A fire makes its heartening presence known, tucked under the hearth upon which hang individual stockings and an antique clock I inherited from my Dad. A delightfully chaotic looking tree, augmented with bobbles made by growing dexterity of little boys’ fingers, the accumulated little boy detritus of Christmas past. They are now men of humour, virtue, and creativity.
Snow falls without sound just past living room windows that shield from the oblique, grey winter, and all I can think is this: if Christmas – the incarnation, God with us – means anything at all, it must mean more than the homegrown Thomas Kinkade painting I’ve just described.
It must mean that God is longing to burst forth into our own souls, finding enough room to receive the gifts of our own inner Magi. It must have the rough and tumble character of a once upon a time, ramshackle stable. It was messy and scary and uncertain, but the perfect crucible in which to define all that is truly important: the broken, smelly manger of human hearts made ready to receive the only thing powerful enough to draw them out of pain and darkness, God himself. And, apparently, God loves children. Enough to become one. Not a soldier. Not a business man. Not a political revolutionary.
A child. So be it.
O come, o come, Emmanuel. Ah, but we did and we have yet to see. Lord, help us to open our eyes to what is in front of us.
We’ve all heard the old adage, “one only sees what they want to see.” We easily and quickly make judgements on our perceptions of things, not always on the truth of things. It’s always been that way. I’m guessing it will always be so to some degree.
Some will see only a page full of black dots. Others see the number hidden in the middle (they kinda piss me off!) Some see the brown barrenness of parched desert. Others see the miracle of life which is possible even in austerity. What is to one a beautiful optical illusion is to another a confusing mess of nothing at all. One sees thirst and death. Another sees possibility and survival.
It is a remarkable feature of human nature that, on the basis of perceptions and in the interest of either self-preservation or the pursuit of fulfillment, we succumb to the process of other-worldly fabrications. Given our predisposition to see only selectively, we sometimes live our lives labouring under misapprehensions.
For my part, I have often built an enormous mental-emotional web of shadows and half-truths and desires and make-believe. A construct on whatever I think is true. It is mental, because so much of who I am and how I behave is conceived and constructed in my mind. Emotional, because, just like yours, my head and my heart are inextricably linked.
To think something is true is, correspondingly, to feel something as well. If I think a loved one is still alive after some long absence, it creates hope, expectation. To believe that same person to be dead is to create despair and hopelessness. If we believe the person to whom we’ve been communicating is still on the other end of the phone, we’ll happily blether on until the bleak reality dawns!
Conversely, to experience an inexplicable hope, is to believe all to be well in our little world. In the world at large. If we feel weighted down, we either have a need for companionship, a change of scenery, or mood-altering substances (my preferred M.O.!) Moreover, we will believe it to be so because, in such moments, the universe may appear to us at the time, a toxic and malignant place, unfit for habitation.
Our brains are a complex lump indeed! From the minutiae in our head comes the fodder for our palaces or prisons. All is either benign, malevolent or benevolent on the basis of what we believe to be true or false.
Perhaps the entire goal of grace, and with it, the contemplative enterprise, is constructed to help us monitor, manage, even master the cognitive dissonance we experience – the chasm between what we observe, what we know (or think we know), with what we experience?
It seems that God’s intention in the Gospel is to gift us with a mental-emotional equilibrium in a universe that, to our physical eyes at least, makes little sense. God seems to be trying to get our attention focused away from what we see and onto what we have yet to see. Or, better, what God sees.
For example, if I see endless amounts of unpromising, fruitless work – God sees a garden. If I see endless hours of frustration, ignorant bumbling and non-Sunday school language – God sees the end product of my labour – a new staircase, or a table. If I see fatigue, poverty, and unpredictability – God sees relationships, children, and the warmth of family.
To say then, “I see,” is no longer just a physical act – observations in time and space of what is immediately before me. In the infinitely broader perspective of God, contextualized in the Gospel, “to see” is simultaneously to hope, to rejoice, to weep with joy.
For, to see as God sees, is to inhabit all things at all times at one time. Things are not only as they appear to me now. They are shown to be what they will be then.
It is there, in that place of seeing through God’s kaleidoscopic eyes, that a universe – sometimes tasteless, flat and hopeless – becomes a sumptuous feast of possibility. Only then do I experience something counter-intuitive to what I “should” under my limited experience. My heart and head agree because God has introduced them to the broad spacious land – the realm of God. My earth and God’s heaven, kiss.
And I am reborn.
Seeing is believing, say the scientists. Believing is seeing, say the theologians. Being is both seeing and believing, say the mystics. Some cannot believe unless they see. Others claim to see and not believe. Still others claim to see what they don’t believe. Others will not believe whether they see or not. Confused yet? Yeah, me too.
God’s deepest reality? All of us belong in some way along the continuum of belief, sight and experience. God journeys with us wherever and whenever that is.
All that to say this: one’s emancipation comes most readily not from a change in circumstances, but in the readiness, and ability, to see. To awaken. I have often said that, behind and beneath and around everything we see with our physical eyes, is a pervasive spirit of glory.
The light and beauty and truth of God subsumes all things into itself. And, from time to time, there come moments of lucidity, of universal benevolence, when one becomes aware of the overwhelming perfection of it all. A built-in beauty not always immediately apparent.
But such moments are frightfully rare. They are gifts, shards of translucence and splendour, reserved for the unasked-for moments of clarity; when the paleness of our present reality, gives way to something else entirely. When it does, simply observe.
Rub your spiritual eyes and let yourself be roused from slumber. Wachet auf (wake up) as Bach might intone! Awaken to God’s tap on your shoulder. Throw off the covers. Stretch. Say nothing. Speak not a word. Just drink. Drink deeply of this stream. Let it do its work. For, once it’s gone, there is no telling if or when it may come again. But its nourishment is ours to keep.
March 15th, a day made brighter still in 1996 when, bursting into it, came a fresh, young star, Graeme Robert Rife. He was the result of a hope, hard fought and won, for another child to add to our growing quiver.
Calum, our eldest – soon to be twenty-seven, came easily. Likely a quickie. Graeme, who today turns twenty-two, came about through more than three years of “trying.” What a strange metaphor that is. Stranger still for parents to suggest that sex could become such an arduous undertaking. In this circumstance however, much of the fun and passion of it was removed in favour of “best conceiving positions,” proper diet, stress management, slow mantras howled at midnight moons and the rather unromantic, “hurry, I’m ovulating.”
All of it is quickly forgotten in the light of three words: “congratulations, you’re pregnant.” For her, the joy and potential of another child. For me, the validation that my hardware is still worthwhile, my RAM sufficient, and my bandwidth up to the task of successful data transfer. For us, the sweet but scary serendipity of another shared venture, made possible by “the big O” and the hope that “maybe this one will take.”
Twenty-two years later and a handsome, winsome, talented, and adventurous young soul celebrates what we celebrate even more, his very existence. Like most men, I looked forward to the arrival of a child much like waiting for surgery. The lingering pain of longing is only addressed under the knife of uncertainty.
But arrival itself is the momentous awakening from this uncertainty into the much broader waiting room of wonder. Pride, satisfaction, elation all line up to take their place alongside exhaustion, unpredictability, and just a little fear.
I was already besotted with Calum who, at that time, was almost five. We had a well-established relationship. We had our “thing” and no one, not even our second child, would take that from us. I was as horrified of change and the unknown as the next person.
Little was I to know just how misguided and naive that was. The human heart seems to have an unending capacity to love and, on March 15th, 1996, another baby boy stuck his head out into the world. Damp, squirmy and squawling he came, trumpeting his arrival. “I’m here, I’m fabulous, and I will not be ignored!” All I remember is thinking to myself, now I get it. That’s how parents can love equally all their children.
Not that there’s any way to know this for sure, but one can easily imagine an accompanying cry of relief in escaping his cramped womb-room out where a guy can finally stretch his dancing legs. There are really only two kinds of people in the world, those who love the womb and spend their lives trying to get back, and those for whom it was an unnecessarily long waiting room from which to finally escape. I’ve been largely the former. Graeme? Undoubtedly the latter. That place was never going to be adequate real estate for long.
His world will never be quite expansive enough to contain his momentum, his monumental abilities; his magnanimity. He is the consummate adventurer. Although, ironically, he relishes a need for the peace, order, and predictability of home. If his smaller, secure place of respite is in his periphery or his rearview mirror, he becomes emboldened for adventure. New peaks to climb. New dragons to slay. New dangers to taunt. New people to seduce easily and utterly to he and his cause du jour.
Graeme is synonymous with gravitas. He has his own irresistible orbit. Once trapped there, spinning ’round him with other adoring sojourners, it’s easy to understand why. He is casually hilarious, literally tripping over his laissez faire repartée. He all but glows in the dark, the one whose presence centers both room and crowd, holding sway; commanding their attention.
But he does this not in the immature pretentions of a Donald Trump, but in the gracious manner more attributable to Princess Diana. He never foists himself onto a scene. He strategically plants himself where people gather and simply becomes the scene.
He is as capable as he is a procrastinator. He will wait to the last minute, let it sail past into an alternate universe, happily oblivious of potential consequences. Then, long after the moment was ripe, he will emerge from shit smelling of roses in summer sunshine (well, with a little help from mom and dad I suppose). Good thing he is utterly charming and endlessly delightful or I’d throttle the little bastard!
Graeme Robert Rife, today you are twenty-two years old. Alongside your older brother, they’ve been the best twenty-two years our little universe has known. Thank you for showing up when you did, as you did.
The world is a better place with you laying in a good backbeat.
The king of Vegas rockabilly, Elvis Presley, once sang this refrain, “we’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas.” He was one of a number of artists to sing it. I mention it because it is a song of unrequited love, specifically at Christmas time.
If ever there were an emotionally heavy-handed time of year it is Christmas. As early as September we begin to see the familiar commodified images of sleek, effeminate reindeer, suspiciously rosy-cheeked Santas, Hallmark this ‘n that, and the tsunami of stuff we’re meant to buy to help us feel how we’re meant to feel.
It’s a construct and we know it. Well, at least the shiny baubles, taut packages ‘n bows part. But, lest I find myself on the receiving end of Scrooge-comments, let me say that I’ve loved this time of year my entire life, in spite of working outrageous hours as a church music director. I love the ambience. Sometimes I don’t even mind its rom-com, syrupy-saccarine motif falsely imaged and poured over us like a jolly-happy goo.
The whole thing smacks of an out of control Norman Rockwell painting, replete with the expectations that we all play along with the happy themes. We’re supposed to be joyful, full of gratitude and happy family times, with family-dog-stealing-roast-beef-off-the-counter type fun. Why wouldn’t we, right?
Quite often, it’s not that simple. For those who have lost a loved one, a parent, a friend, a pet, heaven forbid, a child – this can be an especially difficult time indeed. The ache of loss still fresh in their mind pinches their guts and narrows their emotional field of vision. It can almost feel like an insult. All these happy faces everywhere and not a hint of respite from their pain on the horizon.
Tonight, our congregation chose to remember these people, to bring a light into dark places this Advent-Christmas. More metaphor than Elvis, we called it, quite simply, Blue Christmas.
Rather than barrel through the weekly lighting of Advent candles, special readings and prayers and favourite songs we thought it best to stop. Stop, to remember those faces no longer in our crowds. The missing pictures on our mantelpieces. Our family gathering a little less Rockwell and a little more Orwell. We spent silent time memorializing them, lighting a candle in their honour. Maybe crying just a little.
Wherever you are in your journey, maybe spend a few moments this season just quietly remembering those no longer there to taste your grandma’s apple pie or mom’s Yorkshire Pudding.
Such a sad irony given the need to remember when I recall so little so much of the time But, I remember as much as I need to for right here. Right now.
I remember all that I’ve been given – and I smile.
I remember that I get to sleep with someone who loves to be with me, who chooses to share my life, even the dark places – and I smile.
I remember, through that same love, two babies, now young men, came into the world if for no other reason than to taunt my lesser joy with a still greater one – and I smile.
I remember the man I call brother, the woman I call sister, the man now dead we call father, the woman upon whose shoulders and within whose heart we all dwell, we call mother – and I smile.
I remember that I’ve been entrusted with notes, lines, hands, and voice, and then charged and blessed to engage in it, both as a living and as hobby – and I smile.
I remember the sight of candles burning, a dark and peaceful sanctuary full of singing voices, and the strains of “Silent Night” – and I smile.
I remember that I am given poetry and words to share with the weary world, much of it published, and fulfilling whatever destiny for which it has been prescribed – and I smile.
I remember the incredible home we call our own, poised handsome and stoic on a proud hillside where it stands year after year, waiting for the valley to breathe in and out each new season – and I smile.
I remember that, as a man of fifty-four, I am healthy enough to run miles in double digits – and I smile.
I remember the touch of cold hands in mine as she congratulates my choice of hymns, the hearty back slap as he celebrates “this young man” – and I smile.
I remember the ache of loss for faces of those once bright and full, now gone and buried, the sound of tears, the taste of mourning, the honour of sharing it – and I smile.
I remember the seraphic sound of my choir as they collude together in happy voice to mirror the world’s unreasonable beauty – and I smile.
I remember the one God of One in Three; eternal, but who once had an address, now forever bearing the scars of his coming, who is my friend – and I smile.
And, though I never knew their names, I remember their sacrifice, caught in whirlwinds not of their choosing. Sometimes they were sent by selfish kings to do the bidding of empire. They went anyway. Sometimes, they were thrust out to defend the lack lustre and apathetic against the threat of unknown horrors. They went anyway. Mostly, they went because they believed it to be their best legacy. This I remember – and I smile.
This is a little story about the value of time. Or, perhaps the timing of value. Either way, here goes.
The numerous eccentricities that sequin this life of mine would not, to the uneducated stranger, seem to include punctuality. Spend just a few minutes with me and you’ll wonder how I manage to dress myself every morning, let alone have a driver’s license, or be allowed to procreate. But, in contradistinction to everything else one might know of me, I’m a stickler for being on time. To everything. Always. It is a point of pride. More so, it’s an exercise in lessening anxiety.
Friday, November 3rd. The Highland Dancing competition that provides the opportunity for this little sojourn takes place in Portland, Oregon, a mere three and a half hours south of us. It offers one of the most stunning drives one could ask for. And today is that day.
A leisurely drive over Satus Pass, stopping at my favourite monastery (like I have so many) for their legendary coffee and spanakopita. The Orthodox nuns who run the joint do so with friendly smiles and winsome personalities. And, they run a pretty tight ship. They’re a credit to their tradition.
Once over the pass, I descend the golden hillsides of Eastern Washington and cross the Columbia River Bridge. Then, it’s through the green, rain-soaked, monolithic tunnel o’ rock otherwise known as the Columbia Gorge. It snakes along Interstate 84, hugging one of the world’s biggest rivers. To my right, the Columbia, deep and slow and deceptively dangerous. To my left, the tufted ancient rock formations thrust up over millions of years that now frame this idyllic little meander.
A pain-free, largely traffic-free, Google-guided route to one of those perfectly perfect Portland neighbourhoods, more trees than people. Just as it should be. I park without difficulty right outside the B ‘n B where I’m to be staying. Then, in an effort toward appropriate courtesy, I stand for some time outside the door, searching my email history for the owner’s phone number. To call first means avoiding that uncomfortable walk onto someone else’s deck or anywhere a family might not want such interruption.
It was an unnecessary concern since another occupant opened the door just as I reached for the buzzer. Australian guy I think. The home owner – let’s call him Roger – greets me at the kitchen door with a look of confused amusement on his face. Confusement? Amusion? He is already scrolling through his Air BnB phone records looking to secure what, to him, is apparently a surprise.
“Um, it seems there is a bit of a mix-up here,” he says, face super-glued to his cell phone screen. His thumb scrolls over face after face. It suggests a tidy little business he’s got here. But, none of them appear to be mine. He gives one more healthy swipe of the thumb and up pops my profile Gravatar, making its embarrassing appearance.
Now, as I’ve mentioned, punctuality is a point of pride for me. But this was precedent setting, even by my exacting standards. Roger is a cheerful enough chap, professional and gregarious. He probes a little further.
“Well, this is a rather unique situation,” he offers. “It appears you’re booked for next Friday evening.”
My dumb numbness, framed by my gawking, is matched only by his look of pity. He can afford it. He has a place to sleep tonight! I squint my eyes in disbelief at the reality staring at me from his phone. Sure enough. I’m booked for the following week.
I could have feigned a look of personal incredulity. But, alas, this is not exactly precedent setting for me and I’d be anything but convincing. The best I can manage, “well, shit.” This however acts also as my admission of guilt in this matter. It effectively relieves him of any wrongdoing.
He thus forges ahead. “No matter. Obviously, you need a bed for the night, and finding anything on a Friday night at 5:00pm won’t be fun.” Pause. “I’ll need to check with my wife. You know, whether she’d feel comfortable with this…”
Great setup I thought, for the kind but awkward punchline that followed.
“We actually have another room upstairs we don’t normally rent since it’s right next to our bedroom.”
My gut clenches a little as I consider all the uncomfortable scenarios that might make this not such a great idea. Two adult males, mentally circle, both grasping for enough manhood not to appear either retarded or lacking control of the situation. Mercifully, he steps outside to begin the negotiations with his wife.
No use trying to “man-up” with this mix-up. Instead (and instinctively I might add) I do what I normally do and call my wife. She knows these calls. Really well. She’s had lots of them and is well practiced in the art of the de-pickle, quite like the one in which I presently find myself.
I agree with her immediate assessment. “You need to let me make your reservations from now on.” Normally, such statements would seem an affront to my masculinity (a bit shaky right now), hinting at an inability to tie my own shoes. Given the circumstances, and how good she is at these correctives, I hand it over to her capable contrivance.
Within seconds I had cancelled my hastily-made reservation and she’d booked me a hotel room nearby. This was a huge sigh of relief since Roger was still nervously pacing back and forth outside in obvious negotiations with his wife. I smile. I know those conversations. I bid farewell and made a hasty exit, allowing him respite from whatever deliberations were underway. Roger, you’re welcome.
The moral of this little tale?
Who cares. Life isn’t merely a collection of “teachable moments.” But, since we’re on the subject.
More often than not life is, quite simply, about life. We live it, trip over it, and usually love it. It comes to us as is, unadorned, but real, unpredictable. And, all the better for it.
Failure is a promise (to some more than others). Embrace it. I’m getting pretty good at it. Well, really good if you must know.
Independence is not a biblical principle. Dependence is (God). Interdependence is (each other).
God is good. Theology lesson over.
I’m well rested (albeit at a financial loss).
Roger is once again snuggled safely in his world none the worse for wear.
My wife, as much an expert in unexpected chaos as I, once more proves her worth as booking agent, social convener, and non-judgmental partner.