The following is an excerpt from a longer fictional story I am finishing up after a long time. I decided to share this Christmas chapter from near the beginning where the story starts, because the message in this simple scene is close to my heart, and I believe will resonate with those who are suffering loss of some kind this season. This is the story of a broken pastor, but it’s really for everybody. When our own world gets darkest, that’s when the Light shines the brightest.
It was a Christmas season unlike any they had known in all their married years. The need to bring in his small paycheck from teaching was all that got him up those dark winter mornings. His appetite was still poor and his sleep disturbed. Sometimes he got only two or three hours a night.
Anne made no effort to put up any Christmas decorations. Without them even saying anything about it, there was a mutual understanding that there wouldn’t be any this year. Neither had the heart for it. After his short teaching day was over, Will came home one afternoon, a week before Christmas, and sat alone in the living room. He did not have the energy to even start a small fire in the fireplace.
It was a gray day, foggy and damp. Rivulets of water from melting snow ran down the front window from the a gutter with a leak in it. He could not bear the sound of Christmas music, so he left the radio off.
For the first time in 25 years, he would not have a church pulpit in which to share the marvelous Christmas story. There would be no cherubic Sunday School children acting out the Nativity, no candlelight Christmas Eve service, no bells pealing and no ringing anthems on Christmas morning.
They would be alone without even a church to attend. They could go to any random place of worship in a neighboring town, but without knowing anyone, there would be no fellowship and shared love, which, to him, was the joy of being together with other believers. Church was not supposed to be a performance for an audience. They had tentatively started visiting churches in Springfield and beyond, but could not find anywhere they felt welcome. Many churches had the same man-centered, entertainment focus as St. Paul’s now had.
The loneliness of anonymity on Christmas was more than he could take in his present frame of mind. Their adult children were not going to make it to visit until the day after Christmas due to their own schedules.
He thought about lying down to take a nap, but sat down in his office to check his email instead. These days all he seemed to get were cat photos or forwards about political issues from his well-meaning sister in Phoenix.
He saw a new email with the subject line “For Your Consideration.” He started to delete it, thinking it was spam, when he noticed the return email had a name he recognized. He opened it.
Dear Will and Anne,
This letter is so belated, I’m almost embarrassed to send it. You are owed far more than an email, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
I heard several months ago that you had resigned the pastorate at St. Paul’s. I had no details and was in the middle of finishing up the manuscript for my new commentary on Ephesians (now in the hands of the publisher), so all else went by the wayside. I happened last week to run into our mutual friend, Todd Phillips, while at Midwest Synod meetings in Chicago. He briefed me on the terrible time you have been through. I had no idea of the severity of the situation. The details he shared were horrifying, and I hope you will forgive me for taking so long to contact you. He gave me your new email so I could get in touch.
I am going to be in the Chicago area again for Christmas. Ruth’s family is in Highland Park. I wonder if you’d have time in the afternoon on Friday, December 27th, to see me. I will have a rented car to use while we’re there, and I’d like to drive up. It’s exactly 90 minutes to Linden Grove from where Ruth’s family is. Getting out of the house with all those talking female in-laws will be needed by then! (Please don’t quote me on that.) I’d like to talk with you, as I have been deeply concerned for you and Anne ever since I heard about the tragedy there. If the timing doesn’t work, I will plan something else.
In His service,
It was as though a light had suddenly come on. Will wondered why there was such a warmth that filled his heart after reading the email. He realized it wasn’t complicated. It was the kind concern that in some way validated and dignified the suffering of the last year and a half. Dr. Askew was someone he had always respected. He was now the Vice-President of the seminary in San Diego where he had graduated. Will had known him years ago when Dr. Askew had been his mentor as professor of New Testament and one of his deepest influences on the authority of Scripture. It was from him that he had understood the importance of building all ministry on that bedrock. They had stayed in touch through the years, and Dr. Askew’s counsel had been a great help.
He looked forward to telling Anne the good news. Suddenly, Christmas did not seem quite as bleak.
They didn’t go anywhere on Christmas Eve. Before dinner, he went out to get some wood for the fireplace. The moon cast its pale light on his path. It was bitter cold, and he could smell wood smoke from other fireplaces. His feet crunched on the snow as he made his way to the garage where the wood was stacked high. As he grabbed an armful of the logs, the carillon from St. Paul’s just half a mile away began to play.
He stood still as O Little Town of Bethlehem rang out on the cold night air.
Suddenly, he was overcome with grief. The sound of the bells at the church where he had spent a quarter century of his life drove a physical pain through his heart. The congregation would be gathering there in the warm church, fragrant with the scent of pine and lit by the candles at the ends of the pews–a congregation of people he had known and loved for 25 years. Despite so much prayer about reconciliation, Anne and he did not even exist to them anymore. A sense of terrible loss and the pain of having been discarded by those they loved washed over him.
He made his way numbly back into the house, and he did not hear his wife when she asked him something.
He dropped the wood on the hearth and knelt down to start a small fire, his hands strangely shaky as he tried to light the match.
He looked up at his wife.
“I asked if you’re OK. You don’t look like you feel well,” Anne repeated, searching his face with the concerned look he knew so well.
He nodded wordlessly.
After a dinner of roast chicken that he barely tasted, they cleared up the few dishes together and wandered into the living room. Anne began playing some carols on the piano. She had found her candle box in the hutch and put out a red Christmas candle on the coffee table, their sole decoration. Will sat in his recliner staring into the fire. He did not feel like music.
Anne’s pure soprano voice began to sing out the wonder of the Incarnation.
“Sing with me, honey,” she pleaded.
Will tried to sing, but his voice, not very melodious at the best of times, didn’t seem to work very well, and his voice dropped away.
Anne sang on for both of them. Silent Night, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Away in the Manger, Angels We Have Heard on High, and all the other carols in the hymn book.
“Oh come to us, abide with us, our LORD Emmanuel,” she sang and then stopped.
The darkness and cold seemed to press in at the windows and added to his heavy spirit, but he made a valiant effort to come out of himself.
“I’m sorry to be such a downer,” he said. His smile felt like more of a grimace.
Anne came over to sit with him and said quietly, “You know, we’re in our little borrowed house, our kids aren’t here, our church and ministry are gone, we don’t even have a tree or a wreath, but this year that makes Jesus all the more real to me somehow. We don’t need any of that to have Christ here with us.”
Will simply put his hand in his wife’s, because he was ashamed that he could not speak, ashamed that he could not share his wife’s hopeful, faith-filled perspective. He was the former pastor, the leader of so many, for so long, and he was the one with the spiritual problem on Christmas Eve.
A gust of wind rattled the windows as they sat in silence watching the flames lick at the logs.
They were startled a few minutes later when the doorbell rang. Will looked at Anne. “Are we expecting anyone?”
“Not that I know of.”
Will got up from the recliner and opened the door. In rushed the cold night air.
Cheery voices rang out, “Merry Christmas!”
Into the bungalow came their landlord, Graham Ketchum, and his wife Judi, Petra and Lily, Eric Fleischman and his wife Donna from the hardware store, and two other couples they had known from St. Paul’s. Will and Anne went around taking coats and trying to find enough chairs for everyone. The small house suddenly was very full. They had brought plates of treats. Anne set them out on the kitchen table and began making coffee.
Back in the living room with everyone finally seated, Graham stood by the fireplace and spoke for the group.
“We came here tonight, Will, because for so many years, you brought a message to us on Christmas and all year around, pointing us to Christ, feeding us with the Word. We know this has been a hard time for you and Anne, and we wanted to come and bring a blessing to you tonight, bring the Word to you this time, sing some carols and pray together with and for you, if that’s OK. Jesus said wherever two or three are gathered in his name, He is there. So this is church tonight.”
Will’s eyes thanked his friend silently.
Graham’s wife handed him a Bible, and he began reading the Christmas story from Luke 2, those words that never grew old with the retelling. The story of the miraculous moment in history when God became man, because God so loved the world.
Then they had a carol sing together and the same timeless words and familiar melodies that Anne had sung alone just a short time before were sung again while she accompanied them. Petra’s booming contralto and Lily’s high quavering soprano blended in as the group lifted their voices.
They sang Silent Night acapella with some breaking into parts. Unable to sing, because his throat was choked with emotion, Will sat and listened.
When the last notes had died away, there was a hush, and Graham asked Will if he would lead them in prayer.
Will paused a moment. “Graham, I think you could do this better than I tonight, if you don’t mind.”
Graham looked at his old friend and nodded understandingly. The group bowed their heads, and Graham began to pray.
“Heavenly Father, you came to a planet and a human race broken by sin. We are reminded daily of how broken it all is. There are no fancy phrases or deep theological terms that can say it any better than this: you sent your Son into the world to save sinners.
“The true meaning of your Son’s coming to earth cannot be found in places of ease and comfort. The true meaning of your Son’s coming is found in the sin-shattered states of our own faithless hearts. We need a Savior, every one of us. We need his atoning sacrifice for our sins and we need His resurrection from the dead—his triumph over sin, death and hell. So tonight, we together in this house, thank you for that priceless gift of your Son, Jesus Christ our Savior, and we thank you for your redemptive plan, your call to each of us, and your free gift of salvation.
“More than anything, Father, tonight, I especially thank you that you don’t abandon us in our dark nights, even when it feels at times as though you have. You know just how and when to lift up our heads, bring encouragement and comfort through anyone you choose. Tonight, we pray that we can encourage our dear friends, Will and Anne who have served you for so long and who need our love and support. Comfort them, uphold them, and guide their every step, and may the sense of your presence take away all sadness tonight.
“We pray that the light of Christ that radiated from that small stable so long ago will continue to shine from our own lives as you live in us and through us and reach out to others you are also calling. We pray all of these things in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ.
The assembled group said a resounding Amen.
The home that had been so forlorn only a short time before reverberated that night with the sound of laughter and friendship as the plates of desserts and coffee were passed around.
Will felt his heart lifting in the warmth of the love that surrounded them. His eyes met those of his wife across the room, and her eyes were smiling at him. See, God has not forgotten us, her eyes said.
As the hour grew late, the guests struggled into their coats and boots, dreading going out into the cold.
Petra Johnson summed things up for everyone in her big voice as she buttoned up her coat at the door.
“Can’t say I remember a more wonderful Christmas Eve. We came to bring cheer, and what do you know, we all ended up getting the blessing!”
Copyright Ingrid Schlueter 2014