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.

 

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!

Meeting God on the Horizon

Do you really believe that what you believe is really real?

~ Del Tackett, The Truth Project

Child's drawing When I was a child drawing nature scenes, I—like most children—harbored a strange perception when it came to the meeting of earth and sky. In truth, they didn’t meet at all. The sky was always a blue strip across the top of the page while the earth was a corresponding ribbon of green across the bottom.

In between was a whole lot of nothing. Just a huge patch of non-color in which hung the sun and into which the trees shot up their branches and the flowers their blooms. It was in this place of nothingness that the people made their homes and walked their dogs and had their picnics and lived their lives.

At that young age, I didn’t understand that there was something called a horizon, a place where the human eye perceives a meeting of sky and earth, a point at which blue touches green and all the gaps are closed and the picture is complete.

~~~

I wonder how many of us wander around in that place of non-color all our lives because we think that God’s heaven—with all of its accompanying mercy, goodness and joy—is up there while earth is down here and somehow, for some reason, “never the twain shall meet”?

How many of us live as though there is no horizon, no place where God’s Spirit leans down and touches the human soul?

~~~

I have lived that way myself. I have lived as though God only watches from a distance while I am tempted to despair, that he looks on in indifference while I have unmet needs, that he makes no move in my direction when I feel crushed by loneliness or feelings of isolation.

I’ve lived in this place of non-color and nothingness, though thankfully God allowed me only to pitch a tent in this desert rather than to build a permanent place of residence. He has helped me pull up stakes and has walked with me, pointing all the time toward the horizon, saying, “Meet me there.”

~~~

Heaven and earth do meet, and that’s the whole point of our existence. A maturing of faith, a growing in our knowledge of God, assures us that God is not up there but down here, right here with us, around us, in us, touching us, closing up all the empty spaces, making us complete.

In our despair, we find within our hearts a glowing nugget of hope that can’t be denied. In our need, we receive provision—an unexpected check, a loaf of bread, an anonymous gift. In our loneliness, we sense a love that wraps itself undeniably around our soul and, even in the darkest hour and sometimes even in spite of ourselves, never lets us go.

~~~

We have to allow God to be more than a pleasant thought or wishful thinking. He has to be more than an idea, a theology or a vague concept. We have to allow him to be what he is: Lord of creation, God of all mercy, a Father who through the death of his own Son Jesus tore open the curtain to the Holy of Holies and allowed us to enter into his presence.

We have to let his heaven touch our earth, every moment of every day. We have to live our lives on the horizon.

And we can. Because he himself brings us there. He created us to dwell with him there. On the horizon, he fills our lives with his love.

~~~

The joy of Jesus must rush through all the corridors of your mind. The heart must know He has come to guide, comfort, and help in the hour of need. There must be no doubt, no question that God has chosen to come and commune with His servant….I want God’s total presence. I want to flow in His river of love.

                                                                                             ~ David Wilkerson*

*From David Wilkerson, Have You Felt Like Giving Up Lately (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1980), pp. 55, 56.

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

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.