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A small town in western North Carolina

Verse One: Christmas Eve 2018

The pastor’s wife, well, used to be, wasn’t sure how she felt about the approach of this Christmas. It seemed like a strange dog coming her way – would it bite or lick her hand?  More than 60 years past her mama and daddy made sure she knew the real reason for the season so she’s straight on that, always has been. There is joy coming even if kin can’t, not just yet anyway.

But stranger still was not having a flock to shepherd this Advent season. She had watched her husband’s face lit from above through decades of Christmas services. Cherished seeing parishioners hurry into the warm sanctuary shrugging off coats while trailing loved ones behind like tinsel. Elated to see flockmates who had left the fold find their way back at Christmas, sheepish looks dissolving at the first hugs of glad welcome.

This year felt different, was different. Gladsome in its own way, yes, but unfamiliar. There was a new flock but in a fold that was not theirs to shepherd. There was the fresh pleasure of sitting together in the pew, hand tucked into his arm, without him on the platform with songs to lead or a message to deliver. There was no need to arrive early, no cause to stay late until the bright sanctuary had emptied and darkened and assurances were given that no one would be alone the next day.

But still they sat in a pew near the front – old habits die hard – just behind the seats set aside for the hearing-impaired.  She was glad to be with people who knew the One her heart loves even if they didn’t know her and hers, not many, not yet anyhow. She watched the pastor and his wife making room in their pew for two more generations, their happiness contagious. She remembered how that felt last year.

And then just as worship was about to commence, a small commotion.

A woman dressed in shades of dust trailing a cloud of nicotine walked slowly down the aisle, stumbling just a bit as she aimed for the one empty seat left in the section reserved for the deaf. Before she could sit, the interpreter rose from her stool facing the congregation, her face reflecting first amazement, then joy. In two paces she reached the new arrival and pulled her into a tight embrace, releasing her as their fingers flew in silent conversation. The worship leader left the platform. The pastor rushed over, his face alight, signing his welcome. Others gathered.

Words were spoken, though not the kind those present could hear. But the one-who-had-been-a-pastor, his wife, and her mama watched in wonder, knowing there was a glad story here of a lost one come home to this flock in the mountains.

“If this was our church back home,” the wife murmured, “we’d know who that is, why they are so happy to see her. We’d be hugging her too.” 

Back home. Now why did she keep saying that?

“But do you remember,” he whispered back, “how many times we had that joy too?”

Yes, she surely did. Memories bright as the luminaries that lit their street every Christmas Eve. Recollections of ministry given and received, a deep sense of purpose, gratitude for the privilege of shepherding a deeply loved flock. Of knowing and being known.

Familiar words appeared on the screen but she faltered over the new tune, stopping to listen to those who had practiced instead. The carol paused. People rose to greet one another.

And the woman in grey turned to those standing behind her and looked directly at the pastor’s wife, a stranger to her. She reached out uncertainly to offer her hand. The wife was mute too, lacking a language she wished she knew, but leaned forward to take both tobacco-stained hands in hers. They stared at each other, smiling, eyes signing what mouths could not say.

And when the second verse began, this time the pastor’s wife sang with it. Tidings of comfort and joy.

Comfort and joy.