Dec. 24, 2009 — While saying my prayers last night, I reflected on how I needed to write a Christmas-oriented story for the collection of short stories I am currently writing. The answer, a gift to me, and now to you, came in a flash of insight. “Why not share your own conversion story and the best winter and best Christmas present you ever had?” I knew instantly that was the right answer. There are a few liberties with details, like the meeting with a stranger at the bus stop and the locale being in Michigan, but the rest of the story, regarding my friend Daniel and myself, is completely accurate, and even more amazing than the few details I shared here. The writing was done in one morning, this morning. God is amazing, isn’t He? Here is His, and my, Christmas gift to you, before it comes out in the book The Visitor.
The Greatest Christmas Gift Ever
“Greater love hath no man than this….”
‘I remember the day as if it were just yesterday, although many years have passed.’
Those were the words the old man used. A few years have passed since he and I sat and talked, but I now understand the words and the look in his eye as he spoke.
It was a day about like any other winter day in our area – cold, windy and generally miserable. I wouldn’t even have been out in it, had it not been necessary to get a last minute Christmas gift. The last thing I wanted was to die of exposure to the weather in a Michigan winter. And yet, here I was, sitting at a bus stop in the frigid, unfriendly conditions that any sane individual would be avoiding like the plague. That’s when he approached and sat on the bench next to me. He was of average height, weight and appearance, but there was a sense of happiness that was disarming in a strange way.
“Hello, young man, how are you this fine day?”
He offered his hand, wrapped as it was in glove. A bit surprised, I offered mine in return before I had even processed the thought.
“As good as anyone can be on such a nasty day, I guess.” I went back to looking for the bus and wondering if I would need to be thawed before I could get on it.
“Nasty? No, sir. It’s a wonderful day to be alive. Any day this side of dirt is a good one.”
I have to admit that I thought he might have been a bit addled to be so enthusiastic about such inclement weather conditions, but the world is full of all kinds, after all. We can’t all be sane and well-adjusted. Yet, he continued.
“I take it you don’t share my enthusiasm.” His smile did not fade in the least.
“Well, no, I have never been one to enjoy winter that much. I would rather be inside with a hot cocoa and a good movie or book right now. Instead, I need to get a gift for my niece, if there are even any left when I get there.” I snorted and huffed in disgust at the thought of the shelves being picked over or empty.
“I once felt as you do. Not anymore, though.” He clapped his gloved hands together and looked about himself as if he were sitting on a park bench in the middle of new spring flowers. There was an unmistakable joy in his gaze and countenance. It made me wish I could share it, yet I could not even understand it.
“It all changed one winter, just like this one. That winter was like a gift to me.”
“Gifts….” I sniffed. “Well, this winter is no gift to me, that’s for sure. I don’t expect my last minute search will pay off, so I will have been out in the cold for nothing and my niece will still have no present of any real value.”
“Value is in the eye of the beholder, son.”
“Well, that may be, but the fact remains that I would rather be inside where it’s warm. Why Jesus chose to be born in the middle of winter is beyond me.”
At that the old man began to laugh. It was warm and infectious and somehow chased away the cranky feelings I had been expressing so openly to a stranger.
“Well, there is some debate as to the time of year he was born, but let me share a story with you while we wait…if that’s alright with you?” He raised his eyebrows in anticipation of my answer.
“Sure, why not. I have nothing else to do until the bus comes.” I was being polite. Pleasant or not, I wasn’t convinced his story was going to make me feel any better.
“Alright, then. I remember the day as if it were just yesterday, although many years have passed.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly and settled back on the bench as he began to weave his tale. It took only a moment to know that the story was real to him and I was drawn in, like an observer unseen and sitting in the darkness of a theatrical presentation. His words were heartfelt as he continued.
“As I said, it was a winter just like this one – the winter of 1971, as a matter of fact. I was an irresponsible, young rascal of the highest order.”
He snickered softly and you could sense that he saw again in his mind the scenes of that day.
“I was wrapped up in sex, drugs and rock and roll. And I was on the path to eventual destruction, I am sure. And I was not alone in my drive to oblivion, either. Several friends, so-called, were sharing the view with me along that road. We were partiers, all of us. Hard partiers.”
Suddenly, it was as if only he and I existed in the world at that moment. There was an utter and complete stillness that enveloped us. No traffic noises, no sounds at all, but for the voice of this one old man. Even my chattering teeth and heavy breathing had ceased to be noticeable. I hung on every word this man spoke, unable to pry my attention from him.
“…so there we were, Dan and I, sitting at the kitchen table, high on LSD and rambling about some inane thing that we must have thought to be very clever and insightful at the time. That’s when it happened….”
He paused in a far-away gaze and sat silent with the hint of a smile on his face.
“What? What happened?” My voice seemed like a noisy intruder in the quiet that surrounded us.
“The Holy Ghost, son. Suddenly we were not alone anymore. We both knew it, too. There was no denying it for either of us. One moment we were just two stoned idiots sitting there talking and the next we had our minds blown totally by the presence of God.” He chuckled again.
“LSD is a powerful drug, but this…oh, this…this was something neither of us had ever experienced in our short and impetuous lives. It was every bit like a Klieg light in total darkness. It was as if someone had snapped on a switch and suddenly we were in a different realm, you know?”
Of course I didn’t. There was no way I could, but I nodded and he continued. The strange thing is, I no longer thought him crazy. I should have, with a tale such as he was relating to me at the moment, but he was genuine in his belief that it had happened and, for some unknown and unexplainable reason, I could not disbelieve it either.
“God never takes away your personal moral agency, son. The question implied that night was, ‘is it revelation or is it hallucination?’ We both knew the answer to that one immediately. There was no denying that we both were experiencing the same event. No drug, no matter how powerful, does that. And this…..this was so much more powerful than the drug ever could have been. It eclipsed any drug-induced experience I or any man had ever had in the history of the world, I assure you. The feeling of pure and utter love was tangible, so thick you could cut it with a knife. It was like a big hug from someone you have a mutual love with.”
He stared off into space for a moment in private reverie before proceeding.
“The next several hours were spent in receiving revelation. If you have never felt pure intelligence pour into you, you have no concept of the exhilaration and joy that it brings. It was as if we were plugged into the great cosmic switchboard and suddenly knew things we had never even conceived of before. Just suddenly knew them to be true. And later they proved to be so, too.”
He went on to relate how he and his friend, Dan, had sat there at that same table for hours more, each being alternately used by the Holy Ghost as a mouthpiece to teach these principles to one another. Things they never knew were being taught to them even as they spoke the words. I have to admit that if anyone but this man had been telling me the story, that is all I would have thought it to be — a fanciful story, and nothing more. But this was not your average story, nor, it seemed, your average man.
“We then took a walk, as we were unable to sleep after such an event, as you can imagine. We saw the world in an entirely new and unique way that night. The snow on the ground and the ice that we stepped on. It was like the world was one huge ball of crystal and mankind was scratching and chipping it with his every step and movement…desecrating this Urim and Thummim the Lord had formed for our use.”
The terms were unfamiliar to me, but I did not interrupt. I would look them up later. Surely, they had to be in the Bible or a dictionary. He proceeded.
“And then we were led back to the apartment we had so recently departed from. That was when the most amazing thing happened.”
More amazing than anything yet? I did not interrupt this time. I didn’t want to hear my own voice intruding in the midst of such a wondrous tale as I was hearing.
“We had been listening to many LP records when we visited that apartment. Some we had heard many times, but I have to tell you, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, things can take on a totally different meaning than you think them to be. And that is what happened that night to Dan and I. The LP was by a group called FREE and the title was Fire And Water. Do you see the analogy in that? The sense of humor God has?”
He waited but a second for my reply and I nodded my agreement.
“Oh, yes, he has a wonderful sense of humor, but he loves his children, too, and he showed us that night the error of our ways and the right path. We were instructed to place the needle on the record…you knew that they didn’t always have CD’s, right?” He grinned as I smiled back at the thought.
“The song was Heavy Load. It had this plodding, sad and heavy piano back-beat that was, for all the world, reminiscent of a man under the weight of sin and grief, dragging himself along a lonely and dismal road, with no companion but God, to whom he makes his complaint that he can go no further down, recognizing he has taken the wrong road in his life. As the song opens, Dan and I are suddenly pressed down under the unseen weight of our own sins and find ourselves lieing on the floor, sobbing with great, heaving gasps. As the last strains die out, the weight lifts and we are again free of that crushing pressure. We are allowed a short time to discuss the experience and are instructed to again repeat the song, with the same result. And a third time we are told to do the same thing. Each time it is the same. The same crushing weight of sin, the same crying in desperation and sorrow for our shortcomings. The same grief over our choices in life.”
That this was not your average story was more than apparent now. It was the most engaging and intriguing story I had ever heard in my life. I could not help but believe it, regardless of how improbable and far-fetched it was. The man told it as any man would after living it personally. There was no denying the truth of it, even as a listener.
“I went from being missing from home a week or more at a time, to being home every night and reading the Bible. You can imagine how perplexed my parents must have been.” Again he grinned and chuckled.
“There had been a miraculous change in Dan and I. One minute neither of us knew if there was a God and the next minute, we couldn’t deny it. No, sir. Not for one second since that time. Personally, I believe God saved my life that night.”
I was suddenly aware that I was no longer shivering from the cold. It was as if a warm blanket, fresh from the dryer, had been laid over me.
“Son, I learned that winter that there were more important things about Christmas than getting stoned and ‘oooh-ing and ahhh-ing’ over the pretty lights or laughing about silly and un-fulfilling frivolities. I learned that the greatest gift of all was given by God himself. He knew we had to have a way to get back to him, that we were in a fallen and unworthy state, but he loves us so much that he made the ultimate sacrifice. His own son paid a price that only a God could pay — to buy us back from death and sin, if we would only accept the payment in our behalf and then live right.” At this point, the old man turned to me and looked into my eyes with an intensity that almost burned.
“How would you feel if you knew someone had given his own life to save yours?”
The question hit like a ton of bricks. I was speechless at the thought. If I had done something so wrong and so heinous as to be punishable by death, or if I were in such perils as to need rescuing, how would I feel if my rescuer lost his life in saving mine? I would be devastated, thinking that another family was altered forever because of me. I would want to reach out and take care of their every need, in gratitude, in a feeling of indebtedness for the gift I had been given of my own life. How could I waste it from then on in selfish pursuits? And that’s when it hit me; the true meaning of what the old man meant by his question. And that’s also when I began to cry, with that same sobbing he had spoken of – that sense of despair and feeling of unworthiness, knowing that the Son of God had been given as a sacrifice for me, for my measly and insignificant life. For my self-centered, egotistical and so far meaningless existence.
The old man put a hand on my shoulder to comfort me. I was still crying like a baby, face in hands. It seemed forever until I could regather my composure. And when I looked at him again, dusk had passed, the street lights had come on and there was what appeared to be a halo around the man. To this day, I would not doubt he was an angel. Maybe not in the supernatural sense, but a messenger from God, nonetheless.
“Here’s your bus, son. God bless you and have the best Christmas you ever had, alright?”
“Aren’t you waiting for the bus, too?”
“Nope. I was waiting for you. That’s my Christmas present.”
I didn’t know if he meant this had been his present to me or if sharing with me was like a present to him. It didn’t matter. I thanked him and made as if to shake his hand when, without warning, he gave me a big bear hug and said, “God bless you, son. I love you and your Father in Heaven loves you.”
I swear I knew at that moment that this total stranger truly loved me for who I was. I knew it was a pure love, even as God has for me – for all his children.
‘I remember the day as if it were just yesterday, although many years have passed.’
I find myself saying these same words to my children and grandchildren, even to total strangers, to this day. And I always smile when I think of the man who said them first to me. I know that God sent that man out on that cold winter night to fix a heart that was twisted and broken; to set a lost wanderer onto the right road again. I have been led by that same Spirit many times myself since then. It never ceases to amaze me or to bring joy to my heart when I follow those promptings and see the miraculous change in others, for I know that I am helping God to bring peace to the world, one person at a time – one child of God, one brother or sister of mine that I never knew before then. There is no greater love than that which Christ gave for mankind those two millennia ago; no greater sacrifice. It is indeed the greatest Christmas gift ever.
God bless you all and may this Christmas be filled with the true meaning for you and your loved ones, that you may speak of it for years to come, as do I.
Here is a link to the song referred to in the story. Yes, it is a real song and it really was used by God to change my life. I hope you understand the message of it. I was like the prodigal son and so is the man in the song, except we never know if he is able to return from the choices he has made in life. Thanks to divine intervention, I was able to return to a Father who loves me.