The Christmas Cross

December 26, 2017

I will never get over what happened to me in December 2011. I know it happened, and I have witnesses, but I’m always curious what others make of it, and what you might make of it.

It was the middle of the month and my wife and daughter and I were traveling to Fair Hope, Alabama, where I was scheduled to speak in a large church. We had been invited by our friends Foncie and Joe Bullard and planned to arrive the night before I was scheduled to speak. But the response to my coming had been so good that they had added a second speaking engagement the night after that,  since the church only held about 400 people. Somewhere in the schedule there was also a book signing at the wonderful Paige & Palette bookstore.

We arrived at Laguardia airport in the late afternoon, but no sooner had we arrived than we learned the flight was cancelled because of weather. This was a disaster. We then learned that our second flight — from Atlanta to Mobile, Alabama — might also be cancelled. The gate agent told us it was wisest for us to go back home and return the following morning for a six AM flight. The thought of going all the way home and half-unpacking and then waking up at three the next morning to catch two flights on the same day I was supposed to speak in the evening didn’t seem like a good idea. We thought we must try to get to Atlanta that night, if at all possible.  Getting to Atlanta would at least put us that much closer to Fairhope.

It was not easy, but somehow — somehow — we did get on a flight to Atlanta.  And our flight took off and we actually got to Atlanta. But once we got off our flight we learned that the flight to Mobile was indeed cancelled. Now what? We were told we might fly to Pensacola, Florida, which was about an hour from Fair Hope. But that flight probably wasn’t happening either. And even if it were happening, there weren’t three seats available. So it seemed we were stuck at the Atlanta airport for the night. The airline would give us a coupon for a room at a nearby hotel and in the morning we could come back and try again to find our way to Fairhope. It was all chaotic and tiring, of course.

But just as we were about to get our hotel coupons, a helpful airline employee suddenly told us that the flight to Pensacola was happening after all — and he believed he could get us the three tickets we needed. I had no idea how that happened, but we were so surprised and grateful. It would mean twice as long a drive to Fair Hope once we landed, but we should get to the hotel around midnight and could get a good night’s sleep — so all was well!

So we were booked on that flight and happily proceeded to our gate. But then for some reason the flight’s departure was pushed back. And then it was pushed back again. And then it was pushed back a third time. As the Atlanta airport is not my favorite airport, it was all especially enervating. When we finally did board our flight it was ten pm. Yikes. Then there was an unexplained delay while we sat at the gate for an hour. At eleven p.m. we finally pushed back from the gate. But we weren’t headed to the runway just yet. First we  had to get in line of planes for de-icing. It was a long line. This took another hour. By the time we actually took off for Pensacola it was midnight. So we landed just after one A.M.

Once we had dragged ourselves — and our very tired 12-year-old daughter — through the airport to the baggage claim, we waited and waited for our bags, but they never appeared. Well, my wife’s bags appeared, but my bag and my daughter’s bags had never been transferred from the Mobile flight to the Pensacola flight. Now we had to wait in line to register our complaint/loss with the baggage desk. After all of this we found the car waiting to take us to Fairhope. It was one-thirty a.m. when we finally climbed into the big white SUV to take us to our hotel near Fair Hope — the famous Grand Hotel.  But when I asked the driver exactly how long the drive was at this hour — figuring it would be even less than an hour, since there was no traffic at one-thirty a.m. — the driver said it should take about ninety minutes. Evidently I had been misinformed. We would arrive after three A.M.

We might at least have slept a bit during this long drive, but the driver was a chatty Cathy, and gave us a running commentary on every fact of local interest. Our soporific responses — generally along the lines of “nnnnnnnn…” — didn’t seem to dissuade him from soldiering on. By the time we arrived at the Grand Hotel I was suppressing murderous thoughts. But even once we were on the grounds of the hotel itself we had to drive around aimlessly in the dark before finally finding the appropriate building. At last we bade our garrulous chauffeur adieu and checked in.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, sleep didn’t come as easily as hoped. I finally fell asleep sometime before four. But for some strange reason both my wife and I woke up right at seven — and couldn’t fall back to sleep. So with three hours sleep each we now faced the day in Fair Hope. Part of the day would be spent in phone calls with the airline about where our baggage was and when it might arrive at our hotel. We were informed it would fly from Atlanta to Mobile that morning and then be driven to our hotel via van. There were many phone calls on this subject, always making it clear that the luggage was in the van and wending its happy way toward us, but never saying when it would arrive. Would it make its entrance in time for me to get a fresh shirt for the evening’s lecture? No one could say.

But we were staying in the glorious Grand Hotel, and would carry on to the best of our abilities. It was off season and the hotel was oddly empty, so I involuntarily recalled scenes from The Shining. It was also unseasonably chilly for coastal Alabama in December, but we decided to explore the hotel grounds. We would see if the pool was heated. Who knows? We might even go swimming!  At the pool entrance there was a very prominently displayed bronze sign, posting a number of rules. The only memorable one began: “Bathers with Diarrhea….” That’s when I stopped reading. One’s mind reeled, imagining what gaggy horror had spread fear sufficient to force the management to emblazon these words for all to see. We would not be swimming that day.

But I had books to sign at Paige and Palette! In fact, there were hundreds to sign. So around eleven AM we trundled over to the bookstore and for two hours without a break I signed books lickety-split, one after the other, while my wife and daughter busied themselves walking around downtown Fair Hope. In our fatigue, we had never communicated about food, and just as I was winding down the signing — exhausted and hungry — I told my wife we really needed to get some food as soon as I was done. That’s when she told me that the only nearby restaurants had just stopped serving. It was about two in the afternoon. I was suddenly furious and wondered aloud why she hadn’t taken care of all this while I was busily signing books, since I couldn’t take care of it and sign books at the same time, could I? Can the reader see where this is headed? Her fatigue and mine now combined in a hideous way and by the time we got in the rental car to head back to the Grand Hotel, we had a full-blown meltdown, complete with tears and loud recriminations. We limped back to the hotel room, angry and hurt and not speaking. And of course by now seriously exhausted.

But in just a few hours I had to don whatever clothes I had and make my way to the church and speak in front of four hundred people who had come out of their homes to see me and hear me. I would have to smile and tell them the fascinating story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer — and I would have to be inspiring. Some of the people who had come even expected that I would be funny. But I was angry and exhausted and had no change of clothes. So what to do now as my wife and I got out of the car and miserably and silently made our way with our daughter to the hotel room?

I said at I would need some time alone and that I would pray and rest. I wanted to die, and I cannot remember ever having to pray quite so desperately. I needed it even more than I needed to rest, which is saying something. Thankfully, this was a suite, so my wife and daughter could rest in the living room while I shut the door to the bedroom and lay on the bed to pray.

No sooner had I lay down and silently and passionately cried out to God to please help me and give me energy than I almost began to drift off to sleep. I didn’t, but I was so tired that I might have. As I lay there and flirted with that margin between consciousness and unconsciousness, where the mind’s thoughts begin to turn down strange pathways, I was very suddenly jolted by a vivid image in my mind’s eye. It was not the sort of image that my mind’s eye produces on its own.  It was from someplace else, as if a crisp photograph had been dropped into my field of vision. My eyes were closed but in my mind I was suddenly looking at an odd and exceedingly distinct image. This is what one would normally call a “vision”, except that this vision was brief, just a couple of seconds. But in those seconds I was staring in my mind’s eye at a cross. But it was not an abstract cross; it was an especially vivid and particular cross. It was made of white wood — perhaps white pine — and it was about two feet wide and maybe two and a half feet high. It was a very specific, actual cross, made of a specific wood and of a specific size. I beheld it in my mind’s eye for must have been three or four seconds and then it vanished, just as it had appeared, in an instant.

But what in the world had just happened? This much I knew: what I had seen was not a product of my own brain. I knew instantly as I saw it that it was a vision. And of a cross! But what was it about, exactly? This much I knew: God had in my moment of great despair and anguish performed for me what was a miracle. He had given me a clear vision of a cross. So of course the idea that God has answered my pain and my prayer in that way was a huge comfort. I had cried out to him in anguish and confusion and — whammo! — I got a distinct vision of a cross from someplace beyond my own brain. It was startling and extraordinary and it gave me the one thing I needed at that moment: deep encouragement. It was for me a strong and rare sign from God, and I knew that whatever I was going through, he was with me. He answered my prayer with a miraculous image, in a way that I knew was from him. I knew He was with me and would be with me that evening as I spoke and all would be well.

But as I lay there and thought some more about what had just happened, the vividness and specificity of the cross amazed me. As I lay there, not quite ready to get up, I thought about the clarity and specificity of the cross I had seen and I thought that it must be real, and perhaps at some point in my life I might actually see it. For some reason I felt that it must actually exist someplace. But where did it exist and where and when might I see it? Would I see it on a trip overseas ten years hence? Was it in a church in Europe or someplace else that I might someday visit? Perhaps I would never see it. Perhaps I would see it in heaven someday.

I think it was around this time that the doorbell rang. Our luggage had finally arrived. How appropriate that after I had had this encouragement in prayer things began to go right. So I jumped up and answered the door and received our long lost luggage. After that I told my wife and daughter what had happened: that God had spoken to me as I had prayed, and that all would be well that evening. They were as surprised in hearing this, and glad to hear it. But I didn’t tell them what I’d seen just yet. But we were all now encouraged, and we dressed and made our way to the church. And the evening was as much as a success as I had ever hoped. It was all a huge victory, given what we had been through.

The next day I told my wife and daughter about the vision — that I had seen a cross — and I said that I really did wonder whether someday in my life I would see the cross, because it was so outrageously specific and particular. I knew it had to exist someplace. I couldn’t get that out of my head. But what of it? We soon moved on to other subjects.

We were here to have some fun and that day, we did. We didn’t go swimming — ahem — but we did other fun things. For lunch we went to a ’50s-style diner down the road and had a fried Twinkie for dessert. Over the speakers I heard a strangely familiar voice singing a plaintive Christmas song. But who was it? Suddenly I realized it was David Cassidy, singing a Partridge Family Christmas song I’d never heard before. I was thrilled and when we got back to the hotel room I found the album on iTunes and for the rest of the afternoon my daughter and I downloaded the songs and listened to them while playing Spit on the carpeted floor of the suite. Things had changed rather dramatically since the day before.

That night I spoke again in that same church, and that event went as well as the previous night. On the third day we played more Spit and listened to more Partridge Family until that evening, when our wonderful hosts had planned a dinner party at their home. I would be the putative guest of honor, but there would be two far more well-known authors there, whom I couldn’t wait to meet. One was Winston Groom, who had written Forrest Gump, and lived nearby, and another was the Christian author Andy Anderson! So around six that evening Joe Bullard picked us up at the hotel and drove us to his and Foncie’s wonderful home on Mobile Bay.

Foncie had hoped the weather would be mild enough to eat outside, but it was much colder than normal at that time of year, so the dinner would take place indoors.  We arrived before everyone else and Foncie wanted to show us where we would have eaten if the weather had been warm enough. Many of these large homes on Mobile Bay had very long docks that extended nearly fifty yards into the shallow bay. At the end of all of them was large roofed deck with a grill and a bar and a place to dock the boat and tables and chairs. I was so sorry to think we wouldn’t be able to eat out there.

Before we went out to see it, Foncie pointed it out from her living room window. Way out at the end of the dock there was a loft above the main structure. As a way of telling all her neighbors about her faith, Foncie had put her Christmas lights in the shape of a cross inside the second floor of the structure. We all laughed at her boldness in this. It wasn’t huge or garish, but it was clear enough where she and Joe stood on the meaning of Christmas.

Since we were so early, we decided that before the others arrived we must walk out into the cold and down the long dock to see what we had missed out on. We bundled up and walked way out toward the end of the dock. Once out there I was all the more saddened we couldn’t spend the whole evening out there. It would have been wonderful. Of course I knew we’d have fun anyway. I’d get to meet two very famous authors!

Before we took the long walk back to the house Foncie asked if Annerose and I wanted to climb up into the loft to look out at the bay from up there. That’s where her grandkids watched the fireworks from every July Fourth! Of course we did. It was the barest of ladders, but we made our way up and suddenly were rather high up off the water, looking out at Mobile Bay. The cozy room had windows on both sides and was lit up by the bright lights of Foncie’s Christmas decoration, which shone in the middle of the loft.  We looked out at the bay for a moment and then turned away from the big windows to go back down the ladder. But before going down we stood a moment to get a better look at the cross, festooned with yellow Christmas lights. Then it hit me. In the cartoon version of that moment my eyes would have come out on their stems Tex Avery-fashion, with the appropriate a-oooga! sound effect. Because I now saw that the Christmas lights were wrapped around an actual cross, and that actual cross was precisely that cross, the one I had seen so perfectlyin my mind’s eye in the hotel room over forty-eight hours before. There was no doubting it and I was dumbstruck. There it was, in front of my physical eyes just as it had been in my mind’s eye, precisely the same size — about two-and-a-half feet high and two-and-a-half feet wide, and the wood itself about three inches in width — and precisely the same strange whitish color. It was all too much to bear.

At last I found my voice and blurted it all to my daughter, making sure that she understood exactly what I was saying, because I must have a witness. I was quite out of my mind with delight and astonishment. And then I called down to Susanne and Foncie. “You’re not going to believe this!” But how does one ever tell others such things? It’s essentially impossible. How can we ever communicate what we are feeling and thinking? Can words ever suffice? In my experience, it’s rare. Susanne and Foncie both heard my story, but it was as if even they, who are full of faith and who were involved in the events, heard it all through a veil, or saw it through a gauzy filter. They believed what I was saying, but the intense emotions and wonder that I felt weren’t matched by them or by Annerose. It was as if they thought: “Yes, that’s pretty amazing.” But I was thinking, “This is insane and beyond amazing! This is God! This is a miracle! I can’t stand it! It’s almost unbearable!”

Then we walked back down the long dock back to the Bullard’s home and there outside on the patio stood the author of Forrest Gump. We shook hands in the cold and right there had a conversation about Manhattan literary life — about Elaine’s and George Plimpton and Woody Allen. And as we spoke of these things, right out there in the bay, where we could both see it, was the cross, festooned with Christmas lights for all to see, the very specific and actual cross that I had seen with my eyes closed in a hotel room two days earlier. What are we to make of such things?