This is my first Christmas at my new church (been attending for a week shy of a year) and I had no idea what to expect for the Christmas Eve service. For years our family has gone to the service at another church and have always enjoyed it--the readings by candlelight, music by classically trained singers and, of course, lots of people we know and love. I love my new church enough that it wouldn't matter to me what the service was like, I would be happy to be there, but I wasn't sure about Tom and the boys. How would they adjust to a service, held in a 100-year-old (probably older) tractor factory in the worst part of town, that would be designed to be meaningful to all who would attend--prostitutes and homeless, little children and middle class professionals? It must be quite the job trying to have something that makes sense to all.
Church was awesome. Absolutely simple and profound. We have no organ, piano or choir but the "band" of keyboard, accordion and flute leading us in singing the traditional songs was perfect. All we did was sing and listen to a short homily. (Well, okay, we had a bit of "excitement" too as one inebriated man walked down the aisle towards the front, calling out some sort of garbled complaint. Most churches have ushers. We have bouncers. But the man was treated with dignity and respect. That's one thing I love about this church--everyone is on an equal footing. It doesn't matter how you dress, smell or behave. You are loved and valued.)
Nathan began with a story that took place 1700 years ago. Hey! Wait a minute! Christmas is about Jesus' birth, which took place 2000 years ago. Where was he going with this? Let me share what I remember. I took no notes, so I could be off on a few things. Forgive me if I am, please.
A young boy, eight years old, was orphaned by parents who left him a heap of money. He was put into the care of monks and he so admired the way they lived, that he wanted to become a monk too. There was only one problem. To become a monk meant being poor. What should he do? He decided that rather than give his money with much pomp and ceremony, he would find secretive ways to help those in need. For instance, he would buy a very expensive rug and pay way more than the rug was worth, and then find an excuse to return it without a refund.
Another time he learned of a father with three girls who was so poor, he had no money for a dowry and felt forced to sell the girls into slavery and prostitution. Our would-be-monk put enough coins into a sock and hurled it through the window of the eldest girl's room. She had no idea where the money came from. A little later he did the same with the next girl and finally, since the youngest girl kept her window closed, he climbed to the roof and tossed a sockfull of coins which somehow landed in some stockings hanging from the mantelpiece in the girl's bedroom.
Our family happens to know Gerry Bowler, a historical expert on all things Christmas, and so we were nudging each other with scepticism about the truth of these details, never having heard them before. But really, the truth of the tale didn't matter so much as the message Nathan was communicating to us all (and when we went home and checked Santa Claus: A Biography, lo and behold, we found the story of the father and his three girls in it, so Nathan wasn't that far off).
Nicholas' mission in life was to live among the poor, a poor man like them. To tie it to the real Christmas story, isn't that what Jesus did? And so what about us, today? What is our response to the poor? We were challenged to reflect on how our lives today can be more like the original Santa Claus (that name being a derivation of the Dutch for Saint Nicholas) who kept finding ways to give long after his parents' money was gone. It's not a message I've heard before on Christmas Eve and yet it is so strikingly fitting. Isn't that what Christmas is about? Jesus left all the wealth and glory of heaven to come to the most impoverished planet in the universe and live among us, giving to us.
Nathan shared another story, that of a woman who plied her trade on the same corner as our church. She wasn't well, and soon became so ill that taking one breath of cold air would cause her lung to collapse. She didn't have much, either--only a thin jacket not nearly warm enough for the cold Winnipeg winters. Nathan was speaking one day at a Christian high school and told the students about this woman. He appealed to them that if there were three or four who might be able to spare a coat, would they please leave them on the stage before morning.
When morning came, he returned to the school. What he found on the stage was a pile of coats and jackets, four feet high, a couple of feet wide and about 64 feet long. Yeah. It sounds preposterous, doesn't it? It took three 15-passenger vanloads to take them all to the church and, after the woman was given her pick of coats, the rest were quickly given out to others in need. I was near tears as he told the story. The woman was amazed at the love that was shown to her. These coats and jackets didn't come because of some big, well-planned campaign. They came from simply hearing about someone in need and caring. A number of people from the church "adopted" her and would often show up at her place (a small room in a "flea-bitten," stale-beer-smelling hotel) to play cards or just hang out with her. The woman died a few months later, but she died knowing that she was loved.
On this day where much of North America gathers around trees brightly lit, decked with pretty baubles and loaded with gifts underneath, what of the poor? What of the disenfranchised? What of those who will be sleeping outside tonight in the colder-than-minus-4o-degrees-with-the-windchill? What's really cool is that even though the regularly-scheduled drop-in day for the neighbourhood (every Tuesday and Thursday) lands on Christmas Day, there is no cancelling. It will run as usual. May God bless each person who gives part of their Christmas Day to love those who have no way to repay them. These are the heros of the season.
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