God Ain’t Santa

Flashback: Christmas 1981

The one thing I really wanted for Christmas that year was a Matchbox Sounds of Service Garage.  I had written it carefully in my letter to Santa and come Christmas morning, there it was under the tree.  It was carefully wrapped but already assembled with batteries in it, ready to go.

Newsflash: God Ain’t Santa

erectprIt took me a long time to figure out that sometimes gifts from God are already whole and complete. But most of the time, it’s like getting an Erector set… one…tiny eighth-of-an-inch screw…at…a…time…and then getting the tools and instruction manual last.  As you know, patience is a virtue, it isn’t one of mine.  So my conversations with God tend to go a little like this:

God: “Here.  Hang on to this.”

Me: “Why?”

God: “It’s important.”

Me: “But what is it?”

God: “You’ll see.”

Me: “Yeah, but when?”

God: “Later.”

Me: “Can’t You just tell me?”

God: “Nope. You’ll know when you need to know.”

Me: “Do You have any idea how absolutely frigging infuriating You can be?!”

He never answers that last one but I can always feel the Divine Smirk.

The thing about that Matchbox garage is that I knew exactly what I wanted.  When it comes to my spiritual life, nine times out of ten, I have no clue what it is I’m asking for.  Yeah, there are those times when I know I want wisdom or clarity or courage but more often than not I see something I can’t quite name, something just beyond my understanding and all I know is I want that, whatever that is.  And that’s okay because unlike Santa, who requires an exact list, God already knows what the vague and nebulous that is.

Every year, Deacon Ron asks me what gift I will ask of God for Christmas.  This is one of those years when what I want is something I can’t quite name.  I saw it last week in a little boy.  He was about eight years old and was sitting a couple of pews in front of me at Mass.  He caught my eye as he was so thoroughly captivated by everything happening on the altar. Meanwhile, his little sister had fallen asleep in their mother’s arms.  When it came time to receive Communion, their mother was trying to position the sleeping girl on the pew and while she wasn’t looking, the little boy darted out of the pew. With his hands jammed into the pockets of his winter coat, he put his arms out like airplane wings and ‘flew’ his way up the aisle. Oblivious of the adults piously processing forward, he ran ahead and cut in front of the entire line. After receiving the Body of Christ, he turned and flashed his mortified mother a smile that I will never forget. For a moment, the world stopped spinning beneath me.  All I could see was his face and all that I wanted was what I could see in his eyes.

For the life of me, I can’t tell you what I saw.  Innocence? Joy? Freedom? Love? Grace?  Some concoction of all of those?  I don’t know. But I want it.  I pointed it out to God in that moment as the world stopped beneath me.

THAT – right there – that – I don’t know what that is, but You do and I want that more than anything.”

And I felt God smile.

I really hope this isn’t going to be one of those Erector set gifts that is going to come one little piece at a time. Much assembly required and batteries not included…yet.  But for some crazy reason, God seems determined to teach me patience.


When Doors Become Walls





As a part of my class in American Music, I was required to attend a concert in the school chapel. I’ve wandered past the chapel a few times but had yet to actually set foot inside. Why? No big spiritual issues there. I have to be on the other side of campus for my classes. And…well… I could never quite figure out where the door was, even from four feet away in broad daylight.  Yeah, I know how weird that sounds but it’s the honest truth. It’s a beautiful building with floor-to-ceiling panels of glass and wood, but no obvious door.

Thursday night, I headed across campus. It was dark, cold and starting to mist as I walked towards the chapel for the concert. I could see others through the windows but still had no idea how to get inside. So as I walked, I slowed down, hoping some other more savvy soul would arrive ahead of me and demonstrate the means of entrance.  I saw a young man in a hoodie and jeans wander near the building and turn away. Cue the unsettling feeling of deja vu. I found myself walking through one of my most disturbing watcher dreams.  As I got close enough, someone finally went up to the wall and disappeared so I figured I had to be close to a door. It wasn’t until I was two feet away that it became obvious that what had appeared to be a solid wall was in fact a door. Modern architecture at its finest.

Triumphant, I found a seat in the vestibule where the concert was to be held. I snagged my usual back corner of the room where I feel somewhat safe and hidden. I settled in and listened as other students arrived. From the conversations going on around me, most of the students had no idea how to get into the building and, like me, had waited outside in the dark and the cold, watching for someone to show them how to get inside. I also heard another very common theme, one I’ve heard all semester in my classes and communal gathering spaces.

“I know I should have been in here by now but…”

“I keep thinking about coming but…”

“I feel so stupid for not coming but…”

“I used to go to church and I want to go back to but…”

And all of those sentences ended with the same words: I don’t know how.

The theme of the concert was anti-bullying with songs and testimony from members of the choir. There wasn’t a dry eye to be seen by the end. A moment before the music started, the young man in the hoodie slipped inside. He kept his baseball cap pulled low and his hood pulled up over it. He slid into the last seat in the back corner opposite mine looking as if, given the opportunity, he would have liked to turn himself invisible. He was out the door at the end before the final notes had died away. I wondered if anyone even noticed him. He came in alone and he left alone.  It was then that I wondered why campus ministry hadn’t gone out of their way to make themselves visible, accessible and inviting.

How many more like him wandered close to the chapel and then drifted away, retreating into the darkness?  How many wander outside in the dark and cold, looking for a way in but see walls instead of doors?  How many are looking through the windows at those on the inside?  And how many on the inside mistake transparency for openness?

I don’t know how.

Other than children under a certain age, we can’t drag people kicking and screaming into church. Church leaders of all denominations see the fall off in attendance and a growing number of people, young and not-so-young, who are giving up on church. All we can do is show them there is a way in and trust that they will be drawn inside.

I don’t know how.

But if we  Christians truly want to be a beacon in this world, we must first acknowledge that people wander into our midst all the time and then wander back out into the darkness without ever being seen. And if they go back out into that darkness still feeling that they don’t know how, chances are, they won’t be back.  What’s more frightening is that that they may eventually give up trying to find a way in.

So long as doors remain walls and transparency remains a poor substitute for true openness, my awful watcher dream of the man in the hoodie banging on the church doors until his hands are broken and bloody continues to be a reality for many hurting people.

I don’t know how.

Showing people a way in is one thing.  Showing them how to be on the inside is another.

It can be done. I’ve seen it in my own dating church experience. I’ve spent some Sunday mornings at a small Evangelical Lutheran church and they go out of their way to eliminate I don’t know how.  As I walked up the sidewalk, the door opened for me.  A program with all of the responses, song numbers, readings along with the order of the entire service was placed in my hand. People intentionally go out of their way to introduce themselves. And throughout the entire service, the pastor announced the songs, the prayers and the pages on which they can be found. At Communion, the pastor and the ushers made a point of telling people that everyone is welcome at the table and instructions on how to receive were in that program they had handed me as I entered. Every service is conducted as if no one in the pews knows what comes next. I’m sure the regulars there know the Apostles Creed is in the back of the hymnal but as a newbie, it’s nice to hear it rather than fumbling awkwardly, trying to keep up. When the service is over, there is one way out and that is through the hands of the pastor herself.  She is easily one of the most gracious women I’ve ever met. While I still bail before coffee, I know if I stayed, I would be welcomed warmly. And I will stay eventually.  It just feels right to be in a place where anyone and everyone is welcome. Not just as a banner slogan, but in practice.

Why I Love Jack

from The Nightmare Before Christmas

from The Nightmare Before Christmas

Once upon a time, in what now feels like someone else’s life, I was invited to teach a course on spiritual journaling to kids in fourth grade through eighth grade.  As something of an ice-breaker, I asked them to write about the movie character they most identified with and then explain why.  What was it about that character that so captivated them?

Every year as Halloween comes and goes and Christmas is looming, my own beloved movie character comes to the fore in my mind: Jack Skellington, The Pumpkin King, ruler of Halloween Town and the protagonist of Tim Burton’s stop-motion masterpiece The Nightmare Before Christmas.  I pull my favorite denim jacket out of the closet, the one with Jack painted on the back with line sketches surrounding him.  It’s been blessed a few times (I’ve worn it on retreats) and I’ve been known to refer to it as my ‘holy jacket’.

And every year, that same question comes up: What is it about this lanky skeleton that so captivates me?

I could watch this movie a thousand times and still get teary over Jack Skellington’s first encounter with Christmas Town.  He’s the Pumpkin King and the whole of Halloween Town is counting on his talent for providing a good scare.  Every year is supposed to be darker and scarier, bigger and badder than the year before but for Jack, it’s starting to feel empty.  That nagging ‘been there, done that’ feeling.  When he accidentally stumbles into Christmas Town, he’s fascinated by everything he sees from the Christmas lights to the presents and right down to the snowflakes themselves.  He’s wide-eyed and excited. He’s suddenly come alive.  But it’s what follows that really hits home for me.

He tries to capture it, take over and recreate it.  He returns to Halloween Town and tries to change his whole world to match up with what he saw in Christmas Town.  No one in Halloween Town understands what has gotten into Jack. He runs experiments and lays out elaborate plans and even kidnaps Santa Claus to try to understand Christmas better.  He has an experience of something so beautiful and so completely beyond himself and in trying to capture it, preserve and recreate it, he royally, utterly and completely screws it up.  He quite literally ends up blown out of the sky.  But he dusts himself off and after rescuing Santa from the Boogieman, he admits his complete failure and lets Santa make everything right again.  Jack returns to Halloween Town, still the Pumpkin King, but as a changed man.

I love Jack for his misunderstood, misguided sense of wonder, his passion and his enthusiasm.  I get it.  I really get it.  I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve tried to hold on to moments of grace and yet the tighter my grip, the faster it runs through my fingers.  I wonder sometimes: How many times do I need to be shot out of the sky, crash and burn before I’ll learn to just let those moments unfold as they are meant to, with no need of my misguided help?