Hope for Christmas

It is Saturday morning. Outside the restaurant, broad fluffy snowflakes are quietly burying memories of fall. Christmas is around the next corner. Near me parents and children are munching happily, storing energy so they don't drop when they shop.

Across the table sits my friend Bruce. Something about him causes small children to stop and stare and parents to hustle them on by. But Bruce doesn't seem to mind. As he talks, I find myself wishing that everyone on earth would stop shopping long enough to listen to his captivating story.

Twenty Christmases ago, Bruce was staring out an apartment window, clutching a black leather Bible. Four floors below him frenzied shoppers bustled about, searching for last-minute gifts. As he wrestled again with what he was about to do, images of his life mingled with the shoppers: running free along the forest trails...a small logging community…parents-good friends. Bruce smiled briefly as he thought of Sunday school. An ancient religion that never seemed to take hold. The smile quickly faded as he thought about that day in eighth grade. A day that changed everything. "Your father... dead...killed in a logging accident." He still could not erase the power of those words. They spelled the end of childhood. The beginning of a slippery descent.

Like the prodigal son, Bruce soon moved to the city to try life on his own. But he fared no better. Reform school was his first stop. Regular school was confining enough, but there was no recess here. On the other hand, he did pick up some useful trades. Pickpocketing 101. Advanced Breaking and Entering.

Graduation from reform school marked the beginning of a string of arrests and imprisonments. "One day I walked into a department store and took a hat off one dummy's head." Grins Bruce, "placed it on another dummy's head-mine--and walked out of the store." Minutes later he was arrested.

"'You keep going down this road,' a judge warned me a few months later, 'and you'll hit a dead end.' I knew it was time to change."

Before long Bruce found a job and upgraded his education. But soon the old lifestyle beckoned. "I was more qualified to steal than work," he admits. "Besides, what did it rnatter? Every time I tried schooling or honest work I only found more trouble ...or prison time."

A waitress offers us menus, but Bruce declines. "Just a Coke, please," I say. I can tell he's having trouble breathing. "You okay?" I ask. He's okay. As the waitress pours, the story continues.

Just before Christmas, the long nights of winter moved in, encircling him with their cold clammy talons. Defeat and an overwhelming sense of failure took over his life. Hope was fading fast. A new job held promise. Until a boss learned he'd done time. His live-in girlfriend of four years walked out the door, leaving him alone. He couldn't remember quietness ever sounding so loud.

Back when he was a child, the Christmas season had been a time for laughter. For parties and friends, short walks and long toasts. But not this Christmas. From his fourth-story window, Bruce studied the cold, lifeless pavement below and thought of his life. The depression would never lift. His hopes, once dim possibilities, now only taunted him. The bleak winter mirrored a despair so deep that there was only one way out.

Gripping the spine of the Bible, he hurled it across the room and watched it bounce off the wall. Then he walked resolutely toward the fridge, turned around, and raced toward the open window.

He awoke, straining his eyes to look up. Above him was a stuccoed hospital ceiling. "I couldn't believe it," he says now. "My arms were broken, I had a ruptured spleen, shredded knees, and a broken jaw. I swore at myself. All I could think of was, `Gee Bruce, you're such a failure you can't even kill yourself."'

Wheeling himself numbly down the hall one day, he met an old friend. "Listen," said the friend, after they exchanged greetings, "you need to talk to a lady I know. Here's her phone number."

Bruce looked at the name. And remembered. Ten years ago this lady had tried to cram religion down his throat. It hadn't worked. Politely, he put the number in his wallet and forgot about it.

Back on the streets, he found himself walking a familiar path. A downward slope. Old memories began to haunt him. Old feelings returned. One day he reached into his wallet and dialed the number. This time he was ready to listen.

They talked for hours. "Bruce," the lady told him, "God loves you so much that He sent His only Son to die for your sins. It doesn't matter what you've done, He will accept you. He's the only religious leader who doesn't have a grave marker on His tomb, Bruce. And He loves to turn things around. Give people a new start. A new life. Purpose and peace."

Alone in his kitchen that night, Bruce elbowed aside some dishes and folded his hands. "Jesus," he prayed, tears inching down his face, "I don't know what You'd want with a guy like me. But if You can make something good of this mess ...here I am ...I need You ...I need You bad."

Some changes came easily, others were slow. Bruce shook his head when he realized how much he loved reading the Bible he'd thrown against the wall. It's solid, he thought. Unbreakable. Church became his new hangout and through the guidance of friends there, things began to change. He completed a nurse's aide program and found work.

In September of that year, the government granted him a full pardon.

"I've always believed it was a direct result of first being pardoned by the blood of Christ," Bruce says. "And right away I realized I'd like nothing more than to go back to jail. This time I'd like to be chaplain."

In a cafeteria line one day, he caught the eye of a pretty young maiden from Michigan. He had no idea that Suzy was a widow. Or that she had three young children and a silver Yorkshire terrier named Morgan. "At forty, I couldn't imagine myself married, much less the father of three," he says.

Suzy wasn't ready either. "It takes many years to train a man right," she jokes. "I didn't know if I wanted to start again!" On July 15 they were married. Together with three children and a very furry dog, they traveled from Michigan to Victoria, Canada, spending the nights in a four-man tent. Bruce laughs when he tells me about it. "Someone told me that the shortest sentence in the English language is 'I am.' And the longest is 'I do.' But marriage has been marvelous. Not perfect. Just the second-best thing that ever happened to me."

He memorized a verse. One that seemed appropriate: "In all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Romans 8:28, NIV). How true it was. His new family would watch him graduate from seminary soon. A life once filled with despair now held all the promise in the world.

Bruce smiles as he remembers those days. He looks out the window. The snowflakes seem larger than ever. The smile fades. A storm is on its way.

Four months after graduation, Bruce sat in a stuffy doctor's office feeling like he had back in eighth grade. He could only stare in disbelief. The words were distant, impossible.

"You have cancer, Bruce. It's terminal." The doctor cleared his throat.

"Mesothelioma has never been successfully treated. I'm sorry. You have four months to live. Nine if things go well." It wasn't the first time Bruce had stared death in the face. Pain loomed on the horizon. Hopes of a chaplaincy were shattered. "I remember thinking, I will never watch my kids graduate or marry. I will never hold a grandchild." When he broke the news to the kids, there was stunned silence. Finally Erin, the youngest, blurted out, "This is my second dad. It's not fair!"

"She was right," says Bruce. "I guess there's nothing more challenging than trusting God when everything inside me cries out against what's happening."

A few days after the diagnosis Bruce visited me in my office. "I had all these hopes..." he began, staring at a bookcase above my head. "Hopes to be a chaplain ...hopes to make a difference in this world... I had all these hopes..." Then a smile came to his face. And he chuckled. "I guess all I've got now is hope!" As the weeks turned to months Bruce began the job of reconciliation. He'd inflicted many wounds in his prison years, so he searched phone books and asked forgiveness. For the first time family members began to listen as he told them about Jesus. And he decided he might as well work toward being a prison chaplain anyway.

Prison authorities loved the mild-mannered preacher. Until he came equipped with an oxygen tank. If he were taken hostage, one said, it could be used as a bomb. No problem, said the others. Bruce is different. We'll work with it.

One day while sitting in church a few rows ahead of me, one of Bruce's oxygen tubes sprung a leak. It sounded like he was about to deflate. People didn't know what to do. Before fixing the problem Bruce turned around with a "Help, I'm about to explode," expression on his face. We all laughed. And felt better. As I finish my Coke, a small child stops before our table. "What's that. Mister?" He says, staring at the tubes and oxygen tank.

I can overhear his dad: "Come on...don't stare...keep moving. "

But Bruce leans over and offers part of the tube to the child. The boy holds it in his fingers, feeling the air pulse through. "It's oxygen," says Bruce. "It keeps me alive." The little boy smiles widely and looks up at his dad. "Can I have one too?" He asks.

During a trip to St. Lucia, a few people stopped to ask Bruce why he didn't like to breathe their air. Bruce laughed. And told them about cancer. And where he was going when he breathed his last.

Back home Bruce continued to outlive the doctors' most optimistic predictions. He seemed to live life with purpose, taking special delight in praying with inmates and helping children who weren't learning as quickly as their parents wanted them to.

When he entered a classroom, kids followed him like the Pied Piper. "Hey, it's the guy with the mask!" They said. For the Olympics, Bruce erected a large Canadian flag and cheered wildly. He borrowed movies from me. Adventure movies. Comedy classics. His family fought over his favorite chair, a reclining green rocker, worn by the years. But when Bruce was home, it was his. "It's the best seat in the house," he said. And Morgan thought so too.

"Do you ever get discouraged, Bruce?" I ask, as I finish yet another Coke. "Do you ever get down?"

"Oh yes," he replies. "But I keep a prayer book. I have notes, pictures, prayer requests in it. I take it everywhere, and when I'm discouraged I open it up and write something to others or pray for them. There are plenty of people worse off than me. Think of it-Michael Jackson pays money to sleep in an oxygen tent! Insurance pays for mine. Besides, this thing will run out one day. And I'll be Home."

"Do you ever ask why God allowed this to happen?"

"Sometimes. But I've had peace you can't explain. Friends who really care. I've lived four years longer than I should have. So I wake up each morning realizing that the tomorrow I wasn't supposed to have is here today. Each day is a bonus. I've lived long enough to watch my children graduate. I've given one away in marriage. And I had the privilege of baptizing Erin a few summers ago. I have time to do the stuff that really matter now. I'm blessed, I really am. I think it's helped to keep a sense of humor about myself and my circumstances. There's no stronger medication than a good chuckle. But I must admit that I'm tired now. Heaven is getting more appealing every day."

On December 27, two days after Christmas, Bruce fell asleep in his favorite green chair. And awoke in heaven. Sitting near me at the funeral was a young woman Bruce had led to the foot of the Cross. The service was videotaped for the inmates at his favorite penitentiary. And Bruce had planned the service, right down to the words inscribed on the front of the bulletin. Words written in prison by the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel:

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well. But the certainty that something makes sense. Regardless of how it turns out.

I will miss my friend. If you knew Bruce, you'd understand why. His face radiated joy. His life emanated hope. Bruce was the kind of guy who left even the undertaker feeling sorry when he died.

Callaway, Phil. Laughing Matters. Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 2005, p. 236-243.

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