(Note: I wrote this in January 2011)
Back when I was just getting started in ministry, early in my seminary career, Christmas was a high point of the year. There is a strange thrill in doing something, as it were, from the inside out–in knowing the alleys that connect the gleaming storefronts, in working while others sleep or recreate. The church, glowing and burnished, fills twice over with families stopping for their obeisances before dinner and presents and we take the stage. My old pastor at Luther Memorial used to take me out to dinner at the Thai place between the early and the evening services. One night my future wife and I enjoyed a Christmas Eve feast at the Golden Nugget at midnight, right there in the pupil of Chicago’s unblinking eye.
Parenthood finished all of that. By last year, Advent found me bedraggled, and this year was harder still. It was fun and exciting to try to be a good pastor at Christmastime. To try to do that as well as be a good dad and husband and an even minimally functioning son, sibling, and the rest appears to me to be a hopeless cause. Case in point: I was derelict in doing anything Christmas-like with the kids and struck on the brilliant notion of riding the train downtown and taking them around the Christkindlemarkt at Daley Plaza. Brilliant. Two children under three, and they’re just going to love German pastries and sumptuous displays of handblown glass. At least the girl’s howls of boredom and despair cleared a path through the crowds, as I handed over miserable crumbling pieces of stollen to Soren. We were just about to leave, having seen and done nothing that either child enjoyed, when we happened upon the wooden train booth. Both kids demanded a hoist and a look. Not a sustainable arrangement, but as it gently collapsed back into the stroller-and-handholding formation the protests began in earnest. I desperately promised a return trip to Soren. It is now January 11th. I will give you one guess as to whether that trip was ever made.
Eventually Christmas happens and then the king’s progress to Kansas and later Wisconsin begins. Bright and early for our flight from Kansas City back to Chicago, I diverted Soren by conversing about the planes on the tarmac. “Safe travels, airplane!” I would say as another one took off. “Safe travels, airplane!” Soren would echo, eventually administering the benediction all on his own. On the plane, Soren–who is about as nervous a flyer now as his old man–and I prayed, which we long-hand as “saying amen.” Dear God, I started, “thank you for the airplane,” Soren offered, not waiting for any prompting. And may we have safe travels. “And maybe have safe travels” (one sweats the wording of prayers until one internalizes the truth that God is not a court reporter). And please protect everyone who travels today, especially Ava and Uncle Alex and Aunt Lindsay. Amen.
When we returned to O’Hare, the traveling mercies again came in quick succession. “Safe travels, airplane!” Soren was saying every 60-90 seconds as we walked from the airport train to the car. One took off right over our heads as I tried to buckle him in; in a panic he strained to get out–“I have to say safe travels, airplane!” OK, one more. The airplane, of course, is a creature of physics and it operates by the same rules as everything else in the world. It takes the human mind and the human voice to look at the whole thing, the lives sheltered within, the atmosphere through which it flies, and to return these things to the world in the form of a blessing, however feeble and inefficacious.
The next day, Soren fell in the snow on his way to the car to go up to Wisconsin. Crying and cold, he looked up. “The trees make me feel better.” There it is again, the warp of nature and the woof of the human mind crossing to create something new, not entirely of either and vanished in a moment.
How early we may be initiated into the occult priesthood of human nature. Sure, the boy knows a few words of prayer and wants to hear ‘Abide with Me’ every night at bedtime. But he’s miles off from a conscious experience of redeeming grace, or of what we Christians call salvation history. He is, however, already fast at work in the sanctuary of created grace, where whether we know it and accept it or not, every flight of the imagination offers the world up to something beyond it–to render the world to its primal gods in the form of intention, wish, thanksgiving, or prayer.