Thursday, December 21, 2006

O, Christmas Tree

It is not a perfect Christmas tree. Several of its branches dangle in slings made of fishing line to minimize gaping holes in its architecture. The lights are not exactly even. Some of the ornaments are faded and bent into something other than their original shapes. But it is, like Charlie Brown’s tree, infused with a real-ness that arises from the something other than lights and ornaments.

Dangling near the window and sending erratic flashes of light around the room is a tiny brass ornament with my name engraved along the bottom. My friend Pam’s mother smoked Lord-knows-how-many-packs of Virginia Slims to redeem the personalized ornament offer for the six of us our freshman year at Wesleyan. On one of the lower sturdier limbs is a three-dimensional representation of a runner lighting the Olympic torch, Sandra’s acknowledgment in Christmas of 1996 of the great fun I had in being a part of the relay through Statesboro.

The mouse dressed as an angel was a gift from Jessica who sat at my conference room table one day and nearly lost her breath laughing at stories of my rodent phobia. The sea horse is made of Saint Simons sand. The ceramic Claddagh reminds me of Mandy and Celtic music and all kinds of secrets.

Scattered over the limbs are the snowflakes and balls that Mama crocheted and the tiny Chrismons I cross-stitched when I got my first place. There is a glazed dough pig and a little balsa wood birdcage, a china bell painted with a dogwood blossom and a silver one engraved with my initials, a baseball that opens on a hinge to reveal Santa Claus in red and white pinstripes. A tiny porcelain cross hangs from a green ribbon near the top.

At the top of the tree is a big Waterford crystal star, a gift from Lucy and her parents the year we all stood in front of the judge whose hurried and harried attitude could not dampen our awe and delight at the legal acknowledgment of what we’d all known for some time – that Lucy was home.

There must be over a hundred ornaments on the tree, each one placed there by my hand, the touch connecting me to people and places and times, some of them gone forever except in my memory. It is not a perfect Christmas tree, but like every tree in every home in every town it is a representation of the life that is sheltered and nurtured here. It is, like the Little Prince’s rose, unique in all the world.

Soon it will be taken apart, piece by piece, ornament by ornament and packed away in the attic until next year. But on this Christmas Eve, between heading off to church in early morning to light the fourth Advent candle and heading back in the early darkness for Communion, I will still my thoughts and my heart long enough to sit and stare. To remember Pam’s mother. To think about Sandra and Jessica and Mandy and Lucy. To say a prayer of gratitude for the hands that crocheted the snowflakes. To invite the spirits of all the people I love to join me under the tree in marveling at all we share.

Copyright 2006

Sunday, December 10, 2006

In Tandem

It bothers me sometimes when I go to church and the preacher raps me on the head.

Not all the time. Sometimes the rap is a "Hello? Anybody home?" and it just wakes me up to something I already know but just hadn’t considered in a while. And sometimes it’s a "Hey! Guess what!" that makes me sit up straight and open my eyes a little wider.

But sometimes, every so often, when I’m sitting there in a column of sunshine slanting through the stained glass window on my pew, the preacher takes out a mallet – no, make that a meat tenderizer with all those spikes on it – and whacks me with a blow so sharp that it’s hard not to yell, "Ouch!" right there in front of God and everybody.

So I’m walking around this week with a big purple bruise underneath all this hair and still wondering why that one remark, not even a major point in the sermon, is still pulsing so hard and so regularly through whatever artery it is that connects the brain to the heart.

This is what he said: "The fear itself is a sign that God will keep His promise."

Say what? Isn’t that a little, well, untheological? Isn’t the whole idea of believing in God and ultimate eventual good supposed to produce something like spiritual endorphins? Isn’t it supposed to leave us with, if only a platitude, at least a platitude when the Wicked Witch and all her flying monkeys surround us and our cowardly, ignorant and heartless companions?

And especially on the first Sunday in Advent when we’re supposed to be focusing on the promise of peace on earth and good will toward all of us and the angels are telling us to fear not, should those two things – promise and fear – really be riding on the same float in the Christmas parade?

Every year about this time I find myself pulling out my well-read copy of Barbara Brown Taylor’s book of sermons, Home By Another Way. In the one she titled "Singing Ahead of Time," she talks about Mary, the teenager who managed somehow in what had to be the most frightening moment she’d ever experienced (but which would pale in comparison to the one she’d face about 34 years later) to believe, to take as truth a promise as yet unfulfilled. Taylor reminds us that Mary has no ultrasound, no DNA test identifying God as the father of her baby. "All she has," Taylor writes, "is her unreasonable willingness to believe that the God who has chosen her will be a part of whatever happens next."

Promise and fear. Together.

Promise belongs to the future, that unseen and untested place to which we would be drawn by our hearts even if our minds hadn’t created it. And we are drawn to it even as we ask ourselves trembling, "What if it isn’t so?"

Joan of Arc. Christopher Columbus. Martin Luther King. Everyone who ever teetered on the edge of the high dive. Everyone who ever asked for a raise. Everyone who ever fell in love. Promise hand in hand with fear.

To be honest, I’m not sure that this particular stream of consciousness is what the preacher had in mind when he chose the lectionary reading from Luke as his text. Then again, it’s not about what he had in mind when he entered the pulpit and it’s certainly not about what I had in mind when I entered the pew.

It’s about Christmas and the miraculous conception of not just a baby whose individual life would change every thought and idea and action that came after, but the conception of every thought and idea and action that would come after and change every life.

It’s about, as Taylor put it, "singing ahead of time." Singing before there’s a reason to sing. Believing the promise while feeling the fear. Standing between the two, holding out our hands and becoming a bridge.

Copyright 2006