Today I offer you a story within a story.
The “outer” story is how I happened to submit this inner story to be The Gazette’s religious essay for this week. After a day away, I arrived home to find a message from the editor that this week’s column had not arrived – and was needed immediately. When I called the intended author, he apologized, but said he could do nothing at the last minute.
Thus it fell to me to write something quickly. Just then, I received a call from longtime friend, retired United Methodist Bishop Judith Craig. She said she had a story that I might use as a replacement. Filled with “echos” of the original Christmas story, it becomes our “inner” story:
Norm and I were to meet a couple in Toledo to receive a large gift to the West Ohio foundation. However, I had a meeting in Bowling Green so Norm went on ahead to Toledo. The snow had started lightly in Columbus but we didn’t think it would be a problem. As I watched out the church, however, I became increasingly concerned. By the end of the meeting, my phone was ringing. It was Norm. He told me to turn around and hurry home because the storm was very fierce in Toledo. They were closing roads.
I did just that, but wondered what Norm did for the night. Well, he told me this story.
He went back to the Holiday Inn where he’d secured the last room. He was lonely and feeling blue because his wife had died in recent months. This was mid-December and he was facing his first Christmas alone.
To escape the loneliness, he took his briefcase to the lobby to work there. As he sat there, he overheard a phone conversation from a young man and woman with a 5-month-old in their arms. They were reporting to their family in Michigan that they had been waved off the roads and could find no place to stay for the night. They weren’t sure what they were going to do.
Norm thought a few minutes, then approached them. He introduced himself and said he had a room with two double beds and lots of other space. Would they be interested in getting a crib and joining him for the night? He explained that he was recently widowed and feeling pretty low as Christmas approached.
They were hesitant but as they continued visiting, they grew more and more open to the idea. So they went to the desk and Norm asked if they could join him and could they please have a crib. Still the couple protested that the baby might fuss during the night, but Norm said that would be a lovely sound.
So they settled down. Sure enough, in the middle of the night, the baby got fussy. Norm woke up before the parents did, picked up the little guy and settled him down – before putting him back in the crib. The parents never woke. Norm said it was like being at a manger scene where Jesus was fussy.
The next morning, the family tried to pay Norm and he was resistant. He told them they had made Christmas bearable and joyous again. He just wanted them to get home safely.
A few days later, as Norm reported all this to me, tears rolled down his cheeks. I thought to myself: We never know when God will show up, either as a grown man with an extra bed or as a baby stirring in the night.
I wonder what that family told others about that night. I know Norm repeated it many times because it had become a heart story for him. He had found the baby Jesus – even as that family had found a generous God in him.
William McCartney is a retired United Methodist clergy and an emeritus professor from The Methodist Theological School.