Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Purpose of the Puppy Search

"Then time stopped for a second as I realized she was about to cry. Was she having sudden remorse for giving away the dog? I looked closer and felt my soul being drawn toward a familiar place. She was fighting back the tears of recent loss and unresolved grief."

It began as a clearly random encounter in a local pet store one Sunday after church. Lee, my teenage son, and I were turning into the parking lot of a popular restaurant. I noticed white tents occupying a portion of the parking lot and banners proclaiming a pet sale sponsored by the Humane Society. I immediately said to Lee, “We need to get another dog.”

He looked at me as if I’d had a sudden loss of consciousness. We already have too much going on to spend time with our dog waiting to be fed at home. I’d had this thought before, and had even searched online for a breed that might mix well with Kylee, our mostly-basset hound. She seems lonely to me, and the fact that we are so busy gave us only limited time to spend with her. This was the very reason I had thought about finding a companion for my canine.

Today was different though because I wasn’t just thinking that it might be nice to have another pet, but I just knew we were meant to find our new dog in this very parking lot. After lunch, I still thought that there was a dog under those white tents who belonged at my house. Lee and I drove a full circle around the tented dog sale, slowly enough for me to see that there were several metal kennels and lots of people being walked around by a variety of dogs. I parked the car, telling myself that it would just take a minute to scurry through the kennel maze and prove to Lee that we were supposed to find a dog here.

There were lots of big dogs, a few medium-size dogs, but no puppies that could be trained by my Kylee in the ways of our family. I asked several of the volunteers which one of these dogs would mix well with a basset hound. Amazingly, they all were likely candidates according to the Humane Society volunteers. But I knew none of these dogs were going home with me.

As I began to doubt my conviction, a volunteer pointed out that some new dogs had just arrived fresh from the shelter. Perhaps one of these dogs would be more to my liking. Although they were all quite likable, I knew that I still had not met the right dog. Then one of the volunteers suggested that I go inside the pet store, and then I realized why the tents had been erected in this particular parking lot.

She said, “We have puppies inside that belong to the shelter, but it’s too hot out here for them.” A puppy was just what I had in mind, so Lee and I headed inside to the makeshift area that had been set up for the Society dogs. It was conveniently, although not subtly, placed in front of the pet store display of dogs and cats for full-price sale. There were only two puppies left, brothers from the same litter. I knew why they were left behind while the other pups were already snuggled up in the homes of new families. These poor mutts had absolutely no personality, and they had balled themselves into one furry clump as if to say, “We are inseparable.” The shelter volunteer assigned to watch over them sat in a chair close by to keep the hands of dozens of curious children at bay. These two little pups were exhausted and scared to death of the groping, reaching hands of all the kids who begged to hold them.

They were not my puppies either. I knew they needed to stay together and the idea of two puppies was even more than I could justify to Lee, who was still looking bewildered. Then suddenly I saw him, a beagle puppy in the arms of another middle-aged woman. She had just selected a cat collar to go with a long dog-walking leash. Not only was she holding my dog, she didn’t even know the difference between a dog vs cat collar. I heard myself saying out loud to anyone who would listen, “There he is, just the dog I had in mind.” The startled volunteer countered, “But that dog isn’t for sale. That’s her dog, not one of ours. You can’t have her dog!”

The woman holding the dog didn’t see me because her attention was directed to the store manager. She had a friend with her who was obviously in charge of whatever it was they were doing there. After a brief introduction, the store manager gently explained to the woman that the store could not sell any pets except those sent from the company. The woman assured the manager that she didn’t want to sell the puppy, but wanted to leave it at the pet store to be given to anyone who would have it. The manager tried again to explain how that just wouldn’t work with the store’s policy. The woman with the puppy was disappointed, and her friend argued the point on her behalf. And, all the while, her little beagle puppy was looking at me.

Suddenly the shelter volunteer pointed to me and announced, “She wants that dog!” All eyes turned to me as I nodded and smiled at the puppy. At that moment, the friend in charge walked boldly up to me. “Tell me about your home,” she demanded. I muttered something about a 3-bedroom/2-bath house in town as she surveyed me from head to toe. “Where do you work, what do you do, how old are your kids, and do they like dogs?” all spewed from her lips. The barrage of questions could not interfere with the intense gaze shared between the pup and me.

As the arms of the woman holding the pup reached out to me, she said, “Do you want to hold him?” He weighed only ounces as he sat upon one hand while I stroked his back with the other hand. He rested his head on my shoulder, as he snuggled into my heart. The transition was complete as his now-former owner handed over the dog leash and new cat collar. “I don’t know if this will fit him,” she said, “and I haven’t paid for it yet if you want to choose a different one.” As I passed the cat collar to Lee, I asked him to find a little-bit-larger dog collar. She then explained that she had a portable kennel, a bag of food, a blanket and a few dog toys she would gladly throw into the deal if I would just take him home.

I began to tell her about Kylee and why I wanted a new puppy, and she began telling her story to me. Someone had given her the puppy just last week to console her on the recent death of her mother. There we stood in the middle of the crowded pet store with all those kids, the shelter volunteer, the inquisitive friend, and the store manager watching our exchange. Somehow I managed to pay for the new collar while she loaded down Lee’s arms with the dog care items. The puppy licked my face and made little whining sounds, but took no notice of anyone else.

As we walked into the sunshine, I thought, “Mission accomplished.” I had found the dog that I was sent to rescue, and I couldn’t wait to get him home to meet Kylee. The woman whose name I had not even bothered to ask followed us to the car still explaining why she could not keep the puppy. I was trying to listen as Lee loaded up the back seat, climbed into the passenger seat, and reached out to take the puppy.

Then time stopped for a second as I realized she was about to cry. Was she having sudden remorse for giving away the dog? I looked closer and felt my soul being drawn toward a familiar place. She was fighting back the tears of recent loss and unresolved grief. “My mom just died, and I am 52 years old, and I’ve never lived with anyone else except her.” she said. Tears flooded from her eyes as painful words fell heavily from her lips.

Swallowing hard, I made myself look deep into her eyes. “I am a widow,” I said. “My husband died ten years ago, and I know something about the loss you are feeling right now.” A smile crossed her face as she said, “You do understand, don’t you? The dog won’t bring back my mom, and I just don’t feel like taking care of anything else right now. I don’t even think I can take care of me, but I have to try, don’t I?” 

“Yes,” I said, “you do have to find a way to go on with your life every day. Just take it slowly, doing just what has to be done at first, and then you can take on more things as time goes on.” I reached into my purse for a business card as I said, “This is my phone number, and here is my email address. You can call me anytime you need to talk to someone. And you can come by to check on the puppy anytime.” She wrote her name and number on another card and gave it to me. “Maybe we could go walking some time?” she asked. “Sure, we could,” I said as I thought how many times I had promised myself that I would start walking soon. “I need to get some exercise, and we can walk the puppy while we talk.”

As Lee and I drove home with the curious and suddenly lively little puppy, I realized the afternoon’s mission had nothing to do with finding a new family pet. It was this woman whose soul was seared with grief that I had been sent to find. She needed a word of encouragement from someone who had survived the depths of indescribable pain. We would exchange a couple of phone calls, but we didn’t continue the exchange all the way to the walking park. She was glad to let go of the dog, and in some way this letting go enabled her to move forward with her life.

"Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" 
(Galatians 6:2). 

LORD, help me to be aware of people around me who are hurting and need encouragement. Allow me to take the time to be a friend to those who are lonely and hurting. Thank you for the opportunity to share my faith when I meet people who need your love. In Jesus' name, Amen.

3:01 p.m. on December 15th

She was one of the young wives I had just met in a new town. Her husband was attending classes at the Seminary. He wanted to be a missionary in a foreign land, so foreign that he would need a pilot’s license to fly there. 

 She was a shopper like me. We loved talking as we walked from one store to the next all over the huge mall near our apartment complex. We were wives of ministerial students, and the fact that we had very little money to spend did not diminish the fun of window-shopping.

One December afternoon, we pushed a shopping cart through the narrow aisles of a discount store. There were just a few Christmas gift items that we needed to find and it was payday, the 15th of the month. Our husbands would be home soon, so we hurried to the check out counter. I was at the front of the cart busily unloading and separating my few items from Karen’s when I realized that she hadn’t responded to the last comment I had made. I turned to look back at her, but I saw only a ghostly white face that didn’t seem to go with the slight frame of my new best friend.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. The cashier was ringing up the items unaware of the panic that was rising from somewhere deep inside me. “Karen, are you okay?” She didn’t respond. She didn’t seem to be able to see me. Was she going to faint? Did she even have a pulse? I had never seen anyone instantly turn such an awful shade of gray. What was she looking at on the ceiling? Her eyes were glazed and I knew she had no idea where she was at that moment. I looked at my watch. 3:01 p.m. Instinctively I knew that I would never forget 3:01 p.m. on December 15.

What was she saying? “Karen, what are you saying?” I almost whispered to her. She wasn’t saying anything. She was singing. Very softly, she was singing a hymn. Somehow I paid for all the items in the cart, and managed to get her and the shopping bags into my car. I had to get her home immediately, before I lost control completely. I thought everything would be okay when she got home. Kent would be home by the time we got there, and he would take care of her. I needed to get home, too. All I could think about was getting back to our apartment complex as quickly as possible.

Karen continued to sing in the car. “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,” she sang in a hushed voice. Then for a few minutes she hummed another familiar hymn. She had not spoken a word to me, and she was still that very strange color of pale gray. As my car coasted to a stop in front of the stairway to her apartment, I could see our pastor standing at the top of the steps. “Good,” I thought, “he will know what to do with Karen.” It didn’t really seem strange to me that he was waiting there on the top step. I thought he must have been there to visit with Kent and maybe he had been invited to supper. Without a word, Karen gathered her things and gently stepped out of the car. She stood there smiling at me as I drove away. I waved, but mostly I wondered, “What just happened?”

Quickly I put the purchased items away, and began preparing to cook dinner. I hadn’t really planned to cook a big meal, but it just seemed like the right thing to do. I found myself preparing to roast a whole chicken with a pan of homemade dressing. I would add a vegetable side to go with it, I thought. It seemed like seconds later that I was opening the oven to take out a golden brown roasted chicken sitting atop bubbling hot dressing. It smelled wonderful, and I was just about to take it out of the oven when the phone rang. I don’t recall what was said, but I realized that our pastor was speaking to me. I hung up the phone without knowing whether I had spoken a word.

Kent was dead. He was 27 years old. How could a brilliant young seminary student die? He wanted to get more flight experience over water, so he had signed on with one of the oil companies to transport executives out to the oil rigs and back to their plush office suites in downtown New Orleans. At exactly 3:01 p.m., his plane caught a tower wire and burst into flames. Exactly at 3:01 pm on December 15. Our pastor had been waiting outside their apartment door to deliver the grim news to this 23-year-old widow.

Another seminary wife, was watching their two-year-old daughter, and she offered to keep her until family members arrived. I wrapped up the chicken and dressing to take to Karen’s apartment. I realized that it was never meant to be our dinner, but had been prepared for those who would come to comfort her. I don’t remember the rest of the week. I don’t remember when she left campus or how often we talked on the phone over the next couple of years. I just know she was the first widow close to my age that I had ever known.

There really is no ending to Karen’s story. Those of us who have lost a loved one in a tragic instant have found that there is no ending. My place in her story would resume at a later time, but for the moment there were others who would hold her hand. Family members came to take her to the safe place called home where she could rest and prepare to begin a new journey. 

"Sing unto God, sing praises to his name, extol him that rides upon the heavens by his name Jah (the Lord, most vehement), and rejoice before him. A father of the fatherless, and an advocate of the widows, is God in is holy habitation" (Psalm 68:4-5).

LORD, thank you for giving a song in our hearts even in times of grief and sorrow. We praise you, O God, for the protection you provide for the widows and the fatherless, and we thank you for the comfort of the Holy Spirit in times of sorrow. In Jesus' name, Amen. 

The American Flag Through the Eyes of a Veteran

The phone call had surprised me. Jerry’s brother, Claude, was saying that he was passing through town on the way to his weekend guard duty. Could he come by and visit with us? “Sure, that would be fine, but Jerry is out of town, gone to a training class for his new job,” I answered. He said he would still like to come by to see the kids. I answered his knock at the door, and thought how much more he looked like his dad. Usually he looked so much more like Jerry, but age was favoring his dad now that he was over 40. Claude, Jr. was the oldest of the seven brothers and sisters. Jerry was in the middle somewhere.

The kids were clinging to his pants legs and he carried Gloria riding on his foot as he made his way to the sofa. He hadn’t been able to get here for Jerry’s retirement at the base. No one in the family had made it. It had been just the guys in the squadron and me. We wisely chose not to bring the girls and baby Lee. I had driven to the base by myself, and Jerry’s commander and I tried to talk him out of retirement and back into another tour of duty. The recent promotion to Sr. Master Sergeant had come with a remote tour overseas. Jerry was the most committed family man I had ever known, and he was not going to leave his family. I knew that I was not going to the island of Guam with a newborn and two little girls. Retirement was Jerry’s only option in his way of thinking. The only thing I remember from the ceremony was fighting back tears of regret for the shortened military career of a man who had never planned to retire less than Chief Master Sergeant. I knew that the regret would eat him alive from within and that I would be the reason for it. I vaguely remember seeing him receive the flag that had flown over the Capitol in Washington D.C., which was provided by our state representative. We sort of knew him because his right-hand-man was an active member of our church.

“Oh, I want to show you Jerry’s flag!” I said to Claude, as I rushed down the hallway to get it from the bedroom where it was mounted in a triangular display case. I took it out, and said, “It flew over the Capitol, you know.” As I turned to face Claude, he stood to his full height and reached his arms forward to receive the American flag. As I walked across the room toward him, there was a hollow ringing sound in my ears. I heard my voice, as if it were very far away. I didn’t have time to think about what I was saying. My eyes locked with those of my brother-in-law and the world blurred into slow motion. I watched his face as the flag slowly passed from my hands to his. I saw his eyes drop from my face to the stripes of red and white and stars on a field of blue. Somehow I knew that I would never see this man again. I swallowed hard, and I forced the dark, bitter-strong thought from my mind. He was beaming with pride and his eyes glistened as he looked at this precious symbol of the freedom he had fought for in Viet Nam. I was faint and nausea was rising in my throat as the brown carpet swirled at my feet.

Jerry came home that night and I made my voice light and unconcerned as I told him how Claude had played with the children, and that I hoped he didn’t mind that I had taken the flag out of the case to show it to his brother.  When the phone call came from their sister three days later, I was not even surprised. I drove out to the base, and I wept as I told Jerry that his big brother, Claude, had died. He didn’t seem to understand what I was saying at first, and then he put his hand on his forehead and sank back in the chair at this desk. I never told him of the slow-motion premonition. I don’t recall ever telling anyone at all.

We drove to the family hometown in north Alabama. It didn’t occur to us to drive over to the base where Claude had been serving weekend guard duty, although it was only a couple of hours from our house. When we arrived with all the children in tow, Grandpa’s house was full of family. As an only-child, this big family had taken some getting used to for me. We sat in the kitchen with the rest of the family trying to comfort their daddy. He was a man of very few words, and there were no words at all for this day. Someone finally said that he wanted his oldest boy brought home, and that it just wasn’t fair to have to wait a week for the funeral service. I didn’t fully understand, but I knew something was not happening the way it should be. Why would they wait a week to have the service? The sisters put together an explanation about the confusion that was delaying the body being shipped home. “See, Claude, Jr. was in the Army Guard, but they sent his troop to work at the Air Force Base in Florida,” the sisters explained. “The Army has no control over when the Air Force will release the body,” they continued, “and Daddy is upset about it.” 

I walked to the phone and said, “I need to make a few calls, ok?” Our church office had the phone number for our state representative’s right-hand-man. After thanking him for sending Jerry’s retirement flag, I told him about the circumstances we were facing. I explained that Jerry’s brother’s body was being held at the base at Eglin and the Air Force wouldn’t release it.” 

“Do you know where I am?” this friend-of-our-family asked. “And, do you know who is right here with me?” he continued. I had no idea that he and our state representative were at that very moment at Eglin Air Force Base. The number given to me by the church secretary had been forwarded to a meeting room directly across the street from the office where the decision would be made to release the body of my husband’s brother that same afternoon. 

How marvelous are His ways! We all acknowledged that God had indeed intervened to unravel the red tape on our behalf.

"O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways untraceable!" 
Romans 11:33

LORD, thank you for the riches you give us through your wisdom. You know what we need even before we experience the loss and sorrow of grief. Keep our tender hearts in your care always. In Jesus' name, Amen.

The Homecoming Prayer

I don’t remember if she was in the hospital when we arrived for the Labor Day Weekend festivities, but suddenly we were at the hospital. She was weak and thin, and seemed more frail than anyone I had ever seen. Jerry and I waited in the hallway of the ICU.

The feeling of nausea was familiar, but seemed out of place now that I was past the second trimester of my first pregnancy. The nagging pain in my heart contrasted sharply with the butterfly kicks of the fetus within. “She will be fine,” I told myself as I prayed that this child would get to meet her great-grandmother. 

I knew that Mama Rene would want to see her only grandchild’s baby more than anything else in the world. I saw my mother standing a few feet away from the bed when they waved me into the private room. I was glad that she had stepped away to give me a few minutes with Mama Rene. Someone had combed her hair and helped her apply fresh lipstick. She smiled that serene smile that had comforted me all my life as she said, “It’s time for me to go home now.”

“Well, good,” I said. “I’m so glad you are getting to come home.” She really looked so much better than earlier that afternoon. Her eyes were shining and the color in her cheeks had returned. Her sweet smile did not betray the true meaning of her words. “I have to go home now, Sweetheart. I am so happy about going home, and I want you to be happy, too.” She asked me to give her a kiss, and I teased her that I would be giving her a great big kiss just as soon as we got her back in her own bed at home.

How odd it seemed that she should close her eyes. She didn’t laugh at my teasing and her smile faded as her face relaxed. Suddenly the nurses were entering the room. Jerry was pushing me out into the hallway, and my mother was sobbing, “No, no.”

Oh, that “home!”  She did not mean her earthly home, but the home of her precious Lord Jesus. She knew she was going to a glorious home that she could not describe. She was happy to go, and I knew that she had wanted us to let her go as peacefully as possible.

Later than night, Jerry and I slept in her bed. There were only two bedrooms in her house where I had spent most of my childhood. The hardwood floors were smooth and worn, and the walls were the same soft green that I had always known. My parents were in the other bedroom. I didn’t think I could sleep there, but somehow I had fallen into a deep sleep. The dream began immediately as if there were only a few minutes to accomplish a night’s work. The creamy green mixed with clouds of white. A misty wind blew gently around me as I floated up and up and up. I was aware that someone above me was watching intently as I ascended. There was nothing to fear. I felt relaxed as if I were sleeping peacefully in my own bed.

She could see the unborn baby through the flesh of my abdomen, and she was beaming with pride. I couldn’t see her clearly, but I knew the familiar look of unconditional love that had always favored me. She was rejoicing at the miracle of seeing her great-grandchild for the first time. I could feel the presence of His hand pushing gently into my body. There was no pain, just a feeling of awe as I realized that His unseen hand was holding the tiniest foot. Slowly, my baby’s foot was lifted up. There was an odd static unrest in the air above me. I could hear whispered words, but not clearly enough to understand what she was saying. She had been allowed to see something that was still hidden from my view. His other hand slowly covered the toes and wrapped around the fingers that held my baby’s foot. It took only a second, and then things were back to normal. I was waking up as the dim morning light made soft shadows on the creamy green walls.

I remember waking Jerry, but I didn’t tell him about the dream. I just cried quietly in his arms. He comforted me in his easy way unaware of the wonderful dream. I’m sure he thought that facing the first day without my grandmother was reason enough for me to cry. With fingers of curiosity, I gently rubbed my stomach. The baby inside slept peacefully. When Candi was born months later, there was an odd little birthmark on the bottom of her foot just below the toes. The blue-pink marking was the only sign of the miracle that I held deep within my heart. She pranced upon those toes as she began walking. She danced on those toes in frilly pink costumes. She cheered and tumbled her way through high school and college on the foot that was healed by our Creator at the prayer of her great-grandmother on a miraculous night.

To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. At His side and in the familiar conversation of one who prayed continually, her request for healing was granted. She was home indeed! And I had witnessed the glory of it all in a beautiful dream. What joy to know that He had given her the desire of her heart on the day of her home coming. She would not have left this earth without seeing that baby born except to enter into His presence. He allowed her to see without any limitation, so clearly that she could see the tiny physical flaw. She saw beyond the timeless boundaries and spoke her request in faith to Him. He healed the child inside the womb based on the faith of this new celestial citizen. What compassion He shows us even in miraculous moments of peaceful sleep.

"We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord." 2 Corinthians 5:8

LORD, thank you for your promise to those who have chosen to accept your gift of salvation that we will be present with you when we leave this earth. The fear of leaving our human bodies cannot compare with the joy of being with you for all eternity. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Bitter or Better

It had been about two months since Jerry’s death when I returned to the church office to work on the monthly newsletter. The pastor asked me to come into his office to meet a woman who had come to talk with him. As he introduced us, he told her that I had recently lost my husband. As his gaze shifted from this better-than-middle-aged woman to me, I knew he wanted me to catch some deeper insight into the words he spoke.

He said to me, “This lady is also a widow.” As our hands met, I saw that her face was thin and worn, and she appeared to be as fragile as I still felt. I thought that her husband must have died as recently as mine. She sighed deeply, “Yes, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about how wonderful my husband was and how lonely my life is now without him.” With that comment, I felt the chill of unresolved sorrow.

“How recently did he pass?” I asked. “Fifteen miserable years ago!” she scowled through angry clenched teeth. Whether I spoke aloud again, I really can’t say. The pastor was talking with her, but I could only hear the rush of blood through my temples as I frantically prayed, “Oh, God, please don’t let me live long enough to be like this woman!”

When she left his office, the pastor knew that his point had been well received. He had made that introduction because he wanted me to see “Future Horrid.” He hoped that I would vow to never become like her. I said to him, “Don’t ever let me become that bitter person.” He smiled and replied, “You won’t.” 

Some years before Jerry’s death someone had said to me, “You can either become bitter or get better.” I knew that it was imperative that I keep the promise I had made to myself to find a way to get better every day. Bitter is not a color that I wear well.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: 
a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,     
a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,      
a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,     
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and     
a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and  
a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and    
a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 NIV)

LORD, I know I need to be more patient and trust You to complete what You have begun in my life. That is especially difficult in times when it feels like nothing is happening at all! The right thing at the wrong time can be as damaging as the wrong thing at any time. Do whatever You need to do to get me where I need to be when I need to be there, and help me trust Your timing and not be anxious in the meantime. In Jesus' name, Amen.

I Should Have Known

When you go to the grocery in the middle of the afternoon, you see all sorts of folks you don't see there on the weekend. Usually, I would have been working in the middle of the day. But since my mom's last stroke, I had been running errands during the day for my parents. It seemed there was something they needed from the grocery or pharmacy every day. This day, I was hurrying through the store aisles.

As I turned the corner of the last aisle, I saw a lady from church. I had often seen her at the nursing home where her husband had been living for several years. She would be there patiently feeding him lunch in the dining hall and faithfully caring for his every need. 

We greeted each other in the grocery as she asked, “How is your mom?” As I began to tell her about Mom's second stroke, she asked if I had heard that her husband had died in February. “No,” I said, “I had not heard about that. I am so sorry.” And then she began to tell the story of his final day on earth.

“It was the day before Valentine's Day,” she began. “Remember how hard it rained that day?” she asked, and I nodded as I recalled the the stormy weather. She continued, “He sat up in bed that day and said, 'Look at all that rain!' And I said to him, 'Who are you?' Because he had not spoken that clearly or even noticed the rain for months.” And then she told me that later that night, he had died in his sleep. Her eyes tightened and her cheeks flushed as she said, “I should have known, because he was so different.”

My mind drifted away from our conversation as I wondered how many other widows have said that same thing, “I should have known.” Recalling my own husband's death, I thought "Certainly, I should have known." I still remember how I sat up in bed feeling the presence of angels around me. “Reach out to him.” They didn't speak out loud of course, but I could hear them urging me to reach out to him. I did not. At the time, I thought I had good reasons not to wake him in the middle of the night. It's one of those things that I've wanted to do over so many times.

Later when my mother died, sixteen months after the first stroke, my dad said that I should have been there. My children and I had been there so many other times in the middle of the night, but not that night. So often we live in denial of the obvious truth. And yet when that one thing which is impossible to know finally happens, we blame ourselves by saying, “I should have known.” The truth is that no one can know the day or the hour of the passing of another person or even know of their own death. There are reasons why these things are known only by God.

"And which of you with taking thought can add to his stature one cubit? If ye then be not able to do that thing which is least, why take ye thought for the rest? Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? And see not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind. For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: and your Father knows that ye have need of these things. But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you." 
Luke 12:25-31

Lord, Thank you for reminding us that you know us intimately even when we don't understand the circumstances surrounding life and death. Thank you for providing for us all the days of our lives. Forgive us when we try to second guess your plans. Help us to rest knowing that you are in control of everything. Thank you most of all for providing eternal life through your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Whisper of a Name

I could faintly hear the whisper of a name some place deep inside my mind. I was remembering my friend, Rob, and he was the first person "my age" who died that I had known. We had attended the same church and high school since the 7th grade. We sort of liked each other in the 9th grade. I decided that I would not think about that for a long time.

However, I did think about Rob's mother. Wasn’t she a widow? Maybe she was the first widow I had ever known. We had never talked about Rob’s dad, but somehow it seemed that I had just accepted the fact that she was a widow. With a gentle sadness, she carried the responsibility of raising two teenage boys alone. It draped softly like a sheer scarf around her shoulders which clearly carried a weight too heavy to bear alone.

She had great faith, though, and so she was not alone in a spiritual sense. It never seemed to bother her that she often sat alone in worship services. Whenever I saw her driving the boys to church, I never thought how hard it must have been for her to be always alone. If she ever complained, I didn’t know about it. If she ever cried, no one could tell it from the way she carried herself. There was a slight curve in the middle of her back that betrayed the supernatural strength that only God could have given to her.

Why had I been so drawn to study her from a quiet distance? As a teenager, I’m sure I was paying no attention to many of the things going on around me. Like my friends, I was completely self-absorbed in the style of new clothes, the latest lip-gloss flavor, and wondering if Rob could tell that I was totally distracted by his presence in the room.

It was the late ‘60s and I was lost in the “sounds of silence” as we hit out in the chapel of the church building on Sunday afternoons. Like most church youth groups, we had our own agenda when we arrived early for youth choir rehearsal. And it didn’t have anything to do with singing in the evening worship service. It was all about finding a way to elude the adult youth leaders so we could sneak a few minutes alone with our closest friends. As soon as we could steal away from all the adult authorities in our lives, we were totally involved in the latest gossip about “who liked who” and who we had seen at the movie theater or fast food restaurant on Saturday night.

We were just a little too young to grasp the world-changing events of Woodstock or Kent State, but we heard about them on the radio and watched with disbelief on the evening news. We knew that adult society was in chaos, but we were just beginning to experiment with the social graces of early adolescence. While we didn’t know any real “hippies” in our town, we did rush to the mall to buy leather-fringed jackets. I still can recall the memory of a hazy Saturday afternoon spent walking to the mall from a friend’s house.

There were six of us walking through summer grass along the side of the busy street leading to the familiar department stores. I didn’t actually know anyone from England, but I so wanted to wear whatever style was the latest import from the land of the Beatles. Nothing tasted sweeter than Bonnie Bell’s latest lip gloss, which was just another variation on frosted pink! I can still see myself in that light brown leather jacket with six-inch fringe hanging in every direction. I only recall wearing it that one time and being aware of the smoky smell of fresh animal skin that was so intoxicating to a very impressionable teenage girl.

We laughed and sang along to “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” on the portable radio that Rob was carrying on his shoulder. I wished that I had a brother like Rob. At least I wished that when I wasn’t wishing that he would ask me to be his girlfriend. I was always torn between wanting to like him and loving him like the brother. He was my first kiss, although I knew I probably wasn’t his. With sparkling blue eyes and wild reddish brown hair, he seemed to know more about life than anyone else in my sheltered world.

Life remained fairly innocent through high school, but soon my care-free world would be shattered. I had come home for summer break at the end of my freshman year at college. I was no longer the same na├»ve’ teenage girl who had loved singing in youth choir at church. My perfect world was being stretched by living away from home for the first time. It was a tough adjustment for me and I had not handled it as quite as well as I should have.

For the first time in my life, I had taken a job out in the real world of workday stress. It was just a temporary job for the summer, but it was a big first step into the adult world for me. I played along with the other employees as if I were in the game for life. They must have been amused by my eagerness to please the managers and annoyed that I thought I had fully arrived all at the same time. I did what ever my middle-aged counterparts did. I took breaks with them, joined in their discussions, and worked hard at fitting in with the others in the department.

One of the executives was a man that I had known from church. His son and daughter had become involved in our youth group when they moved into town during my junior year in high school. The boy was my age, and the girl was two years younger. They moved in like they owned the place, and none of us liked either of them from the start. We didn’t like their parents either. We didn’t know why except that we were a typically tight little click of friends and they had invaded our space. The parents had joined in the church culture in the same way the kids had staked claim in the youth group. They were just a little too forceful for the gentile southern manners of our town.

It was during the afternoon break at the office when he walked up to me in the company's cafeteria line. I didn’t want to be rude, but speaking to him was just a matter of courteous behavior lacking any form of sincerity. In his usual cold manner he engaged me in a conversation that sent me reeling in my already fragile world.

I turned to look up at this dark-suited man as if I were seeing him for the first time. What did he just say to me? How dare he speak to me about my friend-like-a-brother with such disrespect! He didn’t even know Rob. Even his two annoying teenage intruders didn’t really know Rob.  “You don’t even know him,” I challenged, “and I doubt that anything you’ve said is true!” 

He was not my boss, and I didn’t care that he was one of the executives. He had just informed me of the most heart-breaking news that I could remember hearing at this point in my life. Coldly, he had asked, “Have you heard that Rob over-dosed last night?” My mind put aside the idea of Rob having overdosed. Why did this man imply that Rob was taking any type of drugs, prescriptions or otherwise? 

I left the cafeteria tray on the sterile steel bars and ran from the building without even going back to my desk. I was angry with this insensitive man for the tone he used when he spoke the words “over-dosed last night.” It was never confirmed whether it was an accidental combination of prescription drugs, or something more troubling.

Immediately, I went to Rob's house where I found many of his mother's friends and family had gathered to comfort her. I watched them as if I were just a silent observer. The only time I cried was when his mother hugged me and thanked me for coming by to see her.  

There seemed to be nothing left to say about the heart-breaking death of my young friend. Summer passed quickly and I was back in college.  Youth had lost its innocence and life would never be the same again. I felt that there were no good answers, and my mind found it easier to ignore the questions in my heart.

"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."
I Corinthians 13:12

Lord, We don't understand so many things that happen in our lives. The death of a young friend is certainly hard to accept. Circumstances really don't matter in the midst of grief. What matters is that You can help us through the sorrow, and some day we will have the answers that we need. Some day we will see our friends and family in Heaven. Even more wonderful is Your promise that there we will also meet You face to face. What a glorious day that will be! In Jesus' name, Amen.