Here’s a Christmas letter from a friend. Merry Christmas!
I hope this letter finds you doing well. Anna sends here greetings, as do Amy, Angie, and Amanda to your children.
Lately, I have found myself in the malaise of the holiday season. I began with such high expectations, but I’ve followed by too little time to make good on the plans, and so I’m caught in the trap of resenting having so little but expecting so much – again. It’s the same trap every year.
As I sit down to write you, Friend, a line from the carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which I heard on the radio earlier this evening while running errands has lodged itself in my head. You know the line: “…the hopes and fears of all the years….” I think I begin each new holiday season with hope, but rarely apprehend the fears. By the time I apprehend the fears, the dread of impending disappointment drives me deeper into the sadness of yet more missed opportunities.
“Hopes and fears,” when I was kid, captured Christmas. I was hopeful and fearful – at the same time, though I thought what the carol was referring to was Christmas presents. “Would my parents get it right?” I always tried to be clear and specific. One Christmas I hoped for a laced, leather, Wilson JV5 football — the one with the half striped ends? I feared getting the “pleather” knock-off. A football was a football wasn’t it? Not in this case. I didn’t care about budgets, availability, globalization or the commercialization of Christmas. I hoped that I would get that football, and I feared that I wouldn’t.
“Hopes and fears” seem so different now. I look at Amy, my eldest, and I am full of hope and fear. How can I tell her that the place which she somehow imagines that I am – probably some variant of ‘arrived’ is a place for which I am still looking. I look at my teenager, and I know what she doesn’t yet. That she’ll always be Amy. That her hopes and fears – though they may grow and be refined, will always be her hopes and fears — that her goal to ‘become’ what she thinks is ‘adult’ is merely ‘aged adolescence.’ She thinks I’m arrived, but I’m just an old teenager. How do you look your eldest in the eye who is so full of hope for what her life will hold for her by means of satisfaction? How do you encourage her optimism and pursuit of happiness and all the while you know that there are things of which someone should be very afraid. It may be the frailty of life or it may be something insignificant. I’m sure that whatever causes her to seek counseling, will in some way be connected to my hopes and fears. Hoped choked out by industrialism in the workplace or the comodification of product or the commercialization of society – whatever it is, my hope for my daughter is subsumed by my fear of disappointing and disappointment, and so, I give the wrong football, the wrong stereo, the wrong clothes. Because I can’t hear through my hopes and fears, I miss the hope and fear in my daughter’s voice. That’s the way it happens. Gradually, I move towards the t.v. or the computer or work or the yard or the bills. Gradually, she moves towards her room, towards the phone, towards the computer. Contact comes only when we pass one another on our ways to those things which we do to keep the hope alive and fear at bay.
“Hopes and fears” captures what I thought it would be to be married. Christ’s first advent meant presents, but Christ’s second advent meant the end. The thought of Jesus coming on the clouds, though something which we as college Christians were to look forward, left us with a certain air of ambivalence. In particular, what if Jesus comes before I’m married. Hope and fear for me as a college student could be summed in one way: a guilt free sex. Not merely was it guilt free, but it I just new it would somehow be wholesome and unbridled. Little did I realize that ‘hope and fear’ would almost characterize every interaction of our marriage. Anna’s hopes and fears and my hopes and fears seem to collide weekly: I’m not around enough; she’s too tired; I’m drained by work; she’s drained by child rearing. I hope that we fear less these days, but maybe we’re just too tired to be afraid. And our hopes? We’ll I’d to settle for absence of daily disappointment.
Hear I am, mid-life, climbing the career ladder which I’ve dutifully climbed. I got the MBA, I put in the extra hours, I relocated my family for the promotion, and have I arrived? All I can think sometimes, is “Is this it?” Have I peaked?” I love what I do, yet I can’t help but think that anyone could do it. “Hope and fear.” I had hope of making a difference of leaving my mark, but I’m afraid that I, myself, have become a commodity – just one product out of many products. I have hope of creating a work environment that is safe and wholesome for those work for me, and yet I’m afraid that my leadership failings leave me vulnerable to those who would climb over me for my position or are more likely just biding their time to make the jump to something bigger and better. I hope to be good at work, but I’m afraid that I’m merely being put up with – sort of a relational welfare recipient. I imagine my superiors saying, “He’s not our first choice, but what else is he going to do?” I want to be so good at it that if feels like it will kill me to fail. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to work somewhere else doing something I didn’t care so much about.
We’re headed out of town to my parent’s for Christmas. Before we get out of town, it seems like I’ve got a dozen or so things to do. My life seems to be consumed with a dozen or so things to do. Mandy, our youngest, broke the kitchen faucet this afternoon. How does a three year old break a kitchen faucet?
I’ve no real problem with plastic, but these faucet cartridges? It goes against reason. Turning a valve off – i.e. a faucet in a sink — is about tightening. Tightening is about torque. Torque is about pounds of pressure. These new kitchen faucets don’t use valves, they use switches. No torque is needed; you just turn it off. Nevertheless, my kids push and twist the faucet valve (which is really a switch) and break the cartridge. And so with water running in the kitchen sink, I’m out on Hanes Mall Blvd in Christmas traffic trying to find the replacement cartridge while my wife and daughters are at home decorating the Christmas tree so we can have a tree before we go out of town, come back exhausted, and pack it all away. Is this the Christmas we had hoped for? Me, coming home hopeful of finding peace but falling into chaos, flying off the handle at Mandy. Anna, sensing an onslaught of a tempered rage rant attempts to mediate the awful chasm between brute beast and offspring. This was not the Norman Rockwell Christmas picture: Defiantly protective wife, fearful children scattering for cover in other rooms and the Daddy: a compilation of Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch, Darth Vader, and Sauron. Getting out of town will be nice. I hope we can survive it.
I think of that Christmas years ago, and I wonder if getting out of town was the same for Joseph and Mary. Newlyweds, taxes, oppressive government, family business, sketchy pregnancy, out of town trips – did they have any hopes and fears? Anna and I’ll load up our van for our seventy-five mile trip to our in-laws, they most likely walked that distance. In order to encourage my wife’s labor she had to walk a hospital’s corridors. What do you think walking 75 miles would’ve done? Mary on a donkey? That’s Sunday School and picture books, the Bible doesn’t say anything about riding. Mary walked to Bethlehem. She walked uphill. But even if they had a donkey, you know how it always is. The man at the stable looks the donkey over and says, “She’s got a lot of miles on her; I don’t know if she’ll make it.”
Did you ever notice that they went to Joseph’s hometown, and he had to stay at an inn? I wonder what that was all about? Maybe it was just a little too scandalous having that Galilean cousin who got married “quickly and quietly” with his new pregnant wife at the house. You know, the neighbors will talk. Maybe it was just a little too stressful to stay with the family. Regardless, there was no room in the inn, and they ended up staying in the garage with the transportation and food – transportation and food that, well, you know, pooped. Hopes and fears? I bet that was some honeymoon — some peaceful, family vacation. I’m having a meltdown because of a stupid faucet, and the pressure of living up to some serene suburban Thomas Kincade Christmas painting where I’ve spent too much money — again, tried to do too much Christmasing — again, got too caught up in the production – again, and forgotten Christmas.
While out this evening, I was listening to the radio. ‘SJS was playing Bing Crosby’s version of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The serenity and peace of a “deep and dreamless sleep” is something I’d love to have. Was it really that serene in that stable on that night? Our little town is anything but. We’re not a peaceful little town whose tranquility is answered with the advent of the Prince of Peace. Rather, our little town is the picture of “tooth and claw.” I’m driving down the busiest street in Winston trying not to be killed by the hopeful yet fearfully panicked parents and friends trying to find just the right thing or at least something with which to settle. And all their “hopes and fears” are being frustrated by an angry Dad whose advent seeks a plastic cartridge to repair a stupid faucet whose engineering testifies to the mystifying wisdom of a design and marketing committee. I’m not a Prince of Peace; I’m a Prince of Pieces and that’s what I’m going to.
The “hopes and fears of all the years” – the words stick in my head. While running errands this evening, I wondered about “hopes and fears.” Joseph and Mary’s “hopes and fears” as they journeyed to their hometown only to be turned out to the stable. No, celebratory birth with family present, offering help, waiting expectantly for news. Instead, an exhausted, transient, young, hopeful yet fearful couple – one displaced couple out of hundreds probably – and one mother having her baby in a stable because there was no where else to go.
Driving back home as “the silent stars go by,” I thought of my wife and daughters. I look up at those stars, and I think about our “hopes and fears.” Our hope that the deepest longings of our hearts tells us that there is something for which we have been created that we have not yet experienced and the fear that I may never experience it are answered in the birth of this little baby born in a stable.
“Yet, in thy dark streets shinneth, the Everlasting Light…”
Sitting in my car, in my driveway, I was bathed in light. I realized that I actually want that for which I have been (and always am) so afraid: to be real. To just be Gary. I want to own my brokenness, my desperation, my anger, my fear, my drivenness, and my hope. What’s so bizare is that I can be most of these all at the same time. I don’t want hiding in the shadows of dark streets. I want shining. I want Everlasting Light. Talk about hope and fear. There’s something about seeing that takes courage. I hope I can take it. I have help though, because at Christmas, we have God’s answer to our hopes and fears. On that night 2000 years ago, God didn’t come to His ungrateful, chaotic family as angry Parent, but as a baby. By coming to us as a baby, I think, God is saying, “Come to me with your hope, but don’t be afraid.” I wonder if I can live that out with my family, my employees, and my friends? Will I live believing that in Jesus my hopes and fears are answered, secured, and waiting? Will I be so patient, that my wife and daughters can come to me – unafraid with their hopes and fears? I hope. I hope.
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The Everlasting Light:
The hopes and fears of all the years:
Are met in thee tonight.
I am afraid this letter has gone on too long, but I hope that you too experience that Everlasting Light this Christmas. And so, a Merry Christmas to you, and the family.
This piece owns a debt to Garrison Keillor who first drew my attention to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
All content copyright, unless noted otherwise, Randy Edwards, 2001-2006. All rights reserved.