Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices? ~Robert Hayden “Those Winter Sundays”
As a child growing up, I was oblivious to the sacrifices my parents made to keep the house warm, place food on the table, teaching us the importance of being steadfast, to crack the door of opportunity open, so we could walk through to a better life and we did.
It was no small offering to keep dry seasoned fire and stove wood always at the doorstep, to milk the cows twice a day, to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables months in advance, to raise and care for livestock, to read books together every night, to sit with us over homework and drive us to 4H, Cub Scouts and Camp Fire, to music lessons and sports, to sit together for meals, and never miss a Sunday to worship God.
This was their love, so often invisible, too often imperfect, yet its encompassing warmth splintered and broke the grip of cold that can overwhelm and freeze a family’s heart and soul.
What did I know? What did I know? Too little then, so much more now yet still – never enough.
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Here, the bells are silent, blown glass hung from branches of pine whose fragrance fills the room. It’s December, and the world’s run out of color. Darkness at five seems absolute outside the nine square panes of glass. But inside hundreds of small white lights reflect off fragile ornaments handed down from before the war. They’re all Shiny-Brite, some solid balls— hot pink, lime green, turquoise, gold—some striped and flocked. This night is hard obsidian, but these glints pierce the gloom, along with their glittery echoes, the stars. We inhale spruce, its resinous breath: the hope of spring, the memory of summer. Every day, another peal on the carillon of light. ~Barbara Crooker, “Bells” from Some Glad Morning
The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.
We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need —not all the time, surely, but from time to time— to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us.
The name of the room is Remember— the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived. ~Frederick Buechner“A Room Called Remember”
In 1959, when I was five years old, my father left his high school agriculture teaching position for a new supervisor position with the state. Our family moved from a large 3 story farm house in a rural community to a 1950’s newer rambler style home just outside the city limits of the state capitol. It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop. It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.
The rambler had two side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other. The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room. The only opening between the rooms had a folding door shut most of the year. In December, the door was opened to accommodate a Christmas tree, so it sat partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilled over into the family room. That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.
The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture, was strictly off-limits for us kids. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas, a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived. The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room for laughter, arguments or games and certainly not for toys. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted pine cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.
One week before Christmas, a tree was cut down to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room. I particularly enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.
It was as if the Christmas tree became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where the living (and all that goes along with that) was actually taking place.
The tree straddled more than just two rooms. Each year that tree’s branches reached out to shelter a family that was slowly, almost imperceptibly, falling apart like fir needles dropping to the floor, soon to be swept away.
Each year since, our Christmas tree, bearing those old ornaments from my childhood, reminds me of that still room of memories. No longer am I wary of the past, and as I sweep up the fir needles that inevitably drop, I no longer weep.
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For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last. ~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it – because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it – his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak… With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. ~Thomas Merton from Watch for the Light
As a physician, I’ve provided care to many homeless people, but I’ve never known homelessness myself. However, I have been room-less and those experiences were enough to acquaint me with the dilemma for Joseph and Mary searching for a place to sleep in Bethlehem.
It was my ninth birthday, July 26, 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 determined 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 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. A stable and its stone manger became sanctuary for the weary and burdened. We are all invited in to rest there, and I never enter a barn without somehow acknowledging that fact and feeling welcomed.
There are so many ways we continue to refuse access and shut the doors in the faces of those two (plus One) 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.
With all the material distractions of our age, it is small wonder we pay no attention to who is waiting patiently outside the back door of our lives, where it is inhospitable and 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 they are needed most. That is where He was born to dwell amid our messiness, and that is where He remains, in the humblest parts of our being, the parts we do not want to show off, and indeed, most often want to hide.
And that is, of course, a place where there is always plenty of room.
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head. You has got a manger bed. All the evil folk on earth Sleep in feathers at their birth. Jesus, Jesus, rest your head. You has got a manger bed.
1. Have you heard about our Jesus? Have you heard about his fate? How his mammy went to the stable On that Christmas Eve so late? Winds were blowing, cows were lowing, Stars were glowing, glowing, glowing. Refrain
2. To the manger came the Wise Men. Bringing from hin and yon, For the mother and the father, And the blessed little Son. Milkmaids left their fields and flocks And sat beside the ass and ox. Refrain
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Today is my mother’s birthday, but she’s not here to celebrate by opening a flowery card or looking calmly out a window.
If my mother were alive, she’d be 114 years old, and I am guessing neither of us would be enjoying her birthday very much.
Mother, I would love to see you again to take you shopping or to sit in your sunny apartment with a pot of tea, but it wouldn’t be the same at 114.
And I’m no prize either, almost 20 years older than the last time you saw me sitting by your deathbed. Some days, I look worse than yesterday’s oatmeal.
It must have been frigid that morning in the hour just before dawn on your first December 1st at the family farm a hundred miles north of Toronto.
Happy Birthday, anyway. Happy Birthday to you. ~Billy Collins from “December 1”
December 1st is not my mother’s birthday but it was her death day thirteen years ago.
Yet it felt a bit like a birth.
The call came from the care center about 5:30 AM on the Monday after Thanksgiving on a frozen morning: the nurse gently said her breathing had changed, it wasn’t long now until she’d be gone.
My daughter and I quickly dressed and went out into bleak darkness to make the ten minute drive to where she lay. Mom had been wearily existing since a femur fracture 9 months earlier on a cruel April 1st morning. Everything changed for her at 87 years of being active at home. It was the beginning of the end for her, unable to care for herself at home.
These nine months had been her gestation time to transition to a new life. It occurred to me as I drove – she was about to be born in her long-awaited yet long-feared transition to death.
Her room was darkened except for the multicolored lights on the table top artificial Christmas tree I had brought her a few days earlier. It cast colorful shadows onto the walls and the white bedspread on her hospital bed. It even made her look like she had color to her cheeks where there actually was none.
There was no one home.
She had already left, flown away while we drove the few miles to come to her. There was no reaching her now. Her skin was cooling, her face hollowed by the lack of effort, her body stilled and sunken.
I could not weep at that point – it was time for her to leave us behind. She was so very tired, so very weary, so very ready for heaven. And I, weary too, felt much like yesterday’s oatmeal, something she actually very much loved during her life, cooking up a big batch a couple times a week, enough to last several days.
I knew, seeing what was left of her there in that bed, Mom was no longer settling for yesterday’s oatmeal and no longer homeless. I knew she now she was present for a feast, would never suffer insomnia again, would no longer be fearful of dying, that her cheeks would be forever full of color.
I knew she had a new beginning: the glory of rebirth thanks to her Savior who had gently taken her by the hand to a land where joy would never end.
Happy Birthday, Mom. Happy December 1st Birthday to you.
I’ll fly away, oh glory I’ll fly away in the morning When I die hallelujah by and by I’ll fly away
God makes us happy as only children can be happy. God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be – in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone; God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us. ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Some bright morning when this life is over I’ll fly away To that home on God’s celestial shore I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away, oh glory I’ll fly away in the morning When I die hallelujah by and by I’ll fly away
When the shadows of this life have gone I’ll fly away Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly I’ll fly away
Oh how glad and happy when we meet I’ll fly away No more cold iron shackles on my feet I’ll fly away
Just a few more weary days and then I’ll fly away To a land where joys will never end I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away oh glory I’ll fly away in the morning When I die hallelujah by and by I’ll fly away I’ll fly away ~Albert Brumley
Being introverted, I would expect to enjoy time alone. But I don’t. A conversation with myself is uninspiring, leading me back into the inner circle of my thoughts when I would much rather explore the unknown of another’s view of the world. Alone, I feel exceptionally unexceptional and extraordinarily ordinary. Quite simply, without others around me, I’m empty.
At night, when I drive up to our farm and see both house and barn glowing with lights and life rather than still and dark, it is a warm blessing to return home. Someone left the lights on for me.
The horse bears me along, like grace, making me better than what I am, and what I think or say or see is whole in these moments, is neither small nor broken. Who then is better made to say be well, be glad,
or who to long that we, as one, might course over the entire valley, over all valleys, as a bird in a great embrace of flight, who presses against her breast, in grief and tenderness, the whole weeping body of the world? ~Linda McCarriston from “Riding Out At Evening”
We all need to remember transcendent moments in our lives, those brief times when all was well, our worries left behind in the dust.
Wounds healed, hearts full, senses filled with wonder, feeling whole rather than broken.
The summer evening rides of my younger years were just such a time: lifted by such powerful grace and transported to another time and place. It can feel like flying but mostly it feels like an embrace, one creature with another, exploring the world together.
All these years later, I am held fast by the memories and in remembering, I weep.
Surely, someday, heaven will be something like this.
Sure on this shining night Of star made shadows round, Kindness must watch for me This side the ground. The late year lies down the north. All is healed, all is health. High summer holds the earth. Hearts all whole. Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone Of shadows on the stars. ~James Agee
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Thank you to Harry Rodenberger for the hummingbird nest videos!
We have been a disconsolate people, uneasy and restless, particularly during the past year of being told to stay at home is best. Safety and protection became the priority despite our longing for freedom of movement.
Now with pandemic restrictions lifting, many of us are impatient to fly and travel, even when the hawks in our lives remain in close pursuit. Though baffled, beaten and blown by the ever-buffeting winds of doubt and threat, we want our liberty.
It is easy to forget: this earthly home isn’t our “safe” place and true freedom isn’t going where we please when we please.
This life is merely vapor and our ultimate longing is for something far more eternal than we will find here.
We’re almost home – together on this journey through the darkness to forever.
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All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered. ~Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
He saw clearly how plain and simple – how narrow, even – it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence. He did not at all want to abandon the new life and its splendid spaces, to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him and creep home and stay there; the upper world was all too strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return to the larger stage. But it was good to think he had this to come back to, this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome. ~Kenneth Grahame, from Wind in the Willows about the Mole and his home at Mole End
Folks need a safe place to call home, where everybody knows their name, and they’re always glad you came – that same simple welcome is a given.
I, for one, am mighty grateful for this place I can wander and wonder about what I see and hear around me. I am gladly anchored here to everything that is meaningful to me.
Too many around the world wander homeless without an anchor – settling randomly wherever there is cover, or a clear grassy spot, or within the hidden-away seclusion of a woods. Even when offered secure housing, they often reject being anchored, not wanting to be subject to rules when home is about making compromises necessary to get along with others.
How do we make “home-more” for the home-less? How can we be convincing that more “anchorage” is a special value?
May we offer the same simple welcome to all.
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I had a profound amazement at the sovereignty of Being becoming a dizzy sensation of tumbling endlessly into the abyss of its mystery; an unbounded joy at being alive, at having been given the chance to live through all I have lived through, and at the fact thateverything has a deep and obvious meaning – this joy formed a strange alliance in me with a vague horror at the inapprehensibility and unattainability of everything I was so close to in that moment, standing at the very “edge of the infinite”;
I was flooded with a sense of ultimate happiness and harmony with the world and with myself, with that moment, with all the moments I could call up, and with everything invisible that lies behind it and has meaning. ~Václav Havel in a letter to his wife
– for Czesław Miłosz
How unattainable life is, it only reveals its features in memory, in nonexistence. How unattainable afternoons, ripe, tumultuous, leaves bursting with sap; swollen fruit, the rustling silks of women who pass on the other side of the street, and the shouts of boys leaving school. Unattainable. The simplest apple inscrutable, round. The crowns of trees shake in warm currents of air. Unattainably distant mountains. Intangible rainbows. Huge cliffs of clouds flowing slowly through the sky. The sumptuous, unattainable afternoon. My life, swirling, unattainable, free. ~Adam Zagajewski, “Fruit” Translated by Renata Gorczyńska and C. K. Williams
Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God. ~Celtic saying
Sometimes the abundance in my life is so unbounded, I possibly can’t absorb it all, like an endless feast that far exceeds my hunger.
At times I have no idea how hungry I am until it is laid out before me; I don’t know where to begin.
When I feel myself on that cliff of overwhelm, that thin edge of knowing I can almost reach past the finite to touch the infinite, I realize it is unattainable.
Not now, not yet.
We live in the already but not yet. The all-encompassing I AM is here among us, His Spirit surrounding us with beauty beyond imagining. But we are waiting, wondering, wistful as the kingdom of God is already here and yet to come.
So He offers a glimpse and a taste and it is so very very good.
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