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T. P. Tolliver's Christmas Bird

Chad Allen looked up from the steering wheel just in time to jerk his car over to the curb. A Flowers bread truck full of Beebo donuts was bearing down on him on a narrow street in Mattaponi. If he hadn't swerved, the truck would have flattened his little Geo Prism. The donut driver blared his horn as he lumbered past Chad. It was only then that Chad looked up at the black and white sign above the sidewalk. "One Way" it said. And the arrow was pointing towards the rear of his car.

Chad couldn't believe it. He had grown up in Mattaponi. He had learned to drive in the few streets that made up the town. Now he was a reporter for the local newspaper and he drove them every day. And he had just missed being killed by going the wrong direction on the only one-way street in the county.

He felt like a teenager all over again. But fortunately there was no other traffic on the street. And fortunately no police officers either. So he turned the car around and headed back out.

It was the season that caused Chad's distraction. Christmas. It was everywhere. Shops were full. Churches were decorated with candles in each window to proclaim the coming of Christ, the Light of the world. And all along Main Street in Mattaponi new, natural�-looking green ornaments were hanging from the street lamps.

There had been some controversy over this. Some folks in town had grown quite attached to the orange plastic stockings that had hung on the poles since the mid-70s. But these had faded badly through time and so the town had decided to get rid of them despite the fuss. Besides, the folks over in nearby Putnam Corner had bought them and anyone who really missed them could go and see them there.

It wasn't really the decorations and the signs of Christmas that distracted Chad, though. It was what they brought to mind -- gifts. He worried endlessly each year over what would be the absolute perfect gift for everyone. From his girlfriend, Deanna Jenkins, to his parents and his nephew and his great aunt. It seemed as if there was so much to do. And Chad felt miserable and oppressed by the long list.

When Chad finally got himself headed the right direction he cruised on over to the dry cleaners where he picked up his suit. He needed the suit for the Christmas pageant at church, which was only a few days away. Chad was the narrator -- an important role -- but in some ways he wished that he were still a shepherd since his bathrobe fit much better than this suit.

As he got out of the car, Leander Lovett, the street-sweeper, walked by pushing his little cart. Even Leander had gotten into the spirit of the season, grumpy as he was. His cart was decorated with red and green beer cans which he had picked up and nailed to his cart. And on top of his head was a Santa Claus hat. "Hi, Leander," Chad said.

Leander grumbled something that sounded a little bit like "Hello" and then trundled on down the street.

Inside the dry cleaners Everona Tarback was waiting for him. Chad had a slight dread of getting clothes from the cleaners because he knew that not only would he get his clothes, but also Everona's commentary on all the latest county events. Sometimes he got some news tips. Most of the time he just got an earful.

"Well, Chad, I've got your Christmas pageant suit ready for you."

"Everona, how did you know I was wearing this for the Christmas pageant?"

"Had to force it out of Deanna," she said. "You really ought to tell me these things so I don't have to pester your girlfriend like that."

Chad laughed. At least Everona had a good sense of humor. Ten minutes later the subject had turned to Christmas. "Well, Chad, have you seen all the decorations around town?"

"Yeah, and some of them are pretty dangerous. The Popendorfs have decorated the stop sign in front of their place with so many greens you can barely see the sign."

"Well," Everona said, "I hear there are some great light displays out on 628. All except T.P. Tolliver's place. Somebody said he had a bird out in the front lawn and nothing else."

Now, this was news. Micah "T.P." Tolliver was one of Chad's oldest friends and he wasn't the type to let any occasion go by without some kind of dramatic statement -- especially Christmas.

T.P. had gotten his nickname from his habit of wrapping toilet paper around the cars of his latest enemies. It was a habit that began in high school and which he never outgrew. But if T.P. was passionate about his arguments, he was just as passionate about holidays. A good fight was worth about 5 or 6 rolls of colored toilet paper for T.P., but a good celebration was worth about 200 strands of blinking colored lights and a dozen floodlights.

Last Christmas was his first at his new mobile home on 628 and he had done the place up right. He put up a life�-size nativity scene, 25 blue �light wreaths, a pattern of progressively� blinking lights on the embankment which read "N-o-e-l-e,". (he hadn't realized he added an extra "e" on the end until Dec. 26), a stuffed Santa Claus with sack on the TV antenna, and a ten�foot�-tall inflatable Frosty on the roof which sported a removable corncob pipe. So for Everona now to say that a single bird made up the whole of T.P.'s decorations was unbelievable. Chad made his excuses to her and drove out to see his friend.

He arrived to find T.P. out in the yard fixing a spotlight which would shine directly onto his one decoration, which was, indeed, a bird. It was a stork to be exact -- the eight-�foot �tall variety that you find stuck on the lawns of couples who have just had a baby. Usually they have a bundle dangling from their beak in either pink or blue, but T.P. had painted this bundle green. Chad got out of the car and walked over to his friend.

"What is this?" he asked.

"It's a stork," said T.P. He smiled proudly.

"So what's this about?" asked Chad. "Are you and Tina Marie going to have a baby? I know she hasn't had one already has she?"

"No, no," said T.P. "It's my Christmas decoration."

"Your Christmas decoration? What about the lights and the wreaths and the stuffed Santa? Where is the seven�-foot wise man?"

"Seven and a half foot, Chad. That one was supposed to be Moses Malone. No, I got rid of them all. It was too much."

"Too much?" said Chad in disbelief. "Is this T.P. Tolliver I'm talking to?"

"Don't get smart, Chad, I've just decided to take John the Baptist seriously this year."

"John the Baptist?"

"Yeah, I've been thinking about him a lot lately. As a matter of fact I've been thinking about Jesus a lot lately here since I've gotten back to church. It's been a good year for me that way -- for Tina Marie, too. I never was much on church, but it's a powerful place and I guess I found God there. Or maybe God found me."

"Well, that's a good possibility," said Chad. "I can't believe you two are going to be Mary and Joseph in the Christmas pageant. But what about the stork?"

"Oh, well, think about John the Baptist, Chad. Here's this guy who comes along, sent by God, and his whole reason for being is to point the way to Christ. How does the Bible put it? 'He came as a witness to testify to the Light... (because) the true light was coming into the world.' And that's really about all we know about who he was.

He came to say, 'Hey, the Light is coming,' and he baptized folks. So the Pharisees send some people out and they ask this guy, 'Who are you?' and he says, 'I am not the Messiah.' Now is it just me or is this a strange way to answer this question? It's like me saying to Tina Marie, 'Hey, I'm going to the grocery store. Is there anything I can get for you?' and her saying, 'Yes, I don't want potatoes.' "

Chad interrupted, "Is the stork a part of this story?"

"I'm getting there," T.P. said. "You see, John answers them by telling them who he isn't. They want him to testify to who he is, but his whole mission is to testify to who Christ is. It's almost like he has a negative identity.

So they say, 'Are you Elijah?' and he says, 'No.' And they say, 'Are you the prophet?' and he says 'No.' And when he does tell them who he is it's a vague thing -- he's a voice crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord.'

And then he tells them that he isn't important. He's not a threat to the Pharisees. Christ is the real threat to them. And John tells them that even as they speak Christ is among them even though John himself didn't know who he was. But that's what John was sent to do -- to point the way -- not to muddy the water by talking about himself. So that's why I put up the stork."

Chad frowned. "I don't get it."

"Read the sign, Chad."

Chad looked back at his wise old friend and smiled. "It's a sign all right -- the bundle of Christmas."

"Exactly," said T.P. "All that other junk said more about me than it did about Christ. Baby Jesus got lost beside oversized Santas and snowmen and wise men. This says all that needs to be said without drawing attention to itself."

"I don't know," said Chad. "Seems like the whole town is talking about this bird. And why is the bundle green, T.P.? We're talking about a baby boy Jesus aren't we?"

"Aw, Chad, you're getting bogged down in the detail. What's important isn't the pink or the blue of it. What's important is that it was God in Jesus!"

"Well, T.P. I reckon you've got the whole Christmas story down to the basics there. Just like John the Baptist. Is there anything else?"

"Well, I was thinking about wrapping a little patterned Charmin around his neck there."

Chad glared at him as if to say, "You're not!"

"Just kidding!" T.P. said. "Lighten Up, Chad. Christ is coming! Can't you read the signs?"

Chad thought about his drive down the one way street and laughed to himself.

Later that afternoon as he drove home from T.P.'s he thought to himself how prophetic his friend was. He thought about the church which spent so much time promoting dinners and child care programs and aerobics classes instead of thinking about what it proclaimed. And he wondered if maybe it needed to see itself as a signpost.

As Christians we struggle with who we are and with our significance and with the trappings of our lives in the world. And we should. Who we are is important. But we sometimes fall into the trap of treating our mission as another slot on the weekly roster. It's powerful stuff we're dealing with and it can change lives. We clutter the scenery with too many signs.

But the great thing about a One Way sign is that when it's really working people look beyond it to the message it gives. Like John the Baptist we are called to point beyond ourselves to "the Light, the Unknown One among us, and the Coming One." When we reveal Christ we become the Church.

Chad thought to himself that there weren't many Christmas displays he'd ever seen that were as powerful as that eight-�foot plywood bird standing by a country road with a green bundle hanging from its beak, a bundle which simply said, "It's God."

A baby. A season. An Affirmation.

It's God.