Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Yuletide Sights and Sounds Synonymous

Ah, the strains of brass band playing and Christmas. Sounds Synonymous. Many of my loyal readers, will know that Rob and I served with The Salvation Army for many years as ministers (officers) in congregational and youth work. Our reconnectedness with The Salvation Army has increased over the last two years as Rob has worked in Pastoral Support for officers serving in Northern Ontario and Metro Toronto. While he has been known to solo on the E flat tuba at Christmas kettle stands of long ago, he has preferred guitar in more recent years. Here is an accounting of his experiences while offering support at Salvation Army Christmas kettles this year:

Being in Toronto, and having no scheduled visit for three hours, I volunteered to sing at a Christmas kettle for a Salvation Army officer friend. I truly love doing this but, being older than when I was in my prime kettle singing days, there were also a few surprises and unanticipated wrinkles.

My friend kindly set me up in the exit half of the vestibule at Walmart. Lots of activity – though the loads of parcels in the hands of those going by did present their natural charity with a problem. Their only having two hands meant that many of those who would otherwise have given generously, accelerated their pace or slid by along the opposing wall when in kettle range.

Undaunted, I took out my guitar, raised my music stand, put up New Christmas Praise (red and green), and let her rip. "A starry night" - great kettle song. I was briefly lulled into deep Christmas mystery before reality dawned.
Having read the Army’s latest protocol for kettle security, my friend had been most diligent in assuring that "Kettles must be secured to the kettle stands". At 58.65 years of age, I am not what once I was. A wiser man might have checked the current routine for rest stops, before starting. Three hours loomed. Could I manage a washroom break by lugging guitar, music stand, music, kettle stand, kettle and handouts with me?

I would have approached the Walmart greeter/security guy – but he was a scary sergeant-major type (military, not Sally Ann, who, we know, are all kindly and sympathetic). Moreover, he was busy with ensuring that everything moved smoothly at the front of the store – bringing in abandoned carts – a "tsk! tsk!" look on his face. What would he think of a grown man who hadn’t figured out a way of getting a bathroom break? Besides, he was also regularly called upon to chase down the poor souls whose improperly demagnatised purchases activated the exit alarm. The hapless and dazed shoppers were tracked down and hustled back so that bags and purses could be examined, and their contents compared against the sales slip. Meanwhile, I sang "O Holy Night".

Rediscovering an exhaustive Christmas repertoire was a joy, although I hadn’t played guitar for months. Ergo, no comforting callouses on ends of string fingers. Instead, my digits became so sore that I couldn’t play two consecutive pieces in the same or even related keys. Since C, G, and F are popular song key settings, I was in trouble. Transposition was called for – songs in G became songs in E, songs in C became songs in A or D. ‘Twas a blessing folk went by on the run, or surely they would have wondered why a man was singing every carol either too high or too low.

It got a bit lonely and demanding. Nonstop singing taxes even my iron voice. I soldiered on. At half time, the greeter guy accosted me with, "Bit of a long shift, isn’t it?" I couldn’t really read whether this was from compassion, carol fatigue, or discernment that I was now playing everything in F# minor.

Then, respite. Venturing into "Angels we have heard on high," I was getting to the Glo-ow-ow-ows, when suddenly there was with the soloist, a multitude of the earthly host, praising God and singing "Gloria in excelsis deo." Glory to God in the highest. Three young mothers with lilting Carribean-Canadian voices and five little children had gathered in my corner. Singing heartily, they proceeded to unpack from a huge box a newly purchased baby stroller/ buggy /car seat /carry bed / bassinet /ice dispenser, and to assemble it from constituent parts, right there. As they worked, we choired "Mary’s Boy child", "The Virgin Mary had a baby boy", "Silent night" (their request) and others. It took them about five carols to get the stroller fully assembled and place one child in it, ready to go.

Then the eldest of the children, a sweet little girl of about 5 asked, "Do you know any songs about Santa?" So off the ladies and children went, singing "Santa Claus is coming to town", into the darkening night. What angels they had been for me! I missed them terribly. While they were there I had certainly felt peace on earth, good will toward humankind.

I flew on, solo. After the three hours, my officer friend retrieved the kettle. I packed guitar, music and stand in the car, and headed back to the Walmart necessary. At my final exit, the greeter guy muttered "Very good". Was this reference to my leaving or the concert?

Next day found me kettle singing in Bracebridge. At the end of the shift a father and his young son approached. "We’re your relief", they said. Having not yet read the Army’s memo on security, I took them at face value, thanked them, and we chatted as I packed up gear. With no apparent connection to the Army and living in rural Rosseau, they nonetheless, thought it important each Christmas to do a shift of kettle standing. The rest of the family, mother and daughter, were in Huntsville doing the same thing. The young boy had even invested in the effort by bringing a bag of candy to reward donors! My heart was touched at the intentional way in which this father and mother were impressing into their children’s characters the importance of giving, and supporting worthwhile causes.

Got a few more shifts coming up. But already my Christmas has been "made".

P.S. Three notes:
1.) Nobody was actually caught shoplifting –everybody checked out, and at some points people proceeded into the exit vestibule with their sales slips in their hands, showing them to him as they walked by – like a RIDE check or something. This greeter guy was good.
2.) The mothers left the large box and all packing material in the vestibule which really unmade the greeter’s day.
3.) Callous is forming on ends of appropriate digits. Can more kettle singing be far behind?

Robert Knighton (guest blogger)


bruce said...

Hey Rob
I can only say that you initiated me into this insanity in Winnipeg. This Saturday is my stint on a kettle in downtown Toronto. We are doing a piano and guitar jazz thing ... but I doubt there will be a greeter. We may not even have any listeners, but we'll see. I really try to avoid the singing these days for the reasons you outline. But the guitar playing is fine.
Thanks for the jaunt down memory lane.

bobbie said...

58.65! ha! i loved this rob - you should start your own blog - E Flat Tuba or something like it! it would be a great way to communicate with all of your pastors!!

i am always friendly and warm to the SA kettle folk now knowing that it could be one of my lovely army friends. (not that i wasn't kind before, i just go out of my way to notice/speak with them now).

i was taking my packages to the post office a couple of weeks ago and there was the most wonderful singing kettle man there, he reminded me a lot of you. it's such a lost art, it really made the 20 minute line filled with people holding boxes and in a hurry much more enjoyable, we smiled at each other and even chatted, quite the ministry to bring joy to places where so little joy is left.

Cindy said...

Most excellent, encouraging, uplifting post. Thank you.

Barbara said...

Such a positive role model! I agree with Bobby, you should start your own blog, but I'm not sure when you'd find the time. Merry Christmas!
Love, Barbara

Deb said...

Oh yes Rob...a blog of your own is in order! You're writing is excellent. I'll be thinking of you and Connie when I deposit my money in the red kettle this year. Although, nobody sings here. Maybe you should head south to Pennsylvania.

daisymarie said...

This was refreshing and delightful...a Christmas perspective well worth the read. Thank you.