Advent: All About the Details

Every Christmas season my extended family traveled to my maternal grandparents’ home. Like every family, we had a few traditions. There was, of course, the obligatory ham dinner with creamy mashed potatoes, green beans with bacon, buttery sweet rolls coated with cinnamon and always some kind of unnaturally colored jello salad rife with fruit chunks and marshmallows. (Just the sight of these “salads” gave me the heebie-jeebies so I learned to serve myself a very small portion, chew once or twice and quickly wash it down with a swig of apple juice.) Though our ham dinner was a feast of smells and tastes (except for the jello salad), food was so abundant in the Ford household that it was almost unremarkable.

I preferred other traditions like presents. We children connived, cajoled, complained and otherwise sweet-talked our way through a multi-year campaign to win the right to open a gift on Christmas Eve. Of course, we each chose the gift that was the largest or made the most noise when jiggled. We always knew if the gift was from our grandparents; those were labeled from Frosty the Snowman, Mrs. Claus, Rudolf, and even, occasionally, friends like Betty Boop or Strawberry Shortcake.

Perhaps our finest and most under-appreciated tradition was packing our five family units into defrosted vehicles to crunch over the snowy streets of Youngstown, Ohio on our way to Evangel Baptist Church for the candle light Christmas Eve service. We arrived after twenty minutes, the car heaters just starting to thaw tingly toes stuffed in our Sunday-best but winter-worst shoes. We’d enter Evangel, drape our heavy coats on the clanging metal hangers and move into the sanctuary to be hand-shaken, bear-hugged and cheek-pinched into a bashful warmth. The Ford family filled two pews in the front, closest to where our grandmother perched at the organ. We children sat, hushed and squirming in the reverent low light of candles, the silence broken only by the sniffling of our thawing noses.

candlelt1-main_fullThe service was always the same. Hark the Herald sung, the nativity story pieced together like quilt squares from Matthew and Luke presented in monotone by a man in a drab suit with a scarlet or powdery blue tie, my grandmother traveling from the organ to the center microphone to offer another soulful rendition of Sweet Little Jesus Boy. The service concluded as we passed a small flame person to person, one taper candle bowed to its neighbor, turning glossy white wicks to blackened tinder. Once the unison melody of Silent Night drifted into quiet, we extinguished our candles, quietly bundled in our coats and braved the cold again for our return trip to the Ford home.

Our arrival home was like the clanging of a bell, marking a new chapter of life. We went from hushed, taper-lit reverence, to the bustle and brilliance of the kitchen preparing for a party. Wassail was passed into waiting hands as grandma uncovered the frosted marble sheet cake, dotted it with pastel colored candles and lit the wicks with a match. Then, with nearly 20 bodies packed into the small eat-in kitchen, we sang a boisterous rendition of Happy Birthday, for Jesus.

Twenty years later, I can close my eyes and see those Decembers like cherished memorabilia framed, thick and gold, and hung above the mantel. I wouldn’t change them if I could. But as an adult, and as a pastor, I don’t want to perpetuate only the sentiment of Christmas. This is more than a holiday, it is a holy day. There’s nothing wrong with a little nostalgia. I don’t want to scrooge all the merriment, but I do want to focus on the spiritual gifts of this season. I want to cherish the family traditions, but hang my heart on the miracle of what began two thousand years ago when Christ was born.  

For years I’ve read the early chapters of Matthew and Luke and skimmed the parts about Elizabeth, Anna and even Mary. Because I’ve always loved babies and Jesus, I skipped to the good part about Jesus being born, about him bundled in something soft to protect him from the hay of his trough bed while surrounded by a cuddly petting zoo. I zeroed in on the fairy-tale moments like the prismic star that led foreigners to the new infant king and to the choir of angels singing in the night sky. But as an adult, I’ve learned something about stories, and about life, that I missed as a child. When reading, it’s the skimmed over parts, the slow parts, the seemingly unremarkable details that build to that unimaginable moment, to the moment of discovery, to a new spark of life within.

It was the smell of cinnamon, my grandmother’s vibrato, the heat of wax sliding onto my fingers during Silent Night, the way the candlelight flickered across my cousins’ faces, the crunch of snow under our tires – all of that led up to the moment were we sang Happy Birthday to Jesus. It’s the details that build the arc in any story. I’m a better writer than I was five years ago and a much better reader than I was twenty years ago because I’ve learned to I slow down and pay attention to the details. And that’s exactly how I can enhance my experience of Christmas and my understanding of Christ’s birth.

This month we’ll spend hours planning, shopping, wrapping gifts, decorating, attending parties and baking and that’s on top of our regular schedules. We’ll be like jack rabbits leaping through December at a frenzied pace, zigzagging all over the place in search of a tasty morsel. To keep Christmas about Christ, we have to choose to slow down, to stop, and to settle into the details of Advent.

That’s my plan, anyway. I’m taking walks so I can get away from the distractions in my house. While I walk, I focus on breathing deeply and praying. I’m reading the nativity stories in Luke and Matthew daily, now with an eye for detail, seeking out the snippets that I may have glossed over. Suddenly the bits about Elizabeth, Mary and Anna glow from the pages like taper candles. The stories of these women are significant in ways that I never saw before. These sages of Advent are helping me understand not just the miraculous birth of Jesus, but the grandeur of his entire story.

Christmas is not a story in itself; it is the beginning of a story. We don’t celebrate Advent simply because a baby named Jesus was born. We celebrate because Jesus grew up to travel his land preaching good news to the world-weary. Strangely enough, we celebrate Jesus’ birth because he died, and because through his death he defeated sin and death. We celebrate because Jesus rose again to life and because he ascended to heaven where he lives and reigns eternally. And we celebrate because his story, and ours, is not over.

To celebrate well, we need to begin well. That’s why I advocate for Advent, the season of anticipation that builds to the Christmas celebration. That’s why I’m slowing down and focusing on the details. That’s why I’m listening to the sages of Advent. Join me in looking closely at Elizabeth, Mary and Anna, so we can better celebrate Jesus.


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Grandpa Ford in 2007 with his transition lenses. You should see his new modern frames!

I spend a lot of time with elderly people. Even if my visits weren’t part of my work, I would still find a way to be with them. Everyday the elderly astound and inspire me with their stories of hardships overcome, of the ripple effects of wars fought abroad and in the homes down the street, of great loves lost or found, of building families and communities with hard work greased with the intrepid hope for something better. Their stories are better than any Facebook status or Tweet I’ve ever read.

I wish I could take you along with me and introduce you to some of my friends. I wish you could listen to their stories with me, to laugh with me at their playful antics, to be wrapped in the musk of an eighty-year-old afghan, to feel the history in their paper-thin skin as they brush a kiss on your cheek or hold your hand like you’re a beloved childhood friend. I want so much for you to understand how much you would gain if you knew, really knew, someone who is 107 or 99, or 84.

Last week I met a woman who grew up in New York. Her voice still carries the slanting tones of Brooklyn. She told me how she met her husband on the “broadwalk” of Staten Island at age fifteen and married him eight years later in a double ceremony with her twin sister and her beau. She reminisced for an hour about the house they saved for and finally bought on the Island and how she and her girlfriends in the neighborhood would gab every night on her front porch. The love she had for her life beamed from her eyes. Her glow dimmed a bit as pointed her crooked, arthritic finger along her backyard and talked about the cement-block walls that separate homes and people from being neighborly in this retirement state she calls “No Man’s Land”. She shared about the death of her friends, one by one, until she outlived them all. She held my hand, patted my knee and called me honey, saying, “It’s so nice to have someone to talk to, someone who will laugh with me and keep my secrets. My friends — I wish you knew them — they were beautiful women, just beautiful.”

Not too long ago I met a beautiful woman whose married name is Lovette. She told me all about being the first woman in her family to go to college. She surpassed that by earning a Master’s degree and spent her career working for the homeless in her city. Mrs. Lovette’s Eddy is long since dead, but she speaks of him with such affection he may as well be sitting on the couch with us. I’ll never forget when she looked at me with half-winked eyes and told me, “That man! He came by his name honestly. Girl, did he love me!” Who says passion fades with age? Mrs. Lovette knows otherwise.

It’s rare that a week goes by without an offer of adoption or a marriage proposal. One afternoon I visited a man whose wife was away on an errand. As I sang to him “My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean” and “You Are My Sunshine”, he gripped my hand and winked. He flirted with me shamelessly for a half hour — dementia making him forget that he was already married and old enough to be my grandfather. A colleague later told me that after I left the room he said, “I want to marry that girl. What a girl! Make her come back so I can propose.” My computer was directly across from his room, in sight of the recliner where he sat. He winked and waved for hours, calling out, “Hey sweetie!”  I couldn’t help but wave back. (I may have given in and winked too, but don’t tell my boyfriend.)

The effects of dementia are difficult for family members to witness. Imagine your mother looking hale and hearty as she wears a diaper and no longer remembers your name or your father always wearing a blank expression, no longer capable of speech, of dressing or feeding himself. As a stranger, I have no memories to compare to the present reality to cause me grief. I meet people only as they are and approach each of them as beloved creations of God worthy of my respect, time and care. Sometimes these visits are easy and delightful and other times they are difficult puzzles.

I met Manny in a memory care unit of an assisted living facility. He was snoring (with drool) in a chair ten feet from a blaring TV. A touch to his hand woke him up. I tried to engage him in simple conversation to assess his comprehension level. After just a few moments it was clear that Manny has few verbal capabilities left. His words were garbled nonsense. He seemed pleased with the attention though, so I continued to speak with him, make eye contact, and to sing to him. He smiled and laughed. After about twenty minutes Manny was getting drowsy so I said goodbye and thanked him for sharing his smile with me. Then, clear as could be, he said, “Why the hell not?” As though it was no brainer to spend time with a thirty-something woman willing to hold his hand.

There are so many priceless stories I could share with you. Like the afternoon I led a quartet of elderly women in a rousing and ear-piercingly off-key rendition of Happy Birthday as they batted a balloon wheelchair to wheelchair. Or the time Dorothy, who is rarely able to finish a sentence before she loses her thought, looked at me and said, “I love you. I’d like to adopt you as my son or daughter.” Or the beautiful moments when I’ve discovered the song that unfurls the poignant memories within someone who hasn’t spoken in months and they begin to sing along.

Such beautiful people are all around us. They are in the senior centers we drive past every day on our way to work, in our neighbors in-law suite, in the pews of our churches, volunteering in our polling places and libraries and schools. The elderly are all around us. They have so much love and perspective and history to share with us. They need our time and care. They deserve our respect. But so many of us do not see them. When we pass them in the grocery story we see their wrinkles, their shuffling gait, their canes and walkers, their mismatched clothes and their comb-overs and tight perms. We look but do not see the WWII Veteran, the hardworking farmer who stocked his community’s shelves, the pilot of the first commercial jumbo jet, the social worker who found respite for the homeless in her city. Unfortunately, our response to the growing mass of elderly in America is to put them in facilities with other elderly and think our responsibility fulfilled. Put them in a place and forget them seems to be our unspoken motto. So much is our loss.

My own grandparents, both eighty-six, are a delight to me and a regular reminder of my purpose and place in the world. More than once I’ve been talking to them on the phone only to have them interrupt and say, “Well, that’s great honey, but we’ve got to go. We’ve got to go visit our elderly. Love you. Bye!”

Touché, grandma and grandpa. Thank you for teaching me about who is important.

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Grandma Ford and I take a break from a walk in her local park in 2007.