I am going to tell you some heartwarming stories of friendship and kindness. Contrary to the overwhelming evidence presented each day via various and sundry news outlets, this world is still full of goodness. Listen carefully.
Bells Will Be Ringing
I graduated from Saratoga Springs Senior High School in 1983, and believe me when I tell you, I couldn't get out of there fast enough. I was not, in any way, high school material. I had terrible skin, terrible hair and terrible teeth. I had a little bit of brain power, which propelled me forward later in life, but intelligence doesn't count for much in the persnickety culture of the American high school and so I never rated very high on any of the scales that mattered back then. Still, all these years later, many of us SSHS '83-ers, once separated by the invisible lines that keep teenagers from being nice to each other, have regrouped via Facebook and really do genuinely seem to like each other now. Several decades later the playing field has been leveled by all of the usual leveling factors in life: suffering, loss, disappointment. And what remains is a bunch of softer grown-ups, shocked at the realization that we are now older than our parents were back then.
Recently one of us, Andy, was going through some hard times. His dad was really sick and it seemed that the world was going to lose him. Andy is one of those genuine, funny and honest guys and, as his father's illness progressed, he kept all of us informed with seriously detailed accounts of what was going on. I loved it. Andy has a kind of magical way with words and he's got a heart that could smother our hometown with home-cooked kindness.
A few days before Christmas, one of the smarter ones among us, Alisa, came up with the great idea to fill Andy's Facebook page with messages of love and, specifically, images and references to bells -- a nod, naturally, to a scene from It's a Wonderful Life: "Every time a bell rings an angel is getting his wings." It was brilliant. Andrew Sephas is an angel among us and most definitely needed a boost. In the days leading up to The Thing, no fewer than 33 of us congregated via Facebook email and talked about this great idea and shared expressions of gratitude and, well, love. There's no other way to explain it. Thirty-two years post-diploma-getting and there we were, gathered together, talking about how we could help our friend who was struggling with some tough stuff.
December 26, the day Alisa had chosen as the day to clobber Andy with bells, arrived, and off it went, brilliantly. Throughout the day folks posted all kinds of messages, "liked" each other's handiwork and uplifted Andy, and each other, from near and far. That night Andy wrote this: "My friends congratulate yourselves. A miracle has happened. God is Alive! I'm so happy! My father made it through the fire! Truly Amazing!"
I was, to say the least, kind of nervous, approaching my first Christmas Eve service as a pastor. My whole life I had loved sitting in a pew on Christmas Eve and so I didn't really know how to feel about this new switcheroo, and I wasn't sure I was even up to the task. I'm still new to this gig, struggling and fumbling my way through Scripture and hymn choices and what to say to the listeners sitting there listening to me each week. Creating a Christmas Eve service is kind of like moving up to the Black Diamond trails after skiing the Blue Squares all season: you know you have to do it someday, even though it's scary and unknown and a lot easier to keep cruising the blue.
It was very important to me that as much of my family as possible was there, so I did something I knew would cause a ruckus and asked my two sons to please come to the 7:30 service on Christmas Eve. I knew it would cause a ruckus because their dad and his extended family have always had their holiday celebration on Christmas Eve. Sam and Nate, who are 20 and 18 now, hold sacred that tradition and I have, too, though our marriage ended fifteen years ago. So I knew to request that they go somewhere at 7:30 on Christmas Eve was risky.
And I was right. A few days before Christmas Sam told me that he had had a conversation with his dad, who wasn't happy about the church thing. "I told him that was where I wanted to be," Sam explained to me, and my heart grew two sizes with disbelief and pride. Still, I knew this was most likely not playing out well in the three McChesney households in town.
Christmas Eve arrives and we are ready to do this thing. The musicians know what they're doing, mostly. The poinsettias aren't drooping too much, the readers have their readings and I'm wearing something sufficiently minister-y and festive. The place has filled up and there are lots of kids making lots of noise, but the front pew, where Coco is sitting and waiting for her brothers, is empty. I step up to welcome everyone, make an offhand and not-funny comment about hoping my sons will arrive soon, my heart sinking a tad thinking that Management has prevailed and the boys were, indeed, back at the ranch eating roast beef and opening presents.
Then the ghosts of all Christmasses past and the tender spirits of Christmas present and the archangels whose job it is to prop up new ministers swooped through the sanctuary. I looked to the back door and saw the boys. Who were accompanied by every member of the McChesney family: my former husband, Scott, his wife, Phoebe and their two children, Luke and Abby; his mom and dad: Marion and Lee, and his brother and family: Mark and Margaret and Jack and Ashley and Olivia. In short, every single member of their family had chosen to suspend their Christmas Eve celebration...to come to church.
Though we are no longer technically related to each other, we remain tethered by invisible strands of respect and hope and love and all of that prevailed on this, sacred and holy night. It was almost hard for me to lead the service, floating as I was, three feet above the ground.
Later I learned that they had adjusted their schedule to make time for church, an act unprecedented in decades of McChesney Christmas Eves. It had been part of the planning. And when I thanked Scott, his response summed up all of the goodness in our lives: It was the right thing to do.
A Light in the Corner of My Life
A couple of years ago I was on a short flight and I did something I don't normally do: I talked to the person sitting next to me, though I'm truly not that kind of traveler. I like reading. I like listening to music. I like looking out at the clouds when I am in an airplane. I am not a chatter, by nature. But for some reason the person next to me, Marc, and I struck up a conversation that lasted the duration of the flight, and for some even stranger reason, we talked about things of actual meaning. When I learned he was an actor my curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to know how that worked. We talked to each other about my work, which was in its infantile and truly mysterious stages then, and about his dreams for himself. He shared with me stories of the people he loved back in Texas, where he grew up. It was weird. It was unusual. It was like we were old friends unexpectedly meeting 35,000 feet above the ground. It was pretty great.
Then we got to our destination and he introduced me to his girlfriend, who was waiting for him, and I introduced him to my friends, who were waiting for me, and off we went, into our lives. Which should have been the end of the story, except that our unlikely friendship has withstood the test of time and space and...rationality. Marc and I send each other voice memos from time to time, checking in with each other, updating each other on our work, our dreams, our relationships and our families. I'm about ten years ahead of him in the Game of Life, so my stories sometimes fan the flames of the plans he has for himself, especially in regards to the kids he wants one day. His tales of work and travel and TV and movies are curious to me. I would imagine that my stories of Vermont and church ground him and remind him of his home.
Last night Marc checked in with a message of Christmas cheer. He had been to Texas to see his family. He realized how much he missed them, moving, as he does, between New York and L.A. He closed his message by wishing me well, into a new year, and thanking me for being "a little light shining in the corner of my life."
I loved that. And I realized that that's exactly the thing I have always hoped to be: a small light shining through the darkness that so often prevails in this world.
I know you have these stories, too. Find them, hold them, celebrate and share them. They are the best of who we are and the reason why we're here.
Blessings into another year, kind readers. Shine on, please, wherever you are.