It was the first Christmas after we had moved our young family from California to the Midwest during my first call. I have to admit that we were struggling. I grew up in the snow of Colorado, but I had never experienced a Wisconsin winter. For nineteen straight days, the thermometer didn’t register anything above zero. Yes, Zero degrees Fahrenheit–32 degrees below freezing! I like the cold, but, c’mon, that was ridiculous.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Finding our place in the community was much more difficult than we had expected. In the first five months of our time there, we celebrated four birthdays and one Thanksgiving alone. We had moved away from immediate family and did not realize how isolated we would feel in a new community in the first year of such a big transition.
As Christmas approached, a strange resentment began to settle over me. My dad has never been very timely when it comes to birthday and Christmas presents, but this year, as each day passed I felt the neglect more acutely. We had just recovered from a lonely Thanksgiving and now Christmas was starting to feel the same way.
Christmas Eve arrived and I was struggling to craft a Christmas Eve message. I wanted to do justice to the message of this sacred night and provide a hopeful, joy-filled, positive meditation for my flock. But as I thought about digging deep to make their Christmas special I was secretly pouting about how un-special ours was going to be.
I sat at the computer screen looking for words and inspiration. It just wasn’t coming. How could I write about joy and hope when I personally wasn’t feeling it? I have always prided myself on my authenticity from the pulpit, but authenticity on this night felt selfish and abusive. My personal struggles had no place in the pulpit on this Christmas Eve.
I sat there and dreaded having to force myself to write a message I couldn’t feel. It was 4 p.m. and my Christmas Eve message had to be ready in less than three hours. I was feeling in trouble.
Then the doorbell rang. My three year-old son ran to the door and greeted a UPS driver holding a large box. It had Oregon tags on it. It had come from my dad and stepmom in Medford. We opened it and pulled numerous carefully wrapped presents from the box and doubled the gifts from under the tree.
But the box was not quite empty. At the bottom was a Tupperware container filled with fudge. I opened it and started to weep. The sweet, rich aroma transported me back to my childhood as I recalled my dad’s annual fudge-making tradition. My mom did pretty much all the cooking in our household, but dad made the chocolate walnut fudge.
Here we were 2,200 miles away from family and our Christmas traditions. But my dad had found a way to connect with us and erase the miles between us. Not only that but he had bridged the distance from my adulthood back to my childhood. He had replaced loneliness with connection and resentment with joy and anticipation. He brought a little slice of heaven to my earthly reality.
He saved me that first Christmas Eve.
Three hours later, as I stood before the congregation I told them how hard it been moving to a new part of the country. I told them how lonely we had been celebrating holidays and birthdays on our own. I told them how isolated we had felt and how hard it was to try to scrape up a joyful message for them when we were struggling to find that same joy ourselves.
And then I told them about the box of gifts from my dad who is almost never on time with gifts. I told them about the smiles and the glee on my children’s faces as they lifted each gift out of the box and placed them under the tree. I told them about the chocolate walnut fudge and the tears that ran down my face when I opened the package. I told them about the wave of memories and feelings that flooded back as I breathed in the sweet, rich aroma of my dad’s famous fudge. I told them how much I loved my dad.
I told them a story about God and how a long time ago God bridged the distance between heaven and earth. I told them the story about a little baby who came just in time to a world that was hurting and down.
I told them my story.
I told them God’s story.
Then we sang Joy to the World.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades