February 14, 2016
Sunday, 10:30 p.m.
Letter #422: True Love
Happy Valentine’s Day! Love is an amazing thing. As a concept that reflects a passionately held belief (“I love that restaurant”), it can signal appreciation for positive attributes (delicious chips, e.g.). Stated to another person, the “L-Word” can mean the transition from a casual friendship to an official relationship, unless it is said to someone already in your family, in which case “I love you” is a wholly inadequate summation of all that person means to you.
Sure, I know that V-Day has become a highly commercialized day in which millions of retailers attempt to persuade you to spend beyond your means to somehow express to the object of your admiration that you love him or her. This is often done with chocolates, which puts me in a sort of conundrum, since chocolates ARE the primary objects of my admiration. (Clearly, I have issues beyond the reach of a Hallmark card.) Yet, despite the overly predictable Cupid-with-a-heart clichés and forced displays of affection, Valentine’s Day can still be an opportunity to thank God for the people He has placed in your life, people who for no apparent reason choose to love you.
Honestly, this whole “love” topic is not an easy one for me. I really thought that I would be married by age 25, and then as that date sailed past, no later than age 30. Well, I’ve missed that one by a mile. I of course thought that I would really enjoy being married, having someone (preferably female) who loves God, loves her family, and has big goals of doing great things in the world. I thought I would feel complete and thoroughly throw myself into bringing joy to someone else. I’ve voluntarily and willingly set aside marriage in the past, and I now find myself in this involuntary state of suspended marriage dreams, a state in which I’m supposed to now feel perfectly complete loving God while bringing Him great joy as a single person.
Well, it isn’t that easy. Oh, I suppose letting my hopes of marriage die on the cross of Christian service and sold-out devotion to Jesus Christ would be much easier if I possessed true, sold-out devotion to something, someone, other than myself. I know that I love myself so much because the thought of abandoning my comfortable dreams seems so difficult. I have even hoped our Lord would delay His imminent return to earth, putting it off to not-so-imminent status. I remember making this selfish request of the Lord when I was just 15 years old, and though He hasn’t yet returned, I can’t say my lack of a marriage partner has anything to do with it. And if it does, then I’m sorry to you faithful: you might have to wait another seven years. This admission brings me no great delight, since it takes nothing to realize that Jesus’ return would be infinitely better for me, for all of God’s children. His eternal love and acceptance are, after all, sufficient for me, right?
Well, they should be. My fickle heart clings to Him one moment, and the next, it claims He is not enough, that His affection, His care, His love for me aren’t ALL that I need for this day, because the love of a woman would be nice. That is like my brother, Mark, preparing one of his over-the-top seven-course dinners for me and wishing I had a penny gumball to go with it. I pray, “Lord, help my unbelief.”
What is love, if it is selfishly motivated? What is love, if it considers itself first? What is love, if it doesn’t but give, and give extravagantly?
I’ll tell you what love is; it is Carol Sherbon, someone who has faithfully written to me for the past four years, most of these years confined to a convalescent home, barely able to walk. A mature saint, Carol would write me about her ministry of prayer and letters, often blessing me with scripture quotes she’d come across during her daily studies. I found out this week that Carol finally went Home to be with her Savior, a glorious Home-going, I am certain. Carol never complained about her deteriorating condition but understood it as part of getting older. She would instead tell me about the kindnesses of her nurses and caregivers, the thoughtfulness of church friends who would visit her often, and her love for her distant family. Most of all, however, Carol would write to me about her love of the Lord, while encouraging me with verses and sermon notes, music and prayers.
When I heard that Carol had passed away, I was happy for her but sad for me and the other “shut-ins” Carol had a ministry to, often making her own stationery and bookmarks to send out. I went back through the cards and letters she’d sent me to find some comfort from her words, and I found two unopened envelopes I’d hastily packed away while transferring to this compound over a year ago. Inside one, the card said how much she enjoyed getting these weekly updates mailed specially to her by my dad and how she prays for me. In the other, a reading on the twenty-third Psalm, the last line of which says, “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” which is her new Home. She modeled true, unconditional love—selfless, abundant love, flowing from God’s heart to the unlovely, displaced, marginalized, and forgotten.
I can only pray to be so dedicated … no, so in love with my Savior that I cannot help but see as He sees, care as He cares, and love as He loves. In overflow of His love will I find sufficiency and grace to live in light of eternity.
The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil,
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD
Tribute to Carol Sherbon
Hello, my name is Christopher, and I unfortunately cannot be with you all today because I am currently incarcerated in Arizona. I first met the Sherbon family when I attended Child Evangelism Fellowship’s summer internship training with Susan in 1988, twenty-eight years ago. I was just 15, but that summer impacted my life greatly; I would go on to spend many years in active Christian service.
In 2004, I visited Oak Grove Baptist Church on Boy Scout Sunday. The pianist was out sick, and my little brother, Mark, an Eagle Scout, told someone I play piano. Just after that morning service, a sweet older woman motioned for me to come over to her. Sitting along the center aisle in the second row on the piano side of the sanctuary, she couldn’t stop smiling, telling me how much she enjoyed my piano playing and making it quite clear that I needed to stay on as the new pianist they’d been looking for.
That was the first of over 150 Sundays I spent at Oak Grove, as it became my church home. And every Sunday as I played, I could see that sweet lady, Carol Sherbon, just over my music, sitting in her place, singing along with the worship service and beaming encouragement my way.
Three years later, I left Oak Grove without so much as a good-bye, caught up in a legal battle due to crimes I’d committed years earlier. I began my fifteen-year prison term a year later, quietly slipping away to serve my time and too embarrassed to let my church family know.
I began playing the piano for church services in prison and even leading worship at some of the facilities, but it wasn’t the same as Oak Grove. I was no longer part of a loving church family, the potlucks were way worse, and there was no Carol sitting in the second row to tell me how much she loved my music.
Then, four years ago, she found me. I don’t know how she did it, but one day I received a beautiful card from her, expressing her love and encouragement. She must’ve known why I went to prison, though she never asked. She just wanted to be sure I knew that I was loved by my heavenly Father. Carol was His special messenger, it seemed, cutting through the blandness and isolation to send me letter after letter with flowers and butterfly stickers, Bible verses and sermons, church bulletins and piano music to some of her favorite hymns. She never asked if it was okay to send certain items, and God blinded the eyes of the prison staff as she send me a beautifully embossed butterfly bookmark with a pink ribbon attached. She had inscribed it with these words: Love to Christopher from Carol Sherbon.
That was two years ago, and it has been in my Bible ever since, marking my daily progress through God’s Word. I kept every letter Carol sent, each one with the handwritten note “Member of Oak Grove Baptist Church” under the return address. She considered her ministry of writing to be a direct extension of the church she so loved: handmade cards, notes, letters, and always speaking of her love for her Savior. In the past four years, she must have sent me three hundred letters, three hundred reasons to remember God loves me.
Even after entering Vasona Creek Healthcare Center, she still actively wrote to me, praying for me as she read the weekly letter of update I email out to friends and family. With no email address, I’d mail Carol her own copy so she could stay up to date.
As I began teaching piano and spearheaded a music program at the facility I’m at now, I finally got an 88-key keyboard, and I named it for my biggest fan. I called Carol and told her that my new keyboard has a label on it that says “Carol,” and she cried, telling me what an honor that was. No, I told her, I get the honor of telling all my piano students who Carol is. She always wanted to go home, back to her piano, back to where she kept a beautiful picture of her husband and her together.
Now, she’s finally Home, and she’s with her husband again, enjoying those awesome heavenly worship services, where I imagine they reserved her a spot in the second row. I love you, Carol. You are missed.