Pastime: The pastor and his Christmas stories

The scribbler of these Pastime memories sometimes, like all of us, get a little bit “down” as this pandemic continues; as the holiday season approaches; and we start seeing more names we know on a personal first-name basis in the obituary columns across this state.

By Maylon T. Rice

The last couple of weeks have been an emotional roller-coaster for me, until I remembered – a tiny little soft covered book of uplifting Christmas stories written by a former minister in Warren a couple of decades ago.

And searching out the truth of this beloved Pastime, I hope, will be a joy to all of you this season.

The Rev. Arthur F. Fogartie was minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Warren from August 13, 1978 to July 24, 1983 – just short of five full years in that pulpit. He and his young wife, Susan, had two beautiful children born while in Warren, a son Stewart and a daughter, Drew. 

More on the Reverend Fogartie is to be found later in this Pastime.

While in Warren, Rev. Fogartie wrote most the eight little short stories that make up the 1979 publication of The Sixteenth Manger, now long out of print by the Judson Press at Valley Forge, Pa.

He read these short stories to the Warren congregation each Christmas Season, as pastor of the stately Presbyterian Church at 212 East Church Street. 

Few parishioners, at the time, realized the impact of these stories truly reflected the spirit of Christmas, as I feel they do today.

My friend and mentor, the late Robert L. Newton Jr., the erstwhile and longtime editor/publisher of the Eagle, snagged me a copy of The Sixteenth Manager, and had the Rev. Fogartie inscribe his name in the front cover of the book. Rev. Fogartie moved back to North Carolina had great success and some personal failings since leaving Warren. He now flourishes in Cordova, Tennessee, outside Memphis as a Stewardship pastor. 

Last week, while down-in-the-dumps and perusing my bookshelves, the volume found its way into my hands.  The magic worked. The true spirit of Christmas was revived yet again through these simple, heartfelt words.

The cover title is taken from a short story of a pastor trying to get home in a snowbound area out in the country.  Seeing he will not make it back home out of the rural area socked in by wet snow – the pastor seeks the shelter of a small farm home.

In the home is a family of three named Trimble, Jake was a hardworking man, and Anna, faithful housewife and a 20-something disabled young man – their son – named Jo Jo. 

It is Christmas Eve – the night when the Trimble’s celebrate the holiday each year.

A goose is roasted and sets the farm table, this was the father’s gift to his family after long hunting trips, while working extra hours on his farm and a job in a local manufacturing job; the mother reads a heartfelt poem she has written exclusively for her family in between her domestic duties; and the simple minded son, has carved out of a single block of wood a manager scene from Scripture.

The family invites the unexpected guest in their home, on this special night to not  only partake of the meal, witnessing this poetic tribute, but to also accept the hand-carved manger scene from their disabled son as a personal gift, during the evening.

With the gift of the crudely carved manger scene, Jo Jo, as is the custom, recites in his child-life voice what he has learned from the gift and the three to four-months he has labored on carving the scene.

“Joseph an’ Mary went …. to Bethlehem an’ stayed in a barn … an’ Mary had a baby .. an’ wrapped … him in a blanket … an’ put him in a manger … an’ the baby was Jesus.”

What the visitor received that night, however, is much more than these gifts. He has, despite all the pressures of the season, received a true gift of love and caring people in the midst of all this season and its disappointments and exultations.

  On the mantle of the Trimble’s home were the 15 previous manger scenes – each from a Christmas past –  but the Trimble’s Christmas Gift to the stranger – The 16thManger was now on the visitor’s mantle. 

“And it’s been there ever since,” wrote Rev. Fogartie.

As the long-ago written story is in a condensed version here for readers, we all have bumps in the personal roads we trod. There are times we are sad and seeking comfort and also searching for answers. Mistakes are often made and epic disappointments overwhelm us at times.

But the simpleness of the Gospel story of a newborn in the manager, or of sharing the space and things we have, for the goodness of others, never changes.

That, I truly hope, is a Pastime we all remember.

Merry Christmas!

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