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Angels With Brussels Sprouts



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When I was a sophomore in college, my roommate, Robert, volunteered me to serve in a local Christmas project. Robert, an incurable optimist, felt confident I wouldn’t mind helping out.

The project, he said, was simple. “We’ll collect some baskets of food for a needy family just off campus. We’ll raise money from students to pay for the food. Then a bunch of us, a couple dozen at least, will walk to the house, present the food baskets, and then walk back to campus.”

He volunteered me because someone had to do the presenting, and I was a speech major.

Since I am no optimist, the whole idea didn’t thrill me. I don’t enjoy walking anywhere, especially during the winter months. And presenting food baskets to poor people wasn’t the sort of public speaking experience I coveted on my résumé.

Not only that, but I suspected that the family Robert had selected wasn’t particularly needy. The father claimed that physical problems kept him from working steadily. The mother lacked skills to do anything but housecleaning jobs around town. The kids were probably brats.

“These people are spongers,” I told Robert, “lazy bums who’d rather sit around the house and let people bring them food than go out and try to earn a living.”

“Come on,” Robert coaxed. “Don’t be a Scrooge. All you’ll have to do is say a few appropriate words. We’ll have fun!”

Unfortunately for Robert, most of his plans went haywire. Students had no money to contribute toward the project, so he had to talk the cafeteria into donating the food. Most of it was institutional-size cans of Brussels sprouts, which hadn’t proved to be popular on the menu.

The night Robert had chosen for making the presentation turned out clear and cold, 15 degrees above zero, with a northerly wind. This dwindled the “couple dozen” students Robert had promised would show up to four: Robert, two other positive thinkers, and me.

 

Warming up

“This’ll be great!” Robert exclaimed. “Just enough for a quartet.”

“Maybe we should put this off until warmer weather,” I hinted when I learned that the home “just off campus” was actually a mile away.

“Forget it,” Robert replied. “We’ll be fine. All we have to do is keep in mind what a good deed we’re doing, and we’ll stay plenty warm.”

I wasn’t convinced, but the three others outvoted me.

We stuffed ourselves into sweaters, coats, scarves, and mittens, then bravely faced the frigid night, carrying the bags of goodies by hand.

“I’m glad we’re giving this stuff away,” I said. “I’d rather starve than eat Brussels sprouts.”

“Lighten up,” Robert cheered. “I was thinking of stopping along the way for a Brussels sprouts picnic.” He chuckled and began bellowing “Good King Wenceslas” as he pranced down the sidewalk like one of Santa’s reindeer. Everyone joined in the singing except me.

“Isn’t this terrif?” Robert asked, inhaling deeply after several verses of the carol. “I just love this invigorating winter air, don’t you?”

I didn’t reply, but I felt that love of cold winter weather must be a sign of mental imbalance.

After a quarter mile the optimists stopped singing. “Our lips are frosting over,” they claimed. After another quarter mile they stopped laughing and joking about who looked most like Rudolph. And they began making observations like “It’s sure cold out here!” and “These bags are sure heavy!”

“You noticed!” I retorted. “And just think, only another half mile to go!” I began enjoying myself. Seeing these positive thinkers face up to reality gave me sadistic pleasure.

“Why don’t we stop and rest awhile?” gasped Gina, the only girl in the group. She was loaded down with two bags, each containing an institutional-size can of Brussels sprouts and a couple bags of soy gluten. “We should’ve stolen—I mean, borrowed—a grocery cart. I’m not used to carrying sacks of food.” Gina’s father owned a Mercedes and paid a delivery boy to carry groceries.

“We’d better not stop,” I said. “If we did, we’d probably lie on the ground and freeze to death before they could send Saint Bernards after us. I can see the headlines: ‘Four Students Die Under Mysterious Circumstances—Detectives Suspect Food Poisoning From Brussels Sprouts Found Near Corpses.’”

“Why don’t we go up to a house along here and ask if we can come in and get warm?” suggested Jim, another optimist. “Maybe some nice old lady will invite us in for hot apple pie.”

Everyone looked up, full of hope.

“More likely the sweet old lady will order us off her property with a double-barreled shotgun,” I replied. “That will make even better headlines: ‘Neighborhood Vigilante Defends Property Against Deranged Students Armed With Canned Vegetables.’”

My friends drooped into a despair that only an optimist can experience. I started to feel guilty when the gloom I’d spread didn’t go away after a few moments. “Don’t feel so bad,” I assured. “Yeah, we’re freezing, and our arms will probably be two inches longer after carrying this weight. But when we get to these people’s house, Robert will ask for some hot water and make us instant cocoa.”

“Right on!” Gina and Jim chorused.

Robert said nothing. He looked as if he had witnessed a major tragedy.

“Robert . . . you did remember the cocoa, didn’t you?”

He sighed and stared at the ground. “I forgot.” Silence.

“Well, just remember,” I offered sarcastically, “all we have to do is keep in mind what a good deed we’re doing, and we’ll stay plenty warm.”

No one spoke. Gina kicked me in the shins, and Robert tried to quiet his chattering teeth. Even the optimists felt cold and grumpy.

I decided I’d better not say anything else. I spent the last quarter mile shivering and polishing the few appropriate words I’d prepared. I thought I’d say something about this food being a simple gift from the fortunate to the unfortunate. And how ethical considerations should prompt all Christians at this festive season to remember the poor, the suffering, and the children, because of the example of who this season celebrates. I figured they wouldn’t know what I was talking about, but they’d be impressed.

I even had a defense for the Brussels sprouts. What I planned to say was, “It’s not one of the more popular vegetables, but those who find themselves in financial difficulty have discovered the latent merits of this unique food.” That would mean: “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

 

Look at that 

When we got to the house, I was surprised to see it surrounded by a neat yard. I’d expected a shack in the middle of a trash dump. Instead, the hedge was neatly trimmed, and flowers, though now killed by frost, had been planted around the porch. The house could have used some paint and upkeep, but it was nothing to be ashamed of.

Still, the inside of the house would tell me more about the personalities of its occupants than the outside. And inside was probably a mess. I took off my glove before ringing the doorbell, so as not to get the glove dirty.

I made a quick assessment of the woman who came to the door. She was early middle-aged. Her hair hadn’t been to the beauty shop in several months. Her clothes weren’t of any recent fashion and appeared to have been worn a great deal.

She looked tired, I assumed from having three hyperactive pigs for children and a loudmouthed lazy bum of a husband. When she asked if she could help me, she almost whispered.

I cleared my throat and spoke in smooth, well-modulated tones. “We’re a group of students from the college who just happened to be walking in the neighborhood with some extra food, and we wondered if you could find a good use for it.” I wanted her to think angels had sent us and our Brussels sprouts. “May we come in?”

She hesitated, as if asking some invisible being whether she ought to trust us. Then she smiled and opened the door. Three kids, dressed in hand-me-downs, peeked out from behind Mama’s skirt. They appeared much neater than I’d expected, possibly even cute.

The inside of the house didn’t fit my preconceived notion either. The furniture was sparse and well-worn, but comfortable. I saw no beer cans or cigarette-butt-filled ashtrays sitting around. The TV wasn’t blaring at full blast. Perhaps, I thought, this woman heard we were coming and did a quick cleanup.

Mama and the kids escorted us to the kitchen. “You can put those bags here on the table,” she said.

“It’s only Brussels sprouts,” I began, “but—”

“Oh, good Lord, thank You, Jesus!” she interrupted. “Vegetables! I been praying for something green for the kids. They’ve just been eatin’ day-old bread and peanut butter lately, with a little powdered milk. Look at this, children. The Lord’s sent us vegetables.”

She acted as if each of us had spent weeks of backbreaking effort growing the vegetables ourselves just so we could give them to her and her family. I decided I wouldn’t need to tell her about the Brussels sprouts’ latent merits.

“You’ll come up and see Charlie now,” she said enthusiastically after having inspected our cargo.

 

Angels of the Lord

This was what I’d dreaded. I had hoped the husband would be away from home, getting drunk or something. But apparently we were to witness the beast in his own domain. I hoped Charlie would act respectable for his wife’s sake.

At first glimpse Charlie was just what I’d feared: a sturdy, muscular man with unruly red hair and an impish grin. He lounged on the bed in his pajamas. But he wasn’t exactly lounging: attached to the ceiling was a large iron ring; through the ring went a rope with one end attached to Charlie’s leg and the other to a cement block that dangled in midair.

“You excuse the way things is here,” the wife pleaded. “Since Charlie’s accident, everything’s been all messed up.”

“Now, Martha,” Charlie broke in, revealing a warm smile, “these here young people didn’t come all this way on such a night to hear you apologize. Make yourselves at home,” he directed us. “You’re among friends here. Perhaps a couple of you gentlemen could dash to the kitchen and bring up some chairs.”

Charlie wanted to know all about us. He asked what we were studying in school, where we lived, and what our parents did. I learned things about my friends I’d never known before.

I also learned about Charlie and Martha and their family. Eight months ago, Charlie severely broke his leg during an after-hours job to bring in extra cash. Since he wasn’t at his regular job when the accident happened, insurance would pay for only part of his recovery expenses.

The family’s meager savings soon ran out. To save money, they’d moved to a smaller, cheaper home. Of course, Martha had to do almost everything, since Charlie was laid up. “It hurt like the dickens to see her doing all the work and me not able to help out,” he said, a frown clouding his face.

Eventually Charlie’s insurance refused to pay for the special traction equipment he needed, so he devised the rope-and-cement-block system. Martha found the materials and did the actual labor. I wasn’t convinced of the medical validity of Charlie’s system, but I supposed the only important thing was whether Charlie got well.

I could sense a tension behind Charlie’s humor, as if he feared more for his family’s future than he let on. Or maybe Charlie’s tension was caused by resisting his natural unwillingness to accept charity. Charlie was no sponger after all.

Most amazing to me was Martha. I couldn’t imagine this small, mild-mannered woman packing and moving an entire household while caring for a disabled husband and raising three kids. “The Lord helped me,” she smiled.

The kids amazed me too. They weren’t the brats I’d expected. In fact, they provided the evening’s entertainment. They sang hymns and Christmas songs, standing awkwardly in a line like the three musketeers. Then they slowly repeated, in chorus, the twenty-third psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, some of the Beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, and a host of other Bible texts, all taught to them by their mother. They knew more Scripture than I did!

And far from being an unconcerned parent, Charlie had made the most of his convalescence to give his kids special attention. The kids showed us how to tie a dozen or so special sailor knots their father had taught them. Eight-year-old Davey even showed us how he could tie a necktie, using one of his dad’s ties.

The kids also indicated a fondness for their father’s ability to make Bible stories come alive. We found out why when Charlie told the kids (and us) how David defeated Goliath. We students became just as wrapped up in the excitement as the kids. Martha sat quietly, looking proudly and lovingly at her husband and children.

To top off the evening, Martha served us hot cocoa. Robert raised his eyebrows at me when Martha told us she’d been saving a bit of chocolate “for something special.”

“The Lord told me,” she said, “that this is a special time. You young people are angels of the Lord, just angels of the Lord, sent to help us in our time of affliction.”

It was rather weak cocoa. But knowing she had sacrificed four cups of hard-to-come-by powdered milk and her even more valuable chocolate, and having just been called angels of God, made us thoughtfully savor the taste as if it were some nectar or wine from the Lord’s Supper.

I never did get to present my few appropriate remarks, though we stayed with Charlie and his family for an hour and a half. We left with an invitation to come for dinner the following weekend.

“They’ll probably serve Brussels sprouts,” I said when we were well out of earshot.

“Probably so,” said Robert, “but I think I’ll come. How about you?”

“I’ll be here,” I told him. “I’ve never been called an angel before. You know, I’ll probably be getting some money from my folks to buy Christmas presents. Maybe we could bring Charlie’s kids some real vegetables.”

The wind had stopped, and none of us complained about the cold as we walked silently back to the dorm.  

 

This story originally appeared in the December 26, 1987, issue of Insight. At the time Sam McBride was a writer and editor for Quest Publishing Company in Brea, California. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in English and is currently a professor of English at La Sierra University in Riverside, California. His primary area of research is “the Inklings,” C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and their writings.

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