I began writing this article on December 15, the anniversary of my father’s death in 1979 during my senior year of college. Dad had his first heart attack when I was two years old, lived with advanced heart disease for nineteen years, and died of another heart attack at the age of fifty-five.
I will always remember that day.
I was practicing for a trumpet duet I was to play in church the next Sunday morning when my brother called. Dad had already died by that time, but Mark didn’t want to tell me that over the phone. He simply told me that Dad was sick and that I needed to come as quickly as possible.
I drove across Houston as fast as I could, lights flashing on my 1966 Mustang, and pulled into the hospital emergency room parking lot. I told the nurse at the door who I was; the look on her face told me all I needed to know.
My mother and brother met me in the counseling room and we sat together in shock.
One of my favorite memories of my father was working with him on my Mustang, a car we both loved. He purchased what became his last Christmas present to me a few days before he died, and I opened it on Christmas Day. It was a leather wrap for the steering wheel of my car.
I installed it and used it for several years, then the steering wheel broke and had to be replaced (not uncommon with cars of that vintage). I procured a new steering wheel for the car and kept the old one with the leather wrap. It hangs on my garage wall in Dallas, as it has on every garage wall I have owned since that time.
I’m sure it looks strange to others to see a car steering wheel mounted on a wall, but I will have it for the rest of my life.
What Cuban Christians needed from me
Why would I tell you that story in an article that will be published five days before Christmas?
To explain why the hardest Christmas season of my life was also one of the most precious Christmas seasons of my life.
Much of what we did for Christmas in 1979 was and is a fog to me, but I will always remember family members who came into town to be with us. I will always remember the kindness of friends who stopped by to share their support. I will especially remember a fellow college student who drove across Houston the day after Dad’s death to spend the day with me. He didn’t say anything that I remember, but I will never forget his compassion.
In the years since, I’ve learned a good deal more about the ministry of presence.
On my first trip to Cuba many years ago, I quickly realized that the persecuted pastors and people I was supposed to be “teaching” were far closer to Jesus than I was and had far more to teach me than I could teach them. What they did need, however, was our presence. They needed to know that they were not alone on the island, that the larger Christian world knew their story, felt their pain, and was standing with them.
We are all made that way. The Lord’s assessment of Adam is true of you and me today: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). That’s why he gave us the family of God to be our family. It’s why he promises to be our Father and sent his Spirit to be our Comforter.
And it explains the reason above all reasons for Christmas.
As close as your knees
In the days ahead, amidst busy Christmas Eve services (and Christmas Day services, if your church is holding them), it will be good to remember that the One who came at Christmas is with us still (Matthew 28:20).
He is praying for you and me at this very moment (Romans 8:34). His Spirit dwells in us as his temple (1 Corinthians 3:16). Our God loves us because he is love (1 John 4:8). There is literally nothing we can do to make him love us any more or any less than he does right now. We are in Jesus’ hand (John 10:29), which means nothing can come to us that does not first come to him.
I say all of that to say this: the Christ of Christmas is truly Immanuel, God with us.
He feels your struggles and the pressures you face this week. He knows the personal burdens that no one else knows. He is the Shepherd of the church you are working to shepherd and the King of the kingdom you are working to advance.
When you trust his presence and seek his help, you will find that he is as close as your knees and as powerful as when he first spoke the universe into being. When you minister his presence through your own, those you serve will sense his love in yours and find his grace in your compassion.
My favorite Christmas card
My favorite Christmas card pictures on its cover Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, Napoleon, Julius Caesar, and a number of other conquerors and dictators. The caption reads, “History is filled with men who would be gods.”
When we open the card, we find inside a depiction of the baby Jesus in the manger and the words, “But only one God who would be man.”
As Irenaeus reminded us, Jesus became one of us that we might be one with him.
This is the miracle and the invitation of Christmas.