The Christmas Rifle
by Rian B. Anderson
Pa never had much compassion for the lazy or those who squandered their means and then never had enough for the necessities. But for those who were genuinely in need, his heart was as big as all outdoors. It was from him that I learned the greatest joy in life comes from giving, not from receiving.
It was Christmas Eve 1881. I was fifteen years old and feeling like the world had caved in on me because there just hadn’t been enough money to buy me the rifle that I’d wanted so bad that year for Christmas.
We did the chores early that night for some reason. I just figured Pa wanted a little extra time so we could read in the Bible. So after supper was over I took my boots off and stretched out in front of the fireplace and waited for Pa to get down the old Bible. I was still feeling sorry for myself and, to be honest, I wasn’t in much of a mood to read scriptures.
But Pa didn’t get the Bible, instead he bundled up and went outside. I couldn’t figure it out because we had already done all the chores. I didn’t worry about it long though, I was too busy wallowing in self-pity.
Soon Pa came back in. It was a cold clear night out and there was ice in his beard. “Come on, Matt,” he said. “Bundle up good, it’s cold out tonight.” I was really upset then. Not only wasn’t I getting the rifle for Christmas, now Pa was dragging me out in the cold, and for no earthly reason that I could see.
We’d already done all the chores, and I couldn’t think of anything else that needed doing, especially not on a night like this. But I knew Pa was not very patient at one dragging one’s feet when he’d told them to do something, so I got up and put my boots back on and got my cap, coat, and mittens. Ma gave me a mysterious smile as I opened the door to leave the house. Something was up, but I didn’t know what.
Outside, I became even more dismayed. There in front of the house was the work team, already hitched to the big sled. Whatever it was we were going to do wasn’t going to be a short, quick, little job. I could tell. We never hitched up the big sled unless we were going to haul a big load.
Pa was already up on the seat, reins in hand. I reluctantly climbed up beside him. The cold was already biting at me. I wasn’t happy. When I was on, Pa pulled the sled around the house and stopped in front of the woodshed. He got off and I followed. “I think we’ll put on the high sideboards,” he said. “Here, help me.” The high sideboards! It had been a bigger job than I wanted to do with just the low sideboards on, but whatever it was we were going to do would be a lot bigger with the high sideboards on.
When we had exchanged the sideboards Pa went into the woodshed and came out with an armload of wood—the wood I’d spent all summer hauling down from the mountain, and then all fall sawing into blocks and splitting. What was he doing? Finally I said something. “Pa,” I asked, “what are you doing?”
“You been by the Widow Jensen’s lately?” he asked. The Widow Jensen lived about two miles down the road. Her husband had died a year or so before and left her with three children, the oldest being eight.
Sure, I’d been by, but so what? “Yeah,” I said, “why?”
“I rode by just today,” Pa said. “Little Jakey was out digging around in the woodpile trying to find a few chips. They’re out of wood, Matt.” That was all he said and then he turned and went back into the woodshed for another armload of wood. I followed him.
We loaded the sled so high that I began to wonder if the horses would be able to pull it. Finally, Pa called a halt to our loading, then we went to the smoke house and Pa took down a big ham and a side of bacon. He handed them to me and told me to put them in the sled and wait. When he returned he was carrying a sack of flour over his right shoulder and a smaller sack of something in his left hand.
“What’s in the little sack?” I asked.
“Shoes. They’re out of shoes. Little Jakey just had gunny sacks wrapped around his feet when he was out in the wood-pile this morning. I got the children a little candy too. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without a little candy.”
We rode the two miles to Widow Jensen’s pretty much in silence. I tried to think through what Pa was doing. We didn’t have much by worldly standards. Of course, we did have a big woodpile, though most of what was left now was still in the form of logs that I would have to saw into blocks and split before we could use it. We also had meat and flour, so we could spare that, but I knew we didn’t have any money, so why was Pa buying them shoes and candy? Really, why was he doing any of this? Widow Jensen had closer neighbors than us. It shouldn’t have been our concern.
We came in from the blind side of the Jensen house and unloaded the wood as quietly as possible, then we took the meat and flour and shoes to the door.
We knocked. The door opened a crack and a timid voice said, “Who is it?”
“Lucas Miles, Ma’am, and my son, Matt. Could we come in for a bit?”
Widow Jensen opened the door and let us in. She had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. The children were wrapped in another and were sitting in front of the fireplace by a very small fire that hardly gave off any heat at all.
Widow Jensen fumbled with a match and finally lit the lamp. “We brought you a few things, Ma’am,” Pa said and set down the sack of flour. I put the meat on the table. Then Pa handed her the sack that had the shoes in it. She opened it hesitantly and took the shoes out one pair at a time. There was a pair for her and one for each of the children—sturdy shoes, the best, shoes that would last.
I watched her carefully. She bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling and then tears filled her eyes and started running down her cheeks. She looked up at Pa like she wanted to say something, but it wouldn’t come out.
“We brought a load of wood too, Ma’am,” Pa said, then he turned to me and said, “Matt, go bring enough in to last for awhile. Let’s get that fire up to size and heat this place up.”
I wasn’t the same person when I went back out to bring in the wood. I had a big lump in my throat and, much as I hate to admit it, there were tears in my eyes too.
In my mind I kept seeing those three children huddled around the fireplace and their mother standing there with tears running down her cheeks and so much gratitude in her heart that she couldn’t speak. My heart swelled within me and a joy filled my soul that I’d never known before. I had given at Christmas many times before, but never when it had made so much difference.
I could see we were literally saving the lives of these people. I soon had the fire blazing and everyone’s spirits soared. The children started giggling when Pa handed them each a piece of candy and Widow Jensen looked on with a smile that probably hadn’t crossed her face for a long time. She finally turned to us. “God bless you,” she said. “I know the Lord himself has sent you. The children and I have been praying that he would send one of his angels to spare us.”
In spite of myself, the lump returned to my throat and the tears welled up in my eyes again. I’d never thought of Pa in those exact terms before, but after Widow Jensen mentioned it I could see that it was probably true. I was sure that a better man than Pa had never walked the earth. I started remembering all the times he had gone out of his way for Ma and me, and many others. The list seemed endless as I thought on it.
Pa insisted that everyone try on the shoes before we left. I was amazed when they all fit and I wondered how he had known what sizes to get. Then I guessed that if he was on an errand for the Lord that the Lord would make sure he got the right sizes.
Tears were running down Widow Jensen’s face again when we stood up to leave. Pa took each of the children in his big arms and gave them a hug. They clung to him and didn’t want us to go. I could see that they missed their pa, and I was glad that I still had mine.
At the door Pa turned to Widow Jensen and said, “The Mrs. wanted me to invite you and the children over for Christmas dinner tomorrow. The turkey will be more than the three of us can eat, and a man can get cantankerous if he has to eat turkey for too many meals. We’ll be by to get you about eleven. It’ll be nice to have some little ones around again. Matt, here, hasn’t been little for quite a spell.” I was the youngest. My two older brothers and two older sisters were all married and had moved away. Widow Jensen nodded and said, “Thank you, Brother Miles. I don’t have to say, “‘May the Lord bless you,’ I know for certain that He will.”
Out on the sled I felt a warmth that came from deep within and I didn’t even notice the cold. When we had gone a ways, Pa turned to me and said, “Matt, I want you to know something. Your ma and me have been tucking a little money away here and there all year so we could buy that rifle for you, but we didn’t have quite enough. Then yesterday a man who owed me a little money from years back came by to make things square. Your ma and me were real excited, thinking that now we could get you that rifle, and I started into town this morning to do just that. But on the way I saw little Jakey out scratching in the woodpile with his feet wrapped in those gunny sacks and I knew what I had to do. So, Son, I spent the money for shoes and a little candy for those children. I hope you understand.”
I understood, and my eyes became wet with tears again. I understood very well, and I was so glad Pa had done it. Just then the rifle seemed very low on my list of priorities. Pa had given me a lot more. He had given me the look on Widow Jensen’s face and the radiant smiles of her three children.
For the rest of my life, whenever I saw any of the Jensens, or split a block of wood, I remembered, and remembering brought back that same joy I felt riding home beside Pa that night. Pa had given me much more than a rifle that night, he had given me the best Christmas of my life.
Dear God: Is it on purpose our names are the same, only reversed?
Dear God: Why do humans smell the flowers, but seldom, if ever, smell one another?
Dear God: When we get to heaven, can we sit on your couch? Or is it still the same old story?
Dear God: Why are there cars named after the jaguar, the cougar, the mustang, the colt, the stingray, and the rabbit, but not ONE named for a Dog? How often do you see a cougar riding around? We do love a nice ride! Would it be so hard to rename the ‘Chrysler Eagle’ the ‘Chrysler Beagle’?
Dear God: If a Dog barks his head off in the forest and no human hears him, is he still a bad Dog?
Dear God: We Dogs can understand human verbal instructions, hand signals, whistles, horns, clickers, beepers, scent ID’s, electromagnetic energy fields, and Frisbee flight paths. What do humans understand?
Dear God: More meatballs, less spaghetti, please.
Dear God: Are there mailmen in Heaven? If there are, will I have to apologize?
Dear God: Let me give you a list of just some of the things I must remember to be a good Dog.
1. I will not eat the cats’ food before they eat it or after they throw it up.
2. I will not roll on dead seagulls, fish, crabs, etc., just because I like the way they smell.
3. The Litter Box is not a cookie jar.
4. The sofa is not a ‘face towel’.
5. The garbage collector is not stealing our stuff.
6. I will not play tug-of-war with Dad’s underwear when he’s on the toilet.
7. Sticking my nose into someone’s crotch is an unacceptable way of saying ‘hello’.
8. I don’t need to suddenly stand straight up when I’m under the coffee table
9. I must shake the rainwater out of my fur before entering the house – not after.
10. I will not come in from outside and immediately drag my butt across the Capet.
11. The cat is not a ‘squeaky toy’ so when I play with him and he makes that noise, it’s usually not a good thing.
I love Christmas stories and have collected some favorites over the years. I found one today to add to my list of favs on The Livesay Haiti Blog (great blog of a family that lives and serves in Haiti). I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Hear the Angels Sing
Hear the Angels Sing ( Dickinson County News, December 12, 2006)
Perhaps it’s just the Ebenezer Scrooge in me, but I’m not much of a caroler. When pressed into participation I sing, but rarely with the gusto of those around me. And too often I sing in a rote way, not giving full attention to the words. There is however, one line of one verse of one carol that always captures my attention.
A story is told of a man seasonally employed to bring the presence of Santa to Christmas gatherings for businesses and schools. He was on his way to a gig, an office party, but had been asked to stop by the nursing home to make a quick visit to the residents. This was pro bono work, but if Santa won’t do it who will?
He quickly made his rounds with a “ho, ho, ho” to each room. Just before departing, he peeked into a darkened cubicle where an elderly man lay apparently asleep, curled on his bony side. Santa prepared to leave in a flash. But the man made a feeble beckoning gesture visible in the dim light of a tiny Christmas tree. The volunteer Santa approached. The man whispered something so faintly as to be inaudible. Santa moved his jolly old ear very close to the man’s dry mouth. “Forms are bending low,” the man said. Santa did not connect the phrase, assumed confusion, gave a patronizing pat, and hurried off to his paying job.
As he arrived at the office party, holiday music was filling the room. The words of an old carol floated from the ceiling speakers:
O ye beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.
The song was “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” written as a poem in 1849 and put to music 10 years later. The essence of the song is that angels did not just appear and sing at the birth of Christ. They show up and serenade regularly and often.
Just when we are so burdened as to not hear, at the most difficult of times, when life’s loads crush and our forms bend, they minister most. Immanuel, meaning “God-with-us,” attends us as His invisible person, the Holy Spirit, and He is attended by angels. The heart of God is to meet us at life’s darkest intersections with comfort, encouragement, a touch of heaven, and a breath of hope. The old man in the nursing home wasn’t just complaining to Santa about his lot in life. He was acknowledging that in Santa’s visit, no matter how hurried, there was an angelic grace.
Whether or not you sing the carols this year, be encouraged to live the carols. For you, this season may not be one of happiness, good memories, or togetherness. You may be grieving, regretful, or lonely. Life’s road seems crushing and your form is bending low. That does not disqualify you from the true Christmas message. While others scurry in apparent happiness, the invitation to the crushed and the bent still stands:
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.
– by Sharlande Sledge
Wake us up, God!
Here we are,
rubbing the sleep out of our eyes,
still drowsy and dozing.
And you, Emmanuel God,
are awake with life,
coming to us from on high
to startle us with incarnation.
Stretching and yawning
from ordinary time,
we stumble to the door of your Advent.
At first we may not recognize
the outline of your face.
The night is too much with us,
but the dawning is with you.
The light whispers your coming.
So wake us up, Lord Jesus.
Wake us when our expectations are too low.
Wake us up when our expectations are too high.
Wake us when we least expect it.
Wake us to your everlasting light.
(pg. 3 Prayers and Litanies for the Christian Seasons)
Advent is very much about awakening – shaking off our spiritual slumber and opening up our hearts and minds to the sacred, awakening to the divinity that dwells within us, to the presence of God and his will for our lives.
Over 500 years ago Ignatius of Loyola said that the most important of all the spiritual disciplines is not meditation, but what he calls the “awareness examine.” The awareness-examine was a spiritual exercise he gave to the Jesuits and to anyone who came to him for spiritual direction. Its design was to examine how aware or awake one was to God in his or her life. Ignatius suggested that at the end of each day, one would sit and ask oneself, “When was I most aware of life today? In what event or idea or transaction was life present in a strong form in my day?”
This Advent I am asking myself these questions each evening:
Was I awake to God’s coming into my life today?
When was I most alive today?
In what event or idea or transaction did I experience the Advent of God in my day?
And each morning I am praying:
Wake me up, God. Here I am.
This post is part of the December Synchroblog, “Advent: A Journey”. A synchroblog is a collection of similar articles or posts made by a diverse group of bloggers who have agreed to blog on the same topic on the same day. You can find a list of all the participants at the end of this post. If you’re a blogger & want to be part of future synchroblogs, you can join on facebook or go to our new synchroblog site and subscribe.
- John C. O’Keefe – The Season of Adventure
- George at The Love Revolution – The Weak Ghosts of Advent
- Peter at Emerging Christian – Expanding Our Experience of the Advent Journey
- Beth at Beth Stedman.com – Experiencing Advent With A Toddler
- Alan at The Assembling Of The Church – Walking Through Advent Today
- Steve at Emergent Kiwi – Am I Traveling Well?
- Wendy at View From The Bridge – Yearning For a Lived Theology
- Annie at Marginal Theology – Limping Along
- Christen at Greener Grass – Advent – Expecting and Un-Expecting
- Jeff at My Adventures – Journeys and Destinations
- kathy at carnival in my head – making room for the unexpected
- Sonja at Calacirian – Road To Nowhere
- Steve at Khanya – Advent Synchroblog
- Beth at The Virtual Teahouse – Clear-Eyed Gaze of a Stranger
- Phil at Square No More – O Antiphon #1 – This is the first of nine antiphones. Please check Phil’s blog Square No More regularly for additional updates with the additional 8 antiphones.
- Peggy at Abisomeone – Wandering With The Waiting Abbess
- Cathryn at Love Fiercely – An Advent Prayer
- HeySonnie at A Piece of My Mind – Christmas WILL Happen
- Liz at Grace Rules – Advent – A Journey of Awakening
- Andrew at Tall Skinny Kiwi – God Came Near