The day I learned fear

There’s a scream that if you hear it, you’ll never forget it. Afraid that whatever caused it may be coming for you. I was a child when I heard a scream like that and it paralyzed me. Pain and terror sounded across our small corner of the world like a war-time siren that caused me to hush breathing. I can’t describe it. The best I can do is tell you what I remember, as close as I can.

It was a typical Sunday. Daddy was home, the only day of the week we usually saw him for more than an hour or so, and we had company. It was sunny and bright, a beautiful day. We were on the patio behind our house in Hardy, Kentucky. A couple and their young son visiting.

I don’t remember if they were staying for dinner, I really don’t remember them much at all. People came and went when I was growing up and it’s difficult to put faces and families together sometimes. Yet, I loved our revolving door of company. This day, I remember my mom and dad and the other couple talking and laughing, while I listened. I remember their young son tagging along after my brother and both boys avoiding me. No problem. I was a couple of years older and enjoyed the adults.

The boy was younger than my brother Ric (Ricky) by a year or so, I’d guess. Probably no more than three-years-old. The two had wandered up the hillside behind the house, not out of sight, probably looking for rocks and stuff, as boys sometimes do. No one paid much attention. Dad had cleared and planted much of the hill and we considered it part of our yard. Ricky and I were always roaming that mountain.

The two youngsters, I suspect, were headed back down and Ricky must’ve been in front, the younger boy perhaps dawdling behind. The turn of events that began this nightmare unfolded in less time than it took to write this sentence, in the time it takes to skim a rock across a lake. It lasted over a period of probably ten or fifteen minutes. Yet, even in my remembrance, it feels like hours. That ordinary, peaceful day that turned into tragedy.

If the boy fell, no one saw it, we only guessed it much later. Our first attention to him was the scream. We turned and watched him upright, trying to fight something off, watched him fall to the ground his arms flailing, his little legs kicking. He tried to get up, screaming, nightmarish cries, like something horrible had a hold on him. I can’t remember where Ricky was, but our dad and his dad were already racing up the mountain.

Adults can process things faster than children and maybe from their taller perspective they could just see better. But, the two men seemed to know what was happening. By the time they reached him, the boy had given up the fight to his invisible antagonists.

My dad scooped him up, his tiny arms now mostly limp. About halfway down the mountain I heard the buzzing, saw the halo of yellow jackets swarming. They were mostly on the boy, moving in that vibrating stop and go motion that makes them seem more animated than real. But, they were on the men too. Angry bees still fighting for their ground nest the youngster had obviously fallen or stepped into. The women were now screaming, concern for the boy, not because yellow jackets invaded.

Someone yelled, “Turn on the shower,” as the men dashed across the hilly slope and toward the patio. Mother ran into the house as the boy’s mother cried through terrified tears. I think I was crying too.

The adults rushed into the house and Ricky and I fell in behind them, but yellow jackets buzzed here and there and we stopped at the kitchen hallway. We could hear the running water, hear his mother crying, hear the men loudly talking.

Scared and curious, I finally made my way down the hall and peered into the bathroom. The two dads stood fully-clothed in the tub, shower water drenching them all, picking bees off the boy. Swearing occasionally. The boy’s mother talked to him, adding her tears to the cascading water as she reached through the downpour to pet him. Dead bees floated and live bees tussled in the tub and on the puddle-flooded floor where the open shower water splashed as the men struggled to save innocence from anger. And where bees still flew about. The men were as soaked as the boy. Their eyes as determined and stunned as they were fearful.

Until that day, I’d never seen terror in my father’s eyes, never heard fear in his voice. Until that day, I’d never felt such fear. Mother, I think, was on the telephone to the hospital.

I don’t remember hearing the boy make another sound. I just remember the men dripping as they ran through the hallway and kitchen as though a deadline was imminent. The boy’s dad holding him to his chest. The two men and the boy, along with his mother, then got into the car and peeled out of the driveway.

Mostly, for us, it was over.

Mother was left to deal with Ricky and me, her two traumatized children, a house strewn with water, and full of dead and angry yellow jackets.

How fast things can change.

I don’t remember praying that awful day. My brain, I think, stopped. Stunned. I’d like to think I’d asked Jesus to comfort and heal the boy. A tiny prayer is all I could’ve mustered at about six or so years of age in that state.

When Dad came home later that night, he had redness and swelling, but refused comfort or care. Doctors were with the boy, he assured us, his voice quavering. They thought he’d be alright. I’m pretty sure that last part was for Ricky and me. Apparently, there was a critical period and he wasn’t past that yet. When he passed it, he’d be out of the woods, a terrible analogy.

That very night, Daddy sped up that hill with a wide, determined stride, clenching a can of kerosene. I cried, not wanting him to go, afraid he’d be attacked. But he went. Poured toxic oil straight down into the yellow jacket’s nest. He didn’t say much afterwards, but he was visibly shaken, and I’m pretty sure he cursed a few bees.

I know my parents prayed for the boy because that’s what we did. Not outwardly for my dad, but my mother and her mother next door. I feel sure they prayed for my brother and me, too, so thankful we’d been spared.

After that day, I changed. Probably forever. Certainly, the way I looked at that mountain was altered. Until then, I’d had no reverence for it or the critters it might hold. Until then, I was pretty much fearless.

Yet, God was with us. As the events unfolded that tragic day, they seemed choreographed. Everyone had a purpose and role, except for Ricky and me. Certainly, we saw the power and love of God revealed. Two dads putting aside fear, plucking the boy from atop a yellow jacket’s nest, having wisdom about choices, being repeatedly stung, yet not flinching or complaining. Fearless to my way of thinking. Heroic.

I’m fuzzy on the part that came after that day, but here’s my vague recollection: Mother, I think, called daily to check on the boy, even as we went about our everyday routine. And then one day, he was okay. He’d survived. We were thrilled. He was “as good as new” she said, or some such cliché Mother’s use to reassure children.

All was right in my world again, except that I’d learned fear. Learned that a footstep could compromise my family. That my playground wasn’t quite safe. That parents can’t always protect children. That children can die . . . Fear teaches many things.

As I’ve aged, I’ve put that fear to both good and bad use. Certainly, there’s a healthy fear–that keeps us from engaging in certain behaviors, that alerts us to screams. However, for me, the comment that most helped put fear into perspective was spoken by Franklin D. Roosevelt at the start of World War II. He said: “There is nothing to fear, but fear itself.”

Living is dangerous. Ask the person with a broken leg or a broken heart. Makes no difference.

Some people hide from life, addicted to  comfort. Afraid of failure, of losing a position, of emotional pain, of bees. They fear the reality and the philosophy of life and living and God. They’re tuned into the “What about me” and “I deserve what I want” mantra that plays in every theatre and venue across our nation.

The Lord knows I’m a prime offender. Some of my excuses: My fibromyalgia might flair, I’m too old, I can’t travel that far, people are cruel. What if I fail? “Do not lose heart,” St. Paul says in 2nd Corinthians, “even though the outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.”

Sure, I could step into a yellow jacket’s nest, yet if I don’t take that chance, I’ll never play on the mountain. And I’m not ready to quit hunting wild flowers and dancing in the rain, though I act it at times.

In 2nd Timothy we read, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” Let’s take God at His word! No, He doesn’t protect us from all the world’s ills, but He is there with earthly and heavenly angels, gathering us to Himself. Just like He did with that little boy. Never leaving or forsaking, never putting more on us than we can bear. He gives us what we need to show the dedication, obedience, and fearlessness of His Son. Sometimes in the worst of circumstances.

I want to be a person who runs to help.

As Christians, our life is not our own. It was bought with a price. We are God’s change agents in this world. Let’s get out of our recliners and start acting like we believe His Word and His promises. 1st John states: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love cast out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.” Perhaps, more than at any time in history, God needs us to put fear aside, to show the world the love, the passion, the hands of Jesus Christ.

I only have one life, and I’ve seen how fast it can end. In church we sing, “When we all get to Heaven what a day of rejoicing that will be,” and then wail when it’s our turn to go. Living isn’t just about the here and now. It isn’t so much about yellow jackets or even heartbreak. I know this sounds harsh. But, it’s about preparing our hearts for eternity. A very long time compared to this life.

We are spiritual, ever-lasting beings, not made for this world, but for the world to come. If we really believed God’s Word, wouldn’t we be more forgiving, more giving of our time, our money, and our heart? We may not know what tomorrow holds, but we know who holds tomorrow. It was heart-wrenching watching that little boy suffer the yellow jacket’s stings, but, oh, how much worse the tragedy, if he stopped climbing mountains.

 

Just Do It!

As I was searching my brain for a new blog, (this one) the word love kept rolling around in my head, even as I tried to ignore it. Then one night I got a fortune cookie that read: “Your meaning of love is special. Why not share it.”

Seriously?

I have a Christian friend who thinks God speaks to her through fortune cookies, so I glanced heavenward and did what I sometimes do. Argue.

“I’m not in the mood for love, Father God! Not in this American meltdown we’re experiencing. Mostly, I feel like Humpty Dumpty teetering on the Berlin wall before it came crashing down. No! Won’t write it.”

Ever argue with the Almighty? Useless.

Let the record show, I started this grudgingly.”

Why grudgingly? I felt the non-love, even though I disliked both presidential candidates. Like many of you, I’d seen more random acts of pettiness, childishness, and political hyperbole, than I had random acts of kindness or love. So, love was not the emotion filtering through my heart.

The divisions amongst friends and families—holdover hostility I call it—and some of it unrelated to the election, is unchallenged in my lifetime. In the 1960’s, we were self-righteous, angry, we burned our bras and protested everything from women’s rights, to black rights, to the war in Vietnam. But people weren’t mean. Weren’t mad at each other. I didn’t think my dad was horrible because he was on the other side of the great divide. We were mad at the establishment, the “man,” the police, and many of our universities. In groups, we felt brave, but one on one . . . hey, we were pleasant. This election did not make me bitter, though I have reason to be. It’s made me sad.

And I suppose I could blow off this love assignment by throwing out the most famous piece of love advice ever spoken, and say, just do it! That would be Jesus’ command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet, I can’t blow it off. The message of love has never been more serious or more challenging, and as Christians we must do the hard work to search it out. People think “love your neighbor as yourself” is impossible. I’m suggesting if that’s true, it may not be for the reason we think.

Perhaps it’s because we can’t love ourselves.

I recently realized, not exactly for the first time, but perhaps in a different way, that without the aid of a mirror, I have no idea how I look. Yet because of that device, I daily see my reflection. Therefore, I judge my appearance—I pick at it, color my hair, trim my eyebrows, put on makeup, hide it, flaunt it, disguise it, all because my reflection is there for me and everyone else to see.

What if our soul reflected in the mirror? What if our soul looked back and exposed our thoughts and opinions?—Our judgmental tone. Our crass delight over causing someone pain we felt wronged us. Our piety at our rightness. The way we’ve belittled someone who has gotten our dander flying, just enough to set them down a notch or two, not maliciously mind you. What if, as surely as people see our nose and our eyes, they see our soul?

Is there makeup for that?

No erasure or spackle or cover-up can take away the stain of what crawls around inside us, but lucky for us, no one sees. Except for God.

He watches our soul pile up carcasses of crassness, maliciousness, self-righteousness. . . rusting and polluting our thinking, our heart, and our mind. We enjoy our enemies’ demise. We delight in our wins. We eschew the heart-searching tough choices that many must consider when those choices oppose our viewpoint.

“Take the telephone pole out of your own eye,” the Bible says, “so you can see the splinter in your neighbor’s eye.” Yes, please, for everyone’s sake. Take it out!

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Maybe Jesus was kidding.

Most of us believe the opposite of love is hate, but the late author and Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, believed it was indifference. And I can’t help but wonder if it is our own indifference we despise as much as the people on the other side of the political spectrum or the loonies on the other side of the family. We want change, but we don’t want to do the hard work to help effect a change we believe in and think we deserve. Maybe it’s time for a little self-examination, introspection, reflection, whatever you want to call it.

The issues are myriad, and they are legitimate, and will never be resolved by name calling and nit-picking. In the past few years, I believe, changes evolved too quickly. We must consider our neighbors (over the mountain, around the lake, across the state line) wherever they are, and whether we like them or agree with them, or not. If we roll over them, it will only be a matter of time until they return the favor. We’re seeing that currently and I suspect if things don’t work out well with the present administration, we’ll be seeing another bulldozer barreling through Washington D.C. in four to eight years. This could go on forever and to some degree, it has.

Today, however, civility is sadly missing. Tolerance, kindness and thoughtfulness are gone from public discourse, and from amongst social media friends as well. Not only do we not ask “what would Jesus do?” we are more likely to witness what Lucifer has wrought. And, guess what? It’s seems to be okay. Many of us emulate the politicians we claim to distain, so therefore, we should well understand why things have ceased to work in Washington D.C. Since it has morphed down . . . or perhaps up. To us.

And like those D.C. hot shots, we are taking the so-called high road because there is only one course of action: ours! We must incite, disprove, refute, disavow, inflate! (Yes, it’s sarcasm.)

I’m not saying there aren’t avenues for causes we believe in, but when we distress others and don’t care about their feelings, our behavior mimics the very things most of us say we deplore and disavow in politicians and the media.

Can we just chill for a minute and realize there may be something else going on?

There’s an evil force at work in the world. It isn’t just in the form of Middle East beheadings of Christians, a nightclub exploding in Orlando, or a cartoonist bombing in Paris. It’s in the ongoing banter you and I witness daily. In the workplace. On Facebook. On Twitter. Around the supper table. On television. If you can’t feel it and if you haven’t seen it on both sides of the political divide, you aren’t paying attention. And guess who that evil is dancing with? Yep. We’re voodoo dancing. The WEE WEE ON YOU dance. The I AM RIGHT dance.

It’s time to quit dancing to the enemy’s tune. Slow it down, look at that person across the political divide and listen to them. No, stop. Listen. Quit using the sound bites unbefitting a child of God. Quit acting like one of those Neanderthal broadcasters. (Sorry) The Bible tells us the real enemy is sowing all this discord. And it’s not Fox News, CNBC, female marchers, political candidates, or even Muslim terrorists! Gulp.

Nope, for all those who oppose us and even for those who want us dead, the Bible says these are not our enemy. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” St. Paul writes in Ephesians, “but against principalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” We cannot fight evil with our bad ass attitudes and willful mouths. Unless that mouth is uttering prayers. The enemy is spiritual and he and his minions are swarming. If we could see what’s happening around us, we’d be terrified. We’d spend more time on our knees asking God to heal our nation, our hearts, and our neighbors. To guide our President and our elected officials.

There is only one thing that overcomes evil and it has nothing to do with being right or  winning. We have to start dancing to a different tune and praying like our country depends on our prayers. Depends on God.

We’ve proven we can’t come together without God’s help. Certainly, we’ve had time to get over the madness, the rudeness, yet it continues. We are all human beings and we are inter-related. Certainly, Christians believe this. What’s good for you may not always be good for me, but it’s a marriage of sorts. Waltz around the lake a few times, think about edifying your neighbor. No screaming adjectives. Think about how we must sound to God and to the rest of the world— like spoiled brats who must always get our way.

I’ll grant you, we haven’t had good role models in Washington D.C. or even in our communities. We must remember that the D.C. hot shots work for us and as their boss, maybe the role-modeling has to start with me and with you.

So, I guess, for all the reasons I’ve stated, I didn’t want to write about love. Because love is hard work. Love makes us search our hearts for self-hatred and spite that embitters us and keeps us from the dialogues we must have. Love means forgiving when these discussions go awry. Love puts the onus for restoration on you and on me. Not in the shouting matches of television fame, but in the quiet moments when friends and families discuss issues that are breaking their hearts. We must bring God into the discussion, pray, pray, pray, and listen with His heart instead of ours.

In Ephesians, St. Paul writes, “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”

Translation: Say nothing bad about your neighbor. Just build him or her up and make them shine before those around you, so much so that everyone is blessed. In today’s world that almost sounds funny. Yet, that’s God’s standard.

The next time I witness non-love on Facebook or elsewhere, I’m going to search for something kind that person has posted. Or try to remember something good that person has said. And I will say a prayer asking for God to replace their non-love with love. To keep the enemy away from them.

In First Corinthians, St. Paul writes: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I have become as sounding brass or as clanging cymbals.” As beautiful and as true as that passage is, and it’s one of my favorites, my thought is that St. Paul must’ve been a prophet. Two-thousand years later, clanging brass and cymbals are what we sound like.

So, what do you think? Is it possible we can love those we disagree with?

We’re Americans. And we come in every color, flavor, and stripe. Let’s show the world we can do this. Better still, let’s show the enemy we won’t let him win. Let’s be the people who really do love our neighbor as ourselves. It truly does just come down to that one commandment.

Jesus had it right all along. Imagine that.

Happy Love Month

Alan & Karyn2

Jesus in 2017: Resolution to Revolution


Happy New Year!

Look forward—that’s the general theme of January. Many of us make resolutions we can’t keep, promising to be more forgiving, and/or throwing out old habits and junk. I quit making resolutions a few years back. Why? Because I never kept them.

The most profound resolution I’ve ever made was over three decades ago. I resolved to try and be the hands, feet, eyes, the very spirit of Jesus on earth. Oh, yes, I’ve failed miserably. But I’ll keep trying.

Why? Because I’m hooked, fascinated, Holy-Ghost filled. Because the premise seems too good to be true: Some two-thousand years ago, Christ incarnate walked the earth as an ordinary man named Jesus. Sent by a holy God, His own Father, who wanted to redeem us, His creation, from sin and death!

The Bible tells us that nothing about Jesus’ appearance was outstanding. He was only thirty years old when He started His ministry, a carpenter prior to that. Probably strong from walking and from his trade. His face was likely ruddy, his hands rough. No one would have pointed to him and said, “Oh look, the Son of God!” Even his name was ordinary for the time.

Today it’s this very ordinariness that makes many people take notice. Because how could someone so nondescript, so common, become the most influential, most celebrated man to ever live. If I were to argue for Christ, I wouldn’t point to his miracles, His amazing sermons and parables, or even His love. No. I would just say, “How could such an ordinary person change the world in such an extraordinary way unless He was who He said He was—the Son of God.” And close behind, how could twelve men, His disciples, mostly laborers, common and uneducated, take the gospel to the world? Further, why were these men willing to be martyred for him?

And if that ancient truth isn’t enough, two-thousand years later, lives are still being transformed because of the Gospel of Christ. Peace, joy, and love transform hearts and minds. A spiritual dimension once unknown opens eyes to the goodness, the mercy, the love, the very person of God. You see your “neighbors” in a new and enlightened way. Supernatural experiences become a reality. Even dying isn’t an issue.

Witness the twenty-one Christian Egyptian martyrs beheaded by the madmen of ISIS. Not one of them renounced Christ. Why? I mean, really. . . Why? They could’ve lied. Thinking about it, I wonder if I might’ve considered lying. There’s a lot of pre-Pentecost Peter in me and I fear I might’ve denied Him, might’ve said, “Okay, I’ll convert to Islam.” And then after the flogging for indecent dress, after the burka and the baptism from hell, I would’ve tried to hold Jesus in my heart as they scrutinized my every whisper. But, not these young, brave men.

I will never forget their images: twenty-one orange-clad heroic souls, their faces calm, some praying, their hooded, cowardly captors dressed in black, leading them as though they were dogs on a short leash. I wish I’d turned away.

How I prayed for their families, and hold that thought . . . how I prayed for their murderers. No, I didn’t pray they would be blessed. I prayed God would reveal Himself to them. (Which actually is a blessing) That He would convict them and they would see themselves the way God sees them. That the Almighty Creator would allow them a glimpse into the hearts of these decent Christ followers and it would haunt their nights and change their own hearts.

So, why did these martyred Christians not convert to Islam? Because the resolution they made to serve Christ is part of the revolution that Jesus began. People in Islamic countries know the risks, but even at the point of death, they know the benefits are greater. They/We are part of a bigger plan.

We, as Americans, must especially develop a determination, a resolve to be more like brave Christians around the world who stand up to ISIS, other terrorists, and hostile-to-Christian governments. More like those who work tirelessly to spread the Gospel of Christ, to feed the hungry, the thirsty, the poor. Even more like those who pray for those in ministry and in turmoil, and those who are especially forgiving, thoughtful, kind, and generous.

And my resolution, coupled with yours and others becomes the revolution that will eventually change the world and restore Christ to His throne. We don’t all have to die for Christ, but we should all live for Christ.

So as you make your New Year’s resolution, I hope you’ll remember God’s love, His Grace, and His promise: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Think about what this promise must mean to Christian martyrs, now at an all-time high, around the world. Think about what it meant to those rag-tag disciples of old who followed in the footsteps of Christ, eleven of them martyred.

Most of all, remember the one Man, Jesus, who left a throne in the kingdom of heaven to walk the dusty earth in cloth and sandals, unshaven, unkempt, and at the end, unloved. He died brutally for you and for me and we owe Him everything. Like those disciples who’ve gone before us, let us resolve to be part of the revolution, to spread the Good News of Christ’s coming and of His return.

In January 2017, and always, that’s a resolution worth making. Worth living for. And many think, worth dying for.

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The Gift of Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone!  Until God gives me another Christmas story, I offer this as my Christmas classic! I did some editing and added a few pictures. It’s a precious story about a boy . . . and a Christmas gift explained, perhaps only as Jesus can. I think you’ll enjoy it. kcs 

I should be snuggled in bed, but as my family sleeps, I tiptoe downstairs, the smell of stale popcorn and pine guiding my footsteps as much as the soft Santa nightlight and dying fireplace embers. I walk past the poinsettias lining the foyer, past the big wreath hanging over the wooden nativity, and finally stroll under the mistletoe atop the arched doorway leading into the family room. Our nightly gathering place seems eerily serene without the twinkling lights and the family din.

Like a Christmas thief, I slink into Dad’s big oversized chair where I have a bird’s eye view of yuletide magic–the chimney embers fading with the night from the stocking-adorned brick fireplace, and nestled beside it, a ceiling high, ornament-bright, Christmas tree.

One of Mom’s small china plates, decked out in green and red cookies and flanked by a glass of milk, awaits Santa on the hearth, left by my little brother Jeff, or Jeffy, as I call him. Colorful presents with sparkles and bows spill well past the Christmas tree, topped by a drooping, oversized star balanced above the popcorn strings our family threaded at the dining room table.

Jeffy loves Christmas. Makes him the happiest kid on the planet. Me, I like it. Mostly because I get toys and stuff, but also because I like watching my brother have fun. Sometimes I feel cheated there’s no Santa for me. Oh maybe to some extent, but I’m too old for Santa, really. Twelve. Not too old for the Christmas spirit. At least that’s what Mom says.

I close my eyes, thinking I’ll sit here until Dad comes down to eat his cookies and distribute a few Santa presents, but my stomach rumbles at the thought of the cookies, probably the largest and most garish I’ve ever seen. They must scream “buy me” to mom’s who want to impress six year olds like Jeffy or to Christmas greenhorn’s, if one exists on the planet. Still, the cookies are for Dad, and I promise myself not to eat them, even as I think about it.

I rise from the chair and immediately fall back. In the dim light of the embers’ shadows, a man sits on our sofa!

I pull back and gasp! He isn’t Santa by a whole lot of belly inches, and he just sits there smiling like he’s at home, one arm propped up on a sofa cushion. I try to regroup and immediately stand. Stepping to the side of Dad’s chair, I prepare to run. That’s when I notice his clothing—a long white robe with a gold sash. I’ve never seen anyone dressed like this. I’ve never seen anyone who seems to . . . to glow.

“I hear you want to interview me.” The stranger scoots to the front of the sofa, clasping his hands atop his knees, looking for all the world like he belongs here.

“Are you serious? How did you just materialize out of . . . ? Who sent you?” I laugh, nervous. “It was Joey, wasn’t it? I’ll get him for this.”

“No, Joey didn’t send me. He’s in St. Petersburg with his parents and sister, Leah, for Christmas.”

Oh crap! I grab hold of the chair back. “How did you know that?”

“I know everything, Matthew.”

“Is this a joke? How do you know my name?”

“No,” the man says. “It’s not a joke.”

The interview. It was for an assignment. Our teacher told us to interview someone we knew, and, okay, I fudged. I waited until the last minute, so I made up a discussion I supposedly had with Jesus. She said it wasn’t acceptable, because we were to interview someone current, someone we knew. And besides, my questions were totally superficial.

Oh really! “I do know him,” I had argued. “Give me one more chance.”

Her look spoke an emphatic “No!” But when she turned from me she said, “Get a Christmas interview with Jesus, and if it’s decent, we’ll see.”

“Maybe you’d like to interview me now,” he says.

What kind of a get-up is a robe and sash, even for Christmas Eve? Is he supposed to be some kind of fit, new-age Santa—or Jesus?

“Wh. . .who are you?” I stammer. Afraid to stay, afraid to run, and especially fearful Jesus is here because I lied. About him! Whoever he is, the man’s aura has an undeniable sense of calm, love, and every good thing simultaneously, so much so that I cannot help but stay. love-1221444_1920

Could this be . . . “Is it really you?”

“Yes, I’m no new-age Santa,” he answers my unspoken sarcasm.

As he holds up his hands, I see the faint light through the puncture wounds in his palms, and my lower lip drops. Jesus? Two steps forward and my misgivings vaporize. Obvious holes!

My knees sort of buckle and a nervous tick I sometimes get over my left eye comes upon me. “Wait, I’ll be right back!” I run to get paper and pencil, afraid he’ll be gone when I return, but he isn’t. He’s smiling, telling me how he loves to spend time with me. In fact, he says he loves that I talk with him every morning and sometimes during the day.

“So, what did you want to ask me?” He settles back like there’s no place he’d rather be.

Guess I’m really going to do this. “Well, for one thing, I need to know about Christmas. I mean, I know the Christmas story about the angels, the manger, the wise men and shepherds coming to see the baby Jesus. . . uh, I mean, you.“

Jesus points to my paper and pencil. “You don’t need those.”

I toss them by my chair.

“You’ll remember every word of our conversation until you’re very old,” he says.

His eyes seem to burn into mine and I can’t stop gazing at Him. The need of his touch is so overpowering, I rush to the sofa as He arises. The fullness of His white garment and His ample arms fall around my shoulders like rings of love. I bawl like a baby, for what reason, I have no idea. When I pull away, he kisses one of my cheeks and then the other. “We are brothers, you know. Always talk to me.”

“It’s so good to see you in person.” I dry my eyes on my baggy tee shirt. “Millions of people would love this. Why me?”

“Only a handful of people have ever claimed to interview me, and since you didn’t, and you need to, I thought I’d keep you honest.” We both laugh.

When I sit down in Dad’s chair, he asks, “So what’s your first Christmas question, Matthew?”

“Well, tell me about the beginning, before Christmas, before everything,” I say, feeling the need to pinch myself, but ignoring it.

That’s easy. The beginning was before the world began. When there was just Father and me.”

“Wasn’t that lonely?”

“Oh no! Regardless of what we’re doing or where we are, Father and I love. And since we’ve created everyplace we go, we just enjoy our creations.” He actually flashes a mischievous grin, but I am too awestruck to return it.

“Did you live in heaven then?”

“Oh yes, of course, we needed a place to live.”

Of course he lived in heaven. What a stupid question.

“There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” Once again he answers my thoughts.

My eyes are as saucers. “What exactly do angels do? Are angels around us now?”angels in the air wallpaper - Copy

“Oh yes, angels surround us.” He gestures around the room and actually nods a couple of times. “Angels guide, engage, and protect my people—from themselves, from each other, and especially from Satan, the evil one. Angels have many wondrous attributes, one being their astounding beauty.”

I consider these glorious creatures, and finally say, “I know my questions aren’t really about Christmas; there’s just so much I want to know.”

“They are about Christmas.” His eyes twinkle like that other patron of Christmas. “You’ll see how it all works together.”

“Okay, then, tell me about when you or rather God, or, um, when humans were created?”

His eyes move heavenward and his body relaxes. “One day Father decided to create special beings he called people. They would have hearts and be in our image, and they would love us as we loved them.” His smile literally casts more light into the room. “So, day by day we began establishing what you know as the universe.”

“What about the people? Adam and Eve?” I ask.

“They’re coming.” He grins at me. “But first we had to create an environment they could live in—planets, moons, atmosphere, sun, stars . . . every vector in the galaxy had to be planned.”

I sit forward, riveted.

“Layer upon layer, we crafted, over more years than you can fathom. We were creating out of that deep vacuum spoken of in Genesis. ‘The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.’ He spreads his arms. The blackness was our blank canvas.”

The incredulity of His words nearly dwarf His presence.

“We set things up strategically, making sure it would all work together, and then, Bang! everything materialized as Father intended. He even fashioned a way we could ride intergalactic flows.” He smiles at what must have been a beautiful memory. “In that very beginning we had so much fun.”

I shake my head, mesmerized, so happy to be sitting here.

“Even for us, this was new. The Bible says that a day is as a thousand years, but that’s really just a number because before man, time didn’t exist. Suffice to say, your beginning is not Our beginning. And, time as you understand it began when the first humans, Adam and Eve, bit into the apple in the Garden of Eden. The first sin.” He stops. “Are you getting this?”

I nod. “Time began after Adam and Eve and sin.” I repeat his words. “An amazing statement. So many amazing statements! This will blow my teacher away.”

When he smiles, I admire the soft halo about his body, his aura, so calming.

“Because the essence of Father and I are love,” he continues, “we never even postulated Sin in the Garden. Everything was perfect, almost as magnificent as heaven. Blue-green rivers, and oceans with crystal crests, glistening mountaintops, and long, lush valleys, and the blueness of an uninterrupted sky, dotted by perfectly visible galaxies, deficient of structures and pollution and even mankind.”

“It’s hard to imagine.” My thoughts race through my narrow band of travels. “Was it anything like Alaska?”

Jesus laughs. “Much nicer than even that. However, sin caused even the atmosphere to change. Father had given Adam and Eve only one small, now-famous tenet: Do not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” He lowers his head and I suspect that happens each time the Tree comes to mind. garden-of-eden-1803805_1920

“That Tree had to exist, because human beings had to be given a choice to obey Father. Or not. I remember Him saying, ‘I cannot force my will on them. I want them to love me simply because I love them.’ And, if not for Satan’s deceptions, it would have worked.” Jesus looks away, remembering, no doubt, that time when Earth was paradise.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.”

“Oh no. It’s okay.”

I shrug, not sure it is. “Can I get you anything?”

“Actually, I’d love something to eat.” He looks toward the kitchen. “Just something simple.”

I walk to the hearth. “How about some Santa cookies?”

He eyes me shyly. “Speaking of forbidden fruit. Those are for your dad.”

I walk the plate to him. “He’ll understand.” I make a face at the dollops of color. “Do you even want them? They’re heavy on icing.” Setting it on the sofa cushion, I go back for the milk.

He eyes the cookies. “The essence of Christmas,” he says, dryly.

“They’re awful looking, aren’t they?”

He takes a bite.

“One thing I don’t understand,” I say, setting the milk on a table by the sofa. “You said time didn’t exist. I thought time had always existed?”

“When earth was created, its axis rotated, which humans eventually hypothesized, then used as a gauge. However, in the early period, earth and the galaxies that surround it didn’t subsist in time as you understand it. They lived in God’s time, which is really outside of time.”

“It sounds plausible; it’s just mind blowing.” Something implausible—watching Jesus eat a cookie! He lifts the plate in my direction.

I shake my head.

“Go ahead,” he says. “You’re hungry.”

Two of three cookies are left. “I’ll have one,” I say, walking to retrieve it. “Since you don’t get my way very often.”

“I’m always here, Matthew. Holy Spirit alerts me every morning when you pray or when you need me. Just like with the interview.” He wipes his mouth with the cuff of his sleeve just like me. “But, you’re right, I don’t often come in the flesh. Speaking of flesh, let me explain the ‘time’ thing in a way you might understand.” He sips the milk and sort of swishes it in his mouth. “That Rudolph cookie was a little heavy on the sugar.”

I can’t believe He said that, and I’m sure I wear a stupid look. It’s just that He’s such a regular guy.

“Father created time all at once. One day it didn’t exist, the next, it did. Imagine a storybook with picture frames that continue through every second of every day. Except that this storybook has players—people—who are writing their own script. And while Father set the storybook in motion, he didn’t dictate what would happen in each frame, which serves as the seconds, hours, and years of a person’s earthly history. Father and I can look down into the frames and see what you’re doing—past, present, and future. If you’re making a huge mistake in June of next year, We set things in motion that could counteract the consequences of that wrong choice, always encouraging you to act in your best interest. Yet if you don’t listen, we don’t interfere.

I nod, trying to imagine Jesus and Father God peeking down into my life as it fast forwards like boxcars resembling framed movie screens.

“And really, that’s the simple version,” he says. “Because, the fervent prayers of a righteous person can reverse anything.”

“That explains so much. I never understood it when people would say, God . . . well, You . . . knows our yesterday’s, today’s, and tomorrow’s.”

“I’m glad it’s clear to you.” He breaks the second cookie and brings me the largest half.

“Thank you, Jesus.” I bite into it. “But there’s another thing that isn’t clear.” I am chomping through my question. “You said time didn’t begin until after Adam and Eve sinned. I would’ve thought time began when you created earth.” I swallow hard.

“Time wasn’t needed then. Like heaven, earth was a Paradise outside of time. Adam and Eve were pure and Father actually walked side by side with them.”

His tone becomes more serious. “It’s difficult to understand the holiness of God . . . ” A thoughtfulness comes over him and he hesitates. “God is detached from evil and sin; if you dwell in it, you’re separated from Him. And all mankind dwells in it. The Apostle John wrote that God is light and in Him there is no darkness.’ That’s true. We are moral perfection. Our hearts—our very beings—are light and love.”

“After Adam and Eve became creatures of sin, Father was daily confronted with the thing He abhorred the most. Sin not only brought death into the future generations of his precious creation, but they were lost to him forever. He had to find a way to redeem them.”

His Christmas cookies gone, Jesus walks the dish to the fireplace. I wonder what Mother would think if she knew the Messiah, the true King of Christmas, had eaten Rudolph and half an elf on our best china.

“Mankind had no future.” He looks at the empty plate. “They were now as devoid of God as this plate is of cookies.” He places the china on the hearth and returns to the sofa. “To redeem mankind, Father came up with the time/frame concept, which put earth on a different plane, if you will, from heaven. Father no longer walked with man, but He could teach them about goodness and sin through ‘time.’ He did this by creating the laws of the Ten Commandments, which no one could fully obey. Not the Jews of latter day or the Gentiles of today.”

“But there was icing on God’s plan of salvation. It wasn’t sugar coated like those cookies, that wasn’t possible. Sin had to die. And the only thing pure enough to remove it had to be as light and as white as a Christmas snow.”

“Enter you!” I pump my fist in the air. “Christ Jesus.”

He nodded. “As mankind’s Messiah, I was born to a woman and became human. My birth was prophesied throughout time in the Old Testament and revealed in the New Testament: God’s sinless Son would shed His blood for Godless men.”

“I’m sorry, Jesus.” I hang my head.

“Don’t be sorry. Be happy.” His tone is gently firm. “Now Father sees you through a filter of light, forever forgiven, and, once again, God’s friend. The New Covenant covering of my blood redeems all people back to Father, if only they believe.” His voice softens. “Back to a holiness and love they previously couldn’t comprehend.”

“The gift of Christmas.”

“Yes,” He practically whispers.

“Jesus.” I whisper, too. “Thank you for Christmas, and for coming.”

“You’re welcome, Matthew.”

“Help me to be more like you.” I wrestle tears as I crawl down the sofa and throw my arms around his neck. “I’m so glad you came tonight.”

He kisses the top of my head as his arms encircle me.

“I love you so much,” I say, tears covering my face. “I know you love me and I’m just grateful for all you’ve done.”

“I know you are, son. I love you more than you know.”

I pull my tee-shirt up to wipe my eyes and nestle into his chest. “Thank you for all this, but I have one more question.”

“Okay, that’s why I’m here.” He strokes my hair.

“Tell me what happened that first Christmas in heaven, before you came to earth as a baby? I know the Christmas story of your parents, Joseph and Mary, and your birth, but what was it like in heaven—before you left?”

I feel a chuckle in his chest. “Well, first of all, we had a feast. Everything in heaven begins with a feast. The archangels Michael and Gabriel were there, other angels, the Seraphim and Cherubim. Father. It was grand. We love parties in heaven. Don’t let anyone say otherwise.” I pull back, beaming, to look at his face. Something about a heavenly party makes me smile.

“But, it was bittersweet,” he says. “I would be a fetus for nine months, not separated from Father, but not walking with Him either. And when I did surface, I would be a baby.lightstock_55067_xsmall_user_2435152

“But, I was excited to go, and Father wanted me to go. As I mentioned, He was anxious to have His beloved people in heaven and that couldn’t happen until we liberated them.”

“I’m grateful you came.” I pull back again to look at him. “But if you had been my best friend, I’d have said, ‘Don’t do it!'”

“And I would have said, ‘Get thee behind me Satan.'” He sort of laughs and I try to remember the story he refers to.

“I said that to Peter,” he says, “one of my best friends. He told me I couldn’t die for mankind.”

“The disciple Peter. I remember now.” I nuzzle back into his arms feeling more acceptance and love than I’d ever known. “Glad you didn’t listen.”

“Even back then, I knew you’d feel that way.” He rubs my back and continues, “I longed to become human, and believe me I’d seen the future through time in the storybook frames, so I knew it would be agonizing. But, like Father, I wanted those who loved us to reside with us.” He tilts my head up and smiles at me. “But, yes, I had reservations. I was, after all, the Son of God. I sat on a throne, exalted. Seraphim sang above me, ‘Holy, Holy Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.’ And the building shook when I spoke and it filled with glorious smoke. It still does.”

“Wow! That sounds awesome.”

“I guess it is, but it isn’t some fantastic ritual. No. It’s a testimony to who we are and it portrays the pureness, the holiness of God.”

I pull away and crawl to the opposite end of the sofa, to see his face. “I can’t imagine going from heaven to earth. That’s backwards. No wonder you had reservations.” Facing Jesus, I pull my feet up in front of me. “You left a throne to be born in a barn, with a carpenter for a father. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a long way from being the Son of God.”

“I would have done anything.” Jesus leans forward and rests his hands on his knees.

“Actually, you did everything possible–designing the universe, leaving heaven, dying horribly.” A thought escapes my mouth: “But you got to choose your own mother.”

Jesus lowers his head and laughs. “Well, that’s only partially true. I agreed, but Father chose Mary. She was amazing. A perfect mother. Always knew exactly what to do. Even today, Father allows Mary’s vision to be seen around the world. People adore her, and so do I.”

“Matthew!” My dad calls from the stairs. “Do I hear you in there?”

“Dad!” I look at Jesus, stricken.

Jesus leans over and squeezes my foot. “Your interview is well complete.” He winks at me. “Now you understand, Matthew. Everything Father and I did, we did for you. For all of you. I love you, little brother. Merry Christmas.”

“I lov . . . “ My mouth flies open as Dad walks in. It is now officially Christmas morning.

“What are you doing in here?” He shuffles into the room in his slippers and pajamas. “Do you know what time it is?”

My eyes move from one corner of the room to another. His aura, His glow! He’s gone. Jesus! Be cool. “Hi, Dad.”

“Did I hear you talking to someone?” He’s carrying a poinsettia that he sits on the hearth.

I look at the opposite end of the sofa and glance around the room again, crestfallen. “I was talking to Jesus.” I shrug.

Dad sort of laughs as he looks at the empty cookie plate. “I suppose Jesus ate the cookies?”

“As a matter of fact . . .”

“Couldn’t sleep, huh?”

So glad I couldn’t. “No. Not really.

He walks over and musses my hair. “You still feeling cheated because you’re too old for Santa?”

“No!” I practically scream. “I have something so much better than Santa.” I look away, missing Jesus already, trying not to cry. “Jesus visited me tonight.”

“Well, I’m glad.” He stirs the fireplace embers with a poker. “I just wish he’d left me a cookie.”

“Really, that’s what you care about?”

“Hey, bud, I’m just joking.’ He puts a log on the burning ashes. “I don’t care that you ate the cookies.”

“I don’t care about the cookies or the presents. I just wish people would think about who Jesus really is and what He did for us.”

Dad brushes his hands together as he sits in his chair. “You really have been thinking about this?”

I nod.

“Want to talk about it?” He leans back, his eyes fully fixed on me.

“Do you believe Jesus is like us?”

“Well . . .” my Dad hesitates. “He’s God, but He came to earth in an ordinary way to an ordinary family and worked an ordinary job for thirty years before starting His ministry. So, yes. I think He’s like us. And I think that was the whole idea. Now we know the person advocating for us in heaven has been here and done this just like us.”

“Can we do something special for Christmas this year? Something to honor Jesus for coming to earth as a baby.”

“Do you have something in mind?” Dad leans forward.

“Can we just love everybody? Maybe not say negative things about not even one person. Try to love even the people we don’t like.”

Dad walks to the sofa, sets beside me, and puts his arm behind my shoulders. “I think you’ve finally outgrown Santa,” he says. “I’m very proud of you. After what Jesus did for us, the least we can do is love those who are sometimes unlovable.” He hugs my shoulders.

I nuzzle against him. “Did you know God and Jesus sometimes get their feelings hurt?”

“Well, I never thought about it, but it makes sense,” he says.

I put my head on His shoulder. “The Virgin Mary was an awesome Mother. Did you know that?”

“Well, she does get a few accolades.” He pats my shoulder and chuckles. “I’m beginning to think maybe you had a real conversation with Jesus.”

“He’s real, Dad.”

“I know.”

“Do you love Him?” I ask.

“With all my heart.”

“Good. I want you to be in heaven with me.”

“You sound pretty sure you’re going.” He musses my hair again before pushing up from the sofa and walking back to the hearth. I follow behind him.

“I know I’m going to heaven, Dad, and I know how much Jesus loves me. He even knows I lied to my teacher about His interview, but He didn’t scold me. He actually helped me.” The poker is fixed in his hand.

“You spoke to Jesus about that?” His voice rises as he jabs at the small flame.

I shrug. “Well, yes. Sort of.”

“That’s actually good.” He’s cradles the poker and faces me. “One thing I hope you always remember, Matthew–Jesus is always with us, whether we see Him or not. And for all the cookies and presents in the world, the love of the Father through His Son Jesus Christ is the real gift of Christmas.”

“I know, Dad.” Tears flood my face and I throw my arms around his neck. “He did so much for us.”

“He certainly did, Matthew.” He hugs me tight. “I don’t understand what happened tonight, but I think I like it.”

A chime from the hearth alerts me and I raise my head from Dad’s chest. Nothing. Suddenly, as I’m wiping  my tears, a startling light my dad can’t see moves up through the roof. Momentarily spellbound, I quickly compose myself and point behind him. “Look, Dad!”

Dad turns and grins at me. “How’d you do that, Matthew?”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“Well, someone did.”

I laugh enthusiastically, loving the fact that the cookie plate is now piled with those awful green and red cookies. Loving Jesus.

“So, how’d you do that, Matthew?”

I look at my dad, wanting him to know the truth, but knowing he can’t accept it. “Some things a guy keeps to himself,” I say. “You taught me that.”

“That’s true.” He turns around and picks up the plate of cookies, offering me one.

“I got an elf,” I say, holding it for him to see.

He looks at his. “I got Santa.”

“That’s fitting,”

I crunch into my cookie and look up, up, wanting desperately to see Jesus, wishing I could see heaven. Choking back tears, I am humbled and overwhelmed, like I’d wished on a star and received every Christmas miracle imaginable. I silently pray: “I’m so grateful you made me an honest boy, Big Brother. Thank you for coming tonight . . . and for coming before. And, Jesus, thanks for the cookies, too.”

“So, you ready to help me set out Santa presents?” Dad has already downed his cookie and sort of glows in the shadow and warmth of the flames.

“Dad, I can’t believe I was so upset about Santa when I had Jesus all along.”

Dad puts his hand on my back. “I love you, Matthew. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Dad. I love you too.” merry-christmas-1872500_1920

Election Protection

 

“Said the night wind to the shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear?” *

Back biting, bickering,
Name calling, worse;
A free-falling election
That feels like a curse.

“Grant us four years?”
Ask both Trump and Clinton,
Yet their endless campaigning
Feels like a life sentence.

From privileged high places,
They dismiss what I see:
The entitlement, the avarice,
These egos that feed.

“We’ll win again!” he says.
She replies right on cue:
“We’ve been winning for years!
You haven’t a clue.”

“I’ll keep foes at bay
And take care of our friends.”
He purses his lips,
As she sighs through a grin.

Meanwhile, America,
Running at high speed,
Oozes joblessness, discord
From a populace in need.

Some working tirelessly,
Others wanting jobs,
Few being satisfied,
Most feeling robbed . . .

By our very government,
Trusted partisan friends.
We’ve forgotten the lesson,
Of the fox with the hens.

“Hear me, oh hear me,”
They say to us all,
“I’m the savior you seek,
I’ll not let you fall.”

A Savior! A Savior!
Now that’s good advice.
Dump Trump and ditch Clinton
Give us Jesus, the Christ.

Of course I wrote this, yet I get that some people actually like Clinton or Trump. So, forgive my honesty, a trait that, in my opinion, neither candidate seems to value, and a trait that I have just ridiculously apologized for.

I remind myself to be kind, that I have dual citizenship—of the United States, but also of heaven. As such, I am beholden to a higher power, a holy God who has instructed me to love, and to pray for our leaders, regardless of feelings. And, truly, the election is good for my prayer life.

My ongoing dialogue with God goes something like this: “I’m sorry to bring this up again, Lord, but I’m wondering if you’ve been tied up over in Syria or the Sudan? Have you seen this, this . . . charade masquerading as an election in America? Have you seen who the populace has put forth as potential leaders of the free world?

“Father, are you there? I’m fearful that, as some people say, you’ve left America because many people don’t want you here. I want you here. Many of us do. We need you! I know it isn’t your style, but won’t you intervene, please? Maybe raise up another candidate? Father, are you there?”

This is somewhat tongue in cheek, but not far from the truth.

God almost always settles me down, reminding me of verses such as this one from Philippians: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” The first four words of this verse sum up the way God would have us live. Always. As to the supplication part? That’s easy. “Please, please, God, send another candidate.” Whoops, too late.

And to the thankful part? Surprisingly, there’s a lot to be thankful for in this election: I live in a free country where I can vote; a woman can actually run for president; I’m healthy enough to get out to vote; and I’m not intimidated not to vote. Thank you, Lord.

When I ask God to take away my anxiousness, this verse pops into my mind. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your path.”

My mindset should always be to trust in God, to try and forget the candidates and to focus on God’s omniscience, omnipotence, mercy, and love. I should be more overwhelmed with our Lord than I am with these candidates. What comes across the airwaves doesn’t matter nearly as much as what comes from my heart. I must answer only for me.

The Bible says He called all things into existence, including us. He knows the number of hairs on our head, he feeds the birds of the air, dresses the lilies of the field, and He knows our every thought, past and present.

Our God is aware and He is powerful. However, until the return of Jesus Christ, Satan and His minions rule our planet. Because of this, we must sometimes choose our poison, but never, never doubt that God is on the throne. The plan in place is Divine and it won’t be shattered because of an election, or because God doesn’t step up at this particular moment.

Remember what Jesus said to His Roman henchman, Pilate? “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above.” Pilate had no authority over Jesus. Yet Father God let Jesus hang on that cross. What the apostle’s thought was history’s darkest moment, became its greatest hour.

That’s enormous! If nothing else throughout history shows that God has a greater plan, this is it! And just imagine the scene surrounding Jesus in the spiritual realm—legions of great white angels standing with hands on their swords, eyes shifting back and forth between Jesus and the dark forces, knowing this sick scenario had been orchestrated by Satan and his mocking, chanting demons. All the while the light angels continued waiting, waiting patiently for their King to order an attack.

But the order never came.

Significantly more depressing than our election.

I’m not suggesting that there’s a shred of comparison between what Jesus did and this election. Never. Only that God has a plan. Ecclesiastes reminds us, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to mourn and a time to laugh . . .”      lightstock_69198_xsmall_user_2435152

Nothing in the world is everlasting. It is all—we are all—terminal. Whether or not we like this particular moment between Clinton and Trump, history has led us to these two candidates, and to this tenuous time in America. And regardless of what happens, it will not be history’s darkest hour. We’ve already been there.

Daniel says: “And he changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings.” Suffice to say, we are in a season. Regardless of the outcome of this election, the good news is, God is on the throne and Jesus has been raised up. Yes, Satan is bouncing around wreaking havoc, but in the end, it will be God’s will that rises up like the Phoenix from the ashes. Or perhaps, more appropriately, like Jesus from the grave. In one nano-second, God can change things.

Be advised—His ways are not our ways. “For as the heaven are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts,” He says in Isaiah. We don’t/can’t understand His motives. I am reminded of my personal agony after my mother’s horrific bout to the death with cancer and my questioning of God: “Why, why, why?” (See “It’s None of Your Business.”)

And God’s amazing answer to me, in the quiet of night at the top of my driveway: “It’s not your business,” He said.

Such freeing, triumphant words. Words that say, “I, God, am in control. There is a plan. There is a purpose. Believe. Believe.”

So we must do as commanded. Trust and pray. Not for our own desires, but for God’s will to be done. Pray for peace for our country no matter the outcome. Vote your heart. Love your neighbors regardless of their political affiliation or vote, remembering that God will have the last word.

“Said the King to the people everywherelightstock_55067_xsmall_user_2435152
Listen to what I say.
Pray for peace people everywhere
Listen to what I say.
The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light.”*

 

*From the song: “Do You Hear What I Hear”

Musings: reunions and going home

Deep in the heart of Appalachia are my roots. I don’t often visit the town of my childhood, now less than half of the 6,700 census population of the 1960’s, depleted by time and recession, by men who made fortunes and left. And by people like me, who in their youth, deserted it for college or war or work. I have as much fondness for this town, for this area, as I do for my aunt who still lives there, which is saying a lot.

Like many women, I fancied my alma mater’s all-class reunion as a kind of ‘red carpet’ affair. Hair freshly colored. Finger and toenails polished. Unsightly hair eliminated. A light bronzing of skin. My stylish flat shoes were really for comfort, and my outfit, I hoped, made me look trim.

It’s a process, looking my best. And even given my practiced expertise, I can only look less old and not so lumpy. But, at least I’ve forgone Botox and fillers. For now. After almost 50 years, I ask myself, “Think it’s time to quit obsessing over appearance?”

My answer whispers back, “Maybe next year.”

I wish I could check a preference box: “stay young” or “get old.” But really, aging isn’t that bad. Except for funerals. Things change, of course: the hair, the gait, the bones. Teeth yellow, eyes grow dim. Why had I never stopped to consider what it might be like—getting older? I think I was busy being young, feeling young. Even into my fifties. People say being old is a state of mind. Ha! Mostly, they are young and don’t need extra rest or preparation.

Still, regardless of the added effort, I love reunions—seeing old friends, making new ones—escaping back to that place when the world was kinder, and a smorgasbord of opportunity. Back to when there was still so much time in front of me that “hurry” was just a ridiculous adult word in the dictionary, except when it came to my desire to drive.

Remember dewy, unlined skin. Remember band practice, ball practice, or even P.E. in hundred-degree heat. We easily endured the scorching sun or the bite of snow or whatever the adversity because we were going to live forever. Uncomplicated minds, obsessed with ourselves and our world. Like others before us, we thought youth was only hampered by adults.

Yet parents and many of the adults around us, even the seriously flawed ones, bathed us in the unconditional love and instruction comeuppance that was part of Appalachian nurturing. Teaching us, “Yes, sir” and “no, mam,” sending us home when the sky dimmed low past the one street light that would shine our path, and calling our parents if we scuttled between train cars parked on the railroad track at the swimming pool. I remember swinging with my grandmother and telling her about my day, unaware I would remember it as a highlight of my life. I remember when my boy friends would hitchhike home with nary a repercussion. I remember when as a teenager, I had my very own burgundy and white Nash Rambler and thought I was all grown up.

Seeing old friends brings back these memories like nothing else.

As my husband Alan and I drove up to the old field house, where the reunion was held, it looked pretty much the same. How many times had I walked into this building wearing a maroon and white uniform as a band member and then as a majorette? Memories flooded me as Alan dodged all the parked cars straddling the yellow highway lines. Cars parked cockeyed around the field house, cars in yards, and even up into Sunset subdivision. Just like old times. He let me out near the front of the building. In my imagination, the Wolfpack was playing. My heart sensed the bustle of the crowd I would push through as a program would be thrust in my face—the band tuning up, cheerleaders chanting, balls bouncing. The noise. That blessed cheer: Maroon and white, fight, fight!

“Hey Karyn Cantees! I’d recognize you anywhere.” My vision was interrupted as I approached the door. Thank God for nametags. Mostly I am clueless, recognizing almost no one except Facebook friends whose age progression I have witnessed. And sometimes not even then.

About twenty minutes into the hot September evening, in the un-airconditioned, geriatric building, sweat began to form around my hairline and moved up into my hair. I wondered how we’d ever performed in this heat. How athletes had played. People fanned with paper plates, napkins, the flap of their purse, whatever was handy.

These are my people. Fanning with paper plates.

Bloom where you’re planted, the old proverb goes. I did once and I think I still do. I come alive when I am here. There is no mistaking, this is still home. These people own a chunk of my soul as surely as the Tug Fork River runs north. As surely as God birthed me here.

We aren’t the elite. Language isn’t perfect. Drawls and twangs are thick. Waistlines are sometimes thicker. But love is thickest. I am always smitten. And though Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again,” I always thought that one day I would. But, then I look around, and see the recession desolation. See how the world has shed its dusty Appalachian coat. A coat that warmed homes in winter and cooled them in summer. Exchanged for a green machine that rolled a grenade into this forgotten part of Appalachia with total disregard. Shattering businesses, mines, hearts, and wallets. And shattering the lives of the loving, hardworking, decent, God-fearing people who live here.

If you don’t know people like this—if you think the best of the world is a Yorkie who will whimper across your grave when you die—you have my sympathy. Appalachian people would die for each other. And many of them died for you. Deep in the recesses of a coal mine. As their young have moved away, this proud, somewhat older population, assemble for funerals the way New Yorkers line up for theatre.

Among the alumni crowd I’m aware of many who are gone. Not just those who have died, but those who aren’t attending this all-class reunion of a school that is no more. It’s Williamson High School, It’s Williamson High School, the pride of every student here . . . People are singing the Hail Wolfpack song. Many of the words I’ve forgotten.

I am at a disadvantage without my younger cousin Cheryl who serves as my memory at events like this. She not only assists with lyrics to old fight songs, but puts names with faces and gives me the history of Sally so-and-so, my classmate Millie’s third cousin once removed who married Jared from the funeral home, divorced him after their only son lost his job in the coal mines, and now lives next door to the drive through pill mill over at Kermit. Yes, this is made up, yet not so far-fetched. But Cheryl is at our old friend John’s funeral in Florida and I am on my own.

People think small Appalachian towns like Williamson, now settled sluggishly between two mountains, are awash in hillbillies and inconsequential lore. We weren’t, of course, on Andy Warhol’s radar; neither Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock hailed our stories. Yet our small hamlet was flooded with ethnicity and dialects—mannerisms, customs, food, and language—and the gentility of the ‘old country’ folk who planted solid roots in this rural, faraway land. These Ellis Island immigrants became our merchants, our chefs, our stone masons, our entrepreneurs. And with them came the traditions of Lebanon, Israel, Italy, Greece and others. Each family brought distinctive customs and work ethics, and respect for their new country to our civilized and yes, cultured, little town.

That John’s funeral coincided with the reunion is serendipitous. He loved gatherings. My Aunt Jeanette, ninety years young and holding court five tables across from me in this heat, without a paper plate, was like his second Mama. This kind and decent man, when in his early twenties, once stepped between me and a policeman’s pistol. The bravest thing I’ve ever witnessed.

One weekend night my shoulder-length haired brother, fresh from college, was out for a drive in his new Camaro with two young, Ohio girls who were family friends. A policeman stopped him for passing a car on an unlined road. It was around 1970 and I was visiting from New York, I think. The girls said the policeman had harassed my brother about his hair and took him to jail. John and I arrived at the facility where my brother was detained and I lit into the officer. He pulled a gun and John stepped between us. Policemen then and now don’t take kindly to disrespect.

Some things don’t change, I muse. Like Williamson.

Being here is somewhat like stepping into a time machine. Not because it hasn’t changed. It has. Floods and industry gone awry have taken a major toll on architecture, jobs, and population. But it’s the people—kind, decent, funny, and friendly—who haven’t changed. Maybe it’s because they all know one another, maybe it’s because they know my family or me. Or maybe it’s because small towns just breed folks who are nice. And uninhibited. Like karaoke night at Starters, a local bar and restaurant, where even the less talented sing with the gusto of Tom Jones and are applauded and back patted as if they’d just turned four chairs on “The Voice.”

Where else do you get that? I certainly don’t know. Not today. Not when everyone has their face in a phone. Will let a door slam in your face. I hadn’t even found a seat in Starters before I’d spoken to several people I barely know and as many old friends. My cousin Rod asking what I wanted to drink.

Years ago, I was jumping on my trampoline when the Lord spoke to me. I immediately stopped and sat down. He said a close friend would be moving back to Williamson. Since she hadn’t planned this, I was to tell her. “Lord, are you sure? Was that really you?” It was the last thing my friend wanted to hear, I knew. She lived in a major city, was serving God and making the mark she hoped to make on the world for Him. I was as reluctant as the prophet Jonah about relaying this information. After praying about it, I sent her this email around midnight: “If you’re up right now call me! Otherwise, I’ll talk to you tomorrow. I think God is telling me to share something with you.”

At 8:40 AM, she replied: “I can’t believe this!!! When I started up my computer, I was going to send you an email saying the same thing!!! However, I don’t have anything specifically to share… just felt the urge to talk.”

No, she wasn’t giddy over the prospect of moving to Williamson and said she doubted she would. But over a two-year period, God prepared her heart, and she moved home.

Home.

Why did I not want to tell her? Because, really, going home was out of the order of things. Whether home represents the pinnacle or the pit of your life, or something in between, you’ve been there. It’s a stalemate. A do-over. A tied game. An old girlfriend or boyfriend.

Get on your knees and put your ear to the earth. It has been there longer than you, has been trod on harder than you have been trod upon. When I was home long ago, the earth said, “Move along, put on your big girl britches, set fear aside, and go into the world.” No, I did not want to tell my friend to go back to her old boyfriend.

As I have written this, I have wondered where these somewhat disconnected musings would lead me. And not just these, but my life. I put my ear to the earth at the reunion. The earth replied, “This place is your safe harbor. A grown up heart needs nurturing, too.” I realize from my friend that nurturing can simply be about getting back to a kinder and gentler place. God has taken me home as surely as he sent my friend there. Not physically, of course, but with my writing. Back to those whose hearts connected to mine so many years ago.

This verse from the book of Psalms is one I hold out as my own. One that I stand on and believe for. “Those who are planted in the house of the Lord will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will be fresh and flourishing.”

God knew where to plant me. Williamson is not, of course, the house of the Lord, but it is as close to heavenly kindness as you’ll find on this planet. At least that’s my experience.

In my older years, I am grateful God has allowed me to still bear fruit, to reach out to those who were once a part of my life, wherever they may be. To thank, to bless and to be blessed by, to cherish, and to say goodbye. He has allowed me to hold onto a piece of treasured history, and to some degree, relive it.

Oh yes, I am still that somewhat vain, crazy girl who graduated in 1967, but more importantly, like you, I am God’s child, and I’m keenly aware . . .

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   Brother Rick and me
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

Aunt Jeanette and reunion organizer, June.

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Poem “Walking by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost.

Photo’s: my brother Rick and me; My Aunt Jeanette, left and Reunion organizer, June, right; Senior Majorettes and Cheerleaders-Captains, Me and Deborah, Front: Zshawn, Linda, Sherelene, Mary: Me, my cousin, Pat, and her husband, Ralph: Dave and Richard, in Starters: Linda and me in front of my Nash Rambler: Bobby and Danny in Starters: Suedy, Mike S, me, and Mike M. at Teen Club in the Moose Club.

 

The Magnificent Life

I’m not a trailblazer. Put me in the woods with a machete, expecting me to clear a path for others to follow, and I’d probably be whipping it around, striking mosquitoes and bugs, and watching for snakes. Whether forest or concrete jungle, the pioneering spirit that puts people at the head of the pack or makes them first at something is not in my DNA.

Except.

By virtue of gender and era, once upon a time, I was first at something. I didn’t aspire to be first. In fact, I would have preferred to have been second. Or more likely tenth.

It wasn’t like being the first female on the moon, but in its own special way, it was unique. In 1976, I was the first female pharmaceutical sales representative (rep) in the Huntington, Charleston, and surrounding West Virginia areas, even calling on some Ohio doctors and pharmacists.

It was such a dismal time in my life that penning the story should be implausible. Why? Because I was as distraught and as broken as my favorite Tennessee Williams’ characters. Topping things off, some doctors I called on were also distraught—because of me!

No question, I was a novelty. And many doctors were not happy to see my novel face. One doctor’s staff, I’ll never forget, let me cool my heels from 8:30 AM until noon, then said the doctor would see me after lunch. I stayed in the office until he returned. I was 26 years old and brand spanking new. Dr. Jekyll was probably fifty. Gruff as a Grizzly. His first words to me: “Take your glasses off and look me in the eye when you’re talking!” Just mean.

All I’d said was hello. “Shame on you, taking food from the mouth of a family!” He stood back assessing me as though I’d just ripped a bowl of broth from the hands of an orphan. “People have gone mad, hiring women to fill a man’s job.” Big tears worked their way into the corners of my eyes and I quickly flicked them away.

I didn’t want to be in his office any more than he wanted me there. I’d been married, happily for a while. We’d tried counseling, but some things aren’t fixable. I left my Roanoke, Virginia, home with some furniture, dishes, my clothes, and my aunt’s hand me down car that backfired every few miles, reminding me of my bombed out marriage. “What about me,” I wanted to say to this doctor. Instead I nodded throughout his diatribe and left samples for his staff. He wasn’t the worst of them, but he was one I never won over.

Being married for many women back then meant following their husband’s career. I was no different. When my husband took a job in Roanoke, I quit mine in Huntington, West Virginia, where I’d just been promoted to buyer for an upscale woman’s specialty shop. Four years later, I was in the dog eat women business of selling pharmaceuticals, alone and scared. My heart had been drop-kicked and shattered. Now it appeared, my self-esteem was next.

I’d had three plum job offers before leaving Roanoke, mostly because companies were filling female quotas. The one I accepted—pharmaceutical representative for Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical arm, McNeil Laboratories. I didn’t care about the quotas, I just needed a job. And I wanted out of Roanoke. I had no idea it was a unique situation.

I didn’t exactly have a Forest Gump mindset, yet growing up in Williamson, West Virginia, I’d felt valued. People in small towns looked after each other. At least in 1960’s America they did. I was Naomi and Cullen’s daughter, Ricky’s sister, Jeanette’s niece, among numerous aunts and uncles, and almost everybody’s cousin. I was accepted.

Comments like, “Women need to learn their place in the world,” and “Women aren’t as smart as men,” pretty much devastated me. One doctor said, “No man will ever want you after you’ve been tainted in the workplace.” Paraphrasing, of course, I can’t remember the exact words.

My mother had told me I could be anything. Now I cried myself to sleep, just wanting to be tough. And every night I prayed. “Please God, send someone to get me away from this, someone who can love me the way I want to love and be loved.”

My recent separation had damaged me; I was distraught and fragile even without the unkind remarks. Unfortunately, with my “Father Knows Best,” worldview, I thought that another man, not God, not a job, not anything in my life, was where the sun shone brightest along the happiness path.

About two months into my job, I attended a major industry meeting with hundreds of doctors and other reps. I hoped, as I stood in a large circle with a group of men, intimidated, but excited, that I didn’t stand out—too much.

One rep in the circle was a fairly new acquaintance who’d help me along the way. Conversation was industry gold to my green ears and I was rapt in the details when a man stepped up, square in my face, and thundered, “Get this straight, lady! If you think you’re going to sleep with my f@#$ doctors and take my #$% business, think again. I’ll ruin you.” Sleep with your doctors? Are you seri . . . I honestly thought he might hit me.

I couldn’t move, much less speak. It must’ve been contagious because a near death silence fell around us. God, please help here! The man continued on until the rep I knew threw up his hand. “That’s enough! Karyn’s not like that. You need to apologize.” Sweet words, and I appreciated the interference, but I wish he’d punched him. I whispered “thank you” to my subtle defender before scurrying off.

As I escaped through double doors, a clattering arose. Away from the din, I’d never felt so alone. I cried out to God, pressed my body against the cool wall, and felt as if I had been choked. So much for not standing out.

My large territory required constant monitoring. I’d developed a plan to increase sales at my state hospitals, only to be told by the company’s regional director, “Someone as pretty as you shouldn’t worry about such things.”

Many of my own gender kept me sitting in waiting rooms for hours before they’d let me see their demi-god doctor. But, I continued working with my sympathetic male manager and holding steadfast. In about a year, I had just as much access as my male counterparts. I’d also seen other females come in behind me. My sales went up and up, along with my confidence.

When McNeil hatched a new product in 1978, out of hundreds of reps across our company, I was number two in sales. The home office even sent a man to work with me to learn my strategy. By now, my shattered heart and self-esteem issues were waning

The next year, out of ninety-plus reps in my region, I was number one in sales. It felt astounding, gratifying. When I was offered a promotion, I finally felt validated.

Except. When the promotion was announced, three men supposedly quit.

Yep, still had gender problems, and it hurt. Making it more incredulous, the number one regional sales rep—me—made about $2,000 less than the men.

Regardless of the injustices, I never responded in kind. With one exception: I did go a little crazy when the regional director wouldn’t review my hospital plan. To his credit, he didn’t fire me. I and others also had heartfelt talks about the female pay inequalities, and they were turtle-like catching us up.

It’s still baffling when I think of my success. School, jobs, parents—nothing had prepared me for a career in the field of science or for a steady dose of rejection. Yet, over time, and with God’s help, not only did I perform, I excelled. I even made wise decisions regarding my personal life, rejecting two precarious marriage proposals. I wasn’t even a baby Christian then, I was just a beggar. “Please, please, please, God! Help, please help, God!” Not Father. I didn’t know Him as Father then. Yet, He was working in every facet of my pitiful life.

He even gave me a lifetime opportunity to treasure. Honored and thrilled, I was one of ten women chosen to help write our company’s affirmative action program. Proverbs 3 says, “Do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward.” Though my confidence sagged, with the Lord, my little bit was apparently enough.

1st Corinthians tells us, “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” I was one of those foolish things.

That woman.

I did a lot of confounding, but I’m in good company. Consider Jesus: born in a stable, worked as a lowly carpenter, non-descript in appearance, befriended sinners, raised in Nazareth. One scripture reads, “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?” Even some believers thought Jesus was weak because He wouldn’t take His Kingdom by force.

If I’d been God, I’d have sent Jesus in a chariot storming across heaven declaring His Lordship. But, God doesn’t work like you or me. “He is God,” the prophet said, “He will do what seems right to Him.” And what seemed right was to send Jesus in the lowliest possible form.

Solomon sitting King-like on a throne full of wisdom and surrounded by riches isn’t what we needed. We needed a Savior’s enlightment, flooding us with God’s goodness, gentleness, character, integrity, and love. Jesus did not come in the power afforded the King of glory. Didn’t use His power for self-aggrandizement. He helped the poor, loved the unlovable, healed the sick, denounced Satan. The Creator of the world did not come with a crown of might or right, but in a cloud of light.

He did this for you and for me. For those times when we would need mercy, courage, justification, and love. For when we feel pitiful, discouraged, and broken. And who hasn’t felt like they emerged from the filth of a stable at times?

Certainly in this life story, I had a shattered, pitiful, and unlikely start. Yet, I finally found my footing. Joyce Meyer, my favorite female evangelist says, “You can be pitiful or you can be powerful, but you can’t be both.” She’s right. I had trod that thin line until I finally shook off the pitiful and emerged as the light God intended. Living proof of what He can do with a weak and foolish vessel.

My goals never included being a standard-bearer or a trail blazer or even a pharmaceutical sales rep for that matter. I wanted to be a wife. But God took the shattered remains of what could have been and made it enough. He took my tiny potential and filled it with success. He took the crying of my heart and helped me hold out for lasting love. And while I was on the way to where I was going he gave my life purpose through the pain. Because anything that’s worth doing, will cost something. Nobody ever learned anything from easy.

We don’t have just one magnificent purpose out there waiting to be plucked from the tree of life. It’s ongoing. Like Jesus, we should never diminish the life God created for us. Like Jesus, we should be looking to the multitudes surrounding us—lives full of challenges, potential, greatness, sorrow—that we can nourish. Old people needing a meal, young people needing mentored, someone needing a friend. Sometimes it is even us.

Like Jesus, we sometimes find purpose on the way to where we think we’re going. Jesus often stopped to heal the sick, to raise the dead, and even to scourge a woman of bleeding. We too will stop at many points of our purpose, because there is never, never only one thing defining who we are or what He would have us do. And, like Jesus, we should absolutely believe we never go from point A to point B alone.

We are defined by our Role Model, our Teacher, our Lord, and our Savior, by who He is and what He did. Push past the crying of your heart, past the person who offends, past the pain and frailties, past the sense of self-worth or self-worthlessness clamoring to define you. We are God’s creation, made in His amazing image and created for His magnificent purposes. Look to the One who gave all and you will find life’s ever-winding path, a thrill of a ride that allows us a glimpse of God’s glory and of the life to come. It is what makes living alive. It’s what Jesus came for and what we were born for.

I’m so glad I can write this story—that it belongs to me. Even though it was difficult and sometimes terrible in the living. In retrospect, I see an ever-present Father, reaching from heaven, nurturing, guiding, loving, and defending.

Don’t miss out. Don’t be afraid to take the bad with the good. Keep your eyes on Jesus and allow His peace, power, and purpose to guide your magnificent life!

 

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Atop: My initial sales training group at the home office.  Left: Dressed for success, two weeks into my job at my Charleston, WV, apartment.  Right: Enjoying my first home purchase in Cincinnati, Ohio, after promotion.

 

A Triumphant Defeat

Hallelujah for new beginnings! The last story in the trilogy about financial loss during the 1980s.

There are some defeats more triumphant than victories. So wrote French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne. My husband Alan ascribes to this philosophy, especially after surviving the early to mid-eighties recession when life’s vagaries shattered us and tossed us down several flights of fancy.

It was a triumphant defeat for Alan in many ways, mostly because his joie de vivre never withered in that broken environment: the fight for his business, his reputation; the crying wife, despondent over the death of mother; the loss of several friends, and I use that term loosely; the death of the good life (let’s be honest). Alan took one pounding after another, and after each knockdown, God bless him, he got up with a lop-sided grin.

I have been blessed in my whiny life to watch two people I love—my husband and my mother—maneuver through insurmountable, even horrible circumstances with more grace than I can sometimes muster in a long checkout line. For the most part, I am an impatient person who likes to be in control. However, after wading through illness and death, recession and survival, I discovered how not in control I am. Pretty much everywhere.

Our debt—because we didn’t declare personal bankruptcy—seemed greater than my hopeful imagination to repay it. Unlike Alan, I was fragile. Like a wounded animal struck by a hunter’s imprecise arrow. And it was darker than I can portray. Not my mood, but the circumstances. The unexplainable tide that came against us. Our lawyers could not only not explain it, but were powerless to stop it.

Sometimes if things were particularly dark, God would pull me back from the precipice. Distract me from self-absorption and let me care about someone else’s plight more than my own. Looking back, I see how these distractions helped me and others—that silver lining.

God’s opponent was also busy. Over and over he played this tape in my head: “Trust no one, numb your feelings, get even, forget others, don’t forgive,” And the toppers, “You have nothing to offer, and, people pity you.” I had more or less survived the losses, the debt and its extenuating circumstances, and even the death of mother, but that relentless, demonic voice was like lightning striking my sanity.

I had to quell that voice and block myself from listening. It was my lowest point.

Yet, low points are God’s specialty; it’s where the good stuff happens. At my lowest, God allowed me to peek into the supernatural. I’m not talking white doves landing on outstretched arms or seeing angels—I’m talking uncanny occurrences, amazing coincidences, serendipity. That once in a lifetime when planets favorably align and you know that it is not happenstance, or whatever one chooses to call it. And your heart can at last sing a new song. Your circumstance remains, but Almighty God is thrust into the equation and unexplainable things occur—prophetic things—absolute mysteries revealed to your soul.

It was within this environment of extremes that Alan asked me to attend an industry conference with him in Lexington, Kentucky.

I did not want to go. My presence of mind was reserved for God and for Alan, for a few friends, and for novel writing, my new hobby. The last place I wanted to share my limited lucidity was with people I didn’t know—happy people, prosperous people, probably phony people.

I would pray about it, but some things even baby Christians know: spiritual well-being takes precedence over business! One of the events was even at Keeneland, the horse track of Lexington’s vanity. Where gambling occurs. No way God wanted me there! Except whenever Alan mentioned the meeting, my heart said, “Go.” When I prayed, the message was “Go.” Each time it was mentioned, I felt a tug at my heart that was difficult to ignore and harder to believe. “Go!” But I most assuredly did not want to.

“Go,” however, was Alan’s new mantra and while I was still fighting the demons of our past—Life Fights One and Two—he was suited up for Round Three. So, I did what every good wife does, I grudgingly went.

Alan assured me the people at this meeting were “good” people. “They don’t know what we’ve been through, anyway,” he said, “You don’t have to tell them anything.”

Not to worry! There’d be no conversations about our paltry finances. I hadn’t spent money on clothing or shoes in a couple of years. Given my love of fashion I was afraid to spend, afraid I might initiate another groundswell of debt.

The first night I remember was the banquet. A few hundred people, many in small groups, chatted like old friends, drinking wine, nibbling on stuffed mushrooms and an impressive array of hors d’oeuvres. People without a care. Everyone in finery. Me? I felt as if I’d fallen through a sooty duct and landed in the jester’s seat, spit out for scrutiny. Even so, my Appalachian roots kept my neck held high.

Out of the hundreds of people, Alan mentioned two men he hoped to meet. One, a company president, the other an entrepreneur. He had spotted them both in the crowd, but, not knowing them, he didn’t approach them. Not his style.

People stopped to speak to Alan, and I met a few wives. I began shedding my sooty indignity, started to feel lighter, even affable. I could feel the presence of God as we moved about, now talking like we belonged, sipping wine, nibbling appetizers, laughing. Dear God, we are lemmings.

Time passed fast, surprising me. Now we stood to the side in a large, impressive room, admiring the elegant round tables of eight for the dinner banquet. People had begun sitting at the white cloth-covered tables. Alan spotted an old friend, a Kentucky lawyer and his wife. “Mind if we join you?” Alan asked, as we approached them. “Come on in.” The lawyer arose and pulled out a chair. Alan had spoken highly of him and his wife, but I’d never met them. They were funny and charming and we chatted easily. It was turning out to be a delightful evening. Thank you, Lord.

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched an older gentleman approach our foursome like he was honed in on radar. The lawyer grinned and stood once again; he greeted this well-respected mogul effusively, introducing him to Alan and me as the man sat down. Unbelievably, it was the entrepreneur Alan had hoped to meet. I gawked at him from sheer astonishment. Dear Lord, could it possibly be?

As the mogul settled in his chair, a very tan couple moved toward us, the man chatted briefly at the next table. He was large, middle-aged, wearing a beige suit, his wife a gorgeous blond. They stopped at our table. “Anyone sitting here?” he asked, pointing to empty chairs. “Join us,” someone surely said. But before sitting, he introduced himself and his wife.

Disbelief and wonder overcame me as they sat and I nodded “hello.” God’s presence fell over me, filling me with thankfulness and love. Tears formed in my eyes and I quickly turned my head. The tan-suited man was the company president.

From one side of the room and then the other the two men Alan had hoped to meet made their way to our table. I prayed God would come to this meeting, prayed for it to be productive, and, yes, fun. My prayers were so generously answered. Thank you, Lord. Again.

The last day of the gathering was at Keeneland. Watching horses chase each other’s tails around a track is as much fun for me as trailing a school bus across town in my car. True to the Bluegrass tradition of horse splendor, however, the room we were in was beautiful: dark wood paneling, colorful prints, rectangular tables, and oversized windows for race viewing. People moved elbow to elbow in the bustling room, chatting and smiling as they found their seats. The helpful wait staff dressed in black and white uniforms. Dinner would be served. Okay, this is nice.

When we finally came to “our” table, Alan grinned, recognizing the man on the end, a friend and fellow Tennessean, with his wife. I had not prayed God to provide people that I knew, but my heart wished for it. Introductions were made and we chatted briefly with them before Alan and I maneuvered to the chairs beside them.

As I made my way, my eyes seemed to deceive me, but my neck wouldn’t budge for a double take. Considering how the presence of God had gone before us, I should’ve been used to things lining up in my favor. Yet, the person in the chair beside me was completely unanticipated. A fellow Williamson High School alumnus!

She was a few years older than me, an upperclassman I had admired. We hugged. She seemed as astounded to see me as I was to see her. Her husband and brother, both alums, were also there and we had a reunion of sorts. What were the odds? Old friends of Alan’s from his beloved Tennessee on one side of us and fellow alumni from my high school on the other. Even at a race track, I wouldn’t take that bet. God’s planets had indeed aligned; He tended to our pleasure as well as our business. Once again I hid my tears.

Overall, it was a great day. In fact, that weekend was the best I’d had since Mother’s diagnosis. Thankfully, I’d responded to that tug on my heart to “go,” which allowed me to reshape my thinking. God, it appeared, did go to meetings and racetracks after all! He also showed me that I had judged these people, not based on who they were, but on my own circumstances. Forgive me, Lord.

Alan and I became regulars at these meetings and made wonderful friends throughout the years. The financial turmoil that had disrupted our lives eventually became a memory. Alan rebuilt his business as the eighties faded, and I began selling real estate, giving up a small ad agency I founded before mother’s illness. We paid off our debt, some taking more than a decade. The road was difficult, but God was there, allowing us to be good stewards.

As I’ve settled into the time and space bequeathed me, I realize my joie de vivre, that heart-felt enjoyment of life that so defines my husband, now radiates within me, too. Oh, it flickers from time to time, but the darkness that captured my youth has departed. Why? Because my self-worth no longer aligns with my standing before “man,” but rather before God.

Today, I can say that I also agree with philosopher Montaigne. There are some defeats more triumphant than victories. Yet it is not my own defeats or triumphs I reflect on. My mind sees Jesus. Hanging on a cross. Tortured, belittled, stripped.

Totally defeated.

Or so it seemed to those who watched His torture and death on that cross. As God’s Messiah hung His head and said, “Father, into  your hands, I commit my spirit,” every believer’s hope died with Him.

But things were not as they seemed. No.lightstock_115933_xsmall_user_2435152

Because the promises and prophecies of God throughout the Old Testament, over 320 and counting, could not be fulfilled until Jesus Christ was crucified. The most triumphant defeat ever chronicled!

Jesus died to give us miraculous hope. And a miraculous hope can only come from a supernatural being, the Holy Spirit, the part of Jesus that lives in us. Please, please get this. Holy Spirit is not magic or kooky or weird. Holy Spirit is the reason people like me put their lives out there for others to scrutinize. He is why missionaries die in distant lands to “save” people they don’t know. He is the supernatural touch to your heart that lets you know there is a God in heaven. He is the chime in your heartbeat. And once you’ve met Him, your world and your worldview are seen through a kaleidoscope of beauty and passion for the things of God.

Holy Spirit brings us mystery and enchantment. He is what caused St. Paul to say, “When I am weak, then I am strong,” a statement that makes no sense unless you know Holy Spirit helps us to move mountains when we’d rather hide, to “see” circumstances differently, to imagine the unimaginable. He gives us wisdom, passion, unknown information. He is our adrenaline, our intuition, our light-giver. He is who prompted me to go to that meeting, to marry my husband, to write this blog.

To know Holy Spirit is to know we are mysteriously coupled with the Divine, and at the moment when things look bleakest, we aren’t alone. During my moments of despair, the pain of this world didn’t leave me, but God’s footprint was everywhere; I felt it, I saw it. And I knew I was and am a part of something bigger than my pain or my circumstance. Think Jesus—things are not as they seem. It helped me then and it helps me now to go on.

Yet nobody wants to suffer. Even Jesus prayed, “Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not My will but thine be done.”

What if God had answered that prayer? We would all be toast.

What if God had answered some of our crazy prayers?

Today when I pray, I pray strength for my soul, that nothing is so grand or so tragic that it would divert my eyes from the wonders of God. To miss His divine mysteries is to miss heaven touching earth. It is the very thing Christ came for—died for.

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” 2 Corinthians 5:17

This is a part of the divine mystery. In Christ, I have a new heart, a new will, new sight. Holy Spirit fills me and I am totally renewed. Not just in the here and now, but throughout eternity.

Thank you, Lord.living-the-sup-life

House of Grace

In 1981, I was living in a house I couldn’t have dreamed of in the 1950s of my youth. Maybe I could have plunked down fifty cents and seen something similar on the big screen at the Cinderella Theatre, but I doubt I could’ve conjured one up.

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a mansion or anything. Just large. Over 7,000 square feet. Contemporary and grand. So, for this small town gal, living in that house was kind of like a fish flipping around in the forest. Felt guilty just being there, rambling around it’s big old rooms, surrounded by perfectly landscaped rhododendron and towering trees. I was too young to appreciate what I had. Perhaps what God had given me. But, I tried, Lord, how I tried.IMAG0098

I simply wasn’t prepared for what life had in store for me then, but there was a time when I was. It started with a conversation between my Hardy Grade School teacher and me. She’d discovered I’d be changing schools the next school year, to Williamson Junior High in Williamson, West Virginia, the area’s hub. “Karyn,” she said, “Wouldn’t you rather be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond?” The only reason I recall this is because someone told my mother and she recounted it proudly. I supposedly looked my teacher square in the eyes, and said, “I’d rather be a big fish in a big pond.”

How I came up with that at eleven is beyond me. And while the little girl me may have liked the bigger pond, the 31-year-old me didn’t. Yet, one thing was definite: no matter the size, you don’t ever want to be jerked from the pond you’re in. But, silly me, I’d prayed God to get my husband Alan and me out of there, and sure enough, my prayer was answered. Not exactly the way I envisioned.

It was grim. In fact, it was a grim time. Stating that is like saying Hannibal Lecter wasn’t nice. Mother had died, the stock market had crashed, and we lost our home. Actually, we lost pretty much everything. So, when word came that something positive happened, we felt grateful for that one silver lining: we and our possessions could stay in that behemoth house until it sold, and at a rental rate we could afford.

The next year dragged out painfully. I skulked about that big and lonely house, my peace of mind as shackled as a death row inmate. Yet, gradually, agonizingly, I was learning to trust God, and I was coming to see how He’d fastened many of the right pieces into place, even as my world had been imploding. (Read “It’s None of Your Business.”) Our bankers, lawyers, even Alan’s employees, felt sure Alan would be back on top soon enough. Yet, ‘soon’ seemed as far away as mother.

Then the inevitable happened, the house sold. With just a few weeks to vacate, it was time to take inventory: we had a dog and a cat, furniture out the yingyang, and a pittance for a housing allowance. We’d looked at rental houses, but none were available. Not in our price range. Not with pets. Not with a decent square footage. What we found were run-down and falling down. An ad that read, “needs work” translated to “has no air conditioning.”

Given my disposition, I should have been terrified. Yet as the housing deadline approached, I was uncharacteristically calm. One night as I sat on the deck alone, watching the stars and meditating, my heart was actually hopeful. In the recent past, I’d heard God’s voice three times. Just amazing! He told me to be patient with my Aunt LoRayne twice and that mother’s death path was ‘none of my business’—affirming that the Jesus who had come alive to me over a year ago, at the top of this very driveway, was as real today as He was 2,000 years ago. Why did I always have to remind myself of that?

In our little cul de sac, only five houses lined the private road, and while I’d had problems living here, I loved the evening solitude. Sometimes I heard the tiny creek wafting gently over rocks; that night an endless swell of fireflies rivaled the stars of a clear, beautiful sky. Out of nowhere, just like the first time God spoke to me, I heard a simple, soft voice. It said, “Move to St. Albans.” Words that seemed to light up the night.

Abruptly, I sat straight up and pondered His statement, knowing God’s words are truth. For the life of me, I don’t understand why I countered them, but I did. I said, “Lord, I don’t think I’ll like St. Albans.”

He replied. “I said, move to St. Albans.”

End of discussion.

He had come at the Eleventh Hour as He is prone to do. I rocked back and forth frantically, hoping, praying He’d say more. But He didn’t. I had no idea why St. Albans. But, after consideration and before telling Alan, I decided it made sense. I’d been so unhappy in that big old pond. God understood that. A lesser house and smaller town only twenty minutes away might be perfect.

Feeling the wonder of my encounter, I was practically dancing as I opened the door, confident a St. Albans home was in our future. Finding Alan, I came straight to the point. “God just told me to move to St. Albans.” I could hardly stand still.

Alan was used to me of course, but not so much the ‘God speaks to me’ version. He looked up and without any sort of prompt said, “You won’t like St. Albans.”

I laughed, astounded that the first words out of his mouth had been the first words out of mine. But we were giddy. Both of us.

The very next day Alan called from work. Incredibly, an employee had told him about a house for rent in St. Albans. “I’m driving by for a sneak peek after work,” Alan said.

God has a house for us! I was so excited.

But when he came home that evening, he hesitated. “Karyn, trust me. God doesn’t want you living in that house.”

Father God, are you paying attention, here? It’s less than three weeks and counting!

I was trying not to panic, trying to pack, still heartbroken and crying over mother. I reminded myself, from God’s lips to my ears. I was a baby Christian, and though every nerve in my body was charged, every heartbeat too fast, every teardrop bitter, the recent past told me to trust Him.

Two days later, an ad in the newspaper caught my eye. “Historic home in St. Albans for rent, hardwood floors, Oriental rugs, updated kitchen, custom drapes.”

If it sounds too good to be true . . . Even the price was only $50 higher than what we’d determined we could afford.

I called and spoke with Patsy, (not her name) a neighbor showing the house for the out of state owner. That evening Alan and I drove up a beautiful, well maintained St. Albans Street. Each house seemed nicer than the next. Many were turn of the century and charmingly southern. Way out of our new price range. St. Albans street

We drove slowly, taking it all in. Manicured lawns and stately homes, some with veranda-style porches.Before we reached the top of the sloping street, Alan stopped the car. “This can’t be the address.”

I agreed. House number 512 (not the real number) would not fit into our budget on this street! Moving slowly, a beautiful three story tan brick with an enormous veranda-style porch and a red clay tiled roof, came into view. Arguably the most beautiful house on the street. “Wow, look at that,” I said to Alan. We slowed down and to our complete and total astonishment the number was 512. “Something’s wrong,” said Alan, “That can’t be the house.”

As we cautiously pulled into the driveway, I realized how dissimilar this was from what we were used to. Can this possibly be the house God has for us?St. Albans house

We approached it like interlopers, like children approaching the gingerbread house of fairy tale fame, ready for the witch, not to pull us in, but to shoo us away. Finally, we rang the bell. When it opened, I recognized Patsy’s friendly voice.

“Hi. Come on in,” she said.

Right house. Thank you, Lord. Before much was said, my eyes started roaming about the texture and textiles of the house. Custom window treatments on oversized windows, built in bookcases, hardwood floors, oval dining room, large sitting room, beautiful crown molding, high ceilings, massive staircase, crystal chandelier! And that’s just what I could see. This is not a house in our price range. Yet wanting it to be, I was afraid to ask.

The upstairs was somewhat dated, but we weren’t buying it, and I doubted we’d even be renting it. Generally, it seemed more like what we were leaving than what we were looking for.

Finally, I asked the dreaded question. The dialogue went something like this: “Do you know why this house is renting for only . . . ?“

Patsy cocked her head like she had heard me incorrectly as I said the dollar amount.

“Oh no, that’s not the rent,” she said, quoting a higher number. About what I’d expected.

“But it was listed in the newspaper for the lower price.”

“They must have it wrong,” she said, “The owner told me this price the last time we spoke.”

After we left that night, I was teary. Of course the price was wrong. Who would rent this magnificent home for our pitiful housing allowance? Yet, as badly as I felt, as badly as I wanted the house, I knew if this wasn’t it, there was another. God had said so!

The next day Patsy and I spoke. With no other options and a deadline of a little more than two weeks to vacate our furniture-full home, without a lot of resources, the hope in my heart, and likely in my voice, was apparent. Patsy happily relayed that the owner had indeed lowered the rent. She had done so to attract a better tenant. If we had excellent references, we’d be okay. She asked for particulars about the animals.

Shortly, we got word that the house was ours and the pets were okay; the biggest miracle of my life. Thank you, Jesus! It made no sense to me, then or now. Only in God’s economy does less money equal superior renters.

God had moved heaven and earth to put us there! I felt that way even before examining the equations: the house was showcased at precisely the right moment in time; the price was lowered, significantly, to almost exactly what we could afford—and before the owner even tested a higher rent; and this house was ten times, fifty times nicer, than anything we’d seen.

Then there were the surprises: Our eclectic mix of antique and contemporary furniture, our Persian rugs, all fit perfectly and looked better in this historic home than in the contemporary one. The drapes complimented the furnishings. The glass round table wowed the oval dining room. . . on and on. Who knew God cared about décor, color, and interior? Plus, we loved it.

If the house was a miracle, the ease with which we worked into that community was equally miraculous. The commute for Alan was better, and the mayor appointed me to the Planning and Zoning commission. Topping things off, the church where Alan and I married was just blocks away. The minister, an old family friend, had married us. He became our pastor!

And there was the matter of hearing that simple, soft Voice, Move to St. Albans. If not for that, St. Albans would not have been on our radar.

When I think of the old adage, you can’t judge a book by the cover, I realize Alan’s and my life reflected that perfectly. To a casual observer there was barely a ripple in our pond. We had simply moved from one gorgeous house to another. But the ripple in our world was like a tsunami. Behind the stone and wooden walls of that big old house was a couple shattered by life and by death, fighting to overcome grief, fear, humiliation, fatigue, and the financial disaster that nearly destroyed us.

Yes, status and wealth had brought advantages, yet when our pond ran empty and our souls lay bare, when bankers stopped courting us and options disappeared, God was our Champion. The power and purpose of our Heavenly Father was working long before we knew there was a need. And, ironically, it was in that moment of need and compensation that we found true wealth. The wealth of a heart that God can pour into if that heart is humble and surrendered to His will.

The book of Proverbs teaches us to, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge him and He will direct your path.”

In the hour of our greatest need, God provided our greatest miracle. And, here’s the thing, He didn’t do something for me He won’t do for you. It’s not about our worth, it’s about our birth—into the Kingdom of God through a risen Savior. When I put my trust in Christ at the top of that driveway, our Heavenly Father could finally ‘direct my path.’ He opened the windows of heaven and provided something Alan and I did not, could not imagine after what we’d experienced. Something we didn’t earn or deserve.

Amazing grace.

Available to you and to me. To all who trust and believe.

 

Next month: But, where’s the money?

 

“It’s None of Your Business”

We lost our home, houses, an airplane, and, oh yes, my mother. Nearly our sanity. And every time I thought things couldn’t get worse they did. This is a hard story to tell, but I’m writing this for all those folks who’ve ever dangled over a cliff. Especially those whose fingernails are currently scrapping across that last jutting rock.

In Memory: Naomi Dinguess Cantees – June 2, 1928 through Eternity

All the Mother’s Day tributes got me thinking about my Mother. Few people are as special as mom’s are to children, except perhaps the reverse.

I felt that way about Naomi Dinguess Cantees—my best friend and mother. Sadly, she left us at an early age, 55. She was smart, the valedictorian of her class, but what I remember most was her laugh. Loud and full. If you couldn’t laugh and have fun around Naomi, just get on down to the funeral home. Her love for life was contagious, and in her view, nothing was more important than the person in front of her. What I learned about respect and kindness, she taught me.

Once she explored Kentucky on a tour bus. (We’re from West Virginia so Kentucky is a stone toss across the river.) We teased her unmercifully, but she didn’t care. She was no less excited about touring the Bluegrass State than she was of sightseeing in Italy. Everything and everyone received fair treatment from Naomi. She was happy with what life had given her—my cantankerous brother and me, her small home, her loving family, and the designer-less clothes in her closet. Nary an ungrateful bone in her body.

Humor, smells, stories, and road trips—many wonderful things stand out when I think of mother. However, the juggernaut in my memory is the cancer. A three-year battle. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with—watching someone I love die slowly, painfully. Dear God, human beings aren’t cut out for this stuff.

She stayed with my husband Alan and me through much of her illness. When a person receives a death sentence their body peels away from their soul and you see them in a way you’ve never experienced before. Especially when pain is involved. What I witnessed kept me awake nights, but I was proud of my mother, of who she was. Her pain was excruciating, not entirely because of the cancer, but because of a surgery that cut off her tail bone, a surgery I and others encouraged. Afterwards, I heard her muffled cries into a pillow almost daily. And sometimes tears just materialized in her soft, pretty eyes.

She never complained. She never said, “I can’t take this, why me?, or I wish I’d die.” Never. Not the entire three years. She never even said she was afraid. In fact, when I complained that, “It’s just not fair.” She said, “Why is it not fair? Why not me?”

Are you serious? Who says things like that?

If you’ve ever prayed for someone you love to die, then you’ve seen horrible pain. I prayed that awful prayer. But, she didn’t die anytime soon. Towards the end, my brother and I tended her comatose body, never leaving her for even a minute as we changed shifts. And then one morning two nurses assured us they would stay with her while we had breakfast together for the first time in weeks. Thirty minutes later, she died. Without one of her children with her, she could die. Finally.

I was happy for her and so proud to be her daughter. Her legacy of love for God and for people had prevailed, even in the worst of circumstances. We were at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, a long way from home. Many hospital personnel had become Mother’s friends. When her tortured breathing finally stopped, nurses, doctors, and others gathered in her room, no one doubting that the brave, lifeless woman before them had slipped into heaven. And we all cried together.

What my mother was to courageous and inspirational, I was to tortured and discouraged. Mother went to heaven, I stayed in hell.

I’d only been married two years when mother became sick. Up until then I had been living what I thought was the good life—chicly-dressed, somewhat well read, West Virginia bred, and at that time, very well-to-do. I always enjoyed a good time, but after mother died I sometimes drank with friends until I was so drunk I couldn’t remember the previous evening the next day. It seemed a good thing, forgetting the memory of her pain. A pain I was complicit in.

If losing mother to cancer wasn’t horribly sufficient to unglue me, Alan and I were in the throes of fighting for our financial lives. A recession had slammed the U.S. around the same time as Mother’s diagnosis, the early 1980s. The majority of our money was tied up in a public energy company Alan helped found and in his own consulting firm. Just weeks after mother’s casket had settled into the surrounding earth, energy markets that had plummeted finally weighted their anchors to us. Alan tried to shield me from our personal meltdown, but it was impossible. Our small fortune plummeted.

We sold two houses and an airplane, all at significant loss. I was hospitalized twice for what was thought to be heart problems, but turned out to be anxiety. Personal bankruptcy wasn’t an option for my husband. “I made the debt, I’ll pay it back,” he said. More than once I tried to change his mind. Never has anyone worked so hard to dig his way out. But the harder he clawed, the further we slid. One lawyer asked why he was fighting so hard. He told him it was because it was all that he had. But it was as useless as fighting Mother’s cancer and almost as painful to watch.

Finally we lost our residence, Alan’s dream home. Personally, I hated the thing. It was cavernous, the planked ceilings running fourteen to twenty-eight feet in height with wooden beams, and four stone fireplaces. How many times had I prayed to get out of that house? It was like living in a ski lodge with no room service and floor to ceiling glass windows, made for throwing stones. Still, it was a roof over our heads. And it was the place where I had come to the end of myself, standing at the top of a lengthy driveway in the middle of the night, shaking my fists at heaven.

It was where I would have the experience.

Some people would call it a born-again experience, others might say I just found the Lord. My Grandmother Dinguess would declare, “Finally! Raise them up in the ways of the Lord and they’ll always come back to you.” I can still hear her spout that oft-quoted scripture.

Rest assured, I was raised up to know God. Sunday morning and night, Wednesday prayer meeting, and sometimes on Saturday—that’s how we did church some weeks when I was a child. In those days, God was preached as the ‘eye for an eye’ Loathing Lord of the Old Testament, regardless of the denomination, and we trotted to them all—Methodist, Southern Baptist, Freewill Baptist, Church of God, Church of Christ, and the occasional Pentecostal tent revival. My grandmother was usually the one taking me, and she didn’t discriminate. Mom and dad sometimes took me to the Episcopal Church, where I was sprinkled and confirmed. So, my spiritual life was as well-rounded as it was confusing.

All that hell, fire, and brimstone, coming at me at such a young age, was drowned out by partying in my twenties and early thirties. Still, sometimes I’d watch Brother Jimmy Swaggart, as he was called, on television. Some labeled him the Protestant Pope. He was first cousins with Mickey Gilley and Jerry Lee Lewis and just as colorful. I loved watching him strut back and forth, swabbing his forehead, his voice rising and falling with the urgency of his message. After mother died, I’d cry and cry watching him. Finally I quit. Until that one night. The night I ended up at the top of the driveway.

Broke and broken, I wept and shook my fists at God in front of the house that would no longer shelter me, without a mother’s comfort. It was a week night and I was severely sober. I hit my knees and shouted an accusatory prayer. Sobbing. The same old outrage about mother—“How could you . . . ? Where were you . . . ? Why didn’t you . . .?” On and on . . . My mother had died and it was God’s fault. It had to be somebody’s.

And then it happened.

Something or Someone spoke to my soul, incredibly, above my sobbing outrage of whys—so strong, so real, so powerful. These are the words I heard: “It’s not your business.” I remember licking the salty tears from my lips, gasping, rubbing at my eyes with shaking hands, still on my knees, and feeling strangely okay.

Immediately.

“It’s not my business.” I remember saying it aloud, and knowing, knowing in my heart it was true. Jehovah God was telling me that something in His Very Big Universe had played out beyond my ability to reason, and I believed Him. Yes, she was my mother and the void she left was as big as the galaxy’s black hole. It wasn’t that she died at fifty five, although that would have been enough. It was that she was in such pain, muffling her cries with a pillow so I wouldn’t hear, never complaining, asking after others, always noticing a new dress, a pretty smile, or sad eyes. She touched so many lives with kindness and laughter.

“Oh, God,” I cried, “She didn’t die for nothing. There was a reason, a purpose.” I felt amazingly calm and empowered for the first time in . . . forever.

My mother’s life wasn’t over any more than Jesus’ was when he died on the cross. His death looked like history’s darkest hour: Mary, his mother, crying at the foot of the cross, His disciples scattering, disbelieving all the bad and good news Jesus had tried to convey. And yet, it wasn’t the last chapter in Jesus’ life; it was probably only chapter three out of a gazillion.

“Why not me?” my mother had asked. And yet the process of dying is scary. I think it was for mother. And I think it was for Jesus, too. They knew what they were facing. But, life’s end was bearable for they also knew where they were going.

Just like Jesus, my mother is still alive. She’s a spirit who lives in her dream house in heaven, where the sky forever surrounds her, probably traveling the galaxy, writing, something she always wanted to do. I think that’s a plausible scenario. I know I’ll see her again, and I know she completed her purpose, whatever that was. I never question it anymore.

In the years since Mother’s death and losing our home, I’ve had setbacks and I’ve had victories. I prayed to be more like mother and I am: I’m kinder, less judgmental, more empathetic. Even emotionally stronger. I also have more joy. Could it be the “have great joy through experiencing great pain” philosophy. The joy to hell scale, I call it. I don’t think so. More likely, joy came because I fell at the foot of the Cross.

The most remarkable thing I learned is that the spirit realm is real. We absolutely have a Savior and angels, but we also have an enemy, Satan. The Thief, as he is sometimes called, didn’t really care about stealing my stuff or even killing my mother, although he did a pretty good job. What he coveted, salivated over, schemed for, and perhaps killed for. . . was my faith. Had I forfeited my faith he would’ve stolen the thing that, other than Jesus, most connects me to the Father, the thing God most entrusted to me—my destiny.

“If you seek me you will find me, if you search for me with all your heart,” the Scripture says. I was seeking Him, through my pain, anger, confusion, depression, and faith deficit. And still, He was ever-present.

God’s revelation that night in the driveway transcended my human understanding. Mother’s death path He said was “none of my business.” In the natural world that sounds more like the Godfather than God the Father, but at that moment something unbelievable happened: my faith kicked in at about a hundred on a scale of one to ten. Somehow our Creator allowed me to grasp that He had a plan—not just for Naomi Cantees, but for all of us. Something amazing. Something I can’t imagine.

Our fifteen minutes on planet earth isn’t about us, really. It’s about our Savior, about what He did for us and what he wants us to do for each other.

Lose yourself and find your destiny, that’s what I discovered. That’s what Mother did. And that’s how you hold on in the worst of times. Entrust your life’s story to the world’s best-selling Author, your heavenly Father.

Next Month: The aftermath of financial chaos. The greatest miracle of my lifetime!

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At Emory University Hospital. Always smiling. Top Photo: Mother, Alan and me in better times.

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Mother, my brother Rick, and me.