Each year I write a story to tell on Christmas Eve. My conviction is that my life was not changed by an intellectual, but by a by a relationship – by a hope that came to me first in the form of a story. Any story I tell is simply a reflection of The Story. Some are better than others. I hope that in this one, you can see something of the light of Jesus. I like to read them out loud, and encourage you to do so, too.
If you’d like, you can read John 1:1-14 to get an insight in the The Story which led me to this story. If the idea of these stories appeals to you, you might be interested in reading more. I’ve collected them in a volume entitled I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas, available at Amazon or by contacting me directly.
Derrick Brown was in a groove. The Imperial March from Star Wars was keeping time in his head as he administered CPR to the woman who’d collapsed at the supermarket. Here he was, channeling his inner Jedi as he sought to save a life on a Tuesday evening.
As the woman regained consciousness and Derrick’s partners put her into the ambulance for a ride to the hospital, the full-time English teacher and part-time volunteer firefighter smiled as he thought about the relationship between resuscitating the shopper and the lesson he’d already planned for his ninth-graders tomorrow. It was one of his favorite lessons of the year – they’d been preparing for a unit on Shakespeare, and he was going to help them learn to tell the difference between a comedy and a tragedy.
In tragedies, like Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, the story ends with disaster and death. In comedies, such as Twelfth Night or The Tempest, a hero shows up in the nick of time and saves the day.
Believe it or not, that was Derrick Brown’s favorite lecture of the year. He was fascinated with the idea of heroes and heroism. It wasn’t so much that he collected comic books or anything like that – it’s just that he saw himself as someone who was capable of, and therefore responsible for, bringing that kind of order into the world. It’s why he volunteered as a first responder in his community even after teaching all day; it’s why he drove the sandwich truck into town every Saturday, passing out meals to those experiencing homelessness.
For Derrick Brown, life was supposed to be a comedy – it was supposed to turn out all right, and lots of times, it was up to him to make that happen. In fact, he had a t-shirt printed up that read, “as a matter of fact, I do think I’m some sort of a comedian”. He wore it under his Fire and Rescue shirt most days.
So yes, Derrick was a nerd. He was the kind of nerd who hummed a tune from Star Wars while thinking of Shakespeare while responding to a call for CPR. And he was fine with that, because most days, it worked. Most times, the fire was extinguished. Most days, the baby was born just fine. Most of the crises were averted.
He refrained from singing the Imperial March when he differentiated between tragedy and comedy for his young scholars the next day, but found that the tune remained stuck in his head as he waited for Aaron to hop into his car after school. Aaron was Derrick’s mentee – a sixth-grader who had come through some tough stuff but was fundamentally a good, good kid.
Derrick hadn’t been sure what to expect when he signed up to be a mentor, only that he wanted to “make a difference” and “turn some kid’s life around”. In other words, Derrick began his mentorship career because he wanted to be a hero to someone – to help avert tragedy and restore order and save the day for someone.
Derrick had been planning to take Aaron to see the latest Star Wars movie, but Aaron’s mother had called to see if he’d be willing to go with Aaron to choir practice instead. They had evidently scheduled this rehearsal fairly last-minute and she didn’t have any other way to get her son there. Even though Derrick didn’t think much of organized religion, he was more than happy to help this family solve their problem.
As he listened to the choir rehearse, Derrick couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in a house of worship. He was not particularly opposed to any faith, but rather had a deeply-held sense that religion caused more problems than it solved. Looking around at the life of Jesus displayed on the stained-glass windows, he thought that Jesus, in particular, was a lousy hero. Even if all you knew of his story was provided in the images at which Derrick now gazed, you had to admit that for Jesus himself as well as most of his followers, there was no escaping tragedy and suffering.
More than that, when Derrick considered all the people he knew who claimed to be in touch with the power of the Divine, he saw a good share of broken marriages and premature deaths and places where horrible things happened to good people. Again, he wasn’t opposed to religion – he just didn’t get it. It didn’t seem like it made any sense. And, let me be clear: Derrick was not interested in judging any part of Aaron’s life, but it sure looked as though faith had not paid off all that well for this kid or his mother. Aaron’s father was nowhere to be found, leaving his mother to raise three boys. Not only that, but Aaron’s mother was now dealing with the thrill of radiation treatments and weeks of missed work, waiting for an opinion as to whether the cancer that had struck her twice was going to come back or had been at least temporarily eradicated. It was hard to see what Jesus had done for this family, but it seemed pretty important to them that Aaron sing with the choir on Christmas Eve.
And so because he was a nice guy, and because he wanted to be a hero to someone like Aaron, Derrick was sitting in the rear of the poorly-heated sanctuary thinking about all the ways that Jesus had failed as a hero, at least in Aaron’s life.
“Yeah,” he thought to himself with a bit of a smirk, “If I were Jesus, things would sure be different…”
He had no way of knowing it at that instant, but those nine little words would change Derrick Brown’s life. “If I were Jesus, things sure would be different.” Here’s what happened next:
Because, like all good heroes, Derrick was essentially a problem-solver, later that night he actually allowed himself to think about what would look different if he really was Jesus. He didn’t start at the top, with issues like world peace or global warming. He thought about Aaron and his mother. Exactly what, he wondered, would he do if he had unlimited power? How would he “fix” the problem that was so central to young Aaron’s life?
The longer he thought about it, the more he came to see that his approach was flawed. In reality, of course, Aaron did not have “a” problem. It wasn’t just that his mother was ill or his father was a deadbeat or that the shut-off notices were piling up. Even if Derrick had been magically able to snap his heroic fingers and restore the boy’s mother to health, the bank account to solvency, and the father to some level of responsibility, the web of difficulty in which Aaron and his brothers found themselves was vast and complicated.
And sooner or later, of course, even a properly-parented and adequately warmed family will face death and grief.
He thought and thought about this conundrum for a couple of days, and was probably not at his sharpest when he got the call from Aaron’s mother at about noon on Christmas Eve.
“I’m sorry to bother you on a holiday,” she began. Derrick’s “hero antenna” went on full alert. Here was a problem – an opportunity for him to swoop in and make things right.
“The thing is,” she continued, “I’ve had a little setback with my cancer. It turns out that they want to keep me in the hospital for a few days. I hate to ask you this, but you see, I don’t really have any better ideas. The social worker said that if I could find someone to take the boys that would be fine. Otherwise, the people from Family Services will arrange for their care. The only problem with that is there are no homes in our county that are able to take three kids together tonight. It’s a lot to ask, I know, but…” and her voice trailed off.
Instinctively – without a thought, literally, Derrick Brown said, “Of course the boys are welcome with me.” And they were. He was, as has been mentioned, a fixer. And this was a problem. And for the next few hours Derrick filled his day with securing all the things that would be necessary for him to host three young boys for the weekend. He had a lot of good ideas and made excellent plans and didn’t even stop to think until that evening, where he once more found himself sitting in an unfamiliar church – a church that, contrary to his experience of a few days earlier, was jam-packed on Christmas Eve.
As the service unfolded around him, Derrick again considered the question that had preoccupied him in the past few days: “If I were Jesus, how would things be different?”
And he was stumped. He simply could not think of a way to tie this together in a neat little package. There were some ideas that were better than others. There were a few that, if not good, were at least good-ish. But the reality of the situation that faced Derrick Brown that Christmas Eve was that there were no heroes to be found. It seemed as if the nick of time would come and go and these boys would be facing peril no matter what anyone did.
Derrick was so struck by this notion that he forgot to pay attention when the kids’ choir sang. It wasn’t until the congregation offered that awkward applause that sometimes shows up in churches, where people are not sure whether the Almighty approves of clapping or not, that Derrick looked up to see Aaron beaming like the star of Bethlehem itself. Derrick quickly scanned the program and saw that there was a bible reading and then another number by the kids, so he sat up straight and focused and willed himself into the present so as not to miss the next song.
That didn’t help, because he was paying attention so well that he actually heard the Bible verse being read, and that catapulted him back to his thoughts about heroes and insoluble problems. The young woman up front was reading from the book of John, and she said, “In him there was life, and that life was the light of all people. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overpowered it.” That phrase hit Derrick like a ton of bricks: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overpowered it…
It occurred to Derrick that the reason that Jesus was such a lousy hero was the fact that Jesus was not any kind of hero. Jesus hardly got anywhere in the nick of time, and disasters piled up all around him. Jesus did not come to prevent, avert, or mop up after tragedies. If anything, Jesus came to transform disasters, or to demonstrate that tragedy is not our end.
Aaron and his brothers were not there singing about a God who promised them a happy ending with no unresolved conflicts. They were there to point to the fact that even in the midst of the darkness, a light shines.
More to the point, thought Derrick, Aaron didn’t need anyone to come and “fix” his life. What Aaron, his brothers, and a billion other children need is for someone who is willing to come and wait and watch and walk with them in the midst of their lives. When they sang, “Son of God, love’s pure light,” they weren’t singing about a hero. They were worshiping a savior.
Derrick took the boys home and put them to bed after church. And because he hadn’t expected to host guests, he didn’t have a lot of decorations in his home. So this is what Derrick did: he went into his kitchen and turned off all of the lights and he sat at the table and lit a candle. And he simply sat in the glow of that candle, and he thanked God that the darkness that filled the room was no match for the light that emanated from the candle. And he found a new song with which to keep rhythm in his life – one that has not, so far as I know, ever left him.
(This story was inspired by “A savior, not a hero”, a reflection on the death of Lazarus by Shannon Graigo-Snell of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary that appeared in The Christian Century on July 22, 1915.)
Jesus is no hero. Terrible things happen far too often for anyone to suspect him of being anything of the sort. Christmas is not about God the Father sending God the Son to earth so as to rescue people from some tragic ending. If anyone knows about tragic endings and the nick of time fading away, it’s God the son.
Jesus is a savior. A savior who can never arrive too late. A savior who is here to remind us that our ultimate purpose is to dwell in light and in love and in grace. A light that will pierce the darkness until that time when darkness is no more.
This is a dark night in a dark season in a dark world. ISIS. Famine. Abuse. Neglect. Cancer. Death. Fear. It’s here, or it’s coming. And yet there is light – a light that not even the fiercest darkness can dispel. Tonight, we remember, share, and point toward that light. It is, quite literally, the best that we can do. Thanks be to God!