Christmas Eve. 3 AM. Beyond the double-paned bay window the night was dark and silent. Glittering fresh snow was falling steadily upon the houses and streets and trees, covering the city in a blanket of thick, clean, white tranquility. The city was unusually quiet. No cars roamed up and down the dark streets. No people bustled along the sidewalks in their frenzied lives of business and work and pleasure. For just a few hours between the last of the rush of seasonal shopping, parties and busyness and the onslaught of gift opening, festive dinners and post-holiday shopping, the city stood still.
Inside the small white house at 2934 Mulberry Lane the Wilkers family lay soundly asleep in their cozy beds covered in fleece blankets and down comforters. Sue Wilkers was in a heavy dreamless sleep in the master bedroom, exhausted from the shopping and wrapping and parties. Across the hall Anna was dreaming of movie stars while younger brother Alex was off in a nether world of toys and candy and talking animals. Out in the family room with the twinkling Christmas tree, snuggled in the arms of his grandfather, lay 13-month-old Bradley. Having fallen asleep to the rhythm of the rocking chair and steady sound of the toy train upon its tracks, his breathing was peaceful and even.
Only Glen remained awake. Though staring out the window at the quiet peaceful night, listening to the unbroken sound of the toy train and keeping a constant pace on the rocker, Glen could not sleep. His mind was restless and his heart was burdened. He had been awakened just after one by the fussy cries of his grandson. He listened to the boy cry for nearly fifteen minutes before throwing off his covers in frustration and trudging down to his daughter's room. The seventeen-year-old mother was still asleep, completely oblivious of her son's cries.
"It's okay, Bradley," Glen had whispered as he lifted the toddler from his crib, "Grandpa's here now." He carried the fussy boy out of the bedroom and down to the living room, pausing for only a short moment to look back at his daughter. She was still asleep.
Glen took his grandson into the living room and sat down in front of the tree. Below the 6.5-foot artificial fir, decked out with colored lights and twenty years worth of decorations, was a snow-covered village surrounded by a toy train. Bradley's cries stopped as he was swept away by the color and sound and movement. The toddler gazed bright-eyed at the small train chugging along the tracks. For awhile, as the boy in his arms was awestruck at the sight, Glen's ominous thoughts remained at bay. This was the first Christmas that Bradley was old enough to be aware of his surroundings and the toddler was mesmerized by all the sights and sounds and feelings that the season brought with it. Glen loved watching his first and only grandson experience the "magic" of the season. He wished he could somehow go back to his own boyhood, when life was simple and lines weren't blurred and he had no worries other than how to catch the frogs in the creek. But he couldn't. Worries and burdens had taken their toll, adding creases across his forehead and gray to his once dark brown hair.
As Bradley had quieted down, Glen had once again picked the boy up. He sat down in the rocker and gently rocked the boy back to sleep. If only he could do the same to his thoughts. For as his grandson slept in his arms, the weight of all his problems and worries resurfaced. His racing thoughts were relentless.
She didn't even hear her own son cry. Her own child! But then again, she's just a child herself. She's too young to have a son. Where did I go wrong? She was my little girl, my little angel. Sitting in my lap, telling me stories, telling me how her day at school went. She was a good girl. What happened? I don't know! When she hit high school she became a stranger. New friends. Late nights. Dropping grades. Bad mouth. Back talk. Detention. Suspension. Parent meetings with teachers, with principles, with the youth pastor. . .Nothing helped. The more I tried to reach out, the more she pulled away. And then there were the fights. Loud and mean. She's said so many hateful things to me. I've said so many hateful things to her. We couldn't even be in the same room together. And then she got pregnant. I was so angry. So angry. How could she do that to herself? How could she do that to me!
Glen continued recalling those torturous months. Sue tried to get the two of them to work it out. She was not successful. Anna would be gone for days at a time. Glen would spout off as soon as the girl came through the door. But as the months passed, the teenager relied more heavily on her mother and the house became neutral ground in the cold war between father and daughter. Then last November Anna came home smelling like cigarette smoke. Glen went off. "How can you do that to your baby?" He screamed at his very pregnant daughter. The two of them went at it, any and all previous sins being thrown at one another. Finally, in the heat of the moment, Anna screamed "I hate you! I never want to see any of you again!" and ran out the door.
Hours later the phone rang. Someone from church had seen Anna down on Main Street, standing alone in the cold November rain. Sue pleaded emphatically with her husband, "You can't leave her there, she's nine months pregnant, she's due any day." So Glen bundled up and drove downtown. He spotted Anna almost immediately and pulled up at the curb across from where she was sitting on the cold wet sidewalk. He opened the passenger door and shouted above the pouring rain, "Get in!" The girl slowly walked towards the car. Not speaking and staring straight ahead, she sat down in the passenger seat. Glen pulled away from the curb and stopped at the traffic light, still fuming. Suddenly a small voice broke the silence. "Daddy, I'm scared." Anna looked over at him and, for the first time in months, he looked back at her, "Something's wrong. I hurt."
Glen looked down to where her wet shaking hand was rubbing her protruding belly. Without thinking, he drove straight to the hospital. He held his daughter's hand as she gave birth to his first grandson and in the wondrous miracle of birth they seemed to reconnect. Last Christmas was even peaceful. But Anna had quickly grown tired of early morning feedings and dirty diapers. It was only a few months before she was out running around again, like nothing had ever happened.
A tear of frustration trickled down Glen's cheek as he sat in the rocker, holding his sleeping grandson and staring out the window at the snow. His eyes, heavy with physical and emotional exhaustion, began to close.
Glen awoke when he felt Bradley tug at his pants leg. The toddler was on the floor looking up at him and pulling for him to get up. Glen looked around. Then he rubbed his eyes and looked around again. The room had grown. Grown? What? It was as if he had shrunk to the size of a mouse. The tree was now taller than the height of the Empire State building. And the train - the train was life-sized, stopped in front of him and full of people who were as big as he was.
"Last chance to get on!" called a male voice from the train engine. Bradley began to run towards the open door of the train as fast as his little legs could carry him. He tripped, fell down and began to crawl. Not sure what was going on, if he was dreaming or hallucinating, Glen rushed over to the toddler and picked him up.
"Come on in!" called another voice, this time from inside the passenger car. "It's much warmer in here."
Suddenly aware that he was cold, Glen looked around once again. The Christmas tree and all the furniture had disappeared. There was nothing around them now except the train and fresh falling snow.
"Twain." Bradley said stubbornly, pointing to the open door. Not really having any other choice, Glen carried the boy through the door and into the passenger car. As soon as he stepped in, the door closed behind him and the train let out a loud whistle. He heard the engine rumble and felt the train jerk as it prepared to continue it's mysterious trek. Looking around quickly, Glen spotted an open seat and sat down with Bradley in his lap. As the train chugged along, Glen tried to take in his surroundings. The passenger car was light and warm and comfortable. It had plush comfortable seats that were full of people.
"Hello there, little guy!" the lady beside Glen spoke to Bradley. "Is this your first train ride?" Bradley pulled his head back and smiled his bashful smile. The lady turned to Glen, "He's adorable, is he your son?"
"Oh no," Glen turned to the woman, "He's my grandson. His name is Bradley."
"Well, hello there, Bradley, it's so nice to meet you," the woman spoke to the toddler and took his hand, then she turned back towards Glen. "My great grandson and his wife are just a few seats back."
Glen looked at the woman. Her face was smooth and her eyes were bright. She wore a scarlet dress with a shawl covering her head. He spoke to her with a smile. "You don't look old enough to have a great grandson, especially not one that's married!"
The woman just laughed. "You don't look old enough to have a grandson!"
Her words suddenly sobered him. "My daughter is only seventeen." He looked away.
"You don't have to explain anything to me!" she smiled again. "In my day I was with so many men. I'm surprised I didn't end up with children at an early age. But God spared me and then gave me a family. A real family. The way He uses sinful people and works through the most inexplicable ways will never cease to amaze me!"
Glen smiled. Something in his heart told him that her words were true. A wave of peace swept over him. "Thank you." He said. "I really needed to hear that right now."
"If that is what you need to hear, just talk to anyone else on this train. Or, better yet, wait till we arrive!" Before Glen could ask her what she meant, a couple walked up to them. The woman beamed, "Well here's my great-grandson now!"
The couple did not look any younger or any older than the woman herself did. The wife held out her arms and Bradley went immediately to her. "He's just precious!" she exclaimed.
"Precious and ornery." Glen chuckled. "He's the one that wanted on this train so badly!"
"Oh, well then he is very wise indeed." She turned to her husband, "just like our boy!"
The husband laughed and shook his head. "She's a very proud mother."
"I'm a very proud grandfather," Glen spoke up, "even if I'm not so proud at the way he was brought into the world."
"It doesn't matter how the baby was conceived," the wife said, suddenly very emphatic. "A child that is born into this world is a miracle and every child is precious, regardless of the parents. Regardless of how long they live or what they become."
Upon seeing the confusion on Glen's face, the husband tried to explain her enigmatic words. "Our first son was also conceived in sin. And he died shortly after he was born."
"I'm so sorry to hear that," Glen said.
The wife smiled again. "Don't be sorry. God has been very gracious to us. Much more than we deserve." She handed Bradley back to Glen. "What's his name?"
"Bradley. And I'm Glen. It's nice to meet you. . ."
The wife laughed, "You can call me Beth." She extended her hand.
"David," said the husband as he shook Glen's hand.
The couple returned to their seats and Glen turned to the woman beside him. "I'm sorry, I didn't get your name."
"Rahab." She said.
Glen looked at her, then turned back to look at the couple now taking their seats. He turned back to her. "Rahab?"
The woman smiled. "Yes. And I think you'll find that you recognize most of the passengers aboard the train."
"What is this train? Where is it heading?" Glen questioned. "I mean, I'm not dead or anything, am I?
"No," Rahab laughed again. "Every Christmas Eve this train makes its trek. Everyone who ever had a part of God's plan of salvation rides, as well as some not-so-well-known-ones, like you, who need to be reminded of the extent of God's love." Glen just looked at her in wonder. She leaned in closely and whispered, "We're going to Bethlehem."
Glen's breath caught in his throat. Bethlehem. They were going to Bethlehem. The train. The people. It was almost too much. Suddenly Bradley laughed and clapped his hands. "Baby."
For what seemed like hours, the train continued on. Glen found himself talking to people he had only read about in the Bible. Abraham and Sarah. Joseph. Moses. Ruth. Isaiah. Hosea. Peter. John. Paul. Blind Bartimaeus and the women who had bled for years until Jesus healed her. No one spoke much of who they were or what they had accomplished (though that is what Glen had remembered most). Instead, they all spoke of how God had reached out to them and turned their lives around in miraculous ways. And they all loved Bradley. As Bradley was passed along from one set of arms to the next, Glen noticed a man he had not yet met. He was sitting in the back corner, staring out the window. Glen made his way back and sat down next to him.
"I don't believe I have met you," Glen spoke up.
The man turned his head away from the window and looked at Glen. "And yet I'll bet you have cursed me." Glen was confused, until the man opened his hand, revealing a long Roman spike. "This night is always difficult for me. To know that the baby we go to see will someday be placed upon a cross where I will hammer this into his innocent hands." A tear tricked down his rough Roman face, then he smiled. "And yet, and yet God allowed my eyes to be opened that day to really see Him. He's forgiven me. Even me."
The rest of the ride was a blur. Glen was buried in his thoughts. Thoughts of a gracious God who does so much more than we can understand. When the train finally came to a stop, Glen took Bradley into his arms and got in line with everyone else. One by one they stepped into the stable where a weary Joseph, young Mary and baby Jesus lay. Many cried. Some laughed. All kneeled. When Glen approached the manger, Mary looked up at him. He sat Bradley down and watched as the toddler stumbled towards the make-shift crib. "And this is why we celebrate Christmas, Bradley." While they stared in wonder, baby Jesus opened his eyes and began to cry. Glen's first instinct was to pick the infant God up and he looked to Mary. She nodded. Gingerly, Glen picked baby Jesus up and rocked him in his arms. The newborn stopped crying, but tears flowed freely down Glen's face.
"I'll bet you're a great father," Mary said softly as Glen placed Jesus into her arms. He just smiled. Picking Bradley up, he turned and stood with the crowd still looking on as more passed through.
"Glen!" He heard someone call his name. He turned to look. Opening his eyes, he was suddenly aware that his surroundings had changed once again. He was back in his living room, on the rocker. "Glen!" his wife was leaning over him, "you fell asleep in the rocker. It's Christmas morning!"
His wife stepped back to where Alex and Anna stood staring at him there in the rocker. Anna had Bradley in her arms and she was smiling. He looked around. Then he looked back to his family. "Merry Christmas." He finally spoke, not finding any other words to say.
"Merry Christmas!" they replied. Glen smiled. He looked at Bradley. The toddler grinned. And Glen was certain he saw a knowing twinkle in his grandson's eyes.
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