A Christmas Meditation
I recently read about a man who was sent to Indonesia with his family to live and work for a global corporation. He had a lively interest in natural history, so in addition to his regular employment, he began describing and drawing the island’s plants. Having learned much about the flora from local people, he included extensive cultural lore and medicinal uses. He pressured himself to complete the drawings because he was losing his eyesight to glaucoma. The effort became a large body of work, so large that he hoped to get it published. Then came a series of tragic events. His wife and daughter were killed in a tsunami. Shortly after this, his house burned down and all his drawings were lost in the fire. He eventually had them redrawn with the help of an assistant. He sent half the manuscript back to Europe, but the ship carrying it sank. Finally, after thirty-seven years of research, writing and re-writing, the completed manuscript reached his company’s headquarters. However, the company decided to suppress publication declaring that the manuscript contained trade secrets having to do with medicines and spices.
The year it arrived in Europe was 1697. His employer was the Dutch East India Company. The author, Georgius Everhardus Rumphius, died in 1702 without seeing his work published. It was finally printed in 1741.
Rumphius’ seven-volume masterpiece, The Ambonese Herbal, was not available in English until Dutch scholar E.M. Beekman began the enormous process of translating it in the year 2000. That same year he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He, too, pushed himself to complete this massive project. It was finished in November of 2008, just before he died. This past year, (2011) it was published posthumously by Yale Press. Beekman never saw his translation in print.
I wish I could have consoled both of these men, assuring them that in a few years their work would be noted and loved by many. They bring us knowledge, yes, but they also bring us the pleasure of knowing God’s astonishing, elaborate works of plant-art on a tropical island.
Thus far, my life’s work and calling have not taken such a beating. Though I sometimes wonder about the meaning and worth of what I do. Or have done. I often feel small and insignificant. Perhaps I should have gone to law school or herded sheep. Sometimes I complain that all I do is grind coffee beans and update my status on Facebook.
I have a book that was not shipwrecked, but it has never been published. I think of the hours, months, even years it took to write. The days of crabbiness and distraction my husband endured as I wrote. The many drafts, and the queries, and the rejections, and there it sits, its pages printed and bound on my shelf. What was that other than a colossal waste of time and white paper?
I’m not alone in desiring consolation and comfort for merely keeping on year after year. I’ve had many conversations with folks from all walks of life who have had vocational questions about meaning and worth.
A dear friend, who works in the top layer of a Fortune 500 company, has been a faithful employee, a consummate leader and team player for many years. Recently, she attended an event where a few were recognized for their good work and asked to tell their stories. She knew one of these rising stars well because she had trained him. As he spoke, she was at once happy for him and a little sad. I think we understand why. It wasn’t her need for power or fame, it was the desire to be acknowledged, to know our work has meant something. The speaker ended his talk by saying, “I wouldn’t be up here today without the help of a person who has made my success possible. She has been my mentor and model – someone who encouraged me when things were hard, but who was tough enough to make me grow a spine. I would like to thank her.” Then, he said her name. It was as though God himself heard her heart and named her in front of everyone.
Long ago in the same part of the world where Rumphius did his work, certain East Indonesian sultans were oddly referred to as The Nutmeg of Consolation. This may have been related to the value of nutmeg, which was once worth its weight in gold, and also thought to be a cure for the plague. It’s an intriguing title. It has a spicy, comforting sound that makes you think of holding a pottery mug with both hands and lifting it to your lips – a soothing mix of apple-sweetness, wine and spice.
With the sultan, if you were lucky, you might find both the pleasure of his rare presence and the power to remedy your troubles. You might be comforted, as his name implied. Might. If his curry agreed with him and his harem was in order. Of course, these rulers are dead now and their power is gone.
A similar title that has attracted my attention and deep gratefulness many times, appears in the Christmas story as told by Luke. It isn’t noted often, yet the words speak comfort to a soul who considers them.
Two-thousand years ago, Jesus was eight days old when he was brought to the temple for dedication and circumcision. Joseph and Mary weren’t expecting a special welcome from the establishment, but for years an old, old guy had been watching for this very moment, and he spotted them in the crowd, a young couple carrying a baby just over a week old.
Simeon, we are told, was “waiting for the Consolation of Israel.” (Luke 2:25) How long had he been watching for this person? How did he recognize this particular baby? Did the hair stand up on the back of his neck? The Holy Spirit must have blazed inside him, because hurrying over and taking God in his arms, he cried, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
The Consolation of Israel. An unusual title for a baby. John Calvin once wrote in a letter to a prisoner held in a French dungeon, and subsequently martyred, “We have wherewith to comfort ourselves in all our miseries, looking for that happy issue which is promised to us, that He will not only deliver us by His angels, but will Himself wipe away the tears from our eyes.” Jesus is the only one with everlasting presence and divine power to console us from our sin. To comfort us in darkness. To allay the sorrow and the weariness of everyday life. To grant us worth and meaning, not only in our vocation and calling, but for our very selves.
Over and over, it is our privilege to offer up to Jesus the small, everyday works from our hands. It is the labor of my listening and writing. It is the apple puff pancakes I made this morning for house guests. It is loving ten angora bunnies, tiny creatures of God, who dart to my feet expecting kale and carrots each morning as I step onto the back porch where they will live until our housemate sells them. Jesus is our comfort and consolation for things unfinished, for futures unknown. He is the keeper of life’s collateral results hidden from our eyes.
The Consolation of Israel arrived with the express purpose of one day restoring glory to everything that has gone awry. Peter refers to this in the book of Acts when he speaks of Jesus coming again. (Acts 3:19) This is part of the joy and comfort we share with Simeon as we wait for Jesus to finish what he has already begun.
A note about The Nutmeg of Consolation
You might recognize this as the title of a book in Patrick O’Brian’s series of seafaring novels set in the early 1800s. In O’Brian’s book it is both the name of a ship and a piece of music. In rare moments of peace, Captain Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, the ship’s surgeon, played duets on the violin and cello. On one such occasion Aubrey asks Maturin, “I dare say, what was that last piece?”
Maturin’s reply: “Nutmeg of Consolation.”
Aubrey thinks about this and says, “That’s it. Those were the very words hanging there in the back of my mind. What a glorious name for a tight, sweet, newly-coppered broad-buttock little ship – a solace to any man’s heart… Dear Nutmeg. What joy.”
Yes. To see the Nutmeg hove into sight, her sails sheeted to the wind, and you cast-away on an island without hope of rescue? That, my friends, is Divine.
Margie Haack authors the blog Notes from Toad Hall and is co-founder of Ransom Fellowship.