Frank strolled into our worship service one summer evening about two years ago. He wore an old flannel shirt, cast-off work pants and a knit snow cap. His clothes were ragged and dirty and his hair and beard were unkept. No one could tell his age and Frank did not give an answer when asked. He had no family to speak of nor did he have a home. That particular night, Frank needed a place to get out of the rain for a couple of hours but he soon became a regular in our midst.
We learned a lot about Frank over the next few weeks. Some things we learned from Frank himself; some we learned from local shelters and others we learned just from watching. One thing we quickly learned, though, was that Frank loved music. At the beginning of every service, Frank would sit on the front pew of the sanctuary. He would clap and sway as the hymns and praise choruses were played. He would sing as loud as he could and would applaud with great appreciation at the end of each song. But as soon as the music stopped and the preacher began to speak, Frank would move to the very back pew, lay his head against the wall behind him and take a nap in the comfort of our sanctuary. This ritual was a bit disconcerting to our pastor but harmless, nonetheless.
Our friends at the local shelters informed us that Frank was mentally challenged and as we observed Frank on his regular visits, we began to realize that Frank was more like a child than a grown man. This explained his delight of all of the children in our congregation! Often, Frank could be found at the children’s welcome center, passing out crayons, pencils and papers to the little ones. Some of our parents were concerned with Frank’s involvement but all of our children loved him. He laughed and played with the children and made each one feel welcome. And boy, did Frank love to hear those children sing!
Before we knew it, Christmas had arrived. The children’s choir had been practicing very hard for the Christmas pageant that year because each choir member knew that Frank would be in the congregation. The special evening came and Frank sat in the front pew, as always. He was fascinated with the manger scene on the stage and could barely sit still as he waited for the service to begin. Finally, the children, dressed as sheep, cows, pigs, shepherds and angels, entered the sanctuary. Frank stood and cheered and all the children giggled with excitement. After Frank settled down, the music began and Frank watched as the children of our church told the story of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. No one had ever seen Frank so attentive and when the choir sang its final song, Frank stood and cheered once again.
After their performance, the children made their way from the stage to their parents in the congregation and the pastor made his way to the pulpit to preach. Once in the pulpit, the pastor was surprised to see Frank still seated in the front pew and not settled in the back pew for his evening nap. Though quite curious, the preacher began his Christmas sermon, looking down occasionally to see if Frank was awake. Frank was awake, indeed, but he was not listening to the preacher. You see, before little Mary left the stable stall that evening to sit with her parents, she placed the baby doll used in the pageant to portray baby Jesus back into the manger. Frank’s attention was fixed on the little baby. Then halfway through the sermon, Frank suddenly stood up. We all thought that Frank was headed to his usual back pew but Frank was headed in the opposite direction. Before anyone could react, Frank had made his way to the nativity scene on stage. The pastor, still trying to keep his wits about him, nodded to a deacon to go after Frank but neither the deacon nor anyone else in the congregation was looking at the pastor. All eyes were on Frank.
No one knew what to do. Our first impulse was to grab Frank and pull him back to his seat but our curiosity kept us frozen in our pews. We watched as Frank stood near the manger where the little baby lay. Scratching his head and then wringing his hands, he inched closer and closer to the baby. He reached down toward the baby but quickly pulled back his arms. He looked out at all of us then back to the baby. At this point, the pastor realized that God had a different plan for the evening, and he gave up all attempts at finishing his sermon. The sanctuary, filled with hundreds of men, women, boys and girls, was still and quiet as God’s message of love and grace began to unfold in front of our eyes.
Frank’s obvious confusion ultimately pulled him to his knees beside the manger. He reached over to pick up the baby Jesus, and the sounds of tiny sniffles throughout the room grew into uncontrolled sobs as one heart after another began to break. Quietly, a little angel slipped from her seat and made her way down the aisle of the sanctuary and to the side of Frank. A sweet little voice said, “It’s ok, Frank,” as she gave her friend a big hug. Frank knew this little angel – she shared her cookies with him every Sunday – so Frank asked his friend, “Do you know whose baby this is?” “That’s baby Jesus,” she said emphatically. “He’s God’s Son.” Frank replied, “He’s all alone….just like me.” The little angel giggled as she said, “Silly, Frank, that’s just a baby doll. The real Jesus is in our hearts and that means we’re never alone.”
Tears began to roll down the face of our friend Frank as little angels, sheep, cows, shepherds and all the other children gathered around the baby Jesus, and our silence was broken. Sweet melodies of Christmas rang out from the sanctuary piano and our hearts overflowed. It took some time but the pastor finally convinced Frank that the baby in the manger scene was simply a doll but most importantly, the pastor was able to tell Frank about God’s love and the gift of His Son, Jesus. That night, Frank left our Christmas service a changed man. In fact, no one in that sanctuary was ever the same again.
Jesus, sent from heaven for you and for me, was a gift so precious that even a host of angels could not contain their great joy in telling the Good News of His birth nor could the shepherds, after seeing the baby, keep from sharing with all who would listen that the Savior had been born. Yet, we often keep this gift to ourselves, storing it away for safekeeping and sharing it only on special occasions. We celebrate Jesus’ birth and retell His story year after year then we walk away, leaving God’s Love lying in the manger. May we be more like Frank this Christmas season and all the year through; may we embrace God’s most precious gift in spite of all that is happening around us and may we share His gift with the world.
MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE!