Wednesday, December 24, 2003

1 Timothy 1:15

Good Enough for Christmas
24 December 2003
Cornerstone Covenant Church

God works in mysterious ways. And some of us figure this out earlier than others.

For Carter the lights started to come on along about the first week in November. He was wandering through the aisles at the Mega-Mart looking for his mother. She had left him in the toy department while she went for paper towels. But Carter got bored after 30 seconds and decided to find her.

He passed the center aisle which features the seasonal merchandise and they had just put on display a 5 foot mechanical Santa with arms that moved, while he pivoted around in a half-circle. The white ball on the tip on his red cap was flashing. And he was singing a song that anyone but a six-year-old would have found annoying – especially since they had changed the words – just slightly – some hot-dog marketing exec. trying to be cute.

Carter stopped to watch with wide-open eyes the jolly fellow as he went through his routine. He listened as the jolly fellow sang:

“You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
I’m making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town
I see you when you’re sleeping
I know when you’re awake
I know if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!”

It was at that point that Christmas was ruined for Carter – “I know if you’ve been bad or good...” Those words lodged in his mind. And it didn’t help that the song got stuck there, too.

And along about the fifth time through he had a revelation – an epiphany. It was too late.

I mean, most six-year-olds are just really figuring out where they fit into the world of right and wrong – good and bad. And all Carter could understand at that point was that he was wanting in the whole area of good.

It had been eating at him all week, actually – ever since both his father and his teacher had yelled at him. His father was mad because he had “borrowed” some tools to build something and left them out in the rain in the backyard. And his teacher had sternly rebuked him for trying to hide gum under his first grade desk. Of course, gum is against the rules in school and Carter didn’t chew gum anywhere else except at school – he didn’t even like gum – but it was against the rules – and he wanted to prove that he could do it without getting caught. But he wasn’t very good at it and after the third time Mrs. Avery not only spoke sternly to him but told him that she was going to call his mother on the phone.

And there had been a bunch of other indiscretions that he didn’t really want to think about. He was afraid that once they got home his teacher was going to call, then there would be yelling and screaming at him – everyone would be mad at him. And he’d be stuck in his room for the whole night – no Gameboy, no TV, no computer– no anything.

Anyway, you can imagine his agony. And for most six year olds it’s just that – agony – the idea that you’re in trouble. But for Carter it went beyond the normal fear and became an agony of the soul when that mechanical Santa sang to him. Who knows why but those words grabbed him, played over and over again in his head, and began to eat away at his confidence in life – or at least in Christmas.

I’m making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town
I see you when you’re sleeping
I know when you’re awake
I know if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!”

If Santa knows everything – and Santa makes decisions about what Christmas presents you get based on what he knows – then in some pretty good six-year-old logic – you can be sure that you’re not getting anything for Christmas.

One thing led to another and Carter began to think of all the bad things he had done. I mean, it had not been a smooth transition into first grade. And he knew it – and in spite of the fact that he was good at blaming other people for his problems, Carter knew – he knew deep inside – that he wasn’t very good.

As he figured it he was the worst person in his whole class – maybe the worst kid at the Harry S. Truman Elementary School. A girl in his class once told him so after he tripped her. He hadn’t done it on purpose but she thought so and told him that he was the meanest boy in the whole school and the whole world.

And then he had even overheard his parents talking about maybe moving him to another school where people didn’t know him.

So Carter knew – he knew that he wasn’t very good. Which is much to his credit. A lot of people go through life without ever realizing that they’re bad. I suppose if you don’t do really bad things – only little bad things – then it’s easy to gloss over it. But Carter knew – and for the first time – right there in the Middle of Mega Mart – he knew it deep inside that he wasn’t a very good person.

So it was an agonizing November and an agonizing December. He didn’t even bother asking for anything for Christmas. He knew that he wasn’t going to get anything anyway – because Santa knew too much. And Carter could imagine what his parents were going to say when on Christmas morning he was the only one without presents – “We’re sorry Carter. You must not have been good enough this year and Santa skipped over you. Let that be a lesson to you for next year.” That’s what they were going to say just before they all opened all of their own presents.

That was what was going to happen – and he was sure of it.

So when Christmas Eve came and his Mom and Dad told him to go to bed so Santa could come he staled. He didn’t want to go to bed. He didn’t want Christmas to come. He didn’t want to be disappointed. He just wanted it all to go away – at least for this year.

Eventually, though, sleep came – and then the morning.

And he decided that it would be best to just get the humiliation over with at that point. He wandered out to the living room and found that he was the last one. His younger brother, already lying on the floor, had a pile of presents in front of him and his parents were sitting on the couch. Carter sat on the floor, rubbing his sleepy eyes – for he hadn’t slept all that well. He didn’t say a word.

And his father, said with a crackly morning voice – “O look Carter, Santa came. And look what he brought you.”

At that point his dad began piling presents in front of him. A red box, a green box, and a soft package that felt like socks. He couldn’t believe it. There must have been 100 – okay, well maybe 10 presents for him. It was probably the biggest haul ever.

And you know what, he didn’t even care what was in the presents – just that he got some.

Carter spent the rest of the morning playing with new toys – a skateboard, a video game that is suppose to teach you arithmetic, some cars, a SF Giants baseball cap, and yes, there were some socks. It was the best Christmas ever.

Later on in the afternoon, as things were winding down, Carter’s father asked him – “Well, do you think Santa was good to you?”

“Like, yeah,” said Carter. “I didn’t think he was going to bring me anything this year. I was worried.”

“I know” said his father, with a bit of a wry grin.

Carter’s father was a big man. He worked for a computer company making up codes or something – Carter thought. But he just did that to earn money. At home he was writing a book and he played the banjo. So when Carter thought of him he didn’t really think of his father as a computer guy but as more of a banjo player. And he was a perceptive man, too.

“Come here and I’ll tell you a secret about Santa – something that every six-year-old needs to know.”

Carter walked over to his father and his dad began to whisper in his ear – although there wasn’t anyone else in the room to hear.

“Oh,” sighed Carter, as he heard the news. It was like a light bulb went on and a drifting piece of the universe slide into place.

“There is another secret that’s more important – though,” said his dad. And this time he just spoke in his normal soft voice – not whispering. “Whether you get presents or not doesn’t depend on how good you’ve been. That’s just a part of the Santa story. We give presents because we love you and we want good things for you.

“That’s the way it is with God, too. The gift of God sending his Son into the world really has nothing to do with how good people are. As a matter of fact,” Carter’s dad said, “St Paul writes in 1 Timothy 1 (15): ‘This is a true saying, and everyone should believe it: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners...’”

Now, Carter didn’t really know what 1 Timothy 1 was – but it was probably in the Bible he figured. He suspected that because off and on his father would say things that were in the Bible. And when he did he talked in the same kind of voice as the pastor in church.

“This is what Christmas is really about,” said his father, “ – God giving the best present – even when we’re not good enough.”

“That’s cool,” said Carter. “That’s really cool...” And he spoke with the conviction of someone who really understood. For he did.

But then that inquisitive 6-year-old-look fell over his face.

“Dad, how did you know that I was worried that I wasn’t good enough to get Christmas presents?”

“Well,” he paused, “It’s hard to explain. But I see you when you’re sleeping. I know when you’re awake. I know if you’ve been bad or good...”

Carter chimed in, “so be good for goodness sake.”

His father picked up the banjo from the corner of the room and they sang it at least three more times – laughing harder each time through – until they couldn’t really sing it anymore.

Things did improve. When Carter went back to school after Christmas vacation it was like he was a new boy – new attitude, new enthusiasm, new energy, even a little bit of new control over his actions, and a new worry free confidence in the generosity of God.

And that was the last Christmas that Carter ever worried about being good enough.

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