Hello from my living room,
It is late afternoon or early evening and I am sitting quietly; the tree is lit and the snow people and Santas are inhabiting the space to remind me of what is to come. I hear the traffic whizzing by the house and John Ritter’s carols are playing on my Google home device. It is a somewhat sleepy day, but that is fine as I am readying myself for the morning trip to Geisinger for a routine procedure. I love the season of Advent and the idea of preparing for Christmas. Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza are all celebrations of different faiths and backgrounds, but they have very different meanings. That is for another time. Christmas is as much about our various cultures as it is about the Christian celebration of Jesus’s birth. Certainly the Christian celebration is engrained in my background, from growing up attending Sunday School Christmas programs standing as a shepherd in my bathrobe or reading Luke’s Christmas gospel. It is a time that I remember the incredibly long day as one of the pastors at Trinity Lutheran in Lehighton and spilling communion wine on the fair linen at a Christmas Eve service. I was sure the industrious and reverent altar guild women were going to kill me. Another year, not long after the first Mannheim Steamroller Christmas Album, I used their music for a Christmas monologue sermon. I think to this day it might have been one of the top two or three sermons I ever preached. What made it a memorable service was how it seemed to touch the heart of the people who attended that service we called “The Animals’ Christmas.” As I write this I think of all my clergy friends who put so much energy into that evening and the organists and choirs. There is something magical about the carols, the candles, and the seemingly one time of the year when people think more about giving than receiving.
I think that spirit of giving is what gives Christmas such a prominent place on my radar. It is rather amusing, and at time a little embarrassing, how many times little children have called me Santa, and not just at Christmas time. When I was out at the tree farm picking out a tree, some small children smiled and pointed in my direction as we rode the wagon out to the fields of trees. I merely smiled and asked if they had been good. Last summer I was in Kraków, Poland and sitting in a Costa on Ulica Florianska and small children smiled and pointed. Their parents noted they thought I was Santa down for a visit I guess. Earlier I spoke with my former church organist; while I have been gone from Trinity for many years, she is still there. She is an incredible woman. She paid me a very profound compliment. It was a compliment to both my colleague and senior pastor, the Rev. Guy Grube, and me. He was an talented administrator and pastor/preacher/teacher. She noted that worship and preaching had a quality and skill not matched since we left, and that was 25 years ago. While I think we did a number of things well, I believe the work the three of us did on worship was extraordinary, and Christmas Eve services were perhaps the pinnacle of what we achieved and the spirit that occurred. Even though it has been so many years ago, that was a really significant thing for me to hear.
There are times I wonder and imagine what I might do were I still ordained? I struggle with worship even today because much of the preaching I hear is substandard. I do not mean to sound judgmental or arrogant, but Luther stated emphatically, “The word of God is powerful; and both law and gospel have moral force.” For me, that is the power of the Christmas story. It is the breaking through or the breaking into our dilemma-ed existence with a sense of giving that undoubtedly passes our understanding. Yet, we are back to the sense of giving, but this is no easy pick-it-off-the-shelf or hitting Walmart on Thanksgiving night or a cyber-Monday-sitting-at-the-computer. The giving of one’s self for the other without expecting something in return is something few are capable of. I know this pain too keenly when I have offered help, be it emotionally or financially and the emotion or care is not reciprocated or the money is never paid back. Too often I have found myself feeling hurt, and that hurt is followed by anger and the anger by a sense of betrayal which leads to bitterness. Regardless the expectation, the giving was not really giving with a spirit of selflessness. I am sure some will argue with me on aspects of that assertion, and you are welcome to do so. What I am realizing, sometimes too late, and many times too often, is that truly giving means that I cannot expect something in return. If it is financial, and this one has been particularly difficult, if I can not afford to lose that resource, it is probably best not to give it in the first place. Even then, I struggle if I am only giving what I can afford to lose, how deeply am I giving? This is something I am still trying to wrap my head around.
The spirit of Christmas for me is when I am willing to go without so that others may have. There is something about the humility of the Gospel story in Luke that speaks to me in ways I did not realize when I was a parish pastor. Perhaps I caught a glimpse of it when I focused on the animals for that Children’s service. Perhaps it is those we call the dumb beasts that we can learn the most about sharing. If Jesus was born in a cattle stall, I am quite sure the animals were not consulted about sharing their sleeping chambers. I am sure if all the commotion that occurred as we read it did indeed happen, the animals got little or no sleep, but I wonder if they held a grudge because their peaceful night existence was interrupted? I wonder if they will willing to give up their feeding trough to provide a bed for a young mother’s newborn child?
Too often we ask those with little to nothing to somehow give more and yet, we selfishly hold on to our abundance. Over the past two weeks through the hard work of four or five people we were able to make sure a student was able to travel on the Central/Eastern European Study Abroad trip. It was interesting to me how thoughtfully and willingly we all communicated to make something happen that will change that student’s life. It was much like what a couple did for me all those years ago. I believe with all my heart that their gift and that study abroad experience is fundamental to my becoming a professor. To walk in, but not nearly fill, the footprints of the Nielsen family, and there were many of them at Dana, is humbling and beautiful.
Dr. John W. sent out a Christmas greeting (a poem, a verse, something memorable) that he usually composed himself and his keen insight into our complex world was at times hopeful, at times reflective, at times much like another John’s voice crying in the wilderness, but whatever it was it was always profound. It was instructive and illuminating. As I reach an age that I thought once to be the age of old people, I find how much I still am learning about that education I received on the Nebraska bluffs along the Missouri River. Little did I know I would be at the feet of giants as I sat in Pioneer Memorial, Old Main, or the Old AMA. Little did I realize the spirit of giving they provided or instilled in so many of us.
I know now how blessed and fortunate I was to be on the receiving end of such a giving faculty. They had gone without raises, without sabbaticals, and incredible professors with PhDs from Oxford, or Duke, or Harvard were on that hill in Blair. And there were people like Phil Pagel, Verlan Hansen, and so many workers who day in and day out worked to support us. Talented, brilliant, classmates, who were also good people and created a cohort of people who still matter in my life. I think of 5 people, my fellow Dyaks, all successful and giving to this day. I think of talented and good people like Monty and Troy, who helped a history and humanities major survive Anatomy and Physiology. I think of those who were seniors or upper class men when I was an older freshman: Barb, Nettie, Tim, Peter, Mary, Lynn, Merle, Jim, Tom, who welcomed and accepted me. They gavel so much more than they realized. Dana had a spirit of giving that permeated every aspect of that little college on the hill.
I believe with all my being that Dana built on the foundation my grandmother had created for me when I was small. She was the most selfless and loving person I could have ever met. She loved unconditionally. I understand that so much more clearly now. Dana taught be how to take that sense of giving and make it a lifestyle, a life philosophy if you will. How often is it we fail to realize the blessings we are provided daily because they are all around us? How often is it we forget to thank those who give to us so selflessly? Too often we take the giftedness of our daily lives for granted or we fail to reflect on the profound things we believe to be mundane, taking them for granted. As I imagine Christmas this year, having a Danish exchange student has transported my thoughts back to choir rehearsals and preparing for Sights and Sounds. As I have the Danish hearts on my Christmas tree and Anton’s parents have sent Danish treats, my thoughts are wondering up to the cross and down to the barn below campus. As I prepared a Danish Christmas dinner with roasted duck, stuffed with dates, apples, and lemon and Anton and I made Risalamande for dessert, the spirit of Veritas Vincit is not far removed.
Christmas is the time to imagine and ponder. It is a time to remember and give thanks. I am so thankful that I found my way to that small college on the hill. I can only hope to give in the same fashion it gave to me. I wish each of you who read this a sense of hope, peace and joy as we celebrate this season of real giving.
Blessings to you all and thank you for reading.
Dr. Michael Martin ’83