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Sunday in the Park

About this same time each year, I recall a sermon delivered by a Lutheran minister at my church in Lake Tahoe. I adored this guy; I remember talking to him about my hesitancy to become a member of the Lutheran Church and he gave me a grand explanation that may or may not have done ol’ Martin Luther proud. He told me being Lutheran was like one of the Christian jackets he could have put on. Many of them would have fit, he explained. He didn’t especially believe every single tenet that old-school Lutherans did but he thought it was a good place to worship and serve. He suggested I take the same approach. Yes, this was the early ’70s and religion was on a serious downswing. Making his church accessible and attainable was the right pitch. Pastor Green. My kids still remember him, even though we only went to that church two years before we moved to Park City. My children sat by his feet for the children’s sermon Sunday after Sunday and had starring roles in the Christmas pageant. (A bleating lamb and a shepherd with a lisp.) In the days when such things were in no way suspect, he picked them up and hugged them and showed them they were loved. It was a safe place for me, then a single parent. A safe place surrounded by loving people. So the messages Don Green came to share with us were powerful. He was the first minister I ever heard touch on social issues. He suggested we check our bigotry at the door one Sunday and proceeded to preach about race relations. There were sermons about fair pay, women’s rights and the homeless. This was not Garrison Keillor’s father’s Lake Woebegone Lutheran Church. Which is what kept me there those two years. And the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, Pastor Green would deliver his "Let Advent be Advent and Christmas be Christmas" sermon. It was, on its face, rather simple instead of spending the next few weeks in a house fully decorated with the tree trimmed and gifts wrapped, spend the time preparing, really preparing, for the miracle of the birth. I think we could go so far as put candles in our windows, adding one each week to help light the way, but the idea of tricking out the house and buying the largest tree to decorate was off the altar, so to speak. The first time I heard that sermon I was so very, very young. And impressionable. I could prepare in my heart but the kids needed a tree early and as a single parent my job was to overcompensate, all the time. I bought the tallest tree I couldn’t afford and dragged it into the house under the cover of darkness. I put it up that first week in December and we decorated it and then, for almost four weeks, I told my preschool children that Christmas was coming in this many days. Anyone who has ever had children knows any time frame beyond a week is incomprehensible to small children. And the fact they blurted out to Pastor Green, in boastful, youthful voices at one of those children’s sermons, that WE already had OUR tree, didn’t help. Pastor Green in his wisdom smiled, and hugged them just the same. We were all exhausted by the ebb and flow of anticipation. And by the time the actual holiday came around it was reduced to celebrating commerce more than Christ. The second year I heard the sermon, I was just a wee bit older and had been a single parent for nearly two years. I still tried to overcompensate but I think I listened better. I put our tree and decorations up only two weeks before the holiday. It seemed to manage all our expectations a bit more. And we created an advent wreath at church and put it in the center of the dining room table and added a candle each Sunday. We talked about the baby Gees, which is how both children came to abbreviate and lisp his name. My son added tiny robots to the manager scene because the baby had no toys. My daughter made little straw beds for the animals. Pastor Green found that all age-appropriate. I never once heard him scold anyone’s modified belief system. It is so hard to realize that was 30 years ago now. The children have children of their own. They don’t attend any church with any regularity. They are happily married and thoughtful parents. And without any discussion, I have noticed they don’t put a tree or decorations up until about two weeks before the holiday. And instead of showering their children with toys and clothes, they limit their gifts to a few very special things. In fact, my son has requested I limit my gifts for his children. And it’s true, last year the now-four-year-old, Mz Iz, looked up at her Dad Christmas morning mid-opening and said, "I don’t need so many things." And she was, of course, profoundly correct. None of us need so many things. So I will try to rein in my desire to give the grandchildren each special toy I come upon in a store or catalog. I will fill my house with sweet smells and bright candles and yes, the tree and decorations. But I hope, come Christmas Eve, when we are in my living room with new jammies and hot cocoa, I will remember that the sacred part of the holiday is about taking the time to prepare and open your heart to the joy that is the season. And I will start by lighting just one candle against the darkness, this Sunday, in the Park


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