A Christmas Story

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” Revelation 21:4 NIV

It was Christmas eve, and the soldier stood in the mess line, shivering a little. It was late, so the line was thankfully short, for the air was bitter cold.  His turn came, he got his hot chow and coffee, then looked for a place to sit.

He had just arrived in this small town in France  with his unit the day before, December 23, 1944.  One day he was relatively warm and safe in Britain, and the next he was preparing to face combat for the first time.  They were moving to the front in the morning, on Christmas Day, to take up positions in the Ardennes Forest and help counter the German offensive that would become known as the the Battle of the Bulge.

Because of the lateness of the hour, there were only a few men in the mess area, but the soldier wanted to be alone, so he walked off a little looking for a place to eat his food, drink his coffee, and think.  The soldier had gotten several opportunities to avoid combat, and even the military.  When he was first called up and went for his physical, a spot showed on his lungs. The doctor wasn’t sure what it was, but suspected tuberculosis, and was going to fail the recruit because of it.

After some persuasion, the soldier-to-be convinced them not to fail him, but to let him come back in several weeks to retake the physical.  During the intervening weeks, he changed his lifestyle, exercised and ate better, and sure enough, when he returned, the spot had disappeared, and he passed.

Later, after basic training, while still stateside, a Sargent came around asking if anyone had any clerk typist skills.  The soldier did and said so, and the Sargent took him to an office to fill in for a day for someone who was out.  At the end of his shift, the Sargent told him to report back the next day, but the soldier replied that his unit was going overseas, and that he could not come back.  The Sargent told him not to worry about that, he wasn’t going anywhere, the Sargent would see to that, just report back the next day.  No, the soldier insisted, he would ship out with his unit, and he did.

He thought about these things, and his new wife he left behind, his mother, and home.  After walking a short distance, an unexpected sound got his attention.  He stopped, and listened, and heard it again.  It sounded like a baby softly crying.  It seemed to be coming from a darkened alcove nearby.  He walked toward the sound.

As he approached the alcove, some light from the street penetrated the darkness, and he could make out a woman and infant, huddled together and wrapped against the cold.  He drew nearer, and as he did, it became apparent to him that the woman was trying to nurse the child, but something else also caught his attention.  There was a glow around the mother and child, a halo around each of them.

Now, the soldier was not a religious man, and in some respects, quite the contrary.  It wasn’t that he was a bad man, but he carried in his heart an anger and bitterness, against G-d, and His church, that were founded in the experiences of his childhood, experiences he had never reconciled.

His parents were immigrants who didn’t have much, even when his father was alive and working.  However, when his father died and left his young wife with five small children, things became much worse.

His mother took in laundry, washed floors, and did whatever she could do to feed her family, but it just wasn’t enough, so she went to the local parish church for financial assistance.  Instead of giving her help though, they sent her to the welfare office.

The soldier remembered going with his mother as a young boy, to translate for her, because she spoke little English.  He remembered her humiliation, and his own, in having to go on public relief, and he didn’t understand why the church would not help.  First G-d took his father from them, and now His church turned them away in their time of need.

Later, when barely in his teens, the soldier found himself, along with two of his brothers, in a home for boys.  The home was run by an order of Christian Brothers.  The Brothers were good men, who provided the boys with the basic necessities: food, shelter, education, and when required, discipline.

There was a problem though, the home was infested with cockroaches, and it was the job of the boys to catch the cockroaches, as many as they could.  In fact, they had a daily quota, and the Brothers, each evening, would check and count each boy’s collection of insects, to ensure that they had found their fair share.  Those who did not had to keep searching until they did.

Sometimes, when the roaches were hard to come by, and a boy was tired and hungry, he would break some of them in half, so they would count as two.  This worked fine if he didn’t get caught, but if he did, there was the aforementioned discipline.

Discipline consisted of the offending boy being held face down across a large barrel, and having his behind whipped with a switch.  The process did little actual damage, aside from a few welts and bruises, but it was extremely painful, and to say the least, the boy’s were terrified of the punishment.  They would beg and plead for mercy, to no avail.

Not all offensives merited this form of punishment, but lying about meeting your cockroach quota did, and the soldier had received this punishment on several occasions, until he learned how to fix his roaches so that they actually looked liked two whole bugs.  There was a trick to it, you see.  Whenever you caught a big one, you cut it in half with your thumbnail, and then smashed up each half a little bit, and that was it; dinner, and bedtime, were at hand.

The soldier thought of none of these things though, as he peered into the alcove.  He was a little surprised by his vision, this picture of a haloed Madonna and Child.  Was it the angle of the light, was it only his imagination, or maybe the pressures of facing combat the next day were getting to him?

As he wondered at the sight, he was broken from his brief reverie by the realization  that the woman was motioning to him.  It took a few moments, but he soon understood that she was indicating to him that her breasts had no milk for her child.  His wonder turned to pity and sadness.  What could he do?

He thought of the canned milk at the mess truck, so he told her, as best he could, to wait for him, that he would get milk for her to give to her baby.

He hurried back to the mess area, and found them packing and preparing for the next day’s deployment.  He walked up to the mess Sargent and quickly explained to him the situation, and asked him for some milk.

The Sargent was in no mood for this intrusion, and told the soldier that he could not give him any milk, but the soldier persisted.  Just a little milk for the baby?  The Sargent replied that the milk was for American soldiers, for their coffee, not for French civilians.  The soldier said, well, OK, I have some coffee, how about giving me a little milk for my coffee.  Finally, the Sargent relented and gave the soldier the milk “for his coffee”.

The entire negotiation took only a few minutes, and the soldier hurried back to the alcove with the milk.  When he arrived though, the mother and child were gone.  In fact, there was no sign of anyone, or that anyone had even been there.

The soldier would think about this experience throughout his life.  He would relate the story to his wife when he returned home, and later to his children.  The story of his visit by the Madonna and Child on a cold Christmas Eve in an alcove in France.

It would be nice to relate that the soldier’s anger at G-d would dissipate after his experience, but unfortunately, this would not happen for many decades.  Decades of tragedies and triumphs, joy and sorrow that would follow.  Near the end though, he did seem to find some peace, but only G-d knows for certain.

So the significance of the story isn’t that the vision immediately healed the soldier’s anger and disappointment, or that it even gave him great comfort, except maybe for a few brief moments.  The significance of the story is the significance of Christmas itself.

For the Christmas Story is the story of a promise, a promise of a redemption that is yet to be fulfilled.  Yes, Christians will speak in the present tense, and tell you they are redeemed, and it is true, this was accomplished and completed on the cross, and demonstrated by the Resurrection.

But, in our lives, we still have our tragedies and disappointments, and our anger; and the world is still full of violence and chaos, and of mothers who cannot feed their children.  So, it is this part of the promise that is unfulfilled, our physical redemption, and the redemption of this tragic world we live in.

It is a story of hope.  Hope for the world, hope for each one of us, even hope for the angry soldier.  G-d can deal with anger, because to be angry at G-d is still to believe in G-d and it is to recognize G-d’s sovereignty, over us, our lives, and the world.  After all, what would be the point in being angry at a G-d who wasn’t sovereign?

Jesus once told us to be either hot or cold.  G-d can warm and soften the coldest, most hardened of hearts; He can temper the most heated and passionate of hearts, but with the lukewarm heart, the indifferent heart, what can He do?  What can be done with someone who just doesn’t care?

The Christmas Story is also a story of our own helplessness in the redemptive process, except according to G-d’s will.  The soldier,  in the end, was unable to help the mother and child, despite his best efforts. Yet redemption came to him that day, even if he did not realize it.  He could have simply ignored the mother and child, dismissing them, like the Sargent, as not his problem.  After all, what had G-d done for him anyway?  Instead, he responded with sympathy and compassion.  Its not that his simple act of getting the milk was in and of itself redeeming, but it’s the fact that he would even do so that demonstrated the redemption that was already in his heart, despite his anger.

Finally, there is this.  We think we know people.  We see what they do, we hear what they say, and we fear for them.   We see those who are angry at G-d and man, or who live dissolute lives.  We see people who seem to make every bad decision a person can make, and sometimes we may wonder, what hope is there for that person?  What we do not know, and only G-d knows, is what redemption may lie in that persons heart.  We see the outside, but G-d sees the inside, and only occasionally, if ever, does G-d give us a glimpse of what is truly there.

So, we should not fear, for others, or for ourselves, but should always look for the best in each; and when we can’t see that best and fear starts to take hold, think of the Christmas Story and its promise of redemption.  After all, who is redemption for, anyway, if not us?

Food for Thought

For the kingdom of G-d is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…” Romans 14:17 NIV

I went on a diet a little over three years ago. I lost some weight, which is good, but what was most astonishing to me was how much better I felt, and within only a few days.  But I didn’t just feel better; I felt years-younger better, I felt no-more-heartburn-indigestion-acid-re-flux better, and I felt more-energy-needing-less-sleep better.

The diet is a relatively new, high-protein, low-carb regimen that attracted me initially by its simplicity.  No calorie counting, no points to worry about or weighing food; not that there is anything wrong with those kind of diets, it’s just that they’re not for me.

As I progressed in the diet though, an odd thing began to happen.  The above verse of scripture began to come to mind, and the better I felt, the more frequently I would think of this verse.

I finally had to face the fact that G-d was trying to tell me something, and after some thought, I realized what was going on.  It seems that as I felt better, I was actually beginning to think I was better.  That feeling better, because I was eating better, was actually making me a better person.

To be sure, there were improvements in my behavior.  Since I needed less sleep and had more energy, I began getting up earlier on weekends and taking on a bigger share of the housework, for example.  With far fewer aches and pains, I began exercising more and took up running, something I hadn’t done in years.  Also, feeling better physically helps me to feel better emotionally, and I generally have a better attitude and outlook.

The point is, if I wanted to make a case that in fact I was a better person, I could do it.  The problem is, I would only be looking at one side of it.  While I am not going to list my current personal failures and weaknesses, if for no other reason that I don’t have the time or space, I can, in an honest moment, admit that I am still the same person I was before the diet.  I am sure my family would attest to that, as well!

OK, I lost weight, I feel better, I have a better quality of life, so what’s the problem?  So what if I’m not intrinsically a better person, what’s the big deal?  Honestly, there is really no issue here, is there?  I’m not perfect, I should just get over it!

But, of course, for me things are never that simple.  Earlier in life,  and for a number of years, I had gone on a self-improvement binge.  I read all the self-help, self-improvement, pop-psychology books I could get my hands on.   Some of them were pretty good, others, not so much, but they all seemed to have one thing in common,  they all required that you take control of your life and change it in some way, and by doing so you could achieve health, wealth, happiness, long life, etc., etc., etc.

Sounds great, right?  Do this, do that, and voila, the new you!  Now, some would tell you – look, this isn’t going to be easy, but you can do it, anyone can, and here’s how.  Just a little effort, a little willpower, and you’ve got it made.

Oops, what’s that?  Effort, willpower?  Uh-oh!  This could be a problem.

Let’s take a look at effort first.  Effort requires motivation.   People are simply unwilling to exert any effort whatsoever, for anything, without motivation.  But what does motivation require?  Motivation requires a need.  Oh, what’s that, you want to eat?  Well then, you’ll have to work.  Now that’s motivation!

Willpower, on the other hand is a little harder to define, and I think the reason for that is that there really is no such thing, at least not in the popular sense.  You may disagree, and I have had this argument before, but I just do not believe that there is any such thing as willpower as the term is commonly applied.

Let’s break it down: will – power of choosing one’s own actions; power – ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something.  For the record, the definitions are from dictionary. com, and were chosen from the many definitions for each word to fit the present context.

Both words imply action, but “will” is about choosing to act and “power” is about the ability to act.  Willpower, it would then seem, is the ability to choose and to act upon one’s choices.

So far, so good.  Everybody can make choices, and everybody can act on those choices – or can they?  If I choose to walk from point A to point B, but I am incapable of walking, then I can’t act on that choice.  I may have other options for getting from A to B, but walking isn’t one of them.  Will power has nothing do with it and in fact it would be more than a little cruel to suggest to me that if only my willpower was stronger, I could walk from point A to point B.

The above illustration begs the question:  If it would be cruel to suggest to a person with a disability that they could walk if only they had the willpower, why do we think it is OK to suggest to a smoker, for example, that they could quit smoking if only they had more willpower?  Or to suggest to an obese person that they could lose weight if only they had more willpower?  Might this be just as cruel?

One might point out that the person who can’t walk has a physical disability that prevents them from walking, but the person who smokes or who eats too much is choosing to do so, and that would be correct, but let’s expand our illustration a little.

The disabled person wants to walk from point A to point B, but they can’t, so they lift themselves into a wheelchair, and wheel themselves from A to B.  They have accomplished their goal, albeit not by walking; and again, willpower has nothing to do with it.

Now, what about the person who smokes, for example?  I have had experience in this area, having smoked for 23 years.  I stopped, by the grace of G-d, over 26 years ago, but not after a long struggle in “trying” to quit.  In fact, the more I “tried” to quit, the more I smoked.  Right before I stopped, I was smoking 3 packs a day, and had been for some time.

So what happened?  Before I answer that, let’s take a quick look at human nature.  People, in general, don’t do anything without a reason.  The reason may be rational, or irrational, but they have to have a reason. Secondly, they require motivation.  A reason, and motivation are related, but in the end very different.

Let’s look at the reasons for quitting smoking: smoking shortens lifespan, smoking degrades the quality of life, smoking can harm others, smoking costs a lot of money, and you could probably list others.  I had all of these reasons to quit, yet could (would?) not.  Why?  Because none of those reasons were enough to counteract the fact that I enjoyed smoking, and in fact, rightly or wrongly, I believed I was actually getting some benefit out of smoking.

Therefore, none of the listed  reasons motivated me to want to quit.  I enjoyed smoking and I was willing to take the risks.  The problem, however, is that I have a wife who wanted me to quit, and society in general was bringing more and more pressure on smokers to quit, and still is.

So what to do?  This is where “trying” to quit smoking comes in.  Let’s face it, if you’re trying to do something, you’re not doing it, but to others, it looks like you’re doing it, right?  At least you’re trying.

“Where’s Bill?”, someone might ask.

“He ran out to have a smoke.”

“Bill smokes?”

“Yeah, but he’s trying to quit.”

“Oh, well at least he’s trying.”

I’m not saying that my efforts were deliberately insincere, but as I said, when you’re trying to do something, you’re not doing it, you’re just trying.  At best though, I was deluding myself into thinking I was quitting smoking when I was really just trying.

So reasons do not,  in and of themselves, provide motivation to quit. And honestly, having someone nagging you to do it or being pressured from society only makes things worse.  Our fallen human nature automatically rebels against any pressure to do anything, let alone something we have no good reason to do.

What I’m getting at here is that we human beings do not do anything  unless we want to do it.  This is  much more profound than it may appear.  It is profound because it is so simple.  When we want to do something, like the person who can’t walk from A to B, we just do it, we don’t try to do it, we do it!

So this was my dilemma:  I enjoyed smoking, but I was under pressure from my family and society to quit.  The more I viewed things in this way, the worse things got.  Periodically, I would try to quit, not because I thought quitting would be beneficial to me, but because of the pressure to do so.

The problem is, each time I tried to quit, I would end up smoking more. At least the pressure to quit would let up somewhat, and as an added benefit, each time I tried and failed, I got a certain amount of sympathy.  “Poor Bill, he’s really trying to quit [I was], but he just can’t seem to do it”.

But I did quit, eventually, so how did I do it?

As a Christian, I believe that all things ultimately come from G-d, including the ability to quit smoking.  In one of my more objective and honest moments, I said to Him, “Look, I know that I should quit smoking, but I just don’t want to [this insight also came from Him], so I’m going to have to turn this over to You because it’s just not going to happen if left up to me.”

I would like to say that at that moment I quit and never picked up another cigarette, but alas, that is not what happened.  The reason is that I still wanted to smoke, and G-d will not directly interfere with our will.  Whenever Jesus cured someone, He would often say “Your faith has healed you,” and there is at least one passage that refers to the fact that Jesus could only perform a few miracles because of the relative lack of faith of the people in that particular area.

What did happen though is that things just kept getting worse until I was, as I said earlier, smoking three packs a day.  As things got worse though, some other things began to happen: like the commercial said, I was “smoking more and enjoying it less”.  Even those times when I normally enjoyed smoking, I was not.  I also started to see just how destructive smoking could be, and not just to my health, but potentially to my family.  After all, I was an example, and I really did not want my children to smoke.

There was the financial damage.  I had a wife and two children, with one on the way, and I was spending almost $100 a month on cigarettes.  That does not seem like much now, but in 1988 it was almost a car payment!  What was I thinking?

Also very important, I started to realize that my rebellion was misplaced.  Instead of rebelling against G-d and man, I should rebel against smoking and my desire to smoke because that is what enslaved me, not G-d and my family or society.

What was happening over a period of months, is that my heart and my mind were being remade in a way that, in the end, I wanted to quit smoking, and I finally said to the Lord, sincerely and from my heart, “I want to quit smoking.” It was from that moment on that I have not smoked another cigarette.

I still get uncomfortable, to this day, when people hear that I quit smoking after 23 years, and they say “Wow, how did you do it”?  The fact is, I didn’t do it, I just put it in  the Lord’s hands and He did it.

And willpower had nothing to do with it.

So, what are the lessons I learned from my smoking and diet experiences?  First, it all starts with G-d.  Any power we have to do anything comes from Him.  Even that act of turning to Him in faith comes from Him.

Second, we have to have faith that G-d can address our problems, if He chooses to do so.  When He chooses not to for a time, we have to have faith that He has His reasons for not doing so.  This faith also comes from G-d.

Third, we have to want to resolve the problem.  This is a statement, or assertion of will, not a passing fancy or simple desire. Wanting to resolve the problem also comes from G-d.

The fourth step is relatively easy because once we want to do it, we don’t try to do it, we just do it.  Does this guarantee success? No, because the outcome is in G-d’s hands; but we still, in faith,  do all of the things necessary to accomplish our goal.

As for being a better person, simply quitting smoking or losing weight does not make us better people, but it even goes further than this. None of our efforts can make us intrinsically better people; but G-d, when He chooses, and in response to our faith, can not only make us better, He can and will, in His time, make us perfect.