Old Saint Fred

December 15, 2014  

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I’ve always had trouble with the parking lot at Wal-Mart. Don’t ask me why. Maybe because it’s so big or my mind is usually on what I need and what aisle I can find it. Not sure. But regardless, a trip there usually concludes with me wandering around looking for my vehicle, thinking that this must be what old feels like.

Take the weekend, for instance. Nice Saturday afternoon. Sunny. Cold but not frigid. Christmastime. And me, wandering around the west end of the parking lot feeling like one of the misfit toys.

As it is the weekend and it’s only another couple weeks until Christmas, the parking lot is full of cars. Squeezing between cars and trucks, I happen upon a green mini-van. The driver is nestled snug in his seat, seatbelt on, and dead to the world.

Lucky guy, I think. Lets his wife go into the throng of crazed discount shoppers. Lets her fight and claw and scream for the last Elmo or Barbie, and then lets her stand in line alone for half an hour while since only three of the forty checkout lines are open. And he gets to snooze in the mini-van.

Then something about him catches my eye. Not something in particular, but overall: longish white hair and beard, red shirt and pants, and a jelly-like pudge in the midsection.

This was no mere guy.

This was Santa.

One of his eyes opens and stares at me staring at him. We’re locked that way for a moment, each trying to figure out what’s going on and what’s happened. I smile. He smiles.

“Hiya,” he says, rolling down the window.

I nod. “Guess if anyone’s tired this time of year, it’d be you.”

He lets out a long exhale, shakes his head, and says, “Buddy, you don’t know.”

Santa, as it turns out, isn’t Santa at all. Fred’s his real name. Just finished his shift at a local store and was on his way home when Mrs. Fred called. Could he stop by Wal-Mart and pick up a few things?

He’d made it, but barely. Having kids sit on your lap for four hours tends to tucker a person out, Fred said. As soon as he put the car in park he felt that warm sunshine streaming through the window. Next thing he knew, he was awake and staring at me.

“Been a rough year,” he told me. “I’m used to kids wanting things, you know? ‘I’d like a truck’ or ‘I’d like a dolly’ or ‘Could you bring me a dinosaur?'”

“What’s the big gift this year?” I asked him.

“Hope,” he said. “Kids want hope.”

Those words stunned me. I swallowed nothing and furrowed my brow.

“What you you mean?” I asked him.

“Shoot, son,” he said. “Take a look around. It’s bad out here. Money’s dryin’ up, parents losin’ their jobs. I had a kid sit on my lap this morning and ask me to find his daddy a job. Had another who just wanted her mommy to stop crying all the time. And one, one said his daddy told him Santa might not come this year, but he knew that since he’d been a good boy, Santa’d have to come and leave him something. And that’s just today. Just today, you see? Hey, don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. But between you and me, I’ll be glad when this one’s over.”

“Guess so,” I said. “I’ll leave you to your napping, then.”

“Thanks,” Fred answered. “And Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas.”

I found my truck right where I left it and decided to drive by Fred on my way out of the lot. He was asleep again.

My ride home wasn’t filled with Jimmy Buffett’s Christmas Island or Harry Connick Jr.’s When My Heart Finds Christmas. There was instead only silent contemplation.

Hope. That’s what Fred said the kids want this year. I would imagine that’s what a lot of grownups want this year, too.

Sad, isn’t it, that for many people this time of year isn’t a time for hope? For presents, certainly. And for family. But not hope. Christmas was turned into X-mas, which has now been turned into Holiday (that story comes tomorrow). All of this was conceived to keep everyone happy. To include everyone and give no reason for offense. But by doing so, I fear we’ve buried the very hope so many people seek this year.

The hope that was born on Christmas day a couple thousand years ago in a tiny manger in a tiny town. Hope wrapped in a baby.

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December 11, 2014  

image courtesy of

image courtesy of

So. Things have been a little tough around here lately, and for a variety of reasons. Seems to be that way for a lot of folks this year. Times are tough out there, no doubt about it.

I’ve never understood how anyone could be melancholy during Christmas. To feel a heaviness amidst such beauty seems impossible, and to possess a measure of fear while surrounded by so much joy seems tragic. Such people have always been alien to me. I understand them better now.

The Nativity story is a popular one in our house these days; the kids have fallen into the habit of reciting the first verses of Luke 2 each night before bed. One of my favorite parts of the Bible, Luke 2. It is a fantastic retelling of fact—of shepherds and angels and a big miracle in a tiny baby. Last night as I listened, heart heavy and sadness there, what struck me was the tenth verse:

“But the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people.’”

I imagined those shepherds—alone that night in darkness, guarding their flocks, trying to keep the wolves away. It was likely a tough time for them then, just as it is now for us. It was a life of work and of scraping by, of dealing with loss and hardship. And fear, especially fear. They were trying to keep the wolves away, after all. Maybe that’s why so many of us are afraid, too.

I think it’s fear that lies deep inside our troubles. Fear that the bad things will get worse, that the black hole we’re in will get deeper, and that whatever joy is left for us in this world will be carried away by a cold wind that will leave us shivering.

For a tiny group of shepherds one night long ago, help came in the form of an angel with Good News to tell. But before that News was given came four words that were even more needed, at least for that group of sheep herders in the Bethlehem countryside:

“Fear not; for behold…”

If there is a magic to all the Christmases that have followed that first one (and I have no doubt there is), then the secret to that magic lies in one word—behold.

My problem was that I was familiar with that word but didn’t really know what to behold something truly entailed. My dictionary put it this way:

“To perceive through use of the mental faculty; comprehend.”

In other words, to behold something means not merely to see it, but to ponder it. To seek to understand it.

Our worries and cares shrink not only our hearts and minds, but our vision as well. The more we look upon what we fear, the less we can see of what can comfort. I think that’s why beholding is so important. It involves interest. It requires attention. It demands participation. It means that for one moment we chance a small step outside of ourselves to gaze upon larger things.

So let us—you and I—do just that this Christmas. Let’s take a moment to ponder and wonder and try to comprehend. In that even our sadness will be coated with a sheen of joy, and the angels will proclaim even in our darkness. For the reason we celebrate this time, this Holy Child, is because by His presence the sadness we feel in this life was rendered temporary, and by Him we know that fairer lands await.

Do not be afraid. Behold.

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Burt’s everlasting legacy

December 8, 2014  

Burts treeSay there, Burt.

Been a while, hasn’t it? Since April. Feels like that’s a long way back but I guess it isn’t. Time slips away when you’re not looking. Today gets turned into tomorrow, and nobody can’t help but get dragged along.

There’s mornings I still think you’re around. I see that old trash truck pull around the corner on campus and I think, There comes old Burt. Did that a lot back in the summertime too, even with the memory of your funeral still fresh. Back then it wasn’t so much seeing the trash truck as it was the sound of all those mowers. I’d hear one fire up outside the bookstore or down by the Administration building and I’d just wait, tub full of mail in my hands, for you to come on by. I’d wait so I could say hey and you could talk about your truck and how good the college looked. Nothing ever much more than that, just two guys passing the time. And then you’d always say, “Well, I gotta go make myself useful. Hey, I’ll see you.”

You remember that? I swear I can still hear it. Heard it back then too, last summer. I’d hear that mower and I’d think, There comes old Burt. And then I’d think, No, Burt’s not around anymore.

I don’t know for sure, but I’d say I’m not the only one who does that. We all took your passing hard.

Some people say those gone to heaven know nothing of those left behind. Others say the departed can see every tear and smile their loved ones offer. I hope the second is true. I hope you got to see all those people crowding the inside of that church back in April, the ones who knew you and loved you and called you a friend. You always said you were a simple kind of man. That might be true. But for a simple man, you sure touched a lot of lives.

Christmastime’s here, Burt. Crazy how that’s snuck up on us, but it has. I got to looking for you even more these past weeks. Everybody knew what time of year it was when December first rolled around and you started wearing that Santa hat. This was always your favorite holiday, wasn’t it? You always said Christmas was the one time of the year when everybody acted like they enjoyed each other.

So I guess this made it the perfect time for everyone at the college to gather last week and remember you. Because we miss you, sure, but also because we want to make sure some part of you remains even if the very best of you is now elsewhere.

Your boys in the shop planted this tree in your honor, out by the fountain and the fire pit, right where everyone can see. It’s a Norway spruce. You know all about evergreens, so I don’t need to say more. But I think it’s a fine thing they picked a symbol of both Christmas and eternal life—two things you enjoyed the most. They even put some lights on it. We’ll do that every year from here on out. That’s your tree, Burt.

And you know what I’ve been thinking? Having this tree here means you’re being useful still. This evergreen will be here long after the rest of us are gone. It’ll grow tall and wide and give shade in the summer and shelter in the winter. The robins will sit in its limbs and sing of spring. Come fall when all else looks dead and gone, you’ll still look green and alive. You’ll stand straight against the wind, pointing to the sky, reminding us all the way to home.

That little ceremony was a beautiful thing to see, Burt. The day as cold and damp and there were more than a few tears shed, but that’s how the beautiful things are—they hurt you in a way that makes you feel good. I like to believe all wounds heal eventually. If not in this life, then surely in the next. But that doesn’t mean those wounds won’t heal to a scar. That’s how it’ll be with all of us. We’ll get on because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’ll ride our todays on to our tomorrows. But I’m sure there will always be plenty like me who will stop by this tree and have a word from time to time.

In the meantime, though, I guess I better get going . . . make myself useful.

But hey, I’ll see you.

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Looking for Baby Jesus

December 4, 2014  

The thing about living at the foot of a mountain is that it’s often windy. Sometimes it’s little more than a gentle breeze that will tousle your hair. Other times it’s enough to make you pull your ball cap down a little tighter. And then there are the winds that don’t simply blow but rage. Like the ones last Wednesday.

I was outside the next morning surveying the damage, which wasn’t all together bad. The only things out of place were a few of the Christmas decorations—two bows that had found their way into the rose bushes, a strand of lights that had been blown from the tree, and a toppled Nativity scene.

The bows and lights were simple enough, though I had to impale my thumb on a thorn and smack myself in the face with a tree branch in order to set aright what the wind had blown askew. Mary, Joseph, a wise man, and a shepherd had dog piled the holy child to shield him from harm.

I stood the shepherd up first, brushing away a few leaves and a clump of mud. Then the wise man, then Joseph, and finally Mary. Then I stooped down to brush off little Emmanuel.

Halfway into my crouch, I stopped. In a strange act of contortion I didn’t believe was possible, I both furrowed my brow and bulged my eyes at the sight before me. Because there, right there where the swaddled babe was supposed to be, was nothing.

The rusty gears in my head began to lurch and churn, the results of which seemed to be subtle variations of one question—And what’s that mean?

And what’s that mean? The dog pile didn’t work.

And what’s that mean? My Baby Jesus is gone.

And what’s that mean? Uh-oh.

I stood up and looked around. Nothing. Looked under the truck and around the corner of the house and in the neighbor’s yard and by the creek. Nothing.

A chill ran down my spine that could have either been panic or the last remnants of the cold December wind the night before. How could we have Christmas without the Baby Jesus? What now?

I entertained a brief thought that I should call in and take the day off (“Jesus is MISSING!” I would say). But I didn’t. I wasn’t worried. After all, I’d found the real one. Surely I could find a plastic one, too.

Surely. Maybe. Well, hopefully.

I didn’t get much done that day; I was paid more for eight hours of worry and dread than actual work. My children were ignorant of the situation for obvious reasons. A missing Baby Jesus would bring the sort of panic that children display in tears and snot. Which meant I would have to find him before they knew he was missing.

I went home that afternoon and searched the entire neighborhood. I knocked on doors (“Have you found Jesus?” I asked, and received many wonderful answers. And one that was not so wonderful). I made phone calls. I drove, and when that didn’t work I walked. I even resorted to calling out His name—“Jesus?” “JESUS??”

Still? Nothing.

I had given up and begun preparing my failed-father speech to the family when I spotted a hunk of plastic beneath an evergreen tree. I’d be lying if I said there was a golden ray of light shining down upon it, but it sure felt that way. I sprinted over to the tree, pulled back a dangling branch, and lo and behold, there he lay in peaceful plastic slumber.

My Baby Jesus is back where he belongs now, safely tucked just under the living room window with ma and pa watching over him. And also two carefully placed stakes holding him in place.

I just checked on him. Still there. But a thought came to my mind as I peered through the curtains—shouldn’t I be more mindful of where the real Jesus is than my plastic one? Shouldn’t I make sure that He, too, is right beside me? And in those times when I find He isn’t, shouldn’t I go looking for Him with the same sense of purpose and urgency that I did with a simple Christmas decoration?

Yes, I think. Very much so.

Because the winds rage not just outside my window, but inside my heart, too. They howl doubt and blow jealousy. They gust fear. And while those winds can never blow Jesus away from me, they’ve been known upon occasion to blow me away from Him.

Oh, and yes. If you’ve by chance read my latest novel In the Heart of the Dark Wood, you’ll notice that this tale may have a familiar ring to it. What can I say? To a writer, everything is a potential story.

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The last thing I’d ever write

December 2, 2014  


The note above was penned by an eighty-five-year-old man named Robert. One day last month, he drove his car down a steep rural road to look at a pond. When he tried to drive back the way he came, the car rolled off the path and became mired in a ravine.

Robert was unable to walk out of his situation due to back problems that left him only able to get around with the help of a walker. He had no food. The only water he had barely filled an 8 ounce bottle. He honked his horn until the car battery was depleted.

Robert sat there, alone in his car, for two days.

With no food, little water, and temperatures in the upper 90s, he realized things didn’t look good. So he grabbed a pen and began writing on the car’s armrest.

Look closely and you can make a bit of it out. The first—and Robert said the most important—was that he make sure everyone knew it was an accident. Robert didn’t want anyone thinking he committed suicide. He wrote that the car’s wheels spun out. He asked that his family give him a closed casket.

About forty hours later, Robert was found. Turns out that final note wasn’t needed after all. As you can imagine, the whole ordeal changed him. Robert has a new outlook on life. He understands its delicateness. He knows every moment is precious.

It’s a good story with a happy ending. But me, I can’t stop thinking about that note.

What would I tell my family? What would I tell you? What would I say if I could never say anything more? Those questions have preyed on my mind since reading Robert’s story. I figured the only way I could start thinking about something else is to go ahead and write my letter.

So here it is, the last thing I’d ever write:

Dear All,

I don’t know how I managed to get myself in this mess. I think a lot of times you can’t see the trouble that’s coming until it’s on you. This is probably one of those times. I guess I should hurry. I never used to think much about time. Suddenly, time seems pretty important.

To my family, I want to say that the very last thing I want to do is leave you behind. You need to know that as much as I’m ready for heaven, I’m thinking the angels will have to drag me there. But don’t worry, I’ll find me a bench somewhere near the gate and wait for each of you.

To my wife, I’m sorry I was never the man I wanted to be. I’m thankful you overlooked that. Take care of the kids. Raise them to believe like you and fight like me.

To my son, there are few things more difficult in life than knowing how to be a man. I’ll give you a quick summary—work hard, laugh much, pray often. Love dignity rather than money. Face your darkness. Let your word be your bond. You’ll do well in life if you cling to those things. Know that I will always be proud of you.

To my daughter, you’ve taught me more about faith than anyone I’ve ever known. Remember this: we seldom have any choice as to the wars we must fight, we can only elect to face them with honor or cowardice.

To my friends, I know it may appear at times that I prefer silence to speech and solitude to company, but you mended the gashes I had rent into my own heart. Whatever goodness is in me was fostered by you.

I ask that you dispose of my remains as you see fit. I have no preference. Whatever flesh and bone is left behind is not me, it is merely an empty house that God has deemed I’ve outgrown.

Do not mourn, laugh.

Do not look back, look forward.

Live intently.

And last, know that all that separates the two of us is but one stroke of heaven’s eternal clock. Life is but a dream. Death is simply when we wake.

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