It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christ(X)mas

Cynicism Alert

Well if it isn’t that glorious time of year again!  And no, there is absolutely no hint of sarcasm in my pen!   Seriously. I kid you not.  You know, it’s that wonderful time when parents glee with snap-happy anticipation about spending a shit ton of money they actually don’t have, and then counting down the moments until everyone tears open their presents.  And afterwards, the “fan damily” then scurry about to some in-laws or outlaws to once again get through the heart attack-ridden gluttony without having to call 911; a couple of more mandatory presents in between, and just for good measure; we’ll throw in a little bit of all too familiar ungraciousness, relational trepidation, and a good dose of leftover familial guilt just to close out this blessed day! Ah, there’s nothing quite like it. In fact, one can hardly wait till next year to do it all again.

But wait, did I just say, “Bah Humbug”?  Well kinda. But at least I didn’t add “decrease the surplus population”to it.  I’ll leave that to God.  But just for the record, there is no way that I should be in charge of the zapper button that obliterates people out of existence on any given day.  God in his infinite wisdom stores up his wrath for another day and keeps me out of the consultative loop.  Be thankful. No, but seriously, be thankful.

Genes are a Bitch

My disdain for Christmas is complicated, so let me explain.  I guess after all I inherited it from my old man.  I used to see the look on his eyes every Christmas and it literally scared the shit out of me, kind of like Clark Griswold finally unhinged in the aftermath of surviving an insane family for the holidays, and an equally negligible Christmas bonus https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQXuazYI_YU, or like Neil Page finally unglued at the airport counter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWRxPDhd3d0 if you get my drift . In fact, you could see his eye veins pulsate as he looked at you, and coupled with the tone of his voice, it was a sight so palpable that you could cut it with a freaking butter knife. In fact, to this day, I swear if that ole boy didn’t have a flask stationed in every room of the house during Christmas, he missed a good damn opportunity!  And I know for sure that whatever smidgeon of joy he experienced couldn’t have lasted more than a millisecond on Christmas Day, seeing the ecstasy in our entitled little bug eyes, saving just a bit more to be sure when he opened his one damn present with everybody’s cheap ass name written on it, that ended up being a frickin tie or some generic cologne that couldn’t get you any action with two out of work hookers and an American Express black card for goodness sakes!  His response was like, “Oh gee, thanks everybody, you really shouldn’t have”!  In fact, I’m quite sure that the 26th couldn’t come soon enough, and I imagine him and Mrs. Claus partying like it was 1999 as they ushered in their new, but only temporal freedom from the sheer agony of it all.  But I digress.

To get deeper into the heart of the matter, I guess it’s summed up quite nicely in my title with the sheer “X-mas” of it all that we have come to know all too well.  In fact, though raised in a home that took fairly seriously the customary reading of the Luke 2 Christmas story, our culture had successfully conditioned us to tolerate the moment in order to get to the real shindig. The bliss of discovering whether or not we got everything we had on our list, concluding that we were more nice than naughty, and breathing a sigh of relief that Santa or Dad, or whoever the Hell it was, somehow graded on the curve.  There was also the token Christmas service, the watching of “A Christmas Carol”,“Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman”, and then a stark reminder from “It’s a Wonderful Life” to get at least somehow close to the sheer meaning of it all not a moment too late for possible bargaining chips down the road at the pearly gates.  But Jesus, you know, “the reason for the season” and all, got somehow lost in the periphery; and by the day after, had come up again a day late and a dollar short of truly gripping us with the ultimate gift that longs to continually give year after year–if we but allow it.  And somehow, I guess you could say I’ve at least somewhat repeated the cycle, though in James Dean like defiance, left to my own contemplative thoughts once the trash bag of endless wrapping paper is nestled where the soon to be memory of fleeting present glory also rests: in the garbage can of grasping for meaning straws, and coming up with the same vanity and emptiness before the hysteric flimflam began.  And as much as I long to extract significance from this blessed day amidst the rigmarole of what we’ve made it, I often find myself most of the time waiting for the again depressing climax of December 26th as well, with the temptation to then light up a smoke and perhaps even bathe in the ambiance.

Let’s Commiserate

Well, perhaps you’re like me this Christmas, and you’re one who has to survive it rather than experience the magic and thoughtful exuberance of it all.  A magic like the star that guided wise Magi a couple of millennia ago to gaze upon a face and a meaning that’s only response to it was to give every bit of gold, frankincense and myrrh they could lay down at His feet of soon to be glorious good news. And a child born with the power to save mankind from both his perpetual capacity for sin, and the slavery-like oblivion to repetitively put all his eggs in a basket of smoke and mirrors, continually hoping for left over manna instead of the daily bread of contentment proceeding out of that precious mouth of God that man surely should not live without. And likewise, for a gift that is wrapped in love and peace, forgiveness, and good will toward man.  Something to which we many times have left time and time again wrapped under that oft forgotten tree.  But in the meantime, it’s beginning to look at lot like Christmas.

 

Selah

 

 

 

 

Prone to Wander, Lord I Feel It

Surviving Christmas

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote anything about my cracked up American life. And now that I have finally survived Christmas and lived to tell about it, I’ve only New Year’s resolutions left to keep and break sometime before Valentine’s Day I suppose. I pondered long and hard about why as a Christian I loathe Christmas so much here in my beloved America.   Perhaps its because it brings melancholy memories of my late Father (who I now identify with), walking around like a chicken with his head cut off trying to get enough presents under the tree so that his conscience could ease his guilt of being a subpar Santa for his kids. I remember hints of joy, but mostly seeing the strain in his eyes of all that he would have to do in his and others eyes to bring Christmas joy to his children. All the while, the one who came to bring hopeful joy free of charge was at last given homage for a hasty reading of the Christmas story before we tore open the gifts. He would not get much runway on His birthday after that, and as I sit here today and recall these moments, I fear not much has changed. And so, I guess you could call me Ebenezer for short.

 

Reasons for the Old Man and the Sea Thing

So at 12:01 on December 26th, when I pinched myself and realized I had indeed outlasted the hoopla of ole St. Nick, I was reminded of a couple of things about my life as of late. First of all, I reminded myself as to why this growing old man moved by the sea in November of 2015. I had already had several people ask me, curious about why I had uprooted what was left of my family and moved to this beautiful oasis; especially now in my 50’s. Their curiosity stemmed from the fact that most have by now grown out of the move left in them, and have settled into some secure form of an American dream perched behind a Norman Rockwell painting of their making. A dream now full of houses, stocks and bonds to begin sorting out, all the while preparing for a grand ole thing called retirement just down the road a stone’s throw or two. Of course that first curious question was easily answered back in 2008 and again in 2014, when I began to realize that my dream would take a much less predictable turn. You see for me, there were no longer any of those things to sort out in the cards for my family and I, so I guess you can say, “I now had options”. Since I owned nothing, and had lost most everything materially that one holds far too dearly to, the sky began to be the only limit as to where I could go. In a sense, I guess you could say I was finally free.

 

That of course led to my second reason for looking for the answer by the sea. Because from the time I have been a child, the ocean has been a happy place for me. I had dreams as a younger man of owning a house on the ocean where I would write and then take breaks to play with my grandchildren, and then snuggle up to my wife with my favorite pipe and hot cocoa on our back deck as the waves quietly roared to the beat of the moonlight. Though this has not yet come to fruition, I was able to find a place about 4 blocks from the ocean, and so a quick six-minute walk almost any given day takes me to my Shangri-La, if to only have five-minutes to remind myself that I’m not that big of a deal, and that He really, really is. Just five or ten minutes to breathe in and hopefully take with me a morsel of what really matters in the world, when everything else I encounter tells me a I’m a fool to think it for too long. It has indeed given some sense of calm to my life, and if I know nothing else, for now, I know it is where God has me–yet for what I do not know.

 

The third reason we ran to the ocean was familial and social in nature–both good and bad. The good side of that decision was simply to give my older sons, who had now gone off in quest of their own version of some dream they possess in their beings, to do so without Mom and Dad just around the corner to catch them if they fall in pursuit of it. It was to give them some space to be free, to finally cut the umbilical cord, and to finally give them wings to fly solo. All the while with Mom and Dad a short 3 hours away with an extra room for their needed getaway, or perhaps a Mom and Dad fix as often as they could ever want. I miss them dearly, but these things have their time and place, and the time for us was now. It felt good and right, and I am very much at peace with the decision we made. The bad side of the decision to leave was that even though we were older and wiser, and knowing full well that you can’t run from your problems, we did decide that sometimes you can at least move a little further down the road from them so it takes a little longer for them to show up at your doorstep. This is in regards to my extended family I might add. A family for whose guilt, manipulation and exploitation was merely a phone call, an episode or a gossip column away. It also had to do with the network of true, Godly, and “real” friends, that seemed impossible to find after a decade and a half, and the lack of friendships for my last young son, for whom parental love needed to be coupled with friends he too could call his own. That of course has gone amazingly well, and ours; well…we’re still working on that.

 

And About the Wandering Bit

Well now that I’ve told you a little of where I’ve been lately and why I’m here, I guess I should say something briefly about my title today. The words come from perhaps my favorite hymn called Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, written by Robert Robinson in the mid 1700’s. And in that blessed hymn these particular words lately have caused me to ponder their depth and reality for me, and hopefully for all those who call themselves by the name of Christ. The words are:

 

O to grace how great a debtor

Daily I’m constrained to be!

Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,

Bind my wandering heart to Thee.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,

Prone to leave the God I love;

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,

Seal it for Thy courts above.

 

These words have often brought me great comfort, not only because of their rootedness in the gospel of God, but also because of their being true to my own life and experience of walking with Christ on the narrow path. For in so many ways, I know I have grown and bear some fruit that resembles Christ, and yet…still today, I’m prone to wander, with so many distractions that beckon me for their attention and importance, and sometimes I feel it for far too long as I’m derailed from the path I’ve been called to travel. And not only do I feel it, but unfortunately; others from time to time have to see it.

 

I’m reminded of the disciples when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane. He says to them several times in essence, “Could you not watch and pray with me for an hour”. We also are told that each time he came to ask this, he would find them asleep. Now for sure sleep is a natural bodily function, yet in a person’s horrific hour of grief one would think we could put some toothpicks in our eyes or something to refrain from the temptation to sleep on the job. I’m reminded equally of the beloved big fish magnet, Jonah, who while on the boat to Tarshish away from the call of God, while everyone else is frantically trying to find a way to save themselves from the boat’s impending doom, he is asleep to it all. Yet he is especially asleep to the plight of his fellow man, and the call of His God upon his life. Or how about good ole Peter, who gets it right so many times and two seconds later denies His Lord, not too awfully different from one betraying with 30 pieces of silver and a kiss, yet who never lived to tell his own repentance tale.

 

As I have been contemplating these things as 2017 is knocking at the door for me to invite him in, I see more and more of this dichotomy and pull from both the world and my Lord raging within me now at 52. To be sure I’m smarter and wiser now, and also farther along the narrow path. So I’m not as sidetracked by youthful things such as wine, women and song; and have now long ago realized that a fool and his money soon depart, along with any friends they may once have brought. Yet I feel the difficulties of life bearing down, continuing to seek to fashion me into it’s mold and to distract me from what’s eternal and to saddle up with what’s temporal instead. The reason is because as we age, we are more and more aware of our finiteness, and death’s door; though we hope is still a country mile or two away, it nonetheless whispers to us of it’s sure certainty of which we must soon pay attention. This causes us to grasp with all we’re worth for our mortality rather than to pursue with a vengeance our promised immortality. And we begin to see that if the modern adage is indeed true, that “he who dies with the most toys wins”, then we’ve more striving to do and best get on with it. And if we surmise we’ve already lost that game, we can be inclined to resort to a slow easy chair death, where we rock our way into acceptance of a failed and wasted life, content to decay away with a self-injected slow drip of “coulda, shoulda, woulda”.

 

I recall reading one time that Billy Graham had said, if he had it to do all over again, he would have prepared much more for getting old. I was perplexed by that; wondering what exactly he meant. It’s now starting to settle in. For instance, if I had a dollar for every one of my 50’s friends, who when I speak about getting old, they say the typical things such as, “You’re only as old as you feel”, or “50 is the new 30” or something of this nature, I’d surely have a chunk of change. And to be sure, I get exactly what they are saying, and I’m not dead yet, and so I intend on continuing to push forward to greatness in whatever big or small way God has for me. However, I am no longer looking for “6-pack abs”, I don’t and can’t wear skinny jeans, I’m not searching for any fountain of youth, and I don’t think anything good now happens after 10:30 at night:).  I can rock your world till then baby, but after that, I now have to pass the baton.

 

What I have been reminded about in wrapping up today is what the Monk at Mepkin Abbey said to me when I asked him what he had learned in the Monastery that he felt he could not have learned from life on the outside. He told me that for years he had served as a Priest in parish ministry, and of course spent a great deal of time ministering to the sick and dying. He said one of the overwhelming things he picked up on in ministering to the dying is that in their last days they became the most selfless human beings he had ever witnessed, and that all they cared about was knowing God and serving and loving others. He then looked at me and said, “That’s what I learned in the monastery that I do not believe I could have learned otherwise: how to be more like those people”. I’ve never forgotten those words and have etched them in my journal perpetually so I never forget.

 

So Yes, I am prone to wander and Lord I feel it, prone to leave constantly the one I am to love first and foremost. Yet more and more each day I am reminded that nothing else outside of knowing Christ and serving others really matters, and I know that I must not let this truth wander away. In fact, I think I’d rather not die first for it to be true of me.

 

Selah