When Divinity Became Intimate by Rocky Fleming
A Christmas Short Story
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14 (ESV)
It was Christmas Eve and I stood at a distance to not frighten the children and families. They don’t like people like me, though they don’t know me. I get it. I look like a mess, I smell like one, and I would be described as “disgusting” by parents. I would have told my children the same thing when I lived with them. Like many other Christmas manger scenes that had played out for centuries in front of churches, the child actors were gathered around a crudely built manger in front of their church. I wondered if my children were doing the same in their church. I’ve had to do the best I can to dismiss them from my mind to release them to move on without me. But times like this always bring to mind what I’m missing and what I gave up protecting them from me.
The child actors I was watching all silently and reverently looked at the baby doll in the crib that was posing as baby Jesus. There were children with fake wings gazing at Mary and Joseph and the crib. There were ten-year-old shepherds with partially attached beards standing with staffs at a respectful distance, kinda like the real shepherds might have done on that first night when Jesus was born. After all, they were low in the pecking order of their society, but still more respected than me. Even so, they knew their place and it wasn’t high up. No doubt the child in the play who reads best was nominated to recite the Christmas story to all who attended. Her opening line to the listeners was:
“The Word Became Flesh”
The child then went on to read the first 13 verses in John’s Gospel, and when she got to verse 14, she slowed down so that all would understand that there was an important statement that would be made. The child said again, “And the Word became flesh” then she added, “and dwelt among us…”
With cynicism I thought, “Good acting. Her mom taught her well with the dramatic part.” But I will say that her words hung in the air for me to think on. Maybe there is a critical need to slow it down on that part? Maybe I need to think a little deeper about it, if I want to understand the implications of this statement, for after all, I haven’t done so before in all my other Christmases?
I promised myself that I would do that tonight. I don’t have much else to do. I’m out of work, unhireable, homeless and my family doesn’t know if I’m alive or where I am. It’s been two years since I left. It’s better for them that way. I brought enough pain into their life when I lived with them. They don’t need me, and likely they don’t want me. In fact, nobody wants me in their life. I’ve thought about ending my miserable life many times before. But something keeps me from doing it. I don’t know why. It just works out that way.
I have a lot of time on my hand after I panhandle or dumpster dive for food. My next need after that is to find some rotgut whiskey and try to find a warm place to sleep. My basic needs for survival are met that way, if you want to classify how I live as surviving. I hate shelters. Too stuffy and the snoring is terrible. But it’s real cold tonight, and they are predicting snow. It’s going to be a tough one if I stay in my tent. But I’d rather fight the cold than be confined. The battlefield created that in me, for not many people want to be around a screaming man when I have those dreams. I’ll go to the mission house and get soup and that’ll warm me up. They might let me take some with me for the night. Hopefully someone will have a fire going in the oil drum at the homeless park. That helps, as long as you’re next to it
Before leaving the manger scene, a stranger came and stood next to me. Most people don’t do that because I stink. I can’t even stand myself. But the stranger didn’t seem to have any problem with it.
“Howdy,” the stranger said. “Pretty good acting. Their presentation is far from the way it was, as far as the manger scene goes. But they got the reverence down fairly good.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“I have some historical insight most people don’t have,” the man said with authority and assurance. He sounded credible. “I guess he’s some kind of preacher or seminarian,” I thought.
"What did you think of the passage the kid quoted?” he asked.
“I’ve heard that part in the bible many times over the years.”
“Yes, I know.”
“How do you know?”
“Historical insight,” he responded with a smile.
“How about the words in the verses. Did any of them intrigue you?”
I immediately had a flashback with my thoughts on the manger scene and the words that intrigued me. How many times I had seen such Christmas plays, and was even part of them, but didn’t connect with what it says about the Word becoming flesh? I thought it was just a saying, or poetry, or even an eloquent build-up to intrigue us, as writers often do. So, I said,
“The words about the Word becoming flesh interested me. But I don’t know what it means. Do you?”
The stranger said, “That opening statement was written by John, Jesus’ disciple. John was with Jesus from the beginning of His public ministry. John was an old man when he wrote his gospel account. He had faithfully served Jesus all of his life, since meeting Him the first time on the Sea of Galilee. He was the youngest of the disciples and had deep feelings for Jesus in ways that help people understand that Jesus is a personal and caring Savior.”
Then he paused and asked me, “Do you believe this?”
My thoughts about myself surfaced. I’ve never known it to be true that Jesus is a personal and a caring Savior. John seems to understand a special connection at the heart level with Jesus can happen for some people. But I don’t know it if it is true. John was a lot better man than me. That’s probably the reason. I don’t care about me and I doubt anyone else does either. Why would Jesus? I’m worthless, broken and unlovable. Even He couldn’t love me. I don’t deserve it.
The stranger shook me from my thoughts when he asked, “Where’d you go? I asked you a question. Maybe I need to get back to your question about the Word becoming flesh? If you fully understand what it means, then you can understand that there is no human condition that you can be in that He doesn’t know what it feels like. Because He became flesh, He understands what going on in your life right now.”
“I doubt Jesus was a homeless drunk like me?”
“You are right about not being a drunk. But He was homeless a big part of His ministry. He knew what it was like to sleep in the cold, to go without a meal, to be hungry and thirsty. He chose to become a human so He could relate with humans and humans with Him. He chose to come in the humblest form, not as a king, though He is one. He chose to not demand service from others but rather to serve them. He felt pain. He bled when cut. He was hungry at times, so He fed the hungry, because He knew what it felt like to be hungry, and cold, and lonely. Yes, He understands you quite well. He even understands why you drink to dull the pain and your memories.”
“How can you know these things about me?”
“You’ll find out.”
“How can Jesus relate with me in particular?” I mean He didn’t bring on Himself all the things I’ve done to myself?”
“Did you bring on yourself the PTSD that you struggle with? Do you choose to keep the memory of your friends who died next to you on the battlefield from waking you up at night? Do you bring those things on yourself?”
“Again, how do you know these things about me?” I asked with impatience.
“Historical insight,” he answered, again with a smile.
I guess he’s seen a lot of other vets like me and has some insight because of it? Maybe he is one? But I am starting to connect with the benefit of Jesus becoming a human. He needed to know and feel what people of all kinds go through in this world. In a deeper, and maybe a more intimate way, I feel encouraged by this thought.
I was always captivated by Christmas as a child. I loved the music, the food, the presents, the laughter and joy. It seemed that the bickering and anger within my family subsided long enough for us to find some peace with each other. Eyes were taken off our self and placed on something better. As a child I felt the build-up days were especially good, as my stomach began to turn with anticipation soon after we wrapped up Thanksgiving. It was one solid month of joyful Christmas songs and happy thoughts. I wish it could have kept going for me that way, but it didn’t.
I lost that Christmas feeling when I came home from Afghanistan, and it would be the beginning of losing everything else that mattered, as I dove into drugs and alcohol to dull my thoughts and memories of the battlefield? Sure. They call it P.T.S.D. I call it the nearest thing to hell, if there is a place worse than that now I don’t know it. As a kid I guess I had just liked the fun and laughter of Christmas and now that those things are lost, I don’t think much about it. But, for the first time in a long time I have an interest in Christmas again, and it was that dramatic kid’s words that invited me to look deeper with, The Word Became Flesh.
The stranger asked, “What do you think of when you read or hear that the Word became flesh?”
I answered, “When I think of God becoming a human being, I get lost in the mystery of it. They say that Jesus left His throne in heaven to save mankind. I think, Why? Are we really worth it? When they say that Jesus came to save me personally, I ask, Me? For what reason? Who am I for Him to do this?” Those are just reflex questions I ask, for I feel totally unworthy of this gift if it is true. They tell me that no one is worthy of it. I think that’s confusing. So, it goes back to my question of why?”
I continued, “Even in my cynicism I think there’s something wrong in the way Christmas is celebrated, if all those things are true about Jesus. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I love the memories of cold nights on Christmas Eve. I loved the lights in the windows and on the tree. I loved the smell of food cooking on Christmas Day, and especially those times at my grandmother “Mu’s” house where she cooked on a large wood burning stove. The fact is the whole house was heated with wood burning fireplaces as it was in the previous century when most country houses were similarly heated. It was magical for me on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But I don’t remember much about Jesus. It was more about Santa, and Jesus came along for the ride. Shouldn’t He have been the greatest emphasis? Funny thing about losing that Christmas feeling is I feel that there’s more to it than the commercialism it has become. I could care less about another Christmas parade or lights and sounds. But I do want to know more about The Word Becoming Flesh.”
I was ready to go get some soup, so I told the stranger I had to go. He smiled and said,
“I’ll see you later.”
The soup was hot, and I was cold. It helped. They gave me some extra to take with me to my tent in the park and to a friend. I’ll have to find a can or something to heat it up in, but the garbage is full of cans that I can use. I don’t think most people realize how lucky or blessed they are to have good food to eat and a warm place to sleep. I know I took it for granted. I’m glad my family has that thanks to their mom. Actually, that is the only cheerful thing I can think of nowadays, which is that they are ok. Before I left the soup kitchen a young woman asked if she could pray for me.
“Sure,” I said. “Could always use a prayer,” even though I thought to myself that I think prayers are useless.
She grabbed my hand and began praying. I saw tears streaming down her face, as if she knew something about me that created concern in her. I’d heard about people who have some kind of gift of mercy that cause them to sense someone else’s pain. Maybe that was it? She sure had a lot of faith, and even told me that God is going to help me. Yeah! Sure! I won’t be holding my breath waiting for that, sister. She might believe it. But I don’t.
Back at the park the friend who watched my tent and sleeping bag was standing next to the fire going on in the oil drum. I brought enough soup for him, as well. We have a community of homeless people with all kinds of problems. Sure, there are a lot of addicts in the mix who use or drink until they pass out to find an escape from their thoughts, like me. By in large there is some kind of mental illness going on with all of us. All of us have a sad story. All of us feel like garbage to society. All of us feel unloved, disliked and abandoned. So, we pull together and become kinda like a family with each other until someone steals your things that is. That’s how most fights break out. But tonight, I feel safe, cause it’s so cold that no one wants to get out of their sleeping bag. I head to my tent and sleeping bag and do the best I can to get warm enough to make it through the night.
As I lay in my tent my thoughts swirled with memories of past Christmases, my family back home, and my greatest nemesis which is having thoughts of seeing my brothers in arms blown up by a land mine. I couldn’t get any liquor or drugs tonight to take those thoughts away, and I knew it would be a terrible night because of it. Man, if I need a prayer answered, it would be to make it through the night without going nuts. Maybe I should pray? It’s been a long time. It couldn’t hurt. Right?
“God, I don’t know if you are real or you hear me or if you even care. But I’m going to have a real bad night tonight if You don’t help me. So, I’m going to keep my request simple. Would you help me sleep though the night without waking everyone up with my screaming?”
I thought I was through, but I remembered something else to ask Him. “And God. If Jesus is Your Son and You sent Him, would you tell me what it means that The Word Became Flesh? Somehow, I think there is more to it than I know about. I think I’ve missed out on knowing this, and maybe this is what Christmas should be really about? Is it more to it than Jesus just being born that night? Is there more that I need to know?”
I closed my eyes, dreading the nightmares that would come. Instead, I began to drift away as my eyes grew heavy. As I peacefully slept, I was startled to hear a loud voice say,
The first thought I had was it’s a cop hassling us. I rolled out of my sleeping sack and came out of the tent. The snow had stopped, and everyone was still sleeping. It wasn’t even that cold anymore. I looked to see who called me out and was surprised to see it was the stranger I had talked with before that was standing before me.
“Why’d you wake me up?” I exclaimed.
“Somebody prayed for you. I’m here because of it.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Think about it?”
I thought of the tearful young woman who prayed for me last night. She seemed to sense something going on in and around me. I also thought of my own prayers. But I didn’t give much account to what I said. After all, why would God hear me or help me? So, I asked,
“I need to get something straight right off. Am I’m dreaming? If I’m not, are you some kind of angel?”
“We like to see ourselves as messengers from God,” he responded and then continued. “We’re called angels, God’s helpers, many other things by different languages. But it comes down to being a messenger.”
“What kind of message does God want to give me?”
“Let’s start with this one. He loves you.”
“Come on now, you had me going up until you said that,” I responded.
“I know it’s hard to believe that even the best or the worst of people can receive God’s love. His is a different kind of love. It’s a grace love that is underserved by the ones He loves and it’s unconditional. That’s the reason why the Word became flesh and dwelt among you.”
“Ok, now I’ve got to have an answer to that. Was does it mean?”
“I’ll get around to it but let’s stick with the love and prayers discussion for a while. Who else might be praying for you?”
“No one. Who would?”
“You may be surprised. You need to see what I’m about to show you so that you will know that you are loved and are being prayed for even now.”
Suddenly a swirl of wind with snow encircled us, like a whirlwind. After it calmed down, I saw that I was standing outside a house. I recognized it as the house I once lived in with my family before I left them. I asked,
“Why am I here? Surely, they are gone. Surely, they have moved on without me. Beth is a beautiful woman and has likely remarried, and the children have a better dad than me?”
“Let’s look and see … and listen.”
It was apparent that I could see and hear them, but they couldn’t see us. I found myself in the house. I saw that Beth had prepared for Christmas with lights, a tree and such. She always did a wonderful job of that. We next moved into the bedroom of the children where my daughters and Beth were. They were on their knees next to the bed. The children had their hands together in prayer while Beth had her outstretched arms on our two children. One of my daughters asked:
“Mommy, where is Daddy right now?”
“I don’t know honey. We need to pray for him?”
Our oldest daughter asked, “Mommy do you still love Daddy, and does he love us?”
“I’ll always love him sweetheart, and he will never stop loving you. Daddy is really sick and left us to keep us safe. Let’s pray that he will get well and come home to us. God can help him, if he will let Him. That’s why we need to keep praying for him. God can do amazing things.”
They began praying and I heard my name mentioned several times. They had tears, as they pleaded to God to send me back to them. Beth was weeping with them and asking the same. All I could think of was how their Christmas Eve is being spoiled. Once again, I wreak havoc in my family’s life. I can’t seem to get myself out of their lives. The one thing I want most of all from God is that He would remove the man who has hurt them so badly. I want to die. I don’t want to continue to hurt them.
“Why are you showing me this?” I asked the angel.
“You need to know that you are loved, and you are being prayed for. Why do you think their love sustains for you? It is because God loves you, and He has heard their prayers. Would you like to be the answered prayer that they ask for?”
“How? They would be better off if I were dead.”
“In a way you are right.”
I was surprised to hear the angel agree with me. Then he said,
“They don’t need the old man that you were in their life. That is true. They need a new man that is you, one who leaves the old man behind and embraces the gift from God that will change you.”
“How can that be? How can He change me?”
“That is why the Word became flesh and dwelt among you. You’ve asked several times what it means. Now I will explain what you’ve been asking.”
The angel continued, “Jesus was with God the Father in the beginning. God is indescribable because He does not occupy a body of flesh and no mind can understand Him, until He came as Jesus Christ. John the Apostle pointed out by inspiration from God that In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word that is being referenced is God, and the Word that was born to mankind is God and was given for a purpose to show God’s love and to make a way for all who believe in Him to have eternal life. That is why Christmas is celebrated. Jesus, the Word, was born in Bethlehem, in a stable, to a virgin, and fulfilled the prophecies about Him. That is why Jesus is also called Immanuel, which means God is with us. He literally became this for mankind. Do you now understand this?”
I must say that the years of hearing about it and just letting it be an unknowing phrase that I didn’t consider started to come alive in me. I felt a new hope that life could be better and that I could be better. My spirit within me was uplifted by this simple truth that I had ignored. God became a human with Jesus, and Jesus came for me. “Wow!” I thought.
Suddenly we were back at my tent. The camp was still quiet, and the snow was still not falling. I asked the angel, “What does all this mean that you’ve shown me? Don’t you understand that it hurts me even more deeply to see what I’ve lost and to know that I can’t get back to them?”
“You can get back to them. But, it depends on you. What do you want?”
“I want to be healed from the alcohol and drugs and my need for them. I want to be a new man. I want my family back and I want to be good for them.”
“Then what do you believe about Jesus?” he asked me.
“I believe He is the Son of God. I believe He was born, lived among mankind, preached the Kingdom of God, was crucified and was resurrected on the third day.”
“Do you really believe this?”
“With all my heart, and especially now.’’
“Now here is the big question if you want Him to change you from the old man to the new man you desire to be. Do you also believe with all of your heart that he loves you and has an amazing plan for your life, a plan that will lead you to become the man you desire to be?”
That is a harder question to answer for I still have this view of myself as being totally unworthy to be loved by anyone and especially God. But I remember the unconditional part in God’s love, and I knew that this alone gives me hope that I can be loved. I said, “I now believe it. I believe that Jesus loves me and has a plan for my life.”
“Will you give Him your life now to take you forward, to heal you, and to restore you? Are you willing to ask for His help and allow others He sends your way to help you? Will you take your family’s love and not reject them because you feel unworthy of it? Will you take God’s love and not reject it because you feel unworthy of it? These things are essential.”
“I do and I will,” as I responded with a mixture of weeping and laughter from my trembling voice. What do I do next?”
“Go back to bed and receive what will be given to you.”
I moved toward the tent and was about to thank the angel, but as I turned around, I saw that he had disappeared. I got in my tent and went to sleep. When it became daylight I heard outside my tent,
I got up thinking that it was the angel again, but it wasn’t. I was a cop telling all of us that we had to leave the park. It’s Christmas Day? Where are we going to go? They don’t care. They just want families to feel safe and us to be out of sight. I get that. I’d want my children safe as well. I realized that I must have had only a pleasant dream last night and the angel and the other things I dreamt were not real. I was still the same miserable person with the same miserable life. But something was different. For some reason I felt I understood the question that I went to sleep with, which is why the Word would become flesh. For the first time I felt God knew me, and maybe even loved me. Whether it was a dream or not, I felt better just thinking those thoughts. The confession I made in my dream is really how I now feel. At least that part is real.
With the other homeless guys, we made it over to the soup kitchen for something to eat and to get out of the cold. There are a lot of well-meaning people from churches and places that go there on Christmas Day to provide food, coats and clothes for people in our circumstances. God bless them for it. I never saw the love in their eyes before. But just like last night with the young woman who prayed for me, I could see that there was something special with these people. Then a beautiful woman caught my eye, as she stood beside her two daughters. She turned and looked me in the eyes and I saw that it was Beth.
Before I could leave and hide from them, she immediately began to weep and run toward me and into my arms.
“Beth,” I said, “I’m filthy. You and the children shouldn’t be here. I’m no good for all of you. You know how crazy I am.”
Seeming to not listen to my reasoning she said, “We’ve gone to every homeless shelter and soup kitchen in every town around here looking for you for the last two years. We were about to give up hope. Then we met a man who described you and said that you might be here.”
“What did he look like?” I asked. Beth described the angel. So, it wasn’t a dream.
I told Beth what had happened the night before in detail about the angel. I thought she would think me crazier than I am until she said,
“It’s an answered prayer that we’ve been praying for since you’ve been gone. Why would God not send His angel to earth to show a man the way back to his family and to Him? He did it on this day 2,000 years ago. We know that it has been difficult for you and getting well will not be immediate. But we will be with you helping you. You need your family, and we need you.”
I knew Beth and the children were not going to let me leave again. They would stand in the way of it even if I tried to run. But I didn’t want to run away. I wanted to run into their arms. I wanted to do whatever was needed to fight against my alcoholism and drug use that’s used to numb my pain. There are better ways to fight it, and with my family and God’s help I will fight it and win.
With great joy I asked Beth and my daughters a question about Christmas that they had never heard from me before. “Do you know what it means in the Bible that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us?”
They shook their heads no.
I said, “God did it to show us the way home. That’s what Jesus does. He shows us the way home to heaven, and He showed me the way home to you. He never gives up on us no matter how bad or troubled we are, and He gives us hope to never give up on ourselves. I said that I never wanted for you to have the old man I was in your life ever again. You never will, for He has changed me and will keep making me to be a better daddy and husband. That is why I feel that I can now go home to you. So, let’s go home. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do with you.”
I looked into my children’s eyes that I hadn’t seen in two years and said, “You have grown into beautiful young ladies since I’ve seen you last. I need a lot of time with you. Will you give that to me?”
My youngest child said, “We sure will Daddy, as soon as you take a shower and get on some other clothes. Then you can hug us and hold us all you want.”
Beth grabbed my arm and said, “I’m happy to have him just as he is. But I like that suggestion as well,” saying this as she laughed.
We all laughed, and all held hands as we walked to Beth’s car. The children began to shout, “Merry Christmas everyone! Merry Christmas!” Before long Beth and I joined them.
From that time on my family and I came back every Christmas to serve the homeless people at the soup kitchen. Some of the people that I knew were still homeless, but some were encouraged by my example and made their way out of their addictions and back to the lives that they had left. I discovered that I helped myself when I helped others find their freedom, so I led a Celebrate Recovery program in the neighborhood that brought those who wanted help together and it got many of them on the right path. I would discover the night that Jesus sent His angel to help me that God would help anyone who would receive His love and seek His help. So, my life has become a messenger of that truth. Funny. I guess that means that I’m also an angel. Go figure, from homeless to angel. But that’s what happens when Divinity makes His home in our hearts. He changes us. He did me.