Bernie glanced at the digital clock on her desk phone before picking it up when the red light lit up. It was 11:32.
“There’s a Crystal Miller on line 2,” Dot said. “She says she’s a friend of Liz O’Connell. Do you want to take it now or shall I take a message?” she asked.
“Sure, I’ll pick it up.” Bernie punched the button marked 2 on her phone. “Pastor Bernie speaking. How can I help you?”
The voice on the other end said, “I’m a friend of one of your parishioners, Liz O’Connell. She speaks very highly of you.”
“Well, Liz is a dear friend, but you shouldn’t believe everything you hear. How can I help you, Crystal?”
I . . . I’m actually a member of the Center of Peace and Fellowship, but I wanted to discuss an experience I had last night. It’s kind of urgent. Can you see me this afternoon?
Bernie looked at the half-finished homily on the computer screen in front of her. “Sure, bring your lunch and we’ll picnic in the courtyard of our campus—say in 45 minutes?”
Bernie and Crystal settled at a table and chairs under the wisteria-covered pergola in the courtyard of the Hope Chapel campus. It was chilly, but the sun had come out, and it felt good to be outside. Molly had come to work with Bernie and had settled at Bernie’s feet on the doggie quilt that Liz made for her.
Crystal pulled out a turkey sandwich and a bottle of water from the Food Gourmet bag. Bernie set her water bottle down on the table with a plastic fork and paper napkin. She opened the top to the plastic container from home with the leftover salad from last night’s dinner.
After they sat down, Molly got up and put her head on Crystal’s lap.
“How sweet!” Crystal exclaimed. “Is she always this friendly? What’s her name?”
“Molly. She has a sixth sense. She can tell when someone is hurting, and will cozy up to the person. She is my partner in ministry.
But, let me know if she’s bothering you,” Bernie added.
“Not at all. It’s so sweet of her to comfort me.” Crystal reached down and petted Molly’s head.”
Bernie looked at Crystal kindly. “Now that Molly has cheered you, how can I help you?”
Bernie listened carefully to Crystal’s account of the events of the night before as they ate their lunches.
Crystal related that after her husband of eleven years left her, she lost a promotion opportunity, and her much-loved cat was on death’s door. The combination of these factors had resulted in a feeling of hopelessness. She was so unhappy that she felt it just wasn’t worth going on with her life.
She’d been having trouble sleeping, and often took long walks during the night to clear her head and to help her sleep. She was walking on Canyon Road, when it suddenly occurred to her that she didn’t care whether she lived or died. Dexter was gone, her job prospects were bleak, and Max would be gone soon also. Seeing a large truck coming toward her on the unlighted road, she decided to step off the curb and end her life.
She had stepped off the curb, but instead of being hit by the truck, she was pulled out of the road. A couple of seconds later, the big truck thundered by.
It was a man who had pulled her out of the road. She lost her balance and fell on the sidewalk. She didn’t know the man or where he came from. He bent down to ask if she was okay and offered to call the paramedics, but she refused.
She felt so stupid. She couldn’t even commit suicide! The man helped her up and waited a minute or two to make sure she was steady, then let go of her arm. He said “Jesus loves you and he has plans for your life. Take care of yourself.” And then he disappeared.
“What did the man look like?” asked Bernie
Well, it was dark and I was dazed from the fall and from the realization that I wasn’t dead, but I do remember that he was wearing one of those warm down jackets. It was a dark color.
“Honestly,” she added, “I really didn’t have my wits about me. I didn’t even get his name.”
Bernie was silent, waiting for her to continue.
Fidgeting with her paper napkin, Crystal said, “I wasn’t raised in any religious tradition. My father was Jewish, but he never went to any services. She paused thoughtfully. “Being Jewish to him was a cultural thing, not a religious belief.”
And I think that my mother was baptized a Christian of some kind, but she didn’t go to church. My parents were divorced when I was young. I found the acceptance and understanding that I had been looking for at the Center, so I have been following the Eastern religious beliefs they teach there. The meditation exercises that they taught me have helped calm me.
She paused for a moment while gazing at the fountain in the middle of the courtyard.
I have been taught over my years there that Jesus was a great teacher and prophet. But after last night, I am wondering if there is more.
Are there any similarities between Christianity and Eastern religions? I have to be honest,” she said cautiously, “the experience with the guy saving my life and talking about Jesus was a little spooky.”
Bernie had been listening intently to Crystal’s story.
She finally responded, “Well, Christianity certainly shares many values with Eastern religions, such as caring for the sick, poor, and elderly. As it happens, my stepfather was a missionary in parts of Asia early in his career, which piqued my interest in Eastern religious belief.
I took a course on Asian Christianity in seminary. Paul spoke to the Greeks about their “unknown god,” who, he explained is really the God of the Bible. Paul met the Greeks on their turf. He let them know that he was familiar with their beliefs. So, I figured that there must be something to understanding other cultures’ religious beliefs.
During my studies, I came across a Christian theologian called Kosuke Koyama. He emphasized the importance of understanding Asian religious traditions. He counseled that Christians cannot expect to win hearts for Christ by bulldozing their way into countries who have thousands of years of rich history and culture without taking that history and culture into account.
To some in the East, the cross is a symbol of evil—of the encroachment of Western Civilization into Asia, destroying many of their values. Christians need to learn to respect Asian religious history and culture.”
Crystal leaned in over the table, listening attentively to Bernie.
“So yes, I do believe that other belief systems have value—especially from moral, historical, and philosophical points of view. The Jewish call to love the God of the Torah is the foundation of the Christian story. The Hindu belief that one can achieve peace only by giving up all expectation of reward was personified in Gandhi, who set an example of non-violent protest. I can respect the Buddhist belief that greed is a source of suffering and that self-denial leads one away from egotism. In fact, Jesus asks us to take up his cross and deny ourselves. Confucius had many praiseworthy sayings that are very much in line with the Christian fruits of the spirit—love, peace, kindness, graciousness, compassion, etc.
But as commendable as these and other moral philosophies are, they are just that, moral philosophies. The Judeo-Christian God of the Bible is not a philosophy.
The God of the Bible is the one true God, as proven in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is the only person in all of history who proved his divinity in many ways, the key proof being that he rose from the dead.”
Bernie paused for a moment to let her last statement sink in. “The God of the Bible is an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-seeing God. He is the God.”
“Matthew reports in the 16th chapter that Jesus told his followers that he was the long-awaited Messiah, and that Jesus spent 40 days with them after the Resurrection, preparing them for what was to come. All of his followers stuck to the truths that Jesus had taught and demonstrated to them through his actions. And all but John were martyred for their beliefs.
I don’t know who the stranger was who rescued you last night. But I do know that he was right about two things: One, that Jesus loves you—Crystal Miller. Think about that Crystal. The God of the universe loves you.
And two– God has a plan for your life. He will work every experience in your life—the good and the bad—into his plan for you. You just need to be open to his call.”
“That sounds pretty vague. Are you saying that God actually speaks to people?”
“No, not in an audible voice any more. But God will put circumstances, people, and opportunities, in your path—that combined with prayer and a study of his Word, will help you along in your faith journey.
Look, Crystal, if you would like to explore Christian beliefs, we have a seeker class taught by one of our elders. No pressure. Just come and hear what she has to say, and to see if Jesus fills the God-shaped hole in your heart.
But you also need to get some help with your suicidal thoughts. You do know that there’s no stigma in seeking help, don’t you?”
Crystal nodded slowly. “Yeah. My husband and I have been seeing a marriage counselor for a couple of years.”
“Have you had suicidal thoughts before last night?” asked Bernie.
“Not really. I haven’t gotten much sleep since Dexter left, Max got sick, and I lost the promotion. I was so exhausted and upset that I didn’t really care whether I lived or died. I guess it all kind of built up.”
“Okay. Is there someone—a close friend or relative—who can stay with you for a few days?” asked Bernie?
Crystal shook her head.
“There’s no one? Are you sure? This is one of those times when it’s okay to ask for help from a good friend or relative.”
“I doubt that my brother would be interested,” Crystal said. “We haven’t spoken in several years. I don’t want to bother him. We exchange holiday cards—that’s it.”
“You know, you don’t have to tell him about what happened last night—just that you’re going through a separation from your husband, and maybe he could spend a few days with you. Where does he live?”
“Chino Hills. He works in construction all over the County. I have no idea where he is working now.”
“It’s worth a try. You might be surprised. Family members come through for each other in tough times” Bernie said.
“But it is also really important that you see someone so that you can be helped. You should be evaluated to see if you need treatment and/or medication.
“Okkayyy . . . I guess I could ask our marriage counselor if he knows someone . . .”
“That’s a possibility. . . But I also have some contacts in the mental health field. We have a Hope Chapel member who is a psychiatrist and works at the Neuropsychiatric institute—they call it NPI—at UCLA. I often work with her to help arrange appointments.
If it’s okay with you, I will call her to get her thoughts on who you could see on short notice. I will keep everything you have told me in confidence, unless you want me to share it with her.”
“It’s fine. You can tell her what we talked about. I have my health insurance through UCLA, so that might help me get an appointment.”
They were finished with lunch. Bernie gathered her things and stood up. “Let’s go into the office, so I can get your contact information.”
After she left Pastor Bernie’s office, Crystal sat in her car in the Hope Chapel parking lot thinking. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to call him. I mean, I won’t be any worse off if he says no.
She retrieved Clint’s number from her contacts, and dialed the number on her cell phone.
“Hey, bro. It’s Crys . . Becky. How are you?”
“Honestly, not great.”
“Yeah, Dexter’s fine. He’s just not with me. He moved out about a week ago. Where are you working these days?”
“Santa Monica? Really. That’s my neck of the woods. Wow! That must be like 50 miles from your house.”
“You don’t need to get an Airbnb. You know you can stay at my place. We could catch up. . .”