The other day I was reminded of an old story…
There once was a man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town. And that all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, 'I'm religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.'
The waters rose up. A guy in a row boat came along and he shouted, 'Hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.' But the man shouted back, 'I'm religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.'
A helicopter was hovering overhead. And a guy with a megaphone shouted, 'Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I'll take you to safety.' But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety.
Well... the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. 'Lord,' he said, 'I'm a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?'
God said, 'I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?
Today I was talking about traditions. At one point I recall saying, “I like to think that I am a man of principles.” I do like to think that at my base, I am this. I have always had a deep respect for those who could say that and act upon it.
I think it is fair to say that I make a lot of mistakes in life, just as many people do. I’m not sure if it is any more or any less than the average person. I am sure that it is not worth trying to figure out. I know myself well enough to be absolutely confident that I will make many more errors in judgment in the near and distant future. However, I like to think that there are a few beliefs I have that keep me from making mistakes in the most important of times--a set of codes if you will. Principles. One of these principles is that you keep traditions.
With this in mind, I am reminded of a Christmas four years ago.
I have spent every Christmas of my life on the ranch in Anatone, Washington that my mom grew up on. It is one of my favorite places in the world, a picturesque place to celebrate Christmas, and the setting of one of my favorite traditions.
Since my parents divorced a decade ago, my dad and my brother have had a deal in place. Every Christmas Eve my brother and I would drive 45 minutes north and my dad would drive 90 minutes south, and we would meet at a little church on a little hill in little Pullman, Washington. There, we would celebrate Midnight Mass. This has become one of my favorite parts of Christmas. It is also one of my most protected traditions.
Well, fours years ago, Eastern Washington, or “God’s Country” as I usually call it, was hit by one of its usual snowstorms. Only this one was much worse than usual.
The entire morning, my brother, mother, and I discussed whether it was safe enough to make it to the ranch. The 100 miles of highway between here and there is a two-lane, icy hell of a drive. After going back and forth about 32 times and consulting the weather report every 10 minutes, we decided that we could make it if we left early. It was also decided that once we arrived, there could be no turning back due to the snow that would fall behind us. This meant, of course, that there could be no Midnight Mass with the Sacred Heart congregation of Pullman, and most importantly, the end of a tradition with my dad. This left me unsettled. My head was a mess and my stomach had an ill feeling. One tradition would be saved, but the other would have to end in the process. My dad, always one to downplay such things, told me not to worry about it, that there was no other option, and to get on the road as soon as possible. But I can’t tell you how hard it was for me to reconcile this decision with myself. (Catholic guilt, I suppose.)
My book of traditions is made of stone. And I am one that believes/fears that when the line of such happenings breaks, it often never gets repaired to its original strength. The precedent makes it easier in the future to have further breaks.
But I understand reason and logic. And both of those said to get on the road and drive.
So we did.
But I will admit that at more than one occasion that morning, I thought to myself that I wished there was a sign to help me/us know what to do. I suppose I was looking for that sign from a power above. But no such sign ever came.
It wasn’t until we pulled onto the highway that we had any idea how bad the driving conditions really were. It was ice as bad as I have never encountered, and it was snow that kept the visibility to 15 feet max. You could just barely make out the dividing lines of the two-way traffic. I will admit that I was scared. But I kept driving. Then, and this was incredibly uncharacteristic of my mom, the car only had less than a quarter tank of gas. Not only does she never let it get that low, we never left town without getting gas. But there we were, unable to turn around, and the nearest gas station about 15 miles away, which would be the last one for a long while. With white knuckles, I drove 20 mph down a virtually deserted highway. We were silent nearly the whole way. And the only thing that would take my mind off the road to any degree was that feeling in my stomach that still felt badly about missing the Midnight Mass. I kept telling myself that there really wasn’t a choice, and there was no sense in feeling this way, but it didn’t help. After what seemed like 3 hours, we made it, and I took a few breaths as I pumped the gas. Then I went in to pay the cashier. When I got to the counter, the lady made a comment about how bad the weather was and told me we were lucky, that she was about to close the place down to get home herself. She asked me which way I was heading. I told her south and she told me she hoped I wasn’t going far. I told her where I was going and she wished me luck and advised that I not attempt it. I told her it was Christmas, and we were going to make it. We had to.
As I left, a man was entering, and he held the door for me. He asked me where I was going, and before I could answer, he said, “I hope you aren’t heading south.” I told him I was, and he said, “I really wouldn’t if I was you.” I thanked him for the advice and walked to the car.
By that time, we had to brush the accumulated snow off the car. And then we set out again.
This next part was strange.
I started driving, but we couldn’t see where the exit from the parking lot was or even what direction we were heading. I had never been in a true whiteout before. I had no idea how serious they could be. We started driving the direction we thought the driveway was, and then it happened.
We came to a halting stop.
I had run straight into a snow bank. I had also high-centered the car. After trying in vain to shovel the car out with anything that was in the trunk and trying to call a tow truck with no cell service, we found ourselves stranded. Furthermore, the cashier had closed the store and left. We were alone. While we were contemplating walking to the nearest farmhouse, a truck drove by and I went over to talk to the driver to see if she could pull us out. She said she didn’t have a chain, but she said the storm was going to get worse, and she feared we would be in even more trouble the longer we were stuck there. She said would go home and get one. After an uncomfortably long time passed, she still had not returned, and a degree of angst set in. That’s when another truck drove by, and this guy had a chain in the bed. He pulled us out, but didn’t ask where we were heading. He just told us to get to a house as soon as possible, all the while pointing-- North.
We braved our way back home through a blizzard. All the way my mind drifted deep into thought.
When we got back to Spokane, I remember thinking about the sign that never came. But even more distinctly and vividly, I remember the next thoughts in my head. I recalled that story about the guy in the storm. How he kept waiting for God.
God sent a storm that day. He led us to a gas station. He put me face to face with a cashier. He sent a man to hold a door for me and give me advice. And he sent a caring woman in a truck.
And a man to pull us out of a ditch and point me in the right direction.
My brother and I went to Midnight Mass that Christmas Eve-with my dad.
And I am pretty sure that I can’t remember a single sermon from any of the hundreds of Masses I have been to...except that night.
The priest said, “You have all had a difficult journey getting here tonight, but there is a reason you are here. You were meant to be here.”
The next morning, we drove to the ranch, getting there just in time to exchange gifts.
Traditions are traditions.