"Merry Christmas!"
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"The Ragamuffin's Christmas"

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Chapter One: "It Just Doesn't Seem Like Christmas...

“...He watches out for the widow and the orphan.
And He places the homeless in homes of their own.”

Wick Radcliffe was chattering in broken Chinese when
I turned the corner off Arch Street. He was standing in the doorway of his tiny bookshop talking to his neighbor.
It was amusing to me to watch him attempt the Mandarin dialect as he did.
He was animated and loud and his neighbor seemed mildly amused at his efforts. I was nonetheless impressed…God knows I couldn’t speak the language of this neighborhood.
Arch is the main thoroughfare of the Chinatown section in Philadelphia. Wick’s store is on a small side street that runs perpendicular to Arch. It’s really almost an alleyway. My sister had discovered Wick’s shop on a walk from her house to her job at a coffee shop about 3 blocks away. She liked the uniqueness of his store and the fact that he specialized in Christian titles. He was one of maybe two or three shopkeepers in Chinatown who was not actually Asian. Wick had found his little shop quite by accident and the rent was very low and he liked the area. Over the years he had gotten quite friendly with his neighbors and considered them family.
Stoic Wilson Radcliffe was from the Main Line area of Philadelphia. He came from money and his family had been prominent Presbyterians in this predominantly Catholic city. His parents had given him his very unique name because his mother wanted something that engendered a strong demeanor, and his father was a self-styled philosopher and so the Stoics were a favorite read. His middle name of Wilson was shared by his father’s favorite author and preacher A.W. Tozer.
Wick hated his name. “Who names their kid ‘Stoic’?” he asked me once. As early as he can remember he wanted something else but he never could convince his parents to let him change it. Shortening it to “Wick” was as close as he could get. As for living up to their “good “Chrustian expectations” as he would say in a forced drawl, (making reference to the classic line from Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country Folks”), Wick never followed his family’s piety. He discovered Jesus after waking up in a gutter in the middle of February in Dewey Beach, Delaware, after a weekend of drunken debauchery with no recollection of how he got there.
Somehow Wick had gotten a copy of Brennan Manning’s “The Ragamuffin Gospel” and had his face to face meeting with the Christ of God. Manning is his favorite author. During our first meeting, when he discovered my fondness for Brennan, he pulled out a worn paperback copy of the first printing and opened the page to reveal “To Wick -best wishes, Brennan” written in purple crayon.
Before I could ask, he explained that he crossed paths with Manning in the Philadelphia airport and neither of them had a pen. The only thing they could find was a kid with a single purple crayon and a five-page coloring book that was provided by the stewardess from United Airlines. So they borrowed the kids’ purple crayon. Wick loved that story.
Today was the twenty-seventh of November and a typically cold, grey day in Philadelphia. I was home for Thanksgiving and had journeyed up the highway to my hometown and the familiar sights and sounds. I stopped in at Tony Luke Jr.’s for the city’s best cheese steak and a hug from the owner. Tony is my friend, and while it’s hard to catch him in one place for very long, when I do it’s a treat. I visited with Tony for a half hour and then headed to Wick’s shop, not really knowing what I was looking for. I knew I wanted an advent calendar for my daughter, because each Christmas we had one and I wanted to keep the tradition going.
The truth was, I wanted to visit with Wick because Wick is a true ragamuffin. A broken life who never forgot what Jesus Christ really did for him when they met, and who had never really wandered far from what made him such a rascal in the first place. This kept Wick “soft and tenderized” as he liked to say and never far removed from the hurts of another. Wick knew that under all our bluff and bluster…we are all ragamuffins.
It had been a very hard two years for me and I always felt better about my own humanity after spending an hour with Wick. I don’t know anyone who is more appreciative of who he was, who he is, and what could have been if not for God’s intervention in his life. Wick grows on you.
It was Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when Christmas shopping officially kicks into overdrive and the holiday season roars out of the gate. I wasn’t ready for the coming holidays and that worried me. I am a “Christmas guy” as my friends say. I get into the Holiday season like few others. From mid-November to the second day of January, I am one big happy Italian who can’t get enough of traditions and sights and sounds and smells. My family celebrates Dei Festa de Sette Pisci, “Feast of Seven Fishes” on Christmas Eve. Morgan and I have a very specific list of movies, TV shows, and music that must be played during the season.
Somehow this season had snuck up on me and I wasn’t ready. Over the past two years I had lost my house, my career, and my possessions when the mortgage industry collapsed. I was a mortgage banker and had been for ten years. But by 2008 I was homeless and living in a 1995 Volvo hidden behind a church.
I stayed in Nashville (where I now live) because my daughter is there with my ex-wife and I have to remain in her life. Otherwise I would have come home to Philly and never looked back. I like Nashville just fine, but Philadelphia is home. This year I was sad as Christmas approached instead of my usual joyful self. Walking down the little side street to see my friend Wick, I knew one thing: I didn’t know what it would take to make me happy again.
Wick greeted me with the usual “Yo!” as I turned the corner. This is the way Philadelphians have said hello for generations, and it’s a true term of endearment for us. Then he turned and said something in Mandarin that was obviously funny to his Chinese neighbor. They both laughed and the Asian man looked at me with mild awe in his eyes. “What did you tell him Wick?” I asked. Wick smiled and was about to answer when the Chinese man spoke in halting English, “Mr. Wick says you are far to rarge a man to have such a dispreasant rook!” I smiled and the Chinese neighbor laughed. “How you get so big?” he said with a straight face. I stared at him for a split second and then felt an involuntary smile crossing my lips. “You’re playing with me right now, aren’t you?” The man broke into peals of laughter and I felt myself relax a bit. Wick spoke up as he reached his hand toward mine. “This is Mr. Xiao. He is a professor of English at Temple University.” I smiled and reached for Wick’s hand, “It’s… Engrish,” Xiao said with a chuckle. Something about that made me laugh deeply and he extended his hand to me. “You can call me John” he said in a voice and pronunciation as perfect as radio announcers. “John…nice to meet you.” I offered.
Wick, John Xiao, and I stood in the street for a few moments as the day grew dark in a hurry. It was around 4 p.m. and sunset was upon us. Inside the caverns created by skyscrapers, the shadows grew even faster. A lull in the conversation allowed me to ask Wick the question on my mind. “Wick…I am looking for an Advent calendar.
Something a little more substantial than the cheap paper things I can buy everywhere around here. Do you have any?”   “Yeah I might have something…” Wick said with a smile.
John walked in with us and we grabbed cups of coffee and walked to Wick’s crowded and overflowing worktable. Besides retail sales, Wick was recognized as a master in restoring old texts. He had re-covered an old Bible of mine three summers before and he was always wanting to show me his latest rare first edition that he had discovered in a yard sale someplace for a nickel and was bringing back to life.
Wick didn’t have a book to show me this time, he was busy working his way through his first reading of “Davita’s Harp” by Chaim Potok and hadn’t had a restoration project in about two weeks. I chided him for only now discovering Potok, who was a favorite of mine since college. Wick laughed and reminded me of all the authors he had recommended over the years that I still haven’t explored. I lowered my head in mock shame. Wick got us back on point as he pulled out a box of Advent calendars and showed me each one. There were a few of the traditional paper calendars with the little door that you open each new day for the month of December. There was a fabric calendar with 25 pockets sewn in, one for each day where you inserted a little reliquary or symbol of Christmas.
There was a wooden version that dated back to about 1928 and was handmade by some Amish folks in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. None of them sparked my interest and none of them seemed to have what it took for me to get back whatever it was that was missing from my holiday season.
Wick was puzzled and didn’t think he had anything that I would really want. “What are you really after?” he asked me. “I don’t know Wick, something that would take me back to when I was a boy. Something that will get my daughter back into the spirit. This is the first year she doesn’t believe in Santa and it is sort of hard for me.”
Wick laughed at this. He had never had any children of his own but had befriended my daughter when she was about age four and referred to him as “Uncle Wick”. He knew Morgan’s love for the season and her love for her daddy. His laughter hid a tinge of sadness that I could detect in his eyes. Wick is my friend and he understood that I was hurting this year after all I had gone through.
“Have a seat Craig,” he said. He, John, and I walked over to three huge leather chairs and sat down. “Okay…tell me what the matter is really,” Wick said. Before I realized it, I felt hot tears welling in my eyes and I looked at my shoes instead of my friend’s face. “Wick,” I began. “I have never felt so lost…not in my whole life.”
Wick, sat back in his leather chair. He was almost to the point of lying down. He had known most of what I had been going through over the last three years and he was concerned. But somehow he suspected that my current state wasn’t just about the losses I had been enduring.
“Craig we’ve been friends for a while, and I know you well enough to know that this isn’t just about losing your home, or your job. This isn’t about being homeless. This is a lot more.” I was silent for a while and suddenly the words poured out like water bursting a dam. “Wick” I began, “I just feel so lost. I feel so sad and so sorrowful. It’s almost Christmas, usually I am happy beyond belief right about now but I just feel sadder. I am not living in my car any longer but I have never felt more homeless, or more alone in this world.”
Tears were flowing now and I was silent for a long time with my eyes closed. I was thinking about my daughter being “too old” for Santa. It had all happened so fast…those first ten years of her life. Being divorced from her mom since Morgan was two only accelerated the passing of that time. How many bedtime prayers had I missed? Too many for my liking.
I was thinking about my fatherhood and how I treasured it, and then I began thinking about my own father. I have only met my dad once in my life, when I was 43. He desires no relationship and I have stopped trying to have one. I have the rest of the family and I am thankful for that.
But still, the holidays are a time for family and being together and here I was about to be alone yet again. I said all this to Wick and to John Xiao and they just absorbed it like sponges without saying much at all. Wick was thoughtful as he finally began to speak, “Craig, it’s no mistake you are here looking for an Advent calendar. You really need an advent.” He could tell by the look on my face that I wasn’t following him.
“Adventus,” he said. “Huh,” I offered quizzically. “Adventus, it’s the Latin word where we get ‘Advent’, it means Christ’s being amongst us, the anticipation of his coming.” I wasn’t following the line of thinking and Wick said, “Jesus entered this world as one of us -exactly as one of us, the same way we do- as a baby. Have you ever wondered why he did that?”
“I’ve thought about it some,” I told Wick. He knew I was a
Brennan Manning fan and he knew I had read “Lion and Lamb” by Manning. “He came as a baby so we would find him accessible and approachable. So we wouldn’t be intimidated.” Wick nodded approvingly. “He came vulnerable so we would understand that His place in our lives is totally at our mercy, He would only enter where we asked him,” I said, more to myself than to Wick.
I hadn’t noticed that Wick had walked to the other side of the room and when I “snapped out of it” he was standing next to my chair with a box in his hand. John Xiao was smiling approvingly and he nodded toward the box in Wick’s hand. “Take it” John said. Wick handed me the box and before I opened it he began to explain, “Craig this is a special advent calendar…but I can’t tell you why.” That was a strange statement for Wick to make and my puzzled look betrayed me.
“John has had these in his family for 78 years. Supposedly everyone who has ever displayed this calendar over the holidays has had a special encounter with Jesus during that time. The encounter varies and seldom does anyone talk about it. Apparently it can be so deeply moving that others would find it hard to believe anyway. John and I think maybe you need this.” I could sense the enormity of this gift as Wick handed it to me with John’s approval.
The calendar wasn’t a lot different than all the other advent calendars I had seen. It was much nicer than the paper versions available in stores and supermarkets. It was leather, like a book, but it had no pages. The cover had 25 small handmade doors that were hinged with tiny leather strips.
Whoever made this went to great effort. It had the words “ADVENTUS” in large block letters burned into the leather at the top. Each day was marked in script. It wasn’t typical dark leather, but was about the color of a baseball glove, a light tan. It was more a work of art, to me, than it was a calendar or a Christmas reliquary. It must have taken a very long time to make and it was obviously a labor of love. It seemed mystical, in the truest sense. As if somehow God had visited this little handmade calendar. If Christmas really had a spirit…this calendar contained some of it.
“It’s perfect Wick,” I said. Wick was smiling broadly, almost knowingly. “Yes…yes it is,” he answered. “How much?” I asked, and when I did he smiled again. “There is no charge, because you can’t keep it. When the Christmas Advent is done, and Epiphany has begun, you have to return it. It is the only one we can get and next year someone else will need it.” He said that as if he knew all along that this was the exact calendar for me. As if the entire conversation was just a test to see if I was ready.
Perhaps that was exactly the case.
John and Wick and I talked for a few more minutes, maybe a half hour in all. Then I took my package and headed out into the chill of the Philadelphia night, looking for my car and feeling the faintest glimmer of hope that this Christmas season would be special after all. This beautiful calendar seemed to spark something in my heart. I couldn’t wait to show my daughter.
I drove out of the city and across the Platt Bridge on I-95 south. I was lost in thought, as I frequently am when I drive. I saw the exit for highway 291 -the old “Industrial Highway.” This road used to be the only link into Philadelphia when I was a child. I-95 ended in Essington back then, and if you were continuing North, you had to get off at the Boeing plant and take 291 past the Westinghouse factory. From there you would travel over the Pennrose Avenue Bridge, which lies next to the scrap yard -where they turn crushed cars into big rusting bricks that look like giant steel wool pads- and then on into town. I thought about exiting and driving down 4th Avenue and past my grandparent’s old house, but it was already dark and there wouldn’t be any point to it.
I miss that house sometimes. My grandparents are long gone, but I spent so much time there that it was like home to me. Especially at Christmas…when I always turn to thoughts of home and family and when living in Nashville feels as far away as living on the moon. The memories associated with the house on 4th Avenue weren’t all good, but there were enough good ones to make it call to me as Christmas approaches.
When I am home I stay with family, and on this trip I stayed with one of the two families who had “adopted” me years before. Bob and Cathy had first met me when I coached their son Bryon in high school ice hockey. They quickly became friends and then my family. I lived in an apartment over their garage for about three years and I still stay there sometimes. On this particular trip home in 2009, that’s where I was.
I turned up the drive and pulled my car to the back. I grabbed my package and walked first to the house before going to the apartment. I wanted to show Cathy and Bob the wonderfully unique advent calendar I had gotten on my trip to Philadelphia. They were sitting in the kitchen when I walked in the back door.
“Look what I found today Cath,” I said as I pulled the handmade calendar out of the bag and showed her. She marveled, as I had at the detail and the loving way this calendar was put together. We talked for 15 minutes or so and then I excused myself for the night.
I walked across the driveway to the doorway leading up to the apartment and felt the cold sting of freezing rain drops.
The November night sky was spitting hesitantly and I paused to look up. Somewhere above that grey canopy was an early winter moon. I could see the light as it spread across the top side of the cloud cover but was unable to find a break and penetrate the night.
Something in this occasion made me sad. Like there was some light somewhere that needed to touch my soul and illuminate my own darkness and it wasn’t able to get through to me. The clouds became symbols of something holding me back. Not sinister necessarily, but restraining. I waited in the night -very still- hoping for something to change and the moonlight to find its way through, but all I felt were the infrequent droplets hitting my face.
I walked to the door and up the stairs to the place I had called home for three years. I set my bags down at the top of the stairs and called my daughter to say goodnight. I sat in the big easy chair and waited for her to pick up. “Hi Daddy,” she said…as she always does. “Hi honey!” I replied. Ten minutes of exchanging stories about her day and the upcoming holidays and finally I got to the real purpose for my call…the calendar.
“Guess what I got us today?” “What?” she asked me. “I went to Uncle Wick’s shop and found a really amazing handmade Advent calendar. So this year we can do it again and it will be very special, it’s really amazing. Mom C saw it and she loves it. Morgan calls Cathy “Mom C” and considers her a grandmother.
Morgan didn’t say anything and I was instantly wondering why. “Don’t you think that’s just amazing?’ I asked. “I guess so,” she said. I waited for a minute -a long time when you have nothing to say- “You don’t really care to do the Advent calendar this year, do you?’
I asked her. Her long pause answered without words. “I don’t care…it’s okay I guess...” she said.
I knew right then I’d lost this one. She’d outgrown the Advent calendars too. We talked for a few more minutes but I scarcely remember what we discussed. I told her I loved her and I would be home in two days. We hung up and I sat there in the darkness with just a small table lamp across the room. This was not going to be the holiday I had hoped for and I was beginning to really dread the upcoming Christmas season.
This was unlike me. I was always a Christmas person. I never wanted to lose that trait and here it was, after losing so much personally in the past few years, now I was losing a beloved tradition too. It was too much for me. I sat there for a long time, I was thinking about my grandmother, and the alabaster Nativity set she would put under the Christmas tree each year. I was missing my grand mom and feeling the years rush past.
Hours passed. The clock struck midnight at Saints Peter and Paul, the old Ukrainian Orthodox church next door, and I realized it was December 1, and Advent had begun. I fumbled through the bag and picked up the beautiful calendar that only hours before had held such promise. Now it was yet another symbol of disappointment and the changes my life was enduring.
“Well, it’s December First. I suppose I should do this anyway” I said to nobody but the darkness of the room. With no small measure of reluctance, I opened the little leather door on day one and this mystical Advent had begun.
“The Shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life and death grip to one solitary plank. Finally, they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything. They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable, in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation they had been clinging to...”
                                           -Brennan Manning “Lion and Lamb”

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