Drunk Santa

The nativity story is probably one of the most misunderstood episodes of the New Testament. It’s a patently Jewish story – a 1st century Jewish story no less, jam-packed with scads of cultural idiosyncracies and a Sitz im Leben that’s a bit off planet for us modern western folk. Nonetheless, read from a 1st century Jewish perspective, it’s a better story than the one we usually tell. It goes something like this.

There’s these three groups of losers…

The first group is hanging out in the mountains and fields of the Judean region when they get a very strange and undeserved invite. We call them shepherds and typically think of them as humble, simple folk – people at one with nature, animal lovers, passive, kind, etc. In their day however shepherds were considered by most to be the lowest of the low, though not as low as tax collectors (that’s a different but very interesting story). Shepherds would frequently sell and/or eat the animals they were charged with protecting, then lie about it, claiming that the animal(s) had fallen victim to the all-too-frequent predator attack.

In their defense, if I were a shepherd I would have a hard time resisting the temptation for a little snack every now and again. It would be like hiring me to sit and watch bacon for a long time by myself with nobody else watching. Some of it might go missing.

When the “Angel of the Lord” appears in a blinding light, they become “sore afraid,” not because angels are scary, but because they believe that God has finally showed up to mete out their punishment for being such horrible people. What they get is totally different – transformed in a flash from trash to the very Heralds of God Himself. Why? Because they were good people? Nope…
Overall, shepherds were viewed as dishonest and cowardly, definitely not the people you would expect to be charged with running through the very capitol of all Jewishness to announce the arrival of something that everyone at the time was desperately waiting for.

The next group of losers is the triad of “Magi,” travelling from the East, expecting to meet a great king, being led by a star. Again, if you consider what Jewish people were thinking at the time, these people have no business in God’s story – maybe as the bad guys, but certainly not as heroes. To be non-Jewish, and on top of that some kind of “magician,” is to be pagan in the worst sense. To not believe in God, and to place your trust in other powers was considered to be utterly foolish, and not worth the time of day in the eyes of most. Again – trash.

The third group is comprised of the three people sitting amidst the dung, the smell, and the conspicuous absence of human dignity – surrounded by the other losers mentioned above. There’s a baby, and that’s cute, but he’s illegitimate. The mom “claims” that God had impregnated her, but everyone knows what really happened. Her husband initially tried to conjure up some way to get rid of her, but was “visited in a dream” by an angel and changed his mind. Whatever. In his world the only thing worse than a woman who has conceived via adultery is a husband who does nothing about it. We might romanticize something like this, but the people of Jesus’ day didn’t. Adultery was one of the most grievous sins to the Jewish mind. More trash.

So it’s understandable why there were no important people stopping by to say hello to the newborn Messiah. “This can’t be him.” “He’s illegitimate.” “Where are all the other important people?” “A stable?” “He might have the pedigree if he were actually the son of his father.” Considering the general sketchiness of the whole scene it’s easy to see why Herod, the Pharisees, Saducees, Sanhedrin, the wealthy folk and other potentates decided to stay home that night.  These people believed that they were conditionally blessed by God. Their obedience to His rules, their devotion, and their wealth made them important to Him. The dishonest, the poor, the pagan were seen as trash because that’s how God considered them.  But if the Nativity episode is what the New Testament claims it to be, it is THE most powerful, beautiful, and important event in all of human history. Funny that the most powerful, beautiful, and important people of Jerusalem – at a time when it was believed that the Messiah would show up any time now – weren’t there.

The Nativity invites us to make some drastic changes to our value system, especially as it applies to how we valuate people. Christmas is a time to remember that God typically doesn’t see things the way we do. The people we call losers, God calls kings.

So, you’d better watch out – folk who consider themselves to be more important than others – especially in the name of religion – can easily find themselves missing the party. If you feel like a loser, be comforted. God has opened His doors to everyone. It’s truly a “come as you are” proposition.

If He can be born in a stable, He can live in your heart – and do some really crazy things within.

60 Years was not Enough: What my Grandparent’s bad Marriage Taught Me about Life

I learned so much from watching my father’s parents grow old together, then say goodbye.

Mary and Lloyd (Frenchie) seemed to live as distant roommates – married strangers.  Looking back on their life, I don’t remember them displaying any physical signs that they loved each other – i’m not saying they didn’t, it was just hard to tell from my perspective.   By the time I was a teenager, they had separate rooms in their tiny Biloxi, Mississippi home.

When I was in grad school we got the news that my grandmother had contracted a type of cancer that would take her life in short order.   She was in her late 70’s at the time and very quickly began to show physical signs that things weren’t going well.

This had a strange affect on my Grandfather. All of a sudden he began to care for her, to attend to her, to pay attention in a way that I had never seen. He was now her caretaker, her caregiver, her best friend.  We all took notice – it was a different dance for him, something we weren’t expecting.

In what seemed like such a short time, Grandma was admitted into the hospital and quickly slipped into a coma.  The doctors told us she wouldn’t be waking up.  I wasn’t there for this closing scene – my parents related it to me – but we were all dumb-struck.

Grandpa shuffled into her room, stood at the foot of her bed, grabbed her feet and said, looked at her sleeping eyes and said, “60 years was not enough.”  I always imagined that he saw her as she was when they first met, only more beautiful.  I was reminded of their seemingly un-physical relationship – I had never seen them touch each other.  But Grandpa became a different man in the last days of his marriage.  He was falling in love with her and mourning the “empty” spaces of their life together.

I’m not sure what drove my grandparents apart.  I heard there was quite a bit of unresolved “stuff” in their marriage – things that they just couldn’t seem to shake – pretty common in a marriage.  But however impossible those things might have been to overcome, they were quickly and thoroughly annihilated when Grandma got sick.  Her impending death would be the end of the distance between them.

While I was deeply touched by the reconciliation that my grandparents were able to experience, I was also floored at how deeply bitterness had affected their life – so deeply that the only thing able to shake it off of them was the loss they suffered.  I thought about the bitterness I’ve held to in my life – all the relationships I’ve abandoned – the life that I’ve missed.

Years later, I’ve done some unpacking about my failed relationships and the bitterness that destroyed them.  Bitterness doesn’t kill love, it only covers it, so deeply sometimes that we become convinced that the love is gone, the friendship dead. I have a friend who recently kicked her husband out of the house, then divorced him, then moved on to find something better.  Her husband had grown distant and despondent towards her, something that broke her heart over and over again.  The bitterness between them, unchecked for 15 years or so, grew like a thick blanket, leaving her disconnected from the love she still has for him – completely convinced that she’s “over” him.

It would be great if it worked like that – if we could just wash our hands of the love that we’ve built (discovered?) and “move on.”  But it doesn’t work that way, and if we ever run into something painful, heartbreaking, or difficult, for some reason we’ll be able to see through the bitterness we’ve so foolishly allowed to build up – then wail silently as we mourn what could have been.  We’ll see the love that’s still somehow burning and feel like complete idiots that we were so deeply duped.

I’m now at a place where I take greater care with my relationships (I’m at least better than I was 10 years ago).  When conflict comes, especially when I get my feelings hurt (something I hate admitting but also something that happens so much), I try real hard to silence the pride and voice what’s going on.  On a good day I’m willing to take the risk that I’ll get laughed at, further hurt, or worse sit and listen to the other person offer an heartfelt apology then talk about me behind my back.  There have been times when my friend and I have come to a deeper place through the conflict.  Those times, and the resulting depth of relationship, are truly worth the risk.

My efforts in relationships are less contingent on the other person’s behavior than they used to be.  They’re more contingent on the fact that I love and value these people, and that I love and value myself.

My wife is masterful at allowing me to voice my hurt and air my grievances.  I’m careful to qualify that the hurt I feel in my marriage is more based on hurts that I suffered long ago before we met.  But, thanx mainly to her mature understanding of things, we’ve been able to keep our blanket of bitterness ever so thin – at least thin enough to offer some evidence that there’s something under there – never so thick that we become ignorant of how we really feel about each other.

Relationships are designed to get better, not worse.  I can always blame the other person when things are going bad, but relationships that you have to fight for are the best ones, the most valuable ones.  I have a responsibility to do my part – to take risks, confront, apologize, pursue, pray, suffer on some occasions, maybe even get in a fist fight if that’s what it takes – so that I might enjoy the one thing in life that has no boundaries.

There are tight restrictions in this universe on how famous you can be, how much money you can have, material possessions, influence, etc.  There are no boundaries whatsoever on how many friends you can have (if you’re not picky about what they look like, who they are, etc.).  It’s as if something set the cosmos in a way that all but forces us to understand that great friendships are truly the greatest things.

The most wonderful times of my life have all revolved around great friends.  When I’m on my death-bed I won’t be comforted by my accomplishments, my wealth, my influence, definitely not my fast fleeting looks.  I’ll remember Chris and Brad and Paul and Josh.  Elaine, my kids, my Brother, my Parents – all people who I went deep with, and all people who gave life to my world like nothing else.