Réze knew something was up when Taylor took her out to not-Taco-Bell.

After dinner, Taylor pulled out a blindfold and drove her to a place Bloomingtonians call the cutouts. It’s this fantastic little spot, a kind of spillway cut into the hillside for when the lake levels rise. There’s a great big field that goes right up to the lake. And a couple trails lead to the top of a very high hill with a fire pit and a scenic view at the top.

Waiting on top of the hill, Taylor had an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine in place that he’d been working on for days. And this was the plan, in all its glory: there was a tennis ball hooked up to a wire by a carabiner. The wire stretched from the top of the hill all the way down to the meadow below. Taylor was going to light the tennis ball on fire and send it down the wire. When it reached the bottom of the hill, it was going to hit some carefully arranged and well-prepared flammable materials and light them on fire. And, naturally, it was going to spell out, “Will you marry me?”

Of course, this was all going to happen really fast. And Réze was going to swoon at Taylor’s ingenuity and say yes. And it was going to be glorious. Taylor and his buddies had tested it a thousand times. So Taylor got Réze to the top of the hill and lit the tennis ball and sent it down the line and … the fire went out halfway down the line.

But Taylor was prepared for catastrophe. There were a couple guys down at the bottom of the hill hiding in the brush, waiting to spring into action if anything went awry. Well, they were supposed to be ready, at least. After what seemed like forever, Taylor lost his nerve and yelled at his buddies to light the thing on fire. So one of them ran out and lit up the “W” in “Will.” Except it didn’t work. It wouldn’t catch fire. And so Taylor’s friends ended up having to light each part of every single individual letter. One by one. And the whole time, poor Taylor was sitting up there with the ring already out of his pocket. Just waiting. Head down. His perfect plan didn’t go off the way he dreamed.

Happily for Taylor, Réze didn’t seem to mind. She said yes anyway. And you know what? So far their marriage is none the worse. At least he still has an awesome story to tell his grandkids.

A Bing Crosby Christmas

There are a few things in our culture that are weighted with high expectations. They’re high-pressure situations. They have to be perfect. Proposals are one of them. So are weddings, births, holidays, and especially Christmas.

I was talking to my wife Amanda about this not too long ago—actually, I was conspiring to get out of talking to our church about the expectations that surround the Christmas season. But she insisted, and I think she’s right, that one of the most important things we need to help people deal with at Christmas time is the tension surrounding the holidays—the pressures we all feel for everything to work out perfectly.

After all, it’s a sentimental season we’re in. Not because Christmas itself is especially sentimental. It’s not.

But whenever you take real Christian faith out of anything and try to keep the trappings, all you’re left with is sentimentality—Norman Rockwell. There’s only one way Mariah Carey could ever get away with commanding you to fall on your knees before the living God while you’re in the checkout line at Kroger without anyone registering how bizarre that actually is: blind sentimentality.

Everything we do at Christmas time is sentimentalized and idealized. It’s written down for us in poems and songs and acted out for us in a thousand movies. It’s scripted. And if you were to turn on the Hallmark Channel anytime between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, you’d see it. And seeing it would only add to the pressure to make everything feel special—perfect—during Christmas time.

Log in to your social media site du jour and you’ll instantly feel the pressure. My wife says Pinterest exists to help guilt-ridden mothers feel guiltier by offering a million ways to be a more perfect mother than you could ever possibly hope to be. And then she still uses it. At Christmas. (Pro Tip: If you take a large cardboard box and wrap it up like a present and use it as a trash can, you won’t have any unseemly trash or trash bags in the pictures you take to post on Facebook to impress your friends with how perfect you were able to make Christmas for your kids.)

That’s a lot of pressure. Too much to handle. Sooner or later, the tennis ball is going to flame out. The kids will get in a fight in the car on the way home from the candlelight service. Or they’ll whine about wanting to open their presents on Christmas Eve. Or they’ll fight over each other’s presents on Christmas morning. Or you’ll get in a fight with your husband or wife while you’re doing your late night present wrapping or trying to clean the house up to make it perfect for the morning. Or someone will be late to Christmas dinner. Or someone will draw attention to the missing place at the table. You’re going to hurt someone’s feelings and someone will hurt your feelings.

And God Himself will botch everything by failing to provide us the obligatory blanket of snow on the ground. Somebody forgot to tell him He’s responsible for set design in each of our own personal Bing Crosby Christmas Specials.

And that’s why, instead of being heartwarming, Christmas is often the most stressful and frustrating time of year … for all of us. We labor so hard to maintain a very fragile illusion. And then, what are we left with? Anger. Frustration. Self-pity. Why is Christmas like this?

Whatever the reason, in the end it is not a coincidence that the one time of year when we all gather to celebrate Jesus coming into the world to save poor, needy, broken sinners is the one time of year we work hardest to convince ourselves and everyone else that we’re perfectly fine. To prove we don’t need a Savior. Which is why it’s no surprise that the holidays are actually the most frustrating and difficult times of the year. The one thing that shines through is the very reality we’re all conspiring to deny. But the good news is that Christmas is the solution to the problem of Christmas.

An Elaborate Setup

I think G. K. Chesterton says somewhere that Christmas is an elaborate setup for the world’s greatest joke. I may have made that up, but go with me. Because if you think about it, there’s a lot of truth to it.

For a joke to work well it needs a good setup. For a setup to be good, it needs to create a lot of tension. The more tension that’s created, the more cathartic the relief when we finally get to the punchline. So think about the manger with me for a minute and see if you can feel the tension.

First, you have Mary. Mary is a sweet young woman probably about 14 or 15 years old. She’s from a humble family and a poor town, but she’s pregnant out of wedlock and by all appearances she’s made up a huge lie about it. No surprise for a trailer park girl.

Then you have Joseph. He’s a poor blue-collar carpenter who works with his hands, is also from a hick town, and is sticking with Mary, which means he’s probably the guy that got her pregnant. Either that or he’s an idiot. And they’re in a cave where they keep animals. Not a pretty, romantic stable like in your Italian Fontanini nativity set. Or your cutesy little Precious Moments nativity. Or your artsy, hipster, homemade peg-person nativity. Mary gives birth down below the ground. She’s not in her hometown, it doesn’t appear that her mother is anywhere around, and she ends up laying the baby in a feeding trough. Fitting for a trailer park child, don’t you think?


Christmas is the world’s greatest joke…

And the baby—the little baby that Mary gave birth to, that rode around in her womb for 9 months only to be born into the family of this stupid carpenter and his sexually immoral wife? He’s an ugly little boy who would spend his life despised and hated. He’d end up dying the most shameful and public death imaginable.

And here’s the tension: Mary wasn’t immoral. She was pure. She was a virgin. And Joseph wasn’t stupid. He was righteous and just. And the baby was no ordinary child. The baby was the Son of God Himself clothed in mortal flesh. The little hand that couldn’t reach up to touch the animals belonged to the Maker of the heavens. And He had come to set His people free from sin.

God entered the world as a baby boy. Infinite power was clothed in utter weakness and fragility and humility. And the whole world was turned upside down. Heaven made itself lower than earth. And when God did that, He overthrew the foundations of the universe. Kings would bow. Nations would crumble. The Prince of the Air would be unseated, bound, and defeated. The meek and the lowly would be raised up. The high and mighty would be cast down. The brokenhearted bound up.

Because God walked among men and bore our sins in His own body. The Author of Life would be put to death by the hands He made to do His work. The King of Glory would be spat upon and mocked by the mouths He made for His praise. He did this so He could declare once and for all, “Peace on earth and good will toward men.”

The Hero and the Joke

That’s the tension. And here’s the punchline: It’s you and me. And our petty sins. And our pride. And our need for Christmas dinner to be on time. And for the mood to be just right. For the tennis balls to make it down the lines of our Rube Goldberg machines.

God was born.

And our sins are forgiven. Our striving is done. There is hope. Peace on earth. Good will toward men who see and hate their sin, see the humility and grace and glory of their Savior, and who are free to laugh at their own foolishness.

So what do you do with Bing Crosby and Pinterest and Norman Rockwell? You tell them to get behind you. Not because you’re casting them out like demons, but because you’re committed to keeping them in perspective as the kind of silly, kind of sad, kind of good, kind of bad things they are.

If you approach this Christmas as a sinner needing a Savior, you’re going to do just fine. You’re going to find the hope and peace you so desperately need. You won’t be fretting over whether or not there’s trash in the photos. In fact, you’ll want to be sure there’s glorious trash in all the photos. It’s kind of a confession of faith, really. Nothing is perfect and clean around here. Our God is perfect, but He’s no perfectionist. We’re repentant sinners—Christians—not picture-perfect Mormons

But if you approach this Christmas trying to keep up the illusion? You’re going to fail. And you’re going to be miserable. And you’re going to make everyone else around you miserable.

So feast and rejoice. Hold the trappings of Christmas very loosely and hold on to the Savior very tightly. And laugh when you can’t recreate a Norman Rockwell painting or a Hallmark Channel scene around your dining room table. The story unfolding around you is better anyway. It was crafted by a better Author—one who will make sure the tennis ball flames out just in time to remind you who’s the Hero and who’s the joke.

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