What God Can Do: How Faith Changes Lives for the Better

What God Can Do: How Faith Changes Lives for the Better

by Deborah Mathis


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Growing up as the daughter of a Baptist minister, Deborah Mathis has always known — through good times and bad — the graceful presence and consummate mercy of God. Now, in What God Can Do, Mathis bears witness to God's goodness, presenting true stories of ordinary people, their accounts of life's trials and triumphs, and how this higher being can work simple miracles — even for the least devout among us. Organized around ten different ways that God works in people's lives, including Healing, Forgiveness, and Transformation, this collection depicts the soft and subtle miracles that most people chalk up to mere coincidence. In a time of wide-scale war and civil unrest, when so much is uncertain and so many turn to prayer for answers, What God Can Do is sure to touch, console, and inspire anyone seeking spiritual nourishment and the reassurance that there is something greater shaping our lives.

Deborah Mathis, author of Yet a Stranger: Why Black Americans Still Don't Feel at Home, is an accomplished journalist, writer, and researcher. A regular commentator on America's Black Forum, she has also appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, and Frontline. She lives in Ocoee, Florida, and Washington, D.C.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743476416
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 04/17/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.43(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Deborah Mathis, author of Yet a Stranger: Why Black Americans Still Don't Feel at Home, is an accomplished journalist, writer, and researcher. A regular commentator on America's Black Forum, she has also appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, and Frontline. She lives in Ocoee, Florida, and Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Standing on the Promises

Normally, in the middle of a summer day, all the action would be on the sidewalk, where the neighborhood children gathered for hopscotch or jump rope or hanging around swapping bits of gossip about childhood crushes or feuds or So-and-so's run-in with his grandmother's switch right there in the middle of the grocery store for all the world to see. The street per se was usually quiet and empty; most of the traffic flow was confined to residents' comings and goings in the long or chunky sedans they kept in driveways, carports, and garages that hugged their houses. So, of course we noticed the row of cars parked along the curb in front of our house. Only visitors parked on the street.

"Looks like ya'll have company," the lady said as she slowed the heavy, rumbling sedan to a stop.

"Yes ma'am," I answered, nudging my little sister who was beginning to doze off under the summer heat. We grabbed our little Vacation Bible School workbooks and bid our carpool driver adieu.

Curious looks passed between Sandra and me as we scanned the strange line of cars. Only one was familiar: the shiny brown Lincoln that belonged to our favorite grown-up in the whole wide world — our mother's first cousin, our lively, beloved Janet. We could never get enough of Janet, a first-grade teacher with a transparent love and an honest-to-goodness respect for children. Although we lived in the same city, we didn't see her as often as we should have or wanted to, but when we did, she always left the impression that she could never tire of us, not even if our frisky little selves showed up on her doorstep every day.

The truth was, however, that Janet usually only came to our house on special occasions, like when some out-of-town guests were staying with us. About the only other time she came was when something was wrong.

My sister and I flew up the twenty-one steps that scaled the long, green terrace leading to our front lawn. Rounding the house, we raced through the back door, past the den and the kitchen, slowing only as we approached the living room with its muffled, grown-up voices emanating from behind closed doors.

Easing into the room, I found my mother seated on the sofa, a handkerchief pressed to her cheek. The loving and lovable Janet sat next to her with one arm draped around her shoulders.

Mr. Fowler, the principal at Rightsell Elementary School where Mama taught first grade, was sitting in the stuffed swivel chair nearby, pipe clenched in his teeth, elbows resting on his knees, head bowed.

Two strangers stood near the piano — very strange strangers, I thought. One was a woman in a nun's habit, the other, a man in a long white doctor's coat. The nun looked sweetly sorrowful with her hands clasped below her waist. The man in the doctor's coat looked perturbed. He rubbed his brow so hard I thought he was going to pull the skin off.

My nine-year-old brain burned with worry and confusion. Then dread. Somehow I knew the scene had something to do with my father, who had been in the hospital for three days for something called "elective surgery" — an operation he chose to have, not one he needed. At least that's what we had been told.

A doctor? A nun? Mama crying? Janet consoling? Mr. Fowler not his usual outgoing, smiling self? We had been assured that Daddy's operation was no big deal, that he would be fine and home soon. But what I saw that day said otherwise.

I tiptoed into the room and gingerly took a seat next to my mother. My eyes drifted from her to Janet to Mr. Fowler. Nothing.

"M-m-mama?" I stammered, my heart racing. "What's wrong?"

Mama lifted her sweet face, dabbing at the tears.

"Hi, baby," she said tenderly. "You doing okay?" Her pretty brown eyes swam in tears and her voice was weak.

"Mama, what's wrong?" I repeated, almost breathlessly. Beyond the door, I heard Sandra begin to cry.

"San, you can come in, sweetheart," Mama called out. "Everything's all right. Daddy's just got to be in the hospital a little longer than we thought. It's going to be all right, okay? Do you believe me?"

We nodded out of respect for our mother and to encourage her...and ourselves.

"The doctor is just explaining what's going on, but your daddy is going to be fine," Mama explained, brushing my brow and hair, then Sandra's. "Let us finish talking and I'll be in there in a minute." She smiled and hugged us both.

Sweet, sweet woman. Mama was so gentle and good, good to the bone. She practically never lost her temper or her calm. She never cussed and almost never cried. But she had a tough core. As a black woman born into the Depression-era Jim Crow South, she needed one. If ever there was a "steel magnolia," it was she.

Sandra and I retired to the den and its console TV. I turned the knob and located one of our favorite shows. Sandra dutifully plopped down and stared at the screen. Yet I knew that, like mine, Sandra's mind was on the living room and on Daddy.

After a few minutes, I slipped from my sister's side and took refuge in the bathroom, locking the door and turning on the faucet. Holding on to the basin, I lowered myself to my knees and clasped my free hand over my mouth to stifle the full-throated sobs I could no longer suppress.

God, I don't know what's wrong, but I know something is wrong with Daddy. Please, God. Please don't let him be too sick. Please don't let him die. If you have never heard me before, please hear me this time. We need Daddy. He is such a good man. Please, God. Please make everything all right.

To this day, I can recall the utter helplessness I felt in those moments in the bathroom with the water running. I was a young Christian, having been baptized only the year before, and I had only a fledgling knowledge of and faith in God. Would He really listen to a nine-year-old on her knees in the bathroom of a rambler on Twenty-first Street in Little Rock, Arkansas? Could my urgent and simple plea get through all the wails of starving children, of war-torn lands, of poor people, of presidents and prime ministers with a world to run? Was there something more profound to say? Should I have quoted Scripture in the prayer? Should I have promised something in exchange for the grace I sought?

And would God hold it against me that, at the same time I cried out to Him, a part of me was wondering if He really existed at all? Lord knows, I wanted to believe it, especially then. My mind was a scramble of thoughts. The man in the long white coat was obviously the doctor Mama talked about. Yet judging from the look on his face, the solemnity of his voice, he was at a loss of what to do. Janet was a comforter, but she couldn't heal. Mr. Fowler was a good friend to the family, but his bowed head had been a discouraging sign. And Mama, a woman of great faith and resolve, was clearly in distress. God was all I had left. Please God. Please, be there.

Sandra tapped lightly on the bathroom door. "Deb," she said sniffling. "Are you coming out?"

I don't know how long I had been frozen in those tiny quarters, but it had obviously been long enough to rouse my little sister's suspicions and worry. I shut off the water and swallowed hard to steady my voice. "I'm coming out now," I said, hoping

I sounded normal.

Sandra stood at the door with rosy cheeks propping up her wide but fearful eyes. She had news. "I think the man and the Sister are leaving now," she said. She stared at my face as if for answers. "Are you crying?" she asked.

"Naw, girl," I said. "Some of Mr. Fowler's pipe smoke got in my eyes and I had to wash it out. There's nothing to cry about. I asked God to make everything all right and He will."

Just then, Mama and Janet entered the kitchen.

"You all hungry?" Janet asked, already tinkering in the stove.

"Let's get you something to eat," Mama chimed.

Sandra and I strode into the kitchen, relieved by the women's pleasantness and calm. Soon, we were singing and laughing and telling stories about our morning in Vacation Bible School at the beautiful and grand Mount Zion Baptist Church, where I was determined to become one of the big girls in the Intermediate Department. That night, I prayed hard and long again. I asked God to forgive me if I was pestering Him. I still didn't know what the real situation was with my father. But I knew that, whatever it was, we were going to need God's help.

When Daddy came home from the hospital a few days after the living room episode, we were happy to see that he looked perfectly normal. In fact, he looked more rested and robust than before.

Our father was a handsome man to begin with. With dark, wavy hair that dipped into a widow's peak at his forehead and slid into sideburns on either side of his face. With his trim mustache, fair complexion, and a tall, sturdy build, he was a looker. He had, however, a deeper beauty.

Daddy was not only a Baptist minister and Bible scholar, but a student of the classics from Socrates to Shakespeare, and he often entertained congregations with masterful blends of literature and gospel. He was a lover and writer of poetry, a great storyteller, and was known for his intellectual curiosity, genial nature, his wicked butter pound cakes — made from scratch and hand-whipped — and a gift for gardening that, more than once, landed him on a local television evening newscast. He was what I would have called a "Renaissance man" had I known the term at the time.

My father's refinement was unlikely given his upbringing. He was born in 1926 in a country hamlet tucked behind a stretch of state highway in north central Arkansas. We used to joke that Blackwell, Arkansas, was so small, it couldn't even cross the road. The townspeople shared a community well that, as children from homes with running water aplenty, we delighted in as a novelty on our visits "up home."

Daddy's father, Oscar, was a railroad man. In his youth, he hand-laid ties along the Missouri Pacific line as it snaked into the Show Me State. My grandmother, Roxanne, was what would now be called a "housewife" or "homemaker," but the term is far too genteel and nebulous for rural women like her who could hardly have done anything else given that they had no marketable skills and, even if they had, there was no industry around. Just a smattering of corner stores and trading posts, usually staffed by the proprietor's kin. Besides, the work of birthing and rearing babies, stewing laundry, coaxing a struggling garden, and cooking over woodstoves were completely consuming affairs.

Daddy was the sixth of seven surviving children born to Oscar and Roxanne. Two others had died at birth or in infancy. The little house the family shared was crammed with secondhand furniture, and the front room walls were covered in colorful newsprint — the family's rendition of wallpaper.

Life in the tiny, dusty town was a series of small dramas that, at the time, were shrugged off as the cost of living in a time when the nation was between world wars and grappling with momentous change — most notably, mechanization and a nascent civil rights awareness if not yet a movement.

One such drama occurred one day when my father, at age nine, went squirrel hunting for the family's supper. A hunting mate, another young boy, had tripped on a fallen tree branch and his rifle had discharged. The bullet struck my father in his thigh. As my uncle Lacy recalled it, he came home from school that day to find his older brother stretched out on a bed, a bloodied bandage around his leg.

"Your brother got shot today," Grandmother declared, as she slapped biscuit dough in the tiny kitchen. Taking advantage of his little brother's shock and horror, Daddy pretended to be dead. He lay stiff and still as Lacy jostled him and called his name in growing desperation. When the boy grew hysterical, my father jumped up and screamed, terrifying Lacy, who fled in fright.

Daddy never saw a doctor about the wound. There were no hospitals or clinics nearby, not that the family would have had a way to get there or means to pay for medical attention anyway. Grandmother had poured turpentine on the wound and wrapped it tightly in clean cotton to stem the bleeding. That would have to do. And it did. The bullet resided in Daddy's body for the rest of his life.

Not long after the United States entered World War II, Daddy enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was only sixteen, but he told the recruiters he was older and was signed up on the spot, a ruse that was facilitated by the shoddy, easily altered birth certificate common to poor black southerners of the day, as well as the country's need for servicemen. He served his entire tour at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and was honorably discharged at the rank of corporal. Armed with new skills, including a pilot's license, new confidence, the vision of a larger world, and the GI bill, Daddy returned to Blackwell and took up work as a crop duster.

Another drama: When Daddy was still a child, Levada, the eldest of the Myers children, had married the tall and dashing Booker McDaniel, one of three brothers from the Arkansas River valley who were something like local legends because they had reared themselves after being orphaned and, by all accounts, had done a fine job of it. Booker had become a real celebrity as a pitcher in the Negro Leagues where he played for a time with the storied Kansas City Monarchs, home team of the legendary Satchel Paige.

At some point in his career, Uncle Booker took a chance with his fortunes and joined a minor league team in Mexico. Many black American baseball players, shunned by the majors, had taken that course, finding eager audiences and starting positions south of the border. But the fast life that Uncle Booker and Aunt Levada favored took its toll after a while. They went bust. So, one day, my father, then about eighteen years old, cranked up an old, decrepit pickup truck and drove from Blackwell, Arkansas, to the Mexican border, retrieved his big sister, her dejected husband, and their belongings, and chug-a-lugged back to the town on one side of the road, thousands of miles away. Such was life in those times.

Although he was accustomed to the ups and downs of destitute life, Daddy longed for something better. And so he made a daring decision. Where most of the people in his area considered a high school diploma an arch achievement, my father wanted a college education. He certainly had the mental acumen for it. Now, with his veteran's benefits, he had the means, meager though they were. In segregated Arkansas, however, the choices for a black college prospect were few, regardless of his or her economic standing.

In the fall of 1947, Daddy took a bus to Little Rock, the capital city, and enrolled in Philander Smith College, a school run by the Methodist Church and named for its chief benefactor and founder. Philander Smith was a haven for the rare, college-bound black student, and those fortunate enough to enroll took the privilege seriously. Yearbook photographs from the late 1940s and early 1950s prove the point. Male students are typically pictured in coat and tie. Female students wore hats and gloves. Even the casual shots of students strolling the campus betray a formality and propriety unheard of today.

All through college, my father maintained two or three odd jobs at a time for spending money and cash to send home. Still, academically, he stayed at the top of his class. However, something other than textbooks, his beloved Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, his fledgling tennis game, and Philander's Shakespearean theater group, had caught his eye. As it did for a pretty, petite, smart, and soft-spoken coed named Rachel Helms, the baby daughter of a subsistence farmer from south Arkansas.

Like most students at Philander Smith, Rachel knew hard times. Unlike the Myers family of Blackwell, however, the Helmses of Shady Grove owned lots of land, and on it they built their own houses; planted beans, corn, watermelons, and peas; kept setting hens, raised hogs, and had one or two horses for plowing. Local ponds and streams, neighboring woodlands, and the backyard dependably provided fish, rabbit, squirrel, chicken, or pork for the table. And if the large batch of siblings would not suffice, there were loads of cousins to play with down the road apiece where other relatives had built their houses.

A superb student, Rachel had dreamed of college, too, but the possibilities were faint. She was reluctant to even broach the topic with her solemn, hardworking father whom she adored. Her mother, Ida, had died after a long illness only the year before Rachel finished high school, and as the last daughter at home, she felt obligated to step into her mother's shoes as much as possible to keep the home fires burning.

But Nobel Helms, a private and introspective man, knew his daughter's longing. Moreover, he knew she deserved a different kind of future. One day, to her everlasting surprise and gratitude, he handed Rachel the money to register at Philander Smith, drove her to Little Rock, dropped her off with her one suitcase, and promised to "figure out" how to keep her in college. The next four years would indeed be touch and go, but, like her new boyfriend, Rachel excelled in school, impressing classmates and professors alike.

Mutually smitten, equally intelligent, and religiously faithful, Lloyd Myers and Rachel Helms were married on Christmas Day, 1949, in front of the crackling fireplace of my grandfather's living room in Shady Grove. They each finished Philander Smith with honors.

By the time my father went into the hospital for elective surgery that summer of 1962, Daddy and Mama had been happily married for thirteen years and had three children — me, born in 1953; Sandra, born in 1955; and Lloyd Anthony, who arrived in 1958. Since Mama was a teacher, her evenings were often filled with lesson plans and grading papers. Every now and then, she would go on a round of home visits, calling on her students and their parents in their own homes, a bygone practice. Regardless of her workload, dinner was invariably hot and hearty, the house was clean as a whistle, and our clothes were always clean and pressed. Too, she treated us regularly to music and readings and helped us with our homework when we needed it. Our parents were obviously in love with each other and enjoyed each other's company. It was a warm, safe, and loving home, an idyllic existence, notwithstanding the wolves of segregation and discrimination outside the door.

Over the years, Daddy had slowly but steadily moved up the ranks at Blue Cross-Blue Shield, where, despite his business degree from Philander Smith, he had started in the mailroom. In 1959, he was ordained as a minister of the Baptist Church, an accomplishment that had left me at once proud of him and scared for me, since I worried that my new role as a preacher's kid would grind the good times to a halt.

It was, for the most part, unnecessary alarm. Our routines remained pretty much as they had always been: Sunday school, then worship services on Sunday mornings; Baptist Training Union one Sunday night a month; participation in the annual Easter and Christmas plays; and, when Daddy became pastor of a small church in 1960, weekly choir rehearsals.

But as preacher's kids, and especially as the pastor's kids, we were watched and scrutinized more closely than our unleashed peers. It is true what they say: "P.K.s" get more credit than they're due for the good things and more blame than they deserve for the bad. So we had to watch our steps, lest we embarrass our parents or, worse, make God angry.

I was glad to be a preacher's kid in those days after Daddy came home. Having a minister for a father felt like extra insurance. Surely God would protect one of His own agents, I hoped. Surely He would not leave such a righteous and devoted man incapacitated or dead.

In truth, Daddy's situation was grave. What we had not been told was that the surgery Daddy purportedly elected to have had turned up a cancerous tumor that had rapidly metastasized. The doctors had given him six months, maybe nine, to live. To last that long, he would have to submit to regular cobalt treatments, which made him miserably sick.

Although we did not know the facts, I became increasingly suspicious that Daddy's condition was serious. Now, the idea that God would allow my father to die made me angry.

Not the man who had come that far and defied so many odds without having compromised his goodness. Not this man of such impeccable faith and wonder that, when everyone else shuttered themselves against a thunderstorm, Daddy would sit calmly on the front porch, beholding the lightning and thunder, marveling at God's handiwork.

Not the one who cherished his wife and children, who said he would never go anywhere that he could not take his family in good conscience and never did.

Not the man who could make a sip of cold, clear water seem like a miracle made in heaven just for him.

Not the one who, every blue moon, might close the blinds, grab his wife's hand, and show us how he used to jitterbug back in his dancing days.

Not this wonderful, loyal, honest, brilliant, enchanting man.

I continued to send my urgent prayers aloft, hoping to be heard in spite of my decidedly impatient and somewhat disgusted heart.

About three weeks after Daddy's homecoming, the man in the long white doctor's coat came back to our house. This time, he met in the living room with Mama alone. I leaned against the wall to eavesdrop. I heard words like "imperative" and "only chance" and "irresponsible." Heavy words. Ominous words. I heard "not even last six months" and "please convince him." I heard my mother's voice, low and calm. I heard her say "I'm sorry" just as the man was leaving.

It was later that I learned what that conversation was about. To the surprise and consternation of his doctors, Daddy had abruptly and emphatically refused further cancer treatments. The cobalt had left him too weak and ill to enjoy what life he had left, he had told them, and that was not how he wanted to spend the remainder of his days.

The doctors had turned themselves inside out with worry and disapproval, pleading with Daddy to reconsider. Their appeal to my mother to "please convince him" had been a last-ditch effort to save him.

I still do not know what conversations transpired between my father and mother during that time. I imagine they were anguished and poignant discussions, wrapped in prayer. All I know is that Daddy was resolute, dismissing the doctors with a declaration. "I've gone this far with you," he said, "I'm going the rest of the way on God's promises." With that, and with Mama's consent, there was nothing more the doctors could do.

Indeed my father did die. But before he left, he lived well and fruitfully.

He got to know and adore John, his fourth child and second son.

He got to see his children marry.

He got to cuddle and care for seven of his eleven grandchildren, who, today, look, sound, behave, and think like him.

He got to pastor and grow a lively new church.

He got to take in many more rounds of lightning and sips of cold, clear water.

He got to plant scores of saplings and watch them tower in green.

He got to love and honor Rachel for nearly fifty years.

He got to stand in a pulpit one more time and preach a sermon.

And it was there that he took his leave on the day before Thanksgiving in 1986, twenty-four years after the doctors had delivered their dire warning; twenty-four years after he had rejected man's medicine in deference to God's cure; twenty-four years after he showed us just what God can do. It was not until then that he died. And with no sign, whatsoever, of cancer.

Copyright © 2005 by Deborah Mathis

Table of Contents

Introduction     1
Heal, Shield, and Fortify     7
Standing on the Promises     9
The Second Opinion     25
A Cautionary Jolt     32
Search and Rescue     40
Long, Dark Road     44
Sanctify, Cleanse, Renew, and Pardon     51
The Arraignment     53
The Last Campaign     85
Deliverance     90
The Long Way Home     93
Scrub Work     116
Oneness     127
A Hole in the Soul     131
Comfort, Endow, and Hearten     139
Something Else About Mary     141
There Is a Balm     145
Peace Like a River     159
They That Wait     161
Inspire, Edify, Propel, and Enlighten     171
We Interrupt This Program     173
Falling Up     177
Safety in the Lions' Den     181
What on Earth Is It Now?     188
Answer     195
Love in Due Course     197
Belonging     204
This Is a Test     210
To Be Continued     216

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