… Mary was about to be delivered… there was no room in the inn… Mary laid her baby in a feeding trough among the sheep and cows… wise men and working men followed a wild star to come and see this baby.
Christmas is a time of paradox and contradiction.
In a world so full of paradox and contradiction, we have tried to turn away from the sharp edges of Christmas. If you believe the commercials, Christmas is about electronics, jewelry, and lots and lots of decorations. Christmas is about getting what you want and giving others what they want—and it is built from the mentality of accumulating more and more stuff.
If you believe the Bible, Christmas is about chilling austerity—God entered the world by way of a tiny helpless baby born far from home with questionable paternity among the dust, straw, and manure of a stable. His first bed doubled as a feeding trough for cows. His mother was a teenager who had gotten pregnant out of wedlock. And only a few people even noticed when he came into the world.
Jesus was born in the quiet, in the dark, in and among ambiguities we can barely get our minds around.
For the last four years, there has been plenty of room in the inn for the UNC entourage at Christmas time. We’ve traveled by car, bus, and plane to get to these Christmas destinations. We’re fed well, we are entertained, we get new clothes, we get gifts, and we get attention. Far from the austerity of Jesus’ entry into the world, we have spent Christmas the last few years in the midst of abundance.
This year, however, the paradox of Christmas is far from drowned out by the noise of your typical bowl game experience. This year the contradictions and sharp edges are persistent. The pain and the possibility in it all are impossible to avoid.
We’ve listened to the new AD from UNC tell the VIPs at this bowl what an outstanding coaching staff this is. And we hear all that knowing that this coaching staff has already been dismantled. After this bowl game this outstanding staff is gone. This is an outstanding staff that has been dismissed from duty. Job well done in difficult circumstances has gotten them fired. Sound paradoxical? Sure does feel that way to all of us.
We enter our hotel this year off the quiet streets of Shreveport, LA. The smoke from the casino is overpowering. The blinking lights of the casino flash over a downtown several decades past its prime. Like many southern cities, there are the remnants of a complicated past and a difficult present in the midst of warm hospitality and signs of resilience. The kindness of people is real. The complexities of life in America today are visible. There is happiness and grief in this place. Sound contradictory? Those contradictions are impossible to escape.
We are here with people who we love and care about and we know that our time together is short. After the game tomorrow everything changes. We can’t stop the clock. Nothing anyone says or does will change the bottom line. These players know that. They will work hard to finish this season strong and then they will move on because they have to. And we will do the same. We won’t move on without sadness about saying goodbye; we won’t move on without gratitude for the blessings of these relationships. Sound conflicted? The contradictions are excruciating at times.
Christmas Eve is a sacred time in the life of a Christian. Often at bowls players are taken by bus to places like arcades, movie theaters, and malls to entertain them on this holy night. This year they went bowling.
John and I always find a way to get to a church service with our kids. Any players who wanted to this year could leave the bowling alley and come to church with us. Twenty-six of us went to worship with the congregation of First Presbyterian Church of Shreveport. The pastor, Pen Peery (a UNC alum), wore a Tar Heel tie under his robe. The ushers had reserved seats for us in the front of the church.
We heard the magnificent story of the Incarnation, shared communion, and with candles lit in that beautiful sanctuary we sang Silent Night together. I couldn’t help but feel the power of the paradox we all embodied in that moment—a family albeit fractured, believers wondering what this could all mean, and children of God enchanted by a moment that passed all too quickly.
When we got back onto the bus one of the players said, “I really needed that.” Another said, “It feels like we’re a family.” All the way back to Sam’s Town we sang Christmas songs. We laughed and enjoyed each other. What a gift!
When we came back into the hotel we ran into some of the players’ parents and families who had just arrived in Shreveport. They wanted to talk and share their feelings about all that is happening with the football team right now. The tears we shared together were just as real as the joy we had shared with the players on the bus ride home from church.
All of it felt like what is absolutely right about college football. And this situation is being torn apart by what’s wrong with college football.
The paradoxes just keep showing themselves. The contradictions multiply.
Christmas at Sam’s Town Hotel and Casino gives us less and more. And God meets us there with gifts we barely imagined even while we are not getting what we want. We can’t get others what they want either. All of us are asked to trust in a future we can’t see.
A baby born in a barn is more powerful than the mightiest king. God’s abundance comes in an austere moment in time.
No audibles needed here. Today feels like a day to just listen and give thanks for the contradictions.
Merry Sam’s Town Hotel and Casino Christmas.