“For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light.” -Ephesians. 5:8
Sitting here in the ballroom “G” of the Hilton hotel, my mind wants to comfort my physical being by taking me to my bench in front of the store in Collettsville. It’s Sunday morning. There was no river to cross. There was no long walk. There was no weight of my backpack to weigh me down. Yet, there is a weight upon me, a burden that washes over me even now; the knowing that what must be done to make it back to those mountains; the long lonely drive. There will be time to think, time to reflect. How much have I gleaned from this weekend’s training, I’m not sure? There have been moments of frustration, feelings of patience being tested, and questions within myself of if this is really where I need to be. Yet, there have been awakenings of what must be done to carry on.
There have been inspirational moments, and as always, God-like moments.
A pastor and fellow teacher, with whom I will be meeting shortly, stood up to share how one of his roles in life was that of being a pastor to a church for the past 21 years and what that meant, with regard to commitment and him becoming an educator.
Then there was yesterday, in response to my question to the returning beginning teacher panel where I asked them to name what one thing that they would have asked their coach if they were given a virtual “Blank Check,” with regard to help. The first three were pretty much as expected, vague without detail, even though I had purposefully asked for detail; but then came the fourth speaker. The young lady that responded spoke in a calm, measured voice almost as if she was wise beyond her years. She began by referring to scripture from the Old Testament, how King Solomon was given a “Blank Check” by God when asked what he needed or wanted. In his wisdom, he responded with, “Knowledge.” It was an “aha” moment for me. In front of a room of a multitude of personalities and unknown backgrounds, this young lady spoke from the truth, from the Word of God, unashamed to speak her faith, and with that, testified to many.
We were all blessed in the moment. I was literally blown away.
In the darkness, in the chaos, there was light.
Just a few hours earlier on the day before, the scene was much different.
Through the darkness, I ran alone seeking the light, yet there was none.
It was long before dawn when my car reached the gates of Umstead Park. The barred gate was across the road stopping anyone from entering the park after hours. I was not the first car to arrive. Several others had already parked on the shoulder of the road and were preparing to disembark on their morning exercise. It had been a while since I had risen this early in the day to run, so my mental clock was off a bit, knowing that eventually, the dawn would come. The time on my device read 6:00 AM. The man in the car before me said they rarely opened the gate before 7:00 AM. “Too long for me to wait,” I mused silently. A couple of runners with headlamps took off before I was done preparing to leave my car. “Looks like I’ll be carrying my phone the entire time,” I told myself, “I’ll probably need it for the light at least.” For once, I engaged the running app on my phone and took off. Before long, the pitch-black forest enveloped me, and the light from the screen of the device was my only means of keeping on the road. For the next four miles, until the light of dawn began to slowly fade into view, the weak beacon led my path. Each footstep was measured, each stride was reduced for fear of twisting an ankle or cracking a shin into some unseen obstacle. Like our faith, when we stray from the truth, the light, we stumble and fall. We are forced to slow down for the fear that envelopes us. Step by step, we carry on, even when that light is barely visible for to stray from the path is to give in to the darkness.
Eventually, my route met the back gate of the park. Beyond it, quiet residences sat nestled deep in the forest beside the seldom-used paved road that led to the bridge which spanned I40. Several years ago, I took my children to one of my company picnics. After we ate and played a little music for the attendees, we took a bicycle ride this same path and ended up turning around after reaching the bridge. To commemorate the moment, I recall taking a picture with my flip phone. There they stood, in that picture and in my mind, along the side of the road on the bridge, straddling their little bikes while peering over the railing at the blustery traffic on the highway below. We quickly returned to the peace of the forest. This particular morning, the park gate was as far as I needed to venture. Part of me didn’t want to change my last memory of that bridge, but rather, wanted it to remain special, one of those Kodak moments, as we used to say. Another place in time to remain a keepsake forever.
Turning around, I began heading back. The light now beginning to grow, I tucked my device away and was able to start stretching out my stride to a more normal, comfortable pace. Soon enough, I began meeting other runners who had started out later or who had turned around before me and were also heading back. One of those was a sturdy fellow who I easily caught, but something about him made me slow down and match his pace. We began talking about how far we’d gone and the forest around us. It felt good to be able to run and talk. Finally, my legs were returning. We continued chatting about where we’d lived and our military backgrounds but then the most surprising conversation began to ensue. The man’s name was Rick Graves, and his father had been an Independent Baptist preacher in Minot North Dakota. He shared this with me because of my Air Force experience. From that point forward, the miles began to fly by as we traveled in time to places in our memories, pasts that formed who we were and how we got there. “God has a purpose in everything we do,” I said to him as we ran, knowing that our encounter although may seem as chance, was something beyond what we could grasp. Rick became a JAG for the Army and had actually used his faith to help perform his job. He told me he often had to reflect on those moral issues in cases that needed Christian values from which only then could they be grounded. He talked about how our whole society’s thread of moral character is based on those Biblical truths and without them, we would live in chaos. As we ran, my mind thought of the morning’s lesson I was learning, from a stranger I met while running in the forest. Eventually, we came to the fork in the road, the place where our united path finally diverged. We shook hands and repeated one another’s name before saying goodbye.
“I am the way, the truth, and the light,” Jesus told his disciples. “No one comes to the Father but through me,” and so it is.
After we separated, my pace quickened for a bit, but soon the old legs began to tire. I wasn’t certain, but my body was telling me today’s run was much farther than I had been used to in these recent weeks. When I finally reached the car, the device read ten miles. Although the pain from the long run was fresh, the feeling of accomplishment was worth it. The combined joy of meeting a fellow believer deep in the forest on a dark, misty morning made it even more complete.
As my mind returned to the moment at hand, the pastor walked in as several others had been gathering during my focus on the previous morning’s run and we were about to begin. We moved to make a large circle about our end of the ballroom. The other end, workers were preparing the morning buffet bar. The preacher began to speak about how the morning’s service came to be; how the Lord had spoken to me and then I to him. Before that, he had waited for confirmation, and through that meeting of ours, his command was confirmed. We opened with prayer, and then the pastor asked some of the ladies if they had something they had prepared for us to sing. They looked at each other and said, not really, but they immediately knew of something else, something better. With no church organ, no grand piano, simply the voices of the multitude, they began to sing an old-time spiritual. I closed my eyes and felt the presence of the Lord around us. There in the grand ballroom, chairs, and tables covered white tablecloths scattered about us, we came together as one people, believers in Christ, a multitude of backgrounds, races, and cultures gathered together as one, worshipping as one, believing in one true God.
The preacher went on to speak about how we had been led to this day by the hand of the Lord. His sermon was perfect for the day, as his pulpit was the table before us. His scripture for the sermon was Romans 8:28, “ And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” He shared how as educators, we all are called to a higher purpose. The moment resonated with everyone in the room.
I knew from the way he spoke, he had many years of preaching experience. His eloquence was matched only by his deep devotion He then went on to share his personal testimony. The powerful story and his salvation, it’s anniversary the day after my own Birthday, October 13th, had just passed. The story of his salvation was as moving as any I had ever heard, and then again, I had heard so much in the past few hours, but this surpassed it all.
Before the closing prayer, the ladies led us in another uplifting spiritual number, another one I had never heard before this day, but another one I’m certain I’ll hear on that far distant shore. Pastor Michael prayed us on out as the assembly behind us had grown. There was silence in the room where many had now amassed, but in reverence to our group, had remained silent.
We had found one another in the darkness, in the deepest part of the forest, and united as one.
The truth once more was told, Christ was upon our lips, and the will of God was with us.
Strangers hugged tearful goodbyes as we wrapped up our meeting. We soon would join the growing numbers in the room to finish out our teacher conference but this morning, on this last day, one of the most memorable moments was had. We may forget the speaker’s names at the conference, we may forget some of the programs taught, but one thing those of us who met on the morning may never forget is that memorable service, unannounced, unplanned, but created by the Master’s hand.
Many times, in this life, we find the real reason behind the event we attend is something greater than we had planned, and in this manner, once again, the God was there.
Thanks be to God.