A Christmas story for people who are all grown up:
The Rev. Stephen Bolden peeled off his gloves and climbed back into his car, cranking up the heat. The world is not full of happy stories, he thought. And funerals in December were always cold. Always so cold. He had just walked away from the grave of a man who had not been one of his parishioners. The man—whom he hadn’t known-- had been one of those many people who, by personal preference, have no pastor and have no faith community. There were lots of people like that.
Yet when they die, the funeral director calls around to different clergy in town to see if any of them are free to handle the funeral. Stephen had been available. Or that it is to say, he had squeezed it in on Christmas Eve afternoon. He always tried to do these kinds of funerals. It seemed important. But few people had come to the service. Even fewer had stood near him on the windy mound in a cemetery named for St.-Somebody-or-Other—Stephen had never done a burial here before and had already forgotten the name.
Well, enough with the glum thoughts, he thought glumly. It was Christmas Eve and it would not do to have the pastor be blue on Christmas. His family, his parish expected more. He needed something to cheer him up. A latte from Starbucks or belt of Scotch at home? Sighing, he went to Starbuck’s and ordered the latte.
But Christmas Eve went okay. Laurel, his wife, was light-hearted as a child. And he realized that, indeed, he loved her unreasonably. And that was the best of it. His daughter, Lily, back from grad school (he didn’t want to think about her debt nor her unmarketable major) was full of stories. And so was his son, Paul, who had managed to go a full day without seeing his girlfriend. He—Stephen—didn’t understand the appeal of the girlfriend, Siena, with her tongue stud, nose ring and full sleeves. But Paul was nuts about her. And that was what mattered.
Stephen was getting old, he knew. He had loved his wife, Laurel, in those frilly Jessica McClintock dresses, with their lace-up bodices and long, full skirts. Ah, the seventies. Fleetwood Mac. Led Zeppelin. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Nevertheless, on Christmas Eve, the choir sounded okay (owing in large part to Mrs. Schultz having to stay home with a bad case of bronchitis). Lots of people came and no one burned down the church during “Stille Nacht.” Christmas Eve was a success!
*** *** ***
But Stephen awoke on December 28th with a weight in his stomach the size of two undigested everything bagels. The Feast Day of the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents, December 28th. Most years December 28th didn’t fall on a Sunday, but this year it did. They were doing Lessons and Carols this Sunday—and his daughter was actually preaching the sermon (which terrified him, to be truthful). In choosing the lessons, he had tried to stick to stories about holy families--about Hannah, dedicating her longed-for son, Samuel to the service of God under the care of the priest, Eli.
He had chosen to read the story of the astonishing Ruth, to whom the baby Jesus could trace his genealogical own roots. On becoming a very young widow, Ruth would not leave her mother-in-law, Naomi, in order to return to her father’s house, leaving Naomi a stranger, a refugee, unsupported in foreign land. Ruth stays with her adopted mother and makes a family there with her in a land where they were strangers.
Yet in the readings, Stephen could not ignore the fact that this was December 28th, the Feast Day of the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Sometimes—well, usually after the umpteenth hearing “I Want a Hipopatamus for Christmas” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”--Stephen wanted to yell from the pulpit Did we forget that owing to Jesus’ birth, King Herod ordered the slaughter of all children under two years old? That’s part of the Christmas story, too!
Well, always best not to yell from the pulpit, he thought, with considerable vexation. But he did want to.
But the morning didn’t go well. The house was full of chaos. He’d forgotten how long his daughter (Lily-who-was doing-the sermon!) took in the shower. In consequence his shower was short and mostly cold. Laurel, his wife, groused about how she wasn’t going to get a shower at all. “But you took a long, hot bath last night” he thought, “how clean do you need to be?”
And then when he opened his closet he saw that he had forgotten to pick up his clerical shirts from the dry cleaners.
“I don’t believe this!” he said, slamming the closet door shut.
Laurel was buckling her shoes and looked up at him, “Can’t you just wear a shirt and tie like a normal person for a change? Nobody will care if you don’t wear clerics.”
He sighed, more irritated than he needed to be. “I’ll look like a Southern Baptist preacher,” he muttered and Laurel shot him a look.
“Some of my best friends are Southern Baptists,” she said. And he remembered that she had dated one before they met. Chipp Jones. Now the senior pastor at a megachurch in a nearby suburb. Naturally--with a name like Chipp.
Lily came up into the pulpit right after Stephen finished reading the sad story of the slaughtered children from the gospel of Matthew. If he were preaching today he would bring up the need for gun control or the separation of children from their parents at the border. This was a reading whose theme lent itself to those topics. Why had he decided to let Lily preach? Too late now, he thought, going over to sit in the pew next to Laurel and Paul and Siena.
“Dad, stop!” Lily called out. And right there in front of the congregation, he obeyed his daughter and stopped in his tracks, feeling more than a little foolish.
“You know,” she went on, “There aren’t many of us here today in church. And I’m kind of hoping my dad will set the example of coming to sit around me, just like the kids do in the children’s sermon. I know you can’t all sit on the floor. But just huddle in closer. Sit in the front pews or on the chancel steps. The best way to hear a story is where you’re close enough to see the color of the storyteller’s eyes.”
Stephen smiled to himself. He always said that during the children’s sermon.
And so he and Laurel moved to the chancel steps. Paul and Siena with her studs and sleeves followed. Then the Council President joined them. And the executive officers of the Council. And a bunch of other people made their way forward.
And Lily began her story.
“This story,” she said, “is called A Child Named Wonderful.”
And Stephen realized in a rush that he knew this story. Because it was a true story.
There once was a little girl named Lily who liked to sit on her father’s lap and read stories every night. Sometimes he told her stories, too, but mostly he told her stories from the Bible and they didn’t really interest her the way the stories in picture books did. Her mom knew better stories. She could tell little Lily the story of Cinderella or the Three Billy Goats Gruff or Snow White or that delightfully scary one, Hansel and Gretel.
But there was one story that her Dad did tell very, very well. And that was the story of the birth of Jesus. And little Lily, with the innocent narcissism of a child, figured he could tell that story so very well because it had been she, Lily, who had inspired it. Not that she was Jesus, of course. But she figured she had been enough like him—a baby full of needs—that that was why her Dad could tell it almost as if he had lived it, first-hand.
Well, there came a time when everybody in the whole household had been crabby. The mother was grumpy because there was no more hot water. The dad was grumpy because he’d left all of his shirts at the cleaners. The little brother was crabby because he was her kid brother whose parents had spoiled him rotten. Only Lily wasn’t crabby because she was such a very, very good girl.
So that night she asked her Dad to tell her the story of the birth of Jesus. She figured it might calm him down. She was such a wise little girl!
When he got done telling her all about the star and the stable and the shepherds and the wise men’s weird gifts, she asked him, "Was Jesus the one that got called “prince of peace?"
“Yes," he said, "In the book of Isaiah it says that there will be a child born who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace. Christians believe that that means Jesus. People of other faiths do not all agree about that. But the one thing that everybody of all faiths agrees on is the hope that there will one day be wisdom, good counsel and everlasting peace."
“Mmm," Lily said, She wasn’t really all that interested in wisdom, good counsel and everlasting peace. Not yet, anyway.
“So there will be a child called Wonderful? If Jesus was that child, why didn’t they just name him Wonderful? Why didn’t Mary and Joseph do that? I think it would be cool to be named Wonderful. I want to be named Wonderful!"
But just then the father did a wonderful thing. He set her down on the floor, got down on his knees so that they faced each other, eye-to-eye.
“Mary and Joseph didn’t name Jesus ‘Wonderful’ for the very same reason that we didn’t name you ‘Wonderful.’ It was because we liked the name ‘Lily.’ That’s just the name we gave you. But really, God knows you are a child named Wonderful.'
“I am?” Lily asked, “Just like Jesus?”
“Just like Jesus,” her father said, “Made in God’s image.”
“Like all of us?”
“Like all of us.”
“Then Paul, my little brother, is Paul a Child Named Wonderful, too?”
Her father heard the skepticism in her voice and met it with conviction in his.
“Yes, Paul, too, is a Child Named Wonderful.”
“And my friends, even Billy Turgeon at school is?”
“Even Billy Turgeon,” he said.
“And old people. Can old people still be Childs Named Wonderful?”
“So Mom is A Child Named Wonderful.”
“She is,” he said, “But she’s not really that old--.”
She gave him a look that said, “oh, yes she is.”
Then she took his big hand in her little one.
“And you, too, Dad.”
And for a moment her dad’s face got a distant look to it and she saw that he was thinking about bills or the television news or a sick church member or that Southern Baptist pastor he didn’t like at the church across town.
“You are, too. You are A Child Named Wonderful.”
Then her father pulled her to him in a hug, hugging her as hard as he ever had. “I’m glad you think so,” he said.
“But Dad,” she said, her face muffled by his sweater, “It isn’t only me who thinks so. Or Mommy. Or Paul. God thinks so, too.”
The grown-up Lily was coming to the end of her story, Stephen could see. She went on to her conclusion “Well, it would be nice to think that they all lived happily ever after, after that. But they were a family. And this is a true story—you might have even recognized some of the characters. So problems don’t just go away. And if they do, new ones crop up. You all know that humans are used to living with pain and struggle and conflicts and disappointments. Life is not a cakewalk, as my mother often says.
So in some ways, this is the story of my father telling me a story. In other ways it’s the story of me telling a story to my father—and to you. But in most ways, it’s just one of the many ways that God calls each of us by our own name and reminds us of what is so easy to forget amidst our struggles, that we are each of us A Child Named Wonderful.”
And with that, I’m just going to say The End. Amen.
“Amen” said several people in the congregation. And a couple of people applauded. Laurel wiped a tear with the hem of her sleeve. Stephen, his throat tight with the effort not to get choked up, stood up and reached for his hymnal.
As he flipped to hymn #299, he was thinking how the world was not full of only happy stories. But the world is full of God’s promise of wisdom and counsel and everlasting peace. The world is full of Children, young and old, named Wonderful, made in God’s image and never to be separated from God, come what may.
Then the organist began to play the opening bars of “Cold December Flies Away” and Stephen motioned for everyone to rise to sing the words of this beautiful hymn.
The End. Amen!