Shivering slightly, Pastor Steven Newman smiled as he took down the Christmas wreaths from the front doors of the church that he had recently come to shepherd. Many had seen the wreaths that had displayed bright poinsettias and berries, but unlike other wreaths it had the words “All are welcome.”
Indeed, all had been welcome to the little church during the holidays. Rich and poor, old and young, happy and hopeless- he had seen it all. He was really pleased with his little congregation of thirty-seven; they had opened their hearts and homes to all who came through the old wooden doors. Right before they had begun decorating the church with Christmas attire, he had given them a sermon about how there was no room for little baby Jesus, and he spoke about how they needed to accept a stranger, no matter who it was, into their church.*
Tucking both of the wreaths under his arm, he headed inside, whistling. Now, he mused, a new year was beginning, like the dawn of a bright new day.
“Richard, please be sure to be careful with that nativity set!” a worried woman’s voice called.
“Of course, Connie,” A low voice sighed. “I’m the one who put it up in the first place, remember?”
He stepped into the sanctuary and grinned at his wife and his little brother. Richard gave a long suffering sigh, but turned around and gave his older brother a wink, revealing his hidden good mood. Even from their childhood, Connie had been like a big sister to Richard, who was seven years younger than Steven.
There were about ten people around the sanctuary, both laughing and talking with each other or on tall ladders removing huge red bows and disassembling Christmas trees. They were almost done for they had been packing and cleaning since sunup. Almost reverently, Richard took out the porcelain baby in the bed full of straw, slipped it into its bubble wrap protective covering, and placed it into its space in the Styrofoam that had a space cut out for the baby.
Connie smiled and picked up the box it was in. “Another Christmas come and gone…”
“I think this one was the best, right, Daddy?” a little girl’s voice chirped.
Everyone looked down at little four-year-old Ashleigh.
Pastor Newman chuckled and scooped up his daughter. “You’re right, Ash!”
He turned around and looked around at all of the people. Everyone was wrapping up their work, and he knew that they had done a great job.
In a few minutes, everyone was bundled up and was standing in front of the church. Mrs. Dianne Bradford, the oldest member of the church, had a sentimental smile on her face as the walked up to the large outdoor nativity set. Her husband had been the pastor of the church before Steven had come, and he had died after a long and hard battle with cancer. Before he had gone to meet his Maker, Pastor Bradford had made the nativity set by hand.
“Peter always used to pack up the outdoor nativity last,” she had sighed. “It’s sort of like a tradition. Every year, we retold the nativity story before we packed up everything.”
When Pastor Newman had asked if she wanted to put up a security system, which was being offered for free by one of the local organizations, around her husband’s nativity set, she had firmly refused.
“Jesus is for everyone, Steven, even the thieves and troublemakers!” she had exclaimed.
Now, Pastor Newman set down his daughter and helped the other men carry the huge boxes filled with packing peanuts to the front lawn. Several people had to leave, but most stayed with peaceful faces all aglow with joy.
Steven opened his Bible and read the nativity story with a strong voice. Ashleigh stood there with a look of wonder and she flitted about like a little fairy as she pointed to each figurine as her father mentioned them.
“Mommy, what’s wrong with Jesus?” Ashleigh asked after they were done retelling the Christmas story and after everyone had waved goodbye to head to their cars. She skipped over to the manger and peered down into his face. Connie and Richard joined her with puzzled expressions on their faces. “Why does he look so sad?” She gently touched his face. His arms were reaching up, as if to catch the great star that hung high above him. His face was so perfectly painted that he almost looked like a real infant, but one thing was different. Instead of eyes full of wonder and joy, his eyes looked sad almost sorrowful.
Connie sipped her Starbucks coffee and put a hand on Ashleigh’s head, straightening some stray locks of hair. “Well, I don’t know, honey,” she replied.
Mrs. Bradford gently picked him up and settled him in Ashleigh’s arms as if he was a real baby. She smiled angelically and cooed to him as she rocked him back and forth. As she was, a slip of paper fluttered and fell to the ground. Richard picked it up.
“A letter?” He cocked his head and handed it over to Steven, shaking his head. “I can’t make it out.”
Steven squinted at it for a moment. “You’re right. It’s a letter.”
The two adults crowded around Steven, trying to read the scrawled words.
My name is Kelly, but that isn’t too important. You met me during the holidays and took me inside your church, gave me a warm meal, and talked to me about the little babe in the straw that grew up to be the man who died for everything wrong I did and every right I didn’t do. But before I came to the front steps of the church to find out more about the baby in the straw, I had planned to take it and burn it in a bonfire in front of the church.
You see, I’ve been going down the wrong road for some time. I started off with a great, high standing job, a beautiful family, and a gorgeous house. But things happened. My family had left me because of my addiction to alcohol and I had lost all of my money from my ugly habit. I was mad at the world, and I was infuriated with God. Whenever I thought of Christians I thought of stuck-up people who sat on their high horse and criticized those around them all while doing bad things behind our backs.
So at around nine on the night of Christmas Eve, I sneaked up to your church. With a dim flashlight in hand, I glared at the little baby in the straw, but he didn’t glare at me. He looked at me with sad, understanding eyes as if he knew what was wrong, but loved me anyways. He looked as if he knew my pain. I couldn’t burn him.
I had to find out about this child in the straw, so I came to look for you. Thank you so much for giving me hope, Pastor and for not looking down on me like so many others have. I’m sorry for not telling you before about what I had planned to do when I met you. I was still a bit apprehensive, but that is no excuse. This is why I’m writing you a letter now.
I read the Bible you gave me, and I’ve decided to turn my life around. I’ve asked Jesus to come into my heart, and now I’m going to work hard to get the respect of others and myself back. It will be hard, but I know God will help me. I humbly ask that you pray for me and my family as I try to reconcile.Thank you again, Pastor.
Pastor Newman stared at the letter with a small smile. “I remember Kelly.”
Connie put a hand on his shoulder and softly said, “I do too.”
Small snowflakes started falling to add to the white blanket of snow already on the ground. He knelt next to Ashleigh and hugged her close.
“Here, Daddy,” she said seriously, as she moved to put baby Jesus into his arms. He set the little babe into the straw and glanced back at the letter.
“I pray you never forget about that baby in the straw, Kelly. Never forget about this little child who grew up to be your Savior.”
Mrs. Bradford sniffed and wiped away a tear. “I wonder if Peter knew.”
Connie walked over to the elderly woman and hugged her. “I bet he was celebrating with the angels as they rejoiced because another lost lamb has finally found him.”
Richard looked at the faces around him from little Ashleigh’s to Mrs. Bradford’s. “I vote that we keep the nativity set out for a week more.”
Connie nodded. “I’d like that.”
Everyone agreed, and as they headed inside for some hot chocolate, Pastor Newman couldn’t help but look back one more time.
“That’s what Christmas is all about. That little babe in the straw; the most highest of kings born in the humblest of places, declaring that He is for all mankind.”
The wind picked up and the snow swirled around him. Pastor Steven looked up at the clouds with joyous tears in his eyes.
“He’s truly for all mankind.”
*See Matthew 25:34-40