“It doesn’t have to play; it just has to look good.” The man was completely serious as he handed me the guitar which had been his son’s first instrument. I chuckled, but agreed to glue the bridge back on the little half-size instrument. Not that it was ever a great example of the luthier’s craft, but, without question, it will never play a note of music again. He doesn’t care; it’s going up on the wall as a decoration. It wasn’t the only such instrument I have worked on this season.
The lady brought in the filthy old arch-top guitar about a week ago. She needed some work done before Christmas, since she wants to present the instrument to her husband as a “gift” (it’s actually already his). She had a similar request to the man mentioned above. “Go ahead and clean it up and put some new strings on it.” I glanced at the collapsing top of the guitar, turning it around to look as the back as well. Something clattered inside as I spun it around. Peering into the F-holes on the top, I noticed long pieces of wood loose inside the body. These were top braces which are normally glued securely onto the underside of the top, providing structure and keeping the arch from collapsing. Quite obviously, they had failed to do their job. I had already noted that the old rusted strings were about five inches away from the top, but quickly saw the reason for this too, as I looked at the back of the guitar. The back itself had come unglued from the neck block, causing the entire affair to lose its structural integrity. This was a disaster!
I told the lady that her guitar couldn’t be repaired without extensive work, which would cost well more than the instrument was worth. Her reply? “It doesn’t have to play; it just has to look good.” The old piece of junk was a family heirloom (of sorts) and she hoped that it would be put on a stand, so people could look at, and admire, it. All she wanted was for me to clean it and replace the strings! As if that would achieve the purpose. Today, we put a little glue on the peripheral joints and clamped the whole affair together. It will never hold the tension of a set of guitar strings again. As long as no one runs their fingers across the strings, it may, perhaps, fool most people with its appearance. It will, without a doubt, fool not a single real guitarist for more than a moment.
I remembered a young father (now an old man) telling me once about how he had received his discharge from the Navy, years before. As a Petty Officer on a ship, he had a number of men under his authority. One day, at sea, his Captain ordered him to have his men paint the ship’s hull before they got into harbor a few days later. Doing a bit of quick math in his head, he suggested that it wouldn’t be possible to finish the job. The Captain questioned his mathematical skills, declaring that there was no reason the men couldn’t slap on a coat of grey paint in a couple of days, to which the conscientious young noncom answered, “That’s true, sir. But to do the job right, we need to scrape the rust off first and prime it, then paint it.” The Captain insisted that he wanted his ship to look good when it came into harbor. Again, the young Petty Officer demurred, saying, “This ship belongs to the American taxpayers, sir. We need to do the job right.” The ship didn’t get painted before it sailed into harbor. The young Petty Officer, who had plans to be a career Navy man was handed an honorable discharge for medical reasons a few days later. “Chronic seasickness.” So said the discharge papers, although the young man maintained that he was never sick a day while on board. He left the Navy disillusioned, but with his integrity still intact.
It is a common practice, one in which we all participate at some point. The practice I speak of is the intent to deceive, to cover up. We know that the facade, the face, we are presenting to the people in our life is false and no more than skin deep, but we are more interested in keeping up appearances than in dealing with reality. It has ever been so with humans. We want to appear complete and perfect, much more than we actually want to be complete and perfect. That is the entire story of mankind.
As we stand on the Eve of another Christmas Day, I can’t help but think that this is what Christmas is all about. For all of history, man’s practice has been to cover up his folly. Even the religious practices did only that…cover up, nothing more. The Savior came for one purpose: to make us new and, thus, render the cover-up unnecessary. The True Word became flesh and blood and lived with us, showing us the stark contrast between the genuine and the facade, the original and the pretender. He lived among us and then He died for us. Not so we could continue to cover up who we are, but so that we could be made new; made as we were designed in the first place.
The ways in which we choose to celebrate this holy day seem to me to be a continuation of our practice of dressing up broken things. We decorate our homes and we cook and we entertain. We sing and we watch movies about Santa and about BB guns that will “shoot your eye out” and about being left home alone. We give extravagant gifts to our children and family members, but we don’t have more than a few moments that we can spare in contemplation of the real Gift of Christmas. In many ways, our celebration of Christmas is just more pretty decoration to hang on the wall of our collective lives, but there is no substance to it, no reality. The instrument on the wall won’t make music, it just looks good.
We have adopted so many traditions in the celebration of this day that we nearly miss the point entirely. I’m suggesting that this Christmas, we might take some time to be quiet in the midst of the bedlam that has come to define the holiday, and consider the real reason that the King of all the universe lay helpless in that cow stall. He came to offer hope and grace to all people. His offer wasn’t just to make us look good, but actually to make us good.
The lady will pick up her guitar from my store today and will present the useless thing to her husband as a gift tomorrow. They’ll look at the old instrument on display and think fondly about when it made music. They’ll probably even tell a story or two about when Grandpa used to play it. But, it won’t make music again.
I’m thinking that we don’t need to accept a pretty, empty shell when we can actually hear the beautiful music from the real thing. Christmas is about things that are made new!
“Chords that were broken will vibrate once more!”
“And the one sitting on the the throne said, “See! I am making all things new.”
“Christmas began in the heart of God. It is complete only when it reaches the heart of man.”
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.