A Picture Perfect Afternoon
A Picture Perfect Afternoon
It was Sunday and I was in Aberdeen, South Dakota. I had only traveled 100 miles and I thought it was too soon to stop but the clerk in the grocery store said, “You have to stop and visit Story Book Land. It’s free you know.” I love everything about children’s fables so the name alone hooked me. I also have a philosophy that anything a city spends money on for my entertainment and then offers it to me for free, deserves my time if at all possible.
As I got within a block of Story Book Land, I passed the church, First Assembly of God. The words, Worship Service – 6:00 P.M., jumped out as if in neon lights. I’d already been to church that morning but I felt God’s call to that church.
I drove another block and realized that Aberdeen’s Whyley Park Campground was adjacent to Story Book Land. A vision of my afternoon came to me. I could check into the campground, plug Happy in so Belle could be comfortable without running a generator, and ride my bike everywhere else.
I was as excited as any other child about to enter Story Book Land. I was impatient as I set up Happy and walked Belle. I washed my bike, which was covered with road grime, kissed Belle goodbye and was off. I met a young couple leaving Story Book Land. “How was it?” I asked excitedly.
“It would be great if you had children,” the young man answered. He obviously didn’t grow up taking trips with an Aunt Cheryle or he’d know that you never get too old to enjoy what children enjoy, I thought (probably a little smugly.)
Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. NIV
I fell in love with Story Book Land on the train ride. Inside the train station, I had a wonderful talk with a young lady who was a Christian but remiss in her church attendance.
I waited outside for the train with a family whose father was originally from Holland. He was speaking Dutch with his American born children and they were fluent in both English and Dutch. As we began to chat, this young father admitted that while his background was Catholic, he hadn’t really been to church since moving to the United States. “My wife and the children go. I think she’s Episcopal,” he said looking at her for confirmation.
She nodded, giving him a look that said, “What do you mean you think?” She confirmed that they did indeed go every Sunday, without him.
“Do you want your children to go to church when they’re adults?” I asked him.
“Of course,” the father said. “I think it’s important.”
“You know,” I said. “The statistics aren’t good for them going to church as an adult unless you go. For some reason, statistically speaking, the father has more influence on a lifetime of faithful religious practice than the mother.”
“Really,” he said, looking surprised.
I quoted him the statistics I’d read. “The Episcopal service is very similar to a Catholic service. You might enjoy it,” I told him as we got on the train. The wife looked at me gratefully.
I giggled and snapped pictures as I wandered through the Land of Oz and visited the homes of the Three Pigs. As I looked at the three different homes, I wondered what my stucco home was considered. I visited Captain Hook’s pirate ship and wondered why Captain Hook had two hands.
While walking to the Christmas House, screaming interrupted my idyllic afternoon and I looked over to see a young boy throwing a temper tantrum. Children really can be rotten creatures, I thought as I watched his mother futilely trying to calm him down. “Get away from me,” he screamed jerking away from her arms. Leave me alone. When she reached for him again, he threw a punch. His mother had brought him to a children’s wonderland and here he was furious, that she hadn’t bought him a cheap souvenir in the Christmas House.
Bless her heart; this mother did everything any child psychologist would advise. She quietly talked to him and invited him to calm down. When he got louder, she walked over to a picnic table and sat, quietly waiting on him to decide to join them.
I walked over and said, “You know, they grow out of it.”
“Do you promise?” she asked.
I laughed and shared some temper tantrum stories from the children of my life. “The books say ignoring him is the best thing you can do,” I encouraged. “You’re doing great. All those children I just told you about have grown up to be wonderful teenagers or adults. None of them throw temper tantrums anymore and they didn’t turn out to be mass murderers.”
“It’s so hard to leave him alone,” she said. “Everyone is staring.”
I laughed again. “Yes, but we’re not thinking what you think we’re thinking. We are all remembering when we were in your shoes.”
“It’s not really his fault,” she said sadly. “He’s confused because when he’s with his dad, his dad buys him everything. His dad has more money than I do.” Her voice changed from sadness to bitterness. “My son sees my checks and thinks because I have checks, I have money. I can’t make him understand. He lives with his dad so his dad has more influence than I do,” she said, now sounding defensive.
I was astounded at the emotions I’d watched this poor and hurting woman go through in just a matter of seconds. I wondered if she even knew how much pain she was in. I tried to offer words of comfort and hope but got nowhere. I told her a little of what I did and asked if I could take her son’s picture. “I’ll put it on my website and you can get a copy of it and blackmail him when’s older,” I said, hoping that maybe the website would offer what my words couldn’t.
She didn’t answer at first. We looked over at her son and he was sitting up against Little Miss Muffet, still as a statue, mimicking her pose. “There’s your picture,” she nodded. I quickly snapped it and gave her a card to my website. I prayed for her and her son as I walked off.
I walked through the small zoo and then made my way back to entrance. I rode my bike back to Happy and realized I had a dilemma. What do you wear when you ride your bike to church in 100 degree heat? I glanced longingly at my shorts and tank top but decided on jeans and a tee shirt. I felt guilty not wearing “church clothes” but they wouldn’t have survived the bike ride.
It turns out that a stranger arriving at a small church on a bicycle is something of an oddity. I don’t normally mind being the center of attention but I don’t like it when I’m hot, sweaty, and under dressed. I should have brought a toiletry bag, I silently whined. I quickly looked around. At least some of the church members had on jeans.
Everyone clamored around, wanting to know where I was from and what I was doing. This was one of the friendliest churches I’d visited so far. “You’re traveling alone,” one woman said. “I couldn’t do that.”
“It’s actually pretty hard. I’ve had to learn how to do lots of things my husband normally does. By myself, I couldn’t do this either,” I assured her. “This is a calling and God always enables us for our call. A lot of people are praying for me.”
Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. (from THE MESSAGE: The Bible in Contemporary Language © 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson. All rights reserved.)
Everyone was waiting outside in the lobby because the children were still practicing in the sanctuary. It turns out that I had arrived on the night they were honoring their children’s accomplishments in their mission organization. “Our Missionettes (the girls) and Royal Rangers (the boys) are getting their awards tonight. Several of the young women are getting crowned,” a woman said enthusiastically.
We walked in together and I sat down. A petite brown haired woman rushed up and said, “I hear you’re from Florida. I’m going there soon.” She sat down beside me and I looked gratefully at Darlene’s Capri pants, made out of jeans material. Another woman joined us and Darlene introduced me. “Cheryle travels all over America telling people about God,” she said. “She’s a missionary and a writer.”
I loved listening to the people of First Assembly of God talk. The people behind me were discussing a miracle that had occurred in their lives just this week. Darlene shared her spiritual story with me.
“I’m 23 years old,” Darlene said. I already knew she was the proud grandmother of 5. “I met Christ 23 years ago so that’s how old I am. I’d been in church all my life but didn’t meet Him personally until 23 years ago.”
“What happened to lead you to Christ?” I asked.
“My youngest son died,” she said, dropping her voice.
I gasped, knowing first hand the pain of losing a child. “I’ve lost a son and I’m sorry you’re a member of that terrible club.”
“It’s not a club you’d ever want to join,” she agreed. “I was distraught and began seeking something. I got invited to a Christian crusade. I didn’t even know what a crusade was. The church I attended never talked about how to become a Christian. I just assumed that if you were good and went to church, you were going to heaven. I never watched anything like Billy Graham because I thought that stuff was too extreme. I didn’t know that to become a Christian, I had to personally invite Jesus into my life. I went to the crusade because I was desperately seeking something to help me with my loss. I found what I was seeking. I actually heard God speak to me in an audible voice and I invited Jesus into my life. My husband was already a Christian but had wandered away from it. After I accepted Christ, he rededicated his life and has been active in church ever since. Next, my oldest son became a Christian. He lives in Texas and is a pastor and a missionary to Mexico.”
“Wow,” I sad in awe. “Your 16 year old son’s life had more purpose than most have in 80 years. I guess his work on earth was done.”
She agreed. “Many miracles came out of his death.”
The service began with lifting our voices and hands to God in praise. Then, Darlene and I sat in awe, watching the sweet children of the church receive their honors. To earn these honors, these children had read large parts of the Bible, participated in mission projects, and memorized many scriptures. As I prayed for each child, I basked in the glow I saw on their innocent faces. This church was teaching these children how to put their love for Jesus into practice. They were making disciples.
At the end of the service, the pastor came forward. “Wasn’t this wonderful?” he asked in a booming voice. Everyone clapped. He turned to the men and women who had hosted the event. “I want to thank you as a parent and as a pastor. You are doing God’s work in forming these young people.”
After church, we went to the fellowship in honor of their children. “Have some cake,” Darlene invited.
“I’ll just enjoy looking at it and taking pictures,” I said. “It’s beautiful.”
“Don’t you want something,” she said, worrying about me.
“Yes,” I said. “I want Christian fellowship. This is the second church fellowship I’ve attended today without eating a thing. Unfortunately, I can’t eat desserts or snack foods. I’ll have dinner when I get home but I’ll enjoy the company now.”
As we sat down, we continued talking about her son. “He died in a car accident. He was late getting home so my older son and I went to look for him. We found him,” she said desperately as she remembered the horror. She shook it off and continued. “He had been at his girlfriend’s house and skidded on the ice coming home. We think he must have fallen asleep.”
“You accepted Christ after you lost your son. What about him?” I asked. “Do you have peace about where he is?”
“Oh yes,” she said glowing. “I worried at first. We had raised him in the Methodist church and he had gone through a kind of confirmation. I hoped he had become a Christian then but truthfully, I didn’t think he’d taken it seriously. Just before he died, a group of Lutherans came to our house and shared with him how to become a Christian. He sat out on the porch with them for couple of hours. When he came inside, he was quiet and went straight to his room. God showed me in a dream that my son invited Jesus into his life that night after the Lutherans left. I haven’t worried about him since. I have five children in heaven you know,” she added.
“Why five?” I asked.
“I lost 4 babies before I lost my son. I had two miscarriages. One baby was born with multiple birth defects and lived 8 months. Another little girl died when she was just 1 day old.”
Before I could offer further consolation, she quickly said, “But God is good!” She pulled out a picture of a mother, father, and 5 beautiful blond headed children. “My son has 5 children. God gave me one grandchild for every baby I lost.”
Several other women got their cake and sat down with us. Together, we shared about our love for Christ. One woman said, “We think it’s important to help these children find Jesus as a child. I think it’s harder for an adult to find Christ.”
I agreed. “That’s why I was so excited to hear Darlene’s story. I don’t hear many adult conversion stories.”
The woman nodded, obviously knowing Darlene’s story. “She goes places and shares her story. She leads people to Jesus everywhere she goes.”
“God has used my story,” Darlene confirmed humbly. “I speak for women’s conferences, telling my story. I talk to women I meet everywhere. I’ve seen many women come to Christ through my story. I give God all the glory.”
“You’re an evangelist,” I smiled. “What an honor that is.”
I walked back to my bike, only to draw a crowd again as I unlocked it and got on. “It’s mighty hot,” one man said.
Another said, “Be careful as you cross that highway.”
As I drove off, I saw a woman in a perfectly coordinated pink, black, and white polka dotted outfit, that even matched her purse and shoes. That’s what I wish I looked like,” I laughed to myself, still feeling shabby in my jeans. I stopped my bike and said, “Your outfit is cute.”
“This is just a group of old stuff I put together,” she said sounding much like my grandmother when anyone complimented her. I don’t think my grandmother knew the real definition of “old stuff.”
“Well,” I said. “It works really well. May I take your picture? You’re colorful and I want to put you on my website.”
“Sure,” she said self-consciously. I snapped her picture and rode off, literally, into the sunset, in awe of the glorious day God had provided. As I rode home, I stopped to enjoy the sun setting over the lake and the children frolicking in the water. They are surrounded by your glory, I prayed. Help them to notice.
Praise the LORD!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty expanse.
Praise Him for His mighty deeds;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness.
Praise Him with trumpet sound;
Praise Him with harp and lyre.
Praise Him with timbrel and dancing;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe.
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.
Praise the LORD!
The pictures of Story Book Land, Whylie Park Campground, and First Assembly of God are in the Photo Gallery under the three files that start with South Dakota – Aberdeen.