Chimwemwe To The World

Each Christmas Eve, it is my privilege and delight to look for, write, and tell a new Christmas Story to the congregation.  There are a lot of reasons why this is important to me, some of which are explored in the introduction to my book of collected stories entitled I Will Hold My Candle And Other Stories For Christmas (available at Amazon and other online book sellers).  This year’s story is set in Central Africa and is informed by my many opportunities to visit there.  Our candlelight service included all the traditional songs, a few new ones, and some scriptures that point towards those who watch for, and announce, God’s activity in the world.  They included Isaiah 21:6-8 (which, by the way, is the passage that served as the inspiration for the title of Harper Lee’s Go, Set A Watchman) and John 1:6-18.  

As with nearly all good stories, this one is best heard aloud.  To hear this story as told in worship, please use the media player below.

Chimwemwe rushed into the room.  Although the small home was lit only by candles and kerosene lamps, her face made it light up as though there were floodlights! This thirteen year old girl, whose name means “Joy” in their local language, was the embodiment of light.

“I’m ready, Daddy,” she said.  “Can we go?”

“We can go when your sister and brother are ready,” replied her father, as he put down a newspaper.

She jumped into his lap – which was not as easy as it had been a few years ago.  “Madala, I can’t wait! This is my favorite night of the whole year!”

Although he knew the answer, her father played the game.  “Why is that?”, he asked.

“Because!” she exclaimed.  “It’s almost time to see if we were right!  Tonight we will know the truth about what we thought we saw!  We will know if we’ve been good watchers!”

The girl’s mother called from the other room.  “Oh, you four and your watching.  What will you see tonight?” she asked.

Chimwemwe concentrated for a moment, and then said, “Well, Dalitso noticed that the old woman who lives across from the maize-flour mill has had the thatch from her roof blow off. He thinks she needs new-”

She was interrupted as her ten year old brother burst into the room and completed the sentence, saying, “he knowsthat new iron sheets will keep her dry for the entire rainy season.”  Dalitso, whose name means “blessings”, sought to join his sister in their father’s lap.

Chimwemwe continued as if there was no little brother.  “Chikondi has selected some new books for the teacher’s library that was burnt in the fire, and we have some chickens to deliver to Mr. Mphatso, the watchman.  While he was at work a few weeks ago, the baboons came and took all of his chickens and now there are no eggs for his children.”

The father hugged his children tightly and said, “You know that I’m always proud of you, but this year it means even more to me. You have touched me deeply.”

The children looked at him quizzically, and he said, “You don’t know this, but a long time ago – before you were born – I was a watchman myself.”

The kids were incredulous.  “You? How could that be?  You run a newspaper!”

“I do now, but I have not always.  Listen, since it seems as though your sister will be a while, let me tell you a story.”

“When I was a child, life was very, very difficult.”

The children chimed in as if in chorus: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.  We know.  You lived in the village.  There was no electric, and you had to fetch water-”

Now it was father’s turn to interrupt.  “Yes, that’s true,” he said, “but that’s not what I’m talking about.”

He held up his right arm, and there where his hand should have been was something that looked as though it could have been the idea for a hand, or maybe the rough draft of a hand, but it was not a hand such as you are accustomed to seeing on folks every day.  There were only three parts of it that might conceivably have been called “fingers”, and even then, the bone structure was quite different.

“When I was born,” he went on, “there was a problem.  Even before the midwife was called to help my mother, she knew that my birth would be difficult.  And while usually the first part of a baby to be born into the world is the head, with me it was this arm that came out first.  I obviously don’t remember this part, but I’m told that there was a lot of yelling and crying, and that people were afraid of this baby to be born.”

Chimwemwe took her father’s hand and said, “Madala, it’s just your hand.  It was just a little baby hand.  Sure, it looks different, but it’s fine!”

Her father said, “Well, we know that now, but this was a long time ago, and in the village. There were not as many doctors. People thought differently.  And so it was that when I was born, my father took one look at me and called me ‘Mabvuto’, which means ‘trouble’ in the local language. And for a long time, everyone – including me – thought that the name was perfect.  Because I wastrouble.”

“Can you imagine growing up with a hand like this?  Can you think how the other children would have teased me? Do you know that they made fun of me and even ran away from me?  On my inside – I wanted to help, I wanted to be a friend – but they could only see my different hand.”

“Now in those days there was a company that was called Secure-Corps or something like that. When I saw them, I saw athletic young men wearing matching uniforms driving fast trucks. They were guards hired by rich people, and when an alarm sounded, truckloads of these men would rush through the streets in order to save a home from being robbed or a person from being beaten.  I wanted to work for them.  I just knewthat if I was a Secure-Corps guard, people would be happy to see me coming!”

Dalitso – ‘Blessings’ – looked at his father and said, “So is thatwhen you were a guard, Madala?”

“No!,” was his father’s quick reply.  “I could never work for that company.  I was never a guard; I never had a uniform or one of those fast trucks.  You see, in order to be a guard for that company, you had to be able to read.  My father wouldn’t pay to send me to school.  He said, ‘Why bother, for such trouble?  Mabvuto – look at him.  Look at that hand.  What can he do with a hand like that?’”

“For a long time, it was so hard.  I was always angry.  I was getting mean.  But one day, it was my grandmother – Agogo – who helped me.”

“She surprised me in the bush one day.  I was staring at my hand, and I had taken some small sticks and was trying to hold them there to see what my hand might look like if I had five fingers.  She took the sticks and threw them and then grabbed me to herself.  ‘Oh, Mabvuto,’ she cried.  ‘Why do you keep on looking for something that is not there?  Do you think that if you stare long enough or hard enough that those fingers will appear?’”

“We sat in the grass for a long time, and if we said anything, I don’t remember it.  As the sun was setting, she asked me to help her back into her hut.  It was getting dark, and she almost stepped on it, but at the last minute I saw it – a snake – a poisonous black mamba – and I pulled her back. I grabbed a hoe and I killed the snake.”

“My Agogo hugged me and she said, ‘That’s my Mabvuto – so observant.’”

“’Observant?’ What’s ‘observant?’  She told me it meant that I was good at noticing things, and at watching.”

“And I was.  I couldn’t be a guard, so I became a watchman, and I discovered that I think I liked that even better than being a guard. Guards, you see, were always rushing around in times of trouble, but watchmen were just always there.  Guards were hired by rich people to protect them from bad things, but as a watchman I would see all kinds of things.  I noticed when the hippos left the river to eat and when they returned.  I learned all about the stars.  I would watch and listen as people ran into a house when a new baby was being born.”

“Do you see? As a watchman, I had to keep an eye out for problems, but I also got to observe – to watch – beautiful and powerful things that might have seemed small. Instead of looking only at bad things, or concentrating only on what was missing, I could tell stories about what I did see.”

“When I got home, my sisters and then my cousins would come around me and listen to me tell them about the things I’d seen.  When I got older, I taught myself how to read and write.  I wanted to share the stories that I had, and so I opened my own company…”

“The paper!” his children shouted.  “Nkani Yabwino!  The ‘good news’ paper!”

“Well, yes,” he said. “It wasn’t a newspaper at first. It was just copies of some of the good things that I saw – and it taught me how to be a better watcher.”

“And now, Chimwemwe and Dalitso, and even little Chikondi – you are all better watchers than I am!  You see everything, and you look for ways to make things better or stronger.  I know, you like tonight because we will go out and share some iron sheets, or books, or chickens… but every day we have the chance to look for things that no one else sees.  We try to straighten what is bent, to point out what is great, and to share in people’s lives.”

“But why do we do this tonight, Daddy?” asked Chimwemwe.

“Because it’s Christmas Eve, my daughter!  It’s your birthday!  Do you remember what your name means when we say it in English?  It is ‘JOY’ – because on that night there is always a lot of JOY.  There is joy because we see that God watches with the people who watch-”

His children cried in unison: “the shepherds!”

“There is joy because God sends people to honor and bless the poor-”

“The Wise Men!”

“Mostly, there’s joy because we know God didn’t set out to guard the earth, but to be in it, to watch it, and to teach people how to see!”

The mood of the room changed quickly with the arrival of the youngest child, a girl called Chikondi. And you might want to know what happened next.

Well, I suppose that depends on what you were looking for.

The men down at the Secure-Corps headquarters who watched the surveillance camera footage could tell you that they saw a middle-aged man who appeared to be favoring one hand take 3 kids – later determined to be named Chimwemwe, Dalitso, and Chikondi – around town delivering parcels.

The families of a poor old woman, and a teacher, and a night watchman later said that they’d been visited by angels who came to them and said that God had noticed them in the midst of their trouble.

And me? I saw someone called Mabvuto who once thought that he had been born for trouble make a way for Joy, Blessings, and Love to shine in the darkness on Christmas Eve.

Well, that was a long time ago.  And it was in a place that’s pretty far away.  But keep your eyes open.  Watch. You never know what you’ll see, and who you can tell about it. Thanks be to God, who watches over us, and invites us to do the same with each other!  Amen.

The Little Things — A Christmas Story

Every year it is my practice to write a story that will explore and, I hope, deepen the meaning of Christmas for those who are present in worship.  Many of these stories have been collected in a volume published in 2011 by Lulu press entitled I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas.  If you’d like to know more about that book or how to purchase a copy, please simply click here.  In 2016, we experimented with making a live feed of our worship service.  I am not sure how long it will remain up, but if you are a Facebook user you might find it on my Facebook page.  The text for this story is an unusual one for Christmas: I Corinthians 1:26-31.

I met Wayne Barker in an unusual place. I had stopped to fill my tank and I looked across the parking area at the service station and I saw an enormous man crawling around on his knees. I wandered over to see if I could help, and he was muttering to himself… using mostly words that are not common in church. I asked if there was a problem and he looked up and said, “Yeah, I think. I mean, I don’t know if there’s a real problem or not but that little screw cap from my tire fell while I was adding air, and now I can’t find it. Why do they make those things black anyway? Isn’t every gas station parking lot in the world black? And they are so small!”

So because I didn’t want to appear insensitive, I gave the area at least a cursory glance, but it was so rainy that I was relieved when he stood up and said, “Sheesh. Forget about it. I’m sick of these pebbles grinding into my knees, and besides, I must have some sort of slow leak. I’ll get a new one when I get the tire fixed.”

Perhaps like a lot of big guys, Wayne isn’t good at little things. If you were to see his dresser at home, you’d see that it’s covered in an ocean of “small”. Pennies and paper clips, loose keys and nuts and bolts are heaped in piles, waiting for someone to be attentive.

Wayne Barker is a “big thing” guy. In his work as a heavy equipment operator, he lives in an oversized world. The tires are bigger, the holes are deeper, the sounds are louder… and all of that is OK with Wayne.

When he’s not moving huge piles of dirt with enormous machines, Wayne is shaping trees into objects of beauty. The day I met him the back of his truck was filled with rough-hewn maple. He told me he was on his way home to spend the weekend turning that wood into a queen-sized rocking chair.

You see, his only daughter, Megan, was pregnant. With twins. He had already made a special crib for her – it was, essentially, a “double wide”. There were two sides, and space for two mattresses, but the babies would be able to reach through and touch each other if they wanted to. He hadn’t planned on making a rocker, but he was fed up with what he called “discount store cheapies”, and apparently he’d been to Megan’s home twice already to measure the doorways. He wanted to make sure he was building the absolute biggest chair that could fit into her home.

When Wayne starts something, he’s all in. That would explain why he didn’t leave the house after he got home that Friday afternoon. He was building. Cutting. Sanding. Joining. Making the world’s greatest daughter – the world’s most important mom-to-be – the best rocking chair in the history of furniture.

But at about 4 on the following Monday morning, his plans went awry. He was awakened by a call from his panicked son-in-law, who simply said, “We’re at the hospital. Get here as soon as you can.”

Wayne flew out the door and was immediately confronted by a flat tire on his pickup. Evidently the leak we’d seen on the previous Friday had gotten worse over the weekend, and the vehicle was not drivable. He let out an involuntary scream (again, using language I’ll not repeat here). At that moment, his neighbor arrived home from his shift as a taxi driver. When Wayne explained the situation, the man immediately said, “Get in!”

That made Wayne a little uncomfortable, because he’d never really spoken to his neighbor before. He was from India, or Pakistan, or Bangladesh or somewhere, and he was a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Sikh, or something. Wayne had always thought of him as being odd, and yet here he was going out of his way to help.

When they got to the hospital, Wayne pulled out his wallet but the neighbor waved him off, saying, “This? This is a little thing. Go inside. Go!”

When he got inside, he was, himself, smaller than he’d ever been. There were lights and noises and people rushing in and out. Wayne didn’t understand everything, but what he did understand scared him to death. Apparently there was a problem with the blood flow to the babies, and unless they did something, at least one of them would die before it had a chance to be born.

His daughter told him that they were going to do something called Laser Ablation. Using an impossibly skinny needle, the medical team inserted a small laser right into Megan’s womb, where they re-arranged some of the blood vessels using a laser beam shot from inside the needle.

When Wayne saw the size of the camera, and the laser, and the babies in the womb, he couldn’t believe his own eyes. How could something so small be so amazingly important? More than that, how could something that little do anything worth doing?

I’m happy to tell you that the surgery was a success and Megan was able to leave the hospital a few days later with nothing more than a band-aid on the outside and, more importantly, two increasingly healthy children on the inside. The babies were able to develop normally for another four weeks until she went into labor and delivered them last month – six weeks early.

Wayne got his tire repaired, and then he took his first step in learning the lessons of littleness by crossing the street and properly introducing himself to, and then thanking, his neighbor. And he has been in the neonatal intensive care unit every evening to hold his grandchildren. They are so little that he can easily hold one in each hand – or he would if the nurses would let him get away with it. For five weeks, he has marveled at their size and remembered how frightened he was the day of the procedure.

Of course, when he holds the children in the NICU, the nurses come by and offer comments about how big they are getting (which, of course, they are, compared to the other babies in that unit)… and when he shows photos to anyone at work, the constant comment is, “oooooh! Look how little!” (which, of course, they are, in comparison to everyone else’s grandchildren).

So these days, when he’s at work with his big equipment doing big jobs, Wayne Barker notices little things that are simply crucial. The other day, he observed how a tiny sliver of metal called a cotter pin that costs pennies and can be bent with his bare hands is absolutely essential to holding the bucket on his backhoe. He thought about it again while he fished around in his pocket for the key that started up the earth grader. Even in the hospital cafeteria, he noticed that he had a huge bowl of soup that was vastly improved by a few grains of salt.

Wayne isn’t at the hospital tonight, though. The babies are coming home on Monday, and all of these big thoughts about little things have brought Wayne to worship.

Here’s what I mean: for most of the past 33 years, Christmas has been BIG for Wayne and his family. He’s the guy who bought those giant stuffed bears. You couldn’t get into his living room once the tree was set up because he chose the biggest, fattest tree he could find. And when it came time for dinner, well, Wayne didn’t think it was worth eating if the turkey was less than 24 pounds.

And yet, this year, he can’t take himself away from the smallness of it all. Tonight, he is filling his heart, mind, and spirit with thoughts of littleness. Thoughts of one star, twinkling in the murky depths of space. One child, coming to reveal the whole heart of God to humanity. One candle, beating back the darkness in defiance of the drafts. One congregation, trying to live in ways that will change the world.

Up until now, Wayne Barker hasn’t had time for the littleness of Christmas. All of that has been nonsense to him – that is to say, it made no sense at all. And maybe, tonight, it still is nonsense.

But this is what he knows: that tonight, four miles away the heart of his heart is beating double time because something amazingly and improbably small had come in and changed reality.

And tonight, for either the first time or the hundredth time, he gets it. He understands what the Lord was saying to the prophet Zechariah all those years ago:

Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts… For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel… (Zechariah 4:6,10)

Although that’s an obscure book, it had always caught Wayne’s eye because Zerubbabel was a builder – and he took some grief from others on account of the fact that he seemed to always start slow and start small. But lately, it seemed to Wayne, that starting slow and starting small might just be the way that God likes to operate.

So tonight, Wayne is trying to get in touch with the littleness and the subtlety and even the weakness for which the Almighty seems to have an affinity. He’s lighting his candle, dusting off his hope, and trying to get ready for the changes that need to take place… in him… in his neighborhood… and in his world.

It’s a little thing. But maybe, just maybe, there’s no better time than Christmas for the little things.

Wishing you all the grace to find energy and devotion to learn the lessons of littleness in your particular corner of the world today.  May you be surprised by what is vulnerable or even weak in yourselves, and may be be an agent of grace in this world.

He’s No Hero

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!

The Day Aziz Learned to See (A Christmas Story)

Every year I write a story to tell the congregation during the Christmas Eve Candlight service.  Often times, it’s an angsty, middle-agedy, reflective piece.  As we have so many children in worship, though, I wanted to try to help the kids see Christmas through new eyes.  So here is the 2014 Christmas story, featuring a talking dog who, coincidentally, is just a bit angsty and reflective (hey, as the great theologian Popeye once said, “I yam what I yam…”

“It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision.”

(Helen Keller)

GraydogIf you saw Aziz, you would not think that he was a beautiful dog. He was about three feet high and covered with shaggy grey fur that grew longer each winter. He was nervous, and his ears were always alert, listening for sounds of danger or for a chance to get a treat from the shepherd boys who worked with him. His eyes – well, it was hard to see his eyes because they were hidden behind a tuft of gray. And, really, it didn’t matter very much because Aziz couldn’t see anyway.

When he was a puppy, Aziz could see fine. He used to love running through the pastures with the other dogs and the sheep, leaping over rocks and playing in the streams.   But all of that changed on the day the darkness came.

It was a bright, sunny, day, and Aziz was watching his father try to bring a few wandering lambs back to the flock. Suddenly, they heard a cry of panic and they saw Rachel, a lamb that was about Aziz’s age, being carried off by a lion! While the other sheep ran, panicked, Aziz’s father went straight for the lion. It was terrible. There was a lot of barking and roaring and snarling and fighting. Aziz watched his father go after the lion again and again until the lion dropped Rachel. But when the lion released the lamb, it attacked the dog – and it held Aziz’s father by the throat!

Even though he was only a puppy, Aziz knew that he had to do something – and so he dove towards the lion, trying to help his father. The lion hit the puppy with a big paw – right in the head – and sent him flying. Everything got dark for Aziz right then.

All of the noise attracted the shepherds, who came and threw rocks at the lion and chased it until it went away. But when it was all over, Aziz’s father was dead and Rachel, the little lamb, was missing a leg. And when Aziz woke up, he couldn’t see anything at all.

For Aziz and for Rachel, it was the worst day of their lives. Aziz was lonely after his father died, and Rachel had to learn how to walk with only three legs. You might not be surprised to know that as they grew up together, Rachel the lamb and Aziz the dog turned out to be best friends. Everyone thought it was a good match – the three-legged sheep and the blind dog. The rest of the flock helped them, and the shepherds seemed to take extra care as well, making sure that both Rachel and Aziz were close by.

One day, they were just laying in the hot sun and Rachel was telling Aziz about the bird that she had just seen. It was beautiful, she said: the wings were striped black and white, and the head was a brownish color with a fancy kind of a crown on top. It had been flying through the field looking for bugs to eat.

Hoopoe“Oh, that sounds wonderful,” said Aziz. “I’m glad you told me about it, but I wish that I could have seen it.” He sighed heavily.

It was quiet for a while, and then Rachel asked, “Does it hurt?”

“Does what hurt?”

“Does ‘blind’ hurt? I mean, inside your head – does it hurt when you can’t see?”

Aziz thought about it for a while, and then he said, “I – I don’t think so… No, it doesn’t really hurt. Sometimes my face feels, well, tired, I guess. And sometimes I get scared when I hear something I can’t see. But it doesn’t hurt.”

Rachel nudged a little closer to her friend. He liked having her near. He felt that her face was getting really close to his. He could hear her gentle breathing.

She asked, “Are there marks? I mean, on your eyes?”

Aziz shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I really don’t remember anything at all after…after that day. I just remember that it got dark – very dark. And sad.”

Even though it was quite warm, the sheep climbed even closer to the dog, and Aziz could feel her breath on his nose. She was quiet for a moment, and then spoke again. “Can I look?”

The dog, without thinking about it, said, “Sure. But you have to promise to tell me what you see.”

So Rachel the sheep sat back and using her one good front leg, she pushed aside the hair that covered Aziz’s face. She looked intently for a while, and then she said, “OK, now open your eyes so I can see them.”

Aziz shook his head and said, “They are open.”

“No, they’re not!”

“YES, they are!”

Rachel put her foot back on the dog’s forehead and said, “You asked me to tell you what I see, and I’m telling you that your eyes are closed! Just open them!”

Aziz sounded really angry and he shouted, “I can’t open them! I can’t see anything!”

Rachel tried to use her front foot to open one of the dog’s eyes, but you know that sheep don’t really have very good fingers for that kind of thing. She couldn’t really do much to try to open the eye, but she tried. It looked like one of the eyelids moved a little bit.

For Aziz, there was one tiny pinprick of light. It was a burning, white, hot feeling inside of his head.

“AHHHHHH!” The dog yelped in pain. “Stop! It hurts! It hurts!”

Rachel moved away very quickly. For a while, Aziz just sat there, crying. Rachel said, “I am sorry for hurting you. I just want you to see what I see.”

Aziz sniffled and said, angrily, “Well, you know that I can’t see. Just stop.” But what Aziz did not say to Rachel was that he did see the bright light, but that when he saw the light, he also remembered the bright sun on the day that his father died. And so he didn’t say anything, because the hurt inside was too deep.

They didn’t say anything else that day, and for the next few weeks, everything was back to normal. The winter was coming and the days were shorter, but Rachel and Aziz did what they always did – Rachel would tell stories about what she saw, Aziz would tell jokes, and they would both stay pretty close to the shepherds.

One night, Aziz woke up to the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. It was like he walked into a whole house that was made of sound. It was singing – beautiful, amazing, wonderful singing!

angels“Rachel! Rachel! RACHEL!” he said. “What’s happening? What is it?”

The sheep was whispering. “Oh, Aziz! They are angels, and they are beautiful. Look at them! Open your eyes and look!”

Aziz said quickly, “I can’t see. You know that.”

Rachel replied, “I think you won’t see. Open your eyes, quickly! They are leaving!”

Aziz said “Just tell me what they look like! I can’t see.”

But it was too late. Aziz knew it when the music stopped and he heard the shepherds talking excitedly. It sounded like they were getting ready for a trip.

And that’s what happened! The shepherds left one young boy to watch most of the sheep, but they gathered up Rachel and a few of the others, along with Aziz, and went down the road to the town of Bethlehem. Aziz and Rachel knew that it had something to do with the angels, but they were not sure exactly what.

When they got to Bethlehem, they came into a stable, and the shepherds began talking with a man and a woman. Aziz’s nose was working wonderfully, and he could smell that something important had just happened. He thought he smelled a new baby – right there in the stable!

Aziz nosed around and found the woman, who was sitting on a bed of straw. She was really tired. The men kept talking, but she fell asleep.

Aziz had never, ever, felt happier in his entire life. He lay there next to the woman and his heart was beating and his tail was thumping and he was warm and dry and safe and sound and he just felt wonderful laying in the hay next to Mary. And then, he heard the baby start to cry. The baby’s mother was so tired that she took her baby, wrapped in a blanket, and held him between herself and  Aziz’s soft furry coat, saying,  “Here, little one. This old dog is warm and happy. Maybe the way he wags his tail will rock us both to sleep.”

The next thing he knew, Aziz was touching the baby. And everything was so quiet. He really, really, wanted to know what the baby looked like – but Rachel was all the way across the stable, and it was so quiet. He thought to himself, “If only I could see! What would he look like?”

Then he thought, “What if I can see?” But he was afraid to try, because he thought it might hurt again. But he was so happy that he didn’t think that the hurt could touch him there.

So right then, in that stable, with a baby named Jesus leaning against him, Aziz opened one eye very carefully. And then he opened the other.

Do you know what he saw?

jesus-birth-nativity-star-outside-bethlehem-stableThe first thing that he saw was not the baby or his mother. The first thing that he saw was the brightness of the night – there was a star shining into the stable that was brighter than any star anyone had ever seen. And because the star was so bright, Aziz could see everything. He saw the baby. He saw the mother. He saw the shepherds. And across the stable, he saw a three-legged sheep that he knew was his friend, Rachel. In the light of that star, Aziz learned how to see again.

A couple of hours later, the shepherds and the man said good-bye to each other and the animals followed the shepherds back to the fields. Rachel came over to help Aziz, since she thought he was unable to see. The dog surprised his friend by running to her and licking her face again and again and again. “It’s me, Rachel. It’s Aziz! And I can see! I can see you! I saw the stable! I saw the baby! I saw the star!”

The two friends went with the shepherds back to the fields, and they stayed up all night talking and looking in the light from that star.

The next day, the black and white and brown bird flew past again, and Rachel began to tell Aziz about it but he interrupted her: “I know! I know! It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Just then, Aziz’s keen ears heard a rustle in the grass a few feet away. He turned, and there in front of him was a lion! And it was heading right towards Rachel!

The first thing Aziz did was close his eyes and hide in the darkness. And then he heard his friend cry out, “Help!”

And so that day, Aziz opened his eyes and he ran right at the lion and he barked and barked and barked as loudly as he could. And because he wasn’t a puppy anymore, but he was big and fierce-looking, the lion stopped, and roared.

Aziz got closer and closer to the lion, barking as loudly as he could. The lion roared, and charged right at Aziz and Rachel – and then the lion fell over, dead. Aziz turned around and there was a shepherd boy, holding a slingshot. He had killed the lion and saved the sheep and the dog.

Aziz and Rachel lived a long, long time after that, but they never heard anything more powerful than the song of the angels, and they never saw anything more beautiful than the baby, laying in the manger in the starlight. And Aziz and Rachel told their children and their grandchildren about how they were part of the first Christmas ever.

Following are the comments I made after we lit our candles and sang “Silent Night”:

You know the light in which an object is viewed affects the way that we are able to see that thing. When I was young, all of my friends had “black lights” with special posters that looked one way most of the time, but really awesome when viewed with the special bulb. Walking on the beach by moonlight is different than going at noon. You know that about light.

And you know that light can be very attractive. When you’re out walking in the woods and you see a campfire, it attracts you. It calls you in, unless there is a six-year old holding a flashlight at the campfire, in which case, light that is on you becomes light that is at you, and you are driven away.  

You may know that looking at you in this light is the highlight of my year. I don’t necessarily mean the warmth of the candlelight, although there is something to be said for that. But what I’m really talking about is the light of Christ. We have just stood and as gently, as humbly, as meekly as possible, and said the truest thing any crowd has ever said: “Christ the savior is born”. Well, we didn’t actually say it. We sang it. We didn’t shout it: we proclaimed it.

There is a gentleness in the light of Christ that is always on you but never at you. For four or five minutes out of the year, we stand in this light and we look at each other in it. I wish I had a giant mirror so that you could see yourself in this light. More than that, I wish that I was better at seeing you in this light on Monday afternoons or Thursday evenings. I wish we could learn how to see ourselves in this light all the time. I wish we could learn how to see those we love in this light all the time. I wish we could learn how to see those with whom we disagree in this light. I wish we could learn how to see those we call “other” in this light.

One day, pray God, we will.

Until then, we gather here for reminders about how beautiful this light can be, and how much better we can see because of it. And we hope. And we worship. And we proclaim: Christ the savior is born. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Visible Man (A Christmas Story)

As has been my custom for more than 20 years, Christmas Eve I told a story to the saints at Crafton Heights. It’s an original story, so far as I can tell.  I read a lot.  If you see something good in here, I probably remembered it from something else I read.  The inspiration for this story, and the truth to which it points (I hope) is found in Luke 1:46-55, the song of Mary known as The Magnificat.

Scott McBurney was not invisible.

He arose every morning of his life, trusting this to be the case.  He was not, and had never been, invisible.  He knew that.

He knew that even on the days when it felt otherwise.

When he was born, his parents were expecting twins.  And so when his sisters Susan and Sarah emerged from the womb, there was joy.  There was delight.  There was celebration.  There was…another baby!  Scott was born eight minutes after Sarah, to the utter surprise of everyone in the room.  For the first four days of his life he was known to all, including his parents, simply as “the boy”.

While a name was eventually found for him, along with a bedroom and the other necessities of life, he often felt as though he were, in fact, invisible.

Susan was the beautiful one.  She was simply stunning, and as the kids grew, she was never at a loss for a social life.  She lit up the social networks.  Scott did not.

Sarah was the brainy one.  Whenever the homework was arranged on the refrigerator, hers was the one with the most checkmarks, stars, or exclamation points.  She received a number of college scholarships and academic awards.  Scott did not.

Scott was the boy.  With the exception of being a triplet, he had about the blandest life imaginable.  Widely regarded as “a heck of a guy” or “one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet”, he still found himself – often – in the company of those who had forgotten his name.

He didn’t resent that.  He didn’t regret anything.  It just was, that’s all.

He taught High School English and Communications in suburban Chicago.  While there’s not much of an indication that he was anyone’s favorite teacher, the kids didn’t hate being in his class, either.

Late one autumn his second period Communication Arts class was studying Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address.  He’d asked the class to take turns reading through the famous speech line by line.  At the end of the first paragraph, Marcus Dixon, a young man with a mild speech impediment, read, “With high hope for the future, no prediction in re- re- re- re- re- re- regard to it is ventured.”

And as young Mr. Dixon was wallowing in the re- re- re- of “regard”, Scott McBurney’s attention was drawn to Angela Wallace, who was hands-down the most attractive and most-intelligent student in the eleventh grade.  Although she had been blessed with looks and brains, kindness was not among her attributes, and she was very subtly, but unmistakably, drawing everyone’s laughter to poor Marcus’ plight.

And here, Scott did something he did not often do.  He assigned homework out of anger.  “All right, Miss Wallace,” he said.  “Since you are obviously so fascinated by the etymology of the word ‘regard’, I’d like you to enlighten the entire class.  On Monday, I’ll expect you to have a three minute speech, with at least four sources, on the meaning of and history behind the word ‘regard’.”

It wasn’t much, but Scott felt like he had to do something to support Marcus.

He was neither surprised nor disappointed when Monday arrived, and, like everything Angela did, the speech was flawless.  She was poised, relaxed and informative.  Scott, along with the eleventh grade Communication Arts class, learned that while much of the time “regard” is used to mean “esteem” or “glance”, it actually comes from a very old French word, garder, meaning “guard” or “watch”, and “re”, meaning “back” or with added intensity.  “Regard”, once upon a time, then, meant to look at, to watch out for, to pay attention to with some real energy.  Angela also pointed out that it carried with it a meaning of holding something or someone in esteem or respect.

And, because she was so, well, so Angela, she got an A on the speech and came out smelling like a rose.  And Scott McBurney gradually allowed that episode to fade from his mind for a few weeks.

On the Sunday before Christmas, Scott found himself in a place that was at once quite familiar and intensely uncomfortable: exactly halfway across the third pew from the front on the right-hand side at the church in which he and his sisters had grown up.  Susan’s children were in the pageant and it was expected that he would deviate from his normal routine and re-appear at the church to observe this spectacle.  And, because it was expected, and because he was still, in many ways, “the boy”, there he sat.

As he waited for the rest of the family to arrive and the service to start, he found himself humming the first line of a song that the kids at school had been playing over and over again: “I’m still alive, but I’m barely breathing / just praying to a God that I don’t believe in…”[1]

As he sat in that hard pew, it occurred to him that this whole Jesus thing reminded him of everything about his sisters that he resented.  He had grown up being taught to worship the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus that wowed the multitudes with his amazing teachings and snappy miracles.  In other words, the Jesus who was every bit as attractive and intelligent as Susan and Sarah.  That, he thought, is why he had found it so easy to walk away from the church.

And on any other day, or had it been any other reading, by any other child – well, it might have just slipped by.  But on this particular morning, his own niece stood up and moved to the microphone and read Mary’s song of praise, known as the Magnificat.  And as that halting soprano raced through the lines, one word caused her to stumble: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has re- re- re-garded the low estate of his handmaiden.”

Mary's Song, by Julie Lonneman ( Used by permission

Mary’s Song, by Julie Lonneman ( Used by permission.

“Seriously?” Scott thought to himself?  “Regarded?”  And because he’d been brought to that pew every week as a boy, he knew that if he reached into the little cubby underneath his seat that he would find, in addition to some ancient bulletins and candy wrappers, a battered pew bible.  He thumbed his way to Luke 1 and there he satisfied himself that he had heard correctly: apparently, the Almighty is in the business of regarding…of watching.  Of looking for, or respecting, or guarding.  Of taking second glances. And he wondered.  And then he thought that maybe he’d been spending too much time at school, or, worse yet, too much time thinking about Angela Wallace.

A couple of days later he found himself back in the third pew from the front on the right-hand side of the church – his twice-yearly appearance (not counting the bonus points he’d earned for showing up at the children’s program).  And, as it happened, the preacher had chosen to read again from Luke.  This time, it was about the shepherds and the innkeeper.  And it struck Scott, again, that these were folks who were widely un-regarded.  Not worth a second look.  Shepherds and innkeepers and carpenters and unwed mothers were a part of the furnishings… but not here.

For the first time in his adult life, Scott McBurney wondered if this blond-haired blue-eyed popular miracle worker was, well, was not really Jesus at all.  Maybe that character didn’t even exist.

During the week between semesters, Scott sat down and read through the entire Gospel of Luke. It only took about an hour and a half.  And as he did so, he encountered an old man named Simeon, and Peter’s mother-in-law, and a tax collector, a centurion, a whole bunch of bleeding and disfigured people…an assembly of outcasts, all of whom would have been dis-regarded by the people of that time, as well as Scott’s own.  None of whom was worthy of any consideration.  And yet each of whom was sought out by Jesus of Nazareth.  Here was this son of whom Mary sang, honoring these people with his presence.  He was, in fact, regarding them in their lowly estate.  By the time he’d finished this exercise, Scott had left the shepherds and the fishermen and the sick masses…and wondered about himself.

Scott McBurney knew that he was not invisible.  But he never thought much about the fact that he had been regarded.  And somehow, that changed things.

Angela, and Marcus, and the rest of the second period Communication Arts class probably didn’t notice anything.  Mr. McBurney was still a nice guy.  He was still, mostly, the boy.  Oh, if anyone had had reason to thumb through his calendar, they might have noticed that he was spending more time not only at church, but in the feeding ministry the church ran on Tuesday evenings.  Had someone access to his checkbook, it would have been easy to see that his priorities had shifted dramatically.

Yet Scott would say that these changes weren’t really worth noticing, because they were merely symptoms of something more important going on.

He would say that once a person realizes that he’s been regarded, well, that person starts to do some regarding himself.  Once he realizes he’s been seen by Jesus, and he looks at Jesus, well…he just begins to look with Jesus.  And the world becomes a different place.

Scott McBurney is not invisible.  Nobody is.  Thanks be to the God who has regarded us in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

IMG_1171Christmas Eve affords me with my absolute favorite view of the entire year.  It’s darker than it usually is…but I like to think that when I gaze at the congregation while they are holding their candles, just after we finish singing Silent Night, that we see each other more clearly than usual.  People who have hovered around the edge of the Holy, even on a dark and cold night, become more visible than we usually are.

When the writer of the Gospel of John was telling the story of Christmas, he didn’t monkey around with shepherds and angels.  He went straight to Jesus, and he said this:

“The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.”

(Jn. 1:14, The Message)

The Word – the Son of the Father – is the Visible Man.  God – in Christ – has a face.  And tonight, I celebrate that it looks like the people I get to worship with.

Scott McBurney took a couple of hours and read through a Gospel.  This Christmas season, I’d like to challenge you all to do the same thing.  Put aside the new toys, the fix-it projects, and the dirty dishes.  Grab your old Bible, or simply go to Bible Gateway, and look for a Gospel.  Read it in a new translation – like The Message.  And don’t read it for answers or for the Jesus you already know.  Read it as if you’d never heard it before. And look for yourself there.  Because you are visible there, too.

Thanks be to God, I can see you in the Gospel, and I can see the Gospel in you.  Never forget – you are regarded.

[1] Breakeven (Falling to Pieces), recorded by Irish band The Script, 2008 Phonogenic Records

I Will Hold My Candle

This story, rooted in Isaiah 11:1-9, was first told to the saints of Crafton Heights on Christmas Eve, 2002.  It is the title story for my collection of original Christmas stories published by Lulu Press, I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas.  I offer it as a New Year’s posting because 98 years later, I still hope that we can put down our weapons and sing a few songs together.  Not because we are so great, but because I believe in the Prince of Peace to whom we sing all those carols.

He always was – and, I suppose, always will be my hero.  My grandfather.  I guess I always felt close to him – I’m even named for him.  Edward John.  To make things simple, the whole family’s always called me John – except for Pap.  He called me Eddie, and I loved him.

He was born in Scotland, and had a tough, tough life early on.  He came to America after World War I and settled down here with some of his other relatives.  He married my Gram, and became a well-respected member of the community.  It always seemed to me as if he knew everybody in town – and he probably did.  He ran the only hardware store for miles around, and it was well known that if you needed a hard-to-find item, Ed would take care of you.  He was funny, gentle, smart – he was my hero.  I wanted to be him.

There was only one thing about Pap I didn’t understand.  Everyone else in the family went to church, but not him.  And on Christmas, when people came from all over to be together, we went to the candlelight service together.  And my Pap – my funny, gentle, Pap – well, not only did he not come to church with us, but it’s the only time I’ve ever seen him make fun of my Gram.  He would stay home and drink beer all night on Christmas Eve, and when we got home from church he’d be drunk – and angry!  Every year, it was as if someone had gotten hold of the Pap that I knew and replaced him with a bitter old man.  When I got old enough to understand a little bit about what was going on, I asked my Gram.  She just shushed me and said that I wouldn’t understand.  She said it was because of the war, and that he would get better in a few days.

On Christmas Eve of 1965, something amazing happened.  We all went over to Pap’s house for dinner, like usual, and there was the old man wearing a suit and tie!  He grinned and said that he was coming to church with us.  I was 14 at the time, and had never seen him so excited.

We got to the church and everything went like it always did.  There were the little kids in bathrobes acting out the story.  And then we sang “Silent Night” and lit each other’s candles.  But when I reached over to light Pap’s candle, I saw that he was crying.  Not only that, he was singing in another language!  “Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht! Alles schläft; einsam wacht…”

After we came home, I asked Pap why he came to church with us.  And he told me a story I’ve never forgotten.  He said that when he was 18 he went into the Army back in Scotland in order to earn some money and help out at home.  By the time he was 22, in 1914, he was a corporal in the Second Scots Guards, stationed in the trenches in Northern France.  He talked about being scared to death by all the stories he’d heard about the Germans – he didn’t trust them, he said, and he knew that they’d slit his throat as soon as say “hello”.

On Christmas Eve his unit received orders from HQ at St. Omer, stating that the enemy was planning a holiday attack and to be extra vigilant.  At 8:30 on Christmas day, he looked out and saw four Germans coming across the battlefield.  His captain sent Pap and another fellow out – unarmed – to make sure that the Germans weren’t going to cross the line.  It turns out that the enemy carried a few tins of meat and a small barrel of beer.  They wanted a Christmas truce!

Pap said that it took a while, but the beer helped things out and that by lunchtime, both sets of trenches were pretty well emptied of soldiers.  At first, they buried the dead and cleaned out their trenches, but towards the middle of the afternoon, a fellow from Glasgow showed up with a soccer ball.  An impromptu game broke out, with the Germans playing the Scotsmen.  Afterwards, there was more beer, and the men sang Christmas carols together for hours.  Pap said that they almost forgot that there was a war on as they told stories and even showed each other photos from home.

Just after midnight, there was an order from his Captain to return to the trenches.  When the men were all back in the hole, the Captain fired three shots into the air.  From across the field, the German commander did the same thing.  The war was on again.

“Fancy that, Eddie,” Pap said to me.  “Here’s the German, shaking my hand as if he were trying to smash my fingers, offering me cigars and a pint of beer – and then a few hours later, trying to put a hole in me headgear!  It just didn’t make sense to me at all.  I had begun to believe that if in fact we were all Christians, then we’d work things out and go home.  But before I knew it, I was burying my mates and trying to save my own skin.”

It seemed as though Pap had a lot of hope – but that hope turned to anger.  He reasoned that if the story of Christmas were true, then it should make a difference in the ways that we treat each other.  But since they spent the next three years trying to kill each other, then the story couldn’t be true.  My Pap told me that as far as he was concerned, there was no such thing as peace on earth, good will towards men.  It was just a lie, a hoax, invented to make people feel better.  That’s why he got drunk every Christmas, he said.  He couldn’t get that feeling of betrayal or disappointment out of his mind.

But in the summer of 1964, something amazing happened.  My Pap got a letter from Europe.  It was from a man named Johannes Niemann in Germany.  And in the letter was a photograph with four or five soldiers holding a soccer ball.  On the back was a note: “Christmas Truce, 1914.  Fritz beats Tommy, three goals to two.”christmas-truce-1914

It turns out that Niemann had taken the photo on that Christmas Day, and somehow had tracked my Pap all the way to Pittsburgh.  Moreover, Niemann asked my Pap if they could meet.  Well, Gram had been after Pap to take a vacation, and so they did.  They went to France in December of 1964, and there, along with a few of the other soldiers, they had a sort of “50th Anniversary Reunion”.  Niemann had been one of the first Germans out of the trenches, and he and Pap spent a lot of time talking about the War and how their lives had been affected.  And Niemann talked with Pap about God.  He told Pap that he was a believer in Jesus Christ.

“Now you’re talking nonsense, Niemann!” my Pap roared.  “How can you believe in a fairy tale like that?  Don’t you remember that we were trying to kill each other?  That if someone asked you what you wanted for New Year’s 1915 you’d have probably asked for my head on a platter?  And I’d have wanted yours?  We talked about religion all day that Christmas, but it was obvious on the 26th that there was nothing to it.  It’s a lie, Niemann, a lie.”

“You see, Edward,” the German replied, “I remember very well. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t thank God for that Christmas Truce.  For you, that day has become some sort of a wall – it stands between you and faith.  It’s an obstacle for you to overcome.  But for me, it’s different.  That day has always been a window – it has let me see the power of God at work.

“When that day dawned – on Christmas morning 1914 – we were at our worst.  Men from all over the world – strangers with no reason to hate – were trying to exterminate each other.  But even in the hell of those frozen trenches, the power of God’s love broke through enough to give us a glimpse of what could be.  Do you remember the Bible, Edward?  Do you remember what it says in Isaiah?  ‘The wolf will dwell with the lamb…the cow and the bear shall feed…they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea…’  That’s what our God is doing, Edward.  It will come.  I know it will come.  I’ve seen it through a window – and I know it is happening.  I want to be a part of it – and I want you to be a part of it, too.”

And so it was in a little village in France that my Pap went to church for the first time in half a century.  And it was a church filled with Germans and Scotsmen who had, at one point, sworn to kill each other – but on that night in 1964, they shared the light of Christ.

Pap said to me that Christmas Eve a year later – 1965 – “Eddie, did you see what it was like at church tonight?  Did you see how everyone was holding candles and their faces looked a little different?  Did you notice that there was some sort of a glow?  Now imagine, Eddie, what it would be like if folks looked like that without the candles? – If we looked like that all the time?  That’s what I think the song means when it says, “Silent night, Holy night, Son of God, Love’s pure light Radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace…”  Jesus is like that all the time, Eddie.  The light just comes from him.

“Eddie,” my Pap said, “I want you to think of these Christmas Eve services as a window in your life.  For a long time, I didn’t even bother looking because my heart was so closed.  I know that most of your life isn’t full of that kind of beauty or warmth, Eddie.  But it should be.  It should be.  And God intends it to be.”

He got quiet for a while, and I didn’t know what to say.  Then he reached into his pocket and brought out a little box that he had clearly wrapped himself.  “Go ahead, son.  Open it,” he ordered me.

I had never in my life received a gift just from Pap. It was always on Christmas or my birthday, and it was always from Pap and Gram.  But there were the two of us sitting in the kitchen, and I unwrapped this little box.  Inside I found a stumpy little candle – maybe three inches long.

Pap smiled and told me that it was the candle that Niemann had given him in France the year before.  And then he took my hands in his and he said, “Eddie, you can’t do it by yourself.  Life hurts sometimes.  It hurts a lot.  But you can remember the way that it’s supposed to be.  And you can hold your candle, Eddie.  You can hold your candle.”

And every Christmas since then I’ve carried that candle in my pocket.  I haven’t missed a service.

On Christmas Eve in 1982 I was on my way out the door to the midnight service.  I got a call from my mother.  My Pap had died that evening.  I wanted to go home right away, but my wife reminded me that I was to sing the solo in church.  Silent Night.  And so I went to the service, and I sang Silent Night.  And I sang it in German.  And I rejoiced that my Pap was finally able to see the whole picture – not just through a window.

And so I’m here tonight.  And I’ve got Pap’s candle in my pocket.  If it looked stumpy and shabby in 1965, you can imagine that it looks pretty beat by now.  But I’ll finger it in my pocket when we sing Silent Night.  And I’ll pray that just as the soft wax melts with the approach of heat and flame, that the hardness, coldness, or bitterness in your heart might melt into the warmth of this room.

It’s not surprising that men want to kill each other.  It’s not surprising that we claim to know the truth, and then want to do unspeakable things.  But what is amazing to me is that God would love us enough to want to do something about it.

I have a grand-daughter.  Her name is Johanna.  She’s twelve years old, and I love her deeply.  And she doesn’t know it yet, but after church the two of us are going to sit at my kitchen table.  And I’m going to give her a little box that I’ve wrapped myself.  Inside the box will be a stumpy old candle, a tattered photo of a few muddy soldiers holding a soccer ball, and a small Bible.

I hope she likes it.  More than that, I hope she lives it.[1]

[1] The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a well-documented occurrence.  While this story is a work of fiction, some of the names, locations, and quotes were borrowed from research done by Mr. Tom Morgan and are used with his blessing.  More information can be found on his his website.

Making Room for Friends

As has become tradition, Christmas Eve means another Christmas Story for the saints at the Crafton Heights Church.  My hope is that exploring The Story in this way will help us find ourselves in it…and maybe it in us as well.  We read Luke 2:1-20 as we prepared for the following story. If you enjoy this, you might  want to know about I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas, my 2011 compilation of short stories for the Advent Season.  You can find it here.

Twelve-year-old Reuben was among the tallest boys around.  He was smart, he was well-spoken – he was the kind of boy that any dad in Nazareth would have been proud of – except for that arm.  Something had happened the day he was born, and ever since then, his left arm had hung limp by his side…useless.  No, it was worse than useless.  If it were merely useless, then Reuben would have overcome that already by virtue of his hard work and his desire to please his family.  Every day, Reuben showed up at the grinding mill, where with his one good arm he hitched the donkey to the wheel and loaded flour and grain and helped people who were eager to feed their families.

Yet every day of his life, Reuben endured the scorn of those who believed that his disability was an affliction sent by God to punish him for some sin.  The children his age taunted him.  He was unable to think about joining his father in service at the Temple.[1]  Perhaps that’s why he was so quiet and introspective.  I don’t really know.  I do know that most of the time he watched as an outsider.

I also know of one day, like most days, when he helped old Rachel pour out grain to be ground into flour.  She seemed to come every day, like clockwork.  He was glad for that, because unlike most of the customers who tried to avoid him, Rachel actually treated him as a human, and spoke with him almost like an equal.  As he helped her, he commented, “Are you baking again?  You cook more bread than anyone I know!  Who is there to eat all this bread?  Do you have a lot of relatives who stay with you?”

The older woman smiled and said simply, “Well, not in the way that you’re thinking of.”  She paused, and then continued, “Look – tomorrow is the Sabbath.  Why don’t you come and see me and share some of this bread?”

As he wandered through the village the next day, Reuben thought about Rachel.  She may have been a widow, he thought, yet he couldn’t remember her having any children.  At any rate, he knew that she went through a lot of flour.  He arrived at her home, which was empty – but clearly ready for company.  There were several benches, and the table was laden with freshly-baked bread as well as a large container of wine.  There was also a scroll on the table.

“Welcome to my home,” Rachel beamed.  “I have lived here for nearly my entire life.  I came back here to stay after my husband, Joses, died.”  She noted the unasked question on Reuben’s face, and continued, “No, we did not have any children…he died before that prayer could be answered.”

Reuben, who had four brothers and two sisters, blurted out, “You must be awfully lonely, then!”  Yet as he said it, he couldn’t help but wonder about those vast sacks of flour that she used.

“Oh, no, my friend.  If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s lonely.  I was, and might still be, were it not for a conversation I had many years ago.”

She continued.  “Have you heard of the teacher, Jesus?”

Reuben nodded – there was nobody in Galilee who hadn’t heard of this man.  “He’s the one who was killed – in a rebellion or something? – a long time ago, right?”

“Yes,” Rachel said, “he was the son of Joseph and Mary, crucified more than 25 years ago by the Romans.”  She sighed, and the room got very quiet.

“He was the most amazing man I ever knew,” Rachel offered, with a faraway look in her eyes.  “Although we didn’t speak much as children, I saw him most days when I was growing up.  He was several years older than I.  When I was about fifteen, I married his brother, Joses.  At that time, Joses and Jesus were working together in the carpentry shop their father had established.”

“Oh, Reuben, it was so wonderful to be young,” the older woman gushed.  “As Jesus was not married, he was often in our home.  We ate together.  We laughed – oh, how we laughed together!  And Jesus – well, Jesus knew the scripture better than anyone I’d ever met.  He was far wiser than any of the teachers of the Law we had in town then – but he was only a carpenter!  He spoke so beautifully of God’s ways – every time we spoke, I wanted to hear more and more and more.”

“But then things changed.  Jesus just quit one day.  He left the shop and went down to the lake.  He became a teacher, and even gathered a few followers to his side.  And then, even though he wasn’t at home, it was a wonderful change, at least at first.  One day, I was taking him some bread, and I saw him heal a blind man!  I had known that man my whole life, and when Jesus touched him, he could see!”

“I don’t know whether it was the miracles that brought people or his teaching.  One day, there were more than 5,000 men who gathered just to listen to him speak.  Jesus – our Jesus – was becoming famous!”

“But as his popularity increased, we saw him less and less.  Oh, we still got together for family meals, but he was rarely there.  And when he did come, he was never alone.  I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the times that year when he showed up at the door by himself.  Always, he had two or three – or fifteen or twenty – people with him.”

“At first, I thought them to be students, and I tried to respect them.  Even though most of them were fishermen, we didn’t mind.  All of us knew someone who worked hard out on the lake, and I sure didn’t begrudge them.”

“But soon enough, he started showing up with all sorts of people!  We would be gathered for dinner and Jesus would walk in with a tax collector or someone even worse!  One time, he tried to bring a Samaritan into our home!  There were women who I knew to be prostitutes – and he must have, too – he couldn’t have been that blind.  I was embarrassed!”

“And then, in my mind, it just got worse and worse, Reuben.  Can you imagine trying to eat dinner and having a leper walk into your home?  Sure, he said he’d been cleansed, but when you’ve known a person to be sick for fifteen years, you don’t expect him to just ‘get better’ from leprosy.  And there were beggars, and cripples and…”

Here, Rachel’s voice trailed off as she found herself gazing uncomfortably at the withered arm that hung by Reuben’s side.

“Reuben, I’m not proud of this, but the truth is that I allowed my irritation with Jesus’ friends to drive me away from him.  Know this, Reuben, and know it well: I loved Jesus.  But I simply could not stand his friends.  And so gradually, I began to remove myself from Jesus’ presence.”

“After I complained for a while, Joses and I eventually moved down to Tiberias where he started his own carpentry shop.  We rarely spoke of Jesus, and saw him even less.  I cut Jesus out of my life altogether.”

“During this time, my mother-in-law, Mary, came to visit.  She was not one to beat around the bush, and she simply came out and asked me about my absence from Nazareth.  I was ashamed, and embarrassed.  I didn’t want to say anything.  But finally I erupted into anger.”

“It had always been clear that Jesus was her favorite child, and I surely didn’t want to offend her – she’d been nothing but kind to me.  But my anger towards these ‘friends’ – and towards Jesus himself – had been simmering for so long that I just exploded into a tirade about Jesus and the people he kept bringing home.”

“To my great surprise, she listened, and then she smiled, and then she said, ‘Well, Rachel, I know how you feel!’  Just like that!  Plain as day, his own mother agreed with me.”

“She talked to me about the early days – even when he was born.  I had never heard about the fact that she’d given birth to him in a stable, nor about the fact that while she was just recovering from that, a group of shepherds came barging in and wanted to see the baby!  Can you imagine that?  Her, covered with blood and who knows what else, and these hooligans from outside coming in and talking about angels and other nonsense?”

“Not long after that, Mary told me, there was a group of gentiles who came looking for him.  Again, these strangers just barged right into the house where they were staying.  They said all kinds of strange things about her son, and gave her some strange presents, and then just left.”

“And then Mary said, ‘But in some ways, that was just the start.  When Jesus was growing up, he would have conversations with the strangest people.  Joseph and I never knew where we’d find him, or who he’d be with.  It used to really irritate me…no, worse than that, Jesus was scaring me.’”

Rachel sat for a moment, remembering this conversation with Jesus’ mother.  She continued: “I interrupted Mary, and I said, ‘but you have always stayed with him!  How?  Why?’”

“And Mary looked back at me and said simply, ‘He is my son.  He is the reason I am who I am, in many ways.  And I love him. I do not expect him to live a long life.  And I want him near me every day.  And if loving him means loving his friends, then I guess that I can learn how to do that!’”

The house was quiet for what seemed like a long time.  Finally, Rachel spoke again, saying, “You have heard what happened to Jesus, I know.”

Again, Reuben simply nodded.  Everyone in Galilee knew what happened to Jesus, and to anyone who stood against the establishment.  The crosses from Rome appeared as frequent reminders of what happened when people asked big questions.  The boy didn’t know what to say, and so he was silent.

Rachel continued, “About a year after Jesus was killed, my husband Joses died when a house collapsed on him.  At that point, I moved back to Nazareth. I hoped to find Mary, but she had gone to Jerusalem.  I was alone.”

The enormity of that struck Reuben – he, who was surrounded by a large and loving family – tried to picture Rachel as a young widow with no family, no children, no means of support.  He tried to think of life without his family – what it would be like to live here among the mockers, all alone.  He offered, “It must have been terrible.”

“It was at first.  Simply horrible.  But then something happened.  Something I couldn’t have imagined, and surely didn’t deserve.  Jesus’ friends began to come and visit.  They brought me gifts – a little food, some firewood.  I noticed that the same people who used to frustrate, or anger, or disgust me were now treating me as if I was their family.  They were different.  I was different.”

“After a couple of months, it occurred to me that this home is bigger than I need.  There are several rooms here.  We began to meet regularly, every Sabbath.  We remember Jesus.  We share his teachings, and we try to live the way that he taught us to.  We tell others about not only his death, but his resurrection.  And we invite any who care to to follow us as we follow The Way.”

The boy didn’t know what to say.  He wasn’t really hungry, and yet the smell of bread filled his nostrils.  He surely wasn’t looking for a new religion, and yet there was a presence in the room that defied explanation.

Rachel was clearly not in a hurry.  Finally, she gestured towards the table. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I’d have treated him differently in those years when I ran away”, she said.  “When I think about all the time I missed…all those things he went through without his family nearby…well, I feel empty.  And now, I miss him terribly.  But at least his friends…my friends…our friends…still come by.”

“We’ll be having dinner soon.  It’s not much – some bread, and a little wine.  A young man named Mark has just arrived from Rome, where Jesus’ friend Peter is in jail.  He’s brought a message.  I hope you’ll stay, Reuben.”

Do you know, that was the first time in his life someone other than his family asked Reuben to share a meal.  And he stayed.  And his world was never the same since that day when he met Jesus’ friends…and became one of them.

It would be nice if this story ended with me telling you that Reuben’s arm was healed and he went off to serve as a priest in the Temple.  But that didn’t happen.

Reuben did become a follower of The Way.  He learned, and he then talked about Jesus every chance he got.  He learned to break the bread and baptize people one-handed.  And, so far as I know, he never stopped looking for – or loving – Jesus’ friends.  Thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

It’s easy to be sentimental about Christmas.  We sit and we bask in the candlelight and to think about all the things that warm our hearts.  We read about the innkeeper who didn’t make room for the holy family, and we swear that we’d do things differently.  To quote Peter Storey,

Some tell us that following Jesus is a simple matter of inviting him into our hearts. But when we do that, Jesus always asks, “May I bring my friends?” And when we look at them, we see that they are not the kind of company we like to keep. The friends of Jesus are the outcasts, the marginalized, the poor, the homeless, the rejected — the lepers of life.

We hesitate and ask, “Jesus, must we really have them too?”

Jesus replies, “Love me, love my friends!”[2]

As we begin the new year, let me say that I hope you have Jesus in your heart.  And it may be that as you wander through the days and months to come, you’ll catch a glimpse of Jesus. I hope so.  I guarantee that you will see his friends.  I promise you that you will.  In the year to come, love him – and love his friends.

[1] Leviticus 21:16-23

[2] from 
Listening at Golgotha: Jesus’ Words from the Cross (Upper Room Books, 2004) pp. 29-30.