Steve Patterson: The Unlikeliest Christmas
This is one of our favorites of Steve Patterson’s several columns for NEMiss.News. Our readers responded favorably when it was first published six years ago.
Editor’s Note: Great energy and a good education; success both in business and public service; family and countless friends; financial security; deep Christian faith– Steve Patterson had an abundant measure of the good life. Then an unpleasant and unexpected turn of events, during which he had the most memorable Christmas of his life. This is his third column for NEMiss.News.
THE UNLIKELIEST CHRISTMAS
There has been only one Christmas, one Christmas season, one Christmas week, one Christmas Eve, one Christmas Day and one Christmas Night. All the others are mere ancillary celebrations of the one blessed night which took place over two thousand years ago in the unlikely, out-of-the-way, unimportant village of Bethlehem in a shabby, stinky stable.
If you had been a casual observer standing outside that dark, damp stable in Bethlehem on that first Christmas Night, you would have seen two poor, exhausted souls, Mary and Joseph, as they dragged themselves toward the stable. You would have immediately recognized that these two raggedly dressed people had no influence, no prestige, and certainly no political power. Plus, they were Jews – a conquered and despised people in that region at the time. You wouldn’t believe that anything of significance could happen in this dimly lit stable. After all, everything of importance happened in Rome, or Athens, or Jerusalem – not in tiny Bethlehem. All the important stuff was done by the rich, the educated, the famous, the politically connected. What you saw here was just two poor nobodies in a barn. The British playwright and sometimes poet, Christopher Fry, captured the situation eloquently:
The darkest time in the year
The poorest place in town;
Cold, and a taste of fear;
Man and woman alone;
What can we hope for here?
Hold on. Wait a minute. Let’s look again. Something has been left out of the picture: God. Most situations look bleak when we leave God out of the picture. But, insert God into what you are witnessing and the picture suddenly changes dramatically. Add the father of us all, the God of all creation, to the scene; a God intent on revealing himself to all of humanity through the gift of his own son, born in a shabby stable, and a vastly different picture emerges, indeed. Look for God and you will see the scene change from a hopeless, ordinary, uneventful situation into a prodigious event that becomes the incarnation of God, himself. The light of the world is born in that bleak barn. The good news of Jesus’ birth changes all of undeserving humanity forever. Rejoice as Christopher Fry describes that blessed first Christmas night:
What can we hope for here?
More light than we can learn;
More wealth than we can treasure;
More love than we can earn;
More peace than we can measure;
Because one child is born.
God is sometimes revealed in unlikely places through unlikely people. The child born in that little stable is not only the good news of Christmas, but the best news the world will ever know. This was no ordinary child. This child was God’s gift to us all. Through this little newborn baby, God gave us the gift of himself; his love, his mercy, and the gift of an abundant and everlasting life. In this child, born in that humble stable, God revealed himself to us, reconciled us to himself, and enabled us to live as his children and as heirs to his Kingdom.
That’s the gloriously good news of Christmas: not that we love God but that he loves us! We know that to be true because of the cosmic event that took place in that unimportant village called Bethlehem, in that dark, damp stable, where the word became flesh and dwelt among us. The first epistle of John, fourth chapter, verses nine and ten confirm it best: “In this love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent his only begotten son into the world, that we might live through him, in this love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son to be propitiation for our sins.” That is why we sing “Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” The message of Christmas is indeed good news. Good news that came from a most unlikely place, at a most unlikely time, among most unlikely people.
CHRISTMAS IS WHERE YOU FIND IT
Let’s fast forward two thousand plus years to Maxwell Air Force Base Federal Prison Camp. It is the week of the anniversary celebration of that first Christmas. I don’t have to imagine it. I was really there, as an involuntary guest of the federal government. I was an ordinary inmate just like the twelve hundred or so others who had paid reservations of varying lengths.
It was fittingly cold and dreary when I heard my name called over the prison intercom summonsing me to the prison chapel. This was usually not good news. Most of the time it meant something bad had occurred at home: a death in the family, an accident, or some other unexpected event so horrible that only a man of God could be the bearer of the news. My heart raced as I made that long, lonely walk across the prison yard toward the chapel.
Upon my arrival, I was politely greeted by Chaplain Carl Fisher and ushered into his private office. My heart pounded, and my hands began to tremble. Chaplain Fisher abruptly said “Steve, calm down. There is nothing wrong.”
Then, as the blood rushed back into my face, he continued, “It is the tradition here at Maxwell Prison Camp that an inmate be chosen to deliver the Christmas Eve message, and the Chapel staff – and inmates themselves – would like to ask you to deliver that message.”
Relieved, flattered, and delighted, I immediately and eagerly agreed to do it. While I had filled the pulpit a few times in the Chaplain’s absence before, he advised me that the Christmas Eve service was not the ordinary Chapel gathering.
“It will be the best attended service of the year by both staff and inmates,” he said. “It is always a special time. Trust me. You’ve never experienced anything like it.”
The chapel staff requested that we be allowed to have a midnight Christmas Eve service, like those observed on the outside. That small request was denied by the warden, but a special concession was made to hold the service at nine o’clock at night. Chaplain Fisher instructed me to arrive a little early. Naturally, I obliged.
Two nights later, I entered the Chapel through the front door around 8:30, as the prison choir sang “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” This almost entirely African-American choir was accompanied by a piano, organ, bass guitar, drums, and one alto saxophone. For the next hour, the choir steadily increased its tempo as several hundred inmates began to fill the pews and finally spill out into the prison yard. Soon, the entire crowd was clapping, dancing, and singing along full-throated with the choir in joyous anticipation of the child that had been born millennia before in that damp stable in Bethlehem.
The scene was like nothing I had ever witnessed. Had you been there, you undoubtedly would have agreed. Hope, optimism, and good news was abundantly flowing from this most unlikely place, at this unlikely time, from these unlikely people. God had entered the picture!
As the crowd reached its crescendo and finally took its seat, Chaplain Fisher approached the pulpit, made a few welcoming remarks, and introduced the special music for the evening: an inmate and cousin of Gregg Allman of the acclaimed Allman Brothers Band! He had composed a special song for the occasion, titled “A Letter to Mother at Christmas.” At the conclusion of his stirring performance, there was not a dry eye to be found.
Chaplain Fisher then made a few announcements, instructed the staff to distribute candles to all the inmates, which would be used at the conclusion of the service, and made a brief introduction of me.
As I surveyed the assembled congregation, I could not help but think of how society would view us all. Broken vessels, outcasts from society, separated from our families and former lives, felons, failures, losers, criminals, a bunch of nobodies with questionable pasts and doubtful futures. Nothing good could possibly come from this most unlikely of places, right? That conventional view leaves one important element out of the equation: God, and his unfailing grace and gift of redemption.
AND WHAT IS REQUIRED OF US?
I was about to deliver one of the most important messages of my life. No political speech, policy presentation or layman’s devotional could hold a candle to presenting the hope of God to a room full of prison inmates and their guards.
I knew many of the faces before me. A good number of them, I was convinced were unequivocally innocent of what they had been charged with and found guilty of.
Others were guilty by their own admission, and had much to repent and learn.
Regardless of our innocence or guilt, we had all travelled through an amazingly dysfunctional criminal judicial system filled with paradoxical contradictions, where the truth often seemed of scant importance. Nonetheless, we would always be viewed as felons. But failures, losers, and nobodies? No way! The sure grace of a loving God who gave his Son in that unlikely stable more than two thousand years before took care of that. Hope was born on that night, and will never die because of the event that took place in that stable on that blessed night.
As is my custom, I began my sermon by telling a couple of humorous stories from my life experience and reading a scripture from each testament, old and new. The old testament text was one that I had preached from several times before: Micah 6:8, which states “He has shown you, oh man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” The prophet Micah lived about seven hundred years before Mary and Joseph entered that stable; and it was Micah who had foretold that the glorious event would take place in the unlikely village of Bethlehem.
Micah was a country boy who spoke in blunt, plain language. He loved the common man and hated corrupt politicians. One might say Micah was a prophet of social reform. In fact, the entire book of Micah is primarily a condemnation of religious and political leaders who use their authority to take advantage of the powerless. I figured this was a pretty good basis for reaching a group of imprisoned men.
I began the message by asking “What does God want from us at Christmas time? What present can we give our Lord this year? We have no money. We have no freedom. There is little we can do. Is there anything we can give someone who not only has everything, but actually made everything? How can we felons bring a smile to the face of the father of us all?”
The answer is simple. What God wants from us, what he requires of us, he has already given to us: the child born in that little stable in Bethlehem. He came to establish justice. He came to show mercy. He came to lift up the humble.
Justice is an illusory concept to many of us, I said, considering our current predicament. If you want to please God, be just, even if justice has been denied you. How do we do that? Our instructions come from the “Light of the World” born on Christmas night: care for the poor, remember the widows, the orphans, and the prisoners, refrain from cheating, extortion, bribery, and lying, and refuse to take advantage of the less fortunate. And, oh yeah, one more thing: love one another as he loves us.
To please God, we must show mercy, I said. We all need and yearn for mercy every day. On the day we were sentenced to this place, we all wished – and, I bet, prayed – for mercy. Society does not freely show mercy, but the one born on this night more than two thousand years ago does, and he calls upon us to follow a simple, merciful rule: do unto others as we would have others do unto us. God gave us the great gift of mercy, and we show our gratitude by giving it back to him.
The very best gift we can give God is to walk humbly with him, I said. I think it was at this point that I bore down with my most passionate oratory.
“There is one thing – and one thing alone, I shouted – that ultimately matters: God’s opinion of you and me. The world’s opinion does not matter. God’s opinion is all that matters. Any accolade, compliment, praise, honor, humiliation, criticism, put-down, lie, or disappointment we receive from the world means nothing in the eyes of our Father. Walk humbly with God. For, he walks with you!”
ON ROLLING AWAY STONES
I continued by referencing an Easter resurrection message rather than an Advent message. My goal was to show the glory of God’s gift to us from birth, life, death, and resurrection. I chose the short, but oh so sweet text of Mark 16:4, which states “But, when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away, for it was very large!”
“The child whose birth we celebrate tonight,” I reminded my fellow inmates, “still rolls away the stones in our lives no matter how large they may be.”
The stones of hardened hearts can be rolled away by this Christ Child. The stones of greed, selfishness, and love of money can be rolled away. Drug and alcohol addiction stones crumble at his command. Whatever stone stands in your way can be rolled away by the one born in that dirty stable in Bethlehem. This child opens the door from the outside. We hope. We pray. We wait. But, the door must be opened from the outside to set us free. THIS is the good news of Christmas. This Christ child rolls away the stones no matter how large and opens doors to all who open their hearts to him. This is why we sing, “Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born!”
The service proper was concluded with a brief prayer by another inmate, but it was far from over. As we began to light the candles, the crowd spontaneously started to hum a slow version of “Amazing Grace.” The emotional impact of the service hardly subsided as we slowly made our way back to our sleeping quarters.
As a rule, evenings in prison are loud, boisterous affairs complete with childish horseplay, joke-telling, board games, and the familiar sound of shuffling cards – general frivolity and noisy fun. On this night, however, silence prevailed. In fact, it was eerily quiet as most lay silently in their bunks. No doubt many were dreaming of home, perhaps reflecting upon the service, and recognizing the specialness of the night we had just shared in celebration of the most blessed of events – the birth of Christ. It was indeed a silent, holy night in that prison camp.
A MOST UNLIKELY SETTING FOR CHRISTMAS
As an outside observer, you may think nothing good could possibly come from a federal prison camp. I write this column to tell you how misguided such an assumption would be. I have personal knowledge of great contributions to God’s Kingdom that have emerged from these unlikely places and unlikely people. Chuck Colson left this unlikely place and established one of the most important evangelical movements ever, through his prison ministries organization. Richard Scruggs’ “Second Chance” GED program here in Mississippi had its genesis at Maxwell Federal Prison Camp. Great works of art and literature have arisen from these unlikely places as well, including “Sanctuary of Outcasts,” by Mississippi’s own Neil White. Countless public health advocates, children advocates, gospel missionaries, and environmental activists have emerged from these unlikely places, all having one thing in common: they sought justice, loved mercy, and walked humbly with God, and the stones were rolled away!
When ole Hank Williams – hardly a soul un-dipped in sin – wrote one of the greatest Christian songs of all time, “I Saw the Light,” the “light” he sang about was the same as that first shown in the dim stable in Bethlehem. That light continues to shine all over the world and in some unlikely places – slums, bars, jails, and even federal prison camps. Like Hank, many hurt and hopeless people have been blessed to truthfully sing, “Praise the Lord. I saw the light!”
I pray that the Light shines upon you and yours this Christmas season, wherever you may be. As for me, my best Christmas ever took place in that federal prison. Separated from my past, hardly in control of my present, and unable to even dream of my future, it was just me and the fellowship of other broken vessels. The hope of the Word that became flesh in that tiny Bethlehem stable was all that I had, and I realized for the first time that it was all – and more – than I needed.
Yes, my very best Christmas took place in prison — as unlikely a setting as the first Christmas, don’t you think?