Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A Strange birthday celebration.

I shall soon, very soon, celebrate my 77th birthday. Here is my favorite birthday story.

A Strange Birthday Party

"I was in Honolulu with jet lag and awake at 3:30 a.m wandering up and down the streets looking for a place to get something to eat. Up a side street I found one of those sleazy places that deserves the name "greasy spoon", but it was the only place I could find.

I asked for a cup of coffee and a I sat munching my donut, the door of the diner suddenly opened and to my discomfort in marched in 8 or 9 provocative and boisterous prostitutes. Since it was a small place they sat on either side of me. Their talk was loud and crude and I felt totally out of place. I was about to make my getaway when I overhead the woman sitting beside me say: "Tomorrow's my birthday. I am going to be 39."
Her friend responded in a nasty tone, " So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want: Do you want me to get you a cake and sing ‘happy birthday?"
"Come on," said the woman sitting next to me, "Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that's all. Why do you to put me down? I was just telling you it ws my birthday. I don't want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I've never had a birthday party in my whole life. What should I want one now?"
When I heard that I made a decision. I sat and waited until the women had left then I called over th fat guy behind the counter and asked, "Do they come in here every night?

"Yeah!" he answered.
"The one right next to me, does she come here every night?
"Yeah" he said. That's Agnes, Yeah, she comes every night. Why'd' ya want to know?"
"Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday." I told him.. "What do you say you and I do something about that? What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her--right here--tomorrow night?"
A cute smile slowly crossed his chubby cheeks and she answered with measured delight,"That's great! I like it. It's a great idea." Calling to his wife, who did the cooking in the back room, he shouted, "Hey! Maggie! come out here. This guy' got a great idea Tomorrow's Agnes's birthday. This guy wants us to go in with him and throw a birthday party for her--right here--tomorrow night. "
His wife came out of the back room all bright and smiley. She said,"That's a wonderful idea. You know Agnes is one of those people who is really nice and kind and nobody ever does anything nice and kind for her."
"Look," I told them, "if it's ok, with you, I'll get back here tomorrow morning about 2:30 and decorate the place. I'll even get a birthday cake!"
"No way, " said Harry (that was his name) "The birthday cake is my thing. I'll make the cake.
At 2:30 the next morning, I was back at the diner. I had picked up some crepe-paper decorations a the store and had made a sign out of big piece soft cardboard that read, "Happy Birthday, Agnes" I decorated the diner from one end to the other. I had that diner looking good. The woman who did the cooking must have gotten the word out on the street, because by 2:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. It was wall-to-wall prostitutes...and me!
AT 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open and in came Agnes and here friend. I had everybody ready (after all, I was kind of the M.C. of the affair) and when they came in we all screamed , "Happy Birthday!"
Never have I seen a person so stunned... so shaken. Her mouth fell open. He legs seemed to buck a bit. Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her. As she was led to sit on one of the stools along the counter we all sang "Happy Birthday" to her. As we came to the end of our singing, her eyes moistened. Then, when the birthday cake and all the candles was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.
Harry gruffly mumbled, "Blow out the candles, Agnes, Come on! Blow ut the candles. If you don't blow out the candles, I'm gonna blow out the candles!" And, after an endless few seconds, she did. Then he handed her a knife and told her, "Cut the cake, Agnes, Yo, Agnes, we all want some cake."
Agnes looked down at the cake. Then without taking her eyes off it, she slowing and softly said, "Look , Harry, is it all right with you if I... I mean is it O.K. if I kind of...what Iwant to ask you is.....It is O.K...if I keep the cake a little while. I mean is it all right if we don't eat it right away?"
Harry shrugged and answered, "Sure! It's O.K.! If you want to keep to keep it, keep the cake. Take it home if you want to."
"Can it? She asked. Then, looking at me she said, "I live just down the street a couple of doors. I want to take the cake home, O.K.? I'll be right back. Honest!"
She got off the stool, picked up the cake, and, carrying it like it was the Holy Grail, walked slowing toward the door. As we all just stood there motionless, she left.
When the door closed. There was a stunned silence in the place. No knowing what else to do, I broke the silence by saying, "What do you say we pray?"

Looking back on it now it seems more than strange for a sociologist to be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner in Honolulu a 3:30 in the morning, but then it just felt like the right thing to do. I prayed for Agnes. I prayed for her salvation. I prayed that her life would be changed and that God would be good to her.
When I finished, Harry leaned over the counter with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said, "Hey, You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?"
In one of those moments when just the right words came, I answered, "I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning."
Harry waited a moment and then almost sneered as he answered, "No you don't! There's no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. I'd join a church like that.!"

Wouldn't we all? Wouldn't we all love to join a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning?
Well, that's the kind of church that Jesus came to create! I don't know where we got the other one that's so prim and proper. But anybody who reads the New Testament will discover a Jesus who loved to party with whores and with all kinds of left-out people. The publicans and "sinners" loved Him because He partied with them. The lepers of society found in Him someone who would eat and drink with them. And while the solemnly pious could not relate to what He was about, those lonely people who didn't get invited to parties took to Him with excitement.

Tony Campolo concludes that Jesus was and is the Lord of the party and uses this story to introduce his book The Kingdom of God is a party. But the story is also about something else. It was not Tony's spontaneious prayer that made the gathering Christian. It was his decision to respond to someone who was hurting. In my book, I propose that to be a Christian is to welcome the Stranger, to meet the other where the other is, with hospitality and when possible, with healing, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan. I suggest that the most authentic test of one's spirituality is the ability to meet and accept those who are different from us, and even learn from them. Without that practice, endorsed by all the Wisdom traditions, all spirituality is suspect. Also propose that in the global village ethic towards which we are moving, unless we learn to do this, we may be heading toward new violent apocalyptic events.