We had a Baptist bar mitzvah the other night. Nicholas’ parents decided that his hitting the advanced age of 13 was significant enough to commemorate with some rite of passage. They invited some men from the church and the ministers and a couple of Nicholas’ buddies for refreshments and a time of sharing. Each man addressed Nick on “what I wish someone had told me when I was 13.” Most of us can go for hours on that subject. Fortunately, we didn’t and the entire event lasted about an hour. Nicholas held up well.
I told Nick what happened my 13th year. At the lowest point in my family’s life, we received the greatest blessing, one that came disguised as a death.
My dad was jobless, the coal mines in our area of North Alabama not hiring. Our family of eight had left the depressed coal-fields of West Virginia and moved into a rented house owned by an uncle, across the hill from our grandmother’s home. Two years later, the six children had nearly worn out the clothes bought up north during better times. As the fourth child, my hand-me-down clothes grew more and more thread-bare. Either I had no coat or none I had the courage to wear, so on cold wintry mornings I stood outside waiting for the school bus in short sleeves, telling anyone who would listen that “when we lived on the mountain in West Virginia, now, that was cold!”
We grew vegetables in the field behind the house, and neighbors shared their produce. Dad joked, “We might go naked, but we won’t starve to death!” It was weak comfort to a 13-year-old.
Each afternoon, the school bus took a solid hour to deliver us home, as it snaked up and down back roads dropping off children. On this day in February of 1954, a thin line of white smoke rose in the distance, but we thought nothing of it. Someone stopped the bus and asked for my brothers, Ron and Glenn. Older brothers are always coming and going mysteriously anyway, so we four younger siblings dismissed it without a thought. We had no way of knowing that life was about to change for us.
A mile from home, the bus stopped to let cousins Jimmy and Jay Kilgore off. Their mother stepped out of the house and called, “Joe, your house burned down.” That’s what that smoke was all about. My sisters and little brother started crying. We got off at our stop and walked the quarter mile through the woods into the clearing where our house had stood. A small cemetery of charred monuments lay before us, a bare chimney towering over the scene, the stench of old ashes burning our nostrils. Family members stood in the yard, weeping, hugging, and poking through the remains. Ron was a graduating senior that year. I heard him call, “Mom, did you save my suit?” She said, “Honey, we didn’t save anything.”
They said the fire probably started when a live coal from an open grate rolled onto the floor. Dad had gone to town and mom was over visiting her mother. By the time someone saw the smoke and the flames, it was too late. To this day, the family will tell you it was like a death. But, as God’s people know, resurrection follows death.
“Hey, everybody—look at this!” Someone poking through the ashes had found the family Bible. Strangely, it was wet throughout, even though no water had been put on the fire. The newspaper which reported the fire called it a miracle.
That night about dark, guests started arriving. Uncles and aunts drove in from a hundred miles away, bringing clothing and money. Aunt Maureen Ingle had sent son Dennis into his closet to “get Joe Neil some clothes.” He came back with an armload of shirts and jeans. She said, “Darling, did you leave yourself anything?” He said, “Yes, ma’am. One suit.”
By bedtime, I owned more clothing than I had ever seen. Boxes of gifts were everywhere. Uncle Ted Spain, who had owned the house, had driven down from Guntersville where he worked as a forest ranger. Dad gave him the $600 that he had received from friends and family that evening as a down payment on the 107 acres of land the house had sat on. At the end of a day that saw him lose everything, Dad went to bed a landowner.
A few days later, a neighbor bull-dozed the ruins off the hillside and we began cutting timber to trade for dry lumber. Uncle Jack Sherer, a house builder, helped Dad lay out the plans. One Saturday, neighbors and family members worked all day and erected a new house. It has been added onto a few times over the years, but Mom and Dad live there to this day, almost 50 years later.
Once in a while, when our large family gathers, someone will turn the conversation to the day our house burned. We all agree that that was the worst day and the best day of our lives. We lost everything we owned and gained more than we had ever had.
On the day when the Son of God died, the sun hid its face in shame and horror. No blacker Friday had ever been known in the universe. Then, two days later, something remarkable happened. The One who had died came forth from the grave carrying with Him the keys to death, hell, and the grave. Nothing would ever be the same. His followers renamed the day of His death “Good Friday”. The resurrection of Jesus Christ changed their perspective on life and death forever.
God can take the worst and make it the best. “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5) It’s the best lesson of all to learn. (The second is to have lots of friends and a big family!)