This Christmas bash was Cheryl's brainchild, and she and the team had worked tirelessly to make it happen. Now as she counted down the hours to the guests' arrival, nervous anticipation clawed at her stomach.
“Oh, Lord, please let this go well. May the guests feel welcome. May they know your love... Karen, please check on the turkey... Your love Lord! We've done our part, but it's empty without you... Rachel, would you pop out for some more cranberry sauce?...” Her prayers mingled with her conversation as naturally as outdoors the snowflakes silently danced together.
The three women laboured in the church kitchen until the smells of stuffed roast turkey, honey-glazed ham, grilled sausage, steamed pudding and a multitude of farm-fresh vegetables seemed to ooze from the very pores of their skin. As others arrived bearing holly wreaths, they went to shower and change ready to wait on the invited guests.
“Did you bring the clothes then?” asked Ken as the team made last minute adjustments to the table decorations.
“Yes, they are in the changing rooms, but remember we discussed this before? We want these guys to feel accepted just as they are. The showers and clean clothes are available if they want to use them. Otherwise the meal goes ahead and we give out the clothes parcels as they leave.”
“I know what you're thinking Ken,” interrupted Rachel. “We've spent months working with these folk, and we don't notice their -uh- unique odour any more, but others in the church might not be quite as understanding if they come in here tomorrow and catch more than a passing whiff of the nauseating stench of the gutters!”
“So be it! I'm sure the lepers didn't smell of roses but that didn't stop Jesus from touching them. We have plenty of air freshener if it comes to that. Now, look sharp, there's someone at the door... Bless you Lord! Now please take full control!”
Over the next few minutes 37 men and 7 women filed into the church. They were a motley crew: tall and short, fat and thin, young and old. They boasted a fine assortment of black teeth, bloodshot eyes, scarred cheeks, and tattooed knuckles. One was heavily pregnant. Mild expletives escaped from many lips as they took in the elegant hall, the richly-coloured table cloths and expensive cutlery. Others turned quite pale as they realised that years of living rough had erased any memory of how to use a knife and fork.
Cheryl calmly took charge, had the guests seated and was welcoming them to the meal before any of them had chance to bolt for the door. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she began. A hush fell on the room. When was the last time anyone had addressed this bunch like that? “This is Christmas Eve. Tomorrow we remember that Jesus left all the glory of heaven to be born in poverty. He did it so that he could live among people who have messed up their lives and give them a brand new start. He did it because he loves us so very much. Be at home tonight! This is Jesus' house and he is welcoming you to this dinner!”
The team served the guests in a frenzy. Food that had taken hours to prepare disappeared from plates before the waiters had reached the other end of the table! Cheryl was wondering whether it had all been a waste of time and energy when, over coffee and mince pies, the miracle took place.
“I swear I haven't felt God so close as this since I was a kid in Sunday school!” It was Ben, a man whose wife had thrown him onto the streets when she could no longer cope with his compulsive gambling.
“You went to Sunday school too did you?” asked Katie, a nineteen year-old drug addict who sold her body to feed her habit. “I was baptised when I was fourteen. I really meant it, thought I'd follow Jesus for ever. Then I hooked up with the wrong kind of guy, fell pregnant and that was that. I never thought Jesus would have any more use for me... till tonight.”
Until well past midnight the guests told their heart-rending stories, confessed their miserable mistakes, and reminded each other of long-forgotten Bible stories. And Christmas Day dawned bright with hope that God might yet have a future and a plan even for them.
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