The angels rejoiced that warm spring day as a penniless child opened her heart to Jesus. But the child was ignored by the house of worship, for an impoverished child has no place in the modern church of human worship. Those who are hungry and naked are not welcome in the hearts of those who worship in those hallowed halls. Oh, but place an ounce of gold in her hand and the cathedrals would have welcomed her with open arms into their game of churchianity. Angels rejoice for they perceive with the eyes of God, but the congregation with eyes of carnal man.
In the wisdom of God a great pearl, formed by a mote of great pain, was hidden inside that child that no congregation of human eyes could discern. God used those sands of affliction to polish and perfect a pearl of great value.
On that day, before the Kingdom throne, we will not be judged for our ability to prosper with greed and gold but our ability to seek and buy the pearl of a great price.
The sun was shining and spring was in the air. We’re staying with friends in northern Georgia with our bus and while we’re here the friends took a little get-away to Florida for a few days and left us to attend to their two dogs and keep an eye on the house. The routine has been to go out early and let the dogs out into the pen. Then, after they get some running out of their system to let them in for their doggy breakfast.
This particular morning I had my coffee in hand, let them out the door and decided to enjoy the early morning sun on the back porch watching the dogs play. As I stood admiring the various flower gardens my eye caught something disturbing. A large snake had decided that the raised garden bed would be an excellent place to get some morning sun. When I noticed the enormous creature I did what any red-blooded American would do – I jumped out of my skin and ran!
I quickly retreated to my coach to retrieve both my gun and my camera. In my opinion, the only good snake is a dead snake and this day it appears it’s my God-given duty to make that happen. I changed some of the usual self-defense bullets for some ‘bird-shot’ type bullets that are occasionally used in a handgun. I wasn’t really sure what kind of lead to use on a six foot (probably fifty pound) snake. Probably a 12ga shotgun (Joe Biden style) would have been best, but I wanted the simplicity and speed of my handgun.
Upon my return the giant snake seemed uninterested in my presence. However, I was at some distance; the next county would have been fine with me. I approached behind a wire fence, maybe 20 feet or so, ready to retreat at the first sign of movement. My heart rate was up, my adrenalin was pumping, my feet were light and ready to move. I stood silent, raised the camera and took a couple shots. Then waited again for movement. Obviously asleep, but a deadly, sneaky killer just the same. As the intensity built, and I watched all the more closely I felt something touch my leg – I believe I went airborne, almost like one of those after-life visions where you’re looking down at your body from above. I could see some poor cat that decided to take this tense moment and join me in seeking some invisible (to the cat) threat. I’ve never appreciated a cat snuggling up to my ankles, but this was the worst possible moment.
I’m not sure where I landed, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t touch the earth again for quite some time. Since the garden of Eden I’ve been rather untrusting of snakes; somewhat of an enmity between me and them (go figure). Satan takes on many forms, but this fits him best, in my opinion.
When I landed, someplace in central Georgia, I returned to my bus to send John (the homeowner and now the owner of a soon-to-be-dead-snake) a picture of the deadly serpent. This is what I wrote:
Now I had a sneaky suspicion that the joke was on me. I had discovered their April fool’s joke.
I think I ‘ll get some rest from my near-death experience and begin to plan my pay-back.
The Bible teaches us to live generously. Those lessons come easily and naturally for some, and a bit harder for others. The world is full of givers and takers. A wise man once told me, “givers need to set boundaries, because takers never will”.
We have learned from the path that we’ve walked that giving comes in many forms. There was a day when our income was reflected in our generosity. Many reading these words have benefited from our financial giving and sharing of our ‘things’. Then, as we lost our business, home and large income, we learned that there is a better way to give, and that is to give of ourselves to those who need a shoulder to lean on, or a small light of encouragement. Many of you have also benefited from a word, prayer, or a shared tear.
It feels good to offer our heart, either financially or with just a sympathetic ear. It gives us a value and purpose. In many ways our life change to living our mobile lifestyle has changed much of that. We don’t have as much access to long term relationships to be much help in understanding your needs. We have a few phone calls with those we love. We exchange emails, FaceBook messages, or texts, and I thank God for the treasure of a age with this electronic instant communication. However, we still lack the opportunity to wrap our arms around our friends in times of trouble or times of joy. This is a part of our path that God has set us on that doesn’t make sense.
At the same time, I know there is a new lesson growing deep in our souls. I remember at the loss of our business, one of my greatest fears was not for ourselves and how we would survive the financial loss, but for our friends. We loved to give, and to give generously. When we saw a need, and we agreed between us that we felt we should help, we helped as best as we were able. Then, when we lost our income, how could we continue to help? With time, and a few hurts, we learned that we had something more valuable to give than our money or things, we had time. We had time to listen, we had time to hug, we had time to pray, and we had time to play. For the first time in our life, we learned that what we now had was more valuable than our money. People needed an ear, a hug, a prayer, and our time.
Now, I don’t have the money, or the time. Not because we don’t have time – we do. But we don’t have time with the old friends that we have loved so much. We have time – alone. So, what is God teaching us now? I don’t know that answer yet. I’m waiting. Will I ever know; will I ever learn it? But I can tell you about a new experience for us.
Since we have started this life on the road, there has been many challenges. Where do we go to work on the bus? We can’t live just anywhere, it has to be a manageable climate. It has to be legal to park. In the case of building our bus, we needed a place to make noise and sawdust. We need a place with electricity, water, and a place to dump some very smelly liquid. It needs to be a place with enough space for a forty foot long, forty-thousand pound beast. And, somewhat level is a plus. So, not every place is practical or possible. We’ve learned that we must trust friends to provide a location. We can rent in parks for a short while, but the cost to do that often is prohibitive. In addition, when repairs are needed, we need to ask for help. I don’t know much about huge diesel engines (or small ones either). Then, who do you go to when the car needs repair, or you need a ride, or who can we depend on when we need a shoulder to lean on?
We’ve learned that America is still full of good people. God has put many of them in our path. We have met countless others who have a unique understanding of our situation and are very willing to reach our their hands. This is a new lesson for us. We are learning to receive.
Learning to receive, for a couple who have spent our lives giving, is a new, and almost painful, experience. We have found that we are embarrassed to realize that we don’t know how. We find ourselves trying to repay every step of the way. Then I remember those years of helping others and I would have been hurt to have my gift returned. When given, we truly wanted to bless the receiver, not increase their debt. Yet, we feel indebted, not by word or actions of those who have given their time, money, or ability, but by our own foolish pride.
I promise, we will try to learn not to throw your gifts back in your faces, but to only be grateful. But, we are also trying to demonstrate that we are not users. We haven’t come to take from anyone, but we continue to wish to give back. We have met users and, like many of you, we have simply shook off or even forgiven the offense. Please be patient with us as we learn to be grateful and not deptors. We haven’t found the balance yet between gratitude and repayment. If you have wisdom we would value sage advise. Yet, sometimes the lessons of time and foolish mistakes have been my best tutor.
So, our payment back to you, not from a heart of debt, but a heart of gratitude we wish to offer you our thanks. We have tried, when possible, to go out of our way to say thank you to each of you who have helped so much. You all know who you are. I wouldn’t dare mention names, and you, being givers, wouldn’t want to be mentioned publicly. But, we have talked, and all of you have our thanks.
You have fixed our bus, You have given cash from your pocket and driven us to a week of humble tears, you have fed us your food, you have worked on our car, you have provided jobs and periods of income, you have given rides, you have provided a place to park, you have shared your electricity, your water and your homes, you have provided tools, time, and advice, you have offered shoulders to cry on and ears to listen. You are new friends, you are bothers and sisters in the Lord, you are more precious than ‘things’.
From a humble heart, a heart that is learning, but not yet understanding; from this heart, Amy and I want to offer our heartfelt: Thank You!
There is a blessing that has become a part of our life in many ways. That blessing we wish to repeat to you:
I’m feeling grateful today as I look back through the recent years of our lives.
During the 2000s decade Amy and I built a successful business and throughly enjoyed the experiences that success brought us. We made the money we needed to raise our children, with enough of what they needed and some of what they wanted. We were able to raise them with some acreage to play, neighbors who were positive and friendly role models, and a house big enough for all their friends. Our business also took Amy and I around the country on business many times, spending countless hours and days on the road and together we built a strong and happy relationship. In addition, our relationship with the Lord was strengthened during those days. Through the years, with the help of some strong Christian friends around us we grew from struggling immature Christians to leaders and teachers.
We had it all, we really did; we had people who loved us, well rounded kids, and a home to be proud of. God blessed us richly and I’m truly grateful for all that he gave us.
Then, near the end of the decade, through prayers and determination to know God more intimately, through a life of trust and faith, our business failed. We lost our multi-million dollar business, we lost our huge home in the country, and we lost our leadership in our church, and we lost our identity; we even lost many friends.
Yet, today, as I sit here and contemplate the past year, I realize we have more than we ever had. During the terribly bumpy year of 2013 we were forced to quickly move into our unfinished bus and move to a place we didn’t want to be. Our small house in town sold quickly and we drove south in the fall of 2013 to build our bus into something livable. But 2014 brought some new blessings.
After finishing the bus in the spring we spent some wonderful weeks with new friends who simply allowed us to recover and cry on their shoulders; then we drove back north to visit old friends and family. I spent a wonderful day with my dad; late that same day he was transported to the hospital and later died. How grateful I am that I had that final day with him.
Then, Amy and I spent the summer working on the shores of Lake Huron with some friends God knew we needed. We were near to old friends and family, yet building our new life on our own. It wasn’t always smooth, but growing pains never are. Amy struggled more during that summer with some of her own medical and emotional issues, but what better place for God to send us for “surgery of the heart” than the Straits of Mackinaw. That fall we left for Minot, North Dakota, before it got too cold, to spend a week with our son and his fiancée along with our prepackaged grandson, Connor. What a blessing to just rest and catch up with our son and meet the girl he plans to love for a lifetime just like I have with the girl God gave me. After that week, we traveled south to Kansas to work a couple months for the online giant Amazon. Then we left for Florida, to once again, meet up with friends and make new friends.
Today, as I write this, we’re spending almost two weeks in Vermont with our grandson, Benjamin (ya, and our daughter and son-in-law too). We’re enjoying the beauty of the mountains and the fresh white snowfall. What a breathtaking place.
So, what prompts these words? I realize there was a time in life, a good time, that I worked hard every day. I worked, thought, dreamed, and even slept about our business. The business is what drove our ability to provide financially for our children and many others. However in contrast, now we work a couple months here and a few weeks there and in between, we spend time with friends and family. How many people can work a job, then spend a week or two, or more with their children or friends? How are we so blessed to be here in Vermont with our kids for a couple weeks without worrying about getting back to work?
Yes, we have to work, we’re not retired or rich, we don’t have a huge bank account taking up the slack. We have something better. We have a God who holds all things in His hands and provides everything. Is it possible all our loss was from the hands of a loving and just God? Is it possible that our failure was, not simply allowed by God, but purposed for our good? Is it possible that this God of love that we adore and worship could be in the business of taking away the unnecessary things of this world to give us the greater joy? Is it possible that a prayer to know Him more intimately, by learning to trust Him more, would result in loosing our wealth, our home, and our reputation, only to give us a new kind of wealth?
I’m grateful that I get to spend every day, 24/7, with my wife that I chose to live beside me for as long as we live. I’m grateful that we get to spend weeks at a time with our children, and now grandchildren. I’m grateful that we get to travel the country together in our home on wheels. I’m grateful for friends that have stood beside us while God stripped us little by little while we waited, confused, and hurt. I’m grateful that God allowed us to build new relationships and find new friends that we never would have enjoyed without God’s intervention in our world.
Is it possible, that even when everything falls apart that God is actually giving us our hearts desires? Is it possible that he forms our heart’s desires and not just gives us what we think we want? Is it possible that there is unimaginable blessing in loss? Is it possible that the gift of trust can hurt, but be the greatest blessing available to any man while living on this earth? is it possible that God is the master of the impossible? Is it possible that there is blessing in loss?
I’ve told my kids this story, but my memories were sketchy from this incident nearly forty years ago. I’ve put together some details from old memories from the perspective of an eleven year old boy, and from the newspaper articles below. I realize that some of the details as I remember it may not be accurate, (they are memories from the perspective of an eleven year old boy – almost forty years later), however the memories are real to that little boy inside and the emotions and that feeling deep in the pit of the stomach are still very real today.
As a boy we had land that was backed up against state land. In my mind, that always made the property feel almost endless. It was not uncommon for me to meet friends back in the woods. In those days we would hunt turtles and frogs, or even go skinny-dipping (yes, I know that’s a shock to the family). Hey, we were kids and we had hundreds of acres to play – and play we did! For me, anytime I could get away from the house was a plus. My dad always expected me to be working, especially in the summer. Turning up the garden, mowing the grass, taking care of animals, fixing cars… the list seemed endless. I’m sure I did the least I could do as fast as I could then would attempt to vanish before another list appeared. So, my incentive to spend time in the woods was great.
There were many sites to see, things to explore, and fun to have. I remember a large hill we called “Pinnacle Hill” that had, at one time in history, a fire tower on top. From the top of this odd steep hill you could see for miles in most any direction. The top of the hill had an old foundation from the tower and we would explore the remains, and make believe we lived in a time long ago. Also, at the bottom of the hill were a few cars, I assume they were cars that attempted to climb the hill without success and found themselves wrecked at the bottom. Wrecked cars are always a treasure to a boy.
Scattered throughout the woods, along the trails were various foundations from long ago abandoned homes, barns, or shelters. I’ve never known the history of these locations, but our imaginations would run wild of cowboys, horses and Indians. We had many fights with the Indians in those woods -or maybe we fought the cowboys… either way, the fun and imagination never ended.
I don’t remember today how much of my wanderings in the woods my parents were aware of. I would never be brave enough to go without the permission of one of them (probably whoever had the shortest work list), but did they think I was playing at the neighbors or did they know I was way back a mile or two in the woods? I don’t know. I know my parents were very protective, but the state land was always considered a safe place, as if an extension of our own land. One thing I know for sure, in those days I could run like a deer and could be back home in only a few minutes it seemed. I knew those woods and could easily run even in the dark.
One afternoon, in early May of 1975 my friend Mark Mellendorf and I had made plans to meet back in the woods after school and camp out. (I’m sure we would not have actually camped out at eleven years old, but that was our play idea). He was going to bring his cousin Scott from out of town. In my memory it seems that there would have been more of us, maybe four or five. It was fun to find a secluded place in the woods, build a fire, set up a tent and be cowboys for a night. I don’t think we had done that yet, both because it was early in the season and because we were still rather young to be out alone. But somehow we managed to get permission. As I remember it, we had made plans for a number of days prior. Friday after school came, and I rode the bus home. I began to make preparations to go camping with my friends when my dad intervened. I don’t remember the details of our conversation, but I do remember that he decided that I had to be involved in some kind of church activity that night instead of going with Mark and his cousin. I had no interest in going to this church thing and hanging out with a bunch of old people when my friend was in the woods having fun. Secondly, in those days we didn’t have cell phones and making phone calls was not usually allowed except in emergencies. I knew my friends would be out there looking for me, and I would let them down by not showing up as planned. I can still feel the anger boil inside of me about my dad’s decision. But when dad make a decision I was not to question him. It’s likely that I never spoke a word, but the anger inside of me can be felt still to this day.
Mark and Scott went to the woods as planned. I can’t tell you why there were at Toby Lake (some maps say Tody Lake, all the names were just made-up by the locals). Toby Lake is not where we would have met. They would have had to pass Toby Lake on the way to our meeting place near the Pinnacle Hill, so either they were playing along the way or they were taken there. I’ll never know. Its also possible that the newspapers did not identify the lake properly. These lakes are really nothing more than ponds scattered throughout the woods, you could easily walk all the way around most of them in a few minutes. The lake we intended to camp at had a swimming hole on one end and a tree with a rope to swing out into it. I’m sure they were nothing more than a mud holes, but to a boy – it was heaven.
That Friday was the last time I ever saw Mark. He and Scott were brutally murdered that night. The details of the murder are still fuzzy, and at the time I didn’t know anything except that they had been killed in an awful way. The stories at school ran wild. But, the truth was even more bizarre than fiction. Mark and Scott were found by a teenage drop-out. Not the kind of kid we would have invited to our play time. My guess is that the 17 year old killer, Kenneth Earl Nard, approached Mark and Scott and wanted to be involved in whatever they were doing. It would have been obvious that they were alone and headed into the woods to camp out. Kenneth was most certainly turned away and was offended that, once again, nobody wanted him. (One newspaper quoted a cop saying “Kenneth was a born looser”).
The boys were beaten, sexually assaulted, strangled and murdered that night. Mark was later found hung in a tree by his own sweater, while Scott was found nearly naked laying in a shallow creek.
I should have been there that night. It haunts me still -the questions. If I would have been there would I have been murdered too? Or, would have three boys been enough to cause the killer to move on without incident? Most likely, there would have been three dead, strangled bodies that night. Strange to think that my deep-set emotion from that weekend is not relief that I wasn’t involved in the murder, but boiling anger that I wasn’t allowed. For whatever reason, God spared my life that cool spring evening through my dad, yet instead of gratitude I feel frustration and anger. I’m not sure, even today, how I feel about it all. In some ways my emotions were seared that weekend, I felt a kind of hatred for my dad for many years. As an adult I realize that he made a decision based on what he felt was best for me that night. He wanted me involved in activities at church and most likely was trying to minimize my time with friends that could have taken me into other kinds of trouble. Certainly nobody could have predicted the results of that night. But God knew and used my dad to spare my life.
Of course that begs the question, why didn’t God spare the lives of Mark and Scott? Why did he allow such brutality? I’ll never know the answers to those kinds of questions. God is sovereign. I can’t imagine the pain the parents of Mark and Scott endured. I don’t even know how much they know of this story, or even, how much of this story they know that I’m missing. My heart still aches in some ways because of that night, there will always be a lot of “why” questions that remain unanswered.
It took a lot of time, probably months, before I would walk into those woods alone again. There was rumor in the school of a serial killer that roamed those woods. The truth is, there was, in fact, a murderer who was responsible for up to five more murders, much like the massacre of my friends. I don’t know if they were copy-cat murders, or just coincidence. However, it seems the killings were unrelated. The killings of 1975 shook the community and affected every boy in my school.
After a time, I began to wander in the woods again. I visited the site where my friends were so brutally killed. I tried to imagine myself being with them. I tried to imagine being killed. There was no counseling in those days. Actually, we just didn’t talk about it. I never spoke about that night with either of my parents. Everything I knew was from rumors at school and from the newspaper articles I have searched out recently. But life moved on. I learned to play in those woods again. I had other friends and we played cowboy and Indian in the woods and hunted frogs in the ponds. The memory of Mark and Scott has faded. The facts are obscured by time, but the feelings, deep down, are real to this day. And when I walk in the woods today, I often look to the little ponds and old foundations and wonder – what if I was there that night?
I hope one day to meet them again along a small stream in heaven. Maybe I can be an eleven year old boy again and we can go camping together. We can play cowboy and Indians and go skinny dipping in the pond. I wonder if that’s allowed in heaven?
Occasionally in life we cross a line into something more memorable. A moment, or a day, that for whatever reason, will stick to our minds forever. Some days come and go without much notice or specific memory. But once in awhile, there is a day that has the ability to mold our outlook, to adjust our thinking, and even highlight our dreams. This week has been one of those weeks that will be forever remembered as a marker in history. We will forever look back and say “remember that week”? December of 2015 has been unseasonably warm for northern Michigan. The few flurries that blew in melted away just as quickly. But most days have lingered far above the freezing point. This warm weather window has allowed us to bring the bus north at a time when we should be a thousand miles south, enjoying some sun, sand, and sea. We decided to park the bus with some dear friends and take advantage of their hospitality while staying in the area. That decision was designed by God. He promises to direct our paths and He has not failed. Our time with this dear couple and their children will leave indelible marks in our hearts and memories. Together we shared so much of the love of Jesus, so much scripture, and so many hugs. Together, we were made stronger than we ever could have been separately. This week we have witnessed the intended church. We’ve seen the power of the Holy Spirit and experienced laughter, tears, and hugs. Last night we broke bread, shared a cup and remembered our Lord together, and today we have said our sad “goodbyes”. Because of this family who has shared their lives with us our tomorrows will be a little brighter, our life will have a little more purpose, and our memories will shine a little more brightly. People often ask if we like living in the bus. Sure, we love the bus. But what really matters is that occasionally, we can be someplace, spend time with someone, or cross paths somehow in ways that only God could arrange; hearts are touched, lives changed, and memories made.