When I was in high school, I worked at Moe’s. It had no other name, like Moe’s Gas, even though we sold gas, out of two pumps, or Moe’s Garage, even though we worked on cars, like doing lubes and oil changes, or Moe’s Grocery, even though we sold every sort of food a person could possibly want, as long as it was bread or bologna, out of a building about the size of my living room. No, just Moe’s, after Moe Conley, its owner.
It was at the edge of town, the poor edge, the only gas station and store that was open on Sundays and holidays and late into the evening. This was in the 1950s. Respectable places closed on Sundays and holidays and at night. Moe’s was respectable enough, in its own down-trodden way, but being on the poor edge of town, we didn’t get as much business as places that were better looking and better situated. Moe felt we needed the Sunday and holiday and night trade to keep up.
Moe didn’t like to work Sundays and holidays and nights himself, though, especially opening early and closing late. So those were my hours, Sunday and holiday mornings and nights.
One Sunday morning I opened up and then tried to get our only source of heat, the pot-bellied coal stove, going. It was reluctant, and I was cold, so I went to the garage, got some old motor oil, and poured it in on top of the coal to give it a little impetus. Then I struck a wooden kitchen match and dropped it in. Whump! Blew the iron door right off the top of the stove. The door didn’t hit me, and I was able to put it right back into place, but the flames got me. I felt the burning of my face. I looked into a mirror. My face was quite red. My eyebrows were gone! I was quite lucky, but also feeling quite painful. I couldn’t leave. What to do? Surely there was something in our stock… No, no Unguentine, or calamine. But we had butter! I smeared butter all over my face and hoped we’d have no customers.
I was embarrassed. How stupid can you be? I knew better than that. So I told no one about the stove. I told customers that I was preparing for a school play that required me to look Chinese.
And I thought about Glenn Cunningham. I was a track runner, and he was my hero. He had almost accomplished the impossible, running a four minute mile. And he had done it despite pouring oil into a coal stove and burning himself badly. Bad enough that the doctors said he’d never walk again. But he persevered. I thought maybe now that I had blown a stove up in my face I’d be able to run a four minute mile, maybe outdo even my hero Glenn.
Didn’t turn out that way. It was Roger Bannister who ran the first four minute mile, even though he had not blown up any stoves. In fact, maybe because he had not blown up any stoves in his face. Although you’d think a buttered face would cut down wind resistance.
The four minute mile has been run many times since Roger Bannister, but until he did it, it was just a theory, a possibility, a hope. It became a reality only when somebody did it. Somebody had to be first or it could never be real.
That’s the message of Christmas, I think, at least in part. God present in the world, incarnate in human beings--God as love, God as love in the here and now, in human form—that was only a theory, a possibility, a hope, a prophecy by Isaiah, until somebody actually did it, until somebody was first. Jesus of Nazareth is the Roger Bannister of God incarnate.
This is only one of the many ways we try to understand God incarnate, God in Christ. It’s not the only way, not complete, but it’s helpful, I think. And it doesn’t even require blowing up a stove in your face to get the message.
Some folks chide me for continuing to post stuff in CIW when I say that I am no longer writing. As I pointed out on Dec. 9, I am only blogging now, and that can’t be considered writing. This particular piece, however, I did a long time ago with the idea of posting at Christmas time, so it does not count as current writing.