Would You Say Grace?November 24, 2009
I’ve finally gotten around to reading something that’s been recommended to me numerous times over the years – What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Phillip Yancey. Thus far, it’s been fantastic. And early on, Yancey transposes the world’s best-known parable into a more modern setting and circumstance. Though it’s one we’re all familiar with, I don’t think it’s one with which we can ever be familiar enough … and I thought it made sense to share it as we’re now almost officially into the holiday season.
A young girl grows up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents, a bit old-fashioned, tend to overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to and the length of her skirts. They ground her a few times, and she seethes inside. “I hate you!” she screams at her father when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument, and that night, she acts on a plan she has rehearsed in her mind a thousand times. She runs away.
She’s visited Detroit only once before, on a bus trip with her church youth group to watch the Tigers play. Because the newspapers in Traverse City report in lurid detail the gangs, the drugs and the violence in downtown Detroit, she figures that’s probably the last place her parents will ever look for her. California, maybe … or Florida … but, not Detroit.
Her second day there, she meets a man who drives the biggest car she’s ever seen. He offers her a ride, buys her lunch, arranges a place for her to stay. He gives her some pills that make her feel better than she’s ever felt in her life. She was right all along, she thought – her parents were keeping her from all the fun.
The good life continues for a month, two months, a year. The man with the big car teaches her “a few things that men like”. Since she’s underage, men pay a premium for her. She lives in a penthouse, and orders room service whenever she wants. Occasionally, she thinks about her folks back home, but their lives now seem so boring, so provincial, she can hardly believe she grew up there.
She has a brief scare when she sees her picture printed on the back of a milk carton with the headline “Have you seen this child?” But, by now, she has blonde hair and with all the makeup and body-piercing jewelry, nobody would mistake her for a child. Besides, most of her friends are runaways and nobody squeals in Detroit.
After a year, the first sallow signs of illness appear and it amazes her how fast the man turns mean. He growls at her and before she knows it, she’s out on the street without a penny to her name. She still turns a couple of tricks a night, but they don’t pay much and all the money goes to support her habit. When winter blows in, she finds herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores. “Sleeping” is the wrong word, however … a teenage girl at night in downtown Detroit can never really relax her guard. Dark bands circle her eyes. Her cough worsens.
One night, as she lies awake listening for footsteps, all of a sudden, everything about her life looks different. She no longer feels like a woman of the world. She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city. She begins to whimper. Her pockets are empty and she’s hungry. She needs a fix. She pulls her legs tight underneath her and shivers under the newspapers she’s piled atop her coat. Something jolts a synapse of memory and a single image fills her mind: of Traverse City in May, when a million cherry trees bloom at once, with her golden retriever dashing through rows of blossoming trees in pursuit of a tennis ball.
God, why did I leave, she says to herself, and pain stabs at her heart. My dog back home eats better now than I do. She’s sobbing and she knows in a flash that more than anything else in the world, she wants to go home.
Three straight phone calls, three straight connections with voice mail. She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says “Dad, Mom, it’s me … I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well … I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.”
It takes about seven hours for a bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City and during that time, she realizes the flaws in her plan. What if her parents are out of town and miss the message? Shouldn’t she have waited another day until she could talk to them? And, even if they are home, they probably wrote her off as dead a long, long time ago. She should have given them some time to overcome the shock.
Her thoughts bounce back and forth between those worries and the speech she is preparing for her father. “Dad, I’m sorry. I know I was wrong. It’s not your fault. It’s all mine. Can you forgive me?” She says the words over and over again, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them. She hasn’t apologized to anyone in years.
The bus has been driving with lights on since Bay City. Tiny snowflakes hit the pavement rubbed worn by thousands of tires and the asphalt steams. She’s forgotten how dark it gets at night out here. A deer darts across the road and the bus swerves. Every so often, a billboard. A sign posting the mileage to Traverse City. Oh, God.
When the bus finally rolls into the station, its air brakes hissing in protest, the driver announces in a crackly voice over the microphone, “Fifteen minutes, folks. That’s all we have here.” Fifteen minutes to decide the rest of her life. She checks herself in a compact mirror, smoothes her hair and licks the lipstick off her teeth. She looks at the tobacco stains on her fingers and wonders if her parents (if they’re even here) will notice.
Walking tentatively into the terminal, not knowing exactly what to expect, other than to be disappointed, not one of the thousand scenes that’d played out in her mind could have prepared her for what she’d see.
There, in the concrete-walls-and-plastic-chairs bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stands a group of forty brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother, to boot. They’re all wearing party hats and blowing noise-makers … and taped across the wall of the terminal is a banner that reads “Welcome Home”.
Out of the crowd, breaks her dad. She stares out through the tears puddling in her eyes and begins the speech she’s memorized. “Dad, I’m so sorry … I know …”
He interrupts her. “Hush, child. We’ve no time for that. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for the party. There’s a feast waiting for you at home.”
All that’s required … ? A willingness to go, or to (without conditions) welcome someone else, home.
Be thankful this season, above all else, for grace.