I could tell by his voice I needed to be there.
“I’m getting in the car. I am coming,” I promised. “Can I talk to Calvin?”
He handed the phone to his roommate.
“This is Emerson’s mom. I am coming. Do you have class? Can you and the guys please make sure he isn’t left alone? I will be there as soon as I can.” I begged.
Calvin agreed and between him and the other three roommates they would tend to him.
I threw a few things in a bag, jumped in my truck, and began the 6 hour drive to New York City. In three days it would be the eighth year anniversary of his father’s death by suicide. February tenth was a day we detested.
In many ways it was as if his dad just died. He grieved him as an eleven year old boy years ago and was now grieving him all over, only this time as a man emerging.
I cried and prayed, prayed and cried. I needed wisdom. I needed strength. I needed to carry us both.
It had been a while since I prayed so earnestly.
Please God. Give me wisdom. Give me strength. Show me where you will meet him in the exact way he needs to find you. I can get him to church but You have to let me know where. Please, Lord, I can’t help him. All I can do is lead him back to You. You know it will have to be huge. Unmistakable. God, this has to drown out intellectualism and skepticism. I need you to show up big. Show me, sweet Jesus. Please just show me.
Though raised in a Christian home and having attended a Christian school kindergarten through graduation from high school, Em had only been to church once since leaving for college. I wasn’t sure if he was walking away from his faith or just angry at God. I had hoped it was the latter for that would mean he still believed.
Since this year February tenth landed on a Sunday I knew he would not protest coming with me to church. He needed a life line and it was the only one I knew to throw out to him because it was the only one that saved me, the only one that could have saved me. Our burden was too monstrous and the pain was too great. Only a Mighty God could save us from it. I couldn’t imagine how my son was going to manage without the life line to which I have clung.
I left my home with such determination to get to him it had not occurred to me I would be hitting the D.C. / Baltimore area right at rush hour. A six hour drive became an eight hour trip, negotiating 495 with tears in my eyes. I could not get there soon enough.
I finally made it to his dorm around 8 pm. He walked out into the cold February night and fell into my arms. My 6 foot 3 son collapsed and melted into me the same way he did when he was just a toddler. Only now I knew mommy hugs weren’t going to make this all better but I hoped with all I had that it could at least help.
We hopped in an Uber and went to the hotel. We ordered room service, a favorite of his since he was little.
As we ate and watched Netflix I flipped through my phone looking at churches.
Please, God, just show me which one.
I wanted to visit Pete Scazzero’s Church in Queens. I had helped teach a class at my church and Scazzero made the curriculum but my spirit just wasn’t settled that it was the place for us on this particular Sunday. Tim Keller, a well known pastor and author, had a few churches in Manhattan. That wasn’t the one either, I was sure.
What about this one, Lord? I asked as I clicked on CityLight Church. Their opening sentence read, “Most people genuinely want to know God…It’s church they want to stay away from!”
Please, God, let me know.
Saturday morning we went to Friend of a Farmer, a little restaurant in Gramercy. It became our tradition and every single time I am in New York we go. It might be my favorite breakfast anywhere on the planet.
The far off look in Emerson’s eyes worried me. He was not at all himself. He was in a dark, dark place. I hated he was there and that I could not pull him immediately out. I needed to, I had to wait for God. Nothing on this earth breaks my heart more than when my children are hurt. Emerson was beyond hurt. He was broken.
As we walked back down to the Village I asked him, “Would you like to stop at health services and check in with a counselor? Tomorrow is a big day.”
“I don’t know. I’ll think about it,” he replied.
A few minutes later he looked up from his phone.
“I guess we are going to health services. I just got an email from them. It said my community is worried about me and I need to go.”
My heart was relieved. At a university of over 51,000 students he had not fallen through the cracks.
Afterward we went to get waffles and ice cream. Things were normalizing. It was still awful and difficult, nearly impossible, but it always had been.
We went back to the hotel and once again I asked God where to go. I was at complete peace that God was directing us to CityLight, the little church in the East Village.
The next morning we were in the cab when I received a message from a dear friend, Robin. She is strong and soulful and loves the Lord. When she has a word of knowledge I pay extra attention.
She instructed me to not answer the phone. She was leaving a message for Emerson because while she was praying for him she received a vision.
“Hey Emerson, it’s Robin from Church on the Hill. I was praying for you this morning as I was driving to church and had a very vivid vision of you standing all alone…Actually, without very much clothes on. It was interesting, it was like this ragged clothes on and it was a close up picture of you. And then the lens of the camera took a wider view and it showed me that you’re surrounded by people. That you are actually not alone. And I was asking the Lord, “Why doesn’t he have very much clothes on. What is that?” And the Lord said it was shame. I was sensing that if you laid down the shame and rejection, and reminded the devil that it is not something for you to wear anymore. When the shame is gone then it will enable you to let the people in, that big circle of friends that you have – family, people who love you and want to support you – that they will be able to come in closer. I felt that was crazy because what it told me also is it was a camera and that a video was being taken. I thought about you as an actor and that told me that the Lord is saying, “I see you and I know what I made you for and I haven’t forgotten you.” I know this is a tough day but I hope that it will encourage you. Love you and your mom.”
Tears formed in my eyes as I played it for Emerson. I looked out the window rather than at him to give him the space to take in all she had said. We sat in silence until we found a coffee shop around the corner from the Church.
“Did Robin’s vision speak to you?” I asked.
“It did,” he said staring at his mocha. “I do live with shame. All day. Everyday. I don’t know why I feel it. It doesn’t make sense. I know I haven’t done anything. But I feel it all the time.” His voice was as downcast as his soul. “I want to lay it down, Mom, I just don’t know how. I am so brittle.”
My heart cracked.
I didn’t speak for a few moments.
Please, God give me the words. I don’t know what to say. Whatever it is, I need it to come from you.
“When those thoughts come you have to make a decision to replace them with truth. Put a different thought in your head – an affirmation or a gratitude. A pattern has been established and we have to break it. Once you can change your thought pattern, your emotions and actions will follow. You get to decide because though you can’t control what pops in your head you do control what stays there. “
He nodded in agreement but said little else.
As we walked toward the church he said, “I hope you know the story here doesn’t end with me going back to church.”
“I understand,” was all I could say. I couldn’t force him and I wouldn’t want him to go that way. My faith carrying him had ended when he left my home. The God of his mother had to become his God and I had to leave room for Him to move and make that possible.
We found the little church in the basement of a larger, historic church. There was one room with about 100 folding chairs. I was impressed by the ethnic and generational diversity of the group.
We were twenty minutes early so we sat as the worship band warmed up. I placed my hand on Emerson’s back and prayed with my whole heart.
Oh God, I need you to show up in an unmistakable way. I got him here, now it is up to you. We need a road to Damascus moment. I need you to break down the walls and go straight to the heart of this boy. I bind the spirits of shame, oppression, abandonment in Jesus Name. They may not have my son. Give him peace, Lord. Give him strength. Please God, just reach him right here where he is. It is going to take something huge. I know him and I know he is a little stubborn at times. This is my hail Mary shot at the buzzer. I got him here, meet us Lord. Please, please, please God…show up for him in a way he will see, feel, and hear You. Please God. You’ve done it for me so many times and I am thankful. Please, God, please do that for him.
The worship part of the service was amazing. People in the East Village know how to worship unrestrained. People were dancing and clapping and lifting arms. Some were jumping. It was a beautiful, beautiful celebration to witness.
The Pastor got up and said he would be finishing his sermon series on evangelizing. My heart sunk. Had I missed it? What could possibly be in the sermon for Emerson about evangelizing? He was angry and even closed off to God. He was certainly not going to be telling people about his love for Him. My heart cracked a little more to realize I might have gotten it wrong. Maybe this was not the church where we were supposed to be. Maybe I missed my shot.
About two-thirds into the sermon the Pastor said, “If you haven’t been paying attention to my sermon listen up. This is the important part. We are to be bold. Joshua 1:9 tells us ‘Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
The day Gary died Emerson had Joshua 1:9 as his memory verse for school. To help him remember I would put little Post-its around the house with that verse written. After Gary died those posts became love notes from God to me, reminding to be bold and be courageous and that He was with me still. He had not abandoned me.
I leaned over and whispered to Emerson, “That was your memory verse the day your dad died.” He nodded his head in agreement but I couldn’t tell if he had received the significance.
Was that it, God? Because no offense but I am not sure that was big enough.
I began to doubt myself again. Perhaps I was searching and placing too much meaning into things.
God, even if I missed it, You can still show up here. Please…show up.
The Pastor went on to talk about a very famous psychotherapist, Albert Ellis who discovered Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. He said Ellis believed and taught the only way to get over your fear is to vigorously attack it. He gave an example and explained a study showed the second biggest fear we have just after death is the fear of public speaking. It makes logical sense that the only way to get over the fear of public speaking is to put yourself in the exact situation that makes you fearful and speak in public.
He went on to explain to get through fear you have to replace the thoughts with truth. He said thoughts become patterns and once you change those your feelings and behavior can follow. He said the exact words I used just an hour before in the coffee shop.
I began sobbing. I looked over at Emerson and saw more than a reflection of acknowledgement. He was shaken. There was no explanation other than His Spirit was trying every which way to speak directly to the heart of the pain my son held for so long.
After the sermon a young man got up to give a short testimony.
“I was dating a girl who had the most amazing three year old daughter. She could light up a room. After we were dating for fifteen months, the little girl was killed in a car accident. I stuffed my feelings. I tried to make sure everyone else was alright just so I didn’t have to deal with my own grief. I became depressed. I began wondering what the point of life was. I lost hope. But then my friend sent me a clip of a pastor speaking. So I went to Youtube and binge watched this guy. By the time I finished something in my heart clicked. I knew I could not do this alone. I knew I needed the Lord.”
The congregation applauded.
The Pastor concluded the service and invited everyone to stay for one last song before the next service began.
“Who am I that the Highest King would welcome me…
I was lost but He brought me in with His love for me, Oh His love for me…
Who the son sets free, is free indeed. I’m a child of God. Yes I am.
In my Father’s House, there is a place for me, I’m a child of God. Yes I am…
I am chosen, not forsaken, I am who You say I am…”
I lifted my arms praising the One who would show up at a little church in the East Village because of a mother’s desperate cry. The One who loves my son immensely. The One who really does leave the 99 to find the lost single beloved. The One who would go to the any length to draw us back to Him. The One who knew this was coming and already lined everything up from Robin’s vision to the Pastor’s sermon to the testimony to the worship music. The most brilliant conductor, He perfectly orchestrated plans well in advance in order to play this masterpiece just for us on this Sunday, February tenth. I was overwhelmed by what I had witnessed, heard, and felt. There was no mistaking it. There was no rationalizing or intellectualizing it. God showed up.
And when He shows up, everything changes.
We walked out of the church with me sobbing uncontrollably and Emerson visibly moved. One can not come so close to the Creator of the Universe and remain unchanged. As we walked up 7th Street toward 1st Avenue Emerson quietly said “Mom, I’ll be back next week. I can’t do this alone.”
My tears were streaming, my heart exploding, my soul soaring, my spirit praising.
We found a little Filipino restaurant, Mama Fina’s, and went in to have the food of our ancestors.
“I just felt safe there. Before church began when we were sitting there I kept hearing I have not been abandoned and I’m not alone,” Emerson said gently.
“That was God. You are not who you think you are. You are who He says you are,” I wept.
Emerson looked at me and his eyes were familiar once again. He said “I stole something from church.”
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a pebble. I noticed the rocks inside the church because I spilled a little bit of coffee and had trouble wiping it up because of the rocks. He laid it on the table.
Picking up the rock he said “Mom when I’m holding this rock I can still do things but it is only with one hand. I can shake your hand but I might have to move it from one hand to the other. I cannot fully engage if I’m holding this rock. It is limiting me. I have to put it down. I have to put shame, abandonment, all these terrible thoughts down so I can be entirely engaged with the world and I’m not encumbered by anything. So I’m going to hold on to this rock to remind me to put it down,” He paused. “Mom, I feel so soft.”
“Soft is good. Earlier you said brittle. Brittle breaks,” I said weeping.
“I am not going to break,” he said as I sighed in relief with my entire being.
As I drove away from New York City I was exhausted. I was emotionally and physically spent but spiritually overflowing. I have carried many things to the Cross throughout my life. I have placed so many parts of me, relationships, situations, dreams, hopes, failures, and sins at the feet of Jesus countless times.
This was the first time I had ever left my son at the Cross.
And God was faithful.
As I approached Afton Mountain, very close to home, the signs were lit up warning of dense fog. It was particularly so and I could only see a few feet in front of me, nothing at all to the right or left. I put my flashers on so others would know where I was. I could only concentrate as far as I could see and would focus on that spot, allowing the lights that lined the highway to help guide me. When I reached that spot I would look to the next. I became overwhelmed and felt unsafe when I tried to look further than visibility would allow. I had to trust that I could make it to the next safe spot and take the mountain in increments.
It perfectly illustrated my trip to New York, perhaps my life – just make it to the next safe spot and then keep going. Put your flashers on and ask for prayer. It is powerful. Stay within the lights that line the path. God will purpose your journey. You will arrive safely.
God will show up. And everything will change.
I waited patiently for the Lord to help me,
and he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the pit of despair,
out of the mud and the mire.
He set my feet on solid ground
and steadied me as I walked along.
He has given me a new song to sing,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see what he has done and be amazed.
They will put their trust in the Lord. Psalm 40:1-3