The smell of the Michigan shoreline in its late autumnal dress still holds strong in my memory. The sun was setting far off to the south more than west these days and it seemed to put additional stress on the already slanted clouds that were quickly heading away from the chilled northwest wind. My boots were covered with the damp shoreline sand and that same damp shoreline spirit seemed to be hanging on me like a wet cotton sheet.
I’d been struggling with school for some time. At 19 years old, the questions seemed to far outpace the answers and in my usual manner, I chose escape and avoidance to deal with them. I was by fate allowed to enroll in an honors curriculum at the university I was attending and found it confusing. If the professors thought you were smart, you’d do well in coursework without even having to think. First choice in class assignments, great leeway in grading, cream-of-the-crop professors. Grade point was providentially supported, friendships were abundant, parents that were supportive; what could possibly be confusing or wrong?
Something wasn’t fitting into the equation, at first I figured it was somehow related to the powerful combination of the 18-year-old drinking age and college but later agreed that "correlation wasn’t causality". I didn’t really like gin anyways. Was God trying my heart? Was I supposed to be doing something different? I had a gift, that of drawing and was an artist by declaration and a Fik by genetics. This, by-the-way is the sort of Dutch heritage that causes guys to draw pictures of naked girls in Tahiti, cut your ear off as a demonstration of love, and paint big pictures of landscapes in which 80% of the landscape is actually the sky, somewhat missing the whole point of a landscape.
That still, small voice though seemed to be tugging at my heart. Here’s where being old comes in handy – you can recognize the voice of God whereas at 19 you still foolishly think that God speaks like your father, your pastor, the fruitcake evangelist on TV, or some cataclysmic rock-splitting event. (Re-read your Bible and you’ll realize very little of God’s voice came out like this, he whispered far more than he yelled!) I was confused on my future direction and rather than listen, I ran. Were there a boat on the shore of Joppa, I’d have booked passage and headed out to sea like Jonah – destined for a showdown with God.
My tears were causing as much dampness as were the grey waves over my boots, and the reality of a long dark night was ahead of me. The trouble with camping in Michigan at that time of year is that the nights are long. The sun slips away by 6:30 pm with the seagulls slipping away just ahead of that. Watching them leave only added to my loneliness. There was no Facebook, no cellphones; the personal computer was just a crazy notion in a California garage at this time. There were no LED lights that burned all night, only a campfire, a crummy battery flashlight and a candle lantern that visually warmed only a 30” circle. I walked along the beach for a few more yards, begging for God to talk to me, to tell me what to do, where to go. In the waning light I saw a small wake in the wave on the shore – I thought it was a dead fish.
As I came closer, in the waning light I saw that it was a deflated balloon. Deflated balloons along the western shore of Michigan are gift from our friends in Wisconsin. Its 80 miles straight-line across the lake and those little balloons tell of life in Milwaukee, Racine, Appleton, and Madison. This one came from Columbus and while most held the news of a store opening, homecoming celebration, birthday party, wedding or theme park, this one actually held a message from God.
I looked at the zip-locked bag under the deflated balloon and noticed a Bible verse and partially obscured name and address. It was too dark to read it on the shore so I bade goodnight to the Lake and headed back up the sand dune to my wooded campsite. I carefully unwrapped the soggy bag from around the note with the same timidity that Moses used when clearing the smoke from the recently etched stone tablets. While his was in Hebrew, mine was in plain English.
I wish I could tell you what the verse was. I wish that I could tell you how its words literally made the sky burst open, the fear and doubt disappear, how it calmed the seas and how my life’s direction was course-corrected by 78 degrees. I wish I could remember the words – what I can remember is how all those things I just described, happened. Everything you know about me now is a direct result of those words, my loving wife and soul mate, my children, my faith. That corrected course would set me to sail not away as in the case of Jonah, but towards. My escape and avoidance was to be forever escaping towards a loving God who would be challenging me (and my wife) in ways no one could ever have imagined.
I don’t remember the words of God, but I remember the more important artifact; the name of the 6-year-old girl who let go of the balloon in Columbus, Wisconsin. While the note was a typewritten Bible verse, the handwritten name and address will never leave me. As it turns out, my newfound friend Brandi (according to her mother) was the only one in her church group that actually believed that someone would find the balloon. I was the only one to return a message. As far as I’m concerned, that whole church event, all those balloons – were an anomaly, they likely never existed once they left the sight of the participants, save the balloon of one little girl. Her balloon was destined to change the world.
I kept in loose contact with her family over the years, updates on my journey, insights from life, cards about significant life events. Loose contact, that carries meaning but not impact. I’d never shared the depth of her influence on so many lives, not by intention mind you; by design. Not by my design, but by the design of the very God who had me camp on that particular spit of land along a lonely 9 mile stretch of sandy hills. That balloon and its message of hope changed for the good not only my life but also globally - it changed the life of a 14-year-old rape victim in Korea. She was faced with a difficult decision and her choice to give birth to a child who was born way too early to a mother way too young in a country that’s way too traditional to allow such things, was justified, by the balloon of a little girl from Wisconsin.
The bizarre humor that my family is privileged to laugh with, the beautiful “special needs” people we’ve grown to love, the terrifying challenges we face, and the deep relationships we with have with God, daring to question His sovereignty and yet receiving blessings from him for asking the question… It can only be deemed, “world changing”. The impact that Bethany has on the lives around her is indescribably complex, rich, powerful, and terrifyingly frustrating. All this for the sake of one little balloon, one prayer for direction, and the subsequent willing heart to listen to that still, small voice.
So many lives have been changed for the good as a result of that balloon. I believe that now the 6-year-old girl is an educator by profession. I’ve news for her; she was an educator long before that.