By Kay Etheredge
They lived right across the street from a small town Baptist church. The church is picturesque; very typical for the South… white with a steeple and stained glass windows. On a recent Sunday night I watched the people as they filed in. Some were dressed in sport coats and khakis and one man with a nice face wore bib overalls. I’ve always liked a man in overalls because my grandfather wore them. I associate them with kindness and hard work.
We sat across the street from the church in a home that our friends rented. It was close to Christmas and our friends, a married couple, are hurting. He is dying. He was told just that week that he had two weeks left. We had driven two hours to visit, and he had requested that my pastor husband bring communion. So as the people of this charming southern town filed into the church across the street for a Sunday night service, we watched from the living room. The room was dimly lit; across the room a large shelf held a collection of ceramic Christmas villages, each one illumined with tiny bulbs inside. A beautiful handmade quilt covered the sofa where I sat. The room held warmth, love, and sadness.
And even though I studied each face that walked into the church a rock’s throw away, not one person glanced in our direction. Not even one. I found myself lost in thought. Could it be the mattress and washing machine that lie discarded beside the road? I watch through the windows, willing someone, anyone to look our way. No one does.
My husband pulled out his Bible and read as the four of us took communion. He asked our friend if he would like to pray and he said “yes”. His prayer, the prayer of a dying man, was simple and sweet. He prayed like someone unaccustomed to praying aloud. Sometimes those prayers are the least rehearsed and most genuine. In fact I told my husband as we drove home that night that in our almost 35 years in ministry, that night was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced, and he agreed.
Two days later, in the morning, a text message told us he was gone. We were stunned. He had died in his sleep.
I struggled with anger toward the people in the church. They knew he was dying. Why didn’t they simply walk across the street, pray, offer an outstretched hand or just sit for a while?
Our friend’s wife told us a story about the large nativity in front of the church. She had noticed one day that there was no star. She had a star that she had bought the year before in an after Christmas sale. She walked over one day and simply laid the star inside the nativity. Later, she noticed someone from the church had hung it up. And that story, that beautiful story, stuck with me. How the people deemed “less than” in a small southern town can offer up something beautiful when their own lives were shattered. And aren’t we all shattered in some way? Even the people filing faithfully into this beautiful little church every Sunday carry their hurts with them…up those steps and into those pews and aren’t the pews filled with the most broken of all? How is it that we can so carefully and intricately hide those hurts…tucked away in pockets and behind doors and we can become hardened and calloused to people who don’t fit a particular mold…who leave broken appliances by the road and can we look over a broken appliance if we know there is a death pall over a rental home and this is the last Christmas for one of the people inside? We all live under the sentence of death unless we know the One who took the penalty for our sin.
Almost every church has someone on the other side of the street or someone next door or someone within a rock’s throw distance that is hurting. Someone with tiny lit up Christmas houses that glow with holiday warmth is broken because of something. The words to a Christmas carol tell us “far as the curse is found” and that means that in tiny picturesque towns as well as big cities, we are all carrying some burden. Mattresses wear out, people get addicted to alcohol and drugs and we get diagnoses that say we have days left on this earth. Appliances break, hearts break, and people die right before Christmas. The sin curse of this world doesn’t stop because of the sparkle and goodwill of the holidays.
On a Tuesday morning in December our friend went Home. He spent his first Christmas in heaven. He told us two days earlier he looked forward to seeing his mom, dad, and siblings. And that very same afternoon a brave person from the church across the street walked over…past the mattress and worn out washing machine and gave some money to a numbed and grieving widow.
And this past Christmas season a marked-down star was added to a lovely nativity in the church yard of a tiny town in Alabama. A star not unlike the star over Bethlehem years ago…a star that shone the brightest of bright because someone chose to love.