The casting has taken place for the pre-school nativity play. My daughter called me a few weeks ago to tell me the news: her firstborn, and the apple of all our eyes, had been chosen to be...the donkey! I think the proud parents had been hoping for an angel at least, given that she is—though I may have some bias—a very cute little 18-month-old with the fuzzy beginnings of what might become golden hair. But no. The donkey. I was thrilled and I said so. The donkey is something very special. How often have I found myself particularly drawn, in prayer, to the simple, warm-breathed, burden-bearing donkey.
Thoughts of the donkey turned my attention to a couple who live on our street. Let me call them Mary and Joe, and let me tell you a little of their story, because it is its own Nativity story.
Mary and Joe are as normal and regular a couple as it gets. They have a grown family and are actively bringing up their small granddaughter so their daughter, a single mom, can continue to work. They struggle to keep going in today’s economic climate, but they are the kindest neighbors anyone could ever wish for. I bless the day they moved into our neighborhood.
Earlier this year they were accepted as foster parents for children who have been taken into the care of the social services department because of sickness, abandonment or abuse. I could not believe my ears when Joe told me they were willing to take children of any age and any degree of disability or difficulty and that they just thought it would be good to make some small difference to a few young lives and share the little they have.
So what’s with the donkey? Well, I have seen the donkey—in the form of the social worker’s car—come by three times now over the past few months and park outside Joe and Mary’s humble “inn,” carrying a needy mother and child on its rough back.
The first placement took us all by storm. Three teenage boys arrived—imagine three troubled teenage boys arriving in your home for an indefinite period. But these were three very special boys. They spoke hardly any English. They needed halal food and opportunities to pray five times a day. They did not know whether their families were alive or dead.
They were refugees from Afghanistan. Their father had been killed in the conflict, and their mother had courageously smuggled them out of the country to save them from the Taliban and the killing fields. After six months crossing Asia and Europe in a truck, they arrived in England and were granted refugee status. Mary came around a few days after their arrival to invite me to meet them. I looked into the sad and gentle eyes of these war-torn children and saw the face of another middle-eastern Child, fleeing conflict and bringing peace.
Next came two little boys whose father had upped and left and whose mother was doing drugs. They too were gently laid into Joe and Mary’s “stable,” where their deep woundedness was tended by loving hands until their own family could look after them. There were no shepherds, no wise men, just a little taste of tenderness from caring strangers.
The present incumbents of Joe and Mary’s “crib” came a couple of weeks ago: a 6-week-old baby girl, taken into care because she already had been assaulted by her natural family and, along with her, her 15-year-old mother, who had also suffered abuse and domestic violence. This teenage mom is a child herself, still in shock and badly needing Mary’s parenting guidance. The baby girl now sleeps safely at night. Perhaps the angels hover over her as once they did in Bethlehem. Perhaps a lone star rises, carrying a prayer that her life might become something better than its brutal beginning. But change like that does not come down with the Christmas sparkle straight from heaven. It comes through the daily struggle of good people like Mary and Joe, who labor to bring a little more love and hope and trust into the world and who welcome whoever the “donkey” brings.
Mary and Joe don’t go to church. Should I be “converting” them? Or should I be asking for the grace to let my own heart be converted by their example?
When I see my own little donkey next week on her big day, with her homemade big ears, I shall be torn, I’m sure, between smiles and tears. And I will be praying that she grows up to be a woman with room in her heart for the ones without another human heart to beat for them.