I’ve always had mixed feelings about Christmas. As I sifted through memories of the season while writing my memoir, Where the Light Fell, I better understood why.

Philip wears rabbit earsIn my elementary school, Christmas called for a major event in the auditorium, complete with a concert by the school band and chorus. For some reason I volunteered to represent the first grade by singing a solo, rather than playing “Song of the Volga Boatmen” on the piano. I chose “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and my mother wrote out the words on a card in case I forgot them. Foolishly, I also signed up for the role of Peter Cottontail in our class skit.

My mother fashioned a fine set of rabbit ears around coat hanger frames, fixed them on my head, and pinned a fluffy cotton tail to the seat of my pants. I had the good sense to remove the rabbit ears before attempting my solo, but overlooked my cotton tail. The upper classes laughed out loud as I walked to the microphone, which rattled me so much that I forgot the words to the Christmas carol. I was too ashamed to look at my notes, because then everyone would know I had forgotten them, so I hummed an entire verse, trying to make my mistake seem intentional. No one was fooled. My first public performance—and last solo—was a lesson in humility.

Flash forward seven years. Like most siblings, my older brother, Marshall, and I had an uneasy alliance. We argued, we competed, we sometimes snitched on each other. At Christmas we would agree in advance how much to spend on our gifts to one another, often buying exactly the same present just to make sure. Mother would beam as we each opened, say, a fold-out box of Life Saver candies, with both of us feigning surprise that we had thought of the same gift. This particular Christmas we had agreed to give each other a transistor radio, and Marshall double-crossed me: I gave him a radio while in return I got a cheap rubber baseball.

We stopped exchanging Christmas gifts after that year.

Marshall Yancey Sr.

My real ambivalence about Christmas, however, traces back to an event I have no memory of. My memoir begins with a defining event in my life that occurred on December 15, a month after my first birthday. My father, just 23 years old, died of polio, guaranteeing our little family of three a life of hardship and poverty. My maternal grandparents drove from Philadelphia to Atlanta for his funeral, held a few days after his death. They insisted on taking all three of us north for a few weeks’ respite to give my mother time to grieve and contemplate her future.

Before we departed for Philadelphia, the Yancey grandparents hosted the out-of-town guests for an early Christmas dinner. The Yanceys had a pile of wrapped presents waiting under the tree, and long-faced adults, still dressed in their funeral clothes, sat around watching two young boys tear open packages and play with their new toys.

Christmas might have been my favorite holiday—except for the dark cloud that settled on Mother every December, the month my father died. She valiantly went through the motions of decorating a live tree and stringing up lights, but her heart never seemed in it. She would occasionally burst into tears for no apparent reason, and Marshall and I walked on eggshells.

Even as an adult, I find it hard to enter into the Christmas spirit. Do I really need the presents that family and friends kindly send my way, some of which will be stored on a closet shelf? The glittery paper, the sealed plastic that cuts my hand, the cardboard boxes from Amazon—they end up in overflowing garbage and recycling containers. And is it appropriate to burn yet more fossil fuels in order to illuminate Christmas, especially in the midst of a pandemic that has killed five million people worldwide? My brother spent last Christmas in an overcrowded COVID ward; how many will share that fate this year?

I feel like the curmudgeonly Ebenezer Scrooge from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Then I remember the scene of Bob Cratchit’s family scrimping to splurge on a Christmas dinner of goose, potatoes, and pudding. Tiny Tim, the crippled son of Scrooge’s underpaid clerk, offers a heartfelt blessing, “God bless us, every one!” Without help, Tim will likely die for want of treatment the family cannot afford, the Ghost of Christmas Present informs Scrooge. The vision of that deprived yet happy family pricks the conscience of the miserly Scrooge.

In his book of sermons titled The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buehner mentions two qualities of childlikeness. First, children have no fixed preconceptions of reality. If someone tells them that the mossy patch under the lilac bush is a magic place, or that opening a certain wardrobe will lead to Narnia, they’ll surely test the theory. Second, children know how to receive a gift, without worrying about whether they deserve it or if it indebts them to the giver. They simply receive it, joyfully tearing into the wrapping paper despite the solemn faces around them.

Somehow, even amid the secularized trappings that drown out the truth of Christmas, we have not lost a sense of celebration. On a dark night in Palestine, the sky itself burst into song and shepherds ran to locate its origin. Before long, astrologers would endure a camel journey from Persia in order to present gifts fit for a king—only to find a baby. That celebration, too, took place against a background of tragedy that left mothers crying for their slaughtered infants and Jesus’ family fleeing as refugees.

Some three decades later, a woman poured very expensive perfume on Jesus’ head (Matthew 26). A “waste” declared Judas—the disciples’ Scrooge—for she could have sold it and given proceeds to the poor. In what has become one of the most misinterpreted passages in the Bible, Jesus responded, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.”

No one could accuse Jesus of insensitivity to the poor and marginalized. He spent his life among them, and this very event took place in the home of a social outcast, Simon the leper. Yet Jesus acknowledged that when something extraordinary graces our benighted planet, it calls for celebration.

Hopes of a childMaybe I had it right as a thirteen-month old, grinning with delight while the adults around me grimaced in grief. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” said Jesus. He knew better than anyone that his brief sojourn would not solve the injustice, sickness, poverty, and violence of planet earth. It did, however, ignite a flame of hope that has never gone out. For those who believe, his birth, death, and resurrection are darkly glowing signs of what God plans for the entire cosmos.

I wonder what the shepherds and wise men thought when they found the object of their search. In the words that slipped my mind during my first-grade solo, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Really? Could this baby born to Jewish peasants possibly bear that burden?

It takes childlike faith to believe in a reality beyond the grim one we know so well, and to keep celebrating regardless. Sometimes a child’s eye sees best.

 

 

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44 responses to “The Hopes and Fears”

  1. Jane Jayroe says:

    I’ve read most of your books and the recent memoir was so revealing. I loved the book. I, also, loved how it gave additional meaning to your other books because I know your background. Thanks for sharing it.
    Several years ago, I wrote you a letter in appreciation for your book about “Grace.” To my amazement, you wrote me a letter in return. Following a long career in television, I was attempting to become a writer. You were very encouraging. In time, God has brought me to a different path in that effort, a regular column of inspirational material in a newspaper and an 18 year stint as the organizer of a Christian Luncheon series. Thanks for your encouragement personally and through your writing. Blessings,

  2. Logan says:

    Hi Philip!
    Recently, I’ve discovered the “deconstruction” side of Christianity or some may call themselves “ex-vangelicals”. If you are familiar with these, could you give insight on your thoughts or views?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Deconstructing (and reconstructing) faith is so personal and subjective, I don’t think I can generalize. Richard Rohr speaks of three phases – Order, Disorder, Reorder – and I think all of us go through something like that process. I spell out mine in the memoir, “Where the Light Fell,” but every person has their own.

  3. Cheryl Allen says:

    Philip,

    My husband and I listened to Where the Light Fell on a holiday road trip. We had countless connections to your writings, as we both grew up in the South in conservative churches and we also fell in love at a Christian University. We laughed and cried as you told your story. My favorite chapters were the ones about when you met your wife and the college conversion story. It was very faith-building to know that you ended up still believing in Jesus, his love, and his power to save. Thanks for writing honestly about conservative churches and their shortcomings while defending your faith.
    In the epilogue, you mention that friends helped you edit the book and get the word count down. I’d certainly be willing to read the long version:). It’s a beautiful story.
    I wish the best for you and Janet in 2022, and I’m sorry you lost your dad.
    Love,
    Cheryl Allen

  4. Nancy Eckert says:

    I have been praying for the safety of you and your wife during the wildfires and high winds.
    Happy New Year!

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Thank you. We’re quite safe, about 40 minutes drive from the fire zone, and a foot of snow fell last night, providing needed moisture.

  5. Judy Nowlin says:

    Philip,

    I too have had a difficult time reading your book, “Where the Light Fell.” I also suffered wounds from overly zealous fundamental teachings and practices at church, as well as a dysfunctional home often filled with anger and strife. But I have healed in most regards with the help of kind and patient Christian psychologists. My life is now filled with grace. Christmas is still hard for me, but I’ve accepted that and try to muddle through as best I can each year!

    My life is now secure & happy with my kind husband of 51 years, our 3 children, and 7 grandchildren. My husband also attended General Gordon High School in Decatur with you. He (Tom Nowlin) delighted in your descriptions and stories of the same teachers and administrators you spoke of.

    God bless you, Philip. Thank you for your book. I rejoice that God also brought about tremendous healing in you.

  6. Chit says:

    Philip you are truly a rare breed of a Christian. No nonesense no trying to be “spiritual”…oh so courageous to risk being you. I truly thank God for you. Oh I am blessed to have shook hands with you when you visited Manila Philippines. What a thrill to see you in person. May you be inspired ever more to write!

  7. Stephanie says:

    Thank you Philip.
    This touched me ❤️

    Stephanie,
    Nigeria

  8. Berwyn says:

    Philip, I love your books and return to them often for their vivid depictions of grace, especially in the context of suffering. And now, I’m grateful for your memoir, Where the Light Fell, illuminating and inspiring, but also, of course, heartbreaking. Your insights are hard-won. I hope and pray there will be a sequel — or at least an addendum — to the stories of your mother and brother.

  9. Greg Denholm says:

    Philip, I’ve been reading your books again and again for decades, and have been formed by them in what I consider to be some important ways. More recently, I’ve devoured your long-awaited memoir – twice in quick succession. A principle that comes through strongly for me in both is the intrinsic connection between grace received and grace given. Those who receive the grace that they so desperately need are much more likely to be able (and willing) to find it for others who are in similar need. Conversely, those who refuse to receive grace have no reserves of grace within themselves upon which to draw when encountering grace-parched neighbors and enemies. Your mother and brother seem to be examples of the latter, while you ultimately became an example of the former.

  10. Erik Longenecker says:

    Many thoughts flood my mind and heart as I read your post, Philip.

    From someone who has spent Christmas Eve and now Christmas morning awaiting his darling wife, who is also carrying our first child, to return from the hospital as a nurse serving in the COVID pandemic, I hear both your frustration and hopeful sense of a child we all are celebrating enters into this world of brokenness to redeem and restore it. It is both an everlasting promise that takes more than a lifetime to process, yet it is a journey worth taking going forward.

    As an aside, I have been reading all of your books as I started with What’s So Amazing About Grace?. I am also in a reading group as you mentioned in your book Vanishing Grace. This book group I lead is a collection of men from our church, young and old, daring to share our struggles as we follow Jesus with more and more of our lives. We prayerfully select books that can help us grow closer in our walk with Christ, and we’ve used your books throughout the last few years. From The Jesus I Never Knew to even reading this morning Disappoint with God, I have found great comfort in your reflections and thoughtful knockings from the heart.

    But more to the point, I wanted to let you know how entirely blessed this experience in your books have been providing me. Losing my father at the age of four, quite like the way you described your father’s passing at the end of Disappoint with God, it helps me visually see the Heavenly Father with greater clarity. My father wrote me a small poem, from a collection of three poems, that I have used as a testimony to the love he had for me while he was alive. His final line on the very bottom of his longest poem he wrote me read, “Please son, let your mother teach you about Jesus-…” This is a capitalizing moment for me to live freely in the Heavenly Father’s love and to share it whimsically to others who are thirsty for a love that quenches all.

    We live in a broken world, yet at the same time, this gives me an even stronger hope to hold onto knowing that this isn’t the end. The end has divine victory over death, over every sin, over everything we could ever wrestle with in this fallen state. The Jesus we follow teaches us to live in this mess, help bring justice, love, hope, and mercy to the world as a kingdom ‘foretaste’ giving a glimpse of the beauty that awaits all of us who are ‘in Christ’.

    I say all of this to say thank you, because the books you have taken the space and effort to write have changed my life – for the greater. I know it’s through the Holy Spirit working in and through you, and it’s from the countless hours and connections you have embedded within your heart that have beautifully spilled over into countless millions. Would love to hear from you – but no expectation at all! Simply humbled to have a chance to hopefully ‘hit your ears’ with these words!

    Merriest of Christmases to you, sir!

    In Christ, always,
    Erik Longenecker

  11. Carol Benson says:

    Thank you for the reminder that Jesus invites us to celebrate all that is good in our world! I hope you and Janet are having a joyous Christmas as I write this. As I read ‘Where the Light Fell”, often with tears, I was struck by the fact that you have kept any smidge of self-pity, sadness, or moroseness out of your other books and articles. The one we read daily and yearly is “Grace Notes” and wish that someday you would enlarge upon some of the amazing stories in that book. We celebrate you for sharing so many experiences and insights from your God-directed life!

  12. Dan Huff says:

    Phillip: Enjoyed reading this short Christmas biography of your childhood. You have truly touched many hearts and minds. Who knew that a kid I knew in 7th grade and played on the Gray Y baseball team would one day guide people’s souls and minds to a higher plane closer to our creator. God Bless.

  13. Christina says:

    Philip,
    Thank you for this insightful reflection. I resonate so much with your childhood experience in When the Light Fell (Chinese version lol). Seeing how God still redeems pieces of those broken memories in your life gives me hope for my own journey.

  14. Lisa Simmons says:

    I was just thinking of making a Christmas post about the waves of Christmas’s past and present. Thank you for taking the time to share yours.
    Merry Christmas
    Lisa

  15. Dr. Sandhya says:

    hello Yance
    its really a work of GOD THE FATHER that you know THE LORD so closely after having a childhood deprived of an earthly dad! Hats off to THE FATHER’s SPIRIT WHO makes you know and present Grace in the most unlikely places the most questionable situations

  16. Mary Freeme says:

    Thank you Philip, I don’t have words to express how positively & deeply your sharing has influenced my life over the past 15+ years. 🙂
    Mary Freeme
    South Africa

  17. Jody Davison says:

    Merry Christmas! My favorite step of the twelve steps is step three, “Made a decision to turn my life and my will over to the care of God.” My faith came easy as a child. Now in my old age, I realize I can thank my parents for that gift. As I became a teenager and questioned everything, I had to find my own way. I tried to figure out religion, became discouraged and nothing seemed simple and wondrous as it once did. In my middle age, life fell apart in numerous, complicated ways. Eventually, God found me again and saved me again, and again, and again. Each time I turn to Him in child like simple faith and decide to trust Him, he is there as always. So simple, so sweet.

  18. Rachel says:

    Unlike you Philip, my childhood Chtistmases were joyful and special. The early years with my own children were too but then my Mum died 10 years ago when I was 41. My children were aged 5-14 at the time. Since then I have struggled to find any enthusiasm for Christmas and rebelled against the extra responsibility of extended family gatherings without my Mum’s input and guidance. I know this has impacted my children. I’ve gone through the motions; bought presents, cooked food and put up the Christmas tree but they know that I would prefer not to. I feel challenged to try to learn how to celebrate again.

  19. Douglas says:

    Philip thank you for your insights and sharing. I’m in my eighth decade and for as long as I remember Christmas is a day and season with mixed feelings and thoughts. Quite a few times seemed to come together during the Christmas season. For me, I’m thankful for Christ’s birth so that Easter is a reality.

  20. Avenel Grace. says:

    Dear Phillip.
    I too had a childhood of excitement at Christmas, presents from the extended family and all the trimmings, but I now I am old, I think of that first night when Jesus was born. He of course would have known about the angels heralding his incoming, but I doubt whether Joseph and Mary had much to celebrate. A cold drafty cow shed, hatred from the hierarchy, a few shepherds and no where to go safely.
    I guess if Angels celebrated with singing, that lets us off somewhat, but I am saddened that commercialism and self aggrandizement has taken over what was ans still is the greatest gift we have ever been given. My love and blessings go with you and your family . Avenel .

  21. Julie Ward Aguirre says:

    Your writing continues to inform my life. I often wonder how I ended up with a copy of Where is God When It Hurts in college. As a teenager grieving my mother’s death, your words about pain and suffering resonated. Your honesty. Your questions. I’ve read every book of yours I can get my hands on. Now I need to find your memoir. How did I miss it? Over the years you’ve answered the couple of snail mail letters I sent to you. You’re a friend I’ve yet to meet. God bless you for your faithful work in His kingdom.

  22. Bradley Robertson says:

    Dear Philip,
    I’m glad you were born and had grown upwards towards where the light fell. Today i woke up in the night with a great sadness that was the result of many arrows that had pierced my soul. Your handcrafted perspectives from your heart and soul encounge me. I hope you will find others that will do the same for you.
    I know this, as your mother shed her mortal shackles of pain and super missguided motives, she is … and now able to be very proud of you.
    I look forward to sharing our stories of redemption in Heaven together Phillip.
    Sincerely, your distant brother in suffering … Brad

  23. Margaret says:

    The Christmas message most needed in our world – thank you, Philip! Am I just getting older or simply more aware than ever of the fact that nearly everyone sooner or later either faces pain, suffering and disappointment themselves or has friends or someone in their family going through it? Thank you, Jesus, for helping us pitiful humans through all the pain and disappointment of life to find joy and peace where we are, and to look forward to the unending joy that is set before us – because of your gift to us!

  24. Lainie Dykstra says:

    Thank you Philip for your inspiring message.
    I love your books and I often return to them for encouragement. Since I became a widow I get so much comfort from reading in the “Jesus I never knew” and your
    Amazing Grace. I’ll have to purchase your latest book.

  25. Mary whitmer says:

    Thank you, Phil for writing this. I am more emotionally challenged this Christmas without Jim sharing in our family moments. I am blessed with a wonderful family, but Christmas past was not always wonderful. For many years my family did not celebrate Christmas as my mother remarried after loosing my own father, a man who for “ religious” reasons thought it to be too secular.
    May the blessings of this season rest upon you and Janet.
    Love, Mary

  26. Suzanne says:

    Just finished your book “”Where the Light Fell” . I found it emotionally raw and honest and realize that only God could have brought you out the other side. You make such an impact with your writing and have changed the lives of so many people! Thank you for sharing your story! Merry Christmas! ( my husband and I are spending this Christmas isolating from everyone after testing positive to Covid) The Christmas star will be our beacon of hope!

  27. Mary says:

    Thank you, Phil for writing this. I am more emotionally challenged this Christmas without Jim sharing in our family moments. I am blessed with a wonderful family, but Christmas past was not always wonderful. For many years my family did not celebrate Christmas as my mother remarried after loosing my own father, a man who for “ religious” reasons thought it to be too secular.
    May the blessings of this season rest upon you and Janet.
    Love, Mary

  28. Mike Coughlin says:

    I too grew up without a father due to his premature death when I was two years old. That experience is hard enough without the trauma of a dysfunctional Christian environment. It has been hard for me to read Where the Light Fell. My heart breaks for these two brothers.

  29. Sandy Harmon says:

    My husband and I wish you and yours a most Blessed and peaceful Celebration of our Lords birth…. The most Precious Gift ever given and the most Precious Gift ever to receive… thank you for Blessing all our lives with your insightful writings over the years!

  30. Joy McGinniss says:

    Thank you, Philip, for reorienting us to the what our Lord gave us…Himself. And how we should receive Him. Simply, like a child.

  31. Wayne says:

    Thanks Phil for your brutal honesty in Where the Light Fell. Much to identify with but grateful for a mother who loved me, sacrificed for me, and encouraged me. Your book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, is one of my “classics.” Given your background, I now better understand what inspired you to write it. Thanks for sharing your life with us.

  32. Vahen King says:

    Thank you Philip,
    Again, you captivate and “spur on” with your wisdom and shelves full of lived experiences. The hopes and fears of all my dreams INDEED! Thank you for these life giving stories that offer hope to face the fears ahead. May you and your family have a safe and Merry Christmas and a joyfilled New year.
    Blessings 🥰🙏

  33. E Dennis Marasco says:

    I have followed you intermittently since I saw you writing in Campus Life magazine, likely in 1967. You, along with Frederick Buechner and others have touched me deeply! Thank you.

    Also, I signed up in April as a pre-order on your new book. Are you able to check on that for me?

    That is less important to me than that you knowing how much do you have impacted me.

    Gratefully,
    Dennis

  34. Mr Yancey, thank you for continuing to inspire! I loved your book, Vanishing Grace; it encouraged me to (among other things) keep working on my writing projects, no matter what. I am incredibly grateful for your inspirational presence on this earth and am loving your blog.

    I’ve recently become a blogger in order to encourage as many people as possible to fulfil their purpose & pursue their dreams. http://www.vanessastevenson.com/blog
    God bless you richly!

  35. Raymond Caldwell says:

    Thank you. God speaks to my rebel heart through you.

  36. Linda Corpus says:

    This is Purety in its finest form. Thank you

  37. A Robson says:

    Thank you for sharing such thoughtful words. Caused me to think about my response to the gift of Christmas.

  38. Von says:

    Thanks, Phil Yancy. I love your posts!

  39. Yes, our childhood experiences of Christmas color our experience of Christmas thereafter. I experience great anxiety at Christmas, from when I was a very young child and taken to my parent’s church Christmas party. Every child received a gift from Santa as their name was called out. My name was never called, and Santa left with his empty bag, leaving a heartbroken child whose faith in a God of good gifts was shattered. It has taken me a lifetime to learn be able to receive from God. I really enjoyed reading Where the Light Fell as I could have been you sister! Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  40. Jackie Gill says:

    Thank you Philip for your words, I love the Carol o little town of Bethlehem for that one line, The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
    All that we hope for and all that makes us afraid held in a baby. What perfect love is this?

  41. Sharon says:

    So beautifully written. Our family is full of “the hopes and fears of all the years” met in Jesus’ birth as we gather in a few days to continue to look to Him, celebrate who He is to us and in us. We are still grieving, as so many are, the passing in February of our beloved brother, uncle, father, husband and friend. We hold on to our Beloved Hope, Emmanuel. Thank you for touching my heart.

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