Several years ago my family planned a 5-day family reunion over Christmas. We made reservations at a resort on the North Shore of Lake Superior. It was a wonderful getaway of skiing, eating, playing games and just reveling in the love of family.
As was our tradition, we planned to go to church together on Christmas Eve. Early that morning, it began to snow. It came down hard all day, and by evening there was over a foot of snow. Traveling the thirty miles to the church we normally attended seemed too dangerous. Then someone in our family remembered passing a small church just about two miles away. We figured we could make it that far.
It took nearly 30 minutes for our caravan of cars to make it the two miles. When we pulled into the parking lot, there were only a few other cars. We went inside, stamped the snow off our feet and sat down.
There was a man in a grey wool flannel jacket and a red Elmer Fudd hat trying to get the heat going. The church was so cold you could see your breath. After a few minutes we could hear the furnace working, but really didn’t feel the difference.
More people arrived, stamped their feet, and found a seat. Christmas wishes were being offered. Some of the folks seemed to be locals. Most looked like they were guests at one of the local resorts.
A few minutes before the service was to begin, the man in the flannel coat walked to the front of the church and explained that we were going to be a little delayed as the pastor and the pianist had not yet arrived. These were the days before cell phones so there was no way to call them.
People continued to visit quietly. A few gathered around the vent where the heat was coming out. Occasionally the man in the flannel coat would apologize again and assure us that the pastor would be here soon.
After a half hour, he came back to the front and said, “Friends, it looks as if the storm has prevented our pastor and our music director from making it here tonight. I’m sorry you had to travel in this weather for nothing.”
Then someone suggested that since we were here anyway, maybe we could just read the scriptures about the birth of Christ. “That’s a fantastic idea!” said the man in the flannel coat. He recruited a young couple who he knew by name to come and read. Then he looked over at the piano and then asked if any of the visitors might be able to play a couple of Christmas hymns as well. After a long moment, a woman in the third row shyly raise her hand to volunteer.
Within a few minutes they had quickly organized a Christmas Eve service. The visiting pianist sat down and began playing “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel.” We picked up the hymnals in front of us, found the song and began to sing along. We followed that up with a few other Christmas hymns. Then the young couple came forward. She read from Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6.
Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Then her husband read the about the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew.
When the readings were finished, the man in the flannel coat stood back up. Again he apologized that the pastor was not able to make it. Then he said, “Before we close with our final song, I wondered if I could tell you a story about what the meaning of Christmas is to me.” We weren’t in a hurry to get back on the road, so we all nodded.
He walked to the front of the church. Holding his Elmer Fudd hat in his hands, he looked uncomfortable and awkward. I could tell that standing in front of a crowd of people was not in his comfort zone. But for some reason, he felt called to step forward and share his story with this small group of friends and visitors.
He began by saying that a few years back, he had been laid off at the nearby taconite plant. Money was tight and he supported his family doing odd jobs. One afternoon, just before Christmas, his nine-year-old son had fallen off of his bike and knocked out his two front teeth. He called the family dentist and told him what happened. The dentist said that he would need to go to an oral surgeon in a larger city that was about 70 miles away if there was any hope of saving the teeth.
As he drove to the city, he was trying to figure out how he was going to pay for this. He didn’t have insurance and his savings had run out. He would have to make some sort of arrangement to pay over time.
When they arrived, his son was taken immediately to the exam room while the man filled out forms. He explained to the receptionist that he didn’t have insurance. He assured her that if they could be patient, he would pay them back as soon as possible. She told him that he would have to talk with the business manager who would not be in until Monday, but that they usually required insurance or partial payment up front.
He sat in the waiting room anxiously waiting for his son. Finally, after about 45 minutes, his boy came through the doors with a big smile on his face. With his fingers, he lifted his upper lip and said, “Look dad! Good as new!” The man was so relieved that his son’s front teeth had been saved.
He walked back to the receptionist desk and asked for the bill. He said he would call first thing on Monday to talk to the business manager. The receptionist handed him a piece of paper and he opened it. The charge for saving the two knocked out teeth came to over $800.00. But then, oddly, the balance due at the bottom said “$0.00” and it was stamped “Paid in Full”.
He turned around and handed it back to the receptionist and explained that a mistake had been made. She looked it and said, “Hang on, I’ll be right back.” A minute later she returned and said, “No, the bill has been taken care of.”
The man said that he couldn’t accept that and that he insisted on paying what he owed. The receptionist took the bill again and said “Hold on.” She got up and walked back to the exam room. A minute later, the oral surgeon who had taken care of his son came out to the waiting room.
The man looked at the surgeon and said, “I appreciate what you are trying to do, but I can pay my bills. It will just take a little time.”
The surgeon looked at him, smiled, and said, “You don’t remember me, do you?”
“Excuse me? I’m sure we’ve never met,” the man replied.
“Actually, we have”, said the surgeon. “It was last winter. I was driving on Hwy 61 on the North Shore. A deer had jumped onto the road and I swerved to miss it. I ended up sliding deep into the ditch. It was a bitterly cold night and nobody stopped to help. That is, until you and your son pulled over. You both grabbed shovels from your pick-up and began digging. Then you hooked up a tow rope to your truck and pulled me out of the ditch. I tried to pay you for your trouble, but you wouldn’t accept it. You just said, ‘It’s what Jesus would do’.”
“When your son came in here today, he looked so familiar. I couldn’t figure it out until I poked my head into the waiting room and saw you. So, there is no charge. It’s what Jesus would do. Merry Christmas!”
Standing in the front of the little church, the man in the flannel jacket looked up at us and said, “Well, I guess that is what Christmas means to me. It’s passing on the love that God gave us when he sent the gift of his Son.” Then he walked back to his seat and sat down.
The volunteer musician began to play “Silent Night”. Everyone spontaneously stood and grabbed hands of those around them. We sang loud. We sang every verse. Our hearts were moved. When it was over, we turned and greeted those around us and wished them a “Merry Christmas.” Then we walked back out into the snow realizing we had just experienced something very special.
It is the Christmas I will always remember.
By Pete Larson
Husband to Lynn, Father of two
1 Corinthians 13 Parenting Team Member
Executive Director of Family Fest Ministries