A show filled with stories of people wrestling with the gap between what Christmas promises and what it actually delivers.
#68: Reality Christmas
Note: The Love Thy Neighborhood podcast is made for the ear, and not the eye. We would encourage you to listen to the audio for the full emotional emphasis of this episode. The following transcription may contain errors. Please refer to the audio before quoting any content from this episode.
JESSE EUBANKS: Hey guys, it’s Jesse. Listen, it is the end of the year, and for many nonprofits just like ours, what happens over the next several weeks really decides what we can do in the year to come. So here’s the deal. If you have benefited in any way from this podcast or if you appreciate the work that we’re doing, if you want us to continue, we really need your support. We depend on listeners like you to make this happen. Whether that’s a small gift, whether that’s a large gift, we really need you. We need your help, and we would be so grateful for your compassionate and generous gift. In order to support us, you can just head over to lovethyneighborhood.org/donate. It’s an extremely simple process. It does not take much time at all. So if you’re listening to this and you think, “Well, I can only give five bucks. That’s not gonna make a difference” – it would make a difference. So please head over to lovethyneighborhood.org/donate. We would be so grateful for anything that you give.
AUDIO CLIPS: Love Thy Neighborhood… Discipleship and missions for modern times.
JESSE EUBANKS: So, it’s Christmastime. And for a lot of us, that means that lights are going up and trees are going up and wreaths are going up and we’re trying to create that special atmosphere in our home that comes once a year. And that was certainly the case for these folks.
NATHAN QUILLO: I’m Nathan Quillo.
ANNE DEEB: Anne Deeb, formerly a Quillo.
JESSE EUBANKS: So Nathan and Anne, they grew up with their parents and their two younger brothers in a small one floor ranch-style house. Now, imagine that you can go back in time and drive up to that house.
ANNE DEEB: You would pull into a short driveway and –
NATHAN QUILLO: Gravel driveway.
ANNE DEEB: Gravel driveway, yes. And then a little front porch, white with black shutters.
JESSE EUBANKS: And in their home, once Thanksgiving would pass, they would all get together and begin to put up Christmas decorations.
NATHAN QUILLO: It was always multi-colored lights on the outside of the house – total, like, Griswold style – the hard plastic snowmen or Santa, everyone would have just one.
JESSE EUBANKS: And as you go through the front door, the Christmas tree held its classic spot in the living room.
ANNE DEEB: Sometimes we would have a tall Christmas tree, floor to ceiling, but oftentimes it would be on, like, a card table that had a Christmas blanket or tablecloth and then the tree would appear tall because it was on the card table.
NATHAN QUILLO: In the front window.
ANNE DEEB: Yes, in the front window.
JESSE EUBANKS: Their parents were educators and didn’t have much money, but Christmas was a big deal and money was not going to stop them from decorating it and going all out in creative ways.
NATHAN QUILLO: Mom had those crocheted white snowflakes.
ANNE DEEB: Yes.
NATHAN QUILLO: She would stiffen them with, like, sugar water.
ANNE DEEB: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
NATHAN QUILLO: I remember her making that craft.
ANNE DEEB: Yeah.
NATHAN QUILLO: You know, I think they probably recycled (laughs) wrapping paper.
JESSE EUBANKS: And all over the house, there was no shortage of decorations.
NATHAN QUILLO: The nutcrackers.
ANNE DEEB: A lot of lit candles in the house.
NATHAN QUILLO: Lots of handmade ornaments. The tinsel that you pulled out of the packages – they called it icicles.
ANNE DEEB: Mm-hmm.
NATHAN QUILLO: And it was a complete mess. That living room was always like really warm as far as like the decorations made it just feel like very cheery and warm.
JESSE EUBANKS: But there’s one Christmas that goes down in infamy in their family. It centers around something that happened with their dad. And one thing you need to know about their dad is that he’s a character. You know, when they were kids, after dinner, he’d almost put on an after-dinner show.
NATHAN QUILLO: He would do these voices and these characters and just entertain the table. (laugh) I don’t really know what he was doing except being silly with like – you know, he would do all these characters that he would just make up.
ANNE DEEB: Oh my gosh. They’re starting to come back to me.
NATHAN QUILLO: Quick Witch.
ANNE DEEB: Gobbledy Goop. (laugh)
NATHAN QUILLO: Spook Band.
ANNE DEEB: Yes. He made them up, but he would just use them over and over again.
JESSE EUBANKS: And at the time, their dad was really into Saturday Night Live.
NATHAN QUILLO: Certain things on Saturday Night Live and one of them was the church lady and he would do the church lady voice.
ANNE DEEB: That was Dana Carvey.
NATHAN QUILLO: It was Dana Carvey. And Dana Carvey would do, you know, this, you know –
SNL CLIP: Could it be Satan?
ANNE DEEB: He just being so silly, but he would use that voice all the time. “Are you cleaning up nicely?”
NATHAN QUILLO: “Are you playing together nicely?”
ANNE DEEB: I can’t do the voice. (laughs)
NATHAN QUILLO: And I can’t, I can’t do it very well either.
JESSE EUBANKS: Nathan and Anne’s dad would take the “Is it Satan?” phrase and apply it to just generic, everyday life situations.
NATHAN QUILLO: Let’s just say something wasn’t working and like, you know, I couldn’t get the lawnmower started and he would say, “I don’t know. Did you try everything?” “Yeah.” “Could it be Satan?”
JESSE EUBANKS: And so one year, it’s Christmastime. The decorations are up. At this point, Nathan is in the fifth grade, Anne is in the third grade. They’ve already sung their share of required Christmas carols. All four of the kids are out looking at Christmas lights around town, and in fact, that was probably part of their parents’ plan.
NATHAN QUILLO: I think they were just scheming between the two of them to, like, get us out of the house for, like, a couple hours to, to wrap Christmas gifts because otherwise – I mean there was four of us and our house always had like neighborhood friends, so there wasn’t time for the parents and there wasn’t space to, like, hide everything upstairs or in the basement ’cause we didn’t have a basement, we didn’t have an upstairs, so they had to be pretty strategic.
JESSE EUBANKS: And while they were out, it was up to their dad to finish wrapping all of the presents.
NATHAN QUILLO: He was left to, like, wrap and he said he was just flustered, so he was rushing to get everything written.
JESSE EUBANKS: So their dad gets everything wrapped and labeled just in the nick of time as all the kids return. Anne and Nathan grew up Catholic, and so every Christmas Eve they would go to Mass. And here’s the thing – even though they went to Mass and they were Catholic, Santa was actually a really big deal in their home, and every year Anne and Nathan’s parents really played it up. So on Christmas Eve, there were actually no presents under the tree at all. They’d all go to bed after Mass, and there was just excitement and anticipation in the air.
ANNE DEEB: I remember we wanted to get to sleep so that we could get up in the morning to get our presents. I could never sleep because I would lay down and I would be so excited and I would literally hear sleigh bells outside and it would keep me up because my imagination was thinking that Santa was coming in his sleigh.
JESSE EUBANKS: But eventually they would all fall asleep, which is when mom and dad would spring into action. The gifts were placed under the tree or under the card table that the tree was sitting on.
NATHAN QUILLO: It was only like two or three presents a person, but it just, in my mind, seemed so big with so much wrapping paper and our house was so small. I mean, so it might have been that there was not that much when it felt big.
ANNE DEEB: Yeah. Yeah. We each got maybe three presents. That’s 12, and there’s probably a couple for, for the adults.
JESSE EUBANKS: Morning comes, the kids all come out, and in that cozy living room, they see all the gifts waiting for them. So, the kids start digging into the presents. Each gift is labeled with a name.
NATHAN QUILLO: “To the kids from Santa” or “To Anne from Santa.”
JESSE EUBANKS: Wrapping paper is being ripped off, and it’s filling up the little living room. Nathan picks up one of his gifts, flips open the wrapping paper tag…
NATHAN QUILLO: I remember looking at the label and just like being a little bit confused.
JESSE EUBANKS: And on the label Nathan reads –
NATHAN QUILLO: Uh, “To Nathan from Satan.”
JESSE EUBANKS: And of course, this is so confusing for kids because here it is Christmas morning, they’re supposed to be receiving gifts from Santa, and instead the Prince of Darkness has shown up to give them a gift. And while most kids might have been scared by this, Nathan actually thought it was pretty funny.
NATHAN QUILLO: I just remember laughing at it.
ANNE DEEB: Yeah.
NATHAN QUILLO: And our dad – and rather than like downplaying it, he made it a big thing. Like he just thought it was funny.
ANNE DEEB: Yes.
NATHAN QUILLO: And again – “Could it be from Satan?”
JESSE EUBANKS: As it turns out, their dad had indeed been rushing so fast that instead of writing “Santa” he had accidentally written “Satan.” It was not on purpose. It was just a fluke thing, an accident.
NATHAN QUILLO: I thought it was hilarious. You know, as a fifth grader, I’m gonna go back and tell all my friends, “I got this gift from Satan.”
JESSE EUBANKS: And as the years passed, the memories from that Christmas morning found a place in the family’s traditions. That accidental typo would bring joy and laughter to Nathan and Anne as they grew older.
ANNE DEEB: For years after that incident, dad would make a big deal of grabbing a gift and looking at the tag and, you know, saying it was from Satan.
NATHAN QUILLO: Then year after year we would tell that same story and then as we got older, you know, share it with our friends or people that we were dating, and it would just come up in conversation around the holidays. I do remember where he gave a gift and he said, “Oh my goodness, that’s another one from Satan.” (laugh) You know, and it’s just like that kind of – if anybody walked in the room, they’d be like, “What is going on?”
ANNE DEEB: Yeah.
NATHAN QUILLO: With gifts from Satan.
JESSE EUBANKS: And this story, this ridiculous situation where their dad rushed too quickly and ended up giving his kids gifts from the Prince of Darkness, it represents this thing that all of us at some level experience at Christmastime – the gap between our dreams and fantasies of what Christmas is supposed to be like and what it’s actually like for a lot of us. And it leaves us with this question – what does the coming of Jesus mean for us when we’re not living the Christmas we wish we were, but the one we actually are?
JESSE EUBANKS: You’re listening to the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. Today’s episode – “Reality Christmas” – three stories about how the coming of Jesus shapes our realities at Christmastime. Welcome to our corner of the urban universe.
JESSE EUBANKS: Our first story – “Outrageous Obedience.” Producer Anna Tran talks with a woman named Rachelle Starr, who’s determined to bring light into dark places. And during the week of Christmas, Rachelle and some of her friends take gifts to people in strip clubs. Here’s Anna.
ANNA TRAN: In August 2008, Rachelle Starr was around 23 years old, and God had just given her a word and direction to share the love of Jesus to women in the adult entertainment industry. Every week as a form of outreach, Rachelle and some other volunteers would visit the same strip club. They would bring home-cooked meals and spend time talking with the women working there. And so after a few months of getting to know the women in this club, it’s December and Rachelle has a thought.
RACHELLE STARR: “What would be a blessing for Christmas?” So we decided to get donated cozy blankets, uh, Bibles and a journal, and we were gonna write them personal letters and everything.
ANNA TRAN: They had just eaten together, it was evening around 9 p.m., and the group packs up all the gifts. So they get to the club – and because they had already built relationships with that club manager, the bouncers, the women working there – and when they walk in, they are actually really welcomed there.
RACHELLE STARR: Just think about that. First of all, you have to get past a doorman that’s going to wand every customer down. We don’t, they open the door right up for us, they carry our food in. And it’s dark, and there’s loud music and lots of lights and different-colored lights.
ANNA TRAN: Only a few months before when Rachelle and her friends would walk into the club, they got confused stares and weird looks. But now, as they walk in, the women working there actually greet them warmly.
RACHELLE STARR: They would just say, “The church ladies are here.” And imagine us like coming into the club with all these bags with huge blankets in ’em and everything, and they didn’t know we were bringing Christmas gifts, which was really fun as well. As soon as we walked in with gifts, the girls started leaving their customers and started coming to see what the, the gifts were.
ANNA TRAN: And as per usual, the group had brought amazing home-cooked food. And because it was a special day, it was a whole Christmas meal.
RACHELLE STARR: Ham, green beans, mashed potatoes – I mean like everything you would have at your grandma’s house. And so we would set ’em all up and display all of our food, and we actually served the women plates so that they can get as much as they want.
ANNA TRAN: As they are serving the food and handing out gifts, Rachelle sees a woman she’s been getting to know in the past few months.
RACHELLE STARR: The first time I ever met her, she was completely downcast. She would not look me in the eye. She looked about 18 – well, because she was 18. She was about my height – so I’m about five nine – and she just looked young and innocent and she often, when I would meet her, she would look scared.
ANNA TRAN: So Rachelle hands her a gift – the cozy blanket, a Bible, a journal – and the woman, who we’ll call Brooke, starts to cry.
RACHELLE STARR: Immediately I asked her where the tears were coming from, and she told me that her dad had died and she lived in rural Kentucky and her mom was an alcoholic and a drug addict.
ANNA TRAN: Brooke’s dad had died just a year before, her mom wasn’t making any money, and they didn’t have any food.
RACHELLE STARR: So someone in her rural county said, “You should go on up to Louisville and try to get yourself a job.” She had never done anything like this in her entire life, but the vulnerability of poverty and not being able to survive or pay for housing or a place to live was what led her to this club.
ANNA TRAN: And another thing to note is that Brooke never received a Christmas gift in her life – nothing from her family, nothing from friends. So when Rachelle gives her the gifts, it overwhelms her.
RACHELLE STARR: And she did not know what to do. She didn’t know how to feel. She didn’t know how to express thanks or emotion. She just cried. So she wrapped up in the blanket and read our note and really, truly just wept and wept and wept.
ANNA TRAN: So during the next few hours, they enjoy food together, the gifts, each other’s company well into the night. They leave sometime past midnight, and Rachelle tells me this memory that Brooke has.
RACHELLE STARR: When she wrapped up in that blanket, after I left she said she went into the dressing room and fell asleep. And I just think about how God wraps us up and wants us to have that type of rest in him and she just never known that. You know, even up to that point, she had never known rest.
ANNA TRAN: Rachelle said that the Christmas gift really helped Brooke to open up to her, and the story doesn’t end here. A couple weeks later, Rachelle and Brooke get together for coffee at a McDonald’s, and Rachelle got to know more about her family.
RACHELLE STARR: Because of her whole life taking care of a drug addict mother and a father that was really never there but did provide until he died, she would cook, and so she deeply desired to go to culinary art school. So I immediately started thinking like, “What if I could find her a scholarship to go to culinary art school?” But first of all, I don’t know where she lives, like what is her current living situation? So I started asking a lot of questions, and she started getting a little shy. She was exposing a little too much of herself.
ANNA TRAN: Rachelle decides not to push too much and they finish their coffee and they both go home. So a few weeks pass, and on a Thursday night as Rachelle is doing outreach, Brooke comes up to her and mentions that she wasn’t feeling well.
RACHELLE STARR: I asked her if there was anything we could do for her, and she said, “Well, I really actually just need a ride home.” I said, “No problem, we’ll take you home.” So, you know, in my mind I’m thinking, “Is the general manager gonna get mad at me because I’m taking one of the dancers home?” So I asked permission. I said, “Hey, uh, she doesn’t feel well. Can I take her home?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s no problem.”
ANNA TRAN: Rachelle and Brooke, they get into the car, and they drive to Brooke’s home.
RACHELLE STARR: We pull into a white house that was pretty broken down – the fence was broken in the back, trash was everywhere – and I asked her because she wasn’t feeling good if I could carry her bag in. And she said no at first. And I said, “Well, let me carry it in for you. I’d really like to.” And she said, “Well, I don’t exactly live in the house. I live in the attic.” And I said, “Okay.” I said, “Show me where you live.” And so legitimately we walked up the fire escape to the attic of the side of the house, and we went in the little door – that is, an attic door – we went inside. And they had laid plywood down for her, and there was a princess sleeping bag, her dance bag was her pillow, and a little mirror. And that was where she was living.
ANNA TRAN: As Rachelle left, she asked Brooke how much she was paying for rent.
RACHELLE STARR: And she said 250 a month – for an attic that she’s sleeping on plywood. And it was really devastating to me, and I thought, “How can I go home and sleep in my bed and I have a guest bedroom and all of these things that I don’t need?”
ANNA TRAN: That night had sparked something in Rachelle, and she had this thought.
RACHELLE STARR: Maybe we could bless her beyond the Christmas gift. We could bless her by renovating that little attic space.
ANNA TRAN: Rachelle got permission from the landlord. She rallied people from her church. She organized the time to do renovations.
RACHELLE STARR: One day while she was at work, I picked up the keys to her little attic space and our whole, like, 25 men and women renovated the attic – laid down legitimate floor, put in a heater up there, kitchenette in there, got her a real bed, and set up her a little house.
ANNA TRAN: Rachelle said that once they finished the renovations they locked the place up. And that evening, once Brooke finished her shift at work, she came back to a whole new home. And immediately the next morning, while Rachelle and Brooke had met up for breakfast, Rachelle said that Brooke was just overwhelmed. She could not stop crying. And years later, Brooke and Rachelle are still friends, and Brooke mentioned that those renovations on that attic was one of the most impactful things that’s ever happened to her in her entire life.
RACHELLE STARR: Brooke actually ended up going to culinary art school several months later. She graduated with a culinary arts degree and went into the culinary field.
ANNA TRAN: In 2009, Rachelle started a nonprofit called Scarlet Hope that continues to minister to women in the adult entertainment industry. And since then, Scarlet Hope has continued doing outreach at clubs and have also expanded to provide career development, spiritual development, counseling, and educational help. Rachelle is now in her thirties, and as the president of the ministry, she hears story after story of the impact the ministry is making.
RACHELLE STARR: One of our volunteers, I asked her, “Do you remember anything about serving in the clubs on Christmas?” And she said, “Yeah, I remember Stacy. We gave her a journal and I had written a letter in there and she reads that and it’s in her locker at the club every week. She reads it all the time. Another girl that has received several gifts from us year over year stacks all of the gifts in her locker and she reads them and she holds them dear because they’re the only things that she’s been given.” And, um, it’s such a beautiful picture of a gift that we received from God that we didn’t deserve, right, and we didn’t do anything to earn it. There’s nothing good in us that should have been given the gift of mercy through Jesus, and that’s what we’re trying to portray at Christmastime with the women that we serve.
JESSE EUBANKS: It’s been 15 years since Rachelle started the ministry, and today Scarlet Hope is stationed in nine other cities around the U.S. And actually Rachelle has a new book called Outrageous Obedience, detailing her story about God’s call in her life to become the light of Christ in dark places. You can find her book wherever it is you buy good books. When we come back – two more stories about the gap between our dreams and our realities at Christmastime. We’ll be right back.
JESSE EUBANKS: Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. Jesse Eubanks. Our next story – “When A Bell Rings, A Peanut Gets Its Wings.” This next story comes from our friend Nathan Robertson. Nathan is a writer, and one cold December night when he was a kid, Nathan and his family received some unlikely help.
NATHAN ROBERTSON: When I was a kid, I asked my mom one time what angels looked like. I always assumed they must look like you and me dressed in robes of white with a shiny halo and giant wings. She told me she was pretty sure they didn’t look like people but no one could really know what they looked like. I happened to be sitting next to a can of Planters peanuts, and my juvenile brain decided then and there that angels must look like Mr. Peanut – monocle, top hat, and all. As silly as it sounds, it makes it extremely clear that I was very confused about angels. I was aware of their presence in Scripture, but I think it’s fair to say I was unsure of what real impact they had on my life – if they were even real in the first place. I mean, maybe it was one of those parable things where Jesus used fictional stories and characters to make a point. So when it came to the Christmas story – between some of the wild elements like heavenly host of angels, a virgin birth, and a heavenly star pointing the way paired with the cultural additions of a fat man in a suit who goes down your chimney with little elves who make toys – it can be really hard as a kid to pinpoint what’s real and what’s fluff.
It had been an especially cold winter. We’d come to expect snow even if it didn’t show up on the radar. My family and I had gone to look at Christmas lights in one of Louisville’s bougie neighborhoods. Now my dad has never been one to give up on a plan just because the weather is a bit dicey. So as the snow started to fall and the ice started to solidify, it became clear that it was going to be a difficult ride home. At this point, we were still driving the white van. I feel like that’s all I need to say – partially because I don’t remember what kind of van it was, but also I think many of us had a white van that was the same generic one everybody bought. I can only imagine that at some point they mass produce these vans then decided they sucked and just put out an ad that said something like, “Must go for $0. Yes, that’s right. $0. You get a beautifully average white car with somewhat reliable heat – unless it’s really cold outside, then don’t count on it. The car drives great – unless there is any sort of precipitation falling from the sky. So come on down today, and start making memories your children will never forget.”
So there we were on the back roads of East Louisville heading home. The snow was coming down steadily, the roads were sufficiently covered in ice, and we were all starting to get a little nervous. And typically these are the kind of scenarios where you finally make it home and eventually you can laugh about it saying, “Well, I guess we shouldn’t do that again.” But unfortunately, that best case scenario didn’t play out this time. Suddenly our van began to slide back and forth searching for some grip on the asphalt, but only finding a frozen solid surface. Before we knew it, we were at a slant, falling down into a ditch off the side of the road.
Even though I was just six years old at the time, I can remember being acutely aware that this was a bad situation. If I looked out the window, all I could see was black – no other cars, no streetlights, just darkness. My parents were never really ones to get easily rattled, but I could see panic starting to creep in on their faces. The weather was bad. The snow was relentless and continued to cover everything around us. My parents made phone calls, but after a few minutes, they turned to us and told us it would be several hours before a tow truck could get to us. I looked out the window for signs of other headlights, but there were few and far between. The ones we did see didn’t seem to have any intention of stopping. Just minutes before, I had been lost in the wonder of Christmas lights and falling snow. Now I found myself anxious and confused as I looked up at the night sky from down in that ditch, terrified that no one would ever find us. So we waited, and we waited.
As I sat there in the backseat with my chin in my arms hoping for some kind of miracle, I noticed what seemed like movement coming out of the woods, lit by the glow of our headlights. I squinted my eyes in an attempt to make out what surely must have been my imagination. Yeah, I was sure I saw dark shapes moving on the outskirts of the unseemly snow globe we’ve been trapped inside of, with no hope of escape. Ever so slowly these abstract forms began to take shape, and before too long I saw what looked to be three large men who had emerged from the woods and were now walking toward us. Now I know what you’re thinking, and I probably would’ve been thinking the same thing if my small brain had ever watched the five o’clock news or contained the horror movie knowledge I have now. If I had known better, I would’ve been terrified, but I wasn’t. Were my parents? I looked up at my parents trying to see if they’d caught a glimpse of what I was looking at. Sure enough, I could see my dad slowly looking out the window and beginning to inch the car door open. Were they scared or relieved? The men were each wearing hard hats, reflective vests, and work boots. They dressed like construction workers – construction workers in the middle of nowhere with no vehicle who emerged from the woods. I like these guys. They looked like action figures, like the kind of people I colored on pages at school or saw helping people who were in danger – people in danger like us. In my heart, I knew they were there to help. My assumptions were right. As my dad got out, I could hear one of them and ask, “How can we help?” So we all piled out of the van to lighten the load a bit, and these men, along with my dad, started pushing the van out of the ditch. Once they finally got it back on the road, we started getting everything back in the car, my parents were buckling everyone in, and when we were settled we immediately turned to tell these men thank you. But, much to our surprise, there were no men there. It was just us and our van sitting on the road without another soul in sight.
That snowy night at Christmastime opened my eyes. That right there was the Christmas reality I’d heard so much about. I mean, God literally came with a small host of angels and saved us from a situation where we couldn’t save ourselves. I was sure of it. All of a sudden, that big host of heavenly angels appearing to the shepherds didn’t sound so odd, and a virgin birth and the heavenly star began to seem logical means of God showing his glory. If God could send three men from out of the woods to save a family on the back roads of Kentucky, then surely that’s the same God who could point some random shepherds towards his only son. The other stuff – the real added fluff – could still be fun, but became far less interesting than what God was up to. Christmas became a whole new experience after that. When we read the Christmas story in the morning, I begged to be the one to read it. They may not have known the choir of Mr. Peanuts I was picturing as I read – old habits die hard – but for me, there was an entirely new joy in the reality that God’s story happened and is still happening. Jesus’s coming no longer felt like a wild story I was supposed to be celebrating. It was a true and active reality that I was part of, which is pretty exciting.
JESSE EUBANKS: Nathan Robertson. You can actually hear another story of Nathan’s by going back and listening to our episode “Different Together,” where Nathan tells the story of growing up with his special needs twin brother. Our final story – “‘Twas The Fight Before Christmas.” This story comes from my wife, Lindsay Eubanks. She actually tells the story of our first Christmas together. Things did not go according to plan. Here’s Lindsay.
LINDSAY EUBANKS: I’ve always been a dreamer. Perhaps it was born from my need to escape the reality of growing up in an alcoholic home or perhaps it was being raised an only child or perhaps being raised an only child gave me too much alone time for rumination. Regardless, I have always had a colorful imagination. And with imagination comes unrealistic expectations, especially around the holidays. Embark with me as we take a ride into my imagination.
It is December 24, 2004. My husband and I are sharing our first married Christmas Eve in our one-room duplex apartment built in an old house in the Highlands in Louisville, Kentucky. If there was a highlight reel describing my perfect morning, there would be scenes of waking slowly to a cozy snuggle, a crackling fireplace, and delicious breakfast brought to me in bed by my groom. Now, exit the ride and enter into reality. As my husband’s alarm goes off at 4:45 a.m. to go to work, I try to hide my disappointment. He is a shift leader at a national chain coffee shop and shift leaders open the store and the store opens at six because even on Christmas Eve Americans expect their no-whip, non-fat peppermint mochas. As he is bustling around getting ready, I am trying not to wake up. If he has to be away, at least I get to sleep in. Suddenly, he darts into the room a bit panicked. “It snowed, a lot,” as if he didn’t already struggle with getting anywhere on time on a regular day. This snow was now sealing his fate and thrusting him into double digit lateness and an inevitable confrontation from his boss. Our neighborhood is predominantly on-street parking. There are no driveways. There is nowhere for snow plows to put the snow except on the parked cars on the side of the road. You can see where this is going. My husband grabs our pitiful newlywed shovel – a compact plastic contraption that looked as though it may break from the weight of someone merely looking at it wrong – and heads out into the dark, freezing cold to dig his cute Geo Prizm out of a half foot of snow. As the door slams behind him, I blurred out a half-hearted and muffled, “Oh man, that sucks,” that he definitely doesn’t hear. But in truth, I don’t think this sucks at all. I’m happy about the snow. What a beautiful gift God was giving us for our first holiday together as a married couple – a white Christmas.
It is barely light out when I am abruptly awoken by a banging on my front door. I roll over and look at the clock. It’s a few minutes past six a.m. As I walk to the door, I see a silhouette that becomes clear as I get closer. Though we’ve barely ever spoken, I recognize the face at the door. It’s our neighbor. She’s a white woman in her early fifties, she’s all bundled up in a long coat, and I think I see her robe sticking out of the bottom. As I reach to unlock the door, I examine her face, and I quickly observe she is not someone currently filled with Christmas cheer. I crack open the door. Before I can greet her or ask any questions, I’m met with a sharp, “Is your husband here?” I say, “No, he is at work.” “Well someone better come clean off our walkway ’cause he shoveled all the snow around his car right onto our sidewalk and now I can’t get out.” I peer around her and direct my attention to the crime in question. The evidence is obvious. Her sidewalk and the passenger side of her car are buried in deeper snow than anywhere else on the street. My initial instinct had been to defend my husband, but after seeing my husband’s handiwork and hearing our neighbor screaming at me about her bad knee and how horrible my husband is, I am tempted to agree with her and tell her that I will be promptly burying his body under the snow when he gets home. My neighbor makes her closing statement with a few pointed obscenities before she hobbles away. I didn’t even get a chance to apologize for him.
Naturally, as any sleepy and stunned 25 year old would do in this situation, I burst into tears and called my husband. Unfortunately, the peppermint mochas must have been flowing because he didn’t answer, so I found my boots, my coat, and the tiny shovel and marched out into the freezing cold snow to clean up my darling husband’s mess. I started shoveling her walkway, choking back sobs and turning my back away as she and her boyfriend watched me from their front porch. I must have looked pretty pathetic because it wasn’t long before her beau, a late fifties white man with a scruffy gray beard and smelling of smoke, came down the stairs toward me with his adult-size shovel – large and metal and likely made from the depths of Mordor – and starts digging with me. Now, you must be thinking, “What a merciful and kind thing for this man to do for this poor girl who’s cleaning up someone else’s mess.” But what you don’t see is his condescending scowl, and what you don’t hear is him scolding me – and vicariously my husband – like a parent scolding their idiot teenager. I’m not sure what was worse – shoveling alone or shoveling in shame. My increased sobbing as I shoveled must have struck the one feeling this man possessed. I don’t think he realized my tears during his scolding session, but he suddenly softened and mumbled something in the vein of “It’s okay.” As we finished and I began walking back to our apartment, he offered one more nugget of wisdom – “You and your husband need to think next time.” I considered hitting him over the head with our shovel, but I doubt getting attacked by what is essentially Tupperware on a stick would feel very threatening. Now, things like this haunt me for a long time. My ruminating skills born in childhood kick into high gear, and I begin to think of all the clever things I should have said and kick myself for the tears. Now, here I am, alone on Christmas Eve, licking my wounds from being unfairly treated by our new enemy – I mean neighbors. Immediately I begin fretting over what to do to fix this relationship. I somehow assumed this was my responsibility. I was taking on the debt, judgment, and shame meant for my husband. I was so torn. It’s like I had two little Christmas elves on my shoulder, one with a halo and one with a pitchfork. The pitchfork side of me wanted to allow the anger I felt toward my neighbors seep deep into my heart and grow a nice weed of bitterness. I wanted to return their unkindness with equally poor treatment or worse. I wanted to find ways to make them pay for ever treating me that way. I wanted to do something that would’ve gone down in history with the Hatfields and McCoys, Biggie and Tupac, Kanye and Taylor, but the true self – or elf in this case – the part of me that is drawn to follow the way of Jesus was activated by an unlikely source, a rum raisin cake sitting on my kitchen counter. I spotted the cake a friend of ours had dropped off as a Christmas gift the day before. She was a chef and had made us two small rum raisin bundt cakes, and there was definitely much more rum than raisin in this one. I was planning to take this delicious and slightly intoxicating gift to our family dinner tonight, but suddenly I had an idea – “If I can’t kill these people with my sad little shovel, maybe I can kill them with kindness.” I wrapped up the cake and put it in actual Tupperware – not from the shovel – and wrote a note apologizing for how inconsiderate we had been shoveling snow in her walkway. Now, in my hubby’s defense, it was pitch black outside, cold, and there was no way to tell where her walkway was with all that snow. But I digress. I go up to her porch, quickly leave the cake and note in front of her screen door, and go back home. I don’t know what I was expecting from that small attempt at making things right. I didn’t think she would even acknowledge the gesture. And if she did, I was worried it would just make things worse. I imagined I might find rum raisin cake in my gas tank the next time I filled up. I honestly had little hope or expectation that God would use that small olive branch to change either of our hearts. How could he? My motives were not pure, and my heart was not in it. Heck, I was giving her something I didn’t want, I didn’t like, and secretly wanted to stuff in her face, while at the same time silently cursing my darling husband for putting me in this situation in the first place.
“But God” – my favorite two words in Scripture. Those two little words tell a big story. Personally, these words remind me that even when things look bleak and situations seem unfair and unsalvageable, God is still in control, still moving in hearts and still working miracles. Even I can’t get in the way of his grace for me or for others. The phrase “but God” acknowledges my propensity to really mess things up while also reminding me of the hope of rescue that happens when Jesus comes on the scene. And when Jesus came on the scene that Christmas Eve, he came with a beautiful shovel filled with unexpected grace for both me, my husband, and my neighbors, despite ourselves.
A few hours later, we were leaving to go to our Christmas Eve dinner with my extended family. I was rushing my husband, trying to get him to the car before my neighbor spotted him and wanted to give him the rest of what was on her mind. We made it down our snow-covered apartment steps and onto the infamous sidewalk that started all this drama and almost made it inside the car unscathed. But as I was grabbing the cold car door handle, a faint shout came from behind me. I turned slowly to look, bracing myself for what was about to come, and I see the neighbor lady, the one who was so cruel to me hours earlier, holding the rum raisin cakes and my note. And leaning off the porch, her robe dangling and a cigarette between her fingers, she yells the most beautiful words of reconciliation. “I’m sorry I’m such a (expletive) “
Stunned, I look at her, then at my husband, and I was speechless. I had not expected any response from her, much less something that admitted fault. In her own way, she was apologizing for how she treated me. It was a Christmas miracle. I tell this story not to brag about how noble and righteous I was to extend kindness to someone who treated me unfairly. I sacrificed nothing for this apology. I re-gifted unwanted cakes in an effort to look humble and contrite. I tell this story to brag about how merciful and kind Jesus is, to both me and our neighbors. Because Jesus had met me so many times with undeserved kindness and grace when I had cussed him out in my heart, I was moved to offer that same grace to my neighbor. Even with impure motives and even though I doubted it would make a difference, she was moved. She was softened for a moment by the same grace that regularly melts my own cold heart. So unfortunately, my dreams of my first married Christmas were not filled with frolicking in the snow and singing carols with my neighbors. Rather, they were filled with shoveling snow and being cursed by my neighbors. Christmas dreams and Christmas reality often don’t match up. But God.
JESSE EUBANKS: That was Lindsay Eubanks. She’s an occupational therapist in the public school system. You can hear more from her by going back and listening to our episode “Where the Gospel Meets Sex.”
Every Christmas Eve as the clocks roll over to strike midnight, my church closes out the service by turning off all of the lights in our old cathedral, raising our candles, and singing acapella. So, we leave you with this musical benediction. Wherever you are and whatever reality Jesus is meeting you in, may his arrival be good news for you. Against all odds, God is with us. Merry Christmas.
SILENT NIGHT CLIP
JESSE EUBANKS: If you benefited at all from this podcast, please help us out by leaving a review wherever it is that you listen to podcasts. Your review will help other people discover our show.
JESSE EUBANKS: Special thanks to our interviewees and story contributors for this episode – Nathan Quillo, Anne Deeb, Rachelle Starr, Nathan Robertson, and Lindsay Eubanks. Senior producer and host is me, Jesse Eubanks. This episode was edited and produced by Anna Tran, who I gave a gift and she didn’t believe it was from me. She looked at me skeptically and asked –
SNL CLIP: Could it be Satan?
JESSE EUBANKS: Music for today’s episode comes from Lee Rosevere, Poddington Bear, and Blue Dot Sessions. Theme music and commercial music by Murphy DX.
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Which of these was a neighbor to the man in need? The one who showed mercy. Jesus tells us, “Go, and do likewise.”
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