Water Into Wine

Please see the post Whiny as this is a continuation of that one.

Sometimes you don’t understand the reason for the adversity, or maybe you see the lesson in it, but God expands it further.

The following morning, after being made to feel unwelcome at the pickle court, we drove back, hoping the group that had only been there on Tuesdays hadn’t returned.

As I pulled around the familiar corner, we saw their cars lined up, so we knew it wasn’t worth the effort to try. I wasn’t going to try to negotiate anything.

Some would say,

“Witness to them! Share God’s love with them! Maybe God wants you to play doubles!”

Another voice says, maybe that lady is right. Maybe you are disrespectful.

When met with so much greed and negativity, it’s easier just to make yourself out to be the bad guy. You start to question if you did the right thing or not.

My daughter’s comment that “humanity is sad” led her also to say,

“I’m not going to live my life on their schedule.”

How could we possibly try to figure out what time to show up? Even if I got there at 3 am, they were so possessive and controlling that I swear they would start to appear from the woods like the zombies from Night of the Living Dead.

Instead of my body, they would want my pickleball space.

“Maybe we are supposed to be doing something else,” she said as we watched them happily play with all the people they associated with. There was no room in their agenda to let us in, and I felt I didn’t want to be “in.”

Just as I had sensed the other day, it was their way or the highway, which was why I felt such a clash. I didn’t match up to the attitude, the spirit, or frequency they operated on.

A lot of us try to “fit in.” We conform and scrunch ourselves down to meet others at their level while becoming a shell of ourselves. When you do that, you miss another opportunity God has for you. From toxic people and dead-end jobs, whatever fills up a place that doesn’t bring you life, it’s taking up the spot of something or someone who could.

“I’m going back to where we started,” I told her as I left.

I felt this strong pull to abandon a situation in which I would never make a dent. It would be me beating my head against a wall. I tried and got absolutely nowhere the day before. Sometimes it’s dark, and God isn’t asking you to be the light at that moment.

Jesus said in Matthew 10:14:

When you knock on a door, be courteous in your greeting. If they welcome you, be gentle in your conversation. If they don’t welcome you, quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way. (Message)

So I shrugged.

The familiar streets and the houses I used to walk by on my way to elementary school brought a sense of peace. The park I used to ride my bike to all summer long, where I played softball, was quiet.

This is where she and I tried to play weeks ago when we had no idea what we were doing. The asphalt is nothing special compared to what we had just had the luxury of using, but I knew I was in the right place.

The city marked tan lines over the white ones used for tennis. It’s not pretty and brightly multicolored. It’s cracked with weeds starting to run all over it.

“I will deal with weeds and cracks at this point just to have the enjoyment of playing.”

A retired couple was doing yard work, and I immediately saw the mourning dove perched on the high wire singing. Those are always a reminder to me that my grandma is close by. Her North Dakota yard was filled with them, and their sad song troubled me when I was little.

“I don’t like those woo birds,” I told her. Every time I heard one, I felt this lonesome feeling that I had difficulty explaining when I was a kid.

“Chrissy,” she said smiling, “that’s just how they sing. It’s nothing to be scared of.”

From that day on, she called them “woo birds” with a slight laugh, and her explanation made me not fear them.

I had noticed it before when we had played here, and now it was back in the same spot. Watching.

We began to play, and I realized how far along we had come from those weeks prior when I had to tape up her arm for tennis elbow. We had learned a lot.

“Does this hurt?” I asked when I tried to remove the first piece. I had helped her apply black tape, the type you see all the Olympians wearing while they tough out an injury to play.

“No.”

I took more off. There was no wincing.

“How about now?”

“No,” she replied calmly.

I thought maybe it was like one of those no-stick bandaids. And with no signs of pain, I ripped it across the rest of the way. That’s when the screaming started, but I was in mid-rip, so the momentum carries you.

“You took off all of my DNA!”

“You said it didn’t hurt!”

“Not at first!”

“Do you want me to put another piece on?”

“NO! I will do it!”

I wasn’t getting by pain-free either. Those first few sessions had left my lower body in agony that would strike, especially when I went up or down stairs. Epsom salts and the tub became my best friend.

That was all behind us now as we had gotten stronger and faster.

“That ball hit this crack over here,” she said. I had traded the superior for not as good, so I did what I always did. I prayed. As the hoo bird was my witness, I said,

“God, have the city fill in these cracks and get all these weeds out of here. I command it in the name of Jesus that they clean this up for us.”

That was it. We played, she won, and we switched sides.

I listened to the elderly couple talk and laugh with each other as she weed whipped, and he picked up sticks and branches. What a great antidote to the ugly behavior I had seen the day before.

Within moments, a city truck pulled up, and a man came to the fence.

I was attempting to return a ball.

“That hit the crack, and I still got it over,” I said to my opponent, who can beat me at every game now that her elbow is healed.

“That’s why I’m here. I just sprayed weed killer not long ago, and now I’m back to assess how I can fix this up.”

I told him what had happened at the other court.

“Pickleball players, especially the older ones, can be very mean.”

One of the comments made to me the day before was how “nasty” I was when pickleball was a sport that was always so nice. It was an attempt to bad-mouth me.

“You run into mean people?” I asked.

“Yes.”

There’s another location he services that has courts like the one we had been kicked off of.

“They are not nice. They act like they own that place,” he said.

I had tried to reason nicely, and because I hadn’t given in, I was also called disrespectful. So I wasn’t a bad person, and his description sounded like what I had said to the woman. Territorial.

“We like to play, and I will play here no matter how awful it is to avoid all that meanness.”

“I will work on this,” he said. “I can make this nicer.”

“Don’t make it too nice. Keep it kind of crappy, so it doesn’t get taken over,” I said.

“I will try,” he said, smiling.

Before I left, I introduced myself to the happy couple working in their yard. Even while they were engaged in manual labor, they would stop every so often, talk, and start to laugh.

“You two don’t seem like you are working. You seem happy together.”

As he slathered on sunscreen, he said,

“You don’t see us all the time,” sending her into another round of laughing.

The next day when we returned, he yelled,

“Good morning, ladies!” as he jumped in his truck and drove away.

And just like that, God turned water into wine.

Peace and happiness no matter what…

Song

I had been putting it off for weeks. I didn’t want to go up the rickety ladder to clean out the attic. But, there was this nagging feeling to get it done. It has pull-down wooden stairs, and then I have to put a shorter ladder underneath it to climb them. One of the springs holding the whole thing has come loose on one side, and it feels wobbly as I go up every time. I always tighten the screws on each side to make myself feel better.

I always keep my fingers crossed that this won’t be when I have to cash in my life insurance policy. I have learned how to go up quickly if everything gives way. And then I will live there for the rest of time, surrounded by all the things that I should have gotten rid of long ago.

I always go up intending to throw things away, but then I come across my kryptonite. The photo albums that I forgot were there. Suddenly, four hours have gone by, and I have nothing to show for it except wondering where the time has gone. Not for just that day, but years that I will never see again. And my natural hair color. Gone. Just like that.

This time, I also was dealing with some items I had taken from my parents’ home when I cleaned it three years ago. I pushed aside my mom’s wedding dress that I couldn’t throw, but no one wanted and started making discard and keep piles.

I felt so sluggish as I attempted to do this. Not energetic at all about setting myself free of things that no longer were serving a purpose. That is how I usually feel when I do this. I donate to the Salvation Army next to new items, which has always motivated me to clean so that someone else can use them. But that mental trick wasn’t working either.

I quit wondering why I was feeling so lazy and decided to wait until the next day to get it finished. I forced myself up there again with my oldest daughter catching what I was tossing to her below. They say that what goes up must come down. That was not the case with the gigantic Christmas tree I forgot was in a bag.

I tried every angle to push that through the opening to no avail. I even placed both of my feet on it and shoved. I realized I was making sounds like you would hear if someone gave birth.

“Are you grabbing this?” I asked, finally getting it past the metal hinges on the stairs it had gotten caught on.

No answer.

“Hey! Are you catching this?” I asked again, trying not to slide down with it.

She was too busy recording me. You just can’t get good help these days.

I kept going, and once the momentum built, I was not slowing down. As I handed her an item that sent a plume of dust all over her, I said,

“Do we still have your old guitar?”

“I don’t think so,” she said, coughing.

I turned and saw the black cloth zippered case and wasn’t sure. But, when I opened it, it was a perfectly brand new Fender electric guitar that was barely used.

This was from a time when she thought she wanted to learn and took brief lessons online with an instructor. After a while, she got bored with it. When I handed her this to take down, she said,

“I don’t know why I thought I wanted to do this.”

Usually, after determining what I would donate, I load everything in my car and drive to the thrift store to give it all away, but I had started so late on a Sunday that I decided to wait until the next day.

When I woke up the following morning, I heard very distinctly that I was to go to a particular location right by my house after an appointment that I had. I wasn’t sure why, but I never usually do.

I pulled around the back of the building and waited behind a car with a small trailer attached to it. A man came and went from the donation center, loading up shopping carts and taking them in.

Once the guy in front of me moved on, I pulled up and started taking things out of the back of my car. The worker pulled another cart and started helping me. When we got down to the last donation, I said,

“I have a strange question.”

This is the part where I always find myself in uncertain territory. Sometimes they take what you have, and other times you have to go elsewhere to get rid of things. During COVID, they took next to nothing for fear of spreading the disease.

“I have a brand new electric guitar to give away. But, I don’t know if you take those here.”

I handed it to him. I knew it was valued at $300, but that made no difference. I just wanted someone who needed it to have it.

Oddly, this very talkative man went mute. I couldn’t tell if he was struggling to tell me I had to go to a music store or list it for sale. He just stood there, staring at it. Because I have been turned away so many times and had to drag things back home, I said,

“I don’t even care if one of the intake workers takes this. I don’t want to have to deal with it.”

He just stared at it. And I kept trying to figure out why he had gone silent. He moved forward and put it back in my car.

Oh, great. He was too afraid to tell me I had to take it back.

Quietly, he said,

“I am in rehab. I am sixty days sober.”

“That’s good,” I said suddenly, unsure where we were going with this conversation.

Stammering, he said quietly,

“I really want that guitar.”

Now I was the one who had lost all of her words.

“You do?”

“Yes. I have been in rehab, and I am learning to play the guitar. I could really use that.”

It was one of those moments where you just know you have not been out of the divine timing of God one second. I might have missed him if I had cleaned the attic on Saturday and driven it over. Our paths were set to cross exactly then so God could show him that he was on the right road. I wasn’t lazy on Saturday! Or, at least, that’s what I decided.

“Where is your car? I can put it in there for you.”

I realized that he could get into trouble for this, so I tried to sneak it into his possession.

“I don’t have one. I lost all privileges. I get picked up by a bus at the end of my shift. Could I take your phone number and have my case manager call you?”

That sounded a little unsafe to me.

“What is your phone number?”

“I had that taken away too. I am still on probation because I have only completed 60 days.”

“You realize that this is God speaking to you right now, right?” I asked. “He sends me to help people, and He is telling you that if you learn how to play this instrument, this will be your way to stay sober and live a better life.”

He smiled and said,

“Yes. I know. That’s why I really want that guitar. Maybe you can Google where I am staying and talk to my caseworker.”

I told him I would and had to pull forward as another person pulled in behind me.

I looked up the address, and after some confusion, I was put in touch with someone in human resources. I left a message for the caseworker he had told me to contact.

I realized I had not heard back the next day, so I called and left another message. It was going to be challenging to get rid of me. I was going to keep calling until I got this delivered to him.

After a day of waiting, I was instructed where I could go to drop off the guitar and the speaker. This meant I would have to drive outside of my comfort zone and into the heart of the city that has had a lot of controversy in the past few years. Riots, violence, and other unsavory things have been going on there, but I was not going to be deterred.

I stuffed down my slight anxiety when I felt the darkness that seemed to be there and hurried into the rehab center.

I was greeted by a man sitting at a desk inhaling a donut.

“How can I help you,” he said, shoving in more of it.

“I was told I could drop off a guitar and speaker for a man who lives here.”

When I told him the man’s name, he said,

“Oh. He is learning how to play the guitar, and he is getting good at it.”

“I wasn’t sure this would work out, so I am glad.”

“I am a little jealous. I wish I had a pretty lady dropping off gifts for me.”

I saw that there was a placard on the desk that said Blessed.

“You are blessed, though,” I said quickly to get the attention off of me.

“Not really,” he said, laughing. “Are you nervous?”

I was trying my hardest not to let that show.

“Yes. I am not familiar with this neighborhood. I am always afraid of getting lost, and this isn’t the nicest spot to be in.”

“Me too,” he said. “It is scary down here.”

How reassuring.

Another guy came down the stairs.

“This is my boss. Is it okay if she leaves this guitar and speaker?”

When it was explained what I was doing, this man said,

“That is so nice of you! This is his second time in, and he is doing so well.”

“I told him that God was telling him to stay on the path he was on. The guitar was his sign.”

“Do you want to be a counselor here?” The donut guy behind the desk asked. Uh, no.

“God can do anything,” the other man said. “He can just come along and do anything. Everyone needs a sign from God.”

I just wanted about one million angels to escort me back to my car parked by a ladened graffiti building.

“We will be sure he gets that to start using it right away.”

I drove past the donation place on the way home, but there was no sign of him. I am sure they rotate their help where it’s needed. It wasn’t lost on me that I had helped a person to know God loved him. And the weird part was that I wasn’t even aware of it at the time. A musician from heaven was directing my steps.

In Psalm 96, it says this:

Good people, cheer God!
Right-living people sound best when praising.
Use guitars to reinforce your Hallelujahs! (Message)

You never know how you will be used to help others sing a new song.

Clue

“I want to see Miss Scarlett in the billiard room with the wrench.”

There was shuffling of cards as she searched for one of the three so I could mark it off. If she produced nothing, then her sister would have to show me what she had.

We went around the mansion, taking turns rolling dice, trying to land on a space that would give us access to a door. We would use a secret passage to speed things along where a player can instantly move from one room to another. Then the accusation could be given. Ultimately, you want to be the first to reveal which of the characters became a cold-hearted killer.

It could be Mrs. Peacock taking a rope and strangling her victim in the kitchen when he got on her last nerve and asked for the salt shaker.

Or Mr. Green lost his temper and took out a lead pipe in a jealous rage to do away with his enemy in the study while he read a world map. Unknowingly, the next destination was the afterlife.

I didn’t realize in the original game he was known as a Reverand. The title was removed because it sent the wrong message that a church leader could go insane and commit a crime. That would be too shocking for the public to handle with a board game.

Professor Plum’s character always seemed shady to me. I wouldn’t be caught dead with him in a conservatory late at night if I met him in real life. Who knows when he would pull out that candlestick and end my existence while I was looking at a botanical?

Colonel Mustard seemed like he could at any moment take out a revolver, and without a second thought, blow away whoever was standing next to him in the lounge while drinking his scotch.

Other characters were considered, but Mrs. Silver, Miss Grey, Mr. Gold, and Mr. Brown did not make the final cut.

When she revealed her card, I was able to take it off the list. And so, by deduction, we were on the move to hunt down the culprit and figure out where, who and what was involved.

When everything is set up at the beginning of the game, three piles of cards are made with weapons, rooms, and suspects. One of each is drawn and placed in a golden-colored mystery envelope in the center of the board. The most alarming thing for me was discovering that my character had been murdered by one of the others playing with me.

How dare they take me out when they depend on me for everything in life? They just callously knife me while I am in the hall, lost and wandering because I don’t even know the hall’s purpose. Isn’t a hall just something that is used to get to somewhere else?

I kept calling off names, rooms, and weapons during one game and kept coming up with no answers. With confidence, she ticked off all her answers, moved along, and closed in on the solution to put us to shame. I usually go with a specific strategy to get to the bottom of what is happening by eliminating one variable at a time.

But, I was coming up short. So, I kept asking for the same items or people multiple times to be sure that I hadn’t overlooked something.

“Something isn’t right,” I said after exhausting all my tactics. “There is a problem with this.”

“What?” she asked.

We had been playing for a while, and there should have been a conclusion to this by now.

“You don’t think something is missing? I keep trying to determine who did this, and there are two instead of one on my list. I have asked for every single one of them.”

She glanced down and looked at her paper with her name at the top, where she had been marking off her guesses. Both of my girls are very artistic, so their papers always have artwork all over them.

They can’t sit without drawing flowers, dogs, cats, and everything else they can think of. They are so talented that I could sell their art to pay off the mortgage.

It didn’t seem like she thought anything was wrong. So, we played on until I couldn’t take it anymore.

“I think maybe I put an extra card in the envelope when we started. We aren’t going to solve this.”

I had to quit the game and look at what had been set aside. There were only three cards like there should have been.

“I don’t get it,” I said. I showed her my findings, and she showed me hers.

“I think we have a card that has gone missing, so this would have never ended. Without that one suspect, we cannot come to the right conclusion.”

It was somewhat disappointing, and I thought about going online and buying the vanishing card. As I picked up the game, I noticed it underneath the board. Somehow, as we had put it all out, one of the suspects had hidden himself there.

I saw another rendition where you can lie through it unless the other players hit this big red button and challenge what you are saying. Your body language and facial expressions have to look genuine and go undetected as false by others around you to succeed.

I don’t think many of us would admit out loud how dishonest we really are. I am not talking about flat-out telling lies but living in a way that is not entirely what we want. We fake our way through things to keep the peace and make others comfortable even though we are miserable. If you do that long enough, it starts to feel normal.

In another version, the murderer is at large and can take you out before you figure out who they are. It’s a race against the clock to see if you can escape. You are in constant danger, dodging the fatal blow that will end your life.

I have had those situations in real life without realizing how close I had come to being a victim. It takes strong discernment to see the truth and to act on it.

One evening, I was out working in my yard, and a man approached with a clipboard.

“Do you have cable?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I think I can offer you a better deal.”

There was something about him that made me uncomfortable. It was starting to get dark, and I was near my garage.

“I am happy with what I have,” I said. He advanced closer to me, and I moved a few inches away.

I realized that no one was around, and all the houses were closed up.

“I think you should switch to my plan,” he said.

“I have said I am not interested.”

I moved enough so that he could clearly see that I was not at all needing him to go any further.

“I think you will like this better,” he said, coming into my garage.

I had my phone in my pocket, so I took it out.

“I have asked you to leave. If you don’t, I will call for help.”

I moved away again.

“I think you should take into consideration what I am saying.”

I started dialing.

When the 911 operator answered, he was sprinting down the sidewalk. I explained what had happened, and they sent a police officer my way. Those are the moments when you realize you have angels, and you need to have the best spiritual ears ever.

Friends may betray you, just like your opponent in a game of mayhem, and it’s going to hurt. Maybe they kill you with their gossip about you or slander your character, make unfair judgments, and spread it around. You will have to overcome unfair conditions as you walk through them, but God will show you where you have grown into a new person at the end of all of that.

The one thing that is clear if you ask God for help, it will come. In Jeremiah 33:3 it says,

This is God’s Message, the God who made earth, made it livable and lasting, known everywhere as God: Call to me, and I will answer you. I’ll tell you marvelous and wondrous things that you could never figure out on your own. (Message)

When life gets confusing, and nothing makes sense, send out a prayer, ask God for insider information, and listen as heaven will send the most valuable clue.

(Don’t let the Hall fool you…it’s not really a hall..it’s a room with no point…)
(Miss Scarlett was always a problem..)

Illusion

“Do you see the penny?”

“Yes,” I said.

I knew what was coming next because my brothers had shown me this trick repeatedly. The shiny copper piece would be held before my eyes to ensure I watched. The master was performing it, though, and he had taught the three of them how to do it.

“Now watch. I’m going to rub it into my elbow.”

When I think about it now, that’s the most ridiculous thing I could ever imagine falling for. Why not involve his kneecap? What was so magical about his elbow? A magician has to use whatever he can to get his audience to be receptive.

So he would start to move his hand with the coin in it, but he would drop it at least three times to keep my full attention. He would pretend to be clumsy, let it loudly rattle on the table, and have to start the process all over again.

Then, it would totally disappear. The hand it had been in would be empty. He would take the other hand, put it up to my ear and say,

“It’s right here!” And it would materialize out of thin air. I hadn’t felt a thing, so how could that happen? If I had money stashed away that close by, life would have been so much easier.

“Do you want to see it again?” He would ask.

“Yes,” I would say because I thought I had missed something. My dad could do that at least 100 times, and it was like watching it for the first time.

As I got out of my preschool years, I wanted to know how he manipulated it, but he wouldn’t show me. The other day I said,

“Here. Teach me how to do that disappearing thing you used to do.” I handed him a dime.

“What? That’s so ancient! I can’t remember that, Chris.”

“You better. I have waited a long time for you to tell me this. It will come back to you.”

He dropped the dime I had given him multiple times due to his shaky hands, not for the show. But it did all flood into his memory as he went through the motions.

“So you switched hands,” I said. I demonstrated it to him.

“I never showed you how I did that?”

“No.”

“Now it spoils it for you. It takes away the mystery. But now you can baffle people.”

“Baffle, huh? Really? I wouldn’t say anyone would be in awe of that unless they are really naive.”

He laughed.

“But it does take away the secret of it.”

It wasn’t the first time I had been told the truth about something that had seemed so real.

I was led to think that Santa would show up every Christmas Eve. Presents from him would always appear in the living room while I was in the basement. I was the last one of the kids to accept this, and the others never said a word. They let me have the experience just like they had.

I trusted that what I heard was true. I equated Santa with God. So when my mom announced to me on Christmas Eve that he wasn’t real, I thought she was joking. When it became clear that she wasn’t lying to me, I wondered if everything else I had been told was accurate.

It wasn’t difficult to be in a religious organization and lack a closeness with God. And this upsetting news made it easy for me to question everything. It wasn’t that I had been fooled into a myth, it was how I was told and when. The timing of it was not ideal for a seven-year-old.

When unpleasant things happen, you can decide not to repeat history, and that was my goal with my girls. Because of my disappointment long ago, I chose to skip the traditional man in the red suit coming down the chimney. Instead, I always hid a gift that they had to find. Because after all, the element of surprise was the aim. There were a few wrinkles to iron out, however.

I found out that the game of hot and cold was a challenge for my oldest. As she got closer to what she was seeking, and I would say, “You are burning up,” she would suddenly run away as if she were in danger. It took a few times for her to understand that cold wasn’t what she wanted. I had spent years telling her not to touch a hot stove, so that’s where I think the confusion came in. So, we pressed on, and I had to undo some of my parental training so she could find her elusive item.

I made sure to reiterate not to run with scissors, though.

“You are ruining Christmas!” A family member said who learned of my rouge departure from the iconic Christmas character. I got a tongue lashing on how horrible I was for taking away all the ‘fun’ out of the holiday. There was another person nearby who agreed with my stance, but they suddenly lost their ability to speak, so I withstood the beat down.

I didn’t listen. I bought a book that explained the place St. Nicholas took in history as a generous man who made sure that the poor were cared for. I educated my girls to know who he really was, not the one depicted in movies or cartoons.

I told them both to never ruin it for others but keep it to themselves.

“Santa isn’t real,” said my youngest daughter at the age of three, out loud to her friend as they looked at a display at a mall. Before I could clamp my hand over her mouth to stop more from spilling out, her friend said,

“Oh, I know! That’s Santa’s helpers. That isn’t the real Santa, silly!”

There is a God.

I wondered at times if I was damaging them somehow by not adhering to age-old rules. Was I stripping them of something that others were participating in and they were not? There were small indications along the way that I wasn’t completely destroying their childhood.

“I’m buying this so I will get a Nintendo DS.”

My oldest daughter showed me a game that only could be played on that particular handheld device. At the age of twelve, she set the intention and expected it; soon, she got it. She applied her faith, and the money she needed to buy it showed up.

My youngest daughter was sitting on my lap during a magic show when she was four years old. The guy on stage would hold out his hands, and doves would suddenly fly out. I watched as she put her hands together, trying to recreate what he was doing. It was the beginning of her understanding that she could make things appear that hadn’t been there before.

Throughout the years, I tried to model for them what this verse meant from Hebrews 11:1,

What is faith? It is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen. It is the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us, even though we cannot see it up ahead. (Living Bible)

During tough times, I would write down what I needed God to do for me. Like a Christmas list, mine had things on it, such as getting the house repainted, the dishwasher fixed, and money for a car repair. I wanted them to understand that prayer doesn’t only operate during a season, but it is always available to stream to us what we need. There were times I had no idea how problems would be solved, but I let them know I was giving it to God, so they could do the same.

The idea that we can ask for help from an entity outside ourselves is prevalent. It seems to have been downloaded right into our DNA.

Instead of having them put their hopes in a legend, I had them look to the One who owns it all and have lifelong, genuine communication with heaven, which is real and not an illusion.

(He is a good second place, though)

Surprise Party

“I want to go in there,” she said.

This has become a familiar phrase over the years, and when it’s stated, I know that something that its original owner has long forgotten is going to be in her hands.

It’s always the same smell—the opposite of new car scent. Everything assaults the senses at the door for me. When I first started to frequent second-hand shops with her, I always said,

“I’m looking at dead people’s stuff.”

I just couldn’t get past the idea that those 1970 avocado green coffee cups had once graced Aunt Myrtle’s kitchen counter. Or Olga’s mustard yellow crockpot had seen its final potluck when the grim reaper showed up, halting all the fun. I easily could put faces and names to all the merchandise.

The dusty burgundy brandy glasses had seen Helen’s last toast, and that super ugly lamp in the corner had gone dark after many days of illuminating the room so Fred could read the evening newspaper. Uncle Bud’s collection of beer bottle caps testify to the world that he liked to drink in excess while his team lost, and the ax leaning against the wall that once had given George calloused hands as he chopped wood is on clearance.

The ladle that great-grandma Beatrice used every Thanksgiving for her thick, bland gravy is up for grabs alongside cousin Lucille’s flour sifter and canister set with the yellow daffodils. Who could pass up on Sir Edward the Third’s favorite smoking jacket and Philip’s baseball cards that he had gotten with his first pack of gum? And then there’s the hatpin Betsy fastened neatly before her monthly book club meeting and Richard’s flashing neon man cave signs that have a bit of mid-life crisis attached to them.

I could go on, but besides envisioning the dearly departed, I could only think of one word: hoarding.

And there’s always these extra rooms and signs with arrows pointing to another secret passage that say: more, more, more!

In almost every visit, I have gone into lower levels where it seems like you are intruding into someone’s basement that got stuck in a time machine. Like a dungeon with concrete walls all around. It doesn’t help when you say to yourself,

“This feels like I am descending into hell.”

And the person who placed items for purchase thought it was a great idea to put all the rubber masks right at the bottom of the creaky stairs. So you are greeted by eyeless sockets.

She always gravitates toward the toy section because this is why we are there in the first place. As a successful creator on YouTube, she searches for more props to utilize in future videos. She is also highly skilled at resurrecting the dead through hair restoration and giving new meaning to dolls long fallen by the wayside. Once it’s in her possession, she will provide it with the best home and a life’s purpose.

I try to preoccupy myself with browsing through the items I once owned as a child and now are considered “vintage”. That sounds nicer than ancient.

How reckless were adults to give us real wooden objects to build with and risk getting a sliver? Or paint that contained unknown ingredients had we eaten possibly could have caused severe side effects? We lived on the edge then, I guess.

I have gotten more comfortable as time has rolled by. I try to block out the idea of the deceased and see it as a warehouse for second chances. I still have to combat a lot of sensations, and if I get too overloaded in a space, I move on to another one. My first indication of needing to keep moving is dizziness and a bit of disorientation.

We recently visited a busy store, and I struggled with feeling overwhelmed by all the stuff. As my daughters and I rounded a corner, she appeared with the most dazzling smile.

“Aren’t you girls finding anything fun?”

“Not yet,” I said.

She was beaming.

“There is a lot of good things in here. I was the owner, but I sold the place to my son. I’m 87 years old, and it was time. He has taken over and done way beyond what I did, and I am very proud of him.”

“You do not look your age at all,” I said.

“You are in the will!” She quickly replied.

“What do I get? All of this?” I said, sweeping my hand around as they do on game shows over all the prizes.

She threw her head back and laughed.

“Do you know what keeps me going?”

“No.”

“Fireball whiskey. I was given a huge jug of it, and it was so big it had a handle on it.”

“Did you get through the entire thing?”

“Of course I did!” More radiance.

I don’t recall how we got around to guessing my age, but she put me back into my 40s. She was close, but not quite. She went on to guess the ages of my girls. She couldn’t talk enough about her family living abroad in various countries.

“Would you ever go see them?”

“I don’t want to travel alone.”

Her husband had passed on.

“He had the best sense of humor. We got along so well, and it’s important to laugh in life.”

“And drink whiskey.”

“You are definitely in the will!”

Surprisingly, we left without a purchase, but then hours later, my daughter regretted not listening to her inward leading toward a particular doll.

“I can go back with you tomorrow.”

“I hope it will still be there.”

This is the one who always gives me the “look” when I am at a cross-road decision on something, and she knows I am supposed to have it.

“Angels are guarding it. God will make sure you have it.”

The next day was much quieter and calmer. Her prized possession was still waiting on the shelf, and she decided that there were some others worth looking at in locked cases.

While she stood by what she needed to view, I went to the desk where a woman was pricing merchandise.

“Can I help you?”

“I need key 21 to unlock a case.”

She turned and spoke to a man who I recognized from the night before.

“If you get me the key, I can help them,” he said.

When he came over to us, I asked,

“I met the former owner last night. Are you the son who took over?”

He laughed.

“I am not her son, but I did buy it from her at the beginning of the year. She always refers to me as her son, and it’s so nice of her to do that.”

She was a sharp person, so it wasn’t a case of dementia. She truly counted him as her child.

“I am in her will now,” I said.

“Get in line. She says that to everyone.”

“She had nothing but good things to say about you. You took what she started and are making it even better.”

He pointed to a poster on the wall. The business had earned one of this year’s Best Awards, meaning it was voted as a number one place to visit in the area.

“I did that already, and we aren’t slowing down.”

With both cases laid out on the counter, my daughter began looking through the piles of clothes and accessories. The lady who had been marking items now was watching.

“She restores things,” I said.

“I do too. I redesign old clothing. I have a big room I work in at home, and it passes the time since my husband isn’t around anymore.”

I saw a man standing behind her with his hand on her left shoulder.

“My husband Barry died eight years ago.”

“You know he is standing right next to you. You can feel that, right?”

It’s getting harder lately not to let it be said, and the words seem to fly out of my mouth before I know they are going to.

“Oh, yes! Right here,” she said, pointing to the spot where I could see him. You can’t spend that much time with a person and have them just disappear forever.”

“You are right. I’m glad you know it.”

“He was diagnosed with throat cancer, and we were told that it would be easily cured. Well, it wasn’t. It was a big shock when he passed on. But his alarm clock went off every morning when he used to get up for work. Even if I turned it off, it would wake me up the next morning. He has never left me.”

I know she misses him, but she also seemed very peaceful about it. I guess she has come to accept what is, but the feeling that he is near also is helpful.

God just keeps showing me more as I ask for it. There’s a scripture that says in 1 Corinthians 15:55-57:

O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”(ESV)

I can say that when you know that someone has advanced on and they are at peace, it makes grieving easier. You miss them, but like in this woman’s case, she can still sense him around. I keep having similar experiences.

The night before my birthday last summer, I was in a store by the bakery waiting with my daughter. She was having the worker write a message on a cake. When it was handed off to her, this older woman came out of nowhere, leaned in, and read it out loud to me with much emphasis:

“Happy 53rd Birthday, mom!”

Like loud, like my mom would have. And her body language and clothing were in full mother mode. Then she disappeared into the masses.

The next day, on my birthday, while I was standing outside a building looking at flowers, a man walked right up behind me and started singing Happy Birthday at the top of his lungs in this super booming low voice. He sang it all the way to his car. About a week before that, I had said,

“Mom, I want you to sing Happy Birthday to me.”

I had forgotten I had requested it until he was yelling it practically into my hair!

While driving home that day, I recalled that we would see my grandparents on some of my birthdays in North Dakota. They always saved one firework for me.

In Minnesota, the powers that be don’t think we can handle it, so it’s illegal. But not there. Apparently, the residents have better eye-hand coordination in that state.

I told my girls that I always had one bottle rocket or something sent skyward to commemorate another year.

Later, after I got home, I thought I heard a muffled pop. This was way past the 4th. I went out the front door to see the biggest explosion of color rain down over my house. That was it—just one.

“Thanks, mom,” I said, going back in.

I think we have put the afterlife into a confined space to make it more acceptable. Many people have a low-level fear that keeps them from seeing clearly, and then the sadness of grief gets piled on.

The preoccupation with loss blocks some vital heavenly signs from being seen or heard. And, while it seems like something has been taken, it has been transformed into better. That doesn’t mean there won’t be tears, but there also can be laughter which is just as healing. And those who have walked through the door, we all will someday, wish us joy.

I have gotten used to not being able to explain anything, and the more I allow it, God keeps sending extra my way.

I can’t say I’m okay with all of it at times, especially if it’s something really extraordinary and out there, but I have decided to do this from Proverbs 3:5-6:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight. (NIV)

It is a little scary to live like this, casting yourself totally into the care of heaven. But it also is so fun at times that I can’t imagine living without it. It sets you apart from the trivial cares and traps that are easily laid before us.

It helps you understand and see everything at a higher level of existence so you can drop away from those things that really don’t matter.

In some ways, it’s like being the unsuspecting victim of something good happening. Like when all your friends decide to secretly plan something that you will be the center of attention. You walk into a room expecting one thing, and then they all jump out of hiding. It takes the mind a minute to accept it, but then you realize this has been done for you. Once the shock wears off, you see it for what it really is.

You never know where God will show up next, who you will cross paths with, and how you will be spiritually awakened further by the next surprise party.

A Nice Ring To It

After my mom went to heaven in May 2019, I kept having this reoccurring thought about a ring, and it would show up in my thoughts randomly like a gentle nudge.

Like a mother’s ring, this one would have five gemstones, including mine, my daughters, grandma, and mom’s. None of us have the same color, and it would represent four generations of women. I kept thinking about it but not acting on it.

June became July, and I tried to help my dad adjust to assisted living while cleaning out their house.

During that time, my daughter had to take her computer in for a repair, and I went with her to see if it was salvageable.

We left it in the hands of those who could potentially help, and I started to drive.

“Wait! They are having a sale!”

“Who?”

She pointed to a jewelry store nearby, and I hadn’t realized we were near one.

“You should go in there. Don’t you want to design a ring?”

“I don’t know. I’m tired, and I don’t feel like it.”

“I think you should go in there.”

So I did.

The manager was very helpful as I told him what I wanted. He took an anniversary band out of the case with five diamonds in the setting.

“We could remove all of these and put in the stones you want.”

He took colored markers and made it look like what the finished product would be. When it was on my finger, I knew I would have a hard time saying no.

“What do you think?”

“It’s perfect, but you have to tell me how much.”

“The stones being removed will be an extra charge as a repair. And if you want the insurance, that will be a bit extra as well.

He wrote down everything as he tapped away on the calculator.

I was undecided when he presented me with a number.

I looked over at my daughter, who sent me a nonverbal message that I better say yes.

I took it off and handed it back.

“I don’t know.”

“We can hold this for you if you want to put some money down, and then take your time deciding that way..”

He stopped talking mid-sentence as he looked at the price tag.

“Wait a minute. I think this is on sale, so the price I quoted you isn’t right. I have to go look at something.”

I know a sales tactic when I see one, but he looked genuinely shocked. I began to feel it was supposed to be mine, and I was trying to find a reason why I shouldn’t get it.

When he returned, papers were shuffled around, and he said,

“Okay, this has a pink tag on it, so that means it’s going to be discontinued. We can still make it into what you want it to be but at a lot cheaper cost.”

That should have catapulted me into action, but it didn’t. I knew that I was supposed to say yes, but I said,

“I’m still not sure.”

My daughter looked at me like I should be put away.

I left without making the purchase, and I decided to think about it. And that’s all I did for 24 hours; I knew it belonged to me.

I bought it and had to wait two weeks, but I had it on my hand just in time for my birthday. The minute I put it on, my connection to heaven became even more potent.

When I went back to have it cleaned, one of the managers said,

“I show everyone who comes in here a picture of your ring, and we have had other people do the same thing once they see yours.”

It’s always nice to know that something I have done for myself goes on to inspire others.

This past August, I started to feel a pull to look at rings online. I typed in a description of what I wanted. Instantly, a certain one appeared on the screen. I glanced at the price but decided this time not to care. I didn’t look any further as I knew this was what I wanted.

I began to pretend I already had bought it. When I would remove my real ring, I would take my invisible one off as well. I would walk by my daughter, show her my hand and say,

“Isn’t my new ring great?”

I did this for about three weeks. Over Labor Day weekend, I had my finger sized. That particular location did not have it, but the salesperson told me it was on clearance. When we got home, we found a store that had one.

The next day, I drove to the mall, hoping to at least see it in person.

“It says that we have one here, but I can’t find it,” said the salesperson.

She searched drawers and display cases. Another associate came over to help.

“We don’t have it. But there is one about an hour away.”

An hour? Another drive? It was losing its appeal.

I called to be sure it was there.

“Yes. We have only one, and I will put it aside for you.”

When I hung up, I said to my daughter,

“I don’t know if I want to drive an hour to get a ring,”

It was the same look she had given me in 2019.

“Okay, fine. I will go get gas and decide if I want to go that far.”

She said nothing.

On the way to the gas station, I heard in my mind,

“Chris, you have asked me to be the man of your life. You have looked at this ring, and if you don’t buy it, then that’s all your fault. I need you to take the money I have given you and get it.”

The voice was loud and firm, reverberating throughout me.

I filled my tank and started the hour trek. As each mile went by, I was more confident that I did want it. I didn’t fully know what the price was going to be, but I was willing to follow the lead of heaven and get it.

“If I am driving all the way there, I’m probably going to buy it.”

“I knew that an hour ago in the parking lot,” she said nonpulsed.

I went into the store, and the person I spoke to took it out of the case so I could slide it on my finger for less than three seconds; I told her I wanted it.

With the sizing, warranty, and clearance, it was less than half of the original listing. Once again, I was shown that God would open a door for me to walk through when I let myself believe in something.

My daughter gave me a placeholder ring for that finger while I had to wait the long two weeks to get it, and I no longer had to pretend.

Some people buy material things to fill a void, and once the novelty wears off, the next purchase is made to achieve another high. That could go on forever, and sometimes it does.

In James 1:17 it says:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (NIV)

When you are the recipient of something directly from the One who created everything, the search is over. You can enjoy what has been given, and peaceful fulfillment takes over your heart. Doesn’t that have a nice ring to it?

Stumped

Restringing the weed whipper on the first try is a small victory for me. I have often gone into deep, intercessory prayer for myself while working with the thin nylon line that has a mind of its own. When you think it’s cooperating, it all unravels from the spool, and it’s back to the drawing board. 

Since becoming the sole owner of my home, I have learned that the lawn isn’t going to cut itself, the leaves won’t jump into the bags without my effort, and the weeds need constant attention. 

Last summer, while redoing the rock outside the perimeter, I suddenly saw a man standing nearby. I have noise-canceling headphones, so I didn’t hear him approach. His lips were moving, but I heard absolutely nothing. I removed one earbud. 

In situations such as this, I freeze. I assess my escape plan, and I only half pay attention to what is said. He looked like someone I could easily throw rocks at if I had to for a defense mechanism. Once I had mentally decided I could get away quickly if I had to, I heard, 

“…do you mind if I take some?”

“I didn’t hear the first part of the question. What did you say?”

“I was just asking if I could take one of your rhubarb plants.”

I looked over at the row my dad and I had planted long ago. They were ancestors of some from my grandma’s garden then transplanted at my mom’s house. 

“Well,” I said hesitantly. 

Who was this guy? He shows up and wants something? 

“I don’t need any,” he said quickly. 

“No. I don’t know if I want you to take an entire plant. You can have some stalks if you want because they grow back quickly.”

“Ok. Well, I didn’t know how to ask you, and I have seen you out here as I walked by.”

I had many visitors throughout the days as I did this time consuming chore. No one helped me, but all of them wanted a free therapy session. Some sat on the retaining wall and told me their issues ranging from childhood, parenting troubles, and landlord hassles. It helped pass the time as I filled and moved heavy buckets. 

It was hot, and my clothes were clinging to me, and I didn’t feel like standing there longer than I had to. If I kept working on the task, I didn’t notice how much I was dripping sweat. He appeared to be of retirement age, with nowhere to go. Wonderful. 

He was lingering, telling me of his time in the service, that he had recovered from a heart attack, his mom was in an assisted living, his wife loved quilting and a whole host of other things. I decided that I would give him my time. I was unemployed, so what was my rush? 

“I need to ask you something.”

Bracing myself, I said, 

“Okay.”

“I walk through the neighborhood all the time, and I pray. I ask God who I can help. I used the rhubarb as an excuse to come and speak to you.”

I was slightly concerned and a bit skeptical. What did he really want from me? Because he had mentioned he was married, I felt it was safe to stay, but I kept my distance. 

“Is there anything I can do? God told me to ask you that.”

 I wasn’t used to strangers coming off the street readily asking this question. 

“Really?” 

“Yes. What do you need help with? Do you want me to move all these rocks?” 

I looked down at the million stones at my feet. I could handle this, and I wanted something to do outside. This was like being handed a genie lamp and getting one wish. 

“I cut down trees, I redo bathrooms, I do all kinds of work.” 

I didn’t want him in my house. I wasn’t comfortable with that.

My neighbor had been over the night before and said,

“Chris, you need that tree cut down.”

Dreaded words as I had one taken down the summer before, it was a mess and expensive. 

“You cut down trees?”

“Yes, do you need that?”

I showed him the tree in my backyard. 

“I can do that. God told me to help you.”

He convinced me he could do it. 

I didn’t hear from him for a couple of days, but then he resurfaced. He brought a gigantic ladder and an electric chainsaw. Slightly a bit scary to me on the ground, he ascended with the saw in hand. At one point, he precariously balanced on his right leg while the long extension cord dangled next to me. 

He had no safety net or any harness. He seemed calm as could be. I began to wonder if my homeowner’s insurance would cover an unexpected fall or if he had life insurance to protect his spouse financially after his untimely death. I was pondering this as I heard a cracking sound. 

I barely had time to sprint to the far corner of my yard as a massive branch fell. Maybe I was the one who needed better life insurance.

“Sorry about that,” he yelled. “I was trying to send that in the other direction.” 

As he adjusted himself from side to side, there was a tense moment where he almost dropped the saw. He caught it with one hand by some act of every angel available in heaven, while the other quickly grabbed the ladder. I covered my eyes, not ready to catch him or the power tool. It was like watching a person on a tight rope. His crowd of one was relieved to open her eyes and see him still above, working away without a care. 

More of the tree came down in places he wasn’t expecting, with apologies following. I wasn’t safe anywhere I stood. The last one struck my chain link fence, bending it slightly.

“I’m so sorry!” I could tell he felt terrible. “I will replace it for you.”

I moved it back into place. 

“It’s still standing. That is okay.”

Over the next few days, he returned to keep hacking away at branches. Often I would ask if he wanted my help, but he would shoo me away. Sometimes, I would insist on helping. 

“God told me to do this for you. You don’t have to be out here.” 

I felt guilty seeing him wilting in the summer heat, hauling pieces of wood and remnants into a pile by himself. I would go out and work with him and bring him ice water, even while he tried to get rid of me. I learned he was a very proud grandfather, uncle, and churchgoing man. He loved serving his country and told me of various jobs he had worked to make a living. 

One day, while I was away, my neighbor lady kept an eye on him from their window. I hadn’t asked her to do this, but she looks out for me. 

“What was he doing earlier today?”

I had no idea what she was talking about.

“He was crawling on your lawn, Chris. Down on his hands and knees moving across the back yard.”

That was a new one for me. 

“Why would he need to do that if he’s cutting up a tree?” She asked. 

I ran this by another friend of mine.

“He was on the grass, crawling,” I said.

“Did you ask him why?”

“No. I don’t want him to think my neighbor is spying on him.”

“You said he is a veteran, right?”

“Yes.”

Where was she going with this?

“Well, maybe he was doing tactical maneuvers in your backyard as he used to in the military.”

“Are you serious?” I said with concern. 

She burst out laughing. 

“Ya, maybe he’s re-enacting something from the past.”

“Like he has PTSD?”

“Maybe.”

“I hope not!” What next? Was he going to set up a bunker and blow off a cannon? 

I had no clue, but why question his approach to things? He could have been stretching out his lower back or examining the dirt for all I cared. The job was getting accomplished. 

He ended up taking all the brush away on a day I was gone. It was nice to see the work get finished without barely lifting a finger. 

The wood was piled up, and I lost touch with him for a little while. 

This spring, my rhubarb plants came up as usual. I picked a bunch to give away to a friend. One night while I was out walking, I ran into him.  

“My sister passed away.”

He told me she had been sick for a short time, and he had stepped in to help. He didn’t shed a tear as he spoke of her; I had come to know his slightly stoic, friendly nature. 

“Guess what my wife made for the gathering after the funeral? Rhubarb cake. I came and took some of your rhubarb. People loved it!”

“You finally took some a year later? Get more. It grows non-stop.”

He has been back a few times. 

As I walk with God, I cannot predict who will be sent my way or for whatever reason. 

In mid-summer, I was out in the back working, and I glanced over at where the tree had been removed. It was beginning to look like a small shrub, so I knew I had to deal with the next step, and I wasn’t sure what to do. 

A few hours later, my neighbor, who had been gone all weekend, yelled over my fence, “Do you want that stump removed?”

He had not been around to see me standing there earlier pondering what to do next. 

“Sure!”

I could not believe that I was being helped again without having to beg anyone. In no time, it was done, and my neighbor returned to fill it all in with black dirt.

I asked him what I owed him, and he told me not to worry about it. 

These are the times when I am astonished by God’s hand in my life. Psalm 63:7 expresses it best. 

Because you are my helper, I sing under the shadow of your wings. (NLT)

And what a beautiful picture is painted in these words from John 15:5: 

“I am the vine; you are the branches.” (NLT) 

When God shows up unexpectedly and removes a burden, you might not be able to figure out how or why. And it’s okay just to move on happily stumped.