There is a town called Hope in British Columbia. The area experienced a series of natural disasters this year: First, a heat dome pushed temperatures up to 121 degrees Fahrenheit in the Pacific NW this summer, causing hundreds of deaths and sparking wildfires. Then in November, torrential downpours dropped a month’s worth of rain in just two days. Flooding and landslides followed.
Near the little town of Hope is a retreat center run by the Seventh Day Adventists. Over the summer, the retreat center canceled the reservations of their usual campers, in order to house people displaced by the wildfires. Most were First Nations people who had lived in a village called Lytton, which had burned to the ground. Help was supposed to come from the Canadian government to rebuild their town, but progress was slow. They had been living at the retreat center for months when the heavy rains came. They heard that folks were stranded on a nearby highway overnight, so come morning, they went to find the folks who had been holed up in their cars. Many of them had small children, and there was no road left to speak of. They welcomed the travelers into the retreat center, putting makeshift beds in every corner, making three meals a day in the camp kitchen, and giving them toiletries from items that had been donated to them.
The story of Hope is a story of widening circles of compassion. First the retreat center welcomed the displaced people of Lytton. Then the people of Lytton welcomed the stranded travelers. The travelers who were eventually helicoptered out, have been inquiring as how they can help the next round of people to may come to Camp Hope, as it is now called.
The story makes me think of how it must’ve been that night in Bethlehem. Luke says that Mary and Joseph were travelers, too, forced to return to Joseph’s ancestral hometown for the census. It could have easily taken them a week to walk the 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Our English translations say that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the ‘inn.’ Inn makes me think of a hostel or guest house, but this was no commercial establishment. Travelers stayed with relatives, or friends of a friend, or whomever would take them in. When Luke says that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn, It means that they had exhausted all their connections and still no one would take them in.
But someone decided they could stick them with the animals. We don’t know anything about the people who owned this dwelling, but they were undoubtedly Jewish and therefore people whose own lives were already filled with the daily hardships of living as peasants and laborers in an occupied land.
Like the displaced people of Hope helping other newly displaced people, the people who hosted Mary and Joseph were people in need helping other people in even greater need.
I was touched by the story of the town of Hope when I heard it a few weeks ago. I think it moved me because it seems we are all so tapped out right now. Here at St. Matthew, we have been spared the worst of the pandemic: many of us are still in our homes, employed and healthy. We have not felt the brunt of extreme weather events or suffered violence in our towns. But we have all experienced the fatigue that comes with being bombarded with so much bad news and so many intractable problems.
It’s easy to get compassion fatigue. And so I think it is good to remember those who took in Mary and Joseph and found a place in their hearts to help someone else, even though they undoubtedly had troubles of their own. Somehow they found the compassion and will to act.
Psychologists say that compassion is a healing strategy for the challenges of modern life. Our worries can turn us in on ourselves, making us unable to get beyond the pain and exhaustion of life. But we can find relief when we are able to see another person’s suffering and do something about it.
Hazel Wolf, aged 101, and an early pioneer of the environmental movement captured this sentiment when she said: Put your mind on something else, or your troubles will take up the whole world. She went on to say, You can’t do two things at the same time. So if you’re thinking about [helping someone else] …you’re not thinking about yourself and your problems. You can always find a way to be of service, instead of sitting home and watching TV. Help an organization do a mailing. Stuff envelopes. Get signatures on petitions….There’s always something useful you can do…All of these activities and the friendships that come with them keep you from feeling sorry for yourself and focusing on your aches and pains.
The environment may or may not be your passion, but Hazel Wolf had a point—getting outside yourself is a good thing. We don’t know anything about the people who helped Mary and Joseph, but I imagine that helping others helped them, too. The folks from the burned out town of Lytton at Camp Hope
found helping others who were similarly displaced was healing for them. We who feel tapped out and without direction this Christmas might also find a way to rekindle our own hope by reaching out to others.
In the end, that is what Christmas is all about: God reaching out to us in love, becoming one of us in a small child born in a small town, two millennia ago. We know that the greatest gift is not something that can fit under a tree or fill our homes or garages, but in knowing ourselves to be connected to God and each other, and to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. When God took on human flesh, God became the helpless one who came to help us, so that we can dig deep, reach out, and change lives in his name. This Christmas, may we receive once again the gift of compassion, and share it with others,
and have our Hope restored.
Pastor Julie, 12/24/21