A Voice in the Bells

bellsFor a number of years, I lived in Minneapolis where I worked as an editor for Decision magazine. Many afternoons at the 2:45 break, I’d take a walk through nearby Loring Park. A pretty little park with a small lake at its center, it was a good place to go and clear my mind toward the end of the workday.

One October afternoon in 1990, I walked along the paths that were strewn with leaves. The trees were almost bare now and another harsh Minnesota winter was closing in. I kept my eyes lowered and felt my shoulders hunch against the chilly air.

Inside, I felt as bleak as the landscape. My 20s had been years of loss, including the death of my mother and several failed relationships. Now I was 30 and still living alone, far from family. Being single at my age, as well as geographically isolated from loved ones, certainly wasn’t what I had dreamed of for my life.

To make matters worse, I was in love with someone outside of work. No one knew, not even the man himself, who certainly didn’t love me in return.

The only thing loving this man did for me was to make me feel even more alone and unlovable than I felt when I met him, and that’s saying something because I’d already spent the decade of my 20s riding the elevator down to the bottom floor of self-contempt. I had no idea there was a sub-basement where things could be even darker, but on that October day in Loring Park in 1990, I was there. I was tired of grief and tired of loneliness, and yet both weighed on me so heavily my bones ached.

As I walked along the path, something interrupted my thoughts. The bells in the Basilica across the street began to chime. One, two, three times they rang, indicating the time was three o’clock. But it wasn’t the time that mattered to me, it was the very real sense in that startling moment that the bells were something more than bells, they were the voice of God, breaking into my loneliness and reminding me that God loves me. As their echo faded, I felt the heaviness lift. I distinctly sensed the otherness of God breaking into the ordinariness of my life, simply to comfort me.

I looked up at the bell tower and decided the next day I’d come out to the park at lunchtime to hear the bells strike the hour at noon. If the bells were speaking of love, I wanted to hear them ring not just three times but twelve.

The next day was a bit warmer as I settled myself on a bench not far from the Basilica. It was a few minutes before noon and, with the church behind me, I looked out over the park and waited. At last, slowly and heavily the bells began to toll, calling out the hour. I counted along, savoring each chime. One, two, threenine, ten, eleven. They rang twelve times, but they didn’t stop. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. They went on ringing until, in my wonder and confusion, I lost count. I stood and turned and gazed up at the tower as the bells rang on and on, calling out God’s love over the city, over the park, over me.

Maybe the bells had simply gotten stuck. Maybe some workers needed to keep the bells ringing while they evaluated them. Maybe the extended chorus celebrated some church holiday I didn’t know about. Maybe.

All I know is that it happened when I needed it to happen. Almost three decades later, I still marvel at the timing and the message, and I take comfort in knowing God’s love for me is far greater than I can count or think or imagine.

3 Words out of 16,000

20181119_061805    I was curious, so I googled how many words a person speaks in the course of an average day. I found varying answers, with most sites suggesting that whatever the number is, women undoubtedly speak thousands of more words a day than men do. One study coming out of the University of Arizona, though, concluded that both genders speak roughly the same number of words daily: 16,215 for women and 15,669 for men.*

Of course, it’s going to depend on the individual, but the bottom line is, a whole lot of words roll off our tongues in the course of a day. Can any of us imagine living our lives without words?

~~~

Helen Keller did. Because she was blind, deaf and mute from the time she was 19 months old, she had no real concept of language, and her thoughts were only wordless sensations. Instinctively, she knew she wasn’t meant to live like this, and her frustration led to many outbursts of anger. Isolated from the people around her, she felt within herself the deep desire to communicate, and yet she couldn’t; she didn’t know how.

Until Annie Sullivan came into her life, and began to teach her the connection between objects and words using sign language. The story of Annie holding Helen’s hand under the water pump is well known. As the water flowed into Helen’s hand, Annie spelled the word for water in Helen’s other hand. She spelled it over and over until Helen understood and as she put it, “the mystery of language was revealed to me….That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”**

Helen Keller said that when she could begin to communicate with other people, “I was restored to my human heritage.”***

~~~

What makes us different from every other part of creation? Some might say nothing does, that we are all part of the one great divine whole that includes earth, water, wind, willow trees, dogs, cats, grasshoppers—everything. But this isn’t true. Human beings are different because only men and women are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

There are undoubtedly many layers to what that means—to be made in God’s image—but I’m convinced that one of the things that makes us different is our ability to use words. We have language. We can communicate.

~~~

We all talk to our pets, don’t we? I have to smile when my daughter talks to her rabbit: “I love you, Opie!” Opie lies sprawled on the floor of his cage, his big bunny feet stretched out behind him, indifferent to Laura’s words of affection. Even when she says it again, he offers no response. Laura turns to me and says jokingly, “Do you think he likes me?” Who knows? The only time he seems excited is when we offer him lettuce and carrots.

~~~

One day I sat down at my computer and found a message from Laura on a sticky note: I love you! Smiling, I wrote, I love you too! on another sticky note and left it beside the mirror in her bathroom. Her note is still on my desk. My note is still beside her mirror. In fact, we tell each other several times a day those same words: I love you! That’s just who we are; it’s intrinsic to our relationship. One says it first and, without fail, the other says it back.

~~~

I’m not much of a talker, but whether I say 600 words a day or 16,000, I have to wonder how many of them are directed to God? And of those that are spoken to God, how many are used not to ask for him something, but simply to tell him that I love him? God gave us the ability to communicate so that we can be in communion with him. And yet after God began to speak to me about my life being a love story with him, I realized I was a dumb bunny accepting the gifts of his love but seldom telling him I loved him in return.

Of all the words I’m going to speak today, I believe God deserves these three: I love you. And so now, that’s how I start my morning prayers, how I begin my day. Knowing how much it means to me to hear those words from my daughter, I realize my Heavenly Father deserves nothing less. In fact, he deserves so much more. As he continues to pour his messages of love into my life, may more and more of my speech be words of love to him in response.

We love him, because he first loved us.  1 John 4:19, KJV

 *https://ubrp.arizona.edu/study-finds-no-difference-in-the-amount-men-and-women-talk/

**Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, p. 27.

** *Ibid, p. 19.

Janine’s Story: Finding God in the Dark

When Janine Hughes and I met in 2001, we became fast friends, as did our then 4-year-old daughters. In 2004, my family moved out of state, but our friendship continued. I walked with her, though from a distance, through all of the trauma she describes in her story. A picture from her August 12, 2012 baptism sits on my desk. Here is Janine’s story…

As an atheist for most of my adult life, my question was always: “Does God exist?” I came to understand that I was asking the wrong question. The question is: “Does God’s love exist?” It was through suffering that I found the answer.

In September 2009, my husband Bert was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. One morning we were a typical family of four living in suburban Minnesota, and by that afternoon we were a devastated family facing the imminent loss of husband and father. My entire world shifted and a terrible darkness began to close in.

As soon as Bert was diagnosed, we found ourselves surrounded by a community of loving, caring, supportive people. Friends, family, people from the school—even people we really didn’t know—brought meals, took our children to various activities, brought care packages.

Endless cycles of chemotherapy prolonged Bert’s life. We celebrated Thanksgiving 2010 thankful for more than a year together as a family. The next day my brother Dave died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 56.

Bert died in April 2011. I found myself surrounded by an ever-growing network of love and support. The church we had joined embraced me, family and friends continued to be there for me and the children. It was in the weeks following Bert’s death I realized I was surrounded by God’s love. God’s love is real. And if God’s love is real…..I opened my heart and God took over.

Thanksgiving 2011 my life exploded again. My eldest sister Mary was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. We were dealing with that crisis and her impending death, when in January 2012 my seventeen-year-old son Sam died by suicide.

The memories of that day are muted, repressed even, as necessary. But I remember calling people and people coming over.  All through the day, people sat with me and my daughter for hours. Long stretches of silence were occasionally broken by quiet questions, crying and prayer. Left alone, I would have been curled up in the fetal position, surrendering to despair. But that group of people surrounded me and held me upright. God’s love surrounded me.

Two weeks later my sister died. I lost four family members in fourteen months.

When people ask me how I got through that time of loss, I tell them, “God. And God’s people.” It is only by God’s grace and the love and support of his people that I am here today to tell my story. It was in my very darkest hour that I first saw the evidence of God’s love. He loved me through the hands and feet and voices and embracing arms of others. The world is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with God’s love.

After almost eight years, I am still grieving and processing my losses. I miss my loved ones, especially my son. Sometimes I feel great sorrow, and sometimes I harbor doubts. But through the experience of great loss, I realized I didn’t have to prove the existence of God, because he had proved his love to me.

Is God’s love real? Absolutely. I know because I experienced it, and God continues to make his presence known to me day by day. To debate the existence of God is empty rhetoric. In my darkest hour, he bypassed intellectual arguments and invaded my life with his love. The real good has come into my life and there’s no going back. I’m so thankful there’s a God of love and mercy so that I can look past the pain to something greater—to hope, mercy, grace, forgiveness, comfort, peace, and so much more.

Janine baptism 2

Janine’s baptism, 2012

Cecil’s Story: A Whole Heart

Getting married and having children are fundamental desires of the human heart. Family, as they say, is what makes a house a home. For most people, life slips naturally onto this path. For others, the journey isn’t so easy. My friend Cecil Stokes is one who waited years for God to patch the hole in his heart. Healing began with a child’s words. Here’s his story:

I had wanted to be married since I was 12 years old.  Not very typical for a guy, most would say.  In high school, I was playfully voted “Most likely to be married by sophomore year in college.”  Those days came and went. There was a hole in my heart.

But I had God’s promises.  Near the end of my college career, I heard a direct word about my future.  There was a large hill near my dorm and I often drove to the top of that hill for my prayer time. I just felt closer to God overlooking the city.  One night, I heard him tell me I would have a son. I saw this beautiful baby boy in my mind and I was satisfied.

Later in my 20s, I again went higher.  I took a prayer weekend on a mountain retreat and God confirmed again that I would be the father of a son.  In my 30s, I wondered what was wrong with me as almost all of my friends married and began families.  I tried to ease the pain with work, friends and travel.

~~~

Late in my 30s, I was on a trip with one of my buddies and sure enough, God spoke to me again from the mountain. This time he was more specific.  He said I would be like Joseph and have a son that was not mine biologically.  I had always wanted to adopt and mostly dated women who wanted to adopt so it made complete sense.

When I reached my 40s, I began to ask God if I could adopt on my own and I heard him say no. Then when a relationship ended with the woman I thought was perfect for me, I asked again.  I heard yes!  But after all those years, I needed confirmation.  I buried my face into the floor and asked again and I heard yes.  Guttural sobs wet the carpet.

But this was too big. I needed a sign. For the next four Sundays in a row, I received signs through my pastor’s sermons, books I was reading, the Bible and a speaker at my church.  I knew it was a go.  I looked up the information to adopt from foster care in my city and there was an orientation class the next day with one opening left.  I signed up. Is this how God would fulfill His promise and fix my aching heart?

~~~

After seven months of classes, books and interviews, I had my foster care license and waited for a child.  A few options crossed my path but I did not hear the voice I was waiting to hear.  Then I received an email with the photo and background of a small eight-year-old boy.

He had been abused in every way, taken from his birth parents and separated from his siblings.  He was then tossed through 10 different foster placements in three years, learning every three to four months that he wasn’t wanted anymore.

I asked that I be submitted as a permanent placement for him and was rejected because his last two “permanent” placements called to have him removed after three months.  But God whispered that he was mine.  So I asked to write a letter to the decision makers and while that was unheard of, I was told I could.  So I wrote to them my plan for his life.

The next day I was sitting in the head office being interrogated.  The meeting ended with a statement every child deserves to hear: “Nobody has fought for this child in his entire life and you are fighting for him without even meeting him.”  He arrived two days later just as a massive summer storm passed and the sun broke through the clouds (literally and figuratively).

~~~

I knew in a moment he would be my son forever and truly, and he always had been— on every hill and mountaintop experience and through the long, dark valleys— we just hadn’t known each other.  He tells me now he knew it too the first time I hugged him; he said no one had ever hugged him like that before.

As I look back now, those first few weeks were a whirlwind.  He started second grade in less than three weeks and I probably attempted every “father/son” moment within the first month—playing baseball, tossing around the football, putting together model cars.  I made it a routine that each night before bed, we cuddled up on the couch and said 3 Blessings before we prayed.  It was hard for him in the beginning but that was exactly why I knew we had to do it; he needed a paradigm shift.

We had some really hard days, filled with the examples we were warned about in foster care classes.  I was not the perfect dad and made my share of mistakes.  Then one night, I sat on the side of his bed as I tucked him in.  I sang to him and rubbed his back.  As I said good night and started to leave, he sat up and said, “You know, I came here with a broken heart, and something tells me you had one too.  But now, together, we have a whole heart.”

That night, salty tears caressed his head as I rocked him close. He wasn’t the only one who had been looking for home. And he wasn’t the only one who’d found one.

I was 42 years old when my prayer was answered and God allowed me to become a father.

Cecil and Boone

Cecil and Boone Stokes