Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Echoes & Shadows

Do you see the shadow?  It's always there.

Today is Christmas morning, which at our house means presents, lights, laughter, food, of our most fun days of every year.  I love Christmas and all the trappings of the season--I am my Daddy's son after all!  But in all the echoes of making new memories & chasing old ones (I do a lot of both this time of years), there's a shadow.

I love Christmas cards.  Greetings from friends & relatives, both near and far.  A reminder of family and friendship, two things that make me very happy.  But even looking at pictures and reading cards & letters, there's a shadow.

I love to look through my own pictures from days gone by.  My family I grew up, and my family that began when Lisa & I got married 29+ years ago.  I can hear the joy-filled echoes, again, laughter, family,...But even then, hearing the echoes of Christmas laughter gone by, there is a shadow.

I love taking pictures of landscapes and looking at others' pictures of landscapes.  The beaches of my youth, the woods along Longleaf Trace (where I ride my bike), the mountains of TN & CO & Southern Poland, the high plains of the upper midwest...again, I'm my Father's son.  But even looking at the beauty & wonder of earth, or when gazing into a clear star-filled sky, there's still a shadow.

Luke's Gospel records a humble birth, out in a stable in a small, overcrowded town of little consequence at the time.  Smelly shepherds were the only guests to "ooh & ah" over the infant boy in the stable.  But all of heaven rejoiced, even as a throne was emptied for the first & only time in all of eternity.  A star lit up the sky.  Multitudes of angels sang & heralded the arrival of this One long promised.

"Unto you is born this day in the City of David,
a Savior Who is Christ the Lord."
"You will call His name Jesus,
for He will save His people from their sins."

This is what the angels said.  One was anouncing His arrival to the shepherds on a hillside.  The other was said to the baby's Mother when her role in the unfolding of God's redemptive plan & the fulfillment of so many prophecies & promises was made known to her.

And there, the shadow fills in.  How, after all, is one "saved from their sins" before a Holy & Righteous & Just God?  By a sacrifice.  One death for another.  Temple worship in those days was a bloody affair.  Innocent animals screaming as they were brutally killed to atone for the sins of people.  For people back then couldn't follow enough rules well enough to make themselves good.  Better than another, sure; but when compared to a Holy & Righteous God?  Thus, atoning sacrifices were required.  Scapegoats bore sins into the darkness.  And the shadow became much more clear.

People today can't follow enough rules well enough to make ourselves good either.  This is confirmed by a quick glance at the news.  Or into a mirror.  We live under a shadow.  The same shadow Jesus was born under.  The shadow of death, depravity, destruction, despair.

My God, why?  Why are so many things amiss?  Why is there such death, destruction, disaster in our world today?  Why have you forsaken & forgotten us?

And then we celebrate Christmas.  And if we look closely enough, we'll see a shadow behind the celebrations.  Both our celebrations today and the angels' celebration that first Christmas.  Stare long enough, and the shadow becomes a bloody cross outline on a hill.  The only truly innocent person to ever walk this earth screaming as he's brutally killed to atone for the sins of others.  Me.  You.  Only, unlike all the sacrificial animals through those years, He gave Himself up, facing death voluntarily.  Joyfully, even.

Spend a moment wondering why there's Christmas at all. As Mr. Tumnus said in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, "Always winter & never Christmas...just imagine." Imagine living only in shadow. Another illustration is Tolkien's Nazgul characters, who live forever, but who have fallen into shadow.

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
"It.  Is.  Finished!"

And the veil of the temple separating the very presence of God from His people was torn in two.  And the shadow fled.

One day, the shadow will never again be seen.  The One born that first Christmas will return and make all things new.  Redemption of His people will be complete and eternal. 

 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face....And night will be no more.
They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
(Revelation 22:3-5 ESV)
 He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.
(Revelation 22:20-21 ESV)

Merry Christmas!  Rejoice, for any shadow we now experience is but temporary.  Tolkien's Sam Gamgee in Lord of the Rings: “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”  Yes it is, Samwise.  Yes it is.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Two Ticket Stubs

It’s just two football ticket stubs.  Specifically, two 40-year-old football ticket stubs.

December 31, 1973.  A rainy night in New Orleans, LA at the old Tulane Stadium.  An epic showdown between two storied college teams coached by two legendary coaches.  Notre Dame Fighting Irish v. Alabama Crimson Tide.  #3 v. #1.  Ara Parseghian v. Paul “Bear” Bryant.  There were future college coaches dressed out & playing in that game.  There were also future NFL Hall of Famers playing.

And there was a short kid with a bad haircut up in the stands, sitting with his Dad.  Also in their group were a couple of aunts and a cousin.  (All were wearing Crimson.)  The boy wanted to wear his hair long like his peers were doing.  The Dad preferred high & tight.  The compromise was not a thing of beauty.

But none of that mattered that New Year’s Eve.  They were there to watch their much beloved Crimson Tide play football.  The short kid had cheered for the Tide for as long as he could remember, dating back at least 9 years.  The Dad had cheered for the Tide a lot longer.  Neither had ever attended the University, though the kid would do so in a few years.  In truth: the kid began cheering for the Tide mostly because the Dad did so.  In short order, his fandom became his own.

They shared some heroes, one of which was head coach for the Tide.  In fact, they got to meet and shake hands with Coach Bryant shortly after the game due to a family connection.  Their official seats were Section UB, Row 18, seats 19 & 20.  They wound up sitting just beneath the press box in an unsuccessful attempt to stay dry.

They watched a fantastic game between two very good teams.  In fact, Alabama had already been named the U.P.I. National Champion; back then, the champions were voted on before bowl games commenced.  The game went back and forth, as often happens on a wet and sloppy field.  Coach Bryant would say later that it was the best game he was ever part of, as a player or a coach.

The short kid would agree.  But not because of the game’s outcome.  Notre Dame won, 24-23, on a late field goal.  Alabama had downed a punt on Notre Dame’s one-yard line, but couldn’t keep them hemmed in.  The Irish were able to run out the clock.

So, why did this kid think this was the best game he ever saw?  Because there was a hero in the house.  Not Coach Bryant, although he was a hero of the kid’s.  Not John Mitchell or John Hannah or John Croyle, though they were (& are) heroes of the kid’s too.

This particular hero was sitting in Section UB, Row 18, and either seat 19 or seat 20.  The boy idolized his Dad.  Still does.  Others who knew the Dad did and do too.

This would be the only Alabama Crimson Tide football game the boy and his Dad would attend together.

Just 11 months later, the Dad would die suddenly of a heart attack.  And the kid’s world went gray.  In some significant ways, the kid’s world is still gray all these years later.  There are parts of his soul and psyche that were wrecked and crushed by his Dad’s passing that haven’t been restored.  Every kid—especially every boy—wants to be welcomed into manhood by his Daddy.  When that doesn’t happen…when it can’t happen…when it will never happen…the world never quite seems to get fully back in order.

But there are glimpses of that order and of a long-promised, long-awaited restoration.  19 years after that Sugar Bowl game, the kid went to another bowl game in New Orleans with another man he deeply admired.  Once again, Alabama was playing in a big game against a powerful foe.  Once again, it was the Sugar Bowl.  The Alabama Crimson Tide v. the Miami Hurricanes this time.  Though Miami had the Heisman-winning QB then, Alabama destroyed them, dominating in every phase of the game.

But that’s not why this is near the top of the kid’s favorite-game-ever list.  The kid was sitting next to his Father-in-law this time.  Thus, the kid’s tears were discrete—but still very present—as he both treasured the moment with another of his heroes and role models, and as he ached with longing to rewind the clock back to the 1973 Sugar Bowl one more time and shake a Crimson & White shaker alongside his Dad.

Recently, the kid and his beloved wife were going through some boxes, and found a treasure.  Two ticket stubs.  “40th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic.”  “December 31st, 1973.”  “Section UB, Row 18, Seat 19” & “Seat 20.”  And the memories flooded back again.  As they do every football season.  And every December.

This Saturday will be the 39th anniversary of my Dad’s passing.  A couple of weeks later, his beloved Crimson Tide will once again play a traditional powerhouse in a Sugar Bowl.

My hope is that 40 years from now, any number of little boys will be hearing from their Dads about the Sugar Bowl when they sat next to their Dad and watched their beloved Crimson Tide play.  (Or their beloved OU Sooners, for that matter!)

Just as I’ve been remembering that game 40 years ago when my Dad & I sat there in Section UB, Row 18, seats 19 & 20.  The ticket stubs are just pieces of card stock paper.  The memories they evoke are rich and amazing and priceless.

I remember, Dad.  I still miss you hard and often.  Thanks for 15 years of absolutely fantastic Daddying!  I’m a cheap knockoff of you in every regard, but your two grandkids who grew up in my house are fantastic, despite their non-fantastic Dad.  Like you, I married an amazing Bama coed.  Speaking of your grandkids, you’d be very pleased to know that I’ll be attending a bowl game in Nashville with your 3rd grandson as we watch his alma mater play.  I can so easily picture you wearing Red & Blue and cheering on your grandson’s Rebels for all but one game every Fall.  I expect I’ll both smile at random times and shed a discrete tear while sitting beside my son.  (He’s named after you, by the way.)  Also, your 1st granddaughter just completed her testing process, and will soon begin working in her trade of choice.  Like you, she’s a craftsman entering a trade.  She now cuts my hair; by the way, you’d like how it looks now.  Much closer to your preferred length than to mine ca. 1973.

I love you, Dad.  See you soon.  Can’t wait!  Roll Tide!  Thanks.