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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah’

The Darkest Night
A Homily for Christmas Eve– From the eyes of someone who might have been, or might yet be

It’s not that the house was haunted, because he definitely didn’t believe in that sort of thing. The memories were just too strong. He looked at the easy chair, and suddenly he saw Poppy “reading”, though Poppy seemed to do most of his “reading” with his eyes shut. He looked at the pantry, and there was Grandmother’s apron clad back digging around for just the right ingredient. If he looked at the front window, immediately, he was taken back to Christmases of long ago, where he and all the cousins were playing with trucks and dolls under the tree. He looked at the old threadbare sofa, and there he was with his arm around Amy’s shoulder, sneaking a kiss, and daring to dream about the days when they’d have kids to enjoy for Christmas. But that was before. A lifetime ago.

If you had asked him this time last year what he thought his life would look like in a year, he couldn’t have guessed it would be like this. Even in his wildest dreams, or nightmares for that matter. This time last year, he had a beautiful wife on his arms, two children that were every bit as presentable as a father might wish his children to be. He had a job at a downtown firm– he was what people would have thought of as an “up and coming.” The job gave him lots of luxuries that had come to represent to him life, security, and maybe even status. He had a little red sports car that he used to zip all over town, from this cocktail party to that one.

And only a year ago, that was his world. His kingdom, even.

In the year since last Christmas, his wife and two picture-perfect children left. Amy said it was because he was a workaholic, and that if she was going to be a single mom anyway, then she might as well really be a single mom.

He’d tried to pour himself into work, but mostly what he poured himself was another glass. Of whatever. It didn’t even matter. He never got wildly out of control, but gradually things just didn’t matter as much. He went into work disheveled and unshaven once too often. He’d been late for one too many meetings. “We tried to overlook it, you know”, his boss had said. “But your clients are complaining, and it’s making us look bad. Besides, there’s a recession, you know, and business just isn’t what it used to be. Take care of yourself, Pete.” And with that, he no longer had any place to go to avoid home, whatever that was. That was in March.

Not that the severance package wasn’t nice, but it just didn’t last that long. He remembered Amy saying something about them not being able to afford the lifestyle they were living, but he just assumed she was worrying too much, like she always did. Since she paid the bills, he didn’t know, not really. But then they started coming in: credit cards (who needed five different credit cards, anyway?) house payments, car payments, private school tuition. It wasn’t long before he’d had the phone disconnected, just so he wouldn’t have to come home to an answering machine full of messages from debt collectors.

Oh, if he were on top of his game, he’d have been irate. All that could seriously damage a man’s reputation. But what did it matter now?

He’d meant to return their calls, meant to get himself together. But it just seemed like too much work. So he just ignored them.

In October, Grandmother became sick. She’d always managed ok, even after “Poppy” as the grandkids called him died. First it was Pneumonia. Then it was a dislocated hip. Somehow, she just never managed to come home, not really. And somehow, he’d never managed to go visit, though he and Grandmother had always been especially close.

It was only when the lawyer called, asking if he could come take care of a few things to “get the estate in order” did he realize that she was gone. Wasn’t there someone else? No. The aunts and uncles were mostly gone, or were enjoying retirement in Florida like his parents. The cousins were all ensconced in life– raising beautiful children, living the lives they always imagined were theirs for the taking. It made the most sense for him to go, with no job, no family, no life that couldn’t wait.

Standing at his grandmother’s sink, he realized for the first time that he was excruciatingly lonely. He longed for someone, anyone to call just to see how he was. Or maybe he could call them. His parents? No, he’d declared his independence from them years ago, when they told him he was too young to get married, when they had given him just one ounce too much of “parental advice”. He didn’t mean for it to end their relationship, but as they made obligatory birthday and Christmas calls, the strain of having nothing to talk about discouraged him from trying to repair it. No, he couldn’t call his parents. They were a lifetime ago.

Amy? Maybe he could call her, just to wish her a Merry Christmas. But then what’s-his-face might answer, and well, the thought of that awkwardness wasn’t worth it.

He realized he was utterly alone, except for Dolce, his grandmother’s very old mutt dog– a present to her from Poppy, named so because that’s what he called Grandmother when they were first married. He was freshly home from the war, and he’d always loved that Italian word for “sweet”. Poppy thought Grandmother needed some company, but they never took to each other, not really. Mostly, Dolce rode around with Poppy in the farm truck, at least until Poppy died. Then Dolce sat at Grandmother’s feet while they both feigned indifference, though Pete knew Grandmother talked to the fleabag often. Dolce, though, was well past her time when she was great company. These days, the dog just wanted a nice, warm, soft place to sleep.

TV? Surely there’d be a nice law show on, something anything to take his mind off this Christmas nonsense… Oh, that’s right– Grandmother never saw the need for a TV. The radio? Surely that would keep him company. Not, of course, that that was an easy feat. Poppy and Grandmother didn’t have digital radio, or even a CD player. But, finally, music started coming out of the box– which would have been great, had Judy Garland not started wailing out “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.

It was more than he could take, and who could blame him? Judy Garland and her little fairy tale world had no right to tell him to have a merry little anything. Poppy and Grandmother had no right to leave him. Amy had no right to pursue a life of her own, and take his children away from him. His parents…well they had no right to take him at his word that he wanted to be free from them.

It was Christmas Eve, and the only place that was open was the Pizza joint a few miles down the road. Dolce raised an eyebrow as he called and asked for the Meat Lovers Supreme. Normally, he was health conscious– well, except occasionally having one too many. Food had never been his vice. But now, really, what did it matter if he had a heart attack? Who would care? Who would even notice him missing?

He was about to pour himself a glass of brandy that Grandmother kept for “medicinal purposes” when the doorbell rang. The pizza guy already?

But when he opened the door, there was what looked to be a casserole-bearing well wisher– the kind that always show up at funerals. Before he could wonder who she was, the woman said, “Oh Peter, you sure aren’t the little boy I remember. It’s been so long, I’m sure you don’t know me anymore, but I’m Olive. I was your grandmother’s best friend. I just live down the road, and I saw the lights on as we came home from church. I had heard that you were coming, and well… I thought you’d need something to eat. It’s not much, just a little ham on some biscuits that we had earlier.”

“Ummm… well thanks.” Somewhere in his head, a voice told him to be a gentleman, and before he could stop himself, he heard himself saying, “Err…would you like to come in?”

Olive looked at him for just a second, before tears filled her eyes. “I miss her so much. She was so proud of you, you know.” Somehow they managed to make it to the recliner and threadbare sofa, respectively, as Olive continued “I remember her praying over you the night you were born, from her living room, not the hospital room, because you came early. She prayed that you would grow up to be a great man who always remembered who he was.” Olive looked up, and dabbed her cheek. “But she prayed if that wasn’t possible, that you’d always know whose you were.”

“Your Grandmother wasn’t one who talked about her faith a lot, because it wasn’t something that was easy for her. Your “Poppy” as you children called him was the one who listened to every special The Gaithers put out, the one who’d listen to a radio preacher if he wasn’t up to church, and the one who loved a good hymn-sing more than just about anything. But your grandmother and God wrestled, a lot, I think. I remember her wailing aloud to the heavens when she lost her first born to one of those childhood diseases. I sat here as she cried for days when your “Poppy” died, rubbed her shoulders as she asked the young well-meaning pastor not to read her the 23rd psalm, because she just wasn’t ready to hear it. No, your grandmother never had a touchy-feely faith, but for her to pray that you’d always know whose you are was no small thing. Of all the grandchildren, I think she had a suspicion that you would be the one with the fiercest need to make your own way in the world. She always said that you were the one most like her, perhaps the one that would struggle the most.”

Really, how could someone respond to that? Fortunately he didn’t need to, because Olive started talking again.

“Your Grandmother told me about all the things that have been going on in your life the last few years.”

Oddly, Olive said it without any judgment. Did Grandmother really know, really understand? Surely Olive would’ve caught her instincts from whatever Grandmother said.

“I don’t mean to pry, or offer you any unsolicited advice, but I was thinking about you on the drive over, and what I would say to you. But mostly, I kept thinking about how you’re probably comparing this Christmas to all the others you’ve known, and how hard that must make this year for you. If you’ll excuse my saying, you don’t need any Hallmark pictures telling you how Christmas “ought” to look. Well-meaning though they are, they’re far from true. Christmas has become a greeting card holiday–with no depth, and no room for anyone who can’t sing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” with gusto.” I know your “Poppy” always gathered you children around and read the Christmas story before bed every Christmas Eve. Don’t mess with the tradition, but don’t read it from his Bible– maybe that’s not the version for you tonight. Read it from your Grandmother’s bible. I’m sure it’s on her bedside table, where she always kept it.”

“Umm.. Ok. I’ll be sure to do that.”

“Well, I’ve got to be going. I promised Joe I’d be right home. I never liked those people that said ‘let me know if I can do anything’, but I hope you will anyway. Goodnight, Dolce. Merry Christmas, Peter. ”

“Thanks for stopping by. Err…Merry Christmas to you too.”

As he shut the door, he knew that he would not be taking the kindly neighbor’s advice. He knew the Christmas story after all. Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wisemen, a baby in a cloth. It’s not like it had changed in all the years he had heard it.

But as he gave the radio another shot, Olive’s words rung in his ears “She wanted you to remember whose you are.”

What did that even mean? He was nobody’s, not anymore. But for some reason, it was important for Grandmother’s best friend to tell him that… out of all that she could’ve said.

“Remember whose you are.” The words haunted him. It became clear that he wasn’t going to get any peace, so he went upstairs, and found the well worn Bible on grandmother’s table.

Before he could ask himself any questions, the pages fell open to the first chapters of Luke, and a small booklet fell out. It was a small version of what they had always called a “blue book” in school–the kind they took essay tests in. It was well worn, and in Grandmother’s tiny, scrawling hand, entitled “Promises for the Darkest Night”. Then as an afterthought– “Promises for even me”

It wasn’t a manifesto, no “this is what I believe”. Instead, it was what must’ve been some of Grandmother’s favorite passages. In her booklet, there was no oft quoted 23rd Psalm. There were no shepherds and wisemen, no chubby cheeked babes, and no sweetly smiling Mary’s. The pages were dripping with raw emotion, crinkled in places with tear drops that had smudged the ink.

The booklet was filled scriptures that Grandmother had wrestled with, and had evidently decided were the things she’d ground herself in. In the margins, countless notes written as if Grandmother were having dialog with the writers, or with God himself. Peter imagined her pouring over her own Christmas book, long after the others had gone to sleep.

On the last two pages were quotes from the prophet Isaiah. On the left, a note at the top said “what they read at Christmas” and had the familiar words,
“Behold, I will create
       new heavens and a new earth.
       The former things will not be remembered,
       nor will they come to mind.
 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create,   for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight 
       and its people a joy. 19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem 
and take delight in my people;  the sound of weeping and of crying 
will be heard in it no more.
 23 They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; 
for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, 
 they and their descendants with them.
 24 Before they call I will answer; 
 while they are still speaking I will hear.
 25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together, 
and the lion will eat straw like the ox, 
 but dust will be the serpent’s food. 
 They will neither harm nor destroy 
 on all my holy mountain,” 
says the LORD.

She had circled words, and underlined things for her emphasis. She wrote, “When, O Lord, when?” and “Lord, rend your heavens and come down”.

On the last page, she scrawled at the top “What I read for Christmas, on the darkest night.” And another page from Isaiah. 1 But now, this is what the LORD says—
       he who created you, O Jacob,
       he who formed you, O Israel:
       “Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
       I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; 
     
  and when you pass through the rivers, 
they will not sweep over you. 
      
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; 
      
the flames will not set you ablaze.
 5 Do not be afraid, for I am with you; 
      

Scrawled at the bottom, “a promise for me, even when I’m not sure.” In another ink, in a hand that had changed for all its years of writing, “A Promise for Peter, even when he can’t remember whose he is. This is the meaning of that baby in the manger.”

“She wanted you to remember whose you are” Olive had said.

For Grandmother, that was the most important, even when she had questions, even when the “traditional” Christmas story wasn’t enough for her and didn’t line up with her experience, she knew whose she was.

Could you will your faith to someone? He didn’t know. The sky didn’t open up, and angels never sang “Gloria, In excelcis deo”, but Christmas found Peter. Perhaps one day the shepherds and wisemen and sheep and the chubby cheeked babe would be his Christmas story. But for now, he decided, it was a blessing to be like his grandmother. Shaky, imperfect, world-worn, and full of questions. But beloved anyway.

And that just might be the wildest Christmas story ever.

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I read Isaiah 64 about a bajillion and a half times in preparation for preaching it yesterday.  But as I was preaching about Isaiah wailing out to God in lament, I too started weeping– right in the middle of my sermon.  Something about a people so desperate for God, and God remaining steadfastly silent just rendered my heart jello. ANd perhaps, too, I weep for our world, and wait for God to rend the heavens and come down here.  But maybe that is the tension of Advent.  Being like Moses standing on a hill where he can see the promised land, but knows he can’t get to it.  We can see the miracle of Christmas, but weep because it’s not yet here.

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