Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Every Season Has its Beauty

I'm not sure why the steady parade of ice patches, dislodged from the banks upstream and floating unawares down the river and ultimately disintegrating over the falls, kept me so focused through the windows of the restaurant overlooking the destruction. Perhaps it was the contrast between the gentle winter glide of the ice and the violent turbulence of the froth that ultimately consumed it. Perhaps it was some wordless lament for the winter warmth that was weakening the idyllic view and transforming it into bucolic flotsam and jetsam. Perhaps it was some subconscious connection with the larger bank, losing itself piece by piece to the inexorable flow of the river -- a metaphor of sorts that my soul understood but the rest of me dared not probe. Whatever, there was a feeling of melancholy as we watched them float by toward what seemed like destruction.

We had arrived the day before for what has become an annual New Year's retreat to Vermont. By now we have developed patterns -- touchstones to which we return -- and now on this first full day we couldn't wait to touch the first of them. Indeed, the first few of them. It is, indeed, warmer here than it should be this time of year, and though there is snow, there is dripping and slushing and mud now desecrating the white. But we have slogged our way around, nestling in to the leisure and reacquainting ourselves with the albeit more temperate splendor. Perhaps inspired by the melting, or simply the New Year's awareness of time and its passing, we have talked of aging -- aches and disappointments and hopes and exhilarations. We have talked of losses, but also of gains. We have talked of transitions and perspectives; fears and apprehensions; possibilities and resilient aspirations -- of what we've done, but all that we still yet have to do.

As if to practice, yesterday we took a new drive. Westward through the state along roads we hadn't traveled -- beautiful turns and nourishing mountains and beckoning streams. And as the sun began to settle, we turned for the drive back east, and there an entirely new education enrolled us. Mountainsides presented themselves before and around us -- whole panoramas of tree-covered slopes with the afternoon sun spotlighting them as if in a gallery. There was snow on the ground, but the trees rising above it glowed with a color I hadn't expected and can scarcely describe. Who knew that winter splayed this kind of palette? Copper and bronze and a muted rust -- not the riotous blaze of autumn's red and gold, but an earthier, quieter, fleshier beauty. We spoke less and less as the mountains in this wardrobe drew us in -- turn after turn, vista after vista pressing upon us the wisdom that every season has its beauty.

And I woke this morning well before I wished to with the revelation that the ice pieces on the river weren't falling to their destruction. They were river to begin with, and nothing about that, but the form, has changed. Who knows, downstream, what current or froth or ice, yet again, it may still become.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Short and Magical Road From Resentment to Peace

I'll admit that the 11:00 pm Christmas Eve service always begins on a note of annoyance.  The earlier service gathers the multitudes, and there are always hands to shake and holiday hugs, there are annual faces to recognize and welcome and the inevitable foot tapping waiting for the last to leave.  And then we rush home to celebrate Christmas with the kids.  They are old enough now to beat us home from church and take charge of the eggroll assembly.  We fry and visit and set the table and eventually sit, ourselves, amidst a lively chatter of worship critique and the news of the day.  Eventually we migrate to the living room, in front of the fire, and allocate the packages to their intended hands.  And it's wonderful -- the playful comments, the gasps and appreciations, the remembrances and affections.  And it is always cut short.  The late service beckons.

Shooing the kids out the front door, Lori and I hustle our way out to the garage and make the quiet drive back to the church, to unlock, to straighten up, to rearrange, and to wait to see if anyone appears.  And, as I say, it's always stained with a gentle resentment that our family time has been abbreviated. 

But the 11 pm service has its own special magic, and before long it has worked on me.  This is  never a large service -- a few hands full of folk at best -- and I am always surprised by who they are.  A stranger or two -- one for whom a stable might be a step up. Former members from years ago, visiting, with a touch of melancholy at their distance.  An extended family from the neighborhood who attend every year.  Several from the church.  Some repeaters from the earlier service. 

And the story.  "A decree went out from Caesar Augustus..."
And the carols.  "O Little Town of Bethlehem..."
And the candles.  "Silent night, holy night..."
And the pregnant moment, flames held high in an awkward but somehow reassuring circle, when it's possible to believe that the light indeed shines on in the darkness -- just as it does in this darkened room -- and the darkness will not put it out.

And these moments that began stained with resentment I find myself just now not bearing to let end.

"Jesus Lord at thy birth.  Jesus Lord at thy birth."
  Strangers, for the most part, become somehow soulmates in that circle, we stand there as the notes fade into silence, the flickering candles the only movement. 

"Merry Christmas," I say, when I can delay the inevitable no more.
"Merry Christmas," the little huddle of folk respond.  And after a moment's pause, the spell is broken and feet begin to shuffle toward the door.  But the spell is not really broken.  The glow from the candles has now moved to the faces, as the room quickly empties and returns to silence. 

We unplug the tree, extinguish the rest of the candles, close and lock the doors, and crunch out into the snow -- glowing a bit, ourselves.

"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace..."

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dinner is the Priority

Yesterday was one of those "pastoral duty" experiences. It was my turn to lead the afternoon worship experience at a local assisted living facility. If my tone here is less than pastoral, let me hasten to reassure that my negativity implies no denigration of the residents there, nor on the service the management of the facility provides. I deeply revere the residents in this and other care centers, and by my observation they are, at least in this particular facility, well cared for.

It's just that worship there is – and I mean this with all pastoral sensitivity – a little slice of Hell. For one thing, the location for the weekly services has been itinerant over the past few years. Once held in a lounge area removed from everyday traffic, that space was transformed into a dining room and worship was relocated to the "activity room" – read: TV room. Housed there, the worship leader's first order of business was to negotiate a temporary black out with the residents who were ensconced in front of the giant screen watching a Lawrence Welk rerun. Assuming success in that bit of diplomacy, the service could proceed with only occasional interruptions.

But now, alas, that space has morphed into the therapy room, so "worship" has moved to a "dining room", which in reality is a wide space in a hallway where tables are pushed aside to temporarily accommodate the chairs and wheelchairs of worshippers. But life, in that hallway/dining room, does not pause. Visitors and staff alike must make their way through on their way to the elevator or other parts of the building; carts are routinely and clatteringly pushed through the area with food or water or medicines onboard; and of course there are preparations for the evening meal. In the midst of the Pastoral Prayer – I'm not making this up; my source is my wife who first heard the screaching marker and then opened her eyes to identify the distraction – a staff member came in and wrote out the evening's dinner menu on the whiteboard located just beside the communion table.

"Worship" (and I use the term charitably) is clearly an afterthought here – an obligatory social activity to list among the residential amenities, but hardly an experience respected or dignified with any deference. But there is, I suppose, some benefit to those who attend. While they may not experience anything remotely reverential, they at least get to be the first to learn what's for dinner.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

They Don't Take Long to Read

I get that the economy is challenging. I understand that advertisers are cutting back, and that readers are even dropping their subscriptions. It is a difficult time for newspapers -- those stalwarts of public information. All across the country newsprint is shrinking, newsrooms are laying off staff, and one recently announced that it will reduce home delivery to three days per week. The affliction has even struck close to home. This morning, unsleeving the Sunday edition of the Des Moines Register and settling in for a few precious moments of inky reading, I found myself exerting more energy turning the pages than reading the text. What used to be a mountain of journalistic endeavor has become, alas, a molehill of wired stories, obituaries, and inserts. They've even laid off the editorial cartoonist. Less and less to hold, and still less that is much worth reading, it has become more the appearance of a newspaper than the reality of one.

I don't mean to suggest that the populace is suddenly bereft of news. Indeed, with customized computer homepages, media websites constantly updated, YouTube videos and 24-hour cable channels it's hard to get away from it. News has become one of the molecules we breathe.

That said, there is something sad to me about the decline of the printed page. I love the layout of the headlines and the smell of the ink, the rattle of the page, the kinesthetic quality of the stories. I love the sense of depth when a story carries over to another column and even to another page. I love the amalgamation of breaking stories, analysis, editorial, image and sidebar; I love the juxtaposition of the history making and the whimsically mundane -- a profound editorial reflection just an ink spot away from an irate reader's ranting letter; a sobering news report alongside touching human interest. I know all those things can happen on the internet and on TV, but there is something about holding it all and savoring it all and setting it down to pick up again on your own time.

I know that newspapers are businesses more than public service, and lots of us are needing to cut back. I know for all their talk about journalistic integrity, they still have to make a profit. But I feel like something solid has crumbled from my hands. Who knows, maybe the economy will shortly turn around and papers can hire real people again. I already miss the smudged fingers, the stretched point of view, and the paper that used to be.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow

The phone rang about 5:30 a.m., and rightly assuming it wasn't for me I scarcely cracked an eye. We had gone to bed expecting it. Once upon a time it would have been the minister of the household who was more accustomed to off-hour interruptions, but parishioners have become more self-sufficient over the years -- or at least have lowered their expectations. When death arrives at inconvenient hours, fewer and fewer grieving request the companionship of their clergy -- at least until the clock reaches a more civilized hour. While I enjoy the uninterrupted sleep, it is, I recognize, a mixed blessing. Clergy, after all, are bothered for less and less these days. No, the ringing phone was not for the minister, but for the educator. School was canceled because of the weather.

There was a time when I would have died for one of those phone calls. Snow days were, once upon a time, as good a gift as a kid could get -- though they were few and far between in my West Texas childhood -- and to be among the first to know would have seemed like royalty. Smugly I would have snuggled back into bed and only later settled in for an extended indulgence in daytime TV -- until I rediscovered that even back then daytime TV didn't offer much to indulge. An obligatory attempt at a snowman would sooner or later be on the agenda, but more than anything else a snow day simply engendered a spirit of abundance -- of time that wouldn't otherwise exist; of profligate moments and options and personal discretion that hadn't been there before. Snow days spun at least the illusion of legitimated laziness in which the day, unlike those more routine, was absolutely and wonderfully one's own.

I thought of all those memories and all those emotions as I listened while Lori confirmed the reason for the call. And even though it was almost time to get up anyway and let Barrington out; and even though it's Friday and already my day off; and even though all my work projects were already completed and the day was already free, I closed my eyes for a few minutes more and nestled a little deeper under the blanket and smiled and contented smile. Just for old time's sake.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

When Mattering is the Message

It's an embarrassing admission – one that feels almost shameful to make. The truth of the matter is that I fell asleep watching It's a Wonderful Life. I could chalk it up to fatigue, though that hardly seems justification. I could point to my week-and-a-half-long cold and all the medicine I've been on, but that sounds whiney and petulant. The truth of the matter has more to do with confidence. I didn't doubt for a moment that George Bailey's life was significant, and I had every confidence that despite his momentary business reversals he would come to see it, too. Sure, some of that confidence stems from countless viewings of the movie prior to last night. I've been watching Jimmie Stewart play this memorable role almost as long as I have been watching Bing Crosby play Bob Wallace in White Christmas. For decades I've watched Clarence, the loveable angel, interrupt George's suicide attempt and lead him through an examination of what the world would be like had George never existed. In my own playful way I have tried to imagine the same with regard to me – what if I had never been born? I know how the movie comes out. In that sense I didn't need to stay awake through the closing credits.

But I also like to think that confidence of a deeper sort gave me unspoken permission to close my eyes.

This is, after all, the advent season. This is the season of confident expectation for what God is doing in our midst and already making plain. This is the season, not merely for getting ready for Christmas, but for sharpening the senses for all that God intends and is determinedly bringing about. This is the season for tracing the lines of God's affirmation and new creation and recognizing the patterns for myself. This, in other words, is the season for seeing all of life through God's own eyes and pronouncing God's ultimate estimation: "very, very good."

Which isn't to deny the problems that exist – the gap between "is" and "ought to be" – but it is to be re-grounded in the faith that the brokenness of creation is not the final word. George's life mattered – was "wonderful" – alright, but I didn't need to watch the end of the movie to comprehend that truth. It's advent, after all – when the "mattering" of men and women, no matter how ordinary, is the loudest message of all.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Following the Cardinals' Example

A trio of cardinals flits from branch to branch on the wintry tree outside.  The just-lightening sky mutes their color, but as living ornaments their presence is a happy beginning to the morning.  Midway through the season, most of the "events" in which we are involved are completed, leaving the days in front of us available for simply living into the season.  Christmas cards have begun to stack up that need more careful reading, and though the tree has been decorated for a couple of weeks now there are more than a few of the ornaments that have special stories waiting to retell.  We dug out the Christmas music books, but we have yet to sit down at the keyboard and finger through the duets or sing through the favorites.  We really haven't given much thought to the gift-giving that, if we aren't careful, will become quickly urgent, and perhaps tonight will afford the first occasion to nestle into Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, or White Christmas with Bing and Danny and Rosemary and Vera.

There is this perennial tension between the experience of the Christmas season and the sometimes-distracting mechanics of the celebration -- between the spirit and the demands.  The tension is nothing new, and the demands are hardly onerous; the challenge is simply keeping them in balance.  The mechanics -- decorating, cooking, shopping, writing, mailing, even partying -- should animate the experience, not suffocate it, but it is a ratio unfortunately easy to invert. 

The cardinals outside have settled for a moment.  No longer flitting from branch to branch, they seem content to simply sit and survey the view around them, peck around on something interesting, and enjoy each other's company.  Having done our share of flitting around, ourselves, that wouldn't be a bad example for those of us on this side of the window as well.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Tugged Between Lethargy and Life

We'll see if it all gets done.  We have things to do today -- a Christmas letter to write and reproduce and preparations for the neighborhood party that will pass through our house, just to name two -- but the day is hardly inviting.  The brown leaves remaining on the tree outside are blowing horizontal with a cold wind that makes the 30-degree temperature feel like 15.  The inches of snow from earlier in the week have already adopted that "winter tired" look from the sand and melting and refreezing cycle.  And I have been sick most of the week -- the cold outside having turned into a cold inside my head and throat and chest.  

We have been looking forward to the day.  We enjoy the annual pilgrimage to the tea shop downtown, journal and pen in hand, to sit by the window and reflect on the year -- what we've experienced; what we have felt; what we have learned.  We love thinking about those distant family and friends to whom those letters are eventually addressed, anticipating their reconnections in return.  And we have looked forward to spending the afternoon in the kitchen together, trying out a few of our Italian recipes to share with our neighbors who will spend their 40 minutes here tomorrow before being whistled to the next stop down the way.  

But the morning, thus far, is forbidding -- the frigid wind, if anything, blowing stronger -- and the warm glow of the fireplace and the soft twinkle of the Christmas tree are inviting.  Wouldn't this be a nice day to stay in -- maybe finish a book that has dragged on too long, or just curl back under the sheets and down comforter?  

We'll see if it all gets done -- which end of the tug-of-war rope wins out.  Did I mention that it's supposed to be 8-degrees tonight?