The Miracle of Christmas
THE MIRACLE OF CHRISTMAS
AUTHOR'S PREFACE-I wrote this story to portray the impact a person of integrity can have on the lives of the people around him; combine that with a strong, abiding testimony of Jesus Christ and the power of the priesthood, you begin to see the potential of the true Miracle of Christmas - "Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee." (Acts 3:6)
I'm no world-class writer, nor do I aspire to be. But something needs to be written down and I'm the one with the background material, so the job falls to me. My conscience will not rest until I do.
I first saw James Parker in Vietnam. He transferred into my platoon with a bunch of other guys from Stateside after most of my platoon had been decimated while on a jungle patrol. He didn't stand out because he was bigger, stronger, faster or better with a gun or knife than any one else. He wasn't better looking. It was more subtle. The first thing I noticed about him was that he didn't smoke. Smoking was a common ritual among the men. He didn't play cards either. That was another common pass time. He had a little maroon-colored book that fit into his shirt pocket. When we stopped for a break he would take this book out of his pocket and read while the rest of us smoked. He didn't engage in telling dirty jokes either, and I never remember hearing any profane utterance escape from his lips, even when we were under heavy fire. And he prayed a lot. Every morning, five minutes before revelry, he would slip out of bed and kneel quietly, head bowed. He'd do the same at night after lights out. When we were on town leave, instead of following the others to the district where the local ladies of the night hung out, he went to orphanages and refugee camps and played with the kids, gave them gum and candy he'd saved from his rations and helped where he could, building shelters, doing repairs and other odd jobs.
One night before a jungle patrol, similar in nature to the one that had wiped out our platoon before, I was sitting next to Parker in mess. "You scared of death?" I asked. "I'd rather not die," he said. "I'd like to see my family again. I'd like to get married and raise a family of my own. But afraid? No."
"How can you not be afraid?"
"Death is just a part of life. A transition from this phase to the next. Just like birth brought us here, death moves us on."
"Death scares me."
"That's because there are things in your life you know deep down inside are wrong. You've let the mindless mass dictate your behavior. You're not your own man. In your position I'd be scared too."
I'm not sure I really understood the full implication of what he meant, but the next day on patrol I stuck close to James Parker. Something about him made me feel safe. We made it through that day, while many around us didn't.
The next time we went to town, instead of going with the other guys, I again stuck with Parker. It was the first time in all the months I'd been in Vietnam that I saw a Vietnamese smile. They liked him. And by association, they liked me too.
"So how come you don't smoke?" I asked Parker one day.
"It's not good for you."
So what else was new? "So?" I asked.
"I don't see you putting a gun to your head and pulling the trigger," he said.
"It's the same difference."
"No, it's not," I argued.
"Your dad smoke?" he asked.
"He wheeze and cough a lot?"
I nodded. "Yeah."
"You want to be so short of breath when you're his age you can't blow out a candle, and then suffer a slow agonizing death as cancer sets in and finally chokes the breath of life out of you?"
I didn't answer that. But when he wasn't looking, I threw my pack of cigarettes away and never lit another one.
James Parker didn't drink either. I didn't ask him about that. I didn't have to. I just pictured my dad coming home late, so drunk he couldn't stand up, and the agonizing look on my mother's face. I stopped drinking.
I did ask him about coffee, though. I couldn't see any harmful effects with coffee. "It's the caffeine," he said. "It's addictive. Any drug you put into your body is going to alter your body chemistry in some way. Your body and your mind become dependent on it. It takes over, and your body can't function without it. You give up control to that substance. That doesn't even take into account the physical damage it is doing in the process."
"But coffee gives you a lift in the morning. What's wrong with that?"
"You're missing the big picture," he said. "You don't need a lift in the morning. The morning is the best time of the day. It's exhilarating. You think you need a lift because you've been taking this drug for so long your mind, your senses, and your body have been dulled to the point that they need a stimulant to bring them up to what you would consider a normal operating level."
I quit drinking coffee too, though it wasn't as easy. But once the craving subsided, I felt much better and had a lot more energy than when I drank it.
"So what's the book?" I finally asked one day.
"The Book of Mormon. It's scripture, like the Bible. It was written by prophets who lived on the American continent, the ancestors to the Indians and the others who were already in America when Columbus came."
Well, I didn't read the Bible either, so I wasn't overly impressed at the time. My family had never been very religious, therefore, neither had I. That would take a little more time.
I wasn't the only one who had started hanging around James Parker. There were probably fifteen of us. That made quite a crew to help out at the orphanages and refugee camps on our leave days, and made for a lot more candy and gum for the kids. We really did make a difference. The older people became almost as animated when they saw us coming as the kids. It made me feel good to be doing something to help these people who had been so ravaged by the war.
James Parker also began holding Sunday services for any who wanted to attend. I thought maybe his teaching would be controversial. But it wasn't. He centered his teaching around Christ, always pointing out the service He had rendered. He also explained the atonement so we all could understand it. I played football in high school and one year of college before I got drafted, so I liked his analogy of football. He said, "If you want to understand the atonement, think of Christ as the Quarterback of the most awesome football team ever assembled. Since Christ is the Captain of this team, it can never be defeated. He has the power, the strength, and the infinite knowledge it takes to defeat any team that comes against him. The reward, the Superbowl ring, if you will, for Himself and everyone on his team, is everything His Father has. This is the important thing to remember. Everyone on the team will share equally. It doesn't matter whether you are the center, the tight end, the half back, the full back, the tackle, or a lineman, or if you spend most of your time on the bench. When Christ wins, the team wins - the whole team. That's what the power of the atonement means to us. Christ was perfect. He needed nothing more to return to His Father and receive his reward. But we did. We weren't as strong. We needed a little help. And so, Christ volunteered to be our Captain, our Quarterback. He volunteered to lead the team and secure the victory. It wouldn't be a free ride. We would each be required, first to join the team, then to play our position and give our all, but in the end, if we did our part, the victory would be ours. The ring would be ours. We would receive the prize."
The service we were rendering to the Vietnamese took on new meaning in light of his sermon on the atonement and the explanation of Christ's service to us. In a small way, we were mirroring the service Christ rendered to each of us.
Then came the day, as it always did, when we were pinned down by enemy fire. Casualties were high. And I'd lost sight of Parker in the melee. A mortar round exploded close by and threw me off the trail and into the undergrowth. I felt a sharp, hot burning where the shrapnel ripped into my chest, my neck and my left arm and leg. Horror enveloped me when I looked at myself. The one thing I feared more than death was being crippled. And I knew if I lived, I would be. My whole left side was a bloody mess.
Men were screaming all around me. Then I heard what made my blood run cold. Not far from me, our Lieutenant was calling in a napalm strike on our position to burn the jungle and our enemies - and those of us who couldn't get out in time. I tried to move. I couldn't. Our Lieutenant called a retreat. Everyone who was still able pulled back. Many were dragging or carrying wounded men or bodies. Bullets and mortars were still whizzing and exploding around us. Men were still falling and screaming. I was in thick undergrowth and no one saw me. I tried to yell, but it was just a hoarse whisper. No one heard. My terror increased. I would be burned alive.
When I thought everyone who could had pulled back, someone came running back in. A few moments later he ran back out with someone draped over his shoulders. This happened again and again. Five times, I think. Then he came again, slower this time, parting the undergrowth on either side of the trail. I could hear the roar of the approaching aircraft. My heart beat wildly. Then the brush above me parted and there looking down at me was the face of James Parker. He wasn't any bigger or stronger than any of the rest of us, but he picked me up like a rag doll and ran as the jungle began erupting in flames behind us. He sprinted for several hundred yards and finally set me down in a clearing with other wounded. I could feel the heat of the raging inferno on my face, but we were just beyond its reach.
Then Parker knelt down beside me and took my good hand. "I found everyone but you," he said. "I couldn't leave you there to be burned. I had to make one more trip in." He removed my helmet, then put both his hands on my head. "In the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," he said clearly and distinctly, "and by the power of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood with which I have been intrusted, I command your bleeding to stop and your body to begin renewing itself, that you may live and yet fulfill the mission you were born to accomplish . . . ." Then things got fuzzy and I passed out.
That was the last time I saw James Parker. I was sent home. The doctors said I shouldn't have lived. X-rays showed several pieces of shrapnel lodged in my chest and leg that would have to have severed major arteries to get there, yet when I was brought into the hospital those arteries were intact, I was no longer bleeding and my wounds were already in an advanced state of healing. Vietnam subsided into my subconscious after I returned Stateside, like a bad dream. And after a few months in rehab, I returned to civilian life. It had taken a lot of hard work, the hardest I'd ever done in my life, but I walked away from that hospital. I wasn't a cripple. Though I was thankful I made it home from Vietnam with my arms and legs intact, I didn't think much more about religion. Without Parker around as a physical reminder, I drifted back pretty much into the life I'd left, though I never again used cigarettes, alcohol, or coffee. Those lessons stuck with me.
A second miracle happened in my life my last year at college - also thanks to James Parker. I met Sarah. She was beautiful and good, much too good for me. But she liked me because I didn't smoke or drink or swear. We were married a week after graduation.
When Sarah first saw my scars, she gasped, her eyes reflected the horror she felt. I should have prepared her better. The scars were ugly and I was self-conscious because of them, so I never took off my shirt in public, nor did I wear shorts. All I had told her about the war was that I had been wounded and was sent home a few months early.
"What really happened?" she asked.
Vietnam was part of a long ago, far away world that I was just as happy to forget. But she insisted, so even though it was painful even to think about, in my mind I revisited that day in Vietnam. ". . . . James Parker, always concerned for others before himself, came back into the jungle one last time to find me. He pulled me out only seconds in front of the fire. He literally risked his own life to save me. Had he not found me at the precise instant he did, we would both have burned alive. But the story doesn't end there. The shrapnel had severed at least two main arteries, one in my leg, one in my chest, and did irreparable damage to my internal organs. No surgeon on earth could have saved me. I should have bled to death within minutes. But Parker (at this point in my narration tears came to my eyes and ran down my cheeks) carefully took my helmet off and laid his bloody hands on my head and in the name of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Priesthood which he held he commanded - that was the word he used, commanded - my bleeding to stop and my body to begin renewing itself. And it did. That's why I'm here today."
Sarah was visibly affected by my account. She sat down slowly and just stared at my scars, trying to visualize, I was sure, the picture I'd just painted for her. "So where is this Parker now?" she asked.
"I don't know. I don't even know if he made it out alive. I haven't seen or heard from him since that day."
"Haven't you ever tried to get a hold of him?" I had. I sent a letter to his parents. The only address I had. That was after I finally got out of rehab and had a chance to go through my things. But they had moved. The letter was returned with no forwarding address attached. I just kinda let it pass after that. My life got involved and I moved on.
But Sarah didn't let it slip so easily. "Do you have a picture?" "I think so." When we went home for a visit, I dug through a trunk and found my army pictures. Among them was a shot of me and Parker. A posed shot. Me with a football. Him with his hand on my shoulder.
"Good grief," Sarah said, "you both look so young. You were hardly more than kids."
Unlike myself, Sarah came from a religious background. Something about Parker and the incident in Vietnam struck a cord deep inside her. She had the snapshot enlarged and nicely framed, then put it in the most prominent place in our home - on the mantle above the fire place.
"Tell me what's going on in your head," I finally said one day when I walked into the living room and caught her just standing there, looking at the picture.
"It's a miracle," she said, coming into my arms. She rubbed her hand up and down my left side, over the scares. "You're a miracle. I always want this picture where we can see it, to remind us of that. When I was growing up our priest always said that miracles had ceased, but something deep inside me said that wasn't true. Now I know I was right. It strengthens my faith. I know Christ is with us. There is purpose to all things. We're not just on a rudderless ship being tossed and blown at random. Christ is at the helm."
That made chills run down my spine. It brought into sharp focus Parker's analogy of Christ as the Captain of the football team. I related it to her.
Tears came to her eyes. "That's beautiful," she said. "I've often wondered about the atonement, but I've never had it explained in such simple, understandable terms. It's always been so mysterious. Someday I'd like to meet this Parker of yours. He seems to have the bigger picture, an understanding that eludes most of us."
We didn't find Parker, nor did the meeting take place. But the picture remained on the mantle and our five children grew up knowing well it's significance.
Twenty-four years passed. They were good years filled with joy and love and real family togetherness. And we owed them all to James Parker. Because of him, we reverenced every day of our lives. Then suddenly one day the devastation came again. Sarah was diagnosed with cancer. She had felt weak for some time, but we hadn't made the connection - until too late. When she finally went to the doctor she was given less than a 20% chance of recovery. The cancer had spread throughout her body. For four months we watched her waste away and become more frail. Nothing that medical science could do made any difference. I was heart sick. We all were. Here, the woman who was the heart and soul of our family lay poised on the brink of death. How would we carry on without her?
On Christmas Eve the family was gathered together, just to be with her. We all felt that her time was close, that she probably wouldn't last through the holidays. Our two oldest were married and we had three grandchildren. We had all gathered around her bed to read the Christmas story in Luke. On our first Christmas Eve together, Sarah had insisted that I read it and it had become a family tradition. As I finished, Sarah smiled and took my hand. Tears flowed down everyone's cheeks. Even the little ones felt the spirit that filled the room. Just then the doorbell rang. Our oldest granddaughter, Amy, ran to answer it. She came running back in.
"Grandpa, Grandpa," she said excitedly. "The man on the fireplace is here. He's at the front door!"
I looked quizzically at Sarah. In a low whisper she said. "Go see."
I walked into the living room. Everyone followed close behind me. And there at the door stood two young men. One of them did, indeed, look just like James Parker had looked in Vietnam, though he wore a dark suit rather than battle fatigues.
A big smile spread across this young man's face. "Hi," he said. His eyes sparkled and his face seemed to glow. "We are Elders from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We are out in the area tonight wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and bearing witness that the Christmas story is true. Christ was born in Bethlehem. He lived a perfect life and then willingly laid it down for us, atoning for our sins, that we might all return with Him to live again with our Father in Heaven. We won't take more of your time tonight, but we would be happy to come back later and teach you more of how we can return to our Father in Heaven."
It was then that I noticed the name tag on the lapel of his suit - ELDER PARKER. Tears came to my eyes. A sensation akin to high voltage electricity shot through my body, from my head to the soles of my feet and up and down my arms. A warmth arose in my chest, and my throat tightened so I could hardly talk. But I opened my mouth and tried. "I believe we have time tonight," I said. "Please come in."
The two young men looked at each other, hardly believing the invitation. I could understand. Most people didn't want to be bothered on Christmas Eve, even by Christ himself. But on this Christmas Eve, we weren't most people.
We all went into the living room. Everyone found a place to sit, except the Elders. They remained standing, waiting for me to direct them. "Before you sit down," I said, "there is something I'd like to show you."
I led them to the mantle and took down the photograph and handed it to Elder Parker. Then I just watched his reaction. He stared at it for a long time. He bit his lip to keep it from quivering. When he finally looked up at me there were tears in his eyes. "So, are you Mitch Carter?" he asked.
"I am. Are you James Parker's son?"
"You look so much like your dad."
"I've been told that."
"It's interesting that you should come tonight."
"We don't usually go out on Christmas Eve, unless we are invited. We don't like to intrude on this special time with family. But tonight we didn't have any appointments, so we knelt down after dinner and asked our Father in Heaven what we should do. We both felt we should go out and bear the testimony we have of Christ. When I received my mission call to serve here in Virginia, my father told me it was probably to find you. I guess tonight was the night the Lord wanted us to find you."
"I suppose your father told you about the blessing he gave me in Vietnam when I was wounded?"
"It saved my life. All the doctors said I shouldn't have lived. Do you have the same priesthood he had?"
"Yes, we do."
"My wife is very sick. She has cancer. Would you give her a blessing?"
"We would be happy to, but we need to talk to you and your family first."
"Sure, sit down."
I introduced them to my family, then Elder Parker began, "This is a wonderful time of year. Even people who don't profess much religion take on Christ-like attributes at this time of year. The priesthood that your father just mentioned, the power that saved his life in Vietnam, is the same power Christ used to heal the sick and infirm and raise the dead when he was on the earth. But within the first century after his death this power was lost to mankind. Wickedness was so prevalent that Christ's apostles, who held this power, were killed and with them went the priesthood. For over 1700, years darkness reigned in the absence of this priesthood power. But there was to be a restoration of the priesthood and the gospel and Church of Christ as he established it when he lived. All the prophets from the beginning of time had foreseen this restoration in the last days, in preparation for Christ's second coming, and all longed for it to come. It was to be that glorious. Our message to the world, and to you tonight, is that it has come. The priesthood has been restored. The Church of Christ has again been organized and is upon the earth. The saving truths of the gospel are here again in their fullness."
"So do you have the power to heal our grandma?" little Amy asked. "She says she's going to die, but we don't want her to die."
"That is the next question we need to address. Yes, we do have that power, on a conditional basis. But there are other things that come into play that you need to know and understand. That is why I wanted to talk to you before administering the blessing. Whether or not a person is healed after a priesthood blessing depends on at least three things. First, the faith of the ones holding the priesthood -- Elder Cook and myself. Second, the faith of you as family, especially your grandma. And third, the will of our Father in Heaven in the matter. We must understand that death is just part of life. It opens the door for us to return to our Father in Heaven, an existence so glorious and wonderful we can't even begin to comprehend it. It's true, death is painful for those left behind, because we miss them so much. But we shouldn't feel bad for those who die. They are reunited with their parents and grandparents and friends who have already passed on. Life there is a joyous reunion. And we need to remember that death is always in the hands of our Father in Heaven. He created the universe and governs everything within it. He appointed the time when we would leave his presence and be born here on earth, and he has appointed the time when we will die and go to the Spirit World to await the resurrection. Yes, Elder Cook and I have the Priesthood, and one of the functions of the Priesthood is to administer to and bless the sick. But we are counseled to leave the final outcome of those blessings in the Lord's hands, that His will might be done in the matter. "She'll be okay, I know she will," Amy said. "I don't think Heavenly Father wants Grandma to die yet."
I looked around the room. There wasn't a dry eye among us.
"Before we go into your grandmother, I think it would be nice to kneel in prayer," Elder Parker said, looking at me. Do you have any objections to that?" I shook my head.
"Since it is your home, you can offer the prayer or call on some one else to do it." Amy, at four years old, seemed to have more faith than any of us, so I asked her to say a prayer.
We all knelt down in a big circle, then she began, "Dear Heavenly Father," she said, "thank you for sending Mr. Parker tonight. I know you sent him to heal our grandma. It isn't time for her to go yet. We still need her here. Bless us to be good. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen."
The warm spirit in that circle was very strong and none of us was in a hurry to stand up. When we did, we all went into Sarah's room
"Grandma, Grandma!" Amy said, running to Sarah's bed. "This is Elder Parker and Elder Cook. Heavenly Father sent them to heal you."
Tears came to her eyes as they locked upon Elder Parker. She reached out and took his hand. Her voice was weak, but still she spoke. "I would like that. I've felt very sad all day, thinking I'm just not ready to die yet. I'm not sure what is still lacking, but I know there is something. I suppose that is why you're here, Mr. Parker, to tell us."
He patted the top of her hand with his free hand and said, "Yes, ma'am, it is. But first we will give you a blessing and let you rest. Then we'll come back."
I listened intently to the words of the blessing. A few things stuck out in my mind ". . . . you were sent to earth to prepare your family to receive the Gospel . . . . I feel prompted to bless you that you will recover from your illness and stand as a living testimony of the goodness and power of our Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ . . . . your mind will be sharpened that you might understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its significance in our lives, and teach its precepts clearly to your family and friends as they have occasion to ask you . . . ."
"Will you come back tomorrow?" I asked them. "My married children will be leaving the day after Christmas and I think it is important that we all have the chance to visit with you."
"Yes, we'll come. Our calendar is open tomorrow."
"Come about noon. We'll have lunch together and then visit afterwards."
Sarah slept peacefully all night, the first time in weeks. The pain that had racked her body was gone. She awoke at 8:00 am with a sparkle in her eyes and smiled at me.
"Can I get you anything special for breakfast?" I asked.
"I think I'll take a bath first, and then join the family in the kitchen."
She hadn't had the strength to get out of bed for a long time. I helped her swing her legs out and take the first step. "I think I can handle it from here," she said.
I didn't argue. I let her go. Soon I could hear the water running in the bathtub. It was followed by singing.
My oldest daughter came in and gave me a puzzled look.
"Your mother's taking a bath," I said.
"By herself?" she asked incredulously.
"She didn't want any help."
"So what do you think, Dad?"
I stood up from my chair by the bed, the chair I'd sat vigil in for so many nights, hoping beyond hope and praying in my heart that somehow Sarah would get better. I put my arm tenderly around my daughter and pulled her close. "I think I've witnessed another miracle."