On this fiction Friday, I’m posting a short story I wrote several years ago since it’s appropriate for the season.
by Glenda Mathes
With “Silent Night” playing in the background, Marti rubber-stamped paper lunch bags to proclaim, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” Pints of strawberry jelly sparkled in straight rows beside the sink, like Redcoats in formation, waiting for the attack signal.
Marti hummed with the music. Like the Proverbs 31 woman, she’d risen early for personal devotions before feeding the kids and bundling them out to meet the bus. Christmas stockings hung from a dusted mantle. Coordinating ornaments and lights glittered on the tree’s evenly-spaced artificial branches, while artistically arranged gifts waited expectantly beneath.
Marti congratulated herself on finding gifts on sale throughout the year and nabbing four rolls of Santa-free wrapping paper the day after Christmas. “No Santa-splashed paper in my house,” she thought. “And with fifteen days left until Christmas all I have to do is put together these little gifts.”
The “little gifts” were for her children’s piano, Sunday school, and classroom teachers, for the mail carrier who bucked the road’s snowdrifts, and for the cosmetologist who could make even Joey sit still long enough for a haircut.
The telephone rang.
With only two bags left, Marti reluctantly put down the stamp and answered.
“Hello, Marti? It’s Deb.”
“Oh, Deb. I haven’t heard from you in a long time.”
“I know. I’ve been pretty busy the last few months, but I always see you at church, talking to the other Bible study leaders.”
“Well, we have a lot in common.”
“Marti, I’m calling to ask you a big favor. The other ladies who visit the correctional facility are planning to attend the high school Christmas concert so none of them can make it next week. Would you be able to go with me on Tuesday evening?”
“Tuesday evening? I don’t think that will work, Deb. I’ll have to prepare for Wednesday’s Bible study.” Marti paused. “We miss you there.”
“I just haven’t had time to attend since I became involved with the prison ministry. And I realize you need to lead Bible study, but I thought if I called now you might be able to prepare ahead this week.”
Marti shifted her slippered feet. “I don’t know.”
“I’m the only woman who can go next time and it’s our policy to go in pairs. I know how organized you are and I was sure you’d be able to make time for this important ministry.”
Marty sighed. “I guess I can go.”
“Great! Pastor Johnson has to leave early so he’s going to drive separately. I’ll pick you up about 6:15, okay?”
“Okay.” Marty gulped. “Deb?”
“How should I prepare?”
“Just pray.” Marti could hear the smile in Deb’s voice. “That’s what I do every week. Thanks so much, Marti. See you Tuesday!”
Marti looked at the phone in her hand. She wondered if she should call Deb back. Maybe she could tell her the kids would need help with homework that night. Maybe she could say that Paul didn’t like her going out two evenings in a row. Maybe she should ask more questions. What would they be doing? She looked at the bags and jars. Maybe she should just finish this project before lunch.
Marti was waiting by the door and looking at her watch when Deb drove up at 6:17 the next Tuesday evening.
“Hi, Marti!” Deb smiled as Marti slipped into the passenger seat and closed her door. “I really appreciate your willingness to come along tonight.”
“That’s okay.” Marti sat up straight and buckled her seat belt. The car radio was tuned to a station playing Christmas carols. She cleared her throat. “You know, after you called I thought of some questions.”
“Can you tell me a little more about what we’ll be doing?”
“Sure. Pastor Johnson leads the service and I play the keyboard for singing, so you don’t have to do anything then. After the service, we just sort of mill around with the inmates and strike up conversations.”
Marti felt an icy fist closing around her heart.
“Mill around with the prisoners? We’ll be right there in the same room with them?”
“Yes. Just stay in the chapel. Don’t go anywhere else without me.” Deb glanced at Marti. “It will probably be a small group. Notice of the service is posted and any general population inmate is allowed to attend, but there are usually only about five or ten men.”
“What if someone gets violent?”
“Don’t worry.” Deb reached over and patted Marti’s knee. “They search the men before they come in as well as when they go out. Most of them have had some experience with church, so they usually listen to the sermon and sing along. A few are real brothers in Christ. Of course,” she added as she turned a corner, “we know that our sovereign God is in control of everything that happens.”
“Oh, of course.” Marti looked out the window at a church with light shining through its stained glass windows. A choir on the radio was singing, “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.”
Marti turned her head back. “But, Deb, what do you say to the men?”
“I mostly just try to be a good listener. You never know what questions might arise or what opportunities God will open up for sharing the gospel. If they ask a difficult question or I don’t know what to say, I pray a Nehemiah prayer.”
“A Nehemiah prayer?”
“A really quick prayer.” Deb laughed. “Like Nehemiah prayed when the king asked him why he looked so sad.”
“Oh.” Marti recognized the tune on the radio as “Christians, Awake,” but she couldn’t remember the rest of the words.
At the facility, her heart sunk with every door that clanged shut behind them. In the chapel, things went as Deb had said. Pastor Johnson asked everyone to stand to sing. Then he read from Isaiah and spoke on, “Emmanuel Comes to Bring Freedom.” Marti had never had so much difficulty concentrating on a sermon. She kept glancing out of the corners of her eyes in case any of the men made a sudden move.
The final song was, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The man next to Marti really belted out, “Rejoice, rejoice!” each time he sang the chorus.
After the service, Marti edged toward the door. She saw Deb talking to a tattooed young man by the keyboard and Pastor Johnson patting the shoulder of a man with a gray beard and ponytail. The hearty singer turned toward Marti.
“Hello.” He extended his hand. “Thanks for coming tonight.”
“Ah, you’re welcome.” Marti dropped his hand as quickly as she believed socially acceptable.
“You have no idea how much some of us appreciate this. It’s a blessing to worship with other believers and learn from Pastor Johnson.”
“I’m sure it is.” Marti tried to remember Nehemiah’s prayer. She glanced up at the tall man’s face. “You seem to enjoy the singing.”
“And why shouldn’t I sing loud?” He moved closer. She noticed that his large frame now stood between her and the door.
“Why not?” Marti inched sideways around him.
He revolved slowly with her, keeping his face directly in front of hers.
“You know why I sing so loud?” He leaned in.
Marty swallowed. “No.”
“I sing so loud, because I have a mandate.” He thumped his chest with a beefy forefinger.
“Yes?” Marti found it difficult to breathe.
“Yes, a mandate.” The finger pointed at her. “And so do you!”
Marti placed her hand on her chest. “Me?”
“Yes, you, Ma’am. A mandate to glorify God and tell the world how the Almighty rescues us from the clutches of the devil.”
Marti felt as if her lungs were being squeezed in a vise.
“Yes, Ma’am.” He straightened up. “I used to be a slave.”
“A slave?” Marti was confused. Was he from another country?
“A slave to sin, a captive to my own addictions. But Jesus Christ set me free.” He spread his long, strong arms. “How can I not rejoice with a loud voice and praise Emmanuel, the Redeemer who ransoms the captives mourning here in lonely exile?”
“Quite so.” Marti felt faint.
His voice softened. “Ma’am, if I were to tell you half of what I’ve done in my life, you couldn’t sleep tonight. I didn’t care about nothin’ or nobody. I was hard-hearted, that’s what I was. But the Holy Spirit cracked the hard shell of my heart. I’m a new man. That’s what I am, a new man.”
Just then Deb came up. “Hello, Bill. Telling Marti what the Lord’s done for you?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Bill grinned widely at Deb. “He rescued me from my slavery and adopted me as his own son.”
Deb turned toward Marti. “Bill leads a Bible study here.” She smiled at Bill. “He and some other inmates meet every day, don’t you, Bill?”
“Oh, yes, Ma’am. We know we have a lot to learn. We want to spread the Word here and, when we get out, wherever the Most High sends us.”
Marti took a step toward the door. She saw Pastor Johnson shake hands with the ponytailed man and leave. She took another step. The ponytailed man and two other inmates joined Deb and Bill. The rest drifted out. Marti walked the rest of the way to the door and waited. Deb’s little group talked for a long time.
Finally, Deb walked toward her and smiled. “Time to go.”
Marti led the way out the door.
When Deb started the car, an orchestra on the radio was playing, “Joy to the World.”
“Well?” Deb backed out of the parking space. “What did you think? Do you think you’d be able to come another time?”
“I don’t know, Deb. I’m just not sure if I can make the time to do this.” Marti paused. “I’ve got my ministry to my family and to the Bible study ladies.”
“Our service to our families and our church is important.” Deb looked both ways for oncoming traffic before pulling onto the street. “But God also calls us to minister to the lost. We need to give our faith feet.”
On the radio, a male soloist sang, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” just as robustly as Bill. As the car passed the church, Marti noticed the lights gleaming through its windows on the fresh, white snow. Listening to the radio carol, Marti realized that she was really hearing the words for the first time.
The above short story is the property of Glenda Mathes and may not be republished without permission. Feel free, however, to link this URL to your blog or share it on social media with proper credit.