Opening Presents

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I was a weird kid.  Fortunately, the weirdness didn’t extend to torturing animals or making explosives, but I did a lot of stuff as a routine habit that, at the very least, neither of my sisters did and I doubt that many of my peer group did as well.  One of these odd habits first manifested itself on Christmas day around the age of ten.  I’d wake up early and roust myself out of bed when all was completely quiet around the house.  By “early,” I mean relatively speaking.  It was usually around eight o’clock.  When allowed to do so, my sisters could sleep until noon and my parents stayed up late on Christmas eve putting presents under the tree.  They were nowhere to be found.  I’d silently step out to the living room and turn on all the lights hung on the Christmas tree and around the fireplace.  Occasionally, if I thought I could get away with it without getting into trouble, I’d light some of the 16,000 candles my mother had carefully placed around the room as Christmas decorations.  Mom didn’t believe that there was such a thing as overdecorating when it came to Christmas and I’m sure that our living room was probably the most festively attired place in Butler County.  Perhaps you could include several of the surrounding counties as well.

The effect was completely awesome.  We lived in the country and the living room windows overlooked a scenic view to the west of the house.  With the morning sunlight filtering over the top of the house against the prairie backdrop and the lights and candles illuminating the living room, the place would almost glow with warmth and beauty.  I’d get something to drink from the kitchen and find a comfortable chair and just sit and watch.

Depending on the circumstances, the “sit and watch” portion of this exercise could go on for a while.  Sometimes we had places to go and the grandparent’s house was a three hour trip, so on those days I wouldn’t have to wait long before the household was in frantic motion as we tried to get out to the car at a decent hour.  Other times, I might just be sitting there absorbing all the glory of the scene for over an hour.

I hope I’ve done this slice-of-life scene justice.  It was wonderful as a kid and I still do my Christmas day “early wake-up call” an adult, when circumstances allow.  The problem with this tale is that, if the story ended there, the gifts never get opened.

Christmas is when Christians celebrate the ultimate gift, God giving Himself to save us from ourselves.  But that gift comes with a whole lot of other gifts.  I suppose eternal life would be at the top of the list, but the list goes far beyond that.  Total forgiveness, complete peace, a new life, a real purpose and destiny, the list literally never ends.  Some of those gifts require almost nothing more than for us to sit and watch and enjoy them.  But eventually, if we’re really going to fully live the life that God wants us to live, we’re going to have to get moving.  Eventually we’re going to have to open some presents.

So, finally, Merry Christmas to you, dear reader.  And tomorrow, as you open up the gifts around the tree, don’t neglect to seek out and open all the gifts that God desperately wants you to open.  It will be worth it.


The Christmas Show

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I can sometimes be a bit critical of my adopted home town, and I have been often enough in this blog.  However, the town truly does have an adorable streak, and I’m not just saying that because of all of the threats to burn down my house.  Well, at least that’s not the only reason.  Perhaps its most wonderful characteristic is its ability to do Christmas right.  In a post from last year, I mentioned the annual Christmas Festival, a sweet and quaint affair that usually attracts a pretty sizable crowd and did so again this year.  I should probably as an aside mention that I made good on my promise in that post to get through the year without punching a mime in the face.  I’ve made a similar promise for next year and I’m cautiously optimistic about doing it again.  Interestingly, that’s not the only Christmas event in town, or even the biggest.  Five years ago, a local church (the same one with the aforementioned mime troupe) decided to do their own Christmas show, a three day event in the middle of December.  It consists of a series of living outdoor dioramas, each depicting an event in the Christmas story.  The first year they did it, it was more of a local thing, with almost no advertising beyond the large sign in front of the church.  It has since grown into a major event, with advertisements on electronic billboards all over the Wichita metro area.  Attendance is usually pretty good and probably a little better than the Christmas festival, which is more of a community only event.

Setup for this event starts in October and requires a rather sizable amount of effort.  I know this because I drive by the church on my way to and from work every weekday and the hive of activity is impressive to behold.  Since I get this nearly daily reminder of the event, I’m always making a mental note to add it to my calendar, but something always gets in the way.  The first two years, it was inertia.  For the third year, I actually got to the parking lot on the last day, but it was pretty late in the schedule and I didn’t have the patience to wait in line.  Last year, we had a cold snap the weekend of the show which ran counter to my desire to not freeze to death.  They could have been passing out gold coins at the door and that wouldn’t have been enough incentive for me to stand in line in the subzero wind chill, or to spend half a hour visiting the each of the outdoor stations.  Call me a wimp (and many have, but not specifically for this), but that’s just asking a bit too much.  This year, the temperature was a toasty 45 degrees, so I gave it another shot.

The plan was to get there before the 6:30 opening, but home events interceded and I didn’t arrive until 6:45.  As it happened, that was too late. There were already about a hundred people lined up outside the church when I got there.  But this year I was determined to see it through, so I took a deep breath and grabbed my place in line.  It took me about thirty minutes of slowly shuffling along and occasionally checking my cell phone to see how my fantasy football team was doing before I finally reach the door. When I reached the door, I realized that the line inside the church was actually longer than the line outside. Once again, I thought about heading back to the car before taking another deep breath and stepping inside.

That part of the line took another 40 minutes, but at least my fantasy team was doing well so it didn’t seem so bad.  When I finally reached the end of the line, a group of 30 of us was hastily escorted down a hallway and stuffed into a small room.  Once seated, we were given a brief lecture on show decorum.  Stay with your guide at all times, we were warned.  Stay clear of the horses, who were rookies to the show and deemed somewhat unpredictable.  The other animals, which consisted of a camel, a donkey, and a few sheep and goats, would be okay for children to pet as long as the children were supervised.  Don’t step into the numerous fire pits placed at strategic locations around the churchyard.  I thought that last one would be obvious, but there were numerous small children in attendance, so it didn’t hurt to actually say it.  Finally, we were instructed to turn off our cell phones.  I ruefully pulled mine out and shut it down.  No more fantasy football for the evening.

Then our guide arrived, an elderly gentleman sporting flowing white and blue robes and a fake Jewish accent.  He told us his name was Tobias, or maybe Tobiah.  I was never quite sure how he was pronouncing it and I think he might have been alternating between the two.  We started in Nazareth and worked our way around the churchyard to all of the various scenes from the Nativity, all the while dodging angry Roman soldiers, some on foot and some on horseback.  Most of the acting was actually pretty good, although Herod didn’t seem nearly sinister enough.  However, the star of the show was clearly the camel.  The other animals were visibly bored with the proceedings and three days of nonstop human interaction had taken their toll, but the camel was eating up all of the attention.  He would pace around his pen for a while and then stop next to the fence and allow the kids to pet him and the parents to take a picture.  Then he’d go back to pacing again while simultaneously maintaining a regal demeanor.  Our guide told us he was from a faraway land called “Tanganyika.”  That was an inside joke for the locals.  On the west side of Wichita, there is a local zoo called the Tanganyika Wildlife Park.  The last stop was at the manger with Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the baby Jesus.  We sang a carol and got a quick altar call style of message from the guide, who mercifully dropped the fake accent for his closing speech.  Then we hustled out of the chill into the church, where there were snacks and liquid refreshments.  It was getting past my bedtime, so I didn’t linger.

Once I got home (about an hour later than expected), my wife asked if all the trouble was worth it and I said that it was.  Despite the long lines and the lack of updates on my fantasy team, I’d actually enjoyed myself. Then she asked if I would go back next year. I surprised her by saying no.

I might change my mind if they starting handing out gold coins.

Tigers and Dawgs and Sooners, Oh My!

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I couldn’t think of anything interesting to write this week, so I decided to write about the upcoming college football playoffs this year.  Here are four thoughts that will make your Sunday reading that much more mediocre.

1.  As of the time I’m writing this, we still don’t know which four teams will be in the playoffs, although we are quite sure about three of them.  Clemson, Oklahoma, and Georgia all have only one loss and all won their conference championships, so they are pretty much locked in.  For that fourth spot, the discussion will center around whether the committee will select Ohio State, the Big Ten conference champion that has two losses, one of which was a really ugly blowout to Iowa, or Alabama, which has only one loss, but didn’t win their conference championship and played a relatively weak schedule.  A few people will argue for Southern Cal, which sports a resume that looks remarkably similar to Ohio State’s (a conference champion with two losses, one of which was really ugly), except that USC’s ugly loss was to a better team (Notre Dame).  The problem with USC is that the “experts” consider the Pac-12 to be a little weaker than the Big Ten this year.  I suspect the experts are wrong, but I am fairly certain that the selection committee won’t be calling me to ask for advice.

ESPN has scheduled a four hour selection show this afternoon in which they will spend at least two hours talking about whether it should be Ohio State or Alabama for that last spot.  I don’t get ESPN anymore, but if I did I’d have to say I’d be looking forward to an in-depth discussion of the nuances of Buckeye and Crimson Tide football in the same way I look forward to having my arm amputated.  I just can’t imagine that two hours on this topic will be more interesting than, say, a PBS fundraiser show featuring Yanni belting out his favorite rap songs.  Of course, understand that these are the words of a hypocrite. I’m writing over 800 words on the same subject.

I suspect that if Alabama and Ohio State played ten times, they’d finish at 5-5 with a couple of overtime games thrown in for good measure.  Nonetheless, I’m about 90% certain the selection committee’s going to take Alabama.  These guys just love Alabama. (Editing note:  Did I call it, or did I call it!  Maybe it’s time to try my luck in Vegas!)

If I were the deciding vote, I’d take USC.  They’re more interesting because they have a good quarterback.

2.  Speaking of quarterbacks, this was supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback in college football.  At the beginning of the season, the experts were listing about six quarterbacks who were expected to take college football by storm and proceed on to the NFL, where they would dominate the League for the next fifteen years.  Almost all of them had disappointing seasons and only one of them, Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, is going to be in the playoffs (assuming that Sam Darnold and USC don’t get there).  I haven’t watched a bunch of college football this year (remember my exile from ESPN), but I have seen all of the quarterbacks on that preseason list play.  I even saw a little of Josh Allen of Wyoming.  Despite the disappointing seasons, all of them are capable of making it at the next level if everything breaks right and all of them have flaws that might sink them.  None of them look like the next Carson Wentz or Dak Prescott, but we should remember that Dak Prescott didn’t look like Dak Prescott when he came out of college.  You never know.

3.  One big difference between professional sports and college sports is that the pros try to bring at least some semblance of parity to their competition.  College sports, and especially college football, really do everything they can to inhibit parity.  Last year, the college football playoff teams were Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, and Washington.  Sound a little familiar?  The year before, it was Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Michigan State.  The year before that, they stunned everyone by adding Oregon and Florida State in with Alabama and Ohio State

The NCAA could easily fix this situation with stricter limits on scholarships and tweaking a few other rules.  They won’t.  They like the current setup.  Whether or not this is a good thing is a subject for another day.

4.  I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t make a prediction for the playoffs.  There is just a hair’s width of difference between these teams making this about as equal as any football final four ever.  Usually, you look to who has the best quarterback.  That would have worked out well last year, as DeShaun Watson of Clemson was clearly the best quarterback in the final four and Clemson did win the National Title.  This year, the best quarterback, by a lot, is Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma and it doesn’t matter a bit if Alabama or Ohio State is added to the mix.  But Oklahoma’s defense is pretty average (and quite a bit worse than the other teams in this conversation), and I don’t think you can count on them at this level of competition.  The team with the best balance of offense and defense seems to me to be Georgia, so that’s my pick.

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