Rain and the Helping

For more than a quarter of a century, I have written an original short story each Christmas season in an effort to express the deep and eternal meaning of the incarnation in terms that are accessible to those in the room for a candlelight service.  Many of these stories have been published in a volume entitled I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas. Information about purchasing these stories can be found by clicking here. This year, I tried to write a story that would make sense to the entire congregation but use a couple of characters that I’d invented to help my four year old granddaughter deal with some of the joys and concerns of growing up, becoming a big sister, and dealing with things that make us nervous.  Our text included the well-known account from Luke 2:1-20. I hope you enjoy it!

To hear the story as told in worship, please use the audio player below.

This is the story of a brave, strong, kind, child whose name was Rain. Like all children, Rain enjoyed many things: she liked fishing, and cooking, and taking walks to look for special things outside. But among Rain’s most favorite things in the whole world were the times when she got to climb into her Grampy’s lap and listen to his stories. They didn’t get to do that often, but whenever they were together, it was something that they shared.

Tonight was a special night, because Grampy had promised to tell Rain one of the most important stories ever – the story about the night that baby Jesus was born.

They had a book with some pictures, and there was a pretend stable with a little manger that was sitting on the table, and Rain looked at these things while Grampy talked about the man whose name was Caesar Augustus who made a rule that everyone had to go on a special trip just to pay some money and sign their names.

Rain interrupted. “But Grampy”, she said, “Why would he do that? That just seems really mean – especially to Joseph and Mary.”

Rain had been with her own momma and daddy when her little sister was born, and she knew that it was hard work being pregnant and helping to take care of someone who was pregnant. She went on to say, “If it was me, I wouldn’t have done it. I’d have just looked at old Caesar and said, ‘Hey, buddy – we’re too busy to travel now. Sorry, Pal.”

Grampy laughed at this, and then said, “Well, sometimes even mommas and daddies have to do things that are hard. But one of the things I’ve learned is that God always sends helpers. No matter where you are, God will always send helpers.”

Rain frowned and said, “Well, it sure doesn’t look like that now. I tell you what, Grampy. I’m going to keep an eye on God.”

“That’s a really good idea,” responded Grampy.

They got to the part of the story where Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, but couldn’t find anywhere to stay for the night. Once again, Rain burst into the story:

“But where are the helpers now, Grampy? Mary is going to need someone – and the only person in the story is a mean old innkeeper who wouldn’t even let them stay!”

Rain had a barn at her house, and it was a real mess – filled with bugs and snakes and bees. She would never ask anyone to sleep there!

Grampy helped Rain to see that maybe not all barns were like her barn, and maybe since the house was already full, a clean, warm, dry barn would be better than nothing.

“And,” Grampy said, “maybe a group of women came out of the house and helped Mary. The story doesn’t say that she was all alone.”

“Well,” Rain said, “If I was there, I would have waited with Mary. I would have helped her.”

Grampy went on with the story, and he got to the place where the shepherds came to visit the little family.

Rain didn’t know much about sheep, but she knew a lot about goats. She looked at her Grampy and her face squinted a little bit, and she said, “Wait – the shepherds came on the night Jesus was born? Weren’t they muddy and dirty from being outside with the animals all the time?”

Grampy smiled and said, “Oh, sweetheart, I’m sure that they were very dirty. But God wanted to include them in this special night.”

Rain thought about it for a while, and she asked a great question. “Did the shepherds come to help with the baby?”

“No,” her Grampy said. “They didn’t really come to help. They came to celebrate the fact that Jesus was born, and to say ‘Happy Birthday, Jesus.’ And maybe, in some way, the shepherds saw that Jesus’ birth was a reminder of the fact that God had promised to send them help in their lives.”

Now, this just sounded foolish to Rain. She had a new baby in her family, and she knew that babies could be great in some ways, but she also knew that mostly, babies are loud, and messy, and not really very helpful to anyone. Ever. So Rain asked her Grampy another very good question. She said, “Grampy, how can a baby ever help anyone?”

Grampy held little Rain very tightly in his arms and said, “Oh, Rain. You will know more about this when you get to be a little older, but any baby – and especially baby Jesus – can always be a reminder of how good life is supposed to be, and what special gifts God gives to each one of us.”

“Think about it,” Grampy went on, “This group of shepherds was probably pretty poor, and they were often lonely. Most of the people in their world didn’t pay any attention to shepherds – they didn’t want to be friends with them, they thought that shepherds were not as good as they were… Maybe the shepherds could have felt as though God had forgotten about them, and that God’s promises of help didn’t include them.”

“But then all of a sudden, on that special night, what happened to the shepherds?”

Rain knew the answer to that question! “The angels came, and sang just for them, and then sent them to see baby Jesus.”

Grampy asked Rain, “How do you think that the shepherds felt when the angels were there? Do you think that they thought that God had forgotten about them?”

“Of course not!”, Rain replied. “There were angels, singing in the sky, telling them to go and visit the baby! God did not forget the shepherds.”

“So then listen, Rain, because this is important: before Jesus ever grew up, before Jesus did any miracles, or healed anyone, or forgave anyone… before the baby Jesus even knew how to stand up by himself or say his own name, he was already a reminder to people who felt poor and alone and forgotten. Before Jesus could say anything with his own mouth, God used the baby Jesus to remind people that God keeps his promises and that his help will always find a way to reach us.”

That seemed to get Rain thinking for a little bit, and the room got quiet for a while. Grampy was looking at the lights on the Christmas tree, and then he looked out the window and saw that it was snowing again, and then he started thinking about the fact that pretty soon he would have to get out of that nice soft chair and start to shovel the walks again.

And while Grampy was thinking all of these big and important and grown-up thoughts, Rain was just sitting in his lap, turning the pages in the picture bible they were holding.

After a minute, Rain stopped looking at the pictures and looked at her grandfather. She thought he was very special, but she had an important question for him.

“Grampy,” she said, “do you know how to do miracles?”

“What?” He wasn’t sure that he heard the question right.

“Grampy, you know, like in the Bible stories. Jesus cured people who were sick, and he walked on water, and one time he even fed a giant crowd with only a few loaves of bread and a little bit of fish. Can you do any of those things?”

Now it was Grampy’s turn to be quiet. Finally, after a few moments, he said, “No, Rain, I don’t suppose that I can do any of those things.”

Rain nodded, and held her Grampy’s hand, and said, “That’s all right. I don’t think that I can do any of those things either.”

“Well,” said Grampy, “what do you think we can do?”

Rain said, “Look, I’m not a baby any more, and I can’t do miracles. So I can’t act like the baby Jesus, and I can’t act like the grown up Jesus. So I guess the best way for me to be like Jesus this Christmas is to try to do that reminding thing. You know, you said that this story is about how God always sends helpers. Do you think that you and me could be the helpers? I want to be a helper and a reminder.”

And so that’s what they did. They got up from the chair, and Grampy decided that he did have to go outside and shovel. But Rain came along with him, and she helped. And then they went across the street and shoveled the snow away from two other houses.

When they came inside, it was time to do arts and crafts. Instead of just making projects to hang on her own refrigerator, Rain decided that she would make some special cards for people in the hospital who might be feeling alone at Christmas time. Grampy even helped her put them in some envelopes.

Late that night, Grampy was tucking Rain into bed, and he asked, “Well, Rain… was it a good Christmas?”

She said that it was, but then she added, “But I have a a question.”

“What is it?”

“I know that now, Christmas is over. But I still want to be one of the helpers. I still want to be one of the people who reminds other people that God promises to be with them when they feel sad or alone or hurt.”

Grampy bent down and he kissed the little girl right on both cheeks. It looked like he might have been crying a little bit, but Rain wasn’t sure about that. Then he said, “Rain, that is the best answer ever. If we only do helping for a day or two, then we’re not really acting like Jesus, are we? Let’s try to do it every day, all year through.”

And so, that’s the plan. To work, in whatever way an old man and a little girl can, to be in on the helping thing that God is doing in the world.

There’s room for more of that, you know. Thanks be to the God who not only promises us help, but who sends us into the helping. Amen.

After the story was finished, we lit the candles and sang “Silent Night”, and I shared a meditation entitled “First Coming” written by Madeleine L’Engle.


He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he cameto a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

A Season of Joy

In Advent 2015, the folks at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights considered some of the characteristics of the God whom we worship.  On December 27, we ended that series with a celebration of the ways that the incarnation has changed our reality.  Our texts included Psalm 96 and Luke 2:1-14.

What, would you say, is the most popular Christmas song in these United States of America?

Well, I guess it depends on how you measure it. Time magazine searched every recording produced since 1978 and determined that Silent Night has been recorded 733 times in the past 37 years. According to the people at Spotify, however Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You is number one. If we shift our attention to Pandora, we learn that people in Pennsylvania listen to Christmas Canon as performed by The Trans-Siberian Orchestra more than any other holiday tune.

What is your favorite Christmas carol?

Why does it have that place in your heart?

Think about how we experience the music of this season. We sing it. We listen to it. We complain about it. It gets stuck in our heads. And then we listen to it some more, don’t we?

Allow me to suggest that we use the songs as an avenue for both memory and hope. For instance, when I hear or sing O Holy Night, I am taken back to the piano bench where I am trying to get my left hand to do what seemed so easy for Mrs. Sanner when she was sitting next to me. I’m about to give up, and I hear my mother from the kitchen call out, “Oh, David, that sounds beautiful! O Holy Night is my favorite.” I remember coming into this room as a young man and hearing Lois Peters sing it each year, and I think about the ways that Christmas in this place has shaped me. Christmas music is about memory, isn’t it?

But that song, of course, is not only about looking back. Remember that when we intone “chains shall he break, for the slave is his brother and in his name all oppression shall cease”, the only thing we are remembering is that we’ve prayed this prayer for a long time. The song points us to that which is still yet to come. Christmas music is about hope, too. That’s why we have to sing it over and over again.

There was no such thing as iTunes or YouTube when it was written, but the song that you heard as Psalm 96 has been high in the rotation list for centuries.

David Bearing the Ark of Testament into Jerusalem Domenico Gargiulo, 1609-1675

David Bearing the Ark of Testament into Jerusalem Domenico Gargiulo, 1609-1675

So far as we can tell, it was first written, or at least popularized, when David had Asaph and the band play it as the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Jerusalem. For years, this sacred piece of Israel’s heritage had been where it was not supposed to be – first in the hands of their Philistine oppressors and then in a remote village, apparently languishing in a forgotten field. These lyrics first appear in I Chronicles 16, and they sure make sense in that context. Finally, it would seem that the Philistine threat that had plagued the nation for generations had been dealt with. National security was, at least for the time being, not a problem in Israel.

More than that, the people had a king. David is doing all of the things that the best kings do, and people are sensing God’s blessing in the midst of that. In addition, the capital city has been established, and Israel has a real identity. When this song is written, we sense that the people really believe that they belong to God and that God will keep his promises to them.

Not surprisingly, then, these words find their way into the book of Psalms – those tunes that were sung over and over again as the people worshiped YHWH in Jerusalem and throughout the nation. When the people rose up and sang Number 96, they remembered all that was good on that day when the Ark was restored – and they celebrated new experiences of God’s faithfulness:

Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations,  ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;  bring an offering and come into his courts.

Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth.

Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.”

The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.

The Psalm refers to a specific incident, to be sure, but also maintains an awareness of God’s continuing presence and the hope that God will deepen that presence in the days to come.

Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,  he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness.

The song says clearly that God “comes”. Not, “came”. Not, “will come”. “He comes to judge the earth…” God’s intentions, say this beloved song, are to restore what has been ruined; to establish justice where that is lacking, and to bring order where there is chaos.

And because this Psalm is so clear about the understanding of God as one who comes, it has become a favorite among Christians, particularly on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. Looking back through the lens of time, we can remember not only the ways that the Philistines were pushed back and the throne of David was established, but also the ways that those intentions of God were more clearly revealed two thousand years ago in the event the theologians call “the incarnation”.

We remember that first-century Palestine was characterized by brutality, scarcity, inhospitality, and fear – and yet, he comes.

To King Herod in all his military might and wealth and power – he comes.

To those wise men in their towers, studying the mysteries of the ages from afar – he comes.

To homeless foreigners who have been told time and time again that there is no place for them in this town, in this city, in this part of the world – he comes.

To poor shepherds whose difficult labor mostly increases the wealth of others while not doing much for their own security – he comes.

For all of creation, in fact, He comes. He did come. He does come. He is coming. He comes.

And because he comes, we respond in joy.

Some of that joy is involuntary. According to the Psalm, the creation itself is so taken with the notion of justice being restored that the fields are jubilant and the trees are singing. And those of us with some greater level of awareness are invited to worship in joy and thanksgiving because we love and serve a God who comes.

IncarnationWe see that joy in the story that comes out of Bethlehem, where it seems as though everyone gets in on the invitation to share in what God is doing. The Angels, the shepherds, the holy family, and the whole community is blessed by the willingness of God to participate in the restoration of Creation.

On this, the last Sunday of 2015, I will remind you, dear friends, that while brutality, scarcity, inhospitality, and fear are very much with us, they belong to the old order. These scourges, and those who inflict them, are derivatives from a world that does not know anything of the gentle, abundant, gracious and peaceful welcome of the savior.

I know, I know – you say to me that everywhere you look, you see these things. But I am reminding you that they are not of God and they will not last. As we end this year, let us remember that the situation in which we find ourselves or even the situation in which we are willing to place our neighbors is not congruent with the scripture or God’s eternal intentions.

Please hear me: I am not minimizing the horrors of brutality, scarcity, inhospitality, and fear. Those giants are every bit as frightening as were the Philistines, or King Herod, or any other power that attempted to take the place of the One who comes. So remember, as this year ends, so they, too, will end.

And as the new year will dawn before we are together next, let me remind you of the invitation you have received to participate in the order which is to come. Asaph and his band sung a version of it when the Ark was restored. David and his congregation reminded themselves of it time and time again. The Angels spent all night teaching it to the shepherds, who couldn’t wait to spread the news to anyone who would hear.

And now it’s our turn. Your call this day, beloved, is to be a herald. A living reminder that what is is not all that there is, and that we serve a God who comes. Let me encourage you to live your life as a testimony to the truth of which the Angels sang – the truth that brutality, scarcity, inhospitality, and fear belong to yesterday, not to tomorrow. Sing about the generous grace that has come, is coming, and is yours to share right now. Thanks be to God, who comes to judge the earth in righteousness and the peoples in faithfulness. Let that be the tune that is stuck in your heads in 2016! Amen.

The Dangerous God

This Advent, the folks at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering some of the characteristics of the God whom we worship.  On December 6, we talked about what it means for us to worship and serve a God who seems willing to send those he loves to dangerous places.  Our texts included Nahum 1:3-5 and John 20:21.


You’ve heard the old saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” right? “Like father, like son”?

Think about your parents. Which characteristics did or do they have that you’d like to think are present in your life? And where are you just a little bit afraid that you’re going to wind up being exactly like your mother or father?

Think about the people you know. How often are you surprised to find out that two people are related because they just seem so different from each other? And how often can you see clearly that, yes, these people definitely came from the same stock?

This is Advent, the season of expectancy and hope and joy; the season where we celebrate the fact that God’s own son has come into the world. Jesus, the pre-existing Son of God the Father, is here! Hallelujah!

Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Vegetation, Michelangelo, c. 1510

Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Vegetation, Michelangelo, c. 1510

There are many in our world who talk about Jesus as though he’s some sort of an exception to the “like Father, like Son” principle. How many times have you heard something like, “Well, that God in the Old Testament, he was just so angry and vengeful all the time. All of that smiting and judging and punishing. But then Jesus came and he was so kind and loving and humane. I like him a lot better.”

As if God is the really grouchy, crotchety old neighbor who’s always chasing the kids off his lawn while Jesus is the boy scout who shares milk and cookies with children and shovels other people’s walks just for fun…

Have you encountered that line of thinking before? I have to say that it’s not really that helpful, because while we perceive the person of Jesus differently than we perceive the person of the Father, scripture is clear that they are one in essence. As Jesus himself said, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30).

That means that all the power of God is present in Jesus. And all the love of Christ started in the heart of the Father.

Don’t get me wrong – God is immense and powerful and limitless. You heard that in the reading from Nahum, although we could have just as easily turned to a dozen other prophets or the Psalms. The Bible is full of places where, when God shows up, there’s thunder and lightening, or even worse.

And yet when God chose to reveal himself in a more complete and intimate way, he chose to be present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

And again, don’t get me wrong – it’s not like Jesus didn’t know a thing or two about power. Do you remember the time he cleaned out the Temple, and sent the moneychangers flying? Hoo-boy, that was something. Do you remember how angry he got when he saw people using God’s name to do despicable things? Yikes.

And yet, he chose most often to reveal himself in vulnerability and even weakness.

There was a very successful advertising campaign in the 1970s for a perfume, the tagline of which was “if you want to get somebody’s attention, just whisper.” In some ways, Jesus of Nazareth was the “whisper” of the omnipotent, omnipresent God.

Jesus of Nazareth, God the Son, was sent by the Father into a world longing for the presence, healing, and justice of God…that Jesus had access to all of the power, might, majesty, and weaponry of God. And yet he chose not to use it.

And there were times when his closest friends, once they figured out who he was, could not believe that he was setting all of that aside. Do you remember when Jesus and his followers were going through Samaria and his disciples felt disrespected and unwelcome? They turned to Jesus and said, “Lord, now can we call down fire from the sky and destroy them? Because these people are really getting on my nerves, Jesus.” (Luke 9:54). I mean, that’s an Old Testament strategy if ever there was one, right? And do you further remember that not only did Jesus refuse to permit his disciples to go all fire and brimstone on the neighbors, but he rebuked them for even suggesting it. He shut them down cold, saying “Look, fellas, that’s not the power we are using here…”

The incarnation – the presence – of Jesus is a demonstration that compassion is stronger than hatred, that hope is better than fear, that grace triumphs over judgmentalism, and that, at the end of the day, love wins. Deeper and more powerful than the raging anger and world-shaking, tree-tossing, pillar-of-fire-and-smoke power of God is the astoundingly simple, disarming, and vulnerable truth that brute force and coercion is not what God is best at. There’s a deeper, stronger, more eternal truth, and it is love. That’s Advent in a nutshell, right? That’s Christmas – love wins!

Which leads me to one of the scariest things that Jesus ever said. It is so frightening and so intimidating that Carly could only read one sentence from the Gospel this morning. You all thought she got off easy and were remembering the day I made you say things like “Mephibosheth” or “Ahasuerus” when you were lay reader, but I’m telling you that Carly laid down the hardest Gospel truth of all this morning. What was it?

“As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

Listen, beloved: if we are paying any attention at all to what happens in the Gospel, that sentence should scare the pants off of us.

As the Father has sent me…

Christ of the Breadline, Fritz Eisenberg

Christ of the Breadline, Fritz Eisenberg

How did the Father send? Naked. Vulnerable. In a pall of shame and suspicion. In poverty. As a child refugee whose parents had to flee to another country to save not only their own skins, but that of the One who created skin. Humbly. In poverty. Armed, not with fire and brimstone, but with love and truth.

As the Father has sent me…

To whom did the Father send? Not to those in the palace. Not to the prominent, successful, or the religious insiders. But to those on the margins. To the excluded and beaten up. As one of my favorite theologians has put it, Jesus was sent to the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead.[1]

As the Father has sent me…

For what was Jesus sent? To submit himself to the will of the One who sent him. To offer himself as a sacrifice. To reach out. To empower.

Do you hear that, church? As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. Like that. To them. For this.

“Uh, er, yeah, Jesus… that sounds pretty intense. I mean, like, you know, a lot of commitment. Don’t get me wrong, Lord, I really want to be a follower and all, but, well, I’ve got a lot going on right now. And I told my mom I’d be home before dark. My show comes on at 9. And I have this thing on Saturday…”

Jesus of Nazareth, whom in the Nicene Creed we say is

the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father…

that Jesus looks at us and says, “OK, I called you to follow me. I showed you how. And now I’m sending you. This is how you do it.” And most of us, most of the time, don’t like it. Encountering the Advent God as made known in Jesus of Nazareth is a dangerous thing because this God seems to expect so much from us.

A lot of us can point to a time when we met the Lord and we said, “Wow, I really need help right now.” We look at Jesus in all sincerity and say, “You are right. I need a little forgiveness. No, I need a lot of forgiveness. Yes, thank you Lord. Thank you for that forgiveness. You can just put it right over there.”

And we’re serious when we say that. We’re serious when we ask for forgiveness and we’re grateful when we say thanks. But Jesus comes in and sets his love and forgiveness down and then stands around like a the pizza guy waiting for a tip. Actually, it’s worse than that, because Jesus comes all the way in and he never wants to leave. I tell him to put that really nice (OK, that really big) box of forgiveness and love over on the counter and I’ll get to it later, but he opens it up and starts to unpack it and begins to rearrange the furniture of my life, critiques the art I have hanging inside, and even starts nosing through the medicine cabinet and the pantry. Jesus strolls into my life and starts acting like he owns the place?

He does, of course.

Following Jesus is scary business. We serve a dangerous God who doesn’t seem to hesitate to send those whom he loves to dangerous places.

Too often, we get caught up in our own safe places. We don’t want to leave what we call “the comfort zone”. We get into a nice routine, doing what feels good, following our patterns, and pretty soon our faith gets stale and predictable. We catch a glimpse of Jesus, whispering for us to step closer to him, and we notice that he’s moved away from our comfort zone. And so we find ourselves in one-on-one conversation about real stuff that matters…we find ourselves face to face with another human being who is homeless, or a refugee, or a kid who needs an adult mentor…before we know it we’re packing our bags for a place that seems so far away…we’re standing up for the rights of someone else…and we find ourselves trusting in the One who called and sent us more than we trust our 401(k) plans, our security systems, our concealed carry permits, or ourselves.

And it’s just plain scary.

As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.

Never forget that. God bless us in the scary and dangerous places of this Advent journey. Amen.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Eerdman’s 2002) p. 205.

Pastor Tony Gets Back on Track

It is my custom to write an original short story each year and tell it to the good people of Crafton Heights on Christmas Eve.  My hope is that in the hearing of my story, The Story will emerge a little more clearly.  The Story, of course can be found in John 1:1-14 and other places in Scripture.  If you like this story, you may be interested in I Will Hold My Candle & Other Stories for Christmas, a compilation of stories from the past couple of decades.  You can learn more about that volume by clicking here or just contacting me.  I would suggest that you find a hot beverage and a friend, and read this aloud.  Merry Christmas.

Cheryl Donaldson was, for one of the few times in her life, speechless.  She looked at her father, who sat awkwardly on the couch pretending to study a fascinating stain in the carpet near his left foot.  After a few moments, she broke the silence.

“How can that possibly be, Dad?  You have never been on a train?  You?  That is all you ever do!”

As Tony continued to study the carpet as if it held the secret to a long and happy life, Cheryl’s mind flashed back to the home on 33rd Street in the little town of Beaver Falls – the home in which she had grown up, and the home which at this moment was a veritable HO Gauge metropolis.  The man lived and breathed model railroading, and here he was saying he’d never been on a train?  It was incomprehensible.

When she was just a kid, Cheryl’s dad had taken her younger brother, Phil, into Pittsburgh to do some Christmas shopping.  While there, the two visited the old Buhl Planetarium and saw the miniature railroad village they always set out.  That same year, Phil’s Christmas present was a simple oval track layout and a couple of buildings from a town called “Plasticville”.  For the next three years, it was a little tradition that gradually escalated, as Tony bought Phil a couple of new buildings, or a new locomotive, or some other improvement to the 4 x 8 layout.

But after the third year, things changed dramatically.  That May, Phil was struck and killed by a drunk driver as he was riding his bike home from ball practice.  At Christmas, Cheryl was surprised to discover that even though she had never been all that interested in the goings-on in Plasticville, she had somehow become the heiress of that tradition.  She was glad for the attention from her father, and she went along, although she realized soon that it was never really about her.

A couple of years later, the 4×8 layout grew to become 6×12.  When she left for college in Washington, DC, her bedroom was officially designated as the train room. Tony didn’t like working on the layouts down in the cellar, and besides, it gave him something to do on his day off year-round.

Not long after his wife died of breast cancer, Tony drew the attention of the folks who were curating the train exhibit down in Pittsburgh when he actually cut a couple of holes in the walls between Cheryl’s and Phil’s old rooms.  In so doing, he was able to construct tunnels that would connect two increasingly elaborate layouts in the separate rooms.  Cheryl’s room remained the traditional winter scene, whereas Phil’s became a testimony to the splendors of rural life in the summer.  The folks from Buhl, and later the Carnegie Science Center, made several trips to the little house on 33rd Street in order to see how Tony managed the connections for such a project.

She looked at her father, who still hadn’t said a word, and remembered that the only time he had ever raised his voice to her was just three years ago, when in an effort to help bring him into the new millennium she had replaced all of his incandescent light bulbs with those new compact florescent bulbs that were supposed to save so much energy.  When Tony went in to work on the layout, he just about exploded.  He made her come into the room and listen to him talk about the ways that these new bulbs threw off his color scheme so completely that he couldn’t think of anything else.  He complained until she finally went and dug all the old ones out of the garbage and replaced them.  That year for Christmas, she gave her father an entire case of 75 watt incandescent bulbs just so he could be sure that the sun in Plasticville was always glowing predictably.

She knew that this was a difficult year for Tony.  Three months ago, he had finally retired from his pastorate at the church.  Or, to be more precise, the church had retired from Tony.  It simply slipped away, and when they had fewer than fifteen folks showing up on most Sundays, the denomination encouraged them to think about consolidating with another congregation.  Tony found himself a sixty-six year-old man who had lived in the same home for twenty-nine years…but unable to participate deeply in the life of the community to which he’d devoted three decades.  They decided that he would spend the Christmas holiday in Cheryl’s home in Prince Georges County, MD.  She wanted him to see his grandkids in the Christmas pageant and he didn’t have anywhere else to go, so that about settled it.

Cheryl had just asked her father if he’d be willing to take an older man from her own church, Mr. Belser, into Washington DC to see about straightening out a question with the Veteran’s Administration about his benefits.  Mr. Belser knew his way around all right, but he had become dependent on oxygen, and he needed a second set of hands to help him handle the tanks.  Cheryl loved Mr. Belser, and she thought that her dad would jump at the chance to help him out, particularly since they’d be taking the Metro into the District.

Only now, the strongest man she had ever known sat on her sofa with a look of terror in his eyes.  His last words to her had been, “I’m sorry, Cher, but I can’t do that.  I’ve never been on a train before.  I don’t know how.”

Finally, she looked at her father, put the route map in his hands, and said, “You’ll do fine, Dad.  Thousands of people do this every day.  I promised Mr. Belser we’d do it, and I’ve got get the boys ready for the pageant at Church.  You’re on.  Now go get some rest, Pops.”

Later that night, a sixty-six year-old man lay wide-awake in bed.  He was too scared to sleep.  He was too excited to sleep.

Now know this, my friends, about Pastor Tony.  He knew more about the railroad than anyone he knew.  But he didn’t really know trains at all.  What I mean by that is that he could read all of the signal lights, and he knew the various codes for each blast of the locomotive’s horn.  Not only did he own a copy of the Northeast Operating Rules Advisory Committee rulebook on train movement and protocol, he had read it.  Twice.  He knew the slang that trainmen used.  And, as I’ve previously noted, he had forgotten more about model railroading than most people will ever know.  He knew railroads.

But he didn’t know trains.  He had never sat on the cracked vinyl and felt the shudder of the airbrakes approaching a station.  He could not anticipate the peculiar combination of odors brought about by industrial lubricants, electric transformers, and the commuting public.  He had never sat in a rolling passenger car filled with strangers glued to their Kindles or working their smart phones, all the while tethered to their iPods in a desperate attempt to avoid human interaction.  Pastor Tony, in spite of the hundreds of feet of track he’d laid in a dozen different Plasticvilles, had never felt the clatter of the rails deep in his bones.

But he would.  And the thought filled him with anticipation.  And with dread.

As it turned out, it went pretty well.  His daughter took him down to the Deanwood station on the orange line, and Belser was already there.  They headed to the elevated tracks and purchased their tickets, and there Pastor Tony confessed his anxiety to his traveling companion.  Belser thought it was a joke!  What a fuss!  He’d spent his whole career riding to work in trains, first in New York and then later in DC.  When Tony told him of his fascination with model railroads, Belser simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t get it.  I mean, no offense, but really – trains are not toys. They are for riding.  They are a way to connect with the real world.  I’ve always said, I learned more sitting on a train than I ever did watching that idiot box my grandkids always have on…”

And the adventure went off smoothly.  With Belser’s experience and Tony’s willingness to heft the oxygen tanks, they rode the Orange Line into L’Enfant Plaza and switched to the Green Line all the way up to the Georgia Avenue stop.  As Tony’s anxiety lessened, he was able to see what Belser was saying about the little universe of each railway car.  He watched the people and took in the sights and walked through the turnstiles and generally enjoyed himself.  They had such a good time, in fact, that after visiting the VA, they rode the Orange Line clear out to New Carrolton, where they sat for a while looking at the big Amtrak yards full of trains and people and their stories.

After his trip was finished, Pastor Tony sat in the third row of the little Methodist church there in Maryland and watched the Christmas pageant.  It hadn’t been going for but three or four minutes when the child assigned the role of the Angel Gabriel flubbed her reading badly.  Tony’s first thought was, “What kind of a yahoo is this pastor?  That’s why we don’t do Christmas pageants with our kids.  You can’t trust kids – they are late, or they forget, or even worse, they show up and they cry.”

So much of Tony’s life, to be honest, had been based on order and predictability.  That’s why he loved his train set at home so much – because he always knew what to expect there.  The lawns in Plasticville are always perfectly manicured.  The dogs never keep you awake with their barking.  The church parking lots are always full.  Gasoline is $129.9 down at the filling station.  In Plasticville, the death rate and the crime rate are zero.  There are no drunk drivers.  There are no accidents.  Plasticville is so reliable in so many ways.

But when you stop to think about it, as Pastor Tony did that very night, it’s not only the crime rate and the death rate that are zero.  In the whole history of Plasticville on 33rd Street in Beaver Falls, not a single person had ever been born.  No one ever graduated.  Nobody grew at all.  And while the passenger lines and freight cars ran faithfully and sometimes ceaselessly – not a soul ever boarded or disembarked from those trains.

And as Pastor Tony watched his grandson giggle with the other shepherds when they had to say, “Hail to you, O Virgin fair”, it hit him – this was what made the birth of Christ so important.

His whole adult life he had talked and taught about the incarnation – about the idea that God became a human.  And yet his concept of God had been so limited.  In Pastor Tony’s mind, God hovered above the earth in the same way that Tony doted on Plasticville – manipulating the environment and setting up pretty displays.  But if the incarnation means anything, thought Tony, it means that all of these things matter.  It means that somehow, the God who made us cares enough about us to come into the noisy and smelly and cluttered places of our own lives.  It means that God enters in, fully and completely.  And if that is true – and he believed it more that night than he ever had before – then it meant that God was not expecting Tony to be some perfect statue who kept it all together and remained unshaken.  No, the incarnation means that God expected Tony to grow in and through each step that each day brought him.  In Jesus Christ, God moved into our neighborhood in a way that Tony could never enter Plasticville…and because God was willing to risk doing that in Jesus, Tony was free to grow in ways that were impossible to the denizens of his bedroom empire.

By the time the three bathrobe-wearing wise men dropped off their improbable gifts to an increasingly antsy Joseph and a Mary who looked as though she really needed to find a bathroom in a hurry, Tony knew that he probably wouldn’t be spending a lot more time rearranging the landscapes back in Cheryl’s old bedroom.  He wasn’t sure, exactly what he would be doing – only that he would be doing – and not watching – for as many days as God gave to him.

For his entire adult life, Pastor Tony resisted change, seeing it only as loss.  When he got a glimpse of a God who was willing to transform and walk with him in the midst of anything, Tony’s fear of change diminished, and was replaced with a sense of trust and adventure.  Oh, he knew he hadn’t got it all figured out yet, but he also knew he was on the right track.

And that has made all the difference.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.