Friday, December 29, 2006

Berry on Christmas Eve

Actually, I have been alive and functioning reasonably well for the past month. But, you know, it was December. Need I say more?

To reassure my friends in Blogworld that I still exist, herewith the story I told on Christmas Eve. But first a bit of introduction...

For the past two years, I have been telling stories about our dog, Berry, for the Children's Moment at church. Usually Berry drives off in our pickup truck (wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, so no one will recognize him) and Has Adventures (which always, conveniently, have a message that ties in with the topic of the service that day). Often his adventures include other real dogs of our acquaintance; the only made-up characters are Bob and Rover, the gay couple.

Next November, when I am on sabbatical, I hope to polish up these stories for publication by Skinner House. (I have not queried them yet about this; it's just a dream at this point.) My intention is for worship leaders to use them in any way they wish, as jumping-off points for children's stories. If anyone wants to use the story below (unlikely before next December, right?), feel free.

This particular story is the result of some collaboration among my UU minister colleagues. A query was posted on our list-serv about what a contemporary nativity story would look like. Out of several responses, I was DAZZLED by one submitted by Chip Roush (whom I don't know, but who is my current hero) describing the birth of a baby at Wal*Mart. I took this story and adapted it to be used as a Berry Story for Christmas Eve.

This version is what I used to compose the story in my mind. As I told it, I embellished it here and there for lively telling. Here it is, courtesy of Chip Roush, me, and Berry: (sorry, it's long...)
Berry Witnesses Something Unusual
(Christmas Eve, 2006)

Berry has been watching the packages appear under our Christmas tree, some with his name on them. He was feeling worried that he hadn’t gotten around to buying anything for us.

So one night earlier this week, he waited until we were asleep, and then unlocked the back door and went out to the truck in the garage. He put on his baseball cap, but not the sunglasses; he thought it would be too dangerous to drive at night with sunglasses on, and he just hoped no one would recognize him.

After putting on his seat belt and backing the truck out of the garage, he headed for Wal*Mart. “I know my Mom and Dad don’t like Wal*Mart,” he said to himself, “but where else can I go this late at night? And I’m sure to find something there for them. Wal*Mart has everything.”

Even late at night, the parking lot had a lot of cars in it. Berry was glad, because that meant the store would be crowded and maybe no one would notice him.

He was looking at the games and toys (people toys, not dog toys), thinking that Duane and I don’t play enough and maybe we need some new toys, when he heard a voice coming over the loudspeaker: “Attention, Wal*Mart shoppers! A baby has just been born in the rest room near the front entrance of the store. If you’d like to purchase a gift for this new family, our infant supplies are in aisles 17 and 18. There is a 10% discount on diapers, if you buy a case. Thank you for shopping at Wal*Mart.”

Berry wasn’t about to buy any diapers or baby supplies, but he was very curious about this new baby, so he slowly and casually strolled to the front of the store. There was already a small pile of gifts accumulating just outside the bathroom door, right under the star in the “Wal*Mart” sign.

Inside the women’s bathroom, the baby’s mother was lying on some fluffy new blankets and quilts that still had the price tag on them, holding a sleeping baby in her arms. A man sat on the floor near them with a big smile on his face. He reached out to Berry, so Berry went over and lay down next to him, where he had a good view of the baby.

Pretty soon several people came in carrying mops and sponges and buckets. They were speaking in a language Berry didn’t understand, but one of the words they kept repeating was “niño.” They seemed to be quite shy, but also very excited.

The man got up off the floor and spoke to them. “I’m sorry, but my wife just had a baby here and she’s resting and the baby is sleeping. Would you mind coming back later to clean the bathroom? We’d prefer not to be disturbed right now.”

One of the men replied, “Oh Senor, we came to see the baby. Our shift just started and we were going to work when we heard the announcement on the loudspeaker about your baby. We just want to see the baby. We are far away from our own families and our own babies, and we miss them so much! We send money to them, but it’s not like being there with them. Please, may we just look at your baby for a little while?”

All the workers crowded around, pointing at the baby and smiling and murmuring about “ el niño!” among themselves. Berry didn’t understand their words, but the joy on their faces was unmistakable, as well as the longing they said they had felt for their own children far away.

"Feel free to stay as long as you like," the man said. "My name is Joe, and this is my wife, Mary, and this is our son. We haven't decided what his name is yet; he came earlier than we had expected."

"Oh Senor," the man said to Joe. "We would like to stay longer, but we need to get to work now. If we do anything wrong, we might get into trouble, and they would find that we don't have the right papers to be working, and then they would send us back to our country and we would be in big trouble. We don't want to call any attention to ourselves. We have to go now."

He gestured to his co-workers, and they gathered up their mops and brooms and backed out of the bathroom, blowing kisses at the baby and his mother, with sad looks on their faces.

It wasn’t long before three young men came bursting into the bathroom with a great deal of chatter and excitement. They kept exclaiming how special this baby was, and how honored they were to attend his birth. The man finally got them to calm down, and they explained they’d received text messages on their cell phones, announcing that an uncommon birth was happening beneath the star in the Wal*Mart sign at the front of the store. None of the three knew who had sent the text message, but they were all elated to have gone in search of the baby, and now they had found him.

“So who are you, anyway?” one of them asked the baby’s father. “What are you doing here?” Berry had been wondering the same thing.

“Well, I’m Joe,” the man said, “and this is my wife, Mary. And this is my son. We don’t have a name for him yet. We weren’t expecting him quite so soon. We’ve been living here in Pennsylvania with Mary’s sister after we lost our home in New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina last year. Now FEMA finally came through with our check, to replace our house and belongings, but they told us we had to pick it up in person, in New Orleans. We didn’t have enough money to pay for hotel rooms, so we’ve been living in the van for the trip south. When Mary began her labor, I got off the Interstate at the very first exit, and she insisted on coming into the store for the delivery, where it would be warm.”

“Well, this must be one special baby, that’s all I can say!” exclaimed one of the young men. “Everyone in the store is talking about it. This is the best thing that’s ever happened in our town!”

They stayed a while longer, talking among themselves and with Joe and Mary, until one of them said “We’d better leave now and let these people get some sleep.”

As they left, each young man knelt down beside Mary, and handed her a gift, to help raise the child. The first man gave her a small collection of gold coins, each worth several hundred dollars, which they could easily trade. The second gave her his Blackberry, and explained that he would continue paying for its internet and telephone service for the next 18 years. The child would have the world at his fingertips. The last man offered a plastic folder, which he said contained a paid-up health insurance policy, with well-baby care and a prescription benefit. Mary began to cry at this gift, and Joe fell to his knees, to embrace the man.

“You people have been so kind to us!” he said with great emotion. “Everyone has been so kind! I can’t tell you what this means to us, coming after such a difficult year and such a terrible loss. How can we ever thank you?”

“Just keep the kindness going,” one of the young men said. “If you have the opportunity to help someone else, just do what you can for them. Keep the kindness going.”

One of the other young men added, “And teach it to your son! How many people have told you tonight that he is special? Well, you teach him that ALL people are special, that everyone deserves love, and that he must do his part to keep the love going all around the world.”

Then the third young man spoke. “When you get home to New Orleans, you are going to see a lot of grief and suffering. Just remember that people have a deep well of goodness in them, and when they help each other and stick together, miracles can happen.”

Berry was thinking, “Dogs, too. Dogs have a deep well of goodness in them. I’m a good dog. My Mom and Dad tell me that all the time.” So after the young men left, Berry stayed with the family while they rested a while longer. When they got up to fold their blankets and gather up all the gifts at the bathroom door, Berry stood up with them and went with them to the parking lot.

He stayed with Mary at the van as she settled onto the back seat, making a comfy bed with some blankets and pillows. She lay down with the baby at her side, and Berry stood guard while Joe went back into the store for all the other things.

“You’re a good dog,” Mary said to him. “I don’t know where you came from, but it was such a comfort to have you with us tonight. Now you go home to your house, and we’re going to drive home and start up our new life with our new baby, and who knows what will happen? But I will never forget you. You’re a very good dog.”

Berry watched them drive away in their old van, and then he got into the truck, which was parked nearby. He put on his baseball cap, but not the sunglasses, and fastened his seat belt. As he drove home through the dark streets, he pondered all that he had seen that night, and wondered what to make of it. Maybe it had been a miracle. He couldn’t wait to tell Sappho all about it.
What was fascinating to me was the way the congregation got very quiet when they figured out what this story really was. (I think it was at the part where Joe introduces himself and his wife, Mary.) Up until then, there had been a lot of laughter and high energy. But at that point they got very quiet, and by the time the story was over, several folks had tears on their faces.

Even though it's December 29 now, the loveliness of the season lingers with me, and I hope with all of you as well.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Shabbat Shalom

Last night I went to the Shabbat service at a nearby Reformed Jewish synagogue. A UU friend and colleague had been invited to preach, so I went to be part of his claque (not that he needs one). It was a lovely experience.

We got there really early. (Have you noticed how the first-time visitors at church seem to get there either really early or just as the service is starting? This is clearly an interfaith practice.) That gave me plenty of time to Soak It All In before the service began.

The sanctuary was gorgeous. I’m not enough of an expert to describe the architectural style; let’s just say that it was Old. There were stained glass windows (geometric, not representational) on both sides, and also (this is the coolest part) in the ceiling, lit from above. The pews were comfortably cushioned, the carpeting was thick and attractive, the lighting was good, and the whole place was clean, clean, clean.

What I loved best was watching people greet each other. They were so happy to see each other! Lots of hugging and cheek kissing between genders and generations. People were well dressed but not showy. Everyone greeted each other with “Shabbat Shalom,” (May the peace of the Sabbath be with you.)

There was a fixed liturgy which we followed along in the prayer book. The parts written in Hebrew were sung by the cantor (a woman with a lovely, clear, unselfconscious voice, not at all operatic or over-trained, just a great voice). Many in the congregation knew the songs and sang along soto voce, even though there was no musical notation. The rabbi read other parts of the liturgy, and the congregation responded. I actually find a fixed liturgy like that rather boring; I was thinking “Boy, the Rabbi gets off easy—all he has to do is write a sermon, and the rest of the service is already done.”

But I did love the way the service praised the Sabbath itself. There was a song about Queen Sabbath, and a lot about how the Sabbath is a holy time of rest. Of course I know that, but can you imagine one of our services praising Sunday morning? This felt different, as though the Sabbath itself were a worthy object of worship.

Ant that’s the point, of course. Because it is. Just imagine ending your work week with a time for reflection and prayer in a community of people who love you, before going into your weekend of play/chores/whatever. It felt so different from ending one’s weekend with worship on a Sunday.

I remember having a similar feeling one Friday night when visiting a colleague whose partner is Jewish. The candles were lit, the meal (which was completely prepared before sunset) was served and enjoyed, and then the three of us sat around the table and talked for a long time. When I finally left, it was clear that the dishes weren’t going to be washed that night. It was beautiful, communal, and relaxed. I felt that my thirst had been slaked. It was a lovely evening.

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Leaving Church, she writes about keeping the Sabbath (once she has stopped being a parish minister) by sitting on her porch and doing nothing. No reading or writing, no prayer, just sitting there. This was a very healing practice for her after a difficult time in her professional life.

I want that, too. I want there to be a regular time in my life when I don’t have to produce anything or be anywhere or meet anyone’s expectations. I just want to be quiet and notice life happening all around me.

I hope I live long enough after I retire that I will be able to do that and realize that I’m doing it.