Thanksgiving story for our times.
It was the night before Thanksgiving, and little Stanley’s parents were getting the house ready for their holiday guests. “They’ll be here in a few minutes,” his mother said to his father. “Now remember, don’t bring it up. I want this to be a peaceful Thanksgiving.” He father nodded. “I know, I know. No religion or politics. I’ll try!”
Stanley didn’t know what they were talking about. He was just so happy that his favorite aunt and uncle were coming to stay with them. He loved them, and it was going to be fun to have them for two whole days!
At that moment he heard a car horn honk, and he ran to the door to see their familiar car pulling into the driveway. There was a big welcome of course, hugs and kisses all around, and pretty soon they were all settled in the guest room and they were all in the kitchen together, nibbling on a late night snack as his mother and his aunt prepared some of the food for the big Thanksgiving dinner the next day. Aunt Kathy asked Stanley what he wanted for Christmas, and he showed her his list for Santa, and Uncle Joe and his father talked about the Giants and other sports stuff.
Eventually Stanley wandered off into the family room to play with his hot wheel cars, while the adults stayed in the kitchen talking. It wasn’t long before Stanley heard a lot of angry shouting coming from the kitchen, and being a sensitive little boy, he was immediately upset. He peeked into the room and saw his uncle and aunt on one side of the room arguing with his parents on the other. He didn’t really understand what it was all about, but they were shouting words like “emails” and “tax returns” and “Benghazi” and “Crimea”. It got louder and louder, and Stanley had never seen his family fighting like that, and it frightened him.
He didn’t know what to do, he was so upset, he had to just get away from all the yelling, and so he picked up Elmo, his favorite stuffed toy, and went out the back door to the “fort” he had in the woods behind his house. He was quietly crying and talking to Elmo the whole way, but he didn’t really pay attention to where he was going in the dark woods, and he got lost, and before he knew it he was out of the woods and walking on some streets that he didn’t ever remember seeing. It looked like an industrial park, and there were rows and rows of dark warehouses everywhere.
He went down one empty street, then another, and another, and he was completely confused. He didn’t know which was to go, he was getting very tired, and a different kind of lost scared than when he watched everyone fighting. Worse, it was getting very very cold, and he only had a sweatshirt on, and…it started to snow.
There were no people around, no cars, and he was freezing. So Stanley decided to try a few doors of a big warehouse that was in front of him. He tried one door, but it was locked. Then another, same. But when he tried a third door that was kind of hidden around the back, it opened. He went inside.
It was warm but dark except for a few emergency exit lights. He could tell it was an enormous space. When he walked, the echo of his footsteps bounced off the walls and ceilings far down into the darkness. When he stopped, it was silent, except for the occasional distant howl of wind outside, which of course scared him. He could vaguely see large things all around him, towering over him, strangely shaped. He couldn’t tell what they were, although in the dark they seemed like huge monsters.
He felt along the walls of the building and finally came across a row of switches, and when he hit them a bunch of hanging lights in the ceiling began to glow faintly, and then got brighter. And all around him, in every direction, was an amazing sight. Those giant shapes began to reveal themselves: huge three dimensional figures of a policeman, a sea monster, a giant woodpecker, a purple dinosaur, a crazy looking cat with a big striped hat, a giant red dog, a tin man, a bunch of red and green stars, and wait…whoa, Elmo, which looked just like the one in his hand except as big as a skyscraper. They went on and on in that gigantic warehouse, all these giant figures, and they were silently floating in the gloomy vastness. It was at once creepy, but especially with Elmo, it was also reassuring to be there with them.
Stanley opened the door to the outside and saw that the snow was coming down faster and harder. He couldn’t go out there. It was too cold and he might get buried in the snow, and he was really tired. He cried again, thinking that no one would ever find him, and he might never find his way home again.
But then he pulled himself together, he looked around the warehouse and found a bunch of bags stuffed with cotton material. He arranged them and made a kind of bed out of them, held on tightly to Elmo in his arms, and when he put his head down upon the cotton, he promptly drifted off to sleep.
He woke up to the sound of loud voices. He looked around, and saw that the balloons were arguing with each other. They sounded angry and hurt. He didn’t understand exactly what they were saying, but it reminded him of what he heard before in his kitchen.
Some were complaining bitterly about all these newcomer balloons that had taken away their jobs. Others were saying that the selection had been rigged, that there weren’t any girl balloons. One claimed that balloons had too many guns, that the rights of balloons all over the world were threatened. And the arguments got louder and meaner and nastier, and one balloon purposely pushed another, another tried to a puncture a hole in an opponent, and it looked like it was about to turn into a total balloon riot.
That was when the giant Elmo noticed Stanley sitting there, and as he drifted over to him, the others stopped yelling and floated right behind. They all looked at him with interest.
Elmo asked him: “Hey, are you the new king?” Stanley couldn’t believe Elmo was talking to him. “Did you hear me?” Elmo said again. “I asked you if you are the new guy at the end of the parade. In that fancy gold sled with the “special” flying reindeer. Are you the new king of the balloons?”
Stanley blinked, and looked down at the Elmo in his hand, and then back again at the giant Elmo floating above him. Balloon Elmo turned to the other balloons. “Maybe if we had a new king, we wouldn’t be stuck here in this warehouse. Maybe a new king would put us back into the parade where we belong, right?”
They all looked at one another, and then gathered in a circle. Once again they began to argue, and every so often they would look over in Stanley's direction or sometimes point to him and Stanley heard a few words and phrases he didn’t really understand like “too liberal” and “alt right” and “crooked” and “demagogue”. The voices rose to a loud but indistinct crescendo and then stopped abruptly when Stanley spoke up, trying to get their attention.
“What did you say?” Elmo asked. Stanley replied, “I just asked what you want me to do if I’m king… of... the balloons?” They turned and started arguing again for a few minutes, and then stopped, seeming to have an answer. “Agreed?” Elmo asked them, and they all nodded or shook up and down. And Elmo turned to a giant Woody Woodpecker and nodded.
Woody took the cue and flew over to a piece of wood and carved out a message with his beak. There was an S and an A and a V. He kept going until four words were carved into the wood. It said, “Save us from ourselves”.
“That’s what you want?”, Stanley said to them, and they nodded and applauded with their hands and their tails and their feathers, which is when Stanley suddenly woke up. The balloons were just hanging there, silent now, looking disinterested with fake smiles on their faces. It was as if nothing had ever happened. He heard the sound of a motor and a huge scraping sound, and so he went to the door, opened it and looked out. It was light out, pretty early, and the snow had stopped. He saw a snowplow truck moving on down the road, scraping the snow off the street in front of the warehouse.
Stanley turned around and looked at all the balloons hanging there in the warehouse. It made him feel a little sad, but at least they weren’t arguing. He decided he had to try to find his way back home, and so he climbed his way through the snowdrifts and snowbanks over to the plowed road.
He walked and walked and walked for quite a while, and still didn’t see any people, but eventually the rows of warehouses turned into streets with houses on them. Stanley could see smoke coming out of the chimneys of the houses, and every once in a while a light might be on in an upstairs bathroom.
He kept walking, and just as he was thinking that maybe he should go up to a house and knock on a door and ask someone to help him find his parents, he was passing a house that already had a whole bunch of Christmas decorations up outside. He stopped to look at them.
Over there was a really big Elmo—not as big as in the warehouse, but pretty big, and he was waving his hand. And over there was a life-sized Santa in his sleigh, and some life-sized reindeer.
But what really caught his attention was the manger scene that was in the center of the lawn. It was big too, and so beautiful. It had a life-sized Mary and a life-sized Joseph, and some life-sized cows and a life-sized donkey. And in the middle of all of them was a life-sized baby Jesus. And he had… a crown on his head. (Well, it looked like a crown, but it was really a golden halo because, I mean, he was Jesus after all.)
Now Stanley was a little boy, but he was a very smart little boy. He looked over at Elmo, who seemed to be waving right at him. He looked at Santa, who was sitting very proudly on that sleigh. And then he looked at the baby Jesus. He looked at the baby Jesus for a very long time.
And then Stanley slowly went over to Santa. He picked him up off his sleigh, which was not an easy thing to do because he was life-sized and Stanley was a little guy, but he somehow did it. He put Santa over to the side, leaning him up against a tree.
And then he went over to the baby Jesus, and you know what he did, don’t you? Yeah, he picked him up and carried him over to that big golden sleigh--the baby Jesus with the crown on his head---and put him right there on that throne where the king of the parade is supposed to sit.
And then he turned to Elmo, and Elmo’s hand and Elmo’s head were waving and nodding like crazy, and Stanley knew that he approved, and Stanley knew that he had found the perfect king of the balloons after all, the one who would “Save us from ourselves.”
Just at that moment, a van came driving down the street, and it started honking its horn like crazy. Suddenly it came to a stop in front of the house and in front of Stanley, and the doors flew open and out ran his mother and his father and his aunt and his uncle. They were crying and smiling, and hugging and kissing him all over, and saying how sorry they were for fighting and scaring him out into the darkness of the night. Stanley was so happy, not really because he was no longer lost, but because his parents and aunt and uncle were happy together again.
And when they had all calmed down, Stanley showed them how he had put Jesus onto the sleigh because he was king of the balloons. And Stanley’s mama cried because she understood, and so did his aunt, and even though they kind of hid it because they were men, his father and his uncle also had water in their eyes because of what Stanley did.
Later on, everyone was back home. Stanley’s mom and aunt were mashing the potatoes and cooking the string beans, and his dad and uncle were trying to clean out the turkey and get it ready to go in the oven. Stanley came into the kitchen for a moment to get some juice, and his father asked him if he wanted to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on the television. Stanley smiled, shook his head no, and drank his juice in front of his family right there in the kitchen, with Elmo on the counter next to him. That was all he wanted to do on Thanksgiving, to be right there in the kitchen with all of them.
You know, the king of the balloons never wore a crown on his head or special kingly robes. He never had a throne or a castle. He had no army, no knights to defend him in battle. When he was killed on a piece of old wood, Pontius Pilate thought he was making a great joke by putting a sign on the cross, "This guy is the King of the Jews". And yet he was king especially of those who were hungry and thirsty and naked and ill and those who were imprisoned in their own greed and selfishness, of the living, the dying and the dead, he was and is their king because what he rules is not a country with parties and politicians and boundaries and borders but something that is as high and wide and deep as the universe itself, he is king of our hearts, and the power he exercises is the power of love. The power of love--which confuses the most selfish among us because it asks for nothing in return—love given freely, unconditionally, everlastingly. The truth is He is our king, and when we let him reign freely, he rules through us—touching everyone we choose to go out of our way to love.
The King of love my Shepherd is, Whose goodness fails me never;
I nothing lack if I am his, And he is mine forever.
Confused and foolish oft I strayed, But yet in love he sought me;
And on his shoulder gently laid, And home rejoicing, brought me.
And so through all the length of days, Your goodness fails me never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing your praise Within your house forever