Good Guys Don’t Always Finish Last

     For the first 8 years of my “adult” life, I lived in fear of people.  The mere thought of setting foot inside of a church, or for that matter any public place-surrounded by people I didn’t know-petrified me with fear.  I had no friends, no social life and was sick of living in the “prison” I had created for myself.  I saw no way out-no hope for the foreseeable future.  All that changed in a way I never could have foreseen.
     It all started on December 17th, 2000, with a prayer answered in a way I still find hard to believe to this day. With that one prayer and what was to follow, he proved to me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he is a God of Second Chances.
     On this Sunday, eight days before Christmas, I tried unsuccessfully once again to start attending church but that fear held me back.  That night I prayed to God, asking him to please, if he could really hear me, send me a sign with his unmistakable signature on it.  In no way did I expect the immediacy of his response and it took over 3 months for me to see it for what it was.
     I came home the following Tuesday and found a letter slid under my door, informing me that my name had been drawn in a second-chance drawing and that I was going to Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa at the end of January!  The deadline had expired for the 1 grand prize cap to be redeemed and I was chosen at random from those who’d entered the drawing.  I had only entered because God had provided me with some “inside information.”
     On the evening of October 27th, 2000, I was at work.  Opting not to sort the empty bottles people return to us as a result of Iowa’s deposit law, I sent a 17-year-old employee in to do so.  Not 5 minutes later, I checked in on him.  Just as I walked into the room, he was unscrewing the cap of an empty 20 oz promotional bottle of Coca Cola, in an attempt to find a free pop winner.  What he found instead was the one cap in 6 states (IA, IL, KS, MO, NE and WI) that read “YOU WIN SUPER BOWL TRIP.”  The odds of purchasing the one winning bottle to begin with were 1 in 2,405,000!!!  God had arranged for me to be the sole mortal witness to this discovery.  Now came the test-What would I do with this information?
     As the night manager, I was “obligated” to turn that cap over to the store manager, who was still on the premises.  I politely took the cap from him, showed it to two other part-time employees (who agreed not to say a word to the boss) and suddenly found myself in God’s “hot-seat.”  I had a decision to make, the ramifications of which were far beyond my comprehension.  I could either do what I was “obligated” to, give it back to the employee who’d found it or keep it myself.  After wrestling with my conscious for the better part of two hours, I turned to God and admitted that I needed his help with this one-that I couldn’t make a decision of this magnitude on my own.
     After the boss left, my mind was made up.  I was going to do what I felt was right in my heart.  I had already called the 800# on the bottle and written down all the claim information.  Finding the employee in the break room, I handed him the fore-mentioned information and the cap.  The little guy was going to win this one!
     Over the coarse of the next week, I kept asking this kid what he’d done with it-whether or not he’d sent it in.  Seeing I was so obsessed with knowing the cap’s fate, he played with my mind-telling me one minute that he’d thrown it away and the next that he hadn’t.  A week to the day after he’d found it, I told him that two can play at that game.  In the spirit of fun, I called that same 800# and got the address to send in an entry for the second chance drawing.  I entered the drawing as a joke, to get under his skin.  He laughed at me but it was all in fun.
     As an Assistant Scoutmaster in a Boy Scout Troop, I found myself in Colorado for a week in the summer of 2000, along with several others.  We spent the week hiking through the mountains and while there, a fellow Assistant, over twice my age, just happened to mention that one of his life dreams was to see a Super Bowl in person.  I say: “WAS” because God afforded me the opportunity to turn his dream into reality.  He didn’t hesitate to accept my invitation to be my traveling companion.  That decision-to fulfill a friend’s life dream-would change my life forever.
     We went and had a good time.  I had almost thrown the notification that I’d won away-I had no interest in sports.  Being a once in a lifetime opportunity, I made an exception.  I didn’t know why I was going but knew God wanted me there for a reason.  I had even written a letter to Mike Kellogg, host of Moody Bible Institute’s program “Music Through The Night.”  I told him about that prayer and what happened the next day and the letter I got back said to trust God, that he does things for a reason.  In hindsight, I can see that he was right.  I was about to embark upon a journey of faith.
     Two days after we returned from the trip, I found myself working in the other store my employer owns here in town.  In over 10 years with them, I’d worked at this location once, maybe twice a year.  God had me there for a reason.  Towards closing, a complete stranger, whom I’d met at work the night before that cap was discovered, came in.  When she found out that the gentleman I’d taken along with me was over twice my age, she made a comment that changed my life.  Those five words, especially coming from her, struck a nerve.  I began looking for a church the following Sunday and the Sunday following that, found the church I attend to this day.
     By taking a few minutes out of her schedule to talk to me whenever our paths crossed while I was at work (once, twice a week if I was lucky), this stranger showed me that my irrational yet real fear of people was unfounded.  I was no longer afraid of people- I had my life back.  Had someone told me the year before that God was going to use an empty bottle of Coca-Cola and a complete stranger to change my life, I’d have laughed at them.
     This stranger has since moved out of state but is still in that original contest area.  I never got the chance to say “thank you” in person. Truth can, indeed, be stranger than fiction.

EVERYTHING written prior to this paragraph was submitted on Sunday August 31st, 2003 for possible inclusion in a compilation of rather unique Christmas stories.  The 30 some page, single-spaced, preliminary draft of the book version was completed on Thursday August 28th, 2003.  It, as well as this story, ended on the sentiment of “Where this ‘sister’ is is none of my business.”  On Thursday September 4th, 2003, a week to the day after completing that draft, God stepped in and made it my business-wrote an Epilog to the story.

Calvary Baptist Church in Muscatine, Iowa has a congregation of roughly 1000.  It was late in the spring of 2003 that He crossed my path with that of a gentleman that grew up in the same town that stranger/sister did.  I mentioned her name, thinking he might have met her at Calvary and/or known the family.  His reply was no, he didn’t.  It was a long shot but nonetheless worth a try.  We each then went our separate ways.
It wasn’t until mid to late July of 2003 that my path crossed that of this “brother” once again.  At that point, I told him this story and put the name I’d mentioned that spring with it.  He said it was interesting and admitted that although he’s lived in Muscatine for decades, he started subscribing to his hometown newspaper just about a year before to keep up on local events, etc.  He went on to say he’d keep his eyes open and we left it there.

On Thursday September 4th, 2003, this “brother” called me.  Parenthetically speaking, he said: “Robert, the novelty of subscribing to my hometown newspaper wore off after the first month or two.  At any given time, I have a stack of assorted papers on my desk that need going through.  Feeling guilty about having not kept up on my hometown news, I pulled the most recent issue off of the top of that stack this afternoon, as I found I had a free moment.  When I saw that picture and name, I ‘made that connection’ and called you.”  My initial assumption on 9/4 was that he was reading every paper as it came in, looking for that which was none of my business.  When I stopped by on 9/11, he gave me that newspaper and told me the true motive for his having read it.

An email to the Editor of that paper in a small town-hours away revealed that in all of East-Central Iowa, inclusive of this “brother”, they have a total of 6 subscribers.  For over two years, I’d admitted to God that this “sister’s” whereabouts were none of my business.  I stood humbly corrected when He whispered: “Please don’t be angry with me.  Have you not told me repeatedly over these last couple of years that you’d not expect anyone but this ‘sister’ or I myself to make her whereabouts known to you?  I started this on that October night back in 2000.  Have you ever known me to not finish what I start”?

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