Christmas in the Shadowlands

I distinctly remember the year when my parents first switched to an artificial Christmas tree. We were living in a small farmhouse at the time, and the only display space afforded our preeminent yuletide decoration was in a room that also contained a wood stove. Despite my father’s dogged determination to beat back the pervasive climes of Old Man Winter and simultaneously maintain the hydration of our felled fir, the former feat was almost only ever accomplished at the expense of the latter. The dry, crackling heat from the old iron stove maintained even the peripheral recesses of our home at a balmy sweater-and-slippers temperature while, alas, our living room floor near the tree began to more and more resemble the prickly forest floor with every passing day of December. We just couldn’t water any Christmas tree enough.

After valiant efforts over several years, my parents finally acquiesced to the way of things and made alternate arrangements. We three children were notified of the decision late one November. In somber tones and with more than one hand being held, we were told that there would be no “real” Christmas tree this year. We didn’t understand what that meant, but it sounded unpleasant. It seemed out of place for a modifier like “real” to suddenly be placed before a term where it had never stood before. They continued the parent-child conference. The benefits of the artificial tree were presented with the winsomeness of a Home Shopping Network pitch and expounded with the reasoned sobriety of a Presbyterian sermon. The practicality was certainly appealing but the modernity of it all sounded like something that the prophet Schulz had warned us against. I remained forlorn at the ease and apparent eagerness with which the future was being given a foothold in our home–and with something as sacred as Christmas!

But the artificial Christmas tree arrived and crossed our threshold in that least romantic (yet also endearingly unmodern) of all packaging–a long cardboard box. Whether it was ordered from a JC Penny catalog or brought home from the main street hardware store in town, I don’t remember. But the sales team at the tree factory was apparently at least as dubious about the contents of the box as I was. They had plastered “Holiday Tree” on all exterior sides of the box in an effort to convince the skeptics and/or proselytize the agnostics—good thing, because there was a mixed company of five such unbelievers in the manse that morning. With a box cutter in my father’s hand and a deep breath braced in our collective lungs, my family and I came face to face with the marvel of our new Christmas tree.

If first impressions are indeed lasting and the most important, then it is a wonder that we ever even granted our new tree a second season. The disparity between the display images on the outside of the box and the condition of its contents (as shipped) could not have been greater. The prospects and possibility of a family’s Christmas joy could not have been in more peril. The outside of the box had promised symmetry, lush color, and (the deal clincher) needle-free cheer. The inside of the box, however, contained what appeared to be the seven tiers of anti-Christmas with a sturdy plastic base and a green aluminum pole. The branches, so called, were either collapsed like paper fans or mangled like a nose tackle’s pinky fingers. The polyester needles were abhorrently artificial and crinkled and wrinkled with every slight movement. It was a downgrade from a real fir tree in every imaginable aspect.

I think we had all expected the tree to emerge from its cardboard cocoon resembling a near-finished product. I don’t think my dad expected anything close to the amount of Assembly Required that now stood between him a happy Norman Rockwell scene. But he dug through the box and produced the instructions (“Christmas tree assembly instructions, can you believe it!” he laughed). We discovered which end of the pole was North and which end fixed into the base. We deciphered the scheme of the branch arrangements and their corresponding color tags. We sorted them into piles and began attaching the branches to the would-be trunk. We followed Dad’s lead and put a bold face on it.

If you have never arranged the branches of an artificial Christmas tree, then perhaps you cannot adequately appreciate the mighty learning curve that faced our young family of five that morning. Still, with the enthusiasm of the season and the unbridled energy of the unlearned, we set to work bending and shaping each branch. We straightened each knuckled twig and smoothed each wrinkled needle as if aspiring to the approval of Kris Kringle himself. Each of us grabbed branch after branch. We arranged each wire-and-polyester twig with fervor and care, branch after branch. Arrange, Attach, Repeat. Arrange, Attach, Repeat.

Long before we reached what should have been the final steps of Admire and Adorn, we realized that we were horribly off course. With a mere two or three rings of branches completed, each of us could now see that our new tree looked worse than just artificial—it looked abominable. Why didn’t our branches look like branches? Why did this product which was designed to look like a proud douglas fir more closely resemble a skewered sea urchin? Instead of full and bristling, our tree looked sparse and lifeless–like a Joe Biden rally. It was if some unseen forces were sabotaging our efforts. Perhaps the tree had been absorbing our doubts and disbelief and manifesting them as poorly-shaped twigs. Perhaps our hearts were each two sizes too small. Whatever the reason, we were off to a bad start. We were obviously going about things the wrong way.

But what happened next was the moment that historians in the ensuing decades have come to describe as Ronald E. Pearce’s own tour de force in The Battle for Christmas—the moment that quickened an inanimate heap of wire and polyester strips into a new life as a respectable Christmas tree faster (and with more believability) than the Peanuts gang. My father, at the moment of our critical need, in the hour of our greatest despondency, enacted an unrehearsed and unplanned tactical maneuver that was surpassed in its oddness and unexpectedness by only its bold simplicity.

My dad went outside. He left us and left the room. He left the unfinished tree, he left the house, and he went outside with a hat and a pair of pruning shears. No instructions, no farewell, no explanation that I can recall. Through the front windows we watched him walk down along our gravel driveway. Where did Dad go? Why did he take those big scissors with him? What’s he going to do? Then all my father did for the next few minutes was stand next to one of the big douglas firs that lined our front drive. He scanned the grand branches of its evergreen glory, searching and studying. He stood in a painter’s posture, noting form and frame, design and detail. He stood there before a real, live tree—finally, at last—after his freelance attempt to assemble the artificial had failed. Then, just as we kids were losing interest in his mysterious mission, he snipped. My dad lopped off about an arm’s length of the end of one of the tree’s lower branches and brought it inside.

He was a new man upon re-entry—invigorated and inspired. With rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes, he revealed at last what genius stroke had struck and sent him outside. He pulled off his hat and gloves and laid aside the shears. He held out the branch of the fir tree for our own inspection. “This is what we need our branches to look like—here’s the real thing!” It was a marvelous moment. It was simple. And it was obvious! We had been following instructions, yes, but we hadn’t been following a template. We had diagrams and color codes on a page of instructions, but we didn’t have a model. We didn’t have the real thing. Yet all the while, ironically, a living, photosynthesizing template was growing not twenty yards outside of our house.

My father’s enthusiasm was infectious, and, before the red had dissipated from his rosy cheeks, we were all as enraptured with the fresh-cut specimen as he was. “Here’s where I think we were going wrong,” he said. “See how these twigs near the trunk actually stick straight up? They don’t point out at all…And do you notice how the tips of these outer twigs all bend up toward the sunlight at the very end? Isn’t that neat?” He led us through a study of each twig’s shape and relative arrangement as if marveling at a peacock’s fanned tail feathers or at a jeweled necklace in a museum. My dad brought us into his sense of wonder and we all examined the evergreen extract with excitement.

We re-tackled the tree with tenacity and renewed purpose. We who once were hopelessly lost and floundering were suddenly filled with purpose and passion. We started by standing the back twigs straight up—just like the real branch. We curved up the tips of the outer twigs as if to prepare them to receive the very beams of heaven. We busied ourselves with the bending and arranging of each twig on every branch until—wonder of wonders, and Maker be praised—we had assembled an artificial Christmas tree of which even Lucille Van Pelt would be proud. Christmas was saved—we would have a respectable Christmas tree after all.

Looking back on the drama of that day these many Christmas seasons later, I see clearly that my father’s great triumph wasn’t associated with inventing or innovating. He didn’t download an app or consult an expert to help with the tree. And he neither gave it up for impossible, nor did he pretend that there wasn’t a problem. He remained steadfast in his pursuit of excellence and achieved it when he had at last drawn himself and his family into the presence of that which was truly excellent. My father won the day and put us on a path to ultimate success by pointing us to the details of the natural world. He shifted our focus from our synthetic problem to its natural solution in God’s created order. Our project didn’t falter because we lacked an infallible guide—we floundered because we weren’t consulting it.

If my father has left any legacy in my life, it is a confidence in simple orthodoxy. He has instilled in me an assurance that there is Truth (“true truth” he would say, quoting Schaeffer), and that it can be known. There is “a way [we] should go” as children so that when we are old we do not depart from it. With the author of Hebrews, my father taught us that “at sundry times and in divers manners,” the living God has made himself known to the children of men—sometimes through prophets (Luke 16:29), sometimes through creation (Psalm 19:1), sometimes through creatures (Proverbs 6:6). In his love for us, my dad trained our ears and eyes to discern each story, scene, or sunrise as a song of our Savior. Every story whispers His name, as it were, and everything that has breath praises the Lord.

Our father’s instruction and principles have never been elaborate, and they are always simply stated. But they are firmly believed and persistently proved. They are lived out in the ordinary moments of ordinary days—even the day we set up an artificial Christmas tree in the shadowlands. Now when I set up my own tree with my own children, I am wont every November to remember my father and his pursuit of excellence. I stand every back twig straight up, and I bend each outer twig up ever so slightly—just like the branch he snipped off the douglas fir along the driveway at the manse. It’s a ritual rife with sentiment and it never fails to bring to mind that memorable Christmas years ago. Just the act of setting up an artificial tree draws me further up in my appreciation for my Father and further in to the wonders of His creation—just like the real thing.

December 2020

Two Miles Without a Cloak or Tunic

What do you do in the situation when your agreement to help someone becomes more than you figured it would be? How do you react the moment you realize that committing to help a brother or sister is going to take longer or cost more or require greater effort or (groan) need to be re-done? What about those times when you were sure you had “counted the cost” of helping someone, but you find yourself over budget, so to speak, and unable to back out?

This summer a Christian brother asked me to help him transport some furniture that he and his wife had acquired for homeschooling. Sympathetic to fellow home educators everywhere, and always glad to get to use my truck for more than commuting to an office, I agreed to help load and transport the furniture with him. We made arrangements to meet on a sunny Friday after work, and exchanged some details in advance regarding the type and number of items to be moved. I expected some light-duty particle-board bookcases and a petite IKEA desk. I told my wife to expect me home by 7:00 P.M., and she even made plans to have friends over for a late dinner that evening.

But when we arrived at the home of the woman selling the furniture, we were greeted by a pair of bookcases taller than me and a massive oak armoire desk that seemed to be snickering “Good Luck” under its breath before we even started. I am not exaggerating when I describe it as massive. It was the type of solid wood construction that seems to have secret linings of lead—it probably could have doubled as a fall-out shelter for a small family. As we brought the bookcases out of the seller’s back room, I complimented my friend on the great furniture he had obtained, and cheerfully pointed out, “At least our path out to the truck goes down all these steps.” But in my own mind I was wondering how on earth the two of us were going to get the armoire out of that room and down those stairs, let alone up onto my tailgate. After all, the thing was massive and neither I nor my friend would ever be confused for a bodybuilder or former nose tackle.

We spent the better part of an hour getting that armoire out of that room, 10 more minutes getting it down the stairs to the truck, and another 20 minutes sizing and planning and loading it onto my truck. We used a hand truck, we used sliders, and we used a screwdriver, a hammer, and twine. We disassembled the armoire into two parts, and we took a hallway door off its hinges. We pinched our fingers in door frames more times than I can remember, and we knocked over a lamp despite our best efforts. We used every single muscle and ligament in our not-so-young-anymore legs and backs, and we stretched the spatial capabilities of our brains to the absolute max trying to plan every twist and lift and shift and turn of the armoire’s path to my truck.

More than once my friend wrinkled a sweaty brow and humbly admitted, “I should have asked someone else to meet us here to help lift this,” or “You know, it looked much more manageable in the pictures on Craig’s List!” After we brought the bookcases out, I discretely texted my wife to say, “Start dinner without me.” And then, after the first part of the armoire was loaded, “Not going to be home for dinner.”

With the last light of a summer twilight fading to the black of night, we finally had all the furniture in the truck. To save us making a second trip to and from the seller’s house, we had piled it all rather precariously and lashed it all down with every strap and tie-down I owned. The bookcases were sticking up so high and on such an odd angle, that (for the first time in my 14 years as a truck owner) I stopped to measure my overhead clearance before we left—just in case we encountered any low overpasses!

I plopped into my driver’s seat a sweaty mess and my friend started his little sedan. I put the truck in gear and slowly inched away from Point A wondering how many sets of stairs were involved at my friend’s house at Point B. I wondered if it was too late to call someone to ask for help on the unloading end. Then somewhere in those first few miles of driving, the Holy Spirit started softening and soothing my troubled heart.

I called my wife to give her an update on our status and to see how she was making out playing hostess while mothering four children alone on a Friday evening. Our call was brief so as to not be rude to her guests. The call ended before I could convey the Herculean effort we two men had just exerted and the magnitude of our accomplishment. I was left alone with the silence of the road and the hum of straps vibrating behind the back window. I wasn’t able to tell her how much work we had just done, and she didn’t affirm my attitude or emotions. I kept the radio off and kept driving.

Then in the quiet solitude of the drive to Point B, the Holy Spirit brought to mind Matthew 5:40-42, in which our Savior says to his disciples, “And if anyone would…take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

The plain simplicity of the familiar text both cut me to the heart and was balm on my soul. I was convicted of my pride and felt bare before the Lord—He who should have been my only audience and motivation. I realized that I had been more than merely satisfied at a job well done and a difficult task accomplished. In my heart I felt like I had put in overtime and really earned some ambiguous spiritual equity—a selfish, juvenile attitude.

The good deed that I had performed and pridefully considered “extra credit” Jesus described merely as the bare minimum and the standard of care for a disciple. I had agreed to help my friend because I viewed it as a “one mile” favor. When the task demanded a “second mile” from me, I acted like I should have been rewarded when I was only fulfilling what was commanded of me.

And now as I look up Matthew 5 while writing this reflection on The Great Armoire Transport of Summer 2018, I am reminded that the verses I quoted above are in the context of our relationship to those we count as enemies—how much more should we give sacrificially to our brothers and sisters in the Lord!

Now, in anticipation of the valid objection some might have, let me state that I am (of course) not advocating recklessness or striving full throttle toward burn-out. But I know that I do need the reminder that giving in comfort is just that—comfortable. We often sanitize or mindlessly exaggerate the word “sacrificial” when we refer to our own sacrificial giving. After all, “sacrificial” is not a word we like to hold close to the chest. But we need to embrace it and live it out the same way that an athlete strains his body and even subjects it to pain and discomfort. He stresses his muscles and runs until his lungs burn—willingly, with the higher goal in mind.

Jesus praised the widow who gave all she had and he scorned the offerings of those who gave without feeling the slightest pinch. In the Old Testament, the widow fed the prophet Elijah from the bottom of her jars what was going to be her last meal. The Lord, who saw these cheerful, sacrificial givers and what they did in secret, rewarded them.

There is a difference between giving out of one’s abundance and abundantly giving. The former can be hollow, but the latter brings in its wake the blessings of obedience. The Lord mercifully showed me how my external giving to my friend was lacking a sincerity of heart and true generosity. He showed me how far short I fall of the standard of the one who “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant…” (Philippians 2:6,7a). And just in time, too—because the bookcases and massive armoire needed to be unloaded and brought into my friend’s house once we got there!

Originally published in the February 27, 2019 issue of The Mercy Minute, a publication of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Committee on Diaconal Ministries

January 21

I am never so old as on One / Twenty-One.
Each year it seems Time’s winning (or has won).
Seems a fait accompli
That what’s happened to me
Can’t be reversed, slowed, or undone.

The forecast at Nine was received as a vow
Of impossibly high drifts of snow.
Yes, the snows of my youth,
Mostly meager, in truth,
Never failed to illicit pure Wow.

At Nineteen, the storms were capitalist ventures
Behind shovel on midnight adventures.
Pushing snow in great heaps
During the town’s dreamy sleep,
My thin wallet grew fat without censure.

Young adulthood is when all this started to change
(‘Course that’s when a man’s life is bursting with strange).
Now snow days don’t earn me,
Instead now they burn me—
As Personal Days, home on the range.

As my shovel and I both grow longer in teeth,
The deeper my Youth sinks buried beneath.
Still, a snowball in hand,
With arc perfectly planned 
Sparks a boy’s joy, like bright sword unsheathed.

The days nigh are coming, and soon will be here
When driveways and steps will be traversed in fear,
With my hand on the railing,
Begging feet out of failing,
Guiding my little old lady so dear.

Fair Spring is the season whose siren call is young,
And Summer is charged with energy and sun.
Swift Autumn comes on us
But leaves us in darkness—
These seasons, so regular,
What’s more, act as metaphors.
They alter and grind us
‘Til later we find us
Ne’er so old as we feel every One / Twenty-One.

January 21, 2018


Every summer it happens—
It happens that I become paralyzed,
Paralyzed, that is, with the decision
As to which of my girls
To nickname “Peach.”
The paralysis stems from the consideration
That each one is worthy,
And to a verifiable extent:
Dear to my heart,
Locally sourced,
As fresh as summer dew,
With a hint of tartness,
Rosy as the dawn,
And a sublime companion to waffles.

July 22, 2018

The Desk of My Daughter

The desk of my daughter
At the window facing west
Isn’t cleared before dinner
Despite her mother’s behest.

A clean desk would be
(Though it’s never been seen)
A surface that’s flat,
Polished, shiny, and clean.

But much like the world
On the Out side of the pane,
The girl at the desk
Never stays just the same.

She’s constantly growing,
Thinking, changing, creating.
The world at her fingers
Is for shaping and making.

So the desk at the window
In the messy school room
Will never be clean
While Jillian Rose is in bloom.

November 25, 2018

Gray November

Like the first few flakes of snow
On the leaves of rusty brown
Are the first gray hairs to show
In the beard beneath my frown.
Snow is “early” in November,
And I feel too young for gray—
But then again I can’t remember 
What my face felt like clean shaved.
One by one the flakes compound
And still Fall’s rustling with a hush
While the gray of Time resounds,
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

November 18, 2018

Broome Street

The streetlight aspires to a small role on Broadway,
And the traffic cop fancies that he was born king.
The pigeons peck pennies and wish at the fountain,
To trade their anxieties for songs they can sing.
The taxi cab wishes that he was a tugboat,
The dockbuilder whistles and dreams he’s a bird.
While only the poet—and just for one moment—
Sits silent and content, alone in all the world.

January 21, 2019

The Aster and the Goldenrod

I asked the crimson Sassafras

For a mittened helping hand.

“I must bring autumn home,” I said

To the yellow Maidenhair.

But the Sassafras just smiled and sighed

That he had other plans.

And that Ginkgo giggled down the lane

And left my basket bare.

I hiked the blazing mountains

‘Neath the Maples’ ring of fire,

I bartered with the Aspens,

For to procure their neon glow.

But the Maples would not spare a brand

Though expansive was their pyre.

The Aspens said, “No deal,”

And shushed me down the valley below.

With empty hands and heavy heart,

I trod the pasture lane.

No autumn in my arms to charm 

My own Autumnal Queen,

Denied by forest branch and bough—

Each tree’s answer was the same.

The splendor of their canopy

Inaccessible to me.

But as I turned at last toward home

And squinted toward the west,

My eye alighted on two flowers

Canoodling with a bee.

At last I’d found the hues of Fall

That fit my hand the best.

Now the Aster and the Goldenrod

Are coming home with me.

October 2020