Shelby Cook, St. John US Virgin Islands 2015-16
This week, I met Bob.
Bob is a tall and gangly, grandpa-esque man, with shoulder-length,
slicked back hair, complete with a visor. Bob had scheduled tennis
lessons at 9AM for each day of his stay at Caneel. He checked in with me
when he arrived, to make sure we had him on the books. We did.
Bob was a pleasant guy, upbeat and excited about his tennis lessons—almost to the upper end of over the top, excited. Something seemed different about him, but to be fair, that’s the vibe I get from a lot of the people down here. I mean, one of the slogans the locals have adopted is, “We’re all here because we’re not all there,” for crying out loud.
Anyway, Bob was a delight, and I looked forward to his lesson time each day. Because he was a bit more upbeat than most, interacting with him became a highlight of each morning.
A few days after Christmas, my teammate, Caitlyn, called me from the Kids’ Club, where she works, and offered me a babysitting shift for that night and three to follow. I knew I was wiped out from the hectic week and a half we’d had in the tennis shop and knew that this would mean four 15+ hour days in a row, but because so much of seasonal jobs is just hustling for any extra cash that might be available, I semi-resentfully accepted her offer.
That night, when my tennis shift ended around 6:45, I dropped my paperwork off and made my way to room 39. As I approached the room, I came upon a man and a young girl waiting on the steps for their babysitter—lo and behold, Bob and his eldest granddaughter.
Now, this neither pleased nor displeased me. Rather, it caught me as being a bit ironic, especially as soon as I realized how strange he must have found it that the tennis pro shop girl was standing at the door to his room at 7pm. However, after establishing that I was indeed not a weirdo, but in fact the babysitter, the rapport between Bob, his family (his son in law—the dad of the kids I was watching—was also taking lessons), and the tennis program grew.
After Grandpa Bob and Grandma and Mom and Dad left for dinner, this babysitting job was, in every way, a cake walk. The three girls were beautifully ready for bed each night when I arrived: my only real responsibilities were to read a bedtime story, keep everyone alive, and, the absolute hardest part, stay awake until the parents got back.
The next morning, when Bob arrived for his lesson, we chatted about his granddaughters and their evening at dinner, and after those topics were covered, we played the “where are you from, and how in the world did you end up down here?” game. Bob told me they were from Chicago—a welcomed surprise, as most of Caneel’s guests are from somewhere in New England. I explained that I’d gone to college in the Western Suburbs, and when he asked where and I told him Wheaton, I understood why I detected something a bit different about him.
We’re both Wheaties!
And his wife and daughter (whom I was babysitting for) were, too!
The world is small, friends. And the Wheaton Bubble is unavoidably everywhere.
Of course, making a connection like this cracks open the sphere of usually acceptable small-talk. Now, in a way, we were distant relatives, connected by our allegiance to Jesus and the gift that keeps on giving, our Wheaton educations.
So, Bob and I are standing there, talking about Wheaton and God in the middle of the chaos of the transition from 8 o’clock to 9 o’clock, which is, hands down, the busiest ten minutes of my entire day. And I’m loving it, because this is my favorite way for people to find out I’m a Christian. You know, where they can just hear me talking about it instead of me telling them directly? Because I’m a little timid and a bit of a chicken and proselytizing, even in a soft and indirect way, is hard and uncomfortable because it shines the light RIGHT ON the one thing that could make a person totally and completely reject you.
It’s the human condition. I’m not any less prone to that fear of rejection than anyone else, though someday I hope to be.
Anyway, Bob and I are chatting as I’m trying to get people to sign their tickets from their lessons, and he tells me that Wheaton has this new program directed toward sophomores that have just declared their majors. He says they’ve called it Canvas, as in “the canvas is blank, what will you paint?” (insert eye-roll here). He says it’s kicking off at the end of January, and he’s the keynote speaker for the event.
And then he asks me what he should tell these newly-committed sophomores.
And I can’t help but chuckle a bit, because I’m so jaded and still in recovery from what my time at Wheaton was, and this guy that I’ve just met that takes tennis lessons in his visor and whose granddaughters I read Magic Kitten to every night wants to know what I think these students need to hear.
It really, actually, IS hilarious, you guys.
He tells me that he’s just an old guy that none of these kids will probably actually relate to, but I just walked across that stage and am walking now in whatever comes after that and maybe I’ve learned something that they should know?
And right there, in the middle of the transition to 9AM, Bob goes on the court for his lesson, and my heart reels at light speed from flash-back to flash-forward, from everything that happened in my time at Wheaton to me standing at the tennis pro shop desk at Caneel Bay Resort on St. John in the US Virgin Islands, and it hits me hard in the tenderest, most authoritative way that God is literally using every. single. thing. for. GOOD.
My head spins back to the darkness of the depression-sea I treaded at Wheaton, the deep-deep loneliness and misplaced-ness, the embarrassment of feeling betrayed by the fronted portrayal of Christian Community Done Right, the pressure of sitting in my adviser’s office in that first semester having NO idea how I could sign a paper declaring a commitment to a field of study when I could barely peel myself out of bed in the morning, let alone get work done to minimally—and I mean MINIMALLY—pass my classes.
And then I flash forward to my time now with ACMNP and a job in paradise that has nothing to do with English Writing, except maybe that I’m here writing this now, and I think about what I’ve been reading in Joshua, how God was FAITHFUL to DELIVER these poor Israelites, despite their constant choices to run from Him, to follow their own impulses—whatever they wanted to study and pursue—and He still gets them right to where He wanted them all along.
Like at a tennis pro shop desk, in the middle of the Caribbean, about a 40-years’ walk away from where I thought we were going that day in my adviser’s office, signing on the line with the big X as anxiety ate me up from the tips of my fingers holding the pen through the fibers keeping my stomach out of my heart—
O, my soul, how God is blessing me through ACMNP.
Through a simple Google search and a bottom-of-the-bottom willingness to GO because why not?, God has been redeeming the most shadowy, painful parts of me. ACMNP has given me opportunities to be present with people in places they feel so alone—the same places that I’ve felt so alone. It’s allowed me to travel, to breathe air unclouded by expectations, to experience newness and healing and hope unimagined. It’s given me chances to LIVE the scriptures where it says in Isaiah 55 that nothing from God returns void or null or empty. And the best part about it all is that it’s always a surprise—God uses unlikely people and connections as ways for me to serve Him as he heals me and redeems all of the broken things, making them all beautiful by making them COUNT for something. And in Denali, Alaska and St. John, USVI, of all places!! He’s taken me to these beautiful National Parks to reveal His beauty to me, to get me alone with Him, to remind me Who He Is, and all just because He’s jealous for me.
It’s here that we find purpose. Not in committing to a major or a career before we’ve tasted or seen. We don’t need to bind ourselves to that pressure and conjecture. Our purpose comes from being willing to let Him alone be Light for us—exposing us, KNOWING us—and in turn, showing us His Great, Unfailing, Unforgetting, Committed love for us. It’s in daring to dream and daring to believe that God loves us as much as He says He does. That He really is crazy about us, enthralled with us, even, and is on the edge of His seat, waiting for us to step out of worldly expectation and into the trip He’s got planned for us.
How crazy, that God would take me from the darkness I felt in Chicago all the way to Alaska and then down to the Virgin Islands, with ACMNP, to meet Bob, to have him ask me what to tell the sophomores at Wheaton College about their futures, to be able to share a word that I wish I’d have heard all that time ago.
He uses everything for Good. It all counts. And when you think of it that way?
It’s all Grace, too.