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stuck in the ghetto

December 30, 2013

The clock just tipped over into Monday morning here in Stockholm. Our Christmas tree, dressed in strands of mustard-yellow lights, stands a few feet away from me and I am drawn to look at it as I sit here. For a few moments, the house is silent.

I look at that tree and realize the hue of those little mustardy lamps on it will forever remind me of the Christmas we stayed away. The one during which we dug into our foxhole and let the world go by. Gritted our teeth in an effort to withstand the loneliness and isolation, the lack of snow and the absence of routine. The season – maybe the only one we’ll ever know – that found us wrapped in each other’s arms and nothing else. As our friends and family thousands of miles away took another lap around a well-worn track, soaking in traditions we love, the five of us tiptoed toward an unknown destination.

I can say, in this early morning essay, that we found the finish line in one piece. A chunk of us may be missing, but we hit the finish line in better shape than when we started this hike.  Absent was the blur of shopping malls and gift cards that once defined our Christmases. Santa made an appearance, but he was just a supporting actor. Central was the birth of our savior, the call on our life to follow in his footsteps even if it leads entirely uphill, entirely to a cross.

The single moment, however, that I want to share is this. On Christmas Eve, we went to the zoo. I’m not kidding – we took the subway to the zoo on a mild Tuesday afternoon in search of reindeer and a diversion from the DVD player. We found the animals we were looking for hiding in a little hut atop a hill that overlooks Stockholm. They were shielding themselves from a light rain that was falling, and eating from massive troughs. One guy was kind enough to step outside and let us pet him.

The highlight came in the moments that followed. We went to the stable – a favorite haunt for my three year old daughter – and found horses that wanted to bury their massive noses in our chests and sniff our heads. A bit odd, but welcome companionship for a family longing to be needed. We must have stayed in the stable 30 minutes, darting from stall to stall. On most days, the smell would be enough to make me step outside every five minutes, but on this Christmas eve, for some reason, it didn’t bother me.

What caught my attention was an empty stall. I stepped in it and it reminded me of a jail cell. About big enough for a little steel commode, a desk, a bed, a sink. The back and left walls were cinder block, the others were made from wood. I took a picture and slapped it on Instagram.

Why was it meaningful? Because it represented the place where Christ was born. Amid the shit. Amid the straw. He drew his first breaths and rested. There is nothing romantic about such a place. The ground is hard and dirty, the walls are stained. It’s cold. The other occupants smell like death, and obnoxious noises come from both ends of their bodies. In Sweden, by 3:30 p.m., it is a dark room with little else but the moon and perhaps a candle to light it.

And yet, it is in a place like this that history pivoted from a state of hopelessness to a state of redemption. A promise was fulfilled in such humble confines. A father took the most banal of locales and molded it into something worth remembering for the rest of time.

Now, a few steps into the 12 days of Christmas, I think about that mangy, scabby stall and know that it reflects my heart. You wouldn’t want to spend an hour in my heart, much less have a baby in it. It’s a lot like that stable in Bethlehem, but dingier. It is filled with emotions and desires that remain unmentionable. Pride coats the walls, lust lines the floors, anger grows on the ceiling. You can smell the greed.

And yet, it is a place that God still chooses to work from. He has, for some reason I do not understand, decided to set up a little workbench and create something from nothing here. A lot of people are stuck asking why good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good. When I linger here, in the confines of a tarnished and decrepit heart, I can only ask one question: Why would God choose to use me to accomplish anything worthwhile? Why does he hang out in a foul stable when there are so many more worthy places from which to work?

I do not have the answer to this question, except to say it is a gift. It is a gift I have taken for granted and a gift that I have yet to fully utilize. Like many of you, I spend much of my time – too much of my time – trying to fix the place up. I’ve got coats of paint on the walls, and layer upon layer of carpet on the ground. Renovations that I thought were needed in order to really be meaningful to the only kingdom that means anything. I’ve spent hours listening to sermons, reading books, sitting in recovery meetings in an attempt to ascend to a place of being worthy enough for utilization. This, after all, is what I’ve been told to do.

I’m still stuck in the ghetto, though. Stuck. In. The. Ghetto. And he says this is all that is required: just open the door. Can there be a simpler invitation?

So why have I been so apt to keep a padlock on it? I’m ashamed. I’m damn ashamed of what he and you and everyone else will find inside. If I laid it out on the table, you wouldn’t read this blog or friend me on Facebook or come over my house. And you’d plead with the king to move on, find a better workshop, and leave this broken down shack to rot and be forgotten.

And so, this morning, sitting by this tree with a few more days of Christmas to come, one emotion comes to mind. I am thankful. Thankful for a trip to the zoo and enough isolation to understand what that trip could really mean to a guy like me. Thankful to be loved. Thankful to be used. Thankful to be redeemed.

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8 Comments
  1. Love the thoughts John… thank you for sharing. Merry Christmas. Mf

  2. Great analogy! Thank you for sharing this powerful story.

  3. garysey@aol.com permalink

    Thanks, John for your heart-full observation as well as being open to share your view of the stable as being a view of your (and our) heart(s).

    Blessings to you and your family. Fr. Gary+

  4. Courtney permalink

    When I share my heart as dingy and dark as it is weather it be the same shit filled place The Lord sees or the one I show I feel freedom. Let the shit fly and freedom ring. Love your heart. PS I am sure my spelling and punctuation is incorrect and I don’t care;)

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