Remembering a Brave Prom King

Corsage and CrownMost people attend a prom or two, but I’ve attended lots of proms. Like most teenage girls, as a high school junior, I was excited about the prospect of my first prom. Truthfully, it wasn’t much fun, since the boy I had a crush on didn’t ask me.

My senior prom was monumentally worse. By then, I was a patient at Toledo State Mental Hospital following an almost fatal suicide attempt. After spending a couple months in a private psychiatric ward, my insurance ran out. I was committed to the decaying institution that then housed thousands of mentally ill individuals. Before Mental Health reform, that horrible place was reminiscent of the one depicted in the classic film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Battling depression and an eating disorder, I looked more like a 17-year-old Holocaust victim than a carefree teenager. The psychiatrist granted me a weekend pass hoping that attending prom would lift my spirits. My date was a classmate who suffered from epilepsy. He must have empathized with my situation, and proudly escorted me to the prom ignoring the stares from a few overly-curious students.

Fast forward three decades to May 2002, when my life looked nothing like that struggling teen. Faith, education, and the support of a few encouraging mentors had positively changed my circumstances. I was also engaged to a wonderful man who was a school administrator, whose job necessitated that we chaperone prom. Never having had an opportunity to go to prom together, Larry and I decided to don a tuxedo and gown and make it our night, too. Larry and me

Since then, my husband and I have attended quite a few proms. The impressive decorations, twinkling lights, and colorful dresses, still take my breath away. But the prom I remember most vividly is the one when a precious senior who was dying of bone cancer was elected prom king. It was the last year that my spouse served as a middle/high school principal at a rural school in northwestern Ohio.

We had all come to love this quiet dark-haired youth whose given name was Anthony-Dillon. Better known as A.J., he had waged a long and valiant battle against Osteosarcoma. For nine months, he was spot-free, but then the disease turned deadly. Despite his illness, A.J. was compassionate and wise beyond his years.

Somehow in a tight-knit community where folks have known each other forever, tragedy is worse, because everyone is affected. Prom wouldn’t have been prom without A.J. being there, and he knew it. Even though, it had been months since the senior had been able to attend school, he mustered all his strength and accompanied by his dedicated fiancée`, he showed up looking handsome in a white tuxedo.

As the disc jockey played pulsating music, the students danced energetically, while silently grieving the inevitable loss of the fun-loving youth who had always been part of them. When his classmates voted for their prom king, I shouldn’t have been surprised  when A.J.’s name was announced.

There was a moment when the reality of the high school student’s dismal prognosis hit me full force. It happened when a pretty senior asked if she could take a picture with him, and they  posed humorously cheek to cheek with toothy grins. What A.J. didn’t see, was that when the blonde turned away, her expression crumbled into a painful grimace. She had taken the photo as a memory of the boy she had probably known since kindergarten, realizing he would soon be gone. Like a trained actress, before she turned to face A.J. again, the golden-haired girl mustered her courage and smiled brightly. Her affection for her terminally-ill classmate wasn’t romantic love driven by adolescent hormones. Rather it was the kind of caring that country kids take for granted growing up in a close circle of friendship.

When my husband and I visited him for the last time, A.J. sensed that my heart was breaking. He smiled his dazzling smile, and said, “I’ll be okay.” Then the 18-year-old lifted his T-shirt sleeve and displayed a large tattoo of a compassionate Jesus. A visual reminder of the Bible’s promise, “I am the Resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.”

That July, the bravest prom king I’ve ever known took his last earthly breath. Still, he lives on in the hearts of those he inspired, forever wearing a white tuxedo and a jeweled crown.

Christina Ryan Claypool is an AP & Amy award-winning journalist and inspirational speaker. Contact her through her website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.

Thankful for the Gift of More Time

Martha Farmer 034 Martha Farmer 037 “It wasn’t your time,” the body shop technician said matter-of-factly surveying my husband’s wrecked car. As Nate, whose name was embroidered on his work shirt, began wrapping the totaled vehicle with clear plastic; I dutifully gathered my personal possessions.

Just days before, the black sedan’s pristine finish glistened in the sunshine. Now, what was left of the car was a reminder of how blessed I had been to survive.

“It wasn’t your time,” was the twenty-something auto-technician’s advice on how to conquer the anxiety about driving that my 2008 accident created. I often think of Nate’s simple theology.

His statement reminded me of something German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote in his Letters and Papers from Prison, “We all have our appointed hour of death, and it will always find us wherever we go. And we must be ready for it.”

Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who refused to sit idly by as Adolph Hitler killed millions of Jewish citizens during World War II. Instead the German leader joined a movement to have Hitler assassinated, resulting in his 1943 imprisonment. Bonhoeffer’s own appointed hour of death occurred in 1945, when at only 39 years of age he was hanged at the Flossenburg concentration camp.

I’m not comparing my situation to the slain scholar’s, because I felt blessed to be alive that afternoon. After all, a few days earlier while driving in heavy four-lane traffic I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw a car rapidly approaching. My frantic mind quickly realized that there was nothing I could do. Suddenly, I heard the sickening sound of crunching metal, and felt the forceful impact that propelled me forward quite a distance.

Miraculously, there was no vehicle directly ahead, nor had I been pushed into an adjoining lane. Momentarily dazed, I gratefully assessed that my injuries were non-life-threatening, although they would require a trip to the hospital. The young man whose vehicle’s front end had connected with my demolished back end assured me that he was ok, too. “We can always get a new car, but we can’t replace precious people,” was a philosophy that I had been taught by my late mother.

Thankfully, I knew my husband agreed with my practical view of totaled automobiles, since I just “happened” to borrow his car that day. Providentially, Larry’s vehicle “was” proven to prevent injuries in crash tests. It lived up to its promise, even though it resembled a folded accordion after the wreck.

photo (2)There were several other remarkable occurrences surrounding the event. When dressing the morning of the accident, my treasured angel pin, a gift from late Jewish Holocaust survivor, Elisabeth Sondheimer, seemed to sparkle warningly as it fell to my bedroom floor. Then before leaving, my normally rushed school administrator spouse stopped uncharacteristically to put his arms around me and say a quick prayer.

I had also placed an antique picture of Jesus standing behind a sailor who is navigating a ship’s wooden wheel behind the driver’s seat that day. The portrait depicts the Jewish carpenter with one hand lovingly resting on the young seamen’s shoulder and the other arm extended, pointing him in the direction he needs to go amidst the turbulent seas.

I had taken the inspirational artwork to give to a colleague who was encountering some rough seas of his own. When cleaning the car out at the body shop, I found the glass and wooden framed picture undamaged just as Nate was sharing his wise advice about it not being my time.Jesus is my Pilot

The borrowed car, the angel pin, my husband’s spontaneous prayer, and the antique picture are all reminders of my own belief that God is always in control, even when life seems randomly chaotic. However, my greatest blessing was the fact that apparently it wasn’t my “appointed hour of death” as Bonhoeffer once wrote. Because someday, death “will find me,” just as it finds us all, since nobody gets out of here alive.

If you disagree with Nate, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and me, perhaps you will like the wisdom in the song lyrics of the former hit, It’s Not My Time by rockers, 3 Doors Down. “My friend, this life we live is not what we have, it’s what we believe. And it’s not my time. I’m not going ….” Hopefully, you and I are not going today. For now, we’ve all been granted the precious opportunity to spend more time with those we love, and to finish our work on this Earth.

Christina Ryan Claypool is an inspirational speaker and Amy Award winning freelance journalist. Contact her through her Website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.  

A Postcard’s Reminder of Hope by Christina Ryan Claypool

“Help me, Jesus!” Desperately, I prayed this little prayer looking towards the ceiling wondering if Heaven was listening, because the cash register in my thrift/antique store hadn’t rung up many sales lately.

Pictured my postcard with my verse of 2014, Jeremiah 29:11 (Jer.29:13)

Pictured my postcard with my verse of 2014, Jeremiah 29:11 (Jer.29:13)

It was about two decades ago and I was a single mom supporting my young son with the proceeds from my retail establishment. We lived in the back in a tiny apartment and I tried my very best to be frugal with the earnings my small business brought in. But there hadn’t been much income in awhile, and I was pretty frantic. Today, I still pray these three powerful words whenever I don’t know how else to pray. I call this my breath prayer. It is not so much that I recite it while asking for divine assistance. Rather it just comes spontaneously from a place deep inside that believes God is still in control, when circumstances scream that all is lost.

And I have to be honest with you, that’s where I’ve been for months. Like there is just no way that God can make everything alright. This is in contrast to my image as a woman of steadfast faith who has written Christian recovery books and in the past worked in television ministry. So, when I first saw a post asking for guest bloggers to share their Scripture for 2014, I tried to ignore it. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, and pretend that I had something significantly spiritual to tell others when I was experiencing my own dark night of the soul. But the request haunted me. “What will your 2014 Scripture be?” a still small voice asked relentlessly. Suddenly, I knew what it was, because there is an old postcard on my refrigerator that seemed to shout, “I’m it. Look at me.”

Our wonderful wedding on June 8, 2002

Our wonderful wedding on June 8, 2002

To explain about the postcard, I have to travel
back in time. For my husband’s job as a school administrator we have had to move four times in the past twelve years. My spouse came into my life late when my son was grown, and no longer living with me. Even though our first move wasn’t far, it caused me to leave my hometown, and to be miles away from my adult child. I was grieving, and just couldn’t be consoled.

Back then in 2004, I was also attending graduate school in ministry at Ohio’s Mt. Vernon Nazarene University. Every other month, I would travel to the campus for a week of intensive classes. One day in the university book shop, I happened to notice a postcard with a sky blue background and beautiful rainbow with the printed words, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord…plans to give you hope and a future…” Jeremiah 29:11. I had always loved this verse. It also said, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:13 Impulsively, I bought the postcard and tucked it away. I didn’t think much about it, until it came time for our move.

We had rented a lovely ranch house just across the street from the school where my husband would be the principal. Finding the house had been divine intervention, because it was the only home available to rent in the village of 1200 people. Reciprocally, we were an answer to prayer for the owner who was a gracious Christian widow looking for responsible tenants. I was in my new kitchen surrounded by moving boxes busily putting away dishes, when I noticed the familiar looking postcard on the refrigerator that the widow was letting us use. She had left it there. It can’t be? I thought to myself. But it was the very same sky blue postcard with Jeremiah 29:11 that I had purchased just a short time earlier at the MVNU bookstore. It reminded me that God was in control and that He had orchestrated the move, and that He would have plans for a wonderful future wherever we went.

Since then, during every move, I make sure to prominently place the postcard where I can see it on whatever refrigerator I have. Then unexpectedly last winter, another particularly special house we were renting was being sold, and we couldn’t afford to buy it. Moving DayI prayed and prayed that somehow God would help us make that old brick home ours, and was devastated while packing boxes again realizing that this was not to be His plan. I tried to be grateful as God provided a perfect place in a nearby city for my hubby and me to go, one that would finally be our own. But during the move, I seriously injured both of my knees with one requiring extensive surgery. Much of the last six months I have spent in a new community knowing almost no one, trapped inside recovering from painful surgery, further away from my son and with my spouse working his usual 12 hour days. Often, I must admit I have felt forgotten even by God.

But it was that postcard on my refrigerator that wouldn’t let me believe the lie that our Heavenly Father doesn’t care. ““For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord,” these words kept reminding me that there is always a divine plan, even when our world appears random and chaotic. My late mother used to always joke, “God, I know you have a plan, but it sure would be nice to have a clue.” When we are distressed, we forget that we can trust our Creator, and that He is working out good on our behalf in the midst of difficult circumstances. When all seems lost, and our best days seem behind us, God promises us that, “He has plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future…” Jeremiah 29:11 NIV

As we begin this new year of 2014, I’m sure that many of you reading this are in need of hope in your own lives. With hope, which is my word for 2014, we can face whatever today brings, knowing that there will be blessings waiting in our tomorrows. For me, restored health is granting me the gift of truly believing the message of Jeremiah 29:11 again, my Scripture for 2014. Like the children of Israel who found their way even in exile, I will find my way in this new place. I am here by God’s plan, not chance.

Admittedly, there were many times these last months when my heart anxiously cried out, “Help me, Jesus.” Now, I am able to remember that He always does. Like that day in my store twenty years ago, when I didn’t know how I would be able to pay the rent. God came through and brought me the finances I needed. Whatever you need today, may this blog post remind you that he has a wonderful future for you, too. May the gift of His hope be yours as we ring in 2014. Happy New Year!

 

Battling the Day after Christmas Blues

Twas the day after Christmas and in every store, shoppers were returning presents galore:  an ill-fitting sweater, a calendar of cats, unwanted perfume, and NFL hats. They stood in long lines, their foreheads glistening with sweat, disgruntled that they hadn’t been waited on yet. You see, the clerks were all tired and too burned-out to care, while the recipients of gift cards were finding sales everywhere.

The above lines are my brief parody of the well-known Christmas poem, Twas the Night before Christmas written by Clement Clark Moore in 1822. This poem is also commonly referred to as A Visit from St. Nicholas because according to www.carols.org it “redefined our image of Christmas and Santa Claus.” The poem is a classic read for many American youngsters on Christmas Eve, as today’s “visions of sugar-plums dance in their heads.”

The problem is that in our society, children are not fixated on receiving small pieces of sugary candy, but rather on big ticket items that most parents cannot afford. Likewise, the jewelry store commercials have led countless bewildered mates down the path of purchasing a budget-breaking bauble on credit.

No disrespect intended, but maybe you’re one of the sentimental suckers who fell for these ads. Now the day after Christmas you’re experiencing a massive case of post-purchase dissonance. That’s a technical term for the sick feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you’re concerned that you’ve spent more on an item than you probably should have. Take heart, I’m sure you did make someone very happy, despite the fact that the gift probably won’t be paid off until Christmastime next year.

Even more depressing are the commercials portraying perfect families gathering to sing carols and toast eggnog. The truth is that many of us spent Christmas alone, or with a tiny remnant of our geographically dispersed families, possibly mourning either deceased loved ones or broken relationships.

Just days ago, the gaily wrapped presents under the tree promised some kind of hopeful Christmas spirit. Now, trash bags filled with ripped wrapping paper and torn cardboard boxes might be a mocking reminder of these unfulfilled expectations. However, the true gifts of Christmas are rarely presents in a box that can be returned the day after Christmas. Rather, they are simply unexpected gifts of love that create memories that can be cherished forever. The greatest example is the origin of Christmas itself, when a baby was born in a Bethlehem stable bringing love to the entire world.

Besides remembering the true reason for the season, it can also be helpful to recant the blessings of holidays past, to battle the day after Christmas blues. One of my miracles happened when I owned a thrift store near the Lima mall and my now adult son was a preteen. Our car had a flat tire the day before Christmas Eve, and Zach and I walked blocks in the sub-zero temperatures back to my store.

Besides the car, I had an old van to haul merchandise, but it had also refused to start the day before. As a single mom, there had been some rough moments, but when I woke up that Christmas Eve, I had no idea how things could work out. I opened my store, praying that I might make extra cash for the vehicle repairs. But where would I find a mechanic on a holiday?

Then early in the afternoon, a slight built young man with dark hair came in and asked if there was any work that he could do to earn $50.00 for a bus ticket, so that he could get home for Christmas. When I asked him what kind of work he did, he told me he was studying in the automotive program at University of Northwestern Ohio. Less than an hour later, he had changed my car’s tire and got the van running again. I gave him the money he needed for his bus ticket, thanking him profusely for his help.

After he left, I stood frozen and speechless, awed by the power of divine intervention. I never saw my Christmas Eve angel again. But this year, when I needed to be reminded of Christmas miracles, I remembered his visit. I’m hoping this column reminds you of your own memories of past holiday blessings, and of all the miracles still to come. These blessings will never be found in a material present. Rather they abound when we come to know the tiny baby born in a manger who is our heavenly Father’s greatest gift of love.

Tis` the day after Christmas, but there’s no need to feel down. Just remember that miracles of love still abound. Happy New Year to all and to all a good day!

Christina Ryan Claypool is an author, inspirational speaker, and wanna-be poet. Contact her at christina@christinaryanclapool.com

                    

Advice for those Grieving this Christmas

Christmas Dining TableThe holidays are upon us and some folks don’t feel so merry. This is especially true for those who have lost a loved one recently. Grieving can make the glitter of the Christmas season grow particularly dim.

Admittedly, grief comes in stages. One milestone for me occurred late in the fall of 2011, when the remaining leaves on the trees were ablaze with breathtaking color. However, that Sunday afternoon the skies were dark and heavy with rain. The weather matched my downcast mood. When a rented moving truck pulled into my driveway, my heart sank. I inhaled deeply then waved to my stepsister, Cindy, and her husband, Mark. To me, it felt as if the Indianapolis couple were transporting the body of a loved one, instead of our parents’ old furniture.

Losing my mother, Glenna Sprang, suddenly in 2010 was devastating. There had been no warning or preparation. She was a Philadelphia organist who played two church services on the morning of October 10th. That same afternoon, pain from a kidney stone gone terribly wrong sent her to a Pennsylvania hospital where she died three days later.Mom and me

Mom was 78. Even though she had been in excellent health, I should have realized she wouldn’t live forever. Five months later on March 5, 2011, Neal Sprang, my 80-year-old stepfather of 35 years died. Theirs had been an age-old love story. Two hearts so intrinsically intertwined, that one couldn’t keep beating for long without the other.

My stepsister and her husband had made the difficult trip to our parents’ home in Philadelphia to retrieve the furniture that we had inherited. For me, there was my grandfather’s writing desk, a birds-eye maple vanity, and a mahogany table with six chairs. Long ago, Mom and “Dad” had purchased the dining room set from a church rummage sale.

That old table has seen many wonderful memories of Christmases past. Every holiday, formal china and the good silverware would be set on the linen tablecloth, which would be laden with my mother’s steaming homemade dishes. The iridescent flames of the candles decorating the centerpiece would reflect in the crystal chandelier. For hours, my siblings and I would gather around the table sharing stories and laughing solicitously at my stepfather’s corny jokes.

For awhile, there was an eerie silence that greeted me each time I gazed at that Duncan Phyfe table that ended up in my dining room in central Ohio. Its presence reminded me of the permanence of my parents’ passing.

Then last December, I met Rev. Philip Chilcote who gave me some great advice on how to deal with my parents’ loss. “In a particular family, you might have five children….who lose a parent and that’s five totally different griefs,” explained Rev. Chilcote who is the chaplain at Wilson Hospice in Sidney, Ohio. He is also the bereavement coordinator for the organization who assists the families of hospice patients with their own grief issues.

In addition, sixty-year-old Chilcote is the pastor of Sidney’s First Christian Church. In his role as a minister he has walked alongside countless families devastated by the loss of a loved one. “Grief is a re-adaptation process meaning we have to learn to live our lives without somebody who has always been there,” said the hospice professional. “We have to learn to adapt to a different world. Not only is the world different, but we are different,” he said.

For grieving individuals creating new traditions and rituals is important. Some folks try to ignore the loss, but Chilcote believes that you should, “include the one who is gone in what you do.” For example, if you normally hang Christmas stockings, the expert who has led grief support groups for two decades, suggests that you should hang a stocking for the individual who died.

If the deceased family member “always had the chair at the end of the table,” Rev. Chilcote says that you could leave the chair empty, or choose someone to sit in their place. As for giving, if it was your tradition to purchase a $50.00 gift certificate for the late family member,  you could make a donation to a charity or ministry in their honor, or give to a neighbor in need.

“People can buy a special candle and at the place at the table where they sat you can light the candle…and go around the table and have each person say what they meant to you,” suggests the seasoned grief counselor. “Tell funny stories about them. Most people who die, wouldn’t want you to be sad,” he added.

My parents would definitely not want the joyous season to be filled with mourning. They were both church choir directors who believed that Christmas wasn’t about presents and mistletoe, but rather about a baby born in a Bethlehem manger whose love lives forever.

That’s why I took Rev. Chilcote’s advice last Christmas and kept my stepfather’s place at the table empty. I placed a candle where my stepdad always sat, and lit it to honor him and my mother. My mother was always too busy serving to sit much, but I made sure there was an empty china coffee cup, since she always enjoyed her pie with a cup of hot coffee.

This past year, I tried to create new family memories around my parents’ beautiful dining room table, realizing that was why it had been entrusted to me. Memories that would make my mother clap her hands in delight, and my stepfather comment, “Very good,” a saying he used when something pleased him. I no longer feel sad when I look at the table, but rather grateful that I was given such a gift.

Yet if you are reading this and you are too depressed to partake in holiday festivities, know that it really will get better. You never stop missing your loved ones, but when we know Jesus, we know that there will be a great reunion someday soon. For now, in the words that my mother always signed her Christmas cards, I wish you, “Peace, Love, and Joy,” this holiday season.

Christina Ryan Claypool is an Amy award winning freelance journalist and  speaker who is the author of the book, Seeds of Hope for Survivors. Visit her Website at  www.christinaryanclaypool.com.