You wouldn’t miss Christmas this year, would you?
You know… historically speaking, shepherds are some of the lowliest people on earth. Oh, they have a job, but thank goodness it’s not here in town where we have to smell THEM! One rung above bums, “those people” are a bunch of nobodies. Country hicks. Hayseeds. Hillbillies. THEY eat, sleep, and migrate around the countryside like drifters.
It’s highly unlikely you would be hanging out with THEM ever. Much less that first Christmas when God chooses to reveal to THEM what the rest of the world only yearns to see.
So isn’t in curious that God chooses his king from among THEM? …the shepherds, that is… (Think David here). And so when God sends his only begotten Son, it may seem appropriate at some level for him to make his angelic announcement of this Good News to the shepherds in the field tending the flock. But, it is still heavily ironic that he opens heaven and all the host up for this announcement to such lowly people.
You and I might “fall to our knees,” but THEY might have to rise to theirs.
If you are too proud to be there among THEM, you will surely miss it. And anyway, when the shepherds go and see, it’s a homeless boy they find in a manger converted into a crib. And the animals feed from this Son ever since.
Ironic. So ironic that I think if you’d had the chance to be there you likely would have missed it. And even though we celebrate this event with the biggest party of the year all over the world, I think there is a strong chance we still do.
It’s not the first time I referenced this story, but perhaps in telling it now I can say something more.
I spent a number of years working in the psych unit. Many, though surely not all, of the patients we tended to in the psych hospital were homeless friends of mine from the streets. But even those who did not suffer homelessness still lived with the stigma of mental health issues. The psych ward is a humiliating place to be for most people. I have seen it. So many hardworking, independent, self-respecting career people surviving a suicide attempt only to land in our unit and then absolutely cringe at the shame of being there.
I love such places.
It is the mission statement of the Fat Beggars School of Prophets to go to the place of shame, pain, and despair in our community and bear the image of God there. For several years, that was my job! And I met people THERE, and served THEM, encouraged THEM, and showed THEM respect – THERE. And amid the vulnerability of it all, I both touched with God’s healing touch AND saw Him THERE in our midst numerous times, numerous ways.
This time of year, I often think of Secret Agent Soprano (SAS), a very timid person, extremely bashful, soft-spoken, and clingy who came to our unit during the Christmas Season for an extended stay. She was pretty much the least of “the least of these.” Even the other psych patients resisted this one. But when I showed her my care and attention, she globbed on to me. She became my shadow. Constantly seeking my attention and approval.
Hospitals, and especially psych wards, have a lot of rules. Chief among them are rules dealing with safety and confidentiality. (Thus, I keep this person’s identity secret, and intend not to overly describe her.) But some of the rules seem rather arbitrary, even to me as staff. I would adhere to them, because to allow discipline to breakdown is to invite chaos, but there were many rules I would totally have dropped if I had been in charge there. The main one being that staff cannot eat with patients (echoes of Gen. 46:34?). Not even in the presence of a patient. People have been fired for it.
However, for the staff working on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, a huge exception was allowed, and the whole unit threw a party where everyone except the very few people in red alert status (either having, or at great risk of having, psychotic breaks) would attend right along with the staff. Santa would come in and share some party-favor gifts. The party room was decorated and for a few hours the place was quite festive. Yet it was still a high security hospital unit and no family allowed. It was not HOME. And so in those brief moments we were all utterly homeless, except we did have a roof over our heads, warmth, and food.
During the years I worked there, our hospital was, I think, the last healthcare institution, probably in the state of Texas, that allowed patients to smoke. Smoking was highly regulated, and the privilege could be revoked at a moment’s notice, which made for incentive to cooperate with hospital staff, at least among smokers. Smoke breaks were limited to six times a day at regularly scheduled intervals, and highly regulated by a staff member doling out one cigarette per smoker at each break, and allotted 10 minutes on the smoker’s patio out back under the watchful eye of the supervising staff member.
As I recall it, SAS was not actually a smoker. But it came my turn one Christmas Eve to conduct the last smoke break of the day. For the smokers who, out in the world, were only limited in their habit by their ability to pay and the whims of their desire, six smoke breaks a day was precious few. During their stay in the hospital, though, they only got six chances to smoke all day long. I point this out because as we reached the most anticipated hour of the day on what could be called the most anticipated day of the year, my group of smokers, people dealing with the shame of mental health stigma, missing home desperately on Christmas Eve, as I found myself, not so much by the River Chebar as Lubbock’s modern equivalent of it (the place of shame, pain, and despair), I stepped out onto the smoker’s patio with maybe 20 people into the freezing night.
Let me digress a moment.
Way back in the 1990s, in fact right during a Christmas season, I was a student at ACU looking for a ministry internship when I began visiting the Taylor County Jail as a religious volunteer. One of the first things I was struck by, a thing I found equally serendipitous when I began work at the French Robertson Unit (state prison) a few months later, was the jail-house choir. In those high security environments, they don’t allow you to bring video or audio recording devices, but if they did, I think I would be a production manager in the music business! Some o’ dem cats got talent! Best kept secret in Taylor County!! Down there at the place of shame, pain, and despair, for anyone willing to submit to the background check(s) and offer to volunteer, you can catch a first rate concert!!!
This has me remembering a very special worship service behind the downtown liquor store here in Lubbock about 8 years ago, when Agent T and I, with a handful of homeless folx we found there, struck up a real, bona fide worship service in the tall weeds on a couple of old throwed out sofas. Not only did we discover one of the bums could preach a meaningful sermon (I think he discovered this too), but we met a nice lady who said she had written a couple of songs for Jesus while she was locked up, but never had a chance to sing them for anyone before. So we sat back and let this lady sing her offering to Jesus there in the waist-high weeds behind the downtown liquor store, and I was blown away then too.
Meanwhile… Back in the Psych Ward
So come back to that psych hospital smoker’s patio with me again. Go there with me now. Step out in the dark and freezing cold of the dead of winter on Christmas Eve passing out cigarettes to 20 some-odd patients shivering against the wind in their bath robes and slippers. As I turn to my left, I see SAS, my constant shadow/companion braving the cold in her slippers too just so she can stand next to me, since she is too timid to stay inside where it is warm but where that would mean she would be alone.
I greet her with astonishment. “You came out here with us in the cold to spread some Christmas cheer?” I ask.
She answers me, but her voice is too low to hear her. So I ask her to repeat it.
She leans in close to my ear and says, “Can I sing a Christmas song?”
I am stunned. This timid creature wants to sing! Does she plan to entertain us all?
And all the ill tempered, shivering people suffering holiday blues with a smelly cigarette in a psych hospital are not likely to be a charitable audience.
“You want to sing for us?” I ask.
I speak out, “Everyone. Can I have your attention please? [Special Agent Soprano] would like to bless us this fine Christmas Eve with a Christmas song.”
A hush falls over the motley crew.
We could have been lowly shepherds, forgotten by the world in a pasture late at night under the stars… under A STAR when this timid woman opens her throat and heaven opens with it.
She sang O Holy Night as pure and beautiful as any recording of it I ever heard. The angel’s voice brought us to our knees. Hardly a dry eye on the smoker’s patio that night. After the party was done, after Santa was gone, and when a few lowly smokers in a psych ward gathered shivering on the back patio for the last smoke break of the day, God showed up. And he heard his Angel chorus.
And I think of that blessed moment every time I hear that song now. And I miss that terrible place where God met us and blessed us and warmed our hearts against the cold wind and a lonely night.
It’s easy to miss such things. And you don’t find these blessings just any old time you visit the place of shame, pain, and despair. But once there was a young Jewish prophet there at Golgotha, just outside the city gate. And what looked for all the world like yet another execution of yet another young Jew, in God’s hands became a coronation as they placed a crown on his head and an sign over him announcing to all that this man is King.
It’s easy to miss such things. I hope this Christmas you don’t.
But here at Fat Beggars School of Prophets, you are invited to come and see, come and hear. And maybe, just maybe, this year you will find the blessing too. Maybe you will fall on your knees and hear the angel’s voice.