April Story of the Month: I Heard the Clouds Say Something That Easter Morn

Easter Sunday, Late 1960s

The Lowe Family did not miss church on Easter Sunday.

Mom and Dad didn’t think twice about skipping it every other Sunday of the year, but attending the Easter service was a must do. It was like they figured the liveliness of Spring stirred God into bursting from his year-long patience with them. It was time to get into the pews before they felt his wrath.

Plus there was that whole “sin” and “Jesus died, but he’s alive” thing that they told us Easter was all about.

Mom and Dad had both been brought up to know God and the Christian faith. They shared those beliefs with us (me and five other siblings) in unique ways. For example, Mom told us that all the bad things we did until we were teenagers counted as sins against her. We felt crummy about that. So, Mom had a flock of well-behaved children; we lived in fear of being responsible for her being sent to hell.

I love my Mom and Dad. With all that life had handed to them, at least they tried. Besides the guilt they felt for not attending church throughout the year, perhaps they thought sitting under a fire-breathing pastor on Easter Sunday would burn off the thick layers of sin we had piled on all year.

As a child, Christmas was our main celebration of Christianity. My mother loved Jesus through her Christmas celebrations, and she made sure her children did, too. My young self cared little about my parents’ guilty feelings and only a bit more about Jesus’ death on the cross. Better than that, Easter meant new clothes and shoes, and the tangy smell of vinegar. Boiling water steamed up the windows and we’d draw pictures with our fingers. There was that miracle of colored drops transforming a stupid egg into a thing of beauty. That was Easter for me.

The Lowe kids looked sharp as usual on that Easter Sunday: Three girls in frilly dresses and pressed hair, and three boys in button-down shirts and pressed pants.

As we climbed into the car, I noticed the clouds. Cotton candy thick, the type that stirred a child’s thoughts and imagination. They were not unusual for the season, but on that particular morning, when I looked at those clouds, I felt like their fullness and brilliance were saying something to me. Something about God.

And right then I wondered: Did God ever think about me?

The preacher’s sermon was about Nicodemus, and he would shout and pound on the podium when he said the name:

Nicodemus! He came to Jesus at night.

Nicodemus! Didn’t want nobody seeing him there.

Nicodemus! You must be born again, Jesus said. Nicodemus!

He went on and on about this man who was afraid of his friends and didn’t understand a mystery. I wasn’t impressed: Okay, so, this Nicodemus man believed in Jesus. Good for him. I want my Easter basket. When will this be over?

And then the preacher started talking about Jesus coming back, and that Jesus would use the clouds to get here.

Clouds? I perked up.

“He died, YES! he rose, YES! and one day, I said, ONE day he will return!”

Return?

“To take you home to heaven, children!”

Heaven?

“He’s coming in the CLOUDS, brothers!”

The clouds? I looked out the window.

“In clouds of GLO-ry, sisters!”

Sisters? Me?

I had heard it all before, but this time that return in those clouds to take me sounded both scary and … wonderful.

The preacher was a sight. He was yelling about a rapture and a new earth, and he was taking throaty breaths between sentences, and he was slapping the podium, harder, harder, faster, faster, like it was the devil telling him to stop preaching, stop it, STOP IT!

Because someone’s heart was being moved.

“The Crazy Part” was my childish name for what came next. Everyone started singing with the choir. Men, women, and children were up, clapping, shifting, and stomping. Soon the Lowes were, too. It was infectious. Since church wasn’t the norm, I was a bit wary of acting that way in God’s house, like it was our living room with the Top 40 hits blasting from the radio.

The piano player was moving side to side, his shoulders working into a chunky rhythm of soulful song. Women were hopping on one leg, up and down the aisle and in the front of the pews, doing that dancing, “slain in the Spirit,” where those women would let go and let God.

This both frightened and humored me, especially when the old ladies fell to the ground, shaking and writhing and screaming. And I was embarrassed because they were sharing all of their female garments while they were down there. They didn’t seem to care. I looked at Mom, her eyes focused straight ahead on the preacher like nothing unusual was happening.

My brothers and sisters were trying hard not to laugh because we knew to whom that sin would go.

Soon the fans were fanning and the women were settled. The congregation was excused. The Lowe Family had appeased their God for another year.

We went home to the Easter baskets and all was well. Except, I kept thinking about those clouds. I walked to my bedroom and went to the window.

I looked out.

The afternoon sun was shining through the clouds just so. Majestic, soft and inviting. Glory!

Was he coming today?

I tried to imagine what home would be like in heaven. “Happy” was the word that settled in my heart. Things in my earthly home had not been going well. Mom and Dad were yelling, cussing, hitting, throwing. They talked about Jesus like he was something special, but their lives showed me another story.

I stayed there by the window, nesting in the hope of a safe and happy Day. Then the clouds moved on and I gave in to the enticement of kitchen smells and sibling voices.

Things were back to normal. Dad was fixing lunch and singing along with the radio. Mom was in the yard with a cigarette and a neighbor. Brothers and sisters were in front of the television, satisfied with their jelly beans and marshmallow bunnies. I grabbed my basket and joined them.

Easter Sunday. Tomorrow’s Monday.

It took me decades of selfishness and sorrow, topped with the frustrations of motherhood, to finally listen to a God who deserved my attention. When I made the great exchange at age 30, and gave my life to Jesus Christ for his, I remembered that cloudy Easter morn. Through the clouds, the preacher, the singing, the rolling-around old ladies — even our rare church attendance — Jesus the Risen Savior had been calling my name.

My greatest regret is that I did not answer him sooner.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, I give myself away;
‘Tis all that I can do.

(From the hymn “Alas, and Did My Saviour Bleed?” by Isaac Watts, 1707)

Ode to Bandit (And Beloved Animals Everywhere)

One year ago today, I made the sad announcement that my beloved Bandit had died.

Journal Entry, 2/27/19 AM: “Bandit is not doing well. Please take him, Lord, to end his suffering.”

February 27, 2019. The day was cold, and it was raining hard. Bandit was 14 years old, had lost a lot of weight, and could barely walk. But that morning, while he was outside — he did love to play in the rain — Bandit found the strength to make his way through a fully-fenced backyard in search of a solitary place to die.

When I arrived home from work, the rain was still coming down, as it had been all day. Then, I heard the news. Bandit had not been seen since 10:00 that morning.

It is safe to say that I went into a bit of shock. When I left Bandit that morning, he had spent thirty minutes in my arms. Yes, I had prayed to God for his suffering to end, but I could not have imagined that his taking would be in such a heartbreaking way. When I heard that Bandit was lost, my mind saw him in terrible ways: lying under a bush, alive, cold and soaked, still suffering and near death; dead and covered with the things that crawl from the earth to consume corpses; and worst — dead, in the middle of some nearby street, picked to pieces by crows.

I cried loudly as I rushed through the front and back yards, peering under bushes and cars, calling his name, all to no avail. I tried to pull myself together as I called the City animal shelter and gave Bandit’s description.

My dear neighbors, Tom and Nancy, placed a “Lost Animal” report in NextDoor to get the word out in the area.

Nothing.

Journal Entry, 2/27/19 PM: Love that cat so much. I hope he isn’t suffering. God sent that cat to me during the horrible days of divorce, when I felt lonely and rejected. Bandit was so affectionate from Day One and to the end. I knew the end was near. Still, I wanted him to die in my arms — not alone.

That evening was the first time in decades I had trouble sleeping. Where was Bandit? I assumed he was dead. The worst part of it was not knowing what he had gone through and where he had died. It cut into my heart like a twisting knife.

Journal Entry, 2/28/19 PM: He’s in God’s hands — that’s where. Peace in that, but sad that he’s not here while he’s so old and frail. Strange how things change in a blink. God allowed this bit of tragedy. One of the saddest days of my life. I miss him. I wonder why God took him from me in this way. I want to bury his little body if it’s somewhere outside.

We love our pets like they are members of the family, don’t we?

Bandit had become a star on Facebook, with his feline perfection and ability to give me great joy. I received many comments of condolence. How is it that a human being can be so in love with a creature who can only speak to you with a lick to the face or a paw to the cheek — or a purr as he nestles, for the last time, in your lap, enjoying your hand-strokes across his fur, and looks up at you with complete adoration while you wonder what you did to deserve such unconditional love.

Journal Entry, 3/1/19 PM: SOMEONE FOUND BANDIT!! The Cat and Bird Clinic left a message for me in response to the lost ad. A woman found him Wed AM and took him to the clinic. Thank you, God! Bandit had not been outside very long. The clinic put him on an IV, but he died there on Thursday, 2/28/19. So grateful to God that He led a person to Bandit, and that he was with people dedicated to helping cats specifically. I will never be able to give back to God what He gave me by providing a safe, warm, loving place for my beloved Bandit to die if he couldn’t be with me.

Bandit had been in God’s hands, and I knew that he would be, but this? As I spoke with the clinic, I imagined the expert treatment and care that Bandit received there. What’s more, the woman who found him PAID for the care. I mumbled my thanks through bittersweet tears, and said I would mail a check to reimburse the kind woman.

Bandit was cremated there.

Journal Entry, 3/3/19 AM: Last night I dreamed that Bandit was here, but I was the only one who could see him.

Last week, one of our students came to school in tears. Her pet dog had died, and she was visibly sad the entire day. I was able to speak with her about Bandit and how I was still mourning him a full year after his death. She said, “I’m so sorry,” and I know she completely understood. We consoled each other over the loss of good friends.

During lunch that day, I pulled out my novel and came to the chapter where the family had agreed to keep a lost dog. I was astonished as I read this: “Mma Ramotswe was touched by the sight. There was something particularly appealing, she thought, about children lavishing care on an animal. They were repaying, in a way, the love and care given to them, showing that the message that we should look after one another had not fallen on stony ground. A child who loved a pet was showing the love that would in due course be given to another, and that was a reassurance. Love was like rain: there could be periods of drought when it seemed that love would never return, would never make its presence felt again. In such times, the heart could harden, but then, just as droughts broke, so too could love suddenly appear, and heal just as quickly and completely as rain can heal the parched land.” (From Precious and Grace, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series, #17, by Alexander McCall Smith)

“They were, in a way, repaying the love and care given to them.” As a child of God, I felt as if I was receiving a lesson from Him through this author’s beautiful words. My love for Bandit was another way for me to “repay” the love and care God has given to me. Bandit was a gift, and loving him was thanking the Giver. With that, I shall always remember my beloved Bandit as one who gave me the opportunity to show love for my awesome God.

Journal Entry 3/5/19 AM: I miss Bandit’s presence. A sweet creature to pour love and care into — now I can give that to someone else. Whom shall it be?

Maybe it’s time to “repay” God again in this way. Kitten or adult cat? [Update: I adopted a cat in March 2020, right when COVID hit!]

But Now She Sees

I had the privilege of singing “Amazing Grace” this afternoon at the memorial service for a dear woman and longtime member of my church. Rosemary was 97 when she died. Her losses of hearing and sight began when she was in her fifties.

To end the hymn, I planned to repeat the first verse, the last line being “Was blind but now I see” — a reference to the author’s spiritual change after becoming a Christian.

But it turns out that God wanted something different. For when it came time for me to sing that last line, the words we all heard instead were — through no prior thought of my own — “She was blind, but now she sees.”

My voice shook and tears fell as I sang those words directly to Sue, Rosemary’s daughter, from whom I sensed a beautiful peace. I cannot adequately describe this precious moment, but I hope you get at least some idea from what I write here.

Rosemary sees. After 40 years. Now. In heaven gazing clearly at her God with love and awe.

I tell you, there is no greater joy for me than singing the Truth.

What Moved Me the Most About Hidden Figures Didn’t Happen on the Screen

Hidden Figures poster

The man at the box office appeared unsure when I told him I was the guest of a VIP.

“Hmm. What’s your name?” He checked his list, found my name, and gave me a look that conveyed “Should I know you?”

I played along and gave him my best movie star smile. “I have a friend on her way. Please be sure she is given a seat if I’m inside when she arrives.”

The December day was gorgeous — sunny and warm as usual in this part of the country. As I waited in front of the theater, I noticed a woman staring at me. After an awkward few minutes of smiling at each other, she approached me. I did not recognize her, and my mind started doing that “going through the faces file” thing. Nope. She was not there.

“Hello,” I said. That was as good an icebreaker as I could come up with at the moment. Who is this woman, and why is she looking at me like that? Is it the boots? I shouldn’t have worn the boots. Too casual for a VIP event?

“Hello!” Big smile. “Do you need a ticket? If you’re trying to get in, I can give you a ticket.” Another big smile. It looked almost motherly.

“Uh, no. I’m good.” I did consider telling her that I was Kevin and Christine Costner’s guest, but I decided to keep that little nugget to myself.

We chatted about the movie and our good fortune to attend a private screening before its release. I chose to turn my thoughts away from the initial impression she gave me and tried to enjoy our conversation. “Where is Meredith?!?” did keep popping up in my thoughts, despite my efforts to keep it down.

“Do you know Oprah?” Out of the blue.

I took a deep mental breath. “Personally? No.”

“She lives here, you know.”

My deep breathing may or may not have been audible that time.

We continued with more chit-chat about Oprah, the weather, and other famous people who live in our city.

“I know someone who lived in the South.” Her eyes narrowed and she waited for me to let this sink in.

Uh-oh. Was this woman going to reveal a family secret to me? Cruel slave owners? A lynching? Cousins with mysteriously dark skin?

She continued. “I asked her ‘Do you have maids?’ She said yes! I asked her ‘Did they go inside the house through another door?’ She said yes! I could not believe it!” Her eyes were so wide and her voice was so loud that I completely believed that she could not believe it.

“The movie is about to begin. Please take your seats.” Saved by the announcement, I bid the woman farewell. My friend had not yet arrived, but I was glad for the opportunity to move into a dark theater where I supposed I would not stand out as much as I did outside.

The back row was perfect — my friend could find me easily when she arrived. Her text explained that she had ridden her bicycle across town to the wrong theater — my mistake! — and she was on her way.

I wondered about the life of that woman. Why did she feel the need to share with me the things that she did? I felt sorry for her. She was laying a few of her burdens on me in a way that revealed more about herself than she probably wanted to expose.

Scanning the audience, and comfortable in my seat, I noticed that I was the only black woman in the theater.

Three years ago this month, the story of three women was released as a movie. Hidden Figures introduced the world to Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn — black women who worked as mathematicians for NASA during the Space Race, and used their fantastic minds to put a man into space and on the moon. The movie goes even further to show how these women were pioneers in the areas of racial equality and equal opportunity for black women.

I heard nothing about them while I was growing up during the decades in which these women performed their now-famous work. In school, I loved studying math and science. Yet the only black women that I recall receiving glory from the adults in my community were singers and social activists.

I chose singing.

Finally. I caught sight of my friend entering the theater. She hopped over the back railing to join me. After an introduction from the film festival’s moderator, and a teaser for Kevin Costner’s Q&A after the showing, the movie began.

There was much for me to love about Hidden Figures: Untold history; proof that a PG rating can catch and hold an audience; marriage honored throughout; the excellent acting and captivating storytelling; and, best of all, an ending that left the audience with cheering and uplifted hearts.

The audience rewarded it with a standing ovation, and I was sure that Hidden Figures would be nominated for an Academy Award. “Best Picture” was my hope. It was that good, that entertaining, that educational, that moving.

But something happened while I was watching the movie that is etched in my memory and my heart.

We were at the pivotal scene where Katherine Johnson finally lets her emotions take over to explain why she is away from her desk for long periods. She is at NASA in a room full of white men who have belittled and insulted her day after day.

The movie theater was silent as, through this scene, we all experienced — in one moment, at the same time — the hideous effects of racism.

Then, I heard it. I felt it. I looked to my left.

A older woman sitting next to me was shaking from her silent cry. I saw tears slowly rolling down her cheeks. She looked straight ahead, not once at me.

At that instant, I put aside the fact that I was the black person. I was the one who should be comforted, right?

Instead, I wrapped my arm around her shoulders. We each laid our head against the other’s.

“It’s not like this anymore,” I whispered. “It’s better now.” She did not reply, but that did not bother me.

It is hard to explain my emotions as I saw this woman’s grief. Suffice it to say that I felt a combination of pity, sadness, and love. For a stranger? Yes. For a white stranger? Yes. At a movie on the topic of racism? Yes. My God calls upon me to live this way.

I will never know what thoughts brought such sadness to that woman. She was up from her seat immediately after the credits.

Perhaps it was solely the power of the scene doing what it was designed to do.

Perhaps she remembered a past action which came back with a flood of guilt and regret.

Perhaps she had experienced an injustice herself — against her skin color, in her marriage, within a job position — and this scene was a reminder of a genuine hurt in her life.

Whatever it was, that woman’s silent cry was real, and it moved me. I will always connect her with this movie.

Later, as I remembered the woman I had met earlier in front of the theater, I realized she was crying silently as well, though in a hidden way of her own.

We all have a sad story to share. We all have hearts that can listen and empathize. If you haven’t seen Hidden Figures, please find a copy and watch it. Be moved by the story, and then make it your goal to be moved to help the hidden figures in your own life.

Here is the scene that evoked the tears, along with the following scene which shows Al Harrison (Costner’s character) and his reaction to Katherine’s revelation:

Katherine’s reply to Harrison’s question “Where the hell do you go every day?”

2020: I Can See Clearly Now

Happy New Year!

Flashback.

December 31, 1999, 11:55 p.m., stiff chair, home office:

Picture me in front of my Gateway computer, watching the digital clock tick off the minutes. I was alone and anxious. At midnight, the Year 2000 (Y2K) problem would either occur or not. If the experts were correct, my computer, their computers, the entire world’s computer systems would fail.

An event like that would be disastrous for me. You see, up to and including that very moment, 1999 had been a disturbing year:

  • In January, my husband came home for lunch one day. He let me know he did not want to be married to me anymore. 
  • He left, but half of the “marriage debt” that we legally shared did not. I had been a stay-at-home-wife/mom. Now I was on my own with a 10-year-old son and a typing service with two clients. Rent, food, utilities, and the debt from the marriage — there was more money due than I had coming in. Thank God for child support laws.
  • I gave my typing service an overhaul and called it a secretarial and design business. I worked brutal hours to get it established and gained a good stable of clients. Transcription, graphics, resumes, spreadsheets — without a working computer, I would not have a business. 
  • In November, my mother died of cancer at the age of 68.

And there I was, New Year’s Eve 1999, staring at my computer, after a year like no other, and with the world on the edge of sci-fi-esque destruction simply because a coder didn’t think about a new millennium.

Fast forward. 

December 31, 2019, 11:00 p.m., comfortable sofa, living room:

I am typing on a MacBook Air, which is pretty much the size of my old Gateway’s keyboard with about a million times the power. Twenty years have zipped by:

  • Today we laugh about Y2K.
  • I did not remarry. In the early days of the divorce, I felt that, as a woman, I was deficient in every way. After a pitiful time of trying to convince myself otherwise, I prayed that God would help me to remember who I was in His eyes. He did. That was the beginning of my total satisfaction with being a God-dependent woman. I think men are wonderful, but having time and space all to myself is a gift — definitely not for everyone, but it has been God’s plan for me. 
  • (Side Note: Recently, a co-worker asked me if I had a boyfriend. “No, I don’t. I haven’t had a boyfriend since I met my ex-husband forty years ago.” I gave her my divorce details and ended with this summary: “You really can enjoy the company of men without sleeping with them.” I don’t know if the women who were listening bought into that bit of wisdom, but they all nodded their heads — thoughtfully, at least from what I could tell. Perhaps a little shocked? I laugh when I think of that conversation.)
  • When my son began high school, I retired my business and took on jobs as an administrative assistant. For over a decade, I have enjoyed a steady income and — hallelujah! — company-paid medical insurance. Self-employment is fulfilling, but it is tough to keep your finances in the black when you live in an expensive town and don’t have a second income for the household to enjoy. 

Through it all is God. Present, knowing, unchanging, loving, and forgiving. God carried me and set me down in perfect places, though many of those places would not have been my choices. When I think back on these 20 years of heartbreak, joy, and everything in between, I can see clearly — with a spiritual 2020 vision — that God was, is, and always will be in control of my life, allowing and withholding in ways that He sees best for His purposes, His glory, and my good.

Writing stories, serving my employer, suffering through illnesses, laughing with family, watching loved ones die, or celebrating in a friend’s joy: I want to see and do all of life through God’s eyes, and with the clarity that these past 20 years of His faithfulness give to me.

What is your 2020 vision, goal, focus, hope?

The beautiful art in the photo was created by Cassandria Blackmore, my glass-shattering friend. Visit her website to see more of her awesome work.