I heard the bells ringing as I crossed the parking lot,and there, in front of the Salvation Army stand, was a middle-aged man in jeans and sneakers, wearing a Santa cap with white cotton balls across his brow, chin and upper lip. His face was obscured, so I’m not sure if he caught my frown as I scanned the sign hanging over the big metal can for donations.
Doing the most good. At some point “God bless you” was replaced by this confusing slogan. Most good? Or Goodest?
As I shopped, I noticed that the sales help seemed extremely, well, helpful, this year. Extremely. At one store, after a woman followed me from table to table for ten minutes, shrieking in excitement over the Buy One Get One 50 percent off deals, I wondered if it was too much medication. Then I overheard a woman behind the counter instructing a new employee. She said,
“You must be willing to keep the Promise. Those stores that don’t – well, you can tell. Stores that do keep it, they are all doing well.”
I glanced at the young girl, who seemed hesitant. I wanted to know what the Promise was; if there was blood or a Secret Oath involved.
“Well, do you think you can do it?”
The girl shrugged and was chewing on her sleeve. This doesn’t seem very promising, I thought. The older woman turned away to ring up a sale, her face creasing into a giant smile, “Hello! Welcome to Francesca’s!” I noticed her voice was an octave higher, similar to the crazy sales lady still stalking me.
I pretended to notice something on the rack near the door and escaped.
At Crabtree and Evelyn’s there’s a young man behind the counter and he is very happy too and I wonder if he is on the same medication as Crazy Lady. I squirt too much of the Tester hand cream on my hands and I’m trying to figure out where to rub it all, then my phone rings. I smell every aftershave there is and walk past the cookies, remembering a Christmas long ago now when Spencer asked me what I wanted.
“You can get me anything from Crabtree and Evelyn’s!” I said, expecting scented soap. Christmas morning I opened up a very expensive box of Crabtree and Evelyn orange shortbread cookies, caught a little off-guard until I saw the pure delight on Spencer’s face.
“Wow, these look great!” He grinned proudly. Then I passed them to him.
“Want a cookie?”
“Sure.” And he dug into the dainty bag with his carpenter’s hands.
The sweetness of the moment passed by, leaving a melancholy ache inside of me. I bought some lotion and the tall sales clerk handed me a pretty bag stuffed with red tissue.
“Happy holidays!” His hands looked soft. “Merry Christmas,” I responded and left the store.
A billboard recently posted in North Carolina and Colorado declares “Go ahead and skip church! Just be good for goodness sake. “A big Santa winks at us, mischievously. His beard is more authentic than the Salvation Army guy, and “Atheists.org” sign the message, which is intended to provoke Christians. But I think the point is missed. Skipping church, or being a good person, can’t take the Christ out of Christmas because Jesus didn’t come to earth so that we could be good Presbyterians. He’s not keeping attendance or making a list and checking it twice.
We want to be good for goodness sake, but we are shocked at our capacity for evil as we watch the news. We want to believe in peace on earth, good will towards men, but deep down inside we all know it’s too temperamental. In our desire to not offend, we don’t talk about things that really matter anymore. The boundaries are fortified, and we hope for just a few small things like a secure job, good health and raising kids that don’t grow up to be heroin addicts. But it unravels and we are cynics, good cynics. And we are afraid of what lies ahead.
I pass by the Santa booth and a twenty-something couple are getting their picture taken with Santa. Santa looks a lot like the Billboard Skip Church Santa – authentic. He smiles under the beard but the eyes look tired.
I’m glad my kids are grown and they don’t care about Christmas presents anymore because I came home with a few tubes of What-A-Deal hand lotion from Mr. Soft Hands at Crabtree and Evelyn and some hair clips for my granddaughters, which they will love. My grandson is one and a half and loves bubble wrap. As I sit at my desk typing, my mailbox indicates that Jet Blue has sent me a new app – with a “Appy Holidays” wish!” I’m suddenly tired.
Next day: I return to shopping, this time for food and hear a Christmas carol overhead with the word Jesus. The cashier hands me my receipt and says, Merry Christmas. My hope is stirred. I go home and make Christmas cookies for the neighbors while Joy To the World fills the house. After I pack them in silver glitter containers with tracts about Jesus, I walk next door to deliver them in the rain. No one is home. I tried three houses, then walked home trying to keep the cookies dry. Maybe I will eat them all myself. Well, I’ll share with my husband.
On our way to church, I try again, this time parking in the rain outside of our neighbors that live behind us. We see them sporadically, like when the dog would get loose or in a blizzard, stuck in the road. We would sometimes hear a young girl crying, and a lot of traffic down the dead end drive. I brought them tomatoes in the summer, and handed the bag through a smoky cracked doorway, faces appearing through the dark, politely thanking me, then it would close. I knocked and waited, hearing a dog bark close by.
The door flew open and a young man in a crooked baseball cap registered surprise at the old lady with a silver glitter carton in her hands. As he reached for the cookies I heard a woman scream, “No! Get him!’ as a large dog charged through the door, lunging for either me or the cookies.
“Don’t move! Be still!” the guy in the hat yelled at me and I froze, picturing my body parts strewn around the muddy yard, covered in silver glitter. The dog stopped, as the girl grabbed him by the collar and the cookies were hastily exchanged, as I turned and ran away.
“Thank you! Sorry!” he called after me. I had wanted to learn his name, but he would remain just the guy in the baseball cap.
“I was almost martyred!” I told my husband as I climbed back in the car. I had one more sparkly box to give away. As we pulled out onto the road, a dark figure with a backpack crossed in front of us. My husband rolled down the window.
“Hey, come here,” he called out and the man turned and peered at us in the wet dark night. The shiny box caught his eye and he came near.
“My wife made these. Merry Christmas.” He smiled and nodded, accepting the gift.
“What’s your name?”
Kevin, he said. He smiled at the box, his teeth white against the shadow of his hood.
“Jesus loves you, Kevin,” my husband told him.
“Thank you.” And he turned and walked into the night, holding the gift close to him.
I got in the car early this morning to go to work and noticed silver glitter all over the seats and smiled, remembering the hands reaching out to take the boxes stuffed with cookies and a simple message of hope. It seems so insignificant in the realm of all the heroic sacrifice that has gone before me. True courage, true denial of self – of recognition and reward. I feel so…small. Yet God came down from His throne in heaven as a baby boy, small and insignificant, signaling the start of the most magnificent rescue plan of all creation – Jesus, “ God saves”. Not Doing the most good.
I came home from work tired today. The hospital can be a sad place at Christmas, especially in the ICU. Hope unravels and you can watch whole families implode. Life surprises. My husband was home.
“Guess who stopped by the house today?” he said. “Kevin!”
Ah, the cookie guy. My husband said they talked for a while about Jesus. Then he gave him the last of the Christmas cookies and told him to come by again.
Happy Birthday Jesus. You still use the small things to touch the souls of men. And You still save.