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.