Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Drive

Twenty-six years ago, Christmas Eve was on Saturday. I finished preparing the Christmas sermon for the congregation. Lois did last minute packing. Vaughn enjoyed the world as only a six month old baby can. It was unusually cold for Pennsylvania, a real white Christmas.

Our VW Beetle was giving trouble starting. So that night I parked it at the top of the hill leading down to a our house. There were a good hundred yards of fairly steep hill coming down to our driveway, so I thought for sure I could start the car by rolling, if the battery was dead.

Christmas morning was about minus 25 Celsius. The engine did not respond at all to the key: not even a click. Fine. I turned the key to on, pushed in the clutch, and let the car roll down the hill, popping the clutch several time3s as I gained speed. At the bottom of the hill I rolled into our neighbour's driveway, no closer to starting the car. Not a cough; not a hiccup; not a sign of turbo charged life in the frigid morning air.

Our neighbour Jay came out and helped me with jumper cables. It took a good 10 minutes of charging to get the car going. We did not turn it off again!

I love Christmas on a Sunday. We went to Speedwell for the Christmas morning service. Then piled into the VW, which started, mercifully, and drove off to Wilmer and Velma/s for Christmas dinner. They have been friends with my folks and Lois' family for many years, and their children are among our best friends (and cousins); so we had a wonderful dinner and time together, visiting, singing, celebrating.

About 4 pm we started on the next and final part of our day -- driving from Lancaster County to New Madison, Ohio, about an eight hour drive. As we neared Pittsburgh, daylight was fading fast, and the temperature started to drop. By the time we reached Zanesville in eastern Ohio, where I filled up the car with gas, it was minus 30 Celsius.

The car very nearly did not start again after I filled it up: the cold was too much for a dying battery. We started off through the Ohio night, with the old VW forced air heater doing its best. we had no fan to push the air in faster, just the speed of the car. A thin layer of frost formed all around the windows so that we could see only out of the windshield through a small arc kept clear by the defroster. Vaughn slept happily in his car seat, surrounded by enough luggage to keep him safe even if he wasn't seat belted in! His parents were less happy. I have never been so aware of how thin the car body is: a few inches of metal between us and the coldest weather we had ever experienced.

The last stretch from Zanesville to Mom and Dad's (Lois' parents) was about four hours; but we were not stopping for anything. Now I would have to stop for some sort of break, but we were young enough to keep going and foolish enough to have started without replacing the old battery! So we kept going. We got into New Madison about midnight. Mom and Dad were waiting for us and helped take everything inside, including their grandson snug in his car seat.

The next day (Boxing Day) we tried starting the car. Nothing. That battery was dead and needed to be buried. Dad took me to the store and bought me a new battery. He didn't say so, but I think he may have been worried that I might take his daughter back into the Winter's cold and get her stranded this time! Not to mention his new grandson. Now that I have sons close to the age I was then I understand him better, I think!

We have minus 30 temperatures regularly here in Manitoba, and it no longer seems so cold. Cold enough, but you learn to deal with it. We have a blanket in the car in case of emergency, and keep batteries and tires well checked, and make sure that we're safe when we go outside. In any case, I love Christmas. And I love family. And I'm grateful that God kept us safe 26 years ago so that I can remember that drive through the bitter Ohio night.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


We joined the church today. Many gave warm congratulations, welcoming us back. We had been members from late 1997 to 2005, when we helped start a church plant nearby. That is its own story, worth telling; but it closed in May 2007. For two years we were committed to outreach in a small community. The end felt abrupt, although one could see it coming from some distance away. For the past year we have been back at SMC, and today we renewed our membership there. Sometimes I wonder why: what does the gesture mean? Anything?

Not everyone sees membership as important. I am (I think) in a minority in the value I place on it. Many attend a large church and never consider any more formal step. Others participate in smaller fellowships where they feel fully at home, welcomed, belonging; no formal membership seems necessary. Our society prizes flexibility, choice, freedom; and membership can become a cumbersome obstacle. Why not define membership by attendance? If you come here, you belong. If you don't you don't.

I can speak only for myself, knowing that others whose judgment I respect do not share my impulse to make a public declaration for the thing itself to be real and true.

So first, for myself, I note the sound sense contained in our societal reflex. Formal membership can become formalism all too easily. Some substitute a public display for a real relationship, whether in a failed marriage or in a disappointing church experience. My first commitment, then, is to truth, to be true -- to God, to myself, to my family. Formal membership must grow out of real belonging. Public witness grows out of, comes out of, springs from real, lived, dynamic relationships. If the formal outer display exists alone, hypocrisy results. I'm a child of the Sixties: I commit myself to be true!

But I do not only reflect my age; I follow the beat of God's drum. Family requires commitment, not just liking and feeling good. A man and woman grow together and fall deeply in love. No formal commitment seems necessary. We sang so many years ago, "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?" No formal commitment; just stay with me! Of course, she didn't. Wedding vows help one keep one's deep inner desire to love forever. The promise means something, not just at that moment, but in the work and joy that follows.

So also in my church family. I belong at a deeper level than the formal commitment; but I make the promise to belong and act like I belong for at least two reasons: 1) I know that I will not always like SMC. But the longer I keep my commitment as a member, the greater the space to feel the greatest joy of belonging. 2) I know that I feel the sense of family that we have at SMC. I want others to know it too. Just as baptism functions to witness to the people around us that God is at work in our lives, formal membership is a witness to the community and to the church that we are God's family.

My reasons are not profound, deeper than thought. They are surface, I think, and somewhat trite. But they are real; they are mine; I belong here and now to God's family at SMC.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


I preach quite often. Once or twice a month I help usually in churches that are engaged in a pastoral search. Some thoughts based on the experiences.

I use words professionally.
Use: employ; manipulate; try to use, an unsatisfactory thought.
Professional: paid; paid to use --
Sounds almost obscene, a prostitution of the gift of words.

"In the beginning was the Word."
"I opened my mouth to speak, and the word is there:
formed by the lips, the tongue, the organ of voice."

Should I be an amateur instead?
An amateur wordsmith,
playing with words like an incompetent Shakespeare.
I could not, cannot,
Have not the wit, the skill to play such art.

Should I be the servant?
Beg the words to do their work,
Then sit and wait for words to form themselves,
To make sense, make nonsense integrate and coinhere,
become The Word before me, commanding me.

Perhaps. I could.

Word, Spirit, some mystery magic
Takes control when I preach teach make sense
Beyond my own understanding.
"Don't try to understand mystery," my African teacher said.
"Stand under mystery."

I use words as
Words take me and do their work.

20 December 2008

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Accumulated piles of life
Laid out, scattered across the floor.
She sits, quiet -- almost serene among the debris;
Flotsam and jetsam: Thirty plus years

I helped to make.
"Whose is this?"
"What is that?"
Simple profound questions that question
our lives.

Music in the air more peaceful
Than the scattered pastiche:
Song reflects and magnifies jewels, diamonds
Thrown out of the rubble.
An old letter, a fragment of life
four decades old.
Pictures, reminders of that long past;
Some pitched without remorse,
Hesitating, Gone. So many sermons.

"We should do this more often."

We did once.

14 December 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Christmas and Students and

I just finished putting together our Christmas tree. "Putting together" signals that we did not forage through the forest and find the perfect "real" tree and cut it down. Rather I assembled 9with the usual stops and starts that such processes engender for me) the tree we have had for quite a number of years. Then Lois fluffed it out, and wrapped some presents, and put them under the tree. No decorations yet, except for some stray tinsel left over from last year. "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas ..."

In the background "The Fellowship of the Ring" played (extended edition). We have had Christmas music on for some weeks, so I didn't mind something different. I enjoy the weeks before Christmas: Advent, we call it. Anticipation. Hope of Christ's Return, and memory of the baby's birth. "All poor men and humble, All lame men who stumble, Come haste, nor feel ye afraid." But that's only one side of life for a teacher.

At the same time the semester winds down. The rhythm is similar each year. A frenzy of final assignments leaves students pressing, almost gasping, and all of us praying for strength. Then papers are done, exams are written, and faculty endure the pressure to finish grading and assessment for the semester.

I deal with those pressures easily enough. But there's another part of Advent that I find more difficult. Each semester ending means that people leave, and I walk up and down the empty corridors. The end of the second semester is much worse. The hardest day of the year for me is the day after graduation, when I go in to a school empty of students. Advent, and Easter, have their specific Christian meanings, to which I add the meaning of leaving.

Last night we met with our pastor to talk about the process of renewing our membership at SMC. (We had moved to a church plant in town for a couple of years; with its passing, we have moved back to SMC.) As seven of us talked about what church membership means to each of us, one stated that she has been part of four churches in her life. I sat there thinking through the churches I have belonged to (or attended regularly): 13, I think. It's hard to keep track.

Perhaps my peripatetic past leaves me more sensitive to the transitory nature of the school year's rhythm. It is not a bad thing. It is, I believe, a profoundly good thing. The past is passing, and the Return comes nearer. But transitions still leave me feeling shaky.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


I posted pictures and thoughts on mortality on the 25th. A week has passed, full of happenings. The next day was our younger son's birthday. Twenty-two years ago he joined us after a day spent in the Baptist Memorial Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. I remember Lois hooked up to a monitor after the doctor had done an exam during a routine pre-natal visit, "You're having a contraction now. Don't you feel it?" "Well, I feel a sort of tightening. is that it?" "If that's all you feel, I'm not letting you go home. You won't know you're in labour until it's too late!"

So we spent the day with Lois hooked up to a monitor. Every so often she would say, "Am I having a contraction?" And I would look at the monitor and say, "Yes." Nevin has not always been so unobtrusive; but for 22 years he has been a joy and delight in our lives. Two sons, and both wonderful men today.

The next day (the 27th) was Thanksgiving. We're in Canada, and most people here ignored American Thanksgiving. Considering how little attention Americans pay to our Thanksgiving celebration in October, one understands. the pictures I posted last time, reminding myself of what Lois and I looked like 32 years ago, are cause enough for thanks. I am sometimes simply surprised at my good fortune, to be in my 32nd year of marriage to a wonderful woman.

Then Sunday began the Advent season. "Lo, He comes with clouds descending, once for favoured sinners slain. Thousand, thousand saints attending swell the triumph of his train." Remembering our Lord's first coming in weakness, and anticipating his return in power and great glory.

When I think of these things, I think also of Zimbabwe -- or any place where injustice has a grip on people's lives. "All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well." Was that Julian of Norwich? I'm not sure. But the truth is there. Our world is in a mess -- ecologically, morally, politically -- but the prayer, "Your kingdom come on earth as in Heaven" holds true, and I can give thanks. Always.

Such language falls into sermonizing too easily; but I need strong hope for the pessimism that lies just beneath the surface. Family and faith in God: these are sources of strong hope indeed.