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Christmas Is Where You Find it

A pair of stranded children teach an impatient seminary student an important lesson about faith.

An artist's rendering of the children in the story, an angel watching over them.

Seminary classes had barely wrapped up when my wife, Anita, and I were on the way to Wind Lake, Wisconsin, to spend Christmas with my family. I couldn’t wait to see my parents, my sister, my younger brothers. Christmas didn’t really begin for me until we were all together around the tree on Christmas Eve.

But first we all had to attend the candlelit service at the church where Dad was the senior pastor.

“I’ve never seen it so packed,” Mom said after it was over. It was the early 1960s, and Dad’s congregation was really growing.

I pulled my coat tight around me as the chill wind hit me.

“You go ahead with Mom and the others,” I told Anita. “I’ll stay behind with Dad and help him get things ready for tomorrow. I’ll see you soon.”

She kissed me good-bye and headed down the hill through the little cemetery and across the road to our family home at the parsonage. Dad and I wished the other parishioners a merry Christmas.

When the sanctuary was empty we straightened up the altar and pulpit paraments and books for Christmas morning service. As we worked I imagined the rest of the family back at the parsonage laying out presents and cooking up a dinner I could nearly taste already. I scooped up books faster and faster.

“There’s no other place I’d rather have Christmas service than here,” I said, looking around at the beautiful old church. This brick building with the white steeple on Norway Hill was the first Norwegian Lutheran Church in the US.

I’d grown up here, listening to my father preach and working as a caretaker in the cemetery on my summers off. Earlier this year I’d gotten married here. Now Anita and I were spending our first Christmas together. Or we will spend Christmas together, I thought. Once I get home.

“We’re outgrowing it fast,” said Dad, pushing open the door. “When the new building is finished it’ll seat three times as many…”

He trailed off in surprise. On the entry steps were two young girls, shivering and stamping their feet to keep warm. I thought everyone from the service was gone. “Shouldn’t you girls be getting home?” I asked.

“Our brother’s coming to pick us up,” the older girl said.

“Sometimes he has trouble with his car,” said her little sister.

“You can’t wait out here,” said Dad. “Come inside and get warm.”

The girls stood in the church while Dad got our car. By the time we were ready, the girls’ ride still hadn’t appeared. We stood together, watching the road. “We don’t mind waiting,” I told them, but the truth was I did mind—very much.

My eyes drifted to the parsonage where my family was waiting to begin Christmas. Their brother will be here soon, I told myself. Be patient.

“There he is!”

I almost shouted with relief at the sight of headlights coming up the hill by the cemetery. Praise the Lord! The girls could get home and Christmas could begin! “Merry Christmas,” I told them.

Dad and I closed up the church. The girls climbed into their car. The engine didn’t sound good, but once they were rolling down the hill it ran smoothly. I jumped into Dad’s car and we started down the hill.

“The family is probably wondering where we are by now,” I said.

The country road was clear and straight, lit up by the full moon reflected on the snow. As we turned into the driveway I glanced out the window toward the highway. A car was stopped on the side of the road. “It’s probably nothing,” I said.

Dad was already backing out of the driveway again to investigate, and our parsonage was disappearing in the back window. So close and yet so far! As we got nearer we recognized the girls and their brother struggling to push their car up the hill.

“There’s a gas station about a quarter of a mile away,” Dad told them. “We can help you get there.”

Dad lined up his steel bumper with their car and pushed them toward the highway. In the passenger seat I squirmed with impatience. The gas station isn’t far, I said to myself. We will get them some help and Christmas can start.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when we found it closed. Or the larger station a few miles beyond it. It was Christmas Eve. Everyone was at home celebrating.

Everyone but me! I was stuck in a car with a family of strangers, taking them to an auto repair shop. Once we got them there we would have to take them back to the grocery store parking lot where they’d left their car.

“They probably won’t be able to do any repairs tonight,” the girls’ brother said. “We hate to be such a bother.”

“Not at all,” I said, sounding unconvincing even to myself. There was no use denying it: I did feel inconvenienced. Not enough to leave the family stranded, of course. Just enough that I couldn’t be as friendly about it as I knew I should be. Just enough that I wished those two girls hadn’t come to church on Christmas Eve without a reliable ride home.

The owner of the repair shop agreed to work on the car—after Christmas. For tonight he took the car keys, the car’s location, and a phone number for the brother. “Now let’s get you folks home,” Dad said when it was all settled.

We piled back into the car and headed to their house, miles away. On these snowy roads it’ll be an hour before we get home, I thought. The night was slipping away.

We settled into an awkward silence. I couldn’t help but feel responsible. No matter how much I tried to hide it, my impatience was obvious to everyone. I just couldn’t help it. My first Christmas as a married man.

I’d been studying so hard at the seminary. I’d looked forward to being home with my family. Didn’t I have a right to be impatient?

I glanced into the rearview mirror at the girls in the backseat with their brother. They were missing Christmas too, I reminded myself, and we were almost at their house. Did I want to drop them off without making an effort at friendliness?

“I guess you all can’t wait to get home,” I said cheerfully. “So you can start celebrating Christmas.” The older girl met my eyes in the mirror.

“Our Dad doesn’t believe in Christmas,” she told us quietly. Not believe in Christmas? I couldn’t fathom it. Maybe she just meant he didn’t go to church. Maybe they kept their Christmas celebrations at home. They were probably waiting with presents and eggnog around the tree.

“You have a Christmas tree, don’t you?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

“Decorations? Presents?”

“No.”

Now I was really confused. “But then what will you do for Christmas?” I asked.

“We had our Christmas already,” the girl said. “At church tonight.”

The car fell silent again, but not like before. Dad gave me a knowing look and turned his eyes back on the road. My impatience had vanished, along with all thoughts of presents and Christmas dinner.

Here I’d spent all night waiting for my Christmas to start until two young angels had reminded me that Christmas had started long ago, when a baby was born in a manger. And it remained in the hearts of all who believed, no matter where they found themselves on Christmas Eve. Sometimes God did his best teaching outside of seminary school.

 

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