Monday, November 26, 2018

tim anderson | ivory in the desert

A number of years ago I spent a Christmas in Palm Springs, California. A hundred yards from the cool waters of our complex's swimming pool, my wife and I walked through the scrubby desert. To the south, rough red mountains loomed above us. To the north lay grids of concrete and plastic. Water gathered from mountain ranges a thousand miles away trickled warm onto perfect lawns.

We went to a Lutheran church on Christmas Eve. What were Lutherans doing in Palm Springs? Didn't Lutherans belong in northern climes, where Christmas Eve was candlelit and dark, where they sat on rude, hand-hewn pews with ruddy faces, idly humming Ein Fest Berg Ist Unser Gott?

But indeed, there were Palm Springs Lutherans. They worshipped in a church shaped as close to a pyramid as one can build without transgressing Scripture. It rose into the pale sky, its clean walls the color of purest ivory. We drove our rental car into the bare, dry parking lot at sunset. Our fellow worshippers filed in with us. The Californians wore wool suits and neckties for Christmas. The Canadians wore T-shirts and shorts.

The pastor was a slightly-built blond man of perhaps thirty, dressed in a white robe. He called on a lay leader to read the scripture. The man sprang up from the front row, beaming. In his early forties, he wore white from head to toe. He read the scripture with the halting enthusiasm of the uneducated, aglow all the while. He was, perhaps, Chairman of the Board, wearing nothing but white every Sunday. Something about him amused and comforted me all at once.

The message was concluded with an illustration. The pastor turned to the congregation and called a young boy to come forward. From the front row came the son of the Chairman, as I now thought of him.
The pastor held before the boy a brightly wrapped package. Would he like it?

I still see the boy now. He is five or six, plump, well dressed. His dark hair shines under the bright lights of a Lutheran church somewhere in Palm Springs. He looks at the gift and nods enthusiastically, and we all laugh. His father leans forward in his pew to watch, his hands rubbing his knees, ecstatic.
The pastor crosses the platform until he is twenty feet away from the boy.

"Come get your present, then," he says.

The boy starts to trot over to him.

"Oh wait," the pastor says, "I forgot something." We laugh. "I should have told you that you are only allowed one step."

The boy thinks about this, and then nearly splits his pants goose-stepping as far as he can. An enormous laugh. The pastor places the present on the pulpit, and returns to the boy.

"You see," he teaches the little boy while we watch, "Jesus knew we could never reach eternal life on our own, so he came to get us all the way there." And he, the pastor who preaches every Sunday, who Dad listens to and even now is watching so intently, he picks the little boy up and carries him across the great space, his white robe bright. Carries the little Palm Springs boy to collect his very own shiny soul.

The boy returns to his seat with the gift, and someone whispers loudly to him "Oh, look what you got!"

And I keep watching him in the dark. I want him to open that box, to find in it his own eternal life. I want him to pull back the metallic paper and let the spirit out like an incense, sweet like the scent of a desert flower.

excerpted from the essay "ivory in the desert" 
by Tim Anderson