Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Theology on Tap: Assignment #1 - Anticipation Becomes Reality

Many of you know that we have a terrific class at Saint Mark called Theology on Tap. The idea is not original, but it's really taken off with some success in the last year. This semester, we are studying Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird," and using her book on writing to help craft pieces of our own faith stories. Each week, we'll have a writing assignment, and tonight I bring you the first of six installments. I'm posting the assignment below, in case you'd like to follow along at home. Enjoy!

Reading Assignment: Part One-"Bird by Bird," Writing, p. 1-53

Writing Assignment: Your Own Christmas Story (Post to blog by Tuesday, Oct. 20)

Take one specific memory about going to church during the holidays—where you didn’t hear anything said because you were thinking of what Santa might have brought. Or, write about what your family did to prepare for Christmas, and what those traditions looked like. How have they shaped you? Your understanding of what you believe?

Christmas, as a child, was a destination. Because my parents grew up in the same small town in west Tennessee, we drove 7 hours across the state a few days before Christmas each year. We split time, as any dutiful family would, between their families, usually transferring houses in the interim between huge meals.

So, Christmas was a ritual that began with a long car ride in the cold of winter. I packed the backseat with my favorite toys, my sleeping bag and pillow, my trusty poodle, Puffy, and all of the hope and anticipation of the stuff that would be riding back home with me. I spent most of that car ride in quiet prayer that I would get whatever my heart longed for the most - a horse usually topped that list. I'm not certain how we would have transported it back home in the backseat, but I would have devised a plan. I'm clever that way.

The Christmas I remember most fondly was the year I turned 5. The wonder of it all was just starting to hit home, and I remember getting in the car at the end of the day, after my dad had arrived home from work. We started our trek in the early evening, and I slept most of the way, waking occasionally to stare at the vast, dark sky, spotted with diamonds. I saw my reflection in the windows when we passed streetlights, and I could see the depth of hope present in my countenance. The days ahead were the stuff of dreams: sleeping in late, staying in pajamas too long, eating too much of the wrong thing, presents, presents, and more presents, relatives doting, and lots of laughter. The grown-ups were too preoccupied with eating and cleaning, wrapping and playing to be particularly mindful of this girl, lost in the hope of a horse galloping through the backyard on Christmas morn. I trotted my index and middle fingers over every square inch of couch, floor, and wall, hurdling obstacles and whispering, “Good jump!” to my imaginary steed.

On Christmas Eve, I was preparing for dinner with my father’s family. We gathered at his mother’s house, and Mama Dow cooked all day for her three sons, and the various wives and grandchildren that happened to be present. My mother and my Aunt Holly were the most dutiful helpers, and the rest of us sat in waiting, in a haze of cigarettes and coffee, watching parades and waiting for the good specials to come on TV. It was a rare year when my three girl cousins, Delta, Marci, and Kris, happened to be there, as well, which made the magic all the more tangible. They were teenagers. Women, practically. Yet, they were just as excited as I. Maybe they were hoping to get horses, too. I spent all afternoon imagining a herd of horses gnawing on frosty grass when we awoke the next morning, and my cousins and I dancing out the back door in our nightgowns and slippers with glee, ignoring the cold.

It was a tradition on the McDow side of the family to unwrap gifts on Christmas Eve, after dinner. This meant that any children present had the patience to eat only starchy foods and dessert before losing their minds completely and hovering around the tree, arguing over who got to disperse the gifts so that we could get this present thing rolling. After the painfully long clean-up process, the family gathered in the living room, Mama Dow was escorted to the chair that had previously been inhabited by her husband of more than 50 years. He passed away earlier in the year, and this was our first Christmas without him. We distributed piles of gifts to each person, and began with the small box of chocolate covered cherries that, at one time, had probably been a delicious delicacy, but had passed that point to become a hokey tradition. (Incidentally, my Aunt Holly still sends me a box every year.) My Uncle Jerry distributed his annual gift of Arizona Highways calendars to everyone, including his nieces. I think he enjoyed the exasperation on our faces as, year after year, we unwrapped something he knew held no interest for us, and we did our best to receive it politely.

Finally, we got around to the good stuff: new leather jackets, some fancy Hewlitt Packard technological gadget, a new lighter, jewelry, a fancy outfit, and (my personal favorite) the game “Sorry.” After the flurry of activity, we settled into our corners of the room, to examine our plunder. I even got some cousins to play Sorry with me. Just as we were preparing to head to our sleeping quarters, my mom cleared her throat.

I turned, and there… walking towards me… was a life-sized Annie doll.

She was made of cotton fabric, with a perfect replica of the red dress from the movie. Her hair, spun from orange yarn, was perfectly looped into her scalp to replicate Aileen Quinn’s ringlets. She had a soft smile, embroidered on her cream-colored face. She even had freckles.

I don’t know if I can convey how much I adored this movie, and how often I sang the soundtrack. I identified with Annie, in some strange ways. I loved Carol Burnett, even though I feared her. I thought Ann Reinking was the most beautiful woman in the world, and wished on some days that she would come and adopt me, too. I didn’t just love this movie. I inhabited it. I put it on and wore it as my reality. I sat in window sills and sang “Maybe” to my dog. And I cannot convey the sense of affirmation and joy when I saw this doll.

My mother had spent weeks, months, hand-making Annie for me. I don’t know if she had a pattern. I don’t know how long it took. But, I do know that this was better than any horse (or herd of horses). It was my imagination becoming real.

This was my glimpse of God’s goodness, a child peering into a mirror dimly – the anticipation of Advent, and the impossibility of what we can’t even imagine dreaming of coming true. It’s beyond faith, really. If faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), I never could have hoped for this. Who could have hoped for a savior in such an accessible form? Who could have thought that a loving parent would have spent time, in the dark of night and the quiet of solitude, fashioning the most perfect way to say, “I love you. I hear you. Here is something you can see and hold and touch to remind you that I am always here.”

The incarnation of our hope is beyond our wildest dreams. And way, way better than a horse.

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