“If you are tired from carrying heavy burdens, come to me
and I will give you rest.”
I have been sitting with Joseph and Mary for about a quarter hour. We have been discussing the events of the evening. It’s a very strange conversation to have, knowing that I know more about their son then they do at this point.
I try to be guarded about what I say. To be quite honest this whole series of events is confounding, and I have not even begun to try to explain what is happening to me.
Joseph and Mary are weary…I can see that in their eyes. I slip quietly over to a corner of the cave where there is a covering of shadow. I want them to have some time alone and I need some myself. Time to think and wonder about this evening’s events. But I find that there will not be much time for that. Another guest has arrived.
A very beautiful woman, about the same age as me, has entered the cave very meekly. Her eyes are sullen and cast downward as she crawls in through the damp straw and mud. She barely looks up enough to even see where she is going. She pauses just inside the cave and haltingly asks; “I…came here to see Him…to see the baby. Is it…is it okay? Is he here?”
I know I recognize her voice but I cannot place her face. I realize that whoever she is, I have not seen her for a long time and we have both changed. She is carrying a blue diaper bag, the kind new moms carry. Mary has never seen something like this but I have. I can only wonder why she would bring it with her to this cave and that’s when it dawns on me who this woman is. Her name is Kelly. I went to high school with her.
Kelly was a beautiful girl in high school, and she remains a beautiful woman now. She was always a little sad beneath her bubbly exterior and there had been rumors in the small Christian high school I attended, that Kelly had been the victim of a sexual predator for years. When we were in our senior year, Kelly found herself pregnant and her embarrassed parents withdrew her from the school and it was said she moved to South Carolina to have her baby.
Kelly’s parents were deacons in the church I grew up in and they were very devout and pious folks. Her dad had been a hard drinking and hard living businessman who had come to Jesus through a series of accidents and misfortune that left him feeling very lucky to be alive and needing a second chance. The sad part was that he felt the need to earn it, instead of understanding that we all need a second chance and have nothing to offer God in exchange for it so we’d better just take it as we are.
Her dad and mom were “pillars in the church”. Kelly and her sister never wore pants, and all their skirts went below the knee. Her brother always said “yes sir” and “no sir” and his hair was short and he was going to be a preacher…even though he had a marvelous gift for painting and was only really happy when he was creating art.
There had long been a rumor about a young deacon in the church and his near-infatuation with Kelly. But those things never happened in Independent Fundamentalist churches because the strict legalism was supposed to be the only sure-fire means of battling such horrifying temptations. Nonetheless, the rumors persisted and, looking at Kelly now, I remembered how she shrank from this man like darkness from light whenever he came near.
He had been a youth worker and so he was around us all the time…and he had a strange proclivity for over-attentiveness toward Kelly. He gave me the creeps. Maybe it was because I had a crush on her briefly in tenth grade and that made me protective, or maybe it was just the fact that a sexual predator was not talked about in the 70s, but for whatever reason I made myself stop thinking about the strange gut feeling I always got when this man came around Kelly.
Then came that morning in February of 1981, our senior year, and Kelly’s empty desk in homeroom…and the whispered rumors began. Her best friend came to school with red-rimmed eyes the next day and all she would tell us was that Kelly and her family had moved away. A month after that, word had gotten back to us that Kelly had moved to South Carolina to have a baby. Seven months later the youth worker resigned and joined the Army and nobody connected the two seemingly coincidental events.
Now here she was, 45 years old and still stunning. Maybe more so than she was in high school. Same dark hair, same dark eyes. She even smelled beautiful, like she always had when we were kids. But Kelly was not the same Kelly that I remembered just before she left. She had always possessed a sad quality behind the beautiful outward veneer, but this Kelly had no veneer. This Kelly was as deeply wounded as any person I had ever seen in my life.
She wouldn’t look at Joseph or at me and she barely could hold Mary’s eye for more than a second or two. She kept darting her eyes left or right, or mostly just looking at the ground. Her jawline was flexing the way a person’s does when they are clenching their teeth. She looked fierce and angry, unless you looked really close…then all you saw was the sadness of a truly broken heart. A heart that had -as a means of defending itself against an unwanted intruder- stopped working at all. Kelly felt almost nothing in the deepest part of her soul.
I caught her eye for just a moment and I saw the terribly sad look of hollowness and pain. A pain that she’d buried long ago and that she had long forgotten the source of. Or at least she had tried to forget. She didn’t recognize me when she glanced my way. Mary smiled meekly at her and bade her come in. “You are welcome here ma’am,” Mary called sweetly. Kelly looked almost shocked at Mary. As if a term of respect were foreign to her. I found myself looking down at the ground so as to avoid making her feel uncomfortable and too, to avoid her recognizing me, still wondering if that were possible.
Most of the evenings visitors had not even known I was there, but Kelly and I had locked eyes once already and I knew she saw me here. She paused in front of Mary and asked if she could see Jesus. Mary paused and I could detect a gasp in her voice… “How do you know His name?” Mary asked. Kelly was as puzzled as Mary, “I…don’t know. I don’t really know how I got here or why. I promised myself I would never mention His name or come near…” Kelly’s voice trailed off as tears burned hot in her eyes.
I remembered now. I remembered Kelly’s best friend coming to school a month after Kelly had left and I remember never before or since, seeing the kind of burning anger I saw flash in her eyes that day. Her name was Rhonda. Rhonda came to school on a Monday morning and had little to say. She sat at our lunch table in stone silence. One of the girls asked her about Kelly and had she heard from her. Then the snickering started…then the whispered jokes.
I was sitting at the other end of the table with two guys from the hockey team and I caught the most important, and heartbreaking portion of the conversation. Rhonda told the one girl who was the leader of the attackers that yes, she had in fact talked to Kelly.
Rhonda said yes, Kelly was pregnant…four and half months by this point. The girls kept up their relentless attacks and finally Rhonda jumped to her feet and threw a milk carton at the ringleader. “My friend wishes she could die!” Rhonda hissed, “Do you know what really happened? Do you know who did this?” Rhonda was almost screaming now, and tears were breaking her voice into short chunks. She paused and thought better of mentioning the man by name because at that point he was still on staff at the school.
Then Rhonda said something that tore through my 17 year old heart like a scimitar and left a raw bleeding edge to this very day. She was controlling sobs long enough to spit out; “My best friend thinks God did this to her. She thinks God allowed this because she thinks she is evil. Kelly wishes she could die and she thinks God hates her and she won’t even mention His name again! She thinks her mom and dad hate her; she is convinced you all hate her, and she believes God is disgusted by her, and you are all acting like He is. You all make me sick!”
With that Rhonda ran out of the cafeteria and the next day she transferred to the public high school near my neighborhood and wouldn’t talk to any of the girls from our school anymore.
I saw her at a hockey game later that winter and she said a brief hello to me. Before she left I remember grabbing her hand lightly and asking her how Kelly was doing. Rhonda broke into tears at this and she hugged me hard and said Kelly had lost her baby that week.
I was 17, so I didn’t understand what that did to a girl and I thought maybe it was a good thing. And like an impulsive 17 year old boy I said so, “Well maybe that’s for the best, right Rhonda? I mean now she can get on with her life.” Rhonda must have been more mature for her age than any other girl I knew because she didn’t explode at me.
Maybe she remembered the crush I had on Kelly in tenth grade or the fact that Kelly and I remained friends even though she didn’t return my affections and she knew I would never say something hurtful. Before she left the hockey rink, I whispered to her “Tell Kelly I miss her…okay?” Rhonda was crying and I was looking for the nearest door so she wouldn’t see me cry in case the tears I was squashing down inside my soul managed to break free.
Now here Kelly was, thirty-some years later. I knew it was her but I was not sure she recognized me. She was whispering to Mary and she was moving so slowly towards the manger…as if she felt some sort of repellant force and was working against her. She seemed to keep her eyes down in some effort to avoid seeing Jesus…or at least to avoid seeing Him all at once. It was if she needed to acclimate herself to his presence and just tiny glimpses were all she could handle. She was about three feet from the manger when she paused and looked at Mary.
“Did it hurt?” Kelly asked. “Giving birth…did it hurt?” Mary smiled and said “Yes! Oh my yes! And it seemed like it would go on forever but once he was born, the pain seemed to vanish and I was so happy…” Mary was interrupted by the sobs emanating from Kelly’s broken heart. She was already on her knees, out of necessity from the low height of the cave ceiling. But now she had fallen forward almost on her face and the quiet sobs had begun.
I wanted to rush to Kelly’s side. She had been my friend all those years ago and she was so broken and so hurting tonight. But I hesitated, knowing that what she really needed…all she really needed... was only three feet from her, cooing quietly in a wooden feed trough. Mary comforted her wonderfully and in a few moments Kelly was regaining her composure enough to speak again. “I was carrying a son once” Kelly said, “But I…” there was a long, long pause here, as if Kelly was choosing words that Mary would understand given the differences of time and culture. “…I lost him” Kelly whispered.
Mary looked baffled, “He was stillborn?” She asked. At this Kelly was wracked by a new wave of sobs. She could not raise her head to look at Mary. Mary tried to comfort her. “But that happens a lot, Miss,” Mary whispered. “There was surely nothing you could do. You mustn’t blame yourself.” This elicited a new wave of pain and sorrow from Kelly. The sobs were almost shrieks now and under it all I heard her saying a name occasionally. “Thomas,” she would whisper between sobs. “Thomas.”
After a few moments Kelly was laying on the muddy straw right next to the manger. She rose to her knees and with her face in her hands in a position of uneasy worship for the baby in the manger. Mary stroked her hair for a minute and then I saw a look come over her face as if she had heard a voice. Mary glanced slightly upward and then looked at me puzzled. She came over to where I was sitting near Joseph.
“You know this woman?” she asked me. “Yes…” I answered, “But how did you…”
Before I could finish asking her how she knew that I knew who Kelly was, Mary said, “I have heard the voice of my Lord several times tonight…and just now was such a time. Go to her…she is your friend and she needs you.”
I didn’t even try to contest. I crawled through the damp straw to where Kelly was kneeling with her face buried in her hands and the sobs still pouring out of her soul. I sat there next to her not knowing what to do or say. For whatever reason I glanced at the baby in the feed trough.
Jesus was crying.
He was not crying for food or for attention or to have a diaper changed. He was not crying like a baby. He was lying still in his little makeshift cradle and silent tears were building in his eyes and running down his cheeks. He made no sound at all.
I felt my hand reach for Kelly’s long dark hair. I touched her so lightly that I didn’t think she would feel it…I’m not sure I wanted her to. She stiffened to my touch and I heard her gasp lightly. I took a breath and worked up the nerve to say a name I hadn’t said out loud in thirty years, the name I always called her… “Kell…” Kelly sat up like a shot.
That was what I called her all through high school. She looked at me in instant disbelief for just a brief second. “Kell…it’s me…its Craig” Kelly’s face grew red and she look scared for just a second. “It’s okay, I’ve been here all night” I said to her. Kelly threw her arms around my neck and I could tell she was holding back the darkest and most painful tears. We said nothing for a long, long time.
I felt Kelly stiffen and she pulled away from me. Her face turned slightly angry, and under the anger, humiliation. “You were here all night? You heard my conversation with Mary?” she hissed. “Yes” I answered… “I heard enough. Kell, it doesn’t matter to me. I’ve always hoped you were okay and I always wanted you to be happy. What brings you here?”
This was apparently the question she was answering that night. She ventured a glance toward Jesus… “I came to see Him,” she whispered to me. “I haven’t seen Him since I was 17, since…” Kelly broke into loud painful sobs. She buried her face in my shoulder and I hugged her as tightly as I could. “I know Kell, Rhonda told me. I know what happened…and who…”
Kelly drew back and a look of horror filled her eyes. “It’s okay Kell, you were the victim. You were just a kid. It’s left such a big hole…” Kelly was sobbing again but I sensed a wall had begun to crumble. My instinct told me that I was the first person from high school…from when this all happened to her…that she had seen or heard from since then. Excepting her best friend Rhonda, she had lost contact with all of us. That only built on the shame she was already carrying.
“I know you lost the baby Kell…” Kelly’s jaw dropped and her eyes grew very wide and tears flowed like a river. I knew not to say a word, and inside my heart I heard a small quiet voice, telling me to just listen. Kelly cried a long time and then she looked at me with more sadness than I have ever seen in one other human. She drew a big breath and after a long pause she said “I didn’t lose him Craig…I…I ended it.”
This was as close as Kelly could come to saying the word “abortion.” But the sting and the horror was still just as plain as if she had blurted it out. Kelly was wearing a scarlet letter in her soul and I could see it. She had long ago moved from not being able to forgive herself to plainly despising herself for this one decision she had made.
Where my tears came from was easy for me to understand, my friend was in incredible pain and not only could I see it, I felt it, to a small degree. But Kelly could not fathom my loving response. She thought somehow that I was going to react harshly and in judgment and condemnation. She pulled away from me and grew very cold.
“Kell...” I whispered, “It’s okay, people make mistakes, people in pain make even bigger mistakes. I’m still your friend.” Kelly was quiet and a slight smile tried to play on her lips. “Same old Craig,” she laughed softly, “seeing the best in everyone no matter what they do to you.” I chuckled at that, because we’d had that discussion a long time ago. The tension had eased and Kelly was a little more comfortable.
“Kelly, why did you come here tonight? You sure didn’t come to see me. I didn’t know I’d be here so how would you? Why have you really come?” I knew the answer in my heart but I was curious what she would tell me. Kelly grew very quiet and she drew a long breath. “I came to see Him…” she whispered, “I came to see the baby”.
I smiled at this, I knew that was why she made this journey, but I wanted to know what she expected from this visit. “Rhonda told me a long time ago that you want nothing to do with God or church or religion ever again. What brings you here now?” I said to her.
“Rhonda is right…I hate God,” she hissed angrily. She made no attempt at recouping those words and she threw out more invective. “My father all but disowned me and I never heard from any of my friends from church ever again. I decided that if they all judged me then God surely had. And I was so angry at Him for letting that man…” Kelly drew a gasping breath and fought tears bravely. “Why didn’t He stop that from happening? Why! Why did nobody listen and nobody believe me?”
I had no answers for Kelly’s probing questions. Questions that had been asked since time began. When God could have stepped in, why didn’t he? Kelly continued, “I have grown so weary of hating God, and hating all that belongs to Him. I know I can’t look Him in the eye. I know I can’t ever think of Him as a father. But I thought maybe if I made peace with Jesus, maybe I could make peace with my son…” Kelly broke into tears again. She wept for a few minutes and gathered her composure yet again.
“I never held him. Never smelled what he smelled like. I never felt him breathe on my skin.” Kelly fingered the wedding ring on her left hand. “My own husband doesn’t know…my kids don’t know. I have three children with my husband. He is a wonderful man and he loves me. But I can’t trust this with him. I am afraid he’ll leave me if he finds out.”
“I don’t know what I expected here tonight. I sure didn’t expect to see you here, and I don’t know what I want God to do here. Why am I here, Craig? Why do you think? What is happening to me?” Kelly was crying softly and I looked down into the manger again. The baby son of God…hours old, was still weeping. He had made no sound since Kelly had arrived and yet he was apparently aware of her pain. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
“Kell, you are here for Him. You need to hold the baby that you terminated. You need to hold this little baby here tonight and let Him grant you forgiveness for the baby you can no longer hold. You need to reach in and pick him up Kell. You need to touch Him, and let Him touch you.” “I can’t!” Kelly protested. “I could never…” I held Kelly’s hand and told her to look at Jesus. She had been here for 20 minutes now and had yet to actually look at his face. Kelly glanced haltingly into the manger and saw the tears in the eyes of a baby Savior.
I thought she would choke. She made no sound except a gasp. “Oh God! O my God what did I ever do? What did I do?” I expected her to collapse into a heap but what happened next will remain with me for all my days. As Kelly was at her lowest point of self hatred and pain and anger, I saw Jesus -merely hours old- reach his tiny hand towards her.
It was the slightest move, barely perceptible, but Kelly saw it and her mother instinct leapt to the fore. She glanced toward Mary, and Mary nodded with a slight smile. Then Kelly reached into the manger and lifted the baby to her chest. Jesus had been crying only moments before but as soon as Kelly touched him, he began to smile, as if the very touch of this weary and broken soul had given him joy. It was as if he was absorbing her pain and that made Him happy.
Kelly burst into soft sobs as she began confessing her pain and shame and guilt. She began asking this tiny baby to forgive her…to forgive her for what she did to Thomas. At this I realized that Kelly had gone so far as to pick out a name for her baby before her embarrassed and humiliated parents had taken her to a clinic and forced her to get an abortion. Kelly hated them for that and for reminding her during the entire ordeal how “bad” she was and how this was a sin and how God punished girls who find themselves in this position.
Kelly had promised herself to never even breathe God’s name again in her life, but something in her getting married and then having children would not let that spot for Him in her heart grow completely cold. Kelly longed for the God of her childhood, but she was afraid of Him and felt he was disappointed in her. For years she wrestled with coming back to Him but felt certain that he wanted nothing to do with her. Then one day she got the idea… “Maybe the baby would accept me. Maybe the baby would let me love Him again. Maybe He’d talk to his father for me.”
Kelly had made her journey to this hovel this year because she was tired of running from God. She was tired of being so wounded and weary and so hurting. She knew all the verses that said God heals, God forgives, God restores. But she didn’t believe Him. He was probably a father like her own father, she had reasoned. If her dad was embarrassed and humiliated, God probably was too.
But maybe Jesus would be more forgiving. Maybe He would understand. So she came here hoping just to see Him. Now she was holding Him. “My Thomas probably smelled like you do right now, he probably felt like you do. I am so sorry…so sorry. Please forgive me please. Please forgive me” Kelly whispered.
She was kissing the baby softly on his neck and cheeks and his hands. Anywhere she saw a patch of baby soft skin she kissed it. I knew in my soul that she was kissing her little son Thomas. I knew that Jesus had become that baby to her. And she needed this desperately.
Jesus was smiling now…
“Kell…” I whispered, “Look at his face!” Kelly looked at Jesus and saw a smile as big and as warm and welcoming as any human had ever had. The baby son of God was smiling at this outpouring of affection from a woman who had been afraid of Him for over 30 years. She feared the father but could not possibly fear the child. The baby had no pretense and held no judgment.
I could only think of one thing to say to my wounded friend, “Kell…I know you think the Father still is angry…” Kelly’s shoulders heaved in pain and sorrow and she said nothing. “Kell if He loves His son more than we love our own children, and yet He was willing to let him suffer for you, then maybe God isn’t angry with you at all. Maybe He just misses you. Maybe Him letting you touch His son…hold his Son, and love on Him…maybe that is God reaching His hand to you.” Kelly smiled softly at this and returned her affections to Jesus.
Kelly whispered into the ear of the son of God, “I love you…thank you…”
She placed Jesus back into his manger crib. Turning toward me, she reached into the diaper bag and pulled out a tiny receiving blanket with a monogram “T” on the corner. It was baby blue. She carefully tucked him into his little straw bed as if he were her own child. Maybe in some ways he was in that moment. The one act of motherhood was healing 30 years of unforgiveness and pain and shame. She pulled a brand new pacifier from the bag and Jesus took it to his mouth instantly with a tiny smile.
Kelly had come here to make peace with her baby son. A baby she had given over to the hand of death in one horrifying moment. She made peace with her baby by accepting peace from this baby. On this night they were one and the same.
Kelly stared at Jesus a long time, and a smile began to play on her face. It was a smile I had not seen in over 30 years. And a smile she had not seen since then either.
She turned, picked up the diaper bag, hugged me for a long tender moment, and she was gone.
“We take it out on ourselves, and then I think we often feel that God's against us. We often feel that he's given up on us. So, you know, we become angry. It becomes a kind of cycle. I think there are many folks who just walk away from God, and from faith, because they feel like failures, and they really don't think they can meet God's standards.” --Haddon Robinson, discussing his sermon “God of the Second Chance”