Scripture:  “While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby.  She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  (Luke 2:6-7)

For Christmas this year my girlfriends and I are doing something different.  We all like to thrift shop, so we are going to exchange only treasures found at one. ( I think they were inspired by the Kid’s Shopping Day in Gladbrook.  Now that is an amazing event. All of the organizers, helpers and those who donate deserve a star in the crown they will wear in eternity.)  As I rummaged through the pile of CD’s at a nearby thrift store,  I stumbled across one entitled ‘Merle Haggard’s Christmas Present.’  What a find.  As youngsters my friends and I rode a school bus and the driver always tuned the radio to the local country music station. Therefore, if were you name a country artist who recorded between 1960 and 1976 I can come up with a song. Mr. Williams deserves my thanks.

Merle Haggard recorded a song we heard at this time of year but I didn’t associate with Christmas. Still the song struck a chord with me.  Its name was “If we make it through December.” Merle Haggard  surely knew a lot about tough times and wasn’t afraid to sing about them.  During his youth he dropped out of High School and lived a shiftless life.  He even spent time in prison.  So, when Haggard sang “If we make it through December, everything’s going to be alright I know, it’s the hardest time of winter, and I shiver when I see the falling snow…”  he was singing straight out of his own experience. His song spoke to something deep inside of us too  as we rode with Mr. Williams in that drafty, old, yellow  bus that took us back and forth to school.

Standing in the thrift shop I flipped to the back of Merle Haggard’s Christmas Present CD.  It surprised me to see “If we make it through December” was listed there.  Christmas CD’s are ones filled with sacred, sweet and happy tunes.  We sing about joy and the wonder of the season. That kind of music is in harmony with our desires for the season because lot of us want to look forward to gathering with family and friends.   There are many special events such as a school concert or activities we are planning such as the Christmas worship services our churches host.  These songs tell us that this is the happiest time of the year.

But is it?  Perhaps this is true for most of us on most days.  But during the December of 2016, there are corners of our community that are on the brink of hard times and some have fallen in.  There are families that did not have a great year. There were losses.  And on April 6th Merle Haggard died himself. If you’re still reading, you may be one of the precious souls who are coping with hard times too.

Something occurred to me as I shopped at the thrift store and read the listing of songs on Merle Haggard’s Christmas CD. This man made a conscious decision to put “If we make it through December’ on the CD and he made another conscious decision to name it ‘A Christmas Present.’  I think Mr. Haggard understood something about the message of Christmas. There is depth to it that the platitudes of  tunes like “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” miss.

Consider the story of Mary, Joseph and the birth of Jesus.  Their Christmas was not the most wonderful time of year.  Sure they marveled at the gift of baby Jesus.  But they were also lost in a sea of questions and uncertainty.  Mary gave birth in a strange city.  Her mother and cousin Elizabeth were not there to guide her through that life-changing experience.  Joseph had his own concerns.  He was a carpenter.  We know what happens to carpentry jobs during the winter season.   Where would he find food for the next meal?  Before the first Christmas ends, God’s holy family must flee to escape Herod who sought to capture God’s holy child.  The little family became immigrants and were not welcome in Egypt.  Even so, Merle Haggard understood enough of the biblical story of hard times and God’s hope to name his album “A Christmas Present.”  He to share a message that he now understood with us. The message is that God is in the hard times.

At the the time of the birth of Jesus the human condition was in trouble.  It appeared we could do nothing to prevent our sure and certain demise. But where the reach of humans will end, the hands of God extend.  The Lord sent a light that shined through the gloom of troubled times.  And because of His saving light, the course of humanity took a U-turn.  The width and breath and depth of God’s love is still here to steady us through hard times and to rejoice with us when the good times return.  There is strength, compassion and hope for all of us in the love God offered to through this holy child.  And it is here for you.  This is the message of Christmas.

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