Today, in gratitude I honor the life of my mother, Ethelda Oaks Potts, who is celebrating 80 momentous years. Born December 31, 1934 in Booneville, MS, she has lived a life of faithfulness, influence, and service. I can’t begin to recount the many ways she has helped the greater community through her life’s work as a teacher, librarian, musician, and civic leader. She has molded and influenced countless young and old people alike to strive for and appreciate the highest, most beautiful, most excellent, and finest offerings of life and vocation. A quintessential Southern lady, she is one of the most gifted and cultured people I have ever known. And she has walked the lonely road as an Alzheimer’s caregiver, laying down her own life to love more deeply the life of her beloved husband of 48 years, Lester. May God bless and honor you, Mother, and give you peace.
Cold is the human heart, and good as dead
that has not suffered in another’s stead,
or lain aside some comfort of its own
to know the need another might have known.
For God, in Holy mystery, has willed
each heart to lack a wholeness, if not filled
with love enough to walk the lonely roads
of others sinking underneath their loads.
When love is let to open every door
which walls away some warmth within our core,
no vestige of the former chill of night
survives beneath the blanket of the light.
In living, let us warm another’s cold.
In loving, let us seek a hand to hold.
In knowing, let us help the world to see
a life laid down will live eternally.
Dead cold night lay waning. It had given him no gift of sleep.
The old man’s sack had proven useful, laying a thin, tattered veil of warmth over his chilled-to-aching bones. “If it weren’t empty, I couldn’t use it for cover,” he reasoned. Yet his heart sought, again, a filling with Christmas bounty, long since lost in the battering gales of time.
Stillness, like a scab, covered his frigid body with a sheet of protective numbing, creating no real warmth, but somehow dulling the pain from the north wind’s steely jabs. As night’s blanket lifted, he feared his fate from another day without shelter and food. In his mind, he knew there would be no welcome for him at the shelter downtown. He sensed it before in the way they looked back at him as he passed by.
Cold, half day was now the shadow box of his stony, vacant life. There had been the parting time, the drifting away from love and security all those years hence. An ensuing path of self-destruction led to dead ends of isolation, and there were no helping hands extended his way. To those so unfortunate, winds of trouble always mount – walling away lives behind a drifted bank of woes. Bereft of even one remaining friend, and disowned by the few familial relations who still survived, he moved over the land like a haunting spirit seeking a host.
On occasion, he was able to obtain a hot meal from a church group about town. But for the past few days, no one had come. True; he had kept moving from location to location due to the cold. Regardless, he now found himself in a dire place, with dwindling energy and weakened will to stay in life’s race. A faceless heap of refuse walked-past by the world on its way to work, he would die a cold and hungry death.
On Christmas Day in the morning.
Despite the starving beast gnawing through the pit of his stomach, and the chilling chokehold of winter’s waxy hands, he seemed to have only one longing…he wanted a gift. And not for the gift itself. He wanted to be given to. But he could never ask. He was not worthy. Shame, like a hungry wolf, had ravaged through the wounded flesh of the self.
He had to move now, or he would die. With the first flinch, the fault line of his cracked skin quaked from head to toe. His body, a sack of prophesying bones, grumbled in its striving against the wind, as he struggled to raise himself up. In truth, all had been vanity, until the bloodletting had begun.
Managing to stand, though bent to shield himself from the smiting winds, he gathered up the flimsy sack and pulled his furrowed hat and garments in close approximation, so to hide most patches of his wrinkled, leathery skin. Then he staggered on, heading nowhere that he knew, seeking a gift for the poor in spirit.
“Christmas gift,” he muttered to himself, because no one else could hear. And the crevasse inside his soul grew deeper, still.
Parting clouds, illuminated by the rising sun behind them, hunkered down on the horizon to warm the earth. He saw fingers of smoke pointing up from rooftops, and his mind took him to a table spread with good things. But his body only felt the sinking lead weight of cold.
Spotting a modest, well-lit home on a wooded hill just off the road, he stopped and stood, leaning forward on a wall of wind. Not believing he still could think such thoughts, he pictured himself inside with the people who were surely present there, having Christmas together. He wanted to be one of them…one with them.
“Christmas gift,” he wished. Then, like a carcass dragged on by hungry carnivores, he moved forward.
Struggling to circle behind the home unnoticed along the fringes of the wooded yard, He neared the back door and kitchen window. There, he glimpsed a family inside, preparing to sit down to breakfast.
No. He could not do this. How had he let himself come this far? The shame surged within, as before his eyes appeared a storyline of strife from his stormy past, and he was left again, like he had been time and again, guilty and alone in death’s howling judgment. No one could see him. He could know no love.
He stood there, in the bitter elements of his reality, clothed in rags, and crying.
At the slightest parting in this miserable fog-bound existence, he stepped forward again, and made it near enough to see the father of the home with an armful of stuffed stockings, headed to the kitchen table. It was then that a longing like he had never known birthed itself from the deepest recesses of his being. He would die to everything and everyone else if he could have this one prize. Heaven seemed within his reach at last. Could it be given to him?
Ascending to the final step, nearly spent of physical strength and enlivened by pure soul, he knocked on the back door.
The father, who had just sat down and started the Christmas blessing, looked toward the door. Startled at first, he then saw the old man; barely upright; tattered cap down low across a sunken brow, toes visible through worn down tips of shoes, ill-fitting wool coat, rusty white beard, and reddened eyes behind a window sill of tears. And it touched a place inside the father that had been long locked away.
The door opened up, and the old man spoke first.
“Christmas gift,” he exhaled.
“Come in, my friend; come in! You are welcome here! Merry Christmas!”
“No sir, I couldn’t do that.”
“Well, if you won’t join us, let me gather up some gifts for you. God has been good to us, you know. And we want to share what we can.”
The father then went about with the old man’s sack, stuffing in apples, oranges, chocolates, socks and handkerchiefs, sweaters and coffee and a book. He packed and packed. And the old man cried. And smiled a smile of wonder, and of prayer, and of holding hands and running over hills with loved ones and friends. And he sat again on Daddy’s knee and had Christmas in his arms. And he felt warm and full and thankful. And he thought he had forgotten how.
“Are you sure you won’t join us for a hot meal? My family and I would be honored.”
“Yes, sir…please come in with us,” chirped the little girl at the table.
“Thank you, all, but I have to go. You have given me my first true Christmas in years.”
And he thanked them again, and bade them farewell. Energized by the experience, he stepped back through the yard and into the road, barely able to lift his Christmas sack.
And on his way back, he became aware for this first time that the family who had helped him, who had shared their Christmas with him, was black. He, himself, was white. He had been so caught up with the experience, he didn’t even notice.
Then, he felt a mysterious movement in the heart; an expansive gratitude which seemed to spread out to the world through the threadbare clothing, which had been his only shelter from the cold. Now, he knew a warming from within, and wanted, more than anything he had ever known, to share it with the world.
Picking up the pace of his steps with a new-found enlivenment, he moved in the direction of the homeless shelter downtown with a sack full of gifts for the “least of these;” children of many-colored skins, who sought shelter from a wind-blown world of winter woe.
He had been given to. And he would give it on to the poor in spirit, like him, who were too ashamed to say it.
“Christmas gift,” he sang. “Oh, Christmas gift!”…as he emptied out his old sack.
I make no claim to having all the answers, or even most of them. But I do spend a lot of time pondering – even more, with age. It seems the great teacher called life has been working overtime for the past few years; at least, in my own experience. So I thought I would share some things I’ve come to realize. These may not be true for you, and I respect that.
I’ve come to realize that –
–I control nothing, God controls everything, and God is Love; so things will work out the way they are supposed to.
–life is what it is; what happens happens; then things usually get better.
–I can survive just about anything if I can remember a song to sing.
–the truth is always broader, more inclusive, more compassionate, more loving and more beautiful than I can get my small mind around.
–wrinkles and wounds are life’s loveliest adornments.
–true maturity requires transcending the small and constrained world of the ego (self) and embracing the large and expansive world of God (true self).
–suffering transforms me if I bring it to God and destroys me if I try to bear it alone.
–the great essential truth of life seems to be the personal acknowledgement that I need help, the courage to ask for it, and the grace to receive it.
–empathy is the most powerful effector of positive culture change, and its cultivation is society’s most important educational task. I need to strive for ever-increasing amounts of it every day of my life.
–if I ever get so high up that I can’t bow down, I have a serious problem.
–the two most important gifts I can give myself are compassion and forgiveness.
–love suffers and grows, or it isn’t love at all. Everything else just suffers and dies. Love lives on.
–sometimes fighting the good fight means knowing how and when to surrender gracefully.
–in my quest for perfection, I often left authenticity behind. What I needed to do was to embrace my imperfection and be myself, understanding that God loves and approves of the real me, and the real me is good.
–moments matter more than epochs.
–eternity is going to be an extension of the finest moments of selfless love, compassion, empathy, beauty, and creativity to infinitely unimagined heights.
–the good deeds I do here on earth that are in line with the will of God are going to live into eternity.
–much of what I thought love required was fallacy.
–detachment from anything the ego desires is one of the hardest tasks of life.
–the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ, together with the resulting defeat of sin and death, has saved the universe from itself, and me with it.
–to be a real person I have to bring my shadow side into the light, name it, forgive it, embrace it, and let God transform it.
–to be in real relationship with others I have to be willing to be vulnerable myself.
–truly listening is the greatest gift of healing I can give another person.
–I should travel and experience other societies and cultures as often as I can.
–I have to spend time in the solitude and serenity of nature to experience health in any sense.
–I have to meditate, be silent, and pray daily, or I will experience inner death.
–for anything to be right on the outside, I have to be right on the inside.
–I must not exhibit reactivity to the negative energy and emotions of others.
–I should spend more time around old people and small children.
–I should laugh a lot more often than I worry, being sure to laugh at myself.
–I should never pass up the opportunity to watch a sunset.
–I must refrain from passing judgment on anyone.
–if I express gratitude in all circumstances, I will likely be in right relationship with God and with others.
–If I remain conscious of God at all times and keep a humble attitude, I will continue to be able do the next right thing.
–I should try and see others, and myself, as God sees us.
–God can be found in every moment of life, if I will remain present and conscious.
–ultimately, I have been given the freedom to choose life, or to choose death, in a spiritual sense. I pray for the grace to continually choose life.
Burn brightly, saving fire;
deeply tap this strip-mined air.
Times are dark now; darker yet, a day.
Awash in all-consuming gloom,
Earth will light its late, last hope
from a single candle in the human heart –
Yours. And mine.
Still she stirs.
Its batter thickens slowly
with the sugar of our Christmas years.
Pinches of paper choristers
with proper mouths to sing “Noel,”
and plops of plastic instruments
with cracked, silvery stain accompanying them
(to tease the eyes and tongue
with tinsel specks and nutty bites)
mix melodiously in creamy base.
Spicy dust of tea floats down
as if blown on seeking, eastern winds,
vanishing in mystery
beneath shifting, spoon-stroked sands.
And then, the tree. Oh, the tree!
Bitter sap of cedar forest
fills the house with prickling, icy clean,
potency released, but softened in the velvety milieu.
Embedded in each sappy bead
the ornaments, sparkling stations of a child,
rise to the top: tender memories to the surface.
A cup of crackling, smoky oak
helps hold the mixture’s warmth.
She tastes. “It lacks some sweet.”
Ambrosia, custard, cakes of coconut and caramel
by tablespoonful, draw satisfaction’s smile.
Music’s melding oil pours in,
blending solo soprano with ivory keystrokes;
“O Holy Night” for the “Gesu Bambino.”
These impart a taste unique.
But without milk’s gratitude for gifts
and butter’s spread of selfless love,
the savory blessing would be missed.
Still she stirs.
Our baking pans are filled again
with sweet ebony delight.
I must keep my oven warm,
for Christmas mouths will always crave
such bites of richness for the soul.
for Christmas mouths will always crave
such bites of richness for the soul.
Down a broken gray road by slack-planked shacks and rusted, wrecked hope hulls the man trudged; blood spattered, bone weary, spat-upon and silent. His pain dulled in the analgesic balm of weariness; he was ready to lay down his head for the last time. All that might have been was lost. All he feared, finally, had come. Frightened love, itself, had fled. And so it was with the man. And so it was with the world. This path was a cold dead-end.
This, the terminal mile, had been reached. The last splinter of hope had been to find this place. Now, there was no need to struggle to grasp it. This, too, could be surrendered to the void. To dust, the man could return. He remembered who he was, too spent for weeping. But his shriveled soul knew what it was to cry.
No gravity remained to pull him down. Suspended in the absence of all energies, he let go of nothing, and nothing received him. He was nothing. There is nothing. Presence and Being had faded away.
From this unknowing, unspeaking, unseeing darkness came a crackling, most faintly perceived. A point of light burned. There were footsteps.
He could not see. He could not feel. Yet something within himself awakened. There was a Child.
Diminutive steps on a parchment of leaves. Nearing the non-existent dust that was his identity. Wanting to die, though possessing nothing of life to lose, he closed his eyes. Yet, onward they came.
His heart had known gaiety in an earlier time, now coldly shut away. But in those footsteps, he sensed an innocent glee. An absence of burden. The very essence of what he was not.
The Child said no words, but moved toward the man. Would there be consciousness? Any chance of interaction? Surely there was nothing of this remaining; no capacity to be felt, to feel; to know…to be known. Yet, he knew this was a Child, someone other than him. Thus, the man realized he continued to exist apart from this Other. An unbidden revelation.
There sprang up in the man a will to see this Child. To know something which had not lost its life force. Why was the Child so near?
Just then, having drawn closer, the Child stretched out a hand. Dimly, the man glimpsed only movement. But, in this movement, there flowed the gentle kindness of a whispered prayer or lullaby. The soft exhalations of a rocking mother’s breath upon her baby’s face. A swirling eddy of leaves in the parting curtain of fall. How could this be?
More clearly, he felt warmth and energy emanating from the broken gray road on which he now knew he lay. Like glowing embers, the Child’s steps thawed the earth all around. The man could feel it.
In this moment, a wind of sweeping sorrows grew within his soul. The man became awakened to his failures, and had profound remorse which he had never allowed himself to feel. Unfettered grief welled up. He wept; though, strangely, no tears fell. All was silent in these woods in which he lay. The Child remained, but more than this. The Child somehow became this agonizing sadness. Unthinkably, the man’s sorrows lessened, and he sensed an increasing luminosity, as if suffering somehow brought forth the light.
The Child’s appearance, still partly hidden, became clearer to him now. The face was near enough to touch. The eyes shone forth as dark, burning coal. But the burning was within the man’s own heart. At that moment, the man felt a melding of his sorrows with a song. It was a timeless song, both foreign and familiar, and it was coming from the still silent Child. Or was the man singing this melody himself? He did not know. But the sorrow and the song smelled like rising smoke from a sweet wood fire.
Then, a sweeping dance of spiritual Presence moved from the Child outward to the man, and to everything in that place. The man felt his burden of weariness and wounding being lifted, like leaves on a tendril of the north wind. Long bound by chains of self-condemnation, he began to feel freedom and forgiveness. An openness to what is. A movement of energy and Essence from himself to another, and to the world. This he felt, as he noticed his blood had rubbed off onto the Child’s hands.
And then, the rising. The lifting of all within him which was very death itself into an up-welling of life and Love, one and the same as the Child’s own face. A face framed in a gray, tree-etched sky, gushing forth into the man’s soul.
Reaching toward the broken man, the Child embraced him. All of him. And held him in that silent, cold and wooden sanctuary of wrecked hopes. And the man grasped the Child. And what he saw, and what he knew, was Love, enwrapping his wounded flesh like soft linen. Mysteriously, in this eternal melding, the Child slowly seemed to fade, as in the initial appearing. And the man, now kneeling to a Presence on the broken gray road of his re-born life, was left embracing himself.
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” – John 1: 14