Stepping off the sidewalk into this store
Is to transport in time to a debonair era
Where the covering on the head defined the individual
Far beyond a pragmatic trucker’s baseball cap or skier’s stocking hat.
This is the place to come to leave behind the ordinary,
Separate from the rabble of the street
And find something extraordinary for the common man,
Designed from wool, straw or felt, sometimes trimmed in fur or feathers.
On this day the shoppers search high and low,
Hushed and reverent in this haberdasher sanctuary
Of stacked hats and wooden boxes, to peer in antique mirrors
Turning this way and that, smoothing and adjusting dapper brims.
The array of choices is overwhelming,
As is the diversity of heads to cover
From young to old, bald to shaggy,
A melting pot of noggins searching for a particular crown.
Fedora, trilby, cowboy, bowler, beret, newsboy, balmoral-
All are colorblind, equalizers of generations, races, genders
By fitting any worthy head, making a statement
Without a word needing to be spoken.
No heralding trumpets
Just softening shadows
Timed and tracked
Fingers of light
Over the eastern ridge of foothills
Caress the slopes of snow capped peaks
Bidding night farewell.
Horizon’s gentle glowing palette
Of pink and coral
Climbing higher, wider, deeper
Painting clouds beyond reach.
Every earthly thing bathed in gold
For a moment, glimpsed and grasped
Devoid of fanfare yet still miraculous
Too soon ordinary again
Although born anew.
It was my ninth birthday in 1963, and my family was driving to Washington D.C. for a few days of sightseeing. We had planned to spend the night in a motel somewhere in eastern Ohio or western Pennsylvania but my father, ever the intrepid traveler, felt we should push on closer to our destination. By the time 11 PM rolled around, we were all tired and not just a little cranky so we started looking for vacancy signs at road side motels. Most were posted no vacancy by that time of night, and many simply had shut off their lights. We stopped at a few with vacancy still lit, but all they had available would never accommodate a family of five.
We kept driving east, and though I was hungry for sleep, I became ever more anxious that we really would never find a place to lay our heads. My eyes grew wider and I was more awake than ever, having never stayed up beyond 1 AM before and certainly, I’d never had the experience of being awake all night long. It still goes down in my annals as my longest birthday on record.
By 2 AM we arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and my dad had reached his driving limit and my mom had declared we were not traveling another mile. We headed downtown where the brick Harrisburg Hotel stood some 10 stories high, an old structure in a questionable area of town, but the lights were on and there were signs of life inside.
They did have a room that gave us two saggy double beds to share for eight dollars, with sheets and blankets with dubious laundering history, a bare light bulb that turned on with a chain and a bathroom down the hall. I’m surprised my mother even considered laying down on that bed, but she did. I don’t remember getting much sleep that night, but it was a place to rest, and the sirens and shouts out on the street did make for interesting background noise.
Some 12 years later, I had another experience of finding no room to lay my head after arriving late at night in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, with supposed reservations at the local YMCA for myself and my three student friends traveling together on our way to Gombe to study wild chimpanzees. We landed at the airport after midnight after a day long flight from Brussels, managed to make it through customs intact and find a taxi, only to arrive at the Y to find it dark and locked. It took some loud knocking to rouse anyone and with our poor Swahili, we were able to explain our dilemma–we were supposed to have two rooms reserved for the four of us. He said clearly “no room, all rooms taken”.
The host was plainly perplexed at what to do with four Americans in the middle of the night. He decided to parse us out one each to occupied rooms and hope that the occupants were willing to share. He looked at me, a skinny white girl with short hair and decided I was some kind of strange looking guy, and tried to stick me in a room with a rather intoxicated French man and I said absolutely not. Instead my female traveling partner and I ended up sharing a cot (sort of) in a room with a German couple who allowed us into their room, which I thought was an amazing act of generosity at 2 AM in the morning. I didn’t sleep a wink, amazed at the magical sounds and smells of my first dawn in Africa, hearing the early morning prayers coming from the mosque across the street, only a few hours later.
So I can relate in a small way to what it must have felt like over 2000 years ago to have traveled over hard roads to arrive in a dirty little town temporarily crammed with too many people, and find there were no rooms anywhere to be had. And to have doors shut abruptly on a young woman in obvious full term pregnancy is another matter altogether. They must have felt a growing sense of panic that there would be no safe and clean place to rest and possibly deliver this Child.
Then there came the offer of an animals’ dwelling, with fodder for bedding and some minimal shelter. This stable and its manger became sanctuary for the weary and burdened and remains so to this day, unexpected and remarkable in how unremarkable it was. We are all invited in to rest there, and I never enter a barn without somehow acknowledging that fact.
There are so many ways we continue to refuse access and shut the doors in the faces of those weary travelers, forcing them to look elsewhere to stay. We say “no room” dozens of times every day, not realizing who and what we are shutting out.
There is no room in our busy and “important” lives–from the moment we rise through the frenetic pace of work and home activities, there is no room for the solitude of quiet prayer and reflection, and for shared gratitude and grace.
There is no room in our schools, where all mention of religious practices outside of academic study is unwelcome and eagerly litigated.
There is no room in our city squares or buildings, where nativity scenes are banished and replaced with winter festival scenes of snowflakes and snowmen.
There is no room in our homes where the TV and computer become the altars of worship and occupy more of our time than anything else.
There is no room in our hearts and minds as we crave food, sex, drugs more than the freely offered gift of life.
Small wonder we offer up what is just outside the back door of our lives, inhospitable, cold and dank. Few of us would invite our special company into the barn first and foremost. Yet these travelers don’t seek an invitation to come in the front door, with fancy meals and feather beds and fresh flowers on the cupboard. It is the dark and manure strewn parts of our lives where we need them most and where they are grateful to bed down. That is where He was born, and that is where He remains, in the humblest parts of our beings, the parts we do not want to show off, and indeed, most often want to hide.
2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.
3 You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as men rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.
Zeal is not a word used in a positive way in our modern society, primarily because it is the root of “zealot”. The implication is someone with a fervency bordering on fanaticism, operating in an impassioned state we associate with radical religiosity. Yet at the conclusion of this beautiful prophecy about the coming of Christ written in Isaiah in Chapter 9, it is the “zeal” of the Lord of Hosts that will provide the unending peace. Zeal is the human manifestation of the Spirit of the Lord; it describes Christ Himself.
For followers of Jesus, on Christmas Day, how can we not experience the “zeal” of what the birth of Christ represents to us? This is far beyond the emotion-filled sentimentality of a lovely story. It reflects our astonishment, our enthusiastic response to the reality of the Incarnation, of God dwelling with us.
A light has dawned. We no longer walk in darkness.
Christ, our Zeal, the human form of the Spirit, has accomplished this.
Today the answer is “Yes”, over and over again. God’s fulfillment of His promises is manifest in His Son Christ Jesus, born as he was in simple surroundings, with no trappings of royalty or riches. And so God tells us “Yes” today, again and again, that we may know Him as He has become one with us. We have experienced God in the flesh, as He dwelt among us.
Christ is the covenant, the contract God has made with His people. We are bound to Him, even when we pull away and say “No” as we are wont to do, regularly and emphatically.
Young Mary is an example of how we need to be: when told the impossible, the implausible, the incomprehensible would happen to her, her response was not “No way–go find someone else!”. Her response was “Behold the willing servant of the Lord; let it be unto me according to thy word.” She says, in essence “Yes! And Amen!”
How often do we respond with such trust and faithfulness, understanding and accepting Christ as the ultimate “Yes” from God, who ensures our everlasting salvation?
In December 1963, it was of questionable taste to use styrofoam letters toothpicked together to spell out “Merry Xmas” in a family Christmas picture for our family Christmas cards. Why the X? Because we couldn’t get the whole word “Christmas” to hold together without collapsing into a mess of vowels and consonants. We certainly tried. So my dad made a special run back to the crafts store to buy an X so we could get this picture done while his three children were still spit combed, and polished clean. I vaguely remember by mother being a bit reluctant to use the abbreviation “X” to represent “Christ” in Christmas, as she thought it might offend a relative or two as possibly disrespectful, but we did send this picture out to the 100+ people on her list, and I don’t recall any fall out.
It turns out there is good reason for the traditional “X” in XMAS, and it is not to make Christmas advertising more compact, using less expensive space. It represents the first letter Chi of the name Christ in the Greek alphabet (Χριστός) and was used as an abbreviation for Christ (sometimes as below in the symbol known as the labarum, in combination with the “P” that represents the Greek letter “Rho”). This was sometimes a secret communication device between Christians, and often displayed overtly in worship settings. So the X is, in fact, a name for Christ, in shorthand. There is no disrespect meant, but rather a way that religious community members could easily find each other in sometimes oppressive circumstances.
Now, 46 years after this photo was taken, it’s the styrofoam that causes offense, knowing it will never break down in landfills, and simply can’t be destroyed without causing environmental damage. But the X representing Christ is here to stay. It may offend those who do not acknowledge the reality of God who walked the earth, dying in our place, broken in body only. His truth and spirit rose again and cannot, will not ever be destroyed.
We are in the midst of the building of a garage next to our house–a project we have waited on for 15 years. The plans were actually drawn a number of years ago, but there simply weren’t the resources available until now.
So the original plans were dusted off, updated, the builder selected and the project begun. The ground has been smoothed and prepared, the foundation poured, now the walls and support beams are going up. It all happens in a particular sequence, one step after another, so the building will be finished properly and safely. To try to put up support beams and roof before a foundation is built would be foolish. Likewise, a floor with no roof would soon become a pond.
There is a design, a plan, and a project underway by a Master Builder. Thank goodness our lives are in steady hands with a good grip and a sharp eye for detail.
There is something reassuring about knowing I’m attached and nurtured by something bigger, stronger, more deeply rooted and permanent. There are times when I’m buffeted in the wind, beaten by the rain, burned by the hot sun, or crushed under the snow, yet I’m unbroken because of the foundation I’m connected to. I’m fed so I bear fruit that will nourish and sustain others. My thirst is quenched so I can grow taller to provide shade and shelter.
To produce fruit is to fulfill the purpose for which I was created. And so the vine can reach far beyond its root and trunk.
Playing piano for over twenty years of Sunday School Christmas programs at our little church, I’ve watched a whole generation of children go through the stages, starting as tiny angels with glitter garland halos, then shepherds in bathrobes and dishtowel head coverings, then finally to the more specialized roles of Mary, Joseph and the three kings. The plywood manger is a bit more wobbly, but the baby doll Jesus doesn’t mind. The few years we’ve had a newborn baby from the congregation available for the program, the manger remains a prop only, since mangers are not exactly comfortable cribs for a 40 minute program. Instead we choose a reliable strong-armed Mary, preferably a big sister, with mom staying close by in the front row.
Each year, and tonight’s program was no different, there are surprises and unforgettable moments (tonight’s was the suddenly lit Christmas lights worn by the ‘head’ angel making the shepherds “sore afraid”–the look on their faces was priceless). Unplanned moments aside, the annual Christmas program is meant to help children understand the most important Christmas gift they will ever receive.
The gift itself is said to be “indescribable”. And it is “unspeakable”: impossible to put into words that are adequate. So we try, every year, with scripture readings, songs, and a humble pageant of Bible time characters, simply to open hearts. It is the heart that will understand, even when the ears may not be able to hear.
My plecostamus is dead. Belly up on the bottom of the tank, no pulsing mouth or breathing gills. He had been official tank custodian. Almost a foot long, with a face that only a mother could love. I tried for ten years, I really did. I just could not love that face.
His spiny armor and rolling eyes unnerved me. For ten long years. He was a throwback to the dinosaur age, swimming shark-like in my living room, reminding me that mere millennia ago, creatures like him controlled the earth. And then they were gone. But the plecostamus remembers those days and controlled his little watery kingdom.
It was a rather pleasant relationship with him at first, when my tank was new and he was an under two inch soft little sucker fish, diligent and unobtrusive. He alone survived two tanks springing leaks, complete with temporary quarters for a few days in 5 gallon buckets. He survived winter storms with no electricity, so the water temperature dropped way below a level any sensible South American river fish would tolerate. Yet he did. He kept growing. His fins got sharper and pokier. He watched many other fish come and go over the years, and when they went, he helped clean up the remains so I was never sure what had happened. Unnerving indeed.
He was an efficient glass cleaner with his sucking lips, so I rarely had to erase the algae, like chalk from a board. When I did reach in, way past my elbow, to clean house underwater, I’d sometimes startle him from his hiding place behind the rocks or the fairy tale castle. He’d sweep by my arm with a wave of his spikey fins scratching my skin, and roll his eyes at me, indignant at the disturbance, and the implication he was not doing his job.
As he aged, I wondered a number of times if he had died, as he lay still on the bottom of the tank, rather than hiding as usual. I would reach in tentatively with a net and brush his fins and he’d dart out from under my touch. In his old age weariness, he began leaving algae behind on the glass, and couldn’t keep up with the house cleaning without occasional help. I know the feeling.
And now today, after all those years, through all those tribulations, including all those times I inwardly cringed when I gazed at his homely face, he is gone, buried deep in the compost pile. I cannot say with integrity that I will miss him.
I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to another baby plecostamus, almost cute in a soft and pliant way, if it means a long term commitment like this last one.