And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer
It was just before Christmas 2010 and a little over two years since Emily Sue Buckberry cold-called me and returned the letter from my father she had found in Coalwood WV forty years earlier. I’d been thinking about all of the stars that had to line up in order for her to hang onto the letter my dad penned two years before his death by suicide; stumble upon it again; decide to try and find me after all those years; and get the letter into my hands on that particular day when I needed it the most. It was beyond mind-boggling.
That story is told in The Letter- a film by Steve Date
I had written Em Sue and asked her
Do you remember the specific timing of when you opened the box and found the letter? Can you recall what was going on with you at that time? Is there any particular reason why you decided to find me at that moment?
We had already spoken about this ad nauseum on the phone and over the three days Hilary and I spent with her in Coalwood in October of 2009. That’s where I spent the summer of 1968 after high school working on a construction job for our family’s Chicago based company.
I don’t know what else I was expecting her to reveal. Maybe
God whispered in my ear… I had a vision of a young man who needed me to do something to help his dad…
She got right back to me, which was no slight effort. She had broken both arms a couple of months earlier attending the 50th reunion of her Big Creek High School class in Welch WV. Her days were packed with physical therapy sessions and doctor appointments.
For the answers to your questions about when and why I found the letter when I did and found you when I decided to, I can’t think of anything special that you didn’t cover in your story, THE LETTER, other than I still can’t figure why I didn’t mail you the letter the very next day after talking to you. I waited two days to get it to the post office, and for the life of me, I haven’t figured out why. I got it all ready and didn’t mail it straight away—just don’t know why.
BUT, this email which I just got today from my brother, Joe Bill, is the answer to probably all of these questions.
The email looked like something already well-traveled on the web.
The Subject: Isaiah 65:24-amazing!
I perused a few lines.
Faith is believing before you see it…we all need it, don’t we?
‘The Lord directs the steps of the Godly. He delights in every detail of their lives. Though they stumble, they will never fall, for the Lord holds them by the hand.’ Psalm 37:23-24
Pass this on to a friend-it will bless you both. Passing this on to one not considered a friend is something Christ would do
I almost stopped reading. I wasn’t particularly in the mood for a sermon or endless quotes from the Bible. And I really do detest those–Pass this on or else— messages.
But Emily said it would probably answer my questions, so I pressed on.
Let me just say up front, I’m really glad I did.
It began with
This is a story written by a doctor who worked in Africa
One night, I had worked hard to help a mother in the labor ward, but despite all we could do, she died, leaving us with a tiny premature baby and a crying two-year-old daughter. We would have difficulty in keeping the baby alive, as we had no incubator (we had no electricity to run an incubator!) and no special feeding facilities. Despite living on the equator, nights were often chilly, with treacherous drafts. One pupil midwife went for the box we used for such babies and the cotton wool they were wrapped in. Another went to stoke up the fire and fill a hot water bottle. She came back shortly, in distress, to tell me that, in filling the bottle, it had burst. Rubber perishes easily in tropical climates. And she exclaimed
“And it is our last hot water bottle!”
As in the West, it is no good crying over spilled milk, so in Central Africa I might be considered no good crying over burst hot water bottles. They do not grow on trees, and there are no drugstores down forest pathways.
All right I said.
“Put the baby as near the fire as you safely can; sleep between the baby and the door to keep it free from drafts. Your job is to keep that baby warm.”
The following noon, I went to have prayers with any of the orphanage children who chose to gather with me, as I did most days. I gave the youngsters various suggestions of things to pray about and told them about the tiny baby. I explained our problem about keeping the baby warm enough, mentioning the burst hot water bottle. The baby could so easily die if it got chilled. I also told them of the two-year-old sister, crying because her mother had died.
During prayer time one ten-year-old girl, Ruth, prayed with the usual blunt conciseness of our African children.
“Please God, send us a hot water bottle. It’ll be no good tomorrow, God, as the baby’ll be dead; so please send it this afternoon.”
While I gasped inwardly at the audacity of the prayer, she added by way of corollary,
“And, while You are about it, would You please send a dolly for the little girl, so she’ll know You really love her?”
As often with children’s prayers, I was put on the spot. Could I honestly say, “Amen?” I just did not believe God could do this. Oh, yes, I know that He can do everything. The Bible says so. But there are limits, aren’t there? And I had some very big “buts.” The only way God could answer this particular prayer would be by sending me a parcel from the homeland. I had been in Africa almost four years at the time, and I had never, never received a parcel from home; anyway, if anyone did send me a parcel, who would put in a hot water bottle? I lived on the equator!
Halfway through the afternoon, while I was teaching in the nurses’ training school, a message was sent that there was a car at my front door. By the time I reached home, the car had gone, but there, on the veranda, was a large twenty-two-pound parcel, all done up with paper and string, and bearing U.K. stamps. I felt tears pricking my eyes. I could not open the parcel alone, so I sent for the orphanage children. Together we pulled off the string, carefully undoing each knot. We folded the paper, taking care not to tear it unduly. Excitement was mounting. Some thirty to forty pairs of eyes were focused on the large cardboard box.
From the top, I lifted out brightly colored, knitted jerseys. Eyes sparkled as I gave them out. Then there were knitted bandages for the leprosy patients and the children looked a little bored! Then a large bar of soap—and the children were probably more bored! Then a box of mixed raisins and sultanas that would make a nice batch of buns for the weekend. Then, as I put my hand in again, I felt the…could it really be? I grasped it and pulled it out—yes, a brand-new, rubber, hot water bottle! I cried. I had not asked God to send it; I had not truly believed that He could.
Ruth was in the front row of the children. She rushed forward, crying out,
“If God has sent the bottle, He must have sent the dolly, too!”
Rummaging down to the bottom of the box, she pulled out the small, beautifully dressed dolly. Her eyes shown! She had never doubted.
Looking up at me, she asked:
“Can I go over with you, Mummy, and give this dolly to that little girl, so she’ll know that Jesus really loves her?”
That parcel had been on the way for five whole months. Packed up by my old GCU class, the leader had heard and obeyed God’s prompting to send a hot water bottle, even to the equator.
And one of the girls had put in a dolly for an African child—five months before in answer to the believing prayer of a ten-year old, to bring it “that afternoon.”
Can God still perform miracles? Is He the same yesterday, today and forever- in Israel, Africa, and anywhere else where He finds living faith? Indeed, He can and is.
[End of email]
This story was indeed ‘amazing’—so amazing, in fact, I wondered if it was true.
Written by a doctor who worked in Africa wasn’t much to go on, but I was intrigued.
I Googled Isaiah 65:24 and found a comment from someone who had also received the story via email. The story was from the book, Living Faith, written in 1980 by Dr. Helen Roseveare.
I continued the search and learned more about this fascinating and courageous woman. Dr. Roseveare was born in England in 1925 and went to medical school at Cambridge University. From 1953 to 1973 she was a Christian missionary to the Congo where she practiced medicine and trained many others in medical work.
In 1964 during the Congo Civil War she was taken prisoner by rebel forces, held captive for five months and suffered many beatings and rapes. After her release, she went back to England, but returned to the Congo two years later to help with the rebuilding of the country. Over the next seven years, she supervised the funding and construction of a new medical school and hospital (the others she had built were destroyed during the civil war) and cared for countless numbers of patients. By 2010 she had retired and was living in Northern Ireland.
I promptly ordered her book from Amazon and dove into it upon its arrival. I confirmed that this particular story, often referred to as The Hot Water Bottle, appeared in the Stir Me To Give chapter and was accurately transcribed in the email forwarded by Emily. I was also delighted to discover that the book includes several other, equally stunning, stories of connection and synchronicity spawned by the power and spirit of this remarkable human being. I strongly recommend Living Faith—an amazing book, by an even more amazing woman.
However, there was one thing that I did not find in the Doctor’s Hot Water Bottle Story or elsewhere in her book—any reference to Isaiah 65:24.
And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer
Charlie Myers’ Coalwood Connection and Very Own Hot Water Bottle Story
Two months after Emily sent me Dr. Roseveare’s Hot Water Bottle story, I was introduced to Charlie Myers by filmmaker and friend, Steve Date. Steve had sent Charlie The Letter film knowing he would be intrigued by the Coalwood connection. Like Steve and many others, Charlie was captivated by Homer Hickam’s memoir, Rocket Boys, about growing up in the tiny coal town of Coalwood where I spent that summer.
Over the years, Charlie and Steve attended several of the annual October Sky festivals in Coalwood to celebrate the town’s fame thanks to Homer and his book being made into a movie in 1999, October Sky, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper and Laura Dern.
Charlie, from Tennessee, and Steve, a fifth grade teacher in Minneapolis, took their rapture with Coalwood to another level. Steve made a one-hour documentary film Welcome to Coalwood he released in 2009. That’s why Steve and I crossed paths in Coalwood. He was showing his film and we were there to meet up with Ms. Buckberry.
In 2005 Charlie and his business partner built the official website for COALWOOD WEST VIRGINIA, which he continues to administer.
As I perused the site, it was readily apparent Charlie had experienced his own amazing synchronicities with Coalwood at the epicenter, including an almost unbelievable story involving his random connection in 2009 with a Los Angeles elementary school teacher.
I was absolutely stunned. Charlie had his very own HOT WATER BOTTLE story!
That story together with Charlie’s other ‘Coalwood coincidences’ was included in one of our early posts on WMSB, and it is most worthy of a repeat.
The DVD’s Arrive Right On Time, by Charlie Myers
In early 2009, I attended a three-day seminar at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta. Ron is the author of the bestselling book The Essential 55 and one of the most interesting and successful teachers around. During one of the breaks, I was talking to another attendee who told me I should also read Rafe Esquith’s book, Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire.
As soon as I got back to Tennessee, I bought and read his book. Rafe is a fifth-grade teacher at Hobart Boulevard Elementary, an inner-city school in Los Angeles. He and his class have also been featured in aPoint of View documentary that aired on PBS. This is Rafe’s web site:HobartShakespeareans.org
I was so impressed with his book that I mailed him a thank-you letter and a few books and DVDs for his classroom’s lending library. The DVD’s were the six-volume set of The Films of Charles and Ray Eames [if you teach math or science, you should see these!] and, of course, several DVDs of the October Sky movie.
I knew the box had been delivered by the Postal Service, but I was surprised to get an e-mail from Rafe shortly after that.
You HAVE to hear what happened yesterday in my class.
We’ve just finished our science fair — the kids did some work with physics and simple machines. Our next unit, beginning next week, is on rocketry.
Yesterday morning I told them all about Rocket Boys and Homer Hickam. I told them how we would be watching the film next week and all about the history of both the book and film. Last week, there was a break-in at the school and some of our films, including October Sky, were stolen.
Two hours later your box arrived. I am NOT joking. The kids were in shock. I have been teaching 27 years and I have never seen anything like it.
You, quite simply, are an angel on our shoulders. Thanks for the incredibly thoughtful gift. I always try to make the kids realize that despite their sometimes awful surroundings, there are millions of amazing people in the world ready to help them make their lives extraordinary. You, sir, made that point brilliantly yesterday with your fantastic gift.
Your fan, Rafe
And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer
Dr. Roseveare’s colleague in Great Britain sent the package with the desperately needed hot water bottle, and a baby doll to boot, five months before the prayer was sent out by ten-year-old Ruth.
Charlie unknowingly sent to Rafe Esquith the box containing the much appreciated October Sky DVDs probably within a day or two before the Hobart Boulevard Elemntary library was broken into and the DVDs were stolen.
It was Charlie’s Hot Water Bottle story and my random–or not–connections with Steve and Charlie—that made me refocus hard on my reconnection with Emily Sue Buckberry and everything that came with it.
Emily didn’t know one thing about Jimmy, or even of his existence, when she reached out to me that Monday in early November of 2008.
She didn’t know–and didn’t ask–about my father’s death in 1970, or how incalculably powerful it would be for me to receive those precious words from him.
She could not possibly have known the depths of my grief when she called me,
And then packaged up and sent to me my very own life-saving hot water bottle.
My father’s extraordinarily powerful, revealing, vulnerable, loving letter was a lifesaver.
Emily Sue could not have known the importance—the dire necessity—of her innocent, kind-hearted, decisions.
Dr. Roseveare’s colleague surely could not.
This is mind-warping divine truth.
The man I had completely given up on all those years ago heard my call for help on August 9, 2008.
And the thing of it is, I didn’t ask for his help. At that time, he was last person I would ask for help.
But help nevertheless arrived on the day I needed it the most.
My father had already answered with his Letter written forty years earlier in 1968.
And it was safeguarded and delivered, with the blessed assistance of his—or His— designated angel, Emily Sue Buckberry, on the day of James Tedrow Gauntt’s 25th birthday.
On precisely the day I would need it the most.
One of the hardest days of my life.
It came on his birthday!
These things cannot be explained—and I’ve pretty much stopped trying.
But we have learned—what know beyond doubt— is that instinct is a very powerful, awesome, Wonder-full tool accessible and available to all of us.
It’s not about thought
Only paying attention.
He’s got us on this.
And this is the full verse of Isaiah 65:24
And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer.
And while they are not speaking, I will hear.
And as for the ‘mysterious,’ Lewis Carroll put it a slightly different way than either Isaiah or Shakespeare in this exchange between Alice and the White Queen from Through The Looking-Glass:
Alice: I can’t remember things before they happen.
The Queen: It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.
Dr. Helen Roseveare passed over December 7, 2016 in Northern Ireland. This story is dedicated in memory of this remarkable woman.