In late December 1983 I was a newly engaged, newly minted seminary student, living in a rented room in Memphis, Tennessee, four hundred miles away from family and fiancé. The semester was over, but I had to stay a couple of days to teach a Wednesday night Bible study down in Batesville, Mississippi, about an hour south. I was living on $400 a month and saving up for a honeymoon, which being translated means I was hungry most of the time, and lonesome all the time in that pre-cellphone, pre-internet era. I planned to drive home to Atlanta the next day.
Rain was falling and the temperature with it as I finished the study, fired up my decrepit 1971 Fiat 128 and headed up I-55 North, fiddling with the radio as I drove. “A major winter storm will be on us by mid-night,” said the weather man, “with up to 12 inches of snow and ice accumulation.”
No way am I hanging around for that! I thought, and pushed the car to its top speed, 65 mph (62 uphill), and roared into town around 9:00 PM. I grabbed my stuff, waved goodbye to my landlady, and headed southeast on 78, the old, two-lane Arkadelphia highway, toward Birmingham, I-20 East, and home.
I cannot remember a colder, wetter, nastier night of driving. And did I mention I was hungry? But I couldn’t stop to eat, not only because I was broke, but the storm, according to the radio, was moving faster than the Fiat. By the time I reached the Alabama line Memphis was icing up and my windshield was trying to, the defroster barely staying ahead of the rapidly freezing rain. Visibility was less than fifty yards as the rain iced up the windshield wipers too, which fluttered every time a big rig passed in the opposite direction, scattering ice as the little car buffeted in the wake. If I can just make it to Birmingham, I kept saying to myself, I can make it all the way.
Every Christmas we relive the journey another man took to his hometown, pursued, not by ice storms, but by tyranny and doubts, accompanied not by a radio in a poorly heated car, but by an oddly-pregnant wife on an unheated donkey. And while Bethlehem was his hometown, no one would be waiting on him with hot food and warm beds. Quite the contrary, the best he could get was an animal shed for his wife and newborn son. Not much, but enough in his obedience, for God to turn the world upside down.
Makes us think, does it not, about how we treat others forced to flee from tyranny and about what our obedience might do.
The drive from Memphis to Atlanta usually took eight hours in that little car. That night it was closer to ten, but none of it mattered when the front door of Mom’s house opened before I reached it, and instead of Mom, my beautiful wife-to-be kissed me and hugged me tight, as the smell of frying bacon wafted out the door behind her.
“Surprise!” she said. “We knew you wouldn’t stay in Memphis, so I came down and spent the night with Mom!”
“Merry Christmas,” I said. It was the best Christmas trip ever.