Christmas Leadership, Depth, and Reality
The 1965 Charlie Brown Christmas special made an impression on my five-year-old mind, and the mellow jazz of its score premiered one of my favorite Christmas songs, “Christmastime is Here.” The joyful lyrics of the song provide a thought-provoking contrast to the melancholy tone of the music. Christmas songs in minor keys have appropriately graced Christmas songs for centuries, and unlike the silly tunes and sentiments of songs like “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls,” they provide a deeper window into the nature of Christmas.
Christmas absolutely should include fun, but the more sober carols and hymns remind us that the first noel came in the midst of human sorrows. After centuries of oppression for Jews in their own land, along with the embarrassment of Mary and the public humiliation of Joseph, accompanied by the slaughter of Bethlehem’s innocents by Herod, and along the road to exile in Egypt, Christmas brought tidings of great joy—peace on earth for those to whom God’s favor had appeared. But the joy came mixed into the sorrow. Jesus would still have to die on the cross, and His followers would carry the story of His resurrection to their own martyrs’ graves.
The story of human redemption that Christmas proclaims does not mean the end of human suffering—at least not yet. That’s what makes it real, true, and deep. To reduce Christmas to a tiny sliver of human experience—thrills and fun and excitement—would remove it from the full orb or reality. It would rob it of all depth. In the same way, reducing life to experiences of loneliness or depression or loss also cuts us off from reality. Our lives offer both richness and scarcity, joy and sadness, excitement and boredom, and a host of antinomies. Real life lived at its full depth involves the mingling of all human emotions, and when joy invades the mix, it brings a sweetness to the sadness without the need of denying it or eliminating it. The joy of Christmas comes from the experience of God’s presence in the midst of our whole story, our total mélange of life in all its dimensions—and from having it all enveloped and consummated in joy. “The hopes and fears of all the years” are met in Jesus.
Leadership enters the picture when we consider that hardships and trouble must not define our story. It calls us to depth. To focus on the problems—whether loss of business or habits or traditions, or even loss of the “love of the game”—is to fragment our endeavors and deny their deep reality. Leadership requires a brave defiance of fragmentation and shallowness in favor of depth. Leadership keeps our eye on the ball—carrying out our mission despite all the contradictions and driving through, or over, or around all obstacles in persistent achievement. Every problem must be contextualized in the full depth of our enterprise. The satisfaction of mission fulfillment and eventual victory will, like joy, sweeten our whole pot of experiences in due time.
For a recent chapel sermon on this theme, see Melancholy Christmas.