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Christmas StoriesHeartwarming Tales of Angels, a Manger, and the Birth of Hope
By Max Lucado
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2006 Max Lucado
All right reserved.
May 4, 1864
I just think it odd that Oxford would assign its top student to a village like Gladstone," Edward Haddington said to his wife, Bea. A broad-shouldered man with a brilliant set of dark eyes and full gray eyebrows, he wrestled to button the waistcoat over his rotund belly.
Equally plump Bea was having troubles of her own. "How long since I wore this dress?" she wondered aloud. "Must I let it out again?" Then louder, "Edward, hurry. He's due within the hour."
"Don't you think it odd?"
"I don't know what to think, dear. But I know we need to leave now if we don't want to be late. He arrives at half past one."
The couple hurried out of the small, gabled house and scurried the half mile south on Bristol Lane toward the center of the village. They weren't alone. A dozen or more villagers walked ahead of them. By the time Edward and Bea reached the town commons, at least half the citizens of Gladstone, some sixty people, stood staring northward. No one noticed the white-haired couple. All eyes were on the inbound wagon.
The driver pulled the horses to a halt, and a young man stood to exit. He bore beady eyes, a pointed chin, and his angular nose seemed to descend forever before finding a place to stop. With a tall hat in his hand and a black coat draped on his shoulders, Rev. David Richmond surveyed the crowd. Edward detected a sigh.
"We must appear odd to him," he whispered to Bea.
She cupped an ear toward him. "What?"
He shook his head, not wanting to risk being overheard.
A goggle-eyed locksmith, so humped from filing he had to greet the guest with a sideways, upward glance, extended the first hello. Next came a short farmer and his Herculean, simpleminded son. "He can clean the windows in the church," the father offered. "He did for Reverend Pillington." A mill worker asked Reverend Richmond if he liked to fish. Before he could reply, a laborer invited the minister to join him and his friends at the pub.
"Let the man breathe, dear people. Let him breathe." The citizens parted to let Edward extend his hand. "A fine welcome to Gladstone, Reverend. Did you enjoy the carriage ride?"
Reverend Richmond had ample reason to say yes. Spring had decked the Cotswolds in her finest fashions. Waist-high stone walls framed the fields. Puffy flocks dotted the pastures. Crows scavenged seeds from melting snow. May clouds passed and parted, permitting sunlight to glint off the shallow creeks. England at her best. Yet the minister replied with an unconvincing, "It was pleasant."
Edward picked up the clergyman's bag and led him through the crowd. "We'll deposit your things at the parsonage and let you freshen up. Then I'll leave you with the Barstow family for tea."
As the crowd dispersed, the reverend nodded and followed his hosts toward the manse. It sat in the shadow of St. Mark's Church, which was only a stone's throw from the center of town. The hoary, dog-toothed Norman tower stood guard over the village. Edward paused in front of the church gate and invited, "Would you like to take a look inside?"
The guest nodded, and the three entered the grounds.
A cemetery separated the church from the road. "To preach to the living, you have to pass through the dead," Edward quipped.
"Edward!" Bea corrected.
Reverend Richmond offered no reply.
The walls of the path through the cemetery were, at points, shoulder high, elevating the headstones to eye level. The newest one lay beneath the tallest yew tree near the church entrance and marked the burial place of St. Mark's former rector. Edward and Bea paused, giving Richmond time to read the inscription:
REVEREND P. PILLINGTON Man of God. Man of Faith. Man of Gladstone. Ours, but for a moment. God's forever. 1789–1864
"This month we'd have celebrated his fiftieth year at the church," said Bea.
"When did he die?" the reverend asked.
"February," Edward answered. "Hard winter. Pneumonia took him."
"God took him," Bea altered.
Edward nodded. "We dearly loved the man. You'll find his fingerprints throughout the valley. He taught us to trust, to pray. He even taught me to read and write."
Bea chimed in. "Edward here was a diligent student. Come ahead. Let's step inside."
The heavy doors opened to the rear of the sanctuary. Three shafts of stained-glass sunlight spilled through tall windows. "My grandfather helped install those," Edward offered. He strode the five short steps to the baptismal font and motioned for the reverend to join him. "Dates back two centuries," Edward said, running a finger along the limestone. "My ancestors were all baptized here. In fact, my great-great—Bea, how many 'greats' is it?"
She placed a finger to her lips. "Let the reverend meditate."
Edward apologized with a wave and stepped back.
One aisle separated two groups of ten pews. A lectern faced the seats on the left, and a pulpit presided over the church from the right. Brass organ pipes climbed the chancel wall behind the pulpit, where two sets of choir benches faced each other.
"My Bea plays the organ," Edward boasted.
The clergyman didn't respond. He made the short walk to the front and stopped at the first of the five swaybacked stone steps leading up to the pulpit. A thick Bible and empty glass rested on the stand.
"Been vacant since February," Edward offered.
Reverend Richmond turned with a puzzled look. "No minister filled in?"
Bea shook her head. "Only on occasion. Gladstone is too remote for most clergymen. But we've gotten by."
"Right," Reverend Richmond said, suddenly ready to leave. "Shall we move on?"
Bea extended a hand. "I'll go home and prepare some dinner. Reverend, enjoy your visit to Gladstone."
Edward showed the minister the parsonage and waited outside until he was ready for the first appointment of the afternoon.
Charles Barstow cut an imposing figure standing in his doorway: thick shoulders, long face, hollow cheeks flanked by snow-white sideburns, and eyebrows as thick as hedges.
As Edward presented the reverend, he explained, "Charles runs the local mercantile. Need boots, hats, or hammers? He can help you."
Richmond noted the fine house: ivy framed its dormers; jasmine and roses charmed the porch.
"Charles, I'll leave him in your care," Edward said.
Mr. Barstow's wife joined him at the door and escorted them to a table in the inglenook next to the fireplace. She stood much shorter than the two men, her head level with her husband's shoulders. She was overdressed, better attired for the theatre than for tea. She attempted a sophisticated air, as if wanting to be in, or at least from, some other town. "Tell me," she nasaled, pausing after each word. "How is life in Oxford?"
Her husband sighed and motioned for the minister to sit. "I understand you grew up in London."
"My family is from Putney—some time back, however. And yours?"
"Kensington. I'm the first to leave the city, actually. That is, if I do. I shall be the first in our family not to serve the royal household in generations."
"Oh." Mrs. Barstow perked up. "What is your connection?"
"My father is a barrister."
"My, my," Mrs. Barstow admired.
The Barstows' granddaughter, Emily, joined them at the table.
Reverend Richmond was grateful to see someone closer to his age, even more thankful to see someone so pretty. Emily's curled brown locks fell to her shoulders. Her warm hazel eyes ducked from his glance. He looked away, equally embarrassed.
"I hear you have no wife," her grandmother said.
Emily blushed. The reverend caught the hint but didn't reply.
Mr. Barstow redirected the conversation with questions about Oxford, but his wife was not easily deterred. At the next pause, she jumped in. "Our dear friend's niece will marry next week. As for us, we have no plans."
Emily, who still hadn't spoken, shot a glance at her grandmother.
"That's good to know," Reverend Richmond offered, then corrected himself. "I mean, it's nice that your friend is marrying, and, well, I hope you will ... or your granddaughter will marry soon as well. If she wants to, that is."
"Tell me, Reverend." Charles spoke, to the minister's relief. "What do you think of the candle?"
"The Gladstone Candle."
"I, uh, can't say I've heard of it."
The three Barstows shared wide-eyed glances.
"You've never heard of the candle?" Mrs. Barstow asked.
"Or the candle maker?" Mr. Barstow added.
"Or the Christmas miracles?" Emily completed.
"No," the reverend admitted, feeling that he'd missed a long conversation.
The three looked at him with eyes reserved for a sumptuous meal, each wanting to eat first. "Well, let me tell you—" Mrs. Barstow volunteered.
"Maybe I should do that," her husband interrupted. But a knock at the door stopped him. He stood and answered it.
"I knew if I didn't come, you'd forget to bring him to our house," said a friendly, round-faced woman.
Mr. Barstow turned toward the minister.
"This is Sarah Chumley. She'll take you to your next visit."
Reverend Richmond gave her a puzzled look. Sarah chuckled. "You've apparently met my twin, Bea Haddington. Don't even try to tell us apart. People who have known us for years still grow confused."
Richmond stood, thanking his guests. Mrs. Barstow spoke again. "I'll be glad to finish what we started, Reverend."
Did she mean the candle or the courting? He didn't know and didn't dare ask. He turned and smiled a half smile, grateful to be leaving.
Sarah Chumley was as cheerful as the morning sun, was wide-waisted, and blessed with plump cheeks that flushed with rose and rendered eyes into half moons at the slightest smile. She escorted the minister down the street, two houses past St. Mark's Church. She paused at the parsonage that separated her home from the church building. "This is the—"
"I know, the parsonage. I've already dropped off my bags."
"Reverend Pillington lived here for half a century. A dear man. Scratchy after souls, he was." She paused as if enjoying a memory, then invited, "Come. Mr. Chumley looks forward to meeting you."
She led Reverend Richmond through a chest-high gate and a golden garden of goldilocks and buttercups. Wisteria stretched over the honey-colored cottage walls, and bright red paint accented the front door. Her husband opened it, not to let them in, but to let a patient out.
"Keep it wrapped, now, Mr. Kendall. Apply the liniment like I showed you, and"—placing a hand on the old man's shoulders, Mr. Chumley winked—"don't you think it's time you let the younger people birth the lambs?"
"I'm as spry as I ever was," the man countered.
"Hello, madam," he added.
"Afternoon," Sarah greeted. She and the reverend stepped aside so the injured shepherd could pass. "My husband's the village alchemist, closest thing Gladstone has to a doctor. Try to find a villager he hasn't treated—you won't find one."
Mr. Chumley was a slight man, bespectacled and short. But for a crown of gray, he would have been bald. "Come in, come in!" He clasped his hands together. "Been looking forward to meeting you." He led them through the pharmacy in the front of the house to the parlor, where the reverend entered into his second conversation of the afternoon. He soon discovered that Mr. Chumley and the former rector had been fast friends. The two men had shared tea, problems, and long winters; but, curiously, they hadn't shared matters of faith. "I leave things of God with God," Mr. Chumley stated pointedly.
"I can respect that," Reverend Richmond said.
"Of course I can. Theology has changed since your former rector studied."
The reverend noted Sarah's furrowed brow but continued. "God keeps his distance, you know. He steps in with Red Sea and resurrection moments, but most of the time he leaves living life up to us."
"I've never heard such thoughts," Sarah said, joining the two men at the table.
"Nor have I, but I've had them," Mr. Chumley agreed. "I treat the body and leave the treatment of the soul to those who believe one exists." He reached across the table and placed a hand on Sarah's. "Like my wife."
"I still pray for him, however."
"And I still attend services ... though my mind does wander."
The Chumley visit proved to be Reverend Richmond's most enjoyable of the day. He had dabbled in chemistry, and Mr. Chumley enjoyed debating theology. They took turns on each subject until the peal of St. Mark's tower clock prompted Sarah to interrupt. "I promised Bea to have you at their house within the hour."
"I'll take him," Mr. Chumley volunteered. He donned a hat and grabbed his cane as the minister expressed thanks to his hostess, and the two stepped outside onto Bristol Lane, where horse hooves clicked on egg-shaped cobblestones, small thatched-roof houses lined the street, and villagers gave generous greetings.
"Good day, Mr. Chumley, Reverend," offered a seamstress carrying yards of cloth.
"Hello there, Mr. Chumley," saluted a farmer with mud-laden boots. "Those Epsom salts are helping the missus right well. Reverend, good to see you."
As they passed the town commons and the center cross, Mr. Chumley spoke about his in-laws, Bea and Edward Haddington. "The village treasures them. Not just because of the candle, mind you. They are dear, dear folk."
"What is this candle?" Reverend Richmond asked. "Mr. Barstow mentioned it to me as well."
The question stopped Mr. Chumley in his tracks. "You don't know about the candle?"
He removed his hat and scratched his head. "It's best that I let Edward tell you about it."
"And why is that?"
"He's the candle maker."
May 4, 1864
Clad in his finest homespun Sunday coat, Edward Haddington was standing beneath the sign that read CHANDLER.
"He's all yours," Mr. Chumley said.
Edward smiled and reached up to wrap an arm around Reverend Richmond's shoulders. "Don't worry, my friend. We aren't eating in my shop. I was just checking a few matters."
Edward said good-bye to his brother-in-law and led the minister next door, explaining as he walked, "My father and his father lived in the shop. I grew up there. But when I married, I promised Bea a house. She never could adjust to the smell of the candle shop. The tallow, you know. When her friends stopped coming over for tea ... a change was needed." The two paused in front of the slate-roofed home.
"Our dwelling belonged to a tailor. When he died, his widow moved to Chaddington and sold it to us. What do you think?"
"Seems small." The reverend had to bend his neck to enter, lest he hit his head. The entire cottage consisted of one room. A table and four chairs sat to the right and a wrought-iron bed just beyond them. Two rockers rested in front of the fireplace, where a heating kettle filled the house with the smell of oxtail soup.
"Welcome to our home, Reverend. Won't you join us at the table?"
Reverend Richmond turned to see Bea, her silvered hair swept under a bonnet and glasses resting on her nose.
For the third time in one afternoon, the young man took a seat and began to eat. They drank beer and ate soup and just-baked bread.
Edward was never one for small talk. He went directly to his question. "How is it that you've come to Gladstone?"
"Mr. Barstow says you excelled in your studies."
The reverend arched an eyebrow. "Well, yes, I did quite well."
"You seem awfully bright for our village. Seems you would be assigned to a, well, how would you say it, Bea ... a more sophisticated parish? We're simple folk."
Excerpted from Christmas Stories by Max Lucado Copyright © 2006 by Max Lucado. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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