Down There By The Train

Last winter I was unexpectedly invited by a friend to lead a group for the church that I was attending. Before we had met I was expecting a stern conversation about how my behavior wasn’t particularly church-like; instead the topic was a left-field request to actually lead the damn thing.

I had one view of myself and it was displaced. I feared rejection and was not only given acceptance, but a kind of honor.

It’s hard to describe how wonderful it feels for someone to see something valuable in you when your habit is to sideline yourself and your identity is built from that disappointment. It starts making you question all kinds of things about the type of person that you had assumed that you were and allows the structure of previous visions to shatter, then builds something else newer, larger, and more beautiful with the same fragments.

I have recently started to relate to the shepherds in the Christmas story more, not those shitty little innocent and suspiciously caucasian nativity set bastards whose expressions seem remarkably similar to those of the sheep, but the actual type of character that shepherds were intended to represent.

A better, more modern way to describe the type of characters that the shepherds were in this time period would be to reference the possibly part-time drug dealer closing down the bar on a Tuesday night because he has no one and nothing to go home to. These guys were class A fuck-ups and were considered so untrustworthy that their testimony didn’t even count in court. You can’t trust a criminal to accurately describe a crime scene so nobody asked. Shepherds were not allowed within the proximity of religious gatherings because their work was too unclean and holiness was for the well-behaved. Nobody had any interest in what these guys had to say. Incidentally they probably had quit caring about any of that by the time the angels showed up. So when light flooded the field and they heard a voice from above they ground their half-smoked cigarettes into the dry wool of a nearby sheep and braced themselves for a swift and violent punishment. What they got was God’s first invitation to come visit a helpless baby that the angels claimed to be God incarnate. The baby in question would later refer to himself as a shepherd and call his followers, you guessed it, shepherds.

So despite learning in church that Christmas was about finding the already pretty good people and cleaning them up so that they look especially nice when God shows up, I find a God that literally doesn’t care about the methods by which we measure and value others. The God in this story is not the punishing fixer with a long list of issues to resolve, but a gift giver to the forgotten who had completely given up on mattering in any real sense and had no interest in looking nice.

To be chosen is to be ascribed value with the deserving element removed entirely. Sometimes a narrative can give a better shape to what love should look like when removed from our need to determine what makes a person worthwhile.

I’m not sure that I would call myself leadership material. I’m more of the cautionary tale than the victorious hero truth be told, but maybe that’s the point and maybe love looks more interesting or larger when it runs outward to the marginalized and forgotten.

I like to invent an outsider status because it’s easier to cast stones at people that I feel have pushed me to the outside, but it is not my outsider status that has brought me into richer relationships with other people. The better relationships came when the labels mattered less and the people mattered more.

My favorite “Christmas” song is a cover of a Johnny Cash song by Tom Waits. The lines that dig into my skin every time are as follows:

well I’ve never asked forgiveness and

I’ve never said a prayer

I’ve never given of myself

I’ve never truly cared

I’ve hurt the ones who loved me

I’m still raising cain

I’ve taken the low road and

if you’ve done the same

meet me down there by the train

Merry wherever the hell you happen to find yourself this year. I hope that someone loves you in a way that gives you hope for yourself.

Thanks Mark.

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