Found by Christmas

As the clock approached midnight on Christmas eve, we’d gird ourselves for the one-block walk to church on a cold Cleveland night.

Burrowed into our coats, we’d wrestle galoshes over our shoes and head into the wintry night. The air was cold and dead, the sky clouded and lifeless. The night air was frigidly silent.

There, at the end of the block, was our church, fully illuminated for a midnight service. Light streamed through the stained-glass windows, a colorful beacon in the darkness.

Drawing closer with each step, we’d hear the choir filling the night air with beautiful song. We’d start waking faster toward it.

Arriving at church, we’d pull open the old, wooden door and warmth would wash over us and provide a shiver of comfort and joy. The church was decorated with pine trees, and that wonderful smell – mixed with incense – greeted our cold noses.

In the midst of all the darkness and stillness and emptiness, Christmas had found me again.

The church was filled with immigrants who were missing people and places and parts of their former life in what they called the old country. On this night, they felt the ache of separation and the loss of what had been.

The familiar words and hymns brought them comfort and joy. Christmas found them, too.

 I’m guessing we all can identify with those immigrants in some ways tonight.

Because of Covid-19, this Christmas eve is unlike any we’ve known. We’re separated from loved ones and missing parts of the life we once knew.

We can all identify

And yet, Christmas comes for us tonight just as it did for those immigrants huddled in the church. Just as it has for nearly 2,000 years no matter the circumstances – pestilence, war, depression.

Christmas meets us where we are and reminds us who we are. In beautiful and familiar words, it tells us again what’s real and true in our lives. It tells us of our worth and our life’s work.

Christmas reminds us of a love embodied not only in a baby but in each of us as well. An incarnate love that seeks to reconcile us and the world through each of us.

A love that gives us purpose and meaning. A love that will always have the last word.

Covid-19 won’t get the last word. Nor will our sad refusal to deal with it. Nor will hatred or fear or divisiveness or anything other than love. That’s the reassurance of Christmas: We are saved from and safe from all those things.

We’re saved from everything that isn’t love. Saved from even death itself, which cannot break any bond of love.

For God so loves the world.

So, let there be joy in the world!

Let us be warmed by that great light in our darkness. Let’s hear the joyful music in the air and breathe in deeply that sweet scent of Christmas all over again.

Tidings of comfort and joy. Let nothing you dismay! Love and joy come to you. Chains shall be broken, all oppression shall cease. Go tell it on the mountain.

Come one and all, joyful and triumphant.

Triumphant!

Reminds us who we are

We’d sing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” at the end of our Christmas eve service each year. Then, we’d bundle up and head back out into the cold for the walk home.

Only now, the cold had lost its bite. Those wonderful, sweet smells of Christmas lingered in our noses. And the beautiful music hung in the air and in our hearts, just as it has every year for centuries.

No matter where you are or what you’re feeling tonight, remember to listen for the music. It’s in the air, inviting us to sing along.

(Image courtesy of Adam Cohn https://www.flickr.com/photos/96142515@N00/37146385212)

A ride home on Christmas eve

I was 6 years old. It was Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogi. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home from work so we could eat.

No surprise that we were waiting.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought demons home from the battlefield.

Those demons tended to emerge during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with co-workers. They would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink, trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We got new PJs for Christmas every year, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited some more. It was getting late. Mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. Looking out the front window, we saw a car that wasn’t my dad’s. There were two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad walk up the driveway. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home was black.

We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people there. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing and there was much racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it’s the only time in his life that he had pierogi and mushroom soup.

Then, off he went into the Christmas eve night.

He saw that he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

The man could have found any number of reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad acknowledged that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, confronted his demons, and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

One act changes everything

I never saw the man again. I’m thankful for what he did and for what he taught me. He showed me how race and other differences need not divide us. Love knows no boundaries.

He might be alive today, totally unaware of how his kindness that long-ago night is still remembered and treasured. Every Christmas eve, I pray for him and for the courage to be a little more like him.

Perhaps you could, too.

A ride home on Christmas eve

pierogi ornament 2

I was 6 years old on that Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogi. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home from work so we could eat.

The waiting part was no surprise.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought some demons home from the battlefield.

The demons emerged during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with co-workers. The co-workers would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We got new PJs for Christmas every year, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited. It was getting late. Mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but it wasn’t my dad’s car. There were two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad walk up the driveway. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home? A black man.

We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people in my neighborhood. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was much racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This black man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it’s the only time in his life that he had pierogi and mushroom soup.

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

He saw he could help,so he did

The man could have found any number of legitimate reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

One act changes everything

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

I never saw the man again. I’m thankful for what he did and for what he taught me. He showed me how race and other differences need not divide us. Love knows no boundaries.

He could be alive today, totally unaware of how his kindness that long-ago night is still remembered and treasured. Every Christmas eve, I pray for him and for the courage to be a little more like him.

Maybe you could, too.

A ride home on Christmas eve

pierogi ornament 2

I was 6 years old. It was Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home so we could eat.

The waiting part was no surprise.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought home some demons.

The demons emerged during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with his co-workers. They would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We always got new ones for Christmas, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited some more. It was getting late. My mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

 

Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, and we could tell it wasn’t my dad’s car. We could see two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad, no doubt. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad to the front door. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home? A black man.

Understand this: We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people in my neighborhood. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was a lot of racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This black man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it was the only time in his life that he had pierogies and mushroom soup.

He saw he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

The man could have found any number of legitimate reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe kill someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

One act changes everything

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

I never saw that man again. I think about him every Christmas, though. I’m thankful for what he did.

Every Christmas eve, I pray for the man who had the kindness to drive my dad home and change my life and my family in unknowable ways. And I pray for the courage to be a little more like him every day.

Maybe you could, too.