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Jury Duty

When Paul walked through the apartment door, he saw his younger brother Matt reach over from the couch, grab the remote, and quickly turn off the television.

 

Acting as though he didn’t see this, Paul said, “Hey little brother, how goes it?”

 

Matt abruptly sat up, and tried to act nonchalant, replying, “I’m good.”

 

But as Paul crossed the room, he swooped down and grabbed the TV remote with a grin.  “So what are we watching?” he said playfully, as he turned the television back on.

 

Matt jumped to his feet, and tried to wrestle the remote from him, but it was too late.  To Paul’s utter amazement, what came on the screen was a television preacher, talking about hell.

 

Turning to Matt, he said, “What is this?”

 

“It’s nothing,” Matt replied defensively, as he pulled the remote from Paul’s hand, and turned the TV back off.

 

“What do you mean, ‘it’s nothing’.  If it were nothing, you wouldn’t be trying to hide whatever it is that you’re doing here,” Paul said.

 

With an intensity that Paul didn’t often see from his younger brother, Matt looked him in the eye and sternly said, “It’s nothing that you need to worry about,” before disappearing into his bedroom and closing the door.

 

Paul’s curiosity made him want to go after Matt, and push him for an answer, but he reminded himself that they were both adults now; and that when they’d agreed to share an apartment, they’d also promised to stay out of each other’s business.  He knew Matt well enough to know that he wasn’t going to talk until he was ready, so Paul decided to wait him out.  As he thought about it, he realized that Matt would eventually have to come out to eat, and so he decided to help that process along.

 

After throwing a bag of frozen fries in the oven, Paul fried up some bacon and burgers, and made himself a plate.  He knew the smell of the bacon had to be working on Matt, as he knocked on his bedroom door and said, “There’s burgers and fries if you’re hungry.”

 

Though Matt didn’t come out right away, Paul knew it wouldn’t be long, as he sat on the couch, and turned on ESPN.  Sure enough, a few minutes later Matt came out, made a bacon double-cheeseburger, and sat down in the living room.  They didn’t talk much at first, other than to react to whatever the sportscasters were saying, but after he finished his food, Paul decided to try again.

 

“So what’s going on?” he said gently.

 

Matt let out a sigh of frustration, and started to get up.  “What difference does it make?” he said.  “Why is this such a big deal to you?”

 

“Come on Matt, don’t get mad.  I’m not trying to bust on you.  I’m just asking what’s got you so upset.” Paul said, in a tone that seemed sincere.

 

Matt grabbed Paul’s empty plate and carried the dishes into the kitchen.  When he came back out, Paul expected him to head to his bedroom, but instead he came back in and sat down heavily in the chair.  Letting out another audible sigh, he began to share the story.

 

“You know that I had jury duty today,” he said.

 

“Oh yeah, you’d said that was coming up,” Paul replied.

 

“Well, I got there and they have you fill out this ridiculously long questionnaire with all sorts of things, like you’re opinion on the death penalty, and have you ever been convicted by a jury…  And one of the questions was about ‘Religious Affiliation’.  So you could say Muslim, or Hindu, or Christian, or New Age…  And they also had blocks for, ‘Atheist’ or ‘No Religious Affiliation’.  And I know this is going to sound crazy, but I didn’t know what to put down.”

 

With a look of confusion, Paul said, “What do you mean you didn’t know what to put down?”

 

“I mean, what am I?” Matt replied.  “Mom and Dad raised us in church, so I guess I could say that I am a Christian.  But I haven’t been to church in years, so maybe I should just say, ‘No Religious Affiliation’.  But if I’m honest, I haven’t really thought about God in years, so at some point would you just be considered an ‘Atheist’?”

 

Shaking his head, Paul said, “No, an Atheist doesn’t believe that there is a God.”  And then, after a brief pause, he added, “You do still believe that there is a God right?”

 

“I guess,” Matt replied.  “I mean I’ve always believed that because that’s what we were taught.  I’ve never really questioned it.”

 

“Do you still believe the whole Jesus story?” Paul asked.

 

“I guess,” Matt repeated.

 

“Well it sounds like you’re a Christian” Paul declared confidently.

 

With a look of doubt, Matt replied, “I don’t know.  I wanted to check that box, but it seemed kind of dishonest.  You know, like I was trying to fool someone.  I thought that the ‘No Religious Affiliation’ box was probably more accurate, so I checked it.”

 

“OK,” Paul said.  “So what’s the problem?”

 

“I don’t know,” Matt stammered.  “It made me feel kind of guilty that I couldn’t say that I was a Christian.  I thought of how disappointed Mom and Dad would be if they saw that.  I thought about the time I got baptized at church camp, and I remembered being pretty sincere about all of that back then.”

 

“Listen little brother, you’re way over thinking this.  I’m sure that the courts don’t really care that you don’t go to church, and no one else is ever going to see that questionnaire.  If I remember my Vacation Bible School trivia correctly, it says something like everyone who believes will be saved.  So if you believe, you should be good.  You’ve done your time in church.  You did the whole baptism thing.  You’re a good guy.  I think you’re really worrying for nothing.”

 

“I understand what you’re saying,” Matt said.  “But I had hard time shaking this uneasy feeling.  Then, I got picked to be on a jury, and we drew a civil case.  And that was interesting enough to take my mind off of it for a while.”

 

“Yeah, so how did that go?” Paul asked.

 

“It was pretty cool.  This old guy had died, and his will said that everything should be divided between his kids.  But this woman, who claimed to be his wife, was contesting the will.  She said that in the last year of his life, he had changed his mind, and that he really wanted everything to go to her.  She claimed that she had a piece of paper that he’d signed, which was essentially his new will.”

 

“So did you believe her?” Paul said.

 

“She had a pretty good lawyer, and from his opening remarks, he made it seem like they had proof of everything.  The way he told the story sounded so reasonable that I felt like I was probably going to vote in her favor.  The lawyer for this guy’s kids just said that the woman didn’t have any proof to back up her claims, and that the kids were the rightful heirs.  I guess that was all he really could say, but I liked the first guy better.”

 

After taking a drink, Matt continued, “But as the day wore on, I really had to wonder.  She said that they’d been living together for almost two years, but the kid’s had never met her, or spoken to her.  She tried to say that it was because they lived in other states, and that the man kept it from them so that they wouldn’t feel like he was betraying the memory of their deceased mother.  I guess I could kind of see that, but if they were really married, you’d have thought that he’d have told them at some point.”

 

“Wouldn’t the state have a record of them getting married?” Paul interrupted.

 

“Yeah, but she claimed that they got married when they were on vacation in Mexico, and that their luggage, which had the marriage papers, got lost on the trip back,” Matt replied.

 

“That sounds pretty shaky,” Paul said.

 

“Yeah, but then her lawyer pointed out that this is a ‘Common Law Marriage” state, and that the law says that if you live together for more than a year, you are considered legally married; which kind of sounded like a slam dunk.  But then, the kid’s lawyer pointed out that there wasn’t any real proof that they’d ever lived together.  In fact, he had proof that she’d had her own permanent address for that whole period.  She claimed that she’d been trying to sell her old place, and that she just wasn’t having any luck, but then the kid’s lawyer showed phone and utility bills that made it seem like someone was living there.  And this new will she claimed to have didn’t look right either.  The signature didn’t look like his handwriting, and she tried to say that it was because he was really sick and couldn’t hold the pen steady when he signed it.”

 

“This all sounds pretty crazy,” Paul commented.  “How did you decide who was right?”

 

“Well, for me it was the testimony of both the woman claiming to be the wife, and the man’s oldest daughter, that made the difference.”

 

“What did they say?” Paul asked.

 

“It’s not exactly what they said,” Matt replied.  “It was more like the way they acted.  The woman seemed like she was after this guy’s money, and like she was willing to say anything to get it.  Nothing that she said gave me the feeling that she really knew or cared about this guy.  His daughter was just the opposite.  She just seemed to want to do whatever her father would have wanted.  She didn’t seem to care about getting his stuff, and she actually seemed more hurt that he might have had a life that he’d kept secret from them.  When we got together to deliberate, it didn’t take us any time to decide.  This woman didn’t have any real proof to back up her claims to be his heir, and none of us believed her story.  So we ruled in favor of the kids.”

 

“From what you’ve told me, it sounds like you guys got it right,” Paul said.  “So what does all of that have to do with you watching TV preachers?”

 

Matt’s face turned serious, as he said, “As I was driving home, I had this crazy thought pop into my head.”

 

“What was it?” Paul asked.

 

“I was thinking about my difficulty in answering that questionnaire, and about the rest of the day’s events, when a little voice inside my head said, ‘I wonder how your trial will go if you show up in heaven claiming to be an heir?’”

 

Paul’s face appeared to twist into a painful expression, as he quietly exclaimed, “Ouch!”

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The Follower

The music seemed especially loud at this morning’s service and the congregation was really into it, but I was way too tired for all of that. The ballgame had gone into extra innings last night, and so I didn’t get to bed until the wee small hours of the morning. My wife Karen had warned me that I’d be “tired at church”, when she headed off to bed around 10:00 p.m. But, as usual, I pretended not to hear her. She, of course, was one of the first people up dancing and clapping to the worship. Periodically, she’d turn and shoot me a look of disapproval for sitting in my chair. She acted as if I was embarrassing her. But I figured that I wasn’t the only one sitting, and that she just needed to get over it. At the church I grew up in the service would have been over in an hour, you could have set your watch by it. If the service ran over by even three minutes you could hear everyone grumbling in the parking lot. But at this church we did the worship thing for at least an hour, and then the pastor would get up and preach for another hour, so there was no relief in sight. Suddenly, the music shifted from the upbeat praise songs to the slower worship type songs. In the midst of that the pastor encouraged people to gather around the altar and to pray. Though I wasn’t particularly moved by all of this, I saw it as an opening to catch a little rest. While I wasn’t one to lay prostrate on the floor while praying, I’d seen other people do it lots of times. Sometimes they’d be there for the whole service. I always figured that they must be sleeping, and so I thought that this might be a great way to get Karen off my back, to keep the pastor happy, and maybe to even catch a little nap. I got down on the floor and buried my head in my hands, so that no one could see whether I was awake or asleep. After a few minutes I found myself drifting into that half-awake, half-asleep, dream state; as the sound of the music began to fade in my ears.

After what seemed to be a very short time something within me shuddered violently, effectively shaking me awake. But as I opened my eyes I realized that I was no longer lying on the floor in the church; instead I was sitting on a hard wooden chair, in what appeared to be a large room. As the fog in my head continued to lift I recognized that this room was a courtroom, and that I was seated at the defendants table. I was pretty sure that this must be a dream, but I was kind of curious about what might happen next, so I didn’t try to snap out of it. Though the sounds in the room were muffled in my ears, I sensed that the prosecuting attorney was making his opening statements to the jury. His back was to me, but I could see that he was dressed in a long robe and that he was wearing sandals. When he finally turned I realized that it was Jesus. I could see both sadness and compassion in His eyes as He made His way back to the table. I felt a knot forming in my gut as my mind desperately tried to conjure a scenario in which this arrangement might be a good thing. At that moment, my lawyer rose to his feet, grabbed a large book off the table, and moved toward the jury box. My hearing suddenly seemed to grow more acute as I could hear his expensive looking shoes click across the floor. In stark contrast to Jesus’ appearance, my lawyer looked like something off the pages of GQ magazine, and he moved in a very definitive manner. Though I hadn’t really had the chance to look him in the face, I sensed that he must be a relatively young man. As he reached the jury box he opened the large book and began to speak.

“Ladies and Gentleman of the jury, I think that you will find that reaching a verdict in this case will be fairly simple if you keep the definition of one term in mind, and that term is ‘follower’. Here in the Webster’s, that term is defined as one who follows the teachings or opinions of another; one that imitates another; one that chases another; or even as a part of a machine that is moved by another part of the machine. As we work our way through this proceeding I ask that you keep this definition clear in your minds. Thank you.”

Just as quickly as he had risen from the table, he thumped the dictionary closed, and spun to return. When our eyes met, I sensed something like contempt in his face, and as he moved closer I couldn’t shake the idea that this was Lucifer himself. A sick feeling washed over me as he sat down without acknowledging me. I tipped my chair back slightly, and slipped my foot beneath it, in hopes that I could exert enough pressure to cause me to wake up from this dream. Despite crushing my foot to the point that tears were streaming down my face the dream continued.

My thoughts began to swirl in the confusion of the moment. What is it that I’m accused of? Why would Jesus be a Prosecutor? Is my lawyer really Lucifer? Why can’t I wake up from this dream? I became even more confused when I looked to the bench and realized that the judges’ chair was empty. Just then, Jesus stood to his feet, and moved toward the Bailiff with a piece of paper in His hand. He addressed the empty chair as if someone were sitting in it, saying “Your honor the state wishes to enter this document as ‘State Exhibit A’.” He handed the paper to the Bailiff, and turned back to the jury, saying, “It is the signed confession of the defendant, Mr. Richard Davis. And upon this confession the State rests its case.” Jesus quietly made His way back to His chair as the courtroom was suddenly abuzz with reaction to the evidence.

My heart sank at the realization that whatever my particular crime might be I had already confessed my guilt. It suddenly made sense to me that Jesus would be the prosecutor, as He is always on the side of truth. I don’t know what argument my lawyer thought that he might bring to counter a signed confession, but he wasted no time in getting to work. He quickly stood to his feet and began to speak. “Your honor, if it pleases the court, the defense would like to call the defendant, Richard F. Davis to the stand.” He shot an impatient glance toward me as I stumbled to my feet, and every eye in the courtroom seemed to be on me as I shuffled forward. My foot ached from my attempts to expel myself from this dream, and I tried not to limp as I made my way to the Bailiff. After being sworn in, I climbed into the witness chair, took a deep breath, and wondered what was about to happen.

“For the record, please state your full name.”

“Richard Franklin Davis.”

“So, Mr. Davis, are you married?”

“Yes sir, I am.”

“And how long have you been married?”

“It will be sixteen years in June.”

“Well, congratulations, that’s very impressive in this day and age. And how did you meet your wife?”

“We were high school sweethearts.”

“Really and how long did you know her before you decided that she was ‘the one’?”

“Well, I guess I knew the first time I saw her. I remember telling my best friend that I would marry her before I ever had the chance to actually speak to her.”

“Ah, love at first sight. She must have been very attractive.”
“Definitely, she was a cheerleader.”

“How nice, and do you have any children?”

“Yes sir, we have two children.”

“And how old are they?”

“Well our daughter, Tiffany, is fourteen, and our son, Bruce, is twelve.”

“And how did you decide on the names Tiffany and Bruce?”

‘Well, I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but Tiffany was my wife’s idea. ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ is her favorite movie. Since she got to pick the girl name, I got to name the boy, and Bruce Springsteen has always been my favorite singer.”

“Ah yes, ‘The Boss’.”

“Absolutely!”

I was a little embarrassed by the enthusiasm that came across in my response, but I guess I was feeling somewhat relieved by the innocuous questions he was asking. I didn’t really understand what the point of all of this was, but I guessed that he was just trying to let the jury know that I was a regular guy. It, once again, made me wonder what I had been accused of, and I expected that the questions were about to get more difficult, but they didn’t.

“And so what do you do for a living Mr. Davis?”

“I’m a Tax Accountant.”

“That doesn’t sound like very exciting work, is that what you’d hoped you’d be doing at this point in your life?”

“No sir, truthfully, I always wanted to either play in a rock band or to play professional baseball.”

“Why didn’t you go into one of those fields instead?”

“I wasn’t a very good baseball player, and I wasn’t much into practicing my guitar, so neither of those things materialized.”

“So how did you settle on accounting?”

“I was always good at math, and they said that accountants made good money, so I decided that was the way to go.”

“And were ‘they’ right?”

“Right about what?”

“Right about accountants making good money?”

“Oh, yes, I make a good living.”

“And where is it that you live?”

“We live in the Cherry Ridge subdivision, out towards the mall.”

“That’s a very expensive neighborhood, even for someone who makes a ‘good living’.”

“Yes, well, my wife works also.”

“Really, that must be hard on your children.”

“I really don’t think that they mind. They understand that this is what it takes to afford the kind of life that we want for them. I actually think that it’s helped them to grow up a little faster.”

“And what exactly are your aspirations for your children Mr. Davis?”

“Well, I’ve encouraged them to do well in school, so that they can get into a good college, and eventually get a good job.”

“Anything else?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of Jesus sitting at the table and I searched for something to say that might please Him.

“Well, I guess I’ve tried to teach them to be good people too.”

I sensed that my attorney had been trying to get somewhere with the idea that we lived in a nice neighborhood, and that my wife chose to work, but I couldn’t figure out where. I kept watching him, trying to figure out whether he was really defending me, or whether he was trying to set me up. Just as quickly as he’d shifted the questioning in that direction, he moved away from it.

“Mr Davis, who are the three people that you would say have had the greatest influence in your life?”

“I guess that would be my wife Karen, my mother, and probably my high school baseball coach, Mr. Simpson.”

“And what is it about these people that affected you so deeply?”

“Well, my mom was always there for me. My Dad had left when I was still a baby, so it was just the two of us. She was always a great mom, who took great care of me. My wife is really beautiful, and smart, and I’m just glad that she chose to spend her life with me. Mr. Simpson guided our baseball team to the regional finals in my senior year, and he’s been a kind of father figure to me ever since. We talk almost every week on the phone.”

“So would your answer change much if I asked you who your heroes were?”

“I guess I think of heroes as kind of larger than life characters, which for me would be, ‘The Boss, Mr. Bruce Springsteen’. He’s an amazing guy, and his music really speaks to me. For my eighteenth birthday my mother took me to the local tattoo guy, who etched ‘Born to Run” on my right arm.”

“Really, have you ever been to one of his shows?”

“Are you kidding, I’ve seen him at shows all over the country. Karen and I even planned our tenth wedding anniversary trip around seeing him in Atlantic City!”

Again I found myself somewhat embarrassed at my enthusiastic response. At first my lawyer seemed amused by it, but then he took another sharp turn.

“Do believe in the idea of God, or a ‘Higher Power’?”

“Yes sir, I was raised in church, and we are members of a church as well.”

Pointing towards Jesus, he asked, “Other than here in the courtroom, have you ever seen this man before?”

“I’ve seen pictures of Him.”

“You mean some artist’s rendering of His image.”

“Yes sir, I guess that would be accurate.”

“Have you ever had a conversation with Him?”

“I’ve prayed to Him.”

“That was not the question Mr. Davis! The question was whether you’ve ever ‘conversed’ with Him.”

“Not exactly in the way that you’re implying”

“Other than here in this courtroom, have you ever heard His voice?”

A sense of panic was beginning to rise up in me as I sensed that he was trying to make it seem as though I wasn’t even saved.

“I believe that God speaks through His Holy Word, the Bible!”

“Oh really, so can you tell the court when the last time was that God spoke to you ‘through His Holy Word’?”

I went completely blank at this question. I tried to conjure a picture of me studying the Bible or even praying, but I couldn’t. I sat there trying to find something to say, but nothing came. After a very uncomfortable period of silence, my lawyer again spoke.

“Mr. Davis, do you consider yourself to be a ‘saved’ person?”

“Yes sir, I do.”

“When you say saved, what do you mean? Saved from what?”

“Saved from an eternity in hell”

“Do you fear hell Mr. Davis?”

“Yes sir, I do.”

“Your honor, the defense has no further questions, and rests upon the testimony of the defendant.”

The Bailiff let me know that I could step down from the stand, and I felt completely drained as I made my way back to the table. Though I still had no idea what I had been accused of, I somehow felt as though I’d just walked into an ambush. It wasn’t clear to me what the jury could derive from my testimony, but I was sure that I hadn’t represented myself well. My lawyer seemed strangely pleased with all of this, which only added to my sense of confusion. I once again pressed the leg of my chair onto my throbbing foot, in hopes of waking up before the closing statements were given to the jury, but it was to no avail. After Jesus waived His option to make a closing statement, my lawyer once again sprang to his feet, and swiftly moved toward the jury.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, as I mentioned at the beginning of this proceeding, I believe that reaching a verdict in this case will be quite simple as long as you bear in mind what it means to be a ‘follower’. Once again, Webster’s defines this as ‘one who follows the teachings or opinions of another; one that imitates another; one that chases another or even as a part of a machine that is moved by another part of the machine.’ In light of the defendant’s testimony, I cannot find one shred of evidence that he meets any of those criteria. As he testified about the most significant elements of his life, we learned that he chose his life’s mate based solely on his physical attraction to her. By his own admission he hadn’t even spoken to her, and yet he knew that this was ‘the one for him’. Again, in his own words, he chose his life’s work based on the potential to make money, and it sounds as if he’s guiding his children to do the same. In light of the definition, it would seem that money, and a nice home in ‘Cherry Ridge’, are the part of the machine that drive him. And what can we say that he’s been chasing? From his testimony, I gather that he’s chased his hero across the country. He’s even tattooed his body, and named his only son in honor of this man. Had my client been accused of being a follower of that man instead of this one (as he pointed toward Jesus), I’d gladly hand him over to the Bailiff. But that is not the case.”

Tears began to stream down my face as I realized that the accusation raised by Jesus was that I was His follower, and I found it difficult to catch my breath as I understood that my confession was the only viable evidence that he could present. A wave of nausea roiled in me as my lawyer continued addressing the jury.

“The prosecution has submitted this signed confession, and while I don’t dispute that my client did sign this document, I submit that by his own admission it was under duress. He was simply afraid that if he didn’t he’d be sent to hell forever. In my esteemed colleague’s own words, His followers know His voice and you can tell who they are by the fruit of their lives. So even if you apply the prosecution’s own criteria, you must acquit my client on the charge of being a ‘Follower of Christ’.”

My head dropped into my hands as heavy sobs bubbled out of me. I wanted to deny what he was saying, but I knew that he was right. I had no rebuttal. I wept bitter tears, and shook with fear. And, in my head, I heard the voice of the Jury Foreman echoing, “We the jury, find the defendant ‘Not Guilty’ of the charge of being a ‘Follower of Jesus Christ’.” I suddenly felt as though I was falling into a bottomless pit, and that the air was moving by so fast that I couldn’t pull it into my lungs. In the deepest part of my soul I cried out, “God help me!” and instantly everything became still.

I remained completely motionless for what seemed like a very long time. I was afraid to move. Afraid that this wasn’t really a dream, and that I might somehow set this whole thing back in motion. Paralyzed by my fear, I felt as though I could remain there indefinitely. But out of the blue I felt something moving along my back, and I began to hear the faint sounds of a voice. My ears reached for the sound, and it seemed to grow more distinct. The voice seemed very familiar, and it was calling my name. Suddenly, I realized that it was Karen’s voice, and that it was her hand rubbing my back.

“Richard, are you OK? Service is over honey, it’s time to go.”

I cracked open my eyes, and saw that I was still lying face down on the floor of the sanctuary. I carefully pulled my arms up, and tried to push myself into a sitting position. I was dazed, covered in sweat, and my whole body ached. The service had apparently just ended as most of the congregation seemed to be milling about in conversation. Karen looked very concerned, and kept asking if I was alright. But all I could do was nod incoherently. I was just thankful that this whole thing had just been a bad dream, and that it was really over. Karen seemed to want to get me on my feet, but I wasn’t sure she was strong enough to do it by herself. Just then, a man named, Marcus Freeman, stepped over to help her. A lot of people claimed that he was some sort of prophet, but I wasn’t sure that I believed in all of that stuff. Nevertheless, he seemed like a nice enough guy, and I appreciated his help. As they helped me up I tried to stand on my own, but the pain in my one foot shot all the way up my leg, and my knee gave way as they guided me into a chair. Another wave of panic began to rise in me as I realized where that pain had come from, and I could feel my arms trembling against my sides. In that moment, Marcus crouched down beside me, and said, “The Lord told me to tell you that the chair won’t remain empty forever.” He went on to say, “I don’t really know what that means, but the Lord said that you would.” All I could do was nod in agreement.

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” Matthew 16: 24-25

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Three Witnesses

Centurion

“I have always been proud of my Roman heritage and like all the men in my family; it has been my honor to serve in the army of the emperor. Though I will admit that I wasn’t pleased when they told me that I was being sent to the land of the Hebrews, a good soldier knows better than to question his orders. When I first arrived, it was hard not to view these Israelites as little more than superstitious peasants; but in my years of living amongst them, I’ve come to see them as something more. Though their religious rituals, like the constant slaughter of animals, seem strange to me, I have witnessed firsthand the hope that seems to spring from their belief that their God not only loves them, but that He will one day deliver them from all oppression. It is a hope that I found myself yearning to find.”

“I first heard about this man Jesus of Nazareth, from some of the other soldiers in my garrison. They said that he was trouble and someone we needed to watch carefully. So I made it a point to seek him out and to know who he was. But the more I watched him, the more confused I became. After all, Jerusalem is filled with wild eyed revolutionaries and men who simply crave power, but this man didn’t appear to be either of those. The people seemed to be drawn to him and if I’m honest, I felt drawn to him too. In fact, the only people who truly appeared to be threatened by him were the Jewish religious leaders; and they seemed to hate him. From what I could see, they feared the influence he was having with the people. When I got the chance, I tried to get close enough to hear him speak and in those times I marveled at his words. Even though I cannot claim to have understood the things he was saying, he spoke with great authority and wisdom. Sometimes he would be telling stories and other times his words sounded almost like poetry. I know that there were moments when he was aware that I was listening and yet he looked at me in a way that let me know that it was alright.”

“I knew better than to discuss this with anyone, so I simply remained silent when I heard my fellow soldiers tell their slanderous tales of him; just as I held my tongue in the marketplace, when I’d hear the people speaking of his miraculous deeds. Soon, they were saying that he was their promised “Messiah” and that word seemed to set their religious leaders aflame with jealousy. Some of them seemed to think that he was simply a man sent by their God, while others claimed that he was the “Son of God”. As a Roman, I could relate to this debate, as most thought Caesar’s authority came from god, while others claimed that he was a god. Though I would never have said it aloud, I felt certain that the emperor was not a god; but this man Jesus was someone I wanted to believe in. I certainly didn’t know the answer, but I will say that he was unlike any man I’d ever known before.”

“With the feast the Jews call, ‘Passover’ approaching, I could tell that Jerusalem was ready to erupt; as the followers of Jesus met him on the outskirts of the city. Their loud adoration of him once again stirred the insecurities of their Hebrew leaders. Later that day, there were reports of a disturbance at the temple and claims that Jesus had been turning over the tables of the moneychangers. I found that a little hard to believe, but a short time later, several of us were dispatched to Governor Pilate’s residence, where we found him standing before the governor in chains. It seems that Caiaphas, the High Priest, had incited a mob to accuse Jesus of some type of treason, but I could tell that the governor wanted no part of their religious war. Though I couldn’t hear everything that was being said, I saw something in Pilate’s eyes that I’d never seen before; ‘fear’. As I watched Jesus stand calmly in the midst of these angry voices, I couldn’t help but wonder where all of his zealous followers had gone.”

“When the governor managed to disburse the crowd, by sending them to Herod, I hoped that things might calm down; but later I heard that the mob had returned and of the flogging that Jesus eventually received at the hands of my brethren. I suppose that I ought to have been grateful that I was not assigned to that detail, but as we marched toward Golgotha, I wondered if it wouldn’t have been preferable to what we were about to do.”

“In my years as a soldier, I had been a part of many crucifixions, but never of a man who seemed so utterly innocent. When we got to the top of the hill, I could barely recognize his mangled visage and as I manned a rope to hoist his cross into place, our eyes once again met. Though I expected to see agony and anger and maybe even hatred, I saw the same eyes that I’d seen as I watched him teach in the marketplace. Now, as then, they were somehow telling me that it was alright. But how could that be? How could anyone endure what he’d already been through? How could anyone endure what he was going through at that moment? Something inside me ripped, as I heard him pray, ‘Father, forgive them; they know not what they do’. Though others were taunting him and spitting on him, I found myself paralyzed by the fear that we were making a terrible mistake. As others pushed forward to torment him, I was shoved off to the side, where I stood in a stupor. In what seemed to be a short time later, the last bit of life drained out of him and as he breathed his last, the skies turned black and the earth began to shake violently. Though most of the other centurions ran down the hill in terror, I found myself unable to move and in that moment I uttered the only words that seemed to be true, ‘Surely this was the son of God’.”

Thomas

“When I think back on all the things he taught us, I realize that he had been trying to prepare us for a long time. He told us that he was going to be betrayed; he said that he would be handed over and put to death; yet somehow we all convinced ourselves that he was really saying something else. He had so often spoken in parables and in ways that were mysterious to us, that we failed to grasp the weight of his clear warning. Of course, a lifetime of hearing other people’s ideas about the coming of the Messiah, certainly helped add to our confusion. He kept saying that his kingdom was not of this world and yet we all kept expecting him to rise up and end Caesar’s reign. We didn’t understand that he came to deliver us from a far greater oppression.”

“Some of us have been chastened more publically than others, but none of us can boast of our bold faith in the Master’s darkest hours. Just like the time Peter tried to walk on the water, it has been easy for us to point out our brother’s weakness, in the hopes that it will draw attention away from our own. The ugly truth of that day was that eleven of us sat cowering in the back of the boat and on the night they came for our Lord, all of us again retreated in fear.”

“Those failures have rightfully called into question the depths of our belief, but I can promise that no one who knew Jesus intimately could doubt who he was. It wasn’t simply the signs and wonders, or his amazing wisdom, it was his very being. Peter could never have stepped out of the boat without a genuine faith in Jesus, but staring into the storm can have a powerful effect on a man. Even men of great faith, like the desert prophet John, who so boldly proclaimed who Jesus was, can waiver in the face of discouragement and disappointment. It is not as though ones faith abandons them in such moments; it is more like it becomes submerged in a sea of doubt. I remember Jesus once asking a man if he truly ‘believed’ and while the man affirmed that he did, he went on to ask the Lord to help him with his unbelief. Like him, we also believed, but we needed the Lord’s help and as near as we could tell, he was gone. Outside of his presence, our eyes became fixed on the rising storm and each of us began to sink.”

“Many have spoken of my ‘doubt’, but truthfully we were all wrestling with our doubts at that moment. From the night that they first seized Jesus in the garden, people were coming to us, asking questions we could not answer and telling us stories we could not believe. At first, we were just avoiding the High Priest and the soldiers, but soon we were hiding from everyone. We locked ourselves away for hours; wondering, waiting and worrying. For days we scarcely left the same little room; so it shouldn’t be hard to imagine my dismay at hearing people claim that Jesus had visited in the short time that I’d been away. It just sounded like another outrageous story and I was already worn down by all of it. When I said that I would need to see the nail marks in his hands, I was simply trying to say that I was unwilling to listen to anymore stories; but I never really considered how those words might sound as I stood before the Lord.”

“On the day he appeared to us, he invited me to touch his hands; but there was no need for further proof. In his presence, it was impossible to doubt and I fell to my knees and cried out, ‘My Lord and my God’. Though I was ashamed of my foolish words and of my poor faith, I was overcome with the joy that accompanies his nearness. In that moment, I realized that being close to him was all that I really wanted. After a lifetime of seeking knowledge and understanding, I found myself to be like a little child, who simply yearns to be in the presence of his loving father. The days that followed his appearing were filled with wonder and our hearts ached when he finally ascended to his heavenly throne. But just as he promised, our joy was made complete at Pentecost, when his precious Spirit came and abided within each one of us. It was the fulfillment of His vow to never leave us nor forsake us. Though I have encountered many troubles in the days since then, there is one thing I can promise; I have never doubted again.”

Mary

“In the days leading up to the Passover feast, I could sense that Jesus was troubled. He seemed to be spending more time alone, or with just the twelve, than with all of us gathered together. Even when he did come near to us, he seemed unusually quiet and maybe even distracted. Those times were difficult for me; because I cherished every moment that I was able to spend in his presence. From the time that he first found me, and drove away the spirits that had tormented me since childhood, there was no other place that I desired to be. In his midst, I felt safe and at peace and filled with hope.”

“I remember gathering with the crowd, along the road from Bethany; as he and the twelve made their way toward Jerusalem. Even though we were outside the city, there was a group of Pharisee’s watching from nearby; as they always seemed to be, when they thought Jesus might be coming. Many of the brethren grabbed palm branches and we all boldly praised the Lord as he made his way along the path. I was hoping that the love and adoration of his followers might please him; but he almost looked sad as he passed by us. That night, I heard the story of his angry outburst at the temple and I began to worry that something was wrong.”

“Many of us hoped that we’d all come together for the Passover meal and were sad to hear that he’d once again dine without us; but it was something we women were accustomed to. That disappointment was small when compared to our anxiety upon hearing that he’d been seized at the Garden of Gethsemane. Though Jesus had told us that he was going to have to suffer much, I think that most of us looked past those words toward the hopeful picture of eternity. At first, we tried to convince each other that he would somehow avoid the trap of the Pharisees, as he’d done so many times before; but soon it was clear that this time would be different.”

“In some ways it was worse for the twelve, because they were afraid to be seen on the streets. It was one of the few times that I was actually glad to be a woman; as we were practically invisible to everyone around us. This allowed us to see the High Priest falsely accuse him before Pilate and to hear the crowd roar their approval when Barabbas was released. But our anger quickly turned to terror, when the Romans began to beat him savagely. Something inside of me wanted to flee from that horrific scene, but something stronger told me that he shouldn’t be left alone in the company of those who despised him; and that though we could not stop it, we needed to be witnesses to all that went on there. So I stayed and I wept and I felt my hope slip away with every lash. I could not understand how something so clearly evil could triumph over something that was so obviously pure; and I began to sink into an abyss of despair. I wanted to be strong for Mary, his mother and I tried desperately to remember the words he’d taught us; but I felt as though the very life was being pulled from my body. Together, his mother and I stumbled down the streets, as they paraded him toward the accursed hill.”

“As we came to the place of the skull, we were joined by John; and when Mary saw him, she collapsed into his arms. Though he steadied her, he also seemed stricken by the sight of the Lord. We all cried out in anguish as they drove the nails into his hands & feet, but grew quieter when Jesus spoke to Mary and John from the cross. I felt completely helpless and hopeless in the hours he hung there dying; and had grown numb by the time he’d breathed his last. As the sky turned black and the earth shook beneath our feet, it was only the fleeing of the Romans that let me know that this was real to anyone other than me. For the first time since I’d come to know the Lord, I felt utterly alone.”

“The hours and days that followed were a torment. Though many of us were huddled together, we took little comfort in each other. In those rare moments when exhaustion would give way to sleep, visions of the Lord’s mangled body would intrude upon my dreams. When I was awake, waves of fear and abandonment would sweep over me. Mary and I tried to busy ourselves with preparations for Jesus burial and before the dawn, on the first day of the week, we headed to the place where they said he had been laid.”

“Finding the empty tomb was yet another heartbreak; as I yearned to be close to anything that might remind me of his presence. After the frenzied rush to show Peter and John what we had discovered, I found myself sitting alone and weeping, near the tomb. My eyes were still blurry with tears when I first saw the angels, standing in the place where the Lord’s body had been. At first, I was confused, then I was frightened; but then their joyous proclamation that He was “alive” caused my heart to leap within me. As they reminded me of the words he had spoken about his death and resurrection, I could feel the hope seeping back into my soul.”

“I was excited to tell the brethren all that I’d seen and heard, but before I could take my leave, yet another voice spoke and I saw a man standing before me. At first, I could not tell who he was, but then he called my name. ‘Mary’, he said and I knew it was my Lord. As I looked upon him, he was not bloodied or disfigured; and he seemed to glow, as the angels had. Without thinking, I lunged to embrace him, but he stopped me and told me that it was too soon. Looking into his beautiful eyes made me feel as though I’d been reborn and it was almost more than I could bear. When he told me to go and tell the others, I did not want to leave him; but he smiled at me and promised that he would return quickly. As I ran and skipped and danced my way down the path, I could not resist the urge to almost sing, ‘He’s Alive!’, ‘He’s Alive!’ over and over again.”

“When I came to the place where the twelve were staying, I burst through the door in jubilation. They seemed almost irritated at my impertinence and they shook their heads in disbelief, as I breathlessly told my story. Only Peter and John seemed to lend any credence to the words I said and even their eyes were filled with doubt. Some claimed that I was delirious with grief, while others muttered about the fact that I was ‘just a woman’, but I could not be discouraged; as I continued my chant, ‘He’s Alive!, He’s Alive!’. None of them bothered to apologize to me when the Lord later appeared to them, but even then my joy was too strong and full to be penetrated. Though the days before his ascension were wondrous, it was the infilling of his Spirit, on the day of Pentecost, that finally made me whole. On that day, the void within me was filled to overflowing and I have never felt alone again. In him I live and move and have my being; and he is with me always! Hallelujah!”

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As a journalist, I spend a lot of time on my computer at home and generally my kids know not to interrupt me when I’m working; so it was a little surprising when my oldest son (Tim) came in recently to talk about something that was troubling him. As an extremely precocious eleven year old, with a naturally inquisitive mind, his concerns are rarely what you’d expect from a kid his age and such was the case in this instance. He explained that his teacher had taught them that the United States was not a “Christian Nation” and that it never really had been. This bothered Tim because we’d taught him that Christianity was an essential part of our national heritage. I tried to give him a quick answer about how it all depends on how you define the term “Christian Nation”, but that clearly didn’t resolve anything for him; so I decided to set aside my latest article and spend some time with him on this issue. Our conversation went something like this:

“If your teacher was simply saying that not every one of our forefathers was a Christian or that Christianity was never the official religion of America, then I agree with her. But if she was saying that Christianity, the Bible and God weren’t an essential part of what made this country what it was, then I’d disagree with her” I explained.

“But how could I prove that?” he asked.

After thinking about it for a minute, I replied, “As a reporter, I’ve found that the best way to get the real story is to go to the people who were there. If we could get an eyewitness account, we could probably arrive at the truth of the matter.”

Tim rolled his eyes in frustration, saying, “It’s going to be a little hard to get an interview with guys who’ve been dead for a couple hundred years.”

“It might be easier than you think,” I answered with a smile. I quickly keyed in an internet search of famous quotes from that time period and added, “We can chat with them on-line. You ask me your questions and I’ll try to get you a good answer from one of our forefathers”.

Though he looked skeptical, Tim eventually asked, “My teacher says that the early Americans left Europe to get away from religion, is that true?”

After scrolling through a few quotes, I said “Oh look, John Adams, the second president of the United States said, ‘We have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion’; and Daniel Webster, another one of early America’s most influential leaders said, ‘Let us not forget the religious character of our origin’. And check this out; during the framing of the constitution, Benjamin Franklin quoted the Bible, saying, ‘Lest the Lord build the house, they labor in vain’ and when they were finished, James Madison added, ‘Without the intervention of God there never would have been a constitution’. These hardly sound like the words of people trying to get away from religion.”

Tim nodded in agreement, but then added, “My teacher admitted that many of the early American’s were from the Christian tradition, but she also said that they were careful not to include the teaching of the Bible into our laws. She said that they made sure that there would always be a separation of ‘Church and State’; is that true?”

Again I scrolled for a few seconds and replied, “John Quincy Adams, who was the son of John Adams and who became our sixth president said, ‘The highest glory of the American Revolution was this; it connected in one dissoluble bond the principles of civil government, with the principles of Christianity. From the day of the Declaration, they were bound by the laws of God, which they all and by the laws of the Gospel, which they nearly all, acknowledge as the rules of their conduct’; and James Madison said, ‘We stake the future of this country on our ability to govern ourselves under the principles of the Ten Commandments’. Not so many years later, President Andrew Jackson added, ‘The Bible is the rock upon which our Republic rests’.”

Tim smiled slyly, saying, “It sounds like she was wrong about that too! She said that America’s success as a nation has nothing to do with morality, that it’s really just because democracy is such a good system of government. What would the forefathers say about that?”

I smiled at his enthusiasm and said, “Well, I’m sure they’d agree that democracy is a good form of government, but John Hancock said, ‘all confidence must be withheld from the means we use; and reposed only on that God Who rules in the armies of Heaven, and without Whose blessing the best human counsels are but foolishness-and all created power vanity.’ Daniel Webster said that, ‘If we abide by the principles taught in the Bible, our country will go on prospering; but if we and our posterity neglect its instructions and authority, no man can tell how sudden a catastrophe may overwhelm us and bury all our glory in profound obscurity!’ And in the 1800’s, a man from France, named Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to study what made democracy work and he said that, ‘Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power’. He went on to conclude that, ‘America is great because America is good’.”

Tim smiled triumphantly and declared, “So my teacher was wrong, America is a ‘Christian Nation’!”

As much as I wanted him to believe that, I had to be honest and say, “Not necessarily son”.

A wave of confusion washed across his face, as I went on to explain, “Just because it was a part of our heritage doesn’t mean that it is who we are today. Mr. De Tocqueville said that if America ever ceased being good, it would also cease to be great; and when a historian asked the famous American poet and diplomat, James Russell Lowell, how long the American republic would endure, he replied, ‘As long as the ideas of the men who founded it continue to dominate’. Just like God’s people in the Bible, we can lose our freedom if we decide to live by our own ideas.”

Tim was clearly troubled by this and with his face slightly twisted, he asked, “How do we convince everyone to follow God?”

“The good news is that we don’t have to; God told the Israelites that, ‘If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” I replied.

“So if we follow God with all our hearts and pray, God will bless our country?” he asked.

“That’s the way I understand it” I replied. The smile returned to Tim’s face as he said, “Cool, I’m going to make sure I pray for that every day.”

“Good man” I replied; and as Tim headed out the door, he spun around and added, “I think I better pray for my teacher too.” I smiled back at him and said, “That’s my boy!”

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My Brother’s Keeper

Warning – This story is pretty lengthy (>14,000 words).  If you struggle (as I do) with reading a computer screen, you may want to click on the individual post and print it.

As the cab pulled up in front of a modest bi-level house, Brady was relieved to see the name “Conner” on the mailbox.  Though his assistant was normally right on with stuff like this, he had been a little worried as to whether she had given him the right address.  He cynically smiled, as it occurred to him that the non-descript quality of the neighborhood and the house, were just what he’d expect from his older brother Tom.  “This is it” the driver chirped, as he popped the trunk from a button inside the glove box.  Brady quickly jumped out, hoping to grab his bags and pay the cabbie before he was recognized; but as he handed over the fare, the driver said, “You know, you look really familiar to me”.  Brady feigned a smile and replied, “I get that a lot; I guess I’ve just got one of those faces”.  As the cab pulled away from the curb, Brady started toward the front door, as beads of sweat began to roll down his temples. 

Despite the fact that he and his brother hadn’t spoken in several years, he tried to convince himself that Tom would be happy to see him; after all he was a big star now.  Though he’d repeatedly run the story of his unannounced visit through in his head, his mouth was suddenly dry and his mind completely blank, as his feet stepped onto the welcome mat.  Setting his bags down, he reached for the doorbell; but before he was able to push the button, the door quickly flung open.  This startled Brady, who stepped back in surprise.  He was slightly relieved to see that the person wielding the door was a little girl, who appeared to be about six or seven years old. 

Brady once again tried to conjure a smile, thinking that he might charm her; but before he could speak, she said, “Who are you and what do you want?” 

Suddenly feeling a little defensive, Brady stammered, “Well who are you?” 

“I live here” she replied, “So you need to tell me who you are first!”

Brady wasn’t quite ready to deal with this little one and asked, “Is your mom or dad here?”

“Of course they are” she snapped, “But you’ve got to tell me who you are before I get them”.

Before he could answer her, he heard a voice from inside the house say, “Mandy, who are you talking too?”  With that, the little girl spun and yelled, “There’s some guy at the door and he won’t tell me who he is”.  

Within seconds, Tom’s wife Peggy appeared, scolding little Mandy for opening the door to a stranger.  As she turned to Brady, a glimmer of recognition flicked in her eyes and she gasped, “Brady?”

“Yes Peggy, it’s me Brady” he replied weakly.  Visibly shaken, Peggy just stared at him for a long and uncomfortable moment, before saying, “I’m sorry, please… come in”.

As Brady reached to pick up his bags, Peggy turned and called for Tom in a loud voice.

Tom must have picked up on the sense of urgency in her tone, as he quickly appeared at the doorway.  A look of stunned disbelief swept across his face, as he too stammered, “Brady?”

“Hey Tom”, Brady replied, without moving toward him.

For another uncomfortable moment, everyone stood staring at each other, until the little girl looked at her parents and said, “So who is this guy?”

Peggy reached down and touched the little girls shoulder, as if to let her know that she was being rude; but she didn’t answer her question.  Though Tom’s eyes remained fixed on Brady, he started to quietly say, “This is my brother”, before stopping himself in mid-sentence.  Instead, he looked down at the little girl and softly said, “This is your Uncle Brady”.

This clearly confused the little girl and Brady once again tried to turn on the charm, reaching out his hand and saying, “And you must be Mandy”.

Though she still seemed highly suspicious of Brady, she did weakly shake his hand and said, “My name is Amanda, only my parents call me Mandy”.

Peggy shot Mandy a look that seemed to say “Be nice” and Brady’s face looked flush with embarrassment, as he added, “It’s a pleasure to meet you Amanda”.

Tom continued to stare intently at Brady, as if watching him might somehow reveal his motive for showing up after all these years.  Sensing the awkwardness of the moment, Peggy suggested that they move up into the living room and offered Brady something to drink.  As they reached the top of the stairs, Peggy pulled Tom into the kitchen, while Brady went and sat down on the sofa.  He could hear them whispering loudly, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. 

Just as they re-emerged from the kitchen, Mandy came bounding back up the stairs, with her twelve year old brother following close behind her.  Though she was able to slide around her mother’s legs, her brother got caught in the traffic and had to wait for his parents to pass by.  When Mandy reached Brady, she spun back toward her brother and loudly said, “See John, this is the guy I told you about.  Dad says that he’s our Uncle.”  John looked toward his father, to confirm that Mandy was telling the truth and Tom said, “Son, this is my brother Brady”.  He then turned toward Brady and said, “Brady, this is my son John”.  Brady extended his hand toward John, who enthusiastically shook it and said, “You look just like Brandon O’Connor, the actor”.  Brady smiled knowingly and looked toward Tom, trying to decide how he should respond.  Not being able to read his brothers expression, he simply said, “Yeah, a lot of people tell me that”.

For the next several minutes, the kids were allowed to dominate the conversation, as their parents continued to reel in surprise.  Eventually, Peggy regained her composure enough to send the kids back downstairs, so that “Daddy and his brother can talk”.  After the kids grumbled their way down to the family room, Peggy excused herself to start working on dinner.  With the room suddenly quiet, the tension between Tom and Brady was tangible.  Both of them wrestled to find words, as Brady realized that Tom would see through the story he’d rehearsed to himself and Tom tried to find something that wouldn’t sound angry.  After an awkward silence, Tom spoke.

“So how’ve you been” he said weakly.

“Pretty good,” Brady replied, in a tone that seemed forced and overly upbeat.

As their eyes met, they both seemed to remember that despite the past, they were still brothers; and each of them managed to exhale some of the tension.  Tom finally asked plainly, “What are you doing here Brady?”

“I just thought I’d come and visit my big brother,” he said, somewhat defensively.  “But if you want me to leave, I will,” he added.

“I didn’t say that and please don’t try to play games with me.  I’m glad to see you and you’re welcome in my home, but I need to know why you’re really here,” Tom said, tensely.

Brady knew that he couldn’t fool Tom, so he admitted, “I’ve got some things going on right now and I need a place to lay low for awhile.”

“What kind of things and how long is awhile?” Tom asked flatly.

“Bad publicity stuff and I’m not really sure,” Brady replied sheepishly.

“So I shouldn’t expect the police, reporters, somebody’s angry husband or the mafia, to show up at my doorstep?” Tom asked warily.

“No, nothing like that,” Brady replied.  “The paparazzi will be looking for me, but they don’t know that you even exist,” he added. 

After the words came out of his mouth, Brady realized how bad they sounded and said, “I mean, they don’t realize that I even have a brother”.

Tom sort of half smiled and said, “I knew what you meant”.

After another brief pause, Tom’s expression seemed to grow a little more serious as he said, “I’m going to need to explain this whole thing to John.  I don’t want him to feel as though we’ve intentionally deceived him about who you are.”

Brady nodded, “I understand, but he can’t tell anyone that I’m here.”

“I know,” Tom agreed, “But it’s going to be pretty tough on a twelve year old boy not to tell his friends that there’s a movie star staying at his house, much less that he’s also an uncle”.

“We can hold off until I’m ready to leave,” Brady said.

“No, it’s not worth losing his trust over this.  I think he can handle it,” Tom replied.

“What about Amanda,” Brady asked.

“She doesn’t need to know for now.  We’ll just explain it to John and then not talk about it in front of her.  As you probably noticed, there’s no such thing as a secret with her,” Tom replied with a look of mild amusement.

Brady smiled and once again the tension between them seemed to ease some.  Both of them realized that this little conversation had already been the most civil communication they’d had in the last thirty years and both seemed hesitant to say much more, for fear of ruining the moment.  They sat silently for a couple of minutes, as memories seem to flood both of their minds.  It was Tom who finally broke the silence.

“You could have called,” he said quietly.

“I wasn’t sure you would agree to it,” Brady replied.

When it was clear that Tom didn’t plan on responding to that, Brady pressed the issue by saying, “Would you have agreed?”

Tom seemed to ponder that for a moment and finally admitted, “I’m not sure”.

Again, they fell silent, though the quiet didn’t last for long; as the kids came bounding back up the stairs, arguing about which television channel to watch.  After Tom refereed the dispute, he sent Mandy back to the family room and asked John to stay with him.  Mandy misinterpreted this to mean that John was in trouble, so she smiled victoriously as she descended the stairs.  After she was gone, Tom patiently explained to John that his Uncle Brady was in fact the famous actor “Brandon O’Connor” and that they needed to help him take a little vacation from being famous.  John seemed to love that he was being let in on the secret and so he gladly agreed.  He had an endless supply of questions for Brady, which relieved the brothers of their struggle to have a prolonged conversation.  As John excitedly spoke, Tom excused himself to help Peggy with dinner.

Dinner turned out to be relatively uneventful, as the kids spent most of the meal bombarding their Uncle with little known facts about themselves.  Tom and Peggy could tell that Brady wasn’t used to dealing with children, but they were still at a loss as to what to say, so they did nothing to rescue him.  By the time they were done eating, Brady had committed to touring both of the kids bedrooms, meeting Amanda’s pet turtle “Franklin” and inspecting John’s “Star Wars” action figure collection.  Though he tried to act interested, Tom could tell that he was pretty miserable with it.

As Tom worked on cleaning up the dinner dishes, Peggy setup the guest room, which doubled as an office for Tom.  As she made up the fold-out couch, she thought about how uncomfortable it was to sleep on and she wondered how long Brady would be willing to put up with it.  She sensed that the trouble he’d mentioned to Tom must be more serious than he was letting on.  When she had things set up, she went and rescued Brady from the kids, as she told John to go take a shower and showed her brother-in-law to the guest room.  Brady was very polite with Peggy, though she was aware that he was studying her carefully.  She had always viewed him as a manipulator, so she felt certain that Brady was unconsciously developing whatever strategies he might need for dealing with her.  She hated that she didn’t trust him, but their very limited interaction had shown her that he wasn’t worthy of trust.  She caught herself silently praying for God to help her to love Brady like a brother.

After Peggy left the room, Brady went through his luggage in search of his laptop.  Though he’d been periodically peaking at his Blackberry to monitor the message traffic, he wanted to spend some quality time connecting to the outside world.  For Brady, just a few hours at Tom’s house had already made that world seem light years away.  He could hear Tom reading a story to Amanda in her bedroom across the hall, so he decided to close the door for a little privacy.  He’d only had his Facebook opened for a couple minutes, when Amanda and John burst through the door to say goodnight.  Brady tried to be cheerful with them, though he was absolutely irritated by the intrusion.  As he gave them both a hug, he made a mental note to lock the door from now on.  As Tom ushered the kids back out of the room, he stopped long enough to talk to Brady.

“Peggy and I do nightly devotions after we get the kids to bed, but we normally do that in the living room, so you’re welcome to watch TV in the family room if you’d like.” 

Brady resisted the urge to roll his eyes, saying, “Thanks, but I probably need to spend a few hours on the internet and then call it a night.  What time do you head out for work in the morning?”

A strange look came over Tom’s face, as he said, “I’m not working right now, so I’ll be around.”

Though his reply made Brady mildly curious, he decided to get the details later, saying, “Cool, then I guess I’ll see you tomorrow”.

Tom nodded, saying, “Goodnight”, as he pulled the door closed.

Within a few minutes, the commotion of the kids going to bed seemed to subside and the house fell silent.  Though Brady was relieved to finally be alone, he found the stillness to be somewhat un-nerving.  Digging through his bag, he found some earphones and pulled up his iTunes, as a way to combat the quietness.  As the familiar sounds pumped into his ears and colorful images filled his computer screen, Brady began to relax for the first time in several hours.  He smiled at the idea that he’d become like Rapunzel, peering at the real world through a tiny window, while trapped inside the strange fairy tale castle of Tom’s house.

Tom and Peggy decided to do their devotions in the family room, so as not to disturb Brady.  Though they followed their normal routine of reading a passage of scripture, both were clearly distracted by the evenings surprising events.  They tried to discuss the verse, but the conversation quickly turned to Brady.

“I’m feeling a little ashamed of myself,” Peggy admitted.  “I really have no desire to deal with Brady and I hate that the kids now realize who he is.  I know that’s not God’s heart for this situation, but I’m struggling with it.”

Tom nodded in agreement, saying, “I know exactly what you mean.  When I watched the kids hugging him goodnight, I winced at the thought that they were already trying to love him.  At least Mandy is a little suspicious of him; I’m afraid that he’s already some kind of hero to John.”

“Yeah, he did seem pretty mesmerized by Brady,” she agreed.

“I guess I’m kind of amazed at how much anger I still have for him.  I thought I’d gotten past all that, but when I saw him today, it seemed to come roaring back.  All evening I’ve been running it through in my mind and I think that maybe it is something different than it used to be,” he said.

“Different in what way?” Peggy asked.

“Well, Brady was only about three or four years old when dad started having his affair and so he wasn’t really aware of what was going on.  Mom and Dad would never make a scene in front of us, so Brady had no idea there was even a problem until the day that dad left.  Because of that, he could never really understand why mom and I were so upset.  Mom refused to bad mouth dad and she wouldn’t let me do it either.  All Brady knew was that dad was nice to him and gave him what he wanted; and that mom was depressed and never had any money.  Because I was six years older, I had seen what dad did to mom and to our family; and I knew not to trust him.  Back then, my anger with Brady was about how he treated mom.  He acted as though she was the reason dad left and he broke her heart when he decided to go live with him instead of staying with us.  Even though I knew he just didn’t understand, that anger grew in me every time I saw the hurt in mom’s face.  By the time we were adults, I couldn’t even stand the sight of him and was relieved that he never came around.  It wasn’t until right before mom died that I even tried to let that anger go“, he said sadly.

“I remember that,” Peggy affirmed.  “She asked you to forgive both Brady and your dad.”

Tears began to well up in Tom’s eyes as he said, “Yeah, she told me that holding on to unforgiveness was like taking poison and expecting someone else to die; and she said that Brady would one day need a big brother.  I couldn’t really understand how she had managed to forgive them, but I knew that I needed to try.  I don’t think that I really made much progress before the kids were born, but becoming a father really changed things for me.  When the kids have made bad choices, it’s been easy for me to see that they’re just children and to forgive them.  Over the years God’s used that to show me that Brady was just a kid too.”

“So what do think has changed?” Peggy asked softly.

“Today, when I saw him, I didn’t really think about mom; actually I thought about dad.  And as I’ve prayed about it, I think my anger with Brady is that he’s become the same kind of man that my father was,” Tom replied.

“And what kind of man is that?” Peggy inquired cautiously.

“A vain and frivolous man; the kind who would rather sleep with another man’s wife, than to sleep alone; the kind of man who would willingly destroy his family in the pursuit of his own fulfillment; one who holds nothing sacred and who considers himself blameless,” Tom said bitterly.

The look on Tom’s face disturbed Peggy.  Though she was well aware of the family history, she’d never seen Tom so visibly affected by it.  She moved around to his back, rubbing his shoulders and silently praying for God’s help. 

After a prolonged pause, she said, “You know that I’m not defending him in any way, but don’t you think that it was sort of inevitable that he’d become just like your father?”

Tom nodded in agreement, softly saying, “Its not that I don’t understand how it happened, I just hate that it did.”

Peggy stopped rubbing his shoulders, slipping her arms under his and pulling herself against his back.  As her chin rested on his shoulder, she kissed him softly on the cheek and said, “I hate it too; but God’s brought him here for a reason, so I think that we’re both going to have to find a way to forgive him.”

Tom was flush with the warmth that always seemed to accompany Peggy’s tender touch and he turned his head in an attempt to catch her eye as he asked, “What do you need to forgive him for?”

Again, Peggy lightly kissed Tom’s cheek and said, “For hurting you”.

Tom immediately had the impulse to deny that he’d ever been hurt by Brady, but just as quickly, he knew that he couldn’t.  Though he genuinely ached for the betrayal that his mother had endured, he couldn’t deny that he too felt betrayed; not only by his father, but by Brady as well.  Yet as he sat in the loving embrace of his faithful wife, he could also see that all of that hurt was in the distant past and that it could only stay alive if he was willing to feed it.  He knew that his mother had been right about the poison of those feelings and he knew that it was time to let them go.  She wasn’t hurting anymore and in truth, neither was he.  Despite the past, he and Peggy had built a life filled with love, trust and hope; and there was no place for poison in it.  Grateful tears began to sneak from the corners of his eyes, as a sudden rush of gratitude washed over him and he wondered if this is what forgiveness felt like.  As he clasped Peggy’s hands with his own, he said, “I thank God for you.”

Peggy’s eyes were moist with tears as she squeezed Tom and said, “I thank God for you too.”

After a time of basking in the glow of the moment, they made there way to bed; sure that the coming day was bound to bring at least a few more surprises.

The next morning, Tom awoke to the buzzing of his alarm clock; and as he tried to press through the fog in his head, he wondered if Brady’s visit had been a dream.  But as he stumbled down the hallway, the closed door to his office let him know that it hadn’t been.  Though he tried to fight it, a fresh wave of cynicism seemed to roll over him; and as he got the coffee maker going, he prayed that God would help him to have a right heart toward his brother.  Within a few minutes, Mandy came bounding into the kitchen.

“Where’s Uncle Brady?” she demanded.

“He’s still asleep,” Tom replied.

“Well, I better go wake him up,” she said impatiently, as she spun back toward the hallway.

“Oh no you don’t,” Tom said, in a voice that caused Mandy to stop dead in her tracks.  “Uncle Brady doesn’t have school this morning, so he gets to sleep in.  You, on the other hand, need to sit down and eat your cereal.”

Mandy’s face seemed to drop, as she groaned in protest and sat down at the table.  A few seconds later, John appeared in the doorway, with the same question on his mind.

“Where’s Uncle Brady?” he asked.

“Asleep,” Tom replied.

“Isn’t he going to eat breakfast with us?” John asked.

“He’s probably tired and so we just need to let him sleep,” Tom answered.

“Is he going to be here when we get off of school?” John continued.

“I guess so,” Tom said impatiently, “But you need to stop worrying about Uncle Brady and to start focusing on getting ready for school.”

John let out a sigh of frustration, before plopping heavily into his chair.

Peggy walked into the kitchen and immediately went to the calendar on the refrigerator.  Tom handed her a cup of coffee, as she turned back toward the kids and said, “Mandy, you need to go with the Wisecups after school today, because they’re going to give you a ride to tumbling.  John, you need to bring your wrestling stuff with you to school, because your dad and I won’t get their before the meet starts.”

As Tom watched the expression on John’s face suddenly change, he could tell that he was ready to cry.

“What’s the matter son?”

Tears spilled from John’s eyes as he quietly said, “I don’t want to wrestle tonight”.

Tom crouched down next to John’s chair and gently asked, “Why not?”

As their eyes met, the dam of John’s emotion seemed to burst; as he cried, “Because I have to wrestle that kid from East again; the one who pinned me at the beginning of the season.”

Tom put his hand on John’s shoulder and in a consoling tone said, “That was a long time ago and you’re a much better wrestler than you were then.”

John didn’t seem comforted by that, as he blurted, “And he’s gotten better too!”

Tom continued to rub John’s shoulder, as he replied, “Well, maybe he has, but maybe you’ve improved even more.  You won’t know until you go out there and give it a try.”

“But dad, what if he pins me again,” John protested.

“Look son, I can’t promise you that he won’t, but you’re the only one in your weight class and your team is counting on you to go out there and do your best.  It will cost them points if they forfeit the match.  You don’t want to hurt your team, do you?”

“No, I don’t; but I don’t want to look like loser either,” he replied.

“Losing a match doesn’t make you a ‘loser’,” Tom said.

“Getting pinned sure makes you look like one,” John replied.

“Why don’t we all pray for your match today,” Tom suggested.

“I already did,” John replied.

“Really,” Tom exclaimed in surprise.

“Yeah, I asked God to make me sick on the day of the meet,” he said.

Tom smiled, saying, “Well, God’s not one to make people sick, so I don’t think that will work.”

“My Sunday school teacher said that with just a tiny bit of faith, I could make a mountain jump into the ocean; and I do have faith in God, so why won’t He make it so that I don’t have to wrestle this guy again,” John asked earnestly.

“Well son, there are a lot of mountains in life and God will let you use your faith to cast some of them into the sea; but there are other ones He means for you to climb and this could be one of those,” Tom replied patiently.

“But why?” John moaned.

“I’m not really sure, but maybe it’s to show you how strong He made you,” Tom said.

In the intensity of their conversation, no one had noticed Brady standing in the doorway.  As Mandy happened to look up, she shouted, “Uncle Brady!”  Both she and John jumped up from the table and ran to him.  John excitedly asked if he was coming to the wrestling match, though Brady somehow managed to evade giving him a definite answer.  Peggy quickly made the kids head toward their rooms to get dressed, while Tom got Brady a cup of coffee.  Though the brothers managed to make some small talk about how uncomfortable the fold-out couch was, Tom soon excused himself to get dressed, so that he could give the kids a ride to school.  After the commotion of the kids heading out the door died down, Peggy felt obligated to go sit with Brady at the kitchen table.  After another bit of talk about the comfort of sleeping on the hide-a-bed, the conversation took on a weightier tone.

“I caught the tail end of that conversation about the wrestling match,” Brady said.  “Tom seemed to handle that pretty well.”

Peggy beamed, as she said, “Your brother is a very wise man and he’s a really good dad too.”

Brady nodded in agreement, saying, “He was always like that.”

Peggy was somewhat surprised, as it sounded as though Brady had just paid Tom a compliment.  She wasn’t sure how to respond, so she decided to be blunt.

“Does Tom know that you feel that way?” she asked.

“What way?” Brady said.

“That you think of him as wise,” she replied.

Brady shrugged, saying, “I don’t know”.

As their eyes met, Peggy said, “I can pretty much promise you that he doesn’t.  Maybe while you’re here, you two could have a conversation like that.”

“Like what?” Brady asked.

“A conversation where you get beyond what has happened in the past and you talk about how you feel about each other,” she replied.

“I’m not sure that either of us knows how we feel about each other,” Brady confessed.

“Well, now might be a good time to figure that out.  You’re here for a reason and I would be surprised if that’s not part of it,” Peggy said.

“I’m just here because I need a place to lay low for awhile,” Brady said.

Peggy shook her head saying, “That may be what caused you to come, but I can assure you that’s not the reason you’re here.”

Brady grew quiet, wondering what Peggy might be referring to.  As she gathered up the breakfast dishes and began washing them, he excused himself; heading back to the guest room and his computer.  Not long after that, he heard Tom come back in, but he didn’t really feel up to attempting another conversation; opting instead, to continue his on-line video game.

When Tom saw that Brady had retreated back to his room, he decided to jump in the shower before he and Peggy headed to the doctor’s office.  As he dressed afterward, Peggy came in and changed her clothes too.

“What are you going to tell Brady about our appointment,” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Tom replied.  “I guess I’ll just tell him that I’ve got a doctors appointment.”

“Don’t you think he’ll get curious when he realizes that you have a doctor’s appointment everyday of the week?” she said.

“Yeah, I’m sure he will.  I guess we’ll just cross that bridge when we get there,” he replied.

“So how are you feeling today?” she asked.

“I’m tired, but I feel OK,” he said.

“Did you eat anything this morning?”

“No, I’ve found that it’s better if I don’t eat beforehand,” he replied.

Peggy couldn’t help but worry about Tom.  This treatment seemed to be draining him and it wasn’t clear to her whether it was really helping at all.  The added stress of Brady’s visit was sure to make things even harder on him.  As they went down the hallway, Tom stuck his head into Brady’s room and let him know that they planned to be back by lunchtime.  Brady seemed engrossed with whatever was on his computer and simply replied “OK”. 

Tom and Peggy barely spoke in the car, as both seemed to be lost in thought.  At the hospital, they fell into their now familiar routine, with Tom checking in for treatment and Peggy sitting in the waiting area.  She shuffled through the magazines, but couldn’t find anything she hadn’t already read, so she decided to watch some television.  Though that held her attention for a few minutes, she was beginning to lose interest, when a news story about “Brandon O’Connor” came on.  It reported that a complaint had been filed in Los Angeles County, by a man claiming that the actor had unlawful sexual contact with his teenaged daughter.  According to the story, police were seeking O’Connor for questioning and his agent had indicated that he was currently out of the country.  Peggy could feel the anger rising in her, as she tried to decide whether Brady had simply understated the severity of his situation or if he had intentionally tried to deceive them.  She knew that Tom would be highly upset and that this was the last thing he needed right now.  She thought about calling home and ripping Brady; but she realized that she needed to calm down before she did anything else.  Her first concern was what and how to tell Tom; but before she had time to think it through, a nurse appeared and let her know that Tom was sick to his stomach and needed help.  As the nurse led her back to the treatment room, Peggy once again found herself praying for help.

When she saw Tom, she could tell he was in no kind of shape to deal with her news about Brady.  He was weak and pale; and they had to use a wheelchair to get him to the car.  As she drove him home, he held a disposable specimen tray in his lap; just in case he had to get sick again.  When they got home, Peggy helped him from the car, but as they got to the door, Tom said that he could make it the rest of the way by himself.  She knew that this was simply to hide how sick he was from Brady, but she also knew better than to argue the point.  She stayed behind him, as he leaned heavily against the wall and seemingly pulled himself up the stairs using the banister.  He took a rest at the top of the stairs, before making the final push down the hallway and into the bedroom.  Peggy noticed him looking at the closed door to his office and imagined that he was praying for Brady to stay in there for a few more minutes.  But before he could get going again, the door opened and Brady froze at the sight of him.

“What happened to you?” he gasped.

“Just feeling a little sick,” Tom replied weakly.

Brady continued to stare at him, without making a move; and after a pregnant pause, it occurred to him to ask, “Do you want help?”

Tom started to say no, but Peggy intervened from behind him and told Brady that he did.  Tom wasn’t happy about that, but he was too weak to argue.  Brady came along side and helped him get down the hall and into the bedroom.  As Peggy pulled off Tom’s jacket, Brady moved back to the doorway, with what appeared to be a genuine look of concern on his face.  Tom noticed his countenance and said, “Thanks Brady, I’m just feeling a little under the weather.  If I get some rest, I’ll probably be fine,” he said.  Brady seemed to nod, as he backed out of the doorway; while Peggy helped Tom into bed.

Looking at Peggy, Tom said, “I don’t want him to know how sick I am.”

“I know,” Peggy replied, “But at this point, the only way to keep it from him is to lie; and I’m not willing to do that.”

Tom wanted to object, but he knew Peggy was right.

“I still want to go to John’s wrestling meet tonight,” he said.

“I know honey, but you’re going to have to be doing a whole lot better before that happens,” she replied.  “Get some rest and I’ll check on you in a while”.

Peggy kissed him lightly on the forehead and pulled the door closed as she left the room.  She found Brady in the kitchen, looking at the pictures on the refrigerator door.  He turned towards her as she came into the room.

“Is he alright?” he asked

“He’s resting, if that’s what you mean,” she answered.

“Is it the flu or something,” he asked blankly.

“No Brady, it’s cancer,” she replied sharply.

The look of shock on Brady’s face seemed to soften Peggy’s tone, as she continued, “He was diagnosed with Prostate Cancer a few years ago and we thought that we’d beaten it; but late last summer we found out that it was back and he’s been doing this treatment since the fall.”

“Does it always make him this sick,” he asked.

“No, most days it just makes him tired; but this isn’t the first time this has happened.  I think that he’s feeling a little stressed right now,” she replied.

“Is that because of me?” Brady asked.

The sharpness in Peggy’s voice returned, as she said, “I’m sure to some degree it is; but when he finds out what’s really going on with you, it’s going to be a lot worse.  I thought you told him that we didn’t have to worry about the police showing up on our doorstep!”

“You don’t,” Brady asserted defensively.  “They have no idea that I’m here and so far they’re just seeking me for questioning.”

Peggy’s anger continued to escalate, as she shot back, “Well, all of that may make it OK in your mind, but we have no interest in harboring a fugitive or exposing our kids to the kind of intrigue that is sure to follow all of this.”

Brady’s anger seemed to rise up to meet Peggy’s, as he replied, “I guess I just need to leave, because heaven forbid that I would expect my family to stand by me during a tough time!”

Peggy’s face grew even more flushed, as she hissed, “What a load of crap that is!  If you were interested in being a family, where have you been for all these years?  You can’t have it both ways; you can’t pretend like we don’t exist for thirty years and then act as though we owe you something!  We didn’t run to you when we couldn’t pay our bills or when Tom got cancer; and you’re not here because you want to start being a family now.  You’re here because you’re too much of a coward to take responsibility for what you’ve done and you don’t have any friends that you can trust!  Tom was right about you, you are just like your father!”

Though Brady was glaring at her intensely, she could tell that her words had wounded him.  Even while the anger continued to roil inside of her, she began to feel convicted about what she’d said.  Though she believed that every word of it was true, she also knew that those words had been laced with frustration and bitterness.  She could tell that Brady wasn’t prepared for this kind of intensity and sensed that he was about to flee, when he said, “I don’t need this”. 

As he turned to leave the kitchen, she grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back around.  When their eyes meet, she blurted out, “Yes you do!  You need this bad and so does Tom.  It’s time to quit playing this stupid game and for you two to get real with each other.  You’ve already lost your parents and now you’re in danger of losing each other for good.  If I had my way, you’d have never walked through that door, but you did and now my kids know that they’ve got an Uncle; and now you know that your brother is really sick.  It’s too late now; it’s time to grow up and to start dealing with reality.  It’s not like a movie, you can’t yell cut and have the script re-written!”

Peggy could have gone on, but she stopped.  Her anger seemed to suddenly subside and she felt almost sorry for Brady.  He somehow sensed this change in her and his anger began to dissipate as well.  They stood there staring at each other for a moment and then Peggy began to speak calmly.

“Look Brady, Tom and I have a wonderful life together, but there’s a hole in his heart from all that went on with your family; and that’s something I can’t fix for him.  We’ve tried to live like none of that ever happened or like it didn’t matter; but those are both lies.  You guys need to come to some sort of peace with the past or both of you will carry this poison around forever.  I believe that God is giving you another chance, but it’s up to you whether or not you take it.”

Brady looked down to the floor and mumbled, “What about Tom?  Is that what he wants?”

“I’m not sure,” Peggy admitted.  “But one of you needs to make the first move.”

Brady recognized the truth in what she’d said, but he wasn’t quite sure how he and Tom might get there.  He couldn’t recall anyone getting in his face the way she just had and he wanted to be offended by it; but he also had the strange sense that Peggy actually cared about him on some level.  This stood in stark contrast to the superficial show business type relationships he was used to.  Though the words hadn’t been pleasant, it was the sort of exchange he imagined a sister might have with her brother and that was oddly comforting to him.  On the other hand, he wasn’t particularly comforted by the idea that God might somehow have orchestrated his visit or that He might actually be watching them now.  While Brady had no problem with the idea of God, he preferred to think of Him in distant and abstract terms; which made Peggy’s confident assertions about divine intervention somewhat unnerving.  He was also upset by her assumption that he didn’t have any friends that he could trust, though his inability to think of a name to throw back at her only served to prove her point.  The one thing he knew for sure was that he felt completely exhausted by all of it.  Though he hated to give the appearance that he might be retreating, Brady gave into his urge to go back to the guest room and lay down.  Peggy was relieved to see him go, as she didn’t feel like she had much more to say to him.

Brady’s mind seemed to reel with thoughts and memories, as he curled himself into a ball; but at some point sleep must have overtaken him, as he eventually awoke to Peggy pulling on his ankle.  As his eyes blinked open, he could see that it was already almost 4:00 p.m. and Peggy began to speak.

“I’m sorry to bother you Brady, but I need to get going to John’s wrestling meet.  If Tom wakes up before I get back, he’s going to be really upset that he missed it; but I tried to get him up and he’s just too out of it.  Please keep an ear out for him and if he wakes up, let him know that I tried to get him going.”

Brady agreed that he would and after he heard the front door close, he went to the kitchen to get something to drink.  With the house quiet, he found himself wandering around, looking at the pictures on the walls and at the keepsakes on the shelves.  Though he’d always imagined Tom’s life to be dull, he began to see a depth and richness in these things that seemed to be missing from his own life.  In the family room, he found photo albums in the bookcase and he carefully paged through each of them.  He was surprised by how happy Tom looked in all of those pictures and at how happy his mother looked too.  In his memories, they always seemed sad or angry; and seeing their smiling faces made him lament that he’d missed those times.  Though he’d always assumed that he knew what Tom was really like, these photos made him wonder if he really knew his brother at all.  Even though Peggy wasn’t exactly prom queen material, he could clearly see the love they had for each other and for the first time, he found himself a little envious of their relationship.  He wondered if anyone would ever love him the way Peggy seemed to love Tom; and if anyone would ever fight for him, the way she had earlier that day.  As he was putting the photo albums back, he heard a loud thud upstairs.  In his mind, he pictured Tom falling out of bed, as he quickly ran to the bedroom.

As he pushed through the bedroom door, he saw Tom on his knees by the bedside table and gasped, “Are you alright?”

Tom’s face grew flushed with embarrassment, as he said, “I was trying to move the clock to see what time it was and I knocked over the lamp.”

Brady moved over to help him pick things up, as he explained that Peggy had tried to wake him for the wrestling meet.  As they got back up, he offered to help him walk, but Tom insisted that he was OK.  Though he still appeared to be pretty weak, he managed to get to the kitchen without any problems.  After getting a soda from the refrigerator, they both moved into the living room, where Tom plopped heavily in the recliner.   It seemed to take a minute for him to regain his composure, as Brady sat silently.

“I suppose Peggy told you what’s going on with me,” Tom said.

“Yeah,” Brady acknowledged.  “It must be kind of scary”.

“More frustrating than scary, right now; I can’t tell if this medicine is working, but it sure is making me sick,” Tom replied.

“Aren’t you afraid of what could happen?” Brady asked.

“If I thought about it, I’m sure it would bother me; but right now I’m too busy fighting it to worry about how the whole thing might play out.  There’s no denying that I might lose this battle eventually, but there’s no point in thinking about that right now,” Tom said.

“How are the kids doing with it?” Brady inquired.

“They know that I’ve got cancer, but they don’t really understand what that means.  As long as I seem pretty normal, they do OK; but in the times that I’ve been really sick, they get worried.”

“Will John be upset about you missing his wrestling match?” Brady asked.

“No, it’s more important to me than it is to him.  He’s getting to that age where he feels like we’re a little overly protective and he often gets embarrassed when we’re around too much.  He knows that I would be there if I could.  It’s just that today promised to be a tough match and I wanted to make sure he was OK.”

“Is he a good wrestler?” Brady asked.

“Well, yes and no.  This is only his first year, so he only knows some very basic moves, but he’s surprisingly strong for his size and he’s really improved a lot.  Honestly, he could develop into a very good wrestler if he wanted to, but I don’t think that it’s really his thing.  He’s kind of a gentle soul and he lacks the killer instinct to really push his opponent.  I doubt seriously that he’ll want to do it next year,” Tom replied.

“Aren’t you going to make him stick with it?” Brady asked.

“We’ll make him stick to the commitment that he made for this year, but we won’t make him wrestle next year if he doesn’t want to.  We want him to try different things until he finds those things that really matter to him.  He’s played a lot of sports and he’s been pretty good at all of them; but none of them really seem to be ‘his thing’; so we’ll keep encouraging him to try new things.  He’s been in a couple of school plays and he’s a great little actor, so maybe he’ll follow in your footsteps,” Tom said with a shallow smile.

Brady couldn’t imagine Tom being happy about that idea and it reminded him of the conversation he’d had earlier with Peggy.  He figured that he’d better come clean to Tom before Peggy got a chance to tell him what she’d heard.

“Speaking of walking in my footsteps, Peggy was pretty upset with me earlier.  She felt like I wasn’t completely honest with you guys about the trouble I’m in.”

Tom looked confused, as he asked, “How does Peggy know what kind of trouble you’re in?”

“She saw something on TV,” Brady replied sheepishly.  “They said that the LAPD is seeking me for questioning.”

Tom’s voice seemed to drop an octave, as he said, “I thought I asked you about the police.”

“You did,” Brady replied defensively, “And like I told you, they’re not going to show up on your doorstep.  First off, they don’t know where I am and secondly, they just want to talk to me.”

“About what?” Tom demanded tersely.

Brady’s glance turned to the floor in embarrassment, as he quietly replied, “Some guy says that I slept with his underage daughter.”

Tom could feel the anger rising within him and he had the sudden urge to curse at Brady for his stupidity.  This is just the kind of thing that he’d expect from his little brother; after all, he was his daddy’s boy.   But just as he was ready to let loose of a verbal barrage, a stray thought seemed to crash into his consciousness; and though it took every bit of his restraint, he managed to get that out first.  “So did you?”

Brady’s eyes tentatively rose to meet Tom’s steely glare and with a pitiful look on his face, he said, “I don’t know”.

Tom’s face turned scarlet, as he hissed, “You don’t know!   How can you not know?”

Brady’s sense of offense seemed to rise to the level of Tom’s as he loudly replied, “I don’t know!  I mean, I don’t even know who this guy is or who his daughter is or when all of this supposedly happened.  I don’t card every woman I sleep with and I certainly don’t remember their life stories.”

“Come on Brady, there’s a big difference between a woman and an underage girl; you can’t sit there and claim not to know whether you’ve slept with some child,” Tom shot back.

“I didn’t sleep with anyone who looked like a child; but if they were seventeen and told me they were twenty-two, how would I know the difference.  And I didn’t force anyone to do anything against their will.  If we slept together, it was because she wanted to.  I’m not some kind of rapist,” Brady cried out bitterly.

Though what Brady said didn’t excuse his poor judgment, Tom could see how it could have happened the way he described; and suddenly it didn’t seem quite as insidious.  As he looked at Brady’s face, he could see that he was truly afraid and it stirred something inside of Tom that he hadn’t felt in a long time.  Tom decided to take a breath and calm down before he replied; and in a much quieter tone, he said, “I didn’t say you were a rapist”.

“No you didn’t, but you sure didn’t have any problem in believing that I was some kind of child molester,” Brady replied with a pained expression.

Tom knew that Brady was right about that and he felt a little ashamed of himself.  “I’m sorry Brady, it’s just that you remind me so much of dad and I feel like he was capable of anything.”

Brady just stared at Tom for a long moment and then said, “He wasn’t the monster you’ve made him out to be in your mind.”

Tom nodded in disagreement, saying, “You were too young to see what he did to our family”, to which Brady quickly added, “And you weren’t around to see how all of that eventually changed him.” 

Tom seemed surprised, as Brady continued, “I’m not defending what he did to our family, but there was a time when he wanted to take it all back and you slammed the door on him; just like you slammed the door on me.”

“What!  You were the one who left us, I didn’t make you do anything,” Tom gasped.

“Sure you did Tom; you were the one who made it so that I had to choose a side.  I wanted to get along with both mom and dad; but you wanted to punish dad, so you made sure that didn’t happen.  You were the one who tried to make me feel lousy for caring about dad and you were the one who was never satisfied with how I treated mom.  You were the one who forced me to make a choice and you’ve never forgiven me for not making, what you thought, was the ‘right’ choice.  Before mom died, she let dad know that she’d forgiven him and she let me know that she still loved me; but you could never let it go.  Dad may have been the one that tore our family apart, but you were the one who made sure that we could never put it behind us.”

The truth of Brady’s words absolutely pierced Tom, though he weakly tried to retort with, “If you cared so much about mom, why didn’t’ you even bother to show up at her funeral.”

Brady’s gaze remained steady, as he replied, “Because of you Tom.  Dad and I had both made our peace with mom before she passed, but we decided that it would be better for you if we didn’t show up and turn the funeral service into a big scene.  We wanted to be there, but we knew that it would just make you mad; so we flew out and visited her grave a few days after she was buried.”

Tears began to stream down Tom’s face as he tried to come to grips with the crushing revelation that his unforgiveness had been instrumental in keeping his family torn apart.  He’d always thought of himself as the dutiful, faithful son; and he hated the idea that he was really the one who’d kept this pain alive for everyone else.  He wanted to scream a denial, but he knew in his heart that it was undeniable.  The mental picture of Brady and his father, standing over his mother’s grave, made him feel as though they had all come back together, without him.  And that thought caused him to weep openly.

Brady was genuinely surprised by Tom’s reaction, as he’d expected him to vehemently deny any wrongdoing.  Seeing him in this weakened state genuinely touched Brady’s heart.  He’d always thought of Tom as being too stubborn to be moved and it made him wonder whether he’d gone too far and said too much.  It also convinced him that he really didn’t know Tom as well as he thought he did.  He was at a loss as to what to say and so for the next few minutes, he didn’t say anything.  He eventually went into the kitchen and found a box of tissues, which he brought in to Tom. By this time, Tom’s emotions seemed to be ebbing and Brady finally decided to speak.

“Look Tom, I didn’t mean to make it sound as though all of this was your fault.  None of us handled this whole family mess very well; but mom and dad are gone now and we’re all that’s left.  I can admit that I’ve made lots of mistakes and that I’m still screwing up my own life; but can’t we just let go of all that and try to be brothers again,” Brady pleaded.

For the first time since they were kids, Tom felt as though Brady was being completely honest with him and tears once again began to slide down his cheeks.  He wanted to blurt out a ‘yes’ to Brady’s request, but he wondered if could really be that simple.  Wasn’t just ‘letting it go’ like trying to sweep it under the rug.  His mind instinctively tried to wrestle with these thoughts, but he quickly pushed them away; and in a moment of absolute clarity, he knew that it was time to let loose of all the hurt and anger.  Looking into Brady’s tearful eyes, Tom nodded his head in agreement and softly said, “I want that too”. 

Though the moment seemed to call for some greater display of affection (e.g. a hug), neither of them was quite ready for that and so they both just sat, feeling as though something very profound had just transpired between them.  The idea that they might once again be brothers hadn’t really occurred to either of them and they both found themselves trying to imagine what that might be like.  Another few minutes of unhurried silence passed before they began to speak again.

“So what are you going to do about this accusation?” Tom asked.

“I don’t know.  I’ve got my lawyers looking at it and they figure this guy is just looking for money.  They’re telling me that we should just offer him a settlement to drop the whole thing,” Brady replied.

“But won’t that make you look guilty?” Tom said.

“Probably, but its better then going to court and getting labeled a ‘sex offender’”, he replied.

“Aren’t you afraid it will hurt your career?” Tom pressed.

Brady nodded in agreement, as he said, “Sure I am, but what can I do; it’s already out there.  Besides, as a single guy in Hollywood, everyone sort of expects you to make love to a different woman every night of the week.”

Tom’s face twisted slightly, as he incredulously said, “Make love?”

Brady seemed perplexed and replied, “Yeah, you know, have sex”.

“Yeah, I know what you’re talking about; but there’s a world of difference between ‘making love’ and ‘having sex,’” Tom said.

Brady smiled at the idea that Tom thought he might teach him something about sex; after all, he was pretty sure that Peggy was the only woman Tom had ever been with.  But in the spirit of their new found relationship, he decided to play along and to hear what Tom had to say.  “So what do see as the difference?” he said.

“You have sex with a woman’s body, but you make love to her soul,” Tom replied confidently.

Brady had to admit that he’d never heard that before and that it sounded pretty profound; but he also had to admit that he wasn’t really sure what it meant.  He normally would’ve pretended to understand a statement like that, but he decided to go ahead and ask, “So what exactly does that mean?”

“Sex is generally just a physical transaction; it may be very sensual, but it rarely gets beyond the instinctual level.  While it may be chemical and biological, it usually isn’t particularly intellectual or emotional.  Sex is something that stray dogs do on cool summer evenings and all it requires is another warm body.  Making love actually requires the involvement of our intellect and emotions; and is significantly more complex and gratifying.  It not only requires a person that you know, but a person that you actually care about.  When done right, it transcends the basic desire for physical gratification and genuinely becomes an expression of love that reaches to the core of our being.  It tells the woman that she is significant in your eyes and that you yearn to be one with her, not just for a 15 minute hook up or a one night stand.  Once you’ve made love for the first time, simply having sex becomes a cheap substitute,” Tom said knowingly.

Brady couldn’t help but be impressed by Tom’s words and he found himself feeling suddenly insecure about the topic.  He was pretty sure that he’d never experienced what Tom had just described and he’d never heard an old married person describe sex that way before; but he tried to act as though this was no great revelation to him by saying, “I make love to the women that I’m with.”

Tom smiled at Brady’s foolishness and said, “You can’t love someone you don’t know and when you try to express an emotion that you don’t really have, you’re just pretending.  All that does is tear them up on the inside.  The only way that ‘making love’ really hits the target is when you truly mean it; when you really do want to be one with them and you commit to do life together.  For you, it’s a woman who loves and wants the man, ‘Brady Conner’ and not the actor ‘Brandon O’Connor’.  And when you put all of your eggs in one basket, there’s a spiritual dimension that opens up and you get to experience the thing that God had in mind when He designed ‘two people becoming one flesh’.  The difference between ‘having sex’ and ‘making love’ is like the difference between listening to an old transistor radio and a new high def. stereo system with subwoofers.  Some may claim that it’s the same song, but the experience is totally different.”

Brady wondered if anyone would ever really love “The man, Brady Conner”, but he definitely knew that he didn’t want to keep talking about this, so he decided to move the conversation back on track by asking, “So do you think that I ought to do what the lawyers are telling me?”

Tom recognized Brady’s discomfort and easily moved on by replying, “I don’t know Brady, I’d probably struggle to pay someone off if I knew that they were just trying to take advantage of me; but I do understand the wisdom of getting it over with quickly and quietly.  I imagine that it would all boil down to your word against hers, and that’s only if she wasn’t someone you actually slept with.  But before I’d offer them anything, I’d go talk to the police and see what they have to say.  The longer you avoid them, the more it looks like you’ve got something to hide.”

Brady nodded in agreement, though he looked far from enthusiastic about the idea.  He started to say something, when they heard a car door slam in the driveway.  A few short seconds later, the front door burst open and John came bounding up the stairs.  As he started to turn the corner towards the bedrooms, he saw them sitting in the living room and quickly changed directions.  When he reached Tom, he immediately launched into a breathless account of every second of his wrestling match.  He hadn’t even finished describing the first three minute period, when Peggy quietly made her way in the door and up the stairs, with some pizza in her hands.  All three adults listened intently, though Brady struggled to understand some of what John was saying.  By the time the story was over, Brady figured out that it was a really close match, that went into overtime and that John had eventually lost by a point. 

Peggy told John that he needed to go change out of his wrestling uniform and she put the pizza and some paper plates on the dining room table, saying “I hope you don’t mind that I just picked up a couple of pizza’s”.  She didn’t wait for a response before heading back toward the bedrooms; and in the sudden quiet, Brady said, “Wow, as excited as he was, I thought he’d won.”

Tom smiled and replied, “From where I sit, he did win.  The mountain he had to climb was his fear of humiliation and his temptation to avoid the confrontation all together.  He conquered those things and found out that he was stronger than he knew.  He may not have proven to be the best wrestler, but he did show what kind of man he’s becoming and that’s worth a whole lot more in life.  It’s easy to engage in the battle when you feel certain that you’ll win, but it’s much harder when you know that you probably won’t.  I couldn’t be more proud of him.  Ironically, it’s not so different than the mountain you’re facing right now.”

Brady nodded in agreement and he caught himself wondering whether Tom would one day be proud of him too.  Though it seemed like an odd thought, he had to admit that he liked the idea of it.  With the intensity of moment seemingly broken, Brady decided that he was hungry and he asked Tom, “Do you want me to bring you some pizza?”

“No thanks, Peggy will be upset if we eat in here.  Let’s go ahead and move into the dining room,” Tom replied, as he pushed himself out of the recliner.

They had just sat down at the table when Mandy came bursting through the door from tumbling practice.  Peggy ran out to the driveway to thank the Wisecups and then rejoined them at the table; as the kids once again dominated the conversation with detailed accounts of their day.  She noticed that both Tom and Brady were significantly more comfortable and engaged than they’d been the night before; and she was anxious to find out what happened while she was gone. 

After dinner, the boys adjourned to the family room to watch the basketball game, while Peggy gave Mandy a bath.  John was clearly thrilled to be included amongst the men; as He and his father rooted for Phoenix, while Brady cheered for the Lakers.  Peggy was surprised to hear the sounds of laughter and light hearted banter coming from downstairs.  After she was done with Mandy, she went down to tell John that he needed to get a shower, but changed her mind when she saw how elated he was to be with his dad and uncle.  While she could tell that Tom still wasn’t feeling well, he seemed to be in a really good mood; so she decided to have Mandy say her goodnights and to let the boys enjoy the rest of the game.

Once Mandy was asleep, Peggy got on Facebook, until the game ended and the men came rumbling back up the stairs.  She pressed John to get ready for bed, while he and Brady continued to playfully banter about the Lakers.  Tom looked tired, but seemed amused as he watched his son and brother go back and forth.  She moved over next to him and he leaned over, giving her a soft kiss on the cheek.  As John disappeared into his bedroom, Brady turned back to them with a big smile on his face.

“I hope that wasn’t too much,” he said.

Tom smiled back at him and said, “Nah, he was having a great time.”

“Are you OK,” Brady asked.

“I’m pretty wiped out actually; but I had a great time watching the game,” he replied.

Brady seemed please by that and said, “Me too”.

“You’re welcomed to stay up and watch TV if you want,” Peggy offered, 

But Brady shook his head, saying, “Thanks, but I’ve got some computer stuff I need to get into.”

It almost looked as though the brothers might embrace, as Tom reached out to Brady; but instead he simply patted his shoulder, saying, “Goodnight Brady” in a warm voice.

Brady’s eyes looked moist, as he patted Tom’s arm and said, “Goodnight Tom”.

Tears welled up in Peggy’s eyes, as she watched this remarkable exchange; and as she turned to follow Tom into the bedroom, Brady reached out and gently touched her shoulder.  When she turned back to him, he softly said, “Thank you”; which caused the tears to spill down her cheeks.  She reached out and squeezed his hand, replying, “Thank you Brady”.

“Could you wake me up for breakfast in the morning?” he asked.

“You bet,” she said, as she tried to wipe her cheeks dry.  “Good night Brady”.

Though everyone was exhausted from the emotional pitch of the day, Tom and Peggy managed to talk for over an hour before finally drifting off to sleep.  They both marveled at the sudden and dramatic changes that the day had delivered; thankful to God for His divine intervention.  Though Brady wasn’t quite sure what to think of all that had happened, he knew that he had a sense of peace and well-being that wasn’t’ there before.  Tom’s house and family didn’t seem so strange anymore and somehow he felt like a little boy, spending the night at a friend’s house.  Much sooner than he planned, he turned off his computer and fell into a deep and restful sleep.

The morning seemed to arrive suddenly for everyone except Mandy, whose batteries appeared to be fully recharged.  Though John still looked sleepy, he seemed energized by the fact that Brady was sitting at the breakfast table with them.  Tom looked very pale and once again didn’t eat anything, though he did laugh and tease with the kids some.  Peggy was quiet, only occasionally prodding the kids to finish eating, so that they could get dressed.  She could see that Tom wasn’t doing well, so she told them that she’d be driving them to school.  Brady drank coffee and watched as they all scurried around, finding missing shoes, fixing lunches, going through backpacks and rushing to get out of the door on time.  After they left, Tom sat heavily at the table, with a sigh. 

“How are you feeling this morning?” Brady asked.

“That’s a question I try to avoid anymore,” Tom replied with a shallow smile.

“It must be pretty bad,” Brady said sympathetically.

“It’s not that, it’s just that how I’m feeling doesn’t really change what needs to happen today.  If I start out focused on how I feel, I’ll never get to what needs to be done.  Like this morning; I’m tired and I feel pretty nauseous, so no one would blame me if I just stayed in bed.  But if I did that, Peggy would have to carry the whole load by herself, which quickly gets exhausting and discouraging.  The kids would be distracted with worry about what’s happening with me; and I would eventually become miserable and depressed with the whole thing.  Even though I didn’t do a whole lot this morning, just getting up, hanging out at the breakfast table and putting a couple of lunches together will make a big difference in how my family goes through the day.  It’s worth pressing past how I feel for that,” Tom explained.

Brady nodded in agreement, saying, “I see what you mean”.

“Yeah, I can now see that even before I got sick, I’d often get sidetracked by how I was feeling; you know, that old thing where you really need to take care of something, but you just don’t feel like it.  Every time that happens, there is a critical moment, where we either press through or give into it.  If you give in, it starts to become a mountain that you can’t seem to climb.  It was like John’s wrestling match; he had to press through that moment when fear tried to stop him; and ultimately it’s the same thing we talked about yesterday,” Tom added.

The look on Brady’s face let Tom know that he didn’t understand the connection to yesterday’s conversation, so he continued, “Every time we’ve gotten together, I’ve faced one of those moments where the memories and emotions of the past came flooding back; and each time that happened, there was an instant when I could’ve pressed through or given into it.  For years I’ve been giving into it and it became a mountain that seemed too high to climb.  Yesterday, probably for the very first time, I pressed through that moment and suddenly I can’t figure out why I didn’t do it sooner.  The cost of not pressing through is that you remain stuck where you are; and if you’re in a miserable place, why would you choose to stay there.  No matter how hard we try to be brothers, we’ll undoubtedly face more moments like that; when we’ll have to press through the things of the past to get to a different future; and hopefully we’ll keep doing that.”

Again, Brady nodded in agreement, saying, “I hope so too.”

A look of sadness seemed to spill across Brady’s face, as he quietly added, “And I hope you’ll get to feeling better too.”

Tom was touched by Brady’s genuine concern for him, as he said, “Don’t worry about me Brady, I think I’ve still got some more miles left in my tank.”

“Do you have another treatment today?” Brady inquired.

“Yeah,” Tom replied.

“Is it alright if I come with you?” he asked.

Tom was surprised by the request, as he asked, “Aren’t you worried about being recognized?”

“Nah, I’m used to deferring peoples questions; and it will be even easier with you guys vouching for the fact that I’m your brother Brady,” he said with a smile.

When Peggy got home, she was surprised to find them still sitting at the kitchen table, talking about the various cancer treatments that Tom had been through.  She knew that he didn’t really like talking about all of that, so she assumed that it must be because Brady wanted to know.  She was even more surprised when she heard that he would be coming with them to the hospital. 

When Tom later went in for his treatment, Brady quizzed her on issues related to prostate cancer; and though she tried to answer his questions, she eventually led him to a rack, filled with information booklets on the various forms of cancer and their treatment.  For the rest of the time they were in the office, He stood at the rack, thumbing through this reading material.  Tom once again emerged from his treatment in a weak and nauseous state; as they had to head straight home to get him to bed.  After he was settled in the bedroom, Peggy noticed that the door to the guest room was closed and it sounded as though Brady was on the phone with someone.  Not wanting to interrupt anything, she decided to wait until he came out before offering him lunch.  An hour later, she wondered if that had been a mistake; but when she went back to his door, she could hear that he was still on the phone.  She eventually decided to knock and he politely let her know that he wasn’t hungry.  She could see from the look in his eyes that he was a man on a mission and she wondered what he was up to.

Tom was still asleep when the kids got home and John coaxed Brady into shooting some baskets with him in the driveway.  Though Mandy still seemed a little testy with her uncle, she followed them around, as though she were afraid of missing something.  When Tom got up, he made his way out to the front steps to watch.  As Peggy cooked dinner, she could once again hear the sounds of banter and laughter coming from outside.  Grateful tears again welled up, as she thanked God for this amazing turn of events. 

Dinner was a boisterous affair, as Brady and John continued their basketball trash talk.  Tom laughed until his sides ached, as John took to calling Brady, “Uncle Kobe”.  After the dinner dishes were cleared away, they all got into a rousing game of “UNO”, which lasted right up until the kid’s bedtime.  John moaned loudly when Peggy said that it was time to get ready for bed and Mandy insisted that Uncle Brady read her a bedtime story.  After the kids were finally asleep, the adults gathered in the living room, chuckling at some of the zingers that had flown around the table during their game.  After a few minutes of lighthearted talk, Brady’s voice took on a more serious tone, as he said, “I need to talk to you guys about a couple of things.”

Tom and Peggy glanced at each other warily, as Tom replied, “Go ahead”.

“The first thing is that I’d like to fly you guys up to LA, in the next couple of weeks, so that you can meet with an Oncologist from the UCLA Medical Center.  This guy is world renown and it sounds like he’s getting amazing results with some new treatments he’s developed.  Some of them are specifically for prostate cancer,” he said earnestly.

Tom’s expression dropped immediately and Peggy could tell that he was going to resist taking help from his little brother.  She realized that this is what Brady had been so engrossed with all afternoon and it caused her to look at him differently.  She loved him for wanting to help, though she knew that a trip to LA wouldn’t be very practical at this point.  Before she could speak, Tom said, “I appreciate what you’re trying to do Brady, but I don’t think we can make that work right now”.

Brady didn’t seem surprised by Tom’s response, as he queried, “Why not?”

“You see how things are, the kid’s are in school, I’m back and forth to the hospital every day and sick a lot of the time.  Our insurance won’t cover anything more than what they’re doing right now and I’m not even sure I am allowed to fly”.

“I understand all of that, but you guys both told me that you’re not even sure that this current treatment is working and think of the consequences if it’s not.  I’m sure you could make arrangements for the kids for a day or two; or you could even take them out of school for a couple of days and bring them with you.  You guys could stay at my place.  The flying’s not an issue, because we can charter a private jet and the flight from Phoenix to LA is barely an hour.  The insurance isn’t a problem, because anything that’s considered experimental is covered by UCLA’s research grant and I can cover anything else that comes up,” Brady reasoned.

Listening to Brady’s logic set off a spark inside of Peggy; though his idea wasn’t practical, she realized that it was “doable”.  He was right about the fact that they both had their doubts as to whether this treatment was helping and it suddenly seemed foolish not to try some other course of action; but she knew that Tom would have to arrive at that conclusion on his own and from his expression he didn’t appear to be buying into the argument.

“I can’t let you do all of that,” he exclaimed.

Brady’s voice became more emphatic, as he said, “Come on Tom, I understand that the big brother in you doesn’t feel right about taking help from your little brother, but how is that any different than John, not feeling as though he could face his wrestling match or you, not feeling like getting out of bed this morning?  If I needed help, you wouldn’t hesitate and you would expect me to accept it simply because you are my brother.  Why should it be any different for you?  This is one of those moments you described this morning and you need to press through those feelings of not wanting to accept my help, so that you can get to a different and maybe brighter future.”

Tom hated the feeling that Brady had anticipated his arguments, as his mind futilely searched for some other defense.  It wasn’t lost on him that Brady had listened carefully to what he’d said about pressing through the negative emotion of the moment, but it somehow seemed unfair to use his own words against him.  He glanced toward Peggy, to see if he could tell what she was thinking and when their eyes met, he immediately knew that she agreed with Brady.  Instinctively, that changed things for Tom, because he knew that Peggy didn’t necessarily trust Brady; which meant that something he’d said must have rung true with her.  Years of marriage had taught him to trust her discernment and the look on her face softened his resistance.  But before he could think of something to say, Brady continued.

“I want you to know that I’m not offering this because I feel sorry for you; the truth is that I really want to do this for me,” he said.

The confused look on their faces caused him to go on.  “I really want to know what it feels like to be a brother,” he said, as his voice cracked with emotion, “And I’ll never get that chance if you don’t get better.”

This cry of his heart cut right through what little resistance Tom had left; as both he and Peggy were overwhelmed with the emotion of the moment.  After a few minutes Brady passed around the box of tissues and as they slowly regained their composure, Tom quietly relented, “OK, I guess we’ll give it try”.

Brady smiled warmly, as Peggy gave him a shallow nod of thanks.

“So what was the other thing you wanted to talk about,” Tom asked.

“Well, I hate to say it, but I’ve got to go,” Brady replied.

“Already,” Tom said.

“Yeah, I’ve thought a lot about what you said and the longer I take to get back, the worse it’s going to be.  If I’m honest, I came here to hide from that whole situation and I hoped that my lawyers could handle it without me; but now I see that I’ve got to press through my feelings of dread and deal with whatever comes next,” he replied.

“When do you leave?” Peggy asked.

“Tomorrow morning,” he replied sadly.

All of them knew that this was the right thing for Brady to do, but none of them felt ready for it.  Each of them marveled at how the last few days had changed everything and they all seemed to get lost in their thoughts for a few minutes.  Tom finally asked, “Are you going to be able to say goodbye to the kids?’

Brady immediately nodded, saying, “Absolutely, I don’t want it to seem like I just disappeared on them.”

“Will you need a ride to the airport?” Peggy asked.

“No, I knew that you’d need to take Tom to his treatment, so I’ve arranged to get picked up,” he replied.

They again fell silent, not wanting the evening to end; but the laughter and tears had taken their toll and it appeared as though tomorrow would be another emotional day.  Peggy was the first one to say what they were all thinking, when she said, “We should probably get some sleep”.

As they got up, Tom seemed to swoon and Brady instinctively reached out, grabbing his arm to steady him.

“Are you OK?” he asked.

Tom seemed a little embarrassed, as he nodded that he was.  But just as Brady was about to let him go, Tom pulled him into an embrace; and as he held onto him tightly, he said, “I love you Brady and I’m so sorry for the years we lost because of my stubbornness.” 

Tears streamed down Brady’s face, as he said, “I love you Tom and I’m sorry for being too big a coward to have come before now.”

Peggy once again passed the tissues, as she and Brady also shared a warm goodnight hug.  Despite the exhilaration of the evening, the house was silent and they were all fast asleep, a few short minutes later.

The morning once again seemed to come suddenly and the kids excitement at having Uncle Brady for breakfast, quickly turned to tears at the news that he’d be leaving.  Their excitement seemed to rebound fully with the news that they’d be seeing him again in a couple of weeks; and that they might even get to visit him in California.  As they were ready to leave for school, John was the first to say goodbye. 

As he hugged Brady, he said, “I’ll see you in a couple weeks Uncle Kobe”.

Everyone laughed and Brady said, “If I come back here, you’ll have to introduce me to your friends.”

An excited look came over John’s face, as he gasped, “Do you mean as my Uncle Brady or as my Uncle Brandon?”

“Whichever you what,” Brady replied.

“Cool!” John exclaimed loudly, as he thundered down the stairs to the front door.

Brady could see that Mandy was going to stand by coolly until he made the first move; so he bent down and extended his hand to her, saying, “It was a pleasure to meet you Ms. Amanda”.

She looked at his hand as though it might be dirty, but then stepped forward and wrapped her arms around his neck, softly saying, “I love you Uncle Brady”.  As she backed away from her hug, she added, “And you can call me Mandy”.

Brady was visibly moved, as Peggy headed out the door with the kids.

Tom and Brady talked about what to expect in LA, until it was time for Brady to get ready for his flight.  His ride to the airport came about the same time Peggy and Tom needed to leave for the hospital.  As they stood in the driveway, they kept finding reasons to delay the inevitable; but Peggy finally said, “We’ve got to go”.

As she and Brady hugged, he said, “You were right.  There was a bigger reason for my coming here.”

Peggy smiled through her tears and said, “God has a way of doing stuff like that.  I’m so glad that you came.  I love you Brady.”

“I love you too,” he replied with a squeeze.

Then he and Tom fell into a warm embrace, as Brady said, “Thanks for everything Tom”.

“Thank you Brady,” he replied as they slowed backed out of the hug.

As they looked into each others eyes, tears once again began to flow, as Brady added, “Keep pressing on for me.”

“You too Brady; call me tonight and tell me how it goes in LA,” Tom replied.

Brady smiled and said, “I will”.

Peggy and Tom leaned on each other, as Brady headed for his cab.  As he opened the door, he turned and said, “I love you Tom”.

Tom’s voice seemed to get caught in his throat, as he replied, “I love you too Brady”.

After they watched the cab drive out of sight, they eventually turned to get in the car.  Though they were saddened by Brady’s departure, the last few days had caused them to feel as though God had bigger plans and that anything was possible.

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This story is something very special to me, as the premise for it came from my 11 year old son Patrick.  As he described his idea for the plot, I could clearly see the main characters, Bill and Tommy, in my mind.  Of course, I embellished significantly on his original storyline, but at the core of it you’ll still find Patrick’s heart.  It didn’t occur to me until after I’d written it that maybe Bill and Tommy were really just a parallel for Patrick and me.  He knows that I’m concerned about losing my job in the next few months and he’s struggling through his first year of middle school.  I wouldn’t at all be surprised if this story, which is essentially about a man and a boy finding hope in the midst of a difficult season, isn’t just a by-product of the battle he see’s going on in our lives.  That’s a battle I pray we both win.  I also pray that this will be the first of many creative endeavors we are able to collaborate on.  I hope it is a blessing to those who read it.  It’s already been a blessing to me.

Bill quickly logged off his computer and grabbed his jacket, hoping to get away from his cubical before the phone rang again.  As he made his way through the lobby, Janet – the receptionist at the front desk, called out to him playfully, “leaving a little early aren’t we?”  Since he was now a safe distance from his desk, Bill decided it would be alright to take a minute to chat. 

“Yeah, I’ve got a thing down at the church I volunteered for” he replied sheepishly. 

Janet smiled at his apparent embarrassment and asked, “What kind of thing?” 

“We do a little Halloween carnival for all the kids in the neighborhood” he replied.  “They get to wear their costumes and we have lots of games, prizes and candy.  I promised to help setup.” 

“That sounds really nice.  I think it’s great that someone who doesn’t have kids would volunteer to help with something like that” she replied.

“Well, Missy and I have always enjoyed working with the kids at church” Bill said.

Again, Janet smiled, “So when are you guys going to have some kids of your own?” she asked.

“We’re holding off for a little while” Bill replied, as he turned toward the door.  “I’d better get going; see you on Monday”.

“Have a good weekend!” Janet chirped.

As Bill made his way through the parking lot, his conscience began to itch, as he’d not really answered Janet’s question honestly.  The truth was that he and Missy had been trying to get pregnant for the last few years and they were highly frustrated and discouraged that it hadn’t happened.  Though both of them had been checked, doctors could find no medical reason for their inability to conceive.  As much as they loved each other, it had begun to drive a wedge between them; as their imaginations desperately tried to conjure the source of the problem.  Bill noticed that as their discouragement grew, Missy had begun to withdraw from the kids at church and that she seemed to be almost resentful of his continued involvement with them.  They had talked a lot about pursuing adoption, though neither of them seemed to find much solace in that idea.  And as these thoughts swirled in his head, that familiar knot in the pit of his stomach began to tighten.  Knowing that he’d eventually make himself sick, Bill decided to push the whole issue out of his mind.  He reminded himself that tonight was about the neighborhood kids and he focused his thoughts on the things that needed to be done to get ready for that.

Bill pulled in behind the church, as the main parking lot was to be fully engulfed with games and carnival booths.  He immediately busied himself with a host of tasks, as he and the other volunteers raced to have everything together before the kids started arriving.  Within a couple of hours, the transformation was complete and he grabbed an apple from the bobbing for apples booth, before he headed to the bathroom to change into his costume.  He was grateful to be a cowboy this year, as opposed to the clown he’d been last year.  He smiled at the thought of how hard it had been to get all that face-paint off and at how some of the little kids had been afraid of him.  Later, as he headed toward his game booth, he ran into Phil, who was wearing the clown outfit and had a roll of tickets in his hand.

“Hey cowboy Bill, how bout buying a 50-50 raffle ticket from your old buddy Phil” he said.

Though Bill wasn’t much on raffles, he felt really sorry for Phil.  Getting stuck with both the clown get-up and raffle ticket duty had to be the pits.  He dug into his pocket and found a couple of dollars, as Phil wrote his name on the back of the tickets; eventually sticking them into his brightly colored clown bag.  As Bill got to his game booth, they starting letting the kids into the carnival area and within minutes the lot was jammed with people and activity.  Bill’s game simply required the kid’s to toss a ping-pong ball onto a table full of colored jars.  If they got three balls into any of the jars, they got a piece of candy and if they got three balls into the same colored jars, they got a prize.  Since the chances of winning a prize were very small, Bill only had a few stuffed animals and some brightly colored trucks to give out. 

As he bantered with the kids and their parents, his eye was drawn to a little boy, who was dressed as an Indian and was waiting in the line for his booth.  He guessed that it was the rather serious expression on the boy’s face that made him stand out.  As he moved closer, Bill recognized that it was one of the kids who attended church there.  Though he hadn’t ever spoken directly to him, he knew that the boy’s name was Tommy and that his father had been killed in Afghanistan about a year and a half ago.  The whole church was aware of this family’s story, as the young widow was left raising her three children alone.  Tommy was the oldest and appeared to be about 8 or 9 years old.  There was also a little brother who was around 5 years old and a baby sister who must have been between 2 & 3 years old.  The mother was a pleasant woman, who barely spoke and who always looked tired.  Tommy was almost always accompanied by his little brother and was often holding his baby sister as well.  Bill’s heart broke every time he saw them and that pain seemed especially acute as he noticed Tommy’s rather pitiful homemade costume.  Though Bill tried to stay engaged with the other kids, his eye kept drifting back to Tommy.  Finally he made his way to the front of the line and Bill got the chance to speak to him.

“Oh my, an Indian!  I sure hope you come in peace” he said with a grin.

Tommy’s business like expression didn’t change, as he said, “Yes, I come in peace.  I’ve got to hurry up a win that toy truck, before my little brother gets here.”

Bill was a little embarrassed that his attempt to make Tommy smile had failed and so he quickly explained how the game worked and handed Tommy the ping pong balls.  The first ball dropped almost directly into a red jar, but the second ball bounced multiple times before rolling into a blue one.  Bill tried to console Tommy that he could still win a piece of candy with the next ball; but it bounced off the lip of a green jar and fell harmlessly to the ground.  Bill’s heart sank and he offered to give Tommy a piece of candy anyway; but Tommy refused saying, “No thanks, that wouldn’t be right”.  Tears welled up in Bill’s eyes as he watched the dejected Tommy walk away.  A few minutes later, Bill saw him leading his little brother by the hand to one of the games for the younger kids.  He found himself wanting to reach out to this boy, but he didn’t have a clue on how to do that.  Under his breath, he prayed, “God please help him”.

It took several minutes, but Bill eventually got caught back up in the festivities, which were scheduled to last for a couple more hours.  As the carnival reached its final fifteen minutes, the kids seemed to have grown tired of the games and were congregating around the booth that was distributing treat bags.  Bill was just about to take his booth apart, when a breathless Tommy suddenly reappeared.

“Please sir, my mom’s taken my little brother to the bathroom and I want to try this again!” he gasped. 

Though Bill quickly handed him three ping-pong balls, he was braced for disappointment, as no one had been successful in winning a prize all night.

Tommy’s first ball bounced into a yellow jar and then his second one dropped into another yellow jar on the other side of the table.  Bill allowed himself to be excited at the thought that this kid might finally catch a break, but once again, the third ball rattled off the table.

As Tommy’s eyes lowered, Bill pleaded “Please try again!”

Tommy’s eyes rose back up in a blank stare and it occurred to Bill how absurd it was to put this kid through yet another failed attempt.  Under his breath, he prayed “Please Lord!  Please!” as he handed Tommy the balls. 

Once again, the first ball bounced into a red jar, as did the second one; and Bill could barely catch his breath as Tommy let the third ball go.  It seemed to stay in the air for a long time, before finally dropping directly into yet another red jar.  Bill jumped higher than he had since his childhood and excitedly hugged Tommy, who seemed genuinely startled by his sudden display of affection.  Bill snatched the toy trucks from the table and thrust them toward Tommy, “Which one do you want!”  Tommy’s face broke into a satisfied smile as he said, “He’ll want that blue one”.

A look of confusion washed over Bill’s face as he asked, “Who’ll want that one?”

“My little brother Harry” he replied with a smile.

Tears once again pushed against Bill’s eyes as he realized that all of this hadn’t been for Tommy, but for his little brother.  Out of the corner of his eye, Bill saw Tommy’s family walking in their direction and he said, “Here he comes now”.

Tommy’s eyes darted their direction and then back to Bill.  “Please don’t say anything to them and just keep the truck for a few minutes.  I want to give it to him for Christmas, so I don’t want him to see it yet” he said.  Tommy bounded off, intercepting them before they got too close to the booth; and as they walked the other direction, he turned, giving Bill the thumbs up sign.  Bill’s tears began to spill over as he considered the amazing heart of this little boy.  He stashed the truck with his personal stuff and thanked God profusely as he began to dismantle his booth.  He had only been working a few minutes when he heard Phil’s voice behind him.

“Hey cowboy, you won” he said.

“Won what?” Bill replied as he turned to his clown friend.

“The 50-50 drawing” said Phil.

“You’re kidding” Bill said.  “I’ve never won anything like that in my entire life.”

“Well you have now” Phil said, as he began to count out the money.  Since it was mostly one dollar bills, it took awhile, but Phil finally concluded with, “One hundred & nine dollars & forty eight cents”.

“Wow, that’s a lot of money; but how do you get forty eight cents when the tickets were a dollar?” Bill asked.

Phil smiled and said, “That’s what happens when you let a clown run the raffle and someone is a couple pennies short of a full dollar.”  Bill laughed and thanked him, as he stuffed the wad of bills and change into his pocket.  And as Phil turned to leave, Tommy once again came racing up to the booth.  “OK Sir, my mom’s got my little brother again; can I get that truck now” he said breathlessly.

As Bill grabbed the truck, it suddenly occurred to him that he might be able to bless little Tommy even more.  As he turned back to him, he said “You know, nobody else was able to win these other prizes; you could take one of the other trucks for yourself and maybe a stuffed animal for your little sister.”   Tommy looked at him thoughtfully and said, “It wouldn’t be as special for Harry if I got a truck too, but I would take one of those bears for Becca”.  Bill was amazed that a boy Tommy’s age would pass on a free toy, just because it might diminish the value of his gift to his little brother and he felt good that at least Tommy had accepted the stuffed bear for his sister.  As he handed them over, Tommy quickly stuffed them under his Indian costume, thanked Bill and began running back toward the carnival entrance.  As Bill watched him go, all of his fathering instincts were stirred; but as he resumed taking down his booth, the exhilaration of his interaction with Tommy began to drift into a familiar sense of grief at the thought that he might never actually become a father.

As Bill got in the car to head home, he noticed how late it had gotten.  He thought about calling Missy, but wondered if she might already be asleep.  Not wanting to take the chance of waking her, he decided just to get home as quickly as possible.  When he walked through the front door, he immediately knew that he’d made a mistake.

Missy glared at him, as she said “I thought this thing was over at 9:00 PM!”

“It was” Bill retorted, “It just took longer than expected to get everything torn down and cleaned up.”

“I’d say that it did; it’s almost 11:00 PM.  You couldn’t have called me and let me know you were going to be late” she said angrily.

“I’m sorry, I was busy working and didn’t notice how late it had gotten” he said defensively.

“So I shouldn’t be upset that you didn’t care about the fact that I might be sitting here worrying” she said, as tears filled her eyes.

“Come on Missy, what’s this really about.  If you were worried you could have called me.  Are you mad at me because I’m late or are you mad that I even did this thing tonight?” he said.

“I just don’t understand your need to volunteer for everything that comes down the line” she cried.

Bill had an answer for Missy, but he understood that it would only make things worse.  So he took off his jacket and knelt beside her.  Cupping her face in his hands he said, “I’m sorry that it got so late.  I love you.”

He could tell that Missy still wanted to be mad at him, but instead she began to sob.  He wrapped his arms around her and stroked her back, as she released the wave of emotion that had overtaken her.  Bill wondered if their relationship would ever get back to normal or if their collective barrenness would always be a wall between them.  After several minutes, Missy’s crying seemed to ebb and they headed off to bed.  While Missy seemed to almost pass out when her head hit the pillow, Bill laid awake, thinking about all the kids he talked to that night, especially little Tommy.

The next morning Bill was up early, sitting in the kitchen with his coffee and thinking about the night before.  He knew in his heart that he and Missy were meant to be together and he could clearly envision them with a family.  Somehow, despite three years of failure, he still had hope that it was going to happen at some point, though he wondered if that wasn’t just denial on his part.  He thought about the powerful feelings he’d had for Tommy and he considered the possibility that God was trying to show him that he could be a father to a child that didn’t come from him.  Even so, he didn’t sense that adoption was the answer for them.  After several minutes of wrestling with his thoughts, Bill finally quieted himself and prayed a simple prayer.

“Lord, I invite You into this day.  I ask You to come and help us to find the place You’ve called us to be and to help our hearts accept Your will.  Help Missy to feel You close to her and help Tommy’s family know that You will take care of them.  Lord, apart from You, we can do nothing; but through You, all things are possible.  Have Your way in me Lord.  In Jesus’ holy name – amen.”

The next few weeks went by pretty quickly and in the midst of all the activity, Bill had pretty much forgotten his interaction with Tommy’s family until the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  That morning, Missy was asked to help out in a Sunday school class and she reluctantly agreed.  Bill cringed at the thought of what her state of mind might be like afterward, but he was pleasantly surprised when she emerged with a quiet smile.  He was hesitant to say anything about it, but eventually his curiosity got the better of him and he asked her what had happened. 

Missy explained, “The kids were making these little macaroni bracelets and necklaces as stocking stuffers for Christmas.  As you’d probably guess, the girls were all very excited about it, while the boys mostly just threw the pieces at each other.  But as I was working with some of the girls, I noticed one little boy, sitting by himself and working very diligently on three different necklaces.  I noticed that he was painting each piece a different color and I figured that he’d run out of time if I didn’t help him; so I went over to do that.  He was so polite, and he explained that he wasn’t going to paint the third necklace because it was a gift for his baby sister and he was sure she’d put it in her mouth.”

Tears began to stream from her eyes as she continued, “I thought what an amazing little boy to recognize that the paint might be a problem for his little sister and as I talked to him, I realized who he was.”

With tears welling in his eyes, Bill nodded, quietly saying, “Tommy”.

“Do you know him” she asked.

“I meet him at the Halloween Carnival” he replied.

Missy continued through her tears, “As we talked, he said that last Christmas had been the first one since his father was killed and that everyone had been so sad.  He said that he didn’t want this Christmas to be like that.  He told me that he’s been trying to teach his little brother and sister Christmas carols, so they can sing them for their mom.  He said that he just wants to see her smile for Christmas”.

Bill reached over and stroked Missy’s shoulder, as she tried to regain her composure.  After wiping her eyes and nose, she went on.

“You know, as I listened to him, I realized that I’ve been feeling very sorry for myself.  Here’s this little boy, who has every right to be sad and maybe even mad, but instead has chosen to find the joy in Christmas.  And here I am, a grown woman, who’s been blessed with a wonderful husband and a great life; yet I’ve chosen to be miserable because things aren’t working out like I’d planned.  I think God wanted me to meet that little boy and to see his heart, so that I would see what He wants for my heart to be like.

Bill pulled Missy into an embrace and whispered, “I love you so much.  I’m so proud of you.”

Missy melted into his arms and said, “I love you too and I’m so sorry for how I’ve been acting.”

Stroking her hair, Bill replied, “We’ve both been hurting; but let’s try to set aside our disappointment and find the joy in this season.  We can decide what to do about a family after the New Year.”

Missy nodded her head in agreement.  After getting in the car, Bill told her the story of his encounter with Tommy at the Halloween carnival and both them once again marveled at the selfless heart of this little boy.  In the days that followed, things were indeed different with them.  It was as though the curtains had been opened in a dark room.  They still had their moments, but the heaviness of their hearts seemed to lift off.  Both of their families noticed the difference at their Thanksgiving gatherings and Missy’s father even told her that “It’s good to have my girl back”.

The one part of the Halloween carnival story that Bill had intentionally left out was the fact that he’d won the raffle.  He decided that since their budget was so tight, he’d use that money to surprise Missy with something nice for Christmas.  Since getting married, they’d not bought gifts for each other at the holidays; choosing instead to spend their money on things they needed or wanted for the house.  He knew that there was a part of Missy that would be upset with him about the gift, but he hoped that a bigger part of her would also be genuinely touched by it.  He felt in his heart that God had given him that money for a reason and doing something special for Missy was the first thing that came to his mind.  About a week before Christmas, he slipped out to the store while Missy was at choir practice.  Though he was excited about the idea of buying a gift, he soon found himself wandering the aisles aimlessly.  As he turned a corner he saw Tommy’s mother standing by the bicycles and as he moved closer, he thought he saw tears in her eyes.

Not wanting to startle her, Bill lightly touched her arm and softly said, “Are you alright ma’am?”

Despite his efforts, she jumped and violently spun toward him.  The alarmed expression on her face quickly eased, as a flicker of recognition seemed to spark in her eyes.  Before she could respond, Bill broke in breathlessly, “I’m very sorry to have surprised you like that!  My wife and I go to the same church as your family and I just wanted to make sure that you’re OK.”

She exhaled deeply and quietly said, “Yes, I remember seeing you at church before and I am OK.  Thank you for asking.”

Bill extended his hand to her and said, “My name is Bill Eldridge.”

Returning his handshake, she said “I’m Tammy Johnson, it’s good to meet you.”

“I had the pleasure of meeting your son Tommy at the Halloween Carnival; he’s quite the young man” Bill said.

A fresh wave of emotion seemed to roll over Tammy’s face, as she choked on her words, “Yes; yes he is.”

Bill saw her eyes shift back to a bright red bicycle, with the words “Street Tornado” emblazoned on the frame.  He had a strong sense that this was what was upsetting her.  Without thinking about what it might sound like, he said “Is that bike something on Tommy’s Christmas list?”

Tammy’s eyes lowered, as tears crept from the edges, “No, Tommy would never ask for something like that.  He knows we can’t afford it and at nine years old, he’s already too practical for something as frivolous as a bicycle.  I guess if I’m honest, it was on my Christmas list for him.  I know I can’t undo what’s happened, but I feel like he just never gets to be a kid any more.  His daddy told him when he left for Afghanistan that he was now the ‘man of the house’ and that’s exactly what he’s become.  As much as I admire the strength God put in that little boy, I want so much to see him get the chance to be carefree; even if it’s only for the amount of time it takes to ride to the end of the block and back.  When I saw this bike, I knew it was the one, but it costs almost $200.00 and for us, that’s out of the question.  I prayed that God would make a way and I’ve been saving a little since Easter time.  The man told me that they’d eventually go on sale and sure enough, they’re half off.”

“So what’s the matter?” Bill prodded.

Tammy’s expression was filled with frustration, as she said, “Our hot water heater went out yesterday and it took all of the money that I’d saved to get it taken care of.”  She tried to hold back her tears, as her voice cracked “I know that I should be grateful that God provided for us once again, but to be totally honest, I’m really disappointed and discouraged.”

Bill’s heart was wrenched for this family and all that they’d already endured.  He wanted desperately to make everything alright for them and he said, “You know, there are lots of people who would gladly help your family out.”

Tammy’s head immediately began nod, “No, I don’t want my kids growing up with the idea that they are victims.  The truth is that God has taken good care of us.  We get some money from the government and with my job; we should always have a roof over our heads.  I want them to understand that God is our source and that you reap what you sow.  I don’t want them to be looking for other people to take care of them.”  

Bill couldn’t help but admire Tammy’s mindset, but it also seemed kind of crazy not to let someone help at this point.  As he looked at the bike, he wondered if maybe winning the raffle was just God’s way of allowing him to help her.  He wanted to blurt that out, but he could see that she wasn’t in the right frame of mind to have that conversation.  He felt certain that God was up to something, but he didn’t have the words, so he simply said, “I know that God is with you and your family”.

He was embarrassed at how trite that must have sounded, but Tammy nodded her head in agreement saying, “I know that’s true”.  Bill gave her a business card with their home phone number written on the back and asked her to call them if there was anything they could do.  Tammy thanked him and quickly moved on.  He stood there staring at the bike and eventually a sales person approached him.  He asked how much the bike would cost with tax and everything included.  Chills ran down his spine as the salesperson said, one hundred and nine dollars and forty eight cents.  To him, that was a sure sign that God had given him the money for this, but after talking to Mrs Johnson, he wondered how he could get the bike to Tommy without undermining the lessons she was trying to teach her children.  As he stood there, wrestling with his thoughts, his cell phone rang.  It was Missy telling him that choir practice had ended early.  He could feel his heart start to race as he said, “Honey, I need you to meet me at Wal-Mart; there’s something I need your help with”.

It was almost twenty minutes later when Missy arrived to find Bill pacing by the bicycles.  When he saw her, he quickly made his way to her and gave her a hug.  She could tell that he was very excited and maybe even slightly agitated.  As she questioned what all this was about, Bill breathlessly told her the story of winning the raffle, of his decision to spend the money on her Christmas gift and of his encounter with Mrs Johnson.  He then told her about the price of the bike and of his belief that he was supposed to buy it for Tommy.  As he finally slowed down enough to take a breath, he asked, “So what do you think?”

Missy smiled at him and then punched him in the arm, saying “I think I ought to beat you for not telling me about the raffle and for thinking that you were going to buy me a gift on the sly.  Do you know how mad I’d have been at you if you had a present for me and I had nothing for you?”

Bill’s face became flushed and he shrugged his shoulders.

“You’re such a man sometimes” she added with a grin.

“OK, OK, I confess” he replied, “but what about the bike?”

“Well, it seems pretty obvious to me that God wants us to get it for Tommy” she said.

“But what about Mrs Johnson’s thing about not wanting her kids to think of themselves as victims; I mean she’s right about that” he said.

Missy shrugged and said, “I don’t know yet, but if He wants us to get the bike, let’s do that and trust that He’ll show us how to go from there.”

Nodding in agreement, Bill said “You’re right, that’s the way to go”.

The salesman seemed genuinely relieved to finally get Bill away from his department, as he helped him load the bike into the trunk of his car; and for the first time in a long time, Bill found himself genuinely excited about the idea of opening presents on Christmas morning.  As he followed Missy home, he imagined Tommy’s expression of surprise, which brought a smile to his face.  At the same time, he conjured images of Mrs Johnson’s face, filled with disapproval and nodding her head.  In his heart, he believed that what Missy had said was right, but he also found himself wondering whether they’d just made a mistake.  As those conflicting feelings roiled within him, he began to pray that God would help them to understand what they needed to do.  Knowing he couldn’t resolve it by worrying, Bill clicked on the radio and tried to push these thoughts out of his head by loudly singing Christmas carols.

In the days that followed, both Missy and Bill prayed about what to do next and they both found excuses to go into the garage, secretly sneaking peeks at the bike.  Despite their continued excitement, the pressure began to mount as Christmas Eve rapidly approached.  Every time Bill thought he had a way, he’d hear Mrs Johnson’s voice in his head saying, “I don’t want my children to see themselves as victims” and he would become discouraged again.  On the morning of Christmas Eve, he and Missy were in the living room, doing their daily devotions, when Missy read aloud, “you reap what you sow”.  Though Bill clearly heard her, there was a strange resonance to her words and he said, “What?”  Missy repeated herself and looked at Bill strangely; saying “Isn’t that what Mrs Johnson said she wanted to teach her kids?”  A spark of recognition flicked in Bill’s eyes and a broad smile broke across his face as he said “that’s it!”  Confused, Missy said, “What’s it?”  “You reap what you sow” he replied as he jumped from his chair.  As Missy jumped from the couch to follow him, she said “I don’t get it?”  “You will” Bill said excitedly, “You will!”

That night, after the Christmas Eve service, Missy and Bill made it a point to run into the Johnson family.  Bill asked Tommy if he was excited about Christmas, but before he could answer, little Harry broke in with an exuberant “We sure are!”  Tommy smiled knowingly at Bill, clearly excited that he had great gifts for his family.  Missy pressed even further when she asked if they opened gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, to which Tommy’s grandma said, “Oh we always wait until Christmas morning”.  “At seven o’clock sharp” Tommy added with a smile.  Mrs Johnson smiled wistfully and said, “That may be a tradition we should consider changing at some point”.  After exchanging holiday wishes, they headed for the parking lot, where Bill and Missy finalized their plan for delivering the bike to the Johnson’s.  Though both of them had a hard time going to sleep that night, both popped awake immediately when the alarm went off at 5.00 a.m.  After sneaking the bike onto the Johnson’s porch, Bill and Missy went home for hot chocolate and donuts.  Both agreed that this had been the most joyous Christmas that they’d had in a long time.

At the Johnson household, Tommy was the first one up.  He quietly made his way to the living room, first slipping the colorful macaroni necklaces into his mother’s & grandmother’s stockings, then the unpainted one into Becca’s stocking.  Finally he stuck Harry’s truck and Becca’s bear, both of which he’d wrapped in tissue paper, under the tree.  He stopped to stare at the nativity scene for a minute and as he looked at the statue of Joseph, he thought he saw his father’s face; from his expression Tommy could tell that he was proud of him.  This made him feel warm inside and in his heart he felt certain that this was going to be a great Christmas for his family.  Tommy then made his way into the kitchen, where he setup the coffee maker to make a fresh pot of coffee for his mother and grandmother.  It was the gurgling sound and the smell of coffee that awoke his grandmother, who then managed to wake up everyone else.  There were several packages under the tree, though most were practical gifts like clothes, underwear and socks.  There were also a few inexpensive toys, which seemed to more than satisfy the kids.  Tommy looked on with great anticipation as each person in the family received his gift and beamed with pride as his mother put on her macaroni necklace. 

Mrs Johnson and her mother laughed until they were in tears, as Tommy led Harry and Becca through a precious rendition of the “Twelve Days of Christmas”.  As Tommy and his mother made their way to the kitchen to get breakfast going, Grandma led Harry and Becca to the front porch to see if it had snowed overnight.  When Grandma opened the front door, she saw the bike parked on the porch, with a big green bow and a note taped to the handlebars.  Tears filled her eyes as she called to her daughter, “Tammy Jo, you’d better come see this!”  Not knowing what to make of her mother’s words, Tammy rushed to the front door and froze at the sight of the bike.  Before she had a chance to react, Tommy came around her and saw what everyone was staring at.  He looked up at his mother blankly and she nodded to him.  Slowly he crept to the bike and pulled the note from the handlebars.  As he opened it, he read it aloud.

Dear Tommy Johnson

 

I want you to know that God gave me the money to buy this bike for you and that he told me to give it to you for Christmas.  I believe that the reason He did this, was because He used you to remind me and my family about the hope and joy that He brought at the very first Christmas.  Things were very hard for his family in those days, just as they are for yours now, but His coming made all the difference.  This year, he used His light, in your heart, to warm our home and He wants you to understand that the things you plant in the lives of other people are the things that He’ll grow in your life.  Just like you wanted to see your mother smile this Christmas, He wants to see you smile.  Please never forget that this gift was from Him and that His joy will always be your strength.  God bless you Tommy and have a great Christmas.

Tammy’s heart nearly burst as she listened to her nine year boy read those beautiful words; and she wept tears of joy as she clutched her precious family to her.  Despite all that had happened in the last couple of years, she couldn’t imagine being any fuller than she was at that moment.  As the emotion of the moment ebbed, she saw Tommy staring at the bike in awe and said, “Do you like it Tommy?”

With a confused look on his face, he said, “How could I not like a bike that God picked for me?”

Tammy smiled and replied, “Then why not take it for a ride?”

“Now?” Tommy asked.

“Absolutely, baby” she answered.

Grandma grabbed their coats from the hooks by the door and Tommy pulled his on over his pajamas.  They all shuffled from the porch to the sidewalk, as Tommy’s still slippered foot lifted from the curb to the peddle.  Harry danced along the sidewalk as Tommy rode away and Grandma bounced Becca, trying to keep her warm as they watched him go.  As Tammy watched his hair blow in the wind and saw the expression of utter joy on his face, she once again began weep.  “Thank you Lord Jesus!” she gasped, “Thank you so much!”

Not far from there, Bill and Missy’s house was quiet, as they’d gone back to sleep after their early morning delivery.  Sometime later, Bill awoke and realized that Missy wasn’t in bed anymore.  As he lay there, he heard her in the bathroom and it sounded like she might be getting sick.  Bill felt bad for her and was a little disappointed that they’d probably have to miss Christmas dinner with their families; but the joy of their mission for Tommy was still resonating deeply within him.  He closed his eyes and began to pray for Missy and for the day ahead.  A few minutes later, Missy appeared in the bedroom door way, steadying herself against the frame.  She had big tears in her eyes and what looked to be a thermometer in her hands.  Bill rose up out of bed to help her and said, “Oh baby, are you sick?”  As he moved toward her, she held the thermometer out for him to see.  As he took it in his hands, he realized that it wasn’t a thermometer, but a home pregnancy test.  He looked back at Missy to see if this meant what he thought it meant and as he looked into her eyes he could see that it did.  “Are you sure” he gasped.  “Oh yes!” she cried, “I’m sick as a dog and I’ve tried four of these things and they all say that we’re going to have a baby”.  Bill wrapped his arms around Missy and lifted her feet off the ground.  Their bodies shook with tears and laughter, as year’s worth of disappointment evaporated into a haze of joyful anticipation.  “I love you so much” he said, as he finally lowered her back to the floor.  “I love you too Bill” she said tearfully, “but I really need to lay down now”.  Bill smiled as he helped Missy to the bed and covered her with the blanket.  He kissed her on the forehead and said, “Merry Christmas baby”.  Missy beamed back at him, “Merry Christmas Bill”.  And as he came out of the bedroom, Bill could see the nativity scene in the living room, as his eyes gravitated toward Mary & Joseph, gathered around little baby Jesus.  Once again tears of joy began to stream down his face, as he gasped, “Thank you Lord Jesus!  Thank you so much!”

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Picking Fruit

As she walked into the student center, Sarah saw Robert sitting by himself at a table in the corner.  The normally crowded room was sparsely populated, as most students had already left campus for spring break.  Though Sarah didn’t really want to deal with Robert’s terminally glum outlook, she also didn’t want to hurt his feelings.  Though they weren’t particularly close friends, Robert had sort of attached himself to the group of classmates she hung out with and so she felt a sense of obligation to sit at his table. 

“So, you must have a Friday class too” she said.

“Nah” he muttered back.

“Then why haven’t you headed out for spring break” she asked.

“Because I don’t plan on going anywhere” he replied.

“You’re kidding, you’re going to stay here the whole time” she said.

“I wasn’t invited to go anywhere else” he said flatly.

Sarah had to fight off her urge to make a comment about the perils of self-pity and she was already regretting the decision to sit with him.  Though Robert was somewhat grateful for her company, he generally found Sarah’s relentlessly upbeat manner kind of annoying.

“Almost everyone was headed to the beach; you know you could have gone along with them” she continued.

“I guess, but beer bongs and beach volleyball are not exactly my thing” he replied.

While Sarah could easily relate to Robert’s perspective on that, she found herself wondering exactly what his “thing” was.

“So why not just head home” she asked.

“Because there is no ‘home’ anymore” he replied.

“What?” Sarah exclaimed.

“My parents split up when I left for college and they sold the house I grew up in.  My Dad’s already remarried to some woman who has little kids; and my Mom has decided that she’s a lesbian.  She lives with her girlfriend in a little apartment in Greenwich Village.  I guess I could go baby sit for my dad or hang out in the gay bars with my mom, but somehow staying here seems like more of a vacation” he said bitterly.

Though Sarah genuinely empathized with Robert’s family situation, she hated his attitude and really just wanted to walk away.  Despite that, she forced herself to push on.

“I’m really sorry to hear that Robert” she said weakly.

“It’s no big deal” he replied.  “So are you heading home?” he added.

‘Not exactly, I’m going to visit my grandparents in Georgia” she said.

“Really, that doesn’t sound too exciting” he said.

“Their place is great, they’ve got orchards of pecan and peach trees, I love it there” she said defensively.

“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean that as some kind of slam.  I’ve never been to Georgia and I certainly don’t know anything about peaches or pecans.  I’m sure it’s all very nice” he said in a slightly patronizing voice.

“It is nice” she said.  “You ought to come and see for yourself, before you pass judgment.”

Sarah was shocked at the recognition of the words that had just escaped her mouth.  The way she’d said them almost sounded like an invitation and that certainly wasn’t her intent.  She tried to console herself with the idea that he probably wouldn’t be interested, but that illusion was quickly dispelled when Robert said, “Really, so you don’t think your grandparents would mind?” 

“No, I’m sure they won’t care” Sarah replied blankly.

“Cool, so when do we leave?” he asked

Sarah just about choked at Robert’s reference to them as “we” and shuddered at the idea of them traveling together alone.  It occurred to her that she’d never seen him this enthusiastic about anything before, which somehow made her feel even more uneasy.  Thankfully the drive from North Carolina to Georgia wasn’t a very long one and wouldn’t require many stops.  She told him to meet her in the parking lot at 12:30 pm and she kicked herself all the way to class for letting this happen.  She then spent the duration of the class imagining ways to back out of it.  She called her grandparents after class to explain the situation, hoping that maybe they’d give her the excuse she needed; instead her grandmother suggested that maybe this was something God had orchestrated.  As much as Sarah knew that was a possibility, she struggled to accept that this was anything more than some misspoken words on her part.  As she came down the stairs from her dorm room, she prayed that Robert wouldn’t be out in the parking lot.  She figured that if he was late, she could take off and chalk it up to a miscommunication; but when she came through the door, he was sitting on the hood of her car. 

She sighed heavily and as she got close to the car said, “Hey do you mind, you’re going to scratch the paint!”

Robert rolled his eyes as he slide off the car, saying “We could take my car if you want”.

Sarah glared at him saying, “Is there a problem with my car?”

“No” Robert replied.  Adding, “I just don’t want you to worry about it getting scratched or anything.”

Sarah was ready to fire back at him, when she remembered her grandmother’s words about the possibility that God was somehow setting all this up.  Though she still wasn’t convinced of that, she decided to stand on her tongue anyway.  As they got in the car, she could see Robert looking at the small wooden cross hanging from her rearview mirror and she could tell it bothered him.  Though many of her college friends weren’t Christian, it didn’t seem to be an issue for them that she was; but Robert was different.  He seemed to have an axe to grind with religion or maybe it was with God Himself.  Sarah consciously avoided the subject when he was around and she had no intention of getting into it on this road trip.  As she started the car, her Steven Curtis Chapman CD began to play and they didn’t even get out of the parking lot before Robert had something to say about it.

“We’re not going to listen to this kind of thing all the way to Georgia, are we?” he asked.

“What’s wrong with it?” she replied.

“It’s just not my thing” he said caustically.

“So what is your thing; rap, rock, classical?” she asked.

“I like talk-radio” he replied.

“Let me guess, you’re an NPR (i.e. National Public Radio) guy?” she said sarcastically.

“Well I certainly prefer it over FOX News, if that’s what you mean” he replied defensively.

Sarah rolled her eyes and said, “Of course you do”.  She searched through several channels before finally finding an NPR station with a good signal and for a long time after that she and Robert didn’t speak.  Though Sarah wasn’t a big fan of the reporting on NPR, she did enjoy a special they aired on the life of “Billie Holliday”.  As the program ended, Robert began to talk about growing up listening to a lot of old jazz music and for the first time, they began to relate to each other like friends.  As Robert filled in bits and pieces about his home life, it became clearer to Sarah how he’d become the person he was.  She discovered that he was the only child of two highly intelligent, somewhat eccentric parents and that most of his childhood was spent bouncing between Boston and New York City.  For next few hours, they came dangerously close to enjoying each others company.  After stopping for food and gas, they once again grew quiet; as both became lost in their own thoughts. 

As they neared Sarah’s grandparents, she asked him “What do you think of the orchards?”

“What orchards?” he replied.

“All along the road for the last hour, there have been rows of either peach or pecan trees” she said in amazement.

Robert shrugged and said, “They look like every other tree I’ve ever seen”.

“No way, look at all those peach blossoms.  You don’t see that kind of thing in New York or Boston” she retorted.

“Sorry Sarah, it’s just not that amazing to me” he said regretfully.

Instead of the usual annoyance she felt when dealing with Robert, Sarah actually found herself feeling a little sorry for him.  But as she began to recognize the landmarks that told her she was close to her grandparents, those feelings gave way to her growing excitement.  She smiled broadly as they pulled off the main road and through the large gates to the plantation.  As they drove down the tree-lined lane that leads to the main house, Robert didn’t even try to conceal the fact that he was impressed.

“Wow, this place looks like something out of ‘Gone With the Wind’.  I was picturing some little farm, not Tara” he said.

His words pleased Sarah, who beamed as she shared, “Yeah, this place has been in our family for generations.  A lot of the pecan trees are over a hundred years old.”

As Sarah eased to a stop in the large circular drive, her grandparents emerged from the front door to greet them.  After she excitedly embraced them, she introduced Robert, who was polite, though somewhat wooden in demeanor.  As they entered the house, Grandma Doris gave a quick tour, showing them where their bedrooms were and then leading them to a large dining room, which was already set up for dinner.  Sarah followed her grandmother into the kitchen, as Grandpa Henry gestured for Robert to sit down with him at the table.  After the ladies had carried in the food, grandpa gave the blessing and they began to eat.  The ladies dominated the conversation during the meal, though they tried several times to get Henry and Robert to join in.  Robert gave very short and factual answers to Doris’ inquiries about his family; and though Henry was much warmer in his responses, he didn’t seem particularly chatty either.

Though Robert enjoyed the food and felt genuinely welcomed by Sarah’s grandparents, he also found himself feeling a little out of place.  After all, he was an urban progressive, who felt barely connected to his own family; and here he was doing family hour in the Deep South, with what he assumed to be a bunch of Bible thumping Christian folk.  Though he did find some of the conversation mildly interesting, he viewed most of it as idle chatter and he admired what he viewed as grandpa’s unwillingness to simply talk for the sake of hearing his own voice.  Sarah, on the other hand, was really starting to wear on his nerves with her endless gushing on every conceivable topic.  The minute she’d seem to be slowing down on one thing, Grandma Doris would get her going about something else.  Though he stuck it out through dessert, he decided to head to his room early, claiming fatigue from the trip.  Though he wasn’t really tired, he thought he could catch up on some reading; after all, he’d always been more comfortable with books than people.

The next morning Robert awoke to the smell of bacon and as he made his way downstairs, he found that Sarah’s grandmother was making a big breakfast.  He sat in the kitchen listening to her chat about an endless array of subjects, as he drank coffee.  While he wanted to dismiss her as a silly old church lady, he had to admit that her warmth and sincerity were compelling to him.  He was surprised that Grandpa Henry wasn’t around; after all, weren’t farmers supposed to be early risers.  But as Doris slide a freshly made muffin in front of him, she excused herself for a moment as she carried another muffin and some coffee from the room.  When she returned, she explained that Henry liked to work in his study until breakfast was ready.  Robert was glad that he hadn’t said anything about Henry sleeping in and he spent the next half hour being interrogated by Grandma Doris about his background.  He helped her get the food on the table and she went to get Henry and Sarah.  Sarah still looked half asleep as she came down the stairs and plopped heavily into the chair.  Henry came from another part of the house and was already showered, shaved and dressed for the day.  It didn’t take Sarah long to resume her gushing over grandmas cooking, which immediately irritated Robert, despite the fact he agreed with what she’d said.  He easily ate twice as much food as he normally would have for breakfast and was kind of amazed to see how much Sarah ate too.  He was surprised that a skinny girl like her could get away with that.  Grandpa told them that he’d give them the grand tour whenever they could get ready and Sarah excitedly headed back to her room.  Robert took his time getting showered and dressed, assuming that Sarah would be primping for awhile; but as he came down the stairs, he found her impatiently waiting for him. 

“Lord, do you always take that long to get ready?” she said.

“No” he said indignantly.  “I just figured it would take you longer; I didn’t realize you were going to go au natural today.”

Sarah self-consciously touched her hair, which was pulled back into a ponytail and said, “It’s not a beauty contest, it’s my grandparent’s house.”

After exchanging dirty looks, Sarah led the way to what grandpa later explained was an old carriage house.  There they found Henry talking with a couple of men, who he introduced as the foremen over the fruit operation.  After those men left, Henry began to explain how the fruit business worked and to show them around the plantation.  It was an interesting mix of history and modern economics; as old slave quarters (now used to house seasonal fruit pickers) were intermingled with the latest farm technology.  Robert found himself being impressed with Henry, despite the fact that he’d already dubbed him “The Peanut Farmer” in his mind.  The plantation was even bigger than Robert had imagined and the tour lasted until lunchtime.  As they came back into the main house, grandma once again had a table full of food for them and even though he wasn’t really hungry, Robert caught himself trying a little bit of everything.  After lunch, Doris and Henry took them on a tour of the local area, which was rich in civil war history; and after attending to some business in town, they ate dinner at a beautiful old plantation house that had been converted into a hotel and restaurant.  That night, as Robert lay in his room, he had to admit to himself that he’d really enjoyed the day, even though these weren’t his kind of people and this wasn’t his kind of place. 

The following morning, after breakfast, both Sarah and Robert were hanging out in the large parlor area near the front of the house.  Robert was sitting in a large over-stuffed chair, playing a network game on his laptop, while Sarah sprawled across a small loveseat, chatting on Facebook.  They barely noticed each other until Sarah finally broke the silence.

“So, you have to admit that this place is a lot nicer than you thought it would be” she said.

“I guess” Robert replied reluctantly.

‘You guess?” Sarah shot back incredulously.

“OK, yes, it is very nice” he said.  “Are you happy now”.

“I just don’t understand why it’s so hard for you to say something nice” she replied, before adding, “My grandparents are awesome!”

Without looking up from his computer, Robert said, “They’re very nice”.

“There, you did it again” Sarah said sharply as she sat up.

Robert rolled his eyes in frustration and said, “Did what?”

“I described my grandparents as ‘awesome’ and you reduced it to ‘very nice’.  It’s like you have to throw a wet blanket on every positive thing that anyone says.  My grandparents have been ‘awesome’ to you, why can’t you say that” Sarah hissed.

“For God’s sake Sarah, what do want from me?  OK, so your grandparents are great.  Good for you and good for them.  This is the grandest peanut farm I’ve ever seen and you’re just the best friend for bringing me here!  Is that positive enough for you?” he hissed back

“It’s not a ‘peanut farm’ and I doubt that you meant a word of that” she said in a much calmer voice.

“What is the big deal?  This is a nice place; I do appreciate you letting me come with you; your grandfather seems like a pretty good guy” he stammered.

“My grandfather is a great man” she interrupted.

Robert was getting tired of Sarah jumping on his every word and he could feel the anger rising up inside of him.  “You know Sarah, just like you say I downgrade every positive thing that’s said, you’ve got to out-do and hype everything to the rafters.  It’s not good enough to say that your grandfather is a ‘good guy’; it’s got to be ‘he’s a great man’.  You do this all the time.  Every thing is ‘awesome’ and ‘incredible’ and on and on and on.  Well I’ve got news for you, things aren’t really all that awesome most of the time; and though I know you love your grandfather, he’s just an old peanut farmer.  It’s not like he built this place with his own hands, he just inherited it from his family.  Even I could do well if someone wanted to give me a mansion and a profitable business.  Get a grip!”

Sarah’s mind raced with things she wanted to say to him, but her anger and frustration pushed her way beyond the place she could speak coherently.  Tears streamed down her face and she really wanted to throw something at him.  She grabbed her laptop and began to stomp out of the room, stopping long enough to say, “You’re a pompous jerk and you don’t know the first thing about me or my grandfather.  You think that you can just walk into any situation and figure everything out with nothing more than your powers of observation, but you’re wrong.  The most important things in life can’t be seen with the naked eye and you can’t know people by sharing a couple of meals with them.  You are truly one of the most miserable individuals I’ve ever met and as long as this is how you’re going to be, you can count on staying that way!”

As Sarah left the room, Robert thought about going after her to give his rebuttal to her commentary; but he found himself strangely unsure of exactly what he’d say.  Though her manner was offensive and he didn’t like the idea that she had judged him, he wasn’t sure that what she’d said was actually wrong.  He tried to blow the whole thing off and go back to his computer game, but he couldn’t quit replaying Sarah’s words in his mind.  After a couple of minutes he decided to log off and take a walk instead.  He hadn’t gotten very far down the driveway when he ran into Henry coming back toward the house.  He really didn’t feel like talking, but really had no way to avoid Henry, who was the first to speak.

“Are you OK?” he asked.

“Yeah, I’m OK” Robert replied.

“Are you sure?” Henry probed knowingly.

“Well, Sarah and I had some words, but it’s no big deal” he admitted.

“She can be pretty head strong” Henry said.

“And we don’t exactly see the world through the same eyes” Robert added.

Henry smiled and said, “We all have that problem don’t we?”

“I guess” Robert replied sheepishly.

Henry put his hand on Robert’s shoulder and said, “I tell you what, I’m headed to my office and I think that there’s something you might find interesting there”.

With that, both men headed back to the main house.  Once inside, Henry led Robert to a wing of the house he hadn’t seen yet.  At the end of the hall they passed through a set of beautiful wooden doors and into Henry’s massive study.  Inside the room, there was no ceiling between the ground and second floors and a spiral staircase allowed access to the upper level, which was completely walled with shelves full of books.  The lower level was large enough to have what appeared to be a meeting area (with a conference table & chairs), a sitting area (with antique winged back chairs & end tables) and an office area (with a massive wooden desk and a state of the art computer system).  Everything in the room seemed to be antique and perfectly matched in dark wood and rich deep colors.  The walls of the lower level were covered in pictures, plaques, paintings and other keepsakes; and the room had a warm and inviting feel to it.  Robert couldn’t help but be impressed.

As Henry moved to his desk, he said “I thought you might be interested in the Library and wanted you to know that it was here and that you’re welcome to use it.  Obviously, it’s not like going to the university library, but I’m sure you can find some interesting things up there.”

“Thank you very much sir, it looks pretty amazing from here” he replied.

“Of course many of the volumes are very old, but both my wife and I love to read, so there are several current volumes as well” Henry added.

“Again, I thank you sir, but I should probably let you do your work now” Robert said as he stepped back toward the door.

“I can promise you that your presence won’t bother me.  I’m just going to do a little bit of computer work before lunch” Henry said.  “Please, feel free to look around if you’d like”.

Robert nodded in acknowledgement, but instead of immediately heading for the books, he found himself drawn to the pictures & memorabilia on the lower level walls.  He was careful not to make a sound, as he moved from frame to frame, studying their contents.  He was fascinated by the photos and the various documents, some of which dated back to the civil war era.  After several minutes of moving along the walls, he came upon what looked to be a college diploma and as his face moved closer to the frame, he was shocked to see that not only did the diploma belong to Henry, but that it was a Bachelor’s degree from Cornell University.  As he turned his head to sneak a look at Henry, he saw that there was another diploma on the wall and as he moved towards it, he could see that it also belonged to Henry.  It was a Master’s degree from New York University (NYU).  An audible gasp escaped Robert’s mouth as he realized that the man he’d dubbed the “Peanut Farmer” had an Ivy League education and a graduate degree from yet another prestigious university.

Henry sensed his reaction and asked, “Find something interesting?”

Robert hesitantly replied, “It’s your college diploma’s sir.  I guess I’m a little surprised that someone from the Deep South would pick a couple of New York schools.”

Henry smiled and said, “At that time in my life I was looking to do the opposite of whatever someone from the Deep South might do.”

Robert’s expression twisted in confusion as he said, “I guess I don’t follow you sir.”

“I suppose it would be right to say that I was in rebellion to my southern roots” he replied; before adding, “Truth be told, I was pretty much in rebellion to just about everything I’d grown up with.”

“Really, even this plantation?” Robert queried

“Especially this plantation” Henry replied.  “My father wanted me to go to a Georgia school or, like you and Sarah, to go to Duke; which is of course why I picked the ‘Big Red’ in New York.  I promised myself that I would get away from this place and never come back.”

“Wow” Robert exclaimed.  “That’s pretty intense”.

“Well, I was a pretty intense fellow back then” Henry said with a smile.

“So what was your major?” Robert asked.

“Would you believe it was Philosophy” Henry replied.

“You’re kidding” Robert said, “That’s my major!”

Again Henry smiled and said, “I probably could have guessed that from our conversations.  I’m betting that you’re a fan of Nietzsche; that you feel as though he really nailed it with his thesis on ‘will to power’ and that though you’d never classify yourself as a Nihilist, you have more than a passing respect for the ideas behind Nihilism.”

Robert was stunned.  Here he thought he had grandpa all figured out, only to discover that he was totally off base; and now, apparently without any real effort, Henry had pegged his personal philosophy to a tee.  “How did you know that?” he muttered

“Well, you remind me of what I was like in college and that was what I believed back then” Henry replied.  “If we go by that, you probably find Kierkegaard somewhat delusional, Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche to be invaluable and desperately wish that Kafka had written more novels.”

Again, Robert was amazed.  He couldn’t decide which blew him away more, that Henry could see all of this in him or that Henry had ever believed it himself.  His mind reeled with questions, but he couldn’t seem to articulate them; and before he could regain himself, Sarah poked her head in the door and said, “Grandma says lunch is ready”

Henry could see that Robert still wanted to talk and patted him on the shoulder saying, “We can pick this conversation back up after lunch”.

Robert reluctantly followed him to the dining room, where Doris had once again prepared way more food than the four of them could possibly eat.  As Henry gave the blessing, Robert wondered how someone could possibly transition from being a “fan of Nietzsche” to being a fan of Jesus Christ.  Out of the corner of his eye he could see Sarah glaring at him and he momentarily remembered their exchange in the parlor.  Though he still had the urge to vent on her, his preoccupation with Henry’s background was much stronger; and as he thought about it, he realized that Sarah had been right about one thing, he really didn’t know Henry.

Lunch passed quietly, as both Sarah and Robert seemed to be lost in their own thoughts.  As usual, Doris was extremely chatty, but little of what she said seemed to require a response, so for the most part they just had to politely nod in the right spots.  Robert finished his food first and let Henry know that he was heading back to library, as he excused himself from the table.  After he left the room, Sarah asked her grandfather about their conversation, but Henry simply said, “We’re just talking philosophy”.  Though that answer didn’t particularly satisfy Sarah’s curiosity, she could tell that was all she was going to get from him.  As Henry walked back into his office, he found Robert once again studying his diplomas.

“I don’t remember them being that interesting” Henry said.

Robert spun around, looking somewhat embarrassed and replied, “So you lived in Greenwich Village in the middle of the 1960’s?”

“Yup, I graduated from Cornell in 1962 and from NYU in 1965.  I hung around for another few years after that, until I eventually came back here” he said.

“That had to be a pretty wild time to be there” Robert added.

“As I remember, it was a pretty wild time to be anywhere” Henry said with a chuckle.

“Yeah, but I mean you were right in the middle of the peace movement and Andy Warhol and the whole counter culture thing.  It must have been awesome” Robert exclaimd.

“I guess it all boils down to how you define awesome” Henry replied.  “We certainly broke our share of social taboos and shook up the status quo.”

“You did more than that; your generation changed the world!” Robert gushed

“That’s probably truer than I’d like to admit” Henry replied.

Robert seemed confused as he said, “You make it sound as though that was a bad thing.”

“Well, let’s just say that I’m not convinced it was a good thing” Henry replied.

Robert’s expression conveyed his astonishment, as he said “I can’t imagine doubting that.  I consider the 1960’s one of the pinnacles in American history.  I would have loved to have lived in that era.  I guess it’s really hard for me to understand how you could come to look back on it with regret.”

“I guess it has a lot to do with the lens through which you view the world.  For me that has changed drastically over the years.  My parents had lived through the Great Depression and a couple of world wars, so they viewed the staid quality of plantation life as a great blessing.  For me, who was too young to remember the war, life on the plantation felt monotonous and even oppressive.  Though I loved and respected my parents, I found myself pushing back against the life they’d built here.  At first, it was simply about not wanting to be forced into the family business, but soon I started pushing against the ideas and ideals that had built this place and eventually I found myself pushing against them too.  That was never my conscious intent, but that’s where I got to.  They were hurt and confused by that and I didn’t really understand it myself; but with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that it made me the perfect recruit for the counter-culture movement.  Within a couple of short years of leaving home, my view of life had done a complete 180 and in many ways alienated me from my family.  By the time I got to Grad school in the city, I was completely immersed in the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll of the day” Henry explained.

“I understand that sort of thing was going on, but the counter culture was about so much more than that.  It was about challenging the authoritarian structures that had for so long oppressed the people.  It was about civil rights and personal freedom and world peace” Robert proclaimed exuberantly.

Henry smiled and said, “I realize that is what we claimed it was about and I know that’s what’s been written into history books by people of my generation, but the truth is that it was really pretty much about sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.  ‘Make love, not war’ was a great motto to justify dodging the draft and having sex in the park; it had little to do with hating war or loving our fellow man.  Like most philosophies, the movement was really fueled by how we were feeling at the time; the ideas that justified those feelings came later.  We were just like the twenty year olds of today; we didn’t feel like growing up, getting jobs and becoming like our parents.  Truthfully, there weren’t many of us who were losing sleep over the condition of the world and that’s what made it so easy to embrace the teachings of someone like Nietzsche.  I didn’t want to feel the sense of guilt and obligation that accompanied my Judeo-Christian upbringing, so “God is dead’ was just what I wanted to hear.  The war wasn’t convenient or attractive, so it was easy to be anti-war.  We wanted to cast off all restraint sexually, so we dubbed it ‘The Summer of Love’, but love had nothing to do with it.  We could all tell you what we were against, but very few of us knew what we were for.  If we were really what we claimed to be, then there ought to have been a whole generation of philanthropists, who dedicated their resources to the betterment of mankind; but instead our generation has gone on to become infamous for its shallow self-centeredness.  I would submit that what we witnessed in the 1970’s was the fruit of the seeds we planted in the 1960’s; and the 70’s was a decade of unprecedented corruption and cultural degradation.  I’m sure that’s not what you’ve read about it, but as an eye-witness, I can tell you that’s how it was.”

Robert was visibly disturbed by Henry’s assessment, but seemed at a loss as to how he might challenge the validity of it.  In an uncharacteristically meek voice he asked, “So you don’t think anything good came out of the Cultural Revolution?”

“I can’t say that.  The Civil Rights movement had some wonderful breakthroughs in that time and undoubtedly the political unrest of that era helped to some degree; but you must understand that the civil rights movement existed long before the Cultural Revolution started and it wasn’t hippies in the park who facilitated any of the real changes that took place.  I suppose that there was also a certain amount of pretense within our society that probably needed to be shed, but unfortunately the movement went well beyond that point, eventually coming to a place we are now, where nothing is sacred” Henry replied.

Robert hated the thought that what Henry was saying might be true.  He loved everything he’d read and heard about the 1960’s and it depressed him to think that it was nothing more than mythology.  On a more personal level, he still wasn’t clear on how Henry had transitioned from Greenwich Village back to Georgia, so he asked, “So what changed it for you?”

Henry’s countenance changed as he replied, “My mother died unexpectedly.  At that point I hadn’t been back for a couple of years and I hadn’t even known she was sick.  As I stood next to her lifeless body, my whole philosophical façade came unraveled.  I could suddenly see that all of those high sounding ideas were just my way of rationalizing my behavior.  In that moment, I felt like a little boy who couldn’t find his mother in the grocery store and for the first time in years, I found myself praying to a God that I wasn’t even sure I believed in.  I went completely numb after we buried her.  I couldn’t shake the sense that my life in New York had been a sham, but I didn’t want to admit to myself that I had wasted the last precious years of my mother’s life.  After all those years of pushing against their beliefs, I was confronted by the revelation that I loved my parents deeply and didn’t want to go on without them.  With my mother gone, the question was whether I’d make the same mistake with my father.  I felt lost and unsure of what to believe and eventually I opened up to my father about it.  He was an incredibly patient man and he didn’t seem to be upset with me for openly challenging the things he held as truth.  He took me out to the orchard and grabbed a couple of peaches off a tree and we each had one.  When we were done, he had me show him the pit and when I did, he held out his pit too; then he asked, ‘Which one of these is the good seed?’  Of course, I had no idea and I told him so.  He smiled at me and said, ‘I’ve been raising peaches my whole life and I’ve seen thousands of seeds, but I’ve yet to figure out which are the good ones just by looking at them; it’s only after you plant them that you can tell.’  At that point I still wasn’t getting it, but he went to explain that philosophies are like seeds, they can all sound valid when you talk about them in the abstract, but it’s not until you try to live by them that you find out whether they’re good seeds or bad ones.  He assured me that he’d love me no matter how I decided to live, but he encouraged me to judge the philosophy that I chose by the fruit it would bear in my life.  At the time I thought it was a bit of an oversimplification, but as I thought about it, his lesson seemed more and more profound.  Instead of studying Nietzsche’s ideas, I started looking at the fruit of those ideas in his life and in the lives of those who admired him; and I discovered that their lives were a litany of depression, depravity and dysfunctional relationships.  As I looked at some of my other heroes, I discovered much the same thing; and when I thought about the people I hung out with in New York, I realized it was the same for us as well.  If we were really onto some kind of transcendent truth, then why wasn’t it translating into something positive in our daily existence?  After years of scoffing at my parents beliefs, I had to admit that I admired my father’s integrity and my mother’s grace; I wanted to have a marriage like they did and to love my kids the way they had.  And now that my mother was gone, I wanted a hope for something beyond this life.  Those realizations didn’t change everything on a dime, but that conversation with my dad proved to be a turning point for me and I never did make it back to New York”

Robert furrowed his brow and said, “I guess I can follow the whole philosophy/fruit metaphor, but using that measure, how does Christianity seem any better than Existentialism.  With all of the atrocities committed throughout history in the name of God, how does that constitute good fruit?  It seems to me that religion poisons everything!”

Henry smiled knowingly and replied, “I see that you’ve read Mr. Hitchens book too.  I would suggest that the title of his manifesto is telling, as it claims ‘God is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything’.  From my perspective, God’s divine character and the human practice of religion are two very different things.  Leo Tolstoy said, ‘Don’t judge God’s holy ideals by my inability to meet them.  Don’t judge Christ by those of us who imperfectly bear His name’ and I would whole-heartedly agree.  I would not endeavor to defend all that’s been done in the name of Jesus Christ, but I would challenge you to find a single atrocity that wasn’t a violation of the principles He taught.  Ultimately, to judge the principles of true Christianity, you have to look at the life of Jesus Himself, because He is the only one who’s perfectly executed those principles.  But even at that, selectively picking out the evil that has been perpetrated beneath the veil of religion ignores the significant good that has also been accomplished in places where genuine religion has been practiced.  A fair and honest study of history bears out that in places where Judeo-Christian values have taken root, the education, welfare and basic civil rights of the people have prospered.  I would never presume to speak for someone else, but for me, these others philosophies were really just my attempt to rationalize the pursuit of my own agenda, while Christianity has been about my acknowledgment that life is about something bigger than me and what I think.  Despite my poor execution of its principles, it has still bore much good fruit and though my life is far from perfect, it has allowed me to come to peace with the past, given a sense of purpose for today and has provided me with hope for the future.” 

Robert’s mind raced through the arguments he’d heard against Christianity, looking for something to contradict what Henry had just said, but he couldn’t seem to find the silver bullet he so desperately wanted to fire back.  Knowing that Henry read books by people like Christopher Hitchens gave him the sense that even if he could think of something, Henry would probably have an answer for it.  Despite the fact that he vehemently disagreed with the philosophical stance Henry had taken, he couldn’t deny his admiration for the person he’d become.  Instead of trying to come up with a counter argument, he decided to get more of Henry’s story; saying “So how did Doris fit into all of this?”

Henry smiled, saying “She’d been my high school sweetheart, but I’d broken up with her when I went to college.  Though she’d come close a few times, she’d never married and after I moved back, we started dating again.  We were married a year later and just a few weeks from now we’ll celebrate our forty-second wedding anniversary.  She’s been a wonderful friend and partner; I’ve been blessed to share my life with her.”

Robert once again found himself with nothing to say and unable to shake his uneasiness at some of the things Henry had spoken out; so he said, “Well, I’ve taken up plenty of your time sir, I’m sure you’ve got a lot to do.”  As Robert moved to the door, Henry said, “It was good talking with you; please remember that the library is here if you want to use it.”

A strange sense of relief swept over Robert as he made his way down the hall.  He somehow felt like a child who had just escaped from the Principal’s office, though he couldn’t really understand why he should feel that way.  After all, he didn’t have to defend his beliefs to Henry or to anyone else for that matter.  Everyone was entitled to their opinion and what difference did it make if Henry had drawn different conclusions then he had.  But in the back of his mind there was now a question mark; what if his philosophy was nothing more than a rationalization and what kind of fruit did he have to show for it.  He tried to push these questions out of his mind, but within a few moments they’d inevitably leak back in.  He made his way to his room and feeling suddenly exhausted, he lay on the bed.  After several minutes of wrestling with his thoughts, he drifted into a restless sleep. 

A few hours later, when Sarah came to get him for dinner, he told her he wasn’t feeling well and that he wouldn’t be down.  He tried to go back to sleep after that, but he couldn’t seem to quiet his mind and so he laid there, stewing in his own juices.  His mind searched for an example of someone or something that would validate his worldview or at least refute Henry’s.  Eventually, he pulled out his laptop and began searching the internet for more information.  He looked up people like Abbie Hoffman, who would have been contemporaries to Henry, but sure enough their stories were filled with relational dysfunction (e.g. infidelity, divorce, estrangement from kids…), drug and alcohol addiction, depression and even suicide.  After a half dozen examples, he began looking back through history, at the personal lives of the great philosophers and authors he admired; and once again it was just as Henry said.  Even though Robert still wanted to argue the validity of some of their ideas, he had to admit that their lives often seemed to be a torment.  He tried to dismiss that fact as meaningless, but the amazing consistency of the pattern was disturbing to him.  After turning off the computer, he began thinking of his own life and though it lacked any of the dramatic elements he’d read about, he had to admit that there was no place and no one he felt particularly connected to.  It also occurred to him that like Henry had said, he had a very firm grasp of what he was against, but little idea about what he might be for.  He decided to try distracting himself by reading a book, but was having little success with it, when he heard a knock on his door.  Upon opening it, he found Doris standing with a tray full of food and a concerned look on her face.  Though Robert generally found her to be slightly annoying, he was touched by her genuine concern, which seemed to go far deeper than his own mothers ever had.  He gratefully accepted the food and assured Doris that he’d be fine.  After eating, he decided to re-engage with his internet gaming, which kept him going well into the night.

For the next few days, Robert said very little.  He spent a lot of time going through the library and when Henry wasn’t in the office, he’d often sneak another peak at the frames that lined the lower level.  When Henry was around, Robert seemed to almost be studying him, listening intently to his every word.  Sarah also noticed that Robert didn’t seem nearly as cynical and rude as he normally was, and she wondered what might be going on inside of him.  As they said their goodbyes, Sarah thought she saw tears building in Robert’s eyes as her grandparents hugged him warmly and invited him to return whenever he wanted to.  As they pulled away, she noticed him looking back at the plantation wistfully and for the next hour he sat in utter silence, staring out the window.  Finally, her curiosity got the best of her and she asked him what he was looking at, to which he replied, “The trees”. 

“What about the trees?” she prodded

“They’re pretty amazing” he answered, with his gaze still fixed on the orchards.

Suddenly he turned to her and with his face full of boyish sincerity, said “Thanks for bringing me here.  I really enjoyed it.  I think your grandparents are awesome.”

“Sure” Sarah stammered in amazement.  As Robert’s attention returned to the orchards, Doris’ words came back to Sarah and she smiled.  Indeed, Grandma had been right; God’s hand had been on this trip from the start.

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