Some of my fondest Christmas memories occurred during my college years in Marshall, TX. Home of the Wonderland of Lights, Marshall was one of the first of many communities in East Texas/ Western Louisiana to realize the potential of transforming their lonely downtowns into places where people want to gather when the holidays arrive. There is a skating rink, an on-duty Santa, vendors of hot chocolate and apple cider, and tens of thousands of white lights adorning the historic courthouse and downtown buildings along the red brick streets. All of this adds up to an intentional feeling of Christmas. In content and distance it is far from New York City, but on a cold night where you can see your breath and the crowds begin to thin out (which in Marshall is very early,) there are inklings of this being big-story place where magical things really do happen.
After the fall semester in 1997, I found myself remaining around Marshall until Christmas eve. I was working at Pizza Hut and wouldn't have been able to afford the meager gifts I ended up buying if I had gone home.
Marshall, like most college towns, becomes extremely quiet when semesters end. This particular year was no different. For me, however, it was the first time in my life I learned to allow silence to actually happen to me. After my shifts ended at night, I would drive back to that campus on North Grove that I had grown to love. ETBU was decorated especially festive, and I was the only person around. I spent late nights walking around the "forest of myrtle, pine, and oak" just being quiet and thinking about all the implications of Immanuel-- God with us.
Needing to get away from an unhealthy church situation in a town closer to my home, I had recently joined a small country church out on the country highway on the way to Karnack. On the Sunday before Christmas, I woke up to sub freezing temperatures and a world covered in frost. As I parked and approached the small sanctuary, I realized there were no more than a half-dozen or so cars in the parking lot. I had arrived late, but still made a conscious choice to walk toward the building with slow, deliberate steps. It was one of the most peaceful moments I have ever experienced. I suppose the quiet, desolate atmosphere made me more open to this.
I thought about the previous year and being hurt and the noise and clamor that goes on in cities-- even cities as small as Marshall. I considered the building I was about to walk into and how it would be quiet. I knew the little old lady with purple hair would have made banana bread for the college students still left in town, even though I was the only one. I knew the poor family with a lot of missing teeth would be there and would be so happy to see me. I knew we would sing the most life giving songs ever written-- "Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine, oh what a foretaste of glory divine," and "On a hill far away, stood an old rugged cross... so I'll cling to that old rugged cross." Songs that somehow reach deep down into your bones when it's just you and a rag tag group of 10-12 other people huddled together outside of the cold, paralyzing wind.
During that year I learned that hope and healing is found in the quietest of places on the edge of the world and with people and physical structures that don't assume to be anything more than what they are, yet in their humility become the places where God dances at the songs of what God has done.