Sunday, December 25, 2011

I Wonder as I Wander

     When we left the barn service last night the sky was spangled with strands of stars, draped against the black night, linking Orion to the Big Dipper to the North Star. My breath smoked against the sky and I started singing under my breath, “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus our Saviour did come for to die, for poor ornery people like you and like I. I wonder as I wander out under the sky.” It’s a haunting melody that I just learned this year and I think I love it so much because it is an Appalachian tune. According to the autobiography of John Jacob Niles, the fellow who first heard it in the deeply poor mountain town of Murphy, North Carolina, “A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to [an] automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins.... But, … she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing.
     That little girl was with me in the barn that night. She was standing right there in front of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus listening to the soft breathing of the cows, turning to watch the shepherds stride up to the manger, tipping her head to hear the choir in the loft above her. She was there with the other blessed, the meek at heart, the poor, the mourning, the ones who came to see a miracle wrapped in swaddling clothes. She’s the reason Jesus was born in a dirty barn, laid in a manger full of hay and wrapped in second hand rags. She was me and I was her, and together we watched our king reach his tiny hand out from the lamp-lit manger and welcome us in.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

There's a Song in the Air

And the star rains its fire while the beautiful sing

For the manger of Bethlehem cradles a king….

    Who are the beautiful that sing around the manger in Bethlehem? I have heard some of them this Advent season. This morning, we attended services at the church on the farthest edge of our charge. In fact it is across the state line about three miles. The children of that little white church in the wildwood recited poetry, rang bells and re-enacted the Christmas story from Luke. They were cute and silly and charming and brought tears of laughter and joy to more than one person in the congregation. My favorite child was three year old Sydney. She wore white tights, black patent leather shoes and a green velvet dress and she was in charge of a little orange bell, but she never rang it on cue. She became so engrossed in the music of her fellow bell-ringers that she leaned over, placed her elbows on the table and rested her chin in her upturned bell. “Hark the Herald Angels” rollicked merrily along until it was time for the littlest bell. There was a four count silence while Sydney looked out at the congregation and grinned. Finally, her brother elbowed her, she straightened up, removed her chin from the bell and waved it vigorously over her head. The congregation’s response was so encouraging, that she repeated this performance throughout the remainder of the song.
     After the children’s service, the charge choir presented a cantata. The music was challenging and I never thought we would master it, but on Sunday morning we filed into the narrow pews up front and began our assault on the difficult piece. Somehow that assault turned into grace. Our choir director who had suffered and worried through our disastrous practices grinned through the whole piece. We could see in her joyous smile that somehow we had managed to pull it off.
     As we sat down, I was suddenly aware of all the humans across the nation worshipping the same way. On the edge of the Pacific, childish shepherds and kings were walking solemnly up the aisles as the story from Luke was read. In the midwest, bell-ringers were throwing joyous notes up to the heavens. On the east coast choirs were sending alleluias out to the nation. This Advent we were the beautiful singing while the star rained its fire. We were the choir of a king.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Indisposable Christmas

     I have begun the process of decorating my house for Christmas. I don’t do it because I love decorating, but because I love the memories associated with each thing I put out. Therein, lies the problem. I cannot throw away anything given to me in love. Instead, it is wrapped in tissue and placed in a box so I can dither about whether or not to put it out again. In fact, I would prefer to have a rather Spartan house for Christmas. With a wood stove, every ornament and decoration requires weekly dusting. But those full boxes glare at me from the top of my closet and the dark edges of the attic. “We are up here!” the ornaments and angels howl. “It is Christmas and we need to come out and celebrate.” So far, I have resisted their clattering cries.
     I have put up one small tree, which I admit I bought new this year at the Dollar General for twelve dollars. I have not hung a single decoration on it, except for the string of lights it came with, but they are menopausal. Hot one moment, cold the next: the whole string blinks on and off randomly. In spite of its shortcomings, I am positive that this tree will also find a home in my attic to join the clattering crowds next year. I’ve also draped one garland around an interior door. It is covered with Santas given to me by various family members or found on memorable trips.

    The only other decorations currently in sight are my advent wreath (presented to me by my godmother when I was five) and a nativity scene I made years ago. Although it stays out year-round, I’ve moved it to a shelf right above my kitchen sink, so I can contemplate the true meaning of Christmas as I wash dishes.

     There are five more boxes of decorations that could be brought out to the light. The Christmas village given to me piece by piece by my youngest son. No matter where I place it the cats seem to find it and break another house or barn or church. Catzilla meets Christmas. Three hundred angels given to me by students and friends. In a small town, if you tell one person something, soon the whole village knows. I’m sure parents who were trying to find the perfect teacher gift were ecstatic to discover I had a collection of angels at home. Every year, I unwrap at least five more. When I put the whole collection on display, it reminds me of humanity. After almost fifty years of collecting, there are inevitably some cracked angels, dirty angels, angels with missing body parts and angels that can no longer stand up straight. Still they remain a part of my collection. Isn’t it sacrilegious to throw an angel away? I try to rotate them so they all get a vacation in a warmer climate. Here we are only two weeks from Christmas and they are all still shivering in the Antarctic Attic. What to do? What to do? If I put any out, they will grow a little grayer with stove dust and Catzilla will mangle a few more.

     This Christmas quandary reminds me of the true gift given at Christmas. Christ came down to a world full of mess and made joy. He left no one in the Antarctic Attic. He continually straightens those among us who wobble. He chases away Catzilla and glues the world back together. Sigh….I guess it’s time for me to unpack the angels.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Christmas Lights

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5
     December is the month when darkness descends on the mountains. At 4:30, the shadows they cast are already halfway across the valley. By 5:30, the first star rises up from the southeast. Not actually a star, Venus looks like the headlight of an approaching truck as it crests the shoulder of a distant ridge. But, the bright planet is not the only light sparkling across the shadows. Christmas lights, like lovely swags of fallen stars are draped on fences and eaves. I am a December baby and my favorite birthday present is a trip through the lonely countryside in search of the delicate strings of Christmas lights that brighten the total darkness of a mountain winter.
     This afternoon, I visited a local landmark: the old Elementary School, now a community center. Light from Christmas trees and garlands spilled out the wide double doors into the twilight as I climbed the steps. It is Wintertide in Highland and local artists and crafters were set up inside the wood floored gym peddling their hand-made gifts. The thing about living in a small town is that you can’t go anywhere without stopping for a chat. As I shopped, every person I met was a friend. Three of them shared their stories with me. A grandmother, raising two grandchildren, worried about their school progress. A mother, struggling with the rigors and fears of cancer treatments spoke about an upcoming bone marrow transplant. A past student who is running a very successful catering business talked about the challenges of raising a daughter and tending to business. The stories I was told will be told again. Over cups of coffee, in local stores, from telephone to telephone the message will travel like those lights strung from post to porch. And the telling will not be gossip, but will instead bring light to dark places. Folks will offer help and encouragement.
     As the nights grow longer, the Christmas lights beckoning from the edges of meadows and mountains make me thankful that my country neighbors know all about how to shine in the darkness.