“Had Twila’s cancer returned?”
“Had something happened to Rich, the former superintendent we had both worked for and respected so much?”
“Was there a dire need in Jean’s life that she was requesting prayer for?”
I continued to read the short message.
John was also a retired teacher who had worked for me when I was a high school principal. Sadly, he wasn’t a very good teacher and not very effective in the classroom. A former soldier, he continued to maintain a military bearing with short, cropped hair and a hardened attitude toward performance. As a result, it seemed that we were often times at odds with one another as I would work to try to help him improve and then not have that advice carried over into the classroom. But while John was not the greatest teacher, he had turned out to be an amazing friend.
When I was first arrested, I felt like the most alone person on earth. Paula, my wife was gone…trying to make sense of all that happened and helping our kids cope with all of the changes that were coming as well. I had pretty much removed myself from any relationship with my own family over the past several years and didn’t reach out in that direction for advice or comfort. The majority of the relationships that I had built up over the years were with other educators…and the nature of my offense was also an insult to the profession that I had served. So I pretty much isolated myself, with the exception of continuing to talk with my wife.
Then out of the blue one day, Paula asked if it was “Ok” to give my address to Jean because there were a number of my former colleagues who wanted to write to me. I gave my permission and several days later I received a letter from John. Of everyone who had been on staff at the high school, John was the last one that I would have expected to write me. But he not only wrote me, he comforted me. He shared that I wasn’t alone in my struggles with pornography and sent me a book to read that he had studied in a men’s group at his church. He said that he would like to write a letter to the judge on my behalf to be considered at my trial.
Over the next four years, I saw a soft side of John that I didn’t know existed. While in prison, each month like clockwork I would receive a short note from John. Sometimes he would include a newspaper clipping about the high school or he would keep me updated on how the sports teams were doing. He always asked how I was doing…was I safe? How was the food? Was I getting counseling? He would ask how things at the chapel where I worked were going and how my guitar lessons were progessing. In most of the envelopes that bore his letters or cards, I would find a receipt for twenty or thirty dollars that he had sent to be deposited in my commissary account. While not a large amount in society’s eyes, they were a gift of amazing abundance to me.
When I was released from prison, John continued to correspond with me. Once again, like clockwork I would receive a phone call from John each month. We would talk like old friends and share stories of all that was going on in our lives. For him, stories of his grandkids and his work. For me, updates on trying to find work or sharing the blessings when work finally came. We maintained the connection for over a year and then busyness in both of our lives resulted in the conversations becoming more infrequent.
So when I read the words, my heart sank. I quickly e-mailed Jean back asking for her to keep me updated on John’s condition and prognosis. I paused in my activities at work and said a silent prayer for John and his wife Judy…and their two kids who had been students and passed through the high school during my tenure there. Over the next several days, the news came in. Uncertainty over the cause but perhaps from a fall he had taken at work the previous week. Initial partial paralysis and some loss of eyesight in the first few days…but movement returning as he began to heal. Reminders from Jean of John’s extremely strong faith and his determination to recover.
John’s situation was a stark reminder to me of the fragility of life and our lack of control in it. So much can happen in the blink of an eye. Life as normal one moment, everything turned upside down the next. But it also reminded me that even as unpredictable as life can be, the relationships that we invest in are so important. John had invested in me during my time of need and had build a solid foundation for both of us. Now it’s my turn to return the favor.