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O, Holy Night
The last of the Christmas Eve crowd headed down the front steps of the church. Snow was beginning to fall. I hoped it would be the “decorative” kind—the kind that looks pretty, but that doesn’t get in the way of those who have to be out in it. A little cosmetic snow was always a pleasant addition to the Silent Night ambiance.
From the open doorway of the church, I could see the Christmas lights shining from across the street through the windows at the parsonage. My son Devin, who was home visiting, would be setting out snacks on the plates filled with treats and cookies we had prepared earlier. We would put on some soft music and pour a celebratory glass of wine as I started the great unwinding that comes when the last service is finished. Mike would be home from his services in an hour or so. His congregations were over the mountains, and I hoped the 60-plus mile drive over the pass didn’t give him any trouble. The snow was starting to look like it meant business.
The joys of being a two-pastor family! Living in a conference that is sparsely populated meant that for most of our married life thus far we had lived in separate towns. Mike’s two churches were only an hour or so away, but one of the primary forms of pastoral ministry requires physical presence. Mike had a little house in Superior, and I lived in the parsonage in Stevensville. We had originally planned to alternate days off in terms of who visited the other—but eventually it was Mike who did most of the driving. My congregation was a bit higher maintenance. It was during this season of our life together that I became a Christmas minimalist. There just never seemed to be enough time and energy to do the little extras that are such a delightful part of the holidays—baking, decorating, entertaining, attending parties. My mantra became: “All I want for Christmas is a clean house.” (Come to think of it, I still say that every year.)
Our lives were not totally devoid of tradition, however. The weeks before Christmas were so hectic, we would just put our heads down and go—and then suddenly, after the last Silent Night faded into the darkness, everything just stopped abruptly. All we wanted to do was come home to each other. It might be 11:00 or 12:00 o’clock before we managed it, but that never mattered. Whoever arrived home first would put together plates of goodies. What kind of plates they were on, and how decoratively they were arranged was also dependent on which spouse made it to the kitchen first. If any of our loved ones were home, they would join us as we decompressed, ate, had a celebratory glass of wine, and opened packages. This year, Devin was the only one home, Judy-dear had stayed in Missoula to attend her church’s service.
I was just re-checking the lights in the sanctuary, when Don, one of my helpers for the evening, came around the corner to tell me I had a phone call. Uh, oh. It was not looking good for getting into my comfy clothes and relaxing. As I walked toward my office, I was crossing fingers and toes that this would be a “little” emergency that wouldn’t require me to jump in my car and drive the 30 miles into one of the hospitals in Missoula.
I was surprised to recognize the voice of a former parishioner, named Dennis. He and his wife had moved a couple of years ago, and were now part of one of Mike’s congregations. It took a beat or two for my brain to catch up with my ears. Mike, my Mike, was in the Emergency Room at the small community hospital in Superior. During the service, Mike had begun acting strangely—repeating scriptures and carols he had already led. Eventually, one of the church folks, who was also an emergency responder, gently led him off the chancel area. The call ended as Dennis gave me the phone number of the emergency room.
After a quick phone call to the charge nurse, I finished locking up, and headed across the street to grab a coat and tell Devin what was going on. He volunteered to come with me. I don’t know what I would have done without him.
On a clear day, it took us about an hour to drive between my church and his church in Superior. Tonight, there was not much in the way of traffic, but the snow was now blowing toward the windshield like the Millennial Falcon wheezing into warp speed. I drove, because I needed to do something, to have some sense of control. Pastors see people in pretty scary circumstances, we therefore know more than is probably good for us. My mind raced through worst possible scenarios. The nurse had tried to be reassuring on the phone, saying he was disoriented and confused. It didn’t appear to be a stroke, but they were going to run some tests.
We drove mostly in silence, the radio, turned down low, was tuned to Christmas music. By the time we drove through Missoula, the traffic lights had already flipped to flashing mode. The streets were eerily empty. The pass was icy and slow going. I slowed down only enough to keep from slipping on the curves.
When we got to the ER, Mike was sitting up in bed, surrounded by several of his flock. He grinned when he saw me, trying for what I can only think of as insouciance. (It didn’t work.) His parishioners told me the story from their perspective, and Mike couldn’t really remember any of it. As we waited for the doctor, those who had been at the service took turns coming in to check on him.
After what I am sure felt much longer than it actually was, the doctor came in to tell us that he was still not quite sure what had happened. The only way to absolutely rule out a stroke was to take an MRI. That would mean driving him to a larger hospital in Missoula.
This time, Devin took the wheel, and I sat in the back seat with Mike. As we turned onto the freeway, he asked:
“Where is my wallet?”
“I have it right here.”
A moment later:
“Where is my truck? Do you have the keys?”
“We left it at the church, we will come back for it later.”
“Have you seen my wallet? Do you know where my wallet is?”
“Yes, honey, I’ve got it right here.”
“Okay. Where are my truck keys?”
Like a record with an invisible scratch, we bounced back again and again to a loop of anxiety and uncertainty. My heart flattened in panic. I tried to reply to each query as if hearing it for the first time. What if the Michael I knew was not coming back?
Superior Community Hospital had called the ER in Missoula to expect us. It didn’t take them long to get him in a room and pop him in bed. And then we waited. It was, after all Christmas Eve—scratch that, “Christmas Day.” We were in for a long wait.
There aren’t very many people I would feel comfortable calling at 12:30 a.m. on Christmas morning, my dear friend Judy is one of them. She was 10 minutes away from the hospital—but I think she made it there is five. The four of us, Judy, Devin, Me, and a still-groggy Mike sat in semi-darkness and waited together. Devin and Judy returned to her place to put together some snacks and coffee—if we were to be up all night, we might as well be well-nourished.
At some point in those timeless hours, we became aware of the sound of weeping coming from the room next door. Our pastor reflexes twitched on. Some family, one whose name and circumstances we would never know, had lost a loved one. There was no comfort we could give. We held each other’s hand and held them in prayer together. For that family, and how many others, would every future Christmas now be etched by excruciating loss.
When Judy and Devin returned we sipped our hot coffee and nibbled on snacks as we kept vigil together. Eventually, I talked them into going to Judy’s to try to grab at least a couple of hours of sleep. Daylight brought twanging muscles from trying to doze in the chair for me and a battery of tests for Mike. By mid-day, the doctors had ruled out stroke, Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), and most of the terrifying potentialities that had been running as a continuous loop in my head. Mike’s symptoms gradually faded. The diagnosis, via process of elimination, was Transient Global Amnesia. It is a rather mysterious condition, no one is sure what causes it. But the hospitalist believed Mike would make a full recovery, and he would likely never be troubled by another episode.
When we left the hospital in the early afternoon, the snow had stopped, and the sun struck sparks of light in the fresh snow. We headed home and after tucking Mike into bed, I climbed in to join him. The dogs, wondering where we had been, but always ready for a nap, joined us.
I have absolutely no memory of the rest of that day. It wasn’t the Christmas we had prepared for, but then again, neither was that first one.
O holy night the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angels’ voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born
O night divine o night
O night divine
Blessings, Pastor Nancy
Tucked away in the corner of my Christmas decorations’ tub, is a small white cardboard box. Most of my decorative Christmas items have come and gone over the years, but the contents of this box have made every move with me since my sons were small. I never let anyone else pack them, each item is carefully padded with colorful tissue paper. Even so, when I open the box to remove its contents, small bits and pieces fall off in my hands. I can no longer put them on my tree, for fear that they may fall and break, or a helpful dog may decide to take a bite. They are made from salt dough, created and baked 30 years ago on a dark Canadian winter’s night.
Newcomers’ Club came at just the right time. We had moved to Canada with our two small sons to try to plant a new church. Not easy in a metropolitan area of several million people, with no denominational name recognition, no support network, and a limited financial window (a story for another time) Consequently, there was no local congregation or conference structure to welcome us and help us adjust to our new community, and new country. When I was invited to a Newcomer’s Coffee, I felt like someone had thrown me a lifeline.
Many of the women who participated in Newcomers’ were no strangers to the challenges of frequent re-locations. Some had husbands in the military or police, others were part of the professional managerial class who got moved for promotion all over the country. Some were women who stayed at home, others were executives themselves. part of the local chapter\ were part of a transient professional population. These were women who knew what it was like to move to a place where you didn’t know anyone—they open to new people, and terrific about making fast connections.
Over the next few weeks, I learned to play Euchre (badly), joined an aqua exercise class, hiked in the gorgeous provincial parks, and made some marvelous friends. One evening, I saw a younger woman standing all alone, looking awkward and felt my introverted heart go out to her. I introduced myself and discovered that her name was Stephanie, and she had recently come to Vancouver to accept a job as a nanny. The couple she worked for were young, high-powered executives who lived in one of the new upscale housing developments outside of the city. It was a long way out from everything-but the city was spreading out in that direction. As we talked, she told me that not only was this her first full-time job, but it was the first time she had traveled outside of Australia. I was just floored. I couldn’t imagine how hard that must have been.
At the end of the evening, I arranged to take Stephanie out for coffee on her next day off. I had to pick her up—she didn’t have a car, and there was no public transport out that far. I wondered, what did she usually do on her day off? There was absolutely nothing but houses: no café, no park, no movie theaters (pardon me: (“theatres”) no shopping.
It was a bit alarming to discover that there was no provision made for Stephanie to get out on her own—except for a ride to the monthly Newcomers meeting. The company that arranged her employment had, for all intents and purposes, dropped her off—with no orientation, no supervision, no helpful manager to check in to see how things were going. She was as isolated as if she were in the suburban version of the Outback. I began inviting her over for dinner, for game nights, and then Christmas Craft night.
Another friend from Newcomers and her husband were coming over to help make dough ornaments with the boys. Tina and Scott knew they were short-timers to Vancouver. He was part of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the newlyweds had already been informed that they could expect to be transferred in the coming year. They were a delightful couple, and Tina was a marvel. I was only in my thirties, but Tina would ask me to show her how to do things as if I were an elderly matron. I was glad to help, but she didn’t need it. There was one time she wanted me to teach her how to do counted cross stitch. Two weeks later, she was designing her own patterns. Tonight, was no exception. I made up the dough in a variety of colors, got out the cookie cutters and laid everything out on parchment paper. As the boys and I rolled out dough to cut with our cookie cutters, Tina had already gone freehand. She made lambs with fleece (who knew a garlic press could be so versatile!), an adorable donkey, and even a camel. After working with our cookie cutter shapes for a few minutes, the boys and I decided we would ask Tina to help us make some like hers.
Stephanie joined us about mid-way through the festivities. My husband had run out to pick her up. She sat at the table for a while, eating a snack and watching the boys carefully ( well, mostly) roll their dough and create their ornaments. She was unusually quiet. After we had made the maximum mess for the evening, and the boys were showing signs of imminent melt-down, I put them down for bed. Tina and Scott sat in the living room to visit, and I put on a coat to take Stephanie back to her place.
Sitting in a dark car, the radio turned off, I finally asked: “You have been so quiet all evening, is everything okay?” Stephanie looked straight ahead, took a deep breath and confessed that she was about to be sacked. At dinner that evening, she had blurted out to her employer that she was feeling so sad and lonely, that she was afraid she might hurt the children.
I couldn’t have heard that right. She had said it so matter-of-factly. What could I say to a statement like that? Finally, in the calmest voice I could manage, I said, “Stephanie, you realize that you haven’t given your employer a choice? If that is what you said to her, she has to let you go.” “Yes,” she said, “I know.” She retreated back into her silence. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
When we got to the house, I asked if she would be okay. She said she thought so. And walked toward the house. It was hard to drive away.
The phone call came less than an hour later. Stephanie was weeping, and I could hear an angry woman’s voice in the background. Could I please come and get her? Her employer wanted her out of the house right now. Then angry voice got on the phone and said that there was no one at the nanny agency available to take her until the next morning. She simply could not have Stephanie in the same house a minute longer than necessary. Would I come?
I hung up the phone and headed out once more for the exclusive neighborhood.
An unprepossessing man, with a slight build came to the door, I could hear a television in the background. He pointed me toward the staircase and disappeared toward the sound of the T.V. Stephanie’s room was at the top and to the left. I could have found it without the directions, due to the ringing female voice pounding down the stairwell.
I saw Stephanie and her aggrieved boss at about the same time. The voice turned to include me as part of the audience. The yelling continued, without Stephanie lifting her eyes from her shoes. When she saw me out of the corner of her eye, she gestured to her suitcase. There was only the one: it was about the size of a studio apartment. I sensed I might have some difficulty moving it past the angry woman on the landing—if I could pick it up at all. Stephanie turned away to gather up her remaining belongings. The woman, having lost the attention of her target, began to address all her anger at me.
Let me just say, at this point, that this was one of the largest, well-muscled women I had ever seen. I’ve tried to examine this memory to see if she was actually as big as I remember, or if her anger made her appear bigger than she actually was. But, whichever way it was, it was clear to me that if she decided to get violent, I was in trouble. My heart was up in my throat, as I contemplated what it would be like to just leave the suitcase and grab Stephanie to make a dash to my car.
And then, I wasn’t. I began to speak to her in a quiet conversational tone—the one I used for small boys who were overwrought at bedtime. She had to quiet down to hear what I was saying, and as she did so, the anger slowly leaked out. I could understand her anger, her frustration. She slowed to a stop and stepped into Stephanie’s room, and reached for the handle of the suitcase, (the size of a studio apartment suitcase) picked it up with one hand, and carried it down the stairs and out of the house, where she tossed it into the back of my car as if it were a yoga tote.
She thanked me for picking up Stephanie, and promptly went back into the house.
When I finally managed to reach someone at the agency that handled the Nannys, I was told that I could bring her to the “Nanny House” at 8:00 a.m. the next day. Except for an emotional collect call to her parents in Australia, Stephanie spent the rest of the evening and night on the couch, silent, in a tight fetal position. I finally gave up trying to get her to lie down in a bed, and covered her up with a blanket. Our friends left quietly, and I promised to update them later. I may have dozed.
The next morning, I headed for the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. Our art projects from the night before were all spread out on the kitchen table—baked and ready for Christmas. Angels, Snowmen, Lambs, Donkeys and Stars. O, Holy Night. I wrapped a few in tissue to send with Stephanie. At 7:30, we headed for the “Nanny” house. It was an older home with lots of bedrooms, that were full to overflowing with young women from countries around the world. They were all so young. I wondered how many of them might be headed for a situation similar to Stephanie’s. I had all kinds of questions: How are these women vetted for this program? Did they have any training? Any psychological evaluations? Why was there no support for Stephanie in the weeks before she hit the wall? Was all this even legal? I never did get any answers.
Over the following months, I often wondered what had happened to Stephanie—and all those other girls. It was around Christmas time that we saw the postmark from Adelaide. Stephanie was doing well. It had taken a while, but she was living with her parents, and had a job. She was hoping to go to school in the fall.
Every year, I take out our dough art ornaments. I can still see all of us sitting in the warm kitchen: Devin is sitting in Tina’s lap and she helps him squeeze out the squiggly dough from the garlic press to fleece his lamb. Jonathan is sitting next to me, methodically pushing seed beads into the soft dough with a push pin to provide eyes and a smile for his snow man. In my mind’s eye, I can see Stephanie too. I still wish I had been able to do more for her that night. I wonder where she is all these years later, and if she too digs out her little dough ornaments, no longer strong enough to be on the tree—but more than sturdy enough to remind her that we are never alone.
Blessings, Pastor Nancy
This week is our Celebration Sunday. We will have a chance to turn in our thoughtful responses to the question: how am I called to support the mission and ministry of God in this place? I chose this year’s theme by wondering what gospel values might help me, and all of us, look prayerfully at who we are and who we are becoming.
It seemed to me that in order for me to really live into generosity, I had to look carefully at simplicity. It is so difficult, sometimes, to be honest with myself about how I practice my faith. Sometimes it is easier to think about my faith than live into it. I can love the idea of something, but actually walking the walk of it is far more difficult for me. This is true of things like prayer, meditation, listening, writing, serving—just about every area of life that I want to give over to God’s dream for me and for all human kind.
Most of the time, if I am totally unflinching with myself, I realize that there really is “enough” time, money, space to do the things I feel called to do. The only real obstacle is me. I get in my way. I get in God’s way.
I’m working on it. I will likely have to continue working on it until I take my last breath. Part of the journey for me, is to listen to the impulse of the Spirit—the moment when there is a choice between A and B. Between simplicity of habit and generosity or scurrying around like I am being chased by my calendar. I could help that person struggling with their groceries up the hill—or I could continue to hurry on my way so that I won’t be late. I could rush by the person standing in the office on my way to “important duties” or decide to listen attentively to the story that needs heard. I could finish my to-do list, or I might listen to the call of the Spirit and jump in my car to give a bit of comfort and space to someone feeling overwhelmed by new responsibilities.
This week is about looking at myself and deciding who I am, and who I want to be. I am looking at my time, my energy, my dreams, God’s dreams—and yes, I am looking at how I spend my money. Could the local congregation, the wider church, the people in need do without the money I give? Maybe. And just think! If I didn’t give what I do, I could do other things—buy a newer car, maybe take a nice vacation, do some traveling. And that would be nice. But, beloved of God, here is the thing I keep landing on—I love being part of what God is doing here. I want who I am and how I live to make a difference. I could make a difference in a variety of places, for a variety of causes, but I choose right here at Madras UMC and right now, in partnership with all of you. Of all the places I have been in my life, and of all the cross-roads at which I have stood over the years, this one seems the most important. The world needs us. Right now.
As Uncle Mordecai tells Esther, “Who knows, if perhaps you were put in this position here for such a time as this?” He was talking about her becoming Queen, who could save her people. But I think the words apply to us as well.
I rather think we are here for such a time as this. And it gives me goosebumps.
I am looking forward to sharing time together this week. To commit ourselves anew to who and whose we are. To work toward a world that makes room for the least, the lost, the lonely. To grow strong in faith and delight in God’s hope and dreams for the world.
Blessings and peace, Pastor Nancy