December began with a flurry of projects which were much different from those surrounding Thanksgiving. After a long, drawn out argument between Hank, Frank, and Chris; the decision was made to use Dresden Farms’ tractor account as a clearinghouse for funds that Chris could use in New York with a debit card. As each transaction was made when Hank sold the property needed to reach the magic number Chris had requested, the money would be placed in the account. Due to Chris’s insistence, his name would be the ONLY name on the account. He didn’t trust Frank to leave the money alone. Chris trusted his father to keep his word, but not Frank. The $35,000 already in the account would give Chris and Mia enough cash to get started in the City, but Chris assured his brother and father that he would continue to watch the account to make sure more funds were deposited with each sale.
Activities in the Christianson household mainly surrounded the upcoming wedding. Chris and Mia decided on a small church wedding with only family in attendance. They chose the morning of December 30. This would allow them time to catch a flight to New York so they could attend a huge New Year’s Eve party Mercer, Chris’s friend, was throwing in the Waldorf Astoria. Mercer had rented an entire floor of the hotel and one of the ballrooms. He had also booked a band for the event. Chris and Mia were looking forward to jumping into the pool of New York society with a big splash. They both knew the night was destined to be the first of many such nights.
The days of preparation for the wedding flew by. Father Baaken, the pastor of the little community church, would officiate the ceremony. Although the church wasn’t Catholic, everyone called the pastor “Father”, out of respect for both his age and his wisdom. He just seemed to be the definition of a kind father, and his wisdom was both timeless and timely. Father Baaken was advised of the circumstances surrounding the wedding, and he only asked that the couple meet with him for an abbreviated counselling session the week preceding the ceremony. With a modicum of trepidation, the couple agreed. They both felt they would know the answers to any questions he might ask, and besides, the only thing they REALLY needed from him was a signature at the bottom of a piece of paper; so they figured they could play along.
Mia and Chris met with Father Baaken on a sunny, crisp December morning just three days before the wedding. They drove the six miles from Mia’s house to the little church, which stood at the crossroads of two snow-covered country roads. The church building was bordered on one side by a cemetery, whose granite markers were partially covered by the winter snow; the tips of each stone looking like lined pathways to the forest at the far end. On the other side of the white wooden structure was a makeshift parking lot. When not covered in snow, the lot was a dirt lot with gravel on top. However, in the winter, it was a snow fortress, having been cleared by a parishioner-farmer who used his front-end loader to scrape the snow and pile it in a ten foot wall enclosing the space.
The church itself was covered in white clapboard with a field-stone foundation. A tall steeple towered just behind a wide covered porch with a wide stoned walkway leading up to large granite stone steps which were four feet long,two feet wide and eight inches thick. Every morning, Pastor Baaken would emerge from the parsonage, located at the side of the property, make his way along a path in the snow to the church in order to shovel or sweep snow off the pathway and steps into the sanctuary. Many times members of the church, especially the women, suggested someone else take over this job for the good father, but each time he reminded them that his responsibility to his flock and his Lord, was to remove the obstacles to faith… and he viewed this act of physical labor to be symbolic. He further explained that he needed to do the work not only for them, but also that he might be reminded that obstacles to faith took sustained effort and patient work to remove the mess that happens in life, even when it was a beautiful mess, such as a snow fall. Besides, the effect of his physical effort was a strong constitution, in spit of his advancing age. Father Baaken also realized, although he never mentioned it to his flock, that hard work was the lot of most of the families in his small congregation, and he knew the men would respect his inner and outer fortitude. “If Father Baaken can shovel the snow off the path to church, the least I can do is walk it.” He imagined the farmers to say. So every morning, he would check the path, and clear the obstructions and ice.
Father Baaken wasn’t the only caretaker of the traditions of worship in the little church. Although many church steeples are architectural in nature, this one was not, it was also a bell tower. Every Sunday morning, Pops Autry, Cordell’s grandfather, would take one of his grandchildren to help him ring the bell in the steeple. The bell was rung well before the first cars pulled into the parking lot. The peels of sound from the bell wafted through the clear morning air and could be heard for miles around as people were finishing chores and readying themselves for the drive to church. Mia and Chris grew up listening for that bell and as they climbed the stairs to the porch and large oak doors to the church, Chris remarked, “No bell…” Mia looked at him and they both smiled at the shared memory.
Reaching for the iron door handle, Chris hesitated for a moment, kissed Mia lightly on the lips, and said, “Here we go!” Mia smiled, took off her gloves, grabbed Chris’s free hand and squeezed it affectionately. “I love you.” She said through chattering teeth, then stepped into the vestibule after he tugged open the massive door. As they were removing their coats, the doors to the sanctuary opened, and Father Baaken stepped into the dimly lit vestibule.
“Welcome!” Father Baaken said with a smile. Reaching outward with both hands, he repeated the greeting and warmly embraced both, beginning with Mia. With each embrace, Father Baaken softly said, “Bless you Mia…. Chris…”
“Come on in!” The pastor opened the door and held the door while Mia and Chris entered. “Are you excited? Not many more single days!” He said enthusiastically.
“Oh, we’re ready!” Chris responded in kind, with just a note of sarcasm in his voice.
Mia looked at Chris sternly, while Father Baaken walked past the two and lead them to three folding chairs surrounding a table at the front of the sanctuary. On the table was a bible, three mugs, a pot of coffee, a pitcher of cream, and bowl of sugar.
“Come sit with me and let’s talk. I like to do counseling sessions on the spot where you will say your vows. For some reason it seems fitting to me.” The pastor explained.
Father Baaken pulled one chair away from the table, and unthinkingly, Chris stepped forward and sat down. Father Baaken’s eyebrows arched and he chuckled. Turning his gaze to Mia, he said in a teasing voice, “Mia, you’ve found a gallant knight!” Mia chuckled while Chris’s face turned red. Stepping around the table, the pastor pulled another chair out for Mia, and continued to hold it while she sat down. As she lowered herself into the chair, Mia said, “Why THANK you, Father. You’re such a gentleman!” She then stuck her tongue out at Chris.
As Chris’s already red face turned a deeper shade of crimson, Father Baaken grasped the handle of the coffee pot and asked, “Coffee?”
Mia responded quickly, “Please!”
The pastor began to pour, and then asked, “Room for cream?”
“Yes, please.” Mia replied.
“Ok, tell me when…” he said.
“That’s good… Thank you!” She said, and then reached for the pitcher of cream.
“Chris?” The pastor pointed the pot as if completing the question.
“Uh…yeah… I mean, yes Father.” Chris responded. ” But I’ll take it black.”
“Sure…” Father Baaken inhaled deeply through his nose as he finished pouring Chris’s mug and began to fill his own. “I just love the smell of freshly brewed coffee! I find it to be, ‘a pleasing aroma, acceptable to he Lord.'” He quoted the biblical phrase as a joke, more for himself than Mia and Chris.
Mia and Chris took sips of the hot liquid, and Mia shivered reflexively as the warmth invaded her body. Chris inadvertently grimaced as he drank the first sip. It was a bold brew, and seemed bitter to him. However, he noticed this pastor had poured cream in his own cup.
“Wow, Father,” Chris broke the momentary silence, “This is strong coffee. No wonder you have so much energy.”
Father Baaken chuckled, “I drink it as they do in Europe, half cup coffee…half cup cream. And then some sugar. I really like it that way. You might try it!”
“Alright, let’s get started, shall we?” Father Baaken’s voice grew in intensity with the statement. “Let’s pray.” He placed his hands on the table, palms up; which was an unspoken instruction for them to hold hands, forming an unbroken physical bond. Mia immediately responding by grabbing the pastor’s hand with one of her’s, and then reaching the other towards Chris. Chris looked down towards the extended hands with a quizzical glance and then tentatively grasped both hands, completing the circle. After an awkward moment of silence, Father Baaken began to pray in a quiet voice, “Heavenly Father, we thank you for these, Your children. We are thankful that you consider all of us Your beloved children. Help us to hear what You have to say to us this morning through Your Word and through each other. In Jesus name, I pray. Amen.”
“Typically, I would want to meet with you two for at least 4 months prior to the marriage, but due to the circumstances, we will make this work.” Father Baaken began,” I have information for you which we would usually go over in more of a conversational format… and I left your packets in my office… Just a second, and I’ll go get them.” He took a quick drink of coffee, scooted his chair back from the table, and walked to a door located on the side of the sanctuary’s platform. “I’ll just be a second,” he said before disappearing behind the door.
Mia and Chris looked at each other for a second, and Chris took a deep breath and let it out slowly; trying to release the tension in his body.
“You OK?” Mia asked.
“Of course!” Chris replied, a little louder than he’d expected. “I’m just ready to get this over with.”
“Oh…” Mia said quietly.
Suddenly, Father Baaken reappeared through the door and closed it loudly. Chris and Mia jumped in their chairs. Noticing their surprise, the pastor chuckled and said, “Oops, sorry! Too much caffeine…”
“OK… here are your packets we would normally use.” He said, giving them each a folder filled with paperwork. “Because we have so little time, we will only go through the first section titled: ‘Love in the Garden.'” Mia and Chris each took the first section from the folder and began to look it over. “We start in the Garden, before the snake, because it is in the Garden of Eden where we see a glimpse of what must have been God’s original design.” Taking the bible from the middle of the table, Father Baaken opened it to the first pages. “We will start in Genesis, chapter 1, verse 26:
‘Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in His image,
In the image of God he created them,
Male and female he created them.”
“When we think of being created ‘in the image of God…’ I would like to mention at least three aspects of what that means…”
“Yeah, ‘cuz every sermon has to have at least THREE points, isn’t that right Father?” Chris chimed in with a slight smile on his face.
“CHRIS!’ Mia chided.
Father Baaken laughed and said, “That’s OK, Mia. You’re right Chris. They do, and that’s because three is about all folks can remember!” After a pause, he continued, “God is obviously creative. When you look around and observe the beauty of the world in which we live, you learn to appreciate the creativity of God. God is like an artist and a parent, and we share both those qualities. We have the capability to create and express beauty as it flows from who we are. We also have the capability of creating life. Although God can create life without any help, we are given the privilege to create a new living being through the beauty of sexual love with another person. What is so beautiful about that is how the new being carries something of each parent in the most fundamental aspects of their being. This new child, bears the “image” of both its parents. In a similar way, we each bear the image of God at the deepest levels of our being.
As I understand it, the two of you are experiencing the beauty of that capability! I would like to affirm the two of you for taking on the responsibility of allowing the child to be born, then loving and providing for its life and growth. You are attempting what your parents have done for both of you.
Another aspect of God’s image we share, is that God is a giver. God’s first gift to us was that of Himself and the Creation.
When my wife and I were expecting the birth of our first child, we made sure to prepare the house for her coming. I remember I prepared her room by painting it white. In fact, just about everything in her room was white if I remember correctly… oh, yeah… my mother made a comforter in pastels, so there was a little color… anyway, we filled it with toys, and books, and all kinds of things she would eventually discover and use her own creativity to use and play with. We would read to her until she eventually learned how to read, and then the world began to open to her through those books. She also became responsible to take care of her room, when she grew older. She was responsible to keep it clean according to her ability to do so. Ultimately, though, it was my house… or her mother’s and my house… so she was responsible to us to care for her room properly. Now we didn’t leave her alone in the room. We fed her, changed her diapers, and helped her with the tasks she was unable to perform. We loved her, and because we loved her, we allowed her to express her creativity. However, when she began to treat her room with disrespect… and us because her room was in our house… by failing to care for it properly by keeping it clean, we allowed her to live with the mess…. that is until we couldn’t handle it anymore and then we disciplined her to clean the room.
God acted kind of like that in the story of Creation. We are each an expression of a particular aspect of God. Actually all of creation is an expression of who God is. He gives us both himself, and creation. We are designed to be part of creation. It is our room… where we live. In fact, we are designed to be uniquely qualified to be caretakers of this world. We care for creation, yet also learn from it. The creation also informs us about the Creator. I guess you could say that by painting my daughter’s room white, you could learn that her mother and I are afraid of color… that’s what my daughter thinks anyway… maybe that’s why we live in Wisconsin, and winter is our favorite time of the year… ANYWAY, Creation is part of our inheritance from our Father. We can choose to either care for it and live in its rythms, or manipulate it for our own selfish reasons. If we choose to care for and learn from it, we contribute to its beauty and it provides us what we need for life. If we choose to use it and seek to manipulate it, then creation will spit us out of the Garden and into a ground filled with thistles…
God’s second gift to us, was the gift of ourselves. We don’t think about this very often. But each of us are created with innate value. We are one of a kind! The way we learn this the most effectively, is through our relationship with God. God brought Adam the animals to name… he gave Adam the opportunity to express his creativity. And I think God loved to watch that. Each named animal must have been like God’s refrigerator art! What joy to see your child express their uniqueness! When we lose sight of God’s joy and love for us, we lose sight of our value. Actually, that is what happened when Adam and Eve met the snake. You can read about the snake in the third chapter of Genesis… I made a note of the reference in you packets. By listening to the devious words of the snake, Adam and Eve began to believe they couldn’t trust God… that he didn’t have their best interests in mind… and that they weren’t enough… they lacked something and weren’t as they were SUPPOSED to be. Yet God earlier said that all he had made… Adam and Eve included… were VERY good! The outcome of these two beliefs was a loss of intimacy with each other and God, and shame: they covered themselves because they were naked. While before, they were naked and felt no shame. I’ve always wondered why they were afraid of being naked… who was gonna see?
That brings me to the third gift God gave us: The gift of each other. The first time God said that something was “not good” during the course of creation, was when man was alone. So God created a “helper suitable for him.” It isn’t good for us to be alone. We need the support and messiness of living together. A life built on the whims of ourselves is shallow and not really life at all. John Donne wrote a poem with just this point in mind:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
We are designed to live together and with God. When we choose to live otherwise, we all lose. We are meant to express our talents, and passions, and interests in service to our community. We are each needed!
Ok, my last point is that God is a lover. If you don’t hear anything else, please hear me say that God loves you. Look at the light filtering through the stained glass at the front of the sanctuary… see how it splays out across the floor and furniture? Isn’t that beautiful? As you go outside, listen to the quiet. Hear the birds sing their song which expresses the joy of their father’s provision. Mia, feel the child growing within you. Isn’t it all beautiful? In every experience of beauty we perceive, God tells us of his love. But we must slow ourselves in order to see and hear. It is so easy to rush for things we think will give us more value, when the truth is all around us… God believes we are so valuable that he gives us beauty to tell us. And then there is Jesus… He gave himself for us, both in death and then in the renewal of the resurrection.”
“Those are pretty words, Father… but what does that have to do with us getting married?” Chris asked.