I last wrote about the adventures of my older girls and I when we went to Florida a number of years ago. Now I want to share with you the “rest of the story” as Paul Harvey used to say.
By the time we had finished our nine days of wet camping in Merritt Island, Florida, our drive to Miami, our short tour of the Florida keys and our even wetter sojourn there, our escape to Tampa and the miracle of hotel camping, and our return to Miami so my mother could fly home, I had been sufficiently humbled. My pride (thankfully!) had taken a huge hit. Nothing had gone according to my plan.
We stayed the night in another hotel in Miami the night before my mother left. That morning we began our strategic exit–as a mom of four girls (I only had four girls back then!) I knew that everyone had to potty at least twice before we hit the door. After the required, “Did you go? Well, go again. I know you just went–try anyway” with each child, we loaded into the car and drove the five short minutes to the airport where my mother literally hopped out of the car after a quick kiss goodbye. We had been away from the hotel for less than seven minutes when my seven year old cried out, “I have to pee and it’s an emergency!”
Immediately, I thought, “how could you possibly have to go AGAIN?” But the mommy inside started looking for a bathroom. Now, here we were, on I95 North just outside Miami, Florida. You would think there would be an exit with a bathroom close at hand. It seems that they were doing road construction through that section, and every exit was closed. We drove and drove while my poor child sat in the back seat crying out every few minutes how dire an emergency it was and that she needed a bathroom NOW.
Finally, I saw an open exit. I hurried the car down the exit ramp and saw approximately four gas stations. I chose the Shell–it seemed to me a large beacon of bathroom light. I pulled in and discovered something rather odd: the parking lot was FULL. Every spot was taken, every pump had at least two cars waiting. All I wanted to do was park the car, but I could not! I turned to my oldest daughter and asked her if she could please take all her sisters into the bathroom while I sat in the middle of the parking lot with the car. She and her sisters departed as I sat in my overly conspicuous vehicle.
It might help at this point to give you a mental picture of my vehicle. I was driving a brown 1996 Chevy Suburban. We had two roof bags filled to the gills with suitcases strapped to the top. All our camping gear was stacked in the back cargo area to the roof. On the back of the vehicle, plugged into the tow hitch was a cargo rack–and it was also loaded with all our coolers and cooking gear tied down with straps. In other words, we were quite a spectacle.
As I sat there waiting for my daughters to safely reappear, a young woman approached my window. I hesitantly rolled it down and observed her appearance: thin with tousled mousy brown hair that didn’t look as though it had been brushed in a few days. She was wearing sweat pants, a tee shirt, socks and flip-flops. She had her bony arms wrapped around two soda bottles and pack of cigarettes. She told me a sob story about how her boyfriend had thrown her out of her car. She wanted to know if I could take her to her friend who worked in a bar across from the jail.
Most of the time, I think I am a sensible woman. I let my children be as free as is prudent, but I do draw the line at recklessness. There was NO WAY I was picking up a hitchhiker while my children were with me! And then I heard it—that still small voice inside–saying, “take her.” “Um, Lord, if that’s you, you must be crazy! I am not taking her!” Again, I heard it, “take her.” “But she could be dangerous!” I argued. “Take her,” the voice insisted.
I have no idea what the young woman thought as I sat there fighting an internal battle with the Lord. I did at one point ask her if she had any weapons. (As if she would tell me if she did!) Finally, I conceded. I told her to get in. I was completely and totally spent, humbled, and right where the Lord needed me. Looking back, I felt like Elijah–the Lord was not in the wind; the Lord was not in the earthquake; the Lord was not in the fire. Then Elijah heard the still, small voice of the Lord. I had my broken-down car, my rained-out campsite, my tropical depression. And it all served so I could hear the Lord when it was time.
As the young woman got into the car, I asked her name. “Tara,” she replied. I know the next question I planned to ask was how to get exactly where we were going. But that was not what happened. As I opened my mouth, a most extraordinary question popped out. “So, Tara, do you know Jesus Christ as your Savior?” Some people would accuse me of being a Bible thumper of the first degree, but this kind of question was not something I generally asked the first time I met someone. It surprised me greatly to hear it coming out of my mouth! “I’ve heard about him, but I’m a little confused about who he is,” Tara replied.
As the I spent the next few minutes explaining Jesus to this woman, the girls started passing her notes and pictures. They quoted sweet scriptures to her (John 3:16 and such) and sang for her. Suddenly, Tara, cried out and looked at me and said, “I can’t lie to you anymore!” She flipped her arms open and I saw recent evidence of drug use tracked up and down each arm. With tears in her eyes she looked at me and said, “I want what YOU have!” Here I had been complaining about my lot–my rained out camping attempts, my car, the unexpected cost of so many things. Oh, I was mostly smiling on the outside, but inside I was one broiling mess of complaint. This woman saw me as the epitome of blessing–and she wanted it. Her story was sad–two or three children, no daddy, drug addiction, her children taken by county officials. She had been in jail and was on parole, but she couldn’t stay clean on the outside. She was hoping they would take her back to jail because she had broken her parole with the drug use. She wanted to get clean. She wanted a normal life with her children. She was heartbroken and used up and desperately in need of the cleansing that only Jesus could give her.
I had no idea how to help her other than to try to find the jail. We gave her the Gospel—I don’t know if she understood it that day. Her anguish was real, but so was her drugged state. We finally stumbled upon a county administrative building. My husband called me while I was trying to get some help. I answered with something like, “Hi honey. You wouldn’t believe what I am doing right now. I have to go, but pray for me, okay? Love you. Bye!” He said okay, he would pray, and please call him back as soon as I could!
The receptionist gave me directions to the only jail in the county. We set out once again and found it a few minutes later. I tried to give Tara my Bible, but she said as much as she appreciated it, all her belongings would be confiscated once she entered the gates. We left her at the gas station across the road from the jail after praying over her. I have no idea what happened to Tara. We prayed for her a long time after that trip–for several years. Now I just pray for her when that adventure crosses my mind. I hope she learned the truth–that nothing she had done was unforgivable, that Jesus alone could cleanse her of her sin, that God loves her, and that only He could give her the life she so desperately wanted.
I have learned that life is full of lessons–lessons usually learned on the tail of trial, inconvenience, and suffering. I took many things from our adventure in Florida. The biggest lesson I took at that time was a renewed appreciation for my husband and children and for my absolutely average life. As Forrest Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re gonna get.” I would add: make sure you enjoy each one. I am hard-headed sometimes. I complain way too much. But on that summer day nine years ago the Lord showed me just how rich a woman I am. Like Elijah, I heard His still, small voice loud and clear, and I have never been the same. Thank God, I have never been the same.