Sunday, December 25, 2005

Reaping the Winter Harvest

When people ask me why I believe in God, I never really know what they are expecting me to tell them. So I tell them a story about how offering to cut the pastor’s hair for free brought three special kids into my life. I don’t think there is any easy way to explain faith to a skeptic; but I think it is very easy to share stories and let the stories do the work of faith in people.

Throughout the past year I found myself telling this particular story over and over again to people who were experiencing a crisis of faith or going through some sort of difficult time. I didn’t really know what to do for them, so I told them this story. Every time I told it, the person seemed to feel better afterward (though the story usually made them cry) and they thanked me for sharing it. It occurred to me that more people might benefit from hearing this story.

I can’t take credit for anything that happened, except that occasionally I was paying attention long enough to notice God doing something really cool. In those moments I was able to catch glimpses of a story that is much bigger than my own.

There are any number of places I could have chosen to begin telling this story, because there are several little stories running through the main one and they all overlap a bit. So, I’ll start in the place that seems the most logical to me, though it’s not necessarily the beginning.

Just a week before her twentieth birthday, my daughter caught a flight to the Virgin Islands She was tired of winter and tired of college, so she moved to a warm and sunny place to figure out what to do next. St. Croix is roughly thirty five hundred miles from where I am in Montana, and the distance between us has been a great source of anxiety for me ever since she got on the plane to go. What if something happens to her? What if she runs out of money? What if there’s a hurricane? What if….? Mothers never run out of what-ifs. For the longest time after she left I would wake up in the middle of the night, terror-stricken for no good reason at the thought of her being so far away. At those times I would feel a gentle prodding to pray for her and for myself, since that was really all I could do, as well as the most I could do. This worked a lot better in the long run than I thought it would when I began the exercise. Each time it happened, as I prayed myself through it, releasing my daughter into God’s hands, I felt myself becoming less anxious and eventually fell back asleep. Those midnight exercises in letting go helped me eventually realize I really had no more control over the outcome of my daughter’s life when she was right here in town than I do now that she lives so far away. Through that process I learned to pray more and worry less, and to release my daughter’s fate to the only force that could affect it. and stayed.

Six months after that, the company I was working for had a round of layoffs, which I managed to survive. But the reason I had come to work for this company two years earlier was that after having been self-employed for nine years, a regular salary and benefits seemed like a comfortable security blanket. When the layoffs happened I realized the security had been nothing more than a happy illusion. My husband and I agreed that if I were going to live in fear of losing my job, I might as well be self-employed again. We decided I would go back to hairdressing, build a clientele, and work toward that end. That plan also afforded me a more flexible schedule that would allow me to finish my teaching certificate and attend graduate school.

The first salon I went to didn’t work out. But while I was there I made a friend. She was a regular weekly client of one of my coworkers. I got to know her during that time and looked forward to her weekly shampoo-and-style. I ultimately left that salon and went into business for myself, and was sad at the thought of not seeing my salon friend once a week anymore. Before I had a chance to miss her, however, we were reunited in the next scene of this story.

About that same time, my husband and I became dissatisfied with the church we had been going to. After having attended two small churches in a row that each experienced a rift within the congregation resulting in a mass exodus, I built a spreadsheet that contained a list of twenty-or-so churches we would spend an indefinite period of time visiting until we found one that was right for us.

That is how we found ourselves at the church we now attend, attempting to check off our list a church neither of us thought would pass muster. We were attending our obligatory first service at the first church on our list, fully intending to move on to the next church on the list the following weekend. It just didn’t seem possible that we would find the right church on the first try. As of this writing we have been members of that church for nearly two years. We never visited any of the other churches on the list, because we both felt we had “come home” that Sunday; and we have felt that way every Sunday since then.

Perhaps one of the contributing factors to that homey feeling was that the friend I had made at the salon I had just quit working in was there on our first visit. She greeted me with a hug and a kiss, and we wondered at this coincidence that had put us there together at that particular place and time. As it turns out, she has been a member of that church for somewhere in the neighborhood of forty years. Sometime after that, her regular hairdresser moved away and she became my client. I have had the privilege of seeing her every week, twice a week, for nearly the last two years. Looking back, I think it is ironic how often we call providential events “coincidence.”

On our first Sunday at that church nearly two years ago, three significant things happened, though I didn’t recognize them as such at the time. The first one has already been mentioned: my friend and hairdressing client was there to greet me on our first visit.

The second significant thing that happened was that the pastor thanked the congregation for all they had been doing for he and his wife. By way of explanation for folks like my husband and myself who were just visiting that day, he mentioned that she was dying of cancer. How odd, I thought at the time, that we should get full disclosure on the most important thing going on in the pastor’s life during our first visit to this church. Of course, it wasn’t odd at all because significant event number two would make sense in the big scheme of things later.

The third significant thing that happened that Sunday was that the pastor announced during the sermon how much he hates getting his hair cut. Lest you think this extremely odd, please understand that this information was not included in the announcements, but was used somehow as a sermon illustration (the subject of which I have long since forgotten). The reasons he gave for hating to get haircuts included: 1) he hates small-talk; and 2) he hates telling people that he is a pastor, because this admission invites a response informing him of everything that is wrong with Christianity and Christians (as if he doesn’t already know). He proceeded to tell the story of how he had gotten his hair cut very recently (which is probably how this material made into the sermon). He walked into the mall and went into a “walk-ins welcome” hair salon where he was paired up with an available hairdresser.

“So, what do you do?” she asked him, presumably as an icebreaker.

“I’m a shoe salesman,” he replied.

Proving his point that small-talk in a beauty salon is nothing less than torturous for him, she responded, “That sounds really boring,” and it just got worse from there.

Meanwhile, I heard a little “uh-oh” being whispered in the nether regions of my mind. At the last two churches I had attended, I had cut the pastor’s hair, only to find myself in an uncomfortable position later when we moved on to another church. At this pastor’s declaration that he hates getting his hair cut, I found myself internally shouting, “I am NOT cutting this guy’s hair!” Here I was on my first visit to a church that earlier I had thought we most likely would not be visiting a second time, and already I was faced with a pastor who clearly needed a good hairdresser.

“NO! I won’t do it!” I shouted inside my head. We were only visiting, for heaven’s sake! We would probably never see this guy again.

Over the next seven months the pastor reiterated his loathing of haircuts and beauty salons for a total of three times. I privately took the third “haircut lament” as a divine directive and offered to cut his hair for free. I sent him an email that said something like this:

I hardly know you but I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse. You have mentioned several times during sermons how much you hate to get your hair cut, primarily because you don’t like small-talk and you don’t like revealing that you are a pastor. I am a hairdresser (among other things), I also do not like small talk, and I already know you’re a pastor. During my tenure at my last two churches, I cut the pastor’s hair for free. I’d like to do the same for you if you will let me. I could guarantee you a fantastic haircut and you could talk about books, movies, Shakespeare and baseball (or nothing) to your heart’s content.

He emailed me back and accepted, but told me it would be a while before he took me up on the offer, since his last haircut was way too short.

The end of October of that same year found me costumed as the fortune-teller at our annual Pumpkin Carving Festival. The irony of me portraying the fortune-teller but having no idea what would be heading my way in just a few short months is not lost on me now. At that event, the pastor came up to me (still not having had his hair cut yet) and said, “I have a business proposition for you.” He asked if I would be willing to cut his wife’s hair. I told him I would love to, and we made the arrangements. He told me there was no way she would let me cut her hair for free, and if I wouldn’t charge her she wouldn’t let me do it. I agreed to this condition and she came to see me at the salon the next week, accompanied by a friend from church.

I had never met the pastor’s wife before. She was a friendly and endearing woman, and we had a great time. After she left that day, I found myself reflecting on something she had said—the doctors had pretty much given her about three months to live about six months ago, so she believed she was living on borrowed time. I tried to balance that brutal truth with the fact that I had just met a wonderful woman with whom I would never be able to develop any kind of meaningful friendship because of the reality of her impending death. I was extremely sad knowing I would not get to know her better.

About a month and a half later, I was sitting in what had become my usual place on Sunday mornings at 8:30am. Just as it had happened on my first visit to what had become “our church,” on this day three significant things happened. The first two things happened in close succession during the announcements: the pastor’s wife was in the hospital, and so was the husband of my salon friend. I leaned over to my husband and said, “Let’s go to the hospital after church and see if she needs anything.” I was referring to my salon friend—I didn’t know her husband, but I was sure she could use the support. He nodded his agreement. I really had no intention of visiting the pastor’s wife in the hospital, because I sensed she was a very private person and I had only met her once. Deciding this, I refocused my attention on the church service.

The third significant thing occurred during the scripture reading. A girl named Mirra, a member of our church youth group, was reading the scripture before the sermon. The passage was fairly long and she was reading very fast. She stumbled a few times and finally lost her place. After pausing for a brief moment she announced into the microphone, “Crap! I lost my place!” The pastor was sitting behind the pulpit. He calmly got up, looked over her shoulder, pointed to the place where she left off, and then sat back down. Mirra resumed and continued the reading without further incident and sat down with the rest of the congregation.

One of the classes I had just finished that semester as part of my teacher certification program was “Teaching Content Reading Strategies.” What Mirra had just done from the pulpit is called “fake reading,” and is not a reading disorder, but something that we all do from time to time. I had never met Mirra before and had no idea who she was before this happened. To my distraction during the sermon, I was plotting ways I could introduce myself to her and ask if she would be willing to work with me so I could practice the skills I had just learned that semester about overcoming fake reading. I never did sort out exactly how to do that without it sounding like, “You’re reading really stinks; let me help you,” so I abandoned the idea a bit regretfully and refocused on the sermon. As I would later learn, Mirra has no problems with reading whatsoever; she was just nervous. But that incident framed her in my mind for what would happen the next day.

The service ended and my husband and I headed up to the hospital. When we got there we discovered we had just missed my salon friend who had been there all night and had just gone home to change her clothes. We visited with her children for a few minutes and made to leave.

As we were heading back down the hallway, as an afterthought I wondered if the pastor’s wife was receiving visitors. We were already there, after all; it couldn’t hurt to ask. Though I had already decided an hour earlier that she probably wasn’t, I stopped at the nurses’ station and asked.

“Well, who are you?” the nurse demanded in a voice and with an expression that suggested that the answer would most definitely be “no.”

I told her who I was and she said she would go ask the pastor’s wife if she wanted to see me, looking very skeptical as she said so. Not a half a minute later the nurse emerged with a smile on her face saying that yes, she would like to see me. I sent my husband down the hall to a waiting area, and I went in to see the pastor’s wife.

Again we had a great visit. The weight of the reality that every moment with her was a stolen one settled on me as I realized afterward that there would not likely be very many more visits with her in my future. I cried all the way home thinking about a friendship I would never have with a woman I hardly knew.

At the end of the next day, I got the news that the pastor’s wife had passed away that morning. After I hung up the phone, I sat there and had a good cry for about five minutes. Again I found it curious that the death of a woman I barely knew could affect me so powerfully. I pulled myself together and called a friend from church, the one who had brought the pastor’s wife to her haircut at my salon just a month earlier.

Before I had a chance to tell her why I had called she said, “O good. The pastor must have gotten a hold of you.” I told her I didn’t know what she was talking about, that I just called to see if she needed anything, and asked why the pastor was supposed to have called me. She said that the day before, when the pastor’s wife realized that she wasn’t going to be around much longer, she began making a list of last-minute things she had thought of that she wanted to take care of, “…and you were on the list,” she said. I didn’t know what to say. How odd that I had gone to see her only as an afterthought the day before she died, and somehow I ended up on her last minute “to-do” list.

“Me? What was I doing on her list?” I wondered aloud.

“Well, do you know Mirra Halpern?” was her reply.

Things were getting weirder by the minute. I explained to her that, no, I did not know Mirra, but told her about my response to Mirra’s “fake reading” incident from the pulpit the day before.

“My goodness, that is weird,” she said. She then explained that the reason I was on the pastor’s wife’s to-do list is that she wanted me to do something for Mirra. Mirra was a senior in high school at that time and would be graduating at the end of the school year. She was someone the pastor’s wife had a real heart for and felt could use some feminine attention. She wanted to give me some money to hold as credit for Mirra to come into the salon and have her hair cut, colored, styled for the prom, etc. I told her of course I would do it, and I would match the gift. I called Mirra the next day and told her the pastor’s wife had left her a gift, and made arrangements with her to come into the salon for a consultation.

Mirra’s grandmother also goes to our church (but I didn’t know her before these events took place). When she found out Mirra was coming to see me, she asked if Mirra’s younger brother, Ewan, could come along and get his hair cut also. So when Mirra came in for her consultation (the week after the pastor’s wife’s memorial service), I met Ewan also. A few weeks later I met Ilana, their sister, and have been cutting her hair as well. Shortly thereafter, their grandmother became a regular haircut client, followed by many other people from the church.

Shortly after his wife’s memorial service, the pastor finally came in for his first haircut since my initial offer. It was a quiet visit, needless to say, but pleasant (and I think he liked his haircut). As he was putting on his jacket and was about to walk out the door, he turned to me and said, “So, do you know Mirra’s story?” I did not.

He proceeded to tell me that Mirra’s mother has a congenital brain disorder that eventually kills its victims. Mirra’s mom had been suffering from the symptoms of the disease for about ten years, and in the process had undergone a personality change that left her practically unrecognizable to the people who love her. At the time he told me this story, she was in a convalescent hospital, where she remains to this day.

“So, she doesn’t have a mother,” I said.

“No, she doesn’t.”

We said goodbye and he left. I watched him walk down the steps, out of the salon, onto the sidewalk and out of sight. I was still thinking about what he had just told me and suddenly all of the events of the previous year made sense, back to my first day at our church, and even before that to when I decided to return to hairdressing, finish my teaching certificate, and go to graduate school; and even further back to the time when my daughter left for the Virgin Islands.

If my husband and I hadn’t become dissatisfied with our former church, we would never have left it and ended up at the one we are attending now, where I found my friend from the salon, met the pastor, and learned of his loathing for haircuts. If I hadn’t quit my corporate job and returned to hairdressing, I would never have met my friend from the salon; and if I hadn’t met her, I would never have visited the pastor’s wife in the hospital on the day before she died. If I hadn’t offered to cut the pastor’s hair, I would never have met his wife in the first place. And if I hadn’t visited the pastor’s wife in the hospital on the day before she died, I would never have met the Halpern kids.

As I stood there in the salon, thinking about my daughter, the pastor, his wife, and the Halpern kids, though it wasn’t audible I “heard” God saying to me, “Someone has been praying for the Halpern kids just as you have been praying for your daughter. You do what you can for these kids and trust me to take care of your daughter.” The answer to my prayer for my own daughter was the answer to someone else’s prayer for the Halpern kids. I just stood there until it got dark, thinking about that, and finally closed up the salon and went home.

For the next several months, I spent a lot of time getting to know the Halpern kids. Before long they started coming over to my house every Friday night for pizza and movies, and by the end of February our routine was established. About that time, the pastor came into the salon for his third haircut. As he was leaving, he said to me, “Are you sure I can’t pay you for this? I just really feel like I should.”

“There is no way I will let you pay me, because I get far more out of this than you do,” I answered.

“Now, I find that really hard to believe,” he said.

“Let me tell you a story….” I said; and I proceeded to connect the dots of this meandering story, beginning with my offer to cut his hair for free and how that led to me being blessed by the Halpern kids.

Today I am in my usual Sunday morning place with my husband. It has been exactly one year since I sat in this very spot on this very pew and learned that the husband of my salon friend and the wife of the pastor were in the hospital. It was also a year ago today that I saw Mirra for the first time. Today, as usual, my husband is sitting to my left, but things look a little different than they did last year—Ewan is sitting to my right, as he has taken to doing in the last few months. He is writing on the bulletin, as I do every Sunday. I am taking notes on the pastor’s sermon, but Ewan is taking notes on me.

As I look over Ewan’s shoulder, God reminds me that the seemingly coincidental events of the past two years have not been a coincidence at all. The Halpern kids are a permanent fixture in my life now. I do their hair, help them with their homework, harass them when their grades are not as good as they could be, and have them over to my house every Friday for pizza and movies. Their grandmother and I plot together concerning their birthday and Christmas presents, prom dresses and homecoming dances, and all of the other things that go with shepherding three teenagers. I think of them as my kids, though I am an extremely poor stand-in for their mother. I hope they think of me as their friend.

When I think of how sad I was when the pastor’s wife died that I didn’t have an opportunity to get to know her better, I have to laugh now. I doubt I could know her any better if she had not died, and we had spent the last year or so in constant conversation. There is not a day that goes by without me realizing I am in partnership with her concerning these kids. Reflecting on this, I am reminded of something Jesus said:

I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24-25, Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved. )

Perhaps the pastor’s wife knew that planting her life as a seed would bear excellent fruit, or maybe she didn’t. Either way, the result was the same: fruit manifested in the lives of the Halpern kids that we all get to enjoy. It is my hope that we will continue the cycle started by the pastor’s wife, that we would keep finding ways to give ourselves away, and that we will plant our lives as seeds, as she did.

I think the pastor is satisfied with his haircuts, and I’m pretty sure he’s happy that we don’t small talk. But I’m even more certain that it doesn’t really matter. If I hadn’t offered to cut his hair, none of this would ever have happened. Sometimes I wonder what other remarkable things might have happened if I had made the offer the first time he mentioned how much he hates haircuts, instead of waiting for him to say it for the third time. I’ll never know.

As I sit in my usual Sunday morning place, writing on my church bulletin, watching Ewan sitting next to me and doing the same, God reminds me that there are no coincidences. The wonderful reality for me and for all of us is that God hears our prayers. He moves in our lives and is with us every minute, whether we choose to recognize it or not. I am grateful for the occasional glimpses I am afforded to see Him moving in my life, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be reaping the winter harvest sown by the pastor’s wife.

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