Thursday, December 31, 2020

I Never Got To Be A Wiseman, Until Now (A Christmas Meditation)


 
Christmases growing up always centered on church with the big event being the Christmas pageant. In those days, we just called it the Christmas “program.” We were simple folk and “pageant” sounded a tad too uptown.
 
I always wanted to be a wiseman, but never made the cut. It was disappointing and I'm not sure I've ever completely gotten over it. By the time I was grown enough to fit the part, our little church had moved into the “modern day” by discarding the traditional reenactment of the Nativity.
 
Instead of the brilliant simplicity of the Christmas story read from the Bible and enacted by kids and teens costumed in bathrobes, towels, ingeniously pinned sheets, and a silent toy baby in a manger playing the part of Jesus, we moved to “skits” and “cantatas” that were supposed to make the Bible story more relevant.
 
These were miniaturized dramas and musicals cast in some contemporary setting that modernized the story of Jesus' birth. It wasn't so much about Him any longer as about the season and good feelings. Or so it seemed.
 
My attitude toward this was not progressive. I preferred the traditional retelling of the events. Still do.
 
|| Getting To The Big Day \\
 
On Christmas Sunday, which was whatever Sunday fell just prior to December 25th, that's when it all happened. 
 
In the morning service, it was always the little kids reciting lines from slips of paper the size of fortune cookie fortunes. All ages from the little to the small to the tiny participated. But no big kids, adults, or teens; they were on in the evening service.
 
Always there were a couple of little ones who couldn't remember the four or seven words they were tasked to memorize, and so had to be coached by their teacher or parents mouthing the words s-l-o-w-l-y one at a time.
 
And, of course, there were the precocious kids that recited perfectly every word with the diction of an experienced Thespian. Show offs.
 
But it was all adorable. And touching.
 
Parents ran to the front and jockeyed for position to capture on camera the precious moment featuring their child sharing some tidbit about the coming of the Child. 
 
In between shuttling the various age groups off and on stage we sang Christmas carols. “Silent Night.” “O Come All Ye Faithful.” “Joy To The World.” All the traditional greats.
 
We knew the tunes. We knew the words. And we sang our hearts out.
 
We started singing Christmas songs the first Sunday after Thanksgiving. The typical rest-of-the-year hymns, songs, and choruses were all sidelined. The month of December was all about singing the Christmas carols – the songs of the season sung only this one time of the year – and nothing else. Period. Just as God intended.
 
|| Back To The “Pageant” Prep \\
 
We began preparations for the Christmas program a few weeks before Thanksgiving. The casting calls went out, adult assistants were recruited, and the rehearsals began. 
 
But really, we all knew the different parts by heart. The only questions were who would be cast as whom based on age and growth spurts. Whoever had the better looking bathrobes also factored in.
I dutifully moved up through the ranks.
 
I did the morning service several times as a small child, saying my part, and, later, participating in the song flute choir. Everyone knew that every fourth grader was given a song flute at school so there was no dodging this rite of passage. 
 
|| And Now The Big Show! \\
 
After my years of morning service appearances, it was onto the big stage of the evening service, our stage being nothing more than the raised front of the sanctuary -- the platform. A wire was strung across it and hung with sheets that acted as curtains. We kept it simple.
 
Over my years of Sunday performances I was an angel or a shepherd. For boys, the progression went more or less like this: angel, shepherd, wiseman, and then if you were really lucky, Joseph, or maybe the innkeeper. Every once in awhile a Roman soldier or miscellaneous bystander was tossed into the mix.
 
Do you see the problem here?
 
The same number of kids were in the pipeline. While there was always a need for a “host” of angels and any number of shepherds, all of which could be drawn from nearly any age, for the bigger boys there were only three wisemen, one Joseph, and one innkeeper.
 
The competition for these roles heated up as we grew. It was all a matter of numbers. Although I’m guessing some backroom politicking went on among the mothers.
 
For girls, it was worse since they had to jump directly from angels to Mary and that was pretty much it. On occasion there would be a need for a female bystander or the innkeeper would get a wife. Sometimes girls even got to play shepherds. But this was all hit and miss.
 
|| Don’t Forget The Candy! \\
 
The program wasn’t the only thing we looked forward to on Christmas Sunday. Besides dreaming of the sweet part in the program we also longed for the special bag of candy.
 
Every year on Christmas Sunday every person in attendance got a small white paper bag of candy. There was also an orange or an apple included, but the candy was the real prize. We all prayed that the bag we got would have one or two extra of those little caramel candies with the white sugary filling. Those were gold.
 
The handing out of the candy happened after the morning service and was executed decently and in order. No one took more than one bag unless a family member was home sick. After all, it was the season of colds and flus.
 
But the men who handed out the bags were aware of who was there and who wasn't and we didn't even have to ask for the extra bag; they knew.
 
As times changed and inflation grew as steadily as we did, the bags held less and less and the selection of candies became more limited.
 
Finally, before they were abandoned altogether, the fruit was eliminated and all that remained were a few pieces of the cheaper hard candies. The anti-sugar movement was the final stake. Bah! Humbug!
 
|| Being A Real-Life Wise Guy \\
 
I miss the bags of candy and the Christmas programs. And I’ll most likely never get the chance to take on the role of one of the three wisemen in one.
 
But, for all of us, there are opportunities to be wise men and wise women every day. The Bible offers a lot of guidance on how to do it. Being wise in life is a lot tougher than donning a bathrobe and a cardboard crown and standing silently next to a makeshift manger as the narrator recites, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night....”
Real-life wisdom requires doing the Word.
 
There have been days when wisdom has ruled. Others where I played the fool all too well. Fortunately, God’s grace can redeem even the dumbest episodes.
 
His grace was made flesh in a manger a couple thousand years ago. About two years later, the original wisemen, the Magi, found him, were overjoyed, and worshipped the baby king.
 
Those wisemen had to travel from afar to find the Child, the King of kings. Today, we only have to travel to our knees and this King will take up residence in our hearts and be near to us day in and day out.
 
How to be a wiseman or wise woman today? “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6, ESV).
 
So, I guess, in a sense, I did make it after all!
 
But I still miss those bags of candy.
 
 
====================
© Stephen R. Clark

Perennials (Poem)

 

 

A Father's Tale (Fiction)


On the night our son was born, it was odd. We thought we heard singing wafting in from the fields where the shepherds bedded. And there seemed to be lightning in the distance, unusual for the time of year.
 
From time to time, clumps of people, buzzing in excited murmurs, passed our home on the dark streets. We were curious but preoccupied with him, our son, our only child, born healthy and whole, who had come to us unexpected and late in our lives.
 
I held him, barely able to fend off the weakness of awe, cooing to him, telling him one day he and I would work together, that I would teach him all about my trade. That night I vowed I would protect him with my life. 
 
Then, mere months later, coming home after making a delivery from my shop, I found my wife sobbing, hysterical, sitting on the floor just inside the front door, holding his lifeless sword-hacked body. His throat was cut. Blood was everywhere. He was only two years old.
 
I tore my hair, threw dust in the air, and vowed revenge upon whoever was behind this. Then, realizing sounds of grieving were coming from other homes, I went out and discovered the devastating truth. We were not alone in our loss. Death drenched the village. When I learned it was Herod’s men carrying out his orders, hope drained from my body. I went back inside, held my lifeless son in my hands, and tried to comfort my wife.
 
We swaddled our son’s body and placed him in a straw-filled manger for the night and then cleaned his blood from the floor, from our hands, burned our blood-stained clothes. The next days were filled with burials and tears. For years sorrow gnawed our hearts. Everything changed.
 
Now, here I am, growing old, alone, more than thirty years later. My wife gave birth to sorrow that day and nurtured it until it killed her. She’s been gone some years now. We never had another child. She feared having to relive loss, cringing every time she heard a child’s cry.
 
I went to Jerusalem for Passover one year. There I heard rumors that taunted me. That a man some cite a savior had been passing through, doing amazing magical things. He was apparently born the same night as my son, and in Bethlehem, too. I was curious.
 
As I gathered bits and pieces about him, the oddness of that night seemed somehow connected with him. Questions nagged me. Mostly, how is it that he was alive and my son is dead? Making inquiries, what I learned disquieted me.
 
I’d been walking the streets of Jerusalem, following the news and the gossip. I heard he’d been arrested, but the charges weren’t clear. Sharing my story of loss with a local Rabbi, I was told this man is the reason for Herod’s murderous rampage so many years ago. He was suspected of being a would-be king and challenger based on stories some wandering, stargazing magi were spreading. He was the one who was supposed to die the day my son was murdered.
 
More than that, they said he was the son of a carpenter. I am a carpenter. He was as my son should be now. Alive, by my side, carrying on the trade. How is it this man lived and not my innocent son?
 
Later there was tumult in the street that leads to the hill of crucifixion, the mount of the death skull. I wasn’t sure what was going on so went to see for myself. Behold, there he was! Beaten. Bloody. Being prodded along like a sheep to slaughter, dragging a beam, the wood upon which he would be crucified.
So, he was a criminal. Herod wanted him dead decades ago and now his crimes have caught up with him, reaping what he has sown. I followed and watched with satisfaction as he winced in pain when he was raised to his death. Finally, justice for my son.
 
But then a sign was posted above his head saying he was King of the Jews. I was confused, conflicted. What is this? I asked questions of others and slowly was able to piece together a clearer picture of what was happening.
 
They said this man was a living prophecy. He was born of a virgin. He healed those who were sick, brought sight to the blind, called the dead from their tombs. From only a few fish and a loaf of bread fed thousands. Even walked on water! He has been called the Son of David, the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, son of God. Emmanuel!
 
He was not a criminal after all. He was a madman! And, so it turned out, even his followers, his so-called disciples, abandoned him. What a joke. My son and the sons of my friends died so this yokel could live? Could spread lies? Could deceive with tricks and magic and fancy words?
 
Dead! I wanted him dead! Death to the sorcerer!
 
I think of my son. See his face, fading in my memory, and know that he would not approve of my fury, my anger, my wish of death on another. What is there to gain? His mother, in the end, ravaged by grief, despair, anger, became bitterness personified. I loved her but was a little relieved when she died, finally free of the life-voiding sorrow.
 
Suddenly the sky darkened. The man cried out that it was finished. The earth quaked! A centurion standing by exclaimed that this must truly be the Son of God. Sometime later word came that the temple curtain ripped on its own. This was not normal, not any sorcery known. Everyone was gripped with fear and awe. Could it be?
 
I watched at a distance until they took him down and carried him to a tomb. Finally, he was as dead as my son. Certainly he was just a man, not anyone’s savior, right?
 
Three days later, in the morning, clumps of people buzzing in excited murmurs passed the inn where I was staying. Something was happening, had happened. I went out to the street and immediately was accosted by an excited man who shouted in my face -- “He’s alive! He’s alive!” -- and then ran off. From others passing I gathered this was about the man I had watched die on the cross. His madness apparently didn’t die with him!
 
Throughout the day and beyond, the stories came, the evidence mounted, witnesses stepped forward. Somehow a dead man came back from the grave, a tomb now empty. Others long buried also were seen around the city. If they could come back, I thought, why not my son? My wife?
 
Through more inquiries, I eventually made contact with the crucified man’s disciples. They had been in hiding, but as the resurrection news spread, they became more visible. I latched onto the group and followed them as much as I could. In the next several days, I saw and heard things that were inconceivable. I listened to all they taught and questioned them at length, trying to understand what had happened. What was happening.
 
After months of following, listening, wondering, questioning, pondering, the truth reached my heart. Not a criminal. Not a madman. Not a sorcerer. He had arisen from the dead. The evidence was undeniable, even though reality shaking. He brought a message of redemption from sins, a promise of new life, the renewal of joy, a reason for hope. The man was not just a man, but truly the Son of God.
It was a hard message to hear but it was what I needed. Finally, months later, I assented to being baptized. The brokenness inside me is shifting toward something new. Yet, I miss my son. I still don’t understand why he had to die so that this man-God could live.
 
But, in my heart, I know, I hope, one day I’ll see my son again. Maybe even my wife. Until then, I’ll share the good news I’ve received, continue being a carpenter making tables and chairs, and look forward to the return of the King.
Yet, there are days when doubts crowd faith, a faith that fights hard to keep the Truth and the promises in sight. On those days I miss my son and my wife very much. So very much.
 
And every year on his birthday, at night, I look toward the shepherd’s hill and listen, wondering if the singing will return.
 
 
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See Matthew 2:16.
Copyright © by Stephen R. Clark. All rights reserved.

Premonition (Poem)

  

 

Originally published here: https://www.facebook.com/StephenRClarkWriter/posts/2719621864962286

 


A Twisted Kind Of Normal

On December 24, 2010, I was stopped by a police officer who pulled his gun on me. Unnerved barely begins to describe my reaction in that moment.

As I interacted with the officer, my emotions ranged from confused to terrified to annoyed to angry to frustrated to shocked to, ultimately, helplessness and powerlessness.

It became increasingly clear he was agitated and, if pressed, I felt that the situation could go south fast. So I shut up and patiently waited for him to write out my ticket and allow me to go on my way.

So why am I sharing this?

First, I’m 68 years old and this is the only time anything like this has ever happened to me. The same is not true for a large majority of people of color. Being stopped for no reason, having a gun pointed at them, being searched is not uncommon. Which is just bizarre.

Second, every time I encounter in the news yet another story of a person of color killed or seriously injured by a police officer, I flash back to 2010 and the image of that gun in my side view mirror. All the emotions from then course through me once more. Including the anger.

When recent unrest blew up after the horrific death of George Floyd, I had little trouble understanding the outrage being expressed. It was not surprising. Especially given that this was the fourth such incident within a month and played out on TV so graphically.

What happened to me allows me a very tiny window into the pain felt by people of color who have been wrongly accosted by police. It amazes me that more riots haven’t broken out and more frequently with even more intensity.

My (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime encounter with having a gun pointed at me caused stress at the time. I came home shaken, unsettled, generally freaked out. What I experienced was trauma. And each time I recall the event, those emotions come back and I relive them.

For people of color, these kinds of encounters are a twisted kind of normal. Parents have to train their children how to prepare to respond. And then worry if their kids will make it home alive. Again, this is just bizarre.

Living for decades with the fear of being targeted and, potentially, killed has to wear on a person. And it does. A lot. I have nothing but deep admiration for those who have endured so much and still maintain their sanity.

For people of color, this “normal” fuels high levels of hypertension, depression, PTSD, and other stress related physical health and mental health issues. This is not a kind of “normal” anyone who is created in the image of God should have to be subjected to as a matter of course.

When it comes to George Floyd, if you’ve seen the video or photos, we are all witnesses to his murder. What strikes me most about those images is the flippant smugness of the officer and the utter helplessness of Floyd.

George Floyd was a big, fit man. He was 46 years old. For a man of his stature and maturity to call out for his mama is a clear indication of the extreme duress he was under. I can only imagine the pain his family has felt watching his death play out, ultimately, in front of the entire world. Over and over.

Where do we go from here?

I think we who are white need to be a little more quiet and listen a lot. When we listen, much of what we’re going to hear will be very, very hard to receive. Still, we must try our best to feel and understand the pain that has been inflicted on our brothers and sisters of color.

People who, like us, are created in the image of God and are infinitely valuable in his eyes. Yet, unlike us, are treated as less than valuable just because the color of their skin is different. Or their culture is different. Or their language is different. Or their heritage is different.

We need to lay our own hearts open, become vulnerable, humble, and admit the flaws in us that are racially-driven. We are all culpable and any white Christian who doesn’t get this is not allowing the Holy Spirit to work in their life.

As for me, my one experience has changed how I see these events playing out on in the media. When I see the images of George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery, or hear the horrendous details of Breonna Taylor, or the last words of Elijah McClain declaring he was an introvert and then apologizing, or seeing the name Stephon Clark who was shot in the back in his grandmother’s backyard -- and the names go on and on! -- I just want to scream, “What the hell is going on! This is so wrong!”

My heart breaks. And that nauseating sense of powerlessness sweeps through me as I relive my own, solitary experience.

But, the truth is, I am not powerless. And neither are you.

It’s time we use our power -- our love, our wisdom, our intelligence, our creativity, our politics, our faith, our voices, the grace and giftings that God has given us -- to drive positive change, to support our brothers and sisters of color, and to actually be the Christians we claim to be.

Scripture makes clear that our enemy, Satan, roams about seeking to devour whomever he can. That his goal is to steal, kill, and destroy. To divide. Scripture also makes clear that we, as believers, have an obligation to resist Satan, to foil his plans, to disarm his intentions, to protect those he is targeting, to defend the helpless, fight against injustice, love others like Jesus loves us.

My single experience pales against the endless experiences faced by people of color. But it allows me a small glimpse into the frustration and challenges they endure day in and day out, year after year. How utterly exhausting!

People of color are being subjected to systemic, systematic, debilitating, death-dealing injustice. They have been for decades and decades. If we are not rising up to stand with them, to protect them, to defend them, to believe them, to hear them, then we are not serving our Father in heaven. Instead we are a viper’s brood serving our father the devil.

It’s that simple.

May God have mercy on us.



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© by Stephen R. Clark. All rights reserved. Please feel free to share with others.

Originally published here: https://www.facebook.com/notes/stephen-r-clark-writer/a-twisted-kind-of-normal/2618071215117352/