Is it really the most wonderful time of year? Today, stories about people wrestling with the gap between what Christmas promises and what it actually delivers.
#81: Reality Christmas Part 2
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. Okay, I came to you a while back to let you know about a special time sensitive need. I am here to say that time is running out. We only have a few days left. We need our listeners to respond before the clock runs out on us. Some generous donors have given us a special opportunity that runs through December 31st. That means that between now and the end of the year, every dollar that you donate to Love Thy Neighborhood will automatically be doubled. But, it is only through the end of the year. As with a lot of nonprofits, the end of the year is a big deal for us. The collective donations that we raise decide what we’re going to be able to do for the next year. Your gift will allow us to recruit, disciple, and mobilize young adults to serve as urban missionaries, give thousands of hours of volunteer service to local ministries for free, and create more podcast content. We’ve got some really exciting topics for you this coming year, and that can only happen with your support. I know that it is easy to think that somebody else is gonna step up, somebody else is going to be the one to give to us, but I’m actually here asking you to be that person. So whether you give 5 bucks, 25 bucks, 100 bucks, your generosity is going to make a big difference for our ministry. To give, simply look in the episode description in your podcast app and click on the “Donate” link. Everything that you give between now and the end of the year will be matched. Again, you can be our hero. You can make a real difference with the gospel by picking up your phone right now, clicking on the “Donate” link in the episode description, and giving a gift. Your generosity is going to make a real difference in the lives of young adults, their urban neighbors, the ministries we serve, and all the future listeners of this podcast. We don’t have much time left. We cannot do this without you. So please help us out. Thank you so much for your support. You are our hero. Okay, onto the episode.
AUDIO CLIPS: Love Thy Neighborhood… Discipleship and missions for modern times.
JESSE EUBANKS: You’ll hear this message everywhere. Is it a promise? A declaration? Some people infuse it with spiritual significance, others just mean it as fact. Whatever the intent, it’s a big statement about the nature of this very moment, this thing that all of us are supposed to be going through together – the lights, the gifts, the magic. And it’s simply this.
AUDIO CLIP: It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
JESSE EUBANKS: That’s right – Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. To that I offer – a holy humbug. Whatever. The truth is that this time of year – it is really hard for a lot of people. The expectations placed on this season are insurmountable. A lot of us feel the pressure to make our family gatherings look like a Norman Rockwell painting, while in reality they feel more like Salvador Dali – warped and beautiful, but mostly confusing. Lots of folks can’t wait for January 1st to roll around just so all the pressure to make this season into something it will never be can finally stop. Some folks climb into a bottle or draw their blinds all month long just to drown out the endless reminders of how much they lack in their lives. And this is where the humble God enters the scene.
Before Jesus, those two words could never have been combined – humble, God. But, the arrival of Jesus changed everything. When he entered the world, he was a vulnerable baby born into poverty. He was adored by commoners and cattle. The aroma of sheep dung hung in the air. His mother carried rumors of sleeping around. The government responded to the threat of his arrival by murdering infants en masse, devastating thousands of families. His toddler years were spent in hiding as a refugee far from home. In other words, his actual birth, the one in the Scriptures, would never be a sanitary bedtime story for kids. His life was not a sunny, primetime holiday special. Rankin/Bass would not approve. So, all this pressure that we feel for this to be the most wonderful time of the year – Jesus doesn’t place those expectations on us. Those of you that feel the pressure to make this season into something that it can’t be, just stop. Just let it be what it is. Let’s turn the expectations down. So, when Pinterest and all those photo-friendly influencers show up in your news feed to sing their perfect carols with their perfect parties, just turn your phone off. If you’re struggling, disappointed, uncertain, or lonely, Jesus came for you. He didn’t come for you in your strength. He came for you as you are – weak, tired, and a little unhinged. If you’re feeling a little broken this year, Christmas is truly for you. We aren’t alone anymore. God is with us.
JESSE EUBANKS: You’re listening to the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. I’m Jesse Eubanks. Today’s episode – “Reality Christmas Part Two.” We have two stories for you today about people wrestling with the gap between what Christmas promises and what it actually delivers. Welcome to our corner of the urban universe.
JESSE EUBANKS: Story number one – “Silent Nights, Empty Wallets.” 2020 brought a lot of first time experiences to people, but for one man, it brought one first time experience he truly never saw coming. Our first story today comes from producer Anna Tran.
ANNA TRAN: Christmas in 2020 was hard for a lot of people, but it was especially hard for a guy named Josh Pease.
JOSH PEASE: My name is Josh Pease.
ANNA TRAN: But to understand why, we have to go back a little bit. Josh is married, has two kids.
JOSH PEASE: Nine and seven years old.
ANNA TRAN: In 2016, Josh was a pastor at a church in Los Angeles. His finances were stable. He didn’t need to work other jobs. But then in late 2016, he left that position, and he and his wife moved the family out to Colorado for another job opportunity. But quickly things went off the rails because the full time job actually fell through. So, this is how Josh finds himself in a new city, totally jobless. He needs to come up with something fast. Considering that he’s good at writing and communicating, Josh started taking jobs as a freelance writer. But –
JOSH PEASE: It turns out it’s really, really hard to make a living as a freelance writer, and so I was also waiting tables and basically just doing whatever it took to pay the bills and try to keep things going.
ANNA TRAN: And it’s during this same time period that things began shifting in his faith life. You see, growing up, Josh spent a lot of time in evangelical Christian spaces and also pursued full time pastoral ministry for years. But during the 2016 elections, Josh saw Christians prioritizing political sides over being like Jesus. But there was one thing that was particularly upsetting.
JOSH PEASE: It wasn’t so much that I saw a bunch of Christians choosing America over Jesus. It’s that they didn’t know that there was a difference. And I’m like, “I don’t want to be a part of that.”
ANNA TRAN: Although Josh went to church at the time, his trust in local churches continued to dwindle. Okay, fast forward to 2018. Josh was a few years into freelance writing when he got the opportunity to write some investigative journalism pieces.
JOSH PEASE: Ended up writing pretty extensively about abuse and narcissism in evangelical church institutions, writing articles about women who had experienced abuse in, in church settings and who were told, “Well, the pastors or the deacon or whoever is a man of God. You just need to forgive him.”
ANNA TRAN: Now, with a lot of Christians becoming politically polarized and hearing story after story of abuse in the church, Josh was fed up.
JOSH PEASE: Just kind of got to the point where I’m like, “What are we doing? It seems like we’re not super that into the actual way of Jesus,” and got, got to a pretty disillusioned point and even wondering if, like, the local church was really doing all of that much good.
ANNA TRAN: In the next year as Josh was waiting tables, writing, picking up other jobs to pay the bills, the finances actually started to level out. He and his wife were finally able to let their budget breathe a little bit. So going into 2020, things were actually looking up. But, we all know what happened in 2020.
AUDIO CLIPS: China has identified the cause of a mysterious new virus… Coronavirus… Coronavirus… There are fears a rapidly spreading virus has reached Australia… Americans’ unemployment claims nearly 3.3 million… More than 6 million, I hope that’s right… 10 million workers now applying…
JOSH PEASE: In the span of like maybe two months, every single thing that we were dependent on for our income more or less disappeared.
ANNA TRAN: No more writing jobs, no more restaurant jobs, and, because of the pandemic, actually no jobs at all. So, as their savings money got used up, Josh and his family were in a situation they had never been in before. They knew that there were people out there who couldn’t afford basic needs like rent, food, and utilities. But –
JOSH PEASE: For the first time, that was us. But I’d had the privilege of never experiencing that before. And so suddenly food banks were where we were going so that we could pay a little bit less on our groceries and pay our utility bills.
ANNA TRAN: Josh and his wife were now reliant on government safety net programs like SNAP and Social Security to help keep their heads above water. Not only are their finances unstable again, they’re actually in a worse situation. So there’s financial instability, but of course during 2020 there was a lot of cultural instability, and it left Josh wondering –
JOSH PEASE: “Shouldn’t the church be doing more?”
ANNA TRAN: Polarization over masking and vaccinations left him asking –
JOSH PEASE: “Shouldn’t we be a voice of hope and a voice that cares about the people who are immunocompromised?”
ANNA TRAN: And responses to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor left him asking –
JOSH PEASE: “Shouldn’t we be a voice of reconciliation and that’s trying to reach out to our black brothers and sisters and communicate love and kindness?” And it just seemed like everywhere I was turning what I was seeing was an expression of the church that felt like it was bringing death, not life.
ANNA TRAN: But what can a person do when they find themselves living through a global pandemic, economic instability, national protests, and political unrest? Well, they still need to eat. And if they have a family, they need to feed their family, pay rent. And sometimes, they need to get a job that’s not exactly their dream job. And that’s how Josh found himself working for FedEx that December. It’s peak delivery season as he’s alone in his truck, delivering package after package.
JOSH PEASE: And I remember hitting a wall late in that day and just sitting in my truck and like crying because I was so exhausted and I was so tired and so worn out physically and emotionally and mentally and spiritually. It’s around that time that I just started telling God, it’s like, “God, I know you’re gonna provide for my family because I’ve seen you do that for so long. For years now, I’ve watched you provide for my family, but I feel like you forgot about me. Am I gonna get to do something that makes me feel alive again, or am I just gonna grind out in existence for the rest of my life and this is it?”
ANNA TRAN: And as Christmas comes closer, Josh found himself grinding out work day after day, making enough to pay the bills but still unsure of what Christmas was going to be like.
JOSH PEASE: We have no money. Like, we can barely afford the basic necessities of the things that we need, and it’s like, we didn’t know, you know, “How are we gonna, like, pay for gifts?”
ANNA TRAN: And with those questions looming, one day he finds himself at home in his apartment with his family.
JOSH PEASE: When I put the kids to bed that night and I’m just sitting on the couch in our apartment probably watching TV –
ANNA TRAN: Josh hears his wife get home from running errands.
JOSH PEASE: And she comes in the door, and she’s got like the biggest smile on her face.
ANNA TRAN: And she told Josh –
JOSH PEASE: And was like, “I just experienced, like, the most amazing thing.” She came in with, like, bags of stuff. So she had picked out presents for the kids, also had, like, items of clothing, and some of them weren’t just for kids, they had stuff for adults. So she had, like, gotten me, like, a coat and was just so overjoyed at all the things that she’d been able to bring home with her.
ANNA TRAN: Josh has no idea where all these things came from. They definitely didn’t have the money to buy it all themselves. So he asks his wife where she got all this stuff. And she tells him –
JOSH PEASE: There was a, a church that was doing this thing called The Christmas Store, which we’d never heard of before, but where you could shop for gifts for, for your kids, but at, like, a real, drastically reduced price.
ANNA TRAN: So, this Christmas Store – it gave Josh and his wife the ability to make some special Christmas moments happen. Which was especially important for his wife.
JOSH PEASE: She carries such a deep desire to, like, create special memories for our kids, and, like, the holidays are just so special and so important to her.
ANNA TRAN: Now remember, since 2016, Josh had become more and more disillusioned with the local church. And this moment really did restore his hope and trust in the local church – just not in the timeline you might think.
JOSH PEASE: I would love for there to be like, “And then I fell on my knees and realized how beautiful the local church could be.” And it wasn’t that. Honestly, I was like, “Okay, cool.”
ANNA TRAN: Josh really didn’t have the time or the mental space to let this all sink in. After December 25th, he still drove FedEx trucks. Their family still went to food banks. They were still trying to keep their finances above water. But as the months pass –
JOSH PEASE: When life started to feel like it was normalizing a bit, when COVID felt like it was less of, like, “This world is falling apart” –
ANNA TRAN: Josh began to reflect. And as he thought about the things that kept him and his family housed and fed, he realized the local church actually played a much bigger role than he had ever realized.
JOSH PEASE: There was, um, a church that not only did they have a food bank, but they would, they would pray for people. These people were praying hope over us that we couldn’t think or feel or find for ourselves, a church that helped us out with rental assistance a couple of months. There were times when, like, people would just be like, “I felt like God was telling me to give you this,” and, like, you know, a check for $1,500 would all of a sudden be in our pockets. I mean, crazy stuff.
ANNA TRAN: And in retrospect, Josh realized how the local church, through The Christmas Store, was an expression of God’s love.
JOSH PEASE: Where I realized, like, “Look how imaginatively the local church was trying to communicate love.”
ANNA TRAN: He saw how honoring the process of going to The Christmas Store could be.
JOSH PEASE: To have the autonomy over, like, picking what gifts your kids get, and then you get to, you get to pay for them. And I mean that – you get to, and there’s such a dignity in that process of being able to pick out and pay for gifts in a way that I think is so true to who our God is.
ANNA TRAN: Josh saw and experienced the church giving honor to people who were in need, including him and his family. And this was in contrast to the public abuse of power and cultural control he said he saw Christians grasping for. Josh was starting to see that the best stuff that the local church is doing –
JOSH PEASE: Is the stuff that no one sees. Well, the problem is you can’t see the good stuff because the good stuff’s not trying to draw attention to itself, usually. It was a softening moment where I started getting a vision of, of what the local church could be again.
ANNA TRAN: In 2021, Josh went back to waiting tables. But eventually that year –
JOSH PEASE: I ended up, um, taking a job as the lead pastor of a church called The Porch Church. I’ve been the pastor here for a little over two years.
ANNA TRAN: This year, The Porch Church will be hosting their very own Christmas Store, serving community members and families in need. And for Josh, he longs for Christians to be faithful in the little things, even if it won’t lead to higher church attendance or more cultural power.
JOSH PEASE: We don’t have to grasp for control. We are free to love our neighbor, even when our neighbor is our enemy, that we are free to love because in God’s kingdom there’s always enough and we don’t have to worry that we are going to run out. What would it look like if we lived that out, if that just flowed out of the communities that we built and created? How beautiful would that be?
JESSE EUBANKS: That story was from producer Anna Tran. Josh Pease was recently featured in the documentary Shiny Happy People. You can learn more about Josh and his work by going to his church’s website at porch.church. Okay, after the break – a story that I have read most Christmases for over 25 years. Stay with us.
JESSE EUBANKS: Welcome back to the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. I’m Jesse Eubanks. Today’s episode – “Reality Christmas Part Two.” We’ve come to our second story, “The Manger Is Empty.” So in 1997, I was a senior in high school when a friend gave me a small Christmas gift. It was a book called The Manger Is Empty, a series of short stories from an author named Walter Wangerin, Jr. I didn’t know it yet, but she was introducing me to someone that would become one of my favorite storytellers of all time. Over the course of his life, Wangerin wrote over 40 books. On multiple occasions, I only made it to the second chapter of his work before I ended up in tears. Wangerin passed away from cancer in 2021. So this Christmas, we thought it would be a fitting tribute to share the story that first made me fall in love with his storytelling. Wangerin shared a live rendition of this Christmas story at Christ Lutheran Church in Valparaiso, Indiana in 2012. So here it is – “The Manger Is Empty,” told by Walter Wangerin, Jr. himself, with a little narration here and there, told by me.
Walter Wangerin, Jr. was the pastor at Grace Church in Evansville, Indiana. They had a custom at Grace Church. Every year, on the Sunday before Christmas, they gather at the church to sing carols – not for themselves, for others. It was at night, in the cold, mostly kids with a few adults thrown in. They’d go out into the neighborhood to bring their music to people stuck inside, especially the elderly. Their songs were the usual suspects – “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” After going from house to house, they made their way towards the local hospital, St. Mary’s. And that’s where we’ll begin. Here’s Walt himself picking up the story.
WALTER WANGERIN, JR.: On this particular evening that I’m talking about, Thanne and I took Dee Dee and our daughter Mary and Herman and Timmy, a number of them, little kids too, and we went into St. Mary’s, we went down the hall, and you walk quietly through a door into one of the rooms where there were two people lying. The first person we saw was not one of ours and so I and the kids went to the second where there was a window on the wall and the bed was straight out like this. And now the kids were very quiet and very uncertain. They came in behind me, and they made a kind of a “U” around the bed. The woman in the bed was very sick. She was a long woman. Her arms on top of the sheet looked like broom handles, and her fingers looked like pencils. This was Ms. Williams, Ms. Odessa Williams. She had her eyes closed, and you could smell a kind of a stink coming from her mouth. There was a light just above her, but not very bright, so it cast shadows. And as the shadows came down her face, you could see how sucked in her cheeks were, how deep were her temples. And they could hear her kind of sighing when she breathed. I said, “Oh, I should have told the children. I should have prepared them.” They stood like this because it was so strange for them. They didn’t touch the bed, and they didn’t touch the back wall, they didn’t touch the curtain around. I said, “Sing. Cat got your tongues?” “No,” my daughter Mary said. So here was Odessa, here was I by her shoulder, and right across was my daughter Mary. “Sing,” I said. “Cat got your tongue?” Mary said, “No, Dad. We don’t think she’ll hear us.” Very quiet. I should have told them. Odessa was dying of cancer. She had a particularly bad case of lung cancer. And I knew that. In fact, from the time that I became pastor at Grace, Odessa never came to church. She was apartment bound, so I would visit her in the apartment. When she was happy with me, she had no teeth in. She could gum her words because this was a woman of opinions. When she was unhappy with me, she put her teeth in because she wanted me to hear the “tss-tss-tss” and the hissing she would do with her unhappiness. She had opinions especially about the children. Now she’d never heard them sing. Somehow or other she knew about this choir that we had. We called it The Grace Notes, and she said they were her children and I, by God, better take good care of them. Well, I would sit in her little apartment, and she would smoke. She would go sailing back and forth, pacing back and forth, long-legged, tall woman. She wore slippers that were crushed on the back. And she would give her opinion, smoking, blowing the smoke out. It came like a cloud behind her, over her hair. You know her hair smelled of tobacco. And she smoked. And she smoked. And I only asked her to stop once, and that was all I would ask her because then she would round upon me and talk about her life being her life and I had nothing to do with her life. I would take her communion and we would pray, though it didn’t seem to me that she ever got quiet enough to truly pray. I might get on with God, I might say a few words, but she didn’t stop pacing and smoking.
JESSE EUBANKS: Eventually, Miss Odessa became ill. The cancer had finally caught up to her. This was how Walt and the kids found themselves around her bed in the hospital. And so, Walt begins to prompt his daughter.
WALTER WANGERIN, JR.: “Sing. Sing anyway, Mary. Sing something. ‘Away in a Manger.'” Very quietly they started to sing a very shaky, “Away in a Manger.” And the farther they sang, a kind of an event, a miracle, happened on Odessa’s bed. They didn’t notice at first. I did. But her eyes came open, and she started to look around. What was this she was hearing? What was around her now? And when she began to pick out the kids, she began to nod at them. “‘Away in a Manger,’ that’s good.” And I truly believe that at that moment she knew this was The Grace Notes. These were her kids. These were the ones she had loved all along in her apartment. Yeah. And when the kids saw that she was looking at them and nodding and frowning, well, they brightened and that manger got to be louder and the cows lowed like booms. And when they sang that song, they were smiling and Odessa was doing what you do, what old ladies do when they are pleased. She was frowning, and she was chewing like this was the sweetest piece of meat she ever ate. They knew that. It’s a good frown. It’s a good chew. She liked them. Well, so then they harked the herald angels. Then it was angels around. I have no idea what the other person in this room thought. But the whole room filled up with song. And then came the second miracle. Odessa Williams held up those broomstick arms, and she started to direct. She directed her children, and it was possible for them to follow. It was as if there had been immediate relationship between all of these kids. And so she would lift them with her direction, and they would go up. And she’d drop them with her direction, they would come down. It was like a seesaw. It was like an orchestra. Boy, and they rode that with pleasure. Finally, I said, “Dee Dee. ‘Silent Night.'” Dee Dee was standing at the foot of the bed, straight down from Odessa’s sight, and we began to sing “Silent Night.” And Dee Dee started the descant on the first verse already. Odessa’s eyes went very wide, and she found Dee Dee right at the foot of her bed. And Odessa grew bold and she raised just one arm and she started directing Dee Dee higher and higher and we forgot we were singing. We were singing, but this was magic between the two of them. She directed Dee Dee higher and higher. The second verse and the third verse, and it was like the ceiling was gone from the hospital and all the sky was open, an entire crystal sphere. And up went Dee Dee, up went that bird, and she touched the heavens and all the heavens began to ring. This is a soaring which could be frightening, but Dee Dee trusted Odessa and Odessa brought her down and down and set her right there at the foot of the bed. Well, I’m the pastor, so I figured it’s time to move on. “Let’s go,” I said. Nobody moved. All these kids had their eyes trained on Odessa’s face. They expected she was going to do something. Suddenly, I had no authority. It was all Odessa. And they were right. Odessa started to preach. “Oh, you children,” she said. “Oh, you children, you my children, indeed.” They nodded. Never met her before, they knew this absolutely. She said, “You the best. I tell you, you the absolute best. Ain’t nobody standing in front of you for goodness,” she said. “And you know why that is?” Well, they shook their heads they didn’t know, but they knew Odessa would tell them. “It’s because the angel got your tongues, and the Lord, he got your spirits.” She said, “Whenever you go singing, look down in the front row. You look on down there, and always be one chair empty,” she said. “Now you know what that chair is?” They shook their heads, they didn’t know, but they would. They knew she would tell ’em. She said, “That chair is me. I’m always in front of y’all when you sing. I’m sittin’ and I’m smilin’ and I’m lovin’ y’all. And you know how I can say that maculous thing?” she said. And they didn’t know, but they knew she would tell them. Well, she put up her hand, and she said, “Because Jesus got us all in his hand, and he never let one of us go.” She said, “‘Cause Jesus got every one of us in his hand, and he don’t never let one of us go.”
Daughter Mary, who was on the other side of her, reached out and touched Odessa’s hand. And I could see in Mary’s face, she said, of the woman. “This is what gonna happen.” Suddenly love. Suddenly, unexpected, and forever and forever, Mary and Dee Dee and Timmy loved that woman.
JESSE EUBANKS: This evening of singing carols to Miss Odessa – this took place on the Sunday before Christmas. Just two days later on Tuesday, Miss Odessa died. Miss Odessa’s funeral was scheduled for the next day, Wednesday, December 23rd. As her pastor, Walter wrote her eulogy and prepared for the funeral. When Walter’s young daughter Mary heard the news that Miss Odessa had passed, she was heartbroken. She insisted on coming to the funeral with her dad. So now, Walter finds himself at the funeral home, standing by the door, greeting people as they walk in.
WALTER WANGERIN, JR.: I opened the door, and there was Mary, seven years old, standing, not moving at all. “Mary,” I said, “Come in.” She didn’t budge. She looked up, and she said, “Dad, it’s gonna snow.” I didn’t know. Mom was parking the car somewhere, so I said, “Mary, come on in.” And she and I walked up, we walked up to the casket, and we looked into the casket. She was by me, so much shorter than me. And she gasped. Well, I did too because there were things about Odessa that just didn’t seem true. It’s hard to get the right shade of an African American’s face, and it looked like somebody had made her lips wooden, almost pouting. And she wore glasses. I scarcely remembered that she wore glasses, but now I saw them because they were sitting askew. Mary stood for a while, and then she started to put out her hand. And she reached down and then she pulled back her hand and then she touched Odessa’s hand and snapped it back. “Dad,” she said. “It’s gonna snow, and you’re gonna put Odessa in the ground on Christmas Eve?” And what I was looking at, the love that is established so sweetly and so quickly and forever, has suddenly run up against the hardest thing – that when you love somebody, how can you stand it when that somebody dies and you still love it?
Mary put her face in my robes, and she didn’t really cry. She sort of hissed anger. Thanne was already in at that point, and I turned Mary to walk back and sit by her mother. I had a good sermon. I actually remember it. That’s how good it was. I don’t generally remember my sermons, but there was this passage for Christmas week that comes from Isaiah and it says, “Now she that was in anguish shall no more be troubled.” And it goes on and talks about, “Unto us a child is born.” And I talked about that. Odessa will, will never have her anguish again and so forth and so on. And there sat Mary and Dee Dee and Timmy and Herman. Whatever I said, it had no count for them at all. They were mad. They were angry.
JESSE EUBANKS: What happens when Christmas doesn’t heal anger? We’ll answer that question and more when we return. Stay with us.
JESSE EUBANKS: Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. Jesse Eubanks. Today’s episode – writer Walter Wangerin, Jr. shares the story of children losing someone they love at Christmastime. We’ll pick up where we left off.
Mary was right. It did snow. Miss Odessa was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery that Wednesday evening, and the snow continued into the next day. Now, it was Christmas Eve. And it wasn’t a happy Christmas Eve – not for Mary, not for the other kids. Anger radiated from them as they performed the annual Christmas pageant. They were angry on Christmas Eve and they were angry on Christmas Day and they were angry the day after. Christmas Day – it had come and gone, and it had not brought any magical healing to these grieving children. Walt sees these kids struggling to express their anger, not knowing how to process it, and as he’s preparing for the Sunday worship service, he’s thinking to himself, “How can I pull these kids out of this anger?”
WALTER WANGERIN, JR.: “I know, I’ll tell a story.” Now the whole point is, when I talk to them directly about the anguish being over and Odessa entering heaven, it didn’t mean anything to them at all. But if I tell a story right, it’ll draw them in, and I wanted them to be able to say, “I hate you.” I wanted them to be able to say out loud what was in their hearts all along. “I hate you,” and I wanted them to say “Death. I hate you, death.” Now, how can I bring them up to that? Well, I have to do it indirectly. I’ll make up a fairy tale. Fairy tales, you see, have the ability to hold the child back until the child is ready to enter in and feel and suffer and rejoice with the character inside. Does that make sense? It invites the child to become one of the characters in there. “I hate you, death.” So on Sunday I said – to all the congregation, I said, “The adults can listen in, but this is for the children.” And so I told the children a story, just as I told stories to my brothers when they went to bed, just as I told stories to the classes that I taught at the university, just as I told stories everywhere and wrote them down.
I said, “Once upon a time, at the coldest northern edge of the northern forest, there lived three sisters.” I said, “One sister’s name, the oldest sister’s name, was Bean Plant. Now she wasn’t beautiful. Her flowers are just little white purses. But she grew beans, and so she felt she was very important because she grew food. The second sister, Marigold. Marigold said, ‘I’m a knockout.'” Which made the kids laugh. And as soon as they laugh, I know they’re in it and they’re feeling just a little bit of strength that they can laugh at something that’s in there.
“‘I’m a knockout,’ she said. ‘I’m so beautiful. That’s how I’m important. I’m just a beauty.’
And then the third sister was Lily. Lily had no flower. Lily grew no beans or fruit. She was just a stem and three spears of leaves trembling in the wind. And that wouldn’t have mattered to her sisters, except that Lily made a nuisance of herself. She talked to the sun.
‘Oh, Lily,’ said Bean Plant. ‘The sun doesn’t talk.’
And Lily said, ‘Maybe not, maybe so.’
‘Little girl,’ said Marigold, “Who do you think you are? You’re just embarrassing us. The sun doesn’t talk.’
Lily said, ‘Maybe not, maybe so.’
And this is how they talked. Early in the morning, when the sun came up on the eastern horizon and sat there for just a moment, the sun said, ‘Good.’ And Lily said, ‘Morning.’ That’s how they talk together. ‘Good morning,’ they said. And when the sun came to the top of its zenith and looked down on all the world and all the animals working in the world, the sun said, ‘Good.’ Lily said, ‘Day!’ And so they said ‘good day’ together, and it was a very good day. And when the sun sat on the western horizon, growing huge and orange and beautiful, the sun said, ‘Good.’ And Lily never said bye. She never said goodbye. She would say, ‘Night.’ And so they said ‘good night’ together.
Now the weather got cold. Marigold and Bean Plant – they threw parties and they tried to cover up their sister so nobody could see them. But the weather grew colder and colder, and Lily noticed that the sun was getting up later and later in the morning and was only going so high and was coming down early at night. ‘Morning, day, night.’ But something was dying.
Lily ran to Bean Plant, and she said, ‘Bean Plant, I think the sun is going to die.’
And Bean Plant looked and indeed it looked like the sun was in decline, but Bean Plant said, ‘That’s no problem. Even if there’s no sun, there’s me and I got beans and folks could eat my beans.’
Lily ran to Marigold and said, ‘Marigold, I think the sun is going away.’
‘Well, that’s no problem,’ said Marigold. ‘I will be the sun. Oh, all my beauty will shine on the world and make everybody feel good.’
But the sun was going down. Now, in its waning days, it began to say a new word, and Lily thought this was a very wonderful word. She thought it might even be a magic word. But the birds and the leaves started blowing south, and as they went by, they said, ‘The murderer is coming.’ They said, ‘The murderer is coming. Get out of here.’ They said, ‘The murderer kills by kissing.'”
I said to the children, “Who’s the murderer?” And right away, they said, “Winter.” They were there.
“Well, and so here came through the air the murderer. Bean Plant was just shivering and shivering. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’ve been a very good person, I’ve worked hard, I’ve earned works righteousness, I have every right to stay.’ But winter came and kissed her and her back broke and she just stood shivering in an empty field.
Marigold said, ‘I’m too beautiful to die. What would the earth do without my beauty? I am all art. I am all beauty. You’re gonna shut up the world with – ‘ Winter kissed her.
And Lily said, ‘I hate you. I hate you because, because you killed my sisters. I hate you.’ But winter doesn’t stop for anything and winter came and kissed Lily and she laid down and died.”
“Well,” I said to the children, “You think that’s the end of the story. I’ll tell you what – when spring comes, when Easter comes around, I’m gonna take you to the northernmost edge of the northernmost forest. You come with me, and I’m gonna show you a flower. It’s a white flower shaped exactly like a cup, and on the inside you will see a drop of pure water. What do you think that is? ‘Oh,’ you’ll say to me, “Well, it’s a dewdrop.’ I’ll say, ‘No. No, no, no.’ And I’ll say, ‘The murderer kills by kissing, but the son raises up by kissing. That’s not a dewdrop. That’s a teardrop. It’s Lily, come back again, beautiful, rich as a pearl. Lily, come back again at Easter.'”
So, the children changed. I promise you. They lived my story through. They lived it through true dying, even their own dying. And then I don’t have to tell them, I don’t have to tell you who the son is. I don’t have to tell you what you call rising up again. But that’s where they were.
JESSE EUBANKS: On behalf of all of the staff here at Love Thy Neighborhood, whatever reality you find yourself in this Christmas, we pray that you know that Christ has found you. Merry Christmas.
JESSE EUBANKS: Thank you to our interviewee, Joshua Pease. Again, you can learn more about him by going to porch.church. You can also see his recent interview in the documentary Shiny Happy People. And a very special thank you to Joe Wangerin for allowing us to use Walter Wangerin, Jr.’s story. It was adapted from the story, “The Manger Is Empty,” from the book, The Manger Is Empty: Stories in Time by Walter Wangerin, Jr. Walt was the author of over 40 books, including The Book of the Dun Cow and my favorite, Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace. Also, special thank you to the following Patreon supporters – Mical Bovee, Javan and Ally Kalmar, and Robin Madson. Your support keeps this podcast and the work of this ministry going. Senior producer and host is me, Jesse Eubanks. This episode was written and produced by Anna Tran. Anna Tran is our producer and audio editor, who told me the other day that she is more important than just her podcasting skills. I may be her boss –
WALTER WANGERIN, JR.: But she go booms!
JESSE EUBANKS: Music is from Lee Rosevere, Blue Dot Sessions, and Murphy DX. This show is brought to you by Love Thy Neighborhood. If you want a hands-on experience of missions in our modern times, come serve with Love Thy Neighborhood. Love Thy Neighborhood offers summer and year-long missions internships for young adults ages 18 to 30. Bring social change with the gospel by working with an innovative nonprofit and serving your urban neighbors. Experience community like never before as you live and do ministry with other Christian young adults. Grow in your faith by walking in the life and lifestyle of Jesus and being a part of a vibrant, healthy church. Apply now at lovethyneighborhood.org. Which of these was a neighbor to the man in need? The one who showed mercy. Jesus tells us, “Go, and do likewise.”
Thank you to our interviewee Joshua Pease. Connect with Josh at The Porch Church.
And a very special thank you to Joe Wangerin for allowing us to use Walter Wangerin Jr’s story. It was adapted from the story ‘The Manger Is Empty’ from the book The Manger Is Empty: Stories in Time by Walter Wangerin, Jr. Walter Wangerin was the author of over 40 books including The Book of the Dun Cow and Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace.
Also special thank you to the following Patreon supporters: Mical Bovee, Javan and Ally Kalmar, Robin Madson. Your support keeps this podcast and the work of the ministry going.
Senior producer and host is Jesse Eubanks.
Anna Tran is our producer and audio editor.
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