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The gift that keeps on giving

There is a passage from a book called Not Buying It by Judith Levine. Disgusted with what she sees as a consumer culture in New York City, this progressive author and her partner embarked on a year-long project to buy nothing but necessities. I find it an interesting (if cynical) read.

But one particular passage always leaps out at me. While taking a late-evening walk on Christmas Eve to visit some friends, the author (an atheist) and her partner spontaneously slip into the back of a small church during the candlelit service. To her surprise, Ms. Levine finds herself weeping. “[P]erhaps I weep in envy of faith,” she writes. “The comfort of knowing anything without skepticism. An atheist never really comes in from the cold.”

The aching pathos of those words haunted me from the first time I read them. They are a naked glimpse into an atheist’s soul. She’s right, of course. An atheist never really does come in from the cold. This realization seems especially poignant at Christmas when so many people are rejoicing.

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The Bible references celebrations all the time. Jesus’ first recorded miracle took place at a celebration (the wedding at Cana). But in all cases, Scripture makes it clear these celebrations have a point, a purpose. And the purpose in each case is the guest of honor, whether it’s a king or a bridegroom or a foreign diplomat or a passing visitor or a Messiah in a manger.

A feast without a guest of honor is meaningless, like a wedding without a bridegroom. It’s merely a celebration of gluttony and excess. Overindulgence is kind of fun, to be sure, but don’t mistake “fun” with “meaningful,” because they’re not the same thing.

Christmas, of course, celebrates the ultimate Guest of Honor. Everything we do – sing carols, give gifts, smile at strangers, donate to charity, decorate our homes, build gingerbread houses, see the “Nutcracker,” sing Handel’s “Messiah” as a flash mob in a mall – all these things consciously or unconsciously celebrate the birth of a very special baby, the ultimate Honored Guest.

When unbelievers feel a keen ache from their lack of belief – as is written in the powerful passage above – it’s because they’ve caught a glimpse of that Honored Guest but know they won’t meet Him. Or more precisely, they refuse to meet Him. They deny He exists. They cannot or will not take the opportunity to say hello, and in doing so they miss out on unbelievable richness and joy.

They also miss out on the biggest gifts of all: forgiveness, grace, salvation and eternal life. These are the ultimate gifts that keep on giving. Nothing purchased from the mall can ever equal them in value.

It’s an interesting development to watch those who don’t like the Honored Guest do everything in their power to make sure others won’t ever catch a glimpse of Him, either. They’re grudgingly willing to permit a celebration, but try to make it a party without a point (a wedding without a groom? A ballet without dancers? A concert without music? A birthday party without a birthday?). They simply cannot swallow the idea that most people celebrate for a reason. We instinctively recognize there should be an honored guest at a party. We understand that a celebration without a point is, well, pointless.

Atheists can fill their lives with material goods. They can fill their lives with love for their spouse and kids. They can fill their lives with good works and charity. But there will always be an emptiness inside them, that classic God-shaped hole in their heart, whether or not they’re willing to admit it. And the thing is, it’s so easy to fill that hole.

But unbelievers resist. They stay out in the cold, pressing their noses against the windowpane and see inside a room filled with warmth and light and joy. Even though entry is free, they prefer to stay outside and ridicule those who possess something they don’t.

The key point so many unbelievers miss is that faith seldom comes in a blinding road-to-Damascus flash. Rather, it takes time and practice. I would never hand you a violin and shove you unprepared in front of an audience at Carnegie Hall – the experience would traumatize you and make you hate violins and fear performances.

But years of steady practice would overcome that fear and hatred. Practice allows you to squeak and screech and make mistakes and get discouraged in private. But you’ll improve. You may never perform at Carnegie Hall, but you might share the joy of your violin music with family and friends.

For most people, a belief and faith in God also takes time and practice. A lot of atheists were, sometime in their past, shoved onto the stage at Carnegie Hall unprepared (so to speak). The experience traumatized them. They learned to hate God and loathe religion.

As a result, many never practice believing. They never attend church. They never read the Bible. They never talk to anyone whose gentle guidance might help them ease that fear and loathing and discover the joy of faith. It’s not hard to accept faith as a little child at first. Children don’t comprehend their gifts, they just accept them. Comprehension – faith – comes later.

And so, unbelievers stay out in the cold, hating God and rejecting His gifts. Since the magnitude of those gifts cannot be grasped, understood or appreciated until they’re accepted, unbelievers continue to scorn them as unnecessary. They tell people who have already accepted those gifts that they’re weak, ignorant and wrong. Some even take those gifts and spit on them before throwing them away.

And that’s sad, achingly sad, because the gifts available at the celebration are fabulous. They’re greater than us, greater than everything. They’re also available to everyone, regardless of whether someone accepts them or not.

Thankfully, unbelievers are welcome to join the party anytime. They’re welcome to help themselves to the gifts, anytime. They’re welcome to meet the Honored Guest anytime. There are a lot of freebies out there, available for the taking. Anytime.

So for anyone who hasn’t yet come in out of the cold, for Pete’s sake open the door and come inside! There are gifts aplenty. I think you’ll find that party is a whole lot more fun when it has a purpose. And the Honored Guest is a pretty neat guy when you get to know Him.

I wish you all, believers and unbelievers alike, a blessed and gift-filled Christmas. Come and join the celebration.