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Before you can really know how good things are this Christmas, you have to know first of all how bad things are.
And things are bad-for at least three distinct groups of people.
Things are bad for people who deliberately and self-consciously keep shoving the God of the universe to the margins of their lives. Such people, of course, don't know yet how bad things really are. But that ignorance, willing as it is, simply makes their situation worse. They revel in what they think is the freedom to make up their own rules and standards along the way, never realizing how catastrophic is the course they have chosen for themselves.
Things are more obviously bad for people who feel deserted, rejected, hurt, damaged, despised, cheated, and forsaken. The world is full of people who think there may be a God, but that if there is, He operates on a wavelength quite different from their own. Sometimes because of their own behavior (or misbehavior), and sometimes almost totally because of the behavior (or misbehavior) of others, they are lonely and isolated. They wonder in their agony whether God cares.
And things are bad even for the people of God-those who have genuinely trusted their hearts and their lives to His redemption and care and who know that only He has the resources to see them through. God's people in America tend (way too trivially) to say that things have never been worse for them in this country. Still, being kept from singing "Silent Night" in a public-school classroom, or having the Salvation Army excluded from the front door of the local Target store, or having Intelligent Design scoffed at by the major media-none of that belongs in quite the same category as being beheaded by Islamic fanatics in Saudi Arabia for owning a Bible, or facing a firing squad for identifying with fellow Christians in North Korea.
Things are bad, I say, for all three groups of people. The curse is so ugly, and it reaches so far. So far, in fact, that it's pretty hard to take its awful measure.
And yet it's important to keep trying, however futile it may seem, to take the curse's measure. Here's why.
Because, as Isaac Watts reminds us in his famous carol, "He comes to make His blessings flow-far as the curse is found!" If you don't know how bad things are, you can't possibly know either how good things are going to be.
There are two radically different ways to see the secularization of this Christmas season. One is to grouse and complain and moan about how bad things have gotten. The other is to take notice of, and thank God for, the failure of the secularists to win their point.
I decided this Christmas season, for example, to keep a record of every time I noticed Christ's name being specifically mentioned in an overtly secular setting-almost in spite of the sponsors' determination to do otherwise. So in a Wall Street Journal ad, at a ballet performance of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, during an NPR-PBS fundraiser (of all places), at a newscast of a new mayor's inauguration reception, in the lobby of a funeral home where they take great pains to offend no one, in a USA Today front-page story referencing Narnia's Aslan as the "King of kings," in a commercial on my car radio for a used car dealer-all that got into my notebook before December's first week was over.
If you don't let the children sing His praise, Jesus said, the stones will do the singing instead. Well, all these secular stones were singing with amazing specificity.
It's a bad thing indeed consciously to reject the message of Jesus during this season. It's bad to be so weighed down you can't hear the message. And it's bad to try to silence those who want to proclaim it. But none of that is so bad that it won't ultimately be overcome by the One whose blessings flow-just as far as the curse is found.