Eighty-year-old David Bartlett, Sr, had gotten into another spat, again, with his 46-year-old son David Bartlett, Jr., about driving at night. The Junior said the Senior ought to stay off the roads after dark. The Senior said it was a quiet Christmas Eve, there’d be very little traffic, and, besides, the church was right down the road. The Senior wanted to know, What could that possibly hurt?
“Plenty,” said David Bartlett the Junior, “if you broadside a minivan.”
They agreed to talk about it later. They also agreed they’d drive separate cars to the 9:00 p.m. Christmas Eve service. Both men knew that deep care and stubborn pride were getting in the way of the father-son relationship they both treasured.
And David Bartlett, Sr., also knew that his son was right. Again. He shouldn’t drive at night. He knew it. He’s the one who brought it up in the first place. Yes, his reaction time was a little bit slower, but it was the glare at night that made driving so difficult.
Night driving. Aches and pains. His increasing inability to keep up with the so-called modern world. A lot of things were becoming more difficult and achingly unfamiliar for David Bartlett, Sr.
He’d bought a red Honda Civic from a nephew who’d gotten in over his head and couldn’t afford to make payments anymore. His wife of 51-years would have appreciated helping out the nephew, but would never have gone for such a sporty car—a bright red one, at that. But Janice had been dead these nine years with cancer, so this fall he sold the 1982 Ford LTD Station Wagon to a dealer of antiques, and he took over payments on his nephew’s practically new Civic.
Not only could he not see to drive it at night, he couldn’t figure out the electronics. The car had gizmos and gadgets you triggered with buttons on the steering wheel. You could talk to the radio and it would dial your telephone. The LTD wagon had a button on the floor at your left foot for the high beams and a radio tuner with a knob that you had to actually turn with your hand.
Getting out of the low-slung car hurt his left knee, badly. Getting into it hurt his right knee and his neck. The orthopedic doctor—one of four specialists (Four!) he saw with increasing regularity—said the knee problem might not be a knee problem at all. It might be a hip. Or sciatica. All he knew was that the pain in his knees was so sharp sometimes he cried out.
Even though it required a crane for him to get in and out of it, the red Civic made David Bartlett, Sr. feel young again and debonair, for a change. Since he couldn’t turn back time, he could live with being old. But he didn’t mind feeling twenty again, either, which is exactly how he felt when he whipped around corners on the way to his neighborhood Publix.
Both carloads of Bartletts met in the church narthex. The Younger wanted the Older to sit with him and his family on Christmas Eve. The Older, however, thanked the Younger and took his regular spot in the balcony without them. Even though the Senior and Junior Bartletts lived in the same town, went to the same Presbyterian church, had the same mechanic, and shopped at the same grocery ever since the Younger returned home from law school at William and Mary, they, nevertheless, worked hard at being independent; this was at the insistence of the late Mrs. Bartlett, who demanded the Senior version of the family not hamper the Junior. Though the two households were close—emotionally and otherwise—“We can live together in the same town without smothering one another,” Janice Bartlett was fond of saying. “If I lived with my grandbabies, I’d hold them all the time.”
The grandbabies were growing up. The twin girls were juniors at college. And the baby, Charles Wesley Bartlett, was ten.
But now, after all these happy, independent (or mutually dependent, or equally yoked) years, it was happening. David Bartlett, Sr. probably relied on his son and daughter-in-law too much. He had crossed some line. They and their three kids now did all his yard work—the gutters, the trimming, the raking, the spring seeding, the planting, the weeding, the mulching. For the last two years they hung the outdoor Christmas lights, set up the lit manger scene complete with wisemen, and hung the wreathes. David Bartlett the Senior was becoming dependent upon his family despite his prayer of never being a burden.
This is what he thought about in his regular seat in the balcony as the Christmas Eve service unfolded. He watched his family at their regular spot on the main floor, in the second pew. Because the church was constructed in the round, the younger Bartletts could look up easily to the balcony and see him. They were so close, but tonight the space between them was a heaving ocean.
David the Senior had shepherded his parents through their long aging process and it was his son’s turn now to do the same for him. But he couldn’t help resisting. He just wasn’t ready. He didn’t recognize the stooped old man he saw in the mirror these days because when he closed his eyes he was still eighteen-years-old standing on Folly Beach with a surfboard under one arm and the pretty girl who would become his wife under the other. These so-called golden years were simply evaporating too quickly and taking with them his vitality and freedom, particularly when he faced the limits posed by his aching, old knees—and he didn’t like it one bit.
At Thanksgiving his daughter in law, Carol, took all of his throw rugs from his house because she said throw rugs presented a tripping hazard, and a slip would mean a trip to the hospital with a broken hip, and an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure. The rugs were not Persian heirlooms; they were cheapos from Target. They carried no sentimental value. But they were his and when a man loses his throw rugs, what’s next?
The service of worship was unfolding beautifully, everything spinning to gold with proper order and dignity. The air in the dimmed balcony was rarified. The Christmas lights and decorations exuded serenity and wonder. The choir sang Handel for an introit and the liturgist’s voice was like an aged sherry, the expensive stuff, smooth and intoxicating.
If only his life were unfolding as elegantly. But his throw rugs were gone. He couldn’t fit into his new car, despite his vanity. His body was becoming unreliable. And he feared becoming an anchor around his son’s neck. His social graces were waning, as well. He had grown impatient and ill-tempered. When had he morphed from the silver-haired gentleman to the morose curmudgeon? He looked at everything with a yellowed contempt. This wasn’t like him. This wasn’t like him at all.
At the wholeness service in the sanctuary earlier in the month—another beautiful service—people came forward to light candles. Some of their faces were wet with tears. Some stood at the table up front for a long, long time. They lit candles for spouses who had died or were dying, for young marriages just getting started, for dreams that had gone unfulfilled, for futures that seemed uncertain. They lit candles with fear and trembling and fragile hope. It was beautiful, and hopeful, and bright. Except for him it wasn’t. All he could think about was people dripping hot wax on the chancel’s new flooring.
And in the bulletin for last week’s worship service, they had sung a refrain about angels, but the bulletin had a typo. The bulletin rendered them “angles” not “angels”. Angles had not sung “Glo—ria, in excelsis Deo” angels did. A-N-G-E-L-S.
This wasn’t him at all. His whole life, he was the encourager. He had always seen the possibility in every circumstance. Now he could only see the typos. He couldn’t see the light for all the messy, melting wax. What was wrong with him? Who had he become?
This is what he thought about sitting alone in his regular spot in the balcony on Christmas Eve.
Pain shot through his knees when the congregation collectively sat down with a hush after singing the hymn. He was scheduled for one of those tests where you slide into a tube and lie silently for thirty minutes. They had just sung, “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given/ So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.” But he didn’t want to lie quietly or to sit quietly. He didn’t want to sit at all. He wanted to stomp and shout. At home, alone, sometimes he did. Perhaps he’d lost a screw.
When the senior Mister Bartlett was younger, the cup wasn’t half-full, it was overflowing. He saw examples of heaven-on-earth just about wherever he looked. Now he wasn’t so sure.
The world seemed to be falling apart, like he seemed to be. The evening news broke his heart every, single night. Stories from Aleppo made him weep. It had once connected the East and the West as the terminus of the ancient Silk Highway. Now Aleppo had become a slaughtering grounds in the Syrian civil war—a war nobody in the whole world seemed either able to or interested in stopping. The city stood in ruins. Those who didn’t or couldn’t flee eked a living in twisted rebar and rubble.
He had read the news carefully these last years, just like always. Being a citizen required keeping up with the news, he had always believed, and being a person of faith required praying for those in the news. The news crushed him now. It hurt him more and more to read it. He was feeling almost all prayed out.
He reminded himself from his perch in the balcony that this is the world, the broken, beautiful world, into which God chose to be born. And he wasn’t so naïve as to believe things were actually getting worse; he had read enough history to know that wasn’t true. A broken, hurting world is where God always decided to stand, and it’s always been broken, and people have always hurt. Nowadays, you could find God standing with the 65.3 million forcibly displaced persons, with the 21.3 million refugees, with the 10 million “stateless” people, with the 100 million homeless. The figures from the United Nations made his head throb. He couldn’t comprehend such numbers. Habitat for Humanity, with whom he had built houses, reported in that month’s newsletter that as many as 1.6 billion souls lacked adequate housing. Even if every one of those numbers was an exaggeration, the numbers were too high. Each number was a person, for God’s sake. It make him tremble, tremble, tremble from his regular seat in the balcony on Christmas Eve.
The new church organist was a whip-smart music major at Furman University. He was into playing new fangled songs all the time. Many of the tunes were alien to the congregation. The new associate pastor--a creative type—and this youngster from Furman conspired to rewrite the liturgy. They convinced the worship committee to get the church to sing a Kyrie as a regular part of the prayer of confession. David Bartlett, Sr., hadn’t thought about Latin since dental school. Kyrie eleison meant “Lord, have mercy,” and the way this congregation sang that song, he hoped the Lord did, in fact, have mercy. And plenty of it.
David Bartlett, Sr., absently fingered the lone Honda Civic key in his front pocket; he closed his eyes and joined the congregation’s wobbly Kyrie. After they sang, he kept his eyes closed tightly and he prayed that God have mercy. Kyrie eleison .The service spilled into an assurance of pardon, an offering, scripture, and sermon. But David Bartlett, Sr., kept his eyes squeezed shut and prayed, and prayed, and prayed that God have mercy. Kyrie eleison. That God have mercy on the refugee. That God have mercy on the middle class. That God have mercy on the hungry, the poor, the bereft, the exiled, the unreconciled.
He thanked God for his 46-year-old son who was turning out to be a stubborn, faithful shepherd to his old man. Yes, the tables were turning. Once a man, twice a child. This season in his life was a nativity, of sorts. A new day. And this new day, like it or not, was dawning and dawning very soon, a modern nativity in which God was birthing something new into his life, something new, and redemptive, and, could it be, transcendent? He prayed that God have mercy on his son the shepherd. He prayed that God have mercy on other modern day shepherds—the teachers and the nurses and the directors of choirs. He prayed that God have mercy upon the wisemen, upon the heavenly hosts, upon the Marys, and the Josephs, and the world’s most vulnerable children. He prayed for himself, that God have mercy on his ageless soul and particularly on his 80-year-old knees, that God give him the grace where he had, so far, not allowed God’s grace to abound. Kyrie eleison.
Before he opened his eyes something warm had softly nudged against his side. A little startled, he looked down. Worming under his left arm was his 10-year-old grandson. Charles Wesley Bartlett had slipped away from his family at their place on the main floor in the second pew. He had slipped away and crept upstairs to his grandfather’s side in the balcony.
“I wanted to be with you, Pops.”
He looked into his grandson’s sleepy eyes. Charles Wesley Bartlett looked a lot like his father did when he was that age. David Bartlett, Sr., could get lost gazing into his grandson’s milky, freckled face.
“I didn’t want you to be all alone on Christmas Eve,” Charles whispered.
David Bartlett, Sr., looked down to where his family was sitting. His son was looking up into the balcony. The two men looked steadily into each other’s eyes for a long moment. The younger man smiled and nodded a slow, certain yes. The Senior nodded back and smiled, a little less obviously, but clearly enough for his son to get it.
The associate minister stepped forward on the chancel, robes flowing. He was getting ready to light his unlit candle from the Christ candle. The cleric would say a few interpretive words, perhaps while attempting some liturgical dance, or song, or something mildly shocking—and holy, and tender. Then he would pass Christ’s light from his candle to the unlit candles held by the congregation. The light would spread, and the darkened room would warm and glow, and the faithful would be reminded ever so subtly that this is what the aching world so badly and surely needed and it was their holy vocation to bring to the citizens of the globe God’s mercy and love, to bring it from this manger to every nook of the world, to bring the light and to share the warmth despite the dark, and cold, and indifference.
As candles were being lit and pricks of light bloomed down the aisles of expectant worshippers, someone began strumming a guitar. The organist stood from the front row of the choir. Instead of hustling quietly to the piano or organ, he stood purposefully. It appeared he was going to sing. This was the first time David Bartlett, Sr., had ever looked full into this young musician’s face, the first time he’d seen him without his hands moving furiously over keys. He began singing Silent Night in German. Another liturgical surprise. Another means of grace. If you’re going to ask God’s mercy upon the world, it’s nice to do it sometimes in languages other than your own. Kyrie eleison on this stille nacht, heilige nacht.
David Bartlett, Sr., pulled his grandson close and whispered into his ear.
“What are you getting your daddy for Christmas?”
Charles’ face lit up. “Slippers and dominoes. The slippers look like Dalmatians.” He smiled broadly then turned serious. “What are you getting him?”
“He’s already got everything he needs because he’s got us,” David said. “Plus, I’m giving him a very small, little red car.”
The blanket of candlelight hadn’t made its way to the balcony yet. Congregants in the sanctuary below held their lit candles solemnly and the smoke and strains of song rose like something wounded set blessedly free. Their faces glowed.
“Grab you candle, son, and follow me. What do you say we sneak downstairs and sit with your big sisters and your mom and dad? We don’t want them to be alone on Christmas Eve, either.”
F i n i s
I was born and raised in the sight of water in Hampton, Virginia. I was baptized and nurtured in the Presbyterian church. There was never a time when weekly worship attendance, the giving of ...