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?

 

The Gift

New York City was like a drug and I was a junkie.

In the late 1960’s, I left the mountains and valleys of West Virginia for the sprawl and vigor of New York City. The air is different there. It stimulates your senses and you’re always in motion. The City is like a drug and I was a junkie.

Even before New York, and really for most of my life, I felt different. As a child I was terrified of the dark, fearing the demons that lined my room when the lights went out, creepy eyes always watching. I begged to sleep with Mom and Dad.

It sounds bizarre—demons. Well, that’s what I call them now. I’m not sure what I thought they were then. But there was something—I believe that. They weren’t in my head. And neither was the small angel who sat in the room’s lone chair.

Mostly, I was normal growing up, but sometimes I knew things there was no possible way I could know. It happened rarely, but it happened enough that I noticed. However, when I went to New York, that city air hit my brain and triggered something.

Strange things began to happen. For starters, New Yorkers don’t notice much, but they noticed me—on the street, in elevators, on buses—they spoke, stopped me, or struck up a conversation—invited me to dinner, to parties, to become famous. Sometimes it was a pure con brought on by my naiveté, but mostly it was just natives, curious about one of the city’s imports. Regardless, I felt like a yellow pointer sign flashed over my head, like a mountaineer hippie version of Marlo Thomas in ‘That Girl.”

My first New York address was the Phoebe Warren Hotel for Girls on East 68th Street. The Phoebe, as we called it, was a foreboding brownstone sitting amidst other better kept brownstones and high-brow embassies on a swanky limousine-lined, litter-free street, a half block from Central Park.

I met a few residents, including Christina, my future roommate, and now lifelong friend, a beautiful native with a great laugh who was constantly steering me from psychos, weirdos, and con artists. A demanding task, since they also saw my flashing yellow sign.

That revelatory ‘knowing’, energy, whatever it was—the lukewarm phenomenon that had ‘shown’ me things in my past—was now set on “go,” and because of it, occasionally I’d tell fortunes. One afternoon a woman I’d seen in The Phoebe’s dining room grabbed my arm in the tiny hotel elevator. She eyed me like someone who had latched onto the Holy Grail.

“You know something,” she said to me, her voice shaky. “You have to tell me! Please. Tell me now.”

I was alone and startled, but naïve woman/child that I was, I went to her room. Why? Well, I did sense something.

When we got there, I asked for a deck of cards. I didn’t really need them; mostly they were a prop, a way to share my ‘gift’ that people could understand.

After flipping through the cards, I unveiled a strange saga: two men were following a younger man they intended to harm. And the younger man needed to contact her. I don’t remember the details—they went on and on—however, I do remember her tears. You see, I confirmed her fears; the young man was her son. This happened at least twice at The Phoebe.

Religion wasn’t something I embraced at this life juncture, but I still prayed. And I believed. Mostly, I believed I had a terrifying gift from the dark side, and I prayed God would take it away.

One night, Christina and I went out to dinner. After we’d returned and gone to our rooms, she ran to my room because a large black bird had flown through her window and into her mirror. Not long after, she and I moved into an apartment on East 74th Street.

Months had passed without much ‘psychic’ nonsense when out of the blue I told Christina my ex-boyfriend was going to call. We hadn’t been in touch in over a year, maybe two. Unbelievably, he phoned that very night. She answered, and after he told her who he was, she screamed, “Karyn, you freak me out!” and handed me the receiver.

“What was that all about?” he asked when I answered.

“I told her you were going to call,” I said.

“How did you know that?” he sounded incredulous. “I didn’t even know it.” My life was about to take a huge turn.

The next few months were hectic. I was enduring the strain of a new job and a renewed long distance relationship with my ex. The first of November seemed to come early and was much too cold. I was out window shopping, on the way to an afternoon matinee with three friends. Suddenly, an attack of anxiety, complete with heart palpitations, swept over me. I spun around, reversing directions, like a drug addict sniffing out a fix. “I have to get back to the apartment!” I yelled back to my startled friends. They chased after me as my feet clapped the pavement. “What’s going on?” my friend Bobby asked as he hustled alongside me.

“I’m not sure.” I kept moving. “But something awful has happened and I have to get home.”

Bobby motioned for the others to follow and they were all there when I opened my apartment door to a ringing telephone.

It was my ex, who was now my boyfriend, and he was visiting in our hometown. “Karyn,” he spoke softly into the receiver, “your Dad died early this morning. Your Mom’s at the hospital. They think he had a heart attack.”

Just like that. Cullen Cantees, my 47 year old father was dead.

I had come to New York to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and, truthfully, to escape my father’s watchful eyes. The irony didn’t hit me for years: Dad died when I was living in the one place I felt hidden from his control. To further the irony, I immediately moved home. Five months later, I married my ex, who is, once again, my ex.

Thankfully, while I was in New York, I had a heavenly Father who sent both heavenly and earthly angels—friends like Christina and Bobby—who steered me. And though I wasn’t religious, two things I believed: Satan and evil existed as surely as God and good. And in the 1960’s of my youth, evil was often lurking. Today I believe the prayers of my family and my own simple prayers sustained me.

One of those prayers, the appeal I made from fright, I still sometimes ponder: “God, please take this psychic power, this “knowing,” whatever it is, away from me.” It was a prayer that for the most part was answered. At least for a time.

My ‘gift’ prepared me for certain events during this brief two-year, New York stint, and probably saved my life at least once (stay tuned). Yet knowing the unknown was frightening. Here’s what I’ve come to believe: For whatever reason, God gave me a prophetic gift, which, in my youth, I abused with cards and fortune tellers, not knowing what it was or how to use it.

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The left side view from our hotel room overlooking Central Park two years ago. The above, main photo is the right side view, the gorgeous NYC skyline, looking more like a painting than a photo.

Still, God was faithful! Because, while my “gift” was sidelined, it wasn’t eliminated. Today, I sometimes know things I have no way of knowing, other than the divine. It’s rare, but when it happens, I am reassured of His unending grace. And I am reminded that when darkness falls, the wondrous light of Christ is always shining.

The orchestra pit at Phantom of the Opera. Part of my dowry when Alan and I married was a yearly trip to NYC. It doesn't always happen anymore.

Orchestra pit, Phantom of the Opera. My marriage dowry *giggle* included yearly trips to NYC. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen.