Thursday, December 05, 2019


Last night in my small group my friend Jerry asked us to think back to our 'best' Christmas memory. I had an immediate answer that had to do with being in Jakarta, Indonesia and having my dad - dressed at Santa - terrify dozens of small local children: "red demon man, red demon man!". But as I listened to the others talk about their best Christmas experiences I decided I was wrong. My best Christmas memory happened the year my son Sam was born. He was born a month before Christmas so had nothing else happened it probably still would have been my best Christmas.  A brand new baby is an incredible gift any time of year.

But as I think about, I don't believe that was only thing that made that Christmas special. For some time we had been helping Mildred, an elderly woman who lived in a small apartment near our home. Among other things we always brought her to church with us. And we didn't particularly like her. She was a rather miserable, bitter and terribly lonely 75 year old woman who apparently had never fit in anywhere. She was often critical and rude but it wasn't much of a sacrifice to drive a few blocks and pick her up so we tolerated the occasional outbursts.

From what we could tell she had been alone for most of her adult life.  She had never married or had children. She'd worked as a department store salesperson and had been fortunate enough to retire with a small pension that paid for an apartment in a nice part of town. But it was barren, empty of art, pictures of family members or any of the markers of a life lived with others. She was alone and apparently she had almost always been that way. 

On Christmas eve - as was common in the first few months after Sam was born - it took us longer than anticipated to get going so I drove over to pick up Mildred while Sam's mom finished all of the complex procedures necessary to bring an newborn infant out on a snowy winter's night. When we got back, mother and child still weren't ready so I brought Mildred inside to wait. And Sam's mother, being far more intuitive than me, brought him in and plunked him into Mildred's lap so she could finish getting ready.

It was then that a small miracle unfolded. Mildred leaned over him and with tears in her eyes whispered and sang him a tuneless song, the melted snowflakes on her coat glistening in the Christmas lights. She was a woman transformed. For those few minutes she wasn't bitter or miserable, she was filled with the true joy of Christmas: celebrating the birth of a baby who would love the world but also could be loved.

It's been twenty six years since that night but I think I've finally realized what God and Mildred and Sam had to teach me: that the key to surviving as a Christian in this world isn't in being loved, it's in loving. Because we Christians can survive even if no one loves us. After all Christ died for us and sent his Holy Spirit to minister to us. It's not ideal and not easy but God promises us that He is always with us and always will love us and that is enough. No we don't need other people to love us but we do need others to love. We must love others the way he does, for there is no other way to truly be like be Christian.

And so on that snowy St. Louis night we - but mostly baby Sam - gave Mildred the most precious gift she had ever received: someone that she - even in her limited, bitter state - could love. And I think that's the best gift we've ever given anyone.

I 'work' with the homeless at church. Mostly I hang out and do what my brilliant friends Andrea, Sarah and Carolyn tell me to do. I've gotten to know a whole host of what I call 'lost boys' - mostly men who have fallen between this world's cracks, people like LaKeith and Chris. And I've always thought that what I was doing was showing 'love' for them. But I realize now that as Christians they don't need my love so much as they need to have real people in their lives that they can love. The task of 'lifting' them out of their struggles isn't my job, it's their's and God's and the first thing they need to master is the vocation that we all are called to: to love one another.

Which can be very hard for me. All I need to do is admit my weakness and limitation and they'll do the rest. Because it's only when my pride dies, that I can become someone who can truly help the lost and the lonely progress on they journey to Christ. So this Christmas, I'm trying to focus less on 'proving' my love to others and more on making my self vulnerable and approachable enough so that other people can do God's will through me. Which will be strange for a rather hyperactive and self righteous man like me. 

I would love  to see Mildred holding Sam again....

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