is Christmas of 1981.

By this time, John David had become a member of our family. He came to live with us on October 17, 1972. He was eight days old, and, oh, how he brightened our lives, then, and in all the years that followed. That Christmas in 1981, the five of us now, as a family, left the United States on December 12 to embark upon the spiritual pilgrimage. We were scheduled to be in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. It turned out to be one of those experiences that forever shapes a human life. That was true for all of us, but it was true especially for John David. This last Wednesday afternoon, when we went to his home to gather together the things that belonged to my only son, there, in a special place in his room, he had all of the little mementos he had accumulated during the days of that journey. And right beside his bed was the Bible from Bethlehem, Bibles like you’ve seen, the Bible and the cover two pieces of olive wood with the cross of Jerusalem carved on the front; and I was reminded all over again of what a shaping experience that was for him. And it was for all of us, as well. But it was also a time twisted with a terrible irony. Bethlehem, that year, was an armed camp. Just a few weeks before, Anwar Sadat had been assassinated in Egypt, and the Palestine Liberation Organization had threatened a terrorist incident in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Consequently, the Israeli Army had blockaded the whole region, beginning at the outskirts of Jerusalem, six miles away. Expectantly, in retrospect, naively, I suppose, the five of us approached the Jerusalem blockade. We suddenly found ourselves standing at gunpoint. The Israeli military seized us, separated us, male and female. John David and I were taken and shoved onto a bus. Trisha, Meg and Beth were taken to another bus, but we did not know where they were. We were then harshly interrogated by the Israeli soldiers (I can still feel my son holding onto my arm. I can feel his fear to this day). After what seemed to me an eternity, the bus was then filled with Israeli soldiers, and we were driven to the town limits of Bethlehem. We were put off the bus, and it was like a miracle, because suddenly, out of nowhere, there appeared Trisha and Meg and Beth. The family was reunited again! It was, however, a reunion which would prove to be short-lived. Within a matter of moments, we found ourselves once again on the killing end of an Israeli machine gun. Crisp commands barked out by an Israeli officer indicated that we were to be separated again, male and female. We were then forced into olive-drab military tents, and there we were roughly and thoroughly searched. It was terrifying and humiliating. Finally, we were released into Bethlehem’s Manger Square. How ironic! We had come to Bethlehem to worship the One known as the Prince of Peace. Before we could really recover from the shocking treatment at the hands of the soldiers, we found ourselves in the midst of people who were trying to take advantage of the circumstances to make as much money as they could, in any way that they could, hawking souvenirs and trinkets and relics of all kinds. They were clawing at us, literally clawing at us, and, as I looked at them and looked into their eyes, it seemed to me that their desire for dollars had literally driven them mad. To think, how ironic, to think that we had come to Bethlehem to remember Whose birth to poor peasant parents had taken place in an animal’s feeding trough and Whose whole adult life was marked by the words: He had no place to lay his head. Worse, then, came to worst. We found ourselves in the midst of roaming bands of young people, drunken, cursing young, sadly most of them American, young people seemingly determined to submerge the loveliness of Christmas in a sea of raucous, repulsive ugliness. How ironic! To think that we had come to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of the One who said: “I have come to seek and to save the lost. I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” Then, and it seemed to me then, and it seems to me still, to have been an act of God’s grace, but somehow (I know how, by God’s grace), we were led to leave the Manger Square to make our way down the narrow little streets of the little town of Bethlehem and out to the places called the Shepherds’ Fields. There, no more guns, no more hawkers, no more revelers. Oh, there were other people there—men and women and children. They were from all over the world. They spoke different languages. They were different colors. They wore different dress. But we suddenly realized we had one Lord. And there on rocky, cave-pocked hillsides, where, long ago, the shepherds heard the angels sing, there, as the night squeezed the last little bit of light out of the day, there, together, our little family surrounded by the family of Christ, there, we sang our Christmas carols in five languages, and we read together the Gospel stories of Christmas! There, we sang together, we prayed together, we wept together, we worshiped together. There, we felt as one in Christ. And, we felt at one with Christ. It was a feeling born in me that night in Bethlehem, and it has never left me since. How blessed I was to be reminded on Wednesday afternoon, all over again, that it was a feeling born in my son’s life that night in Bethlehem, and it never left him since.

I remember that this Christmas Eve.

Let me speak just this word to you from my heart. If you don’t hear anything else tonight, please hear this. If you don’t remember anything else from tonight, remember this. If you don’t do anything else this Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, then do this. Love—while you still can love; love those whom God has put in your life to love; love them—while you still can love them! Make the most of any moments which are yours, because, I tell you, they will, too soon, be gone! And all you will have then are just your memories. So, beginning now, build good memories in your life. Love those whom God has given you to love. Love them, while you still can. I did that, and now I am so glad.

Christmas is a time for remembering. And if you remember, it can be a time for renewal—a time when you see the star shining high in the sky, a time when you hear the distant angels sing, a time when the Babe of Bethlehem can be born again in your heart. This Christmas, remember. I say to you, from the depths of my soul, I wish for you, for all of you, for every single one of you, I wish for you a very, merry—yes, a very, merry—Christmas.

Amen, and amen.

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