the other story…

Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite
distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow,
if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible
for each to see the other whole against the sky.

Rainer Maria Rilke


(historic marker for the Duelist’s Grave / The Colonial Cemetary,
Savannah, Ga / Julie Cook / 2018)

There’s a street I’ll usually cut through when I’m driving home from town.
It’s a street that my husband isn’t always keen that I take.
Not that he worries about my safety in doing so…it’s just that he thinks it
a bit seedy.
And lord knows should my car suddenly quit working…then where would I be?!

I suppose in seedyville.

And this is when my eyes roll at such a thought as I remind him I’d simply be in the same
town I’ve now called home for nearly 40 years…no worries.

It’s not necessarily a bad street in a bad part of town, but it does have its share of
what some might call a few folks who are ‘rough around the collar.’
A mixed sort of neighborhood to be sure.

But having taught school in our community for over 30 years,
I figure I know or have known all the kids from every side of town…
the upside, downside and in between side…so it really doesn’t bother me.
Many are now very much grown and I no longer recognize their faces but they know me…
so if I’m ever stranded in or around town, someone I once knew will most likely
know me now.

When I first started teaching, it was the “westside” of our town that was more or less
the more infamous part of town.
My kids (aka students) who lived in that part of town would ask if I’d ever been there…
and of course, I’d tell them yes as I had actually given ‘so and so’ a ride home.
They would in turn quickly chastize me, telling me not to go after dark.

It’s a shame that we have such sections of our towns and communities…
but the fact of the matter is that we do–as every city and town seems to have its fair
share of places one should be cautious about traveling through.

So on this particular cut through street of mine, sits an old house that looks a bit
piecemealed together…
as in it started out as a single story wooden framed home when at some point or other,
an upper story was oddly added with an open deck that makes me think “old Florida”…
as in the older type of houses built near the ocean back in the day, long before there were
multimillion dollar McMansions and highrise condos.
More bungalow than house.

The yard around the house is pretty rough looking, cluttered and littered with both weeds
and junk.
The upstairs deck is covered with what must be 50 birdhouses of various sizes, shapes
and descriptions.
Plus in bold black letters, on the front of this mishmashed house, are the words
“The other story”
Which is another throwback to those old beach bungalows when folks would name their cottages…

The other side of the story…
As in this fellow who lives here, and I say fellow because this place screams of a
curmudgeonie sort of person that calls this place “home”…maybe its the broken down lawnmower
and all it’s scattered parts…but no matter, it seems that this fellow has his own side to
some sort of story.

All of which has reminded me of something I recently read…
It reminded me of a different sort of ‘the other story’…or maybe it reminded
me of what is actually the real story…

I read that there are actually two Christmases…
Two different Christmases both rolled one into the other.

There is, of course, the Christmas of Black Fridays, Cyber Mondays, giving Tuesdays,
Santa at the mall, presents, mistletoe and all that speaks of secularism and consumerism.

And then on the flip side, there is the ‘other’ Christmas.

The Christmas of Christ’s Mass…the birth of the savior.

The latter, however, is deeply overshadowed by the former…and it seems that it is
overshadowed more and more each year with what seems to be a concerted effort to actually
drown it out forever.

But it is that other story, that other Christmas story that is actually the real
and only story.

Because it is the original story
The original Christmas.

The story being that of salvation.
The story of, a once long-ago time, when Hope was returned to earth…
in the form of a baby.

An amazing story really.

Not so much a story about mistletoe, or shopping til you drop, or of presents or
of cyber this or that but rather a story of unconditional love made manifest.

There’s always another side to every story…and I for one certainly prefer this other Christmas
story to that more modern version of this sacred story…

“It does seem strange that so many persons become excited about Christmas
and so few stop to inquire into its meaning,
but I suppose this odd phenomenon is quite in harmony with our unfortunate human
habit of magnifying trivialities and ignoring matters of greatest import.”

A.W.Tozer

Christ came to bring peace and we celebrate his coming by making peace impossible
for six weeks of each year…
He came to help the poor and we heap gifts upon those who do not need them.

A.W. Tozer

And so this is Christmas

It is not the gift, but the thought that counts.
Henry Van Dyke

It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well,
if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, “God Bless Us, Every One!

Charles Dickens

DSCN8837
(reproduction of a fresco piece of Hoy Family Nativity originally created by Fra Angelico / The original fresco is located on a wall within a former monk’s cell at the Convent of San Marco in Florence, Italy / Julie Cook / 2014)

And so this is Christmas, and what have you done. . .

As I come before a crude makeshift cradle this early new Christmas morn,
to kneel, not before an altar, but rather before a king. . .
To both ooo and ahhh over a new born babe nestled in the straw as the essence of animals and cow dung mingle with the warm heady fragrance of both Frankincense and Myrrh, my mind and heart each race pondering over what it is that I have brought this special day, to this very special birth-day, as my special gift.

What gifts have I brought to this new mother and father for the birth of their first born son?
What gifts have I brought to the babe so tender and mild?
What gifts have I brought to a king so full of mercy and grace?

And as I take my place on this yearly pilgrimage, kneeling once again before this cradle so dear, I wonder what it is that have I done throughout the course of yet another year which I could now present, of that which is worthy to lay before this babe who would be king?
Have I been kind?
Have I worked for peace?
Have I fed the poor?
Have I clothed those without?
Have I taken in the homeless?
Have I opened my heart?
Have I turned the other cheek?
Have I loved rather than hated?
Have I rejoiced rather than complain?
Have I honored God?
Have I respected others?
Have I offered shelter?
Have I given second chances?
Have I offered love to all I meet?

As now the same question remains for each of us. . .and so this is Christmas,
and what have you done. . .

So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun

And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones
The old and the young

A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Christmas
For weak and for strong
For rich and the poor ones
The world is so wrong

And so happy Christmas
For black and for white
For yellow and red ones
Let’s stop all the fight

A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Christmas
And what have we done
Another year over
And a new one just begun

And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young
A very merry Christmas

And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

War is over over
If you want it
War is over
Now…

John Lennon
1971

Last Chance

Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.
Thomas Jefferson

RSCN8803
(Downy woodpecker / Julie Cook / 2014)

“The last minute is finally here”
“Hurry, hurry, hurry”
“Last chance”
“Hurry it’s not too late”
“Save, Save, Save”
“Order by midnight and it’ll be there by Christmas”
“On time delivery, Guaranteed”

The promises
The promotions
The gimmicks
The pitches
On and on and on they go
The Television ads
The inundated email inbox
The glaring newspaper ads
The annoying radio spots
On and on and on
Ode to the frantic consumerism of Christmas
Prices slashed
Promises made
Guarantees guaranteed

Everyone seems to be vying for your business.
Stores are offering deals, savings, price cuts and rapid deliveries at almost super human speed.
There’s a franticness in the air.
A do or die sort of mentality.
All as the “last minute” fast approaches.

And what is this last minute business of which we are hearing so much about?
Is it the single final millisecond remaining to buy a loved one something that will “make their life??”
Because who wants to wake up Christmas morning disappointed because someone waited too late?
Is that what this is all about?
Disappointment?
Not having the latest and greatest?
No latest this or that waiting under the tree, hiding beneath the pretty paper and bows,
nestled gently in a stocking?
Does it mean we are loved any less?
Or is it that those we love, must not love us as much if they didn’t brave the madness or act quickly enough to get us our heart’s desire?
Making us not worth it?
Not worthy of time, effort or money?
Hummmm. . .

All sounds a bit trite really.
A bit empty.

There is, however, one gift waiting.
Not so much under a tree or nestled in a stocking or wrapped up in a pretty box.
Nor is it still sitting on the shelf at the store.
Or riding around on some UPS truck.
Or costing an arm and a leg to buy.
It neither sparkles, shines, whirs or buzzes.
Its price has not been slashed in half.
No loud voices are screaming for one and all to come in NOW, as time is quickly running out.

No this is not that kind of gift.

This gift breathes life.
It’s a gift offering fulfillment, love, hope.
It is a gift that will not break, tarnish or become quickly obsolete.

The gift whispers to us from just beyond the sparkles and the lights.
Just beyond the carols and the cookies. . .
Well beyond Santa’s sack and sleigh. . .

“Beloved, I am here” it can be heard to coo.
Quietly behind the noise.
Waiting away from the glaring lights.
Sitting without pretty papers and bows.

We are told it comes with no price tag or drastic sales cut.
It has no pitchman hawking in a buyer’s market.
It does not insist that you must come NOW although it would prefer that you do.
It can wait, it’s already been waiting on you most of your life.
And it will continue to wait for you.
As it does not need to be shipped overnight as a guarantee.
For there is no magic cut off day or time. . .

For simply it states “I am here, waiting, when you are ready.”

Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.
For the Lord is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for him!

Isaiah 30:18

Dear Parents. . .

If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Luke 11:13

DSCN8751
(presents under the tree / Julie Cook / 2014)

When asked, I suppose most, if not all of us, could tell anyone asking what the best gift was we ever received. Maybe it was a shiny new bike, a much sought after doll, maybe it was a new baby brother or sister, maybe a pair of skates, maybe a car, a smartphone, a precious and greatly anticipated birth of a child, maybe it was a hot meal, a worn but loved coat, maybe it was shelter from a cold and icy night, maybe it was the returning of a loved one who had been gone far too long. . . .

As we find ourselves, at this particular time of the year, with time running out and patience running short. . .
As we dash about here and there in search of the “perfect” gift for those special someones in our lives. . .
As we find ourselves up to our elbows in wrapping paper, ribbons, tape and bows. . .
As we spend entirely too much time and money searching and buying things that folks could most likely do and live without. . .

I was deeply touched by something I read this morning.
It was a letter written to a set of parents. . .

Dear Parents. . .I don’t need to tell you how much I long for freedom and for you all. But over the decades you have provided for us such incomparably beautiful Christmases that my thankful remembrance of them is strong enough to light up one dark Christmas.
Only such times can really reveal what it means to have a past and an inner heritage that is independent of chance and the changing of the times. The awareness of a spiritual tradition that reaches through the centuries gives one a certain feeling of security in the face of all transitory difficulties. I believe that those who know they possess such reserves of strength do not need to be ashamed even of softer feelings—which in my opinion are still among the better and nobler feelings of humankind–when remembrance of a good and rich past calls them forth. Such feelings will not overwhelm those who hold fast to the values that no one can take from them.

These words and this message is not only timely but most current as this letter could be written by anyone who may be finding themselves far away from those dearly loved and cherished individuals of one’s life, especially during this time of year. As it always seems to be during the holidays, the certain times of the year which pulls at our hearts more so than any other time of year, when being away and “missing” intensifies to a near maddening unstoppable pain, our thoughts inevitably seem to return to matters of the heart and of cherished memories of times long and not so long past.

The letter was written just before Christmas in 1944 from a Gestapo prison in Berlin. It was written by the young Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was soon to be transferred to the notorious Buchenwald Concentration Camp. He spent two Christmases interred by the Nazis before ultimately being hanged two weeks before the Allies liberated the Nazi death camps.

The greatest gift Bonhoeffer’s parents had given him was not a toy or a ball. . .for their gift was not something tangible or of material merit, but rather their gift was a gift of great intrinsic value.

Their greatest gift was actually somewhat multilayered.

Firstly the gift consisted of the deep and abiding love his parents first held for one another and then for each of their children–of which created and fostered a deep sense of security in each child.

A second layer of the gift consisted of time—of both time and energy of which his parents extended to the entire family making certain that each Christmas and holiday season was indeed special for their eight children—Not by showering the children with extravagant gifts and presents, as buying such for 8 children would have been nearly impossible, but by providing their family with the knowledge of the importance of the true meaning of Christmas—the enduring message of Hope and Grace–of doing undo others as they would hope would be done for them, and ultimately the gift and knowledge of Salvation. A gift that would weave its way throughout the year and not merely just at Christmas—for this was a gift which would be carried in each of their children throughout a lifetime which witnessed not only contentment and happiness but that of hardship, sorrow and suffering topped off with the ultimate ending of Joy.

It was to this gift given long ago by his parents which would help to sustain Bonhoeffer during his lowest and darkest days as a Nazi prisoner. Isolated and never knowing if each new day would bring freedom or death, Bonhoeffer lived out the last two years of his relatively young life in a small cell very much alone.

I spent a good bit of time this morning pondering over Bonhoeffer’s letter to his parents and I found myself thinking about what it is to be a “gift giver” and to what constitutes the best gift we can give–especially to our children.

I pray that I may give my child, as well as those I love, the gift which will sustain them all during, not the easy times of joy and happiness, but rather a gift which will help to carry them through the darkness, sorrow, pain and isolation which most often finds all of us at some point in life when we least expect it.

Which brings us back to the initial query at hand. . .indeed, what is the greatest gift you’ve ever received. . .