It is good to gather this Sunday before Christmas. Early Quakers weren’t all that enthusiastic about Christmas day, or any religious holiday for that matter, believing every day was sacred, and a gift from God to be celebrated. I told my parents the same thing, back when I was a kid, suggesting they should give me a gift every day. “Why celebrate Jesus only one day a year?” I said. I was a Quaker long before I became one.
Our son Sam was on leave from the army in Alaska this week, back to Indiana to attend the funeral of a family friend. We went to see Ken Sheets on Wednesday night, the day before Ken passed. Ken took a lively interest in Sam’s service as a flight medic, and Sam enjoyed asking Ken about World War II. Two Quakers talking about war. Go figure.
We were walking out of the nursing home, past the nurse’s station. Carrie Underwood was on the radio singing Do You Hear What I Hear, that one line, “A child, a child, shivers in the cold, let us bring him silver and gold.”
“You ever think about that song?” Sam asked. “A kid’s outside shivering in the cold and you hand him a hunk of metal. What good is that?”
So it’s been a week of jarring contradictions, causing me to reconsider things I’ve never questioned, including Christmas songs and the gifts we give and receive. When I first became a pastor some 35 years ago, I thought clarity would come with age and experience. Instead, I find myself re-examining, re-considering, re-interpreting.
Last week, during our pitch-in dinner, after meeting for worship, I sat with some of our new attenders, Glenn and Colleen, and we were talking about Jesus’s divinity. We jumped right into the deep end, which I found exhilarating. I’m still unsure about the doctrine of divinity, though I do believe, with all my heart, that Jesus was God’s way of being with us, that God, in some profoundly mystical way, decided to be right in the midst of things, up to her eyeballs in this human experiment. The word the gospel writer John used when he said “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” that word “dwelt” was the Greek word eskoneon, which literally meant to “pitch a tent.” So Jesus came and pitched his tent among us. I’m not sure what that means in terms of Jesus’s divinity, but I do love the intimacy of that image.
Why would Jesus do that? Why would Jesus pitch his tent among us? Because that’s what love does. Love belongs. Love is always searching for company. It always seeks relationship. Love is always looking to pitch its tent among the beloved.
I went to see Ken Sheets on Tuesday. He was lying in bed next to Dawn. It was late in the evening. I was sitting in a chair beside him. We weren’t talking, we were just sitting there quietly. But then he rolled over, looked at me, and said, “hold me.”
I moved from the chair to the edge of the bed, and reached for his hand, but he wasn’t having any of that restrained formality. “Hold me,” he said again, and raised his arms, drew me to himself, and held me.
Love is always reaching out for company. It always seeks relationship. It is always pitching its tent among the beloved. There were some things Ken Sheets didn’t know. But he did know how to love. He knew how to pitch his tent among us, didn’t he?
Holding Ken, I wanted everyone on Earth to have what I had in that moment. To belong. To love. To be loved. It was as if Christmas had come a week early.
A man named Robert Hayden was the first African-American to serve as America’s poet laureate, from 1976-1978. He wrote a poem called Those Winter Sundays.
my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze.
No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the
cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress.
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
Of love’s austere and lonely offices?
Jesus, I think, was God’s way of warming our world, of driving out the cold. I don’t know whether Jesus was divine. It’s too profound a mystery for me to understand. But I think if he was, then maybe we all are, and that some folks know that, down deep inside, so reach out their arms to hold those of us who aren’t so sure.