You are a masterpiece in a master plan, created by a master craftsman for such a time as this …
Every part of his body hurt. He got up and padded across the room into the bathroom. Leaning close to the mirror, he stared at his reflection. There was a small cut over one eye and it appeared it might turn black. Some bruises would likely appear before long, but maybe not.
Who was that pathetic person staring back at him? He hardly recognized him anymore.
It wasn’t the first time Craig had beaten him but by far the most severe. The scary thing about it was that he seemed to enjoy it, so it was happening more frequently. He wondered what had started it. Was he cheating? They’d been together for three years now and this had only started a few months ago. What was going on?
As he stared in the mirror, he became sickened by his own reflection. He couldn’t be in this apartment another moment. Quickly, he cleaned himself up, dressed and fled. With Craig already gone, he wouldn’t be missed or questioned.
With no idea where to go or what to do, he started walking along the sidewalk, pulling his coat around him against the cold. Lightly falling snow gave everything a fuzzy glow but he paid little attention to the multi-colored lights and other decorations in the shop windows. His mind didn’t register anything as he moved aimlessly.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like Christmas. As a boy, it had been his favorite time of year. His family celebrated heartily, and it had always been festive and fun. He’d just become indifferent to it.
Craig hated the whole idea of Christmas, so they didn’t put up a tree or even exchange gifts.
Blowing on his hands for warmth, he realized as the snowfall picked up that he’d been in such a hurry to leave that he hadn’t exactly dressed appropriately. Perhaps, he considered, it would be good to get out of the cold. He could step into the bar on the next block for a drink and to warm up.
As he waited at the corner for the light to change, his ear caught a sound vaguely familiar but he couldn’t quite place it. Backing up a couple of steps, he noticed it came from the shop on the corner.
In the window, a model train was briskly racing around a track surrounded by old-fashioned buildings and complete with tiny people interspersed. Inside, he saw several displays of similar trains; most of which seemed from another time.
It gave him pause. As a little boy, he’d loved model trains. His dad and he had built several and always assembled the one that went beneath their Christmas tree together. Funny, he hadn’t thought of that in a long time or happened to notice the shop. But then, he wouldn’t have if he’d come by with Craig. Then he decided going in might be a good way to spend some time, get his mind off things and keep warm before going to the bar. He wasn’t a big drinker.
Inside, the sound was magnified but not deafening. In every direction there were trains of varying sizes and speeds but each unique. Like none he’d ever seen before, he was fascinated as he moved slowly from display to display awed by the excellence of the workmanship and creativity in each design; so unlike the one before and so unusual.
“Help you, son?” Came a voice from somewhere in the back.
A chill raced up his spine. He’d just been thinking about his dad and the voice sounded so much like him. It brought a stab of melancholy.
“Your trains are exceptional.” He replied, stepping back to peer around a display.
Seated at a table there, a wizened man with round spectacles, silver hair askew in every direction; his gnarled hands held an engine and a small tool. Gaze fixed on it; he didn’t look up.
“I used to make trains when I was a kid. I’ve never seen any like these. Do you make them yourself?”
He frowned. “Who does?”
“The master craftsman.”
“Hmmh.” He nodded. Taking notice of the engine in his hand, he asked. “You repair them though?”
“Something like that.”
“He’s gifted. Everyone so special and unique.”
“Yes.” He nodded, twisting the tool just a little before setting both the engine and it on the table and looking up at his guest. “And he never makes a mistake.”
Another shudder raced up his spine. Something about the man’s eyes, a depth, an unspoken wisdom, probably because of his advanced age. “Wow. That’s incredible.”
“You are not a mistake, son.” He said quietly.
“What? How do you know…?”
“You’ve just gotten off track a little.”
He frowned now. What did this man know about it?
“Imagine,” he began. “I took this engine out on the sidewalk. How do you think it would perform?”
“Not very well. It needs to be on a track. It’s how it was designed to function.”
“Yes. The master craftsman designed it that way. Just like he designed you.”
With half a chuckle, he replied. “Yeah, right.”
“Son, before you were formed in your mother’s womb, he knew you. You were created on purpose and for purpose but not the one you’re trying to live.”
“I’ve heard that before. You’re talking about God.”
The old man gave a curt nod.
“I left him a long time ago.”
“But he never left you.”
He stared now. “What are you talking about? I…”
“He said he’d never leave you, nor forsake you. Even to the end of the age.”
“But who I am… what I am…”
“Is not how you were created, son.”
He thought about it. Some of his friends had told him they knew from the time they were little they were different. That hadn’t been him. Some had been molested or had horrible family lives. That wasn’t him either.
His family had been close. They loved each other and he’d been raised in a good church. He’d even answered the altar call one night in a youth service. Back then, he’d been all about God and living out his calling, whatever that might be. When had things changed?
It wasn’t hard to pinpoint. When he’d gone off to college, he’d entered what had seemed at first like a parallel universe. His professors shamed and mocked his belief in God. Everywhere people were easily offended by the littlest thing so that it became safer and easier to keep his beliefs and ideas to himself. He kept hearing that as a white cisgender male, he was privileged, prejudiced and part of a systemic problem that had to be destroyed. Over time, he’d started to feel like there was something wrong with him, to hate himself and to be ashamed, although he didn’t think he was any of the things people were telling him he was. It made him insecure, and he’d longed desperately for change, acceptance and to be part of the solution.
He quit going to church, left his bible at home on one of his breaks and joined some groups on campus that were actively fighting for change, although really, they seemed more about being offended at everything, tearing it down and accusing everyone else of being a problem than any actual, constructive change. Being different though, he discovered, was being accepted. It seemed being somehow marginalized or victimized made you worthy of attention and celebrated by the outraged. Denying who he’d been and exhibiting behavior in line with his new friends was lauded and unquestioned.
At first, he’d felt confused and embarrassed at his own behavior but then he’d met Craig who was so understanding, intelligent and popular. Some of his friends were pressuring him so when Craig had expressed an interest, he’d gone with it. Being with Craig affirmed his identity in the eyes of others and became easier as time went by. He convinced himself that it was who he’d been without knowing it and that he loved him.
His parents didn’t understand what was happening with him. They tried their best to encourage him but while he struggled with what he thought and trying to adapt to his culture and friends, it became so difficult to be around them, he simply rebelled, questioned everything they’d ever taught him or believed, and severed his ties with them.
Shaking his head, he replied. “You have no idea…”
“Nor do I need to. But I know that you were created on purpose and for purpose. You are not a mistake, a failure, or a problem. You’re the solution.”
“What do you mean?”
“The master craftsman makes no mistakes. He’s brought you to this world for such a time as this.”
“He couldn’t possibly… Not after all I’ve done. How I’ve talked about him…”
“He needs you, son. You’re his hands and feet to the world. There’s a gift inside you that’s desperately needed in this hour.”
“How could he need me? And what gift?”
“It’s yours to discover and use for the benefit of humanity. Seek him, you’ll find it.”
“God wants nothing to do with me, I assure you. I’m a lost cause.”
“He said if you confess your sin to him, he’ll forgive and cleanse you. Do you think he’s a liar?”
He frowned. Confused now, he shook his head. “Well, no…”
“Then take him at his word, son. The thoughts he thinks toward you are not to harm you but to give you an expected end.”
Thinking now, he felt overwhelmed. Could he have a second chance at his future just by asking for forgiveness? Could it really be that simple?
“Like the prodigal of old, your father’s been watching for you. He wants to restore you. But as it’s always been, the choice is yours.”
“My father’s not watching for me. He’s ashamed of me.”
“That’s not the father I meant.”
“Oh.” He muttered.
“Though you don’t have enough faith in his love for you either.”
His discomfort became unbearable though he couldn’t have said why. All he knew was that he needed to get out of this place. Backing up slowly, a confused frown on his face, he stammered. “Well, I… I just came in to see the trains and get warm for a minute.”
“You sure about that?” the old man asked, but not unkindly.
Nodding rapidly, he turned and nearly bolted from the store.
The man’s voice came as though in his own head. “Life and death, blessing and cursing. You choose.”
Once in the street, he felt strange but took a breath to calm his nerves and started up the walk toward the bar. Without thinking, he stepped off the curb.
A loud horn blast greeted him as a car went by.
Whoa, he thought, stepping back up. Get it together.
The bartender gave him a strange look when he ordered black coffee but set it before him without a word.
He made his way to a corner booth and sat down. Unsure what to do, he sipped his coffee and stared out the window at the falling snow. The encounter had been strange, and he still felt shaken by it. He hadn’t given much thought to God, his own faith — or lack of it — what he was doing with his life and what it all meant. It seemed easier just to go along with what was happening around him.
Maybe, he thought, he should just go home. Sitting here with the train man’s words looping in his head wasn’t doing him much good. Just as he was about to get up, he sensed someone’s presence.
“Want some company?” The man asked. Probably forty or fifty, his clothes were clean but not exactly fashionable and unable to hide a paunch that had begun to form. His combover and scruffy face probably made him appear older than he was. It was hard to tell.
He couldn’t say why it creeped him out. Maybe because he hadn’t ever navigated ‘the scene’; his involvement with Craig, the only experience he had. Frowning, he shook his head vehemently.
“Sorry.” The man offered, sincerely. “My mistake.”
Suddenly, as though someone had slapped him, his mind shifted. Sure, he could go home.
Craig would likely be there, acting as if what had happened earlier, hadn’t and be angry if he brought it up. He’d try to be all affectionate and tell him he loved him.
All at once, he realized. That was not how love behaved. It wasn’t what he wanted anymore if he ever really had. Certainly, what he was doing wasn’t who he wanted to be. He’d been denying how unhappy, pointless, and hopeless he felt.
What to do?
Struggling inside as he walked toward his apartment, he wondered. There was only one place he knew where he could escape the life he was living. But could he go there? Then the train man’s words came back to him.
You don’t have enough faith in his love for you either.
Grateful that Craig had not yet returned, he quickly pulled out a bag and began stuffing his clothes and necessities in it. Basics, that was all he wanted to take with him. He was nearly finished when he heard the front door close. A knot formed in his stomach but he continued, relieved when he finished and began to zip the bag closed.
“What are you doing?” Craig asked pointedly from the doorway.
“Leaving.” He replied.
“What?! Don’t be ridiculous.” He started toward him.
“Stay away from me.”
“Come on. You’re leaving because of a little rough play? Don’t be a whiny bitch.”
He glared. “A little rough play? Are you kidding? You’ve been beating me up for months.”
Reaching out to touch the side of his face, he offered. “You know I love you.”
Jerking back, he avoided his touch. “If that’s love, you’re sick.”
Angry now, he glared. “Don’t judge me.”
“It’s not my place to judge you. But I don’t have to take it either.”
“And just where do you think you’ll go? Blane’s? He may have the hots for you but only because you’re off limits.”
He glared now. That was so far off his radar, he didn’t know what to say so he just shrugged. “Whatever.”
“You don’t expect him to take you in, do you? He changes partners as often as he changes his sheets.” He chuckled.
The idea made his skin crawl. He started by him.
“Come on, don’t be like this.” Craig grabbed his arm.
He swung around; his face a mask of determination. “Get your hands off me.”
Raising his hand to strike, he recoiled suddenly, a startled expression on his face. “What happened to you? Where have you been?”
With no idea what he was talking about, he didn’t reply. He headed for the door and opened it.
“Come on. Don’t leave like this! We can talk about it.”
Closing the door behind him, he didn’t breathe until he was in his car with the motor running. He was free. Now what?
Only one place in town offered the possibility of sanctuary but could he go there? What would he say? How could he ever…? But as if on autopilot, he put the car in gear and began the drive across the city.
Once there, he parked on the other side of the street from the house and stared at it.
The place was completely dark except for the bright colored lights on the shrubs outside, a candle in one dark window, and a dim light in another on the bottom floor.
He wondered at the candle; it must have been added in the last couple of years but knew what was going on inside.
They were likely curled up on the sofa together, hot chocolate in hand, watching some old Christmas movie as they did so often this time of year.
With a heavy sigh, he sat there, wanting to go in but unsure. What if they turned him away? After all he’d done, all he’d said, they had every reason to do so. He was ashamed and he didn’t know how to face them. He didn’t think he could take it if they rejected him.
As the snow began to accumulate, he began to shiver. He was out of time. Either go in now or… Or what? There really wasn’t any where else for him to go.
Grabbing his bag, he trudged slowly across the street and up the front steps. Tentatively, he knocked.
After a moment, there came a muffled. “Who is it?”
The door opened just enough for the man inside to peek out. Then it opened further, and he waited.
Steven didn’t know whether to stand his ground or run for his life. Taking a deep breath, he said. “Dad, I’m so sorry… I need to get my life right. Can I come home?”
Almost before he finished speaking, the man flung the door open the rest of the way and gathered him into a huge hug. “Oh, son…”
His mother rushed into the hallway. She pushed her husband aside and took him by the shoulders. “Oh! You’re so thin! And cold as ice! Are you hungry? Do you want some cocoa?”
Restraining his emotion as tears filled his own eyes, he nodded and replied softly. “Cocoa would be great.”
“Go fix him a cup.” His mother told his father.
He gave her an odd look.
“I have something to do.” She grinned, tears flowing now. “I can take the candle out of the window. My baby’s come home.”
The last few days had been surreal. His parents had given him a lot of leeway as he began to rediscover who he was and what he really believed. They were supportive, which he realized they had always been, without getting in his way or preaching at him but still available to answer any questions and give him advice when he asked for it.
One last thing was necessary, he had decided, before making a new start in the new year. He needed to thank the man who had helped him get back to where he belonged.
Driving across town, his younger sister in the passenger seat, he felt stronger with someone else along. They’d always been close. Reconnecting with her so quickly and easily had been unexpected and welcome.
“I’m glad you came.” Steven said. “Though I don’t know why you wanted to.”
She grinned. “I have a friend who works over here.”
He glanced at her sideways.
“Besides, I haven’t really had any time alone with you.”
Steven cocked an eyebrow. “And?”
“What happened to you? I mean, you went off to college and everything changed.”
“Let me ask you something.” He replied. “As a freshman, are you feeling any pressure? I mean, about God or what you believe?”
Her expression became serious as she focused on her hands.
“Already feeling the temptation to compromise, I bet.”
“How do you handle it?”
“I didn’t. That’s how I ended up where I did. It started with little compromises and shame about who I was and what I believed. I started to go along until I convinced myself I really believed it. All I wanted was to be accepted. To fit in and be left alone. But you see what happened.”
“Don’t ever, ever compromise what you believe. Don’t let anyone shame or pressure you into silence, or worse yet, going along just to avoid confrontation. As Christians, we can’t avoid that if we’re going to stand for Jesus. Speak the truth in love and don’t back down.”
“I don’t know how.”
“Stay strong. Get involved with a good campus fellowship, read your bible, and pray. It’s not enough just to believe what someone else has taught you. Find your own faith and walk in it.” He took a breath. “If you can’t do that at this school, get out and find one you can.”
“It’s not easy. Everyone’s so offended at everything. And they try to make you feel stupid and evil if you believe anything but what they say they do.”
He nodded as he parked.
“Hey, cool.” She announced. “My friend works in that bookstore.”
“Good.” He replied. “I’m going to the shop next door.”
“I’ll meet you in the bookstore then? My friend is working today.”
They parted on the sidewalk. Steven watched until she was out of sight, than strode purposely to the train shop on the corner, surprised when the door wouldn’t open. He peered in the window; the place was empty. Oh no, he thought. It must have been a pop up for Christmas.
Disappointed, he made his way to the bookstore and went in. He saw his sister at the counter talking to another young woman.
“That was quick.” His sister said.
“The place is empty.”
“Which place?” Her friend asked, puzzled.
“The train shop on the corner.”
“What train shop?”
“The one next door.”
She frowned. “Are you sure you have the right block? The shop next door has been empty since I’ve been working here and that’s been months.”
Steven frowned. “I’m sure. I used to live in this neighborhood.”
“You must have the wrong corner, then.”
He wouldn’t argue with her, but he was sure, and he understood something he hadn’t before. All his life he’d heard stories of God’s love and how he would leave the ninety-nine to go after the one who was lost. He had believed it in his head but never experienced anything like it for himself. Now, it was real to him in an undeniable way. If God loved him that much, enough to send an angel to bring him home, he would never doubt again and would spend the rest of his life making him real to other people too.