People imagine proposals and weddings in this season. Often the images are of cities, bright lights, jewelry, red dresses, handsome ties and mink coats.
But Samuel tells of a shepherd king, raised in the country, taken from the pasture. Mary sings of low estate, and filling the hungry with good things, she herself being unexpectedly with child. Luke recalls a north country, Galilee, small town Nazareth exurban story. Hm. Country. Unexpected birth. North of the city. Story. Hm…It reminds me…
In the early 1980’s we were stationed (appointed) an hour and a half west of Montreal: in the country, up north. We lived in a large, ungainly, and drafty country parsonage. You knew it was a parsonage because on the front of the house there was a sign, to the left of the porch door, which read: Methodist Parsonage. Just so you know. Whether the sign was meant to apologize for the down at the heal condition of the house, or was meant as a point of clarification about ownership, or was, as it certainly proved to be, meant as a guide for hoboes in need of sandwiches, as they drifted through that little town, know one ever said. But it was more than adequate, more than reasonably adequate for two young parents, and two little children, and one child on the way. It was our second parsonage.
Our first parsonage in Ithaca was once the home of Pearl Buck. Our third in Syracuse was a street from the homes of Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolfe. Our fourth home was down the street from the Rochester grave of Frederick Douglass, and not far from that of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Now we live near the offices of Robert Pinsky and Rosanna Warren. But this the second parsonage was in the town immortalized by Laura Engels Wilder, in her book Farmer Boy, the birthplace and home of her husband, Almonzo Wilder, just 6 miles from the Canadian border. Words have fed us and feed us still. As my friend said, of his own liberation, ‘words were my way out.’ We have no excuses not to scour the earth, the heavens, time and place for words fitly spoken, like apples, apples, apples in the sun.
The parsonage was big enough, with two living rooms and an ample dining room, to accommodate some 75 people at one time. We had learned this, and this number, because on the previous Maundy Thursday, the heat in the church had failed, at 10 below zero. So the service of Holy Communion that evening was convened in the parsonage, with hymns played on the baby grand piano, and people scattered from couch to kitchen to pantry to stairs to window sill. One elderly gentleman sat with the minister’s wife accompanist, right on the piano bench. I think he felt honored. Most later agreed that it was not only the coziest but easily the most memorable communion service they could recall.
Sometime well after the snow had begun to cover the farms and valleys of Burke NY, sometime after November 1, that is, the minister had a phone call from a neighboring farmer. The man asked whether the preacher would conduct a wedding for a non-member. Certainly he would and had and the farmer knew this as well as the preacher so the question in the air or over the phone line was the unspoken question what are we talking about?
Well, North Franklin County is not a place of endless talk. There is in fact little said, week by week, and month by month, in the north country. Most would agree there that this is the way things should be, allowing as how most things said don’t need saying at all, and those that do need saying need better saying than they mostly get. I personally knew a beautiful young couple, prosperous potato farmers with two children, for three years and never once heard the husband say a single word. The preacher is also allowed and expected to talk, there being I guess some uncertainty about how to think about the clergy. But even so, the briefer the better, if you please, pastor. Wordless wisdom up north compared favorably with the loquacious knowledge we had known in Ithaca, in the days of Carl Sagan and Hans Bethe. Mile by mile, going north, surprisingly, wisdom if not knowledge increased, along with kindness.
In any event, after a long while of hemming and hawing and not saying, the minister wrangled out of the farmer that the farmer’s hired man wanted to get married. Actually he needed to get married. He wanted to get married, but he also was in a situation where he needed to get married, too. This took the not usually talkative farmer a long while to explain because he did not directly explain what he was trying to explain. Phrases like ‘unexpected circumstance’ and ‘things moving pretty fast’ and ‘sometimes these things happen’ and ‘they are really good young folks’ were clearly spoken but their actually footing on planet earth was hard, or not possible, to ascertain. Finally the preacher said simply, ‘send them up, I am glad to talk to them’. This led to some meetings in the church office, on days when the oil furnace was working, and some lumbering, awkward conversation about marriage, and some planning for a service to solemnize their marriage.
The couple lived on the farm where the husband worked. They lived in a single wide trailer, which is a trailer exactly half as big as a double wide trailer. Hay bales stuffed around the edges and thankfully covered with much snow for half the year mostly kept the pipes from freezing. Housing was provided for the hired man, just like for the minister, but the trailer was a whole lot smaller and a whole lot more dangerous than the parsonage (at least in most physical ways). Milking at 4am and 4pm, every day, and work, all day, in between, every day. You could rent the movie Frozen River and then know quite a lot about this neck of the woods.
After some talk with his wife that night, and receiving the benefit of her genuine generosity and creative kindness, the minister suggested that the couple be married on Christmas Eve day, at noon, in the parsonage. It would be a small wedding, and, as his wife thoughtfully suggested, they could put the children down for nap, early, and then use the piano, have some refreshments, and make something happy and pretty in and of the moment.
The last day of Advent, December 24, came, with a gust of bitter wind, a snow shower, and then a bleak barely visible sun at midday. A little late, the bride and groom appeared. But their friends, who would sign for them (the Empire State being one which requires witnesses other than the clergy, a wise requirement) had somehow not appeared. The three year old daughter could be heard crawling and listening from the top of the stairs. The wind blew and the snow fell. Finally, to make the matter potentially legal, a neighbor lady was invited to come and join the service. She and the minister’s wife later signed the license. The minister performed the ceremony. A carol was sung, that day in late Advent. The three year old would appear, and disappear, as the service progressed, and appeared for good when the cookies were served. Other than the words of the wedding themselves, I do not recall that anything else was said. I refer you to the remarks made some moments ago about the paucity of speech along the great frozen St Lawrence river. But no words really were needed. The farm wife, young and pregnant, was simply dressed in a light dress. Her smile, her gleaming eyes, her red cheeks and smile, her evident enjoyment of the home and homely setting were a full epic poem of happy gratitude. And her husband, scrubbed and crammed head long into a tight black suit and wayward tie, was as dignified, reverent, true and terrified as any groom at any time in the 900 or so weddings the minister has thus far done. Do you? I do. The three year old’s face looked down from the stairs. Do you? I do. The piano played softly, a little meditation, Love Came Down at Christmas.
One loving neighbor, one jubilant three year old, one fairly green preacher, and one creatively generous wife, were present to attest to a wedding, a union of hearts and souls, on a cold winter day, in a forgotten patch of rough land, now some thirty years ago. I can see that piano, taste the cookies, hear the carols, feel the hands, sense the candles as if it were an hour ago, and in some ways it was, just an hour ago.
There are a lot of fine and treasured forms of theological learning which one can and must acquire in the six brief semesters of divinity school. Moses and Jesus, Paul and John, Augustine and Pelagius, Luther and Erasmus, Wesley and Calvin, Barth and Tillich, Amoun of Nitria, the documentary hypothesis, the second aorist, filioque and the teleological suspension of the ethical. All of these and all that stands in between one can and must receive, while there is the time and freedom to meet and know them. You are digging a dip well from which you will need pure water to drink, as you preach, and you try to slake the thirst of the human soul.
The practice of ministry, the privilege of the practice of ministry, however, is learned in the actual doing of ministry, on the piano bench, over cookies, in the smaller living room, at $9,000 a year, in a drafty old manse, with a toddler spying, and a tiny but ever so majestic event—declaration of love, til death us do part. There is a temptation, when one is in school, to think reality begins and ends with the library or the internet or the reputation of a beloved teacher. But it is a big world out there, waiting for you, murky, endlessly fascinating, strange full of need and longing for love, longing for an experience of God.
When the boots were donned, and the gloves and coats put on, the bride, in the hour of her wedding, kissed the child and hugged the pianist. To the minister she gave her hand, and with that Methodist handshake gave the gift of meaning, lasting meaning, in the work and struggle of ministry, wherein one works and struggles to find and keep the grace to put oneself at the disposal of others. On the last day of Advent, on a bitter winter afternoon, at least one preacher was given the privilege of seeing the privilege of life in ministry. And something more: in the handshake, a hint of the hidden God, and the gospel of divine love, creating us, forgiving us, guiding us. It was a sort of Advent Carol. An Advent Carol, lingering like lasting beauty always does, in the eternity of memory. What a privilege to live and be in ministry. There is nothing like it, not in all creation. What a privilege.
The door closed, and the minister and his wife smiled and hugged each other, and sent the daughter back up to nap.
Advent comes around once a year to force an upon us an attitude adjustment. From Luke to Francis to El Greco to Wesley to Boston University in Chelsea and in our Medical Center, we are being reminded of something, our attitude is receiving an adjustment. Faithful witnesses from Nazareth to Roxbury, remind us so. Jesus came out in the country, in birth, up north, among the poor, as a child.
Maybe we can remember that, in our time.
When we learn on a televised 60 minutes news program of children in central Florida, whose homes, whose mangers, whose night repose are in automobiles, parked outside a Walmart where a kind manager lets them be, and they wash up for school at McDonalds, maybe we will remember…
When we recall a little boy left with a pillow and a window ajar in an upstate NY casino parking lot, while mom went to play the slots, maybe we will remember…
When the costs of war, aerial bombardment, are reported in round numbers, in collateral damage, including unnamed children, maybe we will remember…
When we count 20% of the poor in this country as children, maybe we will remember…
When we see flickering on the evening news a fire in a trailer, or a tenement, or a third floor walk up, and think of three year olds there, maybe we will remember…
When we strike again the balance of responsibility and compassion, liberty and justice, freedom and grace, and cast our verbal, financial, and civic ballots, maybe we will remember…
When the preachers says, repeatedly, ‘let those who have much not have too much, and those who have little not have too little, maybe we will remember, remember, remember, the manner of his Advent: outside, countryside, inside, manger side, northside, far side—a poor unexpected baby child.
Maybe it is too much for some to agree that all should have raiment, roof, bedding, safety, a doctor when sick, a teacher when learning, a sacred space that means a safe place. Maybe you would not agree that ALL might so live. But could we not at least grant all this to children? To those 14 and under? To those who have not had a chance to miss and mistake there chance just yet?
As my parents used to say, ‘Bob, somebody let you grow up.’ They didn’t sound like they meant that as a compliment.
Meanwhile, thirty years ago, in a modest parsonage living room…
A knock came again at the door. There stood the groom, gloves off. He had something he had forgotten. He had something he wanted to give. Not to say, but to do. Not to speak, but to act. Not to describe, but to give. I refer you to the demography of verbal silence along the frozen St Lawrence offered some moments ago. He held out his hand, with bills rumpled and folded there in. He looked down, and then quickly up at the pastor. He gave me four dollars. He was truly proud to give it. And I was truly proud to receive it. I only wish I had had the sense to put the bills away as a physical reminder of the day.
No, as a reminder the action required of love, the doing of good. Do you love Jesus? Then you will do something for him.
At every turn, as we come to Christmas, we are reminded that faith is born in trouble, like that little bit of faithfulness was born on the last day of Advent so far away and so many years ago. We are reminded of the lowly entrance our Lord makes into life. That night, at age three, a little girl sang in church, for the first but not the last time, a carol from the countryside, the unexpected side, the northside, whose author is, so fittingly, unknown:
Away in a manger no crib for a bed
The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head
The stars in the bright sky Looked down where he lay
The little Lord Jesus Asleep on the hay
Be near me Lord Jesus I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever And love me I pray
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care
And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.
~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel