Oniontown Pastoral: Thanks for the Christmas Spirit, Uncle Bim

Oniontown Pastoral:

Thanks for the Christmas Spirit, Uncle Bim

I’m pleased to report that my Christmas spirit arrived ahead of schedule this past Wednesday evening. Lutheran purists discourage Yuletide carols during Advent, but as a neurotic of long standing, I’m used to competing crescendos in my soul. There’s always room for joyful melodies in this pastor’s inn.

Uncle Bim and his wife Mabel

Good old Uncle Bim deserves credit for my cheerful disposition. Over lunch at Greenville’s Stone Arch recently, he gave me some great guidance. That Bim was really something! He died years ago and wasn’t actually a relative, but he reached across bloodlines and granted a stranger quiet joy, which I’ll explain momentarily.

But first, that aforementioned Wednesday evening: I was lounging when Kathy issued a terse statement: “John, I want you to decorate the tree.”

Oh, bother! Hanging ornaments on a plant that’s more porcupine than tree doesn’t make me festive. “Nothing warms me up like blowing steam off a mug of cocoa while selecting another lovely bulb,” I’ve never ever said, “then rummaging through wads of tissue paper for a loose hook.”

In truth, I bear holiday scars. My mother made me string popcorn and cranberries, and for every inch of artistry, I earned one sewing needle prick in the finger. Before that I was assigned to tinsel, which Mom insisted be applied strand by staticky strand. My method of flinging clumps from three paces back wasn’t tolerated.

For love of Kathy I feigned merriment at my assignment. The only thing worse than battling inertia would have been bursting her buoyant Christmas spirit.

Pick that one!

As I surveyed the ornaments, Uncle Bim patted my shoulder. Was the fellow whose pinched features I’ve seen only in photographs advising me? “John, look at those faded construction paper ones your kids made. Pick those.”

So I did, and as kindergarten led to third grade and graduations led to grandsons, other handmade treasures revealed themselves. Suddenly it was my turn to be the boss: “Kathleen, I’m putting up mostly the ones people made for us.”

Wooden circles became snowmen. Cotton balls grew into Santa’s beard. Starch and thread formed lacy snowflakes. I imagined loved ones, especially kids, working at kitchen tables. Felt coats dressed Popsicle sticks. Elbow macaroni took the shape of angels.

One of daughter Elena’s ornaments, with a smile to hide a missing tooth

Son Micah’s handiwork: “I’m making this for my dad.”

Our plastic tree came alive. Elmer’s Glue showing around an elf’s cheeks and cracks in the gingerbread house were dear, like a child’s milk mustache or crow’s feet when Grandma laughs.

Uncle Bim’s matchstick cross

Lifting up beauty after ragtag beauty, I thought of Bim hunched over his own kitchen table. St. John’s friend Bill told me all about his Uncle Bim at the Stone Arch. “Bim used to make crosses out of nut shells and matches,” he said. “He gave two matchstick ones, plus a basket made of old Christmas cards.”

So that’s where the walnut-shell cross in the church office at St. John’s came from! I later found the attribution—Wayne Miller, 1980—scratched in pencil on the back. Bill can’t say where his uncle’s nickname came from, but that basket still abides on his dresser and holds car keys and odds and ends. The old crosses also hang in Bill’s basement, where he retreats from the summer heat.

Uncle Bim’s walnut-shell art hanging over church secretary Jodi’s desk

Sad to say, when my own children’s masterpieces graced the family refrigerator, I would have considered Bim’s work “kitsch”—unaccomplished, sentimental. Back then I was neurotic—some things never change—and a snob.

Not anymore. At this time of year in particular, I’m drawn to what is worn thin by human touch or crooked because a halo got bumped while the glue was wet. Thank God, beauty has been patient with this Oniontown beholder.

In blessed memory I kiss hands that held the scissors. From the next room I hear the laughter of a grown son who once thought, “I’m making this for my dad.”

Don’t forget me, Bill.

The work of loving hands refuses to be silent. That’s what Uncle Bim helped me to understand. His basket made of season’s greetings and red yarn still says to his nephew, “Hey, Bill, don’t forget about me.”

My late mother’s snowflakes, nothing but starch and thread, whisper, “Remember how I loved you, John.” Other voices from here and beyond join hers.

Tonight I’ll recognize them all while praying in the light of our tree. “I love you, too, Mom,” I’ll think. “I love all of you. I wish we could be together again right now.”

My mother’s starch and thread

But I’ll be quiet, look at the ornaments up close and receive the Christmas spirit—which is to say, wipe away tears.

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Oniontown Pastoral: Pop’s Christmas Psalm

Oniontown Pastoral: Pop’s Christmas Psalm

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Cole fixing our toilet tank

Schmaltz Alert! If you’re tired of my posts about the grandsons, please take a pass. No hard feelings.

My grandson Cole loves all things mechanical. Put a toy hammer in his hand and he’ll go on a fixing spree. Wobbly bed posts will be pounded tight, rough edges in the home tapped smooth. Whining drills and purring engines command his rapt attention.

Come to think of it, Cole’s love isn’t restricted to tools and motors. He has an expansive spirit for a tenderfoot of three years. His interest reaches beyond fascination. When I recently took my thumb off for him–a corny trick I picked up years ago from Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live–he said, “I don’t like that.”

“Oh, buddy,” I said, “I didn’t really take off my thumb. That was make-believe.”

But he assumed that if my thumb came apart at the knuckle, I must have hurt myself. Honest to God, his frown and furrowed brow have medicine the human race needs to feel compassionate again. I promised not to do that trick anymore.

When Cole comes with my wife and me to St. John’s in Oniontown on Sunday morning, he often ends up weaving between the pine trees along the parking lot. Grandma Kathy follows behind, the two of them gathering a treasure of cones. The air itself–hot, cold, doesn’t matter–brings the kid joy as he runs his silly run through it. His trunk and limbs swing independent of each other so he looks like a marionette with a drunkard at the strings.

Cole’s run put to words would mean, “Look! This is gladness!”

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Pop and Cole just before his second birthday: the air alone makes his face shine. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

But he wouldn’t say anything like that. He is too giddy to make an observation. Anyway, his mouth has no way of keeping pace with his speedy mind. He deals with this inconvenience by simply repeating whatever word happens to be on his tongue until the logjam in his brain clears. Many of his sentences begin with “I, I, I, I, I.”

Fortunately, the boy makes listening worthwhile. My daughter Elena told me about watching with Cole from the family mini-van as a backhoe scooped away at a patch of ground next to a pine tree. The hole got deeper and deeper, but neither mother nor son knew why.

Then the backhoe did something surprising. The driver put the back of the bucket against the tree and pushed it over. Turns out the hole was dug to weaken the roots and fell the tree.

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Watching (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Elena didn’t need to describe Cole’s expression. I could imagine it. His face—those pink cheeks and fine eyelashes—bright with awe, darkened in an instant. And I’m sure what happened required a few seconds to take on words.

“The tree can’t be down like that,” he finally said. “It has to be up. So so so the squirrels can eat the pine.”

I can’t remember what Elena’s response was, but I’ll bet everything she kissed him and said he was right. My buddy didn’t get a great soul by accident. His parents are faithful stewards of their son’s divinations.

Sure, there was probably an excellent reason for the pine tree to fall, but that’s not the point.

And now you’ll assume I’m speaking poetically, but my purpose couldn’t be more prosaic. Please don’t try to domesticate my grandson’s wild kindness or the Christmas psalm I now write, grateful to be his Pop:

Listen, you nations of the world,

listen to my grandson

and make his loving gaze your own.

Children of God must never be uprooted,

offspring of the Creator never left without pine.

Legs must run a silly run for the Lord.

Arms must never be separated from their bodies,

lest infants who find no room in the inn

be denied the manger of human hearts.

Sing, all people to your God,

sing a song of mercy.

Pray to your Lord for spacious spirits,

where refugees find welcoming borders

and bread enough for multitudes.

Look, you nations, at children.

Your Lord sees you with their eyes.

 

Christmas Time Is (Still) Here

Christmas Time Is (Still) Here

Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” playing in my ear buds is barely overcoming the percussive assault on Starbucks’ speakers—over which my beloved baristas have no control. The Mother Ship picks, I guess.

Our Advent binge on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Blue Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Christmas Time Is Here” and “The Christmas Song” and “Please Come Home for Christmas” and “What Christmas Means to Me” and “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” has lots of folks hung over as of December 26th.

Not me. Music of the Nativity will decorate the Coleman house until the Epiphany, our idea being that it’s impolite to close down the celebration before the magi have arrived with their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The tree is lovely. Leave it up. The songs are soothing. Keep listening.

Honestly, though, my reason for lingering in the yuletide has more to do with what has filled my soul’s stocking lately than with the Christian calendar. Over my fifty-four gift-giving seasons (good grief!), my thoughts have turned from what I hope to receive to what I’m fortunate to have. Much as I loved the packages I opened on Christmas day, never have I cared less about what would be in them.

A man would be greedy to expect more from his portion of years than I have right now. This understanding settled upon me as I lay in bed some nights ago while wife Kathy made doll clothes at the dining room table. Her sewing machine hums and whirs regularly in our Parkway Drive home, but hearing it embraced by the warm promise of sleep returned me to Wagner Avenue, where I grew up.

A sewing machine’s singing, like other music, is sweetened by rests. The gift being stitched together breathes, as does the whole dwelling.

My mother made her own skirts and alterations to our family’s clothes. It never occurred to me before that the sound of a sewing machine holds for me what was loving and healthy on Wagner Avenue.

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My mother’s Christmas cactus, once on Wagner Avenue, now on Parkway Drive

As I opened my eyes a crack to taste the hallway’s dim light and groaned at a throb of bursitis in my shoulder, the joy and affection that fed me long ago kept company with current blessings.

The Colemans are housed, fed, clothed, adequately employed, and reasonably healthy. In other words, we’re all okay at the moment.

Most of our life-stealing troubles have passed away or at least gone on hiatus.

Like many Americans, I wouldn’t protest if somebody threw unexpected fists-full of cash at me, but, thank goodness, money and possessions aren’t obsessions.

I’ve known the gladness of being a husband, father, grandfather, friend, and pastor. The people closest to me tolerate my shortcomings.

After thirty-two years, I love my wife more than ever.

I believe in a God of grace and mercy.

In the quiet between Kathy’s stitches, such unmerited gifts hemmed me in, behind and before. “Enough,” I thought, “much more than enough. More than plenty.”

But there was still more. There was Christmas day. Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt donated immunizations and medicine in my name for Third World children. They thought about who I am and came up with that idea.

Son Micah made us close our eyes. After a minute, he told us to look. On our laps rested stockings. With 2015 being tight, we told the kids we would be skipping this tradition temporarily. “It’s not much,” Micah said, “but we’ve got to have stockings on Christmas.” Mary Janes never tasted so good.

Grandson Cole handed each of us a homemade ornament made out of some baked flour concoction. Like the others, mine bore a few smears of watercolor. “Cole paint that,” he said. Three words and earthly elements: a sacrament stirred in my chest.

When everybody headed home, Kathy said over and over again, “I had so much fun. That was the best Christmas.”

Just one more: Cole and I sat on the couch and shared peach pie a la mode. I got to watch him open his mouth for every bite as the Grinch and his rein-dog trumpeted their way back into Whoville to pass out gifts and share roast beast.

I’ve memorized all the kids’ Christmas shows. These days I would rather stay with my grandson’s eyes—merry and bright!—until I know them both by heart.