Kingdom: The Pearl

Her name was Margie May and for one pure and holy moment in time she was my pearl. My buddy Ricky, at that time the greatest friend of all times, took me to his church group one Sunday night when my parents didn’t feel like taking me into town for my usual church youth group meeting.

Ricky introduced me to Margie. He then went off to be goofy with some of his other pals and I fell into instant conversation with her. To this day I don’t know why. From the age of 7 to 11, four glorious years of male macho development, girls were taboo. But there was something about Margie May.

She was a tomboy with short blond curly hair, bright blue expressive eyes, a smile that never seemed to leave her face and a devastatingly coy way of keeping me close to her. She seemed fascinated by every one of my stories and laughed with a sincerity that sparked within my heart a love and devotion for her that I would not experience again for a long long time.

As we said our good-byes that night I knew that I had found a treasure to be adored and a brand new church group. All I had to do was convince my parents that going with Ricky to Sunday night church would make their lives a whole lot easier.

What I didn’t know was that whatever was happening for me about Margie May on the inside was showing on the outside. And while thoughts of my new girl friend were held secretly in a special place deep inside me, my mother knew. Somehow she knew.

When I suggested Ricky’s church group would benefit everyone, especially my spiritual growth, she smiled and said, “I’ll think about it. Don’t say anything to your dad. I want to talk to him about it first. We’ll think about it.”

Her smile was reassuring and I knew that dad would be for me in this since he didn’t like going into church on Sunday nights.

With these assurances in place I let the memories of Margie May’s laugh, and smile and sparkling eyes linger for hours out of each day.

So occupied was I with my dreams of Margie I failed to notice that my mother was watching me and somehow reading my thoughts. I think my dad began to notice it too and sometimes I could over hear their chuckles after some of their “soft talk.”

I spent each day in the wonder of what it would be like to spend time with Margie. And I think it all would have gone along just fine, but on Wednesday evening, before I could secure a promise to go to Ricky’s church, Margie called my home. Mom picked up the phone, listened and then turned to me. Holding out the receiver she looked at me with the queerest expression on her face I had ever seen. “It’s someone named Margie May, and she wants to speak to you.”

I’m sure my face burned hot. I’m sure my throat, chin and cheeks turned apple red. I could see my mom’s head shaking an emphatic, “no!”

The voice on the line was sweet and exuberant and expectant. Would I come to her party on Saturday afternoon? She just knew we would have a good time. In that moment and for months, maybe even years, I wanted nothing more in the entire universe than to go to Margie’s party.

I longed to see her again, like I had never longed for anything in my life. I had been cruel to dopes that had expressed such feelings when we hung out together and now here I was, one of those dopes. The urge to be with my new friend consumed me. “I’ll ask and call you right back,” I said. But I never did.

My mother’s “no!” rose up from somewhere in her gut. Her eyes seemed on fire, and I had never seen such cruelty in her eyes before. She gave me no reason or assurance that this was just a momentary pause in a possible new friendship. What she said was, “You are to never see or talk to that girl again. Go to your room now.”

My eyes burned. Even before the tears broke out. It was like all the salt in my body mounted an attack on my tear ducts. My sight was blinded by salt and tears. From my room I heard my mom on the telephone talking to a parent at Margie’s home. Her voice was stern and with a few clipped syllables declined the invitation to the party and asked that Margie not call our home again. “Good-bye.”

I couldn’t stand it anymore. Mom had to know how disappointed I was. I ran into the kitchen, balling my head off and screamed: “Why?” With no answer and no mercy she watched me stammer, and whine and cry as though some vital organ was being ripped from my body. I stood before my mother unashamed of my emotion and wrath and poured it all out while she coolly observed my tantrum. Then, mysteriously I was done. I mean not just done with my tantrum. Done with something else. “Dinner will be ready in several minutes,” my mother finally said, “why don’t you go wash up?” We were done.

As the days went by I regained control of my inner most thoughts and feelings. Something dreadful was playing out in real life that could not bear a young boy’s happiness or self expression. I could be happy, glad, or sad, it didn’t matter what, but everything had to appear cool on the outside. With cunning and well executed plans I began to succeed where in the past I had failed.

I still had emotional outbursts but it was more often total war within where my internal secret vaults weren’t yet sturdy enough to contain all evidence of my feelings. But with each battle I was winning the war.

One could hurt me, but I was successfully winning the war to shut off all outward expression of the pains. I could even be happy. But there would never be an outward sign of it again. I created a vault for any real emotion in a tree lined graveyard in my soul.

Through the prosecution of my internal war I also curbed my passions for anything and everything. I no longer cared. I shut myself off from potential friendships. Everything that I cared about in this world became a secret.

In my church, as a twelve year old junior high kid, Mrs. Ballinger was now my Sunday School teacher. Mrs. Ballinger was younger than most of the mom’s at church and wasn’t impressed that there was a heaven and a coming King. Her Bible seemed newer and shinier and matched her purse, lipstick and jewelry.

Her teeth were blessed with a magical florescent glow that matched the shimmer and shine of the string of pearls she wore around her neck. Most of the time in class she would talk to the girls about school, and pop music and parties and other such nonsense. The number of boys in the class dwindled and the number of girls increased. I had nothing to contribute so just listened to the chatter knowing it was the new background music for my life.

Mrs. Ballinger, one Sunday in February 1961, handed her Bible to Linda G. and asked her to read Matthew 13:45. Linda in a clear voice read:

“Again, the Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who on finding one of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Before a clarification of what the parable meant could be given the girls were soon engrossed in reverent conversation about shopping, dresses and an upcoming wedding.

In my heart and mind I was in the park playing baseball. I didn’t need anyone’s interpretation of that parable. I had met my pearl and I would have given everything for her. Discovering that the Kingdom of Heaven was the true pearl took many lonely years. In fact, it would be a long, horrifyingly long time before I gave up everything of this world to make King Jesus the Lord of my life and obtain my place in the Kingdom of heaven.

A Secret Edge in the Storm of Night

My first suspension from school (September 1957) for fighting put me quite unintentionally into my mother’s week day routines one of which, having coffee and chat with three ladies from church, was the most excruciating. Tuesday and Thursday I was fawned over by two of the oldest ladies on earth during the commercial breaks of their favorite day-time Television shows. When they weren’t commenting on my precious looks, personality and manners their third friend scolded me for fighting at school.

The rest of the days I sat near my mom in our claustrophobic living room with its browns, lavenders and teal furnishings and watched television. It was a dreary programming for a nine year old boy. “The Price Is Right,” “Queen For A Day” “Secret Storm,” and the “Edge Of Night,” merged their various sorrows into one single voice that always seemed to whisper, “watch me, buy me, possess me.”

By Friday, 4 p.m. I was aware, deep in my soul that Sunday was coming and that Doc Withrow, Mr. Fourth Grade School Master, would have something to say about the new god of America – materialism. I was right. Of course I was.

Mrs. Esther Withrow was the treasured wife of Doc and had relayed with intricate detail the gory story of my suspension from school. He was also informed of the nature of my punishment and was concerned about what kind of useless, materialistic voodoo had infested my brain cells and invaded my thought waves.

“Your life is not to be given over to the things,” Doc said, not bothering to open our class with his traditional rambling six minute prayer. “You will accumulate things. You’ll get those things no matter what. But no thing must ever own you. To crave things is to forget the one who owns all things. He is a good Father and will give you what you need along the way. But God has made a place for you in heaven and that is where your treasure should be. Where your thinking should be.”

He opened his Bible and read from chapter 13 of Matthew. The parable of the sower. It was one parable I understood perfectly. But I had not cared to act on it much. Today wouldn’t be a good day for it either.

Doc read with passion about the destiny of the seeds and then focused all of his patriarchal energy on the seeds that fell among the thorns in verse 22:

“As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”

“We know about ‘deceit’ don’t we?” asked Doc. He met my eyes soberly as he did each of the other eight boys in the class. “It is like a lie, only it has a lasting impact on who you’ll become in life if you swallow it. Today it may be the candy you want, tomorrow it may be the snazzy shoes, or it may even just be about having some time to yourself, but once that selfish deceit grows inside you it will begin to be sour and distasteful to your family and friends and it will certainly displease your God and Creator and King of the Heavenly Kingdom to come.”

“Dearest Righteous God – Warn these boys!” Doc Withrow prayed, “Not to be filled with the greed and lust for the things they see on this TV everyone seems so preoccupied with. Show them You’re the one and only true path into Your Kingdom! Amen.”

We all said amen and in a shot I was out the door and into the car. Mom was taking me to buy my own transistor radio. I could hardly wait to hear the play by play announcers for the Golden West network describe the 1 p.m. baseball game between the Giants and the Dodgers.

It would actually be many years before my thoughts of the Kingdom of God would eclipse my obsession with things and the San Francisco Giants.

The Kingdom Cupcakes

The hum of mom’s Sunbeam mixer roused me from reading my Donald Duck comic book. It was a Saturday. Mom never baked on Saturday. It took me just five seconds to toss my comic and materialize in the kitchen. She smiled at me and gave me one of the beaters to lick. She took the other. The love for chocolate cake batter was something we shared. But I could not ever recall my mom baking on a Saturday.

Mom could always read my mind so she said with an unusual amount of tenderness, “I am making cup cakes for Reverend Foster’s memorial service. You remember we talked about the day he went to be in heaven?” I did recall the conversation. It had not occurred to me that there would be more to it than the sad prayer my father had made at dinner that night hoping that God would comfort Reverend Foster’s family and everyone in his flock. Amen.

Smith and School Street circa 1910

No one actually took me aside and talked about death and how it all works here on earth. But I had heard plenty about heaven. Growing up in a small town, it was the hottest topic in Sunday school. Thinking back on it now, I am not surprised. Many of my teachers and people we fellowshipped with at church had lost loved ones in World War II and the Korean War. One young couple’s child died with his aunt and uncle in a car accident. Heaven was a big thing when I was growing up, because in most towns in America in the sixties there were as many memorial services on a Saturday as there were weddings.

The most classic teaching on heaven was done by Doc Withrow in my fourth grade Sunday School Class. It was from the book of Luke in the Bible. Jesus is talking to a lot of people who want to know what he is all about and he keeps deferring them to parables about this person or that person. Usually one gets the message and meaning of his teaching while the others do not. Doc Withrow always emphasized in his teaching that people could choose to accept a teaching or reject it.

In Jesus’ day many applauded his teachings and came to know him as the son of God, many did not. Beginning in verse 19 in chapter 16 of the book of Luke, Jesus talks about heaven this way: There was a beggar named Lazarus and there was a rich man. They both die. Angels come and take Lazarus to be with Abraham, and as Doc Withrow explained, that means that the Angels took Lazarus to a wonderful place called heaven.

Lazarus Goes To Heaven With Abraham

There were many things to learn in this lesson, and, as Doc reminded us, Lazarus would have only been escorted by angels to heaven if he had received Jesus as his savior.

So it became clear to me two things. First, there is a heaven where people who believed God’s promises to save them, are now living. Second, at the moment we take our last breath on earth, Angels come to take us directly to that place where Abraham now lives and that place is heaven. I had already made Jesus the Lord of my life, but if I had not, I know after all this talk about Lazarus and the rich man condemned to hell, I would definitely would have asked God to save me.

“Boys,” Doc continued in his swaggering preacher voice now, “I’m going to be going to heaven soon and I am glad for that. This is what waits me fellas.” He read from John 14:1 – “Jesus said, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God. And trust in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s house. I would not tell you this if it were not true. I am going there to prepare a place for you.”

It is not hard to know that heaven is a perfect place prepared for those who have put their faith in the loving son of God, Jesus. He came to give us life and life eternal. For now the Kingdom of Heaven is a place where the believers who have passed from this life, now experience a holy, just, true and perfect God face to face. It all happens in a moment.

I did not go to Reverend Foster’s memorial. But I did have two of mom’s cupcakes. To this day cupcakes remind me of heaven, the place where my mom now calls home.

The Kingdom Is

I was taught as a boy to open the car door for my mother. At first I thought that an odd work for me to have on my to-do list because the handle of the door of our yellow 1957 Ford Ranch wagon was just below my eye level, a level at which my mother’s hand could have more easily reached and opened for herself. The door was huge and heavy and I had to make sure I got to the car long before my family because this chore could take a few awkward minutes to accomplish with my slight body and skinny arms.

It took time to learn that “door opening” was a courtesy and did not just apply to cars, but also included house-doors, store-doors, and church-doors. It was not in my DNA to naturally do courteous tasks. In fact it was more in my nature to avoid work and play hard at all costs. It was years of hard coaching from my parents to shape a world view that mankind was created to be for other people. It was through the church-doors that I learned this truth and one thing more, the Kingdom of Heaven is here and now.

In my little church in a valley of many churches our family, with all the other members of our congregation, would say these words of prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples:

“Our Father in heaven,

Hallowed be Your name.

Your Kingdom come

Your will be done

On earth as it is in heaven”

When I open the car door for my wife now, she smiles sweetly at me and thanks me. It turns out this courtesy is one of those things in life for which she has great appreciation. My heart to be courteous at all costs has made our relationship a loving and kind one. I would not have guessed it in all the years praying those words ” Your Kingdom come” that these precious moments of giving kindness and receiving kindness are in truth part of God’s plan for those who must dwell in an evil, corrupt and dying world.

For those who run to the disasters and throw themselves in harms way, it is often as though they have the shield of heaven about them to rescue others while being themselves spared the ravages of plague, disease, and natural disaster. Through video capture devices we can even see the faces of those fighting the fires, cleaning up debris, tending to the injured, sick and dying. We can actually witness a bit of heaven at work here on earth.

From a simple act of courtesy to amazing acts of heroism and selflessness, we witness and experience the answers to the prayers of generations of Christians who for hundreds of years every Saturday and Sunday lifted up their voices to implore the Creator of all things, the Father of Lights, to bless us here on earth with the monumental beauty, peace and majesty of His glorious heaven.

For those who know Jesus as their Lord and Savior there is a place where all “good works done in secret” have become treasures stored up for an eternal life with our Father. (Matthew 6:19-20) And while this is an extraordinary revelation opened up to mankind during Jesus’ teaching here on earth, the greater wonder is that there is a place called heaven where God lives, beyond the one bit of it we live in here on earth, where followers of Jesus will have eternal life with riches beyond the imagination of mankind.

There is only one requirement to enjoy the eternal riches now and forever more and its not that hard. Call on the name of Jesus and be saved. He brings heaven to earth for those who ask.

When I Consider All Thy Hands Have Made How Great Thou Art