Christmas, Reflectionary, Slaughter of the Innocents

Sadness

When #2 Son was a 10th-grader, we went to hear a Student Reading by his classmates. Here’s part of a blog post I wrote that night in 2007, which came to mind in light of Slaughter of the Innocents, in the Revised Common Lectionary for tomorrow.

Poets speak their words, telling stories of parents who divorced, aunts who are dying, exploited workers overseas, refrigerator magnets and unicorns running softly over fields. Our boy hurriedly reads the beginning of a stort story and leaves us wanting more.

Then it is Ekrim’s turn. In this group of mostly privileged white children she stands out with her dark skin and head scarf. Her offering is a memoir, illustrated with posters. Her life began in Somalia. By the time her family reaches Nairobi, mothers weep openly. Two friends help with the posters. They hold up a picture labeled “Sadness,” which pictures a beautiful little girl in a colorful dress, arms outstretched.

Ekrim sometimes stumbles over her text, but as she tells this part of the story she hesitates not because she has trouble reading what is written but because what is written is unspeakable.

“People were so poor they had to give their babies–”

Her voice breaks. She stops and tries to collect herself. She begins again and stops again. I wonder where the teacher is? Then I see her in my peripheral vision, walking calmly to the front of the room. She stands with Ekrim, whispers something to her, wraps a consoling arm around her shoulder.

“People were so poor they had to give their babies away.The parents left their babies in the street because they could not feed them. They dressed them up as beautifully as they could so people would want them. We saw the babies crying in the street until someone took them.”

Her family went on to live seven years in a desert refugee camp before escaping to the U.S. two years ago. Every day of her young life contained fear: that the men in her family would be killed, that the girls would be taken, that she would be separated from her mother. Teachers in the refugee school beat children for being late. Police abused rather than protecting the helpless. When her family’s cottage caught fire, they feared going out into the camp at night. Fire held less terror. All this she told us, but she cried only when she remembered other people’s babies.

After each reader, good or bad, we all applauded, but when Ekrim finished her story, filled with gratitude for her life here and hope for a future including college and creative pursuits, we rose to our feet while her friends embraced her.

My son went away to school the next year, and I don’t know what happened to Ekrim. I never knew her last name. But today I consider the ones who survive all the trials and threats of life, the provocative storytellers and the chosen redeemers, and I remember Ekrim and the way her innocence was slaughtered.

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First blogged here: Student Reading.

Advent, Christmas, Prayers for Pastors

Let Your Face Shine (a prayer for pastors)

01abf20dc041d9c5c9b732144d6d4811e2a254ec50Around the middle of the tree
the lights have gone dark.
We’ve checked all the bulbs,
but cannot find the problem.
How can we get the lights on?

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

From church comes a call.
The organist has (choose one):
a) broken a limb;
b) gone to the hospital for surgery;
c) attempted a coup.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

The Weather Channel sends an alert.
Ice is in the forecast,
an inch will coat the roads.
Travel is dangerous, and church
should probably be cancelled.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

We have worked so hard,
prepared so faithfully for
this last Sunday before
Christmas, 4th Advent,
day of Love and Light.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Some of us will preach to seven people,
and some to three hundred, but whether
the congregation holds scholars who unnerve us
or people who have never opened the Book themselves,
give us a good word to say.

If they stay home
(the congregation we expected)
because of the weather,
or leave early for vacation,
please bless them anyway.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Give us patience for the small tasks,
for turning on the lights.
Give us courage for the hard ones,
the judgment calls and anxious scrambles.

Remind us that in the end,
Christmas will come.
Christ will not be stopped
by a failed string of lights,
or a missing worship leader,
or a weather emergency.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.*

*Psalm 80:19, NRSV

Christmas, Love, Marriage, Orientation

The Gift of the Magi

If you know the story of Della and Jim, you will remember this scene.

Jim stepped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of a quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, not disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stare at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on her face. (O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi – Read the whole story here.)

Sadly, out of print.
Sadly, out of print.

A family friend, a young man who worked for my father, gave me this copy of the story as a Christmas present in 1972. I was 11, and the story made a deep impression about what it meant to love and what it meant to give. Ever since then, I’ve been a good giver, and I’ve watched and waited for others to give to me the same way. I’m not saying I always get it right, but I’ve honed my intentions and tried to pass them on to my children. I’ve watched them take pleasure in finding just the right thing for each other and for me. They would have to tell you when I’ve gotten it right and wrong, but let me tell you of their successes:

This year, Mr. Dimples approached Santa with a list in his pocket, to be sure he didn’t forget anything. kzj asked about the age when the emphasis turns away from receiving and toward giving. I reassured her that at his age, LP demanded a new American Girl doll and, even though she got Nellie as a companion for Samantha, reacted in fury when Snowman got a TV. (A TV which everyone a little older knew was less expensive than the doll, and which did me the favor of getting video games out of the living room.) It takes time and maturity; for each of them came some moment, not immediately identifiable, when giving became the better part.

How do you teach that, she wondered?

I told her what I told them about my philosophy of receiving gifts. I never look at a gift and wish it had been something else. I am the least likely person to exchange something. It’s not the material item that matters; it’s the feeling behind the gift. It matters to me that the other person cared enough to want to do something for me.

I guess I’m saying it’s the thought that counts. (And I freely confess there was one year recently I managed to make that the worst pressure of all. I am a reformed sinner.)

stockings
Our stockings

This is the first Christmas kzj and I will be together on the day. We have exchanged our greetings by phone in the wee hours of Christmas Day after finishing our work and worship for the night. We have celebrated 2nd Christmas on the 27th or 28th after long travel days and a second Christmas vigil. So rightly, this is a very happy and exciting Christmas for us! We will worship together, with our children, and we will wake up on Christmas morning and Mr. Dimples will be the Stocking Czar, and we will take our time opening and admiring all the gifts, large and small, currently secreted away in places I will, of course, not mention in this public forum.

The other night, while I wrapped gifts for the Beantown side of the family, I glanced up to see kzj holding her iPad with a look on her face not unlike Jim’s. An email informed her that an order would not be coming due to “System Cancellation.”

Erik Blegvad, illustrator
Erik Blegvad, illustrator

Jim rallied to embrace Della, to assure her that there could be nothing “in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that make me like my girl any less.” Her hair for his watch-chain, his watch for her hair combs, they gave away the treasures of their house in an act O. Henry described as “the wisest.”

It may be that tears were shed at our house about the present that will not come, but not by me. For you see, I’ve never had a surer proof of care than the look on her sweet face.

It’s the gift I’ve wanted all along.