Who Gets A Lump of Coal for Christmas?
"What do you think you're going to get for Christmas?" My leering uncle by marriage asked me when I was eight.
He was an odd man with a penchant for terrible jokes and general ribbing and who was also creepy to the point of distraction.
I never knew him to wear anything but cowboy boots, western snap-button shirts, and jeans held to his skinny frame by belts he'd made himself, festooned with enormous belt buckles.
"I don't know," I mumbled as I stared at his latest belt buckle decorated with horseshoes.
"I'll tell you what you're gonna get," he told me with a Grinch-like expression. "You're getting nothing but a lump of coal."
Even though I knew he was full of it, I had a moment of pause. I wondered if he knew something I didn't. Or maybe that's what he and my aunt had gotten me for a gift.
Because I was raised in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist tradition, I'd stopped believing in Santa Claus by the time I was five or six. Even though my parents never said it, one can only hear about the evils of "Satan Claus" in church so much without asking questions.
And then I became that kid who told other kids that Santa wasn't real, and parents snuck all that stuff under the tree.
"Think about it," I told one of my cousins, who was horrified at my declaration about Santa. "You don't even have a chimney, so it doesn't make sense. How's he going to get in?"
I know. I was turning into a fuddy-duddy. Good thing I grew out of it.
But my uncle's grim prediction made me nervous because I doubted my essential goodness. Even though I had stopped believing that presents on Christmas came from St. Nick, I still wondered if there might be something to the idea of bad kids getting a lump of coal.
The funny thing is that feeling still creeps in to mess with me even today.
Like most of us, I'm full of contradictions, capable of doing great good and also capable of doing great not-so-good. We all have our shadow sides in addition to the light we bring.
The one thing we can all hold on to with hope is that no matter what, we are loved by a God who was willing to go to the greatest lengths to show that love to us, to everyone, and to all of Creation.
Fr. Richard Rohr puts it like this:
We must first be willing to admit the contradictions inside us, and still let God love us in that partial state. Once we agree to see our own shadow side, our own foolishness, our own sin, and still know that God has not abandoned us, we become a living paradox that reveals the goodness of God.
We are all living paradoxes, to be sure. But it is within our brokenness and struggles against our inherent goodness that we discover the love and goodness of God.
This is, after all, the paradox of Advent. We celebrate the arrival of Christ, who demonstrates to us what God is like, but that arrival comes in what the author of the carol "What Child Is This?" called "mean estate."
In other words, the glory of God was revealed in a child born to a homeless refugee couple in a cave occupied by livestock. The only attendants that night were dirty shepherds sleeping in the fields.
This is how the goodness of God is revealed.
May you find comfort in this knowledge, and may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.