Pete’s Story: The Illness that Led to Life

Soon after waking up in recovery, I was being transported back to my hospital room when I sensed that something had gone terribly wrong during surgery. Once in my room, my feelings of unease were validated by a quick glance at the faces of my wife, family, and friends. I was then informed by my doctor that at some point during the complex operation to remove a tumor from my spine, I had become paralyzed from the chest down and that it was highly unlikely that I would ever walk again.

~~~

For the first 50 years of my life, I lived what some have described as a charmed existence. My formative years were filled with athletic success, as I played top-tier Jr.A and D-1 NCAA College ice hockey. Later years involved starting a small business from scratch, which became very successful.

As my annual income increased to substantial levels, I was never one who had any problem whatsoever spending almost every penny of it on expensive material items like sleek sports cars and oversized luxury SUVs. Our main family home was in a high-end subdivision, in the “right” suburban Atlanta town. My beautiful wife Adele acquired an extensive wardrobe that filled to overflowing a large walk-in closet. The sheer volume of our kids’ toys, bikes, water skis, hockey equipment, and miscellaneous other sporting goods made it virtually impossible for us to park any of our cars in the garage.

~~~

I had successfully ticked most of the boxes necessary to achieve the American Dream. And yet, something was missing. To fill the emptiness, I turned more and more to alcohol until I steadily descended into alcoholism. My excessive drinking was often accompanied by volatile, unjustified, angry outbursts directed at my wife and kids at home.

For years, I lived a shameful lie. Having at best a lukewarm faith in God, I attended church with my family once or twice a month, mainly out of a sense of obligation (I was a cradle Catholic), or just to keep up appearances to help maintain the ruse.

~~~

Then the physical pain began. One day I was unable to finish my daily six-mile run due to what I thought was a groin pull. But rather than getting better, the situation deteriorated so rapidly that between the ages of 50 and 51, I had five spinal-fusion surgeries and a hip replacement. Still, none of these highly invasive procedures resulted in even the slightest reduction in the severe, nearly debilitating, lower back pain that dominated every single second of my days.

Then, at a follow-up appointment with my doctor, the X-ray technician took an image of my upper rather than lower back which, quite by accident, revealed the real culprit of my agony, a spinal tumor. Nearly two painful years later, the tumor began to hemorrhage; I was scheduled for immediate surgery at the renowned Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

That surgery both saved my life and left me paralyzed.

~~~

As the surgeon broke the dire news to me, “Who I was” slowly dissolved right before my eyes. In that one gut-wrenching moment, I lost everything that defined me. After tasting the raw, genuinely fearful emotion of helplessness, I launched into a fit of rage, directed primarily at God. Why had he allowed everything in my life to be lost?

Over the subsequent days, I descended steadily, ever deeper into depression and despair—sometimes to the point of contemplating suicide. In desperation, I decided to devote some of my newly acquired “spare time” to search for answers to life’s existential questions, number one being whether God and Jesus Christ were real. My gut feeling was they had long since been proven to be nothing more than ancient fairy tales, mere myths, long-since debunked—logically, empirically invalidated by modern science.

I spent weeks researching both sides of the issue, reading the arguments for scientific atheism as well as the works of Christian apologists. I also began to delve into the Bible, to see for myself what it had to say. It was a lengthy process, but through my research, I became convinced that science does not disprove the Christian notion of a purposeful, infinitely loving and supremely intelligent being. In fact, I found the theist’s arguments more well-reasoned and the facts in evidence more supportive of their premises.

I was beginning to believe that God really does exist and that he is who the Bible defines him to be and who Jesus Christ revealed him to be.

~~~

Out of options, I decided to bind together the shattered pieces of my broken life and hand them off to God. But before I did, I wrote out and then formally confessed every sin I was directly responsible for and the negative impact it had on others. Almost instantly, I felt a lighter load, a freer, less chaotic sense of reality. A fresh start of understanding and forgiveness permeated the warm, glowing feeling of peace I was experiencing.

From there, it was as if I was gently lifted out of bed, caught up in the love of someone or some power so great and so pure it was something I had never associated with being part of a relationship with God. God, I discovered, was love! God is love!

My next move came more naturally than breathing the pristine air around me. I asked whether I might give myself to him, as broken as I was. I told him I could no longer bear the weight of all the sins, wrong living, purposefully hurtful actions, all the baggage that came with my alcoholism, the inability to accept my paralysis, and more.

The answer came immediately: “Is it not already lifted from you?” And indeed it had been!

So it was on bended knee (figuratively), I gave my life to Christ, devoting myself to serving him in any way the indwelling Holy Spirit should guide me. I have woken up each day happy, and I go to bed each night with my inner void filled by the love and beautiful truth that comes to the broken, once saved.

Since that time I have been hospitalized over 30 times due to various infections and other paralysis-related issues. My life as a paraplegic hasn’t been an easy one, but it was my suffering that caused me to seek him diligently. In return, he has given me a foretaste of Heaven, and I am now living in the warm, loving light and peace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

PJW- AFW Thrashers Casino Night 2010 Peter and Adele Wenzell

 

Alice’s Story: Graveside Epiphany

My friend Alice Wisler lost her four-year-old son to cancer treatments in 1997. Though she wrestled with deep grief, it was divine grace that kept her from losing faith in a loving God. Jesus is able to hold together all the pieces of a mother’s broken heart, and to give meaning to even the briefest of lives. Here is Alice’s story…

Daniel'sPlaceOakTree The cemetery was decorated in fog that morning when I pulled my Jeep to the usual parking place under the oak. Some think cemeteries, especially when foggy, are spooky spots. For me, the cemetery is a classroom. Revelations happen there.

When my son died at age four, I wasn’t interested in much of anything, especially not a lawn with buried bodies. It seemed strange and empty to honor a grave that held what was left of Daniel. I wanted him with me. Four years was not enough time.

While Daniel was going through cancer treatment, I had hoped for a normal family life again.  For healing, health, and kindergarten.  More trips to the park for picnics, and pausing to hear train whistles. More hours of reading Maurice Sendak’s books and laughter over wild things.

I had prayed, clung to Bible verses, and had faith that Daniel would beat the malignant tumor in his neck.

After his death, I cringed at the platitudes neighbors and friends offered.  “He’s in a better place.”  “You’ll see him again.”  “Don’t cry, don’t cry, Alice. Daniel’s with Jesus.”

Time passed, the platitudes continued, but, surprisingly, the cemetery changed for me. Instead of a place of sorrow, it became a setting for family traditions. My husband, three children and I had picnics on the grassy slopes, tossed Frisbees—even played softball. On Daniel’s birthday we let go of helium balloons with messages attached to the strings. They sailed beyond our reach into the August sky.

Now, on an October morning 21 years after Daniel’s death, I came to the cemetery alone. Once I parked by Daniel’s grave, I did my usual mothering—brushing away twigs and wiping bird droppings off his marker with a wet toilette.

The cemetery hawk circled overhead—most likely looking for a critter to surprise—but I rather liked to think he was protecting the gravestones. As he showed off his wing span, I continued with my ritual of walking around the grounds, pausing at markers to read the familiar epitaphs. There was Audrey who lived one day. Taylor, another infant, was just steps away. According to his stone, his parents were so glad he had come into their lives, however briefly. Peregrina, who had been a beloved mother and grandmother, had an armload of red roses in the vase on her stone. I continued my trek, breathing in the morning air.

Solomon’s grave was new to me. The scripture on his epitaph was well-known, but it was the first time I’d seen his gravestone. I took in the words written in bronze: I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.  II Timothy: 4:7.

My first response to this stranger’s epitaph was, Well, Solomon, you had 75 years, so the passage makes sense to put on your resting place.

Daniel?  He had four.

I thought of how Daniel wore a Jesus Loves You pin he got in church. I remembered how he wanted me to read to him about the vine and the branches in the book of John. He told me that you give gifts to your friends. He recited jokes from a book, memorizing all the punch lines, because he didn’t know how to read.  When we crossed the swinging bridge at Grandfather Mountain he held my hand because I am afraid of heights.

He had lived.

It was much too short a life.

But my mind didn’t stop there. I don’t know if it was something in the morning air or in the wispy patches of fog, but God got my attention.

Daniel’s life had a purpose and he fulfilled it. He ran his race with bravery, becoming a Brave Cookie to us. He had cherished his faith in God.

It was the first time in 21 years that I could apply this passage from II Timothy to the life of my boy. And from memory I recalled the rest of the passage found in that verse: I have fought the good fight.

It fit Daniel perfectly. As a cancer patient, he had fought hard through chemo, surgeries, radiation treatments, infections, and invasive needles.

I walked back toward Daniel’s grave as Jesus’ love weaved into my broken mother’s heart.

“You were created for a purpose and you lived it,” I said in the way mamas talk to their child’s grave. “I don’t know why you had to go so soon, but your life was every bit as profound as someone who got to live to see 75 or 85 or 92.”

The fog still hovered; there was no burst of sunlight, no sound of angel wings or trumpets, absolutely no physical indication that I had had an epiphany.

But my spirit knew. I think that it’s in these moments that Jesus’ love wraps us tightly. He gives us what we need, and it comes right when we are able to comprehend it, absorb it, and be thankful.

AliceWisler-2  Alice Wisler

The Gay Man who Met Jesus in a Pub

A War of Loves 2 David Bennett was a young man vehemently opposed to the Christian God, the Christian Bible, and to Christians themselves. So no one was more surprised than David Bennett himself when he became a Christian—and a Christian apologist at that!

In his memoir, A War of Loves, he tells the story of how he realized at a young age that he was gay. He came out to his family at the age of 14, and became radically involved in the gay rights movement in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. What he wanted for his life is what we all want: simply to love and be loved. He wanted to love someone, to have the right to marry him, and to raise a family with him.

But all his hopes and plans for himself were unexpectedly changed when, at 19, he met the love of Jesus in a pub in the gay quarter of Sydney. One might hardly expect Jesus to be in a pub anywhere, let alone in a gay section of town, though in truth such a place is exactly where Jesus reveals his love most powerfully. Certainly he did in David’s life.

~~~

That God would reach out to a gay man isn’t what amazes me. God loves those who are same-sex attracted as much as he loves anyone. This is a given, not a point to be argued.

But that God reached out to man who was radically opposed to him, that he would break through the barriers of erroneous thinking, of intellectual doubt, of the anger and bitterness that came from David’s encounters with God’s own followers—this is what amazes me. David’s mother, a new believer herself at the time of David’s conversion, put it well: “David, I prayed that if he was truly the God of the impossible, God would save you, because you were so impossible to save! Now I know he can do anything!”

~~~

Three things became evident to me as I read David’s story. First, he rejected God because he didn’t know who God really was. He envisioned God only as an “angry, distant deity,” a supreme being who created David as a gay man and then rejected him for being gay.

If this were true of God, then of course atheism would seem preferable. But when God broke in, he showed himself to David as he really is. As David wrestled to understand this unseen but overwhelmingly real Presence, he writes of a moment when “I realized…how tender and loving God the Father was! …He was close. He was kind. He was good and tender-hearted.” God, David discovered, was love. And his Word, the Bible, wasn’t an epistle of condemnation—especially for those who are gay, as David thought—but was instead a love letter, from a Father to His precious children.

~~~

Second, David saw God as condemning because he was condemned by Christians. In this, the church has been very, very wrong. What can be more shameful than allowing our judgments to stand between God and the people He is trying to reach?

The task of the body of Christ is not to condemn but to love. Only love can point to Love, and only God, once He has captured a human heart, can begin the work of holiness. We can no more cleanse another person’s heart than we can cleanse our own. To try is at best a waste of time, at worst a tragedy in the making.

As David himself put it: “Homosexuality is not an evangelistic issue. It is a discipleship issue.” No one will ever revere and be changed by God’s holiness until he first experiences God’s love.

~~~

When David Bennett encountered Christ, he became a new creation, but he did not become heterosexual. He remained same-sex attracted. As he studied the Bible, he came to the conclusion that he needed to live his life as a celibate gay Christian.

Those who think God should have made him heterosexual as part of the deal of salvation will be disappointed. To me, David’s choice is the triumph. And this is the third thing I took away from this book: In our humanness, so long as we are in this world, we are all broken in some way. Salvation brings forgiveness, but not perfection. Not yet. Our journey on this planet will always be a stumbling along on feet of clay. But God’s grace gives us the strength to choose sacredness over sin.

David will always be tempted by homosexual desires, just as the alcoholic might always be tempted to drink, the gambler to place a bet, the womanizer to cheat, the proud man to boast. We are all of us tempted to love this world more than we love God and to find our fulfillment in something other than him.

But David has chosen—with God’s help—to give up his greatest desire, earthly love and sexual fulfillment, in order to be in right relationship with God. And this is to me the height and the essence of living one’s life as a love story with God: choosing to love him above all things, no matter what it is we are tempted to love more.

~~~

Quoted material taken from: David Bennett, A War of Loves (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), pp. 83, 80, 193, 165.

Donn’s Story: A Quiet Assurance

Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterward, he earned a PhD in English literature and began a long career in teaching and writing. Now 88, he looks back over a lifetime of walking with God, whom he has found to be a quiet abiding presence and a love that will not let him go. Here is his story…

~~~

For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

–Gerard Manley Hopkins

My first meeting with God came when I was seventeen. A difficult teenager, I’d been baptized at fourteen but nothing changed. By seventeen I was asking questions for which neither school nor church gave answers. Who and what was I? Was evangelical Christianity mere emotion and self-deception? Did God really exist?

Then God Himself intervened. An older boy, worried about my rebellious conduct, prayed with me one night. Our prayers grew more desperate. Then, suddenly, we were overwhelmed by a terrible but wonderful Presence. This remains the most vivid and intense experience of my life. It lasted perhaps one second, and then we were left in wonder, awed but no longer desperate.

That experience was unique. In normal life my response comes in sequences: an event happens, I react to it emotionally, and then find its meaning. But in that unique experience all three came simultaneously within about one second of time. God did exist, and He cared for me.

I would like to say that from that moment I led a different and virtuous life, but it did not happen. I could not recreate the certainty of that moment. I repeatedly asked God for a call to service, but no call came. With no follow-up program and no guidance, I drifted. I eventually decided the experience was nothing more than extreme emotion. Illogically, I let dishonest conduct by Christian leaders convince me there was no God. So I left God. But though I didn’t know it then, He did not leave me.

In retrospect, I see that He led me into marriage with Mildred, a wonderful Christian woman. He led me through the Korean War unscathed and gave me the first two of our four children. One instance of His care stands out. I completed Army flight training without incident down to the final flight examination in the Aviation Tactics Course. A young West Pointer and I flipped a coin to see which one would be tested first. I won the toss, went first, and passed. On the second flight, the instructor crashed the aircraft and the student received severe burns. (He completed the course a year later.) Through God’s mercy, I continued with my family without drama. Through Mildred’s example, God moved me gradually back into professed Christianity and the solemnity of prayer. I came to believe that my experience at seventeen was genuine, and I am still awed by it.

Some people speak of an everyday friendship with God, including actual conversations: “God told me . . . .” I don’t dispute these reports, but my experience has been less direct. I am always conscious of God as the continuing ruler of all things, a Reality without whom there is no meaning or value. I am convinced that He controls the tides of history and many of the individual waves. (Though perhaps He leaves many waves to human free will.)  My experience of His leadership in my life, however, has chiefly been one of open or closed doors.

When I completed my doctorate, I wanted to spend my life probing deeper into English Renaissance literature at a research university. But those doors did not open. I will never know whether my status as a veteran and Christian screened me out, or whether I simply wasn’t good enough. It doesn’t matter. For in retrospect, I see that God protected me. The increasingly vicious political environment in those institutions would have chewed me up and spit me out. That has happened to many others, regardless of their professional quality. Instead, the Lord opened doors into denominational universities where political pressures were less intense.

Only twice have I had faint echoes of that original experience of God. I’ll tell of the second instance later. But the first came after my kindergarten-age son suffered a potentially fatal fractured skull. Getting him diagnosed and into treatment left us frantic emotionally. But in prayer, desperate prayer, I suddenly knew he would be all right. My tension disappeared. Years later, as a lawyer, that boy won a case against the state attorney general. When the Lord sends the “all right” signal, He means it.

Mildred and I both felt God’s assurance throughout her eight-year battle with ovarian cancer. Somehow, we both knew He was in control. When the doctor told us he could do no more, Mildred smiled and said, “I’m ready to meet the Lord.” Two months later, she embarked on the journey.

My second direct experience came soon after. I ventured into “listening prayer.” Once I asked, not in anger but in curiosity, why God had not answered my prayers for Mildred’s healing. Instantly, without my volition, words appeared in my mind: “She is completely healed in heaven.”

As I’d once asked for a call, I now asked God for a mission to give meaning to the remaining years my life. I received no guidance. But a door opened into what I believe is a mission that lets me be an encourager to more people than I ever have before.

So here, near the end of my days, I have not known the daily familiarity with God that some testify to, nor have I ever had a call to any form of ministry. But in retrospect I see that even when I was farthest from God, His silent guidance was with me at every turn, clear evidence of His love and care.

Donn Taylor portraits 12/7/07  Donn Taylor

 

Aggi’s Story: Drafted into the War on Cancer

Aggi Stevenson shared her journey through cancer on Facebook while she was living it. Whenever I read her posts, I marveled both at her faith and at God’s faithfulness. I asked her to share something of her journey with you, because in the worst of the battle she experienced the best of God’s love. Here is Aggi’s story…

There are no volunteers in this Army. Everyone diagnosed with cancer was drafted into the ranks of soldiers fighting this horrific disease. During the heat of the battle, warriors feel they are outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and powerless against the might and cruelty of the enemy. The loss of body parts, femininity, masculinity, and their crowning glory—the very hair of their heads—is staggering to the formerly healthy civilian.

In 2014, I was drafted into the war on cancer. For what I gained in the midst of battle, I wouldn’t exchange this experience for anything.

~~~

Normally after a mammogram, I wouldn’t be wearing a soft robe in a private waiting room watching coffee drip into a paper cup while they decided if they needed more pictures for the third time. Just when I thought I could dress and leave, the doctor ordered a breast ultrasound. By then I was given the VIP treatment. The nurses offered me everything available to make me comfortable. We joked and laughed as they asked if I could stay even longer because the doctor wanted to personally perform the ultrasound again. While pretending to be oblivious to what was happening, my heart pounded and my head throbbed. Still smiling, I left with an appointment for biopsies.

Biopsies were done on both breasts and lymph nodes. The two-week waiting period seemed like an eternity.  Finally the day came to learn the results. When I arrived at the doctor’s office there wasn’t one person, patient, or staff in the waiting/check-in area. This can’t be good, I thought…and it wasn’t. The diagnosis was bilateral breast cancer and lymph nodes tested positive as well.

As the words, “I’ve—got—cancer” penetrated my mind, heart, and soul, I felt a comforting warmth, as if wrapped in a blanket fresh from the dryer. A heavenly peace enveloped me, and I experienced a calmness that was not my own. There were no tears, no fear, just peace and strength—exactly what I prayed for.

~~~

My husband, Jim, held my hand and remained quiet, his face ashen. We viewed the x-rays and chose the hospital, surgeon, and oncologist from a list of professionals we knew nothing about.

Afterward, we walked to the car in silence. As the car doors closed, my rock of a husband crumbled to pieces. I consoled him as he wept on my shoulder. Again I possessed strength that was not my own.

Was it time to leave my precious family?  Was God going to march me right into heaven? He could heal me or take me home. Realizing God’s perfect will was to draft me into battling cancer, I was okay with whatever decision He made. I had fallen helplessly into His hands.

~~~

In full armor, I fought a brutal war of losses. I lost both breasts, hair, control of bladder and bowels, the ability to walk, and the capacity to care for myself. I lost track of whether it was day or night, what day of the week it was, or how many days I’d been in bed. My breathing became labored with the least bit of exertion. I suffered blood clots, constant nausea, and nerve damage that caused my feet, legs, tongue, and lips to become numb. Once when I cried out to God that the writhing pain was too much for me, I remember nothing else until I woke up sometime later. He had simply put me to sleep.

Jim was a gentle and loving caregiver. He assisted with bathroom duties and lowered me into our jetted tub to soak my aching body. I remember times when I would awaken to his warm hands rubbing my bald head, pulling the covers up around my neck when I was cold, and kissing my forehead. I was vaguely aware of him putting my cap back on that I had lost in the bedding because he knew how important it was to me for my head to be covered.

~~~

Every two weeks I climbed into my tank, traveled to the battlefield, and engaged cancer. When I could no longer walk, Jim carried me, drove the tank himself, and pushed the wheelchair that held my withering body into battle. Every chemo treatment was worse than the one before. Each time, I left the cancer center in defeat, wounded and beaten yet again.

This life began to dim, and I looked forward to heaven.  The suffering finally became unbearable. Waving the white flag, I surrendered to whatever God decided to do with this warrior who was too war-torn to continue. The chemo treatments were stopped. Gradually I began to get stronger. I could care for myself again. I no longer had to be in isolation because of a damaged immune system. Three months later I had healed enough to undergo 33 radiation treatments and breast reconstruction.

~~~

I’ve been cancer-free since 2015. I now have the privilege and great joy of counseling and praying with cancer-fighting warriors and their loved ones. Any time, day or night, I’m always available to them.

Cancer took me into a deep and exciting relationship with God that I would never have known any other way. Through it all, God was faithful to supply what I needed, and the people I needed at just the right time. Family and friends all rallied around me and held me up. I saw God’s love in and through them, and especially in the tender and tireless care of my husband. God’s presence with me in the midst of the battle is indescribable, and to this day I find great difficulty putting it into words. The darkest days couldn’t touch the light show that was going on in my soul. God was so close, it was as if I could feel His breath on my cheek.

Mountaintop experiences are breath-taking, and thank God for them, but if we only had those exhilarating times we wouldn’t understand the breath and depth of God’s love. He loves us through our suffering as well. He’s still the same loving God in good times and bad.

aggi stevenson 2 Aggi Stevenson

The Saints on Damnation Island

Damnation Island Today it’s the upscale Roosevelt Island, but in the 19th century, this little patch of land in New York City’s East River was a two-mile stretch of unthinkable cruelty. Blackwell’s Island, as it was known then, was a conveniently isolated place to warehouse the city’s undesirables. The island’s own natural rock provided the material needed for the construction of two prisons, a lunatic asylum, a charity hospital, an almshouse and a work house, among other scattered buildings.

Over the years, thousands of people populated these institutions: criminals, prostitutes, the disabled, the old and feeble, the mentally ill. Men, women, teens, adolescents, children and babies all lived there. And far too often they died there as well—from disease, starvation, ill treatment, the cold, suicide.

~~~

Do you ever think about such people? Do you ever wonder who they were and what their lives were like? I do. I think about them a lot. Kind of like a scientist on an archeological dig, I imagine tunneling through time and finding layer upon layer of nameless, faceless people who were outcasts when they were alive and quickly forgotten after death. Lost to obscurity, some might say. Just lost, as though they never were.

~~~

In her book, Damnation Island, Stacy Horn relates a vignette that made me pause in my reading. Picture this: In an enclosed pavilion by the river bank, a pastor is conducting a baptismal service for some of the babies born in the maternity hospital on the Almshouse grounds. The mothers and babies, along with the pastor, are gathered around the baptismal font. It’s a summer evening and a gentle breeze from the river is floating in through the open windows. With the cool and refreshing air washing over them, the pastor and women stand “clutching their Bibles, earnestly praying.”*

Who knows but maybe in this moment—holding their babies and their Bibles and feeling the breeze on their skin—they’re almost glad to be alive. And maybe too, though they know they are society’s castoffs, in this moment they can believe that the God to whom they pray is both able to see them and is listening to their prayers.

~~~

The pastor, Reverend William Glenny French, ministered to the people on Blackwell’s Island from 1872 to 1895. Day after day, Pastor French walked the length of the island, visiting the sick, the poor, the imprisoned. Sometimes he handed out oranges and candy bought with his own money. He conducted worship services, he held the hands of the dying, he prayed with those who came to him for whatever encouragement he could offer. He initiated the baptismal services to let those young mothers know they were neither forsaken nor forgotten. He also created and worked tirelessly on expanding a few libraries on the islands, since those who were literate were always begging for books.

Something tells me that some of those folks had minds that were eager to be fed, souls that were longing to be nourished, hearts that yearned for kindness, even love. Something tells me they were human, created in the image of God.

~~~

Jesus told his disciples that when he was hungry, they fed him; when he was sick, they took care of him; when he was in prison, they visited him. The disciples were puzzled. When? they asked. When did we serve you in this way?

Jesus responded that when they served the very least of his followers, they were serving him. **

~~~

Some would call a man like William French a saint. He was. And part of his goodness was in knowing that he wasn’t the lone saint on Blackwell’s Island. He knew that Christ Himself lived in the hearts of the believers who, for whatever reason, found themselves there.

While the rest of New York might have seen these people as worthless outcasts, nameless creatures coasting the downward slope toward a pauper’s grave and oblivion, Pastor French saw them for what they were: people with souls of eternal worth, people loved by the God who created them, men and women who were destined to one day be the pillars of heaven, joined to Christ the cornerstone.

~~~

I suppose I think so often of long-ago lives because I know that I too will eventually be lost among those layers of time. I’ll be forgotten, as though I were never here. Maybe you realize that about yourself as well. And it seems a pretty pitiful outcome to all the years of striving. But the thing is, we will be forgotten by people, but not by God. Never by God.

The world’s story and God’s story have two very different endings. We may be lost to history, but not to eternity. You, me, the saints of Blackwell’s Island—the Lord lifts us up from all the forgotten places and makes of us the very stuff of forever.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child
And have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.
Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands.”

Isaiah 49:15-16, NASB

~~~

* Stacy Horn, Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th Century New York (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2018), p. 176.

** Matthew 25:34-40

Cindy’s Story: I Am Who I Am

Even those who are outwardly successful often inwardly lack a sense of worth. So it was with my friend Cindy Sproles—novelist, ministry co-founder, conference director and so much more. The sense that we aren’t good enough can be a nagging lie that follows us relentlessly. For Cindy, the turnaround came when she realized her worth is ultimately found in the Great I Am. Here’s Cindy’s story…

I’m nothing special. That’s the lie I fight daily.

I’ve often wondered where that lie originated. My childhood was wonderful. There was never any abuse or brow beating. My folks were super parents, so it befuddles me, where this lie developed.

Maybe it came from being an “almost” only child. Twelve years separated my sweet brother from myself, and he was my hero when I was little. I never understood why my brother felt it necessary to marry and move away.

Perhaps it stemmed from having a multi-talented mom – an innovative, do-it-yourselfer, creative and determined to make things work. It was not uncommon for teachers to ask me to participate in things, so they could utilize Mom’s talents. My skills and abilities weren’t enough to land the honor on my own.

It could have been that, no matter how hard I tried, second place seemed my best. So much so, my high school track coach dubbed me Consistently Second Cindy – something that did nothing for my already floundering self-esteem.

I married in my early twenties, and when my husband divorced me and married another, I once again found myself living up to that title, Consistently Second.

It’s funny what happens to us when the cards are down. We can choose to play or call ourselves out. When I found myself a mom of two babies and divorced, I had to play. Despite the lie that plagued me, I went to my knees and asked God something simple.

“Lord, I’m not asking you to fix this. I’m just asking for the strength to open the blinds each day and see the sun. If I can see you in the day, then I can figure this out.”

Over the next 32 years God continued to give me the strength to open the blinds. He brought me into a relationship with a wonderful husband, who taught me I was worthy of love. He walked with us as we raised a blended family, sorted through the rough patch of one prodigal, and an adult child who hit upon tough times. He guided us with a son with disabilities. You name it, God lassoed us and pulled us through.

Still, with all these blessings, I never felt worthy or special. Was I so self-consumed that I couldn’t see my own self-worth?

I wasn’t self-consumed, I just didn’t believe. Not in God – of course I believed in God, but I didn’t believe Him. And it took a walk in the desert of life to finally make the connection. For a time, it was like God had turned His back on me. I walked through this hot, sandy desert of emptiness. It was as though I could see the oasis in the distance, but one foot was nailed deep into the sand and all I could do was walk in circles, catching a glimpse of relief with each lap.

It took this time of reflection to let go of the lie that was tight in my fist. That’s when the realization took hold and I learned to believe God had made me special and worthy.

I began to seek after my own dreams. Writing was always a love, but nothing I’d considered a passion until a minister friend read some of my work and took the step he knew I’d never take on my own. He signed me up for a writers’ conference and paid for me to attend.

I attended with only a few little pieces I’d written for my children, but once the door opened to the conference, amazing things flooded in. Authors, agents, and publishers took notice. My work was rough, but they saw something. They saw heart. Desire. Passion.

After I returned home, I spent some quiet time with God, having this conversation:

“Lord, you’ve strengthened me through the years. Helped me open the blinds. What do I do with this writing? There’s so much to learn.”

“Then learn.”

“But, what about. . .”

“About what? I’ve strengthened you over the years. Prepared you. You simply have to believe me.”

That day, I believed God had a plan. That He’d gifted me.

Consistently Second Cindy grew into the gifts God had given her and what I found was an amazing success. Not just in my writing and publication, but success within myself.

The question was not, did I believe in Christ, rather it was DID I BELIEVE HIM?

I’ve learned over time that I am who I am. Always worthy. Always special. And though my writing career began later in life, the passion of a loving God solidified a fearful, seemingly unworthy gal into a grateful, truth-seeking woman.

I still have days when the lie creeps up on me, but when I believe the Great I Am, then I am who I am and it’s good.

Cindy Sproles Cindy Sproles