This is the sixth installment of this series by Patrick Riecke, director, Chaplaincy and Volunteer Services. Patrick is exploring the five people who most influenced his career.
In my childhood home, Christmas was magical.
Not because we had a lot of money for expensive gifts — which we didn’t. Although, I do remember getting a super sweet Indiana Hoosiers Starter jacket one year. (If you were born after 1988, please ask your parents about the brand’s life before Wal-Mart. It was really cool once, I swear.)
We were never flush with money. But despite that, and even though I was the only child of seven left in the house (thank God they all finally grew up and moved out! Just kidding, Paul, Patsy, Pamela, Penny, Peter and Miki. Love ya!), Christmas was still an otherworldly experience.
First, we had the advent wreath. Something is obviously coming — just look at the three purple candles and one pink candle getting shorter every night. Then, there were the Christmas trees engulfing the entire front of the church that my parents made me help set up as I got older. This is the primary reason I no longer set up my own tree, but make my children do it while I drink eggnog. That and the fact that walking around in a circle more than zero times makes me dizzy.
Countdown calendars with little chocolates.
But there was one centerpiece that I can still see and feel like it is right in front of me. Picture this: A crushed red velvet tablecloth — heavy — stretching to the floor, totally hiding the small round end table underneath. On top, a small, plain, but artistic wooden manger scene.
A camel is lying down and a donkey is standing up. Three wise men (there’s always three). A collection of shepherds. The stable and a tree, which looked remarkably like a palm tree in a Corona commercial.
And an empty manger.
Where is baby Jesus?
He’s in a drawer.
A drawer in a hutch nearby holds the one-inch-long, less than one ounce, King of Heaven until he makes his appearance on Christmas Eve just before we go to Midnight Mass (which was still at midnight … different times).
“Mom, just put him in there. It’s stupid to have the whole set out all this time but Jesus is missing.”
“He’ll be here. I promise. When the time is right, you won’t be able to miss him. Right now we must prepare our hearts for his coming.”
I roll my eyes as most kids do when their mother speaks something profoundly true.
Occasionally, I sneak him out of the drawer and put him in the manger (Free Jesus!) ahead of time.
Later, he is missing again.
Christmas is a time of mystery, whimsy and wonder. A time of waiting and tension.
Candles. A manger. Vigils. Anticipation.
And … Darkness. Cold. Isolation. And oppression.
These are the parts of the story of the Birth of Christ that come into my imagination.
I see a dictator (Herod) who is angry, manipulative and jealous.
I see a young woman, petrified but faithfully trusting God.
I see a young man, petrified, poor, and in a hard spot, trying to do what he thinks is best.
I see pagan wise men coming from the Far East, led by a God they do not know, and yet more interested in seeing this newborn King of the Jews than most of the baby’s neighbors.
I see a God who has become ultimately fragile — a baby. Keeping a baby alive is hard work today, let alone in Ancient Israel.
I see God’s hand as he leads them to Egypt. A place that had forever represented “them”, the holy other, outsiders, enemies.
And dreams. So many dreams in this story.
My imagination for these sacred stories has been valuable more times than I realize.
Being a pastor, I believe, does not require imagination. But, to be a good one, especially to be a good teacher and preacher, one must cultivate a spiritual imagination.
My mother and I used to sit in the living room of our blue-collar home on an old, low rose-colored couch with square cushions linked together with little metal loops and she would tell me stories from the scriptures. I had heard them read (often as woodenly as the manger scene) in Mass many times. But in my mother’s heart they came to life.
My mother is a mystic.
A mystic is someone who speaks with God and has spiritual experiences. (Pray for more mystics.)
She prays a lot more than I do.
She hears the voice of God.
She has dreams and visions.
I didn’t get those traits. I am more like my dad — a good man that tends toward workaholism. More of a brass tacks Midwestern German-American. My mom can be really kooky. In a very Jesus-y sort of way. And that Christian kookiness has made a huge impact on me.
This is the last installment of my Five People Who Have Influenced my Career series.
I think my next series will be on the four people who saved my life (don’t be surprised if my mom comes back for a victory lap in that series).
How did my mom influence my career? She taught me to have an imagination.
A spiritual imagination.
And to wait.
To anticipate what God may do, although he hasn’t yet.
To hold things like God-babies and brutal tyrants in tension.
To embrace disparate realities like cradles and crosses.
And this capacity, not learned in seminary or on the job, has served me in ministry both in the church and at the hospital.
If Jesus is in the drawer and all you have is a palm tree and a camel that’s laying down, hear the words of my mother.
“He’ll be here. I promise. When the time is right, you won’t be able to miss Him. Right now we must prepare our hearts for His coming.”
Want to read more from this series? See The influence of Tony and The influence of Gladys.