by Rev. Doug Gray
A young girl grows up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents, a bit old-fashioned, tend to over-react to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts. They ground her a few times and she seethes inside. “I hate you!” she screams at her father when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument, and that night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of times. She runs away.
We are deep in the heart of getting ready for Christmas, deep into the season of “I wanna” and “Gimme gimme.” We may feel like nobody understands us, like nobody has as many problems or challenges as we do. We are impatient and frustrated and perhaps we just want the world to go away and let us do what we want. Maybe we are not prepared to run away like this young woman, but we are definitely running all the time. No time to wait.
The young girl has visited Detroit only once before, on a bus trip with her church youth group to watch the Tigers play. Because newspapers in Traverse City report in lurid detail the gangs, the drugs, and the violence in downtown Detroit, she concludes that is probably the last place her parents will look for her. California, maybe, or Florida, but not Detroit.
Her second day there she meets a man who drives the biggest car she’s ever seen. He offers her a ride, buys her lunch, arranges a place for her to stay. He gives her some pills that make her feel better than she’s ever felt before. She was right all along, she decides: her parents were keeping her from all the fun.
The commercials, TV and movies show us the good life. It seems like something everyone has, everyone but us. When our children want something more, we think, why not? Don’t we wish we had had that when we were kids? The things and the desire for things and our children’s desire for things seem to fill our vision. But it’s the good life, right? Life is short—why wait?
The good life continues for a month, two months, a year. The man with the big car—she calls him “Boss”—teaches her a few things that men like. Since she’s underage, men pay a premium for her. She lives in a penthouse, and orders room service whenever she wants. After a year the first sallow signs of illness appear, and it amazes her how fast the boss turns mean. “These days, we can’t mess around,” he growls, and before she knows it she’s out on the street without a penny to her name. She still turns a couple of tricks a night, but they don’t pay much, and all the money goes to support her habit. When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores. “Sleeping” is the wrong word—a teenage girl at night in downtown Detroit can never relax her guard. Dark bands circle her eyes. Her cough worsens.
Do you ever feel like Christmas is running you, instead of you running Christmas? The farther you go in getting the “good life,” do you ever feel like it’s not all it’s cracked up to be? We not only buy stuff, we buy things to organize our stuff, and we buy places to store our stuff. And the chase for all these things leaves us empty, even if we catch them. Perhaps pieces of the good life we are seeking even feel like they are working against us. The promised happiness proves elusive. We are still waiting for what we really wanted and needed. What do we really want or need this Christmas? It’s a question we are hesitant to ask, because we are perhaps afraid of the answer. What are we waiting for?
One night as the young girl lies awake listening for footsteps, all of a sudden everything about her life looks different. She no longer feels like a woman of the world. She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city. She begins to whimper. Her pockets are empty and she’s hungry. She needs a fix. She pulls her legs tight underneath her and shivers under the newspapers she’s piled atop her coat. Something jots a synapse of memory and a single image fills her mind: of May in Traverse City, when a million cherry trees bloom at once, with her golden retriever dashing through the rows and rows of blossomy trees in chase of a tennis ball.
God, why did I leave, she says to herself, and pain stabs at her heart. She’s sobbing, and she knows in a flash that more than anything else in the world, she wants to go home.
Three straight phone calls, three straight connections with the answering machine. She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says, “Dad, Mom, its me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.”
It takes about seven hours for a bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City, and during that time she realizes the flaws in her plan. What if her parents are out of town and miss the message? Shouldn’t she have waited another day or so until she could talk to them? And even if they are home, they probably wrote her off as dead long ago. She should have given them some time to overcome the shock.
Her thoughts bounce back and forth between those worries and the speech she is preparing for her father. “Dad, I’m sorry I know I was wrong. It’s not your fault; it’s all mine. Dad, can you forgive me?” She says the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them. She hasn’t apologized to anyone in years.
What do we really want or need? For most of us, we wish there could be a way home this Christmas. Perhaps we are like the young girl in our story, waiting in the dark, wishing there were a way to “go home” to someone we have wronged. Perhaps we are trying to recreate the perfect Christmas we wish we could have had as a kid. Perhaps we are waiting for someone to magically make a real Christmas appear before us, and not sure how to create it for ourselves. But how to find our way home to the real Christmas? In that moment, we pray, “Lord God, we are so sorry for how we have been making Christmas hard or meaningless. Forgive us, Lord, we pray.” Why have we waited so long to do this?
When the bus finally rolls into the station, its air brakes hissing in protest, the driver announces in a crackly voice over the microphone, “Fifteen minutes, folks. That’s all we have here.” Fifteen minutes to decide her life. She checks herself in a compact mirror, smooths her hair, and licks the lipstick off her teeth. She looks at the tobacco stains on her fingertips, and wonders if her parents will notice. If they’re there.
She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect. Not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepare her for what she sees. There, in the concrete-walls-and-plastic-chairs bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stands a group of forty brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother to boot. They’re all wearing goofy party hats and blowing noise-makers, and taped across the entire wall of the terminal is a computer-generated banner that reads “Welcome home!”
Out of the crowd of well-wishers breaks her dad. She stares out through the tears quivering in her eyes like hot mercury and begins the memorized speech, “Dad, I’m sorry. I know…” He interrupts her. “Hush, child. We’ve got no time for that. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for the party. A banquet’s waiting for you at home.”
Overwhelming grace. Joyful welcome. Tearful embrace. Magnificent celebration. These are the real Christmas we most hope for, but we so often think of Advent as a time when we wait for Christmas. We remember Mary waiting for nine months to meet this amazing person growing in her, and so we wait too. What the young girl in our story discovered is that all the time she was waiting to turn for home, her parents were looking for her, waiting for her, longing for her to come home. I wonder if that’s the secret meaning of Christmas: perhaps Advent reminds us that God is looking for us, waiting for us, longing for us to come home to the real Christmas. What are we waiting for? We don’t need December 25, to show grace to those around us, to welcome those who are left out, to embrace those who are hurting, to throw a party for someone who is down on their luck, to put our amazing God at the center of our lives. God is waiting for us. What are we waiting for?
This story is a shortened version of Philip Yancey’s in What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997), pp. 49–51.