Christmas Eve at the cemetery

Arlington-without-Christmas-wreathsIt was such a brief scene as I drove by: a man pulled over on the side of the road, standing on a hillside that was dotted with in-ground gravestones, standing in front of one that was decorated with some red and white flowers – carnations, maybe.  I saw him for only a few seconds, and I wondered why he was there, standing on the muddy ground in the rain.

Was that his mother, his wife, his best friend, his brother?  Why that moment?

The chiaroscuro of the season always gets to me: life’s way of creating shadows so that the candlelight seems all the more bright; life’s way of creating drama about everyday things, like visiting a cemetery, or pulling over on the side of the road in the rain.

In my first six years of ministry, I conducted a funeral or memorial service every year on December 23rd, or 24th, or 26th.  Ruth, age 84.  Jean, age 81.  Gene, age 78.  Faith, age 85. Maybelle, age 79.  Bob, age 89.  I would often use the texts about Simeon and Anna for those service, old people who died knowing the full consolation of Israel and the promised savior.

But still.  Standing at the cemetery on Christmas Eve – it makes your heart break a little, when you get back into your car and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” is the first thing that comes on the radio, and then some idiot passes you by with a loud blare of his horn because you’ve slowed down, because you can’t really drive very well with the tears flooding your eyes.

A friend of mine let me know I won’t see her on Christmas Eve; it’s a hard time right now, and she didn’t think everyone around her would appreciate her tears.  It is bleak, this midwinter, and for us in Portland is has been gray and sodden.  There are other  people I won’t see at church on Christmas Eve.  Some leave town to be with whatever family is still left.  Some will be full with a feast and wine, sleeping through our carols and candlelight.  And some will just stay home, because all the songs and all the twinkling trees cannot fill the well of sadness that’s taken squatter’s rights in the heart these days.  But there are many I will see, there because they have joy to share, or questions they seek answers for, or because they love to sing in the candlelight, or because their Mom made them come, or because this is their community, and of course they’ll be there on Christmas Eve.

A church I used to be a part of has Easter sunrise services at the cemetery every year.  I wonder what it would be like to have a Christmas Eve service at the cemetery – too Dickensian, waiting for the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future to show up?  Too morbid, like the Zombie Nativity that’s made a few headlines?  Or too real – the presence of death even as we celebrate birth?

The mind goes to T.S. Eliot, who often gets the last word with me.  From “The Journey of the Magi”

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

And still:  a warm Christmas to you, whatever that may mean.easter-candle

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Sighing at the Angel Tree

IMG_7147So our congregation has, for many years, had a Christmastime Angel Tree, in which members purchase requested gifts for families in our local Head Start program.  Do not get me wrong: this is great.  It’s a way to make the holiday a little merrier for families who (I assume) don’t have a lot of extra disposable income.

And every year, our family waits until the later weeks of the Angel Tree to pick up our cards, because while there are many who want to buy clothes for adorable baby boys and five-year-old girls, other gift recipients are simply not as much fun to shop for.  This year we picked up cards for a family with four boys, ages 7 to 18. And off to Fred Meyer I went.

True confession: I do not enjoy shopping of any sort – grocery shopping, clothes shopping, Christmas gift shopping.  I just don’t. I like the idea of giving people presents, in theory.  I like the idea of the recipient knowing that I care about them or was thinking about them.  But going out to the store, at night, in the rain, in the cold: meh.  A recent trip to the mall confirmed for me what I’ve suspected for a while now: Hell is Macy’s.

So Monday night, while my kid was at church choir practice and my spouse was at church checking his email, I headed out, Angel Tree cards transcribed into a nice little list.  Boy’s undershirts, size medium.  Boy’s undershirts, size large.  Medium boy’s dress shirt.  Large boy’s pajamas.  Tennis shoes, size 3.5.  It just about broke my heart, knowing that some mom or dad desperately needs basic items for their sons, knowing that the last things those boys probably want Santa to bring them is dumb old clothes.

There were a few fun things on the list – a twin bed set (way out of our price range.)  Boat Legos.  Boat Legos?  I called my husband from the toy aisle.  “It says Boat Legos.  Would Pirate Legos count?”  I spent twenty minutes in the children’s shoe section.  There were no size 3.5 boys tennis shoes.  There were 4’s, and 5’s.  Nike, and Adidas.  $50 a pair.  $50 a pair?  For the youngest kid, so they can’t be passed down?  That’s a lot of money for shoes the kid will grow out of.  But maybe there is nothing worse than wearing hand-me-down boy’s tennis shoes.  And $50 – that’s just a couple of lunches out for our family.  The size 4 Nikes went into the basket.

I will be the first to admit I overthink things, including the Angel Tree gifts.  I spent more on the gifts for these four boys than I spent on my husband and child, and that feels about right.  I worry that I misread the size requests, that Pirate Legos are not the same thing as Boat Legos, that these kids will open presents they did not want and realize, once again, on Christmas morning, that they do not have as many choices as other kids.  They won’t get the brand new Play Station 17, or whatever number it’s up to.  They’ll get undershirts and pajamas, which may or may not fit.  But maybe it will bring Mom a smile.

What I wish I could do for my Angel Tree family is know them, and find out how Head Start was for them, and see what I can do to help them have more choices at Christmas  and all year.  But like the Santa who fills the Christmas stockings, the angels of the tree are anonymous.  Maybe it’s better that way.

But still… I wish them a Merry Christmas.  And I wish they could have a merrier one.

In search of courageous leaders

One of the things I appreciate about the Presbyterian church is our form of government.  It’s representative – the congregation elects elders to make decisions about the ministry and mission of the church, and the congregation as a whole is empowered to make only a few types of decisions.  We trust our elected leaders to lead.

The form of the U.S. government is based upon the Presbyterian’s; we elect officials to lead us.  We don’t elect them so that they will vote the way we want them to vote.  We elect them because we think (we hope) that they are wise and that they will make the best decisions they can for our whole nation.  It’s representative; not every American citizen gets a say in every thing.

But lately, I’ve been worried that our elected officials are way more worried about currying favor that will lead to re-election than they are about governing wisely or justly.  The latest vote of the Senate regarding gun control laws makes the point.  Why on earth would a senator not vote to restrict access to guns by someone on the terrorist watch list, if not because a) they won’t get funding from a lobby, or b) they won’t get re-elected?

We are nearing the third anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and I will not get through this week without tears.  I don’t know how that community is doing it, except by sheer grace and will and determination to redeem those deaths somehow, by truthful living, by calling out the powers.  Last night I wrote my congressman and senators and the President.  I know those emails will only be read by an aide, that my words won’t matter or make a difference, but I felt as though I was doing something.

So I’m going to read the names.  I am going to read the names of the victims in San Bernardino, and Colorado Springs, and Roseburg, and Charleston, and Sandy Hook.  That’s the least I can do – remember those people who went about their everyday lives, who left the house or the dorm room one morning, who never returned.  I will read their names, and then I might write my congressman and senators and the president again.

I grew up in a family of hunters.  It’s what my people did, my dad and brothers and uncles and grandfather.  We always had guns in the house, rifles and shotguns.  They were always locked up, and they were never loaded in the house.  That’s what common sense people do – keep their guns, which are for recreation, locked up.

When I was sixteen, my family was held up at gunpoint in our home.  I’ll skip to the end: no one was physically hurt.  But for a few hours we were numb with terror.  At one point, the intruder was standing behind me and cocked the gun and I thought that was it.  Writing that, thirty five years later, still quickens my heart.  We were held captive by a man with a gun, but at any point did it occur to any of us to go get one of our guns?  No.  In the moment, it doesn’t work that way.

As I said, no one was physically hurt, but it was an ordeal to recover from, and anxiety has been my long-time companion ever since.  I cannot imagine the courage it will take the employees of the Inland Regional Center to go back to work, or women using the services of Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, or students and staff at Umpqua Community College, or the congregation at Mother Emanuel.  By they do go back and they will go back, the survivors, the grief-laden.  They will have courage to do that.

I only wish our elected officials showed that same kind of courage.