The Gift of a “Good Enough” Christmas

Each year, something inside of me demands that this Christmas must be perfect. Not just great, you understand, not just meaningful, but absolutely soul-stirringly perfect. There must be snow. There should be lights. Gifts are given and received, with both giver and receiver blessed beyond measure by the thoughtful aptness of each perfect gift.

Friends and family gather. Differences are set aside. Children—even infants—smile benignly from tiny chairs where they wait with folded hands and upraised eyes. Awkward relatives become silver-tongued and sensitive. Departed loved ones exert their misty influence through various emblematic ornaments, cherished recipes, and well-told stories balanced with both humor and pathos. And through it all runs the golden thread of Jesus: his star topping the tree, his name on our lips, his Spirit strangely warming our hearts.

This never happens.

Last year our tree fell over.

I remember it falling in slow motion, the ornaments spilling onto the floor and crunching beneath the branches. I watched it fall and I could do nothing to stop it because Oliver was on the changing table and my hands were halfway into his loaded diaper.

As the tree fell, I watched a spreading stain on the carpet and remembered that I’d just filled its reservoir with two gallons of fresh water. I’d bought the cheap plastic tree holder the big box store recommended. Afterwards, I looked at the reviews on Amazon. There were a lot of one-star citations. One woman wrote, “Buy this cheap stand and save money so you can purchase a whole new set of irreplaceable heirloom ornaments when your tree falls over.” I liked that lady. I thought we would get along well.

Oliver thought it was hilarious. He danced around while I placed dripping fabric and shards of glass in a paper bag. I found the fractured spine of a ceramic angel still fluttering its wing. Ollie asked me this November if our tree would fall again.

The idea of Christmas perfection runs deep. When I was a boy, sometimes I’d fake an illness just so I could stay home from school in December and lay on the couch admiring our Christmas tree. I drew pictures of spruce needles and colored lights and imagined myself living inside a snow-globe-like world of perfect powder and Victorian carolers. Christmas perfection became, in a sense, a type of idol for me. An experience I could use to replace the presence of Jesus with a well-choreographed ballet of sensory pleasures. I didn’t mean to do it. It just sort of happened.

Two years ago, I tried to take Ollie’s Christmas portrait at home. I dressed him as an elf and put him in a chair with a wreath and lights. I got one good shot, but most looked something like this:

good_enough_christmas

I felt disappointed.

It’s as if I depend on the perfect alignment of circumstances and people and props to validate the significance of this day. It is a day unlike any other, the day of my Savior’s birth. Shouldn’t it reflect that glory? Shouldn’t it likewise be perfect?

I guess I feel like a failure if my Christmas efforts are just “good enough.”

Nevertheless, year after year, decade after decade, entropy, gravity, and original sin enter the picture to take my perfect Christmas down.

I shouldn’t act surprised. The first Christmas wasn’t so perfect, either.

Think about it.

An imperial decree goes out to the Roman provinces guaranteed to cause discomfort and expense. Everyone travel to your hometown to be registered in a census. Tax documents to follow. Have your assets and deductions ready. Poor and nine months pregnant? Sorry lady, move along.

I can see Joseph looking at the setting sun, gauging the pace of his donkey and the state of his wife. Everyone else hurries past, making for Bethlehem before dark. Joseph’s a man like any other man. Surely he fights a feeling of frustration and failure. He knows the inns are first-come-first-served. He doesn’t own a rewards card. He couldn’t call ahead. Mary’s contractions are building and hurrying the donkey’s pace will only hasten the baby’s arrival. I wonder if Joseph felt a sense of betrayal. How could God let this happen?

It’s after dark and the inn, as Joseph knew it would be, is full. He’s not too proud to beg. Mary’s condition demands it. The innkeeper shakes his head. It’s late. Too late. Head out back to the shed. Yeah, I see your wife. Yeah, I know she’s pregnant. That’s why I’m letting you stay here. Count your blessings, buddy. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough.

Stop there.

This Christmas, too, will be good enough.

After all the effort, all the hope, all the shopping and wrapping and shipping, all the Christmas-tree cutting and Nativity scene setting, all the emails and texts and plane tickets and coordinating, the candlelight services and Charlie Brown specials and mangled Pinterest projects, it will be good enough. Good enough to draw your heart toward that first Christmas. Good enough to make a place in your heart–however imperfect–for Jesus.

We don’t have a lot of money. Trees fall. Kids throw up or fall over or poop on things besides diapers. Sometimes adults do, too. But in the midst of those things, the thread of Jesus does run through our Christmas. His star does top our tree. His Spirit does strangely warm our hearts. And the first Christmas reminds us that when circumstances and people fail, God is still working out his beautiful things all the time.

Sometimes “good enough” truly is perfect.

Lest We Forget: A Survivor Remembers Pearl Harbor

9/11 has eclipsed for many the importance of December 7, 1941, when the Japanese Navy launched its surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. In our day, the memory of Pearl Harbor is at risk of becoming a “small thing.” I think this is a mistake.

A nation which forgets its trauma is doomed to respond to new catastrophes as if it had never healed. As if it had not grown. Such nations become amnesic and reactive.

History turns on pivot points like these: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914; Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941; and the attacks on September 11, 2001.

And for those who played a personal part in traumatic history, the horror never quite goes away. Here, then, is the story of one Pearl Harbor survivor.

Lest we forget.

***

“What day it is?” Mr. Wallace asked, leaning heavily against his desk. He taught 7th-grade English at Greely Jr. High School in Cumberland, Maine, in the early 1990s. He also had a wooden leg. We joked privately that he’d lost it in the war.

“It’s Tuesday!” said a dark-haired boy from the back row. A titter of laughter spasmed through the class.

The boy’s name was Andrew. Later that winter he would piss on the bathroom radiator and then swallow a bottle of pills. We saw paramedics in purple plastic gloves wheel him out to an ambulance and rush him away. It left a horrible odor that lingered for months. The piss, I mean. Andrew was back in school the next week.

Mr. Wallace gave Andrew a long look. He must have thought we were savages.

“Today is December 7th,” he said. “Pearl Harbor Day. The day that brought a reluctant and ill-prepared nation into World War II. And in memory of the 2,400 men who died there, I’ve invited a guest speaker as I do every year. A sailor who was there and can tell you what he saw.”

“Oh God,” Andrew muttered. Seats creaked as kids leaned back in their chairs.

Into the room walked an old man with a friendly face, pink cheeks, and sunspots on his forearms. He wore tan corduroys, a Hawaiian shirt, and a blue Navy service cap of the type I’d seen my grandfather wear, with a golden profile of a destroyer.

“This is Bert Davis,” Mr. Wallace said. “He was an engineer on the USS Selfridge, a destroyer at Pearl Harbor. Bert spent 20 years in the Navy before he retired to become an oceanographic researcher. He worked with Jacques Cousteau. You should listen to what he says about this day.” He hobbled over to the radiator by the window and sat on it. Then he turned to Bert. “Floor’s yours.”

Bert looked around at us and smiled hugely. “You kids make me feel old. I guess five marriages will do that to you!”

“Rock on!” Andrew said from the back of the room. “Get some!”

Guys in the class laughed. Bert winked at Andrew and in his face I saw the faint outline of a younger man, full of piss and vinegar and raging testosterone. I hadn’t ever thought that World War II vets were interested in girls. I always thought of them as old and musty, like history books in the back of the library. Some with broken spines and torn pages, all rarely checked out.

Bert’s voice, when he spoke, was hoarse and passionate and it carried a weight that all of us youngsters lacked. He said that his destroyer had escorted another ship back to Pearl Harbor just in time for the attack. He was berthed belowdecks when the first explosions rocked his vessel. The guns on the Selfridge opened up and Bert raced topside in time to see the USS Arizona explode and start listing. From a distance he saw men floundering in the harbor, saw them struggle, saw them sink. He volunteered to look for survivors. “The rest of the day,” Bert said, “I just spent fishing bodies from the harbor with a boathook.”

The class grew quieter than I’d ever heard it.

“We was circling around in our launch,” Bert said, “just looking for bobbing heads or vests. Life vests, you know. There was slicks of oil that was burning and we was dodging them fires the best we could and listening for cries for help.”

Mr. Wallace shifted his weight against the radiator and his peg leg chunked on the floor.

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“We’re tooling along,” Bert said, “and I sees this sailor in the water just covered with grease so’s he’s blended in with the water. So I yells at my mate, I yells and I says, ‘Hey, we got one to starboard,’ so he motors over and we come up real gentle to this sailor and when I reach down to haul him in I sees he is all burned to hell just like a marshmallow left in the fire, just all crisp and gristle, and so I try to grab his arms real careful but I have to pull hard enough to get him over the gunnel and so I pulls”—his voice caught jagged and jumped an octave and he paused and pulled a red handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his eyes and blew his nose.

In the classroom there were twenty-five students and you could hear the hot air blowing from the radiator and that was it.

The old man dabbed at his eyes and then shoved the rag in his pocket and shook his head as if shaking off a memory and then he cleared his throat and said, “So I pulls and I pulls and damned if his skin don’t pull off his bones like sleeves from a jacket.”

His face twisted with pain and I could see the scene as if it had happened right there in the room and the linoleum was burning oil in the harbor and the radiator was the sound of engines and the hiss of steam from boilers going under.

“The poor kid,” Bert said, “the poor kid just screams and screams and I got no choice, I just keep haulin’ him in until he comes in over the gunnel and we lay him down on the deck with his skin piled up around his wrists like greasy dish cloths and him screamin’ fit to wake Jerusalem.” He paused and cleared his throat and somewhere a bell rang but nobody moved. Not even Andrew.

Outside the classroom I could hear kids shouting and laughing and lockers opening and then slamming shut.

Bert shook his head and clutched at his handkerchief and then snorted. “That was a long trip,” he said. “What an awful long trip that was. And then we went out again. And then again. Mostly we just found bodies. Some of the others was burned so bad they died before we made it to shore.” His wrinkled hands were working hard at the pleats of his corduroys. He looked up at our class of thirteen-year-olds and scanned us with watering eyes and finally he looked at the floor and sighed.

“I still have nightmares about that one boy.”

***

Congress declared war on the Empire of Japan shortly after noon on December 8, 1941. Nazi Germany declared war on the United States on December 11. The war cost the United States over one million casualties.

Bert Davis died at the Maine Veterans Home in South Paris on August 30, 2013.

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Bert Davis, Photo by John Ewing of the Portland Press Herald

When Bad Priorities Happen to Good People

In Texas, I once worked for a religious non-profit founded by an heir to one of the state’s largest oil fortunes. She was a good woman who was—and is—doing a tremendous work to help vulnerable people. I admire her greatly.

On September 11, I drove to work as usual. En route, I noticed every flag at every business and government building flying at half staff. My own workplace building loomed large over a busy intersection in a city north of Dallas. I stopped at a red light and noticed that the flag out front was still at full-staff. It puzzled me. Had someone forgotten what day it was?

At my desk, I emailed the chief operations officer about the flag. It was 9/11, I said. My brother had fought in Iraq. He’d lost men there. Could we lower the flag to half-staff? My hands trembled as I typed “send.” The un-lowered flag felt surprisingly personal to me.

The COO sent a quick reply. The flag pole was broken, he said. Had been broken for some time. They couldn’t lower the flag. They were trying to get someone to come out to fix it. He thanked me for raising the issue up the flagpole. Smiley face.

I liked this man and would willingly work for him again and count it a privilege. I once saw him on his hands and knees at the entrance to my office area, in dress shoes and pressed khakis, grouting tile. He’d rather do it himself, he said, than pay a contractor ten times what it cost him to fix it. I admire that spirit. He’s a good, fair, and humble man. And very competent.

That’s why it surprised me so much when three months later I drove to work on Pearl Harbor Day and noticed that the flag was still at full-staff. I sent an email to the COO. It was December 7th, I said. 2,400 Americans were killed on this day in 1941. The event that drove a reluctant and ill-prepared nation into World War II. Could we lower the flag to half-staff? The full-staff flag at the busy intersection made everyone passing by think that we didn’t care about veterans or our nation’s tragedies. Surely we didn’t want that.

He was apologetic. The flag pole was still broken. So very sorry. They were trying to get someone out to fix it.

I felt disappointed. I looked up at the chandeliers in the lobby. They were made out of deer or elk horns and were each the size of a mini-bus. They ran, I imagined, a cool $5,000-$10,000 apiece. I loved them. It hurt to think that our organization had the resources to purchase such lovely ornaments, but didn’t have the resources to get our flag lowered to half-staff.

Now, of course, I realize that the problem wasn’t a lack of resources. It was a lack of priority. I believe that the COO and the founder of that nonprofit genuinely cared about veterans. They just didn’t see the flagpole the same way I did. It didn’t hurt them personally. When stuff hits us in the gut, we tend to make it a priority.

I’ve been thinking about that in recent days. There are things happening right now which I want someone to do something about. I want politicians to take a stand for what’s right, even if it hurts. I want them to proactively deal with matters rather than waiting for their electoral base to agitate enough that they are forced to finally do something decisive. I hear a lot of words about need for change. I just don’t see any action. It’s not a lack of resources. We have lots of pretty chandeliers. It’s just good people with bad priorities.

Less I feel too self-righteous, I can think of dozens of ways in my own life that I fail to properly prioritize. A lot of the things on my Honey-Do List are well within my ability to execute. They just don’t hit me in the gut. So they stay on the list with my best intentions to someday get around to them. Sometimes it’s only my wife’s assertive reminders that leverage me enough to get up off the couch and do the difficult or unpleasant task.

I wish I were more like “Charlie.” When I worked at a medical school in Maine, there was a tall flagpole out front. I barely noticed it.

Charlie did. He was a current student and a former Navy SEAL. One day he stalked into my office in Graduate Student Affairs, broad shoulders tensed, face as red as his hair.

“You seen that flag out front?” he said, his words coming hard and fast.

I hadn’t.

“It’s shredded. It looks like it’s been dragged fifteen clicks behind a humvee. It’s an absolute disgrace.” He was big and fit and had graduated from the same high school as me. I wanted him to like me.

I nodded apologetically and adjusted my purple-striped tie. “Gee, that’s a shame,” I said. “I think you need to talk to someone in Facilities…”

Charlie interrupted. “Your brother’s a Marine, right?”

I nodded.

“Well, that’s his flag, too. And it’s a disgrace. So what are you going to do about it?”

I felt my face burn. Charlie was right. “I’ll take care of it,” I said, picking up the phone. I rather expected him to leave.

Instead, Charlie folded his arms and stayed by my desk until he heard me talk directly to the Facilties manager. When I finally hung up, he smiled. “Good job,” he said. “Thanks for doing that.” Then he stalked out.

It’s not always a lack of resources that keep us from doing what’s right. It’s not always poor character. Sometimes bad priorities happen to good people. People like our politicians. People like you and me.

Maybe it’s time more of us started acting like Charlie.

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via John Westrock, Creative Commons