"And the greatest of these?" asked Emma.
"The Connection," answered Jon. "That which binds us all together. And to the world around us."
-from Book 5: One Voice Shall Rise
"Can we help them?"
"Sure," answers Josh as he glances in the rearview mirror before pulling onto the gravel shoulder to make a u-turn.
I'm surprised for a moment at his immediate willingness to stop, considering we're finally nearing the last leg of what has been more than an 8-hour trip. I fold my hands in my lap and smile out the passenger side window, a warm anticipation washing over me. Soon we're back to the gas station, pulling into the parking lot across the street. The one with the beat up Ford Taurus and the silver-haired man holding the sign.
Family in need of gas money, it reads.
I place a hand on Josh's arm as he reaches for the door handle. "I'd like to do it," I say.
He raises an eyebrow at me, his concern for my safety showing clearly across his face.
I smile in reassurance. "Don't worry," I tell him. "I'll be fine."
Josh wrinkles his forehead for a moment, then nods.
I open the car door and hop out, making sure to grab the lone Christmas card still stashed mindlessly in the console. Another knowing smile steals across my face as I head towards the gravel shoulder of the quiet Oklahoma highway, where the man with the cardboard sign stands waiting. He gives me a sideways glance, as if questioning my true intentions. I gather by the glimmer of suspicion in his eye that the idea of standing on the side of the road asking for a handout is not something he's entirely comfortable with, nor especially fond of at the moment. As I approach him, his sincere hesitation is a subtle reassurance that this is what I was intended to do all along.
"I have a funny story for you," I begin...
Two weeks earlier I stood behind the open trunk of the car in my garage, laden with sacks of groceries on each wrist. I could not tell you what I had been thinking about moments before, or even what caused the thought to come into my mind at that second, but what I do remember is distinctly recalling a story a friend had shared with me years ago. Shortly after we graduated high-school she found herself suddenly pregnant and single, and wasn't at all sure how she was going to make it on her own. She told me of being in the local grocery store while several months along, nervous and disheartened at her current predicament, when a stranger approached her while shopping.
The lady simply smiled at her and said, "I had this extra hundred dollars, and prayed about what to do with it. I think God wants me to give it to you."
My friend took it, speechless and hesitant, but grateful to have the extra help.
If anyone ever did that to me, I thought of the now decade-old memory as I struggled to get armfuls of Walmart bags through the laundry room door, I don't think I could accept it. We may not be rich, but we have everything we could possibly need. Surely there'd be someone out there more deserving than us.
And then I didn't think anymore of it. At least, not until a week later.
It was on our routine trip to Josh's parents' house for Christmas in South Texas that the memory of that story came back to me again. Halfway through our trip we'd stopped to let our then 6-year old son, Jacob, use the bathroom. I'd taken him inside the gas station as Josh stood pumping gas, escorted him to the restroom, and stuck around long enough to ensure he'd done his "deed." Barely five minutes back down the highway, however, Jacob suddenly declared he had to go...again. With eyes rolling Josh pulled into yet another gas station parking lot, this time opting to sit and wait in the car. As I stood outside the bathroom door waiting for Jacob, I noticed a woman at the register. There was something about her, I recalled, that stood out to me. Decked in camo and muddy boots, she had such a pleasant and bubbly personality as she chatted to the cashier in a thick Southern accent about her love of pecan logs and how she just had to stop and pick some up for her boys. I listened quietly from my place at the back of the convenience store, then watched her walk out the door. Jacob came out of the bathroom moments later and we headed back to the car.
"Did you forget your receipt or something?" Josh said to me as I settled back into the passenger seat and buckled my seat belt.
"No," I answered in confusion. I hadn't even so much as bought anything. "Why?"
"Well, I think she needs to talk to you," he answered, nodding towards my window.
Right there next to the car stood the lady in the muddy boots. I cracked my door open, the motor which controlled the window having gone out long ago.
"I know this is going to sound like a crazy person," she said, handing me a Christmas card without an envelope. "But God told me to give you this."
I took it from her and nodded politely, fully expecting it to be some form of pass-along card. Though I often didn't share the same beliefs as people who handed them out, I always had quite a bit of respect for those with the bravery to make the effort. "Thank you."
She smiled and turned, heading back towards her truck. I glanced at Josh for a moment and grinned before opening the card.
Inside was a hundred dollar bill.
"Oh my gosh," I whispered, staring wide-eyed at the card in my lap. My eyes shot back towards the window, in just enough time to see the lady climb into her big dually truck and drive away. No, come back! I screamed inside my head. I think you're supposed to give this to someone else! This wasn't meant for us! There's got to be someone else! Someone better!
But it was too late. She was already gone.
I sat in silence for the remainder of the trip to Houston, clutching that card between slightly sweaty palms. What in the world would have possessed her to hand that card to me, I wondered. Was it the chipping paint of our now ten-year old car? The high-water pants my son was sporting at the moment? Had she been mistaken in the prompting she'd received that we were the family that would so desperately need it?
I should have chased her down and given it back, I guiltily bowed my head and thought to myself.
Through our entire week-long vacation, I held on to the money in that card. I never so much as even thought about getting it out to spend it, despite the last-minute unexpected costs associated with Christmas shopping for extended family. Deep down inside, I knew it was never meant for us, and I had no right to spend it. By the time Christmas was over, by the time all the gifts were wrapped and ripped open again and packed tightly into the trunk of our tiny car, and the hugs and goodbyes were said and done, I had all but forgotten about that card. Until about 6 1/2 hours into our trip home.
When I saw the man with the sign.
"You see," I explain to him with a smile, on a slightly-warm December afternoon, on the side of that Oklahoma highway. "On our way to visit family for Christmas this year, a lady stopped and gave me this card. She told me that God told her to give it to me. The thing is, though, we don't really need it. But I think you do."
He hesitates, raising an eyebrow at me in confusion. I continue to smile and hand him the card anyway. He takes it with a suspicious nod and a 'thank you' as I turn on my heal to leave.
"Merry Christmas," I add, glancing for a moment into the cab of his car as I go. His wife hands a drink to an adorable little blonde-haired girl in the backseat.
She can't be much older than four.
"God bless you!" I hear him call to me as I get back into the car, having suddenly realized, I'm sure, exactly what was inside that card.
A warmth of satisfaction washes over me as we head back down the interstate towards home. My part to play in this little story, I know, is now complete. I'm amazed as I think of the trek that Christmas card had to make--from a small town in Oklahoma to Texas and back again--just to get where it needed to go. So many people who had to listen to a small voice of encouragement within them: Jacob, who insisted on using the restroom again, Josh, who obliged his pleadings, the lady in the muddy boots who had it in her heart to give the card to me in the first place, the silver-haired gentlemen who felt so inclined to stop in front of that particular gas station at that particular moment, and myself, who knew that the card was ultimately meant for someone other than us. If any one of those people had faltered on what they felt they needed to do at that time, that hundred dollar bill would have never made it to its ultimate destination.
"Human beings were never meant to live in seclusion. No man's an island. We NEED each other. To share backgrounds and upbringings. To gain perspective and understanding. To love and be loved. To learn and grow. To become the people we were meant to be.. We can't do it alone."
In an article I wrote early last month about the importance of friendship, I talked about how much I've learned from the people around me and what an impact they've made in my life. But the truth is, it's not just about the people you know. Everyone who has ever crossed your path or will ever cross your path has the potential to make some impact in your life, and you in theirs. As I've received such an overwhelming response of feedback from my last article, Why I Left the Church is Also Why I'm Going Back, I've been humbled and touched at the stories and encouragement I've seen poured out to others. Not just for myself, but for those who have made comments on the article both on this site, on Facebook, and even as it appeared in LDS Living Magazine online. These are people who have never met before, who don't know each other from Adam, and yet there is an incredible sense of love and empathy resonating within their comments. So many people have contacted me to tell me how much my words have touched them. But, honestly, I have been touched a thousand-fold over by theirs. It is an incredible, beautiful reminder to me that, ultimately, we are all connected to each other and to the world around us.
We cannot do this alone.
And it is that connection that binds us together, no matter who we are or where we are in life. It is that connection that brings us all together in times of need, that encourages us to reach out to those who are desperate, lost, and in pain, that brings out the most beautiful part of human nature. It's not only why we need each other. It's also why we each want to feel needed, because deep down inside we feel that connection.
Deep down inside, we know we all have a part to play.
Our Family's Latest Service Project
Out of the many, many people who have contacted me--who have reached out to me for no other reason than just to let me know how much my article inspired them--there has been one dear sister who has continued to uplift and encourage me, and who has undeniably touched my heart. During the course of our communications this dear lady from Idaho has shared with me some of the financial struggles she has been experiencing in her life, including the costly repairs needed to her automobile, and how she has worked diligently to raise the extra money to pay for those repairs. If you feel so inclined, you may visit her store, The Glass Seahorse, to see first-hand the fruits of her efforts.
Pictured here is a photo of the absolutely beautiful and wonderfully detailed character wreaths she designs and makes for her online boutique. As I have been inspired to offer to help this sweet and dear sister, I have prayed fervently on how to best support her. As a result, my family has decided to coordinate a large family yard sale, in order to raise the funds to purchase one of these beautifully and painstakingly hand-crafted wreaths. As we and our children work towards sacrificing our own time, efforts, and possessions for the sake of another in greater need than us, we hope that this beautiful wreath will serve as a continual reminder to our family of the importance of the role we play in each other's lives. Of the love we can work to show, even to someone we barely know.
Why I Left the Church
The Importance of Friendship
Secrets to Staying Sane
Fighting the Rain