He wasn’t asking for a handout or a blessing, just “a few kind words.” Perhaps he was on his own journey of faith.
Often I make snap judgments. And often I’ll be wrong.
Christmas was weeks away when a visitor arrived at the church I then served. He told the receptionist he wanted to see a priest.
I assumed the visitor seeking a priest was Roman Catholic. A few minutes into our conversation, as I wondered aloud about his faith, he said he wasn’t Catholic. However, he mentioned his prior employment was in Hollywood. Apparently he’d worked on several “major motion picture film crews.” Did he think me like the kind movie priests comforting anxious souls, or a fatherly Father receiving confession from the wounded—but well-lighted—hero?
I was wrong about his faith background and also his current finances. Didn’t he want money? A few bucks for rent, a motel, a bus ticket home, a sick kid waiting in the car, or for a rebuilt carburetor? In the churches I’ve served, there have been countless need-cash-now requests, accompanied by stories about real (and fake) sick children and, yes, the carburetor. Some have begged. Some demanded. But he never mentioned money.
He did mention booze. Eight months of sobriety, and he’d fallen off the proverbial wagon. His world was, again, in crisis.
So what did he want?
“A few kind words.”
Really, that’s all he requested: prayer and kind words. I think he longed for me, the priest he suddenly must see, to offer insights that would transform his life.
Or maybe he only wanted to get out of the cold. After all, Christmas double dates with winter in my part of the world.
He talked. We prayed.
And I listened. I prodded him with tough questions. I actually believed some of what he shared, though I never knew which was fact versus fiction. Both versions were part of his history.
Slender, he stood a smidgen over six feet, with uncombed brown hair and gray eyes. Those eyes frequently avoided me, but when our gaze met there were equal parts melancholy and self-pity. His litany of sorrows was familiar: booze, a girlfriend who’d left, and no job. Except they were his sorrows. No matter how common, they added to his unique, here-and-now anguish.
He had arrived several weeks before Christmas, when the scripture lessons are frequently harrowing accounts of the “end times.” Luke 21:34-35 is often read at this time . . .
Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.
Dissipation. Drunkenness. The ancient words, had my visitor glanced at them, might have caused more remorse and fear—not for the “face of the whole earth,” but for the face in the mirror. The time before Christmas is filled with God’s promised action, but it also confronts God’s absence. In Nora Gallagher’s Things Seen and Unseen, she visited a friend not long before Christmas. The friend was dying from cancer.
She said her pain “obliterated my sense of humor, my confidence, my joy in other people, even my easiness in prayer. Through it all I have held on to one message—‘I will be with you,’” she said. “But I reply, ‘Where are you exactly, Lord?’”
This is a dreary season. Days are short, cold, and mean. And every year, as the night lengthens, churches display the greenery, trim the candles, and tell tales about Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary’s sojourn is romanticized. Here comes young Mary astride a donkey, with sturdy Joseph grasping the reins, both silhouetted in the full moon. It’s easy to add cheerful details in our Christmas carols and pageants. After all, we know things worked out for the Madonna-with-child.
At least, at first.
Soon cruel King Herod will sense fear and wield the sword. A trip to Egypt won’t be another step for Joseph’s family, but a desperate escape from the king’s vanity and savagery.
Fanciful, factual, or faithful, the nights leading to Christmas are long. The road is hard. Every decision entails a risk.
I listened to my Christmas visitor, who was burdened with misery. In his late forties, he’s lost. He asked the “Where is God?” and “Who am I?” questions. At one point he mentioned his mother and admitted that he misses her.
My phone was within reach. I said, “Call her. Now.”
And he did. But she knew her son, about his drinking and failures and weaknesses. She knew his real needs were far beyond what she, in her love, could offer. She told me, for we also talked, that she’d welcome him into her home—again—but would prefer he’d enter a facility for professional help. In her calm voice, in her motherly anguish, she was willing to accept him and accept more inevitable pain.
He had excuses.
“There are only idiots at Alcoholics Anonymous,” he muttered.
Prior visits to rehab had always proven, “Totally useless.”
It’s the alcohol talking. It’s the fear and remnants of pride talking. I offered to drive him to a place here where he could get help.
“Not right now. Maybe later.”
I suggested calling a church member involved with AA. No deal.
Soon he prepared to leave. He asked for a hug and we embraced.
And then he departed.
Around Christmas I have reminded congregations—and myself—that Joseph and Mary were on a journey of faith. Was it historic or symbolic or both? I don’t think Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Scholars far more knowledgeable than me have analyzed Luke and Matthew’s theological agendas regarding Jesus’ birth stories. The faith is exuberant but the facts are suspect. Befuddled shepherds? Angelic hosts? Wise guys? Maybe they were all present, maybe none were. But let’s not debate our heartfelt traditions.
It was a journey. It is still our journey. Renewed life is often found when scary, tentative steps are taken into the darkness, when we risk shedding old fears and failures. Martin Luther wrote, “Faith is permitting ourselves to be seized by the things we do not see.”
That year’s first Christmas visitor sought a priest. I tried to respond as priest, representing God’s love, hope, and honesty. I tried to point to the tough road, and to the dark night. And, in a sense, to a Bethlehem star that may be myth or metaphor or miracle — and yet is also true.
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