Stephen tells me he thinks he was eight or nine years old. That would make it either the Christmas of ‘83 or ‘84. It would also mean that David had turned ten or eleven just one week before. We lived in a two story brick farm house which was owned by a coal company. They had bought the property for future strip mining. It was really quite a house; two bedrooms and a bath downstairs and three bedrooms upstairs. One of them I had made into a study. The other two were my boy’s bedrooms. Kathi and I used the back bedroom downstairs and the other was reserved as a guest bedroom. It was an old house however and we depended on a cistern for all of our water. If it didn’t rain then we had to pay to have water hauled in and put in the cistern.
I was an unemployed preacher who had started a painting business. Generally the business had grown and I had added much equipment to it as jobs came up that required the equipment. I had an airless paint sprayer and had acquired portable sandblasting equipment, plus extension ladders and all the other necessary tools. But the business was somewhat seasonal and, of course, there was no regular paycheck coming in. No business, then no money. Usually business was good and then slowed down as winter came on and the weather would not allow for exterior painting. Some winters we were fortunate and a good interior job would come our way allowing us to work through the bad weather. I say “us” because I usually had one or two people working with me.
But this winter no work had come in and it was now the day before Christmas. I had done no Christmas shopping and I had no money. When I say, “no money” I mean no money, none in the bank and none in my pocket.
“Where are you God?”
Kathi, my wife, and I were just outside the back door when all this just hit me. I imagine I had kept thinking that something would come up, I was doing my best and God just wouldn’t let me down. But now it was Christmas Eve and there was no money to shop. I cried out that I was doing my best and yet I can’t even buy my kids any Christmas. I was devastated.
This was tough times but what is worse is that we had had tougher times. When the boys were just toddlers, about two and three, we became absolutely homeless. I had an old, rusty, Mercury Comet Wagon. It had a mismatched clutch in it and sometimes grinded terribly. We had little money and a little gasoline. We parked at night in rest parks and out-of-the- way places where I hoped the legal authorities wouldn’t notice us and I would end up losing my boys. I recall one evening during this period that, as we drove along, Kathi and I were discussing our situation and what could we do about it. David, my oldest boy, who was precocious, asked, “Daddy why don’t we go home.” How do you tell your toddler that we don’t have any home to go to? I don’t recall what answer, if any, that he got. But I will never live long enough to forget David’s question: “Daddy why don’t we go home?”
But we got through that and God got us on the road to recovery, a small job, a church to pastor and a parsonage to live in. And then life went on from there. But now I had a home for us but no Christmas for my wife and kids. I feel sure that those past experiences haunted me yet, and while I wanted to believe that the Good Lord wouldn’t put us through homelessness again, I hadn’t completely escaped the ghosts of that experience. There had been another episode that severely jarred me. While we were pastor of that small church things were still tough financially. The parsonage was furnished but there was no salary and we lived on what I got for the part-time job at Sears where I was paid minimum wage. We were scraping by but there was no money for debts. So one day while I was working Kathi went to apply for food stamps. When I came home that evening Kathi was there but there were no food stamps. Kathi told me of her mistreatment at the hands of the “public servants” who wouldn’t give her food stamps. Just why I can only surmise, but legally we were certainly eligible. When Kathi told me how they treated her I was once again devastated. While I struggled to keep my composure and fought back tears, I told Kathi, “If you love me don’t ever ask me to apply for any kind of welfare again.” In the over thirty years since then we lived without the government’s help.
But now I am at the back door of our home, it is the afternoon of the day before Christmas and I am feeling “picked on.” While it was to Kathi I made my complaint I think I was really complaining to God. Whatever the case, my complaint put Kathi in action. Thank God for a loving, resourceful wife. She told me something that amounted to “relax” and went into action. She had, I think it was a bra that still had the price tag on it and perhaps a few nickels. We drove to Princeton, went to Penneys where she returned the bra for money and then bought a few small things. But the real salvation was that Kathi loved to go to yard sales, where she bought anything that looked to her like a bargain. Also she didn’t wait till Christmas Eve to do her holiday shopping. She had brought things home from those rummage sales all year long and nobody knew what she had but Kathi. What else she put under our Christmas tree I don’t recall but one thing I do remember; the wagon! It was a Radio Flyer and while it wasn’t shinny new it was in good working order. When we went to open our gifts I had much misgiving; the pile of gifts wasn’t what I was used to and all the new things I usually put under there were not there. But the wagon was! And that made all the difference. If my boys had gotten nothing else for Christmas that wagon would have done it.
When I decided to write this article I called Stephen to ask how old he was when he got the wagon for Christmas and he told me eight or nine. He said we didn’t go anywhere that Christmas. I hadn’t thought of that but do recall that we had gone to my mother’s in Ft. Myers, Florida for Christmas more than once and had spent Christmas a time or two with some of Kathi’s family. When he mentioned our staying home and said he didn’t know why, I just said, “we were broke.” He said, “Oh” but then went on to say how Roy and Kay with their six children came over and the kids rode that wagon through the house and evidently had quite a time. I didn’t recall that either but only recalled that “the wagon” had saved the day.
It was Christmas Eve and I was broke, and had done no Christmas shopping. But God knew all about that and had given me a great wife who aggravated me sometimes with all those yard sales but who had bought a wagon. I had bought nothing, had done nothing for our Christmas, but, complain. But God knew of my complaint before I had ever made it and had provided the answer. What a worm am I, but what a great God I have.