It was December 1982. Christmas trees sparkled in store windows and in residences—from narrow row houses to the brick shoe-box louses that are so familiar to Chicago. Children dreaming of brightly colored toys skipped excitedly through department stores, hanging onto the hands of hassled parents. The spirit of Christmas seemed to have enlivened everyone. Everyone but me.
"I can't believe this is happening," I said as I walked through the dark old church with my husband. "And why on Christmas Day? Great timing—some Christmas this will be!"
We were moving to another pastorate. On Christmas, of all days, we would have to say goodbye to the congregation we had worked with for two and a half years—the first church of our ministry. We had watched these families grow, seen them triumph over personal hard ships and grow strong in Christ. Now we must leave them. Though the familiar words of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" were running through my head, for me the bells were silent this Christmas.
The frail wooden staircase squeaked as though in sympathy with our pain as we made our way down to the basement. Like forgotten friends, memories called to us from every corner of the building.
"Remember the rainy Sabbath morning when we got to church and found three inches of muddy water in the basement?" I asked LeBron.
"How could I forget? There was nothing I could do but take off my coat, socks, and shoes, roll up my pant legs, and start mopping. One thing's for sure, I never had to worry about becoming too proud here. Plenty of experiences helped me remember that the pastor is just one of the servants!"
"You did look hilarious that morning. From the waist down you could have passed for Huck Finn wading in the Mississippi! And all those dried leaves and sticks swimming around here. We never did figure out how they got in."
"I wouldn't have been surprised to find a few fish in here too!" LeBron added.
"Say, maybe we should stick a few fishing poles in the closet for the next pas tor!"
Our laughter lifted our spirits for a moment. "Remember at last year's Christmas party when we gave Mrs. Grentz that can of nonstop shaving cream from the trick shop?" I asked. "She was a sight—yelling with excitement as it spewed all over her!"
"We've had such beautiful times in this church," LeBron mused. "I wish we could make our last day together beautiful too. What can we do to change this Christmas from sad to glad?"
"You're the optimist in the family," I reminded him. "But there's no way to make Christmas bells ring this year. I'm too depressed to even try."
"What about your pictures ?" he asked. "Maybe we could find a way to use them."
I had taken many 35-mm. slides of church members—some pictures serious, others humorous. Many had captured the personalities of the individuals portrayed.
There were action shots depicting church members participating in softball and horseshoe games. Tender moments between parent and child were captured, as well as portraits of children alone— making funny faces, carrying offering plates, or making messes of their meals and themselves.
A bud of hope began to break through the hard ground of my depression. "You may have something, hon. Maybe we could arrange a slide presentation for Christmas."
After I had spent countless hours of arranging and rearranging slides and background music, the presentation was ready. Beautiful memories lay scattered through the program, like rose petals along a garden path. Viewing it, I began to feel that maybe my holiday spirit could be resurrected after all. Maybe the bells of Christmas would ring for me again!
"I've got another idea, hon," I said. "Why don't we invite the church to have Christmas dinner at our apartment? It would be the cherry on the chocolate sundae. The day would be complete."
LeBron's first reaction was less than enthusiastic. "You've got to be crazy! You've forgotten one minor detail. The moving men came last week and confiscated every dish, pan, and chair from our apartment. The refrigerator is as bare as Mother Hubbard's cupboard. You're taking a good thing too far. You'll have to put your Christmas dinner idea on the back burner—and leave it there until it burns up!"
Since I was experiencing temporary mania, I refused to be discouraged by his practical attitude. "Well, we can have the dinner at the church then. There are tables and chairs there. True, we don't have dishes there either, but on Christmas Day it's really the fellowship everyone is looking for.
"What about pizza served on paper plates?" I continued. "We want the day to be memorable, and there's no way anyone could forget pizza for Christmas dinner!"
After a bit of persuasion, LeBron reluctantly consented. "Well, I guess fast food is better than none at all."
When the big day arrived, the dark wooden pews of our church squeaked and crackled with the weight of friends coming to tell us goodbye. LeBron tried unsuccessfully to hold back the tears during his goodbye speech, and many others shared his tears. Friends sang songs, spoke words of appreciation and encouragement to us, and presented us with letters and gifts to remember them by.
The nostalgic slide presentation was like dessert after a fine dinner. When it was over, applause rippled through the sanctuary.
"Those of you who do not have a place to enjoy Christmas dinner are invited downstairs for pizza. Yes, you heard right," my husband assured the chuck ling congregation, "Christmas, Italian style."
Many of the church members, especially the younger ones, attended the meal. One stranger who had walked into our church service off the street ate with us. I was kept busy baking and cutting pizzas. Their spicy aroma flooded the basement. The traditional turkey and dressing couldn't have tasted better! A decrepit cassette player serenaded our dinner with Christmas carols. It was a happy time, filled with love, laughter, and friendship.
Gradually the people said their goodbyes. Afterward LeBron and I sat for a long time, enjoying the sweetness of the day. Finally LeBron broke the silence. "This is one of those times that engraves itself onto your heart like a sentiment on an heirloom locket. This memory will grow dearer with each passing year."
His words nudged my imagination, and then, from somewhere in the distance, I heard a familiar sound. I smiled and let my imagination entertain me. Christmas bells! It was about time they started to ring!
In my heart I knew the bells had been there all along. Buried beneath my discouragement, waiting patiently for His touch.