When Jan and I pastored our first church in Kalispell, Montana, we experienced a lot of firsts. We had our first Sunday as pastors of a new church with only one visitor attending. Our first real Rocky Mountain winter was a new experience, and so was the view from our living room window looking out across the Flathead Valley toward Glacier Park.
One of our most memorable Christmas firsts was a sleigh ride in the snow with our church family. A man in the valley owned teams of Belgian draft horses. He used these massive horses for logging in the forest. The Belgians reminded me of the Budweiser Clydesdales you see in the beer commercials. He also owned two large flat top sleighs that could hold lots of people.
At Christmas time we gathered after sunset in a large meadow at the edge of the forest to begin loading onto the sleighs. Once everyone found a seat, we would ride through the forest to an awaiting bonfire where hot chocolate, hot cider, and fresh-baked brownies were prepared for our arrival. Kids began to giggle in excitement and couples pulled each other extra close in the cold night as the rays from a full moon reflected off the brilliant white snow making the illuminated night seem magical.
When the sleigh drivers shook their reins signaling to the team of Belgians to begin their pull everything changed. It was at that moment we first heard the bells. Attached to the harness of each horse were bells that jingled whenever a horse hoof hit the snow. The sound of ching, ching, ching punctuated the silent night as plumes of exhaled breath shot out into the cold night air from the nostrils of the horses.
After a long ride through the trees, we began to see in the distance the glow of the bonfire where our outdoor sanctuary was prepared. The remainder of the night was filled with cups of hot chocolate and cider and the sound of a solo guitar leading our church in worship as the bonfire cracked a popped sending embers skyward as its own expression of joy. We sang Christmas carols under the stars and in the moonlight as our voices filled Creation with awe at God’s goodness.
Most of you are not in a forest setting like the one I just described. Neither is my family this Christmas, but the same joy at the core of that first Rocky Mountain winter sleigh ride is still present no matter where we find our lives at this time of the year. In the middle of whatever you are experiencing choose to discover that joy. It awaits your recognition in every situation of life. It can be wrapped in the noise and clamor of the inner city, experienced during a break on a lonesome shift at work on Christmas Eve, while on a deadly patrol in Afganistan or if you find yourself alone this Christmas because someone you loved is no longer present. That joy is a Person. He is always present in whatever condition this Christmas finds you. Discover Him. Celebrate Him. He is your Joy.