A Little Store Brought Us Together
There are people who, from time to time, come into our lives and impact us in a such a positive way that they make us want to be better people just from being in their presence. Years ago, I met someone for whom I am forever grateful for having had the experience of meeting and getting to know. My life will never be the same because of the lasting impression made by this one person.
It was Autumn of 2005, and had I moved my little furniture store to the outskirts of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There, along a busy highway, I sold estate items that I gathered from the four corners of the world, literally, and I built a thriving business, because I gave people the best and most exciting deals on quality items for their homes. As an example, I would find a complete dining room set, in mint condition, have it cleaned and polished and sell it in my store for pennies on the dollar. I wanted people to be able to have the nice things they wanted for their homes without having to go in debt. Once a month, I would have a special sale that was so exciting and loads of fun for my customers. I called it “High Noon at the Gold Mine.” On that particular Saturday, at exactly twelve o’clock noon, everything in the store was half-price for one hour...and one hour only. The parking lot would start to fill up around eleven o’clock, and people would start “staking out” the items that they had had their eyes on days earlier when they did their “scouting.” And sure enough, at noon, when I announced that it was “High Noon at the Gold Mine,” you never saw so many people rushing the cash register. They knew, at exactly one o’clock, the prices went back to normal. The event put my store on the map, and I never had to advertise. Of course, I would put some items out front during the day so that people driving by could see what my store was all about. And one day, an elderly gentleman stopped in to take a look around. Tall, robust, he had an air about him that was at once a measured reserve of a proper gentleman, but at the same time, he had a humility and kindness that was so natural, that you wondered how he came to be so at ease with this manner. I found that he was a Presbyterian minister, and I would later learn that he was actually a well-accomplished minister, at that. With a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Seminary, Reverend Matthew Welde was a world–renowned preacher, having preached before tens of thousands in many foreign countries. He had even preached in South Korea and counted the Secretary of the United nations as a personal friend...and he was shopping at my store.
The Beautiful Oriental Rug
As did most people who visited my store, Reverend Welde became a regular customer, stopping in almost weekly to see what was new. He had a good eye for valuable handmade rugs, and one day, there was a particular Chinese rug that caught his eye. Deep, rich, cobalt blue with a copper border, one-inch thick, handwoven virgin wool, this rug was so exceptional, that he just had to bring his wife in to see it, and he asked me if I would hold it for him, in case she liked it. Of course, I agreed. And that is when I met wonderful Millie, Mathew’s wife. Not as tall as her husband, a bit stout, but she carried herself well, and when she came into the store, immediately, she lit up with the most heartwarming smile. It was as if she were welcoming me into her home, instead of the other way around, such was the natural radiance of that smile. She was such a proper lady, a true compliment to her husband’s being a proper gentleman, but neither of them was stiff and formal, as some people tend to be when trying to emulate mannered people. No, theirs was a natural and effortless grace that I came to greatly admire. And never did they ever make anyone feel inferior in their presence. No, to the contrary, it seemed as if they could not do enough for you, as if you should come first and they should come last. One constant sign of their ever-present and genuine humility was that they never ceased to praise you, and any compliment you paid them was immediately, and I mean immediately, turned back to you. They always made others feel elevated and special. They refused to accept praise, yet they were so deserving of it. What a gift they possessed!
Once Millie saw the beautiful rug, she admitted that it would look wonderful in their living room. I came to learn that there was always one part of Millie that was an obstacle to her buying anything for herself, and that was the desire to save that money and use it for the good of others. So, as beautiful as this rug was, internally, she was telling herself that she could do without something this wonderful. “Think of all the children in other countries that could be helped with that money,” she undoubtedly was thinking, and the guilt of spending on herself was enough to nearly prevent her from allowing Matthew to purchase the rug. But, with some persuasion from me, she decided to allow this purchase, and it was agreed that I would have it professionally cleaned and brought to their home immediately after it was ready. That was my first meeting with Millie, and little did I know then, there would be many more.
More Furniture, More Friendship
A week later, the rug was ready, and I went to deliver it. As it turned out, the Weldes lived only a mile from my store, so it was only a short drive to their lovely home in the country nearby. I rang the door bell, and Reverend Welde came to greet me, opening the door with that same heartwarming smile, and Millie was right behind him with the effervescent happiness that made me feel as if I were her son who had just returned from a long trip away from home. What a greeting! I never went to that house without getting that same incredible welcome. Where did this joy come from? With time, I would come to learn that their source for this constant joy was that Matthew and Millie were devout Christians, but unlike some who profess Christianity and are stiff, condescending and self-righteous hypocrites who do more harm to the name than good, these two were the “real deal.” Thus, I was just delivering a rug from my store, but you would have thought I was the Prodigal Son. I brought the packaged rug into the living room, and Millie took a seat in her favorite chair to watch, much like a child awaiting the opening of presents on Christmas Day. I untied the binding ropes and began to unroll the large room-size rug. What an amazing transformation! It had been gorgeous when it was in the store showroom, but now, it looked like it was made of sable or mink, such was the smooth luster. The colors were more rich now, and one could easily see that this rug was easily worth ten-thousand dollars. Millie was excited for the bargain price that I had given them, a secret to this day, as I always told my customers, “Only you and I know what you paid for this, and my lips are sealed.” And she was equally excited for how intensely changed the living room was with this rug. “Millie, you should take your shoes off and walk on this barefooted so you can experience first-hand what fine quality you have in this rug,” I suggested. But, no, she was content to just look at it from her chair, smiling broadly, and take my word for it. Funny, though, a few days later, I was by to see them, and Matthew told me, “You should have seen her that night after you left here. I thought she was going to camp out on that rug.” Millie was slightly embarrassed by his comment, as if enjoying something that beautiful was a sign of being materialistic, and I had to convince her that God wants us to have nice things, too. I told her that she and her husband had sacrificed for so many years so that others might have a better life, so once in a while, it was okay to treat themselves. But I was delighted to hear Matthew tell that story. Millie loved so loved that beautiful rug, and that was the beginning of many trips to that house in the days and months ahead. I promised Millie that I would find her some wonderful furniture that would go well with the rug...and I did, one beautiful chair at a time.
A Time To Pray
One evening, Reverend Welde came to my store, and I was perplexed, because he never shopped in my store in the evenings, always coming by during the daylight hours. He entered without his ever-present smile, and I wondered if he had somehow become disenchanted with something he had purchased from me, such was the serious look on his face. Whatever it was, I thought to myself, I would, of course, make it right. However, it was not going to be about furniture this time, and he got right to the point. Millie had just been diagnosed with cancer! In the words of the doctor, it was now October...she would not see Christmas! Matthew loved Millie so very much, and there was such devastation in his voice as he said, “I can’t go back in that house without her.” He asked me to pray for him.
I believe that there are two types of Christians—the religious who follow the dictates of the Church, and the spiritual, who follow the dictates of their souls. I am of the latter persuasion, so I am sure that there are some Christians who would probably think of me last when asking for prayer, yet here was a world-renowned evangelist asking me to pray for him...ME to pray for HIM! I was humbled, taken aback, put on the spot and suddenly filled with a feeling of “who am I that you would ask ME to pray for YOU?” But one thing I have always believed, and that is this—if God tells you to do something, you never argue. So, I prayed. And as we both bowed our heads, and I spoke to God, loudly, just as if God were in the room, because that was the way I was raised, God told me to give Reverend Welde this message — “I will not take Millie from you just yet. I will give her more time, but there are things that you must do.” And when I finished praying, I turned to Reverend Welde and told him what God had shown me. Then I said, “You know, sometimes God expects us to put legs on those prayers. I highly recommend that you call Johns Hopkins first thing in the morning.”
At The Hymn Sing
Matthew looked like a young man again, such was the look of a burden lifted as he prepared to leave my store that night and return home to Millie. And God kept His word. Christmas came and went, and Millie was still with Matthew. Six years later, I held an event called “The Hymn Sing.” Sort of like Bill Gaither’s “Homecoming,” I had gospel singers from around the area come to sing for an evening at a local convention center. Since I have been a singer since childhood, having sung with my parents and siblings for many years in our churches as a touring, gospel-singing group, I was also on the bill that evening. There was a large crowd there, and at one point during the evening, I spoke to the crowd about Millie’s ordeal with the cancer diagnosis six years earlier. I told the crowd how the doctor had told her that she would not live more than a few weeks, such was the advanced stage of her cancer, and I told them of how we had prayed, as had so many people, and God had answered those prayers. I then said, “Millie, if you are still with us, raise your hand.” Millie shot both hands straight into the air, and that wonderful smile spread across her face. I will never forget that look of thankful joy. I then said, "Millie, this is for you," and proceeded to sing the song "Great Is Thy Faithfulness,"
My Last Visit
Of course, the day had to come, the cancer had to come back. God had not said that she would live forever, just that He was going to add years to her life. And Millie took a turn toward the change that would mark the end. So, Matthew and Millie decided to have a farewell get together at their home and invite everyone to come and say good-bye while Millie was still feeling able. I remember that there were so many kind and loving people present in that house that day. You would have thought that nothing was wrong, that we were just having a great time of reminiscing with all of their many friends who were able to attend. Lots of laughter, lots of talking, so many, many kind memories...and they were all being relived and replayed so that nothing was left unsaid. Eventually, it came time for me to say good-bye, and I would have gladly just let myself out without making a fuss. After all, this gathering was for Millie, not me. I did not want to draw attention to myself. But, Millie would not have it that way. As I stood to go, Millie got up from her favorite chair and crossed the room to give me a hug good-bye. I expected to give her the typical hug we give all people we are not related to, you know, the light pats on the back, a couple of seconds of embrace, and let go with a smile. But, no, Millie would change all that now. She wrapped her arms around me, buried her head against my chest... and she did not let go! Long after I would have ended the hug and gone my way, Millie was still embracing me, and I silently stood there being hugged for quite some time, it seemed. Finally, she paused, looking up with that smile that I had come to expect always from her, and she thanked me for coming. We said our last good-byes, and I left. I would never see Millie again.
Ten years from the day I prayed for Millie to live, God took her home to be with Him. A few months later, in His divine mercy, He took Matthew, too. Someone wrote that Millie had a gentle spirit and a child-like joy, and I have to agree with that. She had always had a special place in her heart for children, having taught children’s church in missionary churches around the world with her husband, Matthew. Undoubtedly, that must have explained why she took extra joy in the little statue she bought from my store, a stone statue of a sweet-looking little girl who looked like she was gathering flowers. Millie asked me to place that at her front door in a spot where she grew flowers. It must have been a constant reminder to her of all the little children she had loved in her years of ministering to them. As I was reading Matthew’s obituary, I thought back to my last time seeing Millie alive, and I remembered that long hug she gave me. I have never had anyone hug me that long, and I had sort of forgotten about it, but now, the memory returned, and as I thought about Millie, knowing the spiritual life she lived, I knew finally why she was so long letting me go that day...she was praying. And I also know what she was praying for. Millie was thanking God for that prayer ten years ago, when God had promised to let her live a while longer. And Millie was also praying for me.