This month I found myself along with my wife watching more than a few Hallmark Channel Christmas Movies, and some on the Lifetime Channel, the latter advertising their series as “It’s a Wonderful Lifetime.” The story lines are all very similar, and it’s wholesome TV entertainment for the most part, a welcomed alternative to the grit and gore of the evening news and most other cable shows. Actually, for some folks, this is not The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Statistics report that depression, anxiety and overall sadness are ironically more prevalent during the joy filled Christmas holiday weeks than at any other time.

Not so for the lucky movie cast. There are only about seven or eight plot variations, each featuring quaint cookie cutter, holiday draped little towns bustling with shoppers, and main characters who, although at the outset are at odds, eventually fall in love. By the conclusion of every two-hour episode, the factory/ranch avoids being sold, the at-risk vineyard produces an award winning vintage, the book store/community center stays open, the big city condo developer backs off from tearing down the historic building, the nerdy fiancé goes back to New York allowing the widower and his children to reunite with the never forgotten high school sweetheart, giving up the big corporate promotion to stay and help save the family business. Snow begins to gently fall on a man and woman kissing under the mistletoe. Fade out, cue the jingle bells and roll the credits.

Sounds like a Christmas miracle to me. It would have to be. The “sow’s ear” actually “turning into a silk purse” genre is all fiction, creating an unrealistically comfortable life, full of rainbows and unicorns, with happily ever after storybook endings. But more often than not, most of us won’t find ourselves in a Hallmark Movie snow globe, isolated from unexpected events that turn our lives upside down in an instant, popping the idealistic balloons of our hopes and dreams. Real life is rarely all candy canes and fluffy puppies on Christmas morning, or any morning.

Unlike in the movies, sometimes circumstances don’t seem to work out for the better, at least from our rather limited, temporal human perspective. Sometimes things actually get even worse. The Bible is full of examples. Multitudes of Jesus’ contemporaries missed embracing His mission of redemption altogether and were instead dismayed that the self-proclaimed Messiah came and went without delivering Israel from the iron rod of Roman oppression. The long-awaited Son of David was supposed to ascend to the throne and crush His enemies. But the temple and Jerusalem were destroyed just a few decades after Christ by Emperor-to-be Titus and his army, the very enemy Jewish zealots hoped He would destroy.

The Apostle Paul is another example of circumstances taking a 180 degree turn from normalcy and a predictable outcome. Prior to his dramatic conversion, Paul describes himself proudly as a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the Mosaic Law, a passionate Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the blaspheming disciples of the impostor Jesus; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. (Philippians 3:4-6) By the end of his life, he’s boasting instead about the strife he has endured for the sake of the Gospel: beaten, flogged, stoned, abandoned and maligned, shipwrecked and at the very end, in chains. That’s a radical shift, you must admit. “Give thanks in all circumstances,” he instructs the church in Thessalonica, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thes. 5:18)

I recently found myself in a hospital bed, the result of an acute infection. It was an unexpected, unwanted turn of events, and it certainly interrupted my routine and an orderly, normal life. But that’s what life tends to do. The key it seems is to press on through the difficulties and to not let pain steal away our joy. Is that even possible? Christian philosopher and author G. K. Chesterton believes that “Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate.”

Often quoted during this time and heard musically as probably the best known chorus of Handel’s Messiah, the prophet Isaiah wrote about the coming Prince of Peace who would change the world. He also wrote that, when peace seems to abandon us, we have a God who will not leave us alone in those dark, challenging times, and that we need not be overcome by dire situations. “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)

It is my sincerest hope that my family, friends and all my readers around the world enjoy this holiday season with “comfort and joy,” regardless of and maybe even in spite of your circumstances. As the classic 18th Century hymn proclaims: “Let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our Savior, Was born on Christmas Day, To save us all from Satan’s pow’r, When we were gone astray. Oh, tidings of comfort and joy, Comfort and joy!