And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it.
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
(Isaiah 40:5a, 10, 11)
It was a beautiful fall afternoon: the leaves on the apple orchard’s trees were bursting in auburn and crimson hues, a few nearby oaks were resplendent in orange, and the afternoon temperatures were inviting to long meandering walks through the farm’s acres.
Sharon Christopher, a quiet, withdrawn 12 year old girl, was in the apple orchard with her younger brother. The afternoon had started out with some games of tag and hide and seek, but they had found their way into the shade of the trees, and the sweet smell of the ripe apples had lured them to the ladders kept along the fence line. They knew that they shouldn’t be on the ladders – both their mother and her new husband, their stepfather Peter, had strongly warned them – but the low hanging fruit was gone. So they climbed the ladders, enjoying the adventure, relishing the crunch of the apples, the sweet juice that was staining both of their faces and shirts and hands.
They had been on the farm now for a few months, and the rural life was a stark contrast to their life before, in Chicago. Once upon a time they had lived in a little two story brownstone on the south side, not far from Midway Airport. It was maybe a little questionable at night, but they had made a life there, and Sharon’s first few years in education had been at a public school identified by a number, rather than a name.
Then their father, George, had lost his job. He had been working as a bookkeeper for a paper company in Chicago. But something hadn’t been going well. Both Sharon and David had heard him at night, yelling at their mom; heard her tears. After a few months, they had to move out of the little brownstone home, and ended up in a smaller town in northwest Indiana. It was close enough that one could still drive into Chicago within a few hours, which her father did for a while as he looked for work.
Sharon’s mom, Elizabeth, began to work as a secretary at the local high school, to help pay the bills while their dad kept looking for work. But he didn’t find any, and after a few months, he seemed to change. He had always been distant to the two, and had often had arguments with their mom, but now he was angry all the time.
Sharon, who was nine at the time, noticed that he smelled funny when he came home in the evenings after looking for a job. Sharon knew something wasn’t going well for them, and she was afraid a lot of the time.
And then she had more reason to be afraid. One day, when she accidentally broke two glasses that she was getting down for her and David – she had been standing on a chair and lost her balance – her father, who had just come home, hit her, hard, several times. It was the first, but it was not to be the last time.
It wasn’t just that he physically abused Sharon; she bore that with a stoic strength that resembled adult resignation. But Sharon learned that he had been beating her mom when they weren’t around; and soon he was hitting little David, too. She grew more afraid, and angry, of her dad.
But he was her dad, and she loved him, too. Sure, she hated that he hit them, but she still loved him so much. It was so strange to her that someone she loved so much could also make her feel so afraid. She looked forward to the times when he had a special gift for her, or took her on his shoulders into town to see the Christmas decorations on Main Street.
On one of their pre-Christmas trips into town, Sharon saw a pretty silver bracelet in the window of one of the small women’s stores. It had a pretty cross on it, with some kind of stones set into them. They glimmered green and silver in the sunlight as she looked through the windows. She excitedly pointed it out to her father, and asked if he could get it for her for Christmas.
“We don’t have that kind of money, Sharon!” he said, angrily, and, putting her down, turned around to walk back to their house a few blocks south. She apologized to him, but he seemed to stay angry as they walked home. Later that night, after their mom was home from working her second job – she was helping to sell women’s shoes in the evenings – Sharon had told her about the pretty silver bracelet that she had seen. Her mother listened, and then gently told her that it sounded beautiful, but they just couldn’t afford it.
It was much later that night when Sharon was woken suddenly from bed, her father gripping her arm tightly in his hand and yanking her up. He was angry, and smelled bad – and by now Sharon knew that this meant he had been drinking. Her mom must have told her about the bracelet, because he was yelling something about her asking for something she knew they couldn’t afford.
Still squeezing her wrist in his large hand, he backhanded Sharon. She cried out, and her mother came dashing into the room.
“That’s enough!” was all her mother yelled, but George turned on her, twisting Sharon’s arm in the process. Soon Sharon’s mom was curled in the bed with Sharon, both of them weeping, and her dad was storming out the front door. David, alone in his own room, was also curled up and crying in fear.
The next day Sharon’s mom fled with the two children; black and bruised, but alive. Physically, anyway. All three of them felt something die in them as they took a train from Indiana down to Springfield, Illinois, where Elizabeth’s great aunt picked them up at the depot and took them to her home.
They had stayed with Aunt Joanne for a little over a year, and then moved into a small home that they rented. A couple years passed, and their mom managed to make ends meet with a new job. Sharon and David enjoyed living in Springfield, and often got to spend the night at Aunt Joann’s house.
One night their mom brought a man home for dinner to meet Sharon and David. Peter was a big guy, with tattoos on both of his arms. He worked at the warehouse of the electronics company that their mom had a job at, he had been in the Navy, and before that he had lived in Florida. Apparently they had been dating one another for a while, but Sharon and David hadn’t been aware of it.
From the start, Sharon didn’t like Peter. He was big, his chin was often scruffy, and he could sometimes be too loud. Sharon thought that the tattoos on his arms – one was a snake curled around an anchor, the other was a series of strange pictures that Peter said were Chinese – made Peter look like a pirate, and she knew pirates weren’t good people. At first she had avoided him, arguing with her mother when she said he was coming for dinner. Then she had argued with him, calling him names – and yet cringing in fear when she challenged him. But the worst he had ever done to her – so far, anyway – was send her to her room without dinner.
Still, Sharon didn’t like and didn’t trust Peter. She had told her mother so, crying and screaming at her, telling her that they didn’t need a father, didn’t need a dad. They were fine just the three of them. Her mother often let her cry, and tried to explain to her that they were happy together, but she hoped they would be happier with Peter. Sharon didn’t think so.
After several months, their mom married Peter. Sharon went to the wedding, but refused to take part in it. She sat with her Aunt Joann the whole time, who promised her that things would be alright. And that she could come and visit any time. Sharon secretly hoped that she could sneak out and live with Aunt Joann.
The family moved out of the little home they rented in Springfield and onto a small 40 acre farm that had been in Peter’s family’s for generations. It wasn’t as big as it had once been, and almost half of it was now covered in the apple orchard that Sharon and David were playing in.
Today, as the autumn sun began to set over the hills in the distance, both Sharon and David were sitting on the tops of ladders, laughing and enjoying their apples. Then they heard a truck bearing down the dirt road to the west of the orchard. They realized it was Peter, coming home after a day working at the warehouse.
“Oh, no!” cried out David, who tried to get up too quickly, the ladder shifting underneath him. Sharon jumped up, too, and bumped her head on an apple branch as she tumbled from her ladder. David, who had managed to regain his balance, quickly came down to her. Both were okay, though David had cut his leg on his ladder and Sharon was bruising from her fall. Even though they were fine, both began to panic.
“What should we do?” David said. “I don’t want to get in trouble!”
“Quick,” Sharon told him, “let’s go hide.” Both afraid, they took off running in opposite directions. Tommy took off toward the house, and Sharon ran toward the barn.
Sharon reached the barn as the sun’s last rays lit up the sky in the same crimson hues as the apple trees in the orchard. She was beginning to feel terrified. She remembered the last time her father had been angry with her, about a stupid silver bracelet, and how much it hurt when he hit her.
Coming into the barn, Sharon saw a dirty dusty cabinet in the far corner. She had seen it before, and noticed that there was nothing inside of it, so she dashed over to it, through open the door, and squatted down inside of it. The sunlight outside began to fade, and suddenly the door of the cabinet slammed shut on her.
She felt dust settle on her, and tried to push the door open, but the lock had caught. She was trapped! She banged and banged on the door, but it didn’t open. She began to scream, to yell for her mom and for David, but no one answered.
The cabinet had a few small vents just about her eye level with where she was squatting, and she saw the dim light of the sun coming through them. The cabinet was exactly opposite the barn door, and had Sharon been able to see that far she would have seen the silhouette of her mom and David walking in the distance, heading to the neighbors to see if they could find her there. All Sharon could see was the dim light, and she continued to yell, but her brother and mother were too far away to hear her.
Her voice was becoming hoarse and little more than a whisper – aggravated both by her screaming and the large amount of dust she was inhaling. Her fear of Peter had been replaced by a gripping terror of being locked in the closet all night, and tears streaked down her face. The sun sank low enough on the horizon that its beams seemed to come straight into the barn, but the light began to fade. A single beam of light slowly shifted up the side of the interior of the cabinet, dimming as it went, and soon Sharon was in complete darkness.
Trembling, sobbing, tears coursing down her dusty face in the blackness of the cabinet, Sharon felt a fear greater than any she had ever known. She wished her mom would find her; that she could cuddle her like that night when her dad hat hurt them both. And she felt so alone. Then, suddenly, she saw a single beam of light come piercing through the cabinets slat. Sharon tried to cry out again, but barely managed a croak.
The door opened, the beam of light blinding her as she tumbled out of her crouch and into the two strong, tattooed arms that dropped the light in order to catch her. Peter was crouching, practically on his knees, as he gently held her, her sobs convulsing through her body as her own stiff knees began to relax.
Years later, when he was no longer Peter but simply Dad, Sharon would hear the story of that moment from Peter’s perspective: how this little girl, who had argued and spit such venom at him the first year they knew one another, had tumbled out of that cabinet; her clothes covered in dirt and grime from banging around inside the old cabinet, two giant muddy tear streaks down her dusty face.
But at that moment, as her eyes adjusted, as she sobbed against his shoulder, she saw Peter, who gently brushed her tears away and spoke kind words to reassure her. He shared that her mom was looking for her, asked if she was hurt, and reassured her that she and David were not in trouble, and were not in any danger. Peter, the big, scary tattooed man that her mother had remarried, had been out looking for her. Had sought her out and found her, and now gently held her close.
Sharon’s image of what a father could be began to shift at that moment. Over the years, Peter would prove to be a good father; caring, compassionate, strong when he needed to be. Years later, Sharon could look back at that moment, that split moment of seeing the light and then falling out of darkness into his waiting arms, as the first time that she had a true, positive image of who a “Father” might be.
Peter redeemed the idea of a father for Sharon. When she had been locked away in the darkness, unable to help herself, her stepfather had been looking for her; had been searching her out.
As she grew up, it was not lost on Sharon that this image of a father was so close to the images of God that Jesus used when he told his parables. The shepherd who goes looking for the lost sheep; the father who waits on the side of the road, running to meet his son.