Listening to the Voice in the Barn
Truth told, Wendy Preble never cared very much for church life.
"I always had a very private belief in God, a genuine feeling of spirituality," she insists. "But church always somehow seemed a little too much. Maybe that's why I've always loved horses so -- I see a great deal of spirituality in them."
From the early days of her childhood in a village near Liverpool, England, Wendy had a special relationship with the horses. When she married an engineer and immigrated to New Jersey to start a family 42 years ago, she continued her equine love affair.
"There's just something about being up on a horse that feels so liberating," she says. "You're out of doors experiencing the beauty of nature with this glorious animal. It's a wonderful feeling of freedom."
Whatever life threw at her, including a divorce and the death of one of her two children, Wendy found succor and peace caring for her horses and riding them.
Sixteen years ago, she and second husband, Steve, decided it was time to leave New Jersey and find a fresh start with their horses and dogs. They set off on what she calls a "grand tour of horse places" that included a stop in Southern Pines.
"As soon as we saw the place, we knew this was for us," she says over a cup of tea in her kitchen. "We didn't know a soul around here. But something about this place almost took our breath away, a very good feeling. So we said, 'Well, we love each other. We have the dogs and the horses. What the heck, let's just move there.'"
The Prebles purchased 13 acres on Rooty Branch just off Lakebay Road, cleared pastures and put up fencing, built an attractive farmhouse and a handsome barn for their two horses, plus took in a couple of boarders they hoped would help defray costs. They named their place Inglewood Farm after Wendy's grandmother's house in England.
"It didn't take us long to know just about everybody in town," she says. "Especially the horse people. When you loves horses the way most of us do, it creates an easy bond with others."
Before long, Wendy Preble was involved in various community projects near and dear to her heart, like a low-cost spay-and-neuter clinic in Vass and training her own dogs, Caesar and Prince, to work as certified therapy dogs with the elderly.
'It Was Real'
One Sunday morning several years ago while she was out working in the barn, however, something most unusual happened. Out of the blue, Wendy Preble heard a voice speaking to her.
"I heard it as clearly as I am speaking to you," she remembers. "As if someone was standing right there speaking to me."
She looked around the barn, thinking it might be Steve.
The voice told her to go to church.
"I thought perhaps I was just imagining things. But it was very clear and unmistakable. It was real, plain as day."
"Wendy," the voice repeated, "go to church."
But going to church was about the last thing on Wendy Preble's mind. So she put on a radio headset to try and drown out the voice.
"Wouldn't you know," she says with a laugh, "they were broadcasting a church service."
So, almost against her better judgment, Wendy Preble decided to heed the instructions. She went inside, got dressed, and took herself to an evangelical church, where greeters warmly welcomed her.
"What brought you to church?" they asked.
"God told me to come," she explained a little sheepishly.
Though husband Steve wasn't entirely convinced his energetic and upbeat wife was hearing voices from God, to put it mildly, this was music to evangelical ears. Wendy was even invited to answer an altar call and witness to the church about her unexpected epiphany, her experience with the divine, the summoning voice in the barn.
"What is your problem?" they asked her. "What kind of problem do you need God's help for?"
"At the moment, I don't have a problem in the whole wide world," she admitted to them honestly. "God just told me to come to church."
Some epiphanies happen with bells and whistles and blinding flashes of light -- Saul's road to Damascus comes to mind.
Others are quiet as a voice in a barn. More like Wendy Preble's.
Soon afterward, in any case, she began quietly shopping around for a permanent church, looking for someplace that felt a little more like home to her. For the longest time, she didn't tell others about the voice in the barn, the whole "Wendy, go to church" thing, though many of those in the horse community did believe her when she finally let the story out.
She investigated several churches and eventually gravitated to Brownson Memorial Presbyterian, where she found a women's Sunday school group filled with ordinary women who seemed to understand and appreciate the extraordinary things she was experiencing.
"It felt like coming home. I was so touched by their caring and sincerity, also moved by the prayers they offered to people in need of healing or guidance," she says -- never once thinking she would soon be in the same situation.
'Braver Than I Was'
While Wendy was riding her magnificent Belgian draft horse, Lollipop, last summer, the mare came up lame. A sharp stick had somehow wedged its way deep into the sole of her foot. It was an unusual and nasty wound. After removing the stick, Wendy phoned the veterinarian, just to be on the safe side.
"He came out to give her a shot and just happened to see something unusual in her eye, a faint redness," she says. "It would have been so easy to miss. How he saw it I'm still not sure. But if she hadn't had this very unusual injury, the vet never would have come out to examine Lollipop."
What he found was cancerous tumors growing in both of Lollipop's soulful brown eyes.
"I was devastated," Wendy remembers. "I couldn't stop crying over the news. She was a lot braver about it than I was."
Lollipop is a gentle giant, a golden 13-year-old mare with a glorious blond mane that makes her look like a mythological steed some Nordic god might ride through the clouds. A friend gave her to Wendy two years ago. She stands probably 16 hands and yet is as calm as a family pet, which is exactly what she is to the Prebles.
"Riding her is a dream, the smoothest ride ever," declares Wendy. "She's full of vigor and loves to just go. I've had a lot of horses, but she's so special. An English friend once commented that she wouldn't be caught dead riding a clunker like Lollipop. But I think she's the most beautiful horse ever. She and I took second at a dressage show and third at a trail class. She's such a dear girl."
The vet advised Wendy and Steve to bring Lollipop to N.C. State's equine center in Raleigh for surgery.
"The problem was, we didn't even have a trailer nearly large enough to transport a 2,000-pound Belgian draft horse," she says. "Or, for that matter, the kind of funds for that kind of operation."
On average, such a procedure could easily cost five figures.
So after crying a great deal more, not sure what to do next, Wendy phoned Brownson Church and asked that both she and Lollipop be put on the prayer list.
'Outpouring of Love'
Pain, someone once said, is simply God's way of directing our attention to what's really important -- the voice in the barn, if you will, that speaks to all of us in some form or another.
"The meaning we give to what happens in our lives," writes Barbara Brown Taylor, the acclaimed preacher and spiritual essayist, "is our final, inviolable freedom. Only you can say whether God answered you."
In Wendy Preble's mind, there's no doubt about the power of prayer.
Within a matter of days, friends from her faith community began calling to offer their prayers and support. Friends from the horse community, meanwhile, heard about the crisis and offered trailers large enough to transport Lollipop anywhere she needed to go.
Their vet arranged for Lollipop to have her surgery at the local Equine Research Center here in the Sandhills. Maybe most amazing of all, he then offered to do the surgery for less than $1,000.
"I couldn't believe it," says Wendy, wiping her eyes. "I've never felt such an outpouring of love. It was like a miracle."
Actually, in retrospect -- not counting God speaking to her in the barn that quiet Sunday morning -- she tallies up four or maybe five small miracles in a row.
"The first miracle was that stick in her hoof," recounts Wendy. "That was really a rare injury for a horse like Lolly. But if it hadn't happened, the vet would never have come to check on her and spotted the redness in her eye. Other vets might have missed it entirely, and then what would have happened? But he saw it."
'You Just Have to Listen'
Lollipop underwent cancer surgery on both eyes the last week of September. Among other things, catheters were stapled into her eyelids for the medication administered after the surgery. For three weeks, Lollipop received chemo treatment on her eyes three times a day -- and prayers from people who'd never set eyes on her.
"I grew up believing you shouldn't expect to have your prayers answered, to ask God to do small things for yourself," Wendy says. "But then a friend from my women's group told me, 'No, just the contrary, there's no such thing as something too little for God to do for anyone.' I've certainly learned that's the truth."
Lollipop the mythological mare handled her ordeal with a grace and patience that inspired her owners. "You can't believe how calm and patient she was through the whole thing," says Wendy, noting how get-well cards and phone calls have been coming in steadily ever since.
Last week, Wendy and Steve Preble received the good news from their vet: Lollipop's surgery and treatment were successful. No trace of cancer remains.
On the eve of Thanksgiving, while her owner begins to prepare a feast for 11, Lollipop stands calmly in her pasture, looking every bit like a horse that could fly through the clouds.
"I go to church and rarely miss a Sunday because that voice told me to go," Wendy explains as she leads a visitor out to meet her beloved horse.
"But that doesn't begin to explain how all of this has changed me. Maybe some -- including, I suspect, my own husband Steve -- might say this was mostly in my mind, that I'm a nutcase. But I would tell you these things really happened and are miracles, including the change in me. When I was younger, I wasn't perhaps the nicest person around -- I mean to say, I was highly opinionated and fairly concerned only with my own little world. But God spoke to me, then threw me down. And now, he has lifted me up again and opened me up in a way I never saw coming."
As Wendy Preble strokes Lollipop's beautiful blond mane, her eyes shine with grateful tears.
"I recently shared all of this with my women's class. I just had to tell them what happened because of their prayers and support. And now I feel the need to tell anyone who will listen that such wonderful things happen in this world. You just have to listen, to believe, and you will see them."
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, editor of PineStraw magazine and regular contributor to The Pilot, can be contacted at email@example.com.
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