By John William Smith
In 1962 I was preaching in Indianapolis, Indiana. I was single, and it was Christmas time. I was headed home to Michigan to enjoy the holidays with my family. It was an extremely cold day, and it was snowing.
The wind was howling out of the North, blowing thick clouds of fine flakes across the road – it looked like a blizzard. The roads were icy in places, and there was little traffic. Somewhere near Ft. Wayne, Indiana, I saw a soldier standing under an overpass. He had a green army cap pulled as tight and low as possible over his head, his collar was pulled up around his ears, his hands were shoved down in his pockets, and he had a stuffed duffel bag standing beside him.
I was driving a Chevrolet Corvette, and I was going very fast – faster than I should have been, considering the road conditions. As I sped by, the soldier jerked one hand out of his pocket and raised his thumb. My Corvette had two seats – not a front and back seat, but two seats side by side – and I was in one of them. The trunk was big enough to hold three loaves of bread and a pound of lunch meat. Not only was my limited trunk space stuffed full with the clothes and boots I would need for my stay in Michigan, the front seat was stacked high as well, with the presents that I had purchased for my folks and my nieces and nephews.
When I saw the soldier, I was going much too fast to stop, and I was well down the highway before I gave it much thought. I told myself that I couldn’t possibly get him and his duffel bag in the car – I debated about the terrible inconvenience and delay it would cause if I did, and by the time I decided that perhaps I ought to at least offer to help, I was two miles down the road and out of sight. But my Christian Conscience really went to work on me.
It was so cold, traffic was almost nonexistent – he was a soldier – and it was Christmas. The inner battle raged for another three miles.
Finally, I decided I would never get any peace unless I offered to help, so I made a U-turn and went back. I hoped with all my heart that someone else had picked him up.
That way, I could satisfy my conscience and not be inconvenienced – wouldn’t that be great? But he was still there, looking more forlorn, lonely, and cold than ever. I was disgusted. I pulled up and rolled down the window. He came running, stumbling on his numb feet, dragging the duffel bag. He leaned over and stuck his head in the window. His face was bluish, his teeth were chattering, his eyebrows and eyelashes were matted with frozen snow, and he could scarcely speak intelligibly.
"Thanks so much for stopping", he said. "I had about given up hope."
That was not what I wanted to hear.
"Where are you going?" I asked, hoping that it was in some direction that would alleviate me from further responsibility. "I live in Michigan, in Taylor Township," he said hopefully. That was really discouraging. It wasn’t directly on my may, but it wasn’t too much out of my way either.
"I’m going to Royal Oak," I said reluctantly. "Oh," he said, "I know where that is. That’s great! If I could just ride with you to Ann Arbor, it would mean a lot to me. I’m almost frozen; I can’t feel my ears or feet any more," he said plaintively.
"I don’t think I can possibly get both you and your things in," I said.
"If you’ll let me, I’ll get in – I promise you. I’ve been standing here for three hours."
I told him to try getting in, and we began rearranging things. The duffel bag was almost as big as he was, and there was only one place for it – the passenger seat. No matter how he put it in the car, he couldn’t get in himself. I suggested that maybe he could hide it somewhere and come back for it later. He said he couldn’t possibly do that; it had his kids’ Christmas presents in it, and he wasn’t going anywhere without it. I finally got out, walked around the car, and told him to sit down in the passenger seat. As he sat there, I wedged the duffel bag between his legs and between the floor and the roof of the car. I sandwiched all of my presents around him – and I slammed the door. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t see out either the windshield or his side window – but he was in. I still don’t know how we did it.
Once he began to get warm, he began to talk. I found out he was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. "Didn’t I see you go by about five minutes ago?" he asked. I really felt stupid.
"Ummm, yes," I said. "You mean you turned around and came back?!" I nodded an affirmative.
"Why would you do that?" I paused a long moment.
"Well, you see, I was raised in a home where helping people who were in need was very important. In addition, I’m a minister – actually, it’s more than that – I’m a Christian, and if it weren’t for that, I’d probably still be going. I have as hard a time doing the right thing as most folks. I fought with this decision for five miles – it’s Jesus who makes me do things like turn around and come back. When I don’t do the right thing, I have this feeling He’s looking at me, and He’s so disappointed that I can’t stand it.
"Oh!" he said. "you don’t know how that convicts me. I’m going to tell you something I never thought I’d tell anybody. I’m no Christian, but my wife is the best person in the whole world, and she goes to church all the time and takes the kids. Truthfully, I’ve done everything I could to discourage her, but she just keeps going. She’s all the time trying to get me to go, telling me that someday I’m going to wish I had.
"Do you know why I’m here hitchhiking? Let me tell you a little story. I was turned down for holiday leave because I got drunk and caused some trouble at the base. I was sick about it. I haven’t seen my wife and kids for six months. A friend of mine, who’s single, found out at the last minute that his folks were coming to visit some relatives who live close to the base during the holidays. He went to our commanding officer and volunteered to take my duty, if he would let me go home.
He gave me permission, but I had spent all my money buying presents, which I was going to mail home, so I decided to start hitchhiking. My family doesn’t even know I’m coming. I wasn’t sure I’d make it, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I’ve been standing there for three hours, thinking. I watched folks drive by, and it occurred to me that some of them must be Christians, and it made me feel pretty bitter – until I got to thinking about what a lousy person I am, and I knew if I was them, that I probably wouldn’t stop either.
"Let me tell you something embarrassing – I got so cold, so lonely, and so desperate that I started to pray – honest to God I did – it was so humiliating. I told God that if he would help me, I’d do better. And you know what? About that time you showed up, and you told me that you came back because of Jesus – now what do you make of that?"
"Well, first I’d say that maybe there’s more to Christianity than either of us thought, and second, I’d say you’d better start doing better." I found out exactly where he lived, and we agreed that I could get him pretty close before I had to go in another direction. I think I knew what I was going to do long before I actually said anything. As we approached the intersection where I was going to let him out, I told him that I had made up my mind to take him home.
About two hours later, we pulled up in his driveway. It was almost dark.
He was really excited. He asked me to blow my horn, and I did. A few minutes passed, and the inside door opened slowly. The glass in the outside door was frosted over, and whoever was looking out could only tell that there was a car in the driveway. The outside door opened, and a five-or six-year old, barefooted boy peeked around the door. When he saw my sports car, he came out on the porch and peered intently at us. His dad opened the door and stepped out.
"Hi, David, it’s Daddy; I’m home for Christmas!" He started to say more, but the boy had seen the uniform and heard the voice.
The boy’s face lit up, and he turned back into the house. I could hear him distinctly – "Mama, Daddy’s home," he yelled shrilly. "Daddy’s Home! Mama! Mama! Daddy’s home for Christmas!"
The door opened again, and it didn’t open slowly this time – it was thrown open. A woman dressed in a bathrobe and house slippers came running down the steps, her hair flying in the wind, oblivious to the snow and the cold, eyes and mouth opened wide with excitement, with joy etched in every line of her face. "Oh, Carl," she said, "Oh, Carl, you’re home. Praise God, you’re home.
The kids and I have been praying every day that, somehow, God would send you home."
She was followed by a skinny, fair-haired, ten-year-old girl and finally by a towheaded, blanket-toting, two or three-year-old girl. They kissed and hugged and laughed and cried, and they danced in the cold and the snow until the soldier finally disentangled himself from them long enough to introduce me.
"This is John," he said. "He’s a minister and he’s also a Christian; and if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here. And I’m going to tell you something honey, right here and now. I told John that I had promised God that I was going to do better, and I am. I’m going to stop drinking, be a better husband, a better father – a better man – and we’re going to start going to church together."
I have never witnessed such gratitude in my life. They all had to hug me and kiss me – even the two-year-old – and they told me what a blessing I was to them and that they owed me a debt they could never pay. I was so embarrassed, because I was so unworthy. I had grudged the whole thing until after we had started talking. I wanted to tell them that I didn’t deserve any thanks.
I tried to leave, but they simply wouldn’t allow it. I had to go in the house. I had to eat something and drink something; I had to accept a gift from them – yes, I had to. They would not allow me not to, and the more they did, the better and the worse I felt.
I was so embarrassed. You know why? I had just witnessed something private – a family thing – something I wasn’t part of – something not meant for outsiders – and, yes, I was – I was embarrassed. And you know what else?
I envied Carl. I thought that it must be wonderful beyond description to be loved by a woman like that and missed like that and to be so unworthy – and I think Carl was just beginning to understand what he had. I have learned since then that only those who have come to know and feel the love of God can love the unworthy – and I have also learned that we are all unworthy.
Carl was home. I think that at that moment, home meant more to him, perhaps, than it would ever mean again. And when I got to my home and saw my folks and told them why I was late, they were so proud of me – and I was a little proud of myself. Home was somehow brighter, warmer, more dear to me than it had ever been before. Every human longing – bound up in the inherent yearning to be loved and to be "home" and to experience the peace and security that "home" signifies – has found its fulfillment in Jesus who said, " I go to prepare a place for you." Everything we ever dreamed of home being – what it was or was not – is in that place. Jesus has given purpose, even to the dream of death, because for those who know God – that is the way home.
"How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts,
the blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
the dear Christ enters in."
Jesus comes to us in many ways. He came to me in the form of a freezing soldier trying to get home for Christmas. He came to a freezing soldier in the form of a young minister trying to find his way to God. Either one of us could have missed Him.
I hope Jesus comes to you this Christmas too, and His coming is always in an unexpected way – don’t ever miss Him.