Entertaining Angels Unaware
Stuffing belongs in cushy chairs, not in turkeys. I grew up eating cornbread dressing and the only thing stuffed in a turkey was those weird turkey parts my mother chopped up and put in her giblet gravy. To this day, I crave cornbread dressing at Thanksgiving. My wife is in the other room right now cooking up her spicy sausage based cornbread dressing and I plan on “stuffing” my face with it Thursday!
My love of cornbread dressing goes way back to my mother’s cooking. Each Thanksgiving, my family would travel to central Louisiana to a small town called Saline. There, my grandparents lived in a huge, hulking house that belonged on Universal’s backlot tour right beside the house from Psycho. It ached with age; sagging steps; pebbled paint so layered it looked like the gray skin of a huge dragon. The floors were so caked with sand and dirt, you could sweep for days and never get all of the grit out of the house.
But, no matter how forbidding the house seemed any other day of the year, for Thanksgiving it burst with life and laughter and food. My mother’s family was huge and my mother and her sister had married two brothers so the Hennigans and Caskeys celebrated their family reunion together each year. Three tables worth of food would fill the dining room beneath a swaying bare bulb on a long black wire like a vine growing through the far ceiling. And, we would gather around my grandparents and pray and thank God for another year and eat all afternoon.
My grandfather had been a deputy sheriff during the Great Depression and had been on the posse that hunted down Bonnie and Clyde. He would tell his stories each year of how each man who was on the actual posse that shot the criminals all ended up dead from alcohol or suicide. Grandmother would sit beside him behind her thick glasses and her easy smile and hair like wild cotton and nod. She was warmth and comfort personified; a short, full woman with a just right hug and a dry kiss.
There is a memory that transcends all of the food and the fragrance of yeast rolls and the pebbly taste of cornbread dressing. It never failed, amidst the babble and clanging silverware and laughter, there would be a knock at the back door. My grandmother would painfully rise up from her chair and go out to the screened in back porch. There, she would find a couple of men, maybe an older child wishing her a Happy Thanksgiving. These individuals were well known to the folks of Saline. Today, we would call them homeless. Back then, we called them helpless. And, it was the duty of any God fearing Christian to help the helpless.
This was a message I carried away from my grandmother. She passed away when I was thirteen and my memories of her were mostly centered on the kitchen and her biscuits and the great, unwieldy old fashioned washing machine with the wringer she used to wash clothes. She was a quiet woman with a deep abiding faith and a slight smile. But, when the helpless would come to the house at Thanksgiving, she did not pity them. She did not send them away empty handed.
During the Great Depression when my grandfather was a deputy sheriff, their family, as destitute as it was, still had much compared to most occupants of the failing farms and drought stricken world around them. My mother would tell me stories of these men, “hobos” and “bums” without work who would pause at my grandmother’s back door and ask for a morsel of food. My grandmother would always have something to give these men. Even with eight mouths to feed, she kept something aside. And, when they came by, she would give them food with a glad heart and helping of blessings. Why?
My mother told me many times how my grandmother would looked at her hungry children and explain that these men, these “helpless” in need might be angels in disguise. God might have sent them to test her hospitality; to plumb the depths of her heart to see if she did indeed love the unlovable as Christ had loved us all. My mother, long after Granmother passed away would nod and smile and quote this Bible verse:
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Hebrews 13:2
My mother has passed on now. My father is 97 and lives in a nursing home where he regularly “ministers” to the residents around him who are in “worse shape” than he by singing old hymns in a loud and sonorous voice. He is entertaining “angels unaware”.
I cannot say that I have ever met an angel. At least, not an angel that did not fall from heaven. I have met a demon and I can clearly recall moments in my life when I have been in the presence of great evil. But, I have been around many individuals throughout my life filled with love and laughter and life. They have encouraged me. They have shared my stories, my pain, and my life. I often wonder when I meet someone on a trip or on a foreign soil with whom I seem to have an instant connection if God has sent an “angel unaware” to test me; to plumb the depths of my heart. When I was in medical school a psychiatry professor taught us not to take our frustrations home but to “dump on a stranger” and take out our frustrations on someone we will never meet again. I raised my hand in class that day and told him I could never do that. He wanted to know why and, I am ashamed to admit, I did not tell him.
You see, I can never meet a stranger. I can never meet someone and think poorly of them. For some reason, each person I meet seems to be someone special and unique; a treasure to be discovered; a story to be heard. I owe that to my mother and her mother before her. I am always looking around me for an angelic visit. They taught me well. They taught me the worth of each individual in the eyes of our Creator. “You may be better off than anyone, but you are no better than anyone.” That is something my mother taught me and I will go to my grave with it. I will not become cynical. I will not become bitter as I age.
I will look at each person fresh and openly knowing that one day, I will entertain an angel unaware. And, for that I am most thankful this Thanksgiving Day.