What a magical time!
What a wonder-filled time!
What a...stress-filled, exhausting, overwhelming, frustrating, demanding time!
Draw near, and allow me to tell you a story.
For twenty-four days straight, starting the Sunday after Thanksgiving, my wife and I, and our poor, innocent (so to speak!) children were out of the house every night! We barely had time to think about a Christmas tree, much less actually put one up and decorate it. Holiday parties, special services at our church, Christmas productions, other family’s kids Christmas productions, more parties...it went on and on and on. By the time Christmas actually arrived, we were too tired and stressed out to care.
And then...the day after Christmas, and the 14-hour drive to Atlanta to visit my parents. Too exhausted to see straight, every one in the car ready to explode from Christmas stress and Christmas food and Christmas parties and too many Christmas gifts (most of them making the trip with us, which of course made the car uninhabitable unless one could perform the body contortions of Houdini).
But, we made it safely to my parents, and instead of resting, we opened more gifts, ate more food, and made plans to see my wife’s relatives and celebrate Christmas with them the very next day (have you noticed how obligated we all feel to celebrate all this gift-giving-food-eating-indulgence as close as possible to December 25, regardless of the stress, sacrifice, and near-impossible strategic planning it requires?)
So, the next day, we set out to meet her relatives...at a resturant 30 miles away from where my parents live! I admit it - when I learned where we were meeting them, I was not operating in the Spirit of Christ. Scrooge had thoroughly possessed my soul, and our drive to the resturant was filled with my grumbling and complaining and working myself into a heart attack...all because, after driving 800 miles to come to Atlanta, now we had to drive another 30 miles to meet her family at a resturant and....get this...celebrate Christmas!!! So, I wondered aloud to my wife and my three innocent (so to speak!) children...why could not her family have driven the 30 miles to see us, to eat a resturant close to my parents house? After we had driven 800 miles to make all this possible? And they never once, not once, came up north to visit us...for any reason?!? Why, tell me?!
So, we get to the resturant. Her family is not there. No one is there. The resturant has gone out of business. Boarded up. Empty. The sign is down. Weeds in the parking lot. I am ready to become a serial killer. I have forsaken the faith...I am apostate. I am in the parking lot of the now defunct eatery, turning redder than the Christmas bows that decorate my parents tree.
Did I tell you that I am a pastor? Behold, the man of God!
We call them on the cell phone, and they tell us they can meet us at another resturant, which is closer to their house, but another 40 miles from where we are right now!!! Now, we have to drive a total of 70 miles to meet them at a resturant - which has probably gone out of business - in the middle of nowhere, and all to...get this...celebrate Christmas!!!
We made it. I managed to drive the car while suffering a stroke, and blathering spittle all over the steering wheel.
We met them (the place was open, and there was no wait...thank God for small miracles) and we were seated at our table.
I shook hands all around perfunctorily, and then sat in a sulk, arms folded across my chest, refusing to even look at - much less talk to - my wife’s brother, his wife, and their three innocent (so to speak!) children, who had all greeted me with hugs and “Hey, Uncle Don! Merry Christmas!”
Yeh, yeh. Whatever.
I was ruminating to myself on how disastrous and idiotic this entire Christmas season had been, and was so throroughly making a fool out of myself in front of my family, that I completely missed our server asking me “are you Don Martin?”
It slowly dawned on me that everyone was looking at me, waiting for an answer. To what, I had no idea.
I noticed the waitress, looking at me pleasantly, her eyebrows arched in anticipation, and I managed a very brilliant sounding “Huh?”, bovine intelligence shining in my eyes.
“Are you Don Martin?” she asked again.
“Uh, yeh,” I responded.
“The Don Martin? That is, the Reverend Don Martin?”
Okay - now my curiosity was piqued. Here I was, by grand mistake, at a resturant I never knew existed, in the middle of God-forsaken nowhere, grumbling about this disastrous Christmas trip...and someone was asking me if I was who, it so happened, I was.
“Uh, yeh, I’m a pastor,” I said, somewhat shamed by the glare I received from my wife and three innocent (so to speak!) children, who had just seen me acting like something more like a drunken sailor for the past hour.
“Well,” our server said sweetly, “there’s a young lady over at that table who asked me to tell you that - if you were the Rev. Don Martin - she wanted to say hello and speak with you for a moment.”
OK - now, I am totally bamboozled. We are 70 miles from my parents, eating at a roadside resturaunt, miles from anywhere I know anything about...and someone is sending me a message. Someone wants to tell me hello. Someone wants to speak with me. Someone recognizes me. How can this be?
What kind of trouble am I in?
I look around...and realized that I did not need the server to tell me who it was. I recognized her immediately.
Her name was Katie Wilson.
Years ago, when I was still in college, my first ministry job was as a part-time youth pastor at Katie’s church. I was a disaster (are you noticing a pattern?); the church had been sweet and gracious - they didn’t fire me. Katie, a leader in the youth group, had been one of my biggest fans.
Several years after my embarrasing tour of duty as her youth pastor, I was invited back to the church to preach at a Homecoming Service. Man, those people were sweet...and forgiving. I was dumbfounded that they invited me back at all, much less to preach. But, by this time, I had grown up some, and could actually deliver a sermon without making a fool of myself or embarrasing people in the congregation. So, I accepted the invitation...and when I stood to preach that night, I saw Katie and her husband seated in the first row, grinning up at me.
After the service, they came to me, but this time they were not smiling...they had tears in their eyes. They told me that for three years they had tried to conceive a child, but had been unable to do so. They had been to eight doctors, had dozens of tests, done everything known to medical science to do. Nothing. Their personal physician told them to consider adoption if they wanted a child. That’s what they were planning to do, but in the meantime, they had come to hear me preach. They told me they did not attend that church anymore - but when they heard I would be there, they drove over 70 miles (I know, I know) to hear me. To tell me their story. To pray with me.
So, we prayed. With a strange mix of audaciousness and humility, we asked God for a miracle.I hugged them goodbye, and with a lump in my throat told Katie how much I appreciated her trust in me, and her support and friendship. They walked down the aisle, out the door...and I did not see them again for more than ten years.
Until this day, at a resturaunt 70 miles (I know, I know!) from my parent’s house, 870 miles from my house in Ohio...at the tail-end of a very long and very frustrating Christmas season.
Katie and her husband were all hugs and grins. We all expressed astonishment that we had met one another, out here in the middle of nowhere, two days after Christmas.
As we were talking, I felt someone walk up behind me. I turned, but no-one was there. That’s when the hairs on the back of my neck stood up...because it occured to me that maybe God was the one sneaking up behind me, about to pull one of His God-tricks.
Katie and her husband kept grinning at me like they were in on the joke. They asked me if I remembered the last time we had seen each other. I assured them I did. They told me how they had been praying for years that God would give them the opportunity to see me again. I wondered aloud...why?
In reply, without saying another word, they stepped aside...and I saw her. A cute, 9-year old girl, sitting at the table, grinning up at me like she was in on the joke, too.
It seemed to me that the room grew silent, like in those old Merrill Lynch commericals.
It seemed to me that the wind quit blowing, the earth quit spinning, the universe quit expanding...and everything focused on this crazy, unexpected moment.
I felt God standing next to me, a mischevious glimmer in His eye, wearing a crazy party hat and about to blow on a party horn...He was just waiting for the right moment.
Katie looked at me with tears in her eyes, this time tears of barely-restrained, crazy-joy...and with the sincere drama of a Broadway thespian, she said, “Don, I would like to introduce to you my daughter, Rebecca.”
As a lump grew in my throat, and the meaning of God’s great joke swelled up underneath me, she leaned over and - her own, sweet voice thickening with love and hope and faith and grace - whispered in my ear in a conspirational tone - “she was conceived three days after we prayed together with you at Homecoming, all those years ago.”
Her husband, grinning like the Cheshire cat, winked at me.
God blew His horn.
The dinner with my wife’s relatives is lost in the haze of irrelevant memory. I have no idea what I ate, what gifts were exchanged, what we said to each other.
The drive back to my parents’ house was one of the most incredible and memorable 70 miles I have ever travelled. It was only 70 miles, but the distance I journeyed spiritually was light-years greater than the distance journeyed by the Magi in their search for the new born King. I was grateful for the distance...it gave me the chance to:
What a surprising God!
What an unexpected epiphany!
Despite my displeasure, my childish grumbling, my selfish sulking, God had managed to grab me by the nose and take me on a 70-mile detour to the middle of nowhere...just so that I could experience Christmas, and He could blow a party horn in my ear!
Drama experts will tell us that place is as much a character in a film or theatrical production as any character.
How true! I remember the desolate, empty fields; the trailer park communities and run down gas stations of rural Georgia...all symbols of the vacuous and inane Christmas I had just experienced. I remember the stark, blue winter sky; the quietness of the country; the smell of the food at the resturaunt, the muted rumbling of the crowd of diners, the clank of plates and the tinkle of ice in the glass.
I remember the table, filled with food and drink, and the cardboard reminders about dessert; water rings on the table, and the reproduction of an old gas lamp burning dully as a centerpiece. But all those images are like a wreath - or halo - surrounding the little 9-year old girl who was the miracle answer to a prayer prayed 10 years before ... and forgotten.
In the most remarkable way, in the most unexpected place...God stepped in and restored to me the magic and mystery and wonder of Christmas.
I suspect that He had that meeting planned for a long, long time.
I am certain that He went to such great lengths to pull it off in exactly the way He did - being sovereign God, and all - so that I could learn something about Him in the process. And, about me.
And that, really, is what the unexpected places are all about.
Unexpected places. That is where God is.
Unexpected places. That is where He is discovered, and where He is known.
Unexpected places. That is where we learn about God...and perhaps learn even more about ourselves.
Christmas is about unexpected places. It is a true story, given to remind us that God is waiting for us in unexpected places. If we pay close attention to what is told us in the gospels about the birth of Jesus, we will find that it is a message that transcends Christmas and impacts every moment and season...and place!... of our lives. Christmas is a time to remind us that the message is given, and that this message is true.
Unexpected places. The Christmas story is filled with them. Each one contains a strange, ephiphanous little event like the one I shared with you from my own life. The human characters are not mighty people; the locale is not a place of majestic beauty and grandeur. The human characters are shepherds, old people, poor people, disabled people. The locales are bedrooms, desolate fields, stinking cow stalls, creosote-caked caves. A twist of the tale, a mystery wrapped in an enigma and hidden within a wonderment...all things designed to grab our attention, pique our curiosity, open our eyes...and our hearts.
Over the years, my life has been filled with those unexpected places. Yours has, too...you only have to look to see! Some of those places are filled with laughter and wonderment; some are filled with awe and quiet celebration; some are filled with weeping and fear; some are filled with sadness and confusion. But they all share something - they were, and are, unexpected; and God is waiting for us there.