No Letter-perfect Families

1993 john ben emilyA Christmas Eve homily adapted from an essay by Garrison Keillor[1]Years ago, Garrison Keillor, of “Prairie-Home-Companion” fame, wrote an essay about the Christmas season that is both memorable and instructive. It begins this way:“I love reading Christmas newsletters in which the writer bursts the bonds of modesty and comes forth with one gilt-edged paragraph after another.” Quoting a ‘might-have-been’ parent of the previous year, he writes, “Tara was top scorer on the Lady Cougars soccer team and won the lead role in the college production of Antigone, which by the way they are performing in the original Greek. Her essay on chaos theory as an investment strategy will be in the next issue of Fortune magazine, the same week she’ll appear a model in Vogue. How she does what she does, and still makes Phi Beta Kappa, is a wonderment to us all. And, yes, she is still volunteering at the homeless shelter.”Keillor says, “I get a couple dozen Christmas letters a year, and I sit and read them in my old bathrobe as I chow down on Hostess Twinkies. Everyone in the letters is busy as beavers, piling up honors hand over fist, volunteering up a storm, traveling to Beijing, Abu Dhabi, and Antarctica; nobody is in treatment, or depressed, or flunking out of school ….”“This is rough on us whose children are not paragons. Most children aren’t. A great many teenage children go through periods when they loathe you and go around slamming doors, and saying things like, ‘I wish I had never been born’ ….”“One must be very selective about writing about them for the annual newsletter.  ‘Sean is becoming very much his own person and is unafraid to express himself. He is a lively presence in our family and his love of music is a thing to behold’.”This is rough, I might add, for ALL of us who are NOT letter perfect.  As I read Keillor’s words, I thought about all the years we worked hard to create the perfect Christmas portrait for our friends and family, who often lived hundreds, even thousands, of miles away.  While in Wichita, we made our annual trek to the studio of Howard Eastwood, photographer to some of Kansas’s most esteemed political and business families. In those days before Facebook, this was our one annual opportunity, not only to remind people that we were still alive, but also to impress upon our mentors, aunts and uncles, and colleagues in other places that the Lord had blessed us, and was blessing us still. But every year, something would go wrong.A prized photo sits on my office shelf. In it, I'm pictured with Ben, aged three, and Emily, aged one. The evening before the sitting Emily fell down and split her lip.  Ben had a stomach virus, and threw up after breakfast. An hour before appointment time, I received a phone call about a church member’s death, rushed home to meet and transport the family to photography, and then left to plan yet another funeral.  I don’t remember the struggle Therese surely faced getting the kids ready, only that in the Christmas photo that accompanied this particular shot, she looked better than the rest of us put together, the most beautiful of all.If you’ve arrived at Christmas Eve worship tired, sick, hungry, frustrated, angry, sad, or just overwhelmed by it all, then you’re in good company.  Everyone here understands.  There are no picture-perfect families; there are no letter-perfect families.  We’re all imperfect, which is part of the message of Christmas.  We’re here because we need the one who saves us  from our imperfections, the worst part of ourselves. Jesus is the one we’ve been reading about in all the Christmas Bible passages, and hearing about in all the songs.  Because of him, we can be saved from denial, arrogance, and immodest pride, and tell a more honest and nuanced story about how God is shaping our lives.It’s a story like the revised Christmas letter with which Keillor closes his essay: “Dear Friends. We are getting older but are in fairly good shape and moving forward insofar as we can tell. We still drink strong coffee and read the paper and drive the same old cars. …. we worry for our country. Our child enjoys her new school and is making friends. She was a horsie in the church Christmas pageant and hunkered down beside the manger and seemed to be singing when she was supposed to. We go on working and hope to be adequate to the challenges of the coming year, but are by no means confident. It’s winter. God is around here somewhere but does not appear to be guiding our government at the moment. Nonetheless we persist. We see kindness all around us and bravery and we are cheered by the good humor of young people. The crabapple tree over the driveway is bare, but we have a memory of pink blossoms and expect them to return. God bless you all.”NOTE[1]“The Old Scout: The Season of Letter-Perfect Families,” in A Family Christmas, selected and introduced by Caroline Kennedy, New York: Hyperion Books, 2007, p. 47 ff.