Decorating for Christmas has been difficult this year. My wife died in March. Christmas was a big season for her.
She had five tubs and four boxes full of decorations stored in our basement. They came out every December.
She had Christmas quilts to hang on the walls. Christmas candles to set on the windowsills. Christmas wreaths, Christmas ribbons, even Christmas pot holders.
I’m not mocking her efforts. For her, Christmas was a work of art, a time to create beauty.
The Bible portrays Wisdom, given a feminine personality, as being present with God at the time of creation. She was there, says Proverbs 8, when God made the heaven, the sea, the earth.
Author Frederick Buechner muses, “It was as if he needed a woman's imagination to help him make them, a woman's eye to tell him if he'd made them right, a woman's spirit to measure their beauty by… As if it was her joy in what he was creating that made creation bearable.”
Wisdom, Buechner explains in Whistling in the Dark, “is a matter not only of the mind but of the heart.”
The story of our marriage
Our Christmas tree, particularly, traced the 60 years of our marriage.
In the beginning, all we could afford was tinsel, draped like icicles. Over time, we added a variety of glass balls, gradually getting bigger, brighter. We bought souvenirs, brass or crystal, sometimes ceramic, to remind us of our travels.
And Joan embroidered -- her passion -- dozens and dozens of, I don’t know what to call them, cloth ornaments to hang on the tree.
Sometimes the tree itself was almost invisible beneath its decorations.
But one thing remained constant, for all those years. The ornament at the very top of the tree, was a blown glass spire, pointing upwards.
Joan brought that spire into our marriage. I don’t recall its origins. It may have been part of her family tradition even before it became part of ours.
I couldn’t face decorating a nine-foot Christmas tree all by myself this year. I replaced it with a smaller tree. I couldn’t hang all those decorations on the smaller tree. So I chose a selection, representative of all the baubles we used to hang..
But when I went to slip Joan’s fragile spire onto the top of the tree, it imploded in my hands.
Shards of silvered glass showered down the tree, onto the floor and furniture.
There was no way I could repair it.
So the symbol of continuity is missing this year.
Not a normal Christmas
Continuity will be missing for a lot of people this year, I expect. Whether you call it Christmas, or Hanukkah, Kwanza or Los Posadas, it’s usually a time to gather the clan, to share stories and dreams, to “eat, drink, and be merry” -- another phrase from the Bible.
Except that there will be no big family reunions this pandemic year. No overflowing worship services. No massed choirs singing familiar carols.
The Post Office has been overloaded, shipping parcels that would otherwise have been delivered in person.
Like the broken ornament that can’t go on the top of my tree, some old traditions may not be recoverable.
Life may not go back to normal, even with the arrival of vaccines. Masking and distancing are likely to be around for most of next year, until enough of our populations have been protected. And maybe longer, if the coronavirus mutates that way the flu virus has.
The start of something new
Long ago, Joni Mitchell wrote, “And the seasons, they go round and round/ and the painted ponies go up and down…”
Even a carousel must shut down, occasionally, for servicing. Ponies need repainting.
Pandemic precautions may force us to reconsider what’s really important to us at these special seasons.
Some of the changes we have experienced may turn out to be permanent; some will not.
In pandemics of the past, no doubt most of the people hoped that things would return to normal. They didn’t.
The Black Death was also the death of feudalism, the birth of a middle class. The 1918 flu forced re-thinking of public health, a recognition of poverty and discrimination as health issues.
We won’t know what happens, until it happens.
Although I can’t put Joan’s spire on the top of my tree anymore, I can continue to have a tree. The loss of one precious thing doesn’t make everything else worthless.
So as 2020 winds down, let us cherish what we have, and let go peacefully of what we can no longer have.
Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Lots of mail, and lots of reading, about last week’s column on the return of the salmon to Okanagan Lake. For a change, many of the letters came from readers of the printed version, in the local newspaper.
Eva Durrance, for example, wrote, “I applaud your rant (in a good way!) about valuing other creatures simply because they exist and have their own lives. I’ve been saying that to all and sundry for most of my adult life, but it’s great to hear it from others too. Religions of all stripes have a lot to answer for regarding humans’ inhumane and profligate treatment of other creatures and the planet!”
Nancy Baron commented, “I once heard the Pacific Northwest defined as, ‘anywhere a salmon can get to.’ I am so happy they are even making it back to Okanagan Lake. Now I wish they would plant some native vegetation along the badly degraded river channel to provide better riparian habitat - and to make it more beautiful and cool.”
Steve Roney also emphasized the beauty angle: “We value the salmon runs for their beauty. The value of the salmon runs, apart from their commercial value, which is considerable, is aesthetic. A salmon run is a beautiful thing, like a sunset, or a waterfall. Which, of course, is why tourists come to see them. Beauty, along with Truth and the Good, is an absolute value.”
Steve also wrote, “I’m afraid your nature ethic does not work. You write: “If God created life, then every form of life is sacred.”
“By that premise, mosquitos, fleas, lice, and cockroaches must be celebrated, not killed. For that matter, God created COVID-19. It too must have a right to exist and flourish. It must be valued for its own sake. It must be immoral to kill it with vaccines.”
Janie Wallbrown recalled a different spawning run: “On my way in to work as a church administrator every day I used to cross over a herring run on Cape Cod. The herring worked so hard to get from the ocean up to a small lake where they spawned. Sometimes I would stop on my way home to walk downstream or up to the lake just to watch the herring. From puddle to puddle in the stream. You could almost feel the herring gathering their strength for the next jump up. Suddenly a herring you had been watching would make that leap only for it to relax in the next puddle. I'm not sure how much above sea level was the small lake. Not much I suppose, but to the small herring the stream must have seemed very steep indeed. Sitting beside the lake I imagined that I heard sighs of relief all over the lake as exhausted herring got ready to spawn…”.
Sandy Warren shared his own celebration of “triumphs that show some balance returning to our beleaguered planet. For each of these species we notice, there are many other animals and plants in that ecosystem also benefiting from the restored balance. Just yesterday I read about the re-introduction of a native crab to the dying Florida coral reefs. This crab eats algae and seaweed that is suffocating the reefs. Within a short time there has been significant new growth of the coral and return of native species of fish.”
Isabel Gibson: “It's a delight to see various species rebounding after having received the last rites, as it were. It's another reminder that nature is wonderfully adaptable and resilient if we give it any chance at all.
“As for whether the ‘dominion’ clause underlies our tendency to use/abuse the natural world, I'm not convinced. I agree that it provides a handy excuse, but have non-Christian cultures done much better with their natural heritage? I suspect we're seeing the results of simple unthinking exploitation for immediate benefit -- an all-too-human trait.”
My criticism of the “dominion” verses in Genesis also sparked some comments.
Jan Edwards, for example: “ I have long thought that it was wrong to put that ‘commandment’ into the mouth of the Creator. We are not called to fill the earth and subdue it, but to live with respect for all our relations.”
Dean Helm sent me a long letter about that Genesis passage, with an extended quotation from his book on the subject. With his permission, I have excerpted the following (not sure how the Hebrew characters will translate into email.)
“I wish people would understand what those verses, as translated from the Hebrew – first into Greek, then into Latin, then into English – DON'T say.
“The Bible takes from its Sumerian roots the idea that God created Man to tend the land. This is the Sumerian udin – the farm land, the pasture land, the "commons" outside the city walls… vocalized as eden (עדן ‛ǣden) in Hebrew.
“It is instructive to understand better the four verbs used in the passages above: כבש , רדה , עבד, שמר: šmr, ‛bd, rdh, kbš.
“The pejorative sense of these words refer to tyrannical and autocratic despotism – but if we take the character of the person speaking the word kbš כבש, that is, God, and the sense in which he 'moves over the face of the deep' to subdue the chaos and create order, to call it under his command, to urge it, to arouse it, to summon it, then the ideas of ‘dominion’ and ‘exploitation’ and ‘doing whatever you want to just because you can’ should be expunged from our thoughts about ‘fill the earth, and subdue (כבש kbš) it’.
“That the non-pejorative sense should be taken is obviated by the next three verbs …translated ‘rule’ by most English versions… Its root meaning in Hebrew [is] to walk with, to assist, to help along, to tread beside. Again, the words ἄρχετε (archete) or dominamini have their pejorative meanings which are assumed by people (and, unfortunately, this includes theologians and corporations) -- that is the sense of ‘to rule as a despot’ or as the powerful species on the planet to ‘dominate’ the weaker species… dominamini comes from the root word dom which refers to home so dominaminimeans ‘treat it like your home’ – not like a mountain full of coal so you dynamite off the top of it and make an open pit mine….
“Likewise with 'cultivate' (עבד ‛bd) and 'keep' (שמר šmr). The root meaning of עבד ‛bd is ‘to serve’ and the root meaning of שמר šmr is ‘to keep, to guard, to watch, to keep safe, to preserve, to protect, to revere’. So we’re to cultivate the land, not rape it, and revere it itself, for itself – not for us or for our ends.”
JT note: Dean’s book is “Necessary Corrections” ePublished on Apple Books and Smashwords.
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