In 1998, following seminary and prior to my first call to a church in Kenova West Virginia, I worked a part-time job in the Lazarus department store. I worked in their gift-wrap department at the Huntington Mall store. Nothing says Masters degree like part-time retail. I worked at Lazarus during the week and did supply preaching on Sundays for a small church in Hurricane West Virginia. In WV that word, Hurricane, is pronounced with a short “a” sound. The “e” is not only silent it is ignored altogether.
This employment was excellent training in patience. Waiting to find a good match for a call took time and the work with people between Thanksgiving and Christmas in a department store was a good model for our own desire to rush through Advent to get to Christmas in our Church life. Gift-wrapping, and the fulfillment of the promise of a messiah do not happen quickly. The waiting at times seems unbearable.
The department store job taught a different kind of patience. There was a constant flow of people who were disappointed that the most expensive paper wasn’t part of the complimentary wrapping, and people who were annoyed that they had to wait behind ten people to reach the counter. They were then surprised that there would likely be a wait longer than 10 minutes for us to wrap 37 packages.
It was a small work-space where trying not to run into your four co-workers was as much of a challenge as making precision creases, cutting straight lines, and hiding the tape in such a way that the present looked worthy of a Hallmark commercial.
Between customers’ dispositions, the phrenetic pace of wrapping under time constraints, and that department store bell that rang every six seconds with an announcement, taking breaks outside of the store was a necessary survival skill. While the bell was soft, it was incessant. Bing…bing bing bing…bing…bing bing bing..”There’s a call waiting for housewares…housewares department please pick up a call waiting for you on line 2…bing…bing bing bing.
During my breaks I would retreat to the benches that sat between Lazarus’ inside entrance and a restaurant called The Big Loafer. They did not sell Filet of Sole, though I amused myself that they had missed out on this ingenious marketing ploy. The “Loafer” instead referred to their specialty meatloaf.
Once as I sat between Lazarus and the Loafer amusing myself with bad puns, I saw my manager emerge from the entrance of the store with a little girl who was two or three years old. The child was crying. The little girl had obviously been separated from her parents, was lost, and distraught. My manager was consoling her and holding her hand. She sat down with her on one of the benches reassuring her that they were making an announcement to her mommy to come and meet them where they were sitting.
No more than four minutes passed while the little girl remained agitated and sniffling. Her face was red from crying, her nose beginning to look like Rudolph from wiping away that which accompanies excessive tears.
Finally the mother of the child emerged from the store with extraordinary relief on her face and she rushed over to scoop up the child in her arms. Both were now crying. I watched as the mother gently soothed the little girl, patting her back. She turned at the waist back and forth saying “Shhhhh…it’s OK…shhhhhh….mommy has got you…it’s OK…I have you now…you don’t have to be afraid.” The mother’s words calmed the child and reminded me of how our compassionate and loving God embraces us in times of stress and fear when we feel a bit lost. Those times have become pronounced yet again in recent weeks.
As world events continue to portray escalating violence, fear, and terrorism we need to know that the God of Peace, Jesus Christ still embraces humanity, even in the midst of chaos, and comforts us. Fear and anxiety seem to prevail as we await the 2016 election of a new leader for our country, we hear about racially charged violence within our own borders, and learn of attacks throughout the world-in Syria, Iraq, and Africa and not only in Paris. Especially during such times it is important for us to remember that the God of grace embraces us. It is important to remember that the Christ child whose birth we await during Advent and whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Day was born during such tumultuous times and brought salvation to the world and peace on earth among people of good will.
I encourage us to imagine the comforting arms of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ holding all of humanity in an embrace of relief and shared weeping. I encourage us to listen for the Holy Spirit whispering into our ears and our hearts “Shhhhh…it’s OK…shhhhhh….I’ve got you…it’s OK…I have you now…you don’t have to be afraid.”
My prayer is that we experience the loving grasp of God through Jesus Christ. I pray we find comfort in knowing we are still loved, and we are never alone. We could be given no better gift than this Divine and limitless love wrapped in the flesh of humanity lying in a manger. I pray that we find ways of loving one another with this same comforting grace. I pray we seek to embody the peace given to us through Jesus Christ. I pray that even as you and I strive for a world where we begin to beat our swords into plowshares and learn war no more that God empowers us to have a blessed Advent season, and a Merry Christmas.