Sunday, March 17, 2013

Contest - Count Your Many Blessings


Kelly Webber, New Jersey

“This is so unfair,” Aileen cried in refusal.
            “Aileen,” her father warned in a stern, yet slightly calm, tone. “Your mother and I do not have a choice about this. We are moving to the United States, and that is final.”
            “London is my home! London is our home! Our family is here. All my friends are here.”
            Her mother leaned over and embraced her with a tight squeeze. “We know. I’m not going to lie; leaving will be difficult for all of us. Trust me. This will be so much easier if we can just look at the positives.”
            Positives? Aileen’s ears perked with keen interest at this promising word. “Hollywood. Please tell me it’s Hollywood. Please, please, please.” As an aspiring guitarist and vocal singer, Aileen took every opportunity possible to get involved in the music business. Hollywood might just be her coveted ticket to fame. “Or at least somewhere in California. I need to find a music producer.” Aileen drifted off into a deep reverie and imagined herself in a recording studio or starring in her debut movie, on the cover of every teen magazine available. She might as well start practicing her autograph.
            Her father grinned, pleased with her newfound euphoria. “Better. We’re moving to Naperville, Illinois.”
            Aileen blinked with confusion at the name of the unfamiliar location. “Isn’t Illinois in the middle of nowhere?”
            “We won’t be too far from Chicago,” her mother added, somewhat helpfully. “We can drive up there on weekends and look around in the city.”
            Aileen considered this. She could cooperate or not. She opted not. Enraged, she stormed up to her room.

            I do not belong here, Aileen thought to herself while preparing to board the plane. Her best friend, Heather Morris, and their youth group leader, Amber Baldry, tagged along with her to the airport. Much to Aileen’s chagrin, they insisted on a few final farewells. Aileen refused to say goodbye. Saying goodbye made moving so much more real. She preferred to hide in her bedroom and pretend that her life was not her reality; it was just a ghastly nightmare from which she would soon wake.
“We’re going to miss you so much,” whispered Heather, eyes shining with tears.
“Write to us every chance you get,” Amber instructed. “Everyone will want to hear about America.”
“I don’t see why.” Aileen gave her duffel bag a weak kick, hoping her misery would show.
Amber hugged her. “Come on, Aileen. This is a great opportunity. Besides, it’s almost America’s Independence Day.”
Heather nodded. “Take pictures. None of us ever got to celebrate the Fourth of July.”
Aileen agreed. “E-mail me about it as soon as you can.”
After a few final farewells, Aileen and her parents boarded the plane.
A single, lonely tear strayed down Aileen’s cheek. She wiped it off, and snuggled into the airplane seat. A window seat, she noted miserably. About ten years ago, she would move to Antarctica if it meant she could have the window seat. That was ages ago, and Aileen suddenly longed for the simplicity of being six.
Why did God make this happen to her? Why did her life have to be so horrific? The whole plane ride to the location her parents called ‘home,’ Aileen prayed that nothing would change. Not her friendship with Heather or Amber, not her life, nothing.
The uneventful take-off commenced. Aileen sighed and opened her book. Reading always made time pass. A crumpled sheet of loose-leaf paper stuck out of a page, in place of her bookmark. It said, in Amber’s neat print, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Jeremiah 29:11.

            Grace Church was located only a few blocks from their new home in Naperville. Since Youth Group was held on Wednesday afternoons at three, Aileen opted to check it out. Her mother suggested a few hours of sleep, but Aileen was far too desolate to notice her jet lag. She strolled down the picturesque suburban sidewalk. She noticed the truly stunning summer foliage: tall trees with leaves green as emeralds. She tilted her head upward, stunned by the cloudless azure sky, accentuated with the scorching rays of July sun.
            At first glance, Grace Church looked small and somewhat abandoned. It was unpretentious at the best. The building was no larger than Aileen’s new house, and without a doubt much older. Daisies and daffodils bloomed with elegance surrounding the narrow pathway, which led to a crooked entrance. Aileen paced toward the front door with caution. She reminded herself that the façade had nothing to do with the church itself; what truly mattered was their devotion to Jesus.
            Sure enough, the first thing Aileen noticed was a stack of brand new Bibles. They were the New International Version, with shiny never-been-opened covers. They looked out of place in the antiquated church. Behind Aileen, a swarm of teenagers flooded in through the wooden doorway. They were all different ages ranging from about twelve to no younger than seventeen. They filed into the pews, chattering and laughing. Aileen followed their lead, hoping she would not seem like too much of an outcast.
            A soft, yet somehow loud voice greeted them from in front of the closed door. “Welcome, everyone! I see a lot of familiar faces, and a few new ones. Have a seat and I’ll explain our agenda for this summer.”
            Aileen found a seat in between a lanky fifteen year old guy, and a girl about the same age. They both wore casual attire: jeans and t-shirts. Aileen glanced down at her knee-length floral skirt in regret. At her old church, mass and youth group were always occasions which called for formal attire.
            “That’s Emily Hughes,” one of her neighbors, the boy, informed her, beckoning toward the tall brunette who just addressed the group. “She’s our youth leader.”
            He obviously noticed her naiveté, she realized.
            “Welcome to Grace Church youth group,” Emily announced. “We’re going to shake things up a bit this summer. First order of business: Bibles. Sage, could you pass them out to everyone?”
            A short girl with spunky ebony hair obediently handed a Bible to each teen. Emily nodded encouragingly, and moved on.
            “Secondly, I have a new idea for this summer. We are the only youth group in Naperville with both middle and high school students. Why not take advantage of that? I’m going to pair each one of you middle school students with an older buddy.”
            A few groans arose from both age groups.
            “Come on, guys,” Emily’s enthusiasm seemed to never wear off. “You can hang out together, pray together, text, or just talk. I think this is a unique opportunity for you to grow as people and Christians.” A few were still obviously defiant, but Aileen admired Emily’s bubbly personality. “Everyone get up. I made a list of who I think will work best together.”
            Worry unexpectedly crept into Aileen’s heart. Her visit to Grace Church youth group had been impromptu.
            “Yes, darling? Sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
            “My name is Aileen Hutchins. I just moved here from London.”
            “Welcome to Grace Church. Believe me, this summer is going to be the best experience of your life.”
            Aileen wasn’t sure about that, but Emily’s charisma instantly seeped into her. “You probably didn’t think to pair me with one of the middle school-”
            Emily cut her off, “Not to worry! I have the perfect match for you. Joy!”
            One of the youngest girls jogged toward them. Aileen assumed she could be no older than eleven. She was short and rather skinny for her age, with chocolate eyes and luscious blonde hair.
            “Aileen, this is Joy Becker,” Emily introduced the girl. “She’s twelve years old and going into seventh grade.”
            “Hello, Joy. I’m Aileen Hutchins. It’s nice to meet you.”
            Emily added, “Aileen just moved here all the way from London.”
            Aileen would not have imagined it was possible for Joy’s gargantuan eyes to grow any larger, but they widened with astonishment as she heard this. “H-hi. I’m Joy.”
            “Let’s exchange e-mails,” Aileen suggested. “We should get to know each other.”
            “Okay,” she agreed. “I’ll g-give you my cell phone number t-too.”
            They just finished exchanging contacts and Joy’s phone beeped. “My mom is here,” she muttered after reading the text.
“Have a nice day, Joy. I’ll text you later.” Aileen promised.
Joy waved. “Okay, see you around.”
It was when she waved that Aileen noticed the slits scarring her wrists.

            “I’m sure by now you’ve picked up on Joy’s depression,” Emily acknowledged before sipping her mocha.
            Aileen sunk deeper into her seat. Maybe meeting Emily for coffee was a mistake. She pondered on the irony of what her youth leader had just said: Joy’s depression. What on earth could be more ironic than a girl named Joy with depression? She glared at the coffee drink sitting before her, whipped cream oozing out the top of her portable mug. At this point, Aileen ceased to remember what she ordered. Everything suddenly seemed completely insignificant whenever she reminisced on Joy’s wrists, scarred with countless slits.
            “She’s had a rough couple of years. Her parents were divorced in September, and her dad has apparently made no effort to contact her. She feels abandoned, you know?”
            Aileen nodded and uttered something incoherent.
            “Her school situation definitely hasn’t help, of course. She’s usually scraped by with C’s and D’s, but she failed Algebra this year. She never had many friends in the first place, and it looks like things are only getting worse for her.”
            “Is she being bullied?”
            “As far as I know, people are never outright mean to her. She’s avoided for few reasons. Her stutter, her...wrists.”
            “That can’t be easy for her. You know, going through all of that, all alone.”
            “That’s why you’re here, darling.”
            “Do you think I can help her?”
            Emily paused and sipped her coffee. “I think you need to consider why God sent you Naperville to begin with. Figure that out, and you might find yourself closer to your answer.”
            Guilt flooded Aileen’s heart. For the past week, she allowed anger to consume her. God did not send her to Naperville because He enjoyed her pain. He had something much, much bigger in mind. Aileen, apparently, was incapable of seeing His big picture. God, why do you let terrible things happen? Why do I have so many blessings in my life and Joy is lonely? Why did this happen to someone so gentle and innocent? Aileen wondered silently.
            “Aileen? Do you want to talk about it?”
            “No,” she replied, forlorn. She gathered her things and rushed out of the coffee shop.
            She left her coffee on the table, untouched.

            1:15 a.m. 1:16 a.m. Aileen watched in frustration as her clock ticked and tocked into the starless night. A blank sheet of paper sat in front of her, as it had for over nearly two hours. No, it was not totally blank. It was covered in eraser marks and scratched out lyrics.
            Aileen attempted to write a song for Joy. She wrote countless songs back in London, but she never showed anyone. Writing somehow seemed different when the writer knew that anyone, even if just one person, would read what they wrote. Aileen suddenly felt self-conscious about songwriting.
            In effort to take her mind off her failure of a song, Aileen opened her Bible and began reading. While flipping through the pages, she came across “So rejoice in the Lord and glad, all you who obey Him! Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure!” Psalm 32:11.
            Without another thought, she wrote the perfect song. She titled it “Count Your Many Blessings”.

            “Joy,” Aileen summoned her friend after mass. “I have something to show you.”
            “What?” she responded, not bothering to hide her lack of fervor.
            Aileen’s lips curved into a small smile. She reached into her case and grasped her secret weapon: an outdated, yet perfectly tuned, guitar.
            “I don’t know how to play,” Joy declared with only a single glance at the instrument.
            “That’s okay,” Aileen responded. “I wrote a song for you.”
            “For me?” she asked, her face overcome with bewilderment.
            “Sit down and listen,” she ordered, beckoning toward a bright crimson bean bag in the corner. She stroked the guitars antique strings, and began to sing.
“Through much pain I must overcome
I am engulfed by my own sin
Life will never be perfect
But I guess that’s not the point
For I found a beloved Savior
Who gave is life for mine
All my agony is eclipsed by his overwhelming mercy
So I count my many blessings and thank the Lord for my joy
So I count my many blessings
And thank the Lord for my Joy”
            Aileen glimpsed at Joy, her heart pounding. Did Joy like the song?
            Joy raised her right hand and reached into the pocket of her ripped faded blue jeans. She took out her phone and clicked a few buttons. Aileen watched, goose bumps emerging all over her arms. Joy set her phone on the floor and commanded, “Sing.”
            “Excuse me?” Aileen asked in confusion. What was going on?
            “Sing your song again.”
            Aileen obeyed, this time repeating the verse twice. She wasn’t nervous at all. In fact, it felt as if Jesus had suddenly let His light shine upon her, and nothing could stop her from playing this song with her whole heart. She remembered Matthew 5:16. “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven.”
            After the final note, Joy retrieved her phone and ginned as if. “I’m going to listen to this every single day. You’re my best friend.” Joy uttered, wrapping her into an infinite hug.
            Aileen had no idea what it felt like to get a recording label, but she could not imagine it could possibly feel anywhere near as rewarding as this.

            Only a few days after singing her song to Joy, Aileen realized the past week caused her too much stress. She walked over to Andersen Book Shop and spent some time alone. This is nice, she thought to herself. Peace and quiet. Finally!
            She browsed the neatly ordered bookshelves, admiring the tidiness. She felt grateful to escape from the slew of moving boxes covering the floor of her room. Though the book selection was relatively broad for such a small store, Aileen made her decision almost instantly. Her favorite Christian fiction author just released a new addition to her series, and Aileen could not wait to read it.
            “Aileen!” a voice called from a few feet away. Aileen turned in anticipation. She did not make any plans to meet a friend.
            “Some of the middle school girls got their friends to join youth group, so I came here to pick up a few Bibles for them,” her youth group leader responded, carrying a bag with at least five or six Bibles.
            “That’s awfully kind of you, Emily. You must have bought at least thirty for the whole group by now.”
            Her hazel eyes smiled. “Twenty-five to be exact, including these.”
            Aileen giggled with affection for her astounding leader. “Either way, you’re very compassionate.”
            “Thanks. That means a lot. Hey, you’re actually just the girl I was hoping to bump into.”
            “Why is that?”
            “My sister Faith is a very talented musician, and we planned on her to be the entertainment at our Fourth of July party.”
            “That’s great! I can’t wait to meet her.”
            “Well, that’s where you come in. As it turns out, she can’t make it to Naperville on time. She lives in Massachusetts, and something just came up.”
            “That’s too bad,” Aileen cooed, filled with sympathy. “But how do I come in?”
            “I overheard you singing to Joy in the church a few days ago. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but you were very talented.”
            “Are you serious? Thank you so much! That means a lot to me.”
            “Aileen, would you like to fill in for Faith at the Fourth of July celebration?”
            “Nothing could possibly make me happier.”

            “Showtime!” Emily announced.
            “W-what if I get nervous?” Joy stuttered. Aileen added her to the performance last-minute.
            Aileen giggled. “Nobody will be able to tell. Just smile. Besides, it’s a duet. I’ll be singing with you.”
            They stood in the center of the stage, all eyes on them. The entire congregation watched them. Aileen heard her heart pounding.
            They sang Star Spangled Banner, two of Faith’s original songs and then a few of their favorite songs from youth group. They even sang the song Aileen wrote for Joy. As it turned out, God blessed Joy with a beautiful singing voice. She discovered a newfound confidence on the stage, and she sang with her whole heart. Aileen, overcome with pride, just played the guitar for the second verse and ceased to sing. That moment was Joy’s time to shine.
After a stellar performance, Joy and Aileen collapsed on the lawn, exhausted. Fireworks crackled in the sky, lighting up the universe with explosive eruptions of red, white and blue. Joy rested her head against Aileen’s left shoulder. Aileen stroked her soft blonde locks, praying that this would be only the beginning of their blossoming friendship, not to mention Joy’s journey with Christ.
            Aileen reflected on the past few weeks. Before she moved, her life had been so routine and repetitive. She had been fairly satisfied, but her heart was not full. She feared change. She was terrified of God’s plan for her because she did not know how to carry out His will on her own.
            Moving to Naperville uncovered a layer of truth. When God brought her to America, He did not bring her to pain and misery. On the contrary, He brought her to Joy. That in itself was a true blessing.

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