Chapter 1: My Prayer to Be Amahl
My sixth-grade choir director called me out of class to meet with her. She asked me if I would like to audition for the part of Amahl in the Christmas musical, Amahl and the Night Visitors.1 The role called for a boy with a soprano voice, and she thought it was a good fit for me. The prospect of being in a musical thrilled me. The day before the tryout, my choir director played the grand piano in our school auditorium as I stood and sang the song she had chosen for the audition. She coached me to sing with feeling and confidence.
I wanted the part and wondered what more I could do to get it. I could pray! In the bathroom in our home, I locked the door to be alone and knelt on the beige tiled floor. I put my hands together, bowed my head and reverently asked out loud, “Heavenly Father, please give me the part of Amahl.” Confident God had heard my prayer, and I would get the part, I sang for the selection committee.
The part went to another boy. My disappointment left me wondering why God had not answered my prayer. I knew God answered prayers. What went wrong?
Two months later, my mother met a woman who was a singing teacher and asked me if I would like to take voice lessons. I enthusiastically accepted her offer. Winifred, my singing coach, had moved to our town of Oroville, California after I had offered my prayer. I told her about my audition, and she said she planned to produce Amahl and the Night Visitors the following Christmas. God had heard my prayer.
For more than six months, she prepared me for the role of Amahl. As the performance drew near, I rehearsed with the cast and orchestra for weeks. When the curtain went up on the stage in the local municipal auditorium, I was ready.
The character of Amahl used a crutch to walk. When the three kings stopped for the night at his home, he discovered they were taking gifts to the Christ child. He wanted to send his own gift. As Amahl extended his crutch as his offering, he took a step. To his surprise and the delight of everyone, he could walk. The entire cast celebrates in song his miraculous healing. First, the kings, then his mother, then everyone on stage joins in: “He walks!” The music builds to a crescendo in joyous celebration of the miracle of Amahl’s healing. What a thrill to be part of the depiction of the miraculous power of a simple act of giving! The story ends as Amahl goes with the wise men on their journey to find the Prince of Peace.
A year earlier when I had prayed earnestly to be cast in the role of Amahl, the Lord had heard me. In His own way and in His own time, He answered my prayer. I had exercised my faith, trusted in God, and poured out my heart to Him. In the end, He validated my belief that there is power in prayer.
I could relate to Amahl. His need for a crutch reminded me of my injury when I was nine. Dad had come home with a new horse named Thunder. He was high-strung and moody; his name fit him well. A few weeks later, I went to the barn to feed the horses. I found Thunder in the hay storage area gorging himself. Other horses had broken in to feed on the bailed hay, and I knew what to do.
I took Thunder by his halter, led him out of the barn, and closed the door. Unaware he was enraged, I turned my back on him and started walking to the house. He took aim, reared up on his front legs, and kicked me on both sides of my tail bone, sending me airborne. The impact left me stunned and disoriented.
When I could stand, I hobbled back to the house in pain. My mother examined me for injuries and only found horseshoe-shaped bruises on my butt. There was no external bleeding, and I didn’t seem to have any broken bones. Mom didn’t see any need to take me to a doctor, and I just dealt with the pain by sitting on a pile of pillows. In two weeks, the bruises disappeared, and I thought the effect of the incident was over.
In reality, the impact of the horse’s kick had injured my spine. My muscles constricted around the injury and shortened my right leg. My entire spinal alignment was twisted by the torque of the blow. I didn’t walk with a noticeable limp, but I stood with my right shoulder lower than my left.
Being kicked also left me with emotional stress. Soon after the Thunder incident, I reacted to my fourth-grade teacher’s instructions by blurting out, “I will do it my way, and I don’t need your help.” This defiant attitude surprised me. I had never said anything like that to anyone before. That was the first of many emotional reactions, and I stifled them as much as I could.
Oroville, where I was living when Thunder kicked me and I performed in the Christmas musical, became my childhood home in 1955 when I was six. Before that, I lived on our farm and orchard in Santa Clara, California, with my parents, my sister Claudia, and my brother Dan. My father was born on the farm, and his parents still lived there. My mother’s father, Grandpa Appelbe, bought a plot of land from Grandpa Bowers after my parents married and built a house on it so he and Grandma Appelbe could be near us. We were within an easy bike ride of both sets of grandparents. As children, we loved dropping in on them.
Grandma Bowers spoiled us with chocolate chips and spoonfuls of brown sugar. If we were careful not to scratch the bench on her huge Hammond organ, she would let us press the keys and pedals. The best part of our visits was when she read to us. With full attention, we listened to her read Bible stories. Her faith in the miraculous works of God was evident as she recreated those sacred events.
The accounts of Daniel inspired me. He was my hero because he refused to defile himself by eating the king’s food, and he interpreted the handwriting on the wall. I was left with a deep impression of Daniel’s close connection to God, and his commitment to getting down on his knees in prayer three times a day. To my amazement, Daniel kept praying even when King Darius outlawed prayer to God, threatening death as the punishment to anyone who defied his edict. Upon hearing the terms of the new law, Daniel went home and knelt in prayer with his windows open. I often thought about Daniel praying in spite of the threat to his life. The power he found in prayer was on my mind when I prayed to get the part of Amahl.
Grandpa Bowers was in his seventies and in poor health when we lived in Santa Clara, but he still made time for me. One day when we were in the yard, he had a pair of binoculars with him. We walked side by side under the tall evergreens surrounding his home. We could see the Lick Observatory on top of Mount Hamilton in the distance. Standing in the farmyard, he carefully took the binoculars out of the case, put the strap around my neck, and handed them to me. I looked into the binoculars, and to my surprise, the observatory appeared to be right in front of me. That brief incident serves as a fond memory of his love for me.
I loved visiting Grandpa and Grandma Appelbe as well. They had emigrated from England in their youth. In keeping with her English heritage, Grandma Appelbe would sit us down in her kitchen for a cup of tea with milk. It was great! Grandpa Appelbe was a retired contractor who had built custom homes. He kept the tools of his trade in his garage. After showing me how to make a hole in a piece of wood, he handed me the drill. I cranked the handle, and I made my own hole. We bonded in the process.
After my father made some prudent business transactions—including trading most of the farm in what is now Silicon Valley for a fruit orchard in Gridley, California—we moved to Oroville. In the process, he transformed himself into a real estate developer and a major fruit grower. The combination of farming and commercial real estate provided financial security for our family.
All four of my grandparents followed us. My father’s parents moved to Gridley, about twelve miles away, and Grandpa Appelbe built a house on the property behind our home to be as close as possible to his grandchildren. Even though I missed the familiar surroundings of our farm in Santa Clara, the move was easier because my grandparents moved with us.
My mother took us to the Methodist Church every Sunday. Ducking out was never an option. In my preteen years, her firm commitment to take us to church always won over my inclination to stay home and watch TV in my pajamas. At night she would sit by my side and coach me in memorizing Bible passages such as the Twenty-third Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. The sacred words, “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalms 23:6) became my expectation.
Dad was a silent partner in Mom’s quest to establish religion in our lives. For Dad, going to church was an ordeal. When he did attend, he would wince if anyone sang off-key, and only a rare humorous sermon could keep him awake. However, he showed where his heart was by giving generously. One day a member of the Methodist Church came to our home and asked Dad for a donation for the building fund. Without hesitation, he wrote a check to the Methodist Church for one thousand dollars. As Dad handed over his gift, I was proud he was supporting the church.
I served as an acolyte from the time I was eight until I was twelve. Just before the church service began, I put on a white-and-black cassock and reverently walked down the main aisle of the sanctuary carrying a long, lighted pole to illuminate the candles on the altar. Above the altar was a beautiful stained-glass window portraying Jesus kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane. He looked heavenward with an earnest, pleading expression. On the front edge of the altar, carved words read, “In Remembrance of Me.” With an attitude of worship and reverence, I walked down the aisle and lit the candles on the altar in honor of Jesus Christ as the light of the world. The image of Jesus in the window and the words cut in wood engendered sacred feelings that are permanently engraved on my heart.
In Sunday School, we sang, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”2 After affirming His love for me in song, I wondered how to connect His love to my daily life. When I got home, the loving feelings I had at church faded into a memory.
After being kicked by Thunder, I often wondered, “Why don't I feel loved?” My parents and grandparents were a constant loving presence in my life. The love of God came through when I attended church, and I had a loving response to my prayer to get the part of Amahl. However, in spite of the love that was all around, I was frequently anxious. Though unrecognized for many years, Thunder’s kick was a defining moment and undermined my ability to acknowledge and accept the love extended to me by God and my family.
1Menotti, G. (1962). Amahl and the Night Visitors. New York: G. Schirmer.
2Warner, S., & Warner, A. (1860). Say and Seal. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott & Company.