Hoping in the Smallness of Christmas

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I lost my faith yesterday while driving to the grocery store. It happened while the sun shone on sparkling snow and my favorite Christmas music filled the car. While hearing songs about the Jewish Messiah, long awaited, and at last come, I realized how much I wanted it to be true. I longed for this messiah. And, strangely, in the face of my need and longing, my faith faltered. I saw my heart, so small and needy, and I thought I must just be imagining that it’s true. Suddenly, Christmas was just a story. Just a porcelain nativity set with fake gold trim.

My mind has done the work of belief. It’s researched and studied. It’s questioned and sought answers. As answer after answer after deeper answer has come, I’ve started to trust with my intellect that the Bible is true. That Christianity, with its explanations and historical accounts, is factual. My mind doesn’t cause me to doubt.

But it’s my heart. It’s my little heart that wants so much to believe that causes me to lose faith.

So yesterday, as an agnostic, I walked into the grocery store to buy the last of my Christmas supplies. Somewhere, I thought, there’s something higher. There’s another world around and mingled with this one, with spirits and powers and things I can’t see. But, I can’t know it. It’s impossible to know what’s true. We’re too small to hold it. We’re all just needy guessers.

And, I walked through the aisles with other souls around me filling their carts. There was the mother with tired eyes. The baby in a car seat was sleeping, a knitted hat circling the little head that I could just see through the quilted cover. The mother studied with hurried and tired exactness the fruits and vegetables. An elderly couple smiled back at me as they moved slowly and took their time, choosing their holiday foods and scratching things from their list. I stood in line next to a well-dressed middle aged man. He had a bachelor cart, filled with some locally brewed beer, a rotisserie chicken and some items from the salad bar. I wondered if he had children, even though his cart had nothing to indicate he’d be feeding any, and if so, if he’d be seeing them this Christmas. I hoped that the sweet lady that bagged my groceries, as she managed the busy day shift, would be spending Christmas at home. She has a new baby boy, just a few months old. I know that while she smiles and places my eggs and bread so carefully in bags, that her heart is somewhere else.

I left this store that’s always full of hungry people, and I drove again through the white world. And, I wondered. What is true? I see beauty and brokenness everywhere, all mixed together and shaken up. I know that there’s love and hate and anger and sadness and laughter and joy and self-sacrifice and selfishness and it’s all contained in each one of us. Ancient, orthodox Christian doctrines would also tell me that this is true. We were created by God in His image… we have the fingerprints of the divine on our souls that make us valuable and beautiful beings full of worth. The people in the grocery store are so beautiful. I see that. And yet, there’s something wrong. I can feel it when I’m doing something as simple as standing in line to pay for my groceries. There’s something heavy weighing on us and it’s not just when we’re watching the latest heartbreaking crisis on the news that we know it. Even in the mundane, or celebratory moments, there’s an ache in our humanity. Weeds have sprung up in the garden of our hearts and pain has poured into the labor of our relationships. In smallness we toil. In the shadows of Eden, there’s an ache for an old glory. A restoration. For something to make it all better.

Once, I stood in my farm kitchen with some ladies who’d come to save my soul. I looked into their eyes and I saw their sincerity. But, when I told them that we could never agree because of this one thing that I believe, that Jesus is God, they admitted it. They pleaded their case with me and, looking aghast at each other, exclaimed, “Why! If Jesus was God that would mean that God would have had to sleep and eat just like us. God would have even had to use the bathroom! Don’t you see? God could never do that! He’s too holy, too majestic.”

And, as they spoke, the truth of what they said came washing over me. If Jesus was God that would mean God would have had to … be just like us.

…Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:6-8

God. Emptied, in the form of a servant, in the likeness of men. In human form, humbled, hanging on a cross. God in the smallness of human life and the humiliation of death.

Christmas is hard to take in.

It’s so much easier to imagine a God that is far away. He’s somewhere in the sky separate from us. He set things in motion and then took a hands-off approach. He might be keeping tabs on what we’re doing, and he might hear our prayers sometimes, but he’s big and we’re small. He could never be one of us.

But, Christmas says differently. It says God doesn’t think the way we do. His story is so big that he can enter our smallness.

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Luke 2:10-12

This year, my thoughts turned to Christmas early. My very first Christmas card came in October. The dear friend sent it before Halloween, not knowing if she would be alive this week before Christmas. I spoke to Tamie a few days ago, from her hospice room in a nursing home, and she sounded embarrassed about sending her cards so early. She said, “I just didn’t know…” and her voice trailed off. My heart ached with that familiar pain of knowing that my friend is going to leave us soon.

In October, she had already decorated her room for Christmas. The nurses called it ‘Christmas village’ and paused by her bedside a little longer to stand by the small lit tree and listen to Christmas music. Tamie told me, “I know it’s early but I’m going to enjoy Christmas. And, I’m going to leave everything just the way it is until I’m gone. I won’t pack everything in boxes. It’s going to stay Christmas.”

I want it to stay Christmas, too. I want Christmas to sweep over this hurting world and to make it all better. And I want it to stay. I want it so much that I feel like I’m asking for a fairy tale ending. I’m begging for a ‘happily ever after’ but this broken down world tells us over and over again that those don’t exist.

As a child, it used to be so easy to believe in Santa and to hang my empty stocking for him to fill. I wasn’t cynical. I didn’t think about my smallness in the face of a big world of empty stockings on Christmas Eve. I went to sleep with faith. I rested, knowing that in the morning I’d see my hopes fulfilled. And, without fail, my stocking was near bursting when I woke. Do I dare to hope that there’s a real version of this story?

Can I bring my small and needy heart to be filled at Christmastime?

Maybe we’re not just imagining because we’re weak and needy, but our weakness and our needs point us to something real. We long because we are made to long. Maybe in our smallness He’s seeking us.

Driving home from the grocery store, with all these thoughts going through my mind, I started to pray. I prayed like it was all true. I prayed like there is a God who became man and understands our weakness. I prayed like He cares about me and my children and my husband and my hurting friends and family and the strangers I saw in the grocery store.

And, as I prayed, belief came sweeping back in. I took Christmas in my hands, held it tight and let it be mine. And the God who doesn’t despise smallness was there. One holy night, He took the hope of the world, wrapped it in swaddling clothes and placed it in a manger. This was the sign he gave to the humble shepherds and it’s still the sign he gives to us if we believe it. He’s willing to enter into a stable or a car full of groceries and He’s even willing to fill up a human heart. What makes it so hard to believe is the very thing that makes it genuine. It’s the longed for true ending of every story we’ve ever hoped to believe.

May our hearts be full of the smallness of Christmas, friends.

Grace to you and peace~

Lara

Home At Last

Home At Last

“I could not look upon the peaks of Ascutney, Killington, Mansfield, and Equinox, without being moved in a way that no other scene could move me. It was here that I first saw the light of day; here I received my bride, here my dead lie pillowed on the loving breast of our eternal hills.”

-Calvin Coolidge, (on visiting his home state of Vermont)

In Maine, just as the blueberries were nearing their peak, I stood with my family on top of Haystack Mountain. I’ve always had trouble when people ask me where I’m from in Maine, in narrowing it down to a town. What I’d like to say is that I’m from the view off of Haystack.

That July night, after dinner but before dusk, I stood with my mother and we pointed out the places. Off to the east, in Searsmont, it was easy to pick out the patch of earth that was my father’s land. Forty six acres in the back section had burned in a forest fire this spring; you could see a gray rectangle of trees that had been charred and blackened and wouldn’t be bearing green leaves again. Closer to us would be the vegetable gardens, with cucumbers, beans and maybe my father bent over some weeds.

I moved my gaze slightly northward and could see the gap in the trees where the road stretches away to Belfast on the coast. Somewhere there, out of site, rests Islesboro in deep salt water and in the far distance, its steady gaze over both the ocean and the inlands, stood Blue Hill looking back at us.

Bringing my eyes closer again, I could see the Kingdom, where Cram Pond stands quiet and still but remembers when the mills and houses and school stood along the river and filled its shores with people. Stories still echo over the water like the eeriness of loon calls. It’s where my grandmother was born, one of seven children, and where my great-grandmother ran and wept by the waterfalls when she lost her husband. The powerful rush of water still tumbles down, all these years after her tears joined them in their course.

Past the Kingdom runs the road to Morrill. I could see it tucked into the hills in the north, hiding my sister’s houses, my grandfather’s and the church where my husband and I were married. It’s there that my sisters and I used to ride our horses across the side of Frye Mountain, passing one grandmother’s house on Rowe Hill and coming out hours later just below the other’s on Morey Hill. Frye Mountain, like Cram Pond, is a place where stories lie thick. Thirty-seven cellar holes are left up there, with apple trees growing beside in a wilderness. There used to be beautiful old farmhouses, with water running from springs in the side of the mountain into kitchens, and with big barns housing horses, cows and sheep. Once I stood with my grandfather as we looked from his house to Frye Mountain; he told me that he could still remember when there was barely a tree over there on the side of that hill. Looking at the trees covering it completely like a thick, tucked-in blanket, I almost didn’t believe him, though the miles of stone walls where pastures once were tell the same story.

Past Frye Mountain to the northwest is Hogback Mountain. They say that many years ago, two of my great great grandfathers were friends and could bellow back and forth from where they each lived on the side of the hills, having conversations across the miles. There are still stories echoing. They echoed all over, from every direction, as I stood and looked out at the view from Haystack Mountain.

Following Hogback, and coming closer West again, my mother pointed out the place where her own house sits in Montville. We moved there when I turned ten. That same year one sister went off to college, one sister left to get married, and my mother got remarried herself.  She and my stepfather bought the Montville house together, and moved my little sister and me to a new town with a new school district. It seemed at the time like I had been torn from my roots; all that was familiar and loved had been left behind. Now, it blends easily into the landscape of home as seen from Haystack Mountain. Even the house itself sits in a place that echoes family history. When my grandmother was a girl, her mother a widow, they left the Kingdom and moved right to the spot where my mother and stepfather dragged me so unwillingly. When my grandmother came to visit us that first year, she told stories of when she lived just down the hill and used to walk to attend school in what is now the house across the street from my mother’s.  She said something like, “I’ve been right here in this room before. The lady who used to live here was a seamstress and she was doing some sewing for a little girl. She saw me going to school and thought I was about the same size as that little girl. She asked me to come in so she could size a dress.” And in that spot where I felt so far from home, my grandmother said, “I’ve been right here before.”

Leaving Maine, and the view from Haystack, was difficult this time. Sort of like when I was ten, and didn’t want to leave Morrill, my heart kept crying out, ‘but that is home’.  And I shed some tears, and I had some attitude about living away, and I finally decided that I didn’t have to be on top of Haystack to look back toward home. I started looking for the stories. I decided to research and write about those places, and was drawn especially to the forgotten and echoey places like Frye Mountain and the Kingdom that are so rich with history.

And, I’m finding the stories. I’m finding that so many people have been right here before.

There are old family papers my grandfather collected in two briefcases with finicky latches, photos and newspaper clippings, letters and genealogies spreading over pages like branches or roots. A library archive of interviews about Frye Mountain were waiting like treasures in a mine; I’ve been pouring over transcripts that hold voices of a generation that is fast disappearing, telling stories of generations that they are the only ones who remember. There are maps marked with family names and old names on roads and corners and gravesites. Names copied from family Bibles, names from lists of men going off to war, names with just dates of birth and marriage and death. Names that are all we have left of each life full of stories. Names that tell us that so many people have been right here before.

Spending time with these names, and the stories that I have in pieces from times past, is helping me with my homesickness; maybe even by taking it to a deeper level that is truer. It’s reminding me that, despite how firm a stake in life we feel like we have as we work and entertain ourselves, we will only hold our place here for so long; day passes day and it wasn’t so long ago that others stood on these hills surveying the landscape. It isn’t so long before our turn will be past and others will take our place. And perhaps in a surpassing way, when we reach heights where we can see beauty and expanse, our hearts are moved by longing. There’s an echo in the air of a deeper, greater story. In a way, no matter where on earth we tread, as we strain our ears for the rest of the story, there’s a pang of homesickness in our souls. It’s okay to not be totally satisfied. There’s appropriateness in not feeling a sense of complete belonging. There’s a call in the air but it hasn’t been answered. It isn’t the time yet that we can finally say, with those who have gone on ahead of us, that we are truly ‘home at last!’

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…”

CS Lewis, from ‘The Last Battle’

The Cow Lady’s Gift

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Yesterday I shelled our dry beans. I cracked the brown, crinkling pods and dropped the large, purple speckled dry beans into a basin. As I did one after another, my thoughts turned to the cow lady.

We told her we were in the process of moving but that she could keep her two Jersey calves in our barn temporarily. Only the black and white Belted Galloways were left in our pasture and they would be leaving soon. The sheep, and horse and our own little family of Jersey cows had all been sold. We’d already signed papers and knew we were leaving the farm ourselves. It was an aching time of packing and waiting and living in an ending.

Our own two Jersey cows were named Daisy and Buttercup. They were half sisters and the farmer was willing to give us a good deal if we took them both during a January cold spell. We brought them home and fussed and worried and I sewed them fleecy jackets. When that week the temperature hit nearly twenty below, my husband talked about sleeping in the barn with a space heater. Bottles three times a day had us out in the cold. We trudged out through the sharp dawn, later, the sun high and reflecting on crusty snow and still again in the evening to notice each gradual change in the moon’s shape. I remember cabin fever didn’t hit that year like it usually did in February.

Daisy was mine because she was sweet and Buttercup was my daughter’s because she was frisky. Spring brought halter training and romps through the pastures. It must have been the bottles of milk when they were young that helped, but while the beef cows were usually pretty content to keep to themselves, the Jerseys would follow in our tracks as we did chores. To my daughter, Buttercup was a confidant and playmate. For a few precious years the fawn colored girls were part of our family and our future plans.

This was a golden age of our brief stint as farmers and then things changed suddenly. A day came when someone drove in the barnyard and loaded Daisy, Buttercup and their calves onto a trailer. They looked through the bars and money exchanged hands and somehow they weren’t ours any longer. Even though a little girl cried herself to sleep night after night, they were gone.

It was a few months after that when a neighbor called saying that a friend was coming to town and needed a place to keep two Jersey calves. Two little heifers just under a year old. I wanted to say no, and yet, we didn’t have a good reason. It wouldn’t be easy to find a place to board them in our little town and we had the space. So, in a few days, two calves showed up in Daisy and Buttercup’s pole barn again.

I really don’t remember the lady’s name. The kids all called her the cow lady and that’s how I remember her. She’d come twice a day to do chores and sometimes my daughter would join her and walk the calves with her up and down the road. It was bittersweet to see a sight so familiar and yet know that this was a chapter of our lives that had ended. We were just experiencing a long, drawn out goodbye while we waited for everything to be settled and to leave the farm for good.

It was the cow lady that gave my daughter the bean seeds. In February, for her tenth birthday, the cow lady gave her a little box and inside were five large seeds and a note with planting instructions.

By Spring, the cow lady had moved on and so had we. We turned the soil in our little garden patch in the woods and my daughter found a stout pole and planted her seeds around it. Unfortunately, the chickens (who besides the dog were the only animals that made the move from the farm), managed to break into the garden and scratch in the soil until only two bean seeds remained. These two weren’t even left by the pole but managed to grow along the garden fence where they had been flung by the chickens.

By August, the vines had wrapped themselves high and the plants were in blossom. They were a deep orange-red against the green in the garden and bees and hummingbirds were drawn steadily to their blossoms. In the fall, the long pods had browned and dried and my daughter excitedly picked and shelled them and found that she had a jar full of beans identical to the ones she had planted in the spring. From those two, misplaced, dropped in the earth, purple seeds a bounty of a harvest had grown. Each new season, we find at harvest time that they have multiplied again and this year we had a row planted all along one side of the garden, growing tall and winding around the fence and sunflowers.

So, yesterday I stood shelling bean after bean.

We’ll use some for soup but I’ll be sure to set some aside for planting in the Spring. These beans, falling out of the dried and brown pods, are just resting. What seems dead and dry and lifeless, is holding all the potential for tall green vines and the brightest flowers in the garden.

While I stood shelling those beans, I had other thoughts. With my hands busy my mind could wander to situations that needed sorting and loved ones that needed prayer. I turned over the words of a friend dealing with heartbreak and brokenness.  I thought of so many who are dealing with painful, dark days. Days of prayers that don’t get answered in ways that make sense to our hearts and minds. Days when the first thoughts of the day are painful and it’s hard to get to sleep at night.

But as these thoughts and names passed through my mind, my hands held the cow lady’s gift; the gift of remembering grief and death and leaving and the gift of seeing hope and new life and revealed purpose. The gift of seeing with renewed thankfulness the joy of today and the blessing and goodness that came from hard changes. The gift of my daughter’s happiness. The gift of remembering seasons and that spring always follows winter and that what is sown in the ground doesn’t stay there.

After I cast the last of the brown pods into the compost, I took the basin of seeds in my arms and carried it into the house. Before I reached for a jar, I counted out five, large, purple speckled seeds. With a prayer, I placed them in an envelope for a friend.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18