Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Advent Day 10: Where is Jesus?

I haven’t written in two days. I almost didn’t bother today either. This Christmas season has been flat for me and I only know part of the reason.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll delve into the other reasons but todays reflections are about Jesus. Or where is He?
The Bible tells us the wise men came from the East in response to the star and to their knowledge of Scriptures. They came looking for this King that star and the old writings foretold.
I guess this Christmas has me looking for Him too.
I’m flat. My Faith is flat. My past is so tangled and damaged by failures and those failures ate up so much time, that I can’t seem to get a jumpstart on the future. I feel like I’m going through the motions every day, checking my own wrist to feel for a pulse. Looking for signs of life on the terrain that represents the remains of my days on Earth.
Nothing about this point in life even vaguely resembles the picture I’d always had in my head. Nothing. The shapes, the faces, the sounds, the backdrop…none of it is what I thought it would be.
In the midst of this, I find myself exasperated by the Faith I’ve claimed for literally more than 80% of my entire life. Where is Jesus? Where is the baby, born King of Kings and Lord of Lords? All I see anymore are His self-appointed deputies, the Santa’s Helpers of the Christian world, controlling the community of Faith and setting the rules for believers. I can’t get past all their faces and all their individual screaming for attention and clamoring for fame, to see Jesus’ face. I can’t hear His voice over their caterwauling and shrill demands for adoration. This gang of skinny-jean-befitted posers who’ve not spent one long, arduous night in prayer. These Flockstars who care more that you put them in a Five-star hotel than they do for the people you brought them in to preach to.
Just as complicit in the secreting of Jesus are the publishing house presidents and the Christian Music label leadership who decide that terrible stories get told and dreadful music gets made and they care not a whit whether it actually ministers to anyone…it’s all about the bottom line.
They all stand there, blocking access to the baby in the dirty sheep trough. The catch their reflection in a mirror as they lisp: “None shall pass!”
Where is Jesus?
Where is the baby who came from Heaven for me? Where is He and what does He want from me? Why does He bless and prosper those charlatans and ignore others with some small measure of talent and a heart that aches in the night for a chance. A chance to tell their story…and His story.
I spent all this year trying to find my way back to this stable and when I got there…they’d stolen Him. I find myself so discouraged this year.
I have tried…dear Jesus I have tried to find you! I started watching my favorite Christmas movies two weeks sooner. I started listening to Christmas music sooner, I decorated sooner. I read. I wrote. But I feel like Christmas is in shambles. Like my little Nativity set is barren…the baby Jesus is missing from his manger.
I feel like I woke up in someone else’s house on Christmas morning, in someone else’s Christmas. On some other planet.
Maybe that’s why I –why we—get so sentimental at Christmas. Because each year removes us farther from the Christmas in our hearts. From the Jesus of that Christmas in our hearts. And we just want to get back.
I do.
I want to find that Jesus again. Before this Christmas is possible.

Jesus…where are you?

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Advent Day 7: A Single Dad at Christmas

I write a lot about being a single dad. I also write a lot about being a single dad at Christmas. Being a dad is about the only thing I’ve been consistently good at. The rest has had its peaks and valleys. When my daughter was little, Christmas was easier. I guess that’s true of all kids. They are so overwhelmed by the lights, and sounds, and stories and anticipation, that they care little about what’s actually under the tree.
Then they get a bit older and they start getting specific and they start remembering the light displays we saw last year and they want to see something knew.
But they still become mesmerized by the wonder, and they still get excited, and they still sing the carols and open the doors of the little cardboard Advent calendar, and they still sit on Santa’s knee and whisper their wish-list into his ear.
Then the day comes when they hit the pause button in their believing. They know the “truth” about Santa, and they are a little too cool to sing carols in the car while we travel, and they don’t find intrigue in what lies behind the doors of the Advent calendar.
I remember that Christmas. My daughter was ten, and I was homeless. She found out I was sleeping in my car about a month before Christmas and she was worried about me. I asked her if she wanted to get the Advent calendars again and she said, “Not this year.” Later I would find out that it was because I no longer had a kitchen counter and she didn’t know where I’d keep it. (That’s where we always placed it) She also informed me that her cousins had told her all about Santa, and a Christmas that was already damaged and taking on water, bottomed out on the rocks right then and there.
That was Christmas 2009. Like I did so often during the six years I battled back from homelessness, I wrote my way out of the pain and sadness that I was feeling. I wrote an Advent series on my blog back then, the stories reflected where I was at the time. My little girl was not so little now and the wonderful traditions we celebrated were gone forever. I always knew she’d figure Santa out…all kids do. But I’d hoped that we would always have the Advent calendar.
The Advent helps us break down the Christmas season from one enormous, glorious, history changing event, to a month of observance, reminders, traditions. It slows down each day as we pause to reflect on the scene behind each door. For me, it lives up to its meaning by building the anticipation of Christ’s coming on that morning in Bethlehem.
It extends Christmas into a month-long time of reflection.
Being a single dad at Christmas changes with the times. I have to adapt each year to whether she’ll be with me, where she is emotionally, and where she is in her celebration of the season. And sometimes –like this year—I have to adjust to not being with her at all on Christmas.
Her mom is not a Christmas person and Daisy has typically desired to spend the holiday with me because I am just the opposite. In my world, there aren’t quite enough lights, not enough Christmas music on the radio, and you can’t watch “Charlie Brown Christmas” too frequently. My daughter is cut from that cloth and would prefer to celebrate and decorate until she plopped over from fatigue. But she also misses her mom, or at least what she wishes she had with her mom. So, this year she is going to Tennessee while I go to Philadelphia to be with family.
That’s the toughest part of being a single dad at Christmas. It’s not being alone, because I’ll have family and friends and won’t spend very much time at all by myself. It’s being without her. She’s all the immediate family I have left, and I feel an emptiness inside when I spend special moments without her.
The day will come when she marries and has children and becomes a believer in Christmas again. There is something about being a parent at Christmas that makes you also a child at Christmas. The wonder in their eyes becomes your wonder all over again, and even though you know you’re “Santa,” you still wonder what he brought your children each year and you’re almost surprised. Each time you tell a Christmas story to your child, you become a child again yourself. 
So, I wait for those days to begin. Daisy is only 19 and has goals that don’t include children anytime soon, but one day I’ll be the grandad coming to visit, and I’ll become a believer yet again, as my child gets caught up in the same wonder I was when she was little. Until then, this year, I’ll go it alone.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Advent Day 6: Over the River and Through the Woods

“I’ll be Home for Christmas” It’s one of the top five best-selling Christmas songs of all time. The title for this article is also a Christmas song and bespeaks the journey home at Christmas. The list goes on.
At Christmas, we find ourselves drawn to our homes. I have wondered about this. Perhaps it’s because Christmas itself began with a journey home for Mary and Joseph. They were ordered by Quirinius to return to their native city for the census. Both of them being descendants of David, they went to Bethlehem, the City of David, to register. It was here that Jesus was born, to fulfill prophecy.
They travelled home.
This past November 15th marked twenty years since I left home. I had an unhappy wife who hated the Philadelphia area, where I am from. (She is from Utah) and so we moved to Nashville, TN, where I soon discovered that it was really just me that she hated. My daughter was born there. I had my biggest successes and suffered my greatest losses there. We moved here to Virginia three and a half years ago. Having been homeless for the last six years in TN, this is infinitely better. But it is not home.
Home is flat. Home has a funny accent. Home has Hoagies and Tastykake, and the Iggles. Home has a distinct “attytude” that people not from there don’t easily grasp.
But home has the light display at Wannamaker’s (Lord and Taylor). Home has the Christmas Village, and the lights on Boathouse Row, and Termini brother’s bakery on Christmas Eve, closing up shop and selling sugar plums.
Home is the Claymont Fire Company driving slowly through the neighborhoods one evening just before Christmas, with Santa on the back of the pumper, lights flashing as Santa tosses candy canes to wide-eyed children.
Home is Pierre Robert on WMMR playing Alan Mann’s “Christmas on the Block” and making me cry because I know the backstory to that song.
Home is my grandmother’s old house in Philadelphia, right next to the airport. I don’t know who owns it now, but I drive past it when I’m home at Christmas and I remember my first Christmases there. My Lionel train underneath the tree. My stocking hung on the bannister. (I still have my first-ever Christmas stocking) I remember my grandmother’s dining room and the big table and the leaf-shaped candy dish she kept out with jelly spearmint leaves in it.
Home used to be the monorail that circled the enormous toy department at Wannamaker’s in Center City, my brother, my cousin and I would ride along while our parents shopped below.
Home is the Mummer’s Parade.
Home is “Christmas in the Country” at the first church I ever attended. The annual Christmas play they did for so many years (maybe they still do?) Dave Rambo played the role of the father and his voice was distinctive and when I heard him recite the opening lines, I knew it was Christmas once again.
Home was sharing Christmas with my best friend. Home was Christmas carols on the block where I grew up…in a time when kids were unashamed to walk down their street and sing them.
Home was neighbors dropping by unannounced, but not unexpected. And certainly not unloved.
Home was lying in bed all night, literally all night, unable to sleep, waiting for Santa.
Home was that time during each year when my family called a truce and got along for a few weeks each Christmas. Home was a parade of family and friends on Christmas Eve; each time the door opened it brought a welcomed face, and a fresh breeze of light and happiness blew in with them, replacing –if only for a moment- the stale air of dread that we breathed for the remaining eleven months.
Home is not here. It never has been. In the twenty years I’ve been gone, I have gone home at Christmas all but maybe four of them.
I’ll go home again this year. Daisy is going to Tennessee to see her mom this year, so even this trip home won’t feel as much home as it should.
But it will be home, nonetheless.
No other time during the year calls us home like Christmas does. Home is where the heart is, they say, and my heart has been lost on an open sea for so long now. But each year, my heart finds its way to that safe port. To familiar faces and sights and sounds and smells and traditions.
Those things were supposed to have been here with me by now, but that didn’t come to be. Instead, I’ll journey home once again, as Joseph and Mary did. Not to be counted in a census, but to be counted as family, as beloved, as missed if I didn’t show up.
And until this very moment, writing that last line, I didn’t realize why I go home each year. Home is where your heat is…and where your heart is missed.

Buon Natale

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Advent Day 5: The Broken Christmas

“Daddy,” the little girl asked gently, “Do we still get to hang Mommy’s stocking by the fireplace?”
The words cut through the young man’s heart. He smiled softly at his oldest daughter, and tried his best to hide the immense pain he was feeling. He had asked himself this question only this morning. “Yes, Izzy,” he answered. “We’ll always hang Mommy’s stocking along with ours. Mommy will always be part of our family.”
In his heart, he knew this, and he believed it. But he wasn’t feeling it very much these days. His name is Chris, and he is 32 years old. His wife Rachel died unexpectedly in October. She hadn’t been sick, in fact, she was the picture of health. Chris woke one morning and she was lying next to him, with a smile on her face, cold and lifeless. The doctors never could figure out what had happened. It was just her time.
Rachel was a Christmas soul. She loved the holidays and she made their home into a festive, welcoming haven. They’d been married 9 years, and had three children. Isabella, “Izzy” was 7, Michael was 5, and Millie was 18 months. Chris spent about three weeks in shock after Rachel died. His family, and her family, and folks from the church kept his house full of companions, and helped with the kids. But by Thanksgiving, he was left to deal with the rest of his life. A life without the only woman he’d ever loved. He had to figure out how to be a dad and do a mom’s job. Christmas was bearing down on him like a freight train and he was determined to make it feel as normal as possible. For the kid’s sake. And for his.
He hadn’t slept in their bed since she died. He fell into the habit of laying on the couch watching TV after the kids were all tucked in, and he’d just fall asleep there. Sometimes he’d wake to find himself on the living room floor, curled in a ball, his fingertips cut from the carpet fibers where he was gripping them in agony as he wept late into the night. He missed his wife. He was shattered. His heart broke for his children. How was he going to do this?
He’d hired a woman off Craigslist to come and give him decorating ideas. He’d shown her pictures of their house at previous Christmases and she was wise enough not to change much. She could tell he wanted to recreate Christmas as it had been before this year, and so she obliged. She finished in one day and refused his money. She had tears in her eyes when she told him she wasn’t taking it. “Keep it for you children,” she’d said, “This is my gift to you and to them.”
Chris hugged Izzy tightly as he reached down and scooped her up. They hadn’t really talked about this yet. About Christmas and their mom not being there. Millie was only now beginning to ask questions about where Mommy was. But the other two…there have been nightmares and crying fits and questions…oh the questions. They’d asked every possible question except one: “Why did God take Mommy?” Chris was glad they hadn’t asked that one because he had no answer. He was still asking it himself, sometimes in a whisper, most times through tears, occasionally in wild, rage-driven screams when the kids were at their grandparents and he could vent his spleen toward Heaven. After each mad session, he would fall to his knees and cry out to God, “I know you have a reason…help me to make it through this long enough to see it. And dear God…please help my children.
Chris sat the children down on the couch and sat on the floor on front of them. He didn’t know where to begin, so he just asked them bluntly; “What do you guys feel right now, about Christmas?” The answers were wide ranging. The kids opened up and poured out their soul. They couldn’t understand why Mommy left them. “Oh, honey she didn’t leave us,” Chris reassured. “It was her time to go to Heaven, that’s all. I’m sure if Mommy had a choice in the matter she would have stayed. She loved you guys so much. Never forget that…your Mommy loved you so much.”
They talked for 30 minutes or so, then Chris got them into their pajamas and they huddled around him on the couch and watched “The Grinch.” When the show was over, Michael asked innocently, “Daddy, are you going to tell us the manger story this year?” Chris stumbled with his answer. Other than Christmas morning, the night they set out the Nativity and he told them the “Manger story” was the centerpiece of their Christmas season. Rachel would gather the children around and carefully place each piece in its spot as Chris wove the tale of Jesus, and Mary, and the Shepherds, and no room in the Inn. He’d dreaded doing it this year and had every intention of just putting out the Nativity set during the day while the kids were preoccupied. But now Michael had asked him about it. He knew he couldn’t let them down, and he was determined to keep things much as they had always been before Rachel passed away.
“Yes son…” he answered, “I’ll tell the manger story again this year. We’ll do it on Christmas Eve like we always do.” Michael smiled and stifled a yawn. “Okay,” Chris said, “Off to bed with you now.” He tucked each of his children into their beds, listened to their prayers, kissed each tiny forehead, and returned to the living room. He went to the closet by the basement door and pulled down a worn box.
The Nativity set had been his grandmother’s. It was probably 100 years old, maybe more. It was made from alabaster, like the artisans used to make them back in the day. Rachel had wrapped each piece carefully in bubble wrap. They had discussed once, replacing this set with something newer and less valuable, and keeping it stored away as an heirloom. It was irreplaceable, and with small children around they didn’t want it to break. Then Rachel noticed some faded, yellowed glue along the bottom of one of the wise men. She pointed it out to Chris. “It’s already been repaired once,” he said. “If Nonna didn’t try to keep it perfect then neither will we. It’s meant to be shared.”
He looked carefully at each piece. He could see Rachel’s tiny hands wrapping each figurine. “She was the last person to touch this.” He thought. He clutched the figure to his face, imagining her hands again, trying to feel a connection.
He sat in the quiet of the room. Only the twinkling lights on the tree remained, and pierced the darkness. He thought of his children, “How am I going to do this?” He asked out loud. “How am I going to raise these children without their mom? How am I going to do this right?”
He reached toward the coffee table and picked up a framed picture of his wife. She had just run her first half-marathon, six months after having Millie. Chris was there holding the infant while Izzy and Mikey jumped gleefully in the air. Rachel had a bright smile. “Everything you loved is in this photo,” Chris whispered. The image blurred as the tears filled his eyes. He clutched the frame against his chest. “I miss you, Babe” he croaked.
Chris awoke at 2 a.m. He was lying on the couch with the picture of his wife still in his hands. He sat up and looked at the tree. He saw the little figurine of Jesus, still in its careful wrapping, sitting on the coffee table. “Jesus…help me. Please.” He whispered into the night.

He stood up and walked slowly toward his children’s bedrooms. He entered each room silently. They never felt the soft kiss he placed on each forehead. He hesitated at his own bedroom door, reached for the doorknob, then turned and went to the living room. He pulled a blanket from the closet, settled on the couch, and cried himself to sleep, clutching the picture of his wife. “Dear God,” he prayed, as sleep finally came, “Please help me get Christmas right.”