Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Simple Gifts 2

It was about 3 years ago, in the midst of a particularly stressful time in life and ministry. A lot of things weren't making sense, and I was struggling to find my way through. Answers weren't coming very easily. A lot of people around me wanted solutions that were exclusive of one another. I was feeling worn down and more than a little hopeless. I sat at my desk, figuratively beating my head against a wall, wondering if there was a way out of all the pain.

And then a friend walked in, saying "I have something for you." He told me to move from behind my desk, and sit in one of the comfy chairs I usually reserve for guests. Then he walked over to the CD player in the corner, and put in a CD.

"Now," he said, "just close your eyes and listen."

And he played this song.

(if you want the full effect, do the same. Close your eyes. The pictures are nice enough, but can distract from the power of the ancient words Alison is singing)

It was, of course, exactly what I needed, although I didn't know it until then. To get outside of all the pain and chaos and tribulation, and rest. To rest my mind, my heart, and my soul. To stop, and just be.

And to be reminded that the answer wouldn't be found in the complexity of it all. Even, that there's no shame in walking away from the problem. That, perhaps, too much pride was at stake in figuring it all out. And that, maybe, it was time to place it back in God's hands, where it should have been in the first place.

It is also the perfect blend of instruments, the simplicity of voice and cello, Alison's sweet, rich, hopeful lyrics over Yo Yo Ma's thick, complex, soul-stirring counter-melody. The arrangement itself reminds us of the truth that less is more.

Why do we strive? Why do we grasp? What's left but to rest, and trust in the almighty hand of God.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
and when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
to bow and to bend we will not be ashamed,
to turn, turn, will be our delight,
'til by turning, turning we come round right.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Simple Gifts 1

I was homeless once.

Not sleeping-in-the-streets homeless, but lacking in a home, and thus relying on the kindness of others for a place to lay my head. It lasted quite awhile. I was just out of college, working as a part-time youth pastor, unable to find an income to supplement that ministry salary.

I had been rooming with a college friend, but then he decided to leave me, and move in with his girlfriend. I couldn't afford rent on my own, and couldn't find anybody to share the space, so I had to move out.

For a little while, the church where I worked set me up with a spare room, giving me the space in exchange for playing part-time security guard. We had a gymnasium with showers, and a nice kitchen, so I had everything I needed. Except it was a little lonely, especially when earthquakes happened at 5 in the morning.

During that time I also slept on the floor of an acquaintance for a brief period, a security guard at the local strip mall. Every weekend he'd tell me I might need to find other arrangements, because he was expecting to bring "a hot little lady" home for the night. It never happened. He was a good chess player, though, and we spent hours playing chess in front of our little TV. I remember watching the Branch Davidian compound burn to the ground while we ate some cheap pizza and he killed me at chess once again.

But it turned out he wasn't paying rent. And he wasn't supposed to have the three cats he kept. And he never told the apartment managers about me. So I went away on a weekend trip with the youth group, and returned to find the apartment locked up by the local sheriff. I talked to the apartment owners, but since they didn't know me, I was out of luck. Thankfully, I didn't have much stuff in there.

I slept in my office at the church a couple of days, and eventually, right around the holidays, was invited to live temporarily in an airstream trailer in somebody's backyard.

It was sort of nice to have my own space, and a cool airstream trailer, at that. On the other hand, it was lonely, living in somebody's backyard. And this wasn't just any somebody. This was the classic grumpy church busybody who seems to show up in every church, the lady who complains about anything and everything, believing herself to be the expert on all of the church's business, even though she was really just a gossip.

I once walked into the office of my mentor, the previous youth minister, to find him in tears. He had just gotten off the phone with this woman. Later on, it all ended when the church was forced to kick her out, telling her she would either get counseling or never come back. She was that bad. But that was a year or so after I lived in her backyard.

The family was gracious to not even charge me rent. The only real cost to me was having to spend 30 minutes with this woman every morning, listening to her rant and rage and gossip about all the goings-on at the church. The fact that I worked in the office and was present at board meetings, and thus had first-hand knowledge of what was actually happening didn't sway her. She had her opinions, and she was going to tell them to me.

She also absolutely, positively, without question hated praise choruses. And I helped lead worship. So I got an earful on that, too.

During that time I finally found a second job, working in a local sweat shop Christian book store. It was a store that took ministry profits seriously. I've written about it elsewhere, even going so far as to make the claim that I almost lost my faith while working in that bookstore. But that's another story.

The connection is this: I spent some of my hard-earned money to buy some Christmas CDs that year. I even bought a couple strings of Christmas lights, and hung them inside the airstream.

Which is how I found myself one night all alone in the airstream, bathed in the soft glow of Christmas lights, sitting out a rainstorm that pelted the aluminum walls with a regular smattering of rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat, feeling a little lost and lonely and friendless and maybe just a little depressed, when this song came on:

And I was mesmerized. Enchanted. Overwhelmed. Between the tight chord structures, the tender piano, the soaring violin, the rushing, ascending lines of the melody - Christmas flooded into my airstream, and I was blessed. The aching beauty of the song called forth to the deep ache in my heart, and took my breath away.

It came to an end too quickly, and I hit repeat.* And again. And again. I played the rest of the CD, and went back and listened to this one again. For a moment I was living in a world of pure beauty. And all was well.

I still have this CD, and every time this song comes on, I'm instantly back in that trailer, feeling lonely and a little lost, trying to make sense of the world and the plan I was supposedly following. And this song is a gift to me today as much as it was back then. Simplicity is good. Simplicity is a gift. Loneliness isn't the end of the world, because of Immanuel. Christ has come.

In the gift we deliver, in the gift we receive
is the living spirit Mary did conceive;
A royal gift of love, incandescent flame,
is given to all mankind in his name,

Joy, joy it is our true delight
to give and receive on this wondrous night
The boy-child to Mary is borne
and his light will shine on beyond the dawn.

Consider this an early Christmas present.
*remember back in the old days before CDs, when you had to hit "rewind" and wait for the tape to go back through the song? And then they came out with 'auto-rewinds' that could sense where the break between songs was? And how we thought that was the most amazing technology ever invented?