It’s been a little bit hard getting into the Christmas spirit this season. Perhaps COVID fatigue, it has us all down – the level of death compounded by stress of uncertainty and the rage we all experience against the limitations of our freedoms or big-government mandates (mine is masks). But it feels more than that, somehow the mayhem exacerbated by good old-fashioned human wickedness.
I spent a lot of time this fall, in fits and bursts, trying to help save the Afghan National Institute of Music from the hands of the Taliban after the fall of Kabul. A violin, or a forced marriage to an old bearded pervert – those appeared to be their options. Rescued from poverty by Dr. Ahmed Sarmast, given hope and a skill and a passion for something beautiful and timeless — and subsequently abandoned by Uncle Joe. We were ultimately successful, a feat of tremendous creativity and teamwork (that story is coming out soon, Voice of America is doing a remarkable documentary, stay tuned). And while I am thrilled that ANIM is out, in Portugal and building the school in exile, thinking of them and the daily drumbeat of famine stories about post-Biden Afghanistan only makes me rage and sorrow. Usually famines happen despite America’s best effort. This one is our fault – we own the mess of war and now we own Taliban totalitarianism and the famine we left behind. None of that matters, whose fault it is, because the babies will still starve either way.
I was reading to my son this evening, as I always do. We’ve switched to Christmas stories for the season, there’s no reason he should be bogged down in my funk. “A Christmas Carol” by Dickens. Today we finished “The Other Wise Man” by Henry Van Dyke. My own father used to read me this story many years ago. It’s the remarkable tale of a Magi who sought to join the other three in presenting his gifts to the King, but was constantly waylaid. He used his time to heal a sick Hebrew along the way; he used his treasure to save the life of a baby during Herod’s Slaughter of Innocents. He wandered, looking for the King in all the right places, never to find him. Slave boats, orphanages and charities for the desperate and destitute. Finally, he is in the right place, close to the Messiah and with the thoughts of using his last jewel to buy the King’s freedom from the cross when he is again sidetracked, to buy instead the freedom of a slave girl. An unknown and unimportant child, or the savior of the world. But again he made his choice, to do what he could for those put in his path instead of the utopian dream of presenting a pure gift to the son of God.
And he was struck down, in his mind a failure after a long life of fruitless search spent among the ‘least of these’. Except was it fruitless? “We feel like we should have lots of money and spend our time trying to be rich and powerful and famous. But that isn’t the right thing to do.” I told my little boy tonight. “Why not?” he asked. “Because,” I thought for a moment, as always having to distill things down to their core. He makes me smarter, and more thoughtful. “Because those things don’t matter. Our job is to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. It’s what we are put here to do; because it’s what Jesus told us to do; because it’s what Jesus did. More than that,” I went on. “It might feel frustrating. We can never save everybody; in fact our impact might be so limited that it only makes us sadder…” (I was thinking here of course of Afghanistan and the starving children tonight) “But we have to trust that to God and help those within our power, however small that may be. That is what life is about.”
The benefit, I suppose, is that I actually believe that. More than believing it, it’s what I’ve spent my entire adult life doing. Which I suppose (coming full circle) is where my Christmas funk has come from this year – war and disease have wiped it all away, 25 years of work — poof, ashes and dust. Just like one bad decision by one selfish and arrogant president ended 20 years of music learning. But we move, we pick up, we rebuild and we try and find that next person to help.
That’s what I think, during this worn out Christmas season. So my question, if I am allowed, I guess is “Who is in front of you that needs your help?” And as we answer that, we can begin the long journey again together in making our worn-out Christmas a blessing even in troubled times.