I've been writing a number of short stories this past year.
Needless to say it led to a new Christmas story.
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A Holy Night
What makes a night holy? Why is one night different from other nights? One night can seem like just another night, until the light breaks through.
Angela hadn’t been to church for twenty-five years, not since her brother Lucas died of that awful disease. Things were tense and difficult. No one could help him; few wanted to. Angela, only nine at the time, and her mother moved from town not long after the funeral. She then went on to school and a career as a nurse. She had only recently returned for a new job. She hadn’t thought about the church or that she would be in this part of town tonight. Gabe, a friend from the hospice where she worked, had invited her to a quiet Christmas Eve dinner with friends. So here she was, in her old neighborhood walking by her old church. How odd, she thought. Of all nights to be here. Lucas’ funeral had been the week after Christmas.
She stopped across the street at the small park that had been a favorite place for her after church. The early Christmas Eve service had started. The lights from the church lit the rose-style stained glass window over the front door. She could faintly hear the organ.
She remembered Mr. Ben, the organist when she was a child. He was such a gentle soul and yet his playing encouraged such power from the old organ. She could still feel the chills tingling her neck with joy when he would play. “How can music do that?” she wondered at the time. It was uniquely powerful on Christmas Eve for her. Where did music come from? How could it do so much? Was music magical?
She had always been filled with questions. Her mother would get so frustrated with her. “Just accept things as they are. Don’t put so much thought into things- let them be.” She always wanted to know- especially about God and what God was all about. She never understood the idea of God. She wanted people to prove God or show her God. If they couldn’t, then she didn’t want to hear it. She had given up on those questions when Lucas died. There were no answers and little comfort. Some people tried, but to Angela it felt uncaring. Others pointed fingers, saying Lucas got what he deserved, which only hurt more. Since she was only nine they didn’t say it directly to her, but she heard her mother talking about it- and crying. It was clear to her as a child, the questions had no answers, so why ask?
She stared at the rose window. All the colors of the design around the outside seemed to flow into the center circle and the multi-pointed white star it enclosed. She started to feel light-headed as she stared. She stumbled back onto a bench in the park. Maybe I’m coming down with something and should call Gabe and tell him I’m not coming.
As she sat trying to get her bearings back she saw the front door of the church open. A young couple and a child walked out. For a moment the music got louder as the door opened and closed. The child grabbed her mother’s hand and pointed across the street at Angela. The parents looked at the girl and then at Angela. She could see both of them shaking their heads and attempting to get the child back into church with them. The girl stood her ground, pointed again, and, loud enough to be heard across the street said, “That’s her. The one I saw in my dream last night. I told you she would be here.”
Angela looked around, wondering if she was having a hallucination. “Too many cheesy Christmas specials,” she thought to herself as she tried to stand up. The dizziness was still there. She slumped back down and closed her eyes. When she opened them the couple and child were standing in front of her.
“Are you okay?” asked the girl.
“Please excuse us and Sarah,” the woman said quickly. “She insisted that we come over and talk to you. She said that her Christmas depended on it. We are taking her home if she can’t calm down.”
“I saw you in my dream last night,” Sarah said quickly to Angela. “You were looking for someplace to find God.”
“Sarah,” said the man, “let’s not bother her with your dreams.” He turned to Angela. “Are you all right? You don’t look well.”
“I just think I was a little overcome by walking too fast,” Angela replied. “I’m going to a friend’s house for dinner. I used to live around here and even went to this church when I was young. I decided to stop here and rest while enjoying the lights on the church.”
“That’s not what you told me in my dream,” Sarah said. “You told me you were lonely and missed your brother and that here was the last time you were together with him.”
“Sarah!” said the woman. “Enough of that. Your dreams are of no interest to someone we’ve never met.”
“That’s okay,” said Angela, feeling more confused than dizzy now. “Come here, Sarah.”
The young girl moved closer as if she had always known Angela. Angela took her hands and leaned forward. “Tell me more about your dream. Please.”
“Well, I asked you why I had never seen you here before. We come here all the time and this was the first time we met. You told me that you have lived out of town and you don’t believe anymore and don’t go to church because of that. It was Christmas Eve in my dream and the church was all lit up like it is now with the candles in the windows and the star shining through above the door. I invited you to come in but you started to walk away.”
“It’s not the dream Sarah,” her mother said. “You just think she looks like the person in the dream because you want it to be true.”
“What else did I- did the woman in your dream- say?” Angela asked.
“Like I said, you told me you were lonely and just wanted to remember your brother. You said that if you found your brother here tonight you would find God again. Did you lose God? Did He go away with your brother?”
“Sarah! Enough!” her father jumped in again.
“Yes, Sarah. God left. I was so angry that my brother had died and that no one cared he was even sick. He had a disease that you couldn’t cure in those days. Many people were mean to him and us when they found out why he was sick. They were afraid and didn’t understand.”
“But what about God?” Sarah asked. “Why get mad at Him?”
“Because God didn’t make him well again. People said it was because my brother was a bad person and God was punishing him. It was an awful time. We stopped going to church because they weren’t being very Christian.”
“That must have been a while ago,” Sarah’s mother said cautiously. “How old were you when he died?”
“I was only 9 and Lucas was 24. He was more than a big brother to me. He was a grown-up who cared about me. Not many did. My mother was too busy doing other things, and I never knew my father. Lucas’ father had died in Vietnam a year after he was born when my mother was only 19.”
Angela stopped suddenly. Why was she sharing all this with this young girl she never met before?
“I’m nine now,” said Sarah, hardly missing a beat. “And my mother is…”
“Sarah- stop!” said her father. He turned to Angela. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Angela,” Sarah answered quickly. They all turned to look at her.
“You’re right,” said Angela. “Was that in your dream, too?”
“Yes,” she said as she looked at her parents with an I-told-you-so grin.
“Sarah,” asked Angela, “how did your dream end? What did the Angela in your dream do?”
“I woke up before it was over. But you were walking with us into the church. You and my mom and dad were hugging and crying but I couldn’t hear what you were saying. The music and singing was too loud.”
“Did she find her brother here? Or God?”
“Maybe I can help with that,” said an older man who had walked over from the church while they were talking.
“Dad,” said Sarah’s father. “What are you doing out here?”
“When you didn’t come back I got worried so I followed. I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation.” He turned toward Angela.
“I have often wondered what happened to you over these years. I’m Sam Ellis. I was the assistant pastor here 25 years ago when your brother died. I have never forgotten him or how you and your mother were treated.”
Sarah’s mother turned toward Angela in a moment of realization. “You’re Angela Leonard?”
“Gramps,” said Sarah. “You weren’t in my dream.”
He laughed and touched her shoulder. “Well, I guess I’m here now. Can I stay?”
Angela stammered. “I, well, I don’t know what to say. What… or why… or…”
“Then let me tell you,” said Pastor Ellis. “Your brother’s death was the end of a way of life for me and many here at the church. We saw the hatred that people aimed at him and your family. The pastor at the time was definitely ‘old school’ and didn’t know what to do or how to handle a funeral for a person who died of AIDS. There were some members of the church who insisted that he not allow the funeral. People might get infected, catch the disease. A sinner like that shouldn’t be allowed to have a proper church burial, things like that.
“Abbie here,” he pointed toward Sarah’s mother, “got her dad to support your brother’s service. He was the organist. He was a few years older than I was but still full of passion from his youth like many of us were. Abbie was your babysitter and told her dad how you and your mother were being treated.”
“You’re Mr. Ben’s daughter,” said Angela quietly.
“He went to the pastor,” Abbie continued, “and insisted that the service be held in the church. He said he would be the organist and help plan the service. The pastor was embarrassed by the whole thing and gave the service to my dad to do. He left here six months later. That’s when Sam took over as the pastor.”
Sarah’s dad started talking. “Half the choir quit on Ben because of what he did. Several board members went to the District leadership asking to have my dad removed and his ordination taken away. It was a terrible year. The District Bishop stood with us, though. In the end our church became one of the pioneers in social ministry in the city and the District.
“I didn’t know any of this,” Angela said. She was shaking her head in disbelief.
“You moved quickly,” Sam said. “No one could blame you. It was an awful time. Your mother worked hard to protect you from it. You were only nine and very vulnerable. We lost track of you. It was like you dropped off the face of the earth.”
“We were both upset,” Angela started. “Mom did what she could. But she had her own reactions. She tried to forgive and forget, but it didn’t work. After I went off to college she spiraled in depression. Then she got cancer herself and died last year.” Tears formed and her voice halted. “We never went to church again. Not even for her funeral. God was a forbidden subject.”
“Your brother’s funeral was an important time in our history here.” Pastor Sam sat down next to Angela. “It’s been 25 years but some still remember him and how he made us look at ourselves and see if we are really doing what we should be doing. It sounds trite, but now we try to live in order to serve the least and the lost. Lucas is still reminding us of that. Come, follow me.”
They walked around the south side of the church. A Christmas carol was being sung and she could hear it through the window. At the back corner was another building connected by a walkway to the main church.
“We decided a couple years after Lucas died that we wanted to do something in his memory. We decided we wanted to build a community center to help us minister to the neighborhood. We got some grants and a lot of donations. It took us about five years to bring it all together. Things move slowly sometimes in the church, but we did it. This is it.”
They opened the door to find a group of people watching the service on a large screen. They were singing along. “This is an overflow space for special services,” Abbie said. “These are some of our members who take this space so visitors can be with their families in the sanctuary.”
“This is what I meant when I said your brother is still here.” He turned around to a sign by the door.
A picture of Lucas hung next to a sign with the inscription:
Lucas Adams Community Center
In Memory of a brave young man who challenged us
to be more than we were and to live for others.
Sarah walked over, “Remember in the dream you said that if you found your brother tonight you would find God again. Here he is.” She took Angela’s hand and led her to the picture. Angela reached out to touch her brother’s image.
Maybe all nights are holy. Sometimes it takes a child to help us see.
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Merry Christmas and may you all have a blessed 2018!