I visited Harold periodically when I was near his nursing home. At one time, he had been a reporter of note. During his middle years, he spent too much time observing the bottom of a whiskey bottle. He lost his wife and family, job and home. But by the time he and his second wife became active in the church, he had dried out, become a follower of Jesus and, was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. As the disease progressed our visits were less intelligible and more about presence. One day, near the end of his life, I stopped by. He was sitting on his hospital bed, his hands trembling mightily. He looked up and greeted the stranger who had stopped by. On the bedtable was a plastic cup with some water in it. He was trying to hold it but the tremors made his attempts precarious. I sat down quietly in the chair opposite him. After a moment or two, he pointed to the plastic pitcher nearby. It had been a long time since I had heard his voice, so I understood. I got up and poured some water into the near empty cup. We sat a bit longer. I thought he would try to lift it to drink. I was ready to reach over to help. Instead he slowly and carefully slid the Dixie cup towards me. He lifted his head and met my eyes. And said clearly, “A cup of cold water for you.”
It was a sacred moment. I had been received. On some level Harold knew what he was doing. This man, who depended on those who had become complete strangers to him, for every aspect of his life, had welcomed me. I sat a long time after that, tears in my eyes, soaking in God’s presence. I didn’t want to leave.
I hope one day in eternity to sit down with him again and drink deeply from the river of life together.
The success of the Corps of Discovery was dependent in large part to the men and women who received them along the way. They were strangers to one another; their languages and ways were unintelligible to each other. And yet, time and again, when the men landed, wintered, and at points nearly died, the Natives opened their lives, knowledge and experience to help them.
Whenever Lewis and Clark’s expedition came upon tribal people they stopped and made great ceremony of giving gifts that included a coin with Jefferson’s head on one side and hands linked on the other. They explained that now the tribes were part of a new country with a new leader and that they had been sent as envoys in his name. The visitors were received with respect. While the explorers acted with integrity, those who followed them did not, nor did their leaders. I expect a time will come when we as a nation, will be called to give account for our betrayal of the Native people and their hospitality.
Jesus said, “I was hungry, thirsty, naked, and you did not feed, offer cold water, or clothes.” But wait, we say, “when were you hungry, thirsty, naked?” And Jesus responds, “See the least of these? They are my envoys, what you do to them, you do to me.”
Mike has the ability to attract and repel at the same time. A member of the congregation I served for 25 years, Mike deals with chronic mental illness. Bipolar, he tends toward the manic side, always with another get rich plan just around the corner. His world is bigger than life. I first met him at a church supper. I was brand new to the congregation. Mike took me under his wing. He invited me to sit with him, asked all sorts of questions, and told me all about how God was going to grow the church. Mike is self absorbed and his family continues to pay the ticket price for the emotional roller coaster he rides.
And yet, when I envision John the Baptist, he looks a lot like Mike. The last time I saw Mike, I walked with him after he had been discharged from the hospital. He had lost so much weight that he ran out of holes to cinch his belt. His pants were slipping off his hips. We stopped in the hallway and tied his belt around his pants. Not an elegant solution but it got him to the car.
His weight loss is not what reminds me of the man whose diet was bugs and honey. There is very little about Mike that suggests that he would make a good prophet. At times he can be crude. He speaks his mind. He pushes. Sometimes his words are inappropriate. Oh, wait; that sounds just like the one God chose to prepare the way for the Messiah.
Before he retired, Mike's wilderness was his taxi cab. His fares were just hoping to get from point a to point b, but Mike had this way of pointing them to Jesus. More than one person found their way to our church through Mike. II seems to me that he was such an unlikely person to prepare the way for another to meet Jesus. And yet - God seems intent on using unlikely people. God really is quite peculiar! Maybe His image is best reflected in the odd among us.
To join in this Advent story, perhaps were going to need to let our "odd" out; admit our own rough edges; adjust our avoidance of the characters in our lives. Maybe that's how to prepare the way of the Lord.
My grandparents lived about 90 minutes away from us. They lived in Blue Island, outside of Chicago and we lived in Milwaukee. Every so often the telephone would ring and they would say they were on a day trip and on their way to visit. I would know it was Grandma and Gramps on the phone because when Mom hung up, she would call us away from whatever we were doing. "Okay kids, we're on M.E. alert. Grandma and Gramps will be here in 30 minutes. Get to it." An M.E. alert stood for Maximum Effort. It meant we had 30 minutes to pick up clutter, dust the furniture, put soda bottles in the icebox. Dad was in charge of picking up the toys outside and getting the porch in order. Mom emptied the dishwasher, Bob and I made our beds, straightened our rooms, threw our dirty laundry down the chute to the washing machine. There was always scurrying around, gripeing by Bob and me, a few mild expletives from Dad and heightened anxiety for Mom. Somewhere in the midst of any complaining we might do, my mother would remind us that the neater we kept the house the rest of the time, the less last minute effort we would have to expend. M.E. meant maximum effort, get ready, company is coming.
I read an interesting article recently that made me think with fondness of those M.E. alerts. The author noted that our homes and churches tend to be at their best and we tend to be on our best behavior when compnay is coming. If we don't expect company, we tend to let things slide. Dishes in the sink, broken screen doors, hedges needing work; its good enough, its just us after all. Advent is the season of preparation, of getting ready, of watching expectantly, because - Company is indeed coming.
Sometimes we get lost in the preparations though. We stuff things under the bed, pull out the gaudy gift we got from our guest last year. We spend too much trying to impress them. We want everything just right. Getting ready means getting fake, putting on appearances. Advent can be a corrective for that kind of mindset. The One we're getting ready for was born in a barn. And getting ready for Him isn't about overdoing it or putting on appearances. Advent is the yearly opportunity to find room for Him in our lives.
Of course He tends to show up in our lives in all sorts of guises; many of which make us uncomfortable. He doesn't always fit in at church; he tends to make demands and turn things upside down. Like pushy Uncle Joe, we prefer he comes in short doses. And yet, being on the look out for Jesus, waiting expectantly, keeping the door open to Him and His ways, can turn each day into joyfilled expectancy. Company is coming. Let's get ready.
Gratitude and Generosity
Last Sunday was Commitment Sunday. We've spent the Fall reading Ezra/Nehemiah and letting it shape our approach to the enormous project and vision ahead of us. Now is the Time, we've been saying. The Church calendar ends on Christ the King Sunday. Most often it is the Sunday before Thanksgiving. So we have three themes to weave together: The Reign of Christ, gratitude and generosity.
There's this great glimpse of how God does things in Nehehiah 8. This huge crowd is listening to Ezra reading God's Word. Overwhelmed by what they are hearing, tears stream from their eyes. We're not sure whether the tears come from regret, grief, or disappointment. But the leaders encourage them to wipe their tears because this is a day to celebrate. And so they do. Nehemiah says, "Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them."
The people respond to their corporate "ah-ha" - now we understand - moment by celebrating with good food and good friends; making sure that there is enough for everyone and that everyone gets enough. And that's it. God's way is worth celebrating. Gratitude and generosity is the best way to do life.
A firefighter died after valiant battle with cancer. He had been the Rensselaer County fire dispatcher for 31 years. He also served up and down the hierarchy of the Buskirk Volunteer Fire Company. I was asked to lead the service of worship and remembrance. When I drove to the church building fire engines and emergency vehicles from all over Washington and Rensselaer Counties lined Rt 22. I would guess there were 30 or more of them. With their lights all flashing I wondered if anyone, not knowing what was happening, would fear some horrible disaster had visited us
At the conclusion of the service, the men of his company in civilian suits (newly purchased the day before) carry his casket out of the sanctuary. They hoist the casket up first onto an emergency vehicle and from there to the top of a firetruck. I lead the procession, in my Subaru, far more comfortable than in the old days when we would have walked to the cemetery, bracing against the wind. My Bible sits on the passenger's seat so that when I reach the head of the yawing hole I can speak words of hope about empty graves..
As the procession passes along Rt. 22, the men and women come to attention. Some of the companies are in uniforms with suits and hats; others are more casual wearing fleece sweatshirts. Many look like it has been a while since they'd run into a burning building. It is a Norman Rockwell Americana moment. I see dignity in their faces, and pouches around their bellies. Some of the men are young and look like they would much rather be hunting. But they are being trained in what respect and tradition look like. So they are here, eyes forward, as still as if they have a deer in their sites.
The cemetery is about a mile or so from the church. Just before its entrance, a flag is hoisted between two hook and ladder trucks. The flag is as wide as the road and the ladders have it up high enough so that the trucks can go under. The enormous flag billows in the chill November wind. All the way at the top of the ladders the men in the buckets stand at attention. It takes my breath away. I am uncomfortable with the cozy relationship between flag and faith in this country. But this is so right. This man has served his commmunity and is being honored by brothers (and a few sisters) with whom he shares this deep bond.
Once the procession gets to the cemetary, all those firefighters that had been lining the road come and stand in a semi circle around the edge of the mourners, like a protecttive wall. They stand at attention, in their uniforms, wishing they had warmer clothes on. They are cold, uncomfortable, most of them didn't even know Gary. Those that do, knew him as a gruff s.o.b. (in the words of his wife!) Yet they stand there, having taken the day off to honor their fallen brother. This is patriotism at it's best.
After the pall flag is handed to Gary's wife with the gratitude of the nation, we wait in silence for his last call. It's delayed because another call comes in at the same moment. So we stand in silence for several minutes until, in a flury of beeps, static, and strill tones, first responder's pagers go off. The dispatcher calls out codes that none of the rest of us understand until he says something like, "This is the final call for Gary Hugh Moses." His number is now retired, never to be used again.
I have always admired those who serve as first responders. I now have a new appreciation for the fraternity of the fire house. Young men learn how to be courageous and cautious. Old men bicker and tell tales of their glory days. Service shapes identity. Making a difference matters. Today, my admiration is tinged with envy.
I'm drawn to the old African Spiritual "I Wonder as I Wander"
"I wonder as i wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander out under the sky."
I spend much more time wandering around life than I do plowing through it. It seems to be a gentler, more open and gracious posture that leaves my hands and heart open to new perspectives and new opportunities to serve, and be served.
I hope this blog will be an open invitation to engage in conversations about what meaning we give to the experiences we have. The older I get the less sure I am of all those things I was once so certain of. I find myself enhanced by the perspectives of others. The few things about which I am convinced, give me a center from which I can interact, enjoy, learn from, even challenge daily encounters.
Kate Kotfila is Pastor of Cambridge United Presbyterian Church. She and her husband David live in Jackson. They have two adult children & a faithful (if clueless) Plott hound, Arnie.