Thinking Out Loud

December 21, 2017

Merry Little Christmas

Earlier this year, my wife and I participated in a Christian Christmas short story contest writing two stories each. The competition was tough. This story is actually part of a series of stories she wrote featuring the same characters. We’re sharing all four of our stories here; this is the second.

by Ruth Wilkinson

This was Tony’s first Christmas on his own for, well, ever, really. First with his parents, then with Meg, then Meg and Shane. Last year, with Meg moved out, Shane had been with him, then off to his mom for New Year’s.

So this was Tony’s first real single guy Christmas and he wasn’t going to let it suck. He was going to decorate and play the tunes. Eat tourtiere, eggnog, and nanaimo bars. And not feel sorry for himself.

Christmas Eve was going to be OK. He’d found a sign-up sheet on the bulletin board at work for a charity hockey game. One of those 24 hour things to raise money for the hospital. A few guys had already signed on, and Tony thought it sounded fun. He hadn’t played in a few years but he hadn’t been bad in his day.

Over coffee he told Walt all about it. Walt had become a good friend since the winter when Shane had set out to make money shovelling driveways and ended up adopting him and Esther as extra grandparents.

Walt smiled and said, “Sounds like fun!” Then, more seriously, “Now what about Christmas Day? You’re on your own?”

Tony shrugged. “Looks like it. No plans, exactly.”

“Same here. Let’s get together! Christmas dinner!”

“Great! I didn’t know you could cook.”

“I can’t. I was hoping you could.”

Having established that neither of them knew one end of a turkey baster from the other, Walt asked around. He found out about a church downtown having a turkey dinner on Christmas day that was open to everybody, especially the homeless. He was excited. Tony less so.

Oh, well. If nothing else, it would be an adventure. And, Tony thought, I won’t be in any danger of feeling sorry for myself.

He wondered what to wear. Seemed like you should dress up for Christmas dinner, but in the basement of a downtown church where most of the diners would be homeless or slightly better off?

Walt would wear the same thing he always wore. Shiny black shoes, neatly pressed trousers with a matching suit jacket, a snappy fedora and, of course, a tie. Walt had the most amazing tie collection. Dozens of them. Some spectacularly “vintage.” He’d told Tony that he’d kept buying them over his years of wearing priestly black with dog collar. He just kept buying ties, promising Esther that someday, he’d wear them. Every single one. She’d just laugh. His favourite sound. Gone now.

Aside from the occasional hideous cravat, Walt was sharp, neat, respectable. Not a wrinkle, not a speck of lint. Tony had never known such a tidy person. He was kind of looking forward to seeing Walt surrounded by rumpled street dwellers.

❄❄❄

The Saturday before the big day, Tony launched an expedition into the crawlspace under the basement stairs. It was amazing how much stuff was crammed in there and even more amazing how all the stuff you wanted was behind and under all the stuff you weren’t looking for.

He ploughed through the foothills of disco albums and old clothes only to get lost in the forest of yearbooks and hockey equipment (there it was!) He waded knee deep through Shane’s toys, ages 1 through 9 — no mean feat, bent over at the waist — to get to the Christmas decorations in the far back corner. Crouching in the dust and cobwebs, looking back across the great landscape he’d just traversed, imagining the return journey with each of 4 boxes, his enthusiasm faded a bit.

Buck up, Tony, lad, he thought, You’ve come this far…

Soon enough it was all out and it only took a few minutes to make his spine the right shape again.

He decided it would be tree first, outdoor lights second, and finally the creche. Start with the worst, end with the easiest. He hated putting up the tree.

It was the one he and Meg had bought when they got married. Ugly as dirt. Kind of green — sort of an army tank colour. There were some nice ones now that almost looked real. This one had no such pretensions. It was wire and plastic, all bent in strange directions from sitting in the box for 11 ½ months. Dozens of assorted bits that had to be laid out on the floor and sorted by size so your tree didn’t come together upside down or worse.

But it was his and he loved it. Or maybe he just had no intention of shelling out for a new one. Maybe a bit of both. Sentiment is not always a pure thing.

He put on a few really good Christmas albums — Cockburn, Guaraldi, Motown, Cash — and a couple of hours, half a pound of shortbread and one beer later he had an honest to goodness Christmas tree.

By then it was dark – no time to go out and hang lights, so he dug out the creche: a little stable kind of thing, a ceramic donkey, a couple of sheep. Three wisemen, two shepherds, an angel. A little manger and a baby that fit in it. Mary, dressed in light blue. Joseph. A carpenter. Like Tony.

He held Joseph in his hand for a minute. Picked up his drink. Took a sip. Sat down.

He’d never noticed the look on Joseph’s face before. He looked a little stunned.

Tony smiled. Yeah, well, you probably were, mate. Stunned.

Thought you were going to marry a pretty girl, settle down, build things, have a family. Probably had a nice workshop at home, full of tools, a few unfinished projects waiting until you got back. Back from a trip to someplace you didn’t want to go. A trip that wasn’t nearly over yet.

Doing the right thing. What you were told to do. Being faithful. Being brave. Protecting and providing. Looking after a kid that wasn’t even yours. Because it was right.

An ordinary man doing ordinary work. But it was what God had told him to do. God had gone to a lot of trouble to tell this ordinary man to just keep doing the ordinary right thing. Don’t be afraid, be true, look after your family.

God had told him to do that.

Such a small thing, but it mattered. A lot.

Just a little family. That changed the world.

❄❄❄

Christmas Eve.

The game was about half over. They’d started at 8 that morning. They’d finish at 8 tomorrow. The stands were surprisingly full. Tony had his old skates and new sticks and he was having fun. This was a good day.

He was sitting in the box when he heard a voice behind him.

“Hey, dad! Dad!”

He looked over his shoulder. There was Shane, halfway up the stands. He was standing beside Walt and — oh. Meg.

Shane and Walt were wearing big foam hats with ‘TONY’ painted on them and big foam fingers that they waggled at him, and red rubber noses, grinning like idiots, each wearing three of the ugliest ties ever to see daylight, two straight and one bow.

Meg sat and looked bored.

He grinned and waved. Shane and Walt waved back. Meg made a gesture that was half wave, half checking her watch. Tony wondered whether she’d practised that move in front of a mirror and got annoyed. He thought, She didn’t have to come.

And checked himself. No, she really didn’t have to come…

Shane shouted, “Score any goals?”

Tony nodded, took off a glove and held up 3 fingers. He’d got lucky. Then he was back on the ice.

Waiting for the puck to drop, one of the guys asked him, “That your family?”

Tony glanced over at his son, the old man he was just getting to know, and his ex-wife. He took a deep breath and said, “Yeah, that’s my family.”

And he laughed and wondered whether he looked stunned.

He’d take time later to ask God for help — help to do the right, ordinary thing.

He was kind of busy right now.

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December 12, 2014

We Don’t Want You to Serve, We Want You to Join In

Filed under: ministry — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:49 am

This first appeared six years ago here at Thinking Out Loud and has been edited and updated…

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Several decades ago, I was hired by a Christian sports resort, a prestigious residential facility two hours north of Toronto, Canada offering one-week programs to the children of the well-heeled. Not coming from a ‘camping’ background, I suppose that I brought a different skill set in my toolbox, and was told that I was a helpful person to have around.

Later, I learned that this meant I was able to bring strong leadership skills, especially the ‘upfront’ abilities needed to chair a meeting or an event, or facilitate a discussion group. Basically, I could get up in front of a group of people and talk and engage their interest.  In later years, I learned that having ‘profile’ really feeds the ego — and prevents others from having a turn — and that a better place of service might be at the back of the room instead of the front, or perhaps behind the scenes altogether. I am now comfortable serving in either capacity.

However, more recently, I’ve been aware of situations where neither gift of service — profile, or behind-the-scenes — is called for. Case in point: Each year, people in our town organize to present an annual Christmas Dinner on Christmas Day. This event is put on for the sake of people who can’t afford a fancy Christmas dinner, or simply don’t want to be alone on the 25th. At this event, no one is ’serving’ anyone else. True, there is a core team of volunteers; but they sit together with everyone else; there’s no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There’s no ‘doing for,’ it’s about ‘doing with.’The plates are on the table as they would be at a family Christmas dinner, and everyone at the table is equal. It’s about being among.

Clearly, a different mentality is needed if a thing like this is going to be effective. The problem is that so many — okay, I’ll say it: so many of us – have been ‘bred’ for either upfront profile service or even behind the scenes service, that it can be difficult to fit into a new ministry paradigm.

Or is it? I think that anyone, if they take about thirty seconds to think about it, can buy into a different way of thinking. And years later, I did actually buy-in. The ministry my wife pioneered to people living in a dilapidated motel centers around a weekly dinner. For the first 2-3 weeks, I would eat at home first, and then show up to help serving. But my wife didn’t need people to ‘help serving’ and the people there didn’t need ‘help’ to scoop up a slice of roast beef and mashed potatoes. They needed people who wanted to be their friends.

The problem is, being behind the scenes or being up on a platform or stage is really, really safe. Especially if it’s a ministry to the poor. You don’t have to share serving utensils; you don’t have to breathe the air if someone has a bad cough. Sadly, it’s those safe ministry roles that people are still being trained for and still being ‘bred’ for; and those in leadership are still taught to keep a buffer zone, or safe distance, between leaders and parishioners. That ministry paradigm is just not always applicable or helpful.

 

 

Update: As time passed, it was necessary to have some servers roaming around between tables. Eventually, this group grew too large; people wanted or needed to be there, but perhaps didn’t want to admit this, so they rationalized their service as a ministry opportunity and perhaps missed an opportunity to be ministered to. Nonetheless, the event has grown to the point where this year, it is being split into two dinners in two locations.  A lot of people are lonely on Christmas Day… What can you do in your city or town or small corner of the world to make a difference?

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