When you’re little, life can usually be defined by whatever consistently holds your attention moment by moment. At five years old, my life revolved around trains and dinosaurs – trains because they were awesome, dinosaurs because they ate people, symbols of the total masculinity I exemplified at that age (so no, I didn’t believe in girl dinosaurs).
Mom was studying counseling psychology before she had me and decided that she wasn’t going to need any other patients. Dad was the associate pastor at our church. He’s a carpenter by trade, with thick stubble and a preaching voice that could’ve belonged to an eighties rock-star, landing him somewhere on the spectrum between Jesus and Paul McCartney.
But, as you might guess, we did not have anything close to Paul McCartney’s money. I didn’t know at the time how much work it took for Dad to keep us afloat, but our Christmastimes centered on family, the birth of Jesus, and my parents doting on me as much as practicality would allow. They were content, hopeful in the Lord, and very much in love. I was harder to please.
The fact is that little boys with burgeoning machismo enjoy having numerous miniature replicas of things that they can mangle. If you’ve ever read Calvin and Hobbes, you may be familiar with the scene where Calvin hands his mother his Christmas list:
“This says, ‘Volume One’,” she says.
“‘Atom Bomb’ through ‘Grenade Launcher’,” he explains.
My parents did try. Once when I was eyeing a particularly realistic tyrannosaurus in Toys R’ Us, my father came up and said “Son, I’ll give you a choice: I’ll either buy you that T-Rex now or, if you wait until you’re eighteen, I’ll buy you a convertible.” I knew a deal when I heard one, and I walked out with the massive lizard under my arm. I still haven’t quite forgiven him.
Before too long Dad, in an effort to save their bank account, presented me with several hand-made wooden houses. When I asked him what they were for, he explained that they were scenery for me to build my train tracks around.
“Cool,” I said. “And what else?” With a twinkle in his eye, Dad took one of my toys and demonstrated that a velociraptor could easily demolish it in a pinch.
Right then, I knew what I wanted for that Christmas. I’d found out that hand-made things could be pretty fantastic. I also discovered that they saved money. That was my way in.
“Dawdy,” I said in my best I’m-your-only-son voice. “Dawdy for Christmas I want you to build Jurassic Park in the backyard.”
“Lyle, you’ve never even seen that movie,” Mom said, dumbfounded. Well . . . I’d known the film had to be amazing because it was about dinosaurs and yet my parents wouldn’t let me see it, so on the night they rented it I cracked the door to my room open, squatted in the shadows and marveled at the carnage on-screen from off in the corner.
“I think I saw more than you did, Mom,” I said. “You had a blanket over your head the whole time.” But what had really baffled me was that they thought such violence would scare me. Those sorts of things, and worse, happened on a daily basis during playtime, I explained - and was promptly grounded.
It took Mom to explain that Jurassic Park in the backyard would be way more expensive than I thought, even with Dad making everything by hand. I was disappointed but I understood – I understood everything except for how much time Dad began spending in the garage after that, only getting to say goodnight to him as he would come back inside late at night, exhausted.
There was a part of me that worried I’d hurt his feelings, that he thought I didn’t believe in him anymore, didn’t see him as Invincible Dad. I mean I didn’t, quite, but it wasn’t his fault. Maybe it was a little his fault, but I didn’t want him to feel bad about it.
I didn’t see him at all on Christmas Eve. I thought it was about time he got over himself. I missed him, but Mom told me I couldn’t bug him. Now I was the one thinking it was unfair, and all the marshmallows in my cocoa couldn’t quite make it all better.
That morning I got Mom and Dad up around seven, herding them out of bed like a good only-child. Dad got a hold of me.
“Hey boss-man,” he said. “Mom and I still have to get ready. Why don’t you run downstairs and take a look under the tree?”
I did as I was told, but within moments I’d shot back up the stairs and latched myself around Dad’s neck. I didn’t thank him because I didn’t know how.
Under the tree, the lights flashing across it, was a two-hundred-piece, hand-carved wooden train track with each of my little engines ready to pull coal and passengers for as long as my imagination would allow.
Dad put something of himself into that gift more than fifteen years ago, through all the cuts and splinters. He did it with no other thought in his mind than seeing my joy.
God did that. He knit himself a body in a girl’s womb – His Son, fearfully and wonderfully hand-made, laid on a bed of hay in a cave for us to find.
Clearly, God likes surprises too because it took us more than thirty years to figure out what he’d given us. But we didn’t share it, didn’t use it or give it away . . . we tortured it and hung it up to die. It goes to show God’s genius though, something incomprehensible about his heart, to know that that’s exactly how we were supposed to use his gift after all.
One of these days, I want to finally be speechless about that.
Lyle Enright is a senior English major at Trinity International University and an intern for Relief.