Christmas Memories: A Book for Christmas

by Rebecca D. Higgins

We didn’t have a television in our home as I was growing up.  Now, before you exclaim about all of the shows we missed, let me be quick to say, we didn’t have time for TV.  Who has time for TV when there are swings to swing, trees to climb, creeks to wade, bicycles to ride, a whole campus where my parents worked to roam, hide-and-seek to play, leaf forts to build in the fall, plays to create with your friends and perform for your parents, softball and basketball to play, hills to sled in the winter, and more?  And, of course, we had our books. Curling up in the corner of the couch or under the covers with a flashlight at night to “just finish the chapter” . . . er. . . book, was an integral part of my early development. I devoured the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy books and the Marguerite Henry series of horse stories, but quickly I graduated to much more developed plots and characters, starting at a young age to read books that often are categorized as “classics.”

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That early love for reading and literature greatly influenced my choice of a college major–English education. During the semesters that I had a course load that included three lit classes, it’s a good thing that I loved reading!

Following my college graduation, I worked for several years at the international headquarters of The Wesleyan Church as an editor in the Local Church Education Department. Besides my full-time work, my out-of-work activities seemed to revolve around the church—choir, Bible studies/fellowships, Sunday school. One day it registered that I needed to be involved intentionally in the community and not just my church. When I saw the advertisement “Literacy Tutors Needed” that was put out by the Greater Indianapolis Literacy League, I knew I had found my niche. I filled out the application and headed to the Central Public Library for the required training sessions. Once I had completed those, I eagerly waited to receive the name of the tutee selected as my match.

Kassidy (not her real name) was a tall, beautiful, soft-spoken African-American young woman. She had graduated from high school and had even attended some college (since she played basketball), but she could read only on a very low level. The truth is, she had learning disabilities that had never been diagnosed or addressed.

As a literacy tutor I had certain things that were expected of me within the Greater Indianapolis Literacy League’s course of study. Helping the students to increase their reading and writing skills was our main focus, but along with that I found that real-life skills including math became a part of our study. Besides the workbooks provided by the Literacy League, I incorporated other sources as part of our curriculum that fit in with Kassidy’s needs and wants. Learning to understand written instructions on her job was a major incentive for Kassidy. She worked with machines and needed to understand measurements, so that became a focus. I found a workbook that had written exercises with practice in using various measuring tools. The same workbook also had real-life forms such as sample bank statements that we could use so that Kassidy could develop those skills as well. I learned that she hated going out to restaurants because she couldn’t read the menu and order for herself.

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One day I stopped by the local Cracker Barrel and approached the hostess. “Do you let people take copies of your menu with them?” I asked. “You see, I’m a tutor with the Literacy League, and I would like to use your menu as a teaching tool with my student.”

“That’s wonderful!” she exclaimed.  “If they can be used to help other students, take all of these!” She handed me a stack of a dozen or more menus.

Kassidy and I met for our twice-weekly sessions at a local public library that was located most conveniently for her. After several lessons with the menu as our curriculum, I arrived one night with a surprise. “Kassidy, we’re going to leave your car here, and I’m going to take you out to eat. We’re going to Cracker Barrel. The dinner’s on me—my treat, but you’re going to do your own ordering!” As I drove to the Cracker Barrel, Kassidy started to show signs of nervousness. All of the old apprehensions were coming back. What if she blundered, made a mistake in reading the menu, and embarrassed herself? I assured her that she would not do that . . . that she was ready, and that she was safe with me. I would not put her in a position that would humiliate or embarrass her.

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At the restaurant, Kassidy told me that she’d always liked Cracker Barrel, and I did what I could to put her at ease and to feel confident in being able to read and order from the menu.  Once the ordering was done, we relaxed and just enjoyed our meal together. As we left the restaurant, Kassidy had a shy smile of accomplishment on her face. She’d done it!  Her pride in herself warmed my heart and brought an even bigger smile to my face.

I found in working with Kassidy, that we accomplished more if she had input in determining her own goals and if I selected reading sources that would pique her interest.  The newspaper became part of our curriculum—particularly the sports section!

As Christmas approached, I asked Kassidy if there were any Christmas-related readings that she especially liked. She told me that she had always wished that she could read “The Night Before Christmas” to her nieces on Christmas Eve. “Okay, Kassidy!  Let’s make that our goal!” I printed out the classic poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” penned by Clement Clarke Moore so many years ago. When we first started on our Christmas project, Kassidy struggled greatly with the words and the poetic word sequence. I had to try several different methods to help her learn to read it smoothly. Now you may be wondering if Kassidy was reading the familiar poem or if in repeating it so many times, she memorized it. One of Kassidy’s learning issues was that memorization was very difficult for her, so I can answer that question without hesitation:  she was reading!

As Christmas drew near, I visited the local bookstore in the mall. (I just realized that all of the malls near me no longer have bookstores in them. Sad indeed!  Those were the stores that I regularly frequented when I was growing up. Now kids seem to be drawn to the electronics and trendy clothing stores instead.)  Just before Christmas, Waldenbooks had put their Christmas-themed books on sale. I found a beautiful hard-backed edition of “The Night Before Christmas.” The colorful illustrations were masterfully drawn and would capture the attention and imagination of children.

At our last tutoring session before Christmas, I handed Kassidy my gift-wrapped present. I knew she would appreciate it as she read to her nieces, but I didn’t quite expect her reaction. When she saw what it was, her eyes got big. She caressed the book as though it were something very precious, carefully turning the pages and smoothing them as she thanked me and said, “People don’t give me books as gifts. I love it!”

One more time we went over the poem, reading it this time from her new book; and Kassidy read it well. I spent the final moments of our session playing the role of cheerleader—praising her, encouraging her, expressing confidence that I knew that she could read the story well to her nieces. I gave her a hug in parting.

Christmas with my family that year brought the good news that I was going to be an aunt! I found myself thanking God for the gift of being able to read. When MY niece put in her appearance, I could read her all kinds of stories with no struggle. I thought of Kassidy and wondered how her Christmas Eve story-reading had gone.  I couldn’t wait to see her again and get a report.

At our first tutoring session after the holidays, the smile on Kassidy’s face as she entered our tutoring room at the library said it all:  SUCCESS!

A few months later, I received a notice from the Literacy League about a written essay contest for literacy students. Kassidy wasn’t sure at first if she wanted to participate, but I encouraged her that it would help her to develop her writing skills further.

I will admit that the writing part of our sessions was a bit hard for me. In my regular job I worked as an editor. I got paid to mark up manuscripts! With our tutees, however, we were told NEVER to do that. Instead, we were simply to be encouragers of self-expression in written form. For the essay contest we were not to correct their writing, grammar, punctuation or spelling but help them to make the corrections themselves. My way of literacybookresizedhelping Kassidy learn to write more clearly was to ask her questions:  “What are the details of an event? What did you see? What did you hear? What did you feel? Is that a question or a statement? What punctuation should go at the end of that sentence? Now write down what you just told me.” After several different rewrites of her story, she was finally ready to submit it. The theme of the contest?  “My Favorite Gift!”

Later, the Literacy League decided to print some of the writings of the literacy students (with their permission) into a booklet form under various categories. The writings were taken from the essay contest or from a student survey that was conducted. I still have that booklet in my files. All these years later, it still warms my heart when I read Kassidy’s essay. It’s not the most polished essay ever written, but I know the work it represents and it makes me smile. Here it is in Kassidy’s own words:

My Favorite Gift

By Kassidy _____ (name changed)

     The best gift I have gotten was to be able to read the Christmas story, “The Night Before Christmas.”  About a month before Christmas, my tutor asked, “Kassidy, what is your favorite Christmas story?” I told her “The Night Before Christmas.” She asked me if I would like to read it.  I said yes.  I would like to read the story to my nieces on Christmas Eve.

     We met on Mondays and Wednesdays.  First she would read the story.  I would follow along.  Then I read. I did an awful job. I stumbled over a lot of words.  I tried sounding them out.  Sometimes it worked. She asked, “Kassidy, would it help if I made a tape of me reading the story?”  I would listen to the tape and read one paragraph at a time. Then I would read along with the tape. I worked hard. I didn’t want to miss one single word. I got where I was reading the story very well. I couldn’t believe my ears!

     Then the final evening came to meet with my tutor a few days before Christmas Eve. I read the story the last time with her. She was very proud of me I could tell.  I was proud of myself.  I exchanged gifts. She gave me the hardback book of “The Night Before Christmas.”

On Christmas Eve, my brothers and sisters and their family met at our parents’ house.  I reminded the kids that I was going to read the story to them at 9:00 p.m.  One of my nieces was very excited.  She couldn’t wait to hear the story. Nine o’clock came!  I got the kids together upstairs. At first I felt scared. As I started reading I was no longer scared. My mother overheard me reading. She told the rest of the family. They came upstairs to listen. After I finished the story my family hugged and kissed me.  My mother was especially proud of me. She knew how hard I worked on the story. She told me that all the meetings and hard work finally paid off. It was a good feeling to be able to read the Christmas story to my nieces and the rest of the family. That was my favorite Christmas gift. That’s something I will always remember.

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Even though many years have passed, I have to say as Kassidy’s tutor that it is one of my favorite gifts as well. I have found that there is more joy in giving a portion of myself for the benefit of someone else than all of the gifts I could ever receive.

May your Christmas be filled with that kind of JOY!  . . . .  After all, that is the kind of giving that Christmas is all about. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. . . .” (John 3:16a NIV). “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14a NIV).

 

Insights on Death, Dying and Funerals from The Undertaking

by Rebecca D. Higgins

(In my final year of seminary I took a class called Preaching for Special Occasions. One of the occasions which we discussed was funerals. As part of our class requirement we were assigned to read Thomas Lynch’s book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Lynch offers important insights on death, dying, and funerals. The following is my reflection paper on the book.)

 

An ethereal, black-caped creature points menacingly into the darkness and a man falls trembling to the ground in terror as he reads the words “Ebenezer Scrooge” etched in the granite stone. Such is the movie rendition of Charles Dickens’s timeless tale depicting the inherent fear that the living have of that unknown quality we call death. And yet, as Thomas Lynch, professional undertaker and son of an undertaker, reminds us in his book The Undertaking, death is an inextricable part of living. “Where death means nothing, life is meaningless” (Lynch, p. 117). In order of us to make our lives meaningful, we like Scrooge need to be reminded of our mortality. We cannot be memorialized as a dead saint if we have not lived a life that matters.

Unfortunately, too often we have developed habits of pushing anything unpleasant from our consciousness. In our “progressive” society, we try to sanitize and hide the mess of life by over the years installing flush toilets inside our homes and moving our sick and dying outside—away to sterile environments to be cared for by professionals. In so doing, we have attempted silently to sweep away those things we view as “unpleasant.” They become embarrassments to be avoided.

Lynch, however, has another view—a reverent view toward death, dying, and memorializing. Death is the inevitable conclusion of living. Funerals, then, are not something the living should avoid or rush through unthinking, but rather something to embrace with solemnity and respect. “If the dead are regarded as a nuisance from whom we seek a hurried riddance, then life and living are in for like treatment. McFunerals, McFamilies, McMarriage, McValues” (p. 25.)

In MemoryWhy do we bother with funerals and memorial services? The dead no longer care after all. Lynch poignantly observes that “we need our witnesses and archivists to say we lived, we died, we made this difference. . . .  We remember because we want to be remembered” (p. 117). As Lynch’s friend Milo phrased it, “One hand washes the other” (p. 11). We honor and remember the dead, burying them with the realization that one day we will join their number.

Through his observations and stories, Lynch invites us into the sacredness of his profession. While many would shudder at the thought of preparing a body for burial, Lynch and his compatriots view their undertaking not so much as a service to the dead but to the living, caring for the living by treating the bodies of their departed loved ones with dignity and honor. Lynch tells the heart-rending story of a girl raped and brutally murdered, whose body was further damaged by the autopsy. The mortician Wesley Rice could have urged the family to have a closed casket. Instead, he spent hours preparing the body tenderly so that the family could see and have closure. Through his kindness he had snatched the body of the girl back from the brutal clutches of the one who had killed her and returned it to the tender caresses of her loving, but broken-hearted family. Having that visual connection helps families say goodbye. This fact is underlined by the stories of many parents who have had a child become the victim of violence but whose body was never recovered. The agony of the unknown and the inability to lay the body of their child to rest make it difficult for the minds of those parents to be at rest and find closure.

After reading Lynch’s book, I have an even deeper appreciation for those who serve as undertakers. While all such workers demonstrate honor and respect for the bodies of the deceased and to their remaining loved ones, I have personally noted a marked difference between some Christian funeral directors who regard what they do as ministry for Christ and those for whom it is a business in the “service industry.” Such funeral directors provide Christian care in addition to that of the clergy.

With his lifetime of experience in directing funerals, Lynch has pertinent insight for ministers who conduct funeral and memorial services. While the overall programming tendency in some megachurches has been to “entertain rather than inspire, to wow rather than to worship” (p. 87), this should not be the atmosphere of a funeral service. Life and death are sacred and must be treated with proper solemnity and honor. Funerals nudge people to face the inevitable reality of their own death.  We all need to be reminded that our dying will only be as good as our living. Clergy members have a responsibility to include such reminders in the funeral service. They must be cognizant of the fact that just like those to whom they offer comfort in their time of sorrow and troubling questions, they too do not have all the answers. Ministers can, however, humbly offer the comfort and the grace of the One who knows all things. They can direct people’s attention and worship to God, the Giver of life. Lynch reminds us that the gospel message is for those who gather with heads bowed beside a grave. After all, “Easter was a body and blood thing” (p. 21). The comfort that ministers extend to the living is inherent in the gospel:  “for every death there’s some redemption; for every loss an Easter out there with our name on it, for every woe, a return to wooing” (p. 72). That comfort and hope is found in God himself.

There is a difference when conducting the funeral of someone who was old and that of an infant or a young person. “When we bury the old, we bury the known past. . . .  Memory is the overwhelming theme, the eventual comfort. But burying infants, we bury the future, unwieldy and unknown, full of promise and possibilities, outcomes punctuated by our rosy hopes. The grief has no borders, no limits. . . .  Some sadnesses are permanent. Dead babies do not give us memories. They give us dreams” (p. 51).

Ministers stand with the bereaved families as they say goodbye to their loved one, old or young. It is appropriate for members of the clergy to remember the deceased in their remarks. Any life lived has had value. Even if it may seem that the individual lying cold in the casket squandered the life given to him or her, words acknowledging their families and even the minutest of accomplishments are important.

Lynch urges people to think carefully about the type of music used at a funeral. It is for the living rather than the deceased and should reflect the sacredness and solemnity of the occasion. There is a difference, he says, “between a funeral with a few tunes and a concert with a corpse down front. Avoid, for your own sakes, anything you’ve heard in the dentist’s office or the roller rink” (p. 126).

As one who has participated in countless memorials, Lynch gives helpful advice—advice of which ministers need to be mindful. Rather than comforting people with empty platitudes and ignoring the very human emotions that rend their hearts in two, ministers must encourage people to feel whatever there is to feel, to find someone to whom they can entrust their questions, anger and tears.  “The only way around these things is through them” (p. 199). While some individuals wrongly urge people not to ask their questions, Scripture reveals that Christ himself understood the humanity of asking questions. Ministers can provide a pastoral presence of care to these vulnerable and hurting persons that will move them toward healing within the grace of God.

Lynch concludes his book with instructions about his own funeral, summarized with the words, “All I really wanted was a witness. To say I was. To say, daft as it still sounds, maybe I am” (p. 199). And there in the nuance between the past and present tense lies the sacredness of this business of life and death—a recognition that a person is so much more than flesh and blood that grows cold and subject to decay—a recognition that our souls stretch beyond the realm of this present time and space into eternity.

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Lynch, Thomas (1997). The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. New York, NY:  Penguin Group.