Sunday, December 20, 2009

Your Last Christmas

No sooner had Emmett pulled his ’89 Chevvie into the driveway, than he heard the voice. “This is your last Christmas.”

Startled, he exclaimed, “Dang, I must’ve bumped that radio knob again,” but as he reached over he was surprised to find the radio wasn’t on. A baffled look crossed his weathered face as he turned off the ignition and slowly climbed out of the truck. Standing there in November’s chill morning he was suddenly in charge. With emphatic deliberation he strode to the front door and entered the house.

A strong cup of coffee later he sat at the kitchen table and scratched out a list of To Do on a yellow tablet. It looked like his response to the puzzling voice was to ignore it and double his efforts at keeping busy. After all, it was Friday.

The drive to the small post office down Highway 69 meant that those important papers got in today’s mail. Now, reality tugged with strange thoughts. Nothing like work to keep a guy’s mind off what had to be a stupid daydream, or was it a reaction to last night’s Polish sausage pizza with green chilis?

At any rate, with new-found energy Emmett tackled the morning chores. By lunch time, though, he decided to stretch out on the recliner for a few minutes. Big mistake.

“This is your last Christmas.” The voice filled the room, not with an overly dramatic flair, but more of a friendly tone.

Why Emmett thought he could dialog with a dream or a digestive anomaly is hard to say. He did speak aloud, “Who are you, and what do you mean?”

“I’m God. I wanted you to know ahead of time that this is your last Christmas.”

Like a bolt of lightning the old man sat up. “God? Can’t be. Don’t believe in you, never seen you, and can’t rely on what those crazy church people preach about. I may not be the smartest guy on the block, but at least I don’t hold to some religion and its fables.”

His mind racing, Emmett got up, frowning. “Is this what senility is like? Have I lost my marbles?” Fresh air was his solution, and he grabbed his work jacket and went out to the porch.

Autumn had claimed the last of the leaves and the yard was bleak. Waiting for the snow, waiting for the first storm, waiting for . . . Christmas?

“Hey, God. You still there?” his emboldened voice called out.

A soft, warm breeze from the south stirred across the Arizona desert. In the distance a bell began to chime Then a neighbor’s dog loped down the dusty road, turned in at his driveway and approached. Looked like he was grinning. Emmett reached out to the shaggy brown fur.

“The church bell. Must be Ole’ Jansen’s funeral in town.” The two men hadn’t spoken for a dozen years, no sense going to a funeral for a geezer like him. As ornery as Ole’ was he probably went straight to Hell. Oooops!

With a thoughtful nod, Emmett tried again, “God, I think I always knew You were there. I just didn’t give any thought that You were here, too.”

His mind went back to the Friday before. Both the radio and the newspaper had announced the date of the Leonid meteor shower. He had gotten up in the middle of the night to wrap himself in an old wool overcoat and stocking cap, sat down on the porch, and was awestruck by the heavenly display. Every star in the sky seemed brighter than usual, as if they all came out to view the predicted occurrence.

How had the vast space out there come to be? Planets in orbit, a moon so close, a fiery sun so huge. And the earth, so conducive to life in thousands of forms. It could not be some majestic coincidence, a cosmic accident.

“So, You are there. You made it all. And you arranged for me and my life, too?” It was more of a beginner’s statement of faith than the question it would have sounded like to a passerby. The dog, Willie, snuggled closer.

“But You said this is my last Christmas! What do you mean? I can’t die yet. . . ” his voice trailed off. “Yes, I suppose I could die anytime. But I don’t know how, or when, or where, or what’s afterwards!”

Did he fall asleep from the morning’s exertion or from the strain of his mental struggles? Someone walking by would only see old Emmett slumped in the wicker chair.

Thankfully, he didn’t die that afternoon. Revived, he stretched an hour later and patted Willie on the head. With an appreciative glance the dog ambled down the road, and the old man entered the house, heading straight for the bookshelf by the fireplace.

In his hands he held the book he had ignored and denied and ridiculed for over sixty years. Well, Sadie had wanted it, but she had passed away a long time ago. The Bible, Old Testament and New Testament. Genuine leather cover. Would he know where to turn? The type looked small, but determination could have been Emmett’s middle name.

A long red ribbon marked something important, he decided. And that’s how he found the Gospel of John, chapter 3. At the kitchen table the yellow tablet was waiting. Now, he flipped it to a clean page and made his list.

#1, Find out who in the world Jesus was.
#2, Find out what happens after you die.
#3, Find out how to make sure you’re on God’s side, not on the devil’s side.
Hmmmm. This might turn out to be work.

Emmett knew what work was. Life was spelled W-O-R-K. Growing up in Iowa, he had serious chores assigned by a strict father and mother. As a teen he was hired out at a neighbor’s farm. School was hard work, too. Nothing came easy, everything had to be done just-so. Next, the military with life-or-death exactitude of training and combat in Italy. Scratching out a living, a few brief happy years with Sadie, then on his own as relatives moved away, parents died, friends left for opportunities in California.

What a relief to find out that God didn’t require any hard work, any impossible demands, any rituals or payment. Forgiveness was a free gift because of Jesus. And Heaven? There it was, Jesus talked about His Father’s house, just a few pages after the long red ribbon. “And this is the will of Him who sent me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes on him may have everlasting life and I will raise him up at the last day.”

Reading the words in amazement Emmett turned the pages, engrossed in thoughts he had denied, but now welcomed. Here and there, verses had been underlined with a wavering pencil, obviously important to his deceased wife. His eyes lingered on those, like finding little gemstones along the gravel of the driveway.

A few pages further a small folded piece of paper fell out. Surprised, his eyes misted as he read the handwriting, “Emmett, when you get around to reading this Bible turn right away to page 1304. Start at the first of the chapter, John 14. Remember that I love you and God loves you, too.”

Sure enough, she’d underlined a lot of words on that page. Must be important stuff, gotta read it now.
“Let not your heart be troubled, you believe in God, believe also in Me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”

“God, can it be true? Is Heaven really, really true? Can I come to You when I die? Is Jesus the way?” Tears hadn’t fallen for going-on forty years. It became impossible to read.

Wiping with a ragged handkerchief the first words to greet Emmett’s red-rimmed eyes were these, “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.”

Now with voice firm, a broad smile crossing his face Emmett made the deal of a lifetime. Give up sin and give up confusion. Receive Jesus and receive a forever Home. He had no idea of the joy and confidence and peace of mind that would also be his, as he waited to see what Christmas would bring.
Would it really be the last Christmas? Was he that close to seeing the culmination of his earthly life and the beginning of a new life that would never, ever end?

Each day became a new adventure. Up early, turn to the old Bible. Find where it was underlined by Sadie’s devotion. Then have a conversation with God and read a few pages.

The yellow tablet beckoned with a new urgency. Lists were made. If I’m going to die I must get things in order, was his motivation. And the days flew by.

It was Christmas Eve when Emmett finally felt he could hold his own. Dressed in clean Levis and a red flannel shirt with denim jacket he cautiously entered the small chapel down on Windsong Lane. He knew some of the lingo, and had a check made out. The chimes were lovely and the greetings warm. An hour flew by. Little kids sang from the platform, candles were handed out and soon lit. More songs and the bells rang.

Finally, Emmett disentangled himself from the hugs of neighbors and total strangers, and started the long walk home. He politely refused offers of a lift, turned away from the bright lights of town and made his way down a quiet dirt road, eyes to the sky, a song in his heart.

“I wonder when I will meet Him. Soon, I hope,” he murmured. He walked on alone, but perhaps not really alone that Friday night.

Then with a loud voice Emmett exclaimed to the empty fields, “This is my last Christmas!”

by Elaine Hardt ©2006