When Christmas Came to Stay

Emma

Christmas represents a magical time of the year for most, but it had the opposite effect on Emma Bryant. From Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day, Emma wished to escape to some tropical paradise where Christmas trees, holiday shopping and seasonal music was banned. In lieu of red or green taffeta, velvet or silk, she preferred sack cloth and ashes. She found nothing happy nor merry about this time of year.

It wasn’t always this way. Up until two years ago, Christmas topped the list of Emma’s favorite times. Happiness surrounded her that Christmas Eve as she left the midnight service on the arm of her fiancé. She felt so thankful for the birth of the Christ Child and the anticipation of a glorious future with Liam. The accumulated snow from weeks before crunched under their boots as a fresh layer fell on their heavy wool coats. Lights twinkled in the windows and yard decorations flashed colorful displays of Santa, reindeer and elves competing in sharp contrast to the simple manger scenes.

The magic of the night and her dreamy, hope-filled thoughts were not prepared for the phone call that awakened her a few hours later. Only moments after their passionate Christmas kiss, Liam’s car was struck head-on by a drunk driver. The woman was returning from an office party so drunk she missed the one-way street sign. The glass of wine Emma used to enjoy with Liam now left a bitter taste in her mouth. She not only hated the drunken woman, but she despised even the thought of Christmas and all it represented.

Emma had graduated from college the year before Liam’s death. Her doctorate in Psychology had earned her a position with the state working in family counseling. She felt fulfilled and successful when she saw families putting aside their differences and working to restore wholeness to their marriage and family. Never did she consider that her future with Liam would shatter before they ever recited their vows.

After the few weeks of condolence leave, Emma realized she would never be able to return to her job in the city. It seemed hopeless to encourage families to reunite when they were subject to shattering at any moment. Without the generous salary, she was forced to move back into her old room at the home of her parents. She preferred to grieve alone, but the years of training and study made her aware of her own symptoms which bordered on depression and occasional suicidal thoughts. Prompted by his concern for his daughter’s withdrawn state, her father asked her to serve as a Christian counselor at the mid-sized church he pastored. He had hoped that helping her clients through trials using biblical counseling techniques would be a miraculous cure for her own depressed state.

Almost two years after the tragedy, she still ached over the loss and continued to stew in hatred toward the drunk driver. Christmas brought a need to escape; she despised even the thought of holiday cheer. How would she ever survive another season and encourage others out of their doldrums when she felt like a fraud herself? She knew the right words, the right treatment plans, but she refused to believe them.

Her aching head and unpleasant memories were interrupted by the intercom, “Emma, do you have a minute?” Emma’s father rarely summoned her to his office, but he sounded upset and since her next appointment wasn’t for a while, she had no reason to refuse him. “Sit down, honey.”

“What’s this about Daddy? You seem upset.”

“I’m very concerned about one of our parishioners. His wife and little boy died in a car accident a few months ago and the man can’t seem to get his life back on an even keel. He’s had two DUI’s and Judge Dawson plans to throw the book at him if he doesn’t agree to counseling. Nathan Bianchi seems fine during the week when he can bury himself in work, but on the weekends, he drinks himself into oblivion to dispel the pain.”

The more her father spoke, the angrier Emma became and the more she wanted to scream at her father. “What do you think you’re doing, Daddy? Don’t you realize how much I despise drunk drivers. I don’t want to hear how he grieves for his family, that’s no excuse to put innocent lives in danger. He can rot in jail as far as I’m concerned.”

Tears filled her father’s eyes. “Emma, I know you’re hurting, but so is Nathan. You cover your pain with anger and bitterness while he resorts to alcohol. He is subject to hurting himself and others, but you are also hurting yourself and those who love you. Can’t you at least talk to him? I feel so strongly that God wants you to share your story with Nathan. Perhaps you can help one another.”

Emma hated to disappoint her father, but she didn’t see how this could help anyone. “I don’t agree with you or God. In fact, I’m still angry with him for taking Liam. But I’ll meet with Mr. Bianchi once and listen to his story. I can’t promise anything. There’s no way I can help if I can’t move past his actions. You’ll have to pray for me.”

“Consider it done, my child.” Emma hugged her father before returning to her own office down the hall.

By the time Nathan Bianchi entered her office the following afternoon, Emma had built a wall a mile high, filled with prejudice and preconceived plans to give him a quick boot. She envisioned a man with slouchy clothes and the telltale sign of bags under his red swollen eyes. When the relaxed, well-groomed, darkly tanned Italian walked into the room, she stood with her mouth gapped open, unable to speak.

When she finally found her voice, she’d decided this was not her client, but someone looking for her father. “May I help you? My father’s office is just down the hall.”

“I’m Nathan Bianchi, I believe it’s you I’m supposed to meet. Dr. Bryant, I presume?” The man reached out his hand to shake while Emma remembered her father describing how he kept his problem confined to weekends. It seemed Mr. Bianchi was as clever at hiding his pain as she was.

Emma squelched the anger building within her chest, ignored the outstretched hand and gestured toward the chair across from her desk. She refused to usher him into the relaxed sitting area where she usually met her clients. Let him be uncomfortable in his pretentious ensemble.

“Yes, I’m Dr. Bryant. My father explained some of your background, but I’d like to hear your version of the story. Before you waste my time on your heart rendering defenses, I want you to know that there is no excuse for drunk driving. It’s despicable and comparable to a loaded gun.”

Nathan

Nathan squirmed under the woman’s intense scrutiny and harsh judgment. His meticulous grooming failed to fool the knowledgeable woman, but it worked both ways. Her preconceived ideas and judgmental attitude came across loud and clear. She might be his last hope before jail, but he’d rather face the wrath of the judge than endure six miserable weeks with this angry, scorned woman.

Nathan cleared his throat and hoped to diminish his angry response. “Dr. Bryant, I’m not certain what I’ve done to you personally, but I can see this isn’t going to work. You’ve already signed my death sentence and decided I’m a lost cause. Perhaps we should save time and call it quits before we annihilate each other.”

The doctor’s confidence seemed to waver as she watched her hands rubbing restlessly against the paperweight on her desk. Tears puddled in her eyes and her voice sounded strained as she attempted to regain her position. “I’m sorry, Mr. Bianchi, but that came across extremely unprofessional. Please try to forget that hateful remark. I also doubt that I can help you, but I feel I should try. This is also very unprofessional of me, but your situation seems jumbled together with my own personal tragedy. Perhaps we might help one another.”

Nathan didn’t quite know how to respond. He wanted to stand and flee, but something or someone kept him glued to the uncomfortable chair. Compassion welled within him when he saw the doctor’s tears and listened to her plea to continue. He had no choice but to stay and pour his heart out to a woman he doubted he could trust.

Emma

Emma couldn’t seem to stop the unorthodox confession coming from her mouth, but when the man threatened to leave, she sensed he might be the last straw in restoring her own wholeness. It didn’t make sense. Forced to come here by the courts, how would he even begin to help her? She barely tolerated the thought of a destructive alcoholic, yet, for some unknown reason, she wanted to immerse deep into his wounds, hoping against all odds to find herself somewhere in the process.

“In my present state, I doubt I can help anyone, Dr. Bryant, but I do think I should share my story while I still have the nerve. My wife, Claire, and I were married over six years and had purchased a house in the suburbs. We commuted into the city during the week and attended your father’s church on Sundays. We had few disagreements as we prayed and tried to put God first in our marriage. When we had almost given up hope of having children, our baby boy was born on Christmas last year. Our family rejoiced over this unexpected gift.

“Five months later I was planning a funeral for my wife and child. The SUV my wife drove was hit by a man in a dump truck. His brakes failed at the intersection near our house. I’ve been in a daze since that awful afternoon.”

“I understand, Mr. Bianchi, that you’re able to function during the week. How is that different from the weekends?”

“I work longer hours and fall into bed too tired to think or remember. Often, I sleep on the couch in the reception area at work. Although he knows how difficult it is, my supervisor has barred me from the office on weekends. When I’m forced to think of something besides work, the fond memories of my wife and son prove too painful. I’ve never indulged in alcohol beyond an occasional glass of wine, but those unbearable weekends have me craving the numbing substance. I drink until my supply is diminished and then I drive drunk to the liquor store to satisfy the gnawing crave.

“I just wish there was some way to endure the memories of my family without this awful destructive behavior. Please, I’ll try anything you suggest.”

Emma sat assessing her client, seeing the regret and hearing his plea for help. She didn’t know how to respond, but for the first time in months, she suggested something that she’d previously rejected. She had refused to use the Christian counseling techniques she’d studied and relied completely on secular methodology. The presence of God penetrated her thoughts and she knew only He had the answer for both her client and herself.

“Mr. Bianchi, may I begin by calling you Nathan? And I want you to call me Emma. The highly unorthodox reason for this is because we are going to help one another.”

Nathan’s raised eyebrows and disbelieving frown expressed surprise at her suggestion. He leaned forward in anticipation of what she might say next. “I’m not certain I follow you, but I’m desperate to be free.”

“How do you feel about Christmas, Nathan?”

“I hate it. When I envision Matthew’s birth, it starts the painful reminder of our immense happiness followed by the devastating loss.”

Emma felt the nudge, accompanied by the inner voice that screamed, Tell him. “I don’t really want to tell you this, but it seems I have no choice. You see, my fiancé left after the Christmas Eve service two years ago and was killed by a drunk driver. The very reason I resisted counseling you. I despise the kind of people you represent. To me you don’t deserve freedom when you treat life so carelessly. Therefore, my first assignment is to forgive you and the drunk driver who killed Liam. For you, you must forgive God for the loss of your wife and child and yourself for not dying with them.

“Something interesting hit me while you were talking about Matthew. The birth of Christ was a gift to you as much as Matthew became a gift to you and your wife.Yet God released his son to take on a human body with all its frailties, knowing that it would be the ultimate sacrifice to save those he loved. Think about the correlation and what God might reveal to you through these terrible circumstances. I’ll be praying for you and I hope you’ll say a few prayers for me. We’ll meet again next week to assess our progress. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t succeed right away. I have a feeling this will not be easy for either of us.”

Nathan

Nathan left the office feeling about as confused and discouraged as he’d ever been. The woman had lost her mind if she thought he would forgive someone who stripped him of everything he cared about in life. He hadn’t prayed since the day they sealed the coffin on his wife and son and he refused to resume the ritual for some woman who hated him and his thirst for drink. At least he’d slipped past the receptionist without making the follow-up appointment.

Fear gripped Nathan as he drove his car into the garage and noticed the time displayed on the digital clock glaring from the console. The whole miserable evening loomed before him as though a viper were about to strike. Hours to remember his loss and drink himself into a stupor resulting in a hangover of major proportion. The weekday indulgence would only verify his shaky work performance.

After sitting behind the wheel in dread for several minutes, he forced himself to move into the kitchen and assess the contents of the refrigerator. He could kick himself for not stopping for dinner on the way home. As he resisted the bottles of cold beer filling a lower shelf and searched for containers of leftovers, his mind wandered back over his meeting with Emma. She’d be a beautiful woman if someone could erase the permanent scowl from her face. He wondered if she had a date for dinner or if she’d be eating with her parents. When he realized his thoughts, he chastised himself. What did he care if the woman ate or not? Let her wallow in her own bitterness and leave him to his sorrow.

Nathan finally found a questionable bowl of chili his mother left for him. His mind didn’t function well enough to remember when she last came to clean the house and wash his clothes. At least someone cared what happened to him. He knew she prayed, but it was a waste of time. He didn’t want further divine intervention. Denying what he really wanted, he pulled a bottled water from the refrigerator and drank it down while his food heated in the microwave.

As he scanned the emails on his iPhone, his eyes landed on a new post from Dr. Bryant. “You forgot to make an appointment for our follow-up. Please call our office within the next couple of days. Surprisingly, I can’t seem to remove your visit from my mind. Surely God must want me to pray for you which I have been doing almost constantly since you left. Since you probably arrived home earlier than normal, I know you’ll be tempted to depend on your normal escape mechanism. Instead, please find your Bible and fall on your knees. I believe God has the answer for both of us.”

Nathan couldn’t believe what he was reading. Was the woman watching from some special camera, observing his every move and even reading his mind? Finding his Bible was the last thing he planned to do. As his pull to the refrigerator gained strength, he fled into the lower-level guest room where he’d slept since Claire’s death. He shed his suit and tie and stepped into the shower, willing the hard spray to wash away the memories. Though he remained in the shower until the hot water turned cold, he failed to dispell the deep ache. In resignation, he dressed in comfortable pajama bottoms and Claire’s favorite tee shirt.

When his thirst for escape was too great, he rushed into the kitchen, pulled out two of the beers and opened one. Before he could take the first swig, the telephone rang. He let it ring, but stood glued to the spot, mesmerized by the unbelievable message. “Nathan, I realize this sounds crazy, but I know what you’re doing and how you’re feeling right now. You don’t have to resort to that beer. Please pour it down the drain and cry out to God. The buzz you receive from the alcohol is momentary; God’s love and faithfulness will endure forever. I’m praying for you.”

Nathan stood paralyzed by indecision. Almost against his will, he poured the two bottles he held down the drain and fled into the family room. He turned on the TV, determined to dismiss the woman’s persistence. He’d only stretched out on the sofa a few minutes before he felt himself drift into a peaceful sleep. When he awakened to the drone of an infomercial early the next morning, he recalled a vivid dream. His wife strolled into the room and sat on the edge of the sofa. Claire ran her fingers through his hair like she’d done hundreds of times before. It felt so real his body reacted to the passion of her touch. She looked radiant as if her white dress was woven with precious medals.

He wanted to hold onto her forever, but her words pierced his heart, “Nathan, what are you doing to yourself? You’ve got to let me go. Matthew and I are so happy here. You claim you’ve lost everything, but you ignore the one person who loves you most. Cry out to him, Nathan. Seek a relationship with the One who is eternal.”

When he was able to stand, he rushed upstairs to the bedroom he’d shared with Claire and found their Bibles open on the table in the sitting area. He picked his up and read the words he’d written in the margin at John 3:16, For God so loved (Nathan) that He gave his one and only Son that if (Nathan) believes in Him, (Nathan) shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Nathan fell on his knees in the peaceful bedroom and repented. Emma was right—he’d been angry with God. His loss seemed minor compared to what God gave when he allowed His Son to leave heaven and walk among us. After an hour or more of prayer and thanksgiving, he stood to his feet with a renewed determination to celebrate the truth of Christmas. It’s all about love and the greatest gift ever given or received. He knew exactly what he’d do after he put in his eight hours at the office—he’d decorate his house and yard for Christmas!

Emma

Emma was worried about Nathan. When she didn’t get an answer on the land line, she called his cell. His Bluetooth picked up in the car. “Emma?”

“Nathan, I’m so glad you answered. Are you okay?”

“Better than I’ve been in a long time. How are you?”

“I’ve been so worried about you, I haven’t even thought about my own problems. Did something happen? You sound as if a weight has lifted.”

“Well, it has. I’ll make an appointment for next week and tell you all about it. Don’t forget to pray for me, though. Alcohol is a persistent bedfellow. While you’re at it, don’t forget your own assignment.”

Emma’s day rushed by quickly with little time to consider her challenge of the day before. She didn’t know how she felt about Nathan’s reminder. Her client had double the loss and less time to heal, yet he sounded as if he’d made considerable progress and wanted the same for her. Why had she allowed him access to her deepest hurts and fears? He was a miserable drunk and she should refuse to see him again.

By the time Nathan arrived on Wednesday, Emma felt drained from listening to the problems so prevalent within families. Watching them tear each other apart made her want to scream. She longed for another opportunity just to whisper kind, loving words to Liam. How could she help them understand the fragility of life?

As Emma considered cancelling the dreaded appointment, the intercom buzzed announcing Nathan’s arrival. Before she could react, a smiling, teasing face came through her door. “Hello there, Dr. Bryant? Tough day?”

Emma stared at the handsome relaxed client as he took her by the hand and escorted her to one of the comfortable chairs near the window. He took the other chair close by and smiled. “What’s the matter Emma? Did you expect me to be drunk or shaking with withdrawal?”

“No. Of course not. You just seem so relaxed as if a load has lifted. Tell me.”

Nathan described in detail how he felt and what was happening each time she contacted him. He then shared with her the dream of his wife and the opening of his Bible for the first time in months. The room filled with God’s presence and Emma knew she’d participated in a miracle. Help me, God. I need one too.

“Emma, look at me. If God loves me, a drunk driver, how can he not love you. Not only does he love us, but he loves the woman who killed your fiancé. Forgive her and give her to Him. She also needs a miracle. She needs our prayers.”

The tears flooded her eyes as the anger built up inside her. She wanted to scream at Nathan for even suggesting such a thing. “You don’t understand. She took my life, my love, my joy. How can I ever forgive that?”

“Only with God’s help, Emma. Let’s pray.” He stood and pulled her toward him as she collapsed in his arms. His prayer melted her defenses as he petitioned God to give Emma the grace to forgive the woman who’d killed Liam. “Your grace has kept us going despite our losses and it’s you who will help us extend grace to others.”

Emma couldn’t say there was instant healing and grace to forgive, but a fire was lit deep inside her spirit and she felt certain she was on the road to recovery. She thanked Nathan as he finished the prayer and stepped shyly away from her. “I’m inclined to think that our sessions are over, but I hesitate to discontinue our meetings. Perhaps we need to continue, if only to encourage one another.”

“Since I’m obligated for at least four more weeks, perhaps we could meet for Bible Study and prayer. I know I could use the accountability. Do you mind?”

“Not at all. That sounds reasonable.”

Nathan

Nathan left Emma’s office feeling a heavy weight had been lifted. He didn’t dread going home, but decided to go Christmas shopping instead. Feeling certain that Claire would be pleased, he spent the afternoon meandering through the mall and humming along to the beautiful carols heard above the noise of excited shoppers. He felt so blessed to feel the presence of the Christ Child when he stopped to view the beautiful nativity on display in a store window. The hand-carved figures drew him into the store to inquire about the price.

The only person he saw in the store was an elderly man with white hair and beard. “It’s a lovely piece, young man, made from olive wood from the Holy Land. Today it is half price, if you’re interested.”

Nathan didn’t need further encouragement. He pulled out his credit card and whistled along to “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” as he left the store carrying the precious gift. He wanted to sing to the top of his lungs, “Glory to the newborn King!” He envisioned it sitting on the table near the Christmas tree and wished for a moment he could share it with Claire. Just as the song ended, a quiet whisper filled his heart, Give it to Emma.

“What? No, this is for me. It’s too precious to give away. It’s for Claire and Matthew.” But the voice persisted as Nathan hung his head in defeat. The angry woman didn’t deserve such a gift and certainly not from him. Would she think he was interested in her? Heaven forbid!

Emma

Emma looked forward to Nathan’s appointment that afternoon. She’d struggled all week, reading verses on forgiveness, but still felt deeply hurt and annoyed with the Christmas overkill. She certainly hoped he’d fared better.

When he arrived the Wednesday before Christmas smiling and carrying a rather large box, Emma was further annoyed. Surely, he didn’t buy her a gift.

“Hello, Emma. I have a gift here that God wants you to have. I tried to argue with him, but he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. You might as well accept it.” Nathan shuffled his feet and looked uneasy as he placed the box on her desk. He looked around ready to escape at her first negative reaction.

“Thank you. But you didn’t have to make up some story to give me a gift. Do you want me to open it?”

“I suppose, but I didn’t make it up. I bought it for myself. I decorated my whole house and it would make the perfect addition. Go ahead, so I can drool some more.”

Nathan looked so sad, she couldn’t possibly keep the gift, but her curiosity got the best of her. What could be so special about this particular gift? She carefully removed the bright red bow and outer gold wrapping paper. When she opened the flaps of the corrugated box and removed some of the tissue paper, she realized the gift was a carved wooden manger scene. She unwrapped it piece by piece with tears streaming down her face. It was an exact replica of the one she’d purchased to give Liam for Christmas. She’d returned the pricey item weeks later with surprise that the owner reimbursed her in full. Why did God want her to have it and why did he return it by Nathan?

“Emma, are you okay?”

“No, I’m not. Thank you for the gift, but I need some time to come to grips with this. Could we talk later?” Nathan left looking confused and sad. She hated to part with things so unsettled, but she knew God was using her client to speak to her. It was time to have a long discussion with her heavenly father.

Emma took the crèche home and climbed the stairs to her bedroom. Although she wanted to hide it in the back of her closet, she felt compelled to remove the pieces from their wrappings and display them on a low chest. Each carved figure reminded her of a verse of Scripture or a memory she’d shared with Liam.

What were the things Mary had pondered in her heart? The young girl felt unworthy as the one chosen to bear the Son of God and humbled at the thought of future generations calling her “Blessed.” Joseph felt the weight of responsibility since he’d chosen to obey the angelic messenger sent from God to encourage him to take Mary into his home.

Shepherds, though frightened by the heavenly choir, obeyed the angels and hurried to find the Christ Child and worship their Messiah. The Magi traveled a long distance to bring gifts to the newborn King—Gifts representing Christ’s Lordship, his Priesthood and his healing.

When Emma thought of Jesus’ healing presence, she wept tears of repentance. “Lord, heal me. Give me grace to forgive the drunk driver who killed Liam. Shine your light into the dark recesses of my heart where hate and bitterness have taken root. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, the joy of Christmas.”

After the holidays, the joy of Christmas remained with Emma and Nathan. As they continued the weekly appointments devoted to encouragement and accountability, they became the best of friends. Their meetings soon moved to Friday nights at Nathan’s home where others were invited to join in Bible study and healing prayer. Within community, they both found wholeness, confidence and hope. Since God’s ways were not their ways, they left their future in His capable hands.

~~~

Though a work of fiction, the Christmas miracle portrayed in the hearts of Emma and Nathan has been repeated many times since the arrival of the Christ Child over two thousand years ago.  Whether from loss, disappointment or painful memories, perhaps Christmas has lost its meaning for you or someone you love. As you read the story of Jesus from Luke, Chapter 2, allow the message of Christmas to shine through your own doubts and fears. Personalize John 3:16 as Nathan did and embrace the hope and cleansing healing found in God’s love. May you discover Christmas in every sunrise—in the melody of song birds, the beauty of nature, the trust of a small child and the warmth of family and friends.

From our house to yours, Merry Christmas and Happy, Blessed, New Year!

 

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