A young woman, gone far astray, wonders if her family would ever take her back.
By Larry Fitzgerald, Abilene, Texas
Ask any minister to pick the biblical story that encapsulates Christmas. Who wouldn’t pick the Nativity of Jesus? Well, me. I’d choose the parable of the prodigal son. My family had a prodigal of its own, and we’ll never stop being grateful for the Christmas she came home to us.
She was 16, in love with an 18-year-old high school dropout with no job. She believed they were meant to be together. He even wanted to marry her. In Texas, at her age, she needed her parents’ permission, but there were other states, he said, where they could go instead.
“You’ll get a fake ID,” he assured her. He had an inheritance and a house his family owned in New Mexico. The perfect life awaited them. Her parents just didn’t understand.
She ran away. For two years they slept in his car. She learned how to beg. She learned how to steal. They sometimes went for days without food. The promised marriage never happened. There was no inheritance, no home, no perfect life.
But one day in mid-December, she started to suspect there was something else: a baby on the way. She went to a clinic and confirmed that it was true.
Despite all her boyfriend’s talk of love, she was worried about telling him he was going to be a father. After all, they were just barely surviving on their own.
On Christmas Eve they stopped at a mission for dinner. They sat at a plain table, on folding chairs. “I have a present for you,” she said over turkey and stuffing. “We’re going to have a baby.”
He looked at the girl seriously for a long moment. Finally he said, “I think I would rather have a new car.”
He said nothing more about the baby for the rest of the meal. Then he got up. “I have to use the restroom,” he said.
She sat alone at the table, trying to imagine their future. She could get a job. He could get one too. If they worked together really hard, they could make a home for their baby.
She looked around the mission. Her boyfriend had been gone an awfully long time. She searched the whole room. Then the whole building. She ran out to the parking lot. The spot where they’d left their old car was empty.
He’d taken the car, and with it all of her belongings: her purse, her driver’s license, her clothes, the little money she’d earned that week as a day laborer. He’d left her with nothing—except a baby.
That night she slept huddled in a homeless shelter. Staring at the dirty floor, she thought back to other Christmases. The big feast with family members crowded around the table. Carols by the tree. Candy canes. Christmas service. Presents. Laughter. But most important was the feeling of being loved.
How ashamed her family must be, she thought, to have a daughter like her. How ashamed they would be to see her now. She couldn’t turn to them for help. She didn’t deserve their help, or their love.
The next day she moved on. She got work when she could, begged when she couldn’t. The baby inside her grew. As winter turned to spring her fears grew too. How would she ever take care of a baby on her own? With no money, no home, no medical care, no family.
In July, her eighth month, she stumbled into a church on a hot Sunday evening. Not for the service, but for a handout from the minister. There was no other way she’d find food that night.
She dropped into a seat at the back as the opening hymn began. She barely listened to the prayers and the singing. She was too focused on her own worries. Then the minister started his sermon. “I want to talk to you today about the prodigal son,” he said.
Her interest flickered. She knew that story. The minister described a loving family not so different from her own, and a son who went out into the world thinking he knew best. When he came home, defeated and humiliated and lost, he expected his father to throw him out.
Instead his father ran out to greet him, gave him a new robe and sandals. He ordered a feast to celebrate the homecoming, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
When the service was over she approached the minister, her heart beating fast. She had a couple of ministers in her own family. She thought she could trust this one too. Instead of asking for money, she told her story, start to finish. “Do you think my parents would ever take me back?” she asked.
The minister looked her right in the eye. “If you were my daughter,” he said, “I would welcome you with all my heart.”
He took her to his office to use the phone. It was her father who answered. “Dad,” she said. “It’s me…”
That was all she needed to say. Her father cried for joy. He called to her mother and brothers. “We thought we’d lost you forever,” he said. Then she told him about that horrible Christmas when her boyfriend left her all alone.
Flight arrangements were made. A relative picked her up at the airport. Perhaps her immediate family had second thoughts? As the car turned onto her street, she saw something on the corner: an evergreen tree decorated for Christmas. But in July?
The car rolled past the neighbor houses. In the front yard of her house was another Christmas tree. Images of warm, happy Christmases came back to her once again. She wanted to cry, thinking of the ones she missed. The ones she spent in a shelter, in a car, on the street. Alone, with no one to love her.
She got out of the car and stood at the open door. The biggest tree of all was inside the house: lights, tinsel, Christmas balls, an angel shining on top. There were gifts too. “For the girl who missed Christmas,” her mother explained.
Two weeks later the new baby arrived, a rosy-cheeked baby girl they named Christmas.
Every year since, when we put up our Christmas tree at church, I think back to that day in July, to the girl who didn’t think she deserved forgiveness, and the family who loved her all the more for her mistakes.
Isn’t that just what God gave us that first Christmas? A promise to forgive and love us in spite of our mistakes?
That’s why for this minister, the prodigal son is the best Christmas story ever. And Christmas herself, born at the height of summer, will always be my Christmas baby.
May God Bless Nigeria, America And Israel And Take Care Of Us; May God Make His Face Shine Upon Us, And Be Gracious To Us; May The Lord Lift Up His Countenance Upon Us, And Give Us Peace, In Jesus Christ Name, We Pray! Amen!
May The Grace The Lord Jesus Christ, And The Love Of God, And The Fellowship Of The Holy Spirit Be With You All. Amen!