We’ll be home for Christmas (for more than mere words)

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(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, December 21, 2013)

ENTEBBE, UGANDA ✦ It’s the end of another year of words.

Words that have routinely informed us and words that have even sometimes, like summer snow, given a fresh look at everyday things. Like what happened recently in Africa during my children’s nightly reading, a story both troubling and reassuring.

“You know,” I said, after, “things will happen in your life. Bad things. And nobody will be able to save you from them. I won’t be able to and neither will your mother. But let me tell you something. God loves to take these sorts of things and turn them into something good.”

The kids listened and rolled over for another night of sleep. And as the moment vanished like millions of others, I was left awed by parenthood and how it can cut you open like nothing else, how it’s apparently meant to, how this too is nothing to fear.

Just before, I had hosted two visitors in my Ugandan home, one from Burlington, the other formerly of Hamilton region, a woman who grew up in troubled South Africa while it transitioned out of apartheid. And our conversation, this time over breakfast, had somehow fallen on the same, on today’s children and their life-skills and abilities to cope, or not.

“Canadian kids have their piano and hockey and, and, and,” said the one.

What many don’t have in our cowardly new world is the freedom to be kids, to run in their own story, to even get hurt.  Which is why more kids, especially in the west, are obese and anxious and Ritalin-filled and incapable.

I responded, “The nurse from my kids’ school in Kampala called yesterday morning. She told me to come and get my son. He’d hurt his back in the playground. I said, ‘Ice it and give him some Tylenol. I’ll pick him up at the usual time.’ ”

Sure enough my son, a bit bruised and swollen, managed so well that the same afternoon he happily joined his class on a bowling trip. Can you picture this in Canada?

Really, why is it verboten to allow children to feel pain? Why would anyone even try to protect their kids from the unavoidable, sometimes at all costs? Is it just how parents are wired?

Or maybe we feel our kids aren’t doing so bad, that they’re responsible and bright and good-natured, if not safe and complicit. But what if they’re still empty in their core?

Into this comes Christmas, this day for children, this story about that other child, and these words that are so other-worldly from over time and space.

Now I’m about to board a plane. For the first time in five years, my three children and their mother and I are in Canada for Christmas for the kids especially to experience what they normally don’t: snow, a Bulldog’s hockey game, extended family, a real Canadian winter holiday.

It’s also a chance to be home with many, many across the GTHA to ponder these words that are more than words, the Christmas story, that dangerous story that starts with an angel’s ‘Don’t be afraid,’ the story of how, as the old Hebrew prophet put it, ‘the Word became flesh.’

And not just flesh, but bone too. And blood. And nerves. Christ, this human package so vulnerable: a newborn who could have been stepped on by some hopeless donkey; a boy suffering his own playground knocks; a man who still worried his mother sick to the day he was brutally executed in front of her.

And in front of the one that he called his Father, the divine Father who somehow allowed it. All before this so-called Word rose from below to say that this is the mystery, the paradox, that there is purpose and a certain holiness in it all, in your own story. In mine.

You can throw an ocean of other words on pretty well anything else under the sun. Some have their own purpose and undeniable beauty. But, really, can any compare to this Emmanuel, this ‘God with us,’ this strange and noble gift given to the world on that first Christmas Day?

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