Investigating Faith with Lee Strobel, December 9, 2014 A Skeptic's Christmas
A family’s love for the child
in the manger spurs a spiritual journey
The Chicago Tribune newsroom was eerily quiet on the day before Christmas. As I sat at my desk, my mind kept wandering back to a family I had encountered a month earlier while I was working on a series of articles about Chicago’s poorest people.
The Delgados – sixty-year-old Perfecta and her granddaughters Lydia and Jenny – had been burned out of their roach-infested tenement and were now living in a tiny two-room apartment on the West Side. As I walked in, I couldn’t believe how empty it was. There was no furniture, no rugs, nothing on the walls – only a small kitchen table and one handful of rice. They were virtually devoid of possessions.
In fact, eleven-year-old Lydia and thirteen-year-old Jenny owned only one short-sleeved dress each, plus one thin sweater between them. When they walked the half-mile to school through the biting cold, Lydia would wear the sweater for part of the distance and then hand it to her shivering sister, who would wear it the rest of the way.
But despite their poverty and the painful arthritis that kept Perfecta from working, she still talked confidently about her faith in Jesus. She was convinced he had not abandoned them. I never sensed despair or self-pity in her home; instead, there was a gentle feeling of hope and peace. Although I was an atheist at the time, she had my complete attention.
I wrote an article about the Delgados, and then I quickly moved on to other assignments. But as I sat at my desk on Christmas Eve, I continued to wrestle with this irony: here was a family that had nothing but faith and yet seemed happy, while I had everything I needed materially but lacked faith – and inside I felt as empty and barren as their apartment.
I walked over to the city desk to sign out a car. I decided to drive over to West Homer Street and see how the Delgados were doing.
What Jesus Would Do
When Jenny opened the door, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Tribune readers had responded to my article by showering the Delgados with a treasure trove of gifts – roomfuls of furniture, appliances, and rugs; a lavish Christmas tree with piles of wrapped presents underneath; carton upon bulging carton of food; and a dazzling selection of clothing, including dozens of warm winter coats, scarves, and gloves. On top of that, they donated thousands of dollars in cash.
But as surprised as I was by this outpouring, I was even more astonished by what my visit was interrupting: Perfecta and her granddaughters were getting ready to give away much of their newfound wealth. When I asked Perfecta why, she replied in halting English: “Our neighbors are still in need. We cannot have plenty while they have nothing. This is what Jesus would want us to do.”
That blew me away! If I had been in their position at that time in my life, I would have been hoarding everything. I asked Perfecta what she thought about the generosity of the people who had sent all of these goodies, and again her response amazed me.
“This is wonderful; this is very good,” she said, gesturing toward the largess. “We did nothing to deserve this – it’s a gift from God. But,” she added, “it is not his greatest gift. No, we celebrate that tomorrow. That is Jesus.”
To her, this child in the manger was the undeserved gift that meant everything – more than material possessions, more than comfort, more than security. And at that moment, something inside of me wanted desperately to know this Jesus – because, in a sense, I saw him in Perfecta and her granddaughters.
They had peace despite poverty, while I had anxiety despite plenty; they knew the joy of generosity, while I only knew the loneliness of ambition; they looked heavenward for hope, while I only looked out for myself; they experienced the wonder of the spiritual while I was shackled to the shallowness of the material – and something made me long for what they had. Or, more accurately, for the One they knew.
I was pondering this as I drove back toward Tribune Tower. Suddenly, though, my thoughts were interrupted by the crackle of the car’s two-way radio. It was my boss, sending me out on another assignment. Jarred back to reality, I let the emotions I felt in the Delgado apartment dissipate. And that, I figured at the time, was probably a good thing.
As I would caution myself whenever the Delgados would come to mind from time to time over the ensuing years, I’m not the sort of person who’s driven by feelings. As a journalist, I was far more interested in facts, evidence, data and concrete reality. Virgins don’t get pregnant; there is no God who became a baby; and Christmas is little more than an annual orgy of consumption driven by the greed of corporate America. Or so I thought.
Embarking on an Investigation
As a youngster, I listened with rapt fascination to the annual Bible story about Christmas. But as I matured, skepticism set in. I concluded that not only is Santa Claus merely a feel-good fable, but that the entire Christmas tale was itself built on a flimsy foundation of wishful thinking.
Sure, believing in Jesus could provide solace to sincere but simple folks like the Delgados; yes, it could spark feelings of hope and faith for people who prefer fantasy over reality. But as a law-trained newspaperman, I dealt in the currency of facts – and I was convinced they supported my atheism rather than Christianity.
All of that changed several years later, however, when I took a cue from one of the most famous Bible passages about Christmas. The story describes how an angel announced to a ragtag group of sheepherders that “a Savior who is Messiah and Master” had been born in David’s town. Was this a hoax? A hallucination? Or could it actually be the pivotal event of human history – the incarnation of the Living God?
The sheepherders were determined to get to the bottom of the matter. Like first-century investigative reporters being dispatched to the scene of an earth-shattering story, they declared: “Let’s get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can, and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.” They left, running, to personally check out the evidence for themselves. (See Luke 2:8-18)
Essentially, that’s what I did for a living as a Tribune reporter: investigate claims to see if they’re true, separate rumors from reality, and determine facts from fiction. So prompted by my agnostic wife’s conversion to Christianity, and still intrigued by memories of the Delgados, I decided to get to the bottom of what I now consider to be the most crucial issue of history: who was in the manger on that first Christmas morning?
Can we really trust the biographies of Jesus to tell us the true story of his birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, and ultimate resurrection from the dead? Did the Christmas child ultimately embody the attributes of God? And did the baby in Bethlehem miraculously match the prophetic “fingerprint” of the long-awaited Messiah?
I ended up spending nearly two years investigating the identity of the Christmas child; you can read what I discovered in my book The Case for Christmas. At the conclusion, I found the evidence to be clear and compelling.
Yes, Christmas is a holiday overlaid with all sorts of fanciful beliefs, from flying reindeer to Santa Claus sliding down chimneys. But I became convinced that if you drill to its core, Christmas is based on a historical reality – the Incarnation: God becoming man, spirit taking on flesh, the infinite entering the finite, the eternal becoming time-bound. It’s a mystery backed up by facts that I now believed were simply too strong to ignore.
I had come to the point where I was ready for the Christmas gift that Perfecta Delgado had told me about years earlier: the Christ child, whose love and grace is offered freely to everyone who receives him in repentance and faith. Even someone like me.
So I talked with God in a heartfelt and unedited prayer, admitting and turning from my wrongdoing, and receiving his offer of forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus. I told him that with his help I wanted to follow him and his ways from here on out.
There was no choir of heavenly angels or lightning bolts. I know that some people feel a rush of emotion at such a moment; as for me, there was something else that was equally exhilarating: there was the rush of reason.
Over time, however, there has been so much more. As I have endeavored to follow Jesus’ teachings and open myself to his transforming power, my priorities, values, character, worldview, attitudes, and relationships have been changing – for the better. It has been a humbling affirmation of 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.”
And now, what about you? Perhaps, like the first-century sheepherders, your next step should be to further investigate the evidence for yourself. If any of my books can be helpful, great. But I hope you’ll promise yourself at the outset that when the facts are in, you’ll reach your own verdict in the case for Christmas.
Or maybe you’re more like the magi. Through a series of circumstances, you’ve maneuvered your way through the hoopla, glitter, and distractions of the holiday season, and now you’ve finally come into the presence of the baby who was born to change your life and rewrite your eternal destination.
Go ahead, talk to him. Offer your worship and your life. And let him give you what Perfecta Delgado called the greatest gift of all – Himself.
This article was adapted from my book The Case for Christmas.
Personal from Lee
• Something big is brewing. Seriously. I can’t announce it just yet, but news will come out soon. It’s about fresh approaches to evangelism, fresh strategies for outreach, and fresh energy for reaching America for Christ. I’ll let you know as soon as we finalize everything. Follow me at @LeeStrobel on Twitter to keep current, watch for my next newsletter, and keep an eye on your inbox for a note from me. Can’t wait to share this with you!
• We’ve reshaped my evangelism class at Houston Baptist University to make it easier for both HBU students and outside visitors to participate. The class will be held on Thursday evening, February 5; Friday evening, February 6; and Saturday, February 7 on the HBU campus. Why not join me and my guest speakers, best-selling authors Mark Mittelberg and Garry Poole? You’ll find inspiration and practical ideas for reaching out to friends and neighbors – and, believe me, if you live where it’s cold and snowy, visiting Houston for a few days in February ain’t bad! For more information or to sign up, click here.
• I hope you’ll urge your church to participate in our Case for Grace live simulcast on Sunday evening, March 1. I’ll be telling amazing stories from my new book by that title, which releases a few days before then. If you’re looking for a new way your church can bring the Gospel to your community, here’s your chance to participate in a high-impact, turn-key outreach event. Just have your church sign up, encourage people to come and invite their spiritually curious friends, and we’ll do the rest! There’s even a 20 percent discount for churches that register by the end of December. For more information, click here.
• I’ve been thrilled with the response to my son Kyle’s new book Beloved Dust, coauthored with Jamin Goggin of Saddleback Church. John Ortberg called it “great wisdom on spiritual growth and friendship with God,” and Rick Warren said, “I love this book so much.” To celebrate its success, we’re giving away some copies of Kyle’s earlier book, Metamorpha: Jesus as a Way of Life, which looks at how the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and community help us grow spiritually. Click here for several ways to enter.
Keep in touch by joining me on Twitter at @LeeStrobel and visiting www.LeeStrobel.com. Please let others know they can subscribe to this free newsletter at www.LeeStrobel.com or www.Biblegateway.com.