OST OF LIFE’S GREATEST GIFTS COME in unexpected packages. Little did I know that when I got off my college job a little early on Christmas Eve and finished loading “Little Red,” the dependable, maroon-colored Toyota that had served me faithfully for seven years. At 6:15 that evening about 150 miles of road lay ahead between me and my home in Fort Worth, Texas.
Fifteen minutes into the drive, occasional noises I had ignored when driving in my college town became more obvious and frequent. I kept driving 65 miles an hour, trying to convince myself that the noises were just noises. Forty-five minutes into the trip, Little Red suddenly jolted. What caused that? I thought. With my foot still pressing the gas pedal it accelerated back up to 65 mph.
By now it was dark. Little Red’s sputtering, grinding, and jolting increased. Perhaps a mechanic would have known the reason for its strange behavior, but I was clueless. I only knew I had to get somewhere, and at that moment, there was nowhere in sight. I spotted a business every 5 to 10 miles, but they mocked me by being closed.
Desperation to find light and life set in. My foot grew heavier on the pedal as I sped faster to get somewhere, or nowhere; I didn’t know. I battled between taking it slow, knowing something was wrong with my car, and increasing speed so that I could get somewhere before Little Red gave up in no-man’s-land.
I gripped the steering wheel tighter as my foot alternated between pressing harder on the gas and releasing it to slow down. But whether I was going faster or slower, Little Red kept halting—stopping dead in its tracks—then accelerating. Thankfully, no one was tailgating me; indeed, no one was in sight. I knew my chances of finding a business open on Christmas Eve were next to impossible (this was before I had a cell phone). Frantically I prayed, “Lord, just get me somewhere.”
An Oasis, Sort of
A long 12 minutes later I saw light cutting through the darkness. I prayed, “Oh Lord, please let it be an open business.” A few minutes later I discovered a brightly lit gas station, an answer to prayer. I sped into the station’s parking lot, and as soon as I parked Little Red’s noises climaxed, then choked, then nothing. I thanked God that He got us there, that it broke down in a safe place where there were people, where there was light.
Like a newly unwrapped gift, the gas station was a refreshing gift from God. I dialed my older brother’s number, and asked the first person I saw where I was. “Proctor,” said a lanky man with scraggly whiskers.
Where in the world is Proctor? I thought. I gave my brother the station’s address, and he told me he was on his way. Relieved, I went inside and told the man working the station (the same scraggly-whiskered man outside) about Little Red’s failure. I told him I had to wait there until my brother arrived.
“That’s all right,” he said with a country accent. I asked how late the station would be open. “Ten o’clock,” he said with a big smile. He was a man of few words, but he radiated cheerfulness. I sighed with relief, knowing it would be open until my brother arrived.
The convenience store was large and roomy, filled with the smells of cigarette smoke, cheap burritos, and day-old hot dogs. Tables with booths lined one side of the store along the wall, with windows that faced the road. A dusty television hung from the ceiling in front of the tables. As I situated myself at a booth, I thought, What kind of place stays open until 10:00 on Christmas Eve? It’s a blessing for me right now, but what about this poor man (who I don’t think was the owner) who has to work? But he didn’t seem to mind, whistling Christmas tunes as he enthusiastically wiped counters and asked each customer with a smile if he or she was ready for Santa. I wondered if he had family to go home to. Most of the people who came in and out of the store probably wondered the same thing about me.
As I sat there alone watching It’s a Wonderful Life on the television, customers cast me sympathetic smiles. I smiled back assuring them everything was all right, and it was. I counted myself blessed that I wasn’t stranded on a dark highway in the cold, that my brother was coming, and that, as I waited, one of my favorite movies was playing in front of me as I sipped hot chocolate and munched on a burrito—both offered with the compliments of the cheerful worker.
I wished I had a gift to give to him. Perhaps my prayers for him were the best I could give.
Just before Clarence the angel came to rescue George Bailey in the movie, my brother stormed in, assuring me that I wasn’t going anywhere in “that car.” We asked the worker if we could leave my car there until we could pick it up in a few days. “Sure thing!” he said. “We’ll keep an eye on it for ya.”
Back on the road my brother asked what the worker’s name was. I realized I never asked. “I don’t know, but he took care of me,” I said.
Although I didn’t know his name, I’ll never forget his kindness. I know the well-lit station in the middle of nowhere, the cheerful worker within it, and my brother were agents of God’s grace that Christmas Eve.
Surrounded by Grace
Although my Christmas break didn’t go as planned, I was reminded of how Christmas should be in the light of the unexpected. Christmas isn’t about material gifts, because material things are eventually lost; they break, they die. Nor is Christmas about convenience, for there will be unexpected occurrences we cannot control; jolts down the road of life when we thought we were driving smoothly.
Rather, Christmas—like Christianity—is about God’s gift of grace: the grace we find along bumpy, dark, and uncertain roads. We find it in His light that leads us to safety; in His provision through the people who help us along the way; and in His carrying us home when we never could have made it on our own.
Even when we break down, if we have His grace, it truly is a wonderful life.
Vanessa Sanders lives in Collegedale, Tennessee, with her husband, Anh. She is a graduate student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.