It was the night before Christmas Eve and the atmosphere in the house was electric. Like pulling untethered helium balloons from the ceiling at the same time, I finally gathered my family at the kitchen table for dinner. After the meal, the children helped clean up dinner, making the kitchen feel like a bustling metropolis of busy elves. And they were happy to do it. They knew that for each service they performed, we would add a link to our paper service chain. The colorful chain now stretched across the kitchen and almost touched the Christmas tree in the adjoining room.
I rested on the couch, reading to my one-year-old, and admired the service chain. A content sigh involuntarily escaped my chest. Our family focus for this year’s holiday season was service. I had been praying all month to find ways to serve those around me. Some days, the opportunities naturally presented themselves. Other times, I had to work a little harder to search out ways to serve. Day by day, the chain grew to be a colorful and beautiful reminder of our efforts.
When the kitchen was clean, the family gathered around the Christmas tree to hear the traditional, nightly Christmas story. Turning the lights off, the room still warm and glowing with the colored lights of the tree and the reflection of shiny ornaments, we settled into our places. My husband, Sterling, started the story, lying on the carpet with a pillow under his head. Slowly, each of the children made their way to the floor next to him, nestling into his shoulder or laying their head on his stomach.
My breath caught in my throat with emotion. I wondered at the comfort and blessings I enjoyed with my family, most of which were stolen moments like this when we were all together and getting along. In my heart I repeated the same prayer I’d been offering all season. “Lord, please help me extend my blessings to those around me. Help me find ways for my family to serve.” A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. I motioned for Sterling to keep reading.
I pulled the door open, shuddering as the frigid night air slipped into the house. Standing in the yellow porch light was a woman whom, though we were not acquainted, I immediately determined to be a young mother. She wore a colorful knit hat and a nondescript coat buttoned to the collar. A warm scarf was wrapped around her neck. In her gloved hands she held a cookie sheet full of fresh cookies and breads.
“I’m selling homemade goods,” she said simply. “Would you be interested in buying anything?” She looked at her tray, surveying her offering with pride. “I made them all myself.”
I quickly scanned the well-presented tray. The breads looked full and moist, the cookies perfectly browned, some topped with chocolate treats. I looked back at the woman. Her cheeks and nose were rosy pink with the cold, her eyes hopeful. Curls of brown hair escaped her hat and framed her face. I looked at the tray again, knowing that my kitchen counters were already over flowing with treats from neighbors and co-workers. I really had no need or room for what she was offering, so I shook my head.
“Thank you but we really don’t need anything tonight.”
She smiled but her eyes looked down. She whispered a subdued, “Merry Christmas,” and left. I quickly closed the door on the cold air that had seeped into the house and returned to my family.
Resuming my place on the couch, the image of the woman’s face haunted my mind. I pondered what had just happened and my heart began to race. “Who was that woman?” I thought. “Why was she selling her goods door to door so late at night? Where was her family? Her children? Maybe she really needed help.” I shifted anxiously in my seat, vaguely aware of my family and the story being read. I raised a hand to my chest in an effort to calm my runaway heart and my inner dialogue continued. “Couldn’t I have purchased something? Why didn’t I invite her in? She could have warmed up or had a cup of hot chocolate. I could have purchased her whole tray and sent her home to be with her family!” The thoughts piled on like a rolling avalanche until I couldn’t stand it. And then the realization came. That was the answer to my prayer. She was the answer. She was standing on my porch and I turned her away.
Without a word and hardly a glance at my husband, I grabbed my winter coat and raced out the door. I needed to find the woman. A quick glance around told me that she was no longer on my street. She had to be somewhere. I started to run down the cold, dark street, lit only by sparse streetlamps. At the opening of the cul-de-sac I looked both ways and pled with God, “Please help me know where to go!” Hopeful, I turned left and started walking at a brisk pace. I scanned each door step for her shadow, getting more discouraged with each empty street. All the things I wished I would have done or said raced through my mind like a cold wind of regret.
Rounding a corner, I saw the tail lights of a truck ahead and a glimmer of hope surged. Maybe that was her. The truck was several homes ahead of me when I started running. I didn’t know what I would do when I caught up with the truck. I was just consumed with the desire to find her and somehow make up for my mistake in turning her away. I pushed myself to run as fast as I could but my sprint ended too soon as the truck turned onto an empty street leading out of the neighborhood and quickly out-distanced me. Out of breath, I stopped and watched the tail lights fade to darkness.
I bent over, resting my hands on my knees to support myself. I tried to catch my breath but disappointment caught in my throat, lending itself to a ragged sob. I turned slowly and looked around me. Brightly lit houses lined the streets. Christmas lights sparkled, outlining the eaves of houses, and decorated trees glittered in the windows. Inside, families were together, warm and comfortable. It was a stark contrast to the empty hollow I felt inside.
As I walked the silent streets back home, the weight of my failure hung heavy on my shoulders and swirled around me with the cold mist of my breath. With each step, the reality of my new identity became clear. Tonight, I was the innkeeper. Tonight, I was the one who said, “No.”
Suddenly, I considered the innkeeper as I never had before. Had I been in Bethlehem that night, would I have seen the innkeeper wandering the streets, searching for the couple he had turned away? Perhaps he had also run into the night chasing shadows, hoping for the chance to say, “I’m sorry.” I hope the humble innkeeper found the lonesome couple and asked forgiveness as he led them back to a warm stable. I hope it was he who tidied the barn and quieted the animals as he piled warm sweet hay in the manger that sacred night.
I pressed my fingers into my eyes and wiped the tears pooling at my chin. I was returning home empty handed, nothing to show for my search but a humbled heart and a contrite spirit. But the burning in my chest convinced me I had not wandered the streets alone. Part of the miracle of the baby Jesus is that He is also our Redeeming Lord. I considered that God loved me enough to send the woman to my door in the beginning. He knew me and loved me enough to allow me this journey of steps in the dark and cold, to find deeper understanding of the worth of souls, both mine and hers. And He walked with me through the empty streets, teaching me along the way until I was safely home.
The future may cast me as the remorseful innkeeper again and God’s grace allows for that inevitable occurrence in each of our lives. But there is one door that must be tended with the utmost care. Jesus Christ tells us, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). As the keeper of this door, I must not fail to open my heart, might, mind and strength to His love and grace that makes my offering, though meager and flawed, sufficient.