John Bennison Words and Ways | 2010 | December

White Dreams in Joliet – A Christmas Story

[To print and/or read a pdf version of this story click here.]

A Christmas Story



O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark street shineth, the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Philips Brooks (1835-1893)

 We know the story of Jesus’ birth is a fanciful tale, unique to the gospel narrative attributed to an unknown first century believer named Luke, and his early tradition.  Like any good story that hardly hesitates to blur the lines between fact and fiction, it nonetheless conveys some ageless truths that can reveal the “hopes and fears of all the years” in countless other times and places.  For the season we call Christmastide, I offer a reprise of another semi-fictional tale that comes as close as I’ve been given the gift to see what it’s all about, “full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)


A Christmas Story


I grew up in the small Midwest town of Kalamazoo.  But I wasn’t born in Kalamazoo.  Instead, the place of my own nativity was a grimy little town thirty miles south of Chicago, in the Land of Lincoln; though given the choice, I am almost certain Honest Abe never slept in Joliet.  And, I imagine if the early French explorer after whom the town was named had ever come upon the place, he probably would have kept paddling.

Silver Cross Hospital, birth certificate, circa 1948

Winter was particularly grubby in Joliet; especially February, the deadest part of winter and the month of my birth.  Everything was gray; the sky, the buildings, even the pallor of the people’s faces.  The snow, if once white, had become dingy with dirt and soot.

Silver Cross Hospital, where I was delivered, looked like a gothic fortress; an institutional-looking stone building not unlike the state penitentiary located just across the Des Plaines River that sliced through the town.  When the December holidays rolled around, the hospital staff would perch a huge five-pointed star on the rooftop, ablaze with lights, like a shining beacon from the ramparts. It was visible for miles.

Some years the giant wooden structure remained there for weeks and weeks into the New Year, as if no one really wanted the light to go out in that drab place.  As a child, I liked to think they left it up on purpose in the winter of ‘48, until close to midnight one evening in February, when Dr. Joseph Fields delivered a second son to a young clergyman and his wife.

My father was the rector of Christ Episcopal Church, located on West Van Buren Street, just a block from the river.  He also served as chaplain to the Joliet Police Department, which included double-duty at the State Penitentiary.  As a boy, I remember gazing with fascination at the star-shaped silver police badge he’d wear on the lapel of his black clerical suit on the days he’d call on the cons in the prison.

The warden’s name was Carpenter.  He was new in town, and had a new bride with him.  Her name was Margaret, which she would always pronounce Marguerite when introducing herself.  She desperately wanted to believe she came from somewhere else, anywhere else.  She fantasized being from some exotic foreign city; though, in reality, the true voice beneath her feigned French accent sounded more like Indiana Hoosier.

She had met her husband on a trip to the Windy City, when he was there for a convention for correctional officers, and she a teacher’s conference.  They had struck up a chance conversation in the lobby of the Palmer House.  In her eyes, he was a dashing young man with great promise from an exciting town out to the west, in Iowa; a place she pronounced Des Moines, which, according to her rough translation skills, meant something like “more of less.”  It should have been an omen.

Her future husband had told her he was getting an important job in a town not far from the big city.  Joliet, sur le rivre Des Plaines, was the way she pictured it in her mind.  As if entranced in a beautiful dream, before the weeklong convention had ended, she knew she would follow him anywhere.  They were married on a Monday morning in the spring of ‘47, at the Cook County Courthouse in Chicago, and moved to Joliet.

It didn’t take Marguerite long to discover Joliet was no the City of Lights, and le Rivre Des Plaines was not the River Seine.  Words like sleek or sophisticated or magnifique were not part of the local dialect.  Mon Dieu, this was a town where the locals spoke in short, slurred sentences, running one or two syllable words together.  That is, except for one particular idiomatic expression which got unconsciously tagged on to most sentences. “Don’t-cha-know?” they’d say, making everything a question, which only perpetuated the nonsense.   “Don’t-cha-know?” they’d say to anything:

“Gonna-be-a-cold-one-t’day, don’t-cha-know?”

“Yep–‘fer sure-you-bet, don’t-cha-know?”

“Got-dat-right , don’t-cha-know?” they’d say.

There wasn’t what you would call any joie-de-vivre about the place.  Nor was there any je ne sais quoi about the smell that would emanate from the river on those hot, muggy summer days with what came floating downstream from Chicago.

By the fall of ’47 Marguerite was asking herself in bewilderment, what had she done?  In one brief, blind moment she had taken all her dreams and tossed them to the wind.  And like a cruel twister from out of the plains, it had plopped her down in Joliet with a jailer from Des Moines.

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The Way of Battered Hopes and Dreams: Advent IV


A Commentary for the Fourth Week of an Advent Journey, 2010

[To print and/or read a pdf version of this commentary click here.]

Designated Text

The birth of Yeshua the Mashiah happened in this way.  Miryam his mother was engaged to Yosef, yet before they came together she discovered a child in her womb, placed there by the holy spirit.  Yosef her husband, a just man and loath to expose her, resolved to divorce her secretly.  But as he was making plans, look, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Yosef, son of David, do not fear to take Miryam as your wife.  The child engendered in her came from the holy spirit, and she will give birth, and you will name him Yeshua.  For he will save his people from their wrongdoings.”

 All this was done to fulfill the word of God uttered through his prophet Yeshayahu, saying, “Listen.  A young woman will have a child in her womb and give birth to a son, and his name will be Immanuel.”

 When Yosef rose from his dream, he did what the angel of the Lord told him, and he accepted her as his wife, yet he did not know her until after she gave birth, and he called the child the name Yeshua.

 Translation by Willis Barnstone, The Restored New Testament 



When they heard a knock on the door yesterday, José and Maria hid in their run-down one-bedroom apartment.  Perhaps it was the U.S. Census taker returning, they thought.  That was the only visitor they’d had since last summer; when they’d refused to provide their last names, or any other information.  But in fact, it was their landlord instead, who’d come to demand their past-due December rent one last time.  They were nearly three weeks late, and they already knew eviction was imminent.

Since July, when they’d begun living together, the two teenagers had always managed with summer jobs to scrape up the cash somehow, month after month; so they’d successfully slipped under the radar, once again. In fact, as nearly grown children of illegal immigrants, their whole lives had been a matter of living in the shadows in an East LA barrio.  But now push had come to shove, and whatever hopes and dreams they’d had were fading quickly, as their young lives were becoming more complicated than the two of them were prepared to handle.

Maria had shown promise in high school, and upon graduation had dreamt of a college education one day; while José had always seen his best opportunities for a future life together someday volunteering for military service and a career there.  Then in June, Maria had discovered she was 2-months pregnant, and – truth be told – neither of them knew for sure if José was the father.  Returning home to either one of their families with such a burden was not an option for them. Though uncertain where to turn, all they knew for sure at that moment was that they’d best gather up their few belongings, and flee for their uncertain lives.

It was already dark when they slipped out of the ramshackle apartment building, into the cold December night.  The drizzling rain had finally stopped, and now the clouds were clearing to expose a steel blue sky, studded with a few bright silver stars.  They could hop public transit with what little cash they had, and spend the night riding from one end of the City to the other.  Their hopes and expectations for what kind of future lay ahead for them had shrunk to a handful of hours.

The two huddled together and peered out the window, as the bus lurched away from the corner stop.  They hardly noticed the battered yellow metal newsstand, displaying LA’s Sunday newspaper headline: “Senate defeats the Dream Act, 55-41.”



In actuality, I have no idea if that was the exact text of the front page of today’s LA TImes, though the facts about what happened yesterday in Washington are now a part of the history books.  And my little December nativity fable is only as true as it is believable to you, my reader.  In my own defense, however, I’d suggest Matthew’s tale is no less incredible.

Officially called the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, the acronym DREAM Act was meant to provide undocumented immigrant students who have been living in the U.S. their whole lives a path to citizenship by enlisting in the military or going on to college.  For the last ten years, proponents of such legislation have argued the DREAM would give hundreds of thousands a chance to contribute back to the country that has given so much; and a chance to utilize their hard earned education and talents.

The defeat of this legislation was touted as a resounding victory for those who have denounced the bill as a mass amnesty plan. “This bill is a law that at its fundamental core is a reward for illegal activity,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

That is, the hopes and aspirations of such crooks as Maria and José are the consequence of the criminal activity of their illegal parents. In this nation, it would appear the sins of the fathers and mothers have indeed been visited upon their children, and their children’s children.  And, in this holiday season, it is not only a question of no vacancy in the inn.  It seems there is simply to be no room for José, Maria and their newborn in our midst.

 … it would appear the sins of the fathers and mothers have indeed been visited upon their children, and their children’s children.  And, in this holiday season, it is not only a question of no vacancy in the inn.  It seems there is simply to be no room for José, Maria and their newborn in our midst.

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Show Me The Money, or What? Advent III

 A Commentary for the Third Week of an Advent Journey

[To read and/or print a pdf version of this commentary click here.]

The Text, for Context

 When Yohanan heard in prison what the mashiah was doing, he sent his own students to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?”

 And Yeshua answered, saying to them, Go and tell Yohanan what you see and hear.  In the words of our prophet Yeshayahu: The blind will see again and the lame walk, the lepers are made clean and the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor hear the good news.  Blessed is the one who has not stumbled because of me.

 As Yohanan’s students were leaving, Yeshua began to speak to the crowd about Yohanan, “What did you go into the desert to see?  A reed shaken by the wind?  But what did you go out to see?  A Man dressed in soft robes?  Look, those who wear soft clothing are in the houses of the kings.  What did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and he is more than a prophet.  He is the one of whom the prophet Malachi wrote: ‘See, I send you my angel messenger before your face, who will prepare the way before you.’

 I say to you, no one risen among us born of women is greater than Yohanan the Dipper.  Yet who is least in the kingdom of the skies is greater than he is.”

Translation by Willis Barnstone, The Restored New Testament


It seems the hottest debate dominating the news this last week was how Washington was going to overcome more gridlock, and resolve what seems to be our biggest looming problem: How best to renege on a promise we made to ourselves eight years ago when we were in clover; and decided we could afford to give everybody a temporary tax break, while still providing the fundamental services of government to the people, and for the people.

So eight years later when things aren’t so rosy, we’ve decided this time we can’t afford anything but lower taxes again; so there’ll be less tax revenue with which to provide some of those same government services, when the need is considerably greater with fewer resources.  Some of those services included continued unemployment benefits to the massive numbers of out-of-work Americans, in what most economists predict remains a long, painful (and some say jobless) recovery.  Bluntly put, the thinly-veiled threat and ultimatum went something like this: If the previously agreed-to tax rates for millionaires resume, then the bread lines go away.

There’s been a lot of criticism over Obama’s compromise with the opposing party as mere capitulation, and just another bailout for billionaires.  Disillusioned, some have even begun asking themselves, is Obama still “the one, or should they look for another?”

The President himself defended his pragmatic approach to governing, likening the situation to a hostage crisis.  He could not sit by and refuse to negotiate, he said, when too many citizens were being harmed by the intransigence of legislative captors.  In another context such hostage takers might be called terrorists.  But in Washington, such opponents are simply referred to colloquially as “my friends and colleagues on the other side of the aisle.”

This is all meant to be more than mere editorial opinion.  Regardless of the differing positions on issues such as extending tax cuts for some, or all, how best to stimulate the economy, revitalize capitalist free enterprise, encourage job creation and growth, and rescue millions of fellow Americans facing a less-than-merry holiday, the President, his critics and opponents all share the same goal.  They all want to be able to justify their actions, arguments, policies and latest round of legislative maneuverings when the electorate again tells them all what they already know is coming: Show us the money!

Where is it?  Where’s it going to come from, how much will we get to keep for ourselves, and how soon are we going to have enough of it to feel right again about what we euphemistically envision to be the American dream?  That’s what’s pitched as the solution to all our problems.  Presumably, it’s both the end game, and the means by which we’re able to get there.  At the end of the day, it’s money that’s the means by which we tangibly measure our strength and stability, security, national prowess, wealth and personal wellbeing.

On the other hand, how we measure our generosity, compassion, passion for peace, a hankering for what’s just plain right, and the health and wellbeing of our neighbor — including the alien in our midst — is a subsequent matter of affordability. The general sentiment seems to be these are luxuries we can ill afford, if we “dis-incentivize” those who may (or may not), decide to spend the extra bucks they keep; all in the hopes they’ll offer jobs to those we otherwise won’t help any further.

We’ll add $900 billion to the growing federal deficit, if it means lower taxes for those who have taxable income.  But further benefits for those with no income to tax should be pay-go items.  To get out of debtor’s prison, the message seems as clear as it is confusing: Show us the money.  Then use the money we’ll save with a tax-break extension, and we’ll pull ourselves out debt with our consumer spending.  It’s a dizzying game of dollars and cents.  Or is it dollars and sense?

Meanwhile, some private investment entrepreneurs in Kentucky have taken matters into their own hands, and answered the call to make sense of it all by casting a lifeline to some of the locals in Grant County who’re drowning in red ink.  Backed by a ministry known as Answers in Genesis, they’ve recently announced the proposed construction of a full-sized replica of Noah’s Ark.  It’s been touted that it will stimulate the local economy, creating jobs and giving a big boost to a less-than-booming tourist trade in that region.  With a slight digression, I’ll try to come ‘round to my same conclusion.

Built on a scale of biblical proportions (literally, according to the specs outlined in Genesis 6:15), the so-called Ark Encounter project has been billed as a “historically themed attraction,” that would also feature a Tower of Babel and a first-century Middle Eastern city.

The developers of the Ark Encounter say they expect to spend $150 million, employ 900 people and attract 1.6 million visitors from around the world in the first year. With the so-called Creation Museum only 45 miles away — where the “facts” of the Bible are used to debunk evolution — they envision a Christian tourism corridor that would draw busloads from surrounding churches and schools.  It’ll be a perfect combination, providing an economic boon and religious revival, all at the same time.

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Not Jewish Enough: Advent II

Commentary for the Second Week of an Advent Journey


[Note: The context for this commentary is found in selected portions the Common Lectionary texts assigned for the Second Sunday of Advent Season.  These complete texts can be found at the end of this a pdf version, which is available to print and/or read here.]


Originally from California, Jonathan Leavitt recently made aliyah – the Jewish term used to describe migration to the state of Israel.  A stocky American Jew, with blue eyes and an easy-going manner, he said he wanted to serve in the Israeli Defence Force, because he believes in the homeland of the Jewish people.

Once he’d made the decision, Jonathan recalled his excitement, “feeling more Jewish than I’d ever felt in my whole life.”  But when he arrived in Israel he was told that according to Jewish law, Leavitt was not considered a Jew.

“I can recall the lady working behind the desk,” he explained, “asking me what religion I practiced, and I thought that was an odd question.  And I said, ‘I’m Jewish obviously,’ and she replied,’ I’m sorry we can’t put that on your ID.’  I asked her, ‘Why?’ I have a letter from my rabbi, I’ve been bar mitzvahed.’  And she said, ‘According to the rabbinate, you are not Jewish enough.’”

As it turns out, Jonathan’s mother was not born a Jew, rather she converted. That isn’t a problem for the more liberal Reform or Conservative branches of Judaism.  But religious life in Israel is dominated by the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox.  Unless one undergoes Orthodox conversion, one is not legally recognized a Jew.  The same goes for their descendants, from one generation to the next.

The news didn’t sit well with Jonathan.  “I thought to myself, what did I come here for, if I’m not going to be allowed to be a part of this culture?  I can fight for them, I can die for them, I can go into the army and give up my life and my freedom, but I don’t have the same rights?  Even Israeli Jews who are entirely secular, [who] don’t observe anything and really have no connection to their Jewish religion, are considered more Jewish than I am.”

Apparently there is a work-around. The army offers a three-month crash conversion course. Those who pass are to be considered Jewish by the Israeli government, with the rights to get married and buried in Israel.  But the ultra-Orthodox complain that’s cheating, and vow any such convert would not be regarded by them to be sufficiently Jewish.

We’ve all heard all this before. Not being enough of one thing or another is nothing new, nor particularly unique to Jonathan Leavitt.  We all remember one-time presidential candidate Barack Obama was criticized by some as not being black enough, because he is only half black, and didn’t behave the way some folks thought he should.  Others subsequently questioned President Obama’s citizenship and religious persuasion, that he wasn’t American enough or wear his Christianity on his shirtsleeve.

Politicians have sometimes secretly acknowledged hesitating speaking out against our own government’s war policies, or the enormous level of military spending, for fear of being perceived as not patriotic enough.  While those serving in the armed forces have to be discrete enough, if they can’t be straight enough.

 Then there are an endless number of examples of people who don’t measure up, in terms of their performance.   In our legal system, so-called lenient / liberal judges who are regarded by some as being too soft on crime, are sometimes ousted in the electoral process because they aren’t tough enough.

Last week South Korea’s Defence Minister resigned in humiliation after North Korea’s unprovoked attach on remote Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea, apologizing for not being vigilant enough.

 Not being enough of whatever even provides a reason, if not an excuse, for the sometimes inexplicable.  For example, NFL coaches who can’t exact the winning formula out of their players in the high-stakes game of professional sports get the boot for not being successful enough.  Effort doesn’t count.  The buck has to stop somewhere.  And anyone who isn’t skilled enough, clever enough or just plain lucky enough gets the short straw.

Any way you look at it, there seems to be an abundance of folks – whether it’s their own doing nor not — who aren’t enough of whatever they’re supposed to be.

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Unexpected and Unwelcome Gifts: Advent I

Commentary to begin an Advent Journey


The Unexpected Gift

Since the time they were young children, I have always given my now-adult daughters Advent calendars on Thanksgiving weekend.  It has become a long-expected family custom, dating back even further than Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

It’s a pretty simple idea.  Another day, another little door to open, as we make a 25-day trek from one holiday to the next. Behind each little door there’s a token gift, in anticipation of something greater yet to come.

For certain religious types, the yearly remembrance of the coming of the Christ child is supposed to be the greater gift, and culmination of this little journey.  But nowadays it seems, mere expectation and anticipation are sufficiently generic enough to adequately describe the season.  The little calendar begins the table conversation. “What do you want for Christmas?” I ask.  “It’s only a month away, you know.”  My little gift to them at Thanksgiving cost me a buck apiece at TJ’s, but I know it’s only the beginning.

My household has yet to succumb to the trend in general, but like Christmas gift-giving itself – and, beginning with onset of the official shopping season — Advent seems to have become a time for those day-by-day tokens and bobbles to get a little ahead of themselves; if not out of hand.

This year, in the swanky Knightsbridge neighborhood of London, upscale Harrod’s has teamed with Porsche Design to come up with an Advent calendar of its own.  With a price tag of a cool $1-million USD, the slick six-foot square silver aluminum cube has the traditional number of doors; behind which the gift recipient can find such things a chronograph timepiece in rose gold, or depictions of what will be their individually customizable Porsche design kitchen, a 28-foot long speedboat, etc.  How terribly, awfully nice, I thought.

Harrod’s claims their Advent calendar is the ultimate Christmas gift for millionaires on your list who are historically impossible to shop for. “This is something they really do not have,” they insist.  It will prove to be a most unexpected gift. For one, I know my two daughters would certainly not expect such an Advent calendar from their father.

So, which would you rather have, the gift for which you asked and/or probably expected, or the unexpected gift that may not be what you had in mind at all?  Coyly, Advent is supposed to be all about expecting the unexpected.  In either case, it seems to me, the trickier part is whether you’re gonna like what you might get.  For a little context, just consider the appointed Common Lectionary gospel text, Year A:

“As to that day and hour, no one knows.
Not angels in the air, nor the son.
None but the father alone.
For as the days of Noah came
So will be the coming of the earthly son …
Then two men will be in the field:
One is taken away and one is left.
Two women will be grinding flour at the mill:
One is taken away and one is left. …
So be watchful, since you don’t know on what day
Your lord is coming.
But you know that if the master of the house
Had known at what hour of the night the thief was coming.
He would have kept awake
And not allowed his house to be broken into.
Therefore, you also must keep awake,
For in an hour unknown to you comes the earthly son.”

Matthew 24:36-44 – Translated  version by Willis Barnstone, The Restored New Testament


The Unwelcome Gift

Apparently, the stern remembrance of past calamity and dire predictions of disastrous things yet to come are the best comparisons Matthew the evangelist could come up with to describe the unexpected hour the “earthly son” (of God) will come; not unlike the intrusion of a thief in the night.  How terribly, awfully unnerving.

As unwelcome as that all may sound, I should be confused. Both the shopping calendar, as well as Matthew’s sweet nativity tale of the Magi’s visit to the manger, says this “earthly son” of the divine comes as a bright shiny gift, like a new star rising in the night sky; and certainly not akin to a robber who’ll ease me of my newest treasures.

Further, my children’s Advent calendar always indicates he comes every year without fail on December 25th.  Not only that, I wouldn’t be surprised if the after-Christmas clearance sales got a jumpstart at midnight, if consumer spending does not match the market analyst’s own Advent expectations.  The more likely question these days: If I don’t like what comes when it’s supposed to come, what’s the exchange and returns policy?

In contrast, it seems to me the other half of the Advent message may be about more than simply expecting the unexpected.  It may be about getting something for Christmas that we would not necessarily wish for, or choose on our own accord.  What kind of “gift” is that?

The unexpected and unwelcome gifts of the season may be about looking and seeing what lies beneath the surface, behind the sweet story of Christmas, and even beyond our comfort zone.  It may be about exposing the stark difference between the way things appear to be, and the unexpected, even irrepressible way things might become; that is, if we actually hoped and longed for another kind of gift this holiday season.  And that may require a little introspection, a journey inward — more than simply forward — in the days ahead.

The Story, and the Back-story

The Thanksgiving weekend began this year with a heightened security threat level for holiday travelers. The biggest news story that even eclipsed the latest global powder keg (Korea), was the uproar over pat-downs of the TSA airport security screening process.

Apparently, body scanners are uncomfortable to some folks.  They’re regarded to be an unwelcome intrusion.  If at all possible, they’d like to keep hidden the fact that their most private parts are not all that much different from anyone else’s.

At the same time, I’d certainly agree the technology isn’t foolproof.  So-called “full body” scans may be able to verify I’m not a lethal threat to anyone else.  But it can’t reveal anything more about me than that.  It can’t tell the whole story.

Equally unpredictable, the alternative touchy-feely pat-downs can only go so far.  At best, they can only assure everyone else I’m not hiding anything from anyone but myself.

So, there’s the front page story of holiday travelers, revealing what we believe to be our latest and greatest in-securities that threaten to spoil the merriment of the season.  It only scratches the surface.  And, it’s nothing new.  It’s as old as the first Christmas story, and the terrorist threat that compelled the holy family to flee for their lives.

So there’s the perennial story of Advent and the coming of the Christ child, our yearly trek back to the manger; along with the angels and lowly beasts, the wisemen and low-lifes. And then there’s the back-story to be found if we might look a little deeper, a little further back to the ancient story of a Christmas yet to come:

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.

Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Isaiah 2:2-5 – The appointed text from the Hebrew scriptures, Common Lectionary, Year A:

This is the ancient prophet’s vision of a Christmas yet to come.  It is the story of a journey whose destination has yet to be reached – where all peoples join a common path that leads to total disarmament (in every sense of the word).

This is the back-story to the present journey we call Advent.  Yet it’s true fulfillment remains as unwelcome as it would be unexpected; for it would likely require of us the costliest of gifts we are as yet unwilling to offer.  We settle instead for gold, frankinscence any myrhh, at best.

These Advent days are a time for us to venture further and deeper into the truly-unexpected and still-unwelcome gifts that could one day lead us all to unparalleled heights, and not merely back to the stable once again.  Can you imagine such a gift; a place where, once and for all, no returns were necessary?

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