My mother-in-law, whose home we will be sharing starting next week, pastors a tiny church in northern California. She is a woman of God in the truest sense. She devotes her life to improving the lives of others. And she surrounds herself with other like-minded people, creating circles of love that extend outward to encompass many in the community.
On one of our recent visits, we happened to be there on Sunday, so I attended Sunday school and church services. For a lifelong Jew to enter the world of Pentecostalism is quite an experience and could in itself be the subject of an entire blog post. For now, let’s just say that at Christmastime, I stood in the pulpit, explained the story of Hanukkah to the congregants, and sang Maos Tzur in Hebrew. Let others create bucket lists, but for me this could properly be added to the list of things I never imagined I’d do in a million, billion years.
I was seventeen years old the first time I set foot inside a church. I was a college freshman and had bused across the Hudson River with the choir to participate in a choral competition at the Vassar College chapel in Poughkeepsie, New York. I almost backed out at the last minute. I felt guilty about going into one of those places. You know, one of those places where the goyim pray. I was duly impressed by the sweeping majesty of the sanctuary while I ignored the crucifix and tried not to look at the images etched into the stained glass windows. I later told my father about the experience, but knew I could never discuss it with my mother. Anyway, we did poorly in the competition and I stayed out of churches for a while after that.
Later on, I managed to rack up a series of Christian girlfriends, which inevitably led me into other churches in other states. There was the one with the three-year old daughter who I helped to memorize the Lord’s Prayer. (Of course, I had to learn it myself first. And I nearly fell on the floor when I discovered that my father knew every word.) Then there was the other one who alley-catted around on me but still liked to be in the pew, singing along with the hymns come Sunday. And if I am to be honest, I must admit that there were times when I was lonely enough to attend church with a friend or two from work.
Many years later, I met and married my true love, who I had discovered, to my delight, held most of the same values that I do. She happens to be a Christian. Thus, I gradually learned that, although I know I could never be a Christian myself, the distance between Jews and Christians is really rather slim. The two faiths are no more than twin branches of the same tree. In the words of Shakespeare, “what’s in a name?”
I remember well the day I broke the news to my mother that I had asked my shiksha girlfriend to marry me and that she had actually said yes. The conversation went something like this:
Mom: “What kind of name is Donna? Italian?”
Me: “No. Way back, I think they are of English ancestry.”
Mom: “What does her father do?”
Me: “He’s dead. He worked for the railroad for many years.”
Mom: “Does her mother work?”
Me: “Yes, she pastors a church.”
Mom: “I mean for a living.”
I didn’t tell my mother about the day just a week before that I knew for sure that Donna and I were meant to be together forever. I knew my mother wouldn’t understand about the power of prayer and how God can out of the blue one day knock you over the head like he knocked Paul off his donkey on the road to Damascus.
But now, fourteen years later, I did tell the story in Sunday school when we were up north visiting my wife’s family. She herself was not in attendance, as she had decided to sleep in. But the Sunday school teacher was expounding upon the subject of how the Lord knows our needs and provides for them, and she had asked for personal testimony, and I just couldn’t resist sharing.
I was crazy as a loon about Donna (still am, by the way) and I had a feeling she kind of liked me, too. Okay, so maybe I was acting more than a bit like a giddy schoolboy even though I was just a few months shy of age forty. What I really wanted to do was buy a ring, throw caution to the winds, and find out if I really had a chance. The problem was that overtime had dried up at work, I had no savings to speak of, and I had no idea where I would find the money to buy a decent ring. I had priced some rings, and I knew that I would need at least $700. Seven hundred dollars that I didn’t have.
That’s when I started doubting myself. Perhaps, I thought, this was not meant to be after all. Who was I kidding? Making a paltry hourly wage, I knew I couldn’t afford marriage. And did I really want to impose this on the object of my affections? Did I want to saddle her with a life of poverty? No, of course not!
It was a night when I began to feel depressed about the situation, and I began to pray. “Lord, if this is meant to be, please show me a sign.” I went to sleep wondering if I was fooling myself, if God would really hear my prayer, or if He had anything to do with this at all.
In the morning, I got ready for work and, when I headed out the door of my apartment, I noticed there was an envelope sticking out of my mailbox. Removing it, I saw that it was from PG&E, the electric company. “What do they want?” I thought. “My bill is paid up.”
I tore open the envelope as I walked to the car. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw that it was a check in the amount of (you guessed it) $700. I had totally forgotten that I had paid that amount as a deposit more than a year earlier and had no idea that I was entitled to a refund.
“Okay, God, I get it!” I said aloud. It was as if all the lights had suddenly turned green. I cashed the check and purchased the ring that very day.
The Sunday school teacher was beaming. When I reached this point in my story, she blurted out: “You forgot the best part! She said yes!” I couldn’t agree more.
And so, the Jew in the Pentecostal church took the opportunity to testify to the fact that God does indeed know our needs and that He provides for them, often in some of the most improbable ways.
I write this as a reminder to myself. I will be laid off from work at the end of next week and I am starting to panic about being unemployed. But I know that, somehow, some way, when this door closes, God will open another. He always does.