Tis the time of year for Christmas concerts, readings from the Jesus Storybook Bible, shopping, scarves, coats, and unfriending my uptight Christian friends on Facebook….
...okay, so not really unfriending, but definitely hiding them.
I was reading a great article from The Gospel Coalition about Tolkein's phrase "fighting the long defeat." His uses of the phrase both in his fiction and to describe the Christian view of history are pretty amazing. He talks about our war against evil as one continual fight against the long defeat because until Christ returns, evil will come back, and sometimes even appear to win. But be careful. This isn't a hopeless view of our struggles, indeed it's just the opposite. Fighting the long defeat is about recognizing that there are battles worth fighting even if we expect we're going to lose. It's about sending your men into battle knowing they might die with the hope of giving the hobbits a little more time to destroy the ring. It's about fighting poverty and injustice one case at a time, knowing there are millions more out there in need and no one may notice what you're doing. It's about starting another round of chemo when you'd rather give up, or apologizing when you'd rather lash out in anger, or even getting out of bed when it's too cold or hopeless or lonely. It's about fighting even when you may lose simply because the fight is good. Fighting the long defeat is looking at the Shire or your childhood or your family traditions, it's about fighting for the possibility of joy and hope and laughter on this dying planet and trying to preserve the possibility of freedom.
And when I think of Christmas and growing up in a secular family, I remember the sacrifices my parents made to make it special. I remember the family trips and crazy food and Santa and shopping. And I love it. Yes, I love Jesus, and I love Santa and gifts and elf on the shelf, and all the other things people want to make me feel guilty for. I love it all. And I don't feel guilty.
Because I know what it means to fight the long defeat. I have no illusions that life is easy if I just find that magic solution. If I just act Ike a certain kind of Christian, then suddenly I'll be rich and happy and carefree. I know that pain will come no matter how hard I fight, but I still fight. And I know that fighting the long defeat with grace and joy is about imagination. It's about being able to imagine a new creation, to look forward in hope to things yet unseen, to pulling from past experiences of wonder, awe, and hope and peace so we can find strength in the moments we can't muster them up on our own.
Because when I'm tempted to fall away from the fight, it isn't just a Bible verse that corrects me, it is the Spirit of God who brings to mind not just a verse, but the smile of my son, the memory Emmett's laugh, the knowledge of what my family has sacrificed, the stories lived out by my friends, and the the knowledge that these witnesses are just a small part of the great crowd of witnesses watching history unfold. Mine is a faith that has been fed by imagination, well trained to hope in the Gospel because it was raised on fairy tales and imaginative play. A fairy tale isn't evil because it isn't true, and people didn't stop celebrating Christ at Christmas because of Santa, the elf on the shelf, presents, or any other tradition. People have stopped celebrating Christ at Christmas because there is sin in the world whose whole goal is to separate us from Christ, and maybe just maybe Christians are spending too much time making each other feel bad about their family traditions instead of sharing the joy of the gospel of Christ.
Last I checked we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, and you can give everything you have to the poor, but if you don't have love, then it's meaningless.
So if, like me, you are feeling a little beat down by all those holiday Scrooges who wave the banner of self-righteousness because they are more holy than you since they don't this, that, or the other and can slap you with Bible verses to prove it, then remember that the courage to fight the long defeat comes from a life filled with joy, laughter, and hope. Whatever traditions you do, infuse them with grace, mercy, love, and laughter. And if waking up each morning to look for the elf on the shelf gives my son a memory of joy and expectation that in some tiny way makes him look forward to the new creation where each day we will get to explore the depths of God's infinite majesty, then I will wake up early and move that silly elf.
Because one day my son will be discouraged. He may lose his sense of wonder, feel lonely, be tempted to abandon his own family, lose his way, or any number of things. But I know that what will hold him steady or bring him back is the Spirit of God using the longing, the hunger, the desire for truth, beauty, and justice that fairy tales and stories, both real and imaginary, give him. This kind of longing keeps us fighting the long defeat when the nights are darkest and Christ is impossible to see. So I will cultivate that longing, that imagination, that desire while I still can, in any way I can. And I trust that God will use my flawed, human efforts for his glory because after all this is his story, and there is no perfect formula to achieve my comfort. There is only a good fight that may kill me and those I love, but the hope fueled by faith and fed by stories tells me this fight is still worth fighting.
Thus concludes my soapbox.