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.

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