Religion was not a big factor during my youth. Our family believed in God the Father and Jesus the Son and held to the stories of Christ’s birth, crucifixion, and resurrection. That’s about as far as it went with us. Mom took my sister and me to church a few times with our friend Nancy Witter and her three kids at a church less than a block from their home in Muncie. The fathers of the two families went golfing while we were at service. Those few times are the only times I can remember attending church as a family.
My sister and I were not discouraged from going to church. In fact, there were two churches in and around our neighborhood that held summer programs which Mom encouraged us to go to. I went a few times and couldn’t stand it. Church, it seemed, wasn’t meant for me.
There was a third option available to us – our kindly neighbor, Mrs. Johnson. Mrs. Johnson and her daughter Cindy held a weekly Bible study for the kids in our neighborhood. Mrs. Johnson was one of the sweetest ladies I’ve ever known. She had a way of making the Bible stories interesting to an elementary school kid. It could have been the cookies and punch she served with her stories every week.
I enjoyed going across the street to listen to her share the stories of the Old Testament and The Gospels until, that is, the fateful day that shook my beliefs to the core.
A few months after my eleventh birthday Mrs. Johnson explained to us that we needed to accept Jesus into our hearts in order to get into heaven. All we had to do was invite Jesus into our hearts and He would enter them, filling us with His love. She led us in this prayer then asked us if we could now feel Jesus in our hearts. I watched as one-by-one the other kids enthusiastically nodded their heads. I sheepishly nodded mine. The truth was that I felt nothing different.
This concerned me to no end. Did I do something wrong? Did Jesus reject my invitation? Would I not be able to enter into heaven? I was full of questions but was too embarrassed by my fib to bring them up to Mrs. Johnson.
That was the last time I attended her study program.
The thought of my failed attempt bothered me for several years. I vacillated on my religious beliefs. For a time I still believed in God and the hereafter. This would be followed by a period of agnosticism then a period of atheism before I circled back around to believing again. It was a loop that continued well into adulthood.
Through a series of events – God Moments, if you will – I came back around to believing again and then going beyond believing and into knowing. What follows are two such moments. The first is the most important one. The second one is one for which I will be eternally grateful.
I believe it was in the year 1984 when my friend Kevin was a few days from graduation. I met Kevin in the autumn of 1982 when an old friend from Yorktown introduced me to him at the Tally Ho at Ball State University. Kevin and I became friends, but I honestly thought that once he graduated that we would go our separate ways. Kevin had other ideas.
It was at the end of Kevin’s last day at school when he asked me a question that altered the course of my life: “Hey, can I get your phone number?”
I was a bit taken aback by his question, to the point that I jokingly asked him if I owed him money. I gave him my number and didn’t really expect much to come of it.
Looking back I’ve come to realize that question was a huge pivot point in my life. Kevin and I went on to become great friends. Through him I grew closer to other people I met at Ball State and through them I met several others. Ultimately, I became very close to our friends Mitch and Mary. Thanks to their efforts I relocated to Fort Wayne and found a good job that I held for more than twenty years. More significantly, they made me a part of their family and asked me to be godfather to their youngest child.
None of that would have happened were it not for Kevin’s question.
For several years Kevin and I were part of a small group of friends that would hang out every week. One of those friends, Paul, I met at Ball State. Joe and I were introduced a year or two later. For a period of time the four of us were practically inseparable. It was an even money bet that we would be found on any Friday night in Manor’s Bar eating Manor’s nachos and drinking Stroh’s beer. We gave ourselves the nickname “The Dudes” because, frankly, that was what we called each other rather than by our given names.
Over time The Dudes’ days of hanging out dwindled down to rare occasions. Kevin married. Paul moved to Indianapolis then to Richmond then back to Muncie. We still got together every now and again but the weekly excursions were mostly over. Joe and I would meet up for a movie every few weeks or for a cup of coffee at Waffle House. Every once in a while Kevin or Paul would join us or Kevin and his wife would invite us all over for dinner.
The one event that almost always brought us back together was our group’s camping trips to Brown County State Park. Our friend Mitch started the tradition in 1986 and it is still going strong to this day. Paul and I haven’t missed a trip yet. Joe didn’t miss a trip for about the first ten years. His health deteriorated to the point that he could only pay us a visit and then to the point where he couldn’t even manage that.
With the help of Paul and Joe, I moved to Fort Wayne in 1994. They each made a few trips up to spend a weekend and I always let them know when I was back in town to visit family. After many years even those visits started to become a rarity. We were almost down to the point of seeing each other only at the camping trips.
Joe’s arthritis got bad enough that he could no longer drive and he was pretty much stuck at home with his mother. To my regret, I went almost an entire year with no contact with my old friend. When I finally called him and apologized for the transgression he told me not to worry about it. He understood how busy life could be. I traveled to Muncie to see Joe and his mom. I seldom went longer than a month or two without calling him after that. Despite his health and relative confinement Joe was always in a good mood and always cheered me up.
Eventually, Joe and his mom had to move into a nursing home. It wasn’t long before his mom passed away. Joe’s health was a roller coaster ride. One time he would be in fine fettle, the next time I saw him he would be drifting in and out. He always put on a good face and reassured me that he was doing fine. He also had to let me know that I was in his prayers every day.
The nursing home in which Joe resided in allowed us to use the TV in their common area to watch Super Bowls and baseball all-star games over the last few years. Kevin, Paul, Mitch, and I would join Joe to watch some sports, dine on Pizza King Royal Feasts, and share stories and laughs. Most of the laughs were provided by Joe.
Last week I got a message from Kevin about watching the tape delay of the Indianapolis 500 at Joe’s. I declined to go, partly because I don’t like to watch tape delayed events knowing the outcome, mostly because I didn’t want to get home late. A day or two later it was announced that the race had sold out and would be televised live locally for the first time in sixty years. I let Kevin know that I would be at Joe’s after all.
Yesterday, Kevin, Paul, and I arrived at Joe’s at about the same time. We went to his room and found him in great spirits. He looked and sounded good, better than I had seen him in some time. We watched the race in the common area, ate some Pizza King, and made each other laugh until our sides hurt. Towards the end of the race I noticed Joe had dozed off. He woke up in time for the last few laps and added his unique brand of color commentary. Once the race was over we bade Joe well and promised to be back after the upcoming camping trip. I wanted to stay to watch a video I made to celebrate our camping roup’s 30th anniversary, but Joe seemed tired. Maybe another day, I thought.
This morning I got a call from Kevin that Joe had been taken to the hospital. He was being treated for fluid on his lungs and pneumonia. The doctors were having a difficult time with the fluid. They weren’t sure about his recovery.
A few hours later Kevin sent a message that Joe had been stabilized. My hopes for Joe’s recovery were looking good.
A few hours later Kevin called me with terrible news. Joe had died.
I called a couple friends to share the news with them then went over to Mary and Mitch’s house to begin the grieving process. I shared with them the events of yesterday and how Joe seemed to be in really good shape. They were thankful that the four of us had been able to get together one last time. It wasn’t until then that I had considered that.
We were struck by the fact that the race selling out was a God Moment. It was God’s way of enabling The Dudes to be together one last time to share stories of the old days and have a few more laughs together before He took Joe home.
Thank You, Big Guy. I will be forever grateful for yesterday.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m finally going to have a good cry.