Christmas isn’t always comfortable.

Misty raindrops floated through the air as  I left work tonight, making the reflections from the myriad of Christmas lights more sparkly than usual. Inflatable Santas and snowmen bobbled back and forth in the wind. White-lighted deer decorated rain-soaked lawns. I turned on the radio and the sound of  ”Jingle Bells” filled the car.   Ah … Christmas.

I headed up the ramp to the expressway and continued by street after street of lighted houses … and then I saw the dark, empty space behind a grove of trees –  as if the merriment of the holiday had somehow been lost amidst the ghostly woods.

I am uneasy as I pass that spot in the road. As always.

I live in the suburbs – the very suburbs where I spent my formative teen years – but not the same town. Where I live now is approximately 40 miles from where I lived then. My dad was pastor of a large church and along with the large church came a large and active youth group. We were always doing something. Good things, fun things and occasionally a service project. Every Christmas we got together to “pack boxes.” Diligently, we stuffed shoe boxes with candy, tissue packets, soap, toothpaste – all those little things that you usually put in those Merry-Christmas-type packages. We laughed and joked and a tissue packet would go sailing across the room and then another and then our leader would tell us to stop and we would because we were basically good kids.

Lots of teens came to fill the boxes.

A few teens came to deliver the boxes. Mostly we were the kids of the church core families. (Translated – those whose parents made us go.) Even the prospect of an hour-long Sunday afternoon ride with our friends couldn’t spark our enthusiasm. We knew where we were going and it wasn’t all that comfortable.

The drive seem never-ending as we headed through one suburb and then another until we finally reached our destination. We would turn into the driveway and a guard would talk to our driver (usually a dad of one of the kids)  and open the wrought-iron, security gates. Our voices would grow silent as we parked and filed silently into a colorless chapel where we were given instructions – “Hand out the boxes, smile and move on”.

Now, since that time I have visited willingly and happily other mental health centers. I have gladly spoken at their chapels and listened attentively as a resident showed me the quilt she had made. This is all fine and good and I enjoy my visits.

But nothing compared to the Christmas trips of my teen years. First, it wasn’t called a Mental Health Center – what it was called is now politically incorrect. Second, there were no clean rooms and neatly-set dining room tables. No flowered-pictures on the wall. No friendly cheerful caregivers bustling around. (The few caregivers we saw were worn down and sad.)  We were there during visiting hours on a Sunday afternoon before Christmas, but I don’t ever remember seeing any other visitors. These were the forgotten people, left to die in a state facility.

As soon as we walked in the building, we would hear the screams coming from all directions – like surround sound of a horror movie. The man (chaplain?  I really don’t know) led us to a large room. People were everywhere in various stages of undress and comprehension. Dozens of people. People knocking their heads against the wall, against the floor, people drooling, people making strange gestures. The acid smell made us gag and our eyes water. Gingerly we would each take a box and walk up to one of the residents and hand the gift to him. Sometimes he/she would take out a trinket and stare at a sparking reflection or a bright color on one of the packages. Most of the time they would stare back at us, dazed and not understanding.

Soon, we would be led into another room and repeat the process.

And finally, we would be led once again out into the cold, December air. We breathed a sigh of relief. Over until next year.

Talk about out of your comfort zone. We teens weren’t even on the same planet as our comfort zone. (And as I looked the place up in preparation for this post, I see my memories aren’t distorted. One report talked about the torturous therapies given at the place and another said no one really knows how many of these forgotten people died in that institution.) Finally because of asbestos, blood-stained walls and other safety issues, the place was torn down. And now as I pass, I see only an empty spot.

But God has not forgotten those people. He knows their stories and He loves them. His life wasn’t all that comfortable either. After all, He came to earth, not to enjoy hot chocolate in front of a fire with Christmas tree lights blinking in the background – but He came to rescue a sinful world. He loved those residents as much as He loved us teens from the big, suburban church. He came to seek and save the lost and we are all lost.

I don’t know if those shoe boxes meant anything to those people. I’m guessing that at least some of the people appreciated them. But actually it doesn’t matter. Because as much as we dreaded our annual visit, we teens probably gained more from those visits than the residents. Over the years, I have often thought of those faces of hopelessness. Wondering … where are those people now? Could we have done more? Could we have been better trained on how to relate to them? Did they “get” the message we were praying to “give” in the tract tucked into the boxes?

When we moved to this new suburb – 20 years later, I had no idea I was near the place, but when I passed it on the way to work that first morning, I instantly recognized it and was  jolted with memories.

I am thankful for a youth group director who year after year pushed us beyond caroling to the sweet church shut-ins and to a place we didn’t know existed.

God loves all of us. We are all part of His creation.

No, Christmas is not always comfortable.

And it shouldn’t be.