The front porch slats reverberated as Stephanie rocked in the rocking chair, her crocheted purse nestled in her lap. Recently out for summer break from teaching kindergarten, Stephanie enjoyed every minute of her vacation catching up on all the relaxing activities that brought her comfort and happiness. She tidied the front of her floral dress and gently cupped the bun on the nape of her neck. Standing up briefly to pluck a pansy from one of the clay pots on the front porch railing, she wiggled the little flower into the top of her bun, biding her time patiently as she anticipated her friend, Ger’s, arrival to take her to church.
Ger was short for Geraldine. Ger had regularly invited Stephanie to attend church with her during the past few years, but Stephanie had always declined. This week had been different though as restlessness had rustled within her, and Stephanie decided to break out of her rut of resistance and give it a try.
Always in charge and in control, Ger had taken Stephanie on as a spiritual charity project years ago when their paths had crossed while standing in line to buy pumpkins at the Fall Festival. A busy member at the church, Ger taught adult Sunday school, sang in the choir, and organized the single’s ministry events on weekends while working long hours as a senior manager at the local Bank and Trust during the week. She never had a spare moment. Her favorite expression, “Work hard- God’s watching,” was never far from her lips. And she was sure to let everyone else know, in one way or another, that she worked hardest of all.
Ger could tell right away that Stephanie needed spiritual direction, and Ger knew that she was the one to give it. Unaware of her effect on others, she reminded Stephanie regularly to obey the Ten Commandments, and never failed to point out her sins, hoping to straighten Stephanie out once and for all. However, to Ger’s frustration, Stephanie never once seemed convicted.
Stephanie wrestled regularly with painful family memories and the trauma of her dad deserting the family when she was age nine. As a result, she had never once opened the white leather King James Bible that her parents had given her as a girl. It remained closed and stacked away with all her other books on the bottom of the bookshelf beside her bed.
Ger’s pumps clopped along the sidewalk as she arrived promptly at 8:30 am, her large Bible tucked in her arm giving her the appearance of a school girl. Her navy suit complimented her over-sized figure well and sat nicely against her gold scalloped earrings which were hidden behind her over-sprayed, dark brown, chin-length bob.
“Come on now. Don’t be idle,” urged Ger, checking her watch. Stephanie didn’t realize it, but Ger’s tense tone of voice, obsessive attention to time, nonstop busyness subconsciously reminded Stephanie of her mother‘s change of personality during the divorce. Longing for the early days of her relationship with her mother before the divorce when they spent time together at ease, Stephanie was drawn to Ger, though uncomfortably at times.
Stephanie joined Ger in front of the house. In the coolness of the morning, they walked to the early church service down on Main Street, Stephanie sauntering and Ger’s gait looking more like a march. Along the way Stephanie couldn’t help but give her attention to the enchanting beauty of the surrounding trees, flowers, birds, and busy squirrels as she traipsed along with Ger who led the way, watching the clock.
Arriving five minutes early, they took the last two seats on the seventh pew.
“Where’s your Bible?” whispered Ger sternly as she placed hers on the pew and grabbed the bulletin, looking Stephanie up and down as if she was missing something.
“Didn’t bring it,” Stephanie whispered back. Ger frowned with a look of disapproval. Attending church was quite a big step for Stephanie; bringing her Bible would have to wait. They listened to the announcements and then stood together to sing the opening hymn, Amazing Grace, as the organ vibrated triumphantly throughout the entire building.
During the sermon, the pastor talked about a man named Jesus. The name stirred fond recollections for Stephanie of attending church as a young girl. However, soon thereafter her family had split up in an ugly drawn-out divorce and custody battle, and as a result, had discontinued attending church altogether. Shaking off the dark cloud of memories, she focused on the content of the message. She listened carefully to the pastor and the description he gave of Jesus.
After the service, Stephanie and Ger walked home together in the noonday sun and enjoyed chicken salad sandwiches, strawberries and Ger’s favorite, raspberry tea, together on Stephanie’s screened porch.
“See you next week?” asked Ger, as Stephanie walked her to the door.
“Maybe so,” replied Stephanie, having taken an interest in the topic of the sermon, “I’ll call you.”
Monday morning, in front of the open kitchen window with the sheer curtains billowing in the breeze, Stephanie, still in her night gown, lathered and rinsed the weekend dishes in the sink as her coffee brewed. Her golden long-haired Persian, Missy, walked back and forth rubbing against her legs in front of the natural Shaker cabinets. As Stephanie relished the outdoor beauty of summer, she pondered the pastor’s words and wondered about the reality of Jesus.
Unexpectedly, Stephanie overheard a kindly male voice call her name from the backyard. Looking curiously outside the window, she assigned the voice to a simply-dressed gentleman, one she had never before seen in the neighborhood, yet with a most benevolent countenance. From the other side of her picket fence, he stood facing her.
“Yes?” answered Stephanie leaning forward apprehensively, a bit puzzled at this gentle stranger.
“I Am,” He said. Stephanie furrowed her brow, focusing in on him. She stared in consternation unable to collect her thoughts then dried her hands on the red-plaid dish towel hanging beside her. “And you are Stephanie Marie Hopkins,” he continued, “born in Peachtown. Your family is still there, yet you haven’t spoken with them in over three years.” Her mouth gaped open at His knowledge of her.
“How do you know all this?” she asked gingerly, lowering her voice not realizing His identity. “Are you a private investigator?”
“Of sorts,” he answered her with a twinkle in His eye. She paused, feeling most awkward.
“This…is just too strange,” she remarked fumbling with her dish towel and shaking her head. “I don’t know you…I must go,” she stuttered, reaching up to pull close the window, drawing the curtains and quickly retreating into her bedroom to collect her thoughts.
As she lay on the four-poster bed, she untangled her thoughts about this strange and intriguing gentleman, and His shocking knowledge of her.
“When he said, ‘I Am,’ did that mean that He was…? Oh, surely not,” she thought to herself. As she reflected on the encounter, she remembered specifically the qualities that the pastor had reviewed on Sunday: that Jesus is alive, that He is kind, that He pursues us, and that He is patient and omniscient. In thinking about their interchange, she recognized that despite her obvious discomfort, the gentleman certainly did seem to display those qualities. Thinking long and hard to herself, she cautiously surmised that perhaps it was a possibility.
Early Tuesday morning, Stephanie dressed for gardening, pulled her hair back, grabbed her spade and settled outside in her garden underneath the kitchen window. Weeding and pruning her plantings thoroughly, she kept her face hidden under a large straw hat as the sun finally reached a peak over the oak trees behind her.
“Nice work,” she heard a voice from across the yard, recognizing it as the distinctly strange yet comforting intonation she had heard the day before. She looked over from underneath the straw brim and recognized him standing there in the shade of the oak.
“Jesus?” she responded in a hushed tone of doubt, looking around to ensure none of her neighbors was listening, “Is that really your name?” The corners of His mouth lifted at her question.
“I know some things about you,” said Stephanie. “The pastor said so,” she explained, “and I think he was right.” He took a step toward her, his hand coming to rest on the tree trunk.
“We have a lot in common,” He commented, gesturing to her garden. “May I come over?” he asked her permission.
“Yes,” she said. He opened the rear gate and walked through, closing and latching it behind Him.
“Um, I was nervous yesterday,” she remarked…”no offense,” she added apologetically as He approached.
“None taken,” He said, joining her beside the plantings.
“What do we have in common?” she asked Him looking up from under the wide brim into His face, noticing His closely trimmed beard, classic Jewish nose and plain, immaculate presence.
“We are gardeners together tending our plants,” He explained gesturing peacefully and examining her garden. “Yours are few and Mine are many.”
“Oh,” she responded with curiosity. “Where is your garden?” she asked, spade in hand.
“My garden is full of my people whom I nourish and prune,” He explained. She thought pensively for a moment.
“That is kind of you,” she responded. “But it sounds like a lot of work.”
“My work is done in love, and it is with love that I nourish my people,” He said.
“Lucky people,” said Stephanie, dropping her focus to her pruned plants, her shoulders drooping. Holding her spade in her lap, she continued, “to be loved, I mean.” A tender silence stood between them.
“Anyone can be loved,” He continued, gently breaking the silence, “You need only to receive.” Stephanie remained quiet and still as a deep sadness rumbled within her.
“Well, I better get back to work now,” she urged suddenly with a business-like tone, forcing the sadness back into hiding and leaning over again busying herself in the plantings. A look of knowing eased on His face.
He tenderly bid her farewell.
Wednesday morning, Stephanie sat in her favorite living room chair by the fireplace reading with Missy curled up on her lap. A knock at the door interrupted Stephanie and she placed the book face down on the arm of the chair. Missy jumped down as Stephanie got up and stepped into her flip flops. She assumed it was her next-door neighbor, Anne Meadows, a fellow teacher, inviting her to take a walk as she did, usually once a week or so during the summer.
However, when she opened the door, she was pleasantly surprised to see the face of the tender-hearted man who had visited her while she was gardening.
“Oh, it’s you,” Stephanie said, as she stepped outside on the front porch to speak with Him, closing the door behind her. Intrigued by His continued gentleness and patience with her, she longed to know Him more intimately. Looking out at the trees sparkling in the summer sun, she bravely made the suggestion, “Let’s walk.” He agreed.
They quietly strolled together down the neighborhood side walk. Words seemed to escape her while walking beside Him because His presence was so very comforting to her. They reached the end of the block turning the corner around a white picket fence.
“Remember what you said about receiving love?” she inquired of Him, folding her arms in front of her. Inside the fence a small black terrier ran over to them whimpering in excitement. He followed them along the duration of the fence. The whimpering subsiding behind them, she continued, “Well, I’ve never done that.” She put the tip of her curled index finger between her teeth and bit on her nail.
A series of random cars passed them by as they followed the sidewalk. Stephanie continued in deep thought. Rounding the next corner, they passed beside a lengthy hedge of tall, bright red rose bushes. Stephanie immediately recognized the intoxicating fragrance which broke her train of thought.
“Do you want to receive?” He asked, peering over at her. Thinking to herself, she combed her soul for a trace of courage.
“I don’t know,” she remarked, pausing timidly. “I guess I’m kind of scared,” she confessed, looking away from Him at a twig wreath hanging under a small window pane on the front door of a passing house.
“There is no fear in love,” He stated, “only more love.” He stepped off of the sidewalk and behind her as they walked along the grass while a young mother approached pushing a double stroller carrying strawberry-headed twin girls wearing matching yellow sun hats. Stephanie noticed one of the twins holding tight a worn pink blanket and sucking her thumb with her fingers wrapped over her nose.
“So that’s why I’m so afraid?” she thought out loud to Him as the family passed behind them, “because I have no love?” A breeze swirled a headwind tickling high-pitched wind chimes hanging on a nearby porch, and blowing her soft hair back behind her shoulders as they approached another corner.
“Stephanie, you have Me,” He said to her, “I Am love.” She looked up at Him pensively and moved her footsteps closer to His as they slowed their pace together.
“You are Jesus,” she said, lowering her voice to nearly a whisper. “Jesus is the love of God. That‘s what the pastor said,” she shared. Two feeding sparrows in front of them quickly took flight to a nearby tree branch.
“The pastor spoke truth,” He replied to her. Stephanie took a slow deep breath working through the new idea as they came full circle around the block nearing her white-trimmed bungalow. She stopped pensively, leaning against the newel post of her front porch steps.
“So… if I have you, I have love,” she sought to understand Him. He beamed at her teachable heart.
“You have Me, always,” He assured her. Sensing her need to process these new ideas in private, she took a step up the front porch step.
“Will you come again?” she inquired, looking back to see his reaction.
“Tomorrow?” He asked, tilting his head slightly waiting for her response.
“Yes, tomorrow,” she answered with anticipation her voice.
Thursday morning, heavy showers cleared pollen from the air then reduced to sprinkles as Stephanie finished brushing out Missy’s thick coat on the screen porch. Missy ran through the open porch door into the house as Stephanie gathered up the brushings and disposed of them in the kitchen trashcan under the sink. After washing her hands and patting them on the dish towel, she opened the fridge door surveying its contents in order to start a grocery list.
The door knocker’s double thump interrupted Stephanie’s train of thought, and she remembered she had company due. Closing the fridge door, she brushed away stray fur strands from her jeans as she walked in her bare feet to the door.
“You remembered,” Stephanie expressed hopefully as she opened the door and gestured hospitably for Him to come inside. “Come in, sit down,” she invited, motioning toward the living room and closing the door. “I’ll get some tea,” she suggested as He sat down in the armchair next to the window.
Missy appeared from behind the sofa and sashayed her way over to greet Him gracing his leg with a cheek and shoulder rub. He leaned over to stroke her newly brushed fur and she began to purr loudly her tail held high, slowly pacing flirtatiously back and forth in front of Him for continued strokes.
“You’re not wet,” Stephanie commented to Him from the kitchen about His arrival in the rain with bone dry clothing and shoes, and carrying no umbrella. Lighting a flame to heat the tea kettle, she arranged two tea cups, tea bags, spoons, sugar and milk on a large silver tray. She heard no response to her question. She emerged from behind the open kitchen door carrying the tray and placed it carefully on the glass coffee table beside the fresh summer bouquet.
“Are you ready to forgive?” He asked her directly with eyes of compassion. She stood surprised as he comfortably crossed His legs.
“Forgive who?” she quipped, frozen in unexpected defensiveness.
“Mom, Pop, and your brother, Aaron,” He answered with tenderness in His voice. “Bitterness binds you,” He explained softly.
“They don’t deserve forgiveness,” she declared, turning her head to stare out the window. “Ever,” she added with a resentful tone, pinching her lips and walking stiffly toward the kitchen.
“What about Nick and Costa Rica?” He furthered with an edge of exposure before she turned the corner. She stopped cold in her tracks then slowly turned her head. Her angry eyes cut into His like a scorned lover.
“How do you know about that?” she demanded, all of a sudden feeling ashamed at His knowledge of her affairs.
“Have you been forgiven?” He inquired, matter-of-factly. Anger and sorrow fighting within her, she turned the corner and concealed her inner storm behind the kitchen wall with the rumbling kettle.
Sorrow and shame swirled reaching a peak within her and then leaked out through her eyes. She stood waiting long moments for the water to boil as suppressed memories flashed through her mind and tore through her heart. The kettle finally reached a full-blown whistle.
She wiped tears from her eyes, turned off the stove, carefully grabbed the kettle handle and a large ceramic coaster. Drawing a deep breath, she re-entered the living room with a faded expression of defeat.
Stephanie sulked in her dilemma, poured the water reluctantly over the tea bags, then placed the kettle on the coaster. She sat down. Monotone words marched out of her mouth like dutiful soldiers.
“I can’t have it both ways,” she conceded, “Is that what you’re saying?” she asked Him. She sulked staring at her cup.
“Just as we share gardening, we share forgiveness,” He expounded, “I have forgiven you and you must learn to forgive them.” He leaned forward, forearms resting on His thighs and His eyes full of grace, “When you walk with Me you must learn to walk in freedom.” He reached for His cup and drank with her as the melody of birdsong played outside. A blaring ambulance passed in the distance.
“So you won’t leave me?” asked Stephanie timidly, closing her eyes and wiping away a tear, subconsciously fearing abandonment in His correction of her. She peeked up at Him sheepishly with the eyes of a little girl.
“Never,” He replied with reassurance, looking deeply into her eyes.
Friday morning, Stephanie completed her last errand at the market with her basket full of fresh produce, eggs, cheese, cranberry juice and cans of soup. Indecisive about bread, the last item on her list, she pondered tapping her fingers, leaning on her cart half way down the Bread isle.
“That’s My recipe,” Stephanie recognized unexpectedly the familiar voice, which spoke with a distinct sense of ownership. Looking over her shoulder, she was thrilled to see Him standing there in the isle behind her. “You’ll like the sesame,” He gestured, introducing Ezekiel 4:9 to her with a friendly air. As His eyes held hers, she smiled knowing well that she had always loved sesame, and recalling yesterday His reply, “Never.” It dawned on her then that she was just starting to get a taste of what that really meant.
Grabbing a loaf of the sesame flavor, she dropped it in the cart with a flick of her wrist and announced, “Okay, I’m done.” After checking out, she carried her plastic bags outside where He waited for her. Holding out both hands, He offered to carry her load.
“Here,” she said, and handed Him three of the six bags as they walked together to her VW bug and loaded them into the trunk.
During the short drive home, without warning Stephanie slammed on the brakes in front of the Post Office to avoid hitting a young squirrel who suddenly hopped out into the street, then crouched frozen not knowing which way to run.
“He’s going for those two sizeable acorns he buried yesterday across the street in the corner of the elementary school playground,” the gentleman explained, watching with affection the little creature. The squirrel then scampered back toward the side of the street and scurried up the trunk of an old birch tree stopping half way up whipping his tail back and forth. Stephanie’s eyes darted over to the school grounds then glanced over to her guest. Pausing in amazement, she realized that this was an experience that was becoming more commonplace each day that she spent with Him.
Saturday morning, Stephanie rose early to meet her friend, David, for their third weekend-in-a-row tennis lesson at the Country Club where he and his family were well-known as longtime members. Stephanie had recently taken a few beginner lessons at the club where he had introduced himself to her and offered to meet her for extra practice. Before leaving the house, she toasted a piece of her new bread with a pat of butter which she ate while managing her coffee, keys, purse and duffle bag, carefully making her way to the car.
When she arrived at the country club, the sun in her eyes, she noticed David’s tall, handsome silhouette against the green. He waved to the security guard to open the gates for her. She pulled up the long cobblestone driveway past the gate and stopped at the valet under the portico while looking in the rearview mirror to brush the toast crumbs off of her mouth. Upon stepping out of the car, she found David dressed in all white and standing next to her. During their past weeks of casual tennis dates, his attention to her had become gradually more intentional although she failed to take notice of the subtle changes.
“Thank you, James,” remarked David, acknowledging the elderly, black-vested valet, as Stephanie handed over her keys and James took the car.
“Love-ly,” he said complimenting her with drawn out syllables, looking her over slowly and handing her a very expensive racquet, then leaning his own pricey brand over his shoulder.
“Thank you,” she replied, flattered at his attention to her. He escorted her down to the courts and opened the large gate for her, following her inside. They played their usual round of tennis while he, an experienced player, allowed the score to fall in her favor.
“Good game, Steph– You’re getting better every week!” he encouraged her using a nickname from across the court. He removed his visor and ran his fingers nonchalantly through his hair, damp with perspiration. Leaning down over her duffle bag to retrieve her water bottle, Stephanie stood up and wiped her wet brow to find him standing next to her showing off his perfect teeth with a semi-posed smile.
“Dinner tonight at– Regis?” he enticed her with an invitation to the most expensive restaurant in town.
“Wow,” she commented at his generosity. “Okay. What time?” she agreed, figuring it better to have a fancy date with him than to spend another Saturday night at home alone with Missy.
“Pick you up at 7:00?” he asked, with a subtle air of royalty.
“I’ll be ready,” she replied willingly, and turned up her bottle for a long drink.
The jingling house phone greeted Stephanie as she fumbled into the kitchen with all her belongings. Answering the phone with her hands full, Stephanie rested her bags one by one and placed her coffee mug on the counter. It was Ger returning her call about Sunday to notify Stephanie that conflicting plans had arisen with the single’s group potentially threatening their luncheon plans. Ger assured her that she would try to reschedule with the group.
Hanging up the phone, Stephanie went into her bedroom, unpacked her duffel bag and undressed, throwing her clothes in the dirty clothes basket. Shutting the bathroom door behind her, she grabbed a fresh towel from the shelf and slung it over the top of the glass shower door.
As she saturated her hair she thought about the gentleman she saw at the market the day before and how delicious His sesame bread had tasted that morning. Impressed with His knowledge and insight, she eagerly awaited seeing Him again. She squirted a dollop of shampoo into the palm of her hand and lathered her hair while deciding between two dresses, which one she should wear to the restaurant with David that night. Grabbing the bar of soap, Stephanie lathered it between her hands as a plume of steam expanded above her head.
“Careful now,” she heard the familiar voice echoing over the noise of the shower spray. She startled, then smiled in relief.
“How did you get in here?” she asked, with a quiet chuckle, closing her eyes and leaning her head back to rinse off. She reached for the conditioner and poured some into her hand.
“He does not have your best interest in mind,” He stated firmly. She smoothed the conditioner into her hair. As she ran her fingers through it from top to bottom, His words of warning suddenly revealed to her a new perspective of David‘s motives, and a realization of her own vulnerability.
“He is a little high on himself,” she admitted, perceiving his ostentatious lifestyle in a new way and losing confidence in her decision having accepted his invitation. She leaned back again to rinse. “Should I cancel?” she inquired loudly over the hiss of the shower. She finished rinsing and turned off the shower. Hearing no reply, she pulled her towel over the top of the glass door to dry off.
Sunday morning, Stephanie, in a pale pink dress, waited outside on the front porch in the rocking chair for Ger, who was running surprisingly late. Ger finally arrived hastily in her red Mercedes, rolling down the window as she approached.
“Aww– I wanted to walk,” Stephanie remarked with disappointment as Ger braked with force in front of the house.
“We’re late! Jump in,” Ger urged. Stephanie hurried down the steps and around the front of the car and got in, buckling her seatbelt as Ger accelerated toward town. “I cannot believe I slept through my alarm,” explained Ger, embarrassed and annoyed with sleepy eyes and an uncharacteristically frazzled demeanor. “There’s just no excuse,” she continued.
Ger slowed at a stop sign and rolled through it turning left and picking up her speed.
“So, what‘s there to report?” Ger asked as they turned on to the main road, raising her eyebrows in regard to Stephanie’s date last night.
“I made him take me home right after dinner,” Stephanie reported, proud of her decision. Stephanie looked over to eye Ger directly, “He wanted me to stay over in his cottage at the club,” she explained, her voice dropping an octave and the ends of her mouth curling back in hesitation.
“Fornication is a sin,” commented Ger matter-of-factly, looking over at Stephanie with serious eyes and slowing impatiently at a stale red light. Stephanie acquiesced, as the light turned green and Ger drove under it.
“It feels good to leave the past — in the past,” Stephanie admitted, smiling and exhaling a deep breath as she looked out the window at the passing daffodil and tulip plantings extending along the side of the road.
Ger and Stephanie arrived at the service ten minutes late, shuffled in quietly and sat down on an empty pew in the back of the sanctuary. They had missed the announcements and the organ had already begun playing. Ger placed her Bible on the seat beside her, and noticed the white leather Bible in Stephanie’s lap.
“Finally,” Ger mouthed quietly to Stephanie, with an “I told you so” gesture on her face. She turned her full attention to the order of service.
“Lunch today?” Stephanie whispered, still unsure of their plans, leaning over toward Ger as they stood to their feet with the rest of the congregation while the organ noticeably transitioned to play the opening hymn’s introduction to The King of Love My Shepherd Is. Ger anxiously thumbed through he pages of the hymnal, exhaling a breath of annoyance at Stephanie’s continued talking.
“I got more of your favorite tea,” Stephanie added in a hushed tone, wanting an answer, Ger still thumbing.
“Okay —shhh!” Ger hissed quietly in acceptance, impatient with the interruption.
Ger finally found the page.
“Good.” Stephanie divulged in a whisper, “Cause I want to introduce you to Someone.”
Happy are those whose hearts are pure, for they shall see God.
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds
For while the Law was given through Moses, grace (unearned, undeserved favor and spiritual blessing) and truth came through Jesus Christ.
And if it is by God’s kindness, then it is not by their being good enough. For in that case the free gift would no longer be free—it isn’t free when it is earned.
1 Corinthians 6:17
But if you give yourself to the Lord, you and Christ are joined together as one person.
2 Corinthians 6:1
As God’s partners, we beg you not to toss aside this marvelous message of God’s great kindness.
To purchase the freedom of (to ransom, to redeem, to atone for) those who were subject to the Law, that we might be adopted and have sonship conferred upon us [and be recognized as God’s sons].
Christ is useless to you if you are counting on clearing your debt to God by keeping those laws; you are lost from God’s grace.
Dwell in Me, and I will dwell in you. [Live in Me, and I will live in you.] Just as no branch can bear fruit of itself without abiding in (being vitally united to) the vine, neither can you bear fruit unless you abide in Me.
2 Corinthians 3:17
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (emancipation from bondage, freedom).