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It’s the morning of Nov. 7, 2013, and Andrew Hamblin, a 22-year-old pastor with ordinary, boyish looks and extraordinary ambition, is behind the wheel of his family’s black Windstar minivan driving toward his church. It’s 52 degrees, warm for autumn but made to feel colder by a northwesterly wind ruffling fallen oak and maple leaves. Along the road ahead, Cove Lake’s rippling surface reflects the Cumberland Mountains. Heading west on Jacksboro, Hamblin makes a left onto a smaller, tighter road as four game wardens from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency follow him.

Hamblin has led the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., since late 2011. The building is squat and brick. Concrete crosses are inlaid in its walls. Across the street, an emphatic WELCOME! is scrawled in red, loopy script on the side of a blue mailbox, which is gently rusting at its hinges. Beside the mailbox, a sign nailed to a juvenile maple reads POSTED: NO TRESPASSING. At the base of a dirt driveway, a slim marquee lists Hamblin’s name under PASTOR, above service times: Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. The church sits at the top of the driveway, adjacent to a gravel parking lot, at 345 Longmire Lane.

At 10:31 a.m. Hamblin posts to Facebook from his Android. “Anyone and everyone that will please begin to pray now. 4 game wardens have me at my church now. I don’t know what the out come [sic] will be but Liz” — his wife — “will keep everyone posted. Mark 16:18 is still real.” SOURCE.

Over the weekend, I read an interesting story about Jesus-loving snake handlers. Among Christians, snake-handlers are a fascinating group of people. For my book, Our Great Big American God, I read/researched a good bit about their beginnings, about the people who spearheaded the movement, and about the characters who lead their cause now. While you should read the whole story, because it’s about Christians who play with snakes to showcase their faith in Christ, the pictures tell such a powerful (and insane) tale. Yet, in their defense, these believers are only doing what Jesus said his followers would be able to do: handle poisonous snakes, get bitten, and not die. Yet, despite their love of worshiping Jesus with reptiles, some of these pastors are indeed getting bit and dying. And they’re also breaking the law.

Which is why Pastor Hamblin is fighting for his congregation’s rights to handle snakes.

What do you think? Should Christian snake-handlers be allowed to practice their religion freely, without regulation?

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Found at The American Jesus.

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Like many, I’m fascinated by Bigfoot. Do I believe that Bigfoot exists? I wouldn’t say I believe; mostly I just want to believe. Okay, I do believe. At least, a little…Which is why I’m fascinated by the seemingly growing search for Sasquatch. I love seeing all the blurry pictures. I love watching the latest shaky (and usually blurry) video clips on YouTube. And I confess, I’ve even spent more than a few consecutive hours couched in front of the TV, watching what might be the worst reality TV show ever made, Finding Bigfoot. Though I watch it on occasion, I can’t defend it’s awfulness. All the sound effects, the hooting and hollering, and all of the occasions when somebody will say, “Whoa! Did you just hear that?” And it all turns out to be a sixty-minute dramatic goose chase. But I watch sometimes, hoping the episode that I catch will finally be the one that lives up to its name.

My wife thinks my fascination is insane. “Turn that off,” she told me the other night, referring to Finding Bigfoot, “our company will be here any minute, and I don’t want that to be on when they get here.” Jessica is embarrassed by my Bigfoot fetish. Which I can understand. If she knew how many nights I’m up, after she’s going to bed, scrolling YouTube for the latest “sightings,” she’d likely organize an intervention. My father-in-law also gives me a hard time, believing that my curiosity about Sasquatch is downright crazy. He’s very dismissive about the whole topic. “There’s no such thing as Bigfoot… PERIOD!” he’s told me on multiple occasions. That, of course, usually causes me—a self-identifying Bigfoot agnostic— turn into the fanatical Bigfoot fundamentalist. I start doing what any enthusiast does when somebody dares to question that it might be a big ole waste of time believing in Bigfoot. I log onto YouTube to find the best footage. I go to the American Bigfoot Association’s homepage and start searching for the best Sasquatch photos ever taken. I mention the number of documented Bigfoot sightings recorded by the Bigfoot Field Research Organization. I mean, you’d be surprised by how much “proof” exists to support the theory that Bigfoot is real. Can every single person who has witnessed Bigfoot be crazy, lying, or crazy and lying? Maybe. Sasquatch believers often don’t have the best reputations. Take, for example, the latest BIG Bigfoot news: Texas hunter claims to have shot, killed Bigfoot. There’s even a corpse and some strange cryptic video.

But alas, despite all the “evidence,” only 29 percent of Americans believe in Bigfoot. The percentage of believers are even lower among Canadians and the Brits, 21 percent and 17 percent respectively. I personally know of only a few Bigfoot believers, mostly other writers like me who have a healthy love of zombies and nature and admit to watching the SyFy Channel on occasion. But usually when I mention Bigfoot in a serious tone, people make fun of me, shame me, and laugh at all of my online blurry evidence. Which is why I don’t talk about it much anymore and have completely stopped trying to convert non believers.

And trust me, I understand why people don’t believe in Bigfoot: it seems farfetched, it’s not in the Bible, and the “proof” is always blurry, shaky, or riddled with lies.

In some ways, the cultural drama surrounding Bigfoot reminds me of our culture’s debate about Jesus, most specifically, the resurrection of Jesus. How many times have we heard preachers–especially evangelical preachers–rattle off a listen of “the very best proof” as to why we should believe that Jesus raised from the grave. Usually those reasons include: the eyewitness accounts of two women who found the tomb empty, the new-found motivation of the disciples to renew their religious causes (many of whom were ready and willing to die for their belief), the large number of people who claim to have seen Jesus after the crucifixion (at last count, roughly 500 or so), and some people mention the Apostle Paul’s conversion to Christianity as proof as well. There are no YouTube videos or pictures, and only a handful of good detailed first person accounts. I mean, compared to the proof that Bigfoot exists, the evidence surrounding Jesus’s resurrection isn’t all that great. And you know, I’m not sure poorly filmed video footage or blurry pictures of Jesus would help the cause either.

Because in the end, my curiosity about Bigfoot isn’t built on the evidence (because I admit, most of it is pretty crappy), it’s mostly built on the stories I heard people tell about Bigfoot when I was a kid, the mythical narratives that made their way into towns, communities, and cultures and spark conversation. Those stories conjured up wonder in me about whether or not the legends might be true. That’s why I watch Finding Bigfoot. Not because it’s good TV, but because it connects me to the stories and myths of my youth.

Many of us believe wholeheartedly in Jesus’s resurrection for the same reason. It’s not the so-called evidence that drives our faith in Christ being alive; it’s the story, the legend, the myths that spread into our towns, cities, and cultures, capturing our imaginations (sometimes scarring the crap out of us) and urging us to explore, hope, and imagine the Kingdom of God. And once in a while, we’re lucky to get a glimpse, often a blurry or shaky glimpse, that just might be “evidence” that Jesus is alive.

And while our sightings of Jesus don’t often prove the resurrection story true for others, they do connect us to what fascinated us about Jesus in the beginning, when we first heard the story… and that becomes enough to help us believe again. And to keep searching. And to keep telling our stories…

 

The Christian music duo Shane & Shane sing a song called “Though You Slay Me,” a worship song about suffering which features an excerpt of a John Piper sermon. Though it’s been out for several months, I’d not heard the song before yesterday. And to be honest, the lyrics (some of which were borrowed from the Book of Job) troubled me.

I come, God, I come
I return to the Lord
The one who’s broken
The one who’s torn me apart
You struck down to bind me up
You say You do it all in love
That I might know You in Your suffering

Though You slay me
Yet I will praise You
Though You take from me
I will bless Your name
Though You ruin me
Still I will worship
Sing a song to the one who’s all I need.

Maybe I’m in a minority, but my spirit cringes when I hear those kinds of big statements about God, statements that make God out to be an abuser rather than a loving parent, a destroyer as opposed to a healer, an Almighty who slays, ruins, and tears apart as opposed to bringing new life. Now, it’s one thing to praise God through pain and suffering. That’s not easy to do. But as a person of faith, I do believe we can/do find healing and hope in suffering through gratitude. My grievance with this song is what it says about God. In these lyrics, God is a monstrous presence, a deity who is cruel and unusual, a Great Inflicter of pain… are there limits to what this so-called awesome God will do?

I understand that these same themes show up in the Book of Job. But Job, as book, is a complicated, and as a man, is complex. Some believe the story to be historical in nature; others suggest that it’s a grand allegory that sheds light on the relationship between God and people. Either way, Job is an uneasy biblical narrative that has befuddled wise people for thousands of years. And for good reason. That dialogue between God and Satan alone is filled up with complexities and details not easily understood as they relate to today. Do we really believe that every time somebody dies or gets cancer or loses everything that Satan and God have been wheeling and dealing? Are we supposed to assume that every time there’s a school shooting or a natural disaster that it’s an event spearheaded by God? Is that what we really think about God, that amid our human suffering, as we struggle through, seeking God’s light and healing, that we are also to assume that God is the author of our hopelessness? Is that what we’re supposed to believe?

And if so, are there any limits to this kind of God? I mean, if this God slays us and ruins us, does he also set up rapes? Does he schedule miscarriages? Murders? I mean, is God our hope and salvation or the disease-maker and/or terrorist?

Yes, I know what you might be thinking: But God allows suffering, suffering that God, if he wanted to, could stop. And yes, that is a confusing and complicated idea, that God allows suffering as opposed to stopping it from happening. But still, I think there’s a huge difference between finding reason to praise God through the mysteries and questions of human suffering and praising a God who purposely puts cancer in somebody’s body or demolishes a town with a tornado just because he needed a little glory that day.

While I don’t like to use human examples to portray concepts about God, many believers do it often. The most common example is that of a father who swoops in to rescue his child from danger. Many of us would praise that father, or at least, celebrate the rescue. But what if we found out that the child’s danger had been prearranged by the father, that the child’s rescue had been actually been grand scheme authored by the father so he could receive our praise. Most of us would say that’s sick and demented. And again, while no human example is good at explaining the complexities of God, that is what this song suggests. That is what Shane & Shane are singing about.

And yes, many believe that Book of Job suggests the same. But does that give us permission to assume that the story of Job is happening all the time? Is it wise for us to make these great assumptions about about every form or instance of human suffering. Do not genetics and habits and evil play a role? Doesn’t the Book of Job demand more than to be simply applied to our every struggle? Shouldn’t it at least be used with caution and mercy.

Because I’m all about praising God in and through all things. But I also believe that we should use a little grace, humility, and common sense when applying a 5000-year-old text to our circumstances, especially as it relates to making big seemingly ugly assumptions about God.

Do I understand every nuance and idea surrounding the ways of God and the realities of suffering? No, I don’t. And chances are, neither do you. And sometimes, rather than promoting our thoughts about God like they’re the gospel truth, the best theology one can offer is I don’t know.

Because in many cases, especially in circumstances involving suffering, we don’t know.

(You can listen to the entire song here and learn the story behind the song here.)

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Francis Chan recently spoke at International House of Prayer (IHOP), the Kansas City church led by controversial minister, Mike Bickle. It doesn’t take too much searching on Google to discover that Bickle has made more than a few enemies in his day. And even if you dismiss the plethora of people whose personal interactions with Bickle and his ministry have been less than pleasant–heck, some are downright strange–there’s enough crazy in Bickle’s “theology” and “ministry” dealings to make the average believer approach with caution. There’s that terribly dark “vision” he had for America. He’s also quite connected to the Christian movement in Uganda, the same movement that helped create the intolerant laws against gays and lesbians in Uganda. And then there’s his cultish church, IHOP. And that’s just the tip of the IHOP iceberg. Like Chan says in his introduction, lots of people think Bickle is “creepy.”

And so not only does Chan ignore the drama and speak at IHOP (which is his right, of course), he begins his sermon with an over-the-top and very awkward public testament to how much he LOVES Mike Bickle. Chan has always had a somewhat quirky delivery, a seemingly earnest passion that just doesn’t always translate on video like it does live or in person. His expressiveness can often get in the way of what he’s really trying to say. (For instance, remember his book trailer for Erasing Hell?

Even if you don’t agree with Chan’s theology, most still find him endearing as a speaker. Yes, he’s quirky. But his passion is believable. Which I think is one of the reasons he’s garnered such a massive fan base.

But here, in the above clip, Chan’s quirky love for “creepy Mike Bickle” isn’t believable. I think he wants to believe it. But I’m not sure he really does, not like he believes in and loves Hell.

What do you think? Does Chan really LOVE IHOP creepy, Pastor Bickle? And if so, isn’t it an odd and awkward match?

(Clip found at Christian Nightmares.)

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As my friend Christian Piatt points out, you can technically do both, unless you only have one hand or you require both hands to get the job done.

I found this here.

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This is a 4-minute clip of highlights from Elias and Adeline’s 2013.

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Days after A&E reinstated Phil Robertson to his starring role on Duck Dynasty, another one of Robertson’s preaching videos surfaces. In this latest sermon clip, Robertson shares the “marital wisdom” that he once offered a young man.

“Make sure that she can cook a meal,” he says, “You need to eat some meals that she cooks, check that out. Make sure she carries her Bible. That’ll save you a lot of trouble down the road.”

Robertson continues: “They got to where they’re getting hard to find, mainly because these boys are waiting ‘til they get to be about 20 years old before they marry ‘em,” Robertson said. “Look, you wait ‘til they get to be 20 years old the only picking that’s going to take place is your pocket. You got to marry these girls when they are about 15 or 16. They’ll pick your ducks.”

You can watch the sermon clip below.

SOURCE

Some Christians might think Robertson’s folksy bigotry is perfect for reality TV, but is this really the “biblical marriage” that conservative Christians are promoting these days? You know, the kind of Bible-based marriage where there’s lots of freedom of speech, lots of freedom to own guns, and lots of teenage girls getting hitched at 15? Does Robertson’s quote truly reflect America’s “Christian values” today, values that promote objectifying young woman as “potentially good cooks” who boys are encouraged to marry young?

And seriously, would your church leaders really give Phil the freedom to stand behind the pulpit and preach this religious opinion to their congregations?

I hope not.

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The following is a guest post by Sharideth Smith.

Unless you have never heard of the internet, you are probably aware of the Mark Driscoll plagiarism kerfuffle. If not, this article sums it up pretty nicely. There have been accusations and jokes and some very serious concerns over what appear to be well documented issues regarding Driscoll’s lack of ability or willingness to cite his sources. His response has been to not respond. Well, except for that one time when he tried to sacrifice his ghostwriter to the intellectual property gods. And that thing where his publisher is defending him because money.

In the midst of all of this you would think he would be very careful about posting other people’s words to internet without proper accreditation. But today this happened:

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I’m not going to try to establish myself as neutral when it comes to Mark Driscoll. I am not a fan. But just like every other Christian since the dawn of redemption, I do not like to see our leaders fall. No matter what I believe about their character or how heinous their spiritual crime, I still get that greasy feeling in the pit of my stomach and that voice in my head saying, “What will people think? How will this hurt the Church?”

I feel that way now about Mark Driscoll.

And before you start loading up the comments section with “MARK IS AWESOME!”, hear me out. Because friends, I am more concerned about the welfare of his church members than I will ever be about the opinions of those outside his church. Including my own.

If this tweet had been an isolated incident…no big deal. In fact, as others have noted, it’s pretty much impossible to figure out who originally coined the joke. But it wasn’t Mark Driscoll or Mars Hill. On its own, it’s totally not worthy of the twitastrophe it became. Granted, that was mostly my fault. However, people were bothered by this because of the entire plagiarism context. They weren’t Mark’s words. But they were presented as Mark’s words. His followers believed they were his words. You just can’t do that. Especially when facing serious plagiarism allegations. Under the circumstances, that tweet was either foolish or arrogant. I’m not super excited about either option.

My real concern is for the internal Mars Hill response, or lack thereof, to the entire situation. Mars Hill members have been instructed to not respond at all to the issue. I’ve seen the email. In that same email, my friend was instructed to report anyone who did respond in a public way (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to leadership. Yeah. You read that right.

That is not okay.

To defend the indefensible for the sake of our witness is completely backwards. We should be policing our own. Hard. We forget that Mars Hill does not belong to Mark Driscoll. It is not his church. It belongs to God. And…wait for it…God does not need Mark Driscoll to accomplish His goals or lead His kingdom. He just doesn’t. He doesn’t need me or you either. Not if He is the God we believe him to be.

In his book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt says:

“Purity is a good mask for corruption because it discourages inquiry.”

This can be applied to just about every major embarrassment the Church has suffered. We need to stop being so terrified of our heroes’ images being tarnished and start cleaning house. Questioning the actions of our leaders is not divisive or evil. It is essential.

I would like nothing better than to see Mark own this plagiarism thing and apologize. Love him or hate him, he will be forgiven. But if he continues to deny, to insulate or repeat the behavior like that tweet indicates, his fall will eventually be far, hard and final.

We must not put our faith in men. It is God’s church. He will separate the wheat from the chaff as He sees fit.

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These are my choices for 2013′s best songs. They’re in no particular order. And I’ll confess upfront, I’m sucker for a good pop hook… forgive me for that. A couple of these songs released in 2012. But I didn’t hear them until 2013.

 

“Royals” by Lorde

“Demons” by Imagine Dragon

“Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus

“Say Something” by A Great Big World

“Dust to Dust” by The Civil Wars

“Pray to Jesus” by Brandy Clark

“Roar” by Katy Perry

“Let Her Go” by Passenger

“Drinking” by Holly Williams

“Same Love” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

 

Honorable Mention…

“Brave” by Sara Bareilles

So… what are your favorite songs from 2013?

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Looks like somebody is looking to get a little publicity in hopes his music career will become a reality.

Because according to Wonkette, this is happening:

A Nashville guy who claims he’s a member of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s church is suing A&E Network for its suspension of Robertson. Chris Sevier claims that the private company’s personnel decision will have a chilling effect on decent Christian weirdos like himself, inhibiting them from preaching damnation for the gheys. For good measure, the lawsuit also names President Obama (TOLD YOU!!!), because obviously he tells cable teevee networks what to do. This is just logic.

TMZ is also reporting this “news.”

The man’s Facebook is already filling up with messages from people who think he’s a brave soul and others who think he’s nuts.

According to TMZ…

Chris Sevier, who claims to be a lawyer, has previously sued pretty much everyone under the sun, including Bill O’Reilly, CBS, Facebook and Apple.

This time around, Sevier has put together 91 pages of law and religious propaganda, quoting scriptures about the evils of homosexuality. Sevier claims the fact that A&E has indefinitely suspended Phil is going to have a chilling effect on other churchgoers — himself included — when it comes to preaching what he believes is the word of God.

Chris does love Phil Robertson though… his Facebook page is slathered with pro-Phil memes…

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And lots of pictures of himself…. look very much like a Duck Dynasty fanatic.

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And apparently he’s into Destro from G.I. Joe, too. He even has a costume…

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Thoughts? If it’s a publicity stunt, it could work… I mean, Duck Dynasty is HUGELY popular. So… anything is possible… in America!

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Passive aggressive church signs are the best.

Found at Christian Nightmares.

So… we stood in line to meet Santa Claus on Sunday. Yep. Me, Jessica, Elias and Adeline. But it gets worse. We did this at a mall. Yes, the mall.

Taking your kids to meet Santa at the mall should come with a warning y’all. Because it’s hell. Hell. But I didn’t know this. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought I was engaging a “happy holidays” event with my family! I didn’t know that I was basically taking my kids to stand in line at the North Poll’s DMV.

Because I didn’t know. When my wife suggested that we should take the kids to the Green Hills Mall so they could tell “Santa” the list of toys that we’d already bought, wrapped, and hidden in the garage, I happily nodded my head yes. Why did I do that? Because I didn’t know.

I hadn’t visited Santa Claus at a mall since I was four years old. By the following Christmas, my family had joined an Independent Fundamental Baptist church. As a Baptist, I still believed in Santa but since I was Baptist, he and I had to stop meeting each other at the mall. My parents were afraid that one of our new Baptist friends, nice people who believed “Santa” was no more than an anagram for “Satan,” might catch us in line attempting to make contact with Santa and we’d be outed as Santa/Satan followers. It was all very dramatic and otherworldly. But its suffice to say that I grew up judging people who met Santa inside malls.

Before this year, our kids met Santa at a fundraiser for our kids’ school. But this year, the school didn’t invite Santa. Instead, they tossed Jesus a birthday party. Which I’m sure was amazing or weird. My kids didn’t want to meet Jesus; they wanted to meet Santa Claus. Which is why on Sunday morning we got dressed up, put the kids in their holiday best, and darted off toward the Green Hills Mall.

Santa was due to arrive at noon, so we arrived thirty-five minutes early. Of course, since it was the Sunday before Christmas, we weren’t the only people in Nashville who’d made plans to meet Santa at the Green Hills Mall. At least 40 people stood in front of us. Elias was jumping-up-and-down excited. Adeline was whining, which meant she was excited, too. The first five minutes was AMAZING. We hummed Christmas songs. We talked about all the things that we were going to tell Santa. We ate snacks. Those first five minutes were Heavenly.

Then, Adeline had to potty. Meanwhile, Elias started becoming restless. We talked about Darth Vader. He sat on my shoulders. He ran circles around me. And then he started throwing kicks and punches into the air. Without any warning at all,  one of his air punches landed right in my groin. The first time was an accident. The third time was not. Thankfully, his punches were only hard enough to bring a couple of tears to my eyes, just enough oomph to give me a constant reminder that I have testicles and what happens when they get angry.

Five minutes after Adeline returned from going potty, she needed to go potty again. And then she needed to engage in an emotional breakdown in front of the Lucky Brand store.

All of this happened before Santa had even arrived. When he did arrive, Elias and Adeline wanted to see him. While Jessica took them over to catch a glimpse of Santa, I stood in line, trying to pretend that my jingle bells weren’t still ringing. The kids and Jessica returned just as the first family prepared to meet Santa.

Seven minutes later, the second family met Santa. However, every time it was time for a family to meet Santa, the group of people who were waiting in line to meet him were joined by other family members not standing in line. So families of three and four turned into families of eight or 10.

And Santa’s helpers? Well, sometimes I wondered what they were helping Santa do. Whatever it was, they were doing it slowly, painstakingly slow.

Adeline started chasing Elias. Elias chased Adeline. Adeline had to go potty again. Elias’s voice started morphing into that of an elf, high pitched and whiny.

Then, Adeline had to go potty… again.

Forty-five minutes into our wait time, I was ready to tell the kids that Santa wasn’t real, that he was make-believe, and possibly just an anagram for Satan!

Forty-five minutes after that, I officially hated Santa. But it was finally our time to have our seven minutes with Santa, so I had to pretend that I loved the dude, that I believed he was real.

Adeline, who was so excited to meet Santa, cried the moment she saw him. Jessica worked her “Mommy” magic and somehow found a way to get her into his lap without any real crazy happening. Santa’s helper snapped three pictures. On the third one, she said, I think I got a good one! It was decent, but not worth its 25 dollar price tag. Still, we paid it. I smiled big as I helped the  kids hop off Santa’s lap. However, the whole time I was whispering I hate you, Santa. You’re not the real Santa. You’re a fake Santa.

On the way out, I looked at Jessica, “That was an amazing experience. Let’s do it again next year!”

She laughed.

I said, “Why don’t they have two or three Santas here to handle the demand?!”

“They can’t do that,” she said, “the kids might think he’s not real!”

“He’s not real!”

She looked at me. “That birthday party for Jesus sounds pretty amazing right about now, huh?”

Bah humbug. “Let’s not do that ever again, okay?” My wife smirked. My testicles said “AMEN!” And Elias said, “I’m hungry…” Adeline skipped, fell down, and cried.

And I smiled and started singing, “Happy Holidays… Happy Holidays… ”

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