Where have you been? Where are you going? And why?
I took a writing class from Sandra Glahn a couple years ago. I still follow her blog from time to time. She posts thought provoking material on the topics of writing, theology, infertility, and more. In the spirit of taking Christmas seriously, I pass this post along.
My wife and I initiated our girls into a WASP Christmas with an evening drive through various neighborhoods to look at decorations and lights. If Mary only knew that her figurine would one day be inflatable, kept from blowing away by string attached to balloons of Joseph, God, and the animals that came caroling.
All in all, the night left me singing along with Faith Hill. Where exactly are you, Christmas? Sure Santa grants wishes at the mall and the traffic turns us into Grinches: true signs of the holidays. But external merriment can only carry the soul so far.
When Shannon was pregnant I never could envision myself as a father. I had no awareness of it, no confidence in its actuality. I took care of her on bed rest for three months, listened to my twins’ beating hearts on the ultrasound, and felt their fists and legs punch and kick my hand. Yet I couldn’t believe. I had no grounded perception of the truth of fatherhood. What it would smell like. What it would sound like. What it would feel like. Though all the signs pointed me to reality, I didn’t believe in reality. And so I sit quietly in front of my Christmas tree, the room dark except for the tree’s illumination, and I recall another story I do not believe in.
It is a story where the experts of the ancient scriptures were the ones snugly sleeping the nights away as a star twinkled brighter than the others night after night. Foreshadowing of the type of folks that would have eyes to see and ears to hear and those who would not. Likely the light would have been out as the wise men passed by my house.
It’s a story of journeys, one long passage by two scared young parents-to-be, another longer course by three deceived gentiles bearing gifts, and yet an even further expedition by Emmanuel. It’s a story about you and not about you at all. All paths intersect in Bethlehem at some point; whether they continue into town toward the manger or instead follow the easier, longer road around town lies with you. As Buechner says, “at Christmastime, the one who confronts us with ourselves and with this truth is…God who is a child”. And sadly this confrontation fails to impress us, at least not in the cities and towns where it’s protocol to worship a baby every December. In the ancient Near East, it was customary to present gifts when approaching a superior. Imagine the President bowing before a baby. Such imagery is laughable, and yet it is our laughter that keeps us from understanding.
And no story is complete without a dragon. I’ve never seen a nativity scene include the invisible dragon of Revelation 12:4, primed to devour the foretold child before He could take his first breath. Scholars suggest the heart and actions of Herod took the form of such a dragon as he trembled upon hearing “It’s a Boy!”. His rage, induced by fear of losing his throne and power, made him the first anno domini enemy of God. Herod used the Romans to secure his power, killed family members and associates in attempt to keep that control, and finally committed infanticide in order to defy the prophetic challenger. Easy, we say, to call him an enemy of God. We know of no one driven by such selfishness, can’t even imagine it outside of perhaps terrorists in the Middle East. Surely no one that sits on your pew or lives in your neighborhood or stares back in your bathroom mirror. But when we look closely at Herod we see a familiar reflection. His eyes look eerily similar to the ones we possess that covet our friend’s wife. His hands take the same contours of ours that swipe the last cookie on the family plate. Surely our complacent indifference to the world’s least of these isn’t quite as bad as his binge of greed, right?
A friend texted me and a few others on Thanksgiving to let us know we were appreciated. Another fellow recipient replied all, “I could care less about you guys. Yet I love you more than I could ever imagine.” He wasn’t joking. The latter half I expected. The first part however revealed truth in the depths of you and me that rarely surfaces. Deep down, I really don’t care about you. Nor you for me. I’m going to get mine. I sail in Herod’s boat, a ship with “Enemies of God” painted boldly across the stern.
Yet God does not sink our boat. And by that grace I welcome the story we cannot tell enough, a story that believes in me even when I do not believe in it. A story of a scared teen, a good man, some livestock for dramatic effect, and a dragon, even. A story of the arrival of Peace that brought war and a war that will one day bring peace. Welcome, Christmas.
I shared previously about the school door decorating project. I had to veto ideas such as raining leprechauns, Modern Warfare Santa Clauses, and Little Susie’s assassination of the Grinch. With ailing backs and aching hands, my boys threw themselves into an artistic endeavor comparable to the Sistine Chapel. They even walked away quoting Michelangelo, “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.” With that, I give you “Snowman in a Snowstorm”.
I advise a group of ten boys every day for twenty minutes. That alone should have elicited some sort of gasp of impossibility. For the Christmas season, we’ve been given the responsibility of decorating my classroom door. Try casting vision to twelve year old testosterone for Christmas scrapbooking. Then substitute for the scrapbook a public door that the entire school can see. The brainstorming session that transpired produced all of zero politically correct (if there is such a thing for Christmas anymore) or practical ideas. Burning cabins in the woods and smoking Santa Clauses firing machine guns just don’t encourage the genre of Christmas cheer that our school promotes. Of all the comical ideas, however, this one lit the tree.
“Wait, wait, wait. I’ve got it. Let’s draw a living room, a Christmas tree, and the Grinch lying in a pool of his own blood with little Susie standing over him!”
See Door Results
It’s that time of year again. While Santa is making a list and checking it twice, most of us are formulating our own lists for him. Have you started your Christmas list yet? While I haven’t actually written anything down yet, I can take a lawn mower and a blue North Face pullover off my list. I own them now because they both belonged to dead men.
Forgive the lack of euphemism, but the matter of fact-ness is intended.
The lawn mower belonged to my wife’s grandfather who passed away two weeks ago. Another one of her relatives died of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) recently. How do you put to words the feeling of wearing someone’s jacket that faced one of the most painful and lonely exits from this world?
The word sobering isn’t quite sufficient. As I wore the jacket, I looked around the room at all of my other stuff. Ghostly names began to appear on everything. Names of the people who will own my things when I’m gone. What if your Christmas list had two columns:
Things I Want From Santa Person Who Will Get This When I Die
Our things will scatter to others like the seeds of a dandelion in the spring breeze. If we’re honest, we admit that we spend most of our time envisioning the empire that we will leave behind rather than picturing the yard sale of our belongings. Surely our legacy will surpass the boundaries of ancient Rome, we subconsciously plot.
James writes, “But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower.” (James 1:10) Similarly Isaiah proclaims, “A voice says, ‘Cry out.’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.’” It’s even more sobering to realize that in the Palestine of which these men wrote, grass stayed green only a few weeks.
The reality of death humbles one before God like nothing else. And in that light, the assurance of death becomes a merciful opportunity to worship the one who made us like grass and yet cares about us down to the root and loves us wildly while we wither.
I’ll join the other 14 billion people to post this. Simply beautiful.
-Thanks for passing it along, Doyle.
For that deeply serious masculine devotional time…
My wife’s grandfather died Wednesday. I’ve watched her say goodbye to him slowly for the last three years. Several nights before he passed, the hospice nurse reported hearing a soft voice singing throughout the night. The nurse shared the story with Frank’s wife, Millie, the next morning. Millie put in a CD that the nurse agreed matched the angelic voice. It was a song about being called home to heaven. On Tuesday, Millie had her own vision of Frank. He laughed like a child as he reunited with his sister. Coincidental or not, I need stories like these to keep my hope alive.
Two years ago I wrote this blog, but I did not post it. The time was not right. It is now.
— Knives and Dolls—
“My dad will probably try to give you a knife,” my father in law told me.
We stepped into my wife’s grandparent’s house, and the smell of dust and seventy years in the carpet hit me. I carried the diaper bag on one shoulder, a camera bag on the other, and a baby in my arms. It occurred to me that ninety years separated three of the room’s inhabitants. Shannon’s grandparents, Millie and Frank, lit up upon our twin girls’ entrance.
Frank spends twenty hours a day confined to a hospital bed that takes up half of the living room. On this particular day, he sat in his electronic chair wearing only a shirt. A towel draped over his lower half. When he drifted off to sleep, the towel would slip, and Millie would yell, “Hey Frank, do we need to put you back in the bed?”
“Nah, Millie, I’m fine,” replied Frank’s gentle voice.
It would be easy to overlook Frank. Most days he sits quietly as his wife entertains a constant flow of friends. Their house is a revolving door. If I talk to Frank, he’ll inevitably tell me about the day he encountered a hornet nest forty feet up in a tree. He fell; he anticipated a paratrooper’s landing but instead broke his hip and injured his spine at a life altering angle. Or he will pour out his guilt about the day he should have died. His World War II plane crashed the day he took off to go buy some shoes. If you talk to someone else about him, they’ll inevitably tell you about his tender heart, honesty, and prayerful, hard-working devotion. They will tell you how much he loved his wife. “You’ll never meet a better man,” they will say.
He told Millie to hand me his leather pouch of pocket knives, and I unbound the leather straps and rolled out the assortment of antique pocket knives, all dated by the extent of their rust. Staring at the collection, I wondered if General Patton had ever given away his medals.
“Summer, look at the doll.” My attention shifted.
Millie had set one of her dolls on the coffee table in front of my daughter who stood propping herself up, transfixed on the face before her. Summer and dolls had become the family’s fascination. Earlier in the week, I woke her from a nap and took her into Shannon’s childhood room. We stood at the dresser where four Madame Alexander china dolls returned our gaze. Summer reached her hand to pet their hair and faces with her tiny hand. She blabbered and conversed with the silent statues. We smiled and laughed as she crawled over to different dolls that sat around each room. Her pudgy legs caught in her dress along the way. Earlier in the week, her first word had rolled off her tongue, a definite “Da” concluded with something of an “L” sound. She repeated it again as she stared into her great-grandmother’s treasured doll.
I directed my attention back to the knives before me. Boyhood flashed before my eyes. There was always something about a knife. If I discount a plastic Play-Doh contraption, my first genuine pocket knife was a little red Swiss Army, complete with blade, scissors, nail file, tweezers, and tooth pick. I was MacGyver, empowered with the strength to escape any jam with the contents below the sink and Little Red in my pocket. I was my grandfather, constructing and creating in his workshop. His Swiss Army knife smelled of sweat and fresh cut wood. Mine probably smelled like dreams or new shoes. For me, the scissors and file were great: they offered the ability to open fruit roll-ups and rescue ten year old damsels with chipped nails. But, it was the knife that made me potent.
Frank’s knives lay before me like trophies, prizes that I kept reminding myself not to take through airport security. Each trophy told a story. I would eventually choose a knife that represented some deep cavern in Frank’s heart, a man that holds the admiration of an entire family. At one time his far-less wrinkled hands used this knife like his son uses a golf club and like I use this keyboard. Frank’s passions will one day lead him to construct a garden in heaven that surpasses the beauty of Nebuchadnezzar II’s. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus called the Hanging Gardens of Babylon one of the Seven Wonders of the World. If Herodotus had had the vision and ability to peer into the future, I imagine he would have claimed Frank’s character as the eighth.
Maren darted across the floor, and I jumped up to redirect her from the catheter by Grandpa’s bedside.
I resolved that I could not concentrate on both the rugrats and the blades. In the midst of this dilemma, though, I took in the passage of masculinity and femininity in the form of knives and dolls. When my girls look into the eyes of these dolls, something transcendent moves into them, not from the antique, but from their great-grandmother’s heart. The same happened for me as I took Frank’s knife. We are the recipients of stories that began long before us. We swim in the stream of strength, beauty, and love that flow through Frank and Millie. May we live lives worthy of such an inheritance.