This story is posted today and tomorrow.
Written By Ed McShane. Edited by Ted Kubiak. Illustrations by Tom Voss.
Jack, A Christmas Story
Four days before Christmas a sharp drizzle slapped against the cold concrete steps of the neighborhood church. A man in a grey trench coat pushed open its heavy wooden doors, the creaking hinges moaning in the rain. The sound was familiar; he was raised in this place, and hoped to find the peace it had given him as a boy.
The nave was empty. The solemnity within the din was broken only by the light of hundreds of votive candles surrounding the altar. Walking through the vestibule, he took his seat in a back pew. A crucifix looked down to the Nativity scene at the front of the church, flames lightly illuminating the face of the baby Jesus.
He was divorced, and estranged from his family. His twenty year career had come to a sudden and unexpected end. He had lost everything.
Sitting slumped, his eyes focused on the candles. A tear fell from his cheek. As he put his hands over his face he whispered three words: “God, Help Me.”
No more than a minute later, he heard the labored creaking of the church doors. Someone was coming in. Wiping his tears from his eyes he collected himself and silently thought, “Not now. Please go away. I want to be left alone.” He lowered his head, his eyes trained on the floor.
He heard footsteps behind him. Before another thought came into his mind, an audible sigh and groaning of settling wood broke the silence. Someone sat down in the pew directly across the aisle from his. He raised his head slightly and saw him: an older gentleman with glasses, maybe in his early seventies with grey hair, balding, wearing a brown windbreaker, a blue sweater underneath.
From across the pew, the man in the windbreaker noticed the depth of stillness an sighing from the other pew. Quietly, he leaned more closely and said in a staccato midwestern accent, “Ummm, excuse me, but are you OK? I don't mean to interrupt. My name's Jack. Just seeing if you're alright."
The man was struck at the awkwardness of the introduction, but looked over at Jack and said,“I’m fine,”and went back to staring at the ground.
Jack cleared his voice and said, “Well, if you don’t mind me saying so, you look don’t look so good. So, if “fine” is Latin for “terrible”, then I suppose you're doing just “fine.”
The man’s head turned and saw this intruder looking straight ahead, giggling as he ran his fingers through his thinning grey hair. The man said,“I'm OK, but thanks for asking.” His gaze again returned to the floor
Jack said, “So, we've gone from “fine” to “OK” in about twenty seconds. Interesting assessment, kid.”
The man felt himself begin to smile. Nobody had called him “kid” in a long time. He looked back across the pew at his needling antagonist. Jack said, “So, what are you doing here? Need to pray a little?”
The man looked at him and said,“Umm…yeah, right. To pray. And to see if I could get a little peace.”
Jack said quietly, almost in a whisper, “Oh, right. To pray. And, umm, get a little peace.” Jack stood up, stretched a little, and said, “Yeah, well I guess I got in the way of those, huh? Sorry about that. By the way, I have take care of those candles up there. Come with me a sec, will you? I could use a hand.”
Without hesitation, the man got up. Something compelled him to stand. For some unknown reason, he left his pew and felt guided up the aisle, walking about two steps behind Jack.
As he arrived at the altar, Jack said, “Look. There’s a million of these.” And he waved his hand around noting the barely lit, round white candles on both sides and in front of the altar. “I have to relight some of these when the wax pools up, and drain the wax from the rest. I got a batch from the Church Supply place this time. Better quality of the wax. Watch how cool this looks when you tip the candle a little.”
Carefully, Jack watched the wax to drain into a receptacle a the bottom of the votive candle. The flame opened, its glow expanding toward the altar.
“Do you work here?” the man said.
Jack responded, “You could say that. I tend to the place when things are little slow, like now. I keep the place swept, wipe down the pews, and make sure the joint doesn't burn down. Hand me that candle by your hand, will you?”
Tending to his work, tipping the wax from the candles, Jack quietly whispered, “Mind if I ask you something?”
The man, leaning against the altar, said, “Sure, go ahead.”
While picking up another candle, Jack said, “You came here not just because you needed some peace and connect with God, but you showed up because you're at the end of your rope, right? Am I close? Just slow me down if I'm off base here.”
Startled with Jack’s bluntness, but impressed with his candor and perspective, the man said, “Yeah, I guess you could say that. Things have been a little off.”
A quiet followed the man’s words. Jack took a candle, poured out the residual wax into its base, glanced at the man and said, “Mind telling me what happened to bring you here?”
The man said, “I don't think I want to talk about it right now.”
Quietly, Jack responded, “Come on. Look, you could choose to keep thinking about it, which won’t do you much good, or you could talk about it a little and let the feelings breathe. Hey, it's just you and me here, so it's not like I'm going to be sharing this with the congregation. I mean, look around. This place is a little thin in the people department, wouldn't you say?”
The man had nowhere to go, and figured he had little to lose by talking about how he felt. Jack stuck out his hand for a candle and the man obliged. Looking at Jack, he said, “This past week, I left my wife. I lost my job. My career and marriage are over. All of my past mistakes and selfishness have come crashing together. I have hurt so many of those I’ve loved. I have no value anymore."
“And...?” said Jack.
“And...and I don't know what to do, where to go. I’ve lost and destroyed everything I’ve ever loved.”
“You must be a little exhausted.” Jack said.
“Yes,” said the man.
“And,” Jack followed, “you think you’re out of options?”
“Slightly.” said the man, a little sarcastically.
“But you came here for…what again?” Jack said, lighting a candle.
“Well, as I said five minutes ago, to pray, get a little perspective. I don’t know. This place was a comfort to me when I was a boy. I came here every Sunday, went to the grammar school next door so I thought I’d revisit the place. I’m just really feeling, you know…”
“Pretty hopeless.” Jack interjected “And, a little helpless. And think you have no value whatsoever. Am I close with that?”
The man looked at the floor, exhaled quietly and said, “Yeah. That’s pretty much it.”
Jack looked at him, put one candle back, grabbed another, poured out the wax and said, “May I ask you one last thing?”
The man said, “Sure, go ahead,” feeling a twinge of regret that the conversation had taken this direction. The man looked briefly at the door on the side of the church just in case he felt like making a quick getaway.
Jack said, “I don't know what you did or why it happened to you. But, I’m curious about something, so I’ll just jump right in. That OK with you?”
The man stood there quietly for a second, looked up at Jack, nodded his head and said, “Sure, sure…knock yourself out.”
“OK,” Jack said, “here goes: Do you think you have the capacity to love anybody or anything right now?”
The man, thinking that Jack didn’t listen to a thing he just said, replied, “To love anybody? Now? At this time in my life?” He took a deep breath and said, “No. Other than my kids and my soon to be ex…well, no, not really. I'm a little more focused on what I need to do. Being broke with the potential of being homeless isn't exactly what I had in mind as my next big career move, particularly at Christmas..”
Jack shot back, “That doesn't matter. So I’ll ask you again: Can you love anything or anybody?
The man said, “I'm a little numb at the moment, but maybe, I guess I can. You know, my friends, family. Yeah, OK. I suppose. But what’s your point?”
Lighting another candle, Jack turned and said, “Here’s the point. It’s what you said a second ago: You think you have no value. You believe you’re worthless. You can no longer do what you did that gave you meaning. You hurt then left the people you love and that love you.”
The man looked at the floor and exhaled, “Yeah.”
Jack smiled, and his voice softened. “And you felt completely out of options. So you came here. So far so good?”
The man, still staring at the floor, nodded his head.
Jack said, “I'll take that as a “yes.”
Pouring the wax out of another candle, Jack said, “So let me tell you why I asked you whether you can love anyone or not. See, as I’m sure you know, understanding love can be a tough nut. You’re a little beat up at the moment. Information like this might be a little hard to absorb feeling the way you feel.”
Using one candle to light another, Jack said, “I ask that question to see if the flicker of love’s light still shines within you.
See, if you can love, you can have Hope. And you can see past the pain, you can move into the vision God has for you.” Jack paused for a moment, looked at the man and said, “This is a kind of a big deal here, kiddo. The feelings you have can bury Love. That puts your inner light right out. You with me on this?”
The man said, “Well, yes, but…”
Jack said, “I’ll take that as a “yes” again.”
“Look,” Jack said, “If you can feel the love come from within you, your heart opens. If you don’t, your heart retracts, at least temporarily. All of love’s components-Faith, Hope, Kindness, Friendship-you name it, all of them shrink. The heart eventually shrinks, too. And sometimes its ability to express itself, feel things, and care about others and yourself can almost stop entirely."
“Then, the life inside you becomes stagnant. Love’s flame is dimmed, just like these candles were when we came in.”
“Kid,” Jack said, “you have to know that the light of love still flickers inside you if you want to stay alive.”
“I’m sorry,” the man said, trying to make sense of what he was hearing, “What did you just say?”
Jack looked directly into the man’s eyes, smiled and said, “You have to believe the light of love still lives within you if you are going to stay alive.”
Jack paused for a moment and said, “Oh, yeah…about staying alive: My sense here you don’t feel your life is worth living, huh? Felt that in the last couple of days?"
The man looked down at the ground, paused a few seconds, and said, “Yeah. I have.”
Jack continued, “It's normal, and this isn't an indictment. But that's why I asked you if you still held the capacity to love somewhere in your heart. Hand me that candle. No, that one.….”
The man stood there dumbfounded and handed Jack another candle. The man said, “This is a little hard to hear right now. I’m having enough trouble keeping it together, you know?” The man stuck his hands in his pockets and took a step back.
Lighting a candle and pouring wax out of another, Jack said, “Look at it this way. If you can love, you can heal. Love heals everything. There is not a more valuable commodity in the world.”
Jack continued, “Love is The Great Antiseptic. It heals all matters of the heart. But Love comes from a variety of places, and you’re in one of the places that sometimes holds it together.”
“You mean, church? Great, but..." Jack put up his hand, picked up another candle and said, “Yes, but it’s more than that. You find love in the spirit of life. And, yes, I believe places like this-a mosque, a temple, any place of worship-can hold that spirit of life very well. But nature, the outdoors, your home, time with people and places you love, hold that spirit, too. Often people refer to that spirit as “God.”
“And,” Jack said softly, "sometimes, people come to speak to God in a place like this. To feel OK again. Hopefully, to feel a little loved.”
After a short pause, Jack spoke again and said, “Which brings me to two more questions and I know the answer to both. As a matter of fact, I will write the answers down on two little pieces of paper, put them in my pocket and show you as you answer the questions. This will help you get started.”
The man said, “Uh, I’m sorry, but…”
“First question,” Jack said, “Do you think God Loves you.”
Without hesitation, the man said, “Yeah, I guess so.” Jack pulled the first piece of paper out of his pocket. On the front was the word, “Yes.”
“See? You got the first one right.” Jack smiled and said, “Next question. Do you love yourself?”
The man looked downward, looked up at Jack, and looked at the floor again. Quietly, with his head bowed, the man said, “No. Not at the moment.”
The man pulled the second piece of paper out of his pocket. It said, “No” on the front. “Bullseye. Two for two. And do you know what that means?
“No,” the man said. “What does that mean?”
Jack stopped and said, “It means that you’ve let your ego be in charge. And, as a result, you’ve become a little self centered. Hand me that candle.”
“Wait, what?” The man looked confused, and Jack could see that the expression on his face become bewildered.
Jack stopped and gently smiled at the man. “You know what the word “ego” stands for? Easing God Out.”
Slowly the man said, “but, I didn’t mean to…,” and the man stopped. He took a deep breath, leaned against the pew behind him, and looked back at the floor.
Putting down a candle and placing his hand on the man’s shoulder, Jack said, “Look… God loves you. The Almighty force in the Universe absolutely loves you. But you don't love you? God loves you, you can't make him stop loving you, but you don't love yourself?”
Jack went back to the candles. “See what I mean here? I’m not trying to be unkind, and I’m sorry if it sounded that way. But I need to have you understand this point.”
Jack turned, lit another candle and said, “God Loves You. He’s got your back. And whatever possibility is around the corner, you’ll be prepared, I just know it.”
“What possibility around the corner?”said the man.
“He's got one in mind. You have to stretch your heart a little. He's got a better idea for your life than you do.”’
The man suddenly became annoyed. “I just gave up my family and lost my career. You think God did that in order to make things better? Seriously?”
Jack stopped, grabbed a candle, leaned into the man and whispered, “Look, I’m not sure you know much about why everything happened the way it did, and I know that’s hard. Understanding the “why” of all this is daunting for anyone in your position.”
“But trust me on this: Right now, the only saving grace is that you know God Loves You.”
“Yeah,” the man said, “but he has a funny way of showing it.”
“From your perspective, yeah, I get that. But if he loves you, do you think you can love yourself a little? Hand me that candle over there.”
The man said, “Yeah. Maybe, I don’t know. I suppose. But I’m still not getting your point.”
Lighting a candle Jack looked back at the man and said quietly, “You have to love yourself again. That’s the point. You have to know that you're a child of God, that you're meant to be here. For what, you may not be sure, but you're here, and that's good.”
Putting back another candle, Jack said, “Figure this: If you know he loves you, he'll be there for you. All you have to do is let him. And if you can love yourself, you’ll feel worthy of his help.”
“And that what lets him in. See what I mean? Hand me that last candle over there.”
Grabbing the candle, the man said, “OK, I get that…is that all I have to do?”
“No,” Jack said, “Not quite. I want to clarify this one point: If you can love yourself, you open yourself up to the miracles God has in store for you. You're in alignment with God's love, and you can do something meaningful in your life.”
“What do you mean, “do something meaningful with my life?” the man said, “I was already doing something meaningful with my life.”
“Maybe,” Jack said, “But it’s pretty evident to me that God wants something a little more, well, in concert with his vibe, you know? And see, to connect with The Almighty, you have to keep that alignment steady. And to do that, you have just one more thing that you have to do pretty much every day.”
“Love myself?” the man replied.
“Well, yeah, of course, but this last one seals the deal. This one lets God in your heart and keeps him there. Ready?
The man said, “Well, I think….”
“Good." Jack smiled and nearly whispering, “The alignment comes from one more thing: You have to give your Love away.”
The man looked at Jack in disbelief. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
“Yes,” said Jack, “you give it away. That's the way you feel better. Give Your Love Away. Want me to tell you how to do that?”
“Like saying “no” is going to stop you?”
“Good point.” Jack stood against a pew, walked over to the altar, placed another candle back in the holder. Turning to look back at the man, Jack stood up straight and said, “This is what you do to give your love away and connect with God’s love within you:”
“Talk to somebody. It's loving to share your words. Listen to somebody. It is loving to share your attention. Help somebody. It's loving to share your efforts. Hug somebody. It's loving to share your affection. And just be with somebody. That is the most powerful. Your presence heals. Your attitude heals. The look in your eyes heals.”
Jack took a deep breath, paused and with measured deliberation said, “Let. Them. See. Your. Light. Share with them who you are. Your light comes through your eyes, your smile, and the love and peace within your heart. Your job is to keep the light of love alive in your life and the life of those around you.” His voice drawing now to a whisper, Jack looked back at the man and said, “That is where you begin again.”
Both men stood there, facing one another. Softly, Jack put his hand on the man's shoulder and said, “Love is the light within you. You have to keep the light of Love alive, that’s all. And it is that light of Love that brings you closer to God.”
“Is that why you made me watch you light all these candles?,” the man said, smiling.
Jack said, “You’re quick,” and they started to laugh. Smiling a wide smile, leaning against the altar, Jack said, “Look, who you are makes a difference in the life of another. But from what you’re telling me, the manner, or “how” you planned to make difference just got shot out from under you, even if it was a little by your own doing.”
“But here’s the deal,” Jack said, “how” doesn't matter. You just hold your love out there for other people, let them see your “light” and they will benefit. And so will you. Absolutely. That’s a promise.”
Jack took a step closer to the man, pointed to the man’s heart and said, “Your light is still there. You're just full of, let's say, excess wax. But as you've seen, all you need to do is get the wax out a little, and your candle shines brighter. Come with me… walk back here a second.” The man and Jack walked all the way to the back of the church. Their backs were facing the altar. Then, at the same time, they both turned around.
The man could not believe what he saw. It was as if this church was illuminated from a different source of light. The candles brilliantly and almost magically lit the whole church. Jack said “Look at that. You and I, we stand in the light of love. And that's nothing. Think of what your heart does to the spirit of another. The light in your heart is a thousand times brighter than this, and it can light up the Universe.”
Jack said, “Love heals, my friend. It is the greatest power on earth. I love you. You’ll learn to love yourself better, I know you will. The next chapter of your life is waiting to happen. Just keep moving forward and let the light of your love continue to shine.” With that, Jack turned and began to leave.
The man paused, and stood silently for a moment. Looking back at Jack, he said, “Wait, don’t leave yet.”
The man stopped, looked at Jack and said, “Did you just say you love me? You barely know me.”
Jack stopped and slowly turned around.
With a sheepish grin, Jack said,“Well, actually, I know you pretty well. And my name isn't really Jack, although I've been called things I shouldn't repeat.”
Jack squinted his eyes, and pointed at the huge crucifix at the front of the church. “See that guy up there on that big hunk of wood? He lets me play around in here sometimes. Not a great likeness of him. He's really not that sad looking. But, hey, you want to talk about a bad stretch of road? Well, years ago he had a really terrible time of it, and it ended with him dying up there.” Jack paused, and put rubbed his chin with his hand. “It wasn’t a very good day for him, or me, for that matter. You never want to see your kid going through something like that.”
“But, hey,” Jack said, smiling, “look at that little bugger in the crib. Now that’s a good likeness. I remember the day that happened, let me tell you. I was right at Mary’s shoulder. What a cutie he was!”
The man felt his mouth open. Gasping as he slowly turned his head to look at Jack, his eyes widened, and he could feel himself become a little faint. Jack, looking over at the man,
“Well, you did say “God help me” didn’t you?”
The man was frozen. He couldn’t move. He stared at Jack, and could feel his eyes well up with tears.
“Hey,” said Jack, “you’re my son, too. Know that. I haven't abandoned you. I'm right here. I’m always with you.”
Jack turned to leave the church. “Have faith, my friend. Illuminate the spirit of another from the light of the love within you. Amazing things will follow, I promise. And trust me on this one: I keep my promises.”
The man stood motionless in the aisle. Jack said, “And, hey, keep an eye on these candles for me this week, will you? You can start with them. Keep the wax away, and they will shine a little brighter. It'll keep reminding you to keep the light of your love alive.”
And with that, Jack walked out of the church. Quickly, the man ran after him but, looking around outside, Jack was nowhere to be seen. Jack was gone. The man paused, and went back into the church.
As he walked through the doors, the light was almost blinding. All the candles were lit, and the illumination had doubled that of what he had seen just moments before. Just then, a minister came out from behind the altar. Looking around the church, he could not believe what he was seeing. The brilliance of the candles made him squint. Exploding with excitement, he said, “What the…did you do this?”
The man said, “Well, yes, but I had a little help.”
The minister said, “I’ve never seen the candles do that before. Can you come back maybe next week and help me out with that again?”
“Yeah, sure.” And the man turned to walk out of the church. He paused, just as he reached the back, turned to the minister and, in a loud voice, said, “To keep the light of love alive.”
The minister smiled, waved slightly to the man, and went back behind the altar.
Jack left the church. The rain stopped, and he could see the moon between the whispers of the remaining clouds. Walking down the steps, he looked up at the sky.
In a whisper, he said to himself, “Merry Christmas, Jack.”
And in that moment, as the light in the sky slightly brightened, he could've sworn he heard Jack’s voice saying these three beautiful words:
“Merry Christmas, kid.”