Saturday, December 23, 2006

Amy's Christmas Gift [to hide in your soul this season]

"Hast Thou No Scar?" by Amy Carmichael, as printed in This Day with the Master, by my pew friend and hymnal sharer, Dennis Kinlaw.
Hast thou no scar? No hidden scar in foot or side or hand?
I hear thee sung as mighty in the land.
I hear them hail thy bright, ascendant star
Hast thou no scar?
Can he have traveled far who has no wound or scar?

*The physician is for the ill, the savior for the sinful. May Christmas
render you merry and bright no matter how the savior finds you this season.
Let Him bind your wounds with his swaddling cloths. Let the Nativity welcome
you in where the world has no room left. And if the journey has been long,
the road rocky, and the battles fierce, then I offer you this word:peace be with you.
Sometimes the most important victory for you will not be on the battlefield, but lying
bandaged in the dispensary ward after the smoke has cleared. Emmanuel - God With Us -
Be with you, in peace and in struggle.

Bel and the Dragon: Warning: may contain hazardous literary material

Warning: This post may explicitly refer to the climax of Return of the King. Deal with it, if you're one of the three people who hasn't read it or seen the movie. On the other hand, you may be one of the uber-Protestants who considers Bel and the Dragon hazardous literary material. So be it.

One of the hardest lessons to learn is that of quiet piety. When a WWII vet fought off the Nazis in front of everyone, he received a medal on his return to the U.S. When Lenny Skudnik dove into a freezing river to save passengers of a crashed plane that fire fighters were letting drown, he got a medal from Reagan. But it takes courage, occasionally, to do the ordinary. And that, occasionally, is discouraging in itself.

It takes courage for an eighty year old, mentally sound woman with physical impairments to wait with patience and grace for a nurse's aide to lift her out of bed so that she can slowly wheel herself to the lunch room.
It takes courage to fight the spirit's battles in the dark, in the quiet, in the out of the way, middle of ordinary moments that no one reads about.
It can be exhausting to do the one thing, whatever that thing is, that is the most difficult for you to do. Sometimes speaking quietly takes courage. Sometimes speaking loudly takes courage. Sometimes extending grace, like loaning your barn to a poor immigrant couple expecting a baby, takes courage. Ever wonder what kind of standing ovation the people who lent space to Mary and Joseph DIDN'T get? How were they to know...
It takes courage to go deep. To go deep instead of off the deep end. To practice in battle the slow movements that seem foreign at first. Forgiveness feels strange and heavy. Love feels bulky and cumbersome. In time, they will fit easier. In time, they will feel familiar. For now, speaking and thinking truthfully do not always come naturally.
And sometimes it takes courage to bear your burden without beginning to love it. Frodo hated his task - until he began to love his burden. He began to love the object that was weighing him down, more even than he loved his family and his friend. Are there people who will loose you from the fondness you develop for your burden?
The quiet moments define you. Muscles stretch and burn as fibers tear under the strain of combat, but strength is born and borne. Strength itself can be burdensome - the ability to fight in your spirit will probably mean that you will find yourself compelled to use it - an awesome task. Sometimes being in battle is the best training you will receive.
Not pleasant.
Not easy.
But courageous.
Today I completed an ordinary task. But today, for me, it wasn't a task. It was a dragon.
I fought the dragon.
I won.
If you can't fold laundry with a thankful heart, or speak well of someone who is generally disliked, or hold yourself to the standard of Christ in your business dealings, then you will be slain when you fight the dragon. You will die by your own sword, because you did not wield it well.
Samwise comes in many guises - the friend that sticks closer, the Spirit that chides. The valley of the shadow of death may appear many different ways, but it is never a solitary place. The quietest moments still house the honing work of the Spirit.
Bent iron - broken steel, the wounded hand and side
that forget not Your benefits, O Lord -
the dented armor, flushed face, shaking fingers
of one who has seen It
and lived to tell the tale
or not.
To fight an unrecognized foe is mundane to onlookers.
They see checkout counters, flowerbeds, scarved and hatted
No eyes for beauty deep under your lapel, wrought by the scratching
of bent iron.
Be STILL, and know that "waves and winds still know" that voice.
Bandage our hands, Lord, our wounded sides and scratched brows
that bear your mark. Let us forget not your benefits.
Let us be content to be bent iron, broken steel.
Let us be content with hushed victories.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Chest

Today after work, on my way to fetch some Children's Tylenol for my friend whose five year old is languishing under the dire effects of the chicken pox ("But Mom, I haven't even been AROUND any chickens!"), I finally Stopped. 

Countless times I have passed The Antique Place that looks inviting, like a portal into colonial life or some strange equally romantic notion. Stopping for The Antique Place isn't easy because it's on the Other Side of the highway, which may as well be Pink Floyd's Other Side of the Moon when you have to go to the stoplight, turn around, and come back. Nevertheless I made it - "one small step for giant step for womankind."

Instantly I was enraptured. If The Antique Place had been a man it would've been one heck of a first date. It wasn't just Aunt LuLu's cracked plates shoved into a numbered booth at an antique mall. These pieces were fine. Austere. Comfy. Orderly. Well-worn. Pristine. All of the above. But mostly, they were inviting: Take me home! Sit on me! Warn children away from me! Of COURSE we two lamps are worth our nine hundred dollar sticker, we look like we climbed out of Lewis's woods in the wardrobe in search of fauns to watch over! And so on.
The lamps captured me. But they seemed slightly (slightly?!?) extravagant, almost too fine (almost, anyway), and, anyway, I was only window shopping. 

Besides, I had already seen It.
It was love at first sight. I have never beheld an object so randomly and been so deeply moved in such an innoculous setting. One expects rich experiences in cathedrals or graveyards. This was The Antique Place. And when I saw the chest, my face instantaneously responded the way it does whether you want it to or not when you see That Someone.

It was several feet long. It had carving. Hand wrought iron hardware. But the most captivating feature appeared in three simple initials, and a year: M.A.D. 1767. I was surprised to find tears springing to my eyes, and I somehow got over to it and immediately had to feel it, clasp the iron handle, note the indentation where the handle ground into the oak as it was lifted in travel. It was a blanket chest - the surest indicator of home, a blanket. 

I opened the lid. It smelt sweet, of years and fragrance and ancient lumber that held sweet memories and warm embraces. It held the scent of pies infused into the surface and around the crevices as some woman had Kept House in the company of this chest. But for all of the sentimental woolgathering that I am capable of, I still find myself unable to explain the tears in my eyes when I saw my old friend. 

That's the way it felt - my old friend. If I were more of a mystic I would think that my ancestors had known this trunk, or known its owner. 1767. When Americans were Englishmen and our flag did not yet herald a rookie nation. 1767. When American women were pioneers and world travelers and Puritan and Presbyterian and when childbirth was always natural. 1767. Sublimity in The Antique Place? The trunk was not a Michaelangelo. Mystical experience in The Antique Place? A trunk is hardly Sacred Writ. Profound discovery in the Antique Place?...yes. 1767 forged a new bond in 2006, and I needed it to. 

Beauty is more than the eye of the beholder, but The Trunk reminded me that women have been sewing blankets far longer than I have taken shelter under them; woodworking lasts. I have never, by the way, been So Moved by a plastic Tupperware storage container lining the shelves at Wal-Mart. Maybe I just needed to sense an object of permanence - after all, I am in the midst of moving, and this year has been sketched in various shades of turbulence and upheaval. Or maybe, M.A.D. and I would have been friends. Maybe we will be someday. Maybe when I get to heaven I'll eventually shout, "who lost a trunk? I found it. And thank you."

Monday, December 11, 2006

life in the old folks' home

There is a Simpsons episode in which a sign hangs outside of Springfield Retirement Home: "thank you for not mentioning the outside world."

In a dazzling display of reversal, I would like to mention the retirement home to the world at large. Mostly because I work there. What? you ask. Does it take a Masters degree to call bingo? Yes and no. No, a four year old can do it. Yes, I am much better equipped to serve the elderly and dying by my study of ministry.

At any rate, today was bingo day, and I, as Assistant Activity Director of old folks' land, called bingo. Ella May yells bingo, by the way, after every letter I call. "B-12. B as in Boy (I have to do that for people whose hearing has gone, because B sounds like G when you're 85), 1-2. B-12". BINGO yells Ella May. "N-42", I half-shout. "N as in Nativity, 4-2". BINGO yells Ella May. And so on.

At least there wasn't a fight this time. We give out stuffed animals, snacks, and consignment store jewelry. Everybody gets a prize. Several brawls have broken out among ladies fighting over necklaces or brooches. I become a geriatric bouncer.

Things I've Heard in the Halls of my Old Folks Home:

from Frank: "I'm gonna punch him. I'll punch him. He (the roommate) tried to crawl in bed with me. You know. IN BED. He was gonna make ME the woman!"
Me: "but Frank, he's not...LIKE that, and your door was open the whole time, so...

from Ella May: "please get a nurse, I've dropped my dress in the commode..."

from Ed, to Hal: "my eyes are getting worse. the doc says I should have surgery."
Hal: "so why don't you?"
Ed:"too much risk."
Hal: "how old are you?"
Ed: "86"
Hal: "Well, then, what do you have to lose?"

from Ethel: "boy you're skinny. everyone who works here is fat. I was beginning to think
you had to be fat to work here." (20 seconds later to large nurse who walks in) "oh my, don't you look nice today?"

from me to Oscar: "I left your mail on your bed."
Oscar: "Why didn't you leave a blonde?"

from Lola to me: "LOOK at this, they put this bracelet on my ankle like I'm a prisoner or something. It's like I'm in jail and they think I'm going to try to escape."
Me: "Well, would you?"
Lola: "Of course!"

from Sam to me: "I've slept with 27 elephants."
Me, to myself: "Did he like large women?"
Sam: "I said, 'Susie, don't roll over on me!'"
Sam's Daughter: Dad used to work with the circus.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


And since when does one hang out with the ex-boyfriend's family to trim the tree? Since the 21st century. This millenium seems to be starting out on interesting sociological dynamics. Besides the fuzzy, shallow offerings Hollywood presents of mixed families getting together for the kids' sake, it's funny. I got a call from J. today inviting me over to decorate for Christmas. I love decorating for Christmas. When he threw in the famous chocochino, how can a girl resist? J. is ex-b's grown son. So over I came, and we got out the big tree stand I urged e-b to purchase last year, and we snipped the cord off the tree and dusted off ornaments and played Christmas music and we were all nice to each other. Nice but not wierd. Just nice. Hospitality comes in so many forms. Sometimes it means letting an immigrant family with a pregnant girl stay in your barn when they're traveling on tax business. Sometimes it means letting a five year old put a certain ornament on the tree. Sometimes hospitality is repaying the kindness that your host extends. Sometimes hospitality is recognizing that when you date someone for a couple of years, you don't become family. But you almost do. And when the kids still want you in their lives, that my friends, is hospitality. The dating is gone. The depth remains. It is more precious because it is abundantly clear now that no one is in it for anything. I haven't buddied up to the kids just because it's awkward that I'm dating their Dad. They aren't buddying up to me just because they're trying to gain leverage with him. But it's December, and I'm miles from my family, and my parents just got divorced, and I've spent the last several Christmases in chocochino world, so dang it, why not enjoy friendship? Hospitality. I felt more welcome this weekend than perhaps ever before.
Not in the presence of abundance, but in the pinch and pang of absence and lack. When grace disappears from one spot, it always pops up in another, just like those hammer games at Chuck E. Cheeses. When one relationship is lost, another emerges to gently administer the sacrament of gracious fellowship. When one portion crumbles, another flowers, and I am reminded of the diversity of friends and acquaintances who truly concern themselves with my well-being. Mine. What a small star I am in the universe. But they take on my world, and that is profound, and moving, and immense. And when a fellow human being takes on my world and gently melts it into their own, we form a constellation - no longer a lone star. My constellation may change shape and morph into different patterns, but I am glad this Christmas to remember that stars have being heralding hospitality, warmth and human care for much longer than I have been around. Did the Christmas star summon or reveal? It invited and displayed at the same time that Christ has shared Himself in ultimate hospitality, just as the familiar Nativity figurines offer hospitality to the cold, naked, shivering Messiah. My star is not alone. Christ sent one already to welcome me. The heavens rejoice because we have a Friend in God. Not a Buddy. But the Truest of all Virtuous Friends. A God that likes us, as a parent tousles the hair of a child in affection.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

The Holly and the Queries

I wonder if airplanes can see lit-up Christmas lights festooning the houses below?

What will I look like when I'm 90? Where will my face sag? Will nurses glancing
at an old-fashioned color picture of my youth detect the same person smiling out at them? Will my eyes give it away?

To what are Christians most immediately called: general acts of kindness, shrouded in anonymity, or specific gestures of generosity accompanied by explicit references to the revelation of Christ? That is to say, must "servant" evangelism consist of water bottles on the 4th of July with a church flier stuck to it, or is a more micro servant approach favored, or does the church at large simply need both: those people who pay for the fast food order behind them in the drive through and speed away, and those who shovel a neighbor's walk and then invite them to church later in the week? 

Is generosity and servanthood a function of general revelation? specific revelation? or both? we as believers know grace generally through creation and specifically through the Holy Spirit in Christ. How do nonbelievers see the goodness we share? or is the question not how generosity and servanthood function as witness, but is it rather, what does the state of the recipient's heart have to do with how it is interpreted? ie, an open person may receive it as revelation of Christ, and a closed person may receive it as a random gesture of generosity fleeting as the act itself?

Okay, the mind is now duly festooned with holly and queries.
silent night.
holy night.
night that brought the end of sun's necessity, because, in the end,
all will be bright - without the light
of the sun.
sleep in heavenly peace.
piece of heaven - Holy Spirit -
be with you.

Make yourself at home

Make yourself at home. I'm just moving into this space and find
your company welcome and refreshing. Pull up a footstool, prop
your feet up and stay a while. My compatriots in the written word
urge me to place my whims somewhere accessible. Here they are.
Help yourself.