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Fishing for Answers (by Billy Coffey)


Image courtesy of photobucket.com

Next time I won’t order the fish. That’s what I thought after he left. If I would have ordered chicken or steak or shrimp I would have gotten my food earlier, which meant I would have prayed earlier, which meant he wouldn’t have seen me. But he did, and like they say, that is that.

Lunch time for me is a sort of take-it-when-you-can thing that depends on how busy I am and how far I want to drive. Most of the time that places me inside a small restaurant downtown, just a few blocks from my work. Nice place with nice food. Very friendly, very tasty, and very quick.

So. The fish.

An extra ten minutes, the waitress said. “You sure you don’t mind waiting?”

No.

The man came in five minutes later and was shown to the table across from mine. We smiled and nodded like friendly folk do, and I was fairly certain that would be the extent of our interaction. It wasn’t. Because soon afterward my fish arrived and I offered a very silent and inconspicuous prayer.

He was staring at me when I opened my eyes.

“So you’re a churchgoer?” he asked.

“Yep,” I answered. “You?”

“Never,” he said in a tone that seemed rather proud.

I nodded and went back to eating.

“Don’t believe in God myself,” he said. “Just seems like a waste. I guess that means I’m going to hell, huh?”

I’d been around long enough to know when I was being baited into a conversation I really didn’t want to get into. This, I thought, was one of those conversations.

So I just said “Not my call” and raised another bite of fish.

“Not your call,” he repeated. “That’s typical.”

I chewed and thought about the last little bit of what he said. It was more bait, of course. And it was still a conversation I didn’t want to have. But maybe it was now one I should.

“Typical?” I asked.

“Yeah, typical. You people like to use those pat little answers for questions you just don’t know or are just too afraid to face.”

“Like whether you’re going to hell?” I asked.

“Sure. That just bugs me. Christians say that God is love, but if you don’t go along with the program then you get eternally punished. That doesn’t sound like love to me, that just sounds hypocritical.”

I shrugged. “Not really. I reckon God’s spent—what, fifty years or so?—trying to get you to pay attention to Him. He’s arranged circumstances, given you a glimpse of things you don’t normally see or think about, even spoke to you. There’s no telling how many chances you’ve gotten to say ‘Hello’ to God after He’d said the same to you. But you have a choice. That’s how He made you. You can choose to listen or not, choose to believe or not, choose to accept or not. I take it that so far, it’s been not. So if you spend your whole life telling God to stay as far away from you as possible, He’s gentleman enough to do just that when it’s all over. So yes, I suppose if you keeled over right here right now, you’d go to hell. But it’s not me who’s gonna send you there, and it’s not God either. It’s you.”

He looked at me. I looked back.

“Alright then,” he said.

We both continued our meals. Ten minutes later he squared his tab with the waitress and left, pausing at the door to offer me a smile and a tip of his hat.

The waitress focused on me then, asking if I’d like more coffee or just the check. I asked for a check and an answer.

“That fella come in here a lot?”

“Sure,” she said. “He’s the preacher at the church next door.”

“He’s the what?” I asked her.

“The preacher.” Then she smiled and added, “Was he havin’ a little fun with you?”

“Don’t know if I’d call it fun.”

“He likes that,” she said. “Likes finding people who call themselves Christians and tests them. Sees if they know their faith or just accept it. These days we have to be ready to defend it, don’t we?”

“We do,” I said.

And that’s the truth. It isn’t enough to just accept our faith nowadays. We have to stand for it. And this is the truth, too—next time I go there to eat, I’m ordering the fish. Maybe he’ll stop by.

***

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at at his website and follow him on the twitter at @billycoffey.

Handling the Remote (by Billy Coffey)


Photo courtesy of flickr.com

Sexist I’m not, though I must admit I believe there are a few things men have a firmer handle on than women. Just a few, mind you.

Chief among these is the proper handling of the television remote control. This is most likely due to an almost childlike ignorance concerning its proper function on the part of the female. The remote is not used to simply turn the channel or adjust the volume. It’s purpose is much more intricate–to obtain an overall grasp of station selections, striking an elegant balance between quality viewing and commercial evasion. Or, in more simplistic terms, to channel surf.

My wife has long abandoned any hope of holding the remote control. Not that I do not trust her with it. But watching her use it is painful to me in the way that a composer would be pained by watching a hillbilly use a Stradivarius. It is a skill, the handling of a remote. Something that cannot be taught but must be inborn.

Over the past few weeks, however, an insurrection has begun over our family’s remote control. One led not by my wife. Not even by my son.

By my daughter.

It began innocently enough. I walked into the living room one evening and found her on the sofa and the remote on the ottoman. During a commercial break on her favorite cartoon, I decided to see what else was on. When I reached for the remote, however, I found a hand already there. Hers.

The ensuing standoff was both temporary and bloodless, and my Alpha role within the family remained intact. But as these remote control battles increased in frequency, I began to lose a bit of face. The last one, yesterday, ended in a tickle fight that was only broken up with my son whopping me with a pillow.

I’ll be honest here. I really don’t understand the whole remote control thing. I don’t really know why it must be in my hands and no one else’s. I am not a callous snob. I will gladly watch what my family wants. But I must be the one to turn the channel.

True, there is a certain amount of power involved in the remote. Those buttons are alluring. I have a control over the television that is not offered in my life. Possibilities that are difficult at least and impossible at best.

Zoom, for instance. With a push of a button, my remote will enlarge a certain area of my screen and bring greater detail to the larger picture. The ramifications are enormous. I have outwitted both Shawn Spencer on Psych and the dude in the vest on The Mentalist by the careful manipulation of that button. I don’t miss anything. Which is quite unlike my own life, in which I miss too much.

And there is the Swap button. A wonderful feature that lets me instantly trade what I’m seeing for something else. Easy on my remote. Harder in my reality.

The Exit button is even more handy, enabling me to quickly escape from a screen I have no idea how I managed to get to. The Exit button works wonders for me when it comes to the television. Not in life, though. Most of the time I have to find my own way out of all the self-inflicted confusion.

I would also like to have Pause, Rewind, and Fast Forward buttons in my life, just so I could take a break or try something again or skip over the parts I don’t like.

Play, too, would be a necessary function. I would like more play in my life.

That, I think, is why I’m so passionate about the remote. And if you’re honest, I don’t think you can blame me. Because no matter who you are, we all want a little more control over our lives.

I will say, however, that there I have one function in my life that is much better than its counterpart on my remote control: the Guide button. A push of that button and I know how to navigate around on my television. Handy.

But handier is the Guide in my life, the One who can navigate me through all of those parts in my life I would like to skip over or redo or exit. The One who can help me zoom in on what needs to be seen.

And Who can help me swap earth for heaven.

***

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at at his website and follow him on the twitter at @billycoffey.

Angela versus the Big Bad (by Billy Coffey)

I’m settling in at the movies with my popcorn and soda in an attempt to escape the world’s dreariness for at least two hours. Which is strange given that I’m about to watch the latest in a long stream of post-apocalyptic movies in which some Big Bad collapses governments, then societies, then people. Lots of movies like that lately, I think to myself, though I’m not sure why. We no longer cast a hopeful eye toward the future. Which I guess says a lot about our present.

The movie starts and the fifty or so people around me munch and gawk. It’s a good movie, really. At least the first part. Halfway through the picture and just as things start to get interesting the sound begins to slur, the picture wobbles, and the screen goes blank.

A chorus of groans ripples through the theater that is followed by an assortment of exhales, some stretching, and a few snide remarks. I sigh and think that I’ll have to wait to see what the end of the world is like.

Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

Because as I sit among all these people and watch their reactions, I get a very small glimpse of it from right where I am.

The Big Bad in this case happens to be a broken projector. Not really Big and not very Bad, but it has on a smaller scale the same effect as machines taking over the world or nuclear fallout—we’re all confused, and no one quite knows what to do now.

But then personalities take over. The Type A’s shoot for the door and the manager, eager to fix the situation. The sanguines in the room remain in their seats, certain that everything will work out in the end. The more pragmatic folks see the interruption as a chance to take a bathroom break without missing any of the movie. And then of course there are the pessimists now voicing their certainty that they are now out of twenty bucks.

The theater manager inches through the door. He looks to be about sixteen and I get the nagging sensation that up until this moment the only crisis he’s had so far today is losing his newest copy of Gamer magazine. He stands where he can make a hasty exit and uses the ponytailed lady from the ticket counter as a human shield, placing her between us. Still, all eyes are on him. He’s the one in charge.

He whispers to Ponytail and turns toward the mob. This, I think, is his time to shine. This is why he wears the suit.

The manager stiffens as he draws in a massive breath, exhales loudly…and leaves.

Ponytail watches him with a look of shock. Evidently her being hung out to dry had not been part of the conversation. But just as I think things are going to turn into something less than fine, she does the unexpected.

She talks.

And better than that, she doesn’t talk to us. She talks with.

She tells us her name is Angela and that everything is being fixed. She asks how the movie is so far and if we need anything. She talks about her children. She tells jokes and listens to ours. She is kind and thoughtful and attentive, both sharing our aggravation and easing it. And when the movie flashes onto the screen again ten minutes later, I swear, I swear, we’re almost sorry.

Angela stays with us for a few minutes to make sure everything’s fine and then makes a quiet exit.

The action resumes on the screen. Lots of explosions and blood and mayhem. But I’m not really thinking of the movie now. I’m thinking this:

I don’t know what’s coming down the road toward us. I don’t know if there’s some Big Bad or when it will happen or what we will do when it gets here. But I do know this—if and when that time comes, the future of our world won’t depend on governments or gun-toting heroes.

It’ll depend on people like the ponytailed lady who collected my ticket. People who take the bad and make it better.

***

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at at his website and follow him on the twitter at @billycoffey.

Haiti, Pat Robertson, and the Thin Places (by Billy Coffey)


AP Photo/Jorge Cruz

I could not help but think of my grandfather as the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake was relayed on the evening news. Could not help but wonder what he would say about what had happened. I wondered, too, what he would do. He said he would never return there and kept that promise, but in many ways his heart beat for the Haitian people. A part of me thought something on this scale might have drawn him back to the place that almost killed him. The place he warned me never to visit.

My grandfather travelled the world for most of his adult life as a missionary, visiting the remote villages and enduring the third world conditions of far-flung places not just for his love for people or even God. No, it was his love for adventure that took him behind the Iron Curtain, into Africa, and—twice—to Turkey in search of Noah’s ark.

But it was Haiti that captured his wanderlust the most, that tiny half of a tiny island that was so crowded and, back then, so forgotten. That was where he spent most of his time. He would write me letters and I would devour them, studying not just the smooth cursive handwriting but the stamp and the postmark and the envelope itself, worn and frayed as though it had passed through entire worlds to reach me.

The stories he told bordered on fantasy—villages in the grip of madmen, ritualized rape, and lives stripped bare to the point where the essentials had become excess.

He witnessed acts that defied both reason and physics performed in the name of unnamable spirits. Spoke of zombies and ghosts and curses.

Haiti was a place of wildness, he wrote. And it was also full of the most beautiful and caring people he’d ever met.

Yet twice he had been threatened by voodoo priests who saw his presence in their villages as a threat to their authority. Twice he escaped. He was a smart one, my grandfather. And no doubt protected by powers greater than darkness.

It was on a mission trip there in the mid-eighties that he disappeared. Authorities found his Jeep abandoned in the middle of a field. There were no footprints or tire tracks. No witnesses. The State Department was contacted, who then reached out to the American embassy. For three days our family waited and prayed for news.

On that third day my grandfather walked into a village sixty miles from where he’d last been seen, confused and shaken but otherwise in good health. He was questioned by both the Haitian police and the State Department, but those interviews proved fruitless. My grandfather never told them where he had been or what had happened. Never told his family, either. And he never returned to Haiti.

A few weeks before he died he pulled me aside during a family meal for questions that were short and ordinary—how’s school? Baseball? Are you still praying every day? He nodded and smiled, satisfied. And then his face grew serious, almost fearful, and he spoke to me the last words I’d ever hear him say:

“The world is a wonderful place, Billy. You should see as much of it as you can. But never go to Haiti. Promise me.”

I did. I still do.

I suppose if anyone would know the truth (or lack thereof) of what Pat Robertson said last week, it would be my grandfather. I’m sorry he’s gone. Sorrier today. But I’ve spent the better part of today remembering those letters and the way he talked about the Haitians, and I know what he would have said.

He would have said there are people who like the idea of a vengeful God as long as that vengeance is directed at someone else. He would have also said that Christianity is best defined not by what its adherents should believe, but what they do with that belief. It’s the love they display and the help they provide, regardless of where that love and help is needed.

He would have indeed said that Haiti has its evils. There are thin places in this world where other worlds meet and linger, and those are the places that must be tread upon lightly. Haiti is a thin place. But he would also say there are thin places within each of us as well, where good and evil clash and struggle.

Yes, he would say, Haiti is dark. But so are we.

***

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at at his website and follow him on the twitter at @billycoffey.

***

And to read ways you can help with the relief and rescue effort in Haiti, please visit my friend Maurenn Doallas at Writing without Paper

Choosing Love (by Billy Coffey)


I worked with Jenny for about two months twelve years ago, just another face that walked in and out of the revolving door of the town’s gas station. She was a nice lady, Jenny. Always smiling. The smile is what I remember most. Well, that and the bleached jeans she always wore that rode high on the waist and had tiny denim bows in the back near the ankles. Jenny was a joy to be around, but she was no fashion maven.

She was, however, considered quite the catch. At thirty-five, Jenny was still both unmarried and unattached. Rare for these parts. And it wasn’t for lack of options, either. It was no secret that the busiest nights at the Amoco were the ones when she worked the cash register. Every available guy in town would suddenly get the urge for a can of Copenhagen or decide his tank needed to be topped off.

They’d show up in their best boots and hats reeking of Drakkar Noir, tough guys with big trucks and mustaches. But then Jenny would smile and say “Hey there” and they would transform from Bo Duke seducing an unsuspecting girl to Opie Taylor crushing on his teacher. It was both hilarious and sad at the same time.

Jenny seemed genuinely ignorant of the whole thing. She dated here and there but was content with her life. She lived in a double wide on the edge of town with her Australian shepherd and her growing collection of Garth Brooks CDs, sang in the church choir, and had a weakness for the Saturday morning sales at J.C. Penney.

In other words, Jenny had a good life. And even though she had her share of lonely nights, they weren’t chilly enough to convince her she needed a man to keep her warm.

But then one Friday night in walked Chad, who was neither dressed for church nor smelling like a gigolo, but tired and dirty and heading home from his job as janitor at the elementary school. He said nothing beyond the usual niceties of “That’s it” and “Thanks” and made his way out the door, but Jenny did something I’d never seen her do. She watched him leave.

The two saw each other again the next Saturday, this time for dinner at Applebees. To this day I don’t know who did the asking. I suppose it doesn’t matter. They weren’t serious, but they spent their fair share of time together.

It was around their fourth date (which, as it turned out, was bowling) that the stars aligned one more time for Jenny. That was the night Aaron stopped by because his Mercedes was a quart low.

Jenny, I noticed, watched him leave too.

Aaron spent more on Jenny on their first date than Chad made in a week.

You couldn’t find two men more different from one another than Chad and Aaron. One pushed a broom all day, and the other traded stocks in the city. One lived in an apartment behind the 7-11 on Main Street, and the other lived on twenty acres in the country. Neither had quite captured Jenny’s heart yet. Both tried desperately.

The heart abhors competition, and the time came when both demanded Jenny make her choice. She was torn. Aaron was distant and sometimes cold, but with him Jenny could have the comfort she never enjoyed in life. There would be no more nights at the gas station, no more bleached jeans with denim bows in the back. There would instead be dinner parties and fine food and more security than she ever thought possible.

It was a life she knew Chad couldn’t provide her, but he could provide her with everything else. The things that both Jenny’s mom and her preacher knew were important. The things that mattered. Chad loved Jenny, pure and simple. And promised to do so always.

I saw Jenny the other day. She works the register at the grocery store now. Still wears those bleached jeans, too. Her smile and extra makeup couldn’t quite hide the sadness and bruises that were underneath. Chad’s a drinker. Jenny didn’t know that until it was too late.

She’s confessed to some that she often thinks of Aaron and the life she could’ve had. A better life. A better love. But I don’t think so. I think Jenny had it all wrong. I think Aaron would have left her just as miserable and hurt.

Because I don’t think you can choose who to love. I think love chooses you.

“It is wrong to think that love comes from long companionship and persevering courtship. Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity and unless that affinity is created in a moment, it will not be created for years or even generations” ~ Kahlil Gibran

***

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at at his website and follow him on the twitter at @billycoffey.

The World of Possibility (by Billy Coffey)


The book is called 101 Greatest Magic Secrets Exposed, authored by a Mr. Herbert L. Becker. A Christmas gift by a distant relative that was given with the best of intentions yet still missed the mark by quite a wide margin.

It sits here on the table beside me, shiny and new, several of its pages still sticking together from lack of handling. If I turn the book over I can still see a section of wrapping paper, evidence that I got only as far as taking at look at the cover before thanking the giver for the thoughtful gift and setting it aside. To him (or her), it was the perfect present. I like books, and I like magic.

But I’m not reading it. No way.

I say I like magic, but that’s not quite the correct word. I love magic. Can’t do it of course, unless you count marveling a bunch of preschoolers with the old Hide Something Behind Your Back trick. But I love to see it done. Professionally or otherwise.

It doesn’t have to be anything so extravagant as to involve tigers or disappearing airplanes. In fact, the smaller the magic the more it appeals to me. I love the agility, the misdirection. I love the showmanship. Yes, it’s all just a trick. All an elaborate sham of skillful legerdemain. I know this going in. And it matters not.

All that matters to me is that I remain ignorant of the means by which that magic is done. I don’t want to know those secrets of where the rabbit is before it’s pulled out of the hat or how the buxom brunette is put together after being sawn into. Knowing would rob me of my wonder. And that’s exactly what magic is all about.

Wonder.

I’ve spent much of my life searching for answers to the questions that preyed on my mind. Big questions. Important ones. Like how can I find love and why does everyone have to hurt and why God sometimes just doesn’t seem to care and what does it all mean anyway. I talked to giants of both faith and the mind, read countless books, prayed and meditated. And do you know what I got out of that?

Not much.

I did acquire a head full of knowledge and theories, many of which contradicted either one another or reality. But that was okay at the time, because I believed I had much more than when I began. I had facts. And when it came to understanding this world and the life we live in it, facts seemed to be the most important things I could possess.

Unfortunately, those facts didn’t carry me far. They were a weighty spade to plunge into the hardpan of my life, cracking the surface of my doubts and questions to water that arid ground with the elixir of truth.

But those questions did not yield. The head of the spade held true, but the handle, that part where flesh met iron, could not hold.

I had learned that tears were drops of salty fluid secreted by the lacrimal gland to lubricate the eyeball, but that did little to explain why I shed so many of them. That death was to stop living. I learned, too, that a rainbow was formed by the refraction, reflection, and dispersion of light in rain or fog. Those were the facts. But those facts did little to explain why I shed so many tears and why people had to die. And somehow knowing the facts behind a rainbow made it less beautiful to me, as if it were more of a process and less of a miracle.

Sometimes ignorance really is bliss, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t have to know everything. Our task is the search for truth, yes. But the truth is that there are some things we are simply not supposed to understand. We’re not supposed to know everything. And because of that there is beauty to our unanswered questions and a sweet mystery to our doubts.

There is magic in this world. I’m convinced of it. It flows not from the hands of a skillful conjurer, but from us. From our very being. We are surrounded by every day by enchantment so thick we almost must brush it from our faces.

I won’t return this book. It will remain unopened but in a predominant place here on my table. It will be a reminder that knowing with the head is much different than knowing with the heart.

And that given the choice, I will take possibility over fact any day.

***

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at at his website and follow him on the twitter at @billycoffey.

A Smack in the Head (by Billy Coffey)

I blame it on my New Year’s resolution. That’s what was on my mind and what had abducted my focus.

I was on the couch trying to decide what I should spend the next 365 days trying to improve about myself. Since I’ve always been one convinced that nothing but a lofty goal is worth the effort, I decided to aim high. I was going to eliminate everything in my life that brought me pain, no matter what sort of pain that may be. Seemed good on the surface, but the logistics were problematic. Pretty much everything in my life had the potential to bring me pain. Even the good things.

The logistics were what I was pondering as I walked from the living room into the dining room and past my son, who reached out and gave me a hug that I barely felt. And I was still pondering them when I rummaged through the refrigerator for the pitcher of sweet tea and poured a glass of milk instead. Also when my daughter asked me (for the third time, she said) if she could play her video game for a bit.

Wasn’t paying attention at all. Because this Thing, this resolution, had carried me away from reality to a place where my body could not follow.

It’s a precarious position to be in, having to straddle two worlds. And impossible to do for very long without losing something along the way. Which is why my son asked me a question I did not hear, my daughter tried three times unsuccessfully to gain my interest, and I had a cup of 2 percent rather than sweet tea.

I would have probably remained in that state of Here But Not Really for a while longer if the cabinet door hadn’t have been left open. Because just as I took a sip of milk and wondered why it was not tea, I turned and smacked headlong into it. That was when my trip to Neverland came to a sudden and complete stop.

When I came back to reality.

I rubbed my forehead and heard the unmistakable giggle of a little girl from the other room. Physical humor is a art form, and one I unknowingly practice at times. It keeps both me bruised and my family entertained.

I stood in the kitchen and tried to retrace my steps, all to no avail. I couldn’t remember getting off the couch, couldn’t remember the walk into the kitchen, couldn’t remember anything. One moment I was alone in the living room, and the next a cabinet door was assaulting me.

Strange, huh?

But to be honest, this sort of thing happens to me all the time. Happens to us all, too. As much as we try to stay anchored to reality, we all have the occasion to wander in our thoughts. Things that need to be done, things we fear being done to us. Where we need to go, what might come next. The cares of this world are many, but they all serve one common goal—to rob us of the joy that is Here and Now.

I understood then that I could probably make any resolution in the world and be better off than making that one.

All the proof I needed to confirm that could be found in my absent-minded stroll from the living room to the kitchen. A little love from my son wasn’t enough to snap me out of my thoughtlessness. Neither was the responsibility of being a parent. Nor even the quench of my thirst. No, the only thing that reminded me of where I was and what I needed to be doing…was pain.

Which I suppose is why God allows things that will give me a smack in the head from time to time. He knows that’s just the thing that will keep my head where it needs to be. Sometimes it’s an unanswered prayer, even an outright No. Or a delayed promise. Or even a senseless tragedy.

Those are the things that tend to separate me from Him. Until I bonked my head on that cabinet, I thought pain was my enemy. Something I should resolve to remove completely from my life. I know better now.

I’m thinking that instead of resolving to hurt less, maybe I should resolve to hurt more. Because the only sure way to get to the yonder and later is to be in the here and now.

***

To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at at his website and follow him on the twitter at @billycoffey.

Yay!

I’m thrilled beyond words to present to you a sneak peak at the cover of Billy Coffey’s debut novel, Snow Day.

I don’t want to give away too much of the book, but I will tell you that this scene brings to mind one of my favorite chapters in the book. Okay, truth be told, they’re all my favorite chapters. And yes, I know I’m helping Billy promote his book, but I wouldn’t promote a book I didn’t believe in, and even though I give him a hard time occasionally, I’m not exaggerating when I say I believe Billy Coffey is the best new writer of our generation. His body of work will be read for generations to come, blessing our children’s children and beyond. He’s just that good in my not so humble opinion. (Just don’t tell him I said that, okay?)

Ignore the Wrapping (by Billy Coffey)


It is standard knowledge that men cannot wrap a present, and I am proof of that. I can cover them with paper, yes. I can disguise their true identities. Which in essence means I can wrap a present well enough to guarantee their intended purpose—to surprise. And the recipients of my gifts usually are surprised. They just can’t show it well because they’re so tired from getting through all the paper and tape.

It isn’t for lack of trying, either. I’ve been wrapping my wife’s Christmas gifts for almost twenty years, even before she was my wife. With an average of five gifts a year, I figure I’ve wrapped about a hundred presents. Not too shabby. But even with all that experience, this one fact cannot be overlooked—I really, really suck at it. Just look at the picture.

My wife refuses to allow me the pleasure of wrapping our children’s presents (“Elves would not wrap like that,” she says). She also seems a bit perturbed that I use more wrapping paper and tape or her five presents than she uses for the rest of the family combined.

The kids, too, are unimpressed. It’s fascinating that even at their young age they can discern what is beautiful and what is not. Last year was my son’s turn to hand out the presents. He took one look at the packaging job on my wife’s gifts and said, “What’d you do that was so bad, Mommy?”

But I persist. I refuse to bow to the notion that the better option would be to have the friendly retirees down at the mall wrap them for me. Or, even worse, to shove them all into gift bags. Not my style. Besides, the wrapping doesn’t really mean much. It’s what’s under the packaging that counts.

I was sitting in the middle of my office floor yesterday and thinking along those lines. Three of her five presents had been wrapped (using two rolls of paper and one roll of tape—I’m getting better, at least in that regard) and the fourth was proceeding nicely. Harry Connick, Jr. was crooning about what he prays for on Christmas, the neighborhood was encased in nearly three feet of snow, and I decided in that moment that while my life was not perfect, it was certainly good enough to warrant a smile and some reflection.

That’s what this time of year lends itself to. Reflection. And yesterday, I was reflecting about God’s wrapping paper.

Though this may sound a bit sacrilegious, God is much like Santa. He sees me when I’m sleeping and knows when I’m awake. Knows if I’ve been bad or good, too. And He gives me gifts. Many of them.

As I folded and cut and taped (and taped some more), I realized that some of the gifts God had given to me came wrapped flawlessly. I could look at the package and tell it was something good.
But there were others He gave that looked much like what I will put under the tree for my wife, lumpy and ugly and barely hanging together. And I’ll admit that my reaction to those gifts was much like my son’s last year—What’d I do that was so bad?

God would never answer that question, choosing instead to nod and smile and tell me to just open it. “Trust Me,” He’d say. “You’ll see.”

I didn’t always trust. But I still always saw.

Those gifts disguised in ugly wrapping were often not as good as the ones in pretty paper, they were better. Like the time He gave me a gift draped with a job loss which, once unwrapped, became one of the best presents I’ve ever gotten. Or the gift He offered of over forty rejections from agents and publishers. That was a lot of paper and tape to get through, but beneath was not only the perfect agent, but the perfect publisher as well.

It’s tough to say that everything God gives us is a gift. Tough, but maybe true. He’s given me things that I’m still haven’t found the blessing and joy in, but I’m still looking. Like my wife, sometimes we just have to keep unwrapping to get there. But it’s there.

“Trust Me,” He says. “You’ll see.”

Joseph’s Christmas (by Billy Coffey)

Hey folks.

Name’s Joseph. Joseph who, you ask? Joseph of Nazareth. Jesus’s Pop. The other father. No, no. That’s okay. No offense taken. I’m used to kind of being the guy in the corner, the mystery man. I don’t mind, though. Promise.

I just wanted to tell everybody Merry Christmas, and thought this would be the best way to do it. Computers. Who could have dreamed that one up back in my day? It would have seemed impossible. But I’ve seen plenty of the impossible. Nothing much surprised me after that night.

Everybody considers Santa to be the father of Christmas, but I guess I could share that title. Which is funny, because I tend to be left out of things. The focus is on Jesus, as it should be, and then Mary. Angels. Shepherds. Wise men. There’s a lot going on in the Christmas story. But me, I’m just the guy standing beside the manger in the Nativity scene. Not a lot of people understand my side of the story. Which is another reason why I’m here.

Christmas is a lot of things to a lot of people. For many, it’s the greatest time of the year. It’s a time for joy and togetherness, for peace and love. For some, though, Christmas isn’t what it should be. It can be lonely and depressing and scary. I knew both sides of Christmas on that night. I knew both the magic and the hardship.

You have to remember, Mary and I were far from home. Bethlehem is about seventy miles from Nazareth. The going wasn’t easy, especially for her. There she was, nine months pregnant and having to ride a donkey all that way. We slept on the hard ground and had to deal with the weather. It was tough. And to make matters worse, we were travelling that far just to get taxed.

Then, once we got there, we find that there’s so many people that all the rooms are full. So it’s out to the stables for us. Let me tell you, that wasn’t easy for me to bear. I’m supposed to provide for my family, right? But instead of me being able to get Mary a room, my pregnant wife has to sleep with the cows and the horses.

No, that first Christmas wasn’t easy at all. Not for me. I was just a carpenter, remember? And to hear some folks, I wasn’t even a very good one. I was just a man, just like any other. Yet an angel told me that the woman I loved was carrying God in her belly, our whole town was saying some Roman soldier was really the one who got her pregnant, and we were both weeks from home, tired and hungry and scared, having to spend the night in a barn. Doesn’t sound like the scene on the front of your Christmas cards, does it?

So yes, I know this time of year can be tough. I know it can magnify the loneliness and fear that a person feels. But trust me on this: hidden behind all that loneliness and fear is the very same miracle that I saw that night. The real Christmas magic. Because when I held the Child, that fear and loneliness left me. Everything Mary and I had to endure seemed meaningless and small. The only thing that mattered was Him.

That’s what I want to tell you. Whether these days find you well or sick, hopeful or fearful, whole or torn, He is what matters. Look at the Babe in the manger, and you will see everything differently from then on.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Love,
Joseph

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To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at at his website and follow him on the twitter at @billycoffey.

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And just in case you missed my daughter’s letter from Santa on Christmas Change back in November, my friend Matt at the Church of No People is reposting it over at his place.

Merry Christmas!

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