Monday, November 30, 2015

Only what's done

It's an hour yet until the sun rises, so I lit the chunky white candle on the blue plate that I placed on the table in the east window on the day after Thanksgiving. And I lit one blue candle on the Advent wreath as well. The flame on the white candle is flickering wildly, thanks to drafty old windows in this seventy-five-year-old house.

I'll get out the electric candles soon, the ones with sensors that turn them on in the darkness of late afternoon and off shortly after sunrise each morning. They make a nice glow, and once the cords are untangled and they're secured on the windowsills, they require no effort. I'm good with that.

I opened the computer this morning and Facebook came up on the screen, with a "Welcome to Advent" post from a friend. (Thanks, Chrissy.) She quoted a "Stir up, O Lord" prayer:
Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people;
that they, richly bearing the fruit of good works,
may by you be richly rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Oh, dear. "Richly bearing the fruit of good works" sounds like a lot of effort, maybe more than I'm good for this December.

When I was a child, there was a wooden plaque in my great aunts' home that said:
Only one life, 'twill soon be past,
Only what's done for Christ will last.

The maiden aunts (known in the family as "the girls") lived next door to us, and my sisters and I went there often. The plaque may have hung in the front hall, or perhaps the dining room. I'm sure it was old even then. There was a similar style plaque in one of the upstairs bedrooms with a saying on it in German script that I couldn't even read, much less understand. Both plaques likely dated back to Clara, Lydia and Emma's turn-of-the-century childhoods, perhaps to the parsonage where they were born in York Center, Illinois. Their papa, Herr Pastor Herman Sieving, died when they were quite small. The house they shared as adults was purchased with their mother, twenty years or more after his death, when these girls (my grandmother was the youngest of them) had grown up, worked hard, gotten good jobs and were finally financially secure.

I read the words on that old-fashioned wooden plaque often. They got under my skin. I memorized them, with their catchy rhythm and tidy rhyme. You could jump rope to this little verse, or repeat it in your head as you skipped down the block, late to school. Or pound it out as your feet hit the pavement while jogging daily de-stress miles in graduate school. The grim reminder that life is soon over sent a dark Lutheran chill through my young religious heart. It still does.

What I heard in that verse, and still hear nagging at me, is not the promise of "will last," but the judgment in "what's done"--as in, get your work done, get the dishes done, do your practicing, do your homework, for God's sake finish things--so that rooms are neat and orderly, lives run smoothly, and you, Christian, go to your grave having accomplished something.

Is all of that inherent in that little rhyme? In my family? Or is it just me, and how I heard it?

When the last of the great aunts, Aunt Clara, could no longer live alone, we cleaned out her house, and the grand nieces and nephews chose things to take to our own homes. It wouldn't surprise me to see this plaque in some out-of-the-way corner in the home of one of my girl cousins or sisters. Or perhaps no one wanted it. I certainly didn't.

On this first Monday of Advent, I'm facing a long list of things that need to be "done" by New Year's: a birthday party for my daughter (whose middle name is Noel), concerts, decorating, planning, shopping, knitting, and lots of work at my day job at church. Can any of these things be said to "last"? Music is learned, performed and over. Birthday parties, thankfully, end. Hand knit socks wear out in the heels. Church communications may live on forever on the internet, but are quickly recycled here on planet earth. So much of the Christmas celebration is ephemeral--cosy, jolly, loving, worthwhile, but not lasting.

Meanwhile the good works the world truly needs--justice, peace, compassion--seem well beyond my power to accomplish.

The sun is up, reflected on clouds in the east. I blew out the candles a half hour ago; their little flames look insignificant in the cold daylight.

What must be done for Christ today? Stir up my will today, O Lord--not to finish things, not to be done, but just to bear whatever you can bring forth through me.