Cross Road in winterJames Taylor is crooning “heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.” Because I don’t know the lyrics to this carol (In the Bleak Midwinter), I’m really concentrating as I try to sing along. It occurs to me, as it has a few times as I listen to holiday albums in the days before Christmas: how fervently does ole JT believe this religious sentiment? About as much as I do, when I sing along with Pete Seeger, Emmy Lou Harris, Aaron Neville, Nat King Cole?

A sullen former Catholic, a questioning Quaker who no longer attends meeting, I have a hard time with organized religion. Although I sincerely seek a spiritual component in my life, I struggle with faith, with belief in any sort of deity. And lest you think this is a diatribe against Christianity at this most Christian time of the year—quite the contrary. This is the time of the year when the story of Christ’s birth—its simplicity and improbability, its angels and kings, its gentle beasts and kneeling shepherds—inspires great good. Acts of charity and kindness. Thoughtful and nurturing gifts. Aspirations for peace and goodwill.

The story of the nativity has inspired so many more stories with themes of charity, hope, and love. Santa Claus. Good King Wenceslaus. A Christmas Carol. The Gift of the Magi. How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Reading them, listening to them, watching them, singing along—at this time of the year, these stories of generosity and light are at the center of our celebrations, whether we’re particularly mindful of them or not. There is something in us that loves a good story.

So even if I don’t necessarily believe that angels were heard on high the night of Christ’s birth, at this darkening time of the year, at this darkening time in history, I cherish stories that affirm that we still have goodness in us.