Christmas was a big deal at our small Southern Baptist church when I was a little boy. It was, in fact, the event of the year. Understandable, when you consider that John 3:16 (for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.) was the bible verse that practically under girded our entire theology.
Christmas was a big deal: wreaths, gatherings, revivals, plays in full costume, activities, feasts (no dancing or drinking), cinnamon and merriment; all with only a slight whiff of brimstone. There was a huge Christmas tree that stood in front of the baptismal behind the preacher’s podium. Little girls wore emerald dresses with white stockings and red ribbons to services, and the preacher’s nose and cheeks were rosy and red like Santa’s, which seemed festive around Christmas time, but were (in actuality) that color all year round.
Our church’s biggest point of pride was our nativity scene. We were a suburban church, and thus were not immune to the arms race of Christmas yard decorations that only escalated year after year. The secular stuff was easy: Neon reindeer, giant blow-up snowmen. Strobe lit sleighs. The religious stuff took a little more tact.
Our nativity scene was the biggest & most detailed of all the churches in the area. A large, hand built manger. There was a thick bed of yellow, welcoming hay. All of the figures were made of realistic looking wax, and the whole scene was lit up from below by three well placed spotlights. A small fence had been built around the display, and on the weekends--when the church offered free hot chocolate to anyone who attended bible study, member or non-member--one of the parishioners brought in an alpaca from his farm to lend some realism to the scene. Subtle organ music piped in through two speakers at either corner of the set up, and the conservative, white lights that adorned the outline of the church created a perfect frame for our little attraction.
It was a sight to behold. Cars would stop to look at it. It was even featured in the community journal one year. Our whole congregation pitched in with maintenance. We were very proud of our nativity scene.
That’s why it was such a big deal when our baby Jesus went missing.
The pastor called a church meeting to see if anyone knew anything. He had arrived at church one morning earlier in the week, and it was just gone. No one could imagine who would’ve stole the baby Jesus.
Some of the teenagers in the church suggested that maybe it was a couple of Goth kids that lived down the street. No doubt if they took it, it was in the woods somewhere; probably hanging by it’s neck from a tree, graffitied with lewd words and Marilyn Manson makeup.
Unfortunately, the Goth kids down the street were the son and daughter of the local Unitarian minister, so it would do no good to confront them over any part they may have had in the disappearance of our infant savior. The Unitarian minister would say that his children were being unfairly singled out because of their chosen style of dress, and it would create unneeded tension in the community. So that option was out.
But let me digress.
My whole life, I have been a cat owner. I like that they mind their own business, and that you can forget they are there if you want to. Every now and then you will seek them out and pet them, and every now and then they will sit on your lap. Other than that, cats are virtually invisible roommates.
Recently I bought a dog for my kids, and it was a big adjustment for me: Dogs are very needy, and very active. They want your attention constantly. They bark, they need to be taken for walks, and taken outside early in the morning and late at night to relieve themselves. Also, if you don’t want your house to smell like them, you have to give them frequent baths (which is harder than it sounds).
But my kids love the dog, and I like the dog, so I adjusted. I also learned a few things:
1.) If I were single right now, having a dog would be the best way to meet women. Even more so than when you are walking around with a newborn, strangers will come up to you and talk to you about your dog. They will even bend down and pet your dog, and not mind if your dog licks their face. I’ve never seen anyone bend down and pet a baby, and I can only imagine what would happen if they did and the baby licked their face.
Many attractive women have approached me while I walk my dog, in a park or on a trail, and started warm, familiar conversations with me, simply because I had a dog. It’s true. If I were single, my dog would be bringing home the strange.
2.) Everyone’s dog is good with kids. When you’re at a park where there are dogs and kids, and the dog people are communing with one another, inevitably in the description an owner will give of their pet will include some variation on the following: ‘Oh, and Blue is great with kids.’ I hear this all the time. Sometimes people will ask if a person’s dog is good with kids, other times an owner will volunteer the information for no reason. There doesn’t have to be a kid around for miles. It can be two sterile couples who hate kids and have never seen a kid in their life standing around talking about a dog, and the owner will say, ‘Oh, Blue loves kids.’ and the person listening will nod approvingly.
I have never heard a person say,‘oh man, Blue is great, but she hates kids. Actually, I’m surprised she hasn’t killed your little toddler over there already. Great dog, but it sure loves to disfigure kids.’I haven’t heard that yet, but surely, somewhere out there is a dog that hates kids.
I would even be happy to hear about a dog that only humors kids. ‘Oh yeah, Blue is great with kids, but he/she doesn’t really like them. But don't worry. She's really polite about it.
Kurt Vonnegut (whose novels are a big blur to me now) wrote somewhere about a woman who left her kid alone with a starving Doberman pincher, and the dog ate the kid. Edward Gorey made a little book about a woman who dresses her newborn up in a realistic looking bunny outfit, and watches with terror as a pack of dogs tear the little thing to pieces. There are all kinds of horror stories, in both the news and in literature, about dogs. But you never encounter some place in between Dog Loves Kids<--->Dog Kills Kids. Where are the people with dogs in the middle of that spectrum?
I mention all of this dog stuff in the middle of my Christmas reflection, because thinking about this strange relationship between dogs and kids is what brought that Christmas crime scene of my past back into my conscious mind.
The church members shook their heads about the theft of the baby Jesus, but did nothing. We all just assumed it was the Unitarian Goth kids, and left it at that. The pastor put a jar in the foyer to raise money to order a new baby Jesus for the nativity next year, and perhaps some closed circuit cameras. We moved on with our lives.
But thinking about dogs just now got me thinking about another suspect.
The pastor had a German Shepherd named Sheltzie. While the pastor was upstairs in his office, Sheltzie was permitted to prowl through the church, and around the property. Sometimes some of us kids would go up to the church after school to play on the swingset, and to toss a ball to Sheltzie. Sheltzie was really good with kids.
But I remember one day, not long after the baby Jesus went missing, that one of my friends was throwing a ball at Sheltzie in the yard while I was laying in the sandbox staring up at the sky.
“Hey Spencer!” He called.
“Help me find the ball! It just rolled off into the woods!”
“Okay!” I said, and I got up and headed towards the woods. My friend was there at the outskirts of the little wooded area at the edge of the property, standing on his tippy-toes looking for his ball. I ran towards him to help out, but slipped on something and came crashing down to the ground. I stood up, brushed myself off, and looked at what I had slipped on. I picked it up.
I was going to yell, “Hey, I found your ball!” when my friend called out, “Never mind! I found it!”
I looked down at the thing that I held in my hand. It was roundish, colorful, and kind of waxy. There was a strange, earthy odor to it.
I looked at it, looked at Sheltzie; so innocently jumping up around and chasing after my friend, who was holding a tennis ball above his head and running in circles.
I shrugged, and dropped the weird little ball of wax, and ran to join my friend and Sheltzie in the field. I made no connections between the object and our disappeared lord. In fact, I soon forgot the incident.
That is, until now.