The Melancholy Ones

Each year, I grow a little bit more convinced that I’m not alone—that there are others, many others, I think, who prefer the melancholy Christmas songs over the rambunctiously joyful ones. My completely non-scientific research has led me to this conclusion. For what other reason would there be eleven different renditions of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in my Christmas playlist? Or nine versions of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”?

Photo: REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas

Photo: REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas

There’s something in this, I think. Something more than just the beauty of the minor key or the nostalgic lyrics. For some reason, our hearts are drawn toward sorrow in this season of joy.

I wrote a blog post a year ago that I shared again at the beginning of December this year. It is the most-read blog post on my site—by a lot. And I think one reason is that it’s about the hard task of being joyful at Christmas when so many of our lives are swamped in sorrow, so much of the world bearing pain. And guess what? It has a melancholy song in it.

There’s something about the melancholy ones.

Perhaps it is that First Christmas (more another time on how I’m defining that this season) is, in one way, an inherently sad event. God left all the wonders of glory to live in dirt. He sent His son—to live as a human, yes—but knowing He would have to die. It is, as Selah puts it, a mystery: that God chose to create man knowing that man would rebel; and not only that, God sent His son to save the traitors.

So we wonder as we wander in the bleak midwinter and we live in this tension of celebration. As we ache in the agony of waiting for God With Us, we still rejoice. We push our troubles far away by hanging a star upon the highest bough. We listen to the bells on Christmas day, looking about at hate of man against man, and hear them tell us that God is not dead—nor does He sleep.

My favorites of the melancholy ones are those that seek out the joy in the midst of the darkness. Most of them do. Because that’s another thing about First Christmas: it is all about light entering darkness—and the inability of darkness to overcome it.

O Antiphons: A Guest Post by Thomas Turner

You know those people you overlapped with in life for a short time, but somehow, you manage to get to know them better after that point? Thom Turner is one of those folks for me. We went to college together; our lives overlapped in a variety of activities, but I wouldn’t say I knew him well. Instead, I’ve gotten to know Thom through the magic of the internet, as we’ve continued to overlap in the organizations we know, the publications we write for, and, of course, that place of wondrous connection: the Facebook newsfeed. He’s graciously allowed me to guest post at Everyday Liturgy on occasion, too. I’ve enjoyed watching the turns his life has taken and have always appreciated reading his writing. Now he’s written a book of Advent prayers, a new reading of the traditional “O Antiphons,” and it’s available on Noisetrade. Read on to see what he has to say about it! -Cg-


O AntiphonsDecember is one of the busiest years of the month for me. Not just the usual bustle of presents and parties and pageants at church. I work in fundraising at International Justice Mission, and on top of all the holiday hustle I am pulled in many directions at work as well. It seems like the wrong time to start spreading the word about a prayer book for Advent that I have written…

But then again, it is precisely the right time. Because not only do I think you need this book (and you do!), but I need it as well.

In the midst of the hustle and bustle I need to slow down and realize that Jesus Christ came to this earth, is coming to the earth through his Kingdom and will come again in the second Advent, to unite heaven and earth under his glorious reign. I need to take some time to be still and know that the Lord of Lords and Prince of Peace came in the flesh to dwell among us. I need to prepare my body and soul to worshipfully meet the King of Kings on Christmas day.

The aim of the Advent and Christmas seasons are so rich in meaning: the first and second coming of Jesus, the Incarnation, the Kingdom, Mary’s song about what the Messiah, who is in her womb, will do when he is birthed into the world. All of this, and yet by the time I get to Christmas day I just want to eat a nice dinner, gorge on some cookies and take a nap. Where’s the worship in that?

Simply put, O Antiphons: Prayers for the Advent Season is a prayer book for you and me to use to prepare our bodies and souls to worship on Christmas day. The “O Antiphons” are one way that Christians for over 1500 years have been preparing their hearts, souls, minds and bodies to celebrate the coming of Christ at the first Advent, Christmas. In this book, I have given a fresh reading of the O Antiphons, along with an Old and New Testament scripture reading and a meditation with discussion questions to guide you during the last week of Advent. From December 17th to December 23rd, you can use this prayer book to prayerfully come into the presence of the baby Jesus, born of a virgin, fully God and fully human in form, who is Wisdom in the flesh, our Lord, the Savior promised from David’s line, our Eternal Light, the King who unites all peoples and our Emmanuel, the God-who-is-with-us.

Starting today, you can pick up your free copy of O Antiphons: Prayers for the Advent Season on Noisetrade. And if you are truly in the Christmas spirit, all of the tips I receive on the book will go toward a nice gift for Jana Miller, who contributed awesome illustrations that you can turn into Christmas or Jesse tree decorations, and toward ending everyday violence against the poor.

Have a Blessed Advent and Merry Christmas!


TTurner PicThomas Turner is the Strategic Partnerships Research Manager at International Justice Mission and curates Everyday Liturgy, a source for worship and liturgical ideas. He is happy to be living back below the Mason-Dixon line again after a lengthy sojourn in the NYC metro area. You can follow Thomas online, on Facebook and on Twitter.

A Mondegreen Christmas

I learned the word “mondegreen” a few years ago after watching the movie 27 Dresses. There’s an entertaining scene in which two characters try to navigate the lyrics of “Bennie and the Jets,” both butchering it completely. I knew what they were facing—that issue of hearing the lyrics to a song and getting them wrong—but I didn’t know it had a name.

The word “mondegreen” is itself a mondegreen. The woman who coined the term grew up hearing her mother read a Scottish ballad to her that had the line, “And laid him on the green.” As a child, she heard it as “And Lady Mondegreen.” Finally! A label for this concept!

There are very familiar mondegreens: “There’s a bathroom on the right,” “Gladly the cross-eyed bear.” And there are those mondegreens that are particular to each of us—some phrase or lyric that we misheard for years and now look back to with a measure of fondness, chuckling at our mistaken selves.

For years I thought the verb, “avert” had a secondary, little-used meaning: “to set upon.” You know, such as in the phrase, “Patience is avert you.” But perhaps my favorite personal mondegreen is a Christmassy one.

arbor-vitae-needles

Image courtesy of wisegeek.com

I had a visual of Bethlehem in my mind as a small child. It was nestled in hills completely covered by tall evergreen bushes. It was lush and green—decidedly NOT a desert city in the Middle East. Where did I get this picture? From the line in “O Holy Night” that says, “Long lay the world in sin and arbor vitae.” We had arbor vitae at the corners of our house. I loved the huge evergreen bushes. And they were in Bethlehem, too!

It was with some slight disappointment that I grew up and discovered that the line was “sin and error pining”—and not only that, “pining” had nothing to do with evergreens in this context either. Christmas disappointment all around.

Poppy

Christine sent me a text message today with a photo of a poppy. “Remembrance Day poppy. Worn by Canadians for the two weeks leading up to November 11,” she wrote.

PoppyWhen Trent told her they wore them for two weeks, she tells me she replied, “You guys are serious about this.”

Canada poured a lot into World War I. Five years of war. Five years of volunteers. And an ocean separating those at home from the battles themselves. Canada itself was not in particular danger during the war, but she knew the stakes.

I stood in a Canadian WWI cemetery in France in the summer of 1998. We’d spent much of our time on that trip exploring the history of the end of the Second World War—we’d seen the Normandy beaches, the American Cemetery with its white marble crosses—but that day it was the Canadians who drew our attention.

I walked through the brick arches and down the steps to the lines of graves, and, looking over them, I whispered familiar words:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
                   -John McCrae

Seven years later I was driving to work on November 11, and at an intersection an elderly man was walking between the cars, passing out poppies. He dropped one on the ground, and as he reached down to pick it up, the light changed and the driver of the car in front of me impatiently scooted around him to go through.

The man straightened, holding the little red flower. I pulled my car forward, rolled my window down and reached out for it, smiling at him. He smiled back and gave me the tiny scrap of wire and cloth in his hand, now mine to hold high.

***

It seems remarkably fitting that I ended this month of posts with one about Remembrance Day. Sights bring memories, but only if we tell their story will the memories remain for the next generation. Let us not forget—neither our joys or the sacrifices and sorrows of those who have given us the chance to see and remember.

Pairings

coffee_and_grapefruit_rob_richesThere are certain food and beverage pairings that make two delicious things even more delightful. Take Kenyan coffee and grapefruit, for example. Or sharp cheddar and red wine.

But there are other pairings that shouldn’t be attempted, one of which I’d forgotten about until this evening, when I happened upon it again.

I used to go to a Vespers service at my friends’ church and we’d often go out to eat afterward. The pub where we usually went had an excellent Buffalo Chicken Strip dinner that was my typical order. One night, I also ordered a glass of wine, White Zinfandel—a fruity, sweet wine.

I’d eaten a few bites of my chicken before I took a sip of wine. When I did, I made a face—slightly shocked, rather bemused.

“Well that was a strange combination,” I said.

My friends looked at my plate and my drink and put two and two together. “What did it taste like?” they asked.

I fumbled for a moment, trying to place my finger on the familiar, strange experience on my tongue. Finally, from the depths of my childhood it came to me.

“Pop Rocks,” I said.

Baseball

It’s Game 7 of the World Series. Though I stopped tracking the postseason baseball closely when the Tigers collapsed, I discovered in myself this evening a great urge to watch it all come together to whatever end.

BaseballBaseball’s always been around. I went to at least one game a year regularly as a child, and Dad typically made sure to catch the World Series, no matter who was playing.

But perhaps one of my favorite World Series memories was in 2004, when the Red Sox were sweeping the Cardinals. I’m as close to a neutral as you can be about both teams—unless they’re playing the Tigers, I don’t have any particular desires for them to win or lose. But the Sox making their run was a wild ride, and I think it may be time for everyone to learn the secret I know: how the Red Sox reversed the curse.

My cousin Stacy, her husband Jeremy, and their kids were visiting the US that autumn. They were missionaries in South America. Stacy grew up in Pennsylvania and Bolivia then returned to the latter as a missionary where she met Jeremy, an Englishman.

Jeremy and the kids hadn’t spent much time in the US, and they managed to arrive at a prime American cultural moment. They’d been in New England during the ALCS, and found themselves staying with Red Sox fans the night of Game 4. The Sox were down three games to the Yankees, and Jeremy watched his first baseball game.

It’s likely you know the outcome of that game. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, that postseason run is the stuff of legend. The Red Sox pulled out a win against the Yankees that night, and for three more games after that. Then they went on to sweep the Cardinals, breaking their 86-year-long World Series championship drought.

At the end of ALCS Game 4, as they celebrated that the Red Sox were still alive against the Yankees, my cousins’ friends turned to Jeremy.
“That was your first game?” they asked.
“Yes, I’ve never seen one before,” he answered.
“You have to keep watching,” they said.

So Jeremy kept watching, as much as he was able. He tuned in to portions of the final three games of the ALCS, and the Red Sox knocked the Yankees out of the running. He kept it up as they went up against the Cardinals. Evidently, though, a few of the intricacies had passed him by, as I discovered when he watched a game at my parents’ house.

We sat in my parents’ family room, my dad, Jeremy, and I half watching the game, half watching the kids play. Stacy and my mom were in the kitchen working on something. Jeremy told us of his curse-reversing power, and we talked of the series currently going. Then came my highlight of the series.

“Now,” Jeremy asked my dad, “If they win this match, how many will they continue to play?”
Before Dad could answer, from the kitchen came Stacy’s voice, correcting her British husband’s terminology. “Not a match, honey. It’s a game.”

The Stalker Robin

I was trying to do some organizing and purging of digital files this evening. A friend mentioned on Facebook yesterday how full of junk her digital files were, and commented, “I don’t think I would have let them get so messy if they were physical and I could see them.” I’m in the same boat. I do tend to collect papers, but every once in a while I hold a purge. I take the piles and I go through them sheet by sheet, filing the necessary ones, recycling the rest. It’s a good rhythm.

My most successful purge to date was the spring before I moved to Alaska. My parents were studying in London for five weeks and I had their house to myself. They had cable and rerun episodes of Clean Sweep made an incredibly inspiring background for purging and organizing projects. So I brought the piles of my world down to the family room, turned that on in the background and worked at sorting my life to that point into a manageable size and system.

One morning, I woke and made my way downstairs to a rhythmic thumping in the family room. Confused, I peeked around the corner as I got to the kitchen and looked into the family room. There, beyond my piles of papers spread across the floor, standing on the firewood stand outside and launching himself repeatedly at the window, smashing against it, then landing back on the firewood stand, was a robin.

His rusty frontispiece was tufty and ruffled. His feathers didn’t lie smoothly. Everything about his appearance pointed to him being slightly undone. The fact that he was running into the window at twenty second intervals only confirmed the matter.

Thinking the bird must be seeing his reflection in the window, due to the dimmer interior of the house, I walked over and kindly lowered the window shade for him, hoping that would cut the glare enough to set him right. I glanced at the window on the far side of the fireplace. Best to lower that one, too.

Half an hour later, settled with my breakfast and my coffee, I looked up to notice that when I’d lowered the second shade, it had not gone fully down to the sill. In the triangle of window at the bottom of the crooked shade stood the robin, ducking his head down to peak in and cocking it to one side, eyeing me.

Photo by David Wenning

Photo by David Wenning

I crossed the room, closed the shade, and then closed the shade to the window on the back of the family room. An hour later, the robin had made his way around to the doorwall, where he stood on the ledge, tilting his head and staring.

That morning began a month-long fascination the bird had with me. He would stand on the window sills and stare in every day. He would sit in the back yard and watch my movements through the doorwall. He would come to the front door, stand on the porch, and tap-tap-tap on the metal kick plate. When I went to the door, thinking someone had knocked, he quickly flew back, landed in the pin oak tree about fifteen feet from the door, settled his unkempt feathers, and cocked his head in my direction.

When my parents returned I told them of the stalker robin. Sure enough, their first morning home he made his appearance at the front door. Tap-tap-tap.

I left for Alaska soon after, and about halfway through my first summer up there, I got a note from Mom. “Your robin has been hanging around all summer, though we didn’t see him much this week.”

That afternoon, a robin ran into my open apartment window.

He landed on the ground, dazed, but generally unhurt. As I watched him right himself, I noted his rusty front and raggedy feathers. He cocked his head at me once before taking off once more.

I never saw him again, but a week later the stalker robin appeared back in my parents’ yard.

Tiny Horse in a Turtle Costume

I keep having to remind myself that Halloween is coming. This is the first time in my living-out-on-my-own adult life that I’ve lived in a place where I might get trick-or-treaters. I actually had to buy candy. Sure, I’ve only seen six kids in my neighborhood, but you never know how far they’ll come from on Halloween.

I think I missed the Newtown Halloween Parade already. It’s likely it would have been last weekend—typically it’s the Saturday before Halloween. Which I discovered the first year I lived there when, at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, a marching band began to play outside my bedroom window.

Surprised, I opened the curtain to discover that yes, a band indeed was marching down the street next to my house, led by a drum major clad from head to toe in a green body suit. He was a very brave young man.

1186153_595842591212_1733777672_nThe band came along, costumed to varying degrees, and, following them, quite possibly the most adorable thing in the face of creation. A hundred or so little kids, all dressed up in their costumes, walking up the street with mommy and daddy, following the marching band.

That parade became one of my favorite traditions. I would grab myself a cup of hot cocoa, open the living room window, and sit on the sofa, looking out to watch the parade of two and a half-foot tall Batgirls, pajama-clad color guard, small pirates, Lego men, lions riding in strollers, and Narnian princesses.

Two years ago, I found perhaps the most amusing sight of my parade experiences. A woman was trying to navigate away from the marching band, pulling what I thought was a costumed dog toward my side of the street. I was videoing the band, and found myself slightly perturbed that they were in my shot, but not bothered enough to care. It was only when they turned, so the animal stood perpendicular to my position, that I realized he had hooves. There, on a leash outside my window, videoed for all the world to see, was a tiny horse in a turtle costume.

Tiny Horse

Pie

I’m convinced that God made pie to bring me joy.

I baked my first pie of the fall season this evening. It’s a little shocking to me that I’ve managed to delay this long. I think I may have been actually tricked into delaying by the southern temperatures that have hovered closer to 70 degrees than 60. I don’t hate the temps, but I am frustrated that they’ve confused my internal pie-maker.

PieI’ve written before of my love of pie. I love pie. I love most kinds of pie. I have established myself as the pie-innards maker in my family. My father, on the other hand, has established himself as the pie crust maker in the family. That only bothers me a little bit.

Two years ago, Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and Philly and knocked out a power plant in Newtown leaving me without power for the better part of four days. Fortunately, I had a gas stove, so with a lighter and an iron skillet, I was still able to cook food and not forced to subsist on emergency rations—though I do remember drinking a whole lot of milk the first night.

I’d made a pumpkin pie right before the storm, and it became my primary sustenance in those four days. I kept it out on the dryer in the lean-to (because when the weather was 55 degrees or less outside, that made as good a fridge as any, and it saved me having to open my own fridge and let the cool out).

I’d slice a piece of the pie, set it in the skillet, light the burner and slowly warm it through. Toasty-bottomed pumpkin pie. A quality life choice.

My final evening without power, I was done. Our house had been built in the 1800s and between the drafty windows and the stone and plaster walls, all the warmth had been drawn away by day four. Power had returned to campus, so I’d worked that day, but when I got home and took one step inside my frigid kitchen, I looked at the pumpkin pie and bade it farewell.

Joy-in-a-pan though it was, sustenance though it was, balanced meal though I argued it was…Applebee’s had power again and I was going out to eat.

Oops, I Forgot

I’ve got a good memory. One of the reasons I chose the theme of exploring memories was because I knew I had lots of them.

But here’s the thing: I know it’s beginning to diminish.

Last night, I forgot to write a blog post. No big deal, but not something I would have forgotten five years ago. It’s strange to be able to see my memory growing weaker. Terrifying sometimes. But mostly just strange. One of those things that comes with age…and you know that you’ve got plenty of beautiful things like wisdom and experience and gray hairs coming with age, too, but you feel that one thing slipping from your fingers.

And you wonder if you’ve made it an idol, and whether you’ll be able to survive without it.

I can’t remember nearly half of 2012. Well, no, it’s there—deep in the background—but I can’t dredge it up very well.

At Christmas that year, when Christine and I began to decorate our tree (accompanied by Filipino Christmas music, hot chocolate, and a YouTube crackling fireplace), Christine couldn’t find her ornaments. When we’d packed up the tree the Christmas before, she’d put them somewhere and they were nowhere to be found a year later. But we had mine, and she had the ones that she’d bought during 2012 (she’d traveled through Europe that summer), so we made a go of it. As she pulled out ornaments from their packages, she held up one, smiling, with an expression of, “Remember this!?” on her face.

It was a ruby slipper. I looked at her, blank.

1450972_600499194342_1410669521_n“From the Smithsonian?” she said. “Dorothy’s slippers?”
Vaguely, the memory of the museum came to me. “That was this year?” I asked.
“It was January,” she said. Then, there was a pause as she looked at me. “Wow, you really did have a rough year.”

The first half of 2012 was one of grief, of stress, of overwork, and pain. I remember those things. I remember those I lost that year.

This past spring I flipped through an old notebook—the one I take with me to church and everywhere and jot notes and thoughts and story ideas whenever they come to me.

One page is dated early January 2012. The next is dated in July.

The forgotten months.