“Say you have a special child.” So begins Mark Richard’s House of Prayer No. 2, a memoir that travels the South of Richard’s youth with breakneck speed, from old Civil War battlegrounds to special children’s hospitals to Wanchese scallop boats to New York City and back to a small black Baptist church in North Carolina. It’s a book I read with my creative nonfiction writers to get them to think about the arc of their faith but also to play with point of view.Read More
Filtering by Category: Christmas
In MacDonald’s classic story, the chronically neglected child, Phosy Greatorex, sits alone in church while the vicar preaches that God manifests his love by correcting human souls. Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth, he quotes from the heart of Scripture. In her lonely desperation, Phosy pines for this chastisement, if that be the proof of love—any love. When the bitter pallor of an unfathomable loss visits the child on Christmas morning, her innocent acceptance of love’s visitation is so complete that she does not recoil, but gazes full-faced into the heart of her grief, embracing what she must.Read More
A few Decembers ago, I saw Handel’s acclaimed Messiah oratorio in concert for the first time. From our side balcony seats at the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, my friends and I had an overhead view of the choir as well as the orchestra stage. We could only see the backs of the interchanging soloists, which worried me a little. Would the experience be lessened by this limited view? A few minutes into the show, however, I realized that we could see something that the coveted, pricier center section below could not: the face of the conductor.
This conductor was, in a word, animated. He waved his arms and wielded his baton with a wizard-like flourish to guide the skilled group of musicians. His face is what caught me, though. His features echoed the emotional tone of each movement—tight and serious in moments of lament, open and bright in moments of delight. He smiled during that famous chorus.
Anecdote has it that Handel’s own face was wet with tears after he wrote the Hallelujah chorus. His assistant came upon him crying at his desk and asked him: “What’s wrong?” To which Handel replied. “I thought I saw the face of God.”
After such a splendorous vision and satisfying creation, it is a wonder that Handel went on to write another act at all. Yet he did.
In Philip Yancey’s reflection on Messiah’s “bright and glistening theology," he recalls the various theories behind King George II standing during the Hallelujah Chorus at the oratorio’s London premiere. Some believe did so because he was emotionally moved. As Yancey points out, however, there are also those who suggest that the king in fact rose to his feet because he mistakenly believed the show was over. Apparently novices in the audience have been known to make the same error today.
“Who can blame them?” says Yancey. “After two hours of performance, the music seems to culminate in the rousing chorus. What more is needed?”
Handel had an entire act of “more” to add. A heavy act. This brilliant composer, this creative man of God, recognized that as heavenly as his chorus sounded, it was still a chorus of earth--a place where so much is wrong and so much is needed.
In what Yancey heralds as “a brilliant stroke,” the final act begins with words from a stricken Job. It seems a steep fall from ebullient Hallelujah to a story of such tragedy. But there is a brave hope in Job's persistence of belief. The Christ that Handel then dwells on is the Christ of Revelation 4-5—the slaughtered Lamb, the humble sufferer whose victory comes through surrender.
“The great God who became a baby, who became a lamb, who became a sacrifice—this God, who bore our stripes and died our death, this one alone is worthy,” says Yancey. “That is where Handel leaves us, with the chorus "Worthy Is the Lamb," followed by exultant amens.”
Messiah’s expansive view is shown in its refusal to skip over wounds and tears to get to exultations. There is anxiety. There is uncertainty. There is blood. Handel acknowledges that here, in this sin-wrung world, our cries to the Lamb do not always sound like Hallelujahs. Sometimes they sound like weeping, or groaning. Like…ache.
As Handel’s “bright and glistening theology” swirled around me live that first time, my enjoyment of the piece was rimmed with specific aches. Ache for Opa (grandfather), who passed away a few years earlier and used to see Messiah in concert with my Oma, year after year. Ache for a coworker who was, at that very moment, stricken with the pain, exhaustion, and delirium of leukemia. In years prior I heard him loudly singing along to Messiah in his office. That was to be his last Christmas; a month later he would pass away. I ached, too, with awareness of the painful arcs in so many people's lives—persecution, loneliness, war, depression, disaster. The list goes on. As does the ache in our world.
Handel’s Messiah is as honest in its agony as it is in its joy. Its chords anticipate a world restored without diminishing the woundedness of living in the not yet. This is its gift: a true vision of Emmanuel, a Lord who is not just visible to us, his children, but present with us. He rejoices with us and carries our sorrows. May we look closely, sing boldly, and listen well as we seek His face.
Blessing, and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever. Amen.
You have probably heard the over-used saw, “tis better to give than to receive.” Now aside from the advertisers who glibly employ it for entirely selfish reasons (may they be sent for a week to the 8th circle of Dante’s hell) here is my annoyance: a gift with a motive is no gift at all, unless it’s to make the receiver thrilled to their booties. Romantic friends with pure intentions know that warming glow felt deep in their hearts as the beloved opens up some carefully chosen little treasure. Parents also know a similar feeling – or so I am told, not yet partaking in parenthood – of watching a twinkly eyed tot ogling over their gifts. I rather doubt that the parents were secretly plotting in the corners of toy department how best to psychologically manipulate their children into being better behaved, or quicker memorise their classical education. If they did, the gift would cease being a gift.
And so, I find myself troubled when one of the greatest Deific gifts offered is seemingly proffered with a large string. Maybe it’s just me, but so often during the holidays I hear, often performed with beautiful voices in song and hymn, that the Christ child has been given to the world as God’s heavenly priceless gift. I feel the tingles now just thinking of it. In the second breath coming from the preacher though, we are told that we owe this divine sovereign something in return. I am bothered.
Sure. I suppose that is the truth. I guess the tot who has just received the gift from pleased parents should feel indebted to her or his familial guardian. (Though, isn't it funny how often the parents look happier than the child!) And yet despite that being the case – maybe – I think if we were to ask the gifting parent whether their child should primarily feel obligation, that parent would suggest that we had never been a parent, or at any rate a true parent. They might even give us a rude look from over a shoulder as they left us standing by the punch bowl.
And so back to the well-meaning religious types who proudly proclaim God’s best gift to humanity ever, ever in one breath, but then in the next espouse how unrighteous we are if we don't hold up to our end of the gift.
Did you see that? The last word shouldn’t have been “gift,” it should have been “deal.” But is that what we humans were given at Christmas, a deal?
G.K Chesterton speaks very fondly of Christmas and of gift giving and goodwill, but also of the nature of the grandest giver of them all. He cleverly uses the name Santa, but all the adults will know exactly of whom he is talking. During the holidays, he says,
[As a child] I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them.... I had not even been good— far from it. And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus ... was [a] benevolent agency... [that gave us] toys for nothing. Of course, most people who talk about these things get into a state of some mental confusion by attaching tremendous importance to the name of the entity. We called him Santa Claus, ... but the name of a god is a mere human label. ... [As a child] I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet ... Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it.
So why did “Santa” give him the gift of existence? “It was,” says Chesterton, given in “a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.” No strings attached. Except maybe thankfulness.
Krampus is having a moment—he’s acquired a Los Angeles fan club with a pretty spiffy web page, he’s been featured on the Colbert Report, and he’s even starring in a film. This half-goat-half-devil Austrian folk creature dates back, most believe, to Norse mythology. He’s St. Nicholas’ other half—he handles the kids who’ve been nicht so gut.
He’s horrific, yet Austrians seem to view him rather fondly. They send kitschy cards stamped with “Gruß Vom Krampus!" (Greetings from Krampus), and host Krampuslauf (Krampus runs) in which hoards of young men don devil-goat costumes and drunkenly run the streets on the eve of St. Nicholas’ visit.
It feels a bit goofy to ascribe deep symbolism to Krampus, a character dreamed up largely to terrify children into behaving. If we’re looking for meaning though, it seems obvious that Krampus and St. Nicholas act as foils—the evil preceding the good. As Mental Floss puts it, they form a “Christmassy Yin and Yang.” Krampus reminds us there is darkness as well as light in the holiday season.
North Americans generally prefer their holidays free of ancient goat devils. Our classic tales, even the really good ones (think Charlie Brown or Miracle on 34th Street) involve only one horror—a lack of the holiday spirit. (Die Hard, it should be noted, is a refreshing exception to this rule.)
I assumed the movie Krampus would be different, but in the film, Krampus is summoned when a boy loses faith in the season and tears up his letter to Santa. Our narrative, “be merry or die trying,” runs deep.
If you, like me, feel sick of this storyline, please consider as antidote this Youtube footage of an Austrian Krampuslauf. It’s pretty grim. I only made it three minutes in, right to the part where one of the thousand Krampuses rips a little child from his mother’s arms and hisses in his face. I was cowering in fear at my laptop screen, but the kid? The little dude smiles. Tough as nails. He was probably brought up on a steady diet of horrifying Bavarian folk tales.
Yes, the Krampuslauf seems awfully brutal for the holiday season. But there's a villain in the nativity story, too—Herod. And he isn’t stealing a roast beast or shouting “Bah Humbug.” He is committing infant genocide. Lurking right outside the glow of the manger is a madman, thirsting for power and control.
I’m not saying we all need to sub out our shiny family photo Christmas cards for Krampuskarten. But it is problematic to remove all darkness from every Christmas story we tell. That’s like editing John 1:5 down to just “The Light shines.” So what?
The holidays can seem like a very small light in a very dark world. Christmas comes in the midst of war, in the wake of tragedy, mass shootings, devastating personal loss, systemic injustice. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
With that in mind, our obsession with cheer for cheer’s sake feels just as bizarre, and maybe more pointless, than any Krampuslauf.
So Merry Christmas. And "Gruß Vom Krampus," too.
A few Christmases ago, I heard Johnny Cash’s version of “The Little Drummer Boy” for the first time—and heard words in the song I never had before. That gravelly voice brought a certain realistic cadence to the carol, the cadence of a human soul before the Son of God, lying as he is in a container that holds food for cows and donkeys. And it’s also, I realized, the cadence of a musician, an artist, giving what he has. (The video of Cash singing the carol is well worth watching.)
How can I not picture the man we know as Johnny Cash into the persona of the drummer boy? For here is Cash, singing first-person about the little drummer boy who had nothing to give but his drum-playing. When Cash sings the line “I played my best for him,” it’s hard not to compress all the songs he sang in all those jails into such passionate, self-giving words. This is the privilege when craftsmanship and faith infuse—they spur each other on, with whatever material we’ve got—paints, words, muscles, pebbles, flour, sound.
But there is a line in “The Little Drummer Boy” that says more about this faith-craft connection. The drummer boy, in the first verse, is called to bring a gift to the king. The second verse starts with the drummer despairing—
Little Baby, pa rum pump um pum I am a poor boy too, pa rum pump um pum I have no gift to bring . . .
I am a poor boy too. When Cash sings this line, he somehow gets the whole meaning of the word poor—not just without coins or trinkets—but poor as in poor in spirit, in need of help and courage and a way forward.
There’s days when I have a kind of zest for the craft work of fiction writing—figuring out a plot, re-tackling a dialogue exchange for the twenty-third time, researching how beeswax candles were made in the fourteenth century. But other times it frightens me how empty my well is. Exhaustion seeps into the edges of the page, turning my words into inky and confused puddles. Ideas feel brittle and old. Why is the story so frayed, my vision so fuzzy? Will I be able to make what I yearn to? What do I really have to give?
After the drummer boy admits his poverty, he picks up his drum and plays. Any craftsmanship I’ve practiced is certainly a gift I can give—but I wonder if I’m wrong to assume I should give from my strengths. What if I were to create from my poverty? What if it’s okay to make, fashion, create, labor, from a place of having very little? I am poor. I am in need. I don’t have the right words or the right story; my opaque heart makes it hard for me to be honest, even on the secret white page. But all this, the blurred edges and scared inadequacies, is part of the gift.
To create from this place of being “a poor boy too”—what else does it yield?
Maybe a gentleness towards ourselves, working as we can in the edges of the day. Maybe a gentleness towards others making what they can, be it poems or children’s lunches, in tiredness and constraint. Perhaps too, to create from a place of lowliness means creating out of a deeper human awareness towards those who feel they have nothing to give. The little drummer boy, empty of a gift, saw that Jesus was poor too, and this gave him courage to play.
This meekness of Jesus at birth curls into the heart of craftsmanship. We can pick up our worn drums and play the best we can, and play whatever we can, under the stable’s low eaves.
My brother-in-law died on Thanksgiving. His death took him away from a suffering that began, in truth, the day his wife died suddenly nine years ago. His wife’s death did not mark a tragic beginning. It was a bookend holding up decades pressed against the day his father drowned trying to save his life in the Spring River.
The news about Mike stunned me for a moment, and then I breathed a little easier. Mike was free. The cancer didn’t get him. That was our biggest fear. Pneumonia eased him into a greater life unburdened by softball-sized tumors and excruciating pain. If vices exist in heaven, he can now drink without becoming an alcoholic. He can smoke without getting cancer. He is made whole. This is what I am to believe as a Christian. That’s good news in my tradition.
Here’s the problem. Now that he’s been relieved of his pain and angst, I’d like him returned back to us, whole and renewed. He’s been dead for over a week. That’s plenty of time to rest. In my book, he’s had a decent break from this messed up world and his broken body.
I never knew Mike before his wife died. I’m told he was a pillar of his community. I don’t need him to be a pillar. I wouldn’t mind if he returned in a cloud of cigarette smoke. I just want to see him restored, free of pain long buried in a riverbed. I need his stories, his expressions, his laughter, and music. I need him to be a brother to my husband and a father to my niece and an uncle to my husband’s children.
When my husband was fighting for his own life in a Seattle hospital a few years ago, I talked Mike out of driving 2,200 miles to break his brother out of ICU. I don’t doubt Mike’s conviction that his little brother was better off in his hands. Now my husband and I are released from our worries. We will no longer wonder about Mike’s mental and physical health. This trade-off feels like a bum deal.
The shape of my husband’s family is made by the endings of family members gone too soon.
I’ve known about death in the pot since I was little. My parents never shielded it from me. Mike’s death is different. It’s uncomfortably fresh. I feel such relief that he is no longer afflicted that I forget he’s dead. And then I remember. And it’s stunning.
A sharp December wind strikes my face as I walk to church on this second Sunday in Advent. I am supposed to be preparing, literally and spiritually. I put my Advent wreath out a week late, and the center candle is missing. I can’t find it anywhere. I should be writing about snow globes and, instead, all I can think of is this ridiculous arrangement I’m forced to consent to. Mike is dead and will not return.
Each year, I celebrate the birth of Jesus without fail. I try, with little success, to block the holiday ads and treacle songs. I try to focus on the raw story of Mary and Joseph and a messy birth in a barn. I imagine what it must have been like to be part of such wonder. It’s hard for me to focus on newborn Jesus right now. I light two candles of my incomplete wreath. At least it has some greenery, I think. I feel selfish. I’m more focused on Mike and his body and spirit made whole so far from our reach.
I know this is magical thinking, wanting Mike to come back as if he’s been away at a cosmic rehab center. But it’s Advent. This is the time of waiting for the unexpected, the miraculous. I am trying my best to prepare, but I can’t even find the dang center candle on Amazon.com. Logic dictates Mike is not returning. This means we will never go fishing on his beloved St. Francis River, nor will he and my husband drink a tallboy in a backwater bar.
Maybe I don’t want what I’ve been taught, at least not right now. He is in a better place. True. That doesn’t change the gaping hole left in our family. It doesn’t alter the fact that my husband lost his only sibling. I don’t want tidy expressions of grief. They are too much like the holiday ads. I need the freedom to be messy in our tangled loss. I’ve got no choice but to wait in the muck and long for impossible things until the longing becomes part of an unforeseeable making. I need permission to want Mike back. He was my husband’s brother.
I find a broken white taper at the bottom of a moving box. It’ll do.
An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all. ~ Oscar Wilde
So there we are. It's Black Friday and we're stuffed like the turkey we ate a day ago. Bev is decorating for Christmas and I should be enjoying a day spent writing. But I'm anxious instead. My rough draft is late and the animals of my ideas scurry and hide like scared, hungry strays let in from the cold.
Last month, dear reader, I tempted you with a reductive version of the Christian hope. I isolated Truth and looked at its wasteland. In a reversal of the old fable – where Truth roams naked and unwelcome in the village, then Story wraps it with goodness and finds it a home – I instead annulled its adoption and kicked it back into the street. Brutal!
So, this month I imagined Goodness naked and wandering, but I have found myself overrun with a menagerie of abandoned, ill-mannered notions of it that I feared I could never make presentable. I think every writer is part zookeeper, part animal trainer – each idea needing a bath and the startling redirection of a sharp clap. But I was stuck on one in particular. It had been here a month with no progress. It would snuggle, hairy and hot, morphing as it slept against my body like a large, ungainly dog. And it was a hybrid. I feared it would become the Indominus rex of Jurassic World we had just watched. Ideas have consequences, you know. I looked at the animal. It looked back and drooled. Nights passed slowly.
Today I tried naming it. Leviathan. Doglizza. OMG-itsaurus. Nothing fit. It still stank. It was grimy and matted in ways that looked like extra body parts. I thumbed through books for facts about breed and keeping. I cruised the vast Big Box of the Internet hoping to find the perfect behavior modification, or a sweater. Maybe a bow.
Now and then I would glance up, pensive and vacant. The television was showing Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The sound was off. It was that part near the end where the massive, bright spaceship is rising and dwarfs Devil's Tower in black silhouette. The science base in front is even smaller. I'd seen it twenty -five times but stripped of it's music and sound effects it appeared strange and new. It penetrated my preoccupation and I saw something I'd never seen before.
“Speilberg. You dog,” I said out loud. “This whole movie you've isolated the ground of contrast in that damn tower.” I felt something wash over me. “The whole dog-gone movie.”
It combed through my tangled thinking. Director Speilberg had exaggerated a distraction only to make it disappear like a background with scale that allowed me to see the enormity of his grand idea. The protagonist's obsession became the swirling center of the movie's vortex where all the conflict resolves. As Tom Snyder writes about it, “Light and music transcend the boundaries between the known and the unknown, the human and the alien, the real and the imagined.”
Then, I looked around our house and I saw it was Christmas. Beverly's handiwork, even in the throes of my self-consumed darkness, had surrounded me with extravagant goodness. And suddenly the animal of my idea was groomed, powdered and seemingly well-behaved.
I wrote quickly: Puppy to a good home. Free for the taking.