My mother, Ruth, died this past summer. I miss her terribly. She was a fourth-grade teacher and passed on an ardent love for books and reading. Growing up in Tennessee, my young life was filled with tales of Thomas Edison, Daniel Boone, Harriet Tubman, Anne Frank, Davy Crockett and so many others.
Mom helped my older brother pluck the feathers and boil the flesh off an entire chicken, whose skeleton he patiently glued back together for first place in the science fair. He still possesses the mounted avian pose.
Blessed with a wicked sense of humor, she never seemed to panic, even after discovering my penchant for eating mud off the back bank across the alley at age 3. “Perhaps he’s getting some needed mineral from the periodic table,” she reported to our family physician.
My brothers and I had interesting dinner conversations around the family table about politics and the events of the day and learned a lot from parents who sometimes disagreed with each other about the country’s direction. If mom had worries in 1972 about my younger brother boarding a bus at age 13 to volunteer for the George McGovern campaign in downtown Chattanooga, she didn’t say.
An odd tale from her childhood: Acting out a Grimm’s fairy tale with wise restraint, Mom and her middle sister stripped their baby sister down to her birthday suit, lowered my willing aunt into a cavernous basting pan, chopped up vegetables from the day’s garden take and turned on the kitchen oven. Rather alarming, to be sure, but for the girls, just an imaginative way to enact a story domestically.
I did have to pause at the hospital in the days following her stroke when mom kept grinning over the top of her glasses at me (and at more than one nurse) with a rather sinister smile and the words, “I want to eat you for breakfast!”
Here’s a little something you can bank on: Lutherans are relatively weird throughout the year but especially strange during Advent. During a month filled with national merriment-overload, we’re instead invited to slow down and light a single candle at a time with subdued restraint, measured introspection and wilderness silence broken by the call of a half-naked wild man who warns us to get our act together.
Here’s a little something you can bank on: Lutherans are relatively weird throughout the year but especially strange during Advent.
Are we ever more delightfully out-of-step with the surrounding culture? Go ahead and place a John the Baptist figurine on your holiday fireplace mantel for a conversation starter. The guy just doesn’t seem to fit.
But maybe that’s the whole point. The One coming into the world to save and change us never seemed to fit. “My kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36). Advent is a recurring liturgical rehearsal in this life for that kingdom life to come.
I wanted to attend my mother’s cremation. Not the whole thing, but a sending with prayer. It was a rainy day. A funeral home employee and I walked through a wet parking lot with umbrellas to the crematory. He patiently explained the process—the temperature required, the length of time. It was just the sort of scientific detail in which my teacher-mom would have taken odd delight.
We prayed. And I helped push a beloved servant of Christ toward a rectangular oven. I’m aware this might sound morbid for some. For me, it was a powerful moment filled with sadness, yes, but also love and thanksgiving for all the grace and forgiveness she’d conveyed to me for so long.
It hit me in the car driving home—the juxtaposition of her childhood basting pan story and her middle son assisting in the final push toward an ashen process to which we are all destined, one way or another.
Smiling and crying, I thought of Mom’s childhood story on that rainy day heading home. And I thought of the out-of-step story that brings life even from death.
Life is an adventure. Advent invites us to slow down and see it.