Two hitchhikers changed our church, Christmastime 1989. What they taught us was that we feel pity for the couple in Bethlehem long ago, but failed to offer the same sympathy to other common, yet "holy," families in our circle of ministry. I, for one, will long be grateful for the hitchhikers' lesson.
Familiarity breeds a dull Noel. Because there are only a few Scripture passages that describe the Christmas story, each December we may hear all of them four and five times. We enter Yuletide with yawns, perhaps envying the shepherds who heard the first rendition of "Peace on earth." What woke them in joy, puts us to sleep.
But Christmas 1989 rewrote the Christmas story for our church. A sharply dressed businessman from our church was crossing our state on I-80, that 450-mile stretch of highway that bisects Nebraska west from east. Somewhere west of Omaha, he passed a couple hitchhiking. They were obviously poor. The woman looked very cold — and very pregnant.
My friend picked them up and brought them to Omaha. With the help of others, he arranged for their housing. About a month later, the child was born.
Just before the baby's birth, I was invited to a dinner at an elegant home in honor of the rescued couple. They were rustic and a bit uncouth. The woman, now great with child, often belched embarrassingly loudly during the festive affair. The upper-middle-class guests looked greatly chagrined.
I must confess that I, too, felt an unspoken sternness as I beheld the couple. I did not immediately liken them to the couple from Luke 2. But later I did wonder, if I had been running a Holiday Inn in Bethlehem, whether I would have asked them to please stay at the Best Western ... or offered them the barn out back. Especially if the woman had told me that their Blue Cross insurance had expired and she was having labor pains!
Every time I now hear the Christmas story, I think about this couple. I don't like the similarities I see between myself and the innkeeper in Bethlehem that first-century night when a couple was in trouble. But I do know that the Christmas story will never be quite the same for me again. This homeless couple has placed the wonderful drama of the first Christmas in a new setting. Now Bethlehem has been reborn in the redeeming glitter it deserves. A whole — entirely middle-class — church congregation has been tutored by a family, who became for us more of a holy family than they suspected.
In thinking of their impact on our church I wrote this Christmas sonnet.
She waits while over there he knocks. Again
Refused! Nor is there place throughout the town.
Be strong as steel, lest Joseph sense the pain
You feel. It's yet a while till you lay down
To sleep. "There's nowhere else to go tonight,"
He said. She fought the burning in her eyes:
Rebuked her tears before they fell. Starlight
Crowned the cold, small town with fiery skies.
He took her in his arms and that embrace
Dissolved the desperation that they faced.
"I paid the stable rent," he said with shame.
"Your son will come tonight." One kiss she gave.
Joy blessed the silent night! Salvation came —
An infant whimper from the shepherd's cave.
Adapted from An Owner's Manual for the Unfinished Soul by Calvin Miller, Harold Shaw Publishers, Wheaton, IL, 1997.
Calvin Miller is professor of preaching and pastoral ministry at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala.