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GIVE THANKS WITH A GRATEFUL HEART

Saturday before last, we celebrated an early Thanksgiving with our son, Steve, and his family. Usually I prepare most of the meal, but, because of my health problems, our daughter-in-law, Sophia, hosted the occasion. Every year we enjoy the traditional American feast on a date prior to November 15 when their family participates in the Greek Orthodox Nativity fast.  

I contributed to the meal with my southern sweet potato soufflé and corn pudding to add to Sophia’s feast which included turkey, stuffing, gravy, green beans, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes.   

After we took our seats around the table and blessed the meal, our plates were soon heaped with the sweet and savory foods. The grandchildren made sure we knew which dishes they helped prepare and which foods were low-carb in case anyone besides our son was interested. The stuffed mushrooms were a hit with everyone.

Once we were enjoying the delicious meal, Sophia, asked if we had a special song that related to Thanksgiving. I looked around at the colorful autumn decorations and my eyes landed on a plaque on the wall. “Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart,” it boldly declared. The song, “Give Thanks,” written by John Jackson and sung by Don Moen came immediately to mind. I sang the words to them and thought about how wonderful to remember a worship song that had been popular many years before. Sophia Googled the song and let it play through while our forks returned to the tasty meal.

Over pumpkin pie and spiced tea, our sixteen year old grandson, Pavlos, reminded us that we hadn’t taken turns expressing what we were thankful for over the past year. Someone mentioned that it wasn’t really Thanksgiving. His response, “We get to give thanks twice!” The simple tradition passed down from my own parents has remained a Thanksgiving exercise whether we are celebrating early or late, or in Virginia or five hours away in New Jersey with our daughter and her family. 

Long after the evening ended, my mind continued to consider the idea of a grateful heart. In Life Group we recently studied Soul Keeping by John Ortberg where he suggested that a healthy soul needs to be thankful to God and others–an attitude of gratitude. We even had exercises to encourage us to be thankful. Proverbs 17:22 says, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine . . ..” 

This wasn’t an easy year for either my husband or myself and my heart at times was far from “merry.” The only medicine came from the pharmacist and the side effects failed to produce a merry heart.

Over the summer, Charlie went through several medical procedures requiring anesthesia, including two major surgeries. During the same period, I underwent two cardioversions and a heart ablation. Our lives took on the appearance of a “new normal” that left a bad taste in my mouth.

For days, the only people we saw were medical personnel. But just when we were beginning to feel detached from our friends, something–a card, an email, a Facebook post, a phone call or a visit–would remind us that we are loved, supported and missed. Now that we are both on the mend and feeling better every day, I realize how important it is to be thankful, even when we don’t feel like it.

Forrest Gump surmised, “. . ., life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” God didn’t promise that every situation would be perfect or that we would be healthy, wealthy and wise. But he said he would be “our Shepherd, our Rock, our Shelter, our Fortress, our Peace, our Healer, our Strength, our Deliver, our Provider. We could go on for several more paragraphs, but most importantly, he promised to be with us. 

Despite the wind and the waves, the trials of life or the weakness of our bodies, he is always there. When we stopped looking down at the circumstances and looked up to him, our hearts overflowed with gratitude and we felt his comforting, healing presence.   

This afternoon, we return to our son’s home to feast on a fast-worthy meal that will include fish and other seafood dishes–all made without dairy, meat or eggs. As our plates are filled, our hearts will overflow with the goodness of God. We will look into the eyes of our loved ones and express our gratefulness to them and to God for another year to share, to love and to worship.

Will you join us this Thanksgiving Day in giving thanks for God’s abundant blessings?

 

 

 

 

 

Orphaned

During the sermon on Sunday our pastor read First Thessalonians 2:17 from the NIV where the Apostle Paul felt “orphaned” because he was separated from his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica. The word hit me so forcefully, that I texted a few of my friends. “That’s me.” I wrote. “I feel orphaned!” The exclamation was followed by a very sad face.

I had dressed for church that Sunday morning with excitement because Charlie and I planned to attend the service for the first time in weeks. In July, he underwent numerous procedures and emergency surgery to remove three feet of twisted colon from his lower intestine. Four weeks later he had open heart surgery to replace a faulty valve and to bypass three blocked arteries. Soon after his last hospitalization and two weeks in acute rehab, I spent a night in the hospital for a heart ablation to correct my atrial fibrillation. Since it had been six weeks after Charlie’s last surgery and I felt so much better,  I thought surely we’d be able to return to church. Wrong.

As I searched for comfortable clothes that would hide the colostomy bag he was left with after the first surgery, he stumbled into the bedroom to dress for church. “I don’t feel like going. I’m too dizzy.” He was so pale, I thought he would faint.

Dizziness has plagued him for several months and I mistakenly thought the heart surgery would correct the problem. Though he often feels fine, the dizzy spells attack him at the most inconvenient times.  Without a better explanation, the medical personnel have labeled it Postural Hypotension. Needless to say, he wasn’t going to church and I couldn’t leave him with such instability.

My spirits dragged as I removed my church clothes and went into the kitchen. Once again, we’d watch the service on line. There would be no fellowship with the saints and no after church breakfast with the BK Brunch Bunch, a collection of dear friends from our Thursday night small group.

The worship was wonderful as we watched from our comfortable recliners, but I continued to think how much better it would be if we were there in person–singing and praising God with our friends. The sermon series the last couple of weeks has been on connecting with other members of the family of God.

The points the pastor made weren’t new to us or to the special group of people that we consider family–the members of the Gainesville Life Group. This particular group has been meeting at the home of our friends, the Stinson’s, for more than eleven years.  We’ve been attending the last ten. Though the group provides opportunity to fellowship with couples we’ve known for over fifty years, we are also blessed with the new friends we’ve met since joining this unique group.  These dear people not only accept us as members of their “family,” but connect to our spirits in a way that seems supernatural. Could God have put us all together?

Love flows from the moment we walk into Barbara and Earl Stinson’s family room on Thursday evenings. Eyes light up with greeting and, over an abundance of snacks on the kitchen island, we catch up. How was your week away? Is your daughter feeling better? Tell me what’s going on with Robert? We know these people. Their concerns are ours–we weep when they weep and rejoice when they rejoice. When the bell rings to begin the session, we rush to finish a thought or story and laugh when Earl has to repeat the warning.

Since prayers are taken seriously, praise is our first order of business as reports of God’s intervention and answers are shared. The teaching video convicts and challenges us to grow stronger in our faith and our commitment to God and others. Questions are batted back and forth, working the truths into our own situations. Occasionally special offerings are received–to assist a needy missionary, to help someone in our group who is struggling financially, to dig a few wells in Africa or to collect warm clothing and socks for the homeless. Generosity and love are freely shared. We close by praying for the needs God brings to our minds.

Every Thursday evening when I’m forced to stay home, I drift farther into this feeling of isolation. Going out at night gets harder and I think it’s just easier to stay put. But I know me–I can’t survive without my brothers and sisters in Christ. I need the challenge; I need the love; I need their support and encouragement and I need to study and pray with them. They are my family for eternity and, like the Apostle Paul, I feel orphaned without them.

Treasures Found in Friendship

Last Friday morning as I prepared to attend Juliet’s (Joyful Unique Ladies, Incredibly Eager To Socialize) porch party, my thoughts wandered past the group of friends I’d be meeting that day, to the many friendships I have accumulated over the years. Some came natural through association at school, church, small groups, etc., while others made their way into my heart without the least effort from me. No matter the circumstances surrounding their arrival, all have become valued treasures.

Living in the Washington, D.C. area, friends come and go on a regular basis. Though distance puts a strain on relationships, social media has paved a way to reconnect and stay in touch. Keeping up has never been so easy as I daily scroll through pictures and posts. The young carefree faces of my friends are now often wrinkled with time, sorrows and disappointments. In other pictures, I wonder how they could have aged so well. Their children, who were once friends with my children, are now married with children of their own. Sometimes the post comes as a request for prayer; more often, a reason to congratulate. Regardless of the content, it makes me long for an afternoon visit over a cup of tea.

One characteristic I noticed at the Juliet’s luncheon when we were asked to tell something about our mothers: The dear women who make up this particular group came from strong, overcoming mothers. Several lost their fathers when they were young, yet their mothers persevered to provide for their families. Many were praised for their hard work whether in a factory, an office, a department store or in the home. Their skills ranged from cooking and sewing to “a beautiful voice, especially when she yodeled.” I left the party feeling that I’d been given a glimpse into their hearts as my friends described (some with tears) memories of their mothers.

Though friendships evolve from acquaintances we meet along the way, I’m surprised at how often a casual meeting turns into something more. You invite a family over for a meal and the woman becomes a kindred spirit; you greet the couple behind you in church and your families become inseparable for a time; you’re invited to join a group and before you know it you feel like a member of the family.

Friendships for me grow deeper within groups where I’m forced to share my thoughts and feelings. It usually occurs in a small Bible study, prayer or support group., The more time you spend with the person, the deeper and more meaningful the relationship. Some of my dearest friends have been around for over fifty years, but the past ten years has added a wealth of additional close relationships.

After church on Sundays, we meet with a small group at Burger King. (Affectionately know as the BK Brunch Bunch). Understanding the differences, the women sit at separate tables from the men. Over coffee, the men discuss sports, vehicles, politics and activities, usually in that order. It’s an enjoyment to  glimpse across the aisle and notice our men laughing, teasing and enjoying each other.

Conversations around the women’s table are rarely superficial. They range from the impact of the sermon to our personal needs and desires. We often share something we’re reading, an inspiration from a movie, tips to improve our health and plans for the upcoming week. We notice when someone is missing or with us, but quieter than usual.  Unless, someone in our group decides to cook, we return to the same spot each week. Not for the food, but for the feeling of belonging we sense within this close-knit family.

When it comes to the gifts of friendship, I could easily describe my life as a revolving door, filled to capacity. Though some slip off for a season, they seem to return and grow stronger.  A few have slipped off into eternity and I miss them along with their strong influence, but I know that this too is for a season. It doesn’t seem to matter that we came from a variety of backgrounds, worship preferences and cultures.  We have the same goals: loving God, loving people and sharing our discoveries with others.

Throughout my life, I consider each friendship a valued treasure. Not one chance meeting has been insignificant. My dear friends challenge me to be a better person; they encourage me when I’m down and they support me through good times and bad. I am blessed and wealthy beyond description.

 

 

 

BELOW THE SURFACE

 

Amid the enjoyment of my favorite snack of popcorn, I bit down on something hard. Unbearable pain shot through my jaw and up toward my ear. Unfortunately, it was a tooth that already had a resorption problem. In case you’ve never heard of this rare occurrence, it’s a troublesome condition where the body’s own cells eat away at the tooth’s root system.

This painful moment happened the day before we left for five weeks of vacation in Georgia and Florida. Being the optimistic person that I am, I assumed it would go away in a few days without interfering with my fun in the sun. Not so. Lest I bore you with details, I’ll give you the shortened version. “Ouch!”

A call to the dentist informed me that the culprit would probably require a specialist. If it couldn’t wait until we returned to the Washington area, I’d have to find a dentist in Florida. Determined to grin and bear it, I endured with a few adjustments. The normally delicious fried shrimp at Miller’s Ale House became tasteless. My tongue worked overtime to maneuver the food away from the right side of my mouth where the deceptive tooth took exception to even a small amount of pressure.

Yes, deceptive. From the inside, the resorption ate away at my tooth, while on the outside, it looked perfect. Not a sign of the disintegration going on beneath the surface.

As I thought about my beautiful offensive tooth, I’m reminded of another deception that can so easily creep into our lives. Bitterness, anger and hate, like tooth resorption, destroys us from the inside out. We might appear well and happy, but deep down, we’re holding a grudge.

Our anger comes to the surface occasionally when our politician doesn’t win; someone makes a remark that reminds of us past offenses against us; life isn’t fair and we look around for someone else to blame. Regardless of the trigger, the root cause is embedded deep within our hearts. Our past hurts and mistreatments raise their ugly little heads and we lash out at the next person who gets in our way. Often, it’s the ones we love the most who must bear the brunt of our anger and unforgiveness.

I recently watched the movie, “I Can Only Imagine,” which tells the true story of lead singer and songwriter, Bart Millard, of the contemporary Christian band MercyMe. Bart functioned only from the surface, until he discovered the power of forgiveness. He grew up with an abusive father he referred to as a “Monster.”  Until the roots of bitterness and hate were rooted out, he wasn’t free to fully express himself through song. All the hurts from the past hindered him from writing and singing from his heart. Though Bart probably aches at times for the life that could have been, he’s been set free to use his gifts to fully glorify God.

This morning I read a reprint from an article in “Ebony” magazine on Facebook. Katrina Adams serves as Chairman, CEO and President of the U. S. Tennis Association. She is noted for being the first black, the first former pro player and the youngest person ever to serve in this position. When Ebony asked her what obstacles she had to overcome to get where she was today, her reply stuck with me. “I don’t look at my challenges as obstacles, but learning platforms.”

I’m certain Ms. Adams had many opportunities to wallow in self-pity, bitterness and disappointment, but she chose to see those challenges as stepping stones toward success for herself and inspiration for others.

When Bart Millard chose to return home and deal with the roots of unforgiveness, God met him there and helped him rise above the past. The father he called a “monster” was transformed by the grace of God into someone he considered a friend. Those hurts and disappointments became a catalyst for success as he wrote the award winning song for his father, “I Can Only Imagine.”

Though I still suffer from the pain caused by the surgeon when he extracted the offending root, I’m confident it will soon heal and I’ll be able to chew again. In a few months, I’ll be given an implant and a brand new crown unaffected by resorption.

Rooting out bitterness, hurt and anger is also painful. Our church’s Lenten devotion this week deals with letting go of the past and walking in the freedom of forgiveness. Is unforgiveness preventing you from moving forward with the plan God has for you. Allow his love and forgiveness to wash over you and give you the grace to forgive others. “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ, God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:31,32.(NIV) 

 

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Family

I recently read an article in Parade Magazine, “Why We Still Love Star Wars,” by Mara Reinstein. She summed it up with two words, “Luke Skywalker.” I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Star Wars, but the story has hung around so long even a casual observer becomes sucked in to the bluster that rekindles with the release of each new movie. While many of the original characters retain their positions, new personalities are introduced along with special effects meant to wow even the most sedate and keep movie goers standing in long lines to view the latest.

Regardless of my personal lack of interest in science fiction, my children and grandchildren are among the throngs awaiting the next adventure. After overhearing endless discussions on the subject, I’ve formed my own opinion. The enthusiastic fans feel connected. It matters not that the characters more resemble a tin can, a basketball or someone you’d like to avoid on a dark night–they’ve become family. The good, bad and the ugly–they’ve made an impression and we feel connected to the personalities in the story.

Tomorrow, my husband and I will attend the Ogden Family Reunion in Odum, Georgia. None of the multitude of cousins or extended family members resemble tin cans, but we’re all linked by the DNA of our parents, grandparents and ancestors from long ago. Though we come from various walks of life, when we’re together we create a menagerie of fun, laughter and stories worth telling. We feel the connection to something greater than our immediate families.

The tables groaning with southern cooking end with an array of desserts surrounding the large birthday cake for Uncle Colen Ogden. The only survivor of my grandparents’ twelve children will be celebrating his 95th birthday. He’s our family patriarch who survived the hardships facing a large family during the depression, World War II and the years of loss as he outlived his parents, siblings and his dear wife of sixty-five years. We are his family and we will honor him. It will be a fine few hours reconnecting with those we see only once a year.

My dear Star Wars fans: “May the Force be with you” as you enjoy that feeling of comradiere with your imaginary characters in a far away galaxy. As for me, I’ll be connecting with real-life relatives who have their roots in the sandy soil of South Georgia.

Through the Innocence of a Child

When my sister, Paulette, was old enough to board the big yellow school bus for first grade, I felt lost without the companionship of a playmate. That’s when I ventured down the graded dirt road to visit Bobby Jones who lived with his parents on the adjoining farm. It didn’t seem to matter that he was a year younger than my five years. Bobby had toys!

This child who became my best friend, had a fairy godmother in the guise of his mother’s sister. Aunt Bill rarely arrived for a visit without bearing gifts. Boy toys, of course, but I didn’t mind. She would occasionally bring something special for Paulette and me.

The Jones’ were getting an indoor bathroom and the huge mound of dirt left behind from digging the septic tank provided hours of fun–building roads, castles and even heaven. The gifts of trucks and cars made their way over our roads and around our mountains.

One day we were bored with playing in the dirt and looked around for something more challenging. We found an old portable chicken coop that Bobby thought his father could do without. A couple of hammers made their way into our anxious hands and we went to work, pounding the boards from the A-frame structure and removing the chicken wire.

We were almost finished and felt elated at our accomplishment when Mr. Jones discovered the demolition of his chicken coop. Bobby’s father wasn’t at all pleased with our hard work. To the contrary, he appeared furious with us for destroying his safe place for the baby chicks.

During the entire project, neither of us suspected that we were doing wrong. Not once did we consider the baby chicks. Hence, we were surprised when I was sent home and Bobby was left to endure a promised punishment. I ran back down the road, crying in fear and confusion. How could Mr. Jones think we’d done wrong when it seemed so right?

A few days past before I ventured back up the road to play with Bobby. When I did, the reconstructed chicken coop sat as a glaring reminder of that disastrous day. I suspected my own father helped with the rebuilding of the coop. Although I don’t remember receiving the first lecture on the subject, I learned the importance of respecting the property of others.

As I grew older and remembered this incident from my childhood, I could no longer claim innocence as an excuse. I’d been taught right from wrong and understood that there were consequences for my behavior. When I had questions, the Holy Spirit of God moved in to point me in the right direction or to correct me when I strayed from the truth.

Over the years, there have been several painful moments when I knew I’d walked in disobedience. Love and kindness had not dominated my conversation; pride, envy and jealousy had ruled my actions; bitterness and unforgiveness shadowed the situation; truth had not been spoken. Though all these actions spoke of disobedience to God, they also injured others and required the discipline of reconciliation.

“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Hebrews 12:11 (ESV)

Is it painful? You bet. Is it worth it? Absolutely. The “peaceful fruit of righteousness” grows within us an abundance of other fruit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Are you willing to be trained by the discipline of God’s Spirit?

When Christmas Came to Stay

Emma

Christmas represents a magical time of the year for most, but it had the opposite effect on Emma Bryant. From Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day, Emma wished to escape to some tropical paradise where Christmas trees, holiday shopping and seasonal music was banned. In lieu of red or green taffeta, velvet or silk, she preferred sack cloth and ashes. She found nothing happy nor merry about this time of year.

It wasn’t always this way. Up until two years ago, Christmas topped the list of Emma’s favorite times. Happiness surrounded her that Christmas Eve as she left the midnight service on the arm of her fiancé. She felt so thankful for the birth of the Christ Child and the anticipation of a glorious future with Liam. The accumulated snow from weeks before crunched under their boots as a fresh layer fell on their heavy wool coats. Lights twinkled in the windows and yard decorations flashed colorful displays of Santa, reindeer and elves competing in sharp contrast to the simple manger scenes.

The magic of the night and her dreamy, hope-filled thoughts were not prepared for the phone call that awakened her a few hours later. Only moments after their passionate Christmas kiss, Liam’s car was struck head-on by a drunk driver. The woman was returning from an office party so drunk she missed the one-way street sign. The glass of wine Emma used to enjoy with Liam now left a bitter taste in her mouth. She not only hated the drunken woman, but she despised even the thought of Christmas and all it represented.

Emma had graduated from college the year before Liam’s death. Her doctorate in Psychology had earned her a position with the state working in family counseling. She felt fulfilled and successful when she saw families putting aside their differences and working to restore wholeness to their marriage and family. Never did she consider that her future with Liam would shatter before they ever recited their vows.

After the few weeks of condolence leave, Emma realized she would never be able to return to her job in the city. It seemed hopeless to encourage families to reunite when they were subject to shattering at any moment. Without the generous salary, she was forced to move back into her old room at the home of her parents. She preferred to grieve alone, but the years of training and study made her aware of her own symptoms which bordered on depression and occasional suicidal thoughts. Prompted by his concern for his daughter’s withdrawn state, her father asked her to serve as a Christian counselor at the mid-sized church he pastored. He had hoped that helping her clients through trials using biblical counseling techniques would be a miraculous cure for her own depressed state.

Almost two years after the tragedy, she still ached over the loss and continued to stew in hatred toward the drunk driver. Christmas brought a need to escape; she despised even the thought of holiday cheer. How would she ever survive another season and encourage others out of their doldrums when she felt like a fraud herself? She knew the right words, the right treatment plans, but she refused to believe them.

Her aching head and unpleasant memories were interrupted by the intercom, “Emma, do you have a minute?” Emma’s father rarely summoned her to his office, but he sounded upset and since her next appointment wasn’t for a while, she had no reason to refuse him. “Sit down, honey.”

“What’s this about Daddy? You seem upset.”

“I’m very concerned about one of our parishioners. His wife and little boy died in a car accident a few months ago and the man can’t seem to get his life back on an even keel. He’s had two DUI’s and Judge Dawson plans to throw the book at him if he doesn’t agree to counseling. Nathan Bianchi seems fine during the week when he can bury himself in work, but on the weekends, he drinks himself into oblivion to dispel the pain.”

The more her father spoke, the angrier Emma became and the more she wanted to scream at her father. “What do you think you’re doing, Daddy? Don’t you realize how much I despise drunk drivers. I don’t want to hear how he grieves for his family, that’s no excuse to put innocent lives in danger. He can rot in jail as far as I’m concerned.”

Tears filled her father’s eyes. “Emma, I know you’re hurting, but so is Nathan. You cover your pain with anger and bitterness while he resorts to alcohol. He is subject to hurting himself and others, but you are also hurting yourself and those who love you. Can’t you at least talk to him? I feel so strongly that God wants you to share your story with Nathan. Perhaps you can help one another.”

Emma hated to disappoint her father, but she didn’t see how this could help anyone. “I don’t agree with you or God. In fact, I’m still angry with him for taking Liam. But I’ll meet with Mr. Bianchi once and listen to his story. I can’t promise anything. There’s no way I can help if I can’t move past his actions. You’ll have to pray for me.”

“Consider it done, my child.” Emma hugged her father before returning to her own office down the hall.

By the time Nathan Bianchi entered her office the following afternoon, Emma had built a wall a mile high, filled with prejudice and preconceived plans to give him a quick boot. She envisioned a man with slouchy clothes and the telltale sign of bags under his red swollen eyes. When the relaxed, well-groomed, darkly tanned Italian walked into the room, she stood with her mouth gapped open, unable to speak.

When she finally found her voice, she’d decided this was not her client, but someone looking for her father. “May I help you? My father’s office is just down the hall.”

“I’m Nathan Bianchi, I believe it’s you I’m supposed to meet. Dr. Bryant, I presume?” The man reached out his hand to shake while Emma remembered her father describing how he kept his problem confined to weekends. It seemed Mr. Bianchi was as clever at hiding his pain as she was.

Emma squelched the anger building within her chest, ignored the outstretched hand and gestured toward the chair across from her desk. She refused to usher him into the relaxed sitting area where she usually met her clients. Let him be uncomfortable in his pretentious ensemble.

“Yes, I’m Dr. Bryant. My father explained some of your background, but I’d like to hear your version of the story. Before you waste my time on your heart rendering defenses, I want you to know that there is no excuse for drunk driving. It’s despicable and comparable to a loaded gun.”

Nathan

Nathan squirmed under the woman’s intense scrutiny and harsh judgment. His meticulous grooming failed to fool the knowledgeable woman, but it worked both ways. Her preconceived ideas and judgmental attitude came across loud and clear. She might be his last hope before jail, but he’d rather face the wrath of the judge than endure six miserable weeks with this angry, scorned woman.

Nathan cleared his throat and hoped to diminish his angry response. “Dr. Bryant, I’m not certain what I’ve done to you personally, but I can see this isn’t going to work. You’ve already signed my death sentence and decided I’m a lost cause. Perhaps we should save time and call it quits before we annihilate each other.”

The doctor’s confidence seemed to waver as she watched her hands rubbing restlessly against the paperweight on her desk. Tears puddled in her eyes and her voice sounded strained as she attempted to regain her position. “I’m sorry, Mr. Bianchi, but that came across extremely unprofessional. Please try to forget that hateful remark. I also doubt that I can help you, but I feel I should try. This is also very unprofessional of me, but your situation seems jumbled together with my own personal tragedy. Perhaps we might help one another.”

Nathan didn’t quite know how to respond. He wanted to stand and flee, but something or someone kept him glued to the uncomfortable chair. Compassion welled within him when he saw the doctor’s tears and listened to her plea to continue. He had no choice but to stay and pour his heart out to a woman he doubted he could trust.

Emma

Emma couldn’t seem to stop the unorthodox confession coming from her mouth, but when the man threatened to leave, she sensed he might be the last straw in restoring her own wholeness. It didn’t make sense. Forced to come here by the courts, how would he even begin to help her? She barely tolerated the thought of a destructive alcoholic, yet, for some unknown reason, she wanted to immerse deep into his wounds, hoping against all odds to find herself somewhere in the process.

“In my present state, I doubt I can help anyone, Dr. Bryant, but I do think I should share my story while I still have the nerve. My wife, Claire, and I were married over six years and had purchased a house in the suburbs. We commuted into the city during the week and attended your father’s church on Sundays. We had few disagreements as we prayed and tried to put God first in our marriage. When we had almost given up hope of having children, our baby boy was born on Christmas last year. Our family rejoiced over this unexpected gift.

“Five months later I was planning a funeral for my wife and child. The SUV my wife drove was hit by a man in a dump truck. His brakes failed at the intersection near our house. I’ve been in a daze since that awful afternoon.”

“I understand, Mr. Bianchi, that you’re able to function during the week. How is that different from the weekends?”

“I work longer hours and fall into bed too tired to think or remember. Often, I sleep on the couch in the reception area at work. Although he knows how difficult it is, my supervisor has barred me from the office on weekends. When I’m forced to think of something besides work, the fond memories of my wife and son prove too painful. I’ve never indulged in alcohol beyond an occasional glass of wine, but those unbearable weekends have me craving the numbing substance. I drink until my supply is diminished and then I drive drunk to the liquor store to satisfy the gnawing crave.

“I just wish there was some way to endure the memories of my family without this awful destructive behavior. Please, I’ll try anything you suggest.”

Emma sat assessing her client, seeing the regret and hearing his plea for help. She didn’t know how to respond, but for the first time in months, she suggested something that she’d previously rejected. She had refused to use the Christian counseling techniques she’d studied and relied completely on secular methodology. The presence of God penetrated her thoughts and she knew only He had the answer for both her client and herself.

“Mr. Bianchi, may I begin by calling you Nathan? And I want you to call me Emma. The highly unorthodox reason for this is because we are going to help one another.”

Nathan’s raised eyebrows and disbelieving frown expressed surprise at her suggestion. He leaned forward in anticipation of what she might say next. “I’m not certain I follow you, but I’m desperate to be free.”

“How do you feel about Christmas, Nathan?”

“I hate it. When I envision Matthew’s birth, it starts the painful reminder of our immense happiness followed by the devastating loss.”

Emma felt the nudge, accompanied by the inner voice that screamed, Tell him. “I don’t really want to tell you this, but it seems I have no choice. You see, my fiancé left after the Christmas Eve service two years ago and was killed by a drunk driver. The very reason I resisted counseling you. I despise the kind of people you represent. To me you don’t deserve freedom when you treat life so carelessly. Therefore, my first assignment is to forgive you and the drunk driver who killed Liam. For you, you must forgive God for the loss of your wife and child and yourself for not dying with them.

“Something interesting hit me while you were talking about Matthew. The birth of Christ was a gift to you as much as Matthew became a gift to you and your wife.Yet God released his son to take on a human body with all its frailties, knowing that it would be the ultimate sacrifice to save those he loved. Think about the correlation and what God might reveal to you through these terrible circumstances. I’ll be praying for you and I hope you’ll say a few prayers for me. We’ll meet again next week to assess our progress. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t succeed right away. I have a feeling this will not be easy for either of us.”

Nathan

Nathan left the office feeling about as confused and discouraged as he’d ever been. The woman had lost her mind if she thought he would forgive someone who stripped him of everything he cared about in life. He hadn’t prayed since the day they sealed the coffin on his wife and son and he refused to resume the ritual for some woman who hated him and his thirst for drink. At least he’d slipped past the receptionist without making the follow-up appointment.

Fear gripped Nathan as he drove his car into the garage and noticed the time displayed on the digital clock glaring from the console. The whole miserable evening loomed before him as though a viper were about to strike. Hours to remember his loss and drink himself into a stupor resulting in a hangover of major proportion. The weekday indulgence would only verify his shaky work performance.

After sitting behind the wheel in dread for several minutes, he forced himself to move into the kitchen and assess the contents of the refrigerator. He could kick himself for not stopping for dinner on the way home. As he resisted the bottles of cold beer filling a lower shelf and searched for containers of leftovers, his mind wandered back over his meeting with Emma. She’d be a beautiful woman if someone could erase the permanent scowl from her face. He wondered if she had a date for dinner or if she’d be eating with her parents. When he realized his thoughts, he chastised himself. What did he care if the woman ate or not? Let her wallow in her own bitterness and leave him to his sorrow.

Nathan finally found a questionable bowl of chili his mother left for him. His mind didn’t function well enough to remember when she last came to clean the house and wash his clothes. At least someone cared what happened to him. He knew she prayed, but it was a waste of time. He didn’t want further divine intervention. Denying what he really wanted, he pulled a bottled water from the refrigerator and drank it down while his food heated in the microwave.

As he scanned the emails on his iPhone, his eyes landed on a new post from Dr. Bryant. “You forgot to make an appointment for our follow-up. Please call our office within the next couple of days. Surprisingly, I can’t seem to remove your visit from my mind. Surely God must want me to pray for you which I have been doing almost constantly since you left. Since you probably arrived home earlier than normal, I know you’ll be tempted to depend on your normal escape mechanism. Instead, please find your Bible and fall on your knees. I believe God has the answer for both of us.”

Nathan couldn’t believe what he was reading. Was the woman watching from some special camera, observing his every move and even reading his mind? Finding his Bible was the last thing he planned to do. As his pull to the refrigerator gained strength, he fled into the lower-level guest room where he’d slept since Claire’s death. He shed his suit and tie and stepped into the shower, willing the hard spray to wash away the memories. Though he remained in the shower until the hot water turned cold, he failed to dispell the deep ache. In resignation, he dressed in comfortable pajama bottoms and Claire’s favorite tee shirt.

When his thirst for escape was too great, he rushed into the kitchen, pulled out two of the beers and opened one. Before he could take the first swig, the telephone rang. He let it ring, but stood glued to the spot, mesmerized by the unbelievable message. “Nathan, I realize this sounds crazy, but I know what you’re doing and how you’re feeling right now. You don’t have to resort to that beer. Please pour it down the drain and cry out to God. The buzz you receive from the alcohol is momentary; God’s love and faithfulness will endure forever. I’m praying for you.”

Nathan stood paralyzed by indecision. Almost against his will, he poured the two bottles he held down the drain and fled into the family room. He turned on the TV, determined to dismiss the woman’s persistence. He’d only stretched out on the sofa a few minutes before he felt himself drift into a peaceful sleep. When he awakened to the drone of an infomercial early the next morning, he recalled a vivid dream. His wife strolled into the room and sat on the edge of the sofa. Claire ran her fingers through his hair like she’d done hundreds of times before. It felt so real his body reacted to the passion of her touch. She looked radiant as if her white dress was woven with precious medals.

He wanted to hold onto her forever, but her words pierced his heart, “Nathan, what are you doing to yourself? You’ve got to let me go. Matthew and I are so happy here. You claim you’ve lost everything, but you ignore the one person who loves you most. Cry out to him, Nathan. Seek a relationship with the One who is eternal.”

When he was able to stand, he rushed upstairs to the bedroom he’d shared with Claire and found their Bibles open on the table in the sitting area. He picked his up and read the words he’d written in the margin at John 3:16, For God so loved (Nathan) that He gave his one and only Son that if (Nathan) believes in Him, (Nathan) shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Nathan fell on his knees in the peaceful bedroom and repented. Emma was right—he’d been angry with God. His loss seemed minor compared to what God gave when he allowed His Son to leave heaven and walk among us. After an hour or more of prayer and thanksgiving, he stood to his feet with a renewed determination to celebrate the truth of Christmas. It’s all about love and the greatest gift ever given or received. He knew exactly what he’d do after he put in his eight hours at the office—he’d decorate his house and yard for Christmas!

Emma

Emma was worried about Nathan. When she didn’t get an answer on the land line, she called his cell. His Bluetooth picked up in the car. “Emma?”

“Nathan, I’m so glad you answered. Are you okay?”

“Better than I’ve been in a long time. How are you?”

“I’ve been so worried about you, I haven’t even thought about my own problems. Did something happen? You sound as if a weight has lifted.”

“Well, it has. I’ll make an appointment for next week and tell you all about it. Don’t forget to pray for me, though. Alcohol is a persistent bedfellow. While you’re at it, don’t forget your own assignment.”

Emma’s day rushed by quickly with little time to consider her challenge of the day before. She didn’t know how she felt about Nathan’s reminder. Her client had double the loss and less time to heal, yet he sounded as if he’d made considerable progress and wanted the same for her. Why had she allowed him access to her deepest hurts and fears? He was a miserable drunk and she should refuse to see him again.

By the time Nathan arrived on Wednesday, Emma felt drained from listening to the problems so prevalent within families. Watching them tear each other apart made her want to scream. She longed for another opportunity just to whisper kind, loving words to Liam. How could she help them understand the fragility of life?

As Emma considered cancelling the dreaded appointment, the intercom buzzed announcing Nathan’s arrival. Before she could react, a smiling, teasing face came through her door. “Hello there, Dr. Bryant? Tough day?”

Emma stared at the handsome relaxed client as he took her by the hand and escorted her to one of the comfortable chairs near the window. He took the other chair close by and smiled. “What’s the matter Emma? Did you expect me to be drunk or shaking with withdrawal?”

“No. Of course not. You just seem so relaxed as if a load has lifted. Tell me.”

Nathan described in detail how he felt and what was happening each time she contacted him. He then shared with her the dream of his wife and the opening of his Bible for the first time in months. The room filled with God’s presence and Emma knew she’d participated in a miracle. Help me, God. I need one too.

“Emma, look at me. If God loves me, a drunk driver, how can he not love you. Not only does he love us, but he loves the woman who killed your fiancé. Forgive her and give her to Him. She also needs a miracle. She needs our prayers.”

The tears flooded her eyes as the anger built up inside her. She wanted to scream at Nathan for even suggesting such a thing. “You don’t understand. She took my life, my love, my joy. How can I ever forgive that?”

“Only with God’s help, Emma. Let’s pray.” He stood and pulled her toward him as she collapsed in his arms. His prayer melted her defenses as he petitioned God to give Emma the grace to forgive the woman who’d killed Liam. “Your grace has kept us going despite our losses and it’s you who will help us extend grace to others.”

Emma couldn’t say there was instant healing and grace to forgive, but a fire was lit deep inside her spirit and she felt certain she was on the road to recovery. She thanked Nathan as he finished the prayer and stepped shyly away from her. “I’m inclined to think that our sessions are over, but I hesitate to discontinue our meetings. Perhaps we need to continue, if only to encourage one another.”

“Since I’m obligated for at least four more weeks, perhaps we could meet for Bible Study and prayer. I know I could use the accountability. Do you mind?”

“Not at all. That sounds reasonable.”

Nathan

Nathan left Emma’s office feeling a heavy weight had been lifted. He didn’t dread going home, but decided to go Christmas shopping instead. Feeling certain that Claire would be pleased, he spent the afternoon meandering through the mall and humming along to the beautiful carols heard above the noise of excited shoppers. He felt so blessed to feel the presence of the Christ Child when he stopped to view the beautiful nativity on display in a store window. The hand-carved figures drew him into the store to inquire about the price.

The only person he saw in the store was an elderly man with white hair and beard. “It’s a lovely piece, young man, made from olive wood from the Holy Land. Today it is half price, if you’re interested.”

Nathan didn’t need further encouragement. He pulled out his credit card and whistled along to “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” as he left the store carrying the precious gift. He wanted to sing to the top of his lungs, “Glory to the newborn King!” He envisioned it sitting on the table near the Christmas tree and wished for a moment he could share it with Claire. Just as the song ended, a quiet whisper filled his heart, Give it to Emma.

“What? No, this is for me. It’s too precious to give away. It’s for Claire and Matthew.” But the voice persisted as Nathan hung his head in defeat. The angry woman didn’t deserve such a gift and certainly not from him. Would she think he was interested in her? Heaven forbid!

Emma

Emma looked forward to Nathan’s appointment that afternoon. She’d struggled all week, reading verses on forgiveness, but still felt deeply hurt and annoyed with the Christmas overkill. She certainly hoped he’d fared better.

When he arrived the Wednesday before Christmas smiling and carrying a rather large box, Emma was further annoyed. Surely, he didn’t buy her a gift.

“Hello, Emma. I have a gift here that God wants you to have. I tried to argue with him, but he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. You might as well accept it.” Nathan shuffled his feet and looked uneasy as he placed the box on her desk. He looked around ready to escape at her first negative reaction.

“Thank you. But you didn’t have to make up some story to give me a gift. Do you want me to open it?”

“I suppose, but I didn’t make it up. I bought it for myself. I decorated my whole house and it would make the perfect addition. Go ahead, so I can drool some more.”

Nathan looked so sad, she couldn’t possibly keep the gift, but her curiosity got the best of her. What could be so special about this particular gift? She carefully removed the bright red bow and outer gold wrapping paper. When she opened the flaps of the corrugated box and removed some of the tissue paper, she realized the gift was a carved wooden manger scene. She unwrapped it piece by piece with tears streaming down her face. It was an exact replica of the one she’d purchased to give Liam for Christmas. She’d returned the pricey item weeks later with surprise that the owner reimbursed her in full. Why did God want her to have it and why did he return it by Nathan?

“Emma, are you okay?”

“No, I’m not. Thank you for the gift, but I need some time to come to grips with this. Could we talk later?” Nathan left looking confused and sad. She hated to part with things so unsettled, but she knew God was using her client to speak to her. It was time to have a long discussion with her heavenly father.

Emma took the crèche home and climbed the stairs to her bedroom. Although she wanted to hide it in the back of her closet, she felt compelled to remove the pieces from their wrappings and display them on a low chest. Each carved figure reminded her of a verse of Scripture or a memory she’d shared with Liam.

What were the things Mary had pondered in her heart? The young girl felt unworthy as the one chosen to bear the Son of God and humbled at the thought of future generations calling her “Blessed.” Joseph felt the weight of responsibility since he’d chosen to obey the angelic messenger sent from God to encourage him to take Mary into his home.

Shepherds, though frightened by the heavenly choir, obeyed the angels and hurried to find the Christ Child and worship their Messiah. The Magi traveled a long distance to bring gifts to the newborn King—Gifts representing Christ’s Lordship, his Priesthood and his healing.

When Emma thought of Jesus’ healing presence, she wept tears of repentance. “Lord, heal me. Give me grace to forgive the drunk driver who killed Liam. Shine your light into the dark recesses of my heart where hate and bitterness have taken root. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, the joy of Christmas.”

After the holidays, the joy of Christmas remained with Emma and Nathan. As they continued the weekly appointments devoted to encouragement and accountability, they became the best of friends. Their meetings soon moved to Friday nights at Nathan’s home where others were invited to join in Bible study and healing prayer. Within community, they both found wholeness, confidence and hope. Since God’s ways were not their ways, they left their future in His capable hands.

~~~

Though a work of fiction, the Christmas miracle portrayed in the hearts of Emma and Nathan has been repeated many times since the arrival of the Christ Child over two thousand years ago.  Whether from loss, disappointment or painful memories, perhaps Christmas has lost its meaning for you or someone you love. As you read the story of Jesus from Luke, Chapter 2, allow the message of Christmas to shine through your own doubts and fears. Personalize John 3:16 as Nathan did and embrace the hope and cleansing healing found in God’s love. May you discover Christmas in every sunrise—in the melody of song birds, the beauty of nature, the trust of a small child and the warmth of family and friends.

From our house to yours, Merry Christmas and Happy, Blessed, New Year!

 

The Stranger at the Door (Part IV)

Ben understood Micah’s reluctance to leave his mother alone with a stranger, but Abigail rushed him out the door despite his arguments. She stood still as a statue waiting while her son sprinted down the lane. Minutes after the bus moved on down the country road, she came back to the house with tears clouding her vision.

“I’m sorry he’s giving you such a hard time. It’s confusing to him when he sees another man in his father’s clothes, taking his place at the table and doing the work his father used to do. Please be patient with him.”

Abigail seemed to understand the difficulties of the morning without his revisiting the issue. No need to distress her further. He’d never experienced more anger or lack of cooperation even from his stubborn father-in-law. The soft answer didn’t seem to work, nor did the firm reprimand he finally issued. The boy was determined to dislike Ben no matter how hard he worked or how much he longed to be his friend.

Ben hated to see Abby upset, but he didn’t know how to improve the situation without leaving the farm. “I should get to work. Tell me what to do first.”

“Since you’re still weak from the fever, perhaps we could shuck and shell the corn that Micah and I have already gathered.”

When Ben walked into the small shed overflowing with ears of dry corn, he wondered how he’d survive working in close proximity to the appealing woman. Even with her hair pulled back in a tight bun, his mind lingered on the way she looked earlier. Those flowing locks of golden hair wouldn’t disappear from his vision as he breathed in the scent of lilac surrounding her. Her presence alone seemed to sweeten the dusty corn crib. Abigail appeared clueless to the effect she had on him as she made herself comfortable on the floor and commenced shucking corn.

“Why don’t I work here alone. Surely you have chores to do in the house.”

Abigail continued to sit as if hesitant to leave. “Abigail, I assure you I know how to shuck corn and I also have sufficient strength to turn the crank on the sheller.”

Amid her spouting instructions, pointing to the burlap bags in the corner and the stool where he should sit, he grabbed her by the arms and lifted her from the floor. The surprised look she gave him gradually turned into a smile so tempting, he had to get away from her before he lost the ability to think straight. He took her by the elbow and carefully eased her out the door.

~~~

Leaving Ben to work alone had been difficult. Not that he needed her, but Abigail found herself wanting to be near him. Now that he smelled squeaky clean, she felt drawn to the person hidden beneath the thick layer of dirt and filth. Not only was he dashingly attractive, but he had an air of confidence coupled with sincere kindness. He seemed keen on many subjects and didn’t hesitate to express his opinion. She only wished her son could overcome his fears and see someone other than a foul-smelling hobo.

Abigail didn’t know when it happened, but as butterflies did a dance in her abdomen, she realized she had feelings for Ben Larsen. She’d been in love with her husband so long, she didn’t think anyone could ever take his place. Regardless, the man had moved from a stranger to someone capable of capturing her heart in a few short hours. If he could see the thoughts jumping around in her head, he’d consider her a crazy woman with no sense of propriety. What did it matter? She expected him to leave at the first opportunity. Where would she be then?

Unsettled thoughts continued to plague her throughout the morning as she sifted through the garden for overlooked vegetables and heated water to wash clothes. Both bedrooms overflowed with dirty laundry and she didn’t remember when the sheets had been changed. Before she knew it, the clock struck the noon hour and she hadn’t even started dinner. She’d have to come up with something in a hurry.

One o’clock had come and gone before Abigail went to the corn crib to get Ben. He was covered in dust from the shucks, but her heart leaped at the sight of him. Her attraction to the man was so powerful and sudden that she felt confused and frustrated. But, how would she make him love her back?

~~~

Ben looked up when he heard the squeak of the door. “Abby, how was your morning?” It was only natural to shorten her name; he’d done the same for Elizabeth. And Abby seemed perfect for someone who turned the most mundane jobs into pleasure. Besides, she made him smile.

“I was so busy, I almost forgot to cook dinner. That’s why I’m here. I guess you thought I planned on starving you. There’s a place to wash at the pump. I’ll put the food on the table.”

The sheets flapping in the breeze confirmed Abby’s busy morning. Ben looked at the position of the sun and wondered why the woman thought she was late for dinner. Another taste of the delicious leftover soup would’ve sufficed for a quick lunch, but as he neared the kitchen door and caught a whiff of the aroma coming from that “dinner,” he changed his mind. Regardless of the term, his stomach grumbled in approval.

When they were seated at the table, Ben felt so blessed, he asked to say grace. Abby’s hand lay between them on the table and he captured it in his own without thinking. He waited in silence for a moment to refocus before clearing his throat. “Thank you, Lord, for Abby’s generous heart and for bringing me to this place. You’ve provided abundantly for us and we’re grateful. Guide our thoughts, words, and actions for the remainder of this day. Bless Micah at school and soften his heart toward me. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.”

As he released Abby’s hand, he heard her sniff and realized she was crying. “Abby, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, really. I’m just so grateful that God sent such a wonderful man to my door. Forgive me. Let’s eat before the food gets cold.”

Ben wanted to protest, but smiled instead and began filling his plate with the appetizing meal. He’d just started eating when he heard the distinct sounds of a model T coming up the lane. At the knock on the back door, Abby rose from the table. She looked at him with concern, probably thinking something had happened to Micah. “Reverend Wilson, come in. We were about to eat if you’d care to join us.”

“I’ve already had my dinner. Thank you. Perhaps a glass of sweet tea if you have some.”

Ben had stood cautiously when the man entered the room, waiting for an introduction. A feeling of unease swept over him when he noticed the minister taking his measure. For some reason, he felt guilty as if he didn’t belong.

Before he could do anything but squirm, Abby continued in her pretense of happiness. “Sweet tea it is, but first I’d like to introduce you to my visitor, Ben Larsen. He’s agreed to help Micah and me finish the harvest. Ben, this is our pastor and dear friend, Reverend Wilson.”

After they shook hands and were seated, the minister cleared his throat and addressed Abby. “Abigail, I’ll get right to the point. Micah went to school today and told everyone that his mother invited a hobo to live with them. He said he expected to find you dead when he returned home from school.”

“What am I going to do with that boy and his wild imagination?” If Abigail showed signs of concern before, she now looked about ready to faint.

“I’m afraid your son had the whole school in an uproar and the principal found it necessary to get me involved. I see you’re quite alive and well and your visitor seems like a nice man. What brings you to North Carolina, Mr. Larsen?”

“To tell you the truth, the last state I remembered was Tennessee. Until this moment, I didn’t realize I’d traveled that far. My wife passed a few months ago and my father-in-law no longer wanted me around. He blamed me for killing his daughter and I felt tempted to agree with him. Elizabeth died giving birth to our child who survived only a few hours longer than her mother.

“I’m not certain what more I could’ve done, but the grieving man forced me to leave his farm the day after the funeral. I was educated in Boston and took a teaching position in a school in rural Pennsylvania. When I fell in love with my wife, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to learn to farm, especially from a controlling man like Libby’s father. I didn’t have anything to call my own, not even a penny in my pocket when I left on foot working my way east. My last conscious thought was a prayer of surrender, asking God to give me the grace to forgive Libby’s father and allow me to die in peace.”

“How did you happen to come here, of all places?”

“That remains a mystery, sir. I believe God brought me. My last recollection was in a cold boxcar, sick with fever and chills. Last night, I came to my senses in this very kitchen. Mrs. Marlow has been more than kind to me, but I don’t wish to cause her any trouble. I’ll be on my way if you could give me a ride to the nearest main roadway.”

“You can’t leave us, Ben. You’re the answer to my prayer. We need you to help finish the harvest.” Abby began to cry. She looked at him with such longing, it made him realize how much he wished to stay.

The minister cleared his throat and addressed them both, “I see the problem, Abigail, but I also know this community. They won’t accept an unmarried man living here, even if he makes his bed in the barn. I have a suggestion that might seem unorthodox for two people who barely know each other, but it could be a solution. I believe you, Ben, when you say God led you here and I believe you, Abigail, when you say Ben is the answer to your prayer. Also, I’ve noticed that you seem to care for one another. You should marry as soon as possible.”

Ben gasped in shock before he glanced at Abby. When he realized her reaction, he looked back in disbelief. The woman was smiling as if she’d been presented a wonderful gift. As for him, he didn’t know how he felt. This would mean another farm to work without the benefit of ownership and no hope of ever finding his way back to his original plan. But what if his original plan wasn’t God’s plan? And, he couldn’t deny his feelings for the woman.

“I suggest you spend a few days praying about this, and Ben, you should try to make friends with Micah. I’m afraid the boy sees you as “a no good tramp.”

Reverend Wilson grinned as he stood to leave. “I don’t envy you, son. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”

~~~

Abby ran into Ben’s arms the moment she heard the car crank outside. She had to stand on tiptoes to reach behind his neck, but as her head cradled against his heart, she heard its rapid beat mimicking her own. She knew he was attracted to her, but she wanted more. She’d make him fall in love with her and the sooner the better. It was the perfect answer and she planned to nag him until he agreed.

Abby didn’t have long to wait. Ben wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into a tight embrace. Any reservations he had seemed to dissolve with the feel of her pressing close to his heart. Her tears wet his shirt as he pulled her tighter. When he didn’t say anything, she leaned away enough to read his expression. Ben took her face in his hands and kissed her tentatively at first, but then with a passion so raw, she couldn’t breathe.

“I don’t understand how this happened so fast, but I do love you. Marry me, Abby.”

~~~

God’s plan for Abby and Ben seemed to be taking longer than Ben originally thought. He’d insisted they wait to marry until Micah gave his blessing. At times, it seemed an impossible hurdle. They looked like any other couple when they attended church on Sunday and Ben marveled at the patience of the minister who seemed anxious to perform the ceremony. Micah’s attitude hadn’t improved and if anyone noticed, he made certain they knew how he felt.

At the close of the service, the principal of the school came forward and introduced himself. “I understand you are to be married soon, Mr. Larsen.”

Ben didn’t quite know where the conversation was headed but felt the need to affirm the inquiry. “That’s right. We’re just waiting for a few problems to resolve. Thank you for your interest.”

“Perhaps, I could help. We have a teacher recovering from surgery and will be out a few weeks. I understand you are a trained teacher. Would you consider filling in for her? It would require that you stay in town, but I have an extra bedroom you could use.”

The principal gave Ben an understanding, no-nonsense look that didn’t leave room for argument. Ben saw the wisdom in the offer and moved to town that afternoon amid a fury of protests from Abby. Micah smiled for the first time in days, but his delight disappeared when he walked into his classroom the next morning and saw the man who’d replaced his teacher. Ben didn’t know who felt more disappointment.

After only one day, Micah did an amazing about-face. He first accepted the authority of Mr. Larsen in his classroom, but liking him took a few more hours. Ben saw him squirming in his seat as he watched the reaction of his classmates. Ben knew he had a gift for teaching–he could make even Greek mythology come alive with drama and activity. By the end of the day, he and Micah were amicable toward one another. It took a bit longer to secure permission to marry his mother.

~~~

While Ben lived in town, Abigail missed him. The days were long and the nights even longer. Micah came home from school describing his adventures with Mr. Larsen. She couldn’t believe the effect Ben had on her son. Within a few days, he’d become irreplaceable to both of them. She looked forward to every Saturday when he walked the seven miles to be with her and relieve them of some of the heavy work.

On Sundays, he sat with them in church and drove their wagon home. Ben called it his “courtin’ time.” After dinner, they sat on the porch swing and planned their future. They read the Bible together and marveled at the miracle they’d become. Their long walks down to the pond often included a picnic supper. But the best moments for Abby were the passionate kisses Ben gave her when they were alone.

The Sunday following Ben’s return to the farm, Micah walked his mother down the aisle to meet the handsome man who had so easily captured her heart. Abigail felt she would burst with love and gratitude when she looked into his eyes. Ben smiled at her, looking adoringly handsome in her deceased husband’s best suit. Her humble man never complained about anything, including the hand-me-down clothes he wore on his wedding day.

When Abigail reached the front of the church, her son took her shaking hand and placed it in the one Ben held out to her. The romantic man pressed a light kiss to her fingers and tucked them near his heart. With a look of love, he whispered, “My beautiful bride.”

Though his arrival remained a mystery, Abigail would always be thankful that she heard the feeble knock of the stranger at her door. Now that she’d opened her home, her world, and her heart to Ben, she longed for the moment they’d become one.

The End

Wishing Everyone a Blessed Thanksgiving!

The Stranger at the Door (Part III)

Amid Micah’s protest, Abigail ushered her son into the barn to finish the neglected chores. She couldn’t punish him; fear for his mother kept him glued to the porch. “I should’ve shot the stinkin’ man when he landed on top of you like that. Now you’re getting him all gussied up with some of Daddy’s clothes.”

“Daddy isn’t here, Micah, and I know you think it’s your place to protect me. But this time, you’ve got to trust me. I believe God sent Mr. Larsen so we wouldn’t have to leave the farm. We can’t continue working like we have since Daddy died. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted.”

Micah muddled to himself as he stomped off to finish bedding down the mule and feeding Bessy. The cow’s milk had dried up, but she’d calve any day now. Soon they wouldn’t be forced to barter with the neighbors for milk and butter.

Abigail felt uneasy leaving the weak man in the tub alone, but after a bit, she’d send Micah to check on him. In the meantime, she’d pray for a miracle. She couldn’t wait weeks for her rescuer to recover, she needed him now.

First, she’d have to find a place for him to sleep. The loft wouldn’t work; he could barely walk, much less negotiate a steep ladder. Will’s workshop seemed the best possibility with the old woodstove he’d salvaged from a neighbor.

“Micah, we need to check on Mr. Larsen. I’ll wait out on the porch while you see if he’s dressed.”

Her son didn’t much like the idea, but did as she asked. Moments later, he stuck his head through the door, “Mom, he’s asleep in the tub.”

“What?” Abigail peeked in the window and sure enough, the man’s head drooped over his arm on the side of the tub. Thank God they arrived before he drowned. “Wake him up and hold the towel like I used to do for you.”

“You do it, Mama. I’m afraid of him.”

“Micah, you know very well that’s out of the question. You haven’t a choice. I’ll be right here if something should happen.”

~~~

Ben heard the whispering coming from the porch. He chuckled to himself, but waited to see if the boy would face his fears while wondering what the mother would do “if something should happen.” He was beginning to enjoy the scenario when the screen door slammed harder than normal and the boy stomped across the floor.

The mischievous side of Ben came flying out as he flicked water in the boy’s face. The reaction was not quite what he expected. “Mama, Mama, the hobo’s attacking me!”

Mama came running while Ben ducked as low in the tub as possible. “Micah, you scared me half to death. And you mister, get out of that tub and get dressed. . . err, after I leave.

The red-faced woman did a quick turnabout and headed toward the door while Ben nearly exploded to keep from roaring with laughter. He weakly lifted himself from the cooling water and reached for the towel she’d left on a chair. Dressing in record time, he opened the door to his distressed patrons.

Mrs. Marlowe seemed to be on her high horse. She had one hand on her hip and used the other as if it were a cattle probe to control her unruly subjects.”Okay, you two. Sit. Micah, please tell me why you thought Mr. Larsen was attacking you.”

The boy hung his head in shame while Ben debated how to rectify the situation. “Mrs. Marlowe, please forgive me, but it’s not Micah’s fault. I only wanted to lighten the mood a bit.”

“Just what did you do, Mr. Larsen?”

The anxious boy didn’t wait for Ben to answer, but jumped right in, “He scared me half to death. I thought he was asleep. He threw water in my face, Mama.”

The frustrated mother looked all around the floor and shook her head, “Well, he couldn’t have done much damage. There’s not a drop of water on this side and none on you. I believe our houseguest has a mischievous streak. No harm done, Micah. Go get the extra mattress from your room and we’ll put it on the floor in Daddy’s workshop. We have an early day tomorrow.”

As Ben surveyed the tidy room built into a corner of the barn and relaxed in the warmth of the freshly made fire, tears of gratitude trickled down his cheeks. At the thought of his benefactor, sympathy invaded his heart.  The availability of adult male clothes suggested a recent loss. He began to understand why she looked past her fears and discomfort and welcomed the entrance of a potential strong back, albeit a stranger. Unbeknownst to her, he’d vowed never to set foot on a farm again. God, you certainly have a sense of humor.

The next morning at the first crow from the rooster, Ben was up and dressed. He knelt on the freshly swept floor and thanked God for the provision of this place despite his apprehensions. He didn’t know how long he’d stay, but the time he remained here, he was determined to earn his keep.

On a hook beside the door he found an old work jacket. The woman had thought of everything, including clean underwear and socks and sturdy boots that fit perfectly. He donned the warm coat and walked across the dew drenched grass while the rooster issued a final crow.

Ben knocked on the kitchen door and waited several minutes before a frazzled Mrs. Marlowe answered. The surprised look suggested she’d either forgotten him or didn’t expect his appearance at such an early hour. As his eyes roamed over her hurried attempt at dressing, he regretted her disregard for the rooster’s wake-up call. The buttons on her shirtwaist didn’t quite match their intended holes and her bare feet were missing their shoes. But her hair, oh my. It hung about her shoulders in soft blond waves giving her the appearance of the angel he’d labeled her from the beginning. He was in trouble and he knew it. Did she have to be so beautiful?

“Mr. Larsen, I know I said we had to get up early, but I expected you to rest, considering how sick you were when you arrived.”

“Good Morning, Mrs. Marlowe. Your hospitality has worked wonders. Though I remain slightly weak, I feel fine after a night of undisturbed rest on that soft mattress. I was warm for the first time in months. Now, I’m ready to start repaying my debt.”

The woman dismissed his intentions with the wave of her hand. “Never you mind the debt, but since we’ll be working together, you should call me Abigail.”

“Only if you call me Ben.”

“Come in, Ben, and have a cup of coffee while I get Micah up. We’ll eat breakfast after we pull some pumpkins.”

~~~

Abigail rushed past the hall mirror, but did an abrupt turn when the ghastly image flashed through her mind. No wonder the man stared at her with that look of bewilderment. Her frustration with the water incident had kept her from noticing how well he looked in her husband’s clothes. Heat spread through her body as her mind wondered far past the farm hand requested in her frantic prayer.

She anguished over the idea of being alone with Ben while Micah was in school. Unlike her fearful son who worried that the frail man would attack her, Abigail feared her own reaction to the handsome stranger. Despite his appealing good looks, in a few days, he’d be the able-bodied worker she requested and she’d be thankful for God’s provision.

Micah entered the kitchen rubbing his eyes and yawning dramatically, “I don’t know why I have to go to school today. I don’t feel so good.”

“You’d feel a whole lot better if you’d gone to bed on time. This is the last day before Thanksgiving break and we need to get a trailer of pumpkins out to the highway before you leave.”

“Perhaps that’s something Micah and I could do while you prepare breakfast?”

Abigail looked at Ben, surprised as he stood from the table and took his cup to the sink. “Are you sure you’re up to it?”

“Like I said before, I feel fine. If your son shows me what to do, I’m pretty sure we can handle it.”

As Abigail watched Ben and Micah hitch up the mule to the wagon and head for the pumpkin patch, she felt Will’s presence and approval. It felt as if a weight had lifted from her shoulders as she stepped back and allowed her unexpected guest to relieve her of the responsibility. She hardly knew what to do first as she looked about her kitchen. Her eyes landed on the Bible neglected for days. Come away, Beloved and be with me. 

With a heart filled with love and gratitude, Abigail poured herself a cup of coffee, reclaimed her dust covered book and sat in a chair at the table. For the first time in months, she felt at peace, with God and herself.

(To be continued.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Stranger at the Door (Part II)

When the warm soup slid down Ben’s throat, his senses drooled with pleasure. Whether from deep hunger or the spicy soup, nothing ever tasted quite so good. His eyes roamed around the room for the first time since he’d been pulled from the hard floor. Noticing the kerosene lamp on the table, he presumed electricity had yet to make its way to this rural area. Hence, the woodstove and the small icebox in the corner. Open cupboards lined the walls on each side of the dry sink and an adjoining pantry revealed shelves overflowing with mason jars. It’d been months since he’d feasted his eyes on such abundance.

The gingham curtains at the windows caught his eye. They matched those on the door to the outside and the cloth covering the table. The coordinating napkin he’d placed in his lap seemed out of place, but it spoke of attention to detail not usually found in a remote farmhouse.

In contrast to the quiet peace and order of the room, its owner flitted about nervously as though undecided as to what to do with her unexpected guest. Unbeknownst to her, he’d have been satisfied with a bed of hay in a dry barn before he took a whiff of the delicious soup. But now that he’d tasted it, his stomach screamed to be filled.

Although he would’ve preferred a hot cup of coffee, she insisted he needed the nourishment of milk. When he shivered at the first cold sip, she jerked the glass away, poured it into a pan and set it to warm on the stove. The amount of butter she slathered on his bread made him wonder. He felt a bit like a pig being fattened for slaughter, but he dared not complain. This was his first meal in over a week and it tasted like a banquet to his starving body.

As he forced himself to slowly partake of the food, his mind drifted back over the last few months. Walking from town to town, doing odd jobs for food and a place to lay his head, he’d worked his way east to escape the turmoil surrounding the farm in Western Pennsylvania. The last few days drizzled with cold rain and his body ached all over with fever and chills. Even when hunger gnawed his insides, he refused to steal or beg for food. The last thing he wanted was to sneak a ride with the railroad, but when he couldn’t walk another mile, he hopped a train going south.

The box car appeared deserted as he crawled into a far corner to escape the wind that rushed through the sliding door. Without the energy to close it, he curled into a fetal ball on the bare floor and prayed for death to claim him. He remembered clearly his feeble cry, “God, have mercy on me. Forgive me and give me the grace to forgive. Take me home to heaven to be with Libby.”

After the prayer of surrender, his delirious mind forced him into nightmares filled with the sensation of falling, crawling through brambles, and running from the sounds of wild dogs. His clothes, torn and wet, allowed the cold to seep into every crevice of his being. He struggled to reach the bright light he saw in the distance. When he finally regained full consciousness, he found himself in this very kitchen, surrounded by warmth and comfort, clouded only by his painful memories.

Feeling a sudden loss from the warmth of the stove, Ben looked up from his meal directly into the eyes of the woman. She leaned against the table with her arms crossed over her chest as though assessing him from head to toe. Compared to Libby, she appeared small and weak, but he’d already experienced a hidden strength within that tantalizingly beautiful body. How else could she have assisted him from the floor? Her reassuring smile lit up her face, displaying matching dimples. The dark eyes seemed displaced against the strands of blonde hair managing to escape the tight bun.

Libby was never considered pretty, even by her own father who traded her hand in marriage for the promised title to his farm. But his wife was beautiful inside where it counted most. That’s what drew him to her, made him fall in love and accept her father’s tempting offer. How he longed for the warmth and love of her arms, but she’d died along with his promised farm and any hope for the future.

Remorse filled him when the woman continued to stare. He hadn’t even thanked her for the meal. He attempted to clear his voice several times, but tears draining down the back of his throat rendered him mute. How could a dying man express his gratitude to a savior?

“Is everything okay, sir?”

“I don’t know what to say. You saved my life. Most people would have tossed me out. I don’t even know how I got here.”

The woman seemed to relax as she sat down across from him. Cradling her cup of coffee, she smiled as if she knew something he didn’t. “You’ll figure it out, I’m sure. My name is Abigail Marlowe and I’m happy you found your way to my door.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Marlowe. I’m Ben Larsen and I’m very much in your debt. If you’ll allow me to spend the night in your barn, I won’t trouble you further. I’ll be on my way in the morning.”

At the mention of his leaving, the woman first showed signs of panic, but her distress soon gave way to mischievous twinkling eyes. “You can’t leave before you’re strong enough to travel. Besides, as you mentioned, you have a debt to repay. Why are you in a hurry to leave? Do you have somewhere special you need to be?”

“No, I just thought it would be easier for you, ma’am. Do you have a family?”

Fear and discomfort swept over Mrs. Marlowe’s face as the clock in the other room struck eight times. Without answering his question, she jumped from the table and went into a frenzied rush. “It’s getting late. I think you’d feel better with a bath. The water’s hot on the stove. After I bring in the tub and a change of clothes, do you think you could manage alone? I’ll be out in the barn with my son, Micah, for a while, but I’ll send him in to check on you in a few minutes.”

Mrs. Marlowe didn’t give him a chance to respond, but drug the heavy tub from the pantry to a spot close to the stove, and went about preparing the water for his bath. Feeling as useless as a limp washcloth, he didn’t have the strength to protest. How would he ever get in and out of the tub? Regardless, he felt obligated to at least try. At this point, he was incapable of contradicting anything she might suggest.

As soon as the angel closed the door, Ben worked in slow motion to remove his tattered, filthy clothes. He almost slipped on the wet floor and considered ignoring the tub in favor of a soft place to sleep instead. Not wanting to disappoint the kind woman and realizing his need to wash away the grime, he struggled to step into the oversized tub. When he finally immersed into the warm, soothing water and rubbed the soap over his rough skin, he sensed God’s healing presence. Stillness and contentment washed over him as he felt it cleansing away all the disappointments, hurts and longing from the past. For the first time in months he felt hope rising deep within.  His last thought was a reassuring voice whispering, Trust me.

~~~

Abigail had barely made it out the door, when Micah grabbed her, “What are you doing, Mama? That man is nothing but a hobo and you left him in the house alone. He’ll rob us blind. He could’ve killed you. Daddy wouldn’t like it.”

“Well, Daddy shouldn’t have left us with all this work. That man in there is God’s answer to our prayer. He’s going to help us finish the harvest and if we treat him nice, perhaps he’ll agree to stay on through next year.”

“Mama, you don’t know what kind of person he is.”

“Why would God send us something bad, Micah? Besides, I have a good feeling about this. By Thanksgiving our hearts will overflow with gratitude to God for the timely gift of Mr. Ben Larsen.”

(To be continued.)