Long before moving to New York City and an apartment high in the sky overlooking the East River, long before my children grew into adult bodies, we lived in a friendly small town with tall trees and clipped yards. Our house sat close to the street and a driveway faded away into the backyard leading to an old garage which had long since outlived its usefulness housing cars and was slowly rotting into oblivion. It did, however, serve reasonably well as a shed for the mower, ladder and some of my children's larger toys. Periodically the garage door, for which no key existed, was locked accidentally. This meant someone had to climb in through a window to open it from the inside. But the windows were deteriorated leaving only one of them functional.
One Saturday morning I went to retrieve the mower and discovered the door was locked. I went to the one functioning window and found that it was jammed; it wouldn't open more than a few inches. I worked at it for a while, went inside the house to get a few tools, came back and worked some more. The wood frame was so decomposed that as I attempted to pry the window open the wood just cracked and flaked away. It was beginning to look like I was going to have to complete the demolition on the window if I was going to get inside the garage and I didn't want to do that if it could be avoided for that would lead to an unrelenting series of projects ending with the complete demolition of the whole building.
Throwing my tools to the ground I stormed about in frustration.
Now observing me the entire time was my son, then just four years old. He was always in the yard when I was in the yard usually dogging me with a relentless stream of questions and comments, which I confess, proved a slight but rather consistent irritation, the way a few gnats might provoke a working man's labors on a hot day. Unfortunately this father sometimes had a rather dismissive attitude to the ramblings of his children and found patience in short supply when eager hands and feet were right in the middle of Daddy's work.
Well Luke had been chatting away about this and that as I worked at the window and when I finally exploded in frustration he blurted out, "I know what will work, Daddy ~ the thing you use on the car when you change a tire!"
Usually I wouldn't have heard such an outlandish idea ~ I would have ignored it. But for some reason ~ his insistence, my readiness to hear any suggestion no matter how foolish ~ I retrieved the jack from the car. Needless to say, it fit perfectly between the window and the sill, and effortlessly pushed open the window so Luke could jump through and unlock the door.
Some questions remain from this story, like: why did I maintain a rotting garage in my back yard, and why after several years of residence did I still have a lockable door for which no key existed? I have no good answers there. On the other hand, I did learn something extremely valuable that day, which is why it remains so clear in my memory: I learned how to listen to my son.
Now mind you, I don't mean to say that as a result of his intuitive insight I then asked his advice in all other frustrating situations. But I learned that even at the age of four, Luke had things to say and to share ~ ideas and opinions that were important to him and just might be useful to me. In other words, I was coming to really understand Luke's essential humanity and worth.
Now you might want to say that's obvious. "Of course a child is a person of worth!" you exclaim. And, of course, I would have readily agreed with you back then. But you and I also know that our actions often reflect something different than the truth we profess. For instance, to the extent we are routinely dismissive of the thoughts and feelings of others we routinely discount their worth. Families experience this all the time. Wives and husbands can fall into dismissive patterns where they diminish the dignity of their partner. This can happen unconsciously, habitually and brutally. We can do it with our children or parents, with friends and co-workers. We do it without a second thought to all persons or groups we deem beneath our current status.
So in this small event in my back yard, I woke up to something new and important. I learned something about myself and about human nature. And I changed as a result of this new information. I could no longer remain in my state of ignorance. The new had come, the old would no longer serve. Now I must consciously and with energy deal with my children as persons of worth in their own right ~ that was the small but mighty lesson I learned and I've been working at it ever since.
Friends, there are any number of ways we interpret this season of the year, most of which have merit. We speak of the significance of stars and Bethlehem, Wise Men and angel visitations. We speak of God's love, hope, peace and joy. We honor childbirth and families, the fall of the mighty and the lifting up of the lowly. Most importantly we speak of the incarnation of God. John's Gospel proclaims: "the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory... grace and truth came through Jesus Christ... who has made [God] known."
This statement is really quite a mouthful. The words trip off the tongues of Christians with festive ease at December's end and January's beginning year after year. But I sometimes wonder if we really know what we say. If we fully understood, I wonder if we wouldn't be a little less festive and a bit more apprehensive.
Here's the meaning I'm getting at: a new age has dawned ~ change is the order of the day ~ the old will no longer suffice.... period! Christianity is quite unequivocal on this point. After all, we claim nothing less than this: God has broken into the world... GOD! If that's true, then you can bet that old wisdom will need some clarifiers or even thrown out altogether.
Roger Ray, a minister out in Springfield, Missouri told of a local physician who was driving between hospital calls one evening, exceeding the speed limit rather shamelessly in an attempt to make up for lost time. Suddenly a police car pulled up behind him and turned on the lights. "Having some considerable experience in both speeding and getting caught, the doctor picked up his stethoscope and held it up for the policeman to see in hopes of communicating that he was on a medical emergency."
Yet the police officer continued in pursuit with no regard to the physician's signals. Once more the doctor waved his stethoscope in the air, this time more dramatically, in hopes of conveying the importance of his mission. But when the physician looked into his rear-view mirror to see whether the police officer got the message, he saw a smiling officer waving his own symbol of authority in the air ~ his revolver.
Dr. Ray comments: "These are the 'Oh' experiences in life... moments when a deeper reality dawns upon us... or possibly falls on us like a ton of bricks."
Friends, when God comes a-callin', you can bet things are going to change. A new, deeper truth cannot but help to force us to reassess our situation. And when the new truth is set before us, inevitably we are presented with the option of choosing a different, better, holier way of thinking and behaving... even when the circumstance of our lives seems hopeless.
In his book, Return from Tomorrow, George Ritchie describes his meeting in a German concentration camp with a Polish man the American soldiers and nicknamed "Wild Bill Cody". They supposed he had been in the camp only briefly: "...his posture was erect, his eyes bright, his energy indefatigable... though Wild Bill worked fifteen and sixteen hours a day, he showed no signs of weariness... His compassion for his fellow prisoners glowed on his face..."
Ritchie describes his astonishment when he learned that this man had actually been in the camp for six years, experiencing the same wretched conditions as the other prisoners, "but without the least physical or mental deterioration. Perhaps even more amazing, every group in the camp looked on him as a friend. He was the one to whom quarrels between inmates were brought for arbitration."
Then one day Ritchie heard the story of this remarkable man. "We lived in the Jewish section of Warsaw," he began slowly, "my wife, our two daughters, and our three little boys. When the Germans reached our street they lined everyone against a wall and opened up with machine guns. I begged to be allowed to die with my family, but because I spoke German they put me in a work group... I had to decide right then whether to let myself hate the soldiers who had done this. It was an easy decision, really. I was a lawyer. In my practice I had seen too often what hate could do to people's minds and bodies. Hate had just killed the six people who mattered most to me in the world. I decided then that I would spend the rest of my life ~ whether it was a few days or many years ~ loving every person I came in contact with". (George G. Ritchie, M.D. with Elizabeth Sherrill, Return form Tomorrow [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 1978], pp.114-116)
Even under the most dire of circumstances, this courageous man woke up to a truth that changed his life. Hate and revenge would have been the expected response. But he saw the higher path, the narrower path, the holier path, and he chose it.
Of course, it is true that we can behave as though we really have no new information, or that our lives are already in concert with the music of our God. We can pretend we still have complete control, that there isn't much in this world we need to learn, that there isn't much we need to change. We can do that, in fact that's what we usually do.
Annie Dillard in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, has this to say to us on the matter: "On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely evoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense..."
She's referring to the same God, of course, that we say we welcome into our world at this time of year. The God of life and death and life again. The God who flung the stars into the distant heavens, and the God who knit us together in our mothers wombs.
For the brave and the honest, Christmas is a profound reminder, if we look behind and beneath the trappings, that what we normally accomplish on our own is rather pathetic when we consider what God has done and what God continues to offer.
Martin Luther once compared us homo sapiens to cows standing before a new gate. A cow cannot understand that a new doorway leads to fresh pasture. Instead, it sees the new gate as the same old fence out of simple conditioning. Our culture and egos condition us as well. We stand firm in well-established patterns that keep us blind to the new things Christ opens to us. How sad we are as we stand in the same old tired place when right in front of our eyes is the entrance into a place of breathtaking possibility.
Friends, when the new comes, the old simply will no longer suffice. You don't put new wine into old wineskins. I tell you, every single time we manage to grow up to a new truth, it is as though we should have a mini Christmas celebration.
In this new age of Christ, 1998, every moment is pregnant with the possibility of growth and new life and we are all midwives, mothers and fathers to the birth.