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J. Grant Swank

Remembering Christmas Past
By J Grant Swank Jr.
Dec 28, 2009 - 12:04:42 AM

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'I will Never Leave You'

I was in my second pastorate, only 28 years old. Yet I had to leave the ministry because my wife was ill.

We moved our belongings from the mid-west to New England, storing them in my in-law's garage.

What had life come to?

Studies, travel, ministering--all for this? I walked the streets, trying to find a secular job. My training was in religion. What could I find other than that?

Our little girl was clinging to me, wondering why we were in this strange place. Then I looked at my wife, understanding that in a short time she would be hospitalized. Brain surgery in Boston.

The doctor inserted a shunt from her brain to her heart, passing under the skin behind her ear. Her hair was shaved off in preparation for the surgery.

That year, we were both alone for Christmas in the "big city." Holidays would be quite strange that season, that was for certain.

Returning home after the operation, she still had head pain and odd sensations, like ice melting, dizziness, weakness throughout. Doubts surfaced. Nightmares set in.

"It is not like the doctor promised," she murmured one evening when we two were alone. Depression took over with a determined furry.

We would take rides into the country. Sometimes I would steal away alone with my Bible, taking refuge in a cemetery on the outskirts of town. Solitude. Quiet. No people. No phones. No relatives.

Then I would list the things I should be thankful for: friends who prayed, a family who cared, a job, a house to live in, food, a healthy daughter, a concerned church, the lovely community, an empathetic pastor.

Yet the ache continued. I would ask God if I would ever return to the pastorate. Would my wife be well again?

We would go to church on Sunday mornings. But in about five minutes of so, often we would have to leave. She would nudge me and I knew that that was the signal.

Others perhaps did not understand, but the joyful hymns and happy faces were in such contrast with the discouragement which enveloped our lives that my wife could not take it. That which was meant for uplifting instead brought darker depression.

Trudging back to the house, I would not dare take more than a step at a time. It was too much to walk into the frightening future. Where would it all end?

Sometimes friends would stop by. They were usually young adults like ourselves. Their laughter however would not connect. We would try. But it did not happen. After they would leave, it would seem heavier than before they arrived.

At night, I would lie there awake. The ceiling seemed so far away. Nighttime was extra thick.

"Where are you God?" I could not even cry. The tears did not want to share the depths of my confusion. I felt so terribly alone, alone, alone.

That was nearly thirty years ago.

Looking back, I realize now that in all that languishing, God had never left us--not at all. Pondering those memories since returning to the pastorate, I realize how strong He was in carrying the two of us. When we thought Him to be the least caring, He was the most precious.

More than ever, His promise never to leave us nor forsake us has come to mean everything to me.

Christmas Glow

We were seated beneath the mammoth, lofty pulpit in Boston's historic Trinity Church. Along with some 2,000 worshipers, we had gathered for the annual candlelight carol service.

Handsome faces wreathed in expensive scarves passed through the large, heavy curtains that divide the outer quarters from the sanctuary. Women garbed in their seasonal finest gracefully seated themselves in the ancient pews.

"A person has to get here an hour early to get a seat," I overheard a fellow whisper to his friend. Even as he spoke, ushers were pointing to side walls where late arrivers could stand throughout the service.

On the expansive platform, poinsettias smothered the regal churchly furnishings. A lone gold cross hung from the front's very center, as if to crown the ornate display ablaze with color in celebration of Christ's birth.

Majestic strains pealed forth from the organ: "Trumpet Tune in C Major," by Henry Purcell; "Sonata for Flute and Organ," by George Frederick Handel; and others.

One by one, dozens of tall white candles were being lit. They stood as silent soldiers amid the flowering plants.

Our family had invited guests to join us that chilly December evening. Since this worship had become a cherished tradition to us over the years, we relished sharing it with special friends. We awaited anxiously every move, nuance, and musical offering yet to be placed before God.

Looking to my left, however, I noted a young man who did not seem to fit. He was crouched over at first, bent with his head magnetized toward the floorboards. Then, with a sharp twist to his right, he slung himself about, rearing his black hair into the air with a jerk. His dark eyes shot at me, then bounced away, then back again in my direction. I noticed some saliva mixing with his beard.

Obviously, the well-groomed man at the other end of the pew did not notice the youth's behavior, for he was mesmerized with the lighting of the candles. I wondered what his reaction would be whenever he did glance to his left. There he would witness a crippled man with crutches, a crooked body garbed in denims and flannel shirt.

How had I missed this young man's entrance within our halloed corner of the sanctuary? Without notice, he had simply slipped in, wedging his way into our tidy mosaic of season's liturgy.

Presently I saw an usher-black-suited with a red carnation in his lapel-stoop over the young man, whispering something into his ear.

"Oh no!" I gasped inwardly. After all, this was Christmas. And we were in a house of God. If ever love feasts were to be in fashion, surely this was the time. Surely that usher was not demanding that the poor young man leave for fear of disturbing the sedate!

The usher left him. His head flipped back again while two hands led two arms into jutted motions scraping the air. One leg shot out and then back against the floor. His eyes darted back to me. Fright was all over his face.

All of a sudden I felt sick, not because of this poor creature, but because of my own fear of what was going to happen to him. Torture is commonplace, and violence has been with us since the first two sons scuffled in the field. But surely we would not have to live down a mean display of pretense at Christmas.

People kept milling about, some stretching their necks, hoping they would find some tiny space on a pew for sitting. Few caught sight of the intense drama going on nearby. What could I do? I had no authority in this church. There was no speedy network of rescue that I could call into play and so relieve the anxious, confused black eyes beneath his furrowed brow.

Seemingly out of nowhere, an attractive young lady seated herself beside this youth. I saw her place her hand upon his shoulder, then lean near to his ear, whispering something. Her smile was comforting, understanding, as she turned her head to look straight into his eyes. Presently those distraught limbs began to calm down, and his head settled itself more evenly atop his neck.

What are they going to do with him? I thought. Will they, even with a veneer of kindness, lead him away from the rest of us? What game will they play to convince him that he would enjoy the service better from a side room somewhere?

She said no more.  She just sat there, listening to Vienna's "Westminster Carillon" from the organ.

The usher who had spoken with the young man then passed right in front of him, going across the aisle to the second pew from the front. That tall churchman had spotted a space 12 inches wide. With diplomatic graciousness, the usher informed the person seated next to that space that he would have a visitor sharing the worship.

Back to the attractive lady and crippled man the usher made his way. Gently, he lifted the young man under his arm, taking the crutches in his other hand. It was as if the Red Sea parted there for the crossing of this twosome; no one interfered. In no time, the youth discovered himself being presented with the best seat in the house. Smilingly, the person to his right welcomed the lad into the pew.

Again, seemingly out of nowhere, a man in his late 20s-dressed in denims and flannel shirt, his hair tied in a knot at the back of head-knelt down along side the crippled one. I watched him assist the other in shedding his winter jacket, first one arm and then the other drawn out of the sleeves. Next, he carefully placed the crutches on the floor right inside the seat. That done, the kind man joined the attractive lady elsewhere, but within eyeshot of the crippled man.

It was then that I heard the opening Christmas hymn being sung from a far back balcony. The soprano lifted her voice with
Once in royal David's city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed...

I could not help but turn around to see the sight.  There was the robed soloist surrounded by others dressed in holy day splendor. After all, this was the start of something very special. Worship had begun.

Slowly I turned back to face the sanctuary's front. But in the turning I glanced again at "my friend." I saw then the most marvelous sight. Still mixed with the hairs of his black beard was a bit of spittle, but now in his eyes I saw joy.

He, too, had heard the opening words of Christmas praise. He was looking over at the attractive lady and her companion. I did not mean to be prying, but I could not help but glance at them as well. There they were, beaming with kindness rendered, so happy that he was all right, that he had been given a good place to sit, so ready for the worship of the King. On the second verse, the congregation was to join the soloist. With a shining face, the youth twisted his mouth in jubilation. The furrow was gone from his forehead, thank God. And with the rest of us he was singing forth--

With the poor and mean and lowly
Lived on earth our Savior holy.

Although it was still days before the 25th, I knew in my heart that for me, at least, Christmas had begun.

J. Grant Swank Jr.

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