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December 2011

The Antidote for (c)hristmas

Your words were found, and I ate them;
          and your words became for me a joy
          and the delight of my heart,
for I am called by your name,
          O Lord, God of hosts.
I did not sit in the company of revelers,
          nor did I rejoice;
I sat alone, because your hand was
                    upon me,
          for you had filled me with indignation.

(Jeremiah 15: 16-17)

Sometimes, in the midst of all the run-up to Christmas, it's nigh impossible to catch the real Christmas.  Not that I didn't try this year. I read books about the Incarnation.  I attended a Lessons and Carols service.  I considered the Christian meaning with which we invest what are essentially pagan celebratons.  And yet while all of this is good, I feel like a minnow trying to swim upstream in a torrent of Christmas marketing and obligatory social functions and gift-giving.  Sometimes, perhaps a little like Jeremiah, I can't sit in the company of the revelers but feel the emptiness of it all.  I've been here before. 

The best Christmas I remember was also the most difficult for my wife and I.  Some time after Thanksgiving of 1991 we received a call from a counselor at a pregnancy life care center in a small town in Oregon informing us that an unwed mother she counseled --- a high school senior --- had chosen us to parent her soon-to-be-born child.  That Advent season was just that: an advent, a season of expectancy not just of His birth but of this immediate birth.  While filled with joy, we also pondered what it all meant, questioned how it would transpire, and considered the possibility that it would all unwind.  To believe otherwise took faith and hope.  Ultimately, it took love --- the love of a child that had not come from us, who had been borne outside us but providentially for us.  Thus, Advent was in some ways all awry, fraught with the thoughts not of the Incarnate One, but the child to come, and yet in so many ways our thoughts and preparations were suggestive of exactly how Advent should be observed, took us out of the Christmas rush and onto another focus entirely: a birth.

Two days before Christmas, we received an urgent call from the counselor.  The birthmother was in labor and desperately wanted us present at birth.  We booked tickets for our 3000 mile journey, left tree and gifts and family, moved our foreign exchange student across the street to live with neighbors, and left.  Arriving, we were informed it was false labor.  Since it was too expensive to fly home and then back for true labor, we settled into a mom-and-pop motel in a town of no more than 2500 people, strangers in a strange land.  It rained every day.  Fog and mist enveloped us. Sheep moved in a meadow outside our window.  We bought cheap paper Christmas decorations and stuck them on our walls.  On Sunday, being Presbyterians, we went to the local presbyterian church.  The "sermon" was a reading of "How Grinch Who Stole Christmas." I waited for the application.  There was none.  We felt alone, missed home, family, friends, and church.  We waited.  We spent our days having lunch and driving around with a very pregnant teenage girl --- a girl and our baby.  We waited some more.  But eventually, a baby boy was born, and we came home on January 7th, just over two weeks later.  Advent, Christmas, and even Epiphany were over.  We missed it.  Or did we?

Maybe that's the only antidote for christmas --- for the false one, the cultural one that is destined to collapse the day after --- to be wrenched out of the place in which you find yourself and be set down in a foreign land.  All I know is that when you have been stripped of what passes for Christmas here and set down in a place where your focus is on a child to come, Advent becomes a sober waiting, the birth a celebration, Christmastide a long settling into a new reality.  Unto us a child is born, Isaiah says.  For us, a child was born.

Scripture has its own way of working in us a new reality, of course.  It's just that sometimes it's so difficult to really hear what it is saying in the midst of all that swirls around us.  We say "unto us a child is born" --- in fact, we say it every year --- and yet we behave as if it happens every day.  But on at least one Christmas it wasn't like that for me.  It was unique, otherworldly, and world-changing.  And if that birth was so momentous, how can I ever again pass by the words "unto us a child is born" and not be awestruck at the reality of the Creator of all poured into a little boy?

Really.  Unto us a child is born.  As Jeremiah would say: "Eat that."  Revel in that.  Be indignant about any Christmas that passes for a celebration of less than that.  Sit alone and ruminate on the love of a God who poured Himself out for a world that will celebrate anything but His birth. Rejoice, and be glad.



The Christmas Gift (A Story)

When Scott and Buddy delivered our new washer and dryer, they pulled their white delivery truck right up to the tippy top of our driveway and stopped, front wheels perched over the grassy sideyard.  Watching from the window, I noticed neither of them got out of the cab.  They sat there.  A little gas or oil dripped from the underside of the truck, making a sheen on the concrete, and I was momentarily distracted by the thought of a fiery ball of flame as the truck blew, ignited by a spark.  Someone was smoking inside, but it was too hazy to see.

I opened the door and stepped out on the porch.  "Hey, come on in." I waved.  I walked about halfway to the cab on the truck.  "You can come on in."

The window cracked just a sliver, about a tongue's breadth, and Scott said "Is that yor dog?"  He pointed toward the backyard where my German Shepherd, Jake, stood, fully extended, paws casually draped over the fence, tongue out, face lit up.

"Yeah.  She's harmless.  She likes people."

Buddy leaned forward.  "Do he bite?"  His eyes were wide.

"Nah, he don't bite"  I had lapsed into the vernacular.  "I mean, she won't bite you.  Might lick you, but she won't bite.'" 

Scott and Buddy sat there.  Smoke curled from the cracked window.

"He got teeth, don't he?," said Buddy.  Jake was smiling at Scott and Buddy, quivering with excitement.  She let out a welp of impatience.

"Put yor dog up or we ain't getting out."  Scott cranked the window up.  They sat there. The substance continued to drip from the truck, pooling on the driveway.  The motor ticked like motors tick when they're settling into a new place.

"Really, she's OK.  Don't worry about her."  I said "don't worry about her," raising my voice a tad.  The window creaked open.

"Ain't coming.  Put the dog up."

"Hang on."  I walked around the truck and went over to Jake, who by this time was trying to crawl over the fence, barking and pawing at the wood fence boards.

"Jake!  Jake!  Calm down, girl, calm down." She plopped down.  I unlatched the gate, grabbed her by the collar, picked up some rope I kept by the gate for times like this. I dragged her over to a small maple tree in the center of the back yard.  She tugged at the rope.  Resolute, stiffened paws dug into the soft earth where the grass had given up due to Jake's constant treading.

"Don't look back there, Jake.  You can't play with them.  Sit down.  Behave yourself." I gave her a bone to play with.  She didn't sit.  Didn't want the bone.  She strained at the rope and whimpered. I walked back to the gate, latched it, and went up to the window where Scott sat.  The widow creaked down, this time wider.

"He gone?"

"Yeah, I tied her up.  You guys come on out.  Don't worry about Jake."

The door opened and a hulking man dropped from the cab to the driveway.  "I'm Scott," he said, "and that there's Billy." Billy came around the back of the truck at that point.  It looked like he weighed about 275, broad shouldered with a stomach wrapped in a white t-shirt lapping over green army dungarees secured by a rope belt.  I'd never seen a rope used for a belt and mused on why anyone would do such a thing until he spoke.

"Billy," he said.  He extended his hand. 

I was amused by the sight of lanky Scott and sumo-wrestler Billy, but I snapped out of it quickly.

"I'm glad you guys showed up so soon. I need you to get the washer and dryer in the house and hooked up before my wife returns.  It's her Christmas present.  I want to surprise her."

Billy popped the latch on the trailer and the door rolled up with snap.  A blast of air rolled out that smelled like oil and cardboard and pizza. . . pizza? I sniffed.

"Yeah, sorry, Billy and I had a little lunch before we came."

"Hey, no problem."

"Scott, I can't tote that washer."

"Get the hand truck, stupid. . . . oh, sorry Mr. . . Mr. Woglenaut. Woglenaut?"

"German.  Polish.  Something, I don't know.  Just call me Rob."

"Mr. Rob, where we headin' with this thing?"

"Right in the front door."

Scott unlatched and extended the ramp from the back of the trailer.  Billy lumbered up the ramp and bent over.  I looked away, suddenly very interested in the gutters on my house.

"Jeez, Billy, get some suspenders, will ya?," Scott said.  "You can see China from here."  Scott hacked and spit on the driveway.  On my driveway.  I turned around and noted that Billy had repositioned himself, now had the hand truck belt wrapped around the washer.  He began to back it down the ramp, as Scott watched.  Maybe it was my imagination, but the ramp seemed to buckle a bit, straining under the weight.  Once down, he dragged it toward the front door.

"Hang on, let me get the door."  I ran around Billy, up the front steps, and opened the door.  By this time, Scott was pulling on the handles of the hand truck, backing up the steps, while Billy pushed.  I heard a sound from the back door.  Jake!   I went to the back door.  Jake had broken the rope, was scratching at the back door window, barking and throwing himself against the door.  I opened the door, intent on grabbing his collar and then retying him to the tree before Scott or Billy noticed.

But Jake would have none of it.  He bounded through the door, knocked me to the floor, and ran toward the front door where Scott was just cresting the top step.  On the way, what was left of his chain caught on the carefully-decorated Christmas tree we had set in the den.  Down when the tree!  Ornaments burst and rolled across the floor.  It all excited Jake.  He kept going, making a beeline for the front door.

Just then, Scott looked around.  "What the. . .?"  He dropped the washer.  Billy rolled to the side, his fall cushioned by a bed of pine straw.  The washer thudded down the steps, began rolling down the hill towards the street.  Pulling the entire Christmas tree, the stand screeching across our hardwood floor, Jake ran out the front door, leaped from the front step, and was caught in mid-air by the tree --- which had lodged in the front door.  He  fell back.

Scott was in the cab of the truck.  The window cracked.  "Hey, Billy, get in here."  Billy sloshed toward the truck, Jake barking  and straining at the leash, bound by the tree.

"Hey, come on back, you guys.  I'll put Jake up."

The truck fired.  Scott backed it down the driveway, narrowly missing the fire hydrant at the street.  Jake continued to bark.  Blocked by the tree, I went around to the side door.  By the time I opened it, the truck was gone.  The washer had rolled down the hill, still on the hand-truck, lodged in some azaleas in the natural area.  I walked over to where the truck had been parked.  A greasy spot remained.  I looked up just in time to see my wife's car pull into our driveway.



Christmas Eve With Glen Campbell (A Little Story)

When you have to do it, you just have to. Don't make no difference what anyone says. Just is.  That's what I kept telling myself, at least.  Simple as that.  After all, I got me a cat and two dogs and a critter ain't got no tail. That's my pig.  He's a good one.  Likes TV, like Arnold.  Remember Arnold?  With the likes of these, who needs a woman?

I's setting watching TV the other night, wraslin' it was, cause I like a good wraslin' match I do, and my boy --- the one ain't got no sense --- come in asking after her.  I told him she ain't here.  She took off.  Skipped town with all the cash I had on me and my pistol as well.  Can't figure it. What kind of woman would do that, just run off like that what with a kid to raise up? Just drove off.  Left me in the dust.  I cursed at her, though I know I shouldn't a done like that what with the boy looking on and all, but it got all over me.  I think she's touched, got a screw loose.  Took to hoarding paper bags and saving pieces of fabric and anything else she could get her hands on.

My pig's name is Glen Campbell, seeing as he likes to watch that show with me and all.  Sits right up on the settee and listens.  Stands up when Glen sings and plays and sits down when he don't.  Smart pig, that Glen Campbell.

Smarter'n that woman left here.

He asked where his Momma was and I told him don't bother with that, told him she'd be back d'reckly.  Glen Campbell snorted at that.  Got down off the settee and went round and round in circles on the floor, snorting'. I told him to stop disrespecting me like that, calling me a liar and all.  But he didn't mind me.  The boy watched him, rolled a little Matchbox car back and forth on the top of the settee, eyes looking down at the pig.

I told him go on back to his room, make himself busy.   He did.  The old trailer creaked as he ran down the hall.  I sipped on my beer, poured some in Glen Campbell's dish.  He lapped it up.  That pig is no teetotaler, that's for sure.  But I'm careful, as nothing's worse than a lit pig.  One time Glen Campbell had two beers, one time when I lost count, and he commenced to charging at the TV set every time the commercials came on.  But at least he had the good sense to wait until the commercials.

My dogs won't touch the stuff.  Can't hold the liquor, I guess.  Just as well.  Them hounds are stoked enough anyhow.

The cat used to drink Thunderbird wine.  Got religion and gave it up though.  One day we's watching Jimmy Swaggert me and the cat, and Preacher Jimmy gets all agitated talking 'bout the baptism of the Holy Spirit and all, and all of a sudden the cat jumps off the settee and kneels with his paws together and commenced to praying right there on the floor, after which he springs up in the air like something scared it and begins rolling about all over the floor.  No kidding.

That cat never drank again.  Became downright sissy, even let the dogs lick it and never raised a paw to scratch 'em.  For a day even I considered giving up the drink.  Instead I gave up watching Jimmy Swaggert.

I said get back in your room, boy!  I told him not to come out here.  Where's that woman, anyway?  Where's that woman when you need her?  What am I gonna do about the boy, anyway?

He's got 'em in a headlock, dragging him all over the ring.  Glen Campbell is all excited, running around the settee, squealing.  I love wrastling!

She said I was nothing but a drunk, and I said she was nothing but a no good hussie, and she told me to go to "h-e-double-hockey-sticks" and I told her the same.  I should'a cut her loose a long time ago.

That boy's got her eyes.

Big Dave's got him pinned.

The dogs commenced to barking.

When the door opened I knew it was her.  I knew she'd be back.  I knew she wouldn't leave me.

"I got us a Christmas tree, Jess.  You gonna help me get it in?  Or you gonna sit there?"

I'm gonna help her.  "Boy, come out here, your Momma's home."  I'm gonna help her.  For some reason, my eyes began to water.  I wiped them with the back of my hand.  Glen Campbell sighed.  I'm gonna help her.  It's Christmas Eve, ain't it?  I'm feeling good.
I stood up and took her by the hand.  The boy slipped his hand in mine.  In his other was a bag filled with little pieces of fabric, paper bags with colored Bible scenes, and a string of colored lights.

Carrying Scripture

It's too soon to call it a habit, and yet one hoped-for "habit" I have adopted lately is that of carrying a scripture verse with me on a 3 x 5 index card tucked in my shirt pocket.  You won't find me marketing this brilliant new idea to Thomas Nelson or Zondervan as a new spiritual discipline; there is certainly nothing new about it, and yet it is new to me.

Don't call it Bible memorization.  That conjures up a training motif that, despite its value, shuts it down for me.  That may well happen on the way, but the way I am talking about is meditation, thinking about one Bible verse, maybe even one phrase, all day long.  This yields surprising insights.

Take Philippians 4: 5b-7.  In the NIV translation (and the way I memorized it), verse 6 is a new sentence that begins with "Do not be anxious. . .," but the ESV links that beginning directive by a semicolon with the last part of verse 5, "The Lord is at hand," so that it reads like this: "The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, make your request known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus."

Together, verses 6 and 7, as set out in the NIV and as so often quoted, used to make me feel helpless and even angry.  Commanding an anxious person to not be anxious is a near impossible command to follow, if indeed it be a command.  And it certainly doesn't produce peace.  And yet carrying this verse with me and seeing it throughout the day made me draw great comfort from the linkage I mention.  Rather than a command, I saw more of an assurance, something like this: "Look, God is near.  He is in control.  He is wise and good and all-powerful.  Therefore, you don't need to worry.  Focus not on what you lack but on what you have.  Give your cares to me.  Let me carry them."  Settling into me was the sense that God's peace is more the result of focusing on His nearness and His provision than any attempt not to be anxious.

I don't know what led the ESV translators to use the semicolon, but I'm glad they did.  I noticed.  I may not have, however, if I had not carried that scripture with me all day.  Having it in my pocket, I not only caught it out of the corner of my eye but felt it.  I read it while stopped at a traffic light, between bites at lunch, and when I noticed it during my work.  I carried it in my hand when I took a walk.  In a sense, it became three-dimensional, carried me as I carried it.

God's Word is all kinds of things.  A light. A double-edged sword.  Even an index card.  But in the end, beyond those tangibilities, it's a person, and we don't carry it.  He carries us.

Lord Jesus, come yourself, and dwell with us, be human as we are, and overcome what overwhelms us.  Come into the midst of my evil, come close to my unfaithfulness.  Share my sin, which I hate and which I cannot leave.  Be my brother, Thou Holy God.  Be my brother in the kingdom of evil and suffering and death.  Come with me in my death, come with me in my suffering, come with me as I struggle with evil.  And make me holy and pure, despite my sin and death.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christmas Sermons, ed. Edwin Robertson)