Annette Pfohl (2nd from left) and family finish the Battling Cancer 5k Race/Walk
Long ago, Cris Pfohl and I were serving on the same police squad and had just begun commuting together. I was a bachelor, had no family in the area, and to be honest, felt quite alone and unloved at that time in my life. As often happens as a junior police officer, we were scheduled to be on duty for Christmas Eve.
Hearing this, Annette, his new wife, made room at their holiday table for me, along with his mother and father, before Cris and I reported for duty. That simple act of breaking bread and Christmas hospitality opened an unexpected gift where we would eventually become family for one another. Since 1989, we have experienced the promised “future full of hope” together (Jer.29:11) as the years rolled by. As they had children, Curtis and Kyle, and I married Kristine, our faith, hope and love only grew. Yet this year, it is going to be a very different Christmas for the Florio-Pfohl clan. As most of you know, Annette died from cancer right before the holiday season.
Yes, we will miss Annette at the table, around the Christmas tree, and even in her usual holiday pew at Messiah Lutheran. As she faced over 100 chemo treatments, approximately 60 radiation treatments, 7 surgeries, and several SRS therapies over eleven years, she grew to look forward to our annual family Christmas photo on Christmas Eve in front of Messiah’s tree. You would often hear her say, there and elsewhere, “Never give up hope.” She lived that way too. She served as a teacher rarely missing a day. She mentored others facing cancer for the first time. She continued to welcome people into her heart and home, expanding our “family” connections. She never let terminal cancer define her. As much as things have changed with her passing, I trust hope remains.
How can we still say that? Why do we believe? Because whatever happens good or bad, no matter if we have family or not, our hope came to us long ago as a vulnerable babe. He found no grand, warm welcome. He was born in what was likely a cold cave used for stabling animals. His family were what today might be called the working poor. He soon became hunted by those in power, and he and his parents fled as refugees. We don’t know much about his life after that time until he went into his public ministry. Then, he had no real home. His family of blood often made jokes and scoffed at him. His neighbors turned their back. Yet on his way, fisherman and other low-lifes and “losers” – people who often felt unlovable – crossed his path and began to walk with him.
Jesus spoke of hope. He shared his love, and before long, those who welcomed him in relationship became like family. They even called each other brother and sister, and they continued to welcome more into his family even after his death on a cross. All at first seemed lost, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Gal. 4:4-5). When hope seemed beyond our reach and power, God sent his hope to us in Jesus.
Remember again the Nativity story. Amidst the poverty and problems, strangers felt drawn to Jesus. They even brought their friends. It remained that way throughout his life and after his death. People were brought together and found they really could love one another; be family together. It is true we should never give up hope, but perhaps we can all learn a bit from Annette and these other saints. Let’s also seek to also share that hope with others. This isn’t a gift to be hoarded.
Who do we know who is alone? Where do we see someone suffering? How can we be one with them this Christmas? I don’t know your answer(s), but I’m sure Jesus will show us all our individual way if we ask. It might be as simple as seeing someone who is easily ignored and speaking with them – or perhaps better, listening. It could be that you offer space at your table – or better yet in your heart for relationship. And when we meet these strangers who become friends, brothers and sisters, we will find out the hope we celebrate at Christmas is real and need never end. It’s a gift that goes on from one heart to another, generation to generation, until Jesus comes again.
Never give up hope. Always boldly share it. Kristine and I give God thanks for you, especially at this time. On behalf of the Cris, Curtis, Kyle and ourselves, thank you for your kind words and prayers this last nine years. We will look forward to seeing you gathered around Messiah’s tree on Christmas Eve!
Originally published in Messiah Lutheran’s newsletter, The Messenger (December 2016/January 2017).
Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.
© 2016 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.