I often hear a rumor, unsubstantiated (though with impressive evidence), that many adults no longer believe in Santa Claus. Oh, many profess to believe in the “spirit” or “essence” of Saint Nicholas, but to believe in the real, physical, meat-and-potatoes jolly old fat man is no longer acceptable among the intellectual elite. We are too cool, too smart, too sophisticated, too rational, to accept something that “obviously” cannot be true. The physics are problematic. The physical evidence is all stacked against. Santa sightings are ridiculed and mocked. Santa is merely a nice idea, great for children; disturbing for adults. Thank God for childlike adults.
I had my misgivings most mightily challenged by two mighty matrons from the northern hills of New Jersey. Many strange and wonderful things happen in New Jersey, in spite of what you might think, and even college-educated know-it-alls can still learn a few things from the most simple people living there. I place myself in such company. First, let me introduce you to Faye.
When I became pastor of two small, rural churches in a fast growing section of northwestern New Jersey, I figured I was going to bring enlightenment and joy straight from seminary to these wanting places. Interestingly, they were not all that interested in what I learned at seminary, and joy was a more visceral than intellectual thing to them, thank me very much. I quickly realized that we are sometimes referred to as “pastor” for a reason. We become shepherds of real, learning, growing, people, not just spiritual CEOs of mini-Methodist camps. It took me a while, but I fell in love with my two congregations, worked with them to become one church, and I was the one transformed in the process. I became open to learning and discovery every bit as much as I hoped for learning and discovery for them. I can hardly recall a day that I did not learn something new about God, about grace, about mercy, and about forgiveness. I had my “spirituality” tested 1,001 different ways. No one tested me more than Faye.
Faye was not a snow-bird in the traditional sense, but when winter winds began to blow, Faye disappeared into her clapboard castle in Hamburg until springtime. This was actually a great relief to many (most) people. Faye was a frail bird-like 80-something, who viewed the entire roadway from shoulder-to-shoulder to be her private speedway. Any and all lines were as irrelevant as the speed limit signs. She always got where she was going, to the horror and despair of all others on the road. Late November through early March saw many motorists take drives simply to enjoy the brief period of safety while it lasted.
Faye wore large, round, owl-eye glasses, had ever-sparsening white, fluffy hair on her head, and at 5’7″ must have weighed all of 80 pounds. She had a raspy “old-lady” voice that she proudly called her “Witch’s Cackle,” which she could actually produce to chilling effect. But what everyone noticed about Faye was her twinkle. More than just a twinkle in her eye, one look at Faye convinced you that she — KNEW THINGS. I capitalize for a reason. Faye always looked like she knew a joke that nobody else got. Those who know C. G. Jung’s archetypes would recognize in Faye the full complement of Self-Types: The Jester, The Sage, The Magician, and The Ruler. Collectively, the Wise Woman. In bygone days she WOULD have been considered a witch, for good or ill. She once told me, “I believe everything. There is more to this old world, and the galaxy and the universe and the cosmos, than anyone living today understands. It is easier to say “yes” than to try to make sense of everything.” I have met few people who lived so consistently with their core philosophy.
I will share four stories of Faye, taken out of order, moving toward Christmas, and beyond — having a happy ending.
Faye’s husband, Douglas, died sixteen years before I met Faye in 1988. Weirdly, but sweetly, Faye was still married to Douglas, and shared that she spent most of her evenings in conversation with him. She lovingly talked about him as a “ding-a-ling.” What she meant was that Douglas was the consummate absent-minded-professor type. He would consistently forget why he walked in a room, searched fruitlessly for the glasses he “lost” on top of his head, would walk off in the middle of a conversation, still talking, and would squirrel flotsam and jetsam into every nook and cranny of the house. She told me Douglas was a collector — he dabbled in coins, stamps, photos, postcards, and almost anything else you could make a hobby out of. Faye had not truly “cleaned house” since Douglas died, fearing she would throw out something precious to him. One day, I dropped in to visit Faye, and we sat in a sparse, dirty, cluttered front parlor. It was evident that Faye lived on the precipice of abject poverty. She had only her Social Security, and she spent a portion of that each month to help her son, or friends and neighbors. I was always a little uncomfortable in Faye’s home — it was, quite frankly, depressing. Anyway, Faye made us some tea, and as she busied herself in the kitchen (no cleaner than any other part of the house), I heard footsteps on the second floor. Faye herself had long given up on climbing stairs, and had moved her bed downstairs into what had once been the dining room. When she returned, I asked her who was visiting. “No one,” was her reply. I grew a bit alarmed. I told her I heard footsteps upstairs, and she just smiled at me and said, “That’s Douglas.” Not sure I heard correctly, I asked if Douglas were her son’s name. “No, no,” she explained, “that’s my husband, Douglas.” Not wanting to argue, I asked her if it would be all right with her if I ran up and checked. She told me to go right ahead, so upstairs I trekked. The second floor looked like a set from a haunted house movie, complete with cob-webs and an undisturbed layer of dust on everything. There were no lightbulbs in any of the fixtures, which made the hallway pitch black, but there was plenty of light from the windows in the three bedrooms and the bathroom. All were empty, all were filthy but otherwise ordinary. As I closed one of the doors, I would swear I heard movement on the other side, so I looked back in. Nothing. I returned to Faye, we chatted, and periodically I listened to footsteps above my head.
When I became the pastor of the two congregations, I inherited a monthly healing service that became one of the highlights of my ministry. I felt fully engaged in ministry when the focus was on God’s healing mercy, love, and grace. No judgment. No confusion. No deep theological content, just a focus on comfort, strength, healing and wholeness. It was often an oasis in my week, and I benefited more than anyone else. Faye was a regular attendee when the weather was good. She would come, kneel at the rail, and wait as I came to lay hands on her head and offer prayer. Faye was wracked head-to-foot with arthritis. She suffered many maladies, illnesses, and chronic conditions. She suffered, but she suffered nobly and well. One evening, I placed my hands on top of her almost balding head and began my prayer — stopping suddenly. For a moment I thought I might be having a stroke. My entire left arm went numb, then a growing ache radiated from my fingers and hand up to my shoulder. The pain was excruciating. At the same time, my right hand grew hotter and hotter. There was a subtle but steady vibration. Faye looked up into my eyes with shock and surprise, then she grinned. When the service was over, I went to Faye and asked, “You felt that, didn’t you?” “Oh, yes,” she said, “I definitely felt that. Look!” She stood straighter than I had ever seen her, raised her gnarled hands to my face, and flexed her fingers. “I haven’t been able to do that in years,” she finished. “Whoa! Wait a minute. Are you saying…?” I trailed off. With that sly twinkle, she said, “Yes, something you say you believe actually happened.” She turned and walked away. My left arm was bruised from wrist to elbow for 10 days, and I couldn’t hold a pen to write clearly for about three days.
We had a small but faithful choir, and we decided since Faye couldn’t come to us in the winter, we would go to her. Kicking off with Christmas caroling, I planned to take the youth group one Sunday, and to invite our United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men to plan to make visits. As we drove up to her home a week before Christmas, I noticed something I had never seen before. At some point in the past — probably while Douglas was still alive — Christmas lights had been strung on both levels of the roof. On this night, four bulbs at random locations around the house feebly glowed, with a fifth green bulb flickering for its final Christmas performance. It was a sad little effort at neighborly Christmas cheer. We knocked and waited and waited and waited, singing our hearts out, until at long last Faye came to the door in her bathrobe. She looked initially annoyed, until she began to recognize us. She invited us in and ushered all twelve of us into her makeshift bedroom. Christmas music was playing on an old, dilapidated record player and in one corner on a table was an ancient plaster nativity set — most pieces chipped, worn, or broken. On her little vanity table/desk was a half-written letter — a letter to Santa Claus. Beside Faye’s bed, the cut-off end of a broom handle was nailed to a 8″x8″ board. Holes were drilled up and down the handle, and inserted into each was bent/twisted-wire that at some point in history had held fake pine needles running around every side of the twisted wire. Christmas-mange had set in, and perhaps fifty-odd needles still remained on the whole “tree”. Faye hung little baubles and jewelry on the wire branches, along with some tinsel, and had cut a star from aluminum foil for the top. It was a heartbreaking little thing that made Charlie Brown’s tree look downright majestic. Faye hopped back up into her bed, pulled the covers up to her chin, beaming. “I LOVE Christmas!” she said, “Sing to me.” We began our repertoire from the start, and as we sang, tears filled Faye’s eyes and ran down her cheeks, but she smiled throughout. When we finished, she looked at us and said, “This may well be the loveliest Christmas I will ever have.” When Christmas seems overwhelming or too commercial, I think of the look of joy on Faye’s face, and I remember why Christmas is still important.
As I said, Faye lived on the edge of poverty most of her adult life, though you would not have known it from Faye. Her spirit and ability to enjoy what she had was (and is) inspiring. Shortly before I left the area to move to Nashville, Tennessee and the General Board of Discipleship, we had a terrible windstorm and power went out for miles around. Someone called and asked me if I would go check on Faye. I drove out to her house at dusk and found her huddled close to her gas stove for warmth and light. I asked her if she had any candles and she asked me to look upstairs in the guest bedroom closet. Now, I am in no way old enough to remember Fibber McGee & Molly, however I am aware of them, and have heard the old radio shows where the closet door opens and there is a cacophony of smashes, crashes, shatters, and clangs. That’s what happened at Faye’s. What I might call “junk” and what Faye might call “treasures” or “heirlooms” toppled across the floor. What remained were very spidery-looking boxes, which I started to dig through. Douglas indeed had been a collector! There were odds, ends, gadgets, folios of coins and albums of stamps, postcards, and bird photos. I reached down into one box and thought I had found the candles — waxy tube-like sticks met my fingertips. They were slippery and packed tightly together, but I finally pried one out. It wasn’t a candle, but a plastic tube full of coins. A whole box was full of these tubes. Thirty tubes holding forty coins in each. Krugerrands. One ounce, gold Krugerrands. Each one worth about $325. Quick calculation? About $400,000 sitting in rotting boxes in the upstairs guest room of a woman barely scraping by, living below the poverty line.
So, I promised the happy ending. Check back Friday if you want to hear about Hazel.