The Abbotts defined dedication, and I got to play

John earned the shrapnel lodged in his legs, making them ache when the weather changed, when he labored in the fields. When he remembered.

As a battlefield chaplain during World War II, John Abbot worked among wounded and dying American soldiers in Europe fighting the scourge of Nazism. His was an active faith. He believed he incarnated Jesus as he walked, crawled and bled among soldiers who needed assurance that God loved them and that their destiny was assured.

Author as jack of all trades in Espanola, after the Army, before finishing college.

When he returned from the blood-soaked fields of Europe and as America shifted gears to embrace a new, wide open world of possibility, John applied to Southern Baptists’ missionary support agency responsible for “home” missions – or missions within the continental United States. He wanted to be a missionary in his native southwest, serving people, showing them the way of Jesus and leading them to faith.

He was a committed churchman in that denomination and after his service as a chaplain in the military, he assumed that he would be approved for support so he could turn his attention to the purposes of that agency: winning people to faith in Jesus.

Instead, he was denied support because he was deemed medically unsound, due to the shrapnel in his body, lodged there in battle. Disappointed, but undaunted and illuminated by his own vision, John secured support from some Texas Baptist churches where he was known. He bought farm equipment and set up shop in a converted dance hall in Espanola, New Mexico, a small town 25 miles north of Santé Fe.

The dance hall occupied a strategic corner on the main road between Espanola and Chimayo, a tiny town that houses one of only two places on earth that claim to contain healing elements. It’s the dirt in Chimayo, and the waters in Lourdes, France, to which pilgrims crawl. Discarded crutches, canes and bandages testify to the healing properties of the dirt in the Santuario de Chimayo. People have crawled from Santé Fe to Chimayo to do penance before applying the dirt to their injury or illness.

On the north side of the windy, two-lane road between the two towns perched a wooden church, little larger than a garden shed. It was the focal point of religious Penitentes, who marched in a single line, flagellating themselves, seeking forgiveness.

In that environment, John remodeled the dance hall into a church, office, classrooms and an apartment for him and his wife, Ethel, and he utilized the equipment to open doors among the small farmers in the dusty arroyos between Espanola and Chimayo. They could not afford individually field prep and harvest equipment that would increase their yields, and they welcomed the method and message of John Abbott to work among them, to share the work and to share his faith.

With hard work, ingenuity, faith and commitment, John and Ethel started and built a church which membership was primarily Spanish, descendants of Spanish invaders of the 16th century and Native American tribes.  They called it Templo Bautista – Baptist Temple.

Then one day in one of those freak accidents that make Christians wonder if God is paying attention, a piece of equipment that John was working under fell off its jack and crushed him. I guess he was medically unsound after all.

Ethel was suddenly a widow. Much of her livelihood disappeared because she could not run the equipment. John was the pastor, breadwinner, husband, visionary, guide, energy behind the entire effort. I don’t know how old Ethel was. She always seemed old to me, but I was just 20 when I met her. I’m sure I’m older now than she was then.

She promised God she would stay at Templo, would continue the work, if God would send her help. Because of her winsome spirit and compelling stories, Ethel received a fairly regular trickle of weekend or week-long helpers to lead special events and do repair work around the ancient facility. But she needed an everyday helper.

Her prayer and mine – what to do now that I’m getting out of the Army – clanged together in God’s ear and I became that first long-term helper. I was a pale, nerdy Scandihoovian from Wisconsin, knew zero Spanish and was new in evangelical faith. I’d been drafted into the Army after one year at Luther College and now I was out and at loose ends.

I started in November 1973 as a bus driver, youth minister, preacher, log splitter, painter, floor sander, week-night Bible study leader, and encourager. We called many of our members on Sunday morning to wake them in time to catch the bus I drove.

I brought them to church, preached at them and hauled them home. All this was done with sincere, naive spirit and within a profoundly knit community. The names “Ethel” or “John Abbot” opened any door in the county quicker than an electronic key.

I realize now the way we did church was paternalistic. We expected and required too little of members. There was an easy believe-ism in which membership at Templo eased seamlessly into whatever other influences they were weighing. Part of our motivation with activities was to “keep the kids out of trouble.”

But we slogged on. I went back to my home church in Colorado Springs to tell them of the work in New Mexico, and to raise money for Christmas goody baskets for the kids. One young lady was struck by the need, by the opportunity and by my wistful pleas. A few weeks later she arrived as a second helper, in the midst of a snow storm, as the children were trekking down the hallway in their angel and wise men costumes to present the Christmas story.

Her arrival on that snowy night declared that what I’d thought to be the first chapter of this story was merely prologue.

(First chapter to come)

Watching Below Zero – From Florida

I grew up in Wisconsin, which to many, means i shoveled snow through April. It wasn’t that bad, as typically by April the spring sun cleared the roads and driveways, without benefit of shovels.

I live in the mid-south now but still keep track of the Wisconsin weather because it feeds my smug, self-congratulatory perception that i was smart enough to move away.  In fact, I spend a couple of the coldest months in Florida, where my emotions waver between guilt that i’m more concerned with sunburn than frostbite, and joy that i’m at the beach with sand between my toes, instead of in Wisconsin with snow up my nose.

Not really, there’s no wavering. I’m glad to be at the beach, especially when previewing next week’s weather at my hometown. Yes, next week it is predicted to be 17 degrees BELOW zero. If you go out in that cold, which you shouldn’t, your nose hairs will freeze solid and break off when you feel your face to see if your nose is still there. Any colder and your nose itself would break off. 

The last time I was in Wisconsin for Christmas, it was 13 degrees below zero — which is WHY that’s the last time i was home for Christmas. We traveled there from Oklahoma with three little kids, who couldn’t wait to get outside and play in the snow. We spent 30 minutes wrapping them up tighter than cellophane around last night’s lutefisk

We pushed them out the door and barely got it closed behind them when they were back, whimpering to be let in. 

But, the native Scandahoovians in Wisconsin are a hardy lot and they cope with the frigid temps by changing their greeting from “Ya think it’ll rain before the hay is in?” to “Cold enough fer ya?” When it gets that cold, some of them close their windows.

Growing up there, I once endured a week of minus-50 degree windchill. Dad’s job at the time was to deliver gasoline and home heating fuel to houses and farms in a four-county area. The cold snap burned fuel faster than normal, so people were running out way ahead of schedule. Dad burned the midnight oil all week and was exhausted every night. 

Starting his truck in the mornings was an adventure, and critical for the people running out of heat. He kept the truck in good shape so the engine actually cranked, but the screeching and howling it made to turn over played like the soundtrack of a Stephen King horror flick when the cats fell into the industrial fan.

At least with temperatures like that, it’s too cold to snow. The moisture evaporates before it hits the ground. You’ve heard of “freeze dried” goods? Before we had an electric dryer, we’d use that method for our bedding. 

I’d shovel a path through the snow to mom’s clothesline so she could hang the sheets. Later, she’d carry the sheets into the house, handling them like a section of sheetrock.. She’d set them against a wall, and after a few minutes in the warm house, they’d wilt into a cotton puddle, all dry and smelling fresh.

Some winters had less cold and more snow. When snowplows filled ditches to the brim, massive snow blowers would spray the snow higher and higher until in some places, the mounds were high enough to create snow tunnels. 

This made driving quite dangerous, as traffic signs were covered and we couldn’t see to the left and right. Locals knew to approach intersections very cautiously, in case those unfamiliar with the roads were out on them when they should have been  home shoveling their sidewalks. 

When I first moved to the south, mom told me, “You’ll miss the snow.” I asked her to send me a picture. 

It’s been sufficient ever since.

What I wanted for Christmas: To Be Found

The strange church emptied quickly in the little town where my family was visiting grandpa and grandma at Christmas. Although at age 5 I didn’t really know them, my cousins, aunts and uncles comprised a large portion of the town’s population of 788. We were all at Redeemer Lutheran for Christmas morning service.

At its conclusion, everyone donned coats, scarves, hats and gloves (it was Wisconsin, after all) and headed out the door for the holiday meals and spirit that awaited. Thankfully, although there were lots of Norwegians in town, the traditional meal was still turkey and ham, and not lutefisk and lefse. 

I wandered about the pews, looking at the garland and poinsettias, not noticing that the sanctuary was rapidly emptying. When the room grew quiet, I turned to see I was the only one left. The only one. Five years old in a strange church, a foreign town. 

It’s no wonder I felt secure. Here, at five, with my dad, Marvin, in 1957.

Even at five I was too secure in the love of my family to panic – much. Surely this was an aberration and someone would drift back into the church to collect me. Dad probably just went out to warm up the car.

Nope.

The furry fingered fear of abandonment started to close around my throat just as organist Olive Shultz, who was closing up the building, came around the corner and spotted me. Since it was only her and me now, she knew I was as misplaced as a snow shovel at the beach.

A large woman, she rustled down the aisle and side-stepped between two pews, leaned over asked, “What is your name?”

 “Norman,” I said with some measure of certainty. 

“Where are you supposed to be?” she asked.

“Grandpa’s.”

Not enough clue for her, she asked if grandpa had a name. I wouldn’t know grandpa’s name for years but I offered that he was “Grandpa Jameson.” 

Given the size of the town and percentage of its populace occupied by my relatives, Olive knew immediately where to take me. She led me to her car and drove briefly down Hwy. 16 to the farm my Norwegian bachelor uncle Don rented, and where he lived with his parents – my grandparents.

I was relieved and grateful as I walked into the bustling living room, a joy that lasted only as long as it took me to realize everyone had just figured out I was not among them, and were arguing about who had get their winter garb back on and go get me!

The next year we moved to that little town, Rio, WI where the population stayed at 788, my dad told me, because every time a young lady had a baby, an older man left town. 

Eventually I graduated from high school there, in the same building where I started first grade. But, more about that, later.

Didn’t we just DO this?

Ornaments

Photo ornaments trigger memories worth lingering over.

“Didn’t we just DO this?” I asked my wife rhetorically as I opened the plastic bins containing our Christmas decorations. Appropriately for the season, they’re big red bins with green covers.

I’d already hoisted the gloriously pre-lit Christmas tree and assembled its three parts to reach seven feet toward the ceiling. An old friend, now in at least its fifth season with us, it brings unalterable joy because when I insert pole A into receptacle B, the lights come on. Glory.

Married nearly 43 years, we’ve accumulated lots of ornaments for our tree. Glass, plastic, wood, hinged, felted, furred, tacky and holy, most carry special meaning because of who gifted them to us, our circumstance in life at the time and because each ignites a special memory.

Of all our special ornaments though, none are more precious than the very simplest. Prompted by a children’s project at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas where we attended when I was a seminary student, we’ve made simple paper ornaments with our children’s picture on them – and now our grandchildren’s.

This night, as I sorted through the decorations, untangling hooks and surreptitiously dropping the Mickey Mouse ornament back into the bin, I reached for a nearly ragged paper ornament featuring a tow-headed 10-month old. I reached to hang it onto the tree for the 39th time and a realization of how quickly time passes washed over me like a fog rolling in on an early morning bike ride.

I’m not sentimental about things. I’m not a big historical preservationist. If there’s something in my closet you want, take it. But moments that seared themselves like a hot grill into the raw meat of our minds are precious and I’m going to keep them, and I’m going to cherish them.

I don’t know what brings certain things to mind. Circumstances, events, smells, accidents, the way sunbeams, thick enough with dust to walk on, lay a slanted beam across a field. But when that precious memory comes, when it invades your conscious self and demands that you stop whatever you’re doing and linger there awhile, do it. Don’t resent it. Don’t hasten its passing. Don’t regret the time you devoted to it when you could have been doing something “more productive.”

We hang nice ornaments, too. Colorful glass, embossed and shiny plastic, wooden figures. But it’s the simplest ornaments, made by the kids or featuring the kids, that we appreciate most. Simple, like the manger.

I’m kind of a scrooge until the last couple of weeks before Christmas. I resent the trinketized trivialization of the season. But if I will trudge through the motions riding the momentum of tradition it will hit me. That moment when I realize how much I’ve lived and what a glorious wonder each of those photo ornaments represents.

And my ice coated Scrooge heart melts and I’m awash with the blessedness of Christmas again. Merry Christmas to you, and may every happy memory be a carol in your heart.

I don’t care what you want for Christmas

Don’t tell me what you want for Christmas. I don’t care.

I’m not a vending machine, and you’re not a quarter.

If you are on my Christmas list my goal is to gift you with something I consider meaningful that I hope becomes special to you.

I know. If you’re in charge of the gifting you worry that your recipient will be disappointed. And, selfishly, you want to be the cause of that squealing, split faced “this is the best thing that ever happened to me” moment under the Christmas tree. But isn’t “surprise” always an element of the biggest squeals?

The truth is your little gift getters and bed wetters won’t remember the next day who gave them what. And it’s unlikely that whatever you gave them will still operate the next week.

And what are the odds that their “must have” request only made their wish list because they were seduced by massive advertising, trend manipulation and herd mentality. Cabbage Patch, pet rock, beanie babies anyone?

I know, it’s easier to work from a list provided to you; easier still to give a gift card so they can “get what they want.” Honestly though, you can do that anytime.

If Christmas gift giving is our joyful response to the great gift that God bestowed upon us in the person of Jesus the Christ, let’s consider God’s rationale. Did God ask His chosen people what they wanted? They probably would have said, “Freedom from Rome,” “rain,” “food security” or a “cure for leprosy.”

Instead, God sent the gift He wanted us to have, a gift with special meaning to God. We still remember who sent it. And we still remember what it cost.

If you lament the commercialization of Christmas, do not participate. Give a gift that brings joy because your thoughtfulness made it special.