You Can’t Run Out of Time

EE Hale

The graduating seniors—all 34 of us—were asked to choose a quote for our senior page in the yearbook. This being 1977, quotes from rock bands like Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead were popular, but I was always the odd duck in my class. I chose the above quote from Edward Everett Hale, author of the famous short story “The Man Without a Country.”

At that time, I really had no idea what I would do with my life, but I wanted to be of service somehow. I considered becoming a nurse, a special education teacher, some kind of missionary. I felt certain I was here for a reason and God wanted me to do something. Whatever it was, I would find it and, by his grace, I would do it.

Now, more than 40 years on, I have to ask myself: Have I done it?

~~~

Certainly, I’d like to think I’ve done something worthwhile through my work as an inspirational writer, and yet the word that occurs to me most often as I reflect back over my career is failure. Sometimes it settles in quietly, sitting in lowercase letters on my shoulder and whispering of should-have-dones. Other times it storms in and thunders aloud in all caps, with exclamation points following like flashes of lightning.

Either way, I don’t like it. I don’t like feeling as though I haven’t accomplished the tasks I set out to do.

~~~

Recently, I was having one of those down days. That’s what happens when I turn away from living my life as a love story with God, when I choose instead to listen to that cultural chorus that sings high praises to the vocational curriculum vitae. Success and accomplishments are the primary factors when it comes to calculating human worth.

So there I was, looking back over 40 years and trying to measure my life from the worldly perspective. Things did not look good. I had never striven for greatness, but I had desired to do something good—you know, there was always that deep human desire to make a difference. I had managed a few things on my to-do list, but the good I wanted to do seemed somehow mostly left undone.

It’s a deeply troubling feeling, especially considering the fact that—eventually—a person runs out of time.

~~~

In that state of mind, I picked up one of the books I was reading, Heaven by Randy Alcorn. I had just been chatting on Facebook with a few people about how there always seems to be a right time to read a particular book—that is, God brings the book to us when we need it or might most appreciate it. This was one of those times.

Two brief passages stood out to me:

“Christ’s mission was to reclaim and set free not only the earth’s inhabitants, but the earth itself. He came not only to redeem mankind as individuals, but also as nations and cultures, and to redeem not only the work of his own hands…, but also the work of his creatures’ hands….” (1) (Emphasis mine.)

“Moses prayed, ‘Establish the work of our hands’ (Psalm 90:17). The Hebrew word translated ‘establish’….means ‘make permanent.” So Moses was asking God to give permanence to what he did with his hands.” (2)

~~~

It was as though God put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You think you’re running out of time, but you don’t realize you have eternity too. Besides, what I accomplish in and through you isn’t ultimately up to you; it’s up to Me, and I will fulfill My purpose for you” (Psalm 138:8).

I don’t fully understand what all this means, but I’m beginning to understand this: I’m not limited by the time restrains of this world. I’m not expected to complete my tasks in 70-some years and then go on to a place of eternal rest and be done with it all. The work I do here will somehow carry over into eternity, a place of further work, greater work, perfect work, deeply satisfying work that is most satisfying in the fact that it doesn’t glorify us but the God who made us.

~~~

The idea of God redeeming and eternally establishing the work of my hands changes everything for me. It lifts a huge burden from my shoulders, and allows me to look forward with hope. All that God wants to accomplish—through me and through all believers—will be accomplished in the unbounded stretches of forever.

In God’s Kingdom, it isn’t success or failure that matter. What matters is faithfulness and love.

This is the thought I want to leave with you today: Cease striving. Stop measuring yourself against impossible worldly standards. Instead, love God, remain faithful, and he will establish the work of your hands.

~~~

(1) Randy Alcorn, Heaven, Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004, p. 97.

(2) Ibid, p. 128.

Yearbook page Senior page, Sanford School, Class of ’77

**Congratulations 2020 Graduates!**

Amazing Moments of God’s Love

Divine Moments The world is full of stories about God’s love, with new stories unfolding every day. The Lord wants these stories to be told so that believers may be encouraged, unbelievers challenged, and so that he himself may be glorified. Some years ago, novelist Yvonne Lehman started collecting true stories into what is now known as the “Moments” books. These are a chance for you to share YOUR story too. An invitation from Yvonne…

One evening after a day of participating in a writers conference, several of us gathered in the hotel lobby to visit and chat. One woman told a story that had us all gasping with amazement at how God showed up in a fascinating, almost unbelievable way. Others began sharing their stories. Some were sweet, some humorous, others serious, but all were about experiencing God’s presence in unexpected ways.

I thought of the praise song, “Our God Is an Awesome God,” in which the words are repeated over and over. I’ve often wanted to say, “Go further. Don’t just repeat the words. Tell me the stories of your being amazed by God’s love.”

That’s what we were doing that evening. We were joyful, talking loudly, laughing, loving. Sharing those special times of our lives became a time of praise. Others joined us to hear the stories and share their own. The realization was that we all have awesome and amazing stories to share but we don’t always take time or have the opportunity to share them. I commented that “somebody” should put these stories in a book.

~~~

Two months later, Grace Publisher Terri Kalfas called me and said she was interested in that book I mentioned.

Book? I mentioned a book to Terri Kalfas? I questioned and she reminded me of that night when we had talked about God showing up in unexpected, miraculous ways.

But… I was a novelist. I didn’t write non-fiction other than an occasional article or devotion, and really didn’t care to. I hadn’t intended that “somebody” should be me. But I could at least contact people through email addresses, loops, Facebook, etc. … for Terri.

~~~

I was… amazed. Responses were immediate and so inspiring. Some of the authors were established, professional writers. Others were those in the midst of their writing journey. Several were not writers at all, but people who learned about what we were doing and they had a story to tell. Instead of trying to divide royalties between 50 authors, the decision was made to donate the royalties to Samaritan’s Purse. That compilation became an amazing book, Divine Moments.

Since that venture went so well, Terri suggested we try a book of Christmas stories. Although my preference was still fiction, I’d really been touched by these true stories, so I said, “Sure.” The second book became Christmas Moments. These ranged from light to serious, Santa to Jesus, disappointment to understanding, entertaining to edifying.

Then I was ready to return to fiction writing. But… my daughter, Lori, was asked to teach a Sunday school class. The first topic was Words of Jesus. She asked if I’d sit in and help if needed since I work with words. During the class session, members related times when someone’s words hurt or encouraged them.

Lori looked at me and said, “Mom, there’s your next Moments book.” What else can you do when your daughter is on a spiritual journey? Spoken Moments became the third one.

~~~

Though I had always preferred writing fiction, I was learning the value and great impact of non-fiction. The stories in these Moments books were changing lives – for readers and for the writers. Writers were thinking about the ways God had worked in their lives, the strength and weaknesses of their faith and the lessons learned. Beginning writers were gaining a by-line. Non-writers had a voice.

Each Moments book has been followed by another…and another…and another…each one on a different topic. For every book, I write an introduction and share my own articles on the theme of that particular book. God has taught me to remember how he worked in my life in so many different ways and know that my story may lead someone to him, or strengthen their faith.

More than what God was doing for me personally, he was showing me how he poured out his love on others. One author came to my Novel Retreat and gave her testimony of her family not listening to her talk about Jesus, but one of them read her article, shared it with others, and eventually her entire family became followers of Jesus. Others have written of hardships, loss, blaming God, turning from the faith, and how the love of God taught them lessons, was present in the difficulties, proved he had not abandoned them.  Amazing, how God uses the hardships and successes of others to show the world he is here, he does love us, and he never abandons us.

~~~

We now have 15 books in the Moments series, and more on the way. Since the first book, the authors have been excited to receive no payment for their donation of an article. Well, let me correct that. They receive no monetary payment. They’re experiencing the opportunity to share with others what God does in their lives and they witness about their faith. By donating our royalties to Samaritan’s Purse, we’re part of a ministry that cares for the physical and spiritual welfare of people throughout the world.

It’s amazing to discover the truth of the words of Jesus: “It’s more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35). Sharing our stories of God’s love brings a sense of peace and joy.

Yvonne Lehman  Yvonne Lehman

Yvonne invites you to send an article (or prayer or poem that fit the theme) for one of the upcoming Moments books. Please send them to yvonnelehman3@gmail.com.

She’s  now accepting articles about:

Coronavirus (thoughts, even prayers or poems are all right too)

Can, Sir! Moments (primarily about cancer but may be any experience in which one determines, “With the Lord’s help, I can do this, or get through this.”)

Christmas Moments 2020 – (Santa, Jesus, light, serious)

Broken Moments (humorous or serious)

Lost Moments (humorous or serious)

Grandma’s Cookie Jar (warm, cozy articles about grandma, or a stereotypical grandmotherly feeling)

Beckie’s Story: From Blindness to Greater Vision

At the age of 33, Beckie Horter began to lose her sight. As her vision narrowed and the world grew darker, the Lord opened her eyes…and her heart…to His love for her. Here is Beckie’s story…

glasses-1246611_1920 Twenty years ago, my life changed radically. The diagnosis of a blinding retina disease put a stop to life as I knew it. Plans for the future got iced. I grappled with the impossible realization that over time my central vision would be erased bit by bit. First one eye, then the other. My condition would progress slowly, but predictably, and always with the threat of total blindness. I was 33 years old.

As I struggled to come to terms with vision loss, practical matters took precedence. Obviously I could no longer continue my job proofreading the newspaper; the pace was too hectic. I stopped driving a car, and ouch! That hurt. Daily matters like reading my mail and quick stops at the grocery store became arduous tasks.

~~~

About that time, my sister hosted a birthday party for my mother. I looked across the room where my big family was gathered, and I couldn’t tell who was who. I felt sick as I contemplated my blurry future.

I started to wonder…

Why had God allowed this to happen? Was I being punished? What type of future could I have as a legally blind person?

~~~

The grieving process set in. From denial to bargaining; anger to depression, and then back again, my emotions ricocheted. Peace eluded me. The final step—acceptance— came after much wrestling with God.

One morning as I searched the Scriptures for answers, I read Psalm 34:18: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (NIV).

The verse leapt off the page! Surely this was written just for me. Although King David penned the words centuries ago, they fell fresh on my heart that day at the dining room table.

The words “brokenhearted and crushed in spirit” perfectly described my mood. But there was good news, too. The Lord was close, and He would save me.

~~~

Up until this point, my relationship with God was based on head knowledge alone. I had graduated from a Christian college. I believed. I had always believed, but now I knew more was necessary. God was calling me deeper.

I had come to the end of myself, and doctors provided no hope. My fear of going deeper with the Lord dissolved as I felt the words of Scripture tear down walls built over a lifetime.

The Holy Spirit moved in. The Bible came alive as never before. I realized God wasn’t mad at me or punishing me. The entire planet was under a curse. Our bodies included. Death was inevitable, but God was in the midst of the broken. He felt the pain and entered into it.

A crazy thought took root in my brain: Maybe I can do this blindness thing with God’s help. For the first time in years, a ray of hope poked through the gloom. A future seemed possible.

~~~

I prayed in earnest, and God brought committed Christian women into my life. I heard three simple words: “Jesus loves you,” and they no longer felt like a cliché. I found a Bible-believing church and got baptized. The pastor’s wife asked me to speak at a women’s gathering. There an older saint specifically prayed for writing opportunities to open up for me. A short time later, a shy friend said she felt led by God to tell me about a ministry seeking proofreaders for devotions. I applied and got the position.

These days I sit in front of a large screen television monitor, which doubles as a computer screen. I have published many articles. I have proofread many devotions and continue on my writing journey—albeit slowly.

Over the past fuzzy years of walking with God, I have learned that His love is far different than a Hollywood script. It is so much deeper and more surprising than the turn of a man-made plot.

Like a messy bird’s nest I recently discovered above my desk outside the window and under a metal awning, God’s love is uniquely formed for my situation. It’s personal.

Sometimes I marvel that twenty years have passed since my diagnosis. I remember how long and difficult the days were at first. I remember saying, “I can’t live like this.”

Although my physical sight is now worse than before, my spiritual vision is 20/20. When I look down on the bird’s nest as I stand on a chair beside my desk, I don’t see a mess. Instead, I see four fragile blue eggs huddled close. I watch the mother bird coming and going, carefully tending her clutch. I see new life about to burst forth, and I smile at the irony of God placing this nest where only I can see it.

Beckie Horter Beckie Horter

 

Martin’s Story: Surviving Divorce

Only too often human love, even the love of a spouse, fails us. In the midst of divorce, one man learned that God’s love never fails. Here is Martin Wiles’s story…

49b67884b78c91929caa3cbd29f61f01 Life was good—until I heard the words, “I don’t love you anymore.”

I had met Brandi* when I was 24 and had fallen head over heels in love. Within a couple of years, we were married. In the meantime, after a rebellious youth, I had also got myself back on track with God.

Growing up as a PK (preacher’s kid) riled me. After all, I was born at the beginning of several revolutions: sexual, civil rights, political. It appeared I had the rebellious gene too—although not inherited from either of my parents. They were straight-laced and obeyed the rules. Not me. When I was 14 the rebellious gene broke loose and stuck around until I was a young adult.

When God turned me back to Him, I remembered the call He had placed on my life when I was 12 years old, a call that entailed full-time preaching and full-time teaching. I had no idea how those things would work out, but I was ready to find out.

Now, to tell the new wife.

~~~

Six months after we married, I shared the news with Brandi: “I think God’s calling me into the ministry.” She seemed excited—and I was glad. I sure didn’t want to melt down a six-month-old marriage to pursue God’s will. Then came the hard part: an education I had not wanted after high school.

One and a half years after we married, we packed our things—and our ten-month-old daughter—and headed to a college eight hours away. No jobs lined up. No savings. Just a place to stay on campus, the clothes on our backs, and a few belongings. Four years later (and with one more child in tow), I graduated. Six months later, a church called me as pastor. One year later, I took a job teaching history at a local private high school. God had worked out the teaching and preaching thing after all.

Five years later, another church issued a call—one closer to our home—and we moved again. Things went well…for four years. By this time, our daughter was a senior and our son beginning high school. Old enough to care for themselves. Old enough that my wife no longer felt she was needed at home. Brandi wanted a job. The first she’d had outside the home since we’d married.

That’s when the trouble began.

~~~

Her work peers didn’t share her beliefs…or her lifestyle. Temptations poured in on her in record time and with unbelievable intensity. Whispers and questions arose at church. “Is everything okay with Brandi?” “Have you checked up on her lately?”

I knew something wasn’t right, but checking up? Didn’t that constitute distrust? “No, I haven’t,” I answered. Only to hear, “I think you need to.”

As Brandi moved up to assistant manager, her work hours lengthened. She filled in at other stores. Sometimes, she didn’t come home at all. When she did, I smelled aromas I recognized from my rebellious years. I saw things that made me suspicious. But she always had a good excuse, and I believed her. Until…

One night behind our closed bedroom door, out of earshot of our kids, she said the words I’ve never been able to dismiss completely from my mind: “I don’t love you anymore.” She didn’t want counseling. She wanted a divorce.

~~~

After one last attempt at reconciliation—reconciliation she didn’t want—I told her goodbye and said hello to three years of the darkest depression I’d ever experienced.

I had lost the person I considered the love of my life. The divorce also led to the loss of my job, as my church led me to understand that they wanted my resignation as pastor. So in addition to deep grief and loneliness, I faced great financial difficulty. If ever I had needed the Lord, I needed Him now. I read and studied my Bible more than ever . I prayed longer. I went to church more. Nights were the worse times. The verse that got me through was Psalm 4:8: “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe” (NLT).

Although few of my pastor friends reached out to me, many other friends, relatives, and family members did. God showed me His love through them, and His healing work began in my heart. The Lord also provided me with a secular job where my work peers didn’t care that I had been divorced.

I had given up on the thought of continuing in any kind of ministry until two things happened. First, I met a woman named Michelle who became my wife. Through her, God taught me to love and trust again, something I thought would never happen. Second, Michelle encouraged me to try to get back into ministry.

With her support, I sent out hundreds of resumes to churches. Most of them were ignored, but eventually one church gave me an opportunity, and, as time has passed, more have done so. I no longer depend on that for my full-time income (I teach at a Christian school), but I pastor bi-vocationally.

Eighteen years after I heard those fateful words, “I don’t love you anymore,” I have forgiven my ex-wife, established speaking terms with her, share several grandkids with her, and am doing what God originally called me to do. Proof that divorce can be survived—even though painful life changes and depression might be a part of the process.

The dark years after the divorce brought me closer to God and gave me a deeper understanding of His love, from which nothing in this world can separate us.

*Name changed.

Martin Wiles  Martin Wiles is a pastor, teacher, author and editor. You can read more from Martin at Love Lines From God.

Shonda’s Story: Not the Life I Imagined

Shonda blog photo I never imagined I would be the mother of a convicted felon. My husband and I celebrated the love of Christ with our children both in church and at home. We dedicated our sons to the Lord and taught them how to live according to Scripture.

I watched and learned from parents in our circle of influence. Their children did well in school, then proceeded to earn college degrees, find gainful employment, marry godly spouses, and start their own families.

Following the examples modeled for me, I made my loving mother checklist:

  • Christian education
  • Regular church attendance
  • Sports activities
  • Family vacations

I anticipated the same outcome I witnessed over and over again. After all, I stood on the promise of God that as a parent if I train them up in His ways, then they will never depart from it (Proverbs 22:6).

~~~

After my older son, Stephen, graduated from high school, he went to work and moved into his own apartment. His choice of friends raised concerns on my radar. When I shared this with other godly parents, they encouraged me not to worry as young adults go through a phase. “It will be all right,” they said. So, I turned my worries into prayers.

But then we got the call—he was in jail charged with serious crimes—murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Shocked, I couldn’t process the news.

With my heart ripped apart, my first prayer after learning about my son’s arrest came from Romans 8:28, which reads, And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them (NLT).

I petitioned the Lord because only He could take something so traumatic and somehow turn it for something good.

~~~

Due to the nature of the crimes, there were those who suggested that I forget about him and let him rot in prison. But when I thought about my son, how could I let him go, just left to rot and waste away? What about God’s promises to me?

Standing at the crossroads of these two choices, I chose to love him as God loves—unconditionally.

Regardless of the consequences my son faced, even if that meant the death penalty or life in prison on this side of eternity, I did not want him to suffer eternal separation from God.

Because of His love for us, Christ took the death penalty for each one of us. And because of love, God promises to forgive us of our sins if we confess them. I wrote the promise from First John 1:9 on paper and sent it to my son. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness (NLT).

I cried out, “Lord, if I have to live separated from my son in this life, I don’t want to be separated from him in eternity.”

~~~

Love for my son compelled me to write letters to him five days a week sharing God’s love. Every day I sat with my Bible in my lap determined to receive an encouraging word from the Lord. As I read familiar passages, I saw God’s words through new filters.

The Bible is filled with testimony of people our present society would label as thugs and outcasts. Many biblical heroes started out as scoundrels. The Lord redeemed and restored the lives of liars, cheaters, adulterers, thieves, murderers, womanizers, prostitutes, and prisoners and used them to fulfill His purposes. This filled me with hope, and I shared this hope with my son.

Two months after his arrest, my son sent a letter with his decision to fully surrender his life to Christ. From that moment, I knew that no matter what happened, if we depart this earth or Jesus returns, we will be together in eternity. Peace filled my heart.

As we navigated the legal process with my son and his attorney, I noticed the Bible contains judicial themes. Particularly how we are invited to raise our petitions into the courtroom of heaven. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most (Hebrews 4:16 NLT).

~~~

Because of the Lord’s unconditional love, He desires to show us mercy. God granted mercy to Stephen with a twenty-year sentence, though he was eligible to be sentenced to life in prison. Even as a lawful captive to the state, he lives in a freedom that does not depend on a location, but on the Spirit of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:17).

Stephen admits that our love for him led him to choose Christ and allows His light to shine through him in a place filled with darkness. He explained that inmates who are rejected by outside family often turn to gangs and violence.

Hebrews 13:3 says, Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Before this, I never thought about prisoners, but now I remember them, as a part of me is in prison.

Over these years, God has demonstrated His faithfulness. Step by step, I witness the amazing love of God working everything together for good out of an excruciating situation.

Though this is not the life I imagined for my son, the Lord called me to live my life as a love story.  Because of His love, I share His unconditional love at times and in places that some avoid or may never give a thought to it—loving those in prison and their hurting families.

Shonda Savage Shonda Whitworth writes, teaches, and speaks at conferences and retreats to share the hope of healing and restoration we have in Jesus. After her son landed in state prison, she realized the hardships families of prisoners encounter. She and her husband, Eldon, founded Fortress of Hope Ministries, a nonprofit organization that offers hope to families affected by incarceration. Shonda transparently shares her testimony of living with a son in prison at ShondaWhitworth.com and FortressofHopeMinistries.com.

Shonda book

Shonda’s book is also available at ShopLPC.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

 

Leanna’s Story: No Mistakes

As Leanna Sain watched her mother’s mind being stolen by Alzheimer’s, she needed words of encouragement. Our loving Lord chose to comfort to her…through her mother’s own words. This is Leanna’s story…

My mother lost her battle with Alzheimer’s in June 2018. It was painful to watch that horrible disease steal away my intelligent, creative mother; turning her into a stranger—someone who looked like her, but wasn’t; and at the same time, turning everyone into a stranger to her. It wasn’t just the lost memories, though. She lost her abilities: to brush her own teeth and hair, to talk, to walk, to swallow. Abilities I never thought about her losing. I hate Alzheimer’s more than I can express. It’s a disease straight from the pit of hell.

But in the midst of all the bad, I know God was with me. He promised me He’d never leave me or forsake me, and I felt His presence even during the worst times. He regularly gave me reminders in the form of “gift,” little nuggets of gold that I treasured. One of those nuggets was when we went to my parents’ house to celebrate my dad’s and husband’s shared birthday. This was in February, a year and a half before she died.

We’d finished eating supper and Mama was chattering with my husband—mostly nonsensical stuff, what I called “word salad,” because it was a bunch of random words tossed in that didn’t go together and didn’t make any sense, but in the midst of all that gibberish, she kept repeating, “Our God makes NO mistakes,” always emphasizing the word, “no.” The same five words, said fifty times or more. It was kind of bizarre, and at first, I was thinking, Yeah, right. A monster is stealing everything that makes you YOU, and you think it isn’t a mistake?

“Our God makes NO mistakes.” The words rang out again.

But this has to be a mistake. Why would God allow this in our family? Why would God put my Daddy through this? Watching the woman he’s loved for 60 years turn into a child? Aging him more than time ever could?

“Our God makes NO mistakes…”

The words echoed down the corridors of my mind, over and over. I didn’t really want to hear them.

Then suddenly, it’s as if there was a click or ding in my head, the proverbial “light bulb” or “Aha” moment.

God was speaking to me, using my Mama’s voice. He can do that, you know. He was reminding me that even when things feel hopeless, He is my hope, and He’s walking this journey with me, right through the valley that’s shadowed with death. He didn’t do this to Mama. It’s the result of sin, just like every other bad thing that happens. Yes, He allowed it. No, I don’t know why, and I may never know. My job is to trust Romans 8:28: And we know that in all things—yes, even Alzheimer’s—God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose (NIV). God’s word is truth. I can rely on His word.

Another nugget from God was His giving me the story idea that became my new novel, Hush. Writing this book was therapy for me. It allowed me a way to work through some of the anger, pain, and confusion that was trying to crush me. He gave me the idea to make one of the characters have Alzheimer’s so I could use some of the actual things Mama said and did in the story. It was a way for me to honor her memory. This book is also a way for me to help find a cure for this horrible disease, since I’ve decided to donate a portion of its sales to Alzheimer’s research.

Mama is healed now. There are no more Alzheimer’s spider webs mucking up her new, glorified brain. I look forward to the day she greets me on Heaven’s golden streets. She’ll smile, hug me, remember me, and we’ll shout together, “OUR GOD MAKES NO MISTAKES!”

Sain, Leanna For more information or to contact Leanna, please visit: www.LeannaSain.com. A portion of the proceeds of Leanna’s book Hush will be donated to Alzheimer’s research:

Finder of All Lost Things

lost and found The best part about working at a university food court stems from the fact that the students tend to lose things. Car keys, apartment keys, student IDs, wallets, cell phones, books, laptops, even entire backpacks. You’d be surprised at what tired and hungry students leave behind, once they’ve inhaled a Chick-fil-A sandwich and hurried on to their next class.

Their loss of these important items isn’t, of course, what makes me happy. And certainly the very worst part about my job is when I go to our lost-and-found in the back office and discover that what has been lost isn’t there. Then, I dread going back out to the dining area and telling the student that their lost item is, sadly, still lost.

I hate the look of disappointment, even fear, in their eyes. There’s the unspoken question: “Well, if I didn’t leave it here, where is it?” And of course the all important: “Will I ever find it?” What does one do, after all, without one’s credit cards, car keys, driver’s license…or the laptop on which is an entire semester’s worth of work.

When even one thing is lost, everything is wrong.

(At those times, I understand why some throughout history have been tempted to kill the messenger.)

But it’s completely different when I do find their item in lost-and-found. Then, when I return bearing what was lost…ah, the joy! The relief. The thankfulness. Even the laughter. One young man practically did the happy dance the whole time I was carrying his backpack toward him across the dining room. Had I not been an old lady, I think he might even have kissed me for the joy of regaining that lost bag.

How I love to see that joy. And so one day not long ago I thought to myself, “If I could have any job, I’d like to be the finder of all lost things.” Kind of like Holden Caulfield who wanted to spend his life simply being the catcher in the rye—the one who protects the children playing in the rye field by catching them if they get too close to the cliff. I’d like to be the one to find all the lost items and present them to the owners, simply so I can see them rejoice and break into the happy dance.

But then, if I were the finder of all lost things, wouldn’t I simply be taking after my Father? Isn’t that what He does, what He has always done for the sake of love? In fact, that’s the whole story, the whole point of history—God redeeming what was lost and bringing it safely home.

My cousin became a Christian when she was 50-something. When she wrote to tell me about her baptism, I was struck by the simple and yet profound way in which she summed up the change in her life: “Everything feels right now.”

Of course it does! When we are found—claimed by and held steadfast in the love of God—all that was once wrong in our lives comes around right, and we are able for the first time to truly know joy. Thanks be to God, the finder of all lost things, who pursues us so that both His joy and ours may be complete.

Is Al Capone in Heaven?

Al Capone headstone Those gangsters of yesteryear were a vicious lot. I was reminded of this recently when I read a book about the Mob in New York City during the 1960s and 70s.

I kept trying to imagine growing up and living in that kind of milieu, in which the business of everyday life consisted of robbing banks, hijacking trucks, laundering money, promoting prostitution and gambling, taking people hostage, beating people up, breaking people’s legs, cutting off people’s hands, and killing people with machine guns, revolvers, baseball bats, or simply one’s own fists.

Mobsters were ruthless. Violence and death were status quo. And for the most part, they enjoyed it. Torturing and “whacking” people was all just part of a satisfying day’s work. That’s what I find particularly hard to understand.

~~~

In high school, I was part of a gang myself—all college-bound, honor students who nevertheless weren’t above a little mischief. Our idea of wreaking vengeance on the enemy was leaving a banana in the history teacher’s desk drawer right before Christmas break, so that when he came back in January it was overripe and plenty pungent. We also tormented that same teacher by hanging a pair of boys’ underwear on the license plate of his VW Bug while it was parked in the teachers’ lot. Just like the gangsters, we felt pretty smug about doing something wrong and getting away with it.

And then there was the time I ventured solo into the underworld of crime when I wrote a Spanish paper for a kid named Wes who paid me five dollars to do it. It was easy money and a pretty good take in 1974 dollars, but I later felt so guilty about helping him cheat that I donated my illicit earnings to a school fundraiser.

~~~

So who would be more likely to merit heaven—the gangsters like Gambino and Gotti or the goodie-goodies like me? Of course, that’s a trick question because if you know anything at all about grace you know none of us is taking the up elevator by reason of pushing any buttons on our own.

But I know I’m going to heaven and I believe I may see at least one gangster there: Al Capone. I’ll tell you why.

~~~

When I was researching my book Sweet Mercy, I read a number of books about the life of Al Capone. One of the books told of Capone’s conversion to Christianity while in Alcatraz. It seems he was among the group of prisoners who went to hear a visiting pastor preach one Sunday morning. When the pastor asked if anyone was in need of prayer, Al Capone raised his hand. When the pastor asked if anyone felt in need of a savior, Al Capone stood.

This particular event isn’t exactly an enduring part of the gangster’s famous persona. When you think of Al “Scarface” Capone, you don’t think of him as the mobster who came to Jesus behind bars. After he was released and living in Florida, he himself told visitors that he had met Jesus in Alcatraz, but few people believed him.

For one thing, old Scarface was suffering from a physical illness that affected his mind, so that one of his friends described him as “nutty as a fruitcake.” For that reason, it was easy to blow off his talk of conversion. Although, when you think about, most people who claim conversion—especially jailhouse conversion—are considered nutty as fruitcakes. Even I’ve been called nutty myself for believing in God, so it’s a pretty convenient label to pin on folks of faith.

~~~

For another jailhouse conversion, look at King Manasseh, ruler of Judah for 55 years. His evil deeds undoubtedly rivaled those of any mobster. He worshiped idols and was deep into the occult, consulting mediums, practicing sorcery, and involving himself in other “abominable practices” that the chronicler didn’t care to go into. The chronicler did mention, however, what to me is the very worst of his acts: Manasseh “made his son pass through the fire.” That is, he sacrificed his son to a non-existent pagan god. He killed his own child, maybe even more than one of them.

Even the Mafia, according to their own code of conduct, didn’t kill children.

Eventually, Manasseh was carried off by the Assyrians to Babylon and imprisoned. It was then that he humbled himself and cried out to God. His repentance must have been genuine, because God heard him and restored him to the kingdom of Judah. Once home, the former evil king cleaned up the place, tore down the pagan altars, and “commanded Judah to serve the Lord the God of Israel.” From that time forward, Manasseh belonged to the Lord.*

~~~

If God turned Manasseh around, he could do the same for Al Capone. Because the bottom line is this: It’s not how bad the person is, it’s how good God is. God’s goodness, grace and mercy are what transforms sinners into saints and opens the door to heaven, whether the sinner is a machine gun-wielding mobster or a banana-wielding adolescent. Neither deserves mercy, yet to each it is given freely.

Al Capone, being Catholic, received the sacraments of the Catholic Church before he died and, after death, was buried in consecrated ground. Marking his burial place is a stone on which is carved his name, his birth and death dates, and the words: “My Jesus Mercy.”

Is Al Capone in heaven? I don’t know for sure, but if he is, I intend to sit down and share a fruitcake with him. Won’t that be something? Me and old Scarface—just a couple of undeserving nuts enjoying the presence of God for all eternity.

 

* King Manasseh’s story is found in 2 Chronicles 33.

Sandy’s Story: When There are No Words

There are times when overwhelming loss leaves us without words. Sandra Merville Hart has known such a time. But she has also known the love of God that carries us through those days. Here is Sandy’s story …

Sometimes … God just cries with us.

That year, between the two of us, my husband and I lost three parents. Though I prayed fervently for a different outcome—one where they’d all be healed—for the third time in six months a hospice nurse told me, “We’re seeing the kind of things we see in the last twelve, twenty-four, to forty-eight hours of life.”

This time it was for my dad. The strong man who had been a rock, a safe haven for me and my siblings, lay dying. Mom had died five months earlier and my father-in-law a month before that. Could this really be happening again?

~~~

My dad had been the caregiver for my mom for several years. Her Alzheimer’s grew worse, requiring more time from me and my sister to cook, clean, and help care for Mom. Before my dad’s stroke, one of us had visited daily for many long months. His stroke started an avalanche of sorrow and grief.

For it seemed that God had opened a box, letting out all the bad things at once, and didn’t close the lid until the box was empty. Strokes, two cancer diagnoses, Alzheimer’s, a broken hip—it all tumbled down on our precious parents. Each day—sometimes each hour—brought new struggles as I watched the health of people I loved so dearly seep away.

My sister and I shouldered the brunt of these trials so that my parents never knew all that happened with social agencies, social workers, nursing homes, insurance agents, attorneys, nurses, financial institutions, and hospice staff. I felt like I was drowning, with no one to save me.

~~~

Yet it was my parents, my father-in-law, and my mother-in-law who suffered the most. Alzheimer’s didn’t prevent my mother-in-law from grieving her husband.

The worst part was that my parents were in different nursing homes for about a month. My mom was too ill to go see him and the insurance threatened to cancel his benefits if he left the nursing home. It was a nightmare.

Anytime someone asked how to pray for us, I said, “Pray that my dad’s nursing home finds room for my mom.” Four days after she was accepted for hospice care, she and my dad were reunited in the same nursing home. Unfortunately, hospital staff had called my husband’s family to be at his dad’s side to say final goodbyes, so I missed that joyful reunion.

It was that kind of year.

~~~

For all that we endured, I’m sure we were saved from events that would have made it worse. I’m grateful for the mercies extended to my parents during those dark days.

My dad’s cancer diagnosis came five months after my mother’s death. My siblings and I were left reeling from the blow. He lived two more weeks.

Our broken hearts grieved his passing yet rejoiced that he now walked hand-in-hand with his bride on streets of gold. No Alzheimer’s. No cancer. No stroke.

I looked up at puffy white clouds during his funeral and knew somewhere up there my parents had been reunited. They were happy again.

~~~

I never felt God abandoned me, though I wondered why everything had to be so painfully hard. I leaned heavily on God and my faith. There were many days when there were no words to express my feelings in prayer. I’m grateful that the Holy Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans words cannot express. Romans 8:26 (NIV)

No one can emerge from such experiences without being changed.

I’ve learned that caring actions like a hug, a genuine smile, a card, and a meal can give you the strength to make it through the day. I’ve learned how to care for someone who is suffering through difficult days.

And I’ll never forget how God loved my parents and provided for them when everything seemed hopeless. I prayed that He’d take the illnesses away and heal them again. It wasn’t to be. But I felt that God suffered with me and my siblings. Just as Jesus was moved with compassion for hurting folks, God shared our pain.

Knowing God shared our sorrow was one of the greatest blessings I received from that experience.

From all this sorrow, I finally understand. Sometimes God just cries with us.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Matthew 5:4 (NIV)

SandraMervilleHart_Headshot2 Please visit Sandy on her blog: https://sandramervillehart.wordpress.com/. And be sure to check out her newest book, Trail’s End, in “Smitten Novella Collection: The Cowboys,” releasing August 15, 2019!