Diane Tueller Pritchett is the fifth of ten children born into a foreign service family. By the time she went to college, and received her BA and MA in international relations, she had lived in Austria, Washington DC, Morocco, Venezuela, Panama and the Philippines. Hoping to continue a life of travel she married Lant Pritchett, and together they headed to Boston where Diane obtained a Ph.D in political science from Boston University along with three amazing children. With those children and husband they lived in Indonesia and India. Once the children were fully launched, at the age of 40, Diane recaptured a childhood dream and went back to school to get a BA in music education. She currently teaches high school choral music in Bedford, Massachusetts. The following is a personal essay Diane shared during her community's annual wreathmaking party in Belmont, MA.
Will no one offer shelter to the stranger?
Must Christ the King be cradled in a manger?
That night there was no room in the inn;
This night may there be room within—
Within my heart for him.
Marvin K. Gardner
Every one loves a good story and by “good story” I mean a story of GOODNESS: generosity, compassion, and sacrifice. When we read a story, watch a movie or read the news, we typically imagine ourselves as the “good guy.” We love these stories because they allow us to think—and to hope—that under similar circumstances we would act in the same way.
Christmas celebrates one of the best stories ever told. A young couple–bedraggled, tired, hungry, probably innocuous looking like every other young couple in town in Bethlehem seeking shelter at the last minute during an unusually busy time of the year–going door to door asking for help. What kind of person would turn them away? She was pregnant on the brink of delivery. One innkeeper managed to find a bit of room. I would have been that innkeeper. No, I’d have gone one better. I would have given up my own bed. I’d have slept in the manger. Had I known she was delivering the Christ child, I’d have been up all night boiling hot water, delivering warmed swaddling, fixing hot beverages. I would never turn away a pregnant woman looking for shelter no matter how innocuous and unprepossessing she appeared, no matter how busy or harried I was. I would be a hero in that story. Or so I like to think.
When our family lived in India, one year I was in charge of the annual Christmas activity at my church. I invited the children and their families from our New Delhi congregation to my house for an evening of the reenactment of Christ’s birth. For the pageant, I hired two donkeys. One of the pleasures of living in India is that you can hire anything you want. We once had a party for which we hired an elephant to give rides to the children. Another year we hired a camel to deliver Christmas presents to our children. I also recruited a young couple to dress up as Mary and Joseph. She was pregnant. At the appointed time, they were to ring the doorbell. My plan was that the children would go to the door. The couple would ask “is there room for us?” The children would, of course, invite Baby Jesus' parents into the house. We would make a fuss over them, give them the best seat, serve them the best food, etc.
The house was packed. I had not anticipated the “invite” rule in India: for every one person invited, you should count on an additional 5 or 6, maybe 10. The children came with parents, grandparents, cousins, neighbors, and friends . When it was time to tell the Christmas story I gathered everyone into the living room. Chairs were filled, floor seating taken. I turned down the lights and began to tell the story of a young couple, traveling a long distance on foot and donkey. It was cold. She was pregnant beginning to feel the heavy, low pain of impending labor. They arrive at their destination going door to door searching for a place to stay. “Is there room?” “NO. “ “ Do you have room?” “I’m sorry, I wish I could help but . . ..” and then the doorbell rings!! “Who is it?” I say with a wondering voice? The children, of course, rush in a mob to the door. It is opened and there, standing on the threshold, is the young couple with two small donkeys by their side. I ask the children “Is there room?” Shall we invite them in?” And they, in one loud voice shout: “ NOOO!!! It's too crowded in here. There is no room.”
Object lesson gone terribly wrong.
I ignored the children. We brought Mary and Joseph in, found room for them on the most comfortable couch, fed them cookies and hot chocolate. We finished the story, got Jesus birthed, I did my angel dance, the Three Kings arrived. We took the children outside for rides on the donkeys around the neighborhood. A festive party.
I have since wondered: “why did the children say no?” The room was really crowded, it is true, but Indian children are used to crowded rooms. It couldn’t have been too unexpected when Mary and Joseph arrived. Most of them knew the story I was telling and knew where it was going. Thinking back on it, I realize that the children were saying “no” for two reasons and both reasons illustrate our typical failures of the “heart.”
First, the children thought they knew the plot of the story and they presumed they were cast as the innkeepers who say “NO, too crowded in here.” We often think we know the story just as we often think we know who we are in the story, thus limiting the room in our hearts. A simple example: I had always prided myself on taking a fully balanced, beautifully prepared, homemade meal to someone upon having a baby. This was important to me because when I had babies, the women in my church, aptly called the Relief Society, always showed up with the most beautifully delicious food. When I started to work full time a few years ago, I didn’t have the energy or the time to prepare elaborate meals so I stopped volunteering, casting myself as someone too busy to help. When I realized I missed this tradition, wanting to again make room in my heart, it occurred to me that a take-out meal from a restaurant could be as welcome to a woman who had just had a baby as a homemade meal.
A second reason the children said no may be that Mary and Joseph were standing on the doorstep with the two little donkeys and when I asked “shall we let them in”, the children, being literal minded, assumed I meant the donkeys as well. Donkeys don’t belong in houses, especially houses that are already filled with people. But here is the thing, what the children didn’t know was that I would have let the donkeys in for a few minutes. That is just the sort of thing that amuses me. I had a camel in my living room the previous Christmas and it is one of my most cherished memories. The children lost the chance to be the heroes in the story because of a limited imagination. They weren’t willing or able to open their minds to the unusual.
I let a donkey get in my way the Christmas my son had heart surgery. We were in the hospital the day before Christmas when a family came by to deliver gifts. I was horrified that I might be the object of pity. That was worse to me than any old smelly donkey. In the script where I'm the hero, service is for giving, not receiving. So I hid in the bathroom. My son has happy memories of that day and warm feelings for those who gave him gifts. This family has the warm feeling of joy in giving. Me? My heart is crowded with the embarrassing memory of hiding in a bathroom.
How often do we lose the chance to “make room within our hearts” because we think we know how the story goes or we don’t see or consider the unexpected or unusual? When it is guaranteed we are going to be a hero in a story, it is easy to find room in our heart. When the need is obvious, when the request can be comfortably filled, when everyone is caught up in the generosity of a moment or a season of the year, our hearts' boundaries seem limitless. When there is a car crash along the side of the road, a sudden and tragic death of a young person, a friend who has just had a baby and needs a meal, headline disasters, holidays that emphasize giving and sharing, we find it easy to open our hearts because we know this plot line, we know which character we are and we know there is no risk of donkeys.
But these are not the times that create room within our hearts. I wake up every morning determined to be the one who will offer “shelter to the stranger.” I want to be the “good guy” in my story. I assume most people do. But to really be a hero, we need to learn to say yes when the need doesn't present itself clearly, when it is inconvenient, or unexpected — when it feels that there really is no room. My Christmas wish is to recognize the need standing on my doorstep and if that need comes with donkeys, well, I'll work to find room for them too— may it also be yours.
In the story of the Christ child, you may have played different roles – especially as a child. In this essay, Diane cast herself as the innkeeper. What if she were to cast herself as Mary? As Joseph? The angels? The shepherds? The magi? What can we learn from these different roles? After reading Diane's post, you may want to re-read my post titled A Hero of Support.
This particular Christmas, I have to decide if I will “invite the donkeys into my home” as I prepare to have surgery. Nothing life threatening, but I will be out for several weeks. When friends offer help to our family, will I make room in the inn for the gift, or will I be as the Christ child and receive the gifts of the Magi?
What will you do this holiday season to not only give, but to receive?