A Christmas Message from Focus on the Family

I have long enjoyed and greatly benefited from the ministry of Focus on the Family. When Dr Dobson's Christmas letter was in my inbox today, it touched my heart and I wanted to share:

Dear Friends,

I look forward to my December letter every year because it presents me with the opportunity to introduce my readers to other writers who have had something to say about Christmas and all that it represents. That tradition goes back to 1978 and continues this year with a story called "The Good Things in Life," written by the late Arthur Gordon. It's a touching account of how God's love can melt our pride and lead us closer to Him, especially at Christmastime.

This story is particularly meaningful to me because the main character is a pastor, and, as you know, my family history is replete with pastors! My great-grandfather, grandfather, grandmother and father were pastors. My cousin H.B. London is a pastor who oversees our outreach to ministers here at Focus on the Family®. I would not presume to suggest that pastors in my own family dealt with pride in the same way that the character in the following story does, but certainly, they were all flawed individuals who experienced their own shortcomings and temptations throughout their careers. It is the human condition. The author of this story, Arthur Gordon, seemed to understand that struggle, and that is why I appreciate his simple little tale.

By now many of you have had the chance to read my special note from a few weeks ago detailing the financial challenges both here at Focus on the Family® and all around the world. It's time to lighten it up a bit. My good friend Dr. Joe Wheeler has once again birthed two wonderful Christmas books this year, one of which carries a story I think you'll really enjoy. The beautifully designed collection is titled The Best of Christmas in My Heart, Volume 2. If only for a few minutes, perhaps you can slow down and unplug from the pressing demands of your schedule and take the time to read and consider "The Good Things in Life."

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The Good Things In Life
Arthur Gordon

They were coming back this Christmas morning, coming back to where it had all started. Since that time, growing fame had come to him--changed him, warped him. Self had pushed God aside. Mary wondered: Will it work? Will the little church be on my side?

************

Near the crest of the hill he felt the rear wheels of the car spin for half a second, and he felt a flash of the unreasonable irritability that had been plaguing him lately. He said, a bit grimly, "Good thing it didn't snow more than an inch or two. We'd be in trouble if it had."

His wife was driving. She often did, so that he could make notes for a sermon or catch up on his endless correspondence by dictating into the tape recorder he had built into the car. Now she looked out at the woods and fields gleaming in the morning sunlight. "It's pretty, though. And Christmassy. We haven't had a white Christmas like this in years."

He gave her an amused and affectionate glance. "You always see the best side of things, don't you, my love?"

"Well, after hearing you urge umpteen congregations to do precisely that ..."

Arnold Barclay smiled, and some of the lines of tension and fatigue went out of his face. "Remember the bargain we made twenty years ago? I'd do the preaching and you'd do the practicing."

Her mouth curved faintly. "I remember."

They came to a crossroads, and he found that after all these years he still remembered the sign: LITTLEFIELD, 1 MILE. He said, "How's the time?"

She glanced at the diamond watch on her wrist: his present to her this year. "A little after ten."

He leaned forward and switched on the radio. In a moment his own voice, strong and resonant, filled the car, preaching a Christmas sermon prepared and recorded weeks before. He listened to a sentence or two, then smiled sheepishly and turned it off. "Just wanted to hear how I sounded."

"You sound fine," Mary Barclay said. "You always do."

They passed a farmhouse, the new snow sparkling like diamonds on the roof, the Christmas wreath gay against the front door. "Who lived there?" he asked. "Peterson, wasn't it? No, Johannsen."

"That's right," his wife said. "Eric Johannsen. Remember the night he made you hold the lantern while the calf was born?"

"Do I ever!" He rubbed his forehead wearily. "About this new television proposition, Mary. What do you think? It would be an extra load, I know. But I'd be reaching an enormous audience. The biggest--"

She put her hand on his arm. "Darling, it's Christmas Day. Can't we talk about it later?"

"Why, sure," he said, but something in him was offended all the same. The television proposal was important. Why, in fifteen minutes he would reach ten times as many people as Saint Paul had reached in a lifetime! He said, "How many people did the Littlefield church hold, Mary? About a hundred, wasn't it?"

"Ninety-six," his wife said. "To be exact."

"Ninety-six!" He gave a rueful laugh. "Quite a change of pace."

It was that, all right. It was years since he had preached in anything but metropolitan churches. The Littlefield parish had been the beginning. Now, on Christmas morning, he was going back. Back for an hour or two, to stand in the little pulpit where he had preached his first hesitant, fumbling sermon twenty years ago.

He let his head fall back against the seat and closed his eyes. The decision to go back had not been his, really; it had been Mary's. She handled all his appointments, screening the innumerable invitations to preach or speak. A month ago she had come to him. There was a request, she said, for him to go back to Littlefield and preach a sermon on Christmas morning.

"Littlefield?" he had said, incredulous. "What about that Washington invitation?" He had been asked to preach to a congregation that would, he knew, include senators and cabinet members.

"We haven't answered it yet," she said. "We could drive to Littlefield on Christmas morning, if we got up early enough ..."

He had stared at her. "You mean, you think we ought to go back there?"

She had looked back at him calmly. "That's up to you, Arnold." But he knew what she wanted him to say.

Making such a decision wasn't so hard at the moment, he thought wearily. Not resenting it afterward--that was the difficult part. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. The church would be horribly overcrowded; the congregation would be mostly farmers, but ...

The car stopped; he opened his eyes.

They were at the church, all right. There it sat by the side of the road, just as it always had--if anything, it looked smaller than he remembered it. Around it the fields stretched away, white and unbroken, to the neighboring farmhouses. But there were no cars, there was no crowd, there was no sign of anyone. The church was shuttered and silent.

He looked at Mary, bewildered. She did not seem surprised. She pushed open the car door. "Let's go inside, shall we? I still have a key."

The church was cold. Standing in the icy gloom, he could see his breath steam in the gray light. He said, and his voice sounded strange, "Where is everybody? You said there was a request ..."

"There was a request," Mary said. "From me." She moved forward slowly until she was standing by the pulpit. "Arnold," she said, "the finest sermon I ever heard you preach was right here in this church. It was your first Christmas sermon; we hadn't been married long. You didn't know our first baby was on the way--but I did. Maybe that's why I remember so well what you said.

"You said that God had tried every way possible to get through to people. He tried prophets and miracles and revelations--and nothing worked. So then He said, ‘I'll send them something they can't fail to understand. I'll send them the simplest and yet the most wonderful thing in all My creation. I'll send them a Baby ...' Do you remember that?"

He nodded wordlessly.

"Well," she said, "I heard that they had no minister here now, so I knew they wouldn't be having a service this morning. And I thought ... well, I thought it might be good for ... for both of us if you could preach that sermon again. Right here, where your ministry began. I just thought ..."

Her voice trailed off, but he knew what she meant. He knew what she was trying to tell him, although she was too loyal and too kind to say it in words. That he had gotten away from the sources of his strength. That as success had come to him, as his reputation had grown larger, some things in him had grown smaller. The selflessness. The humility. The most important things of all.

He stood there, silent, seeing himself with a terrifying clarity: the pride, the ambition, the hunger for larger and larger audiences. Not for the glory of God. For the glory of Arnold Barclay.

He clenched his fists, feeling panic grip him, a sense of terror and guilt unlike anything he had ever known. Then faintly, underneath the panic, something else stirred. He glanced around the little church. She was right, Mary was right, and perhaps it wasn't too late. Perhaps here, now, he could rededicate himself ...

Abruptly he stripped off his overcoat, tossed it across the back of a pew. He reached out and took both of Mary's hands. He heard himself laugh, an eager, boyish laugh. "We'll do it! We'll do it just the way we used to! You open the shutters; that was your job, remember? I'll start the furnace. We'll have a Christmas service just for the two of us. I'll preach that sermon, all for you!"

She turned quickly to the nearest window, raised it, began fumbling with the catch that held the shutters. He opened the door that led to the cellar steps. Down in the frigid basement he found the furnace squatting, as black and malevolent as ever. He flung open the iron door. No fire was laid, but along the wall wood was stacked, and kindling, and newspapers.

He began to crumple papers and thrust them into the furnace, heedless of the soot that blackened his fingers. Overhead he heard the sound that made him pause. Mary was trying the wheezy old melodeon. "Ring the bell, too," he shouted up the stairs. "We might as well do the job right!"

He heard her laugh. A moment later, high in the belfry, the bell began to ring. Its tone was as clear and resonant as ever, and the sound brought back a flood of memories: the baptisms, the burials, the Sunday dinners at the old farmhouses, the honesty and brusqueness and simple goodness of the people.

He stood there, listening, until the bell was silent. Then he struck a match and held it to the newspapers. Smoke curled reluctantly. He reached up, adjusted the old damper, tried again. This time a tongue of flame flickered. For perhaps five minutes he watched it, hovering over it, blowing on it. When he was sure that it was kindled, he went back up the cellar steps.

The church was a blaze of sunlight. Where the window glass was clear, millions of dust motes whirled and danced; where there were panes of stained glass, the rays fell on the old floor in pools of ruby and topaz and amethyst. Mary was standing at the church door. "Arnold," she said, "come here."

He went and stood beside her. After the darkness of the cellar, the sun on the snow was so bright that he couldn't see anything.

"Look," she said in a whisper. "They're coming."

Cupping his hands round his eyes, he stared out across the glistening whiteness, and he saw that she was right. They were coming. Across the fields. Down the roads. Some on foot. Some in cars. They were coming, he knew, not to hear him, not to hear any preacher, however great. They were coming because it was Christmas Day, and this was their church and its bell was calling them. They were coming because they wanted someone to give them the ancient message, to tell them the good news.

He stood there with his arm round his wife's shoulders and the soot black on his face and the overflowing happiness in his heart. "Merry Christmas," he said. "Merry Christmas. And thank you. Thank you, darling."

************

Does this story end a little too conveniently? Probably so. But I do not apologize for sharing this "warm, fuzzy" tale with you. Happy endings of this sort, implausible as they may sound, do occur at times.

There's an old Irish saying, "A goose never voted for an early Christmas." The geese in Ireland might understandably wish to delay the holiday (along with the turkeys here in America), but I think the rest of us are hoping Christmas comes sooner rather than later this year. Let's face it, 2008 has been rough. The presidential campaign was heated and sometimes nasty, with an outcome that, for many, was less than ideal. The national economy teetered on the brink of recession, and the experts predict that the situation may only get worse before it gets better. "Christmas time is here," as the children sing on the Charlie Brown Christmas special, but for many, it is tainted by an air of fear and uncertainty.

What do we do when "the most wonderful time of the year" doesn't feel so wonderful? For those of us who embrace the spiritual and historical significance of Christmas, we turn our eyes toward Jesus Christ, our Savior and King. When the world threatens to overpower us, we look to the Child in the manger. That helpless babe is God incarnate--the same God who set the heavens in motion and who knit each one of us together in our mother's womb. The Child who shivered in His mother's arms on a starry night in Bethlehem would one day tell His disciples, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). May we never become so busy with the holiday hustle and bustle, or so disillusioned with the cares and concerns of the world around us, that we fail to hear Him speaking to us, assuring us of His love, His goodness and His mercy.

No matter what is happening in your life right now, I hope the voice of Christ will ring loud and clear in your celebrations this year. From our "family" to yours, have a very merry Christmas! I'll see you in 2009.

Sincerely,
Dr. James Dobson's Signature
James C. Dobson, Ph.D.
Founder and Chairman

This letter may be reproduced without change and in its entirety for noncommercial purposes without prior permission from Focus on the Family.

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