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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

White Castle on a Winter's Eve

sliders by the sack
 I work the night shift; eleven to seven. That means I see a sampling of the people, vocations and tragedies in my city. Nurses on their way home from the ER or surgery or cancer ward stop for a high-carb snack. Garbage truck drivers come in for pre-dawn coffee before making their smelly rounds. Weary travelers find us open and fill up on grease and comfort before logging more miles. 

We’re a 24-hour, fast-food joint. We sell sliders by the sack and hope with a smile.  At least, that’s how I like to think of it. If you’ve ever worked in the food service business, you know what I mean. You can see desperation in faces; people who are hanging over the edge of despair and just need a reason not to let go. Sometimes they are well-dressed and other times, you can tell they’ve slept in the same clothes for days. They might smile and act like everything is cool, but the eyes always betray them. I’ve gotten pretty good at reading eyes over the years.  And I try to give them a word or two of understanding and a smile that doesn’t mock their troubles but says things are going to be all right. I think that’s what Jesus would do if He worked the night shift at the Castle.

I like the quietness around 3 AM when there’s time to clean up a bit between customers. I do love a gleaming coffee pot with a fresh brew trickling in. In fact, the other night I had just made a fresh pot when she walked in, nicely dressed and running from something. I can tell that look a mile away. 

“What can I get for you, hon?” I said. 
I’ve learned over the years to use endearments wisely. Other women are sensitive to what seems to be a patronizing or condescending tone and rightly so. But my gut told me she needed it. And turns out that was exactly right. 

“Coffee, please.”  She swiped at her eyes and rummaged in her purse.

“Just made up a fresh pot.”  I smiled. “Hope you like it scalding hot.”

“It will be fine, I’m sure. I probably shouldn’t be drinking it anyway.”

“Oh?” I raised my eyebrows just a bit, not too rude, but taking the bait she was subconsciously offering along with her debit card. 

She laid a hand on her flat belly, “I’m pregnant.”

“Congratulations!” I said. “And you know, just a little caffeine isn’t bad. Everyone needs a cup of coffee once in a while.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t think it could do any more damage anyway.” 

I sat her coffee on the counter and handed her the receipt.  “Is something wrong?”

Tears came to her eyes and she grabbed her cup and squeezed it as though it would keep her from falling over. Behind her, the dining area was mostly empty and the drive-thru was quiet. Odd at this time of night, but then I’ve seen enough of Providence to know better than to ask questions. 

“I got the results of my genetic testing today. There’s something wrong with the baby. I don’t remember the name of it. I just walked out of the doctor’s office and started driving. I haven’t even told my husband; I can’t face him. He has wanted a son for so long, and how can I let him know that this baby won’t even realize he’s carrying on the family name? I thought coffee might give the strength to call him.”  She grabbed a napkin from the chrome box and dabbed at her eyes. 

I reached out my hand and patted her younger one. “Honey, you better call that man. He needs you, and you need him. You can face this together. Besides, you never know what’s wrapped up in that little package God’s sending you. Special needs bring extra effort, but they also bring extra reward.”

She looked at me with conflicted eyes. “I want to believe that. My doctor started talking to me about my “options”  today.  I know what he means. Do you think God would forgive me for doing something like that?”

“God always forgives when we’re sorry, but I know He would rather you accept this baby along with His strength to care for it. Regret can be a terrible thing; He wants you to choose life—for the baby and for you.

“You sound like my mama.” She tried a brave smile. “I need to call her too.”

I handed her a couple more napkins.  “Sounds like you have a lot of calls to make. Why don't you get started and I’ll keep the coffee and the prayers coming.”

So, she sat down in a corner booth and pulled out her phone. As I turned around, I heard her say “Jeff? I’m so sorry, honey. . . .” 

And I wiped up around the coffee pot and thanked God for the night shift, where miracles happen at White Castle.          – VQ              

Sunday, December 24, 2017

time to ponder

I rubbed my swollen stomach and grimaced as my foot slipped on a loose stone in the road. Dust swirled around my sandals and clung to my clothing. The crowd of people traveling with us grew with each mile. Surely that meant we were nearing our destination. By sheer willpower, I made my weary feet speed up so I might catch up to my husband a few yards ahead. I laid my hand on his arm and asked, “How much farther?”

Joseph gave me his gentle smile, concern in his eyes.“I think we will reach the village by nightfall.  How are you, my love?"

“Very tired,” I answered truthfully. My legs are aching, and I am having more pains.”

His eyes widened,“Is it time?”

I hastened to reassure him. “I think not tonight. It is just the walking that makes the pains come. But it will be soon.”

“I promise you the best room in Bethlehem. I brought extra money just for that purpose.” Joseph squeezed my hand before I dropped back to walk at a slower pace with the other women.

My mind, however, would not slow its rapid thinking. It seemed to be having trouble keeping up with my body as we made this journey. Things had just happened too quickly, too unexpectedly, for calm, rational thoughts. 

We had barely settled into the routine of newly married life. Joseph had just completed crafting our household furniture after our quiet, hasty wedding. And I, the soon-to-be mother, was in the midst of a flurry of activity, preparing for this special little one. Then, the announcement from Caesar was made in the village square. And everything was disrupted as we departed on this very unwelcome trip at such an inconvenient time.

It was just like the Romans to snatch from me even this joy – the birth of my first Child. I laid at their feet the blame for my grief as I struggled to accept the fact that my cherished dreams of motherhood were not to be fulfilled. I had imagined a tranquil setting – giving birth in my own home, with my family nearby and time after the hard labor to ponder and rejoice. With the present circumstances, that was not going to happen.

If Yahweh were truly in control of this miraculous event, why would He not at least grant me the luxury of my own home and the attendance of my mother for the birth? In all I had experienced in the months since my Baby’s unexplainable conception, I had clung to the words of the Most High as delivered by His messenger. I believed Him. Now, amid the flurry of feet and shouts of travelers, I couldn’t sense Him. The quiet peace of my waiting in Nazareth were gone. I felt panic clutch me as strongly as the birthing pains that occasionally knifed through my stomach. As I glimpsed the shadowy outline of Bethlehem’s streets ahead, I felt tears warm my cheeks. I wanted to sit down in the dusty trail and give full sway to my emotions, but instead, I kept walking . . . .

 . . . that was three days ago.
Tonight I sit beside a straw-filled feeding trough which holds the most precious possession I have . . . my infant Son. He is wrapped in the traditional swaddling clothes. His tiny hands are curled against his face; he smiles as he dreams, in the universal way of newborns. I move about gingerly in the manner of every woman whose body has just experienced the trauma of birth. My husband slumbers nearby in the exhaustion felt by new fathers since the beginning of families. And yet truly I know the Baby's Father is One who never sleeps, who always watches and keeps. 

The Baby stirs, and I trace a finger along His silken cheek. His very presence stirs my soul, and I feel oddly awakened after years of sleep, strangely seeing after years of darkness. I know in my heart that this awareness is the beginning of the fulfillment of His destiny.  

The messenger promised He would save His people. And I, His mother, need to find that salvation as well. Yet, He is so ordinary, this Child who is God’s own Son. There is nothing outwardly about his small form that demands worship. Yet, those with waiting hearts will know Him, I’m sure. 

No, I won’t tell you that I sit tonight in the tranquil place I hoped to give birth. I won’t tell you how excruciating was the pain, or how much I longed for my mother. Things weren’t perfect. In fact, everything, even His first bed, is rough and unlovely. But I am discovering that the surroundings in my life are only the background for what Jehovah is doing. The true savoring of the event is in my soul where an unearthly peace rules when I relinquish and rest. So, I turn to cradle my Son, and then sit back to ponder and rejoice. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

silent night

Christmas Eve. Sure enough, not a creature was stirring, but that was because it was 11:00 pm in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Parkland Memorial Health Center and the little ones were too sick to be active. 

McKendra Gordon sank into an empty swivel chair at the nurses’ station on third floor. She reached for her cup of coffee, trying not to remember that her college-age children were gathered around the dining room table at her home, playing board games with their father. There was, no doubt, lots of laughter as the siblings regaled each other with tales of childhood pranks. There would be cocoa, Christmas cookies and a crackling fire in the fireplace. The blue spruce tree decked in country-style would be shining from its corner.

But this was the year that she pulled Christmas Eve for her holiday shift. And, she had determined early that she would be cheerful about it, if it killed her. So far, it seemed it might.

A beeping pierced her reverie. Labor and Delivery. A newborn was in trouble. Jerking up, she quick-stepped down the hall, joining her colleague, Taneeka, in the sprint to the L&D unit.

Inside the birthing room, both nurses began their well-rehearsed routine, assessing the infant, starting the life-sustaining procedures. A tiny baby boy lay in an isolette, his fragile lungs struggling to take in oxygen. He was preterm – 6 weeks early. His was a textbook case – there was not enough surfactant to expand the air sacs in his underdeveloped lungs.

As they prepared to wheel the baby to NICU, McKendra’s glance took in the terrified eyes of the pale, young mother and the rigid shoulders of her husband, both of them weary, scared and trying to be strong. Unexpectedly, she reached out and grasped the mother’s hand.

In a quiet voice she said, “He is with us, you know.  Emmanuel. That what Christmas is all about.”

Then she and Taneeka were gone, racing the baby into the sterile environment behind the secure doors of the NIC unit.

Dr. Jameson joined them, inserting the tube for the ventilator, staring the intravenous line in the baby’s scalp. Such invasive procedures for this tiny human, and on his first Christmas in this world.

McKendra watched as the newborn took shuddering gasps of air through the mask. Taneeka was easing him into the incubator. They stepped back, and looked at each other. Taneeka laid a gentle black hand on the infant’s life-giving cocoon of wires and plastic and began softly, “Oh, Jesus . . ."

McKendra reached out her own hand, joining her friend in their special ritual. “Thank you for this special Christmas gift. Hold this little boy close to Your heart. We ask for Your healing. And give his parents strength and peace. In Jesus’ name . . . .”  They both whispered “Amen.”

McKendra needed a break. She excused herself and headed for her favorite, quiet place. There was a little alcove in a scarcely-used side waiting room. It had a window looking out over the back lawn of the hospital. She wished she could personally thank the architect who designed the little space. She had spent many a solitary moment here, nourishing her soul in the Lord’s presence.

Tonight the view was a blanket of snow, as soft as the flannel coverlet on the infant she had just left. She leaned against the window, feeling through the glass the chill of the frost outside. And in the early morning stillness, a verse from the gospel of Matthew formed in her mind. “For I was hungry ,., ,  . ."  (Matthew 25:35, 36, 40) The least of these . . . a baby coming into the world naked and hungry, a newborn stranger.

McKendra smiled through misty eyes. She and Taneeka had served Jesus while they cared for the little preemie in NICU. What a glorious way to spend Christmas Eve! The third floor of Parkland Memorial suddenly seemed a cathedral.

The lights on the silver and red trimmed Christmas tree winked at her as she swished by the nurses’ station on her way back to the babies. Beside isolette number 4 stood the young parents – the mother wrapped in a wheelchair, both she and her husband gazing intently at the baby.
The father spoke. “He seems to be breathing better, doesn’t he?”

McKendra hesitated. NICU parents were characteristically overly optimistic, often in denial. But she leaned over to check the baby anyway. And couldn’t believe her eyes and ears. Beautiful pink color filled tiny cheeks which already looked plumper. His breathing was even and getting stronger.

She looked up and smiled.“Yes, he’s improved a lot. It won’t be long until you’ll hear those lungs all the time!”

The young mother grabbed her head. “Thank you for taking such good care of our Matthew. Thank you so much.”

On impulse, McKendra leaned down and hugged her. The little stranger’s name seemed to fit. And she whispered ever so softly, “You’re welcome, Jesus.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

a gift in words

The library had a different kind of quiet today.  Emma could feel the holiday spirit just under the surface in the youngsters who jostled past her desk on their way to the children’s department. Christmas was only 3 weeks away, and the town was bursting with holiday cheer.

Emma had made sure the library was full of the joy of the season. Her favorite design book had given her some marvelous ideas for the display area in the adult department, as well as some suggestions for the wreaths for the front doors.  Even now, she reveled in the woodsy splendor of the Blur Spruce tree that reigned in the traditional corner. Yes, Christmas had come to the library.

Emma sat back in her desk chair, glancing at the books which she had just finished covering with clear book-wrap protectors. Books. They had been her life. If Dickens should have chosen to characterize her for his “Christmas Carol” masterpiece, he would have used books instead of ghosts. They represented her past, present and future. A scrapbook photo from her childhood showed a seven-year-old clutching a new book with a birthday banner in the background. Her high school annual pronounced a bright-eyed brunette as president of the literary society. A snapshot from college days revealed her dorm room as a place of soft lamps and neatly shelved books. Now, the name card on her desk called her “head librarian” – a dream whose fruition she still sometimes doubted. Books had been her friend for so long that she was still amazed at her good fortune to be able to spend her waking hours getting paid for doing what she loved. Books at home, books at work, books for leisure, books for learning, books for life. Yes, words were her world. And, as the years passed, she'd made a tentative peace with her lack of family and relationship because of their comfort. 

A sturdy voice interrupted her reverie. “Excuse me, I need help with a book.”

Emma was a bit surprised. Requests for help with books were getting rarer these days what with the computerized cataloging system the library used.  Back in her younger years, librarians were much more involved in book selection. These days, young people preferred to do things on their own.

She looked up, smiled because it was her job. “Yes, of course.  Which book do you need?”

The face she looked into was cheerful, determined and youthful. A dark jacket was slung over one arm, a leather attache case held in the other hand. A young entrepreneur? A business major at the university?

“Oh, I know where the books are. I just need an opinion. You see, I've read some of the articles you write for the university newspaper. I really admire your command of words. I want to know which of these books you would recommend.”

The books he extended to her were theology tomes, recent additions from noted evangelical authors. She gave a demure smile. “I’m afraid I’m not read up in this department. I’m sure both are excellent.  They are checked out regularly.’

“Thanks, maybe I’ll just take them both. You see, I’m preparing an address for my 3rd year Christology class. It has to been given before the Christmas break. I have to make it good.” He gave her an engaging grin and handed her his library card. 

Over the next two weeks, Emma often noted his curly black head bent over a library table. The young man would be tapping furiously on a laptop. Sometimes he would stop by her desk on his way out and chat for a minute or ask advice on how to word a particular phrase or how to solve a certain grammatical problem. Other times, he just waved congenially as he hurried to start his work. 

On the last week before Christmas, she was helping a young mother check out a book on Christmas crafts when she saw the now familiar jacket as he approached her desk. He waited courteously until she was free to talk to him.  He smiled, as always.

“Hi, Miss Emma. I’m getting ready to go home to my family in Chicago for the Christmas break. But I had to share the news with you – I got an “A” for my Christology address! I wanted to thank you for your help. And I want you to have a copy of it.” He handed her a manila envelope tied with a bright bow. “Have a wonderful Christmas.”

And he was gone, waving merrily over his shoulder as he went out the double doors with the pine-scented wreaths.

With the usual afternoon flurry of activity in the library, Emma didn’t have another thought about the envelope until she was tidying up her desk when the library closed at 6:00. She saw it lying there on her desk, and instead of starting her rounds of the library tables to corral errant books, she sat down and opened the clasp.

It was neatly typed and full of Scripture.
She expected that; she had heard Scripture passages before. But these particular verses seemed strangely significant.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . .” (God was a God of words?) “and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us . . . “  (John 1:14a) Jesus Christ was born of man and for man. He became one with His creation so they could become one with Him. The Savior incarnate. This is Christmas.” She paused in her reading.

That reference must be to Jesus. God could have chosen some other means of communication with His creation. But He chose the power of the written and spoken word - the Bible and the Son.

Funny that she had never considered that before – the fact that the thing closest to her heart also represented the heart of God come to earth in the form of a tiny Baby. Words. Living words. God’s words. The Word. Why had she said “no” for so long to the words of salvation she had heard as a child? Why through the years had she shut up her heart, not only to others, but also to Him? She bowed her heard, a solitary tear tracing a path along her cheek.

It was time. Time to embrace the words that would set her free; words that would transform her life with their power. She closed the pages of the manuscript and opened her heart in prayer. And a new chapter was written in the public library while the snow whispered outside the window and the angels wrote in heaven’s book.                                    

Monday, December 18, 2017

christmas in a mason jar

(an old-fashioned tale of the season)

It started quite simply, as many times these things do. A quart of soup in a Mason canning jar seems such an insignificant thing but don’t try to say that to a little farming community in the Midwest. They won’t hear you. They remember the story of the prairie schoolteacher who bravely struggled through her first year teaching the three R’s to a gaggle of towheaded kids. They know how she tromped through knee-deep drifts, started fires in a frigid shanty schoolhouse and pressed on through planting season, drought, diphtheria and wildfires. They have been told the tale of her first Christmas, alone in her cabin, scarcely anything to eat when a knock on the door brought a visitor with a hearty gift. They know well that the stew brought her more than nourishment; it was an act of giving that warmed her heart and bonded her to the townsfolk forever. Not to mention, of course, that she married the farmer son of the woman who brought it!

So, today they still keep the tradition of the Christmas jar in that little rift in the fields called home to a stalwart few. Every December, a Mason jar filled with a Christmas remembrance is sent to the newest member of the community, sometimes lavishly appointed, sometimes embellished with homely bits of trim. It might be filled with cookies or caramel popcorn or pudding, but it is always at the very soul of the Christmas spirit itself. The original jar is no more, of course, having fallen victim to careless little hands carrying it on its joyful mission. But hearts in this town are quick to forbear and forgive and a substitute jar hasn’t made any difference to the cheer in which it is received.    

This year, the members of the Remington family are to be the bearers of the gift. Theirs is a happy estate, situated on acres of land as flat as pancake, as they say, and teeming with soil that is good for growing things. Mr. Remington’s great-grandfather first staked claim to this property many years ago and his descendants have lovingly worked it since. In summer its fields are full of robust crops of soybeans and wheat and corn, guarded by brilliant sunflowers. In winter, as now, the land lies still and beautiful in frozen sleep, covered with a quilt of snow. 

Mrs. Remington has filled the Christmas jar to the brim with homemade goodness, placed a bright scrap of fabric around the lid and tied it with a bit of twine. As she hands it to the noisy twosome putting on coats and gloves and boots, she reminds them of their important task.

“Shelly, remember to take this straight to Miss Calvert’s home. And keep it safe in this basket until you get there.”

“I will, Mama.” Shelly is a pink-cheeked youngster whose pigtails always seem to escape their bands. 

“And I know why we’re taking it to Miss Calvert.”  This from Tommy, the little brother whose boots betray his fondness for muddy ditches.

“Why, dear?” Mrs. Remington pats his check in spite of the tracks he is making on the kitchen floor.
“Because she is the newest people in our town!”

“It’s person, not people, Tommy.”  Shelly shakes her head in grownup dismay.

Mrs. Remington smiles. “That’s all right, Tommy. She is new to our town, and we want her to feel welcome.”

“Because of Grandma Connors and the soup, right?” 

“Mmmm-hmmm. It’s a lovely tradition, I think. Now, hurry, children, I want you to be home soon for supper.” 

And so out the door they go, Shelly swinging the basket with the jar, Tommy nearly tripping over his dangling boot laces. In a few paces, they have gathered their sleds from the porch and have started down the road toward the smattering of houses they call a town. It isn’t a long walk and certainly not dangerous. The sun is smiling down, though not warmly enough to melt the snow and the neighbors watch the path for children at play. The Remington children are thus carefree and exuberant as they skip onward, unaware that the basket on Shelly’s arm is lighter than before, that the Christmas jar lies in a drift, its fabric trim growing stiff in the cold. They are eager to give the new teacher their gift, to show that this community cares for its own, especially its newest members.

Though there is another district where one might wonder at the truth of this statement. The folks there have no Christmas traditions, other than drink. Their homes are not brightly lit, nor filled with wonderful aromas and happy faces. The Christmas trees there are dismal affairs and the children have little expectation of Christmas morning. 

James lives in one of these hovels. He is named for his grandfather, the last good man in his family tree, a man who died serving his country and whose offspring didn’t possess the same firmness of character as he. Little James was born to poverty; life has given him little comfort. He sleeps with his sister and brother underneath a paltry blanket and scrounges for his own breakfast in the chilly kitchen where his breath is warmer than the stove. This morning he thinks about a mug of cocoa. He’s only tasted it once, at a party with his mother when he was much younger, but he remembers the sweet taste and comforting warmth. 

And he recalls there were little squishy bits of white floating on the top of the drink. Oh, how he’d love to have a cup of that for Christmas. So, standing in his bare feet on a cold, sticky floor, he naturally turns to a Source his granny told him about – the Father in heaven. In simple terms, he asks for cocoa, please. Then he eats his crumbling crust of toast and runs to find his coat with the short arms and the broken zipper. In a flash, he is dressed as warmly as he knows and out the door. He doesn’t call out to the others in the house; no one will miss him when he is gone. 

By chance, he takes the road toward the “other” town. He doesn’t plan to go there; he just wants to walk a ways and view the festive houses from afar. And so, he thinks little about where his feet walk, his eyes are trained ahead, eager for the sight of the happy town. 

But, wait . . .  he suddenly sees something. Was it an angel who brushed the snow off the little jar and caused the sun to pick up the glint of glass beside him? Who can say? All we know is that the Heavenly Father cares for the little ones and their Christmas prayers are heard and cherished. 

It takes James a few minutes to realize what he has found. Mrs. Remington put on the lid tightly and he has to twist it a few times before it comes off. But when he dips his finger in the powdery stuff and brings it to his tongue, a look of delight comes on his face that I think the heavenly hosts must be able to see. And he is quick to pop one of the bits of white into his mouth too. Certainly, no marshmallow has ever been more appreciated. And James turns back toward his pitiful home, the gift held firmly in his little-boy hands. It is proof that granny was right, and he is happy with his wonderful treat. He doesn’t know, of course, that his granny’s prayers are at work nor that Mrs. Remington teaches a Sunday-School class and will soon find him on her visiting rounds through the countryside. He doesn’t understand that sometimes God works through Mason jars and hot cocoa and tiny marshmallows.

And what of the new teacher in town, Miss Calvert? She never will tell that the students dropped her gift in the snow. She smiles tenderly at Shelly and Tommy, wipes their teary eyes and goes right out to buy another jar to replace the one that was lost. It is love that is the real gift after all and that has been delivered in abundance. 

And as for the boy from the hovel, well, it will be many years before the full story will be known and by that time, James will be a young minister with a little boy of his own and a heart dedicated to helping others. He will retain a fondness for hot cocoa topped with marshmallows and will be quick to share a cup with anyone he can. Because to his way of thinking, there has never been a gift as full of hope and love as the Mason jar filled with cocoa by Mrs. Remington and dropped in the snow by angels that winter’s eve on the prairie. 

(Copyright by Valorie Quesenberry, 2013.  All rights reserved.)

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