It’s the night before Thanksgiving and visions of Santa Claus dance in my head. A brief trip to the mall confirms that the Christmas shopping season is in full swing. Christmas decorations dominate every window display and the sound of familiar carols drift through the air. And everywhere Santa, eyes crinkling with delight, beckons. Shop here! Or there! Or better yet, everywhere! And don’t forget to have your picture taken sitting in Santa’s lap. The line of waiting children snakes past the Starbucks kiosk, explaining why so many parents are drinking from those iconic seasonal red cups.
But a Santa large enough to accommodate twins in his lap doesn’t fit the image I have of him – an image forged in childhood from that most famous of Christmas poems: “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” He is, after all, “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.” And a tiny one at that.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
“All tarnished with ashes and soot” and small enough to slide easily down the chimney, he makes a grand entrance (I suspect accompanied by a fine ash cloud). But this small figure from an 1823 poem has come to represent something a great deal larger than Clement Clarke Moore imagined when he wrote these lyrics for his children. Millions of other children have drifted off to sleep while straining to hear sleigh bells and the sound of hooves on the roof. Households all across the country are decorated every December in red and green with little Santas and sleighs to keep the magic alive. But this imagined world where time stands still so that Santa can visit every boy and girl gives way to a much harsher reality. We grow up, and we stop believing in magic.
The original Christmas knew no Santas, no gaily decorated evergreens, no Christmas goose or pudding, but it knew joy. The angel brought a message of hope: “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people … And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.” It is this event we celebrate with “Christ’s Mass.” We celebrate the promise that through the incarnation all of us can enter into a new relationship with the Creator God. One founded on the sacrificial love of his Son, Jesus. The Santa-centerpiece and the holly wreaths will soon be put away for another year, but the manger scene on the mantel reminds us of a promise that does not fade or disappoint. It is the promise of God’s peace and good will to all people. Whether we are surrounded by family or celebrating the season by ourselves, we are never alone. The love of God made present to us by the birth of his son is the promise of the angels and the promise of the ages.
This season I choose not to worry about the commercialization of Christmas nor will I preach about it. Recovering the meaning of Christmas is something that we must do for ourselves. I will acknowledge and celebrate all of the aspects of Christmas. On Christmas Eve I will gather with my brothers and sisters in the faith to sing our favorite Christmas hymns, to watch the children place the figures in the manger scene, and I will join with Christians all over the world in offering prayer and praise to the one born in the manger, Jesus. But then I will go home to sit before our tree, and perhaps fall asleep with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head as I listen for sleigh bells and the sound of tiny hooves on the roof.
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all goodnight.”
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The church has kept All Saints’ Day since the fourth century. It was earlier celebrated in May but moved to 1 November by Gregory III in the eighth century. It is the day set aside to remember all of the Christian saints, known and unknown. It passes unnoticed by most in the modern age where the preceding evening, All Hallows Eve (Halloween), has taken a commanding position. Hallows is the Old English word for holy, and it is applied to the evening before All Saints’ Day because under the old calendar, the day begins at sundown. All Hallows’ Eve gets its particular flavor from the ancient superstitious belief that the boundary between the physical and spiritual worlds gets very porous this one evening of the year making it possible for shades and spirits of all stripes to cross over into our world. Sadly the solemn remembrance of all of those Christians who have gone before us and now rest from their labors is lost in the costumed scramble for individually wrapped pieces of chocolate.
One of my favorite hymns begins “For all the saints who from their labors rest, Who Thee by faith before the world confessed.” It is the quintessential All Saints hymn, and it captures the hope central to our faith. Whatever else we may argue about, the ancient creeds unite us in the proclamation of the “resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Or as the Apostles Creed declares, “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” So central is this belief to the Christian faith that the Apostle Paul declares in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” But Paul goes on boldly to declare that Christ is raised and so shall we be in our own time.
This season as we move from All Saints’ Day through Christ the King Sunday into Advent, let us boldly proclaim the message that Christ shall come again, and although we do not know what we shall be like, we will be, and that is enough to sustain us. And we are not alone. We look to the day when we are united with all of those we have loved and lost.
The great human hope is that there is something more, something beyond this life. In Ararat, Charles Tomlinson wrote:
We shall sleep-out together through the dark
The earth’s slow voyage across the centuries
Towards whatever Ararat its ark
Is steering for. Our atoms then will feel
The jarring and arrival of that keel
In timelessness, and rise through galaxies,
Motes starred by the first and final light to show
Whether those shores are habitable or no.
The promise of Christ is that those shores are habitable, and we will voyage together across the centuries to that timeless Ararat. And we will sleep-out together with all the saints who from their labors rest because like them, we by faith before the world confessed, “Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.”
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Norman Rockwell’s “Saying Grace,” the November 24, 1951 Saturday Evening Post cover, is a picture worth spending time with. The muted tones and dismal, gray rail yard, seen through the window of the station diner, invite us into the gritty world of postwar urban-America. Three figures, business travelers, frame the painting. In the center, a woman and small boy (Her grandson?) sit with bowed heads and folded hands; the boy appears to be saying grace over lunch – a bowl of soup, a sandwich, and glass of milk are barely visible. Sharing their table are two young men quietly but respectfully watching. In the foreground, the ash builds on a momentarily forgotten cigar. Time seems to stand still as Norman Rockwell captures the hushed pause that has come over the diner.
Careful examination of the painting reveals that the boy and his grandmother are not the subjects of the painting. They provide the ground on which Rockwell paints a character study of the men whose routine has been interrupted by a small boy at prayer. They are respectful. Perhaps they don’t pray, perhaps they don’t believe there in a listening god, but they are respectful. A simple act of piety has awakened in them a need to honor the moment, to pause in the presence of the sacred. We are vicariously with them as they witness this simple testament of faith.
I was in Wendy’s not long ago. I found what I thought was a quiet place in the corner and sat down to eat and read the sports pages. I was interrupted with my cheeseburger halfway to my mouth by the sound of prayer. Not the grace many of us say before meals but a full blown “just wanna, just wanna thank you, Jesus.” Notice the double “just wannas.” The starched chinos (slacks for him and skirt for her) and matching L. L. Bean polo shirts identified them as neighborhood people, a middle-class uniform not unlike the ones the kids wear to the private school down the street. Hands folded, in the cadence of a drill sergeant, they loudly gave us nearly the whole thing. I say nearly because somewhere between family as God intended it, protection for the unborn, economic justice for those earning over $200, 000 per year, and the amens and thank you Jesuses they forgot to pray for the burgers and fries.
Some looked at them with undisguised contempt, some ruefully shook their heads, some barely glanced at the couple before going back to their own conversations and meals. No one was impressed, nor do I believe evangelized. I immediately and unkindly thought of Matthew 6:5 and of those praying in the synagogues and street corners, those Jesus solemnly warned about public prayer. “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” Who is being served and what image is left in the mind of the hearers?
In Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … And Why It Matters, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, of the Barna Group, provide us with an uncomfortable look at ourselves. To those young people “outside of the faith,” we are hypocritical, insulated, judgmental, and politicized. I heard all of those themes in one lengthy diatribe disguised as prayer over French fries at Wendy’s. Those despairing about the eroding image of Christians don’t have far to look for the reasons.
The contrast between the two images – an early fifties railroad café and a modern Wendy’s – is striking. One speaks to the genuine witness to the Christian faith; the other to culture wars. Will time stand still for a genuine act of piety, a short and gracious thanksgiving for the food before us? I don’t know. Probably not. But no loud and lengthy prayer meant to carry over multiple conversations in a crowded dining room will draw people to Jesus. Perhaps that is why he enjoined us to pray at home, away from the crowds. The temptation to make a statement is too great.
There is a place for table grace, even in public places, but public witness is a tricky thing. Norman Rockwell’s “Saying Grace” resonates with us because we know it is true. If we want to reach the people around us we must engage the community, sometimes as passive observers of our prayers. A simple act of naïve faith by a small boy can still a gritty dining-room. What about our prayers?
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Somewhere in the middle of the conversation we strayed from safe ground. I’m not sure where coffee, scones, and the Nationals’ pitching staff disappeared, but earned-run-averages gave way to the more serious side of life. That is a professional hazard for pastors. People, often relative strangers, feel safe disclosing things they have told no one else. It may have something to do with the idea that the confessional is sacred – whatever is told to me is confidential. I’m safe; safe in a way others aren’t. Most often what is said has been said to me many times before. That is not to minimize the pain and dislocation felt by the person unburdening his soul. It is to say, as Solomon said so long ago, “There is nothing new under the sun.” And often, it is a tale of regret, a tale of lost opportunity, a tale of painful desire to relive the past in a different direction. It is the hopeless lament of the “if only …”
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the old man is obsessed with telling his story. Overcome with grief and remorse for killing the albatross, thought by his shipmates to bring luck, he can find no real rest or peace. His spontaneous act of violence against a gentle and unarmed creature haunts him. Even though he finds moments of relief, the darkness of his soul descends upon him like a wraith. He is cursed to revisit passed events again and again. If only …
Since then at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.
Like the mariner, the past haunts us at uncertain hours – a familiar song, a sudden breeze carrying a long forgotten scent, the fleeting glimpse of an almost recognized face. There is for most of us, carefully stowed in some deep hold of our mind, some secret shame, some deed wished undone, some lost hope yearning to be realized. These phantoms of the past return unbidden, yet we are not ancient mariners compelled to tell our story to random strangers. We bear our sorrows in silence — or so we believe. We deceive ourselves. What lies under the surface does roil the waves above and whether told or not, it steals our joy.
Too often our response to life’s disappointments is to anesthetize ourselves in the trivialities of the moment. Eyes fixed and unseeing, we turn our backs on the vibrant life around us, gazing longingly at some far horizon hoping to catch a glimpse of another life, some painless future where the past has no hold on us. We are natives of the shallow lands.
They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?
There is an alternative. It is to embrace life in the present moment. It is to acknowledge that the person I am is an accumulation of all of those moments, piled one upon another that have brought me here – good moments, bad moments, joyous moments and tragic moments. It is to accept myself as I am, not as I might have been. That is the very definition of grace. That is what we mean when we sing out that old hymn, “Just as I am thou wilt receive, Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve.” Stepping into grace is stepping out of the shallows and into the deep lands – the deep possibilities of a life lived fresh every morning, a life lived in the sunlight, a life lived in the love of God.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
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I swept the walkway this afternoon. The trees that give it shade also cover it with leaves and small branches. I went out to look at the newly planted wild ginger and Lenten Rose and to water the native ginseng growing in the deep shade beside the back porch. The walkway has held up well these nearly twenty years. Covered with a patina of age – moss is growing between the dull-red bricks and bulges betray where the roots of giant trees creep toward the house – the walkway represents my only attempt at laying bricks. It has stood the test of time. A good design from a gardening book coupled with a treasure trove of bricks more than a century old made all the difference. I remember carefully preparing the deep bed with crushed rock, gravel, and sand, then meticulously laying each brick in a cross-hatched pattern – just like the picture in the book. I suppose a professional bricklayer would cast a jaundiced eye at my work much the same way that a professional painter does when he is escorted by proud relatives to view their amateur attempt at repainting the kitchen. But it still works for me, this short brick lane between house and tree.
Among other things, the experience taught me the truth of H. L. Mencken’s aphorism: “Another thing I learned was that it was quite as easy, and a good deal more pleasant, to lay bricks in a good design as it was to lay them in a bad design.” How often do we have the choice? So much of modern life is dictated by economic forces beyond our control. So much of modern life is dictated by the principle of “good enough.” Good enough for the consumer; good enough for some nameless corporate functionary; good enough for the government inspector. Mencken went on to write: “Nine-tenths of the work they do for a living [bricklayers] is shoddy – the uninspiring laying of bad bricks in inept and feeble designs.” What happened to good enough for the soul?
Michel de Montaigne, the French essayist wrote: “The value of life lies not in the length of days, but in the use we make of them: a man may live long, yet get little from life. Whether you find satisfaction in life depends not on your tale of years, but on your will.” We may not be able to demand a good design in the workplace, but we can demand a good design for our lives. We can decide to do our best, to make an accomplishment of whatever lies before us. This is the message of Ecclesiastes, “So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot.” Qoheleth is not naïve. Not all work is meaningful, not all work is art, but all work has the value we give it. We get from life what we make of the days given to us.
How much happier those who fill their days with the best they have to give. Whatever they do has the mark of eternity – this is the best I have to offer. In ages to come, no one will note my brick walkway, but I will have enjoyed it until that last impulse to create is extinguished. Until then, with Montaigne: “I would let death set upon me while I am setting my cabbages.”
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“Grandpa!” I shouted. “Be careful! Oh, gee!
Who’s going to drop it?
Will you …? Or will he?”
“Be patient,” said Grandpa. “We’ll see.
We will see …”
So ends The Butter Battle Book, Dr. Seuss’s cold war classic chronicling the increasing tension as the arms race between the Yooks and the Zooks spirals out of control. At issue is which side of the bread to spread the butter, Yooks on the top, Zooks on the bottom, and each convinced the other “has kinks in his soul.” The thinly disguised critique of the cold war with its doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) seems at first to be dated in a post-Soviet world. But the race to acquire the “Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo” (named by Dr. Seuss for Fat Man and Little Boy, the first two atomic bombs) continues. Iran and North Korea defy all sanctions in their quest for a nuclear arsenal and terrorists the world over seek the holy-grail – a nuclear weapon small enough to be smuggled into a targeted city – a Bitsy Boomeroo.
Events of the past few weeks raised for Americans the specter of mass destruction. The Boston Marathon bombings and the industrial explosion in West, Texas once again shattered the illusion of impregnable Fortress-America. Two home-grown terrorists sent one of America’s greatest cities into hiding, and a sleepy Texas town vanished in the blink of an eye. Boston the victim of ideologues with kinks in their souls; West, Texas the meeting place of greed, failed safety regulations, and human error and frailty. Our response? We must have hearings! Who is to blame? Someone in Government must pay!
Jesus warned us that the future will mirror the past. This is the price we pay for being human. “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen … Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.” (Matt. 24:6-7) “Do not be afraid” seems hopelessly naïve in the face of such situations, yet Jesus is being brutally honest. We will not on our own turn swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, nor will we foresee and prevent every terrible accident.
The alternatives set before us are starkly contrasted: to live our lives, trusting in God, fearlessly determined to preserve our freedoms or to follow the Chief Yookeroo’s order “to stay safe underground while the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo is around.”
They were all bravely marching,
With banners aflutter,
Down a hole! For their country!
And Right-Side-Up Butter!
One way is an affirmation of life. The other is paralysis. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminded those early Christians, facing intense persecution, of God’s promise to Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” And to this promise is added the Psalmist’s bold assertion: “So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’” Such admonitions are easier read than lived, but live we must. How we live is the question — fully alive or with kinks in our souls.
Two paths lie before us. At the end of The Butter Battle Book you cannot tell the difference between the Yooks and the Zooks as they stand eyeball to eyeball, Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroos in hand.
We’ll see. We will see …
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I avoid Janney’s Lane during the day. The fifteen-miles per hour school zone coupled with the two motorcycle policemen, who seem rooted to the same spot day in and day out creating a notorious speed trap, make an otherwise useful shortcut between King Street and Quaker Lane singularly unattractive. I have paid the city of Alexandria enough money in traffic fines over the years. But occasionally I just don’t have the time to go around; so it was the other day. I turned onto Janney’s Lane in front of a blue taxi, the driver of which was determined to either pass me or force me to speed up. Most of us have experienced the surging driver who charges our rear bumper, only to fall off and surge again. It’s an aggressive maneuver intended to intimidate us into either going faster or to pull over and let the other car pass. I did neither. Finally, after attempting unsuccessfully to pass me on the right in the school-bus loading zone, the taxi sped passed me, crossing the double stripe into oncoming traffic. Remember the two motorcycle cops?
The cost of this hurry is sometimes felt in the wallet, but more often it is not felt at all for a long time. We go through life unaware of the tension, unaware of the pressure building inside our overstressed bodies until, like a whistling tea kettle, it can’t be ignored. Social, professional, and family relations may all become casualties. We tell ourselves it is just the price we pay for living in the Twenty-first Century, the price we pay for modernity. Is it? Walker Evans, a Fortune magazine photographer in the 1950s, wrote of those photographers using the new medium of color film, “Many photographers are apt to confuse color with noise and to congratulate themselves when they have almost blown you away with screeching hues alone – a bebop of electric hues, furious reds, and poison greens.” We have confused action with noise, convincing ourselves that frenetic activity is achievement, breathless hurrying is progress, and impatience is merely a sign of our commitment to program and schedule. We have blown ourselves away, painting our lives in screeching hues alone. And this we have done for others.
There is a more fulfilling way. That is to confront ourselves, deliberately, with the essentials of life. What is really important, not what is determined or demanded by others, but what is of overmastering value. Often it takes a crisis, as Thoreau says, to bring us to our “molting season”, where we can divest ourselves of the electric hues of accumulated culture, revealing the person we were always meant to be. As Solomon writes: “As water reflects a face, so a man’s heart reflects the man.” Too many of us have yet to see that person. In Baker Farm, Thoreau wrote, “Through want of enterprise and faith men are what they are, buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs.”
There is freedom, but it requires effort; it requires both enterprise and faith. There is a yearning in most of us for the eternal, the transcendent good that brings an end to ceaseless striving, a Sabbath rest. That rest can only be found at the spiritual center, the place where God dwells. The heart is a restless wanderer until it finds its true home. It is to this home that Jesus calls us. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The alternative is forever to be caught up and carried along by the surging traffic around us, living a caricature of real life – a bebop of electric hues, furious reds, and poison greens.
 Quoted in Harry M. Callahan, ed., Ansel Adams in Color (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993), 20.
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