Where does Christ meet you? This is, after all, the season of Emmanuel: God is with us. So where and how is God with you? Someone said to me, “Wherever love is, there is Christ,” so here is a true story of love---love from a baby.
It was less than a week before Christmas, 1978, and Jim and Laura, a married couple with a nine month old baby boy named Christopher, were in a panic about Christmas presents. They had not bought any. They both worked full time; she, as a city planner in Chicago, and he worked for the city as a public defender. Between their demanding jobs and taking care of Christopher, the time had simply gotten away from them. So they hired a sitter for the day and prepared their Christmas shopping list---but the sitter came down with a bad cold, so they had no alternative but to take Christopher with them. It wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be. Christopher was fascinated by all the decorations and the crowds, and so, they managed to get their shopping done by dinner.
Let’s eat out, Laura suggested. We can go to Lennie’s Diner, where the food is decent and the service fast. And so they pulled into the Diner, went in and sat down. The waitress promptly brought them the menu and in no time at all they were eating. Christopher was busy gumming some bread, when suddenly out of the corner of Jim’s eye, he noticed this disheveled and dirty man, wildly waving at and talking to his baby son. “Hi there, little Buddy,” the man practically shouted. “Can you wave back to me?” Christopher smiled----a great big smile! “How about patty cake?” the man said, as he started to gesticulate the well known rhyme. Christopher began laughing and clapping in response. He was clearly taken with this character, who was well, a bit drunk. “Hey, little guy, come on now, give me a really big laugh!” Christopher complied by cooing with delight.
Laura leaned across the table, and whispered to Jim, “Why are they letting him remain here? He is creating a scene.” And indeed, the stranger was. People were staring. At this point the manager came out and said. “O.k., Phil, quiet down. You’re making too much noise. Go in there, and I’ll give you something to eat.” Phil complied, but not without shouting to the baby, “Hey little guy. Don’t go away. I’ll be right back.”
“I wonder if he is a relative,” Laura said to Jim---in a voice loud enough for the waitress to hear. The waitress gave Laura an icy stare, and then in a cold voice said, “He is not a relative---just someone who has had a lot of trouble in life. And so we feed him without charge as she deliberately put their bill on the table. Laura was taken aback by the tone the waitress used. She realized she sounded like a snob, and she knew she should be at least a little bit ashamed, but really having a loud drunk in this family diner was not particularly good for business.
Laura and Jim got up to leave. “I’ll pay and you go to the car,” Laura said. Just then Phil emerged from the side room. His face was smeared with ketchup and his dirty hands were holding a bunch of fries. As he drew nearer to Laura and Christopher, Laura noticed he smelled. “Hi Little Buddy” Phil started in again. “You are such a cutie.” Now Phil was standing right before them, practically blocking the door’s exit. He kept right on talking to Christopher, as Laura made her preparations to get away. Suddenly with no warning, Christopher arched his back and catapulted himself right out of her arms and straight into Phil’s arms. Laura was shocked and horrified. Here was this smelly alcoholic, holding her baby. She was about to grab Christopher and run, but she was stopped by the sight of Christopher gently laying his head on Phil’s shoulder, as Phil gently stroked Christopher’s head. Phil rocked back and forth very slowly, singing Silent Night, as Christopher’s eyes grew heavy with sleep. In less than a minute tears were rolling down Phil’s cheeks, and then very gently he passed Christopher to his mother. “Thank you, Ma’am,” he said. “You’ve given me the best Christmas present ever. Take good care of this little guy, he continued. He’s special, very special.”
By the time Laura reached the car, where Jim already was, she was crying. What’s the matter? Jim asked. I almost lost Christmas, she sobbed, and it took that drunk in there and our baby to teach me something I obviously forgot. Whoever doesn’t receive God’s Kingdom like a little child will miss it or lose it. she said. What are you talking about? Jim asked. That man in there, she said. All you and I could see was someone who was dirty and drunk and well, a loser in our world. But Christopher did not care about any of that; he accepted him as he was and that was exactly the gift the man needed.
Well, a year passed and Christmas rolled around again. Laura was out shopping one evening, this time by herself and she stopped in at Lennie’s Diner for dinner. She had not been there since the previous year, and when she sat down, she had the same waitress, who promptly took her order and served her. I hope she doesn’t remember me, Laura thought to herself. But when she had finished eating, the waitress, very promptly, brought her the bill, accompanied by something else, an object wrapped in some torn and dirty green tissue paper. The waitress just stood there while Laura unwrapped the gift. It was a handmade Christmas ornament, chiseled out of wood, a baby with his arms held up high and on the back were these words: the best Christmas present ever. Phil died last month, the waitress said, but before he did, he asked us to give this to you or your husband if we ever saw you again. He made it himself, worked on it for days, not long after he met you. Laura just sat at the table as tears streamed down her cheeks. She looked up at the waitress and said, “This is the most precious Christmas present I have ever received.”
Well, 40 years have passed and Christopher is all grown up. He’s a doctor now, working at a clinic for the poor on Chicago’s South Side, in the same area where Barack Obama had done his community organizing years before. A group of students from the University of Chicago along with some employees went to that clinic to throw a Christmas party for the kids who use the clinic’s services, children insured by the CHIPS Program. One of those employees is a close friend of mine from my undergraduate days at the University. And there in the middle of the room stood a huge Christmas tree on which the ornament hung, a baby with outstretched arms, hung there by Christopher’s mother, who still maintains it is the most precious Christmas gift she has ever received.
Many people spend way too much time and too much money shopping around for Christmas presents. We all should probably spend more time considering what it is people really need. Most likely it can’t be found in a store. But perhaps it can be found inside of us---in that deep and mysterious place where head, heart and spirit meet. Find that place and discover what goodness, truth and beauty are there--- and then pass it on. Give it away---because that is what Christmas is really all about. Yes, Christ is born; it is, indeed, the Holy Night, but what does that really mean if Christ is not also born in us?
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!