I never watched The Cat in the Hat when I was a kid. I watched He-Man, G.I. Joe, all the television shows that were about muscle and force. Perhaps Thing 1 and Thing 2 were too overwhelming for me or maybe my father feared that “Hop on Pop” would be something I was bold enough to try. Regardless of the fact that I avoided it---or perhaps was shielded from it---as a child, my 3-year-old daughter has taken a liking to the ol’ Cat.
With the Christmas season within arm’s reach, The Cat has a new episode out in which he throws a wild Christmas tree decorating party complete with song and dance, and ending in what my daughter believes to be the most beautiful Christmas tree ever.
One of the lines from The Cat’s Christmas song is, “Isn’t Christmas the greatest time of the year?” Since I was a child I have always believed that to be true, for myself and everyone throughout the world. And even as an adult, I still love the Christmas season. But I have come to understand that Christmas isn’t always “the greatest time of the year.”
Personally, I have my misgivings because I spent my first Christmas as a married man in the hospice room with my mother awaiting the inevitable. But even as my mother lay on her deathbed, our family still experienced the joy of the season. Instead, I struggle to believe this is the greatest time of the year because of the heartbreak felt by the people I’m surrounded by today.
As the director of a home for at-risk teenage boys, I am more aware that not every parent loves their children the way my parents did. Broken promises are a reality on our 26-acre oasis on the east side of Houston. Last year I witnessed one of the most heartbreaking moments in my time here.
Joe is one of our more seasoned residents, meaning he’s been here longer than the obligatory year. When he was little, Joe’s father was deported back to his home country as a result of his involvement in illegal behavior. Less than a week after that, Joe’s mother was found dead in their home, tied up and shot multiple times. Joe was placed in CPS custody and spent a few years bouncing from home to home until he was finally adopted by a woman who promised him the world. Within a few short years, she submitted his application into our program. She was full of false accusations, and we’ve since learned the reality was that she just didn’t want him. Time and time again she would promise to pick him up for weekend passes and wouldn’t show. As a “courtesy,” she would follow up with a phone call and a list of excuses. She finally followed through with a trip home for Thanksgiving Day last year, and with that she gave a promise of an extended visit for Christmas. Then Christmas vacation came.
It was Friday, December 21, and she was to arrive shortly after 5pm. He had bags sitting by the door, waiting for her. When bed time came that night, she still hadn’t arrived, nor had she called or returned the numerous calls from our staff. Perhaps the next morning she’ll come, he thought. We all hoped. But another day passed and still no word. On the morning of Christmas Eve, we finally sat him down and told him that she wasn’t coming and he should unpack his bags. He would be welcome in our home for Christmas. We scrambled around town purchasing presents in hopes they might serve as a band-aid to the wound.
It had taken us a year to get Joe to begin trusting us enough to open up and allow us to walk him through a process of healing before this happened. Because of his adopted “mother’s” actions, it would take another five months to resume progress. The first step came when she finally returned our Christmas vacation call on January 25, 2013. She explained why she never arrived, but it was too late---the damage had already been done.
It’s been almost a year since Joe has seen or even heard from his “mother.” Rarely does he refer to her and never does he call her his “mother” anymore. It’s a bit strange to say, but disowning his “mother” was the greatest thing that’s ever happened to him.
As for me, I’ll never forget the day we had to tell a boy that his mother would not be showing up for Christmas. To hear the tears in his voice. To try to make her wrong seem not so bad. This is not a Christmas memory you want any child to carry with him. Unfortunately this is just one of the stories that haunt this 26-acre oasis.
We could get all theological about the idea that Christmas really is the greatest time of the year as we celebrate the birth of the Christ-child, but I am reminded that because of the world we live in today, that’s not always true. Perhaps a more accurate statement is that Christmas is the most hopeful time of the year; it’s a time when others fail us with their promises and false hopes, but not God. There was no failure in His promise, there was only hope. And for this one young man during the Christmas of 2012, that might have been the greatest hope he had to hold on to: the fact that God loves him.
In the midst of this madness we’ve created during this season, God’s greatest concern isn’t whether our lights look better than our neighbor’s, but that we become the light that tells the story of the Christ-child. God’s not worried about whether or not little Johnny or Sally get the gift they wanted, but rather that we share the gift of hope with our children, our neighbors, those we cross paths with everyday. I have to wonder if there is any holiness in any of our hollow traditions.
As you tire yourself out running from party to party and store to store, may you be keenly aware that you are surrounded by people who need more than presents; they need hope.
This year we will spend Christmas morning with at least three boys who won’t be with their parents for the holidays. They’ll wake up in the same bed as they do every day here on our campus, and we’ll greet them with a loving, “Merry Christmas, son!” We’ll do our best to hand them presents that will, hopefully, put a smile on their face and, when it’s all said and done, we’ll share with them the greatest story of hope that we know.
And we pray that Joe, who’s still with us today and now walks daily with the Lord, will have his joy restored in this, the most hopeful time of the year.