Ben rolled his eyes as he wiped the sweat off his forehead. His robe was too hot, and the sheet he was forced to wear on his head was too tight. As you can probably guess, Ben was in the Christmas play for his Sunday school. As a sixth-grader, he had been in it for the past seven years, and was absolutely sick of it! He was so ready to be in the youth group next year.
“Shepherds, you are in the wrong spot—again,” the distant voice of the play director droned. “Ben! Get with them. As the eldest, you should be responsible in getting the others to the correct place. I’m ashamed of you!” Ben jolted out of his daze at his name, but he tuned the rest of the reprimand out. The director seemed to be waiting for him to apologize. When he made no effort to do so, she went on.
Wh000000, Ben thought to himself, survived another one. This happened every practice. Old Mrs. Bruster, though he preferred calling her The Brute, would pick on him. “Don’t do that” and “Benjamin, get with it.” “Haven’t you been practicing?” It was all “Yadda, yadda, yadda!” He dreaded that two hours every Saturday.
Ben heard his cue, “So the shepherds left their flocks . . .” He and the other two kids in rags dragged their feet to the cardboard box to stare at the plastic baby doll. He never got that part. Poor shepherds would leave their sheep, with no one to watch them, to see a baby. Big whoop! To him, it would not be worth the risk. Ben glanced at the clock, relieved to see that it was almost time to go.
* * *
Ben marked the calendar. One week until Christmas, which meant five days till his birthday! He called some of his friends to make last-minute arrangements for his party on his birthday. After that, he helped his mom make the cake.
Their next-door neighbor was a good friend of Ben’s, whom he often visited. That sunny afternoon he ran over to pay the old man a visit. Ben waited for a long time after knocking before the door creaked open. “Oh, hi, Ben. Come in out of the cold.”
“Thank you, Mister Jack. I was concerned that you were hurt, when you didn’t answer,” Ben said gently.
“Oh. I’m fine. It’s just the cold; it gets into my bones. Slows me down a little. Enough about me, how’s the play coming?” With a roll of his eyes, Ben made sure that his old friend was coming to see it. “Now don’t you roll your eyes. It is a very important happening and story. You know, without the shepherds, who would know what had happened.” It was more of a statement than question, so Ben just shrugged. “One day I’ll find a way to make you believe me.” Jack had no way of knowing how soon that would be.
An hour later, Ben left the old man in happy spirits. When he got home, his mom wanted know how it went. “Just fine. We looked around his attic while he told me stories from the war.” He sampled the leftover frosting. Satisfied, he went outside to go sledding.
* * *
It was ten o’clock. Ben lay awake thinking about his birthday party the next day. He jumped at the sound of the phone. His mother’s muffled words, then steps, reached his ears. She stuck her head into his room. “Hey, buddy, you awake?” she whispered. He lay still, pretending to be sleeping. But curiosity finally overcame him. He turned toward her expectantly. She came closer and sat on the edge of his bed. “That was the hospital.” Ben sat up straight in the bed. “Jack slipped in his driveway a few hours ago. He has a broken rib and arm.” The boy was shocked into silence. His mother gently said, “And he wants you to visit him.” The first thing that went through Ben’s mind was his party. On the other hand, if ol’ Jack died in the hospital, he could never forgive himself.
“It is important that I go, for Jack’s sake. Tomorrow I’ll call everyone to rearrange the party for after Christmas.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that. Good night.” Ben lay awake a little while longer. Oh well, the hospital could be an adventure after all, he thought.
* * *
“Happy birthday, Ben!” came the frail voice of the shriveled lump in the hospital bed. Ben gulped at the form of his pal. “Come over here so I can get a look at my favorite boy.” He slid beside the bed and put a fake smile on. The smile quickly melted when Jack had a coughing spell for some time. A nurse rushed in to do whatever they do to stop coughs. Ben thought she stuffed a cork down Jack’s throat, but he couldn’t be sure.
He and Jack talked and laughed, and coughed. They walked down to the cafeteria, just to do something other than sit. After resting and eating in the room they went to the gift shop. There, Jack bought Ben a birthday balloon, while Ben got Jack a get-well balloon. He also bought the old man a rubber-band gun to shoot at the balloon to pass the time. Back in the room they tried it out. They were having a great time when the nurse came in without knocking. She poked her head in just as her elderly patient pulled the trigger of the rubber-band gun. The two chums held their breath as the oblivious nurse was snapped in the forehead with the band. Her eyes flew open wide when she saw it coming; when it hit her she fell backwards on the floor. Ben and Jack crowded over her till her eyes fluttered open. “I will be right back to help you, sir,” the nurse said as she staggered away.
The boy and boy-at-heart rolled with laughter. “How fast do you think it was going?” Jack inquired.
“I’d put it at ten miles per hour,” Ben replied.
“Ohhhhh, you’re wimpy. I think it was going at least twenty!”
“By the look on her face you would figure it was about a hundred miles per hour!” That sent them into another laughing spell.
Exhausted from their excitement, they fell asleep for some time. When they woke up, Ben was sore from his odd position on the hospital chair. Jack was all rosy from the warmth of the bed. He expressed his gratitude to Ben for showing up.
“Hey, no problem,” Ben said. “It has been great fun. Don’t worry about the party, either. Everyone was just fine with the change.”
Jack was quiet for a minute. “You know, Ben,” his friend said carefully, “this is somewhat like what the shepherds did. The angels told them to go, and they did, leaving everything behind. I asked you to come visit me, and you did, setting your birthday off for later. Thank you, it means a lot to me.”
Ben thought for a minute about what he had just heard. At the first mention of shepherds he put a wall up. Just then his mom walked in to get him. Ben was still dazed at the connection when he said bye.
“Think about it,” Jack winked.
* * *
That is just what Ben did for the next couple of days: think. His parents were concerned at his non-activity, but their child soothed their fears. The performance night came, and Ben was still thinking about it. The play was going just fine, with only a few glitches, like all kid performances have. When his part came, Ben completely got the metaphor and understood it like he was there at the time. He felt like he was glowing, and from the way everyone was staring at him, he guessed he was. He was in a completely different place. Ben felt so privileged as he sang out “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
Jack had always told him that God worked in mysterious ways. Ben had no idea that meant broken bones too. He could almost hear Jack’s voice as they bowed before the applauding audience. “See, I told you that you would get it one day.” Ben smiled as he looked out the window and saw a large star twinkle in the distance.