Thursday, December 22, 2011
I promised I would post another one of the Christmas Eve stories I write for my family each year, so I hope you have a few moments to welcome this one in and let it speak to you. Hopefully, you will be glad you did! Last year's (about a sweet little angel and the magic that is Christmas) can be found here.
GIFTS FROM THE BOOK OF LIFE
Susan Noyes Anderson, ©2006
“Remember, my friends: The scripture following the Lord’s prayer in the Bible is just as important as the prayer itself, perhaps even more so, for it reminds us of a life-changing truth,” counseled Reverend Williams.
“The passage reads like this: ‘If ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’ My sincere hope this week before Christmas is that each one of us will forgive and be forgiven, and may we find gratitude each day for the blessings that are ours, in Christ Jesus, amen.”
“Amen.” The congregation shifted in their seats, preparing for the closing song. It had been a long sermon; or at least, it had seemed like it, which was unusual when listening to their pastor. On a normal Sunday, he had them eating out of his hand, moved to tears one moment and laughing uproariously the next. Not that this week’s message hadn’t been a good one, for it had, but something indefinable was missing, no doubt about it. Of course, that was to be expected, considering. The truth is, it was a testament to Reverend Williams’ devotion that he was among them at all, under the circumstances. Most people would have taken at least a month off after the funeral…but Reverend Jim was dedicated. They all knew that. And they could certainly support him through one less than engrossing sermon. More than one, if need be.
The Reverend cleared his throat loudly to get their attention. “Next Sunday, we’ll begin the holiday service promptly at 10:00 am, which should allow ample time to get together with our”….the pastor paused and swallowed hard… “with our…our…families…and share Christmas Eve.”
His listeners, holding their breath as he stumbled, gave a collective sigh of relief when he managed to recover. Poor Reverend Jim. How was he going to get through the holidays without Buddy when he couldn’t even get through one sentence? Their hearts ached with love for him…and concern. He’d had such a hard time before, and now this. How much could one person bear?
The Reverend continued: “The closing song, ‘Joy to the World,’ can be found on page 242.”
As the pastor returned to the bench, he grimaced wryly. Right, Jim. Joy to the World. Perfect choice. As long as you don’t have to sing it. But he did have to sing it, and he had to give the Christmas sermon next week too. Even more unlikely, he had to give it in a way that wouldn’t ruin the holiday spirit for all of the people he loved so much, people who’d gotten him through the accident nearly ten years ago…and its fallout. He’d never have made it without them, and Buddy wouldn’t have either. They’d been there for his son when he hadn’t been…when he couldn’t be. It wasn’t their fault he was struggling again now, trying so hard to keep things together. It wasn’t their fault Buddy had gone and gotten himself killed.
The pain was almost physical as Jim’s memory conjured up, for the hundredth time that week, their last conversation:
“Don’t do it, son. Please. It goes against everything your mother and I taught you. There are better ways to resolve conflict, more righteous ways. And besides, I need you. I need you here…I need you alive. I’m serious, Bud. I’ve already lost your mom and Katie. I couldn’t survive losing anyone else.”
“I lost them too, Dad. Remember? You’re not the only one who’s hurting…I feel it, too. every day of my life. Which is why I can’t just let it go. Listen to me, Dad. Those people came into our country and killed people…fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers. And we know how that feels, don’t we? Of all people, you should understand why I have to go to Afghanistan. And you know what? I think Mom would understand. In fact, I know she would. She always understood.”
Wincing in spite of himself, Jim could still hear the unspoken sentence: “But you never did understand.” And it was true, at least this time. He didn’t understand. He didn’t understand at all. Maybe he never would.
The last strains of the closing hymn interrupted Jim’s memory, and he was glad to let it go. His clear tenor picked up the last refrain: “…and ever worship God, and ever worship God, and ever and ever worship God.”
I’m trying, he thought dejectedly. I am. But I’m so angry. With God. Even worse than when Christy and Katie died, and I barely made it then. Just barely. And Buddy. I’m mad at him, too, mad enough that I can’t even cry over him, and that’s crazy. He’s gone, blown up somewhere in the desert, and all I can do is yell at him in my head. Maybe that’s why I’m not praying. I’m too busy yelling at my son…my stupid, willful, wonderful, needlessly dead son.
With an effort, Jim ended his silent rant. “As a man thinketh, so is he.” Lately, this was not a comforting thought. And, sadly, the self-castigating sermon on forgiveness hadn’t even helped.
“Merry Christmas, Reverend. So sorry for your loss.” Jim was startled to find himself on the front steps of the church, shaking hands with the members of his congregation as they filed out the large, wooden door. Talk about being on automatic. Or maybe he really was going crazy. Why not? He had good reason. His whole family was gone. What was that thing about lightning never striking twice in the same place? No wonder he couldn’t give a decent sermon.
When he could avoid it no longer, Jim left for home. The outwardly familiar walk was surprisingly beautiful, even peaceful. The wintry night held a fragrant and distinctive scent of burning wood, pine, and fresh, cold air. Yep, it was Christmas, all right. Funny how those holidays just kept on coming. The candy canes and mistletoe stopped for no one. Not for a little girl whose life was snuffed out by a drunk driver, and not for the brave mother who tried to save her. And most especially not for the ones left behind. That first Christmas without his girls had been harder than he’d thought possible, on him and on Buddy. But they’d made it through, together. Or he thought they had.
Just then, Jim’s eye was drawn to a rainbow of lights, sparkling through a large bay window near his home. He caught a glimpse of a young family from his church, gathered around an unruly tree that looked big enough to grace the town square. Surprising himself with a soft chuckle, Jim found the first bit of warmth he had felt in days. He was reminded of Christmases past, but he was also thinking of Christmas present. He dearly loved the people he ministered to, and he wanted to bring them joy on the Savior’s birthday. He wanted to prove to them, and himself, that Christ’s love was big enough for everyone, in every situation. But how could he bring the spirit of Christmas to others when his own spirit was so empty?
Arriving at his doorstep, Jim turned the key and stepped into the silence that had become his life. Bud had been deployed for almost nine months, but his unit was due home for Christmas, and anticipating that day had given the house an energy it now lacked. The house stood hollow and lonely, like an old spinster with no prospects.
The doorbell rang, and Jim rose obediently to answer it.
“Ready or not, here I come, Jim,” chimed Marianne, “I even brought dinner!” Most of the members of his congregation called him Reverend, but Marianne was an old friend, a good one. She and Christy had been pretty much inseparable for years, and it still hurt him to see her sometimes. Mostly it helped, though. Sometimes he even thought of marrying her, but now the thought seemed very distant.
“Are you hungry, Jim? Do you think you could eat a bit?” Her voice was warm and caring, and he felt some of the tension in his heart ease.
“Haven’t got much of an appetite, but I’ll try.”
“Good. It’s important to keep your strength up.”
Setting the casserole down on the kitchen counter, she turned around and headed for the door. Almost as an afterthought, she handed Jim an envelope. He looked down and was surprised to see his late wife’s handwriting on it.
“It’s the card Christy gave me when my sister died,” Marianne explained. “I don’t think I’ve ever shown it to anyone, but it really helped me. She was always so smart about things, wasn’t she?”
Jim nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Marianne patted his shoulder understandingly, then turned to leave.
“Stay strong, Jim. Stay strong for them all…Christy, Katie, and Buddy. They’re counting on you, and so are we.”
His eyes filled with unshed tears.
“Good night, Marianne. And thanks.”
Closing the door softly, Jim headed for the old easy chair where he usually wrote his sermons. He placed Marianne’s timeworn letter from his wife carefully in his lap, almost afraid to open it. And he didn’t open it; at least, not right away. Instead, he stared at the intricate flower pattern on the paper and studied the arcs and angles of Christy’s handwriting. He could almost see her small, capable hand, moving quickly across the paper as a Bic pen tried to keep pace with her thoughts. And what wonderful thoughts they had been.
Suddenly, he wanted to know what she had said to Marianne. He needed to know. Maybe there was a message for him, too, a message so powerful it was passed down through the years just for today, just for this moment. Or maybe Christy’s words to Marianne were simply that, words to Marianne, with no special meaning for him. Either way, he had to find out.
With trembling fingers, he slid the thin paper from its envelope and laid it flat in front of him. The ink was faded and hard to read, and it looked like some of the words had been smudged by tears, but Jim was still able to make them out. As he read, a smile came to his face.
“For Marianna-banana”, it began, “the best friend––and sister––ever:
“Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow;
I am a diamond glint of snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain;
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awake in the morning hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starshine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there; I did not die.
– Mary Elizabeth Frye
A brief note, written neatly at the bottom, was pure Christy:
“It’s true, Marianne. Lucy’s spirit lives on. She’ll always be with you, whenever you need her. That’s how it is with families, because families last forever; I’m sure of it.”
Jim brushed at his eyes hurriedly, then returned to his wife’s words.
“So pay attention, my friend. Look for Lucy’s brilliance in the sunrise; listen for her quiet wisdom at dusk. See her goodness in the kind acts of others; feel her love for you in the touch of a friend’s hand. And remember…
“This friend’s hand and heart are here for you, Marianne, whenever you need them. They always will be, and when the time is right, so will Lucy’s.
“I love you.
Reverently, Jim folded the letter and placed it back in the envelope. As usual, Christy had cut right to the chase. She’d always been five steps ahead of him, and apparently nothing had changed. Maybe she was more present in his life than he’d realized. Maybe Buddy was, too.
With a firm sense of purpose, Jim walked up the stairs to his son’s lonely room. He hadn’t been able to handle going in there yet; he’d been too hurt…too angry, but now he wanted to go in and face him, in a sense. If Christy was right, and families were forever, then he and Buddy had some things to iron out.
The door swung open on Bud’s childhood. Posters, trophies, souvenirs, books, baseball mitt, lava lamp…every vestige of his boy’s life bombarded Jim’s senses. It was as if he could even smell him. The sadness was overwhelming, but so was the comfort. He’d been so angry with Buddy that he hadn’t been able to reach out…to feel his spirit. In fact, Jim hadn’t been able to feel much of anything.
Maybe that’s why he’d chosen not to look through the box of personal effects in the corner, the one the marine corps had brought. It had seemed like too much to even think about, but he was thinking about it now, and there was no time like the present. Determinedly, he walked over to the corner and sat down beside the box that held what was left of his son’s life.
At first glance, there was nothing out of the ordinary there, but nothing there could ever be ordinary, because it had belonged to Buddy. His class ring, camera, shaver, a picture of the family, a few letters…nothing of particular value, unless you were his father. And what was this? It looked like a present of some kind…Yes, it was. Wrapped in a brown paper bag and tied with a shoelace. A Christmas present, marked with Bud’s impatient scrawl: “Merry Christmas with love to Dad, from your favorite son.”
Jim could nearly hear Buddy’s voice saying it, and the loss swept over him again, made deeper by the knowledge that he was receiving his son’s Christmas gift from the grave. But what had Christy said? “He did not die. He does not sleep.” And it was true. Buddy’s spirit was alive in that room. And it was alive in the gift, as well.
With infinite care, Jim unwrapped the unexpected but treasured gift from his son. On the front page was printed the words “Gifts from the Book of My Life: A Good Works Journal, by Bud Williams.” Good works journal? What could it mean?
Filled with curiosity, he turned the page and found out.
Since we didn’t leave each other on the best of terms, and because it’ll be awhile till I see you again, I’ve decided to keep this journal. I know you want me to be a good person, maybe even a minister like you some day, but I’ve had to choose what’s right for me. And, in a way, I guess I’m writing this to prove that I can still be a good person, even in the marines. I just want you to know that the things you and mom taught me will stay with me, wherever I go.
My idea is to make a journal of the good things I do this year, and to be sure I have something worthwhile to enter in it, every day. Then, when I come back home, I’ll give it to you for Christmas. Great gift, huh? The gift of knowing you raised a good kid, one who’s working at getting even better.
Merry Christmas, Dad. I’m going to make a difference out here.
P.S. It’s a cool idea, huh? This way, every gift given to others is also a gift to you!”
Moved beyond description, Jim was reminded of another Giver (and Receiver) of gifts. “For inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Bud’s idea made sense, a lot of sense…And it sure beat feeling sorry for yourself.
Jim turned the page and read the entry for Day 1. It was humbling, to say the least.
“My first good deed is to forgive you, Dad.
“When I told you I was going to join up, you jumped to a lot of conclusions about me. You said what I was doing was unrighteous and out of line with what you and mom had taught me. But you were wrong, Dad; I care a lot about what you guys taught me. I just wanted you to understand how I felt. Our country had been attacked, and I wanted to do something to help. I needed you to be proud of me, but you weren’t. I wanted you to 'get it,' but you didn’t. We lost Mom and Katie to a drunk driver, and there was nothing we could do about it. This time I wanted to do something.
“I’m forgiving you today because I understand now. You’re afraid. Afraid of what war will do to me, that I won’t be a good person.
“You’ve always wanted me to go into the ministry, but I have to find my own way. And you’re scared of losing me, but that’s in God’s hands. It always is.
“I’m glad to forgive you, Dad, because you’re a good man who means well. And because you love me, and I love you, and we’re both representin’ down here for Mom and Katie.
“Rock on, dude!”
Jim was overcome. What a priceless gift his son had given him. Forgiveness. And more. Pages and pages of good works, pieces of a young life that would never be lost. How joyful he, as a father, felt to read them. Stories of helping Iraqi children whose parents had been killed, of volunteering in hospitals and schools, of helping out wounded soldiers, even risking his life to save others. It was incredible…yet, strangely, believable. Though Bud hadn’t lived to write it, he’d been killed in action while trying to rescue a friend. Fervently, Jim promised himself to make that last entry in the Good Works journal on his son’s behalf.
Buddy’s gift brought something Jim had never expected to feel again, not any time soon, at least. JOY. Plain, and not so simple. He treasured the opportunity to read for himself what kind of man his son had become. He’d be a better minister because of Bud’s example…a better man. He’d also be a better father. (Yes. He was still a father. And a husband, too. He always would be.)
With a deepening sense of PEACE, Jim read on. Midway through the journal was an entry that meant the world to him:
“Hey, Dad…I’m beginning to realize that I have a ministry of my own out here, with the soldiers. I might even make it official. Like father, like son, huh? Same job, different arena. What d’ya think?”
Needless to say, Jim thought it was fine. He smiled gently as HOPE returned to his heart. Maybe Bud had found yet another new arena. Heaven needed good ministers too, right?
Hope. Peace. Joy. Precious “Gifts from the Book of Life.” But the greatest gift from his son’s journal was that Jim was finally able to forgive…God…Buddy…even himself. He wanted to be a person the Lord trusted to minister to others, and he wanted it badly enough to let go, to let God heal him. In the meantime, he would keep a Good Works journal himself – a gift to his own Father, his Heavenly Father.
Christmas morning dawned bright and clear. At 10:00 sharp, the Reverend Williams began his sermon, and his congregation recognized immediately that he was “back.” His theme was Gifts from the Book of Life, and his message was basic, but profound.
“Let me begin,” he said warmly, “with a story about my son and your friend, Bud Williams, a fine young man who understood Christmas…and redemption…and gift-giving…”
Thirty stirring minutes of hard-earned wisdom, wit, and spirituality followed. Buddy’s gift––and the beauty surrounding it––were well and gladly shared, but now it was time for the living…time to go home and prepare for Christmas Day with their families.
The Reverend always knew when it was time to close, and he prepared to do so:
“What was that observation Buddy made...the one about giving?” he asked rhetorically, then answered his own question.
“Every gift to others is a gift to you, Dad.”
Addressing his son right in the text of his talk, Jim said, “I want you to know that I get it, Bud. I finally do get it, and nothing that happens to you, me, Mom, or Katie can ever change what is and always will be true: God gave us the greatest gift imaginable, His Son, who lived to teach us and died to save us. Our gift for Him is to receive His priceless gift and use it for good, our own and others’. And every gift we give, no matter how or to whom it is given, will be a gift to Him.
But here’s the even greater wonder…the miracle of all miracles: Every gift we give to Him becomes a gift to ourselves. We are the beneficiaries. Because of His selflessness, we have the opportunity to become like He is…to live with Him and our families, forever. Christ’s love is big enough for anyone and everyone, for anything and everything. And that is the meaning of Christmas.”
Looking out on his congregation, Reverend Williams embraced each one in spirit. Looking upward, he embraced each member of his family, in exactly the same way.
His final words were a testimony: “Born in a manger, he came to earth under the humblest of circumstances. The Son of the Almighty would become the Savior of all mankind. At His coming, the angels declared, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people, for unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord’.” A star rose in the evening sky, while the hosts of heaven sang jubilantly, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.” Kings came bearing gifts for the holy Child, but the only begotten Son of God would give freely, far more than He could ever receive. “He walked the roads of Palestine working miracles. He healed the sick. He brought sight to the blind. He raised the dead. He blessed the little children and condemned any who should offend them. He left His mark upon the world, which can never be erased or diminished. Concluding that brief life was the agony at Gethsemane and the terrible suffering of Golgotha, to be followed by the glory of the resurrection. No other had ever done before what He did. He rose from the grave, and through His great act of atonement came salvation for all men. Our eternal lives are in His hands and our eternal progress lies in obedience to His teachings. He is the implementation of our Father’s plan of happiness. He is our Savior of whom the angels spoke that first Christmas Eve. He is our Redeemer, our Lord, our God. He is our King, Emmanuel, who has saved us when we have been powerless to save ourselves.” (President Gordon B. Hinckley’s quote.)
The deep and abiding spirit of Christmas was palpable as each member of the congregation bore silent witness of the Savior’s mission…and the birth that made it possible.
“Surely these are sacred gifts…from the book of life eternal.” Reverend Williams’ voice, filled with awe, was little more than a whisper, yet it pierced his listeners to the very soul. His closing thoughts were beautiful in their simplicity.
“What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would know my part;
Yet what can I give him? Give my heart.”
And so he did. And his people did.
Minutes later the clock struck the hour, chiming as if to join the congregation in its closing song: “…Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead, nor doth He sleep…” This time, Reverend Jim was singing in full voice, and his heart was singing too.
Merry Christmas, Bud. The words rang softly, sweetly. Merry Christmas, girls. And a blessed, merry Christmas to us all.
for more Christmas posts,