A colleague shares this story: “Our neighbors have large plywood letters bordered with Christmas lights that spell out ‘NOEL.’ Each year they mount them on the roof of their house and turn on the lights to spell out that joyful word.

Gene Nelson column

Gene Nelson 

“One year had been especially busy for the father. It was almost mid-December, and he still had not put up the ‘NOEL’. The family had been after him to get it done, for the letters were big and clumsy and he was the only one strong enough to manage them. One Saturday morning he decided that he would get those letters up, that day, no matter what. Well, that day proved to be a windy one. Up on the roof, he fought the wind and muttered darkly to himself as he wrestled the big letters into place. It was nearly dark before he finished. He climbed down the ladder triumphantly and told the kids to plug in the lights. They did. And the letters blazed forth against the darkening sky … ’LEON’!

Ah, yes, how easy it is this time of year to get things backwards, to get so busy with the lists, the shopping, the decorating, cooking and planning that we lose sight of that illusive Christmas promise of peace and good will for all.

But even as I say that, I am well aware that this Christmas season is one like no other. In the midst of an ever deepening pandemic, for many of us the season is not so frantic and fast-paced. There is less shopping and running around, no parties to plan for, perhaps not even much cooking to do. Searching for a parking place at the mall has been replaced with being parked in a chair and shopping the internet. Truly this Christmas we find ourselves sailing in strange and uncharted waters. 

But it is still easy to lose one’s focus, to get things backwards, more LEON than NOEL. For example, I find myself thinking about lost time, especially lost time with our grandsons. Now in my 70th decade, as I reflect on what I’m missing this year, what is lost, what might have been, I am painfully aware that if I had to lose a Christmas or two, I would rather have done it when I was much younger and had some years to spare.

But wait … if I can step back from my own self-pity and self-centeredness for a moment, what do I see? I and my wife and our family members are healthy. We haven’t lost jobs, we aren’t standing in a food line. Unlike thousands of health care workers and people in the service sector, we are not forced to put our health, indeed our lives, on the line each time we go to work. Even in these dangerous and uncertain times, I begin to realize how deeply blessed and fortunate I am. As one colleague points out, I and many of us enjoy the privilege of being able to “opt out” of less-than-desirable circumstances. We have choices that a minimum wage grocery worker simply does not have.

So perhaps, in this far from normal Christmas season, a way for us not to get things backwards, is to identify and choose opportunities where we can opt in, where we can come to the table and share in the work of strengthening the common good. As we sing of the promise of peace and good will, what can we do to make the promise a hopeful new reality? Opt in. If you see something that needs to be changed, try changing it; if you see somebody that need help, help them. We can choose decency and love over anxiety and fear. Yes, these are strange and uncharted waters, but we just might discover that we are all good sailors at heart.  

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