Florence–A Room with a View


The English have had an undying love affair with Italy for centuries, and in particular, Florence.  They are drawn to its warmth, the golden hues of its palazzos and countryside, and the culture and easy charm of the people who know how to savour life like a fine wine.  But there’s also something transformative about Italy that changes one’s perspective.  One of my favourite authors, E.M. Forster, describes this transformation so deftly in A Room with a View when Lucy Honeychurch comes back from Florence and tells her emotionally repressed fiancee, Cecil Vyse (such perfect names!), that she thinks of him as always being in a room, but one with no view.  In Florence, she’s given a room with a view, literally as well as figuratively through her encounter with George Emerson, a man who is unafraid to love her.

I first went to Florence on a high school tour in the summer of 1973.  I was sixteen years old, experiencing Europe for the first time, and rather overwhelmed by it all.  How do you even begin to take it all in at that age when your world has been so small in comparison?  What I remember most vividly about our brief stop in Florence was this iconic view of the city and its magnificent domed cathedral while eating watermelon at the top of the Piazza Michelangelo.  Forty-four years later, I am seeing it for the second time, and proud to say I hiked up there!  I was disappointed that the watermelon stand was gone.  Now, there are hordes of tourists up there, hundreds with their selfie sticks, and kiosks selling souvenirs and lukewarm drinks at inflated prices.   We escaped the sunset crowd by climbing further up the hillside to San Miniato, a medieval church and monastery that sells its own honey and homemade peach preserves from a little shop tucked underneath a bower of jasmine.  The tourists may have taken over Florence, but the views are still astounding.  It is a view that follows the Arno down through the centuries and expands in so many ways.  This city, above all others, reminds me how much love opens the window of our souls.  Not in a romantic cliche kind of way, but love that is sacrificial, life-giving, extravagant beyond all reason.

At the heart of Florence, of course, is the Renaissance.  People come to see what lies at the centre of the view, when artists like Michelangelo and Botticelli strove to define both the human and the divine through sculpture and painting, and an architect named Brunelleschi designed the greatest of Europe’s cathedral domes, called simply The Duomo.  When Michelangelo sculpted the David,  he was only in his twenties.  He took an abandoned block of marble which had been partially carved then rejected as inferior, and he loved it.  He gave himself to it, chiselling such beauty and perfection into it that no one who sees it can doubt the mastery of its creator.  There are imitations of it everywhere in the world so that it has sadly lost its mystery.  Love has many counterfeits that obscure one’s view without knowing it.  Until you see the real thing and understand the difference.

For me, though, the view of the David was not complete without seeing Michelangelo’s unfinished Nicodemus Pieta displayed in its own room in the Opera Museo opposite the Duomo.  Now a museum, it was once Michelangelo’s workshop.  There are no great crowds there, and yet I found it the most moving of his works.  It was carved when he was old and nearing death and he meant for it to be placed on his own tomb.  The figure of Nicodemus bears Michelangelo’s own face looking down on the body of Christ being held in Mary’s arms.  It was meant to reflect his love for Christ which had come to mean everything to him at the end of his life.  In frustration, whether through diminished ability or his own spiritual conflict reconciling his love of art with love of his Saviour, he gave up on it and even tried to destroy it.  In one of his many sonnets, On the Brink of Death, which is written on a gold plate opposite the statue, he wrote these words:

“…finally I see how wrong the fond illusion was that made art my idol and my King,               Leading me to want what harmed me

“…Let neither painting nor carving any longer calm my soul turned to that divine Love         Who to embrace us opened His arms upon the cross.”

Love is a room with a view that allows us to see not only beyond ourselves, but the light that exists behind it all.  Love always opens us up to see beyond the counterfeit to what is real.  We are all that half-chiselled block of marble in need of a master who knows what we are capable of becoming.  The love of Christ is so profound in His understanding of us that in the end, not even Michelangelo could portray it.  He could only worship and love back.  It is an extravagant love, costly beyond all measure.  No one could make it up.  The greatest artists in history could only try to imitate it.   The view is meant to stretch to eternity.

I wonder what 21st century creations are being made to stretch that far?  How has so much passion and glory and awe been lost in what is created and built today to reflect that extravagance?  Perhaps, instead of asking for a room with a view, we settle for the gilt trappings instead.  On another hilltop outside Florence is the small town of Fiesole.  There is an old Franciscan monastery there founded after the Order of St. Francis of Assisi, a young nobleman who gave up his wealth to serve God.  You can see the tiny rooms where the monks used to sleep and the beautiful little church and garden where they still worship today.  There is a simple peace and quiet about the place.  But the view takes your breath away.  You can see all of Florence with its red-tiled roofs and the Duomo rising up towards heaven in the centre of this ethereal city.  Beyond the city are the Tuscan hills which embrace her, covered in a lush paradise of vineyards and olive groves.  It is an eternal view that begins with a garden and ends with a city, stretching through the extravagance of love.

Is it possible to both create and love the Creator?  Did Michelangelo feel he couldn’t do both, that the eternal view didn’t stretch that far?  I think St. Francis put it best,

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is sadness, joy; where there is darkness, light.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; not so much to be understood, as to understand; not so much to be loved, as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Rendezvous at The Wolseley


April 29, 1989–  That cake!  Those glasses!

There’s something thrilling about having a secret anniversary rendezvous with your husband.  After all, why can’t Same Time Next Year be about a love affair that started twenty-eight years ago with the man you married?  Too much change, too little mystery?  Here is how you arrange it:

  1.  The Setting and How to Get There— It can’t be anywhere too close to home.  This is vital because you can’t run into people you know, so you have to make an effort to get there.  It has to be in a big city preferably.  London is ideal,  you melt unnoticed into the crowd, and you have to go there by train.  All great love affairs involve trains–cue Rachmaninoff theme from Brief Encounter.  The vastness of train stations, the architectural grandeur where the glories of the past meet the present, the adrenaline rush of departure and arrival are essential elements of the bygone era of romance that must accompany your journey.  You cannot imbibe this kind of emotion sitting in your car on the M25 or jumping through security hoops at airports.  Sadly, the Casablanca days of  “Here’s looking at you kid” and prop planes whirring in the background are gone forever.
  2.     A Bit of History—  “We’ll always have Paris” adds another emotional aspect–the    importance of history in your relationship.  When I arrive at King’s Cross Station, alone, I am one of thousands of unnoticed faces and unknown lives surging in all directions.  But London is no longer a city that overwhelms and bewilders me as it did over twenty years ago when Chris and I first lived here.  We have a history here together in this larger than life city.  We only lived in London two years, Chris was involved in a stressful research project and I was pregnant and nauseous half that time, so it was hardly a romantic, starry-eyed history.   But we lived in the centre of Bloomsbury at the William Goodenough House, a residence for post graduate students from around the world.  Our London was a colourful United Nations of doctors, musicians, academics and theologians studying and playing together as a unique international community.  We were happy living there.  Other people like us, far away from home, were also having babies.  Everything was new and exciting from the latest baby to Chinese New Year celebrations to royal visits.  We learned the meaning of Commonwealth, of shared values and language while embracing each other’s cultural differences.  That was twenty years ago, but the London of those Goodenough years will always be the London I love best, where we started fresh, began our family, and encountered the world together.   There are bridges here.
  3.   Be On Time–As I thread my way through the underground, a stranger among strangers,  the names of the tube stops have a comfortable familiarity about them—Russell Square, Holborn, Covent Garden, Piccadilly…  It’s important to know where you’re going.  Getting lost is not an option.   Do not be late.  It only creates anxiety.  You end up spending those precious first moments of meeting with frantic excuses.  I get off at Green Park and am swept along in a sea of anonymity as I look for an opening to cross Piccadilly Street.  The Wolseley is on the opposite corner from The Ritz.  I see Chris through the blur of faces.  He is standing just outside the grand Art Deco entrance with his back to the wall, looking in the opposite direction.  He isn’t looking at his phone; he is looking for me.  After twenty-eight years, he still watches for me, and I fall in love with him all over again.  I see him again for the first time the way I did on top of the Ubombo hills in Northern Zululand, a young doctor who loved Africa and flying and was gifted with healing hands.  I never tire of his profile, of the way he enters a room, of his stillness in the midst of a jostling crowd.  There is much to learn from observing how someone waits for you.  I sneak up on him.  We are surrounded by hundreds of people, traffic, and city noise, and yet, we are deliciously alone.  He smiles and kisses me.  It is 5:30.  We are exactly on time.
  4.   The Venue—And so we go inside.  The Wolseley was originally built as a showroom for The Wolseley Car Company, but it’s hard to believe that its double-story ceiling, marble interior and linen-clad tables set amidst white columns was ever intended to be anything but the perfect place for a high tea rendezvous with your lover.  I wish I could have worn a jauntily angled little hat, long white gloves and pearls.  But no matter.  We are still treated by our impeccable waiters as if we’re Lady Mary and one of her dashing amours escaping from the confines of Downton Abbey.  We order the champagne tea, of course.  Twenty-eight years ago, we uncorked our first bottle of champagne in the limo on the way to the reception.  Champagne is an essential.  Just nothing else will do.  Ever.  We clink glasses.  Cheers, my darling.  Perfectly chilled!  I am in heaven!  Soon, our three-tiered silver tea stand arrives with freshly cut sandwiches on the bottom, hot scones to follow under the domed top, and exquisite mouth-watering little cakes and pastries causing a mini sensation in the eye-level middle.   Our wedding cake itself was a sensation, a tiered extravaganza of cake and cream and strawberries a la American style.  I am still in love with cake, and the man who loves it with me.  The Earl Grey leaf tea is steaming  in its silver pot and we sip it slowly, not wanting this sumptuous feast to end.  But it’s a moveable feast, one that began so many years ago.  It is a feast that changes, of course, as we have and do.  But it continues.  After all, that’s what a rendezvous is for.

A recent article in the New York Times (“To Stay Married, Embrace Change”, April 29-May 1, 2017, International Edition) stated that change is inevitable in any marriage, and learning to adapt to different versions of your spouse is key to an enduring relationship.  The author said she became concerned when she and her husband transitioned from being an urban couple to a domestic country-life couple.  The fact that her husband was able to frisbee a plastic bowl across the room and land it on top of a fleeing rodent renewed her admiration and respect.  Seriously?  My husband once took hold of the back end of a giant python as it tried to escape down its hole in the African bush.  Even our children were impressed by that one!  He doesn’t play tug-of-war with pythons anymore.  He just eradicates giant spiders instead.  We all change.  Life changes us, for good or bad.  I’m not sure that the ability to land a rodent with a fling of the wrist signals anything much.  Chris and I have experienced a lifetime of change together, leaving behind family, home, and countries.  You have to learn to meet change halfway.  It’s like getting on a train and travelling through time and space to a large, bewildering city in search of that one familiar beloved face and finding it waiting for you outside The Wolseley.  Then, you go in–together.



In Search of Bluebells


One of the constant delights for me about living in England are the hidden treasures one can regularly discover here.  There are no blaring billboards to direct you every five miles as to where they are, so I often get lost in pursuit of them.  But I don’t mind getting lost because that’s often when I discover such treasures.

It usually involves a sudden twist in the path, and there it is–something that catches your breath, makes you gasp out loud, “Oh, look!”  It often happens in a garden with an unexpected herbaceous border bursting gloriously full of colour as you come around a high hedge.  Or else, it’s a stunning vista, discovered by taking an untrodden path instead of the main road.  Sometimes, it’s just a moment when you are looking up at the sky perhaps, and a swan comes gliding in over the river, the water tinged with gold from the sun on a silky summer evening that seems eternal.

This week I discovered bluebells in Gransden Wood, not far from Cambridge.  I had heard of this spring phenomenon and seen many pictures of them.  After living in this country for over twenty years, I had never seen them.  But then, I didn’t go looking.  My friend Caro suggested the walk and I eagerly agreed.  The best discoveries are always made either alone or with just one other person, never a crowd.  She took me along a country path until we reached one of those nearly invisible passageways at the edge of the woods that only local people use.  In an instant, we were in fairyland.  Swathes of bluebells stretched across the woodland floor for as far as we could see.  It wasn’t just a patch here and there.  It was an entire sea of blue and green undulating waves throughout the trees.  So much beauty and majesty, and we had it all to ourselves!  Or, so we thought.

Suddenly, out of the blue, quite literally, a big wet dog bounded towards us.  Like most bounding wet dogs headed your way, the intention is to eagerly shower you with a vigorous shake and greet.

“Whoa!  Somebody’s been in the water,” I said, preparing to dive off into the bluebells.

“So have I!” answered the smiling boy in dark glasses who was following him with a long white stick.  He was blind and was accompanied by his mother.  The dog didn’t shake after all, but on hearing the boy’s voice, obediently stopped and waited for him.

It was an extraordinary encounter, this heavenly vision of blue all around us, and a young boy’s inability to see it.  Yet, the joy on his face was unmistakable.  He was experiencing what was hidden from him in other ways.  He could still feel the warmth of the sun filtering through the tree canopy and the wetness of his dog from playing in the stream.  He could no doubt hear the woodland birds calling to each other and smell the spring scent of earth and wildflower.

How much remains hidden from us just because we can’t see a thing clearly?  We can’t see beyond our troubles and difficulties, and so we give up on joy altogether.

Today is Good Friday and I am struck by the “hiddenness” of Easter Sunday from Jesus’ disciples.  Jesus’ body was hidden and sealed away in a garden tomb while the disciples themselves hid away in despair in a locked room.  As far as they were concerned, it was over.  The joy of what they had in Christ was gone and there was no future.  Even when the seal was broken and the tomb nothing but an empty, gaping hole, nobody knew what to think because nobody was looking, nobody had listened.

What does your heart search for?  Like the disciples, I search too much for what I’ve lost and what is past.  I need this “hidden” message of Easter–“Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen!”

The hidden joys of nature continually point me towards resurrection.  Keep looking…

“I once was lost, but now am found;

Was blind, but now I see.”


From LaLaLand to LammasLand

img_0411Have you ever had the same bewildering, heartstopping LaLaLand moment when you thought your life was about one script, only to find it was about another?  The disastrous finale to this year’s Oscar night just gave me another reason to love LaLaLand.  It’s a film about dreams, after all, those that come true and those that don’t.  It doesn’t matter that it didn’t win Best Picture in the end; it’s a film that outshines, regardless, and will become a classic everyone remembers.

Here in EngLand, the Brits somehow don’t get LaLaLand.  They think it’s overrated and don’t understand what all the hype is about.  One reviewer called it “banal.”  Banal?  I guess they didn’t grow up on the LA freeway like I did and think turning all that traffic into  a song and dance number was the most joyous opening scene in movie history.  Was I the only one out there who wanted to get up on my seat and dance on top of the cars with them? (I even applauded at the end and said out loud, “Yes!” to a packed cinema—oooh!)  I suppose they never went to the planetarium at Griffith’s Observatory as a schoolchild, either, and sat gazing up at a curved ceiling full of stars.  Maybe they didn’t have a grandmother like mine who took me to old movie houses on the LA city bus just because it was a different kind of thing to do.

I had a magical LA childhood, and that is the nostalgic pull of LaLaLand for me.  Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music were my LaLaLand and I dreamed of Julie Andrews and becoming part of the magic (even though I couldn’t sing).   My grandmother even arranged for me to meet a Hollywood agent who suggested I come back when my teeth were sorted out.  My front teeth came in crooked which meant braces, and then we moved to Michigan.  Bye bye, LaLaLand.

But I moved back, and so did my dream.  I pursued it, the endless auditions and casting calls in which I was just another face in the crowd.  The magic didn’t last, though, and neither did my dream.  It’s not the lost dream that haunts me, but the lost magic.  In LaLaLand, the bright, vivid colours, songs and dancing among the stars are not a response to dreams being fulfilled, but to falling in love while in pursuit of them.  As soon as the lovers in the story go their separate ways, the colours fade.  By the end, she is dressed in black, the color of mourning.  Her dreams of success, although now fulfilled, re-emerge in a brilliantly colourful alternative dream sequence with the love she gave up and lost.  The magic was never in the dream, but in discovering love.

Certain people create magic in our lives just because of how they love us.  My grandparents were such people.  My Southern grandmother with her “Hey Sugah!” accent took me to the movies on a bus and made it an adventure.  My Wisconsin grandfather and I made up stories together.  He smelled of cigars and rural manhood, a past world that only ever existed when I was sitting on his lap and learning where stories came from.  We all need and long for that kind of magic, not just when we are very young, but throughout our entire lives.  It’s why we go to the movies, after all.  We never outgrow the love of stories that color our world and take us somewhere beyond the ceiling of stars.

I left LA a second time in search of a new script for my life.  It eventually took me to ZuluLand and now I live near a place called LammasLand.  It’s a green country park in the middle of Cambridge in which cows sometimes graze next to the River Cam.  There’s a huge children’s playground along with an equally vast paddling pool which is a major attraction during the summer months.  My children grew up playing there along with frequent picnics.  It’s the first place we go with any visiting friends who have small children.

Now, of course, our LammasLand children have ironically flown off to LaLaLand to seek their dreams.  What stories will further script their lives remains to be seen.  I find myself dreaming of beach walking in winter, the coastal drive to Santa Barbara, blue skies and strawberry fields, horseback riding in dusty foothills washed emerald green overnight by rain, and I long for home.  LammasLand is a long way from LaLaLand.  It was never part of the script, but that is the story of my life.  I look back more and more at where I came from and can only be grateful for the journey.  Who knows where it will lead next?  The magic of stories will always be important for me.  I will always be a LaLaLand girl.


What is Your Mountain? –A Death in Cambridge

In Cambridge this past week on the 21st January, friends of ours buried their 22-year old son. He was descending from a mountain summit in Norway on New Year’s Day, lost his footing, and fell to his death. His funeral was attended by hundreds of the best of both Cambridge and Oxford, where he had finished with a first in history only last year, bringing together a unique mix of people to mourn the loss of a brilliant young man who had a passion for mountains. His greatest achievement was being part of the 2016 Oxford team who retraced the historic 1923 Spitsbergen exhibition to an unexplored part of the Arctic. He dreamed of being an explorer in an age where it would seem there is little left unexplored on this planet.

Yet, as long as there are mountains and those who are drawn to them, there will be explorers. The phrase “because they are there” seems to be a uniquely Western concept. Westerners are a restless, inquisitive lot, seduced not so much by “because they are there,” but “because we can.” Westerners have a long history of striving to conquer the unknown, not just externally, but within, to live at the outposts of one’s dreams and prove we are capable of doing so. The mountain of achievement is huge in the Western mindset. We throw ourselves at it in so many ways. Some of us get to bask in the light and rarefied air of the pinnacle, having reached the summit through much hard effort and perseverance. Most of us are happy just to get to base camp.

But there are others who in the past have regarded the mountain as unapproachable. The Maori people, for example, don’t go “trekking.” The mountain is tapu, sacred, and who are they to challenge it?  Likewise, when God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai, fire and smoke surrounded the mountain and the Israelites stood back in fear and trembling. They were a sinful people, unfit to enter the presence of a holy God on His mountain.

Many people believe God is still up on that mountain, remote, forbidding, and angry. But He came down to us in the person of Jesus Christ and gathered those who would follow Him on the side of another mountain. There would no longer be a barrier between God and His people.

“Blessed are those who mourn,” he told them, “for they will be comforted.”

What is your mountain? It could be grief, defeat, discouragement, or even pride. Something so solid and implacable, you can’t even begin to climb it.  But Jesus also told his followers that even if their faith was as small as a mustard seed, they could not only take on the mountain, but move it because with even the smallest seed of faith, “nothing is impossible.”

What is your mountain in 2017?

My year has started out with the death of a young man living on the glorious brink of a promising life. It has rocked the community in which I live so that the inauguration of a new American president went by unnoticed and unremarked. And yet, in the same week, I was reminded of a different kind of American, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who in his last speech before he was assassinated said,

“We got some difficult days ahead…But…I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve seen the Promised Land…I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Dr. King scaled the mountain of fear and hatred, leading his country with him, because of where his eyes were fixed. He was a weak, and ultimately mortal man, who gave his mountain over to God in faith. And God moved it.

What is your mountain? If you are having difficulty climbing it, take time to consider. You may think your faith is inadequate, or even non-existent, but all that is required is a seed. In the midst of tragedy, I am encouraged by the coming together of so many people here in Cambridge to love, support, and pray for this family. A seed has been planted in the sorrow and anguish, and I am watching it slowly take root. Faith doesn’t flourish on its own. It needs community to nurture and strengthen it.  The loss of a child, a life, is irreplaceable.  But it is still possible to reach the mountaintop, to grasp hold of the promises of God, and to dwell in a place where those who mourn are comforted.

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The Birdhouse


I never thought I’d be so excited about a birdhouse!  There it stands, a rather elegant, miniature roofed dining pavilion elevated on a post above the middle of my small townhouse garden.  I’ve had bird feeders before, hung from trees and on top of squirrel-proof stands, but when there are squirrels around, nothing with bird food in it is squirrel-proof.  Now that I live in a townhouse, I have a garden with no trees–and no squirrels!  We didn’t even have birds.  All very sad and boring for Leo the cat.  And yes, I do miss having a garden with lots of trees and creatures of all kinds running and flying around in it.  So, when just before Christmas, a tiny, cheeky robin started making daily visits, drinking from our waterfall feature and digging worms out of our small patch of grass, he completely captured my heart.  His arrival couldn’t have been more timely.

In England, the robin is a Christmas bird.  It’s not because he shows up in winter instead of spring; with his reddish-orange breast, he’s just more visible in winter, and food is harder to pull out of a frozen ground.  He’s become the Christmas bird because postmen used to wear red vests and were referred to as “robin redbreasts”.  At Christmas time, as they delivered bagloads of Christmas cards, they inevitably ended up being depicted on Christmas cards  themselves as jolly little birds delivering Christmas cheer.  This year, robins were on the Christmas stamps and also featured in the Waitrose grocery store’s advertising theme, “Home for Christmas.”  The story of a fearless, determined little robin braving sea and storm around the world to wing its way back home to England and mince pies has to be the most epic, emotional Christmas ad ever made for a grocery store.

Do robins really fly around the world?  Well, first of all, British robins are nothing like North American robins.  They are small, round and fat whereas American robins are bigger and longer (and not as cute).  Did you know that the robin Julie Andrews sings to in Mary Poppins is the North American bird, never seen on this side of the Atlantic?  Oh, Walt Disney!

So, we bought our cheeky little Bobbin a birdhouse for Christmas.  We bought birdseed and installed this majestic piece of real estate in the perfect spot for breakfast viewing.  The first time he tentatively hopped inside his new dining room, we were ecstatic.  He likes it!

Then, he disappeared.  Days went by and there was no sign of him.  I began to worry the cat had discovered him.  Meanwhile, my own two fledglings in America were preparing to wing their way home across the sea.  I am always anxious when they fly, but even more so when they’re together, precious cargo up there somewhere in the vast, open reach of sky.

So much of life is about waiting!  We wait for a loved one to come home, for a child to be born, for a bird to show up.  The British are keen bird watchers.  Perhaps it’s because they have an aptitude for waiting.  Americans are an impatient lot.  I have had to learn to wait for many things, and not always with grace and kindness.  I grew up in an era of convenience–frozen vegetables and cake mixes, polaroid cameras, and credit cards.  I knew nothing about birds or plants or watching things grow.  I didn’t know caterpillars don’t turn into butterflies overnight, or that something broken takes time to mend, or that dreams don’t happen just because you wish upon a star.  I have had to learn patience, and along the way, perseverance.

So, I wait and watch.  Then, something marvellous happens.  The morning after my fledglings arrived safely home, a bird started singing merrily outside in my little garden as if heralding their return.  Could it be…yes!  Our robin was also back!  I am convinced it was the same one.  Wherever he went, he seemed so pleased to be home.

Christmas is over and my chicks have now flown off again.  It never gets any easier, this coming home and going away.  But Bobbin has decided to stay.  Only now he’s duking it out with a perky little gray wagtail (I had to look him up) and a big annoying blackbird.  They chase each other around the garden like naughty schoolchildren not liking to share.  My oh my, have I become a bird watcher in my dotage?  January is such a cold and heavy-spirited month, this one in particular.  I am saddened by loss and the ache of winter, waiting and longing for spring.  I am learning patience, and the resiliency of birds.


Carols by Candlelight

When that silvery solo voice fills the chapel with “Once in Royal David’s City…,” my Christmas truly has begun.  I’ve been shopping and decorating and menu planning for weeks, but none of that fills my heart and soul with joy in the same way as the candlelight carol service in this country.

I grew up in a big California church with big programs.  Christmas was an extravaganza that was planned all year long.  It featured a singing Christmas tree, theatrical costumes, and marching toy soldiers.  Somewhere in there, we were meant to be overawed by the “real meaning” of Christmas.

In contrast to singing Christmas trees were my school Christmas pageants.  They were more the real deal.  I look back on these with much fondness.  I loved the rehearsing and preparation for this annual event.  Because I went to a Baptist day school, important programs like the Christmas pageant were always held in the main church sanctuary.  As a child, this was an immense and awe-inspiring building to me.  The baptistry soared high above the choir, and every year, three sixth-grade girls (never boys!) were chosen to proclaim the good news as angels from this lofty pinnacle.  It was indeed the pinnacle of honour to be selected and as a sixth grader, I was one of the chosen.  It meant I got to wear a white robe and enormous, sparkling wings.  We were a dazzling sight up there in the baptistry, heady stuff for three 11-year old girls.

In one of our final dress rehearsals,  we were waiting for our cue in a small side room next to the baptristy.  Back in those days, we were just sent up there without any supervision.  Imagine!  There was a window in that room that opened onto the roof of the sanctuary, and as this was an irresistible opportunity, we three angels climbed out and began running around and flapping our wings at the traffic down below.  Car horns honked and people stared up at us as we joyfully shouted, “Glory to God in the highest!  Peace on earth, goodwill to men!”

It was exhilarating until Mrs. Kenison suddenly appeared at the window.  We were doomed!  She nearly demoted us to the choir, but thankfully, we got to keep our angel status.  Somehow, that rooftop experience liberated our hearts and voices so that we proclaimed the glory of God like never before.

There was nothing restrained about that first Christmas carol.  The angels must have sung with wild abandon to those awestruck shepherds huddled around a campfire on a darkened hillside.  The windows of heaven were flung open, and yet they were its only audience.  All of Israel was looking for the spectacle of a coming king, but they missed it because of what they weren’t looking for.

Americans tend to look for the entertainment value of big church Christmas programs; in England, it’s about beauty.  Ancient churches and cathedrals are never more beautiful than they are at Christmas time, resounding with the music of pipe organs and choristers surrounded by the glow of candlelight.  Nowhere in the world is this beauty more perfected than on Christmas Eve in King’s College Chapel.  It was here that the tradition of the “Nine Lessons and Carols” began in 1918, just after the horrors of the Great War had finally ended.  It has since been adopted by churches across England and the world as the standard for all Anglican carol services.

The first carol is always “Once in Royal David’s City”with the first verse sung as a solo by a chorister as he comes down the aisle.  The congregation stands and responds by joining in on the second verse.  The program then follows readings from Scripture that chart God’s plan for salvation from Adam’s fall in Genesis to the prophecies of the Old Testament through to the birth of Jesus Christ.  Each reading is followed by a carol sung by either the choir and/or congregation, culminating in the final “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

I am never unmoved by this Christmas service which I have attended at various churches and chapels here in the UK.  There is beauty and glory in abundance, but there is also simplicity in its order.  It is a collaborative celebration where the congregation is there to participate, not just spectate.  It is a journey we are all invited to take back to Bethlehem through long, dark nights of history, war, and doubt.  We are invited to wonder and consider why this celebration of the Christmas story still draws us.

For me, the draw of the Nine Lessons and Carols is the liberation of joy that comes through that first congregational response to the solo verse of “Once in Royal David’s City.”  I am reminded once again of what Christmas is meant to be, a response to God’s solo gift “in a lowly cattle shed.”  The carol is uniquely English, based on a children’s poem.  We are reminded through the following verses of the weakness of childhood, and by singing it with a child, admit to our own ongoing weakness and need of a Saviour.  By the outgoing carol, however, I have taken the journey from darkness into light and I am once again out on the rooftop, where angels should be, praising God and singing,

“With angelic hosts proclaim

Christ is born in Bethlehem

Hark! the herald angels sing,

‘Glory to the newborn King!'”