For God So Loved The World
She heard a dog barking and saw the Parker boys romping in the snow with their huge, tawny pet. The animal came from the animal shelter, and Eleanor Parker had been heard to complain that if she had known how big it would get, she never would have brought it home.
Tom Parker’s car pulled into the driveway, and both boys besieged him with glad cries of welcome. Even the dog barked and tried to jump up on him. He carried several bulky packages which he refused to let the kids look at. The boys followed him into the house taking the big dog with them.
Sarah turned away from the window and looked at the clock. Tim and Steven should be home soon, and they’d be ravenous. She hoped they felt like grilled cheese sandwiches and soup because nothing tasted better on a cold, snowy night. She had saved leftovers for a week to get the ingredients for the soup, and if she did say so she made a dynamite vegetable soup.
A gust of bitter air announced the boys’ return. “Hey, Mom, what’s for dinner?” eight year old Tim demanded, his sturdy, little body almost quivering with eagerness. “I’m starving to death.”
Steven, her seventeen year old, stamped his feet outside before he came in. “I got paid tonight.”
“You did? That’s great.”
Steven shot at look at the bare space underneath their small Christmas tree. “Maybe you can do a little shopping tomorrow for Tim,” he whispered.
“Maybe I can,” Sarah agreed.
They finished their soup and sandwiches, and while Tim dried the dishes for her she and Steven quietly discussed their Christmas plans. “We’ve got a hundred dollars to work with,” Sarah said. “I think we can swing a pair of shoes and a jacket for Tim if we go to Super Mart.”
“And maybe a small toy.”
“I don’t know, Steven. We’ll see. We have to buy a turkey and the trimmings with that money too.” Actually Sarah doubted Tim would get a toy. She’d sell her own blood before she’d let this Christmas go by without a gift for Steven.
The boys sat down to watch TV, and Sarah went into her bedroom to collect the dirty clothes that she kept in a laundry basket beside her closet. In spite of herself a tear coursed down her cheek. On this very night one year ago Ben had passed away. Sometimes she still had a hard time realizing that he wouldn’t come bursting through the door as he always used to do, bringing happiness and laughter along with him. Ben. Handsome, kind, wonderful Ben. Ben, who’d never come home again.
Oh, why had he waited so long to see the doctor about the knot in his armpit? Had he feared even then what the doctor might find? By the time he finally did see Dr. Smith the cancer had progressed so far the doctors only gave him six months to live, and they were right. He had lived almost six months to the day.
Absently she gnawed on a fingernail, a bad habit that had returned with a vengeance since Ben’s death. Of course before Ben died she had worn artificial nails put on in a salon. Yeah, and she hadn’t lived in a trailer either. She had lived in Spear’s Forest, the nicest neighborhood in Eagle Point.
Who would have guessed that Ben had let his life insurance policy lapse? How could she have known about their credit card debt? Ben had always handled their finances, and if she offered to help him he always told her not to worry.
Sarah sighed. She had sold the house for enough to pay off the credit card companies, but it had left her and the boys with nothing. She had taken a job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office, and Steven worked as a stock boy at the neighborhood supermarket. Between the two of them they paid the rent on this trailer and put food on the table. What on earth would she do if Steven got a scholarship and left home?
She squared her shoulders. It hadn’t been easy, but they’d gotten by so far, and she’d take things as they came, one day at a time. If Ben had been here he’d have gone on about how God would take care of them, but she’d always had her doubts about God, and what had happened to her family proved that she, not Ben, had the right of it. If God so loved the world where was He when a man like Ben lay dying years before his time? Where was God when she struggled to feed and clothe her family?
No, she’d never give God the time of day again. If He wouldn’t help her why should she worship Him? Her job tired her out, and Sunday morning was a good time to rest. Yeah, they’d seen the last of her at that church. She had better things to do.
As she passed through their small, beat-up living room someone pounded on the door.
“Who could be out in weather like this?” Steven wondered.
Sarah put down her laundry basket and went to see. Ed Lawford their mailman greeted her with a smile. “Hello, Sarah,”
“Why, Ed, what are you doing out tonight? Come on in and get warm.”
“Don’t mind if I do. It’s bitter out here.”
Without being told Steven jumped off the floor and prepared a cup of hot cocoa for Ed. “Sit down,” Sarah urged.
Ed sat down and handed Sarah an envelope. “I have a letter for you, but please don’t get upset when you read it.”
“What are you talking about?” Sarah demanded with a frown. “How do you know there’s something upsetting in it?”
“Because it’s from Ben.”
Steven looked shocked. “How can that be?” he demanded as he passed the cocoa to Ed.
“After Ben got sick he asked me if I’d deliver the letter to your mother on Christmas Eve. I know I’m a day early, but we’re going out of town tomorrow morning. I hope I haven’t disappointed Ben too much by coming a day early. He was a good friend to me.”
Sarah smoothed the envelope and traced the letters of her name. She had to swallow twice before she could speak. “I appreciate it more than I can say, Ed.”
“Well, I was glad to do it. I hope you folks have a good Christmas.”
Ed took his leave of them, and Steven asked, “Are you going to open it or not?”
“Why wouldn’t she read it?” Tim demanded. “It’s from Dad.”
“That’s why. It’s from Dad.”
In her mind Sarah heard the echo of Ben’s voice. “Go on, honey; open it.”
“Bring me a knife to open it with, Steven,” she requested.
She opened this message from the past and read,
I never imagined how hard it would be to say goodbye to you. You’ve been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and even though I know I’m going home to God I still feel as if I’ll miss you even in Heaven!
I’ve been tempted to feel angry with the Lord. Why did He see fit to separate us so soon? I had counted on spending my golden years with you, surrounded by a bevy of pretty grandchildren. I imagined the two of us walking hand in hand and watching sunsets together. I thought we’d have many Christmas trees to decorate, lots of vacations to plan, and thousands of days to love each other.
But God had a different plan for my life. I still don’t understand why I have to die, but through the eyes of faith I know that everything which happens to us happens for good, even separation and death.
The good part is that Christ has promised me an eternal home in Heaven, and I’m going to claim it very soon. I want to share that mansion with you, Sarah. Let the spirit of Christmas soften your heart, honey. Come to the manger and feel the love which surrounds us every day of our life.
I’ll be waiting for you to help me decorate that mansion. Don’t disappoint me.
“Did he say anything about us?” Tim asked when she finally raised her eyes from her letter.
“No, honey, he didn’t. It was just some husband-wife stuff.”
“Oh, mushy stuff.”
Yeah, mushy stuff. Nonsense too. Ben was dead and buried. He didn’t live in a mansion in Heaven or anywhere else. She took the letter to her room and put it in the pretty, enamel box where she kept Ben’s watch. It was the only letter she had ever received from him. They’d had no need for letters, for they’d grown up on neighboring farms and gone to the same schools. They hadn’t spent one day apart during their entire marriage, but now¦ She sighed and went back to throw those clothes into the washer.
Afterwards she sat down to put her feet up, but before she could even throw her afghan across her legs she heard someone knocking on the door.
“Not again,” Steven exclaimed. “Did Mr. Lawford forget to give you some real mail?”
“We’ll see.” Sarah opened the door and saw bluff, hearty Luke Miles standing there with a huge, wicker basket in his arms. Luke ran a little grocery store not too far from her old house. She had often stopped there to pick up small items she forgot at the big store downtown. “Hi, Luke. Come on in. What can I do for you?”
Luke stepped inside and set the big basket on the table. Sarah saw that it contained a turkey, a can of cranberry sauce, flour, sugar, potatoes, cheese, milk, tea, oranges, chocolate bars and several kinds of fresh vegetables. “You must be out making deliveries,” she guessed with a smile, “but I think it’s cold enough so you could have left the basket in the car.”
Luke laughed. “No, I couldn’t. The basket’s for you.”
“I didn’t order anything,” Sarah protested. “There must be some mistake.”
“Oh, there’s no mistake. I know you didn’t order the groceries, but I’m giving them to you because of Ben.”
“I don’t understand.” Belatedly, she remembered her manners. “Please, sit down.”
Luke did so. “As I was saying, I wanted to give you a little something this Christmas because of what Ben did for me.”
Steven had been listening with interest to the conversation. “Dad did something for you? What was it?”
Luke’s face turned a pale pink. “Several years ago I went through some trouble at home. Looking back on it, it doesn’t seem like anything so awful, but at the time I was at my wit’s end. To tell you the truth I started drinking to drown my misery. Ben found out about it when he stopped by the store after work one day. He asked me to cut him some of that fancy ham he liked, but I was so drunk I almost cut my finger off. I was bleeding fit to kill so he wrapped my hand for me and locked up the store. Then he took me to the emergency room. He came back the next day to find out if I was okay, and let me tell you I was awful ashamed to face him.”
Luke’s eyes started to twinkle. “Ben said I owed him a free pound of ham. He also gave me a Bible. He told me Jesus was the cure for any trouble or problem, and he dared me to put Him to the test.
“I’d never been a religious man, but something about Ben impressed me. Maybe it was because he never acted holier than thou. He acted like he really cared about me; he acted like he really did know something I didn’t know but needed to.
“Well, I started reading, and by the time I got to John 3:16 and read, For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have eternal life, I was a goner. I started to cry, and I fell to my knees right there in the store and begged Him to forgive me.
“I went home and patched up things with my wife. That very day I joined an Alcoholics Anonymous group, and the following Sunday I showed up in church with my entire family.” He paused to snicker at the memory. “It sure did surprise everyone to see me.”
He stood up and put his hat back on. “A basket of groceries isn’t much compared to eternal life, Sarah, but it’s what I have to offer. Merry Christmas.”
Luke cut off her protest by hurrying to his truck.
“Did you know Dad did that?” Steven asked.
Sarah shook her head. “No, but I’m glad for Luke’s sake that he did.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in God.”
“Well¦ What I meant was that I’m glad he made up with his wife and went to AA.”
“Can I have an orange?” Tim asked as he sniffed the basket.
Why not? If Luke wanted to be generous let him. “Dig in,” she urged, and both Steven and Tim selected an orange. Heck, she’d eat one herself.
The oranges tasted of sunshine and balmy weather. The entire family lost themselves in the sweetness of the treat, and as Sarah washed her hands a car pulled into the driveway. “We sure are popular tonight,” she muttered.
Snow crunched underfoot as she stepped onto the porch to meet their guest. She didn’t know this man, and she thought he looked Hispanic. “Hi, can I help you?” she asked.
In heavily accented English the man answered, “I am looking for Sarah Jeffords.”
“I’m Sarah Jeffords.”
Truthfully, she didn’t much like the look of this guy. He wore a dirty, stained, corduroy jacket and heavy work boots, and he drove a rust-bucket of a pickup truck. Still, though, it was cold, and on closer inspection, the man had a kind look in his eyes. She stepped aside and gestured for him to enter.
He stomped his feet off and entered the trailer. “My name is Juan Munoz, and I am here because of your husband.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Munoz, but Ben died a year ago today.”
“I know, but he brought me here as surely as if he had picked up a phone and called me.”
“Mr. Munoz, what are you talking about?”
“I met Ben three years ago. I had applied for a job with Smith Industries, but the man who interviewed me did not like me. I guessed he did not like Hispanics, but there was nothing I could do about that.” He smiled. “I cannot change who I am, nor would I want to.
“Anyway, Ben was leaving for lunch as I left the building. He spoke to me and asked me if I would be working for Smith Industries. I told him no, and when he asked me why I told him. He turned around and took me back with him to his office, and he interviewed me. Afterwards he gave me a job in the finishing department.”
“Ben always had a good heart,” Sarah muttered.
“I once asked him why he did it,” Munoz said, “and he told me he did it because if God is no respecter of persons, neither should he be. Because of his kindness to me and my family I have saved enough money to buy a home, and best of all we have started to attend a small church not far from our house. The Christian love Ben showed to a stranger changed our lives and purchased us a mansion in glory.”
Munoz reached into his pocket and took out an envelope. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Jeffords.”
He left as quickly as he had come, leaving the envelope with Sarah.
“Open it, Mom,” Steven called.
She ripped the envelope open and withdrew a beautiful Christmas card. The card glittered with fake snow, and in the background a pretty cottage with all of its lights turned on beckoned the traveler to stop and celebrate the season. “What a pretty card, boys. Isn’t it nice that he brought it to us?”
She opened the card to read the verse and gasped. “Look at this! He gave us a hundred dollars!”
“Let me see,” Tim cried. He dashed over and stared with awe at the bill in his mother’s hand. “Wow, I’ve never seen that much money before.”
“We can’t take this,” Sarah protested. “Look his name up in the phone book, Steven. I doubt he has the money to spare.”
Steven shook his head. “You’ll hurt his feelings if you do. He wants to do something for Dad, and this is the only thing he could think of. Be gracious and take the money.”
Sarah hugged her wise son. “You’re right, Steven. I wouldn’t hurt his feelings for the world. We’ll use the money to help with our Christmas.”
She halfway expected another visit, but Mr. Munoz was their last caller. The boys took their baths and got ready for bed, and she locked up. She missed Ben tonight. Last year had been so hellish! They had buried Ben early on Christmas Eve so the mortuary employees could have their Christmas holiday. Yet, in spite of the season, the church had swarmed with people. Every single seat had been filled, including the folding chairs at the back of the sanctuary.
She had spent Christmas Day in a drugged daze, but this year she had no drugs to dull the pain. This year she’d try to remember the good times, not that horror last year, and thanks to the generosity of Luke and Mr. Munoz their Christmas would be a great deal brighter.
Steven had to work the next day, but the doctor’s office where Sarah worked had closed for Christmas Eve so she had the day off. “I’ll go to Super Mart early this morning,” she told the boys over breakfast. “Tim, Mrs. Parker wants you to stay at her house while I’m gone.”
Tim agreed, probably because he knew she intended to shop for him, and Steven took himself off to work. She watched as he rounded the corner and disappeared from view. What a fine son! He took his role as man of the house very seriously. He hadn’t missed a day of work since he found his job, and he kept his grades up too.
He really needed a new calculator for school. His teacher had one he could use in the classroom, but he needed one to use at home. She had no idea how expensive they were, but she wanted him to have one in the worst way.
She dropped Tim off at the Parkers and drove to Super Mart. The discount store swarmed with last minute bargain hunters. It took forever to find a parking place, and once she did she had to cope with the throngs of people who didn’t seem to mind knocking you out of their way if you didn’t move fast enough.
She found a jacket and shoes for Tim right away. Good. He needed both of them. Then she made her way to the electronics department. She saw the calculator she wanted in a display case. She also saw the price. One hundred seventy five dollars. Her heart sank, but wait a minute. Sometimes the store put things on sale at the last minute. It couldn’t hurt to ask.
She waited for a long time before a tired looking, harassed clerk spoke to her. “Can I help you?”
“Yes.” She pointed to the calculator. “I wanted to know if it’ll be going on sale anytime today.”
“Sorry, ma’am. It went off sale yesterday, and somebody forgot to change the price. It’s back to the original price of two hundred ten today. If you can wait for the after Christmas sales I’m sure the price’ll go down.”
Dejectedly she fought her way through the mass of people. Maybe she could give Steven a note promising he’d get the calculator after Christmas. For the first time she felt a spurt of anger at Ben. How could he not have seen to it that he put his financial house in order?
She decided to buy a coke in the snack bar. She needed to sit down and think.
She had to wait for a table, and by the time she finally sat down she felt close to tears. Steven deserved a lot more than a calculator, and she couldn’t even buy the stupid thing for him!
A woman nearby who wore a nice wool coat cleared her throat and Sarah looked up at her. “You can sit with me if you want,” she offered, thinking that the woman had probably been hinting with her throat clearing.
“Thank you. I believe I will.” She took a seat beside Sarah and gestured toward Tim’s coat and shoes. “Christmas presents?”
“Yes. For my son.”
“You don’t recognize me, do you?”
Sarah blushed. “No, I don’t think so. Have we met?”
“Yes, we have. I’m Mindy West. I work at the laundry where Mr. Jeffords had his shirts done.”
“Yes, you do look familiar now. I’m sorry I didn’t know you.”
“No problem. I first saw you in the electronics department, and when I saw you sitting over here I decided you should know what Mr. Jeffords did for my family five years ago.”
“What did he do?”
Mrs. West smiled. “Do you believe in coincidences, Mrs. Jeffords?”
“Please, call me Sarah. I don’t know if I believe in them or not. Do you?”
“No, I don’t. I think things happen exactly as God means for them to, and what we call coincidences are nothing more than evidences of God’s love.”
Sarah was not in the mood to hear this, but talking to Mrs. West beat going home in defeat. “Do you have a specific coincidence in mind?”
Mrs. West nodded. “I do. Five years ago my husband left me for another woman. My son was taking physics at school and needed a calculator for the class, but my husband had cleaned out our checking and saving accounts, and I didn’t have a penny to my name. My mother finally found fifty dollars for me, but that was all. I had no reason to come here, but on Christmas Eve I came to the store anyway, hoping for a miracle I guess.”
“Did you get one?” Sarah politely inquired.
“Yes, I did. I got a miracle in the form of your husband. He was buying a CD and said hello to me. We struck up a conversation, and I saw he guessed why I hadn’t bought that calculator.
“Right there on the spot he bought it for me. I’ll never forget what he said that day. He said God had blessed him with a good job and plenty of material goods, and since it all belonged to God anyway he figured he should pass it on.”
Sarah’s eyes blurred with tears as she remembered all the times Ben had treated her to things that she wanted. “He was incredibly generous,” she admitted. “I’m glad he could help you.”
“And I’m glad I have a chance to repay him.” She passed a package to Sarah. “Merry Christmas from Ben.”
She was talking to herself. Mrs. West had scurried away.
She knew what she’d find in the bag, but she looked anyway. Yes, there it was. The calculator that Steven needed. She felt as if a huge burden had lifted from her heart. Her good boys would both have a Christmas this year after all.
Silently she blessed those who had been so kind to them. People were good at heart after all.
She paid for Tim’s coat and shoes and decided to stop at the pharmacy on the way home. Her asthma had been under control lately, but she’d felt a little tightening in her chest last night. With the extra money she had left over she could have her prescription refilled.
Many people must have worried about running out of their medication over Christmas because the lines here were awful too. She had to wait for forty five minutes. She paid for her medicine at the pharmacy counter and started wending her way back outside.
“Mrs. Jeffords! Mrs. Jeffords!”
Sarah turned around and saw a teenage girl dressed in the orange coat worn by store personnel. “Can I help you?” she asked.
The lanky girl pushed her hair out of her eyes and handed Sarah a present. The wrapping paper looked so beautiful. The artist had used a dark, navy blue for the background and painted a manger scene that glowed with tenderness and light. “This is for you,” the girl said. “I intended to bring it by your house after I got off work, but since you’re here you can take it now.”
“For me? Who’s it from?”
“It’s from Mr. Jeffords.”
Sarah looked for the girl’s name on her tag. “Penny, why are you doing this? Don’t you know Mr. Jeffords died last year? This is a cruel joke to play.”
“Oh no! This is no joke! Last year back in November Mr. Jeffords came to the pharmacy to pick up his medicine. He told me he wouldn’t be here next Christmas, which is this Christmas, and he asked me if I’d hold a gift for him and give it to you this year.”
“Why would he ask you to do such a favor for him?”
“Oh, he knew I’d be glad to. Mr. Jeffords drove the church bus that picked me up for church on Sundays. My parents didn’t go to church, and if it wasn’t for Mr. Jeffords I couldn’t have either. So, you see, I owe him a favor. If it wasn’t for him I might never have known that Jesus loves me.”
“I know you must miss him, but don’t feel too sad. He’s waiting for you in Heaven this very minute, and you know what?”
“I bet his Christmas is a lot better than anything we have here on earth.”
Sarah bit her lip to keep from crying. “Thank you, Penny.”
“Oh, you’re welcome. Have a Merry Christmas.”
Penny went back to work, and Sarah carried her precious gift to the car. For months she had resisted the impulse to drive by the home she had shared with Ben and the boys, but with his gift on the seat beside her she gave in and turned her car toward Spear’s Forest.
She slowed to a crawl as she turned onto Oakdale Street. Oh, everything looked so familiar and dear! At least it did until she passed her own house. The people who bought the house had put a huge flock of pink flamingos in the front yard, and each flamingo wore a Santa hat. She parked on the side of the road for a good look.
How awful! Mrs. Reynolds next door must be livid! She took decorating quite seriously, thank you. She took a closer look, and her eyes blurred. Honestly! She’d been such a crybaby lately!
She noticed other changes too. The new owners had cut down the shrubbery Ben had planted, and they had painted the driveway a brick red color that clashed with the flamingos. They’d also stuck artificial plants in the window boxes, garish, plastic plants by the look of them.
It looked nothing at all like the home she and Ben had created for their family. A new sense of grief and loss fell on Sarah, and she started to cry in earnest. Through her tears she saw someone open the front door and knew she had to move on. They probably thought she was some kook who planned to break into the house and murder everyone.
She made it safely to the main road, but she knew she had to stop until she could pull herself together. She didn’t want to have an accident and hurt someone. She stopped in the first empty parking lot she saw and cried until no more tears would come. Finally, she blew her nose and looked around.
Oh. She had stopped at the pretty, little church she had always liked. It looked so nice at Christmas time. They always hung a big, green wreath on the door and put a tasteful crÃ¨che near the front of the church.
She’d never been inside before; wonder what it looked like? She saw a sign beside the crÃ¨che that said, The church will be open all day on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Feel free to come in and pray at your convenience. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Maybe she would go in.
She liked the church the moment she opened the door. They had painted the sanctuary in a soft beige color that complemented the dark woodwork in the building. The ceiling soared toward Heaven and directed the eye upward, but Sarah loved the stained glass windows most. One window in particular almost mesmerized her.
The window showed Christ carrying a lamb in his arms. Behind Him, an entire flock of sheep peacefully grazed. Why did this window capture her attention to the exclusion of the others? In fact, several of the others looked much more colorful.
She sat down on a pew near the front of the church to study the window. The door at the back of the church opened with a squeal of its hinges, and a stranger came in and took a seat beside her even though all of the pews were empty.
“Hello, Sarah,” he said.
Sarah immediately felt drawn to this man, maybe because of the look in his soft, brown eyes, a kind, empathetic expression that said he’d seen all life had to offer and understood it quite well. “I don’t think we’ve met. How do you know my name?” she asked.
“Ben told me.”
“Really? Would you mind if I asked your name?”
“Oh, you can call me Joseph.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Joseph.”
They sat together in a companionable silence for several minutes. What was it about that window?
“For God so loved the world, Sarah.”
Sarah jumped as though her new friend had jabbed her with a pin. “That’s exactly what Ben used to say! I’ve even seen him write those words under his name when he signed checks.”
“Ben knew and recognized the truth, and he shared it with everyone he met. Couldn’t you feel God’s love working through Ben? Think of all the wonderful things people have done for you this Christmas. Don’t they prove that the love which sent Christ to the cross triumphs even over the grave?”
Tears rained down her face, but Sarah barely felt them. “Did you feel that love too, Joseph?” she whispered. “What was it like to hold God in your arms?”
Her head jerked up when she heard Joseph call from the pulpit, “For God so loved the world, Sarah.”
Emotion flooded Sarah and expanded until it filled her entire chest and leaked out her eyes in the form of joyful tears. It was true! Everything Ben had told her was true!
Sarah blinked, and when she looked again Joseph had gone. A door opened behind the choir loft, and a man slowly approached Sarah and introduced himself. He looked about her age, and his plain face glowed with earnestness. “Hi, I’m Reverend Jenkins. You’ve been here awhile, and I wondered if I could help you in any way.”
Grief, pain, and loss rolled from Sarah’s heart and with one more look at that glorious window she said, “Yes, you can help me, Reverend Jenkins. You can tell me about Jesus.”
From somewhere in eternity Ben called, “For God so loved the world, Sarah,” and Sarah replied, “For God so loved the world, Ben. Don’t you dare start decorating that mansion without me.”
“What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety nine and go to the mountains to see the one that is straying? And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety nine that did not go astray.” Matthew 18:12-13