It's a scene as common to the Christmas season as It's a Wonderful Life rebroadcast on television 24/7, or the decorations that lace the walls of shopping malls from mid-October until late January. You exit the grocery or department store, feet aching, arms heavy with shopping bags to the twinkling chime of bells filling the brisk air.
Awkwardly, too often you do one of two things -- either shuffle toward your car, eyes glued to the pavement pretending you can't hear the bells' clamor, or you glance apologetically into the smiling face of the bell-ringer and whisper that you don't have any change. Or maybe you do neither, and instead reach into your wallet, place a few bills or quarters into the crimson kettle, and wish the bell-ringer "Merry Christmas."
Whatever our reasons for giving or not, sometimes the sheer numbers of Red Kettles and Salvation Army bells during the holidays can seem overwhelming. If we give to one, it is easy to feel guilty for not giving to them all.
It'll soon be the time of year when parents give gifts to their children and families gather to share life together. But it's also a season when the days grow shorter, the nights long and dark, a fitting metaphor for those who have lost their jobs, homes or nest eggs.
For individuals who have been abandoned or had loved ones pass away, the holidays are another painful reminder of the great deficits in their lives. Grief and cynicism are as common to this season as joy and optimism -- perhaps even more so. Comprehending the vastness of this need can make us feel paralyzed to do anything about it, and so we do nothing, tracing the cracks in the pavement in passive retreat.
As a pastor, Max Lucado is confronted with the needs of others on a daily -- sometimes hourly -- basis. The Christmas Candle is a theatrical film based on a book he wrote several years ago that will release nationally on Nov. 22. It tells an engaging story about a London minister who finds himself faced with the darkest hour in his life after his faith has slipped away. Having left the church and, perhaps trying to will his heart back to belief through good deeds, he spends his days with The Salvation Army serving soup to the hungry.
Isolated by his doubt, however, the reverend hasn't made much progress. It takes another person to draw him back to his vocation as a preacher, a lovely lady from a distant parish who once heard him preach and is confident in his ability to affect change. Though she believes in him, the minister's skepticism lingers.
Just like the pastor in "Christmas Candle," in 1842 it would have been easy for the man who eventually founded the Salvation Army to give up on his faith. At the age of 13, William Booth's father died, leaving him, his four siblings and his mother in utter poverty. At 15, in the midst of a pawnbroker apprenticeship that Booth likened to slavery, he was invited to a Methodist church in Nottingham. In a moment of repentance he would remember with precise clarity until the end of his days, Booth confessed his sins and committed his life to "loving activity in the service of God and man."
Despite his newfound conviction, the road ahead was not easy for William Booth. At 19, he traveled to London in search of employment and yoked himself to a master almost as severe as the last. "In the great city," Booth wrote, "I felt myself utterly alone."
A few years later, after becoming a full-time pastor in the Methodist church, Booth found himself at another moment of crisis. His duties as a minister frequently prevented him from carrying out what he felt were his true callings: evangelizing and serving the poor. He eventually resigned his church position, and in 1865 he and his wife founded what later became the Salvation Army. They took to the streets preaching to, and feeding, the city's most destitute -- criminals, beggars, prostitutes -- for which the Booths and their colleagues were often ridiculed.
Despite criticism, the Salvation Army expanded its ranks to include operations across the world. Stories like William Booth's remind us that despite overwhelming odds, it is possible for a single individual to affect change. Such truisms can seem trite in our world of jadedness and pessimism. When mired in grief and doubt, it's easy to shut the door, shutter the blinds and isolate oneself from loved ones. It's common to want to be alone.
The Christmas Candle is a beautiful and beautifully made film that will transport audiences back to the beauty and wonder of that simpler time in Dickens-era England. Curiously, a Christmas movie at Christmastime is a rare thing these days. But perhaps audiences will leave the theater with their hope restored and their faith renewed by the promise that God has, and always will, work miracles -- especially at Christmastime, when even the scroogiest of hearts get a little bit softer.
In this inspirational, intergenerational story that families can enjoy together, it takes an entire village of common folk to draw their pastor back to the faith of his youth. Yet, all this talk of commonness reminds me of yet another story, one that Lucado often recounts during his Christmastime sermons:
She was an ordinary girl, barely grown out of her teenage acne. He was normal, nothing more than the young carpenter down the street. She sang off-key, he had callouses. After being told she carried the most extraordinary child in the universe, this common girl and her common husband were told by a stable owner, "We don't have room for you."
It didn't come as a surprise. They'd heard it all their lives. Just like you may have heard all of your life: "We don't have a place for you;" "We don't have a job for you;" or "We don't have an opportunity for you."
God chose the most average people, in the most normal, even pathetic, setting in which to be born. It gives all of us average folks, cursed with the plague of normalcy, permission to hope. Because Jesus chose to enter the world cloaked in ordinariness, we commoners can read the story and think, "My, might He be willing to do it again? Through us? And in us, as common folk?"
In every good and true story, the central character reaches that darkest night of the soul where all hope seems lost, when his or her loneliness and sorrow seems complete. What you carry inside you -- wisdom, kindness, mercy, talent -- is something the world desperately needs. If you allow yourself to be isolated and muted, that light within you is concealed. It cannot be seen by anyone else, cannot brighten the flickering darkness within them.
The miracle of Christmas is that amidst the darkness of the world, God sent light.
Larry Ross is president of A. Larry Ross Communications, a Dallas-based media/public relations agency that provides crossover media liaison at the intersection of faith and culture. With more than 37 years' experience influencing public opinion, Mr. Ross serves as inspirational media representative for "The Christmas Candle" film.