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December 2016

A Christmas Dream?

IMG_0284'Twas the night before Christmas and I am suddenly wide awake, my company only the furnace hum. 3:29 am.

"I'm going to get up for a bit," I say to my wife.

"What?"

"I'm going to get up. I need to write something down, a dream. It's funny." It wasn't.

"Won't you remember it?"

I can barely remember the children's names at this time of night. "No, I'll forget." I add, "I won't be long."

"Ok."

My wife sleeps cat-sleep. I can wake her, tell her something, and then she will return to sleep immediately, like there is an on-off switch. Once I woke her three times in six minutes, just to ask her what dream she had, and each time she described a different dream. It's a gift.

I shuffle down the hallway, lit by my awakened cell phone, and settle into the chair by the window overlooking the drive. I prop the phone on the edge of the desk, take a pad of paper and pen, and scratch out a few words to capture my dream. This is what I wrote:

I was standing in front of the congregation of my church. I had volunteered for a reading of a portion of the Gospel of Luke, the Magnificat to be exact, and I had practiced reading it aloud to myself earlier in the day. I printed it in 16 point font to make sure I could see it. I looked out over a church body swelled by Chreasters, those folks that come only on Christmas and Easter.

I began well enough but then stumble over a word, began again, and then the words blurred. Phrases seemed to be missing. "I'm sorry," I said, and I was aware that I had begun to ad lib, to fill in the gaps, at one point waxing on about the virgin birth. I looked up, noticed the pastor looking at me, quizzically. I was horrified. Worse, Rhett, one-half of the YouTube sensation of Rhett and Link, was in the audience, his stack of hair sailing over the congregation. I looked down. "I'm sorry," I said, and I turned to walk off the stage. A few muffled claps followed. I gathered my wife and and we made a hasty exit as the next hymn began.

"Hey, that was great. Thanks."

It was Gerald. "What?"

"That was great. Really."

"Gerald, that was terrible. It was like I fell down on the way here, lost half the printed text, bumped my head, and lost my mind."

"Happens to me all the time."

"I doubt that."

Then I woke up.

And that's it. I got up just to write that down. The literary community will thank me one day for my discipline, for suffering for art and all that.

I looked out the window. Every house was dark but one, the one with small children, the one where a weary dad was likely assembling a bicycle, or some other toy with obtuse, 9-point font instructions. Not a creature was stirring in the circle of light cast by the streetlight. I put the pen down, and stood to return to bed. Then, I heard a guffaw from the downstairs. I listened, heard some shuffling about. I walked to the landing of the back stairs and cocked my head, listening again. It sounded like someone was down there. I started down the stairs, paused and grabbed a hand weight for protection. Protection from what, I wondered.

I started down, carefully so as not to make the step creak. Half way down I heard a creak behind me, turned, and saw my traditionally built cat two steps behind me, her eyes lit by the moonlight. I leaned down, whispered, "What part of 'not a creature was stirring' did you not get?" She had that hurt expression. "Ok, you can come, but put a lid on it."

A sense of deja vu swept over me.

Rounding the corner at the bottom of the stairs, I said, "You go that way, through the playroom, and I'll go the other." She did the opposite, heading for the food bowl, seeking sustenance before taking on the intruder. I continued on, muttering something about "dog next time."

Rounding the corner of the playroom, I saw him. Santa. Seriously. Again. He was smoking a cigar. We don't allow smoking in the house, but I let it go. It was Santa. He was just humming to himself, satisfied, pulling presents out of a bag. Finishing, he glanced around, hands on hips. I had a few questions.

"Hey Santa, how's it going?" Lame.

"Couldn't be better. Left a few things for you. You've been good, right?"

"Well, you see. . ."

"Santa believes in grace. Don't sweat it."

"That's a relief." He seemed harmless. I put the hand weight down, my hand sweaty from gripping it. "Santa, I got a few questions."

"Shoot."

"Well, for one, how do you get all those presents in that bag?"

"Elementary physics. Ask your son."

"Right. Well, and how do you make it to all the houses you need to get to, I mean, excluding those of non-believers, all in one night?"

"Time is malleable."

"I thought you'd say that."

"Ever had to wait a long time for something when you had nothing else to do? Feels like time stands still, right?

"Yeah." My mind floated back to fourth grade and Mrs. Hedrick's class, me watching the second hand on the big clock on the wall ticking down the seconds, like eternity, until the 3:30 bell. "Yeah, I know what you mean."

"I thought you would."

That summed up my inquiries. But I didn't want him to leave. He took a long drag on the cigar. "Uh, how's Mrs. Claus?"

"Better than ever. A looker, that one."

"Right. I mean. . ."

"Don't worry about it. She's my type, rotund and sassy."

"Well look, you don't have to leave via the chimney. I haven't had it cleaned lately."

"Don't need it. We've modernized. Teleportation. But look, give my best to your family. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night, you know, and all that."

And with that, he vanished. I turned and made my way through the kitchen, turned the corner, and began up the stairs, aware of the cat dogging my steps. I leaned down, whispered, "Did you see that?" She nodded. "I hope you've been good." She nodded.

At the landing I heard the sleepy voice of my 24-year old son: "Dad, did Santa come?"

"He said he was."

"Leave anything?"

"Yep. I have some questions for you in the morning."

"I've been good, mostly."

"No, not about that. About quantum physics, time, stuff like that."

"You ok?"

"Sure. Go back to sleep."

I settled back into bed.

"Did you see Santa? My wife. On.

"Yep."

"That's what you said last year."

"I know. Except this time we were talking about quantum physics, time, and stuff like that."

All was silent. Off. She was asleep. I lay there. The furnace came on, humming. 'Twas the night before Christmas, I thought, all through the house, and no one believes me. I don't even know if I believe me.

I'm going to stop reading at lessons and carols services. It messes you up.


On the Eve, Lit

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Light of lights! All gloom dispelling,
Thou didst come to make thy dwelling
Here within our world of sight.
Lord, in pity and in power,
Thou Didst in our darkest hour
Rend the clouds and show thy light.

(St. Thomas of Aquinas)

Waking today I heard rain on the roof, a light drizzle, a muted light filtering through a gray sky and shades. Good, I thought, no walk today, no layers of clothing to fend off cold, no forcing myself out of bed. I lay on my stomach, my head turned toward the edge of the bed, my arm trailing the floor. Opening one uncovered eye, my lesser cat stared at me from the shadows, an inchoate question in her expression. “Yes,” I said. She skittered away at my slight movement, satisfied.

Rising, I decided to turn all the indoor and outdoor Christmas lights on, as a rebel act against dark and dank and gift to Duke Power. This is no small thing. I shuffled from one window candle to another, an occasional floorboard creaking under my presence. Seven bulbs must be turned in their casings, a church light plugged in, tree lights lit, garland lights plugged in (behind the piano, where I must bend awkwardly to reach). Kitchen candle, click, and it lights. And then there is outside. Out the front door I step, bend over the porch rail, plug in the porch lights and tree lights. I walk to the natural area, aware that I may be an unwelcome sight to my just-awoken neighbors in my lounging clothes, bend and press the button that illuminates the never-amounted-to-much-of-anything dogwoods that live in the yard, and turn for the door, my little rogue war over. “The light shines in the darkness,” I think, “and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The first Christmas lights, of course, were candles on trees. (No, I wasn’t alive then, children.) A bucket of water and blankets were kept nearby. It began in Germany, some say with Martin Luther. Walking in the woods one night, Luther saw the starlight filtered through the evergreens. Ace Collins writes that Luther “felt as if the hand of God had touched his soul and had allowed him to see the world in a much different way,” that it brought him a great sense of peace. He strapped candleholders to his family’s Christmas tree and lit the candles, a practice soon duplicated, and fire departments grew in importance and business. We unplug our tree lights when we leave the house, fearing fire, but it’s likely that this practice is an unnecessary vestige of our parents’ 1920’s practice of dousing tree candles before bed or leaving home, the danger likely no more than that from any other electric light left on. And yet the practice summons up my parents’ cautionary admonitions to “unplug the tree lights” and apocalyptic stories of house fires from tree lights left on, stories that rank right up their with those scary evening church showings of the countdown to Rapture.

Oh, I forgot the star. I walk to the garage, step down two steps in the dim light, and flip the switch. A Moravian star, not too common in these parts, illumines our side porch, at a safe height to all but our six-foot-seven neighbor who may leave it swinging. In it lives my childhood home, the star above our front porch, and my mother, Moravian. I’ve read that they originated in the Moravian boarding schools in Germany in the nineteenth century as an exercise in geometry. They are an exercise in patience as well, if you have tried to assemble one. There are 26 points and the fickle ties that hold them together often break. But then, they are a symbol of hope and once together together, if you are lucky, a hope that will endure.

I consider the lights on the trees in our back yard, the multi-colored ones safely shielded from my white-bulb neighbors, and turn for the back door, but reconsider. Rain. When it rains, plugging in both front and back lights causes an electrical disturbance (my word), and Duke Power shuts them both down. The plugs are not properly grounded, my son tells me. Instead, I decide to feed the birds, peckish this morning at empty feeders. “Don’t give them much,” my wife says, “as the deer just come and eat it,” then reconsiders: “Well, it is Christmas, after all.” I carry a bucket of seed around the garage, through the sticking gate, and fill them both. I imagine caramel deer eyes watching and feel, for a moment, like Santa. Imbued by good cheer, I let fall more than a few seed to the ground, for the rascal squirrels who no doubt haven’t been good this year.

I look back through the windows, see the lit tree, the kitchen tree, the bright candle above the sink. The rain has stopped. Yesterday, on the eve of Christmas Eve, Mr. Lassiter went up on the rooftop and slay the leaves and pine straw that clogged my gutters. What a thing to do on the eve of Christmas Eve, I think, so matter-of-factly, as if it was just any other day, and I wonder if he is up on a roof today, like any day.

It’s not any other day. It’s Christmas Eve. Burn the lights. Watch for the Light. Be ready.


A Christmas for Misfits

IMG_0339"For God so loved the world. . ." (Jn. 3:16a)

It's not mere sentiment to observe that God loves everything, not just generally but particularly. Walking on the beach today, I stooped to look at shells broken and misshapen, most of dull luster and none extraordinary, and it dawned on me that if God so loves the world (cosmos) then he loves each particular shell, every grain of sand, every atom, and even the infinitesimally small particles or waves of sub-atomic matter and vast reaches of outer space. Even an unlovely, craggy, orphan asteroid careening through the cold and barren dark matter of space. But what does it mean to say that God loves particularly?

In many of Flannery O'Connor's short stories the characters are the grotesque, ugly in appearance or manner, and in O'Connor's lucid if starkly honest prose they shock or repel us in the god-forsakenness of their particularity. A Temple of the Holy Ghost sounds a promising short story, for example, yet not quite in the way you might imagine, unless you know O'Connor's work. An unnamed 12-year old child is the main character, but we don't like her. She is very intelligent and yet disrespectful, spiteful, mocking, and cruel in her behavior, and O'Connor describes her as unattractive not only in manner but in outward appearance, a fat child with braces. Her two 14-year old cousins come for a weekend visit from the convent school and she sets about belittling them, regarding them as "practically morons." They go to the fair with two neighbor boys, Wendell and Cory, one of whom she describes as a "big dumb Church of God ox," both of them as "stupid idiots." Out of the emptiness of her obligatory bedside prayer all she could muster was "Lord, Lord, thank you that I'm not in the Church of God." And then there's the bald-headed Mr. Chetham with the protruding stomach and the sweaty, 250-pound, cigar-smoking Alonzo Myers.

The cousins call each other Temple of the Holy Ghost One and Temple of the Holy Ghost Two, a joke at the expense of the nuns at the convent, and yet the child takes it to heart. In a line at the heart of the story's meaning, O'Connor writes of the child's inner dialog: "I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost, she said to herself, and was pleased with the phrase. It made her feel as if somebody had given her a present." Though she didn't go with the cousins to the fair, again for spite, she drew on her over-wrought imagination, one provoked by the cousins' telling of what they saw, attending a "freak show" where a person came on stage and revealed that God made him or her both male and female, saying to the hushed crowd attending, "God done this to me and I praise Him," and "Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God's temple, don't you know? God's Spirit has a dwelling in you, don't you know?"

We don't want to look at the characters that take shape on the pages of O'Connor's story. Perhaps because what she shows us is ourself. The ugliness of the child, the triviality of the cousins, the homely appearance of other characters, and even the freakish appearance of the hermaphrodite at the fair (which we temper by calling "inter-sexed" nowadays), are ourselves writ large. She's saying that the Kingdom of God is for the misshapen and grotesque, for the non-beautiful people of the world, the ones that offend and shock. She is saying that the Kingdom is for people like us who, though perhaps more shapely in appearance, have equally misshapen hearts, people who need a Savior. Even ugly, dull, and broken shells matter to God. We are not crushed underfoot but loved.

In Tim Keller's Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ, he draws our attention to the genealogy of Jesus, to, again, its particularity. In stark contrast to other ancient genealogies, that of Jesus lists five women, three of whom were Gentiles (Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth) and,therefore, to ancient Jews, unclean. Not only that but attention is drawn to immorality: Perez and Zerah were the result of an incestuous relationship between Judah and Tamar; Rahab was a prostitute; and Bathsheba, who is mentioned only as the one who "had been Uriah's wife," engaged in an adulterous affair with David, the latter the murderer of Uriah, a man who had been loyal to him.

A freak show. A grotesque family line. Broken shells. Temples of the Holy Ghost. A story worthy of O'Connor's telling, peopled with the sin-soaked, Christ-haunted human ancestors of the One to come. In Keller's telling, they were "cultural outsiders, racial outsiders, and gender outsiders," as well as moral failures. Their inclusion in the line of Jesus is, he says, a reminder that the culturally excluded can be included in Jesus' family. That's us: washed up, beaten by the waves of life, dull and unlovely, and yet greatly loved, particularly loved.

"God done this to me and I praise Him," said the freak. He allowed us to be afflicted by sin, whatever his purposes, and yet He came into the line of our sordid race and died a particular death for a particular person. Me. You. And He made us Temples of the Holy Ghost, all of which feels like a present. Because it is.

Christmas is especially for the misfit, misshapen, and malformed, for bent and unlovely people. Jesus comes to us as a present, by grace, the Holy Ghost in tow, and because of His gift everything is different. If He has that love for the world, so can we. O'Connor suggests that great gift in her conclusion, pointing to the great sacrifice He made for the unlovely. Looking pensively out over the fields, the child sees the sun setting: "The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees." Follow that road and we"ll get Home.


The Field of Our Souls

IMG_0264On a one acre tract behind my grandmother's house, she planted turnips and cabbage, corn and cucumbers, pumpkins and watermelons, and more. Each Spring she tilled the field, turning over the hardened ground, plowing under old growth and unsettling the compacted soil. Black earth yielded under her plow. From my viewpoint behind the fence, peering between the wires, she seemed invincible, a sturdy master of the field. While I only remember her hitched to a bobbing gasoline-powered tiller, I recall being told she earlier plowed behind a horse, the stirrups thrown over each shoulder.

Most of us have no experience with tilling fields, so when we read in Genesis of that primary task of the newly created man, we don't fully appreciate it. "God placed the man in the garden to till it and keep it," says the writer of Genesis. (2:18), and it that one pregnant sentence humankind's mandate is subsumed: break up, up end, turnover, and expose --- disintegration wth the end of integration, breaking apart to make whole. Yet if in fact we are made in God's image, then we image Him in his own tilling and keeping, in his own creative destruction.

Psychologists speak of cognitive dissonance, a kind of mental stress produced when we hold two different ideas or when our beliefs don't match our behavior. God can be its agent. The unsettling conviction that we are hypocrites, that our actions don't align with our beliefs, is disintegrating: we lack integrity. God take s a tiller to our complacency, upends our sense that we are OK, and shows us just how sinful we are. Yet he disintegrates us only to assist us in reintegrating word and deed. He is interested in the integrity of our soil, that we have fruit, a good yield.

Hearkening back to Genesis 1:28, another portion of the creation account, humankind is instructed to "subdue" the earth. The Hebrew for subdue is a very strong word. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says that "Christ executeth the office of a King, in subduing us to himself." So, God is at work subduing our hearts, upending our lives in order to make us fruitful. Denis Haack says that what God is really up to is creating disequilibrium, a "state of unease, sometimes severe, that occurs when a person experiences or learns something that does not fit into their preconceived view of life and reality." Like cognitive dissonance, few can live with the dis-ease, and so, as he notes, we seek equilibrium, either by changing or transforming our worldview to accommodate the new information or by rejecting the new information and clinging to our old framework.

Cognitive dissonance. Disequilibrium. Dis-integration. A mismatch between who we think or say we are and who in reality we are, between word and deed. It's what leads even the Apostle Paul to cry out "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:19, 24). There is only One. The One who destroys our petty idols, who shatters our tidy compaction and turns over our lives, is the same one who gives us life, who produces fruit, who reaches down into the soil of our hearts and does a tiller's work.

There is more to do than ploughing a field. After, my grandmother walked the rows, stooped over, and planted seeds by hand. It was dirty work, her hands in black earth, breaking up resistant clods and smoothing over holes filled with seeds. I watched her stand, hands on hips, and (I now imagine) sigh a long exhalation over her work and think, "It is good." Through the fence where I watched then, she was just an old lady in a field, bonnet to the sky, yet through the field of time, she is God brooding over the field of our souls.