Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Eternal Moment #4: When Animal Crackers Became Manna

November 2002.
Fort Bragg, NC.

I am 37.

I was never supposed to be able to have a child of my own, but I'm about 2 1/2 months into my first and only pregnancy. The day I find out, I'm scheduled for a cancer biopsy. Ironically, that morning I'd had a terrible dream that the doctor told me I had to choose between cancer treatment and pregnancy. Then in real life, before my biopsy appointment, I have a blood test to make sure I'm not pregnant. Of course, I laugh at the whole thing, but then am stunned when I am told, "Not only are you pregnant, but you have a choice to make. These pre-cancerous cells may become more aggressive during the pregnancy. You can abort now and address the chance of cancer, or you can take your chances with the pregnancy."

Aborting, even if it means my life, isn't an option.

So I plunge into the world of first-trimester woes, whole-heartedly. I just don't know how difficult that is going to be.

I immediately become incredibly sick.

Sick, sick, sick, all of the time.

I can't hold anything down.

I ask my doctor, "Are you sure I don't have a tapeworm or stomach cancer?" He laughs at me."Nope. That's just the baby."

And so I lose weight, 15 pounds within 2 months.

I'm so weak that I can't stand for more than a few minutes, and even the sight of television commercials of food sends me over the edge.

I am existing on animal crackers and Gatorade, and I don't move from my home. As a freelance journalist, I do all of my magazine interviews by putting my laptop on my stomach and talking to people from bed. The rest of the time, I languish.

Then one day, she comes to my door.

She's a Bible study leader for military spouses at Fort Bragg, where I am attending a program called, Protestant Women of the Chapel.

She's soft-spoken and kind. Like my other eternal moments in life, the words she speaks to me are not that memorable.

But her actions are.

She rings the doorbell, standing in the North Carolina sun, her arms filled with boxes of animal crackers.

"I brought you something to eat!" she laughs. I'm amazed that she knew to bring me the only thing I could keep down.

She takes the recliner while I stretch out on the sofa and put one cracker in my mouth at a time, waiting for it to dissolve before I tackle the next one. She's patient. She doesn't quiz me about much except for how she can help me. She talks about the Bible study we've attended and brings me her notes from the lecture. She nods with sympathy as I regale her with tales of sleepless nights and endless days filled with nausea.

This will pass, she says. This will pass.

She visits me like this a minimum of once a week, sometimes more frequently.

When I finally clear the hurdle of my sickness, I meet other issues ... an infection of the heart in the 3rd month, kidney stones in the 5th month, receiving false news four times that my child is "dead," a false reading of Down syndrome during the 7th month .... and of course, the ongoing monitoring of the pre-cancerous cells, which are becoming more and more aggressive as each month passes.

She prays. She encourages other women to pray.

And all the while, she visits.

Each visit is akin to an eternal moment. Each visit, time stands still. Each visit, she steps into the sandals of Jesus and brings me peace. Each time she leaves, I feel more and more grounded, stronger, surer.

When the child is born healthy, when the pre-cancerous cells vanish, we hug and laugh at the miracle.

Have you ever met a kind soul who lavished so much love on you without any expectation for favor in return?

That's who this woman was to me.

Those animal crackers might as well have been Heaven's Manna in my wilderness.

And those moments .... they were eternal moments of extreme comfort and joy.

Tune in for Eternal Moment #5: Walking Around Wilmore ...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Eternal Moment #3: Cold Water in the Sahara

November 1993.
York, Pennsylvania.

I am 28.

A year following my dad's death, I find myself in the rolling hills of south-central Pennsylvania, working at a mid-sized newspaper. Mostly, I've kept to myself. I've had many opportunities to socialize with my colleagues, who, like me are all the same age and all trying to make names for themselves so that they can achieve the gold ring of Woodward & Bernstein fame.

The difference between them and me is that 99 percent of them aren't believers. They mean well when they invite me to go dancing to nearby Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Staying out in bars until the wee hours is common, too, even during the work week. But I refuse each invitation.

I search for friends among local church congregations. I run into an unusual phenomenon: Every time I disclose I'm a newspaper reporter, I'm immediately held at an arm's length. I see the flash of distrust wash over faces, and formerly friendly "Christian believers" morph into stand-offishly polite church attendees. You know the difference, I'm sure.

I don't belong in either arena. I'm thought of as a prudish good girl in the newsroom and as a wayward child of the distrusted media in church settings. I realize that if I want to truly be "in the world and not of the world," I will have to consign myself to a temporary state of solitude.

For the most part, I'm okay with it. I'm still mourning my father's passing and usually spend my off hours sleeping. The one thing that brings me a spot of joy is the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg. On weekends, when the weather is good, I wander the fields, gaze at the monuments, talk to the tour guides, mill among the tourist families, frequent the restaurants that serve courses of that era and shop among the quaint merchants selling country-like decor and home-made jams.

I'm living life, but on the fringes, on the edges. I'm not fully recovered emotionally from the loss of my father, and I'm also not fully engaged in the lives of those around me.

In summary, I feel as if I'm in the midst of my own Sahara.

This goes on for months.

Then one day, I get an unexpected call. An old friend from college is in town, raising money for missions. Do I want to get together?

I jump at it. It's the first "Christian" who truly knows me that I've seen in months.

You may find this hard to believe, a girl and guy hanging out in a very brotherly-sisterly manner ... but that's exactly the way it was. The way my friend connected with me was more than just someone looking to fill up time from boredom. He ministered to me. He immediately assessed my situation, fully. He saw it for what it was, and he was deeply concerned.

I showed him around Gettysburg and all of my little haunts. I cooked dinner for us at my tiny apartment. I plugged in my favorite DVDs, and, respectfully-brotherly to the end, he watched them (even the chick flicks) and left quietly after I'd fallen asleep.

When it was time to bid farewell, we stood in a church parking lot where my friend had just given a talk. The black of the November night settled around us, and the crisp air hung around my shoulders like a cape. As I talked, white puffs of steam traveled towards a street light. My ankle-length black wool coat and black leather gloves made me feel as if I was a child playing grown-up dress-up. For to me, my interaction with my friend was that real -- no pretenses. What the rest of the world saw, he saw right through.

He compassionately listened to me as I nervously prattled, not wanting to really let go of this drink of cold water in my Sahara. And then he said one thing to me that will stay with me forever:

"Of all of the people I know, all of the people we graduated with, you're the only person who is really in the world and not of the world."

The words stopped me cold. I'd always felt like that was my situation, but no one had ever spoken it out loud to me.


"Yeah, look at what you're doing -- you're in a newsroom with people who don't believe in God, and you're trying to go to church, and no one will accept you because you're in a newsroom. You're living the life that Jesus said we should expect."

I hugged him in gratitude, not wanting to let go of the presence of a true friend. Time stopped until I got into my car and drove away, wiping away tears -- not from sadness but from the recognition that I'd had the privilege of another eternal moment.

Have you ever been that for someone -- a drink of cold water in the middle of their Sahara?

Have you stopped time with your encouragement for them, so that they regain the strength they need to go on?

Do you allow yourself to be life-giving?

Tune in for Eternal Moment #4: When Animal Crackers Became Manna

Monday, July 11, 2011

Eternal Moment #2: "The Angel at Death's Bedside"

The morning after Thanksgiving, 1991.
My father's hospital room.
Montclair, New Jersey.

I am 26.

My brother, my mother and I have been summoned with an early morning phone call to my father's bedside in a hospital in northern New Jersey.

He is dying.

He drags each breath with the same labored effort that Marley's ghost hauls his chains across Scrooge's floor, with a loud rattle and shuddering full-body shake. The moments fleetingly pass, but each second in and of itself is torturous.

It's only a matter of a few hours, perhaps a few minutes, before he will be gone forever.

During this nightmare, the angel offers a reprieve of peace.

No, she's not the type of angel you'd imagine, with fluttering wings or ethereal light.

She comes to the hospital dressed as if she herself had received the phone call at 6 a.m. and had hurried from her bed, throwing on whatever pair of slacks that were slung over the most convenient closet hanger and pulling a grey sweatshirt over tussled and curly white hair.

It's the first day I've ever met her (or remembered meeting her) in my entire life, although my mother knows her well. She is an old family friend, my mother tells me. She introduces us, and the woman takes my hand into her soft and warm grasp.

"I love your father, and I love you," she says.

Like the Londoner in the Illinois corn field a few years earlier, the memory of her exact words is a fog to me. Instead, what I can tell you is that her presence exudes peace and comfort. I lock eyes with her as if the sanity of my soul depends on her gaze. She speaks softly, gently. She smiles often, and she sympathetically listens to our report from the doctor and nurses.

Other visitors come, too, but there is something about this woman that sets her apart in an amazing way.

She, like the man of a few years earlier, becomes a miraculous vessel.

Her spirit is pure, genuine, kind, compassionate, lovely, gentle, loving.

Should I go on? Do you get the idea?

To be honest with you, I don't remember when she left the hospital. I remember later seeing her at my father's funeral. But those two encounters, at his deathbed and at his burial, are the only two I ever had with her.

Ironically, she died a few years later.

But I'll never forget her.

Our willingness to be used of God's presence at the most dire of times in people's lives ... it's a profound imperative.

Can you remember a time when you became Jesus for someone else, when you allowed Him to step into your shoes and be His tool?

I don't know if I ever have had the impact on someone that the "angel" had on me. If I ever do, though, I will consider it to be one of the highest of callings, one of the most honorable tasks given.

An angel of mercy at my father's bedside ... not for him ... but for me.

The gift ... the eternal moment ... still lingers in my mind as if it were the strongest and most beautiful perfume.

Someday, I hope to see her again. And when I do, when I am finally in her presence again in Heaven, I will tell her that God used her to be near me when I needed Him the most.

Tune in for Eternal Moment #3: Cold Water in the Sahara.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Eternal Moment #1: The Man from London in the Middle of a Cornfield

Part one of our new story series, "Eternal Moments ..."

June 1985.
Peoria, Illinois.

I am 20.

My parents, who are Salvation Army officers (ministers), are on a one-year special assignment. They're in charge of something called an "International Youth Congress." During my entire sophomore year of college, they've been assigned to Peoria, Illinois, where they are preparing for the onslaught of 5,000 kids ages 13 to 24 from every part of the globe.

The "Congress" is to be held in July at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois.

Until now, I've never been to this part of the country. The first thing that strikes me are the cornfields.

Corn. Corn. Corn.

Every road is lined with corn stalks.

There are no trees.

There is no grass.

There are no lakes.

There are no rivers.

There is only corn, row upon row of corn, as far as the eye can see.

I feel hemmed in and depressed.

It doesn't help that my summer job is to work in a warehouse for The Salvation Army, sorting cast-off clothing that people "donate" to the poor. I work in what I call a "dungeon," -- a basement rank with gasoline fumes and stinking hot from lack of ventilation. I spend eight hours a day doing nothing but sorting rags from garments that might be worn on a human body. When I come home, I rush to the shower to wash off the day's grime.

I know that I will get one week of reprieve from this drudgery, during the International Youth Congress. For that one week, I will be with other students my age. That thought keeps me going.

While my parents prepare and while I slave for my college tuition, we occasionally have visitors. These are Salvation Army officers from other countries, who travel to Illinois because they have an organizational hand in the Congress. Usually they pass in and out of my parents' office without me seeing them.

But today is different.

Today, I come home from my horrible job to hear laughter in the kitchen. I'm used to hearing the sound of my father's laughter ... but another man is laughing, too.

I poke my head into a room of sublime warmth -- not warmth from the summer heat, mind you, but congenial warmth emanating from our visitor.

His eyebrows rise when he sees me, and my father introduces me. I desire nothing more than to race to the shower, but something in this man's expression stops me. He isn't just someone filling up space or making polite remarks to pass time. He's genuinely interested in all of us.

I slowly approach the table and sit, listening to the friendly cadence of his British accent, mesmerized by his gentle tone, calmed by his presence.

You know ... the most interesting thing about this encounter ... is that I don't even remember this person's name. I don't remember his face. I don't remember exactly what he said. I can't tell you anything about him except that he was from London and was there for the business of the International Congress.

But I can tell you one thing:

The encounter with him had an eternal impact on me.


Something in me needed -- desperately needed -- a reminder of what it means to be joyful.

This humble man wasn't anyone who would stand out on the street. He wasn't a movie star with a hoard of paparazzi or a skilled athlete signing autographs. He didn't wear anything flashy, and he wasn't necessarily charming in the way you'd think a man would charm a 20-year-old co-ed.

He was just a vessel.

He was so filled with God's Spirit that he emanated joy and peace.

He didn't fill the time with grandiose philosophy or expository analyses of complex Scripture. He wasn't impressive or gregarious.

He just spoke quietly, earnestly, asking questions about each person and sharing small stories about his life at home and his own family. He just brought to the table the offering of himself -- a genuine interest in knowing others and in being known himself.

And there was one last thing he did before he left for his hotel room.

He shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said:

"If we never meet again in this life, we shall share again like this in Heaven."

Then he left.

I looked at the clock. It seemed as if he'd only been in our kitchen for a few minutes, but about four hours had passed. Time had gone by in a blink. And I yearned for another eternal moment -- another moment in which I could share so sincerely with another believer.

That man taught me a valuable lesson that night. The time we spend with others, even if we never see them again in this life, should be viewed as an eternal moment.

Do we bring Jesus to the table with our own actions, words, thoughts?

And when we leave the presence of others, do they feel that sense of eternal peace?

The man from London came to a cornfield ... and left me feeling as if I'd been standing in Heaven itself.

Tune in for Eternal Moment #2: "The Angel at Death's Bedside."