My Foiled Attempt at Christmas Martyrdom

Sometimes light shines into our dark places.

Sometimes light shines into our dark places.

I got a chance to play my martyr card last night at the Christmas Eve service. Our pastor, Sarah Shelton, preached a brilliant sermon (again), so I waited in line to praise her. When I told her what a great job she’d done, she expressed her thanks. Then she asked, “What are you going to do for Christmas? You’re not going home?” That’s when I played my martyr card. I assumed a facial expression which I imagined approximated the Zen-like detachment of Mr. Spock and with as much nonchalance as I could muster said, “I’m going to work on-call at the hospital.” She exclaimed, “Oh! Bless you!” and she made the sign of the cross on my forehead.

I have to confess it. I felt a bit sorry for myself for working on Christmas when “everyone else” would be enjoying time with their families, smells of great food wafting through the house, along with a hint of wood smoke from the fire. They’d be enjoying laughter and hugs and I’d be hurrying about a hospital. And the pastor’s little demonstration quite nearly played into my desire to feel a bit like a martyr. I say “nearly” because my time at the hospital on Christmas Day rescued me from that sad fate.

First, “everyone else” was NOT enjoying time with family around a fire somewhere. A few thousand health care professionals besides me showed up at the hospital on Christmas Day, including four other staff chaplains and one volunteer. And all those people had to eat while at the hospital. We all benefitted from food service people who doled out breakfast and lunch and delivered to patient rooms. As I was on my way to one visit, I walked around a maintenance crew standing on step ladders, their upper torsos sunk deep inside the ceiling. All I could see was their trousers and shoes. I heard a muffled voice shout, “Can you see it?” I don’t know what they were looking for, but I bet they’d rather have been looking for presents under a Christmas tree than whatever-it-was up there above the ceiling tiles.

Then, as I talked to an automobile accident victim, his neurosurgeon walked in. The physician asked the patient if he had any questions concerning the surgery he was going to undergo the next day. There ensued an interesting conversation about how the surgeon intended to repair the patient’s badly injured spine.

That brings me to the second set of experiences that rescued me from my latest martyr syndrome. Beginning with the accident victim and continuing with every room I entered, many of them said, “Merry Christmas,” even before I did. A voice spoke in my heart at every stop: “You think YOU’VE got it tough?  Try a severed spine. Try a rejected set of transplanted lungs. Try a rare form of cancer. Try any of that and keep an upbeat, NON-martyr attitude like those patients.” I left progressively inspired after every room with a thorough conviction that they’d blessed ME, not the other way around.

And there were the nurses with the elf hats, the techs wearing Santa vests, and a physician wearing a Currier and Ives Print Christmas tie. Many of those people work in health care out of a deep and noble sense of call.  Maybe one or two of them had tried to gain a little martyr’s sympathy, too.  If so, I hope they were convicted like I was. Christmas in the hospital showed me that there are people all over the world who don’t let sentimentality get in the way of doing the right, noble, and caring thing. And it showed me people who don’t let suffering, REAL suffering, get in the way of decency and joy.

Next Christmas, I just might give myself a blessing and work the morning on call again.

About Drexel Rayford

Drexel has been senior pastor of four churches in Kentucky and Virginia, a psychiatric ward chaplain, denominational bureaucrat, and an erstwhile indie singer/songwriter/story-teller and seeker of authentic human vocation. Currently, Drexel is working at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center in the capacity of The Support Team Network manager, a hospital-based community partnership aimed at nurturing healing communities for discharged patients. He loves kayaking, road cycling, hiking, and all kinds of photography, but he loves his wife Vicki and blended family of three adult children more. He holds a Ph.D. in the Psychology of Religion and a pastoral counseling certificate from the University of Louisville, Department of Psychiatry.
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11 Responses to My Foiled Attempt at Christmas Martyrdom

  1. Rick says:

    Bless you, old friend. I didn’t mean “old”, I meant like, you know… Oh, well

  2. mctyre says:

    Thank you, Drexel. Tears of gratitude. I think that next year I may ask to volunteer for that shift as well.

  3. Mary Dell Sigler says:

    I have always appreciated working on Christmas as I have walked many halls of hospitals on that day. Will had to work on Christmas Day as a Medic/firefighter and will again on Christmas Eve. Thank goodness there are people like the two of you willing to show such love.

  4. auburnjoy says:

    Such terrifically transformed perspective and great insight. Thanks for sharing!

  5. abbotrichard says:

    I had a similar experience many years ago as a Trooper. Had to work the 4th of July weekend. It was really hot and traffic was really snarled on Interstate 95. I was feeling really aggravated and really didn’t want to be there, there was something about the scheduling that seemed very unfair. I was using some words that I shouldn’t repeat here. I was sitting on an overpass watching backed up traffic and witnessed a 5 or 6 car pileup and one of the cars burst into flames. Got to the scene and found a 17 year old girl trapped in the burning vehicle. A bunch of motorists watching it burn. I was able to pull her out of the vehicle about a minute before the vehicle exploded. Saved her life. At Christmas her father brought me a jug of maple syrup to thank me for “giving him another year with his daughter”. Like you my attempt at martyrdom turned into a blessing.

    • Drexel Rayford says:

      Amazing story, Richard. I’d love to consult with you and write this one up in more detail. It’s really compelling, right up to the point of the father showing up unexpectedly at your door.

  6. ruth says:

    I sure you were where God wanted you to be. My friend Donna’s brother has been in the hospital here since last Sunday. Christmas Eve her family was told he has cancer. People need someone like you to comfort them even when others are celebrating with family. Thanks for being you and doing what you do.

    • Drexel Rayford says:

      Thanks a million, Ruth. Life isn’t neat, is it? We end up having to make all kinds of adjustments and the unexpected things, like a diagnosis of cancer, seem to have their own schedules. I hope your friend’s brother will have the people in his life that he needs for support so that he can weather his personal “storm” as best as he can.

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