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Dead Presidents, Details, and the Bethlehem Baby Gap

This homily was given on December 22, 2013 at The Vine Church, and was originally entitled, “Details.”


I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about dead presidents. It’s not because it’s Christmas time and I’ve been handing dead presidents to retailers like Toys-R-Us and Amazon.

I’ve been thinking about dead presidents because a few weeks ago I started reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s newest book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. By “reading” what I really mean is listening to the audiobook, because the text of the book is over 750 pages long. I’m not reading 750 pages unless I absolutely have to?

Fool me once, shame on you, Doris, fool me twice shame on me.

A few years ago I read Goodwin’s book about Lincoln, “Team of Rivals” and I learned my lesson. When it comes to her books, listening is the better way to go. Doris Kearns Goodwin spent over 7 years writing “The Bully Pulpit.” While reading, you can’t help but realize the superabundance of newspaper articles, editorials, interviews, journals, calendars, and dairies she combed through to master the material.

I’ve been taken by the number of books she’s read about both William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt. Goodwin chronicles every aspect, every facet of their lives, beginning with the births of their mothers and fathers to who they dated to what grades they received in school, I’d find it hard to believe that anything has been written about either Roosevelt or Taft that Doris Kearns Goodwin either hasn’t read or didn’t write.

I say all of that to say this: When it comes to these two Presidents, Doris Kearns Goodwin knows every conceivable detail…750, small print pages worth in fact.

Just think, all of that work, over Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft?

While Roosevelt and Taft will always come in handy as potential Trivial Pursuit answers, there have been 44 Presidents of The United States, most of the men who have served in the office aren’t that memorable.

Who can recall the grand ambitions and accomplishments of Grover Cleveland or Benjamin Harrison.

I mean, not every President is remarkable. They can’t all be hefty enough to get stuck in a bathtub.

But when our former Presidents were President, they were – at the very least – one of the most powerful people on the planet. They were either making and guiding a new nation or shaping and leading the world most powerful nation, yet not many of us can name even half of them.

Forty-four of the most influential people to have ever lived, but few of us can name 22 of those 44.

We have to read books to remind ourselves of the issues that – at the time – seemed like the most important and pressing matters of urgency. But we’ve largely forgotten what happened at Tammany Hall and San Juan Hill or that William Howard Taft is the only President to also serve as Chief Justice of The Supreme Court.

We care little about the muckrakers and why Roosevelt’s and Taft’s Republican Party was so strongly in favor of unions and their rights to collectively bargain.

But at the time, these details kept people up at night, grayed thinning hairlines, and wrinkled furrowed brows. It was all terrible important…once. But as our lives have proven, it wasn’t all that memorable.

Their impact didn’t last.

We shouldn’t be surprised by that, though. Most things don’t last.

I suppose that’s one reason Advent and Christmas are such remarkable occasions. Advent manifest itself with very few details. Matthew and Mark give us a few chapters. John gives us almost nothing. Luke gives us a musical, for sure, but no real details. If Doris Kearns Goodwin were writing this story, the gifted wordsmith would be at a loss. There’s just not much there there.

Who knows how Jesus’ parents met or the marks he made in Joseph’s All-Boys Country Day School of Carpentry? There are no letters commemorating Mary’s youthful love and betrothal jitters sent to Joseph by pigeon across Nazareth. We don’t have Joseph’s confused and anxiety-riddled journal entries after hearing the angel’s proclamation of forced adoption.

What in the world did Mary and Elizabeth talk about while the cousin-prophets kicked and turned inside them for nine-months? Mary was too young for all of this. Elizabeth was too old. What looks the pair must’ve received while window-shopping at the Bethlehem Baby Gap?

The birth of Jesus boasts much precision, but oddly little thoroughness. There are so few details.

Yet, unlike dead Presidents, the lack of specificity is not indicative of a life lacking force.

If you didn’t believe in God or miracles or the Bible, I suppose the most mystifying aspect of Jesus is that He’s still lurking around. Though He is a man of absolutely no worldly accomplishment, He is remembered and His existence remains consequential.

While other, more lettered and accomplished women and men’s pages in history have yellowed and become brittle, we are still talking about a baby who was born in a creaky little outpost of the Roman Empire.

That’s what we do at Christmas. We marvel at the reality that what seemed so insignificant to the world then, what seems so insignificant to too many of us now, still reverberates around the world.

And that’s what should haunt us too.

Because, as I learned from Doris Kearns Goodwin, many of the aspects of life that seem so crucially important to us; so much of what gives the impression as urgent and consequential, just isn’t.

People write books about Presidents and while the words, actions, and inclinations of President’s loiter in varying degrees, we can’t remember most of what they did. Their grand agendas – with some great exceptions, like Lincoln – turned out to not matter much…at least 50, 100, or 200 years later.

So shouldn’t we attach our lives, in the most meaningful way possible, to something that will go the distance? To someone who’s collision into world history reconfigures all that is and all that ever will be?

That’s why we do all this during Advent and it’s why Advent is the beginning of the Christian year. We get a chance to recalibrate our lives around something that will “echo into eternity.” While the rest of the world reduces Christmas to gifts exchanged and pies baked, we get to be a part of something beautiful in which the “new” never wears off.

So, this Christmas, I think it might be best to not sweat the details. The tree, the food, the travel, the cards that need to be mailed, the family pictures that need to be taken, and picking the exact perfect gift for both the people you love and the people you don’t really like, but have to give a gift to anyway; those are all details and the details won’t be remembered.

What we remember about Jesus is why He came, who He served, how He spoke to people and how He spoke about people. We remember that His greatest gift was His loving presence. That presence, as small as it is in a manger, is just too big for details.

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