Every year around this time, I feel a need to bring back a column from previous years. This one comes from 2013.
A small ceramic Christmas tree sits on a table in our front hall. It’s not much of a tree – about 12 inches high, dark green, with whitish snow flaked on the ends of its branches. A light bulb inside shines out through coloured plastic plugs stuck into holes in the branches.
Over the years, we’ve lost about a dozen of the plastic plugs. The light inside now shines directly out through several holes.
It never was particularly pretty, I suppose. But it’s special. Because it was given to me with love.
It came from Lorraine Wicklow almost 40 years ago. The next summer, Lorraine died of a massive brain hemorrhage.
As far as I know, she had no family, no relatives. Perhaps I was her family. She used to drop in at my office, back in the days when I worked at the United Church’s national offices in Toronto. She always arrived at the very end of the day, just as I was loading up my briefcase to go home.
Internally, I sighed. I knew this would be a long evening.
“Just a minute, Lorraine,” I would say. Then I’d call Joan: “Lorraine just dropped in.”
Joan understood, and took supper out of the oven.
“I mustn’t keep you,” Lorraine always said. But she did, anyway.
Visions from Revelation
Lorraine’s theology couldn’t have been farther from mine. She attended a fundamentalist church. She had visions. She told me about heaven. About streets paved with gold, and gates made of jewels. About the people she met there, and their message for me.
She was, I suppose, a revelation to me. When I described her visions to Gordon Nodwell, the minister at the United Church down the street from my office, he said, “That’s straight out of Revelation.”
So I read Revelation. Thanks to Lorraine, I became acquainted with parts of the Bible that I had avoided before.
She’d relate another of her visions. “Do you believe that?” she would ask, leaning forward earnestly.
“Not really,” I would reply. And I would try to explain, as well as I could, my understandings of modern biblical scholarship. Of the historical and cultural assumptions that shaped the biblical text. Of the conflicts between the biblical story and our growing knowledge of science, psychology, sociology…
She countered with a text, invariably from the King James Version. For her, the Word of God – the capitals are deliberate – trumped any other understanding.
We lived in different worlds. We listened to each other. But we talked past each other.
Shining in memory
Still, whether I understood her or not, I know she lived her faith, 100 percent. She forgave me for my heresies, because that’s what Jesus would have done.
And, sometimes, after I had stumbled through an explanation of why I believed what I did, she would say, “You know, when you talk to me that way, you almost shine.”
Lorraine has been dead for many years now. But her little ceramic tree still shines in the darkness of our front hall.
As long as I have that tree, she too still shines in my memories.
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Last week’s column on hope, or the lack of it, evoked strong responses. Dozens of them. I tried to pluck a bit here, a bit there, to include in this section, and couldn’t do it. So many thoughts, so many experiences, stood out.
So I’m going to do something a little different, and write briefly about what I learned from your comments.
I learned, first, that there is more than one kind of hope. There’s the kind of hope that something will happen, that something will change. That’s an “external” hope. But several of you identified what I think of as “internal” hope – that no matter what the future holds, you will be able to respond to it with integrity, humility, and compassion.
It seems to me, when I reflect on it, that most of the Old Testament/Hebrew Scripture is based on “external” hope – on what some external power will do to, or for, the nation of Israel. Not until the Gospels do we get a hope that is “within us… among us…” regardless of what may happen.
I learned that the situation Joan and I face is both unique and universal. You shared your experiences of losing someone you loved, and of weathering that experience and coming out the other side. (I’ve been there myself, when our son died 40 years ago, so this is not a new discovery.) You reassured me that death is not closure. Many have felt the presence of a sibling, a spouse, a parent, in the days following death. It was more than just imagination.
As my former minister Jim Hannah often said, “Death ends a life. It doesn’t end a relationship.”
In last week’s column, I said that “I cannot hang hope on convictions about life after death.” I didn’t say that to deny any possibility of life after death – that’s not up to me to decide -- only that it is not my basis for hope. I’m searching for hope now, not at some future time that’s out of my hands. Several of your letters shared your differing convictions and experiences about what happens after death. I have no desire to dissuade you; I’m glad those convictions give you comfort.
Fortunately, very few thought that citing a prooftext would change my mind.
A few of you wrote about facing death yourselves, and how your religious faith enabled you to face it calmly.
Your stories about the progressive decline of a loved one that you’ve also faced made me realize how fortunate we have been. It is, as one person wrote, “a long and difficult journey” marked by the goodness and kindness of many people. (In striking contrast, of course, are some people’s experiences of crashing into a wall of uncaring bureaucracy.) I sense that one person’s “misfortune” may enable other people to find qualities of compassion that might otherwise lie dormant – a blessing for both giver and receiver.
A few raised the possibility of assisted death, if/when extending life becomes intolerable. We haven’t had to consider that possibility, yet.
And finally, I realize (again) that there is a kind of hope generated simply in sharing our stories of hopelessness. As the United Church’s “New Creed” begins and ends, “We are not alone…” That in itself is a form of hope.
Thank you. Thank you all.
The lectionary offers the choice of Psalm 146 (which, incidentally, focusses on that “external” hope I wrote about above) and Mary’s “Magnificat” in Luke 1. But I don’t think it is just Mary’s song. It was also Hannah’s, and – although as a male I cannot claim any experience – probably the song of almost every first-time mother.
47 My body bulges with new life;
the joy of it shines in my face.
48 For so long I have longed for this child.
I was the most miserable of women.
But now everyone smiles at me; they congratulate me;
I'm so happy!
49 Now I know that prayers can be answered;
50 now I know that the deepest longings of the heart can take flesh.
51 I will be the best mother there ever was!
You don't have to be rich or famous to nurture new life;
you don't need big houses or expensive nannies-- you need love.
52 The most important person in the world lives inside me;
my unborn child matters more than prime ministers or presidents.
53 I feed my child with my own life blood;
I will nurse it with the milk of my own body.
No one else in all the world enjoys that privilege.
The rich and the powerful can go suck lemons!
54 I will care for my child the way I know God cares for me.
55 As the child lives in my womb, so I live in the womb of God.
For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, email@example.com.
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ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)