This is something I wrote specifically for my church. I read it to them on Christmas Day, but I also thought I would share it here.
For Dailey Chapel Christian Church
December 25, 2016
I stood silently in the entrance of the house. It was completely quiet, empty, and cold. The carpet had all been removed, the walls were bare, and the only light getting in was from the western side of the house, where the setting sun was casting its last rays through the glass of the patio doors. I glanced briefly out the bay window which looked over the backyard, overgrown and wild with what the last six months had done to it. An even layer of fallen leaves was spread over the entire yard. Only the larger rocks around the old fire pit could be seen peaking through the tops of the overgrowth. They looked like tombstones. The whole scene looked like Halloween. I shrugged it off and turned my attention back to the interior of the house.
Halloween hadn’t brought me back here – Christmas had. I returned to look for a few things that I left when moving the previous Spring – in particular, a small Christmas tree that was absent from my moving boxes. I thought perhaps it was still in the house, tucked into some corner of a back room, or nestled peacefully in one of the closets. But as I stood there in the gathering dusk, I could tell immediately that everything was gone.
The house was stripped clean. Only the stone hearth in the middle of the house looked the same. It stood resolutely, just it had for the three and a half decades that my family had lived here. The wooden pegs were still stuck into the mantelpiece – a reminder of where our Christmas stockings had hung each year. I tried to pull one out, but it wouldn’t budge. Those wooden pegs were going to stay there until Jesus came back.
And that’s when it happened. I felt something strange, as if someone else was in the house, hiding in one of the dark rooms, and waiting to sneak up behind me. I turned around slowly. Nothing. But I felt it. The Ghost of Christmas past – at least that’s what Dickens called it. It knew I was there – why I had come back. I thought I could get in and out of the house without disturbing it, but I had deluded myself. It had awoken while I was struggling to remove the wooden peg from the mantel. It didn’t feel intimidating or cause me to hurry on with what I was doing there. On the contrary, it was familiar, comfortable, and inviting. I felt drowsy all the sudden – as if the house was trying to lull me to sleep. But it wasn’t the house – it was the ghost.
I didn’t have much time. The Sun was no longer visible, it was getting dark outside, and even darker in the house. I heard the ghost whispering then, renewing its silent attack on my mind. I tried to ignore it as I moved toward the back of the house, but it overtook me in the hallway. The spell it cast over my mind was immediate. I glanced into one of the bedrooms, and I didn’t see an empty room. I saw the bunk beds that were once there, years ago, and my brother and I being startled awake by Santa Claus yelling “Ho Ho Ho!” in the doorway – my dad in his favorite disguise.
Time to leave I thought…
As I went back through the house I didn’t see how empty it was. I saw how full of life it had been. With each step I was moving in and out of time – three years ago, eight years ago, 20 years ago, and further into the past. I saw Legos spread across the floor, and VCR tapes stacked on the shelf next to the television. Longaberger baskets, porcelain houses from Charles Dickens’s stories, and strands of silver tinsel where everywhere. My grandmother’s nativity scene sat meticulously arranged on the living room hutch. I saw it all as if it was happening right now. I noticed the Christmas tree standing in the corner of the living room, freshly hewn from the pine tree farm we visited the day after Thanksgiving. The presents were there, piled high around it, and the angel standing at the top. I felt the warmth of the fireplace, and I heard the Christmas music playing softly in the kitchen where my mother was busy cooking a feast – I could smell the ham and the cornbread. I could see her smiling as she worked. I heard my dad’s voice, deep and strong, and excited as he yelled something at the ballgame on TV.
I saw others there too – aunts and uncles, cousins, great grandparents and friends – some long gone, some far away in other parts of the country, or other parts of the world. I saw my sister and I laughing as we emptied our Christmas stockings onto the floor, and then carefully placing everything back into them so we could do it again after we woke mom and dad up.
I pushed it all away and kept moving.
As I reached the back door that led into the garage, I noticed something that had been overlooked when the house was scoured. A small, wooden, hand-crafted harp the same color as the door still hung there securely in its place. It had been put there by my dad sometime in the early 90s, a final reminder of all the family trips we had taken down to Brown County each December. With a bit of difficulty I removed it from its fastenings as the small chimes rang chaotically – like they were protesting their removal from the door. I tucked the harp under my arm and then walked back out into the garage, and finally emerged in the driveway. I was back in the present. I was free of the spell the ghost had tried to cast upon me, but the effects of my struggle with it would take awhile to wear off.
Before getting into my car, I glanced at the house one last time. Then I turned and looked out at the neighborhood around me. It was silent, the only thing staring back at me were the Christmas lights from the other houses.
I knew this was it. There would no longer be any reason to return here. I stood there for a moment, thinking of the months that had passed since I left the old house. Getting out of there had been like waking up out of a very dark and depressing dream. Nothing but good had come of it. In the last couple of years I was there, the house had become more like a prison than a place of safety. And yet, even now, as I stood in the driveway, in the shadow of the bones that were left, a small part of me – deep down inside, wished that I could go back. I knew that would never happen. It wasn’t a logical thought… just an emotional one that was fading away.
“I was dying for some freedom, but now I hesitate to go – I am caught between the Promise, and the things I know. But these places that used to fit me cannot hold the things I’ve learned, and those roads were closed off to me while my back was turned.” *
It may seem sad, but in truth there was a great peace that settled over me as I headed west. I remembered the words of the Lord: “…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24 NASB)
All those Christmases at home, all those memories – they were seeds that had been sewn into my life. God had used them to grow me into the person I had become. The house itself was the embodiment of all that was good, and comfortable, and safe. And to keep growing, I had to let it go – I had to let it die, so that something new could be born in its place.
I had a long drive ahead of me. I had time to think – time to remember. Christmas was a really magical time of year – when I was a child – when I had only experienced a small handful of them. But after I had a good twenty or so under my belt, it didn’t seem as special anymore. As I got older it seemed like I had to try extra hard to make it feel like it was something meaningful. In more recent years, the main things I noticed about the Christmas season, was that the lines of traffic in town were longer, people’s tempers were shorter, and I had less and less patience in dealing with both.
Bah humbug to all of that – maybe Scrooge had it right,
or maybe it was the Grinch.
Maybe both of them – were only off by an inch.
The Christmas I knew was now gone into dust.
I had no more house, no more place I could trust.
But then I remembered The Story that was old.
The one that couldn’t be lost, bought, or sold.
The story that was there for hundreds of generations –
that could not be captured inside mere decorations.
The story of the One we celebrate in our songs,
the One who made right ALL of our wrongs.
I know that story, but what does it mean?
What does it mean when the light can’t be seen?
What does it mean when the last cards have been dealt?
When the fireplace is cold, and the joy can’t be felt?
What does it mean when the shadows are taller,
than the tree you looked up at, when you were much smaller?
What does it mean when the peace you once knew –
now feels trampled and trod by those dragons you slew?
What does it mean when you’ve said goodbye so many times
that you can write about it, and make up clever rhymes?
Rhymes to cover the pain you feel,
as you wait patiently for your heart to heal?
I’ll tell you what it means, I’ll tell you today.
I’ll tell you right now, in this room far away,
from the place I knew, and once called home.
It means that we’re all of us, destined to roam –
whether it’s now, or in years yet to come,
our true home is still North – that is, North of the Sun.
But still as we wait, and we travel this earth,
or even find shelter in the land of our birth,
the Lord never leaves us, he takes us along,
and He teaches us how to sing a new song.
He’s doing it now, as He did long ago.
He is teaching us how through the people we know.
And while Christmas comes only once in a year,
and can sometimes move past us without very much cheer –
I can tell you today, as I preach in this church –
that our King never fails us, if only we search – for His truth day by day –
And Hope for His return.
And if it is for His Kingdom that our hearts truly yearn –
He will give us new friends, and new family still –
like He has with me,
on this day,
at this church,
on this hill.
*this quote is from a song called, “Painting Pictures of Egypt” by Sara Groves