I lay alone in the hospital room and thought, We don’t know a soul here! We’re seven hours from our home; half a continent away from our kids in California. No one except God even knows we’re here.
The previous day had dawned as “normally” as any other Sabbath when my husband, Jim, and I were on the road for a weekend to speak in a church district on behalf of Adventist World Radio (as volunteers). The day before we’d spoken at the Biloxi Gulf Coast Seventh-day Adventist Church in the morning, then in the afternoon at the Bay St. Louis Seventh-day Adventist Church 30 miles away.
Saturday night, tired from a full day of ministry, we fell into bed early, hoping for a good night’s sleep.
Around midnight, I awoke with chest pains so severe I could scarcely breathe. Trying not to wake up Jim, I slipped out to the car to look for a bottle of aspirin should I be having a heart attack. The creaking hotel room door woke Jim when, hunched over in pain, I slipped back into the room.
Fifteen minutes later a fully engaged ambulance, lights flashing and sirens screaming, rushed me to a nearby hospital. Medical personnel ran all manner of tests for possible issues of the heart, gallbladder, and lungs. My severe pain continued, though paramedics had ruled out a heart attack as soon as they’d run tests on me in the ambulance.
Jim left me briefly to return to the hotel to shower, put on fresh clothes, and grab a bite to eat. Scared and hurting, I lay alone in that hospital room with our immediate future and my malady looming like big question marks in my mind.
Just then an early-morning phlebotomist pushed open the door to my room.
“Good morning,” she said in a quiet yet cheery voice. “I’m here to draw some blood—Carolyn?” She stopped short. “Carolyn, is that you? Didn’t you and your husband speak at our church yesterday?”
Through my pain I stared at her an instant before remembering. “Bay St. Louis? Second pew on the right? Melinda?”
Melinda put down her equipment and slipped off her latex gloves before taking my hand. Her warm, caring, flesh-and-blood touch meant everything to me at that moment. “I don’t know why you’re here,” she continued calmly, “but before I do anything more, let me pray for you.” I relaxed into the comfort of her words, “Dear Father in heaven . . .”
Within the next few hours Jim and I learned that we were not alone after all. We had a loving family right there, where we “didn’t know a soul.”
Almost as soon as Jim returned from the hotel, the hospital room telephone rang. The caller was Sonny, the jovial praise team leader from the Gulf Coast church we’d met the day before.
“Mr. Sutton?” he asked when Jim answered the phone, “I just heard that your wife is in the hospital. May I pray with you over the phone? First, though, I want to remind you that God already has this. Second, I wonder if I could drop by and get any dirty laundry you might have. We’ll wash it and return it. In fact, if you’d like to move out of the hotel, you could stay in our guest bedroom.”
Jim was wiping tears from his eyes by the time he hung up the phone.
That afternoon Gloria, whom we’d also met at the Gulf Coast church, dropped by asking if we followed a vegan diet. If so, could she cook some healthful dishes and bring them to the hospital for us? She chatted briefly and prayed before she left.
The next day Tammie, with whom we’d prayed in the Gulf Coast church’s early Sabbath morning prayer circle, sat by my bedside, offering her help before praying over me.
By now, despite ongoing chest pain, fever, and headaches, I had the distinct impression that angels were entering my hospital room every time another church member arrived to share concern, care, and offers to meet our very real needs. The next evening Alice, the hospital ministries leader from the Gulf Coast church, showed up after a long day at work in another nearby medical facility.
Throughout the next few days, several other church members dropped in and “loved on” us. Some shared a favorite Bible promise before prayerfully claiming it for our unresolved situation.
Most of these new friends—all total strangers to us just a day or two previously—were among the thousands who had lost everything in Hurricane Katrina and were still struggling emotionally and financially. At least two of our visitors had adult special-needs children living with them at home in addition to working full-time themselves.
Near midnight the third night of hospitalization my Middle Eastern cardiologist quietly approached my bedside. With quiet joy he exclaimed, “I say thank You to my God, who, too, is answering my prayers for you. I am also praying, like your many friends.” Our many new church-family visitors, whom the doctor had noticed praying, now gave him the freedom to reveal his faith in God as well.
The eventual medical findings on my second day of hospitalization revealed I had experienced a sudden, severe onset of pneumonia and pleurisy. Both, in the reassuring words of a doctor, were “resolvable.”
We returned home from our four-day “vacation” to the Gulf Shores with two reminders from our new family.
First, when lay members pitch in, not expecting the pastor to do everything, it has a powerful “Welcome to our family!” impact. As one of those visiting members explained: “As a church we finally got it. We realized that the text doesn’t read ‘I was sick, and the pastor visited Me.’ It reads ‘I was sick, and you visited Me.’ We let our pastor train us in hospital ministry, then we took it from there.”
Second, we are saved to serve. The members of this church district (a wonderful mix of ethnicities) had not allowed Hurricane Katrina, resulting financial uncertainty, nor any other personal loss to steal God’s purposes for their lives. Not the loss of home; not the loss of money (when in one case Katrina’s toxic flood waters literally ruined a large sum of paper currency the family was saving); not the challenges of single-parenting; not special-needs adult children living at home; not full-time jobs; not the continual needs of toddlers; not concern over their own family members; nothing kept these church members from ministering to us. God had saved them; now they were serving others in His name.
We felt as if angels were visiting with us. They were, for real, coming through the door with each church visitor. Jesus was there as well.
Today somebody within your sphere of influence—whether inside or outside the church—needs a visit from a heavenly guest. Why not ask Jesus where He wants you to go to comfort and encourage? Then let Him use your feet, your phone, your offers of help, your resources, your prayers. People who walk with Jesus are the real encouragers, not just cards and helium balloons.
Carolyn Sutton writes from northwest Alabama, where she lives with her husband, Jim.
A fellow church member often brought a sweet little waif to church—and into my kindergarten class. Maggie* was maybe 6 years old. Apparently there was not much religion at her home, which was a single-wide mobile unit in some disrepair. Yet the child’s spirit was wide open to Bible stories. One week she brought a dirty stuffed animal to class because “my doggie wants to learn about Jesus,” she said. “Next time I’ll bring my little brother. He needs to know Jesus too.”
Right after school started, during our class’s brief (and wiggly) prayer time, Maggie asked, “Could we please pray that God will help me sit next to Annie on the bus? I was held back, and Annie went on to second grade. So the only time I can see her—and she’s my best friend—is on the bus. But there’s a big girl who pushes me away every day and sits by Annie.”
When I asked Maggie where she sat on the bus, she responded, “Up in front. By myself.” Her loneliness was palpable.
So that Sabbath morning Maggie, the other little kid in class, his mother, and I prayed for Maggie’s request. I hesitate to admit that I was halfway thinking, How can this prayer be answered? After all, this regards a whole school district’s transportation “machine”! Silently I prayed that God would somehow protect Maggie’s newfound faith in Him anyway.
Oh, me of minuscule faith! One month later, as I was trying to get the children’s Bible lesson underway, Maggie persistently raised her hand. “I need to tell y’all something.” Reluctantly pausing in my presentation, I nodded for her to speak. “Teacher, Jesus answered my prayer about Annie. That big girl was put on another bus, so now I get to sit by my best friend every day.”
I should not have been rendered speechless, but for a moment I was.
God had not only honored the pure, simple trust of a little girl—He’d also reminded a big girl of how she must receive the kingdom of God: in full assurance of a little girl’s faith.
My printer had apparently “died” the previous Friday. For several hours I had rebooted, pulled out—and pushed back in—various machine components, repeatedly pressed the Go button, and swished the toner cartridge. The printer would come on and make promising whirs and gear snaps until the Ready light flashed on. So far, so good. But when I pressed the Go button, the printer function was clearly a “no go.”
To make matters worse, I was at a crunch time in a large editing project and desperately needed my printer. “Well, it’s at least 5 or 6 years old,” mused my husband, “and has had a lot of use. We’ll get a new one if we have to.” (The going price for our particular printer model is around $375—up almost $200 from when we made the first purchase.)
Sabbath morning came. That’s when I heard little Maggie’s amazing testimony. I came home in tearful awe of God’s response to a child’s faith. After lunch I wanted to jot down Maggie’s prayer experience before I forgot it. When I sat down to write, however, the nonproductive printer in the corner of my home office was in my direct line of vision. Sigh!
Long-ago words from my late maternal grandmother quietly came to mind. The last nine years of her life—and the first nine of mine—she lived with us and would repeat a bit of counsel whenever I complained about unanswered prayer. “Honey, after you pray, you have to stand back and give God time and space to work.”
So that Sabbath afternoon I prayed, “Lord, You know how badly I need a printer right now. In the midst of this deadline scramble I sense You challenging me to a deeper trust in You. After all, if You can change a district school bus schedule because of one child’s faith, You can deal with a malfunctioning printer. I promise to stay out of Your way until tomorrow night. If it doesn’t work then, I’ll assume that it’s time for us to look into getting a new one.”
All day Sunday I worked on my editing project and sent repeated print commands—though I left the actual printer turned off. At 9:50 that evening I again thanked God for His good and sovereign will while connecting my laptop to the printer. Then I pushed the power button. Its whirring and gear-snapping began. The Ready light flashed on, just as it always had the previous day when malfunctioning.
“Lord, give me a child’s faith in Your will as I press this Go button,” I prayed. “The paper tray is full. Help me trust in the goodness and wisdom of Your response, whatever it may be.”
More whirring and grinding.
“It’s all Yours, Lord. I’m leaving now to take the folded linen to the hallway cupboard.”
Midstep outside the office door I stopped. Unmistakable sounds of swishing paper being ejected into the printer tray brought me running. All the project papers for which I’d sent the print signal throughout the day were energetically popping up through the ejection slit. I literally ran into the bedroom to find my husband, where I proclaimed the exciting news. Together we rejoiced.
Jesus once said, “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:17).
“Dear Lord, as Your final deadline approaches for a world around us that continues to malfunction, help us draw near to you ‘with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings’ [Heb. 10:22]. Amen.”
*Not her real name.
Carolyn Sutton lives with her husband, Jim, in Dayton, Tennessee. Carolyn, a cancer survivor, is a retired educator and served as an editor of Guide magazine.
The first time I, a visiting West Coast girl, ever heard the chilling scream of tornado sirens was late one night in southeast Tennessee. My husband and I were RV camping in a university parking lot while attending a church conference. Before retiring a half hour earlier, we had commented to each other about that evening’s warm, restful breeze. But now the warning wail of sirens jolted us into a state of heart-pounding wakefulness. An authoritative knock brought us rushing to the door of our RV.
“This is campus safety patrol. Tornado warning!” called a man’s deep voice. “You need to seek shelter immediately.”
Opening the door, my husband asked, “What does ‘tornado warning’ mean, and where do we go for shelter?”
“It means a tornado is heading our way,” said the uniformed man, “and you need to head to the basement of the girls’ dormitory at the end of this road!”
Two memories from the subsequent events of that interruption-filled night still linger with me. First, while our pickup truck headed down the winding road amid pelting rain, its headlights illuminated the figure of a woman and two children hurrying along the roadside. We slowed and asked, “Where are you going?”
The single mom, as it turned out, answered, “My children and I are temporarily camping in the nearby park. Our car is in a repair shop. We’re running from the storm, but we don’t know where to go.”
The warning wail of sirens jolted us into a state of heart-pounding wakefulness.
“Climb into the back,” my husband called over the howling wind. “We’ll take you to shelter.” After they clambered into the truck bed, we headed toward the base of the hill and safety. Who would have helped them if we hadn’t been there? I wondered.
Second, the gravity of the approaching storm frightened me as I saw other shelter seekers lining the walls, cell phones in hand. Snatches of nervous, urgent conversation filled the air: “Hey! Wake up! A tornado’s coming!” Or: “I’m down here in the girls’ dorm basement. You need me to come bring you here too?” And: “Don’t waste another second. Just come to the shelter—now!”
I’m happy to report that the tornado itself missed that area, though straight-line winds did some damage to trees and area structures. Sometime after midnight, when the all-clear signal was given, we drove the woman and her children to their campsite, then headed back to our own RV for a few hours of sleep.
For days I could not get the image of the soaked, fleeing widow’s family out of my mind. On the other hand, my mind felt lighter as I recalled the many people streaming through the dormitory basement door—because someone who cared had taken time to warn them. What if they hadn’t?
Now another tornado—an unprecedented tornadic outbreak, actually—is headed straight toward us! We already see, feel, and hear the signs about us. The dark, turbulent clouds of human suffering on an unprecedented scale; the angry winds of saber-rattling and wars around the globe; the baffling rise of previously unknown diseases; the churning uncertainty that fills our lives and our futures–all these point to the approaching storm. In fact, Jesus Himself told us what to watch for (Matt. 24; Luke 21; and Mark 13) and how to seek shelter.
And where is the shelter? “The name of the Lord is a fortified tower: the righteous run to it and are safe” (Prov. 18:10). Paul assured the Christians in Rome, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13). Solomon emphasized that God’s safe place is in a personal, abiding relationship with Him. “Whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm” (Prov. 1:33).
Yet we believers also have a responsibility from within God’s shelter to warn those outside about the approaching storm, and invite them into a saving relationship with Jesus. In Christ’s parable of the great supper, the command of the master to his servant is fraught with urgency: “Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full” (Luke 14:23).
Now whenever I hear tornado sirens—or see headlines about the carnage or war, or cringe at the latest report of “wickedness in high places”—I ask God to calm my spirit and use that warning sign as a reminder: first, to double-check that I am still in a safe, saving relationship with Him; second, to do whatever I can, not only to invite, but also to transport, others to the Shelter before it is too late.
Carolyn Sutton lives with her husband, Jim, in Dayton, Tennessee. Carolyn, a cancer survivor, is a retired educator and also served as editor of Guide magazine.