Unexpected Embrace

Colorful gift bags graced our table as the four of us hovered together in our booth ready to banter and tease and catch up. We were four ballroom dancers, one of us the instructor. We were well acquainted on the dance floor but we counted on these occasional gatherings, be it a birthday celebration or a “just because” meal, to talk long enough for true feelings and struggles to surface.

Daily life chitchat eventually gave way to sharing of family stories, personal experiences, disappointments, and joys. Some conversation brought laughter, some called for simply listening as there were no easy answers. By the time the main course evaporated from our plates, we felt like we knew one another and our families better.

At the appointed time, the waiter brought small plates, unveiled a sweet birthday cake hand chosen by JoAnne and lit a few candles while they sang happy birthday to me. Our individual portions melted in our mouths.

“Gail, open your presents!” Sharon’s card had a dance couple painted on the front with an inside inscription of “Dance the night away!” How well it represented our shared joy of dancing. Billy, our instructor who crafts his teaching to suit our wide diversity of learning styles, handed me a gift bag that proclaimed “It’s time to Happy Dance!” The rustic wooden box inside the bag bore this inscription on the top: “You are a true blessing.” I smiled across the table, grateful that God had somehow used my friendship, our conversations, and my lifestyle to bless him.

JoAnne then announced, “This present just screamed ‘Gail’ to me.”  Curious, I pulled away the gift wrapping and lifted the lid of a tiny box. From a dainty silver chain hung a miniature heart, cross and angel wing. The cardboard underneath the necklace said in large bold lettering “BELIEVE.” The accompanying words added to the message. “Believe in miracles. Say a short prayer, and remember that miracles do come true.”

I gasped. Turning to look at JoAnne I told her something she didn’t know. “Each year I ask God to give me a word for that year. Do you know the word He gave me for this year?” She shook her head. “Believe!!”

“No way, really?!” A smile lit up her face.

“Now you know why God told you to buy that gift for me!”

She nodded in amazement. It was a connection with God she least expected. From our past personal conversations and those voiced to the whole group, I am certain she knows about God. From time to time she mentions what she has prayed and asked God for. But she hasn’t expressed interest in having a personal relationship with God and Jesus like she knows I have. She appreciates my faith but doesn’t seem to want to embrace it for herself.

God didn’t wait. He embraced her Himself by sharing a secret. When He led her to the present that was perfectly designed for me, He said, “This is the gift I want you to buy for Gail.”Silver necklace 2 from JoAnne

Once JoAnne realized the significance, she experienced God in a way she hadn’t before. It also created a deeper connection for us as friends. I believe she will never forget that encounter with God. And every time I wear my unique silver necklace I will be reminded of the seed that God planted in JoAnne’s heart in 2016. Because God loves JoAnne so much, He will continue nurturing that seed until it blooms in His appointed time.

Were it not for God

Today is Resurrection Sunday! Lord Jesus, You didn’t stay in the empty tomb. When Your Father touched your still and broken body and breathed life into it, that gesture of love, compassion and mercy symbolized what happens when we respond to Him. When we open our hearts to Him, He breathes life into our dead spirit and we become alive! We are resurrected. Our sin no longer holds us in bondage. We are free because You paid the price that purchased our salvation, the forgiveness of our sin.

Were it not for Your love, we would be spiritually dead. Were it not for Your sacrifice, we would be without hope of the promise of living with You forever. Were it not for your resurrection, we would never see our loved ones and friends again.

Father God, today I pray especially for my friends who recently have lost a spouse, a parent, a child, a sibling, or a friend. Fill their empty hearts with hope and peace.

When I lost my mother unexpectedly, I wondered how I would survive without her. I felt alone and uncertain. When the next Easter arrived I sat in church with sadness draped over my hurting heart. Noticing my tears, a caring friend leaned over and said, “But, Gail, today is the day of resurrection. You don’t need to be sad. You will see your mother again.”

That particular day, now more than 20 years ago, I didn’t wipe my tears and experience peace. My heart was too weak to embrace the truth of the resurrection. Yet since that time, the promise of resurrection and the great reunion in heaven has made all the difference.

His death had to come first, but joy comes in the morning when we visit the tomb and discover He is not there. He is alive…and so are we.

“He is not here, for He has risen….”
Matthew 28:6

 

 

 

True Thanksgiving

During a Thanksgiving gathering, our speaker presented a thought-provoking insight based on the story of 10 lepers whom Jesus healed.

“Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria  and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’

“When he saw them, he said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.

“One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice.  He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

“Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?’  Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”  Luke 17:11-19 (NIV) 

Our “messenger” pointed out three things in this passage. The men had a need. Jesus’ attentiveness to that need created gratitude in their hearts. Yet only one healed man expressed thanksgiving to Jesus. We learned that gratitude is a feeling while thanksgiving is an action.

I can only imagine the shame these 10 men must have experienced when they approached Jesus and stood at a distance from Him. They’d been ostracized from society, without any love or care. They weren’t sure what would happen. But Jesus saw them and listened to their cries of desperation. On the way to see the priests, as Jesus had instructed, they were cleansed—healed from their dreadful disease.

Surely all 10 of them were grateful for their deliverance. But one returned to praise God in a loud voice so everyone would know that Jesus had indeed taken pity on him and healed him. Then in an act of humility he threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked Him.  Jesus responded with a blessing: “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

At the end of our own gathering, we were challenged to consider what things we are grateful for and ask ourselves if we have put our feeling of gratitude into action yet.  I am grateful for my 97-year-old uncle who loves and encourages me as we go through life without many family members we both miss. Tonight I called to thank him personally—my act of true Thanksgiving.

Letting the Wall Fall

Last month we talked about the Strength of Grief. That blog post centered on excerpts from a book I read. One character sought to build courage into the heart of the other one who was trying to recover from a terrifying trauma.

He said, “You survived by hiding . . . but it’s a defense. Grieving is about letting down that shield, not having to keep that defensive wall in place. When you can lower it and not get overwhelmed by the memories, you’ll know your healing is mostly complete . . . and be ready to move on.”

Today let’s talk about that “defensive wall”. It’s easy to construct. We erect it because we can’t bear the flood of emotions. Yet, facing our emotions brings healing.

I pray that the second excerpt below will shed new insight and create a desire in your heart to ask God to break down your wall, if it’s still up. He wants you to experience freedom from the inevitable grief and sadness.  And to dream again.

“I’m hoping, praying, that the wall you’ve had to put in place around yourself and your emotions will come down. That there will be more of you appearing. Wider emotional swings both up and down. More energy. Dreams for your life. Things you want. Desires of the heart. And, yes, a deeper sadness. Grieve. All of it. That’s life, and the more of it you are feeling, the closer you are to being whole again.”

“. . . It will give you the ability to see the world around you as it exists both good and bad. It will be having a life that isn’t being steered by the past, where it doesn’t feel like the past is a daily anchor weighing on your thoughts, or on your impressions of places and people. Healing will be the capacity and the ability to love family and care about friends. It will be about having dreams for yourself and the confidence to work toward them. Healing in part is being able to feel you are free of the past.”

Excerpts from page 278 of Taken.
Used by permission of the author, Dee Henderson.

The Strength of Grief

While reading a fiction book recently, I came across a large portion of dialogue between the two main characters. Their conversation caught me by surprise. The young woman endured a painful, horrible, and long-lasting experience. The words of hope her new friend offered her centered on grief and how to move past it.

Reading those words altered my way of processing grief and assessing my progress. Immediately I desired to share these excerpts with you. The author happily granted permission.

This month’s excerpt centers on the strength of grief. Next month’s quotation talks more about our walls and the freedom we can experience. I pray this will encourage you in your own journey of grief.

“Grief isn’t fragile. It comes along with strength, facing the losses in life, the reality of what you won’t have back, then turning to the future to create what can be built. Grief is part of accepting what was; it’s what takes the sharp edges off your history. It’s emotion and it’s reality. It’s mostly not hiding, letting your mind present what needs processing and dealing with all the implications of those memories.”

“. . . You survived by hiding. It’s still how you cope when events or situations hurt you. I’m glad it’s a strong instinct because it’s getting you through. But it’s a defense. Grieving is about letting down that shield, not having to keep that defensive wall in place. When you can lower it and not get overwhelmed by the memories, you’ll know your healing is mostly complete…and be ready to move on.

“You’ve learned to endure, to live strong in spite of all that’s been thrown at you. That’s powerful and good.  . . . I think you’ve dealt with matters by a sequence that was basically ‘It happened, it was horrible, it’s over, move on’ and your emotions learned to function that way as well. But that was a learned pattern. Freedom is going to shift your emotions to something’s that’s more expansive. You’ll feel things with larger and wider emotional swings again, because now you have the freedom to experience those normal emotions. It’s going to be a good thing.”

Excerpts from pages 276-277 of Taken.
Used by permission of the author, Dee Henderson.

Keeping Memories Alive

Memories usher us onto different paths at various times. Maxine, a co-worker, told me about the path her memories took her to recently.

“Guess what I did on Mother’s Day?” Beaming, she continued. “After church I went home and played all of my mother’s favorite hymns!”

Before her mother died, she chose four hymns to be sung at her memorial service. That’s where Maxine began, but her time of playing and singing spread throughout the afternoon. The beautiful melodies filled her heart as did the majestic words of praise to God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

What moved her the most, though, was the realization that her mother now lived in the truth of all she had sung on earth for more than 80 years. I would not be surprised if Maxine’s mother sang along in heaven as her daughter played those hymns in honor of her mother’s life and the way she loved Maxine and her other children.

What ways have you found to keep the memories of your loved ones alive? Let me know so that I and other viewers can share in your joy.

Holding On

I wonder how this year’s Memorial Day impacted you. Did it bring sweet memories that lifted your spirits? Or were your memories painful because they represented the sorrow of separation from someone you love? Remembering can still be painful when we are having trouble letting go.

An acquaintance of mine still wrestles with the death of his brother who lost his life in Iraq six years ago. He has been unable to reconcile with his loss, even after the passage of years.

A dear friend lost her husband when they were in their 70’s. His absence was almost more than she could bear. Even years later, when we visited together and shared refreshments, she carried an 8 x 10 framed picture of him from room to room as we moved about her home. Her depth of sorrow seemed natural, since they’d known each other since second grade. Yet, I realized that her inability to accept his death and finish her grieving season had kept her in emotional bondage. She remained sorrowful until the day she died almost 20 years later.

God wants us to remember but also to let go. Some people who read my Life through Loss book told me that the following quotes helped shift their perspective, which opened the door for healing. In memory of your loved ones, I share these excerpts from page 161.

Moving toward a new life is scary. You may be afraid if you let go of your sorrow you will forget the person.

Christine Cleary lost her husband to cancer when he was 44. She says, “Death forces you to look back, and acceptance involves slowly turning your body around to look forward. If you begin a new chapter of life, you carry the person you lost along with you.”

Someone else said, “Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that you don’t ‘recover’. Instead, you learn to incorporate their absence and memories into your life and channel your emotional energy toward others. Eventually, it has been said, your grief walks beside you instead of consuming you.”

Holly Prigerson, ‎Director of the Center for Psycho-oncology and Palliative Care Research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, explains, “In general, bereaved survivors shouldn’t think of ‘getting over’ a loss, but develop ways to get used to it. Even years after someone dies, pangs of grief may come out of the blue, and feelings of heartache and missing the deceased are rekindled. That’s normal.”

God Knew

Have you ever had something on your shopping list for a long time, but somehow can’t seem to check it off? I have. One particular item: a fern. A neighbor in my condo building moved away recently and left her outside potted fern for the rest of us to enjoy. But it didn’t survive. Ever since then I planned to look for a replacement in the plant section of a home improvement store, but things kept coming up.

Recently I was purchasing groceries at a nearby store, which I frequent often. As I pushed my cart away from the produce section and started walking through the adjacent flower section toward the next designated aisle, I paused.

“Wonder if they have a fern?” In the middle of that crazy thought I spotted one beautiful, fresh fern standing proudly among short flowering plants. I knew God intended it for me. Lifting it up I discovered it was the right size with a low price tag.

Fern DSCN2755-1While paying my bill at the check-out counter, I commented to the cashier, “Isn’t that a beautiful fern? I needed one.” She responded, “I don’t ever remember seeing one here.” I smiled.

God knew my long-time desire to find that special item. Such a small thing in the scheme of life, but He fulfilled my desire—simply because He loves me. And His gift, now perched outside our front door, serves as my daily reminder.

From Dashed Dreams to New Life

While enjoying breakfast with a friend recently, I saw some new facets of loss. We were deep into the catch-up of our lives and the happenings in our families. The mother of a blended family, she happily announced the upcoming births of two grandchildren.

Her smile disappeared, though, when she referred to dashed dreams for her elder daughter, whose choices in life had brought about unalterable results. Then she shifted to a different kind of heartache: lack of love from her husband.

Her mother had opened the way for meeting this particular man. Eventually, with high hopes for a happy life together, she said yes to his marriage proposal. Yet, soon she realized he was incapable of connecting with her emotionally. Throughout many years of marriage, she’d felt unloved, uncared for, and alone. Her dream of happiness had died.

She said, “I don’t know why God let me fall in love with him. But I did.”

Her unhappiness wasn’t new to me, but her startling statement that morning broke my heart. How could I soften the impact and make sense of the deep losses in my friend’s life? I could not. But we both remembered how God had already woven an intricate plan to help her experience His unchanging love.

Four months before, while reading my book about the cascading losses in my life, she asked herself, “How could Gail survive all this?” She came to the conclusion that I had made it through because I had God, which led to the realization she didn’t know God like that. When we got together the next time, she related her discovery. After talking a while about God’s desire for her to know Him personally, I asked if she wanted to accept Jesus Christ as Her Savior and Lord. She did! Her prayer was the beginning of a relationship with God, the only Person who could fill her life with the love she’d been searching for.

Now in the moments of not knowing how to encourage her, God gave me this verse:

“Do not fall to mind the former things, or ponder things of the past.
Behold, I will do something new, now it will spring forth;
Will you not be aware of it?

I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.”
(Isaiah 43:18-19)

Tears filled her eyes as she listened to God’s promises and clung to His words of hope. Her circumstances most likely will not change, and she knows that. But she saw that by letting go of the “dashed dreams” in her past and willingly focusing on the new things God promises to do for her, hope would have a chance to grow.

The next day she emailed, “Thank you so much, Gail, for supporting me in my new journey with Jesus and with prayer. Your verse really hit a tender spot and was so appropriate!”

This Easter season reminds us that God looked on the Friday of death, despair and dashed dreams and turned it into a celebration of resurrection on Sunday! Because of Christ’s resurrection, we have hope for our future. Whatever circumstances you face today, whatever personal dreams have died, God promises to create roadways and rivers where none exist. Your part is to let go of the past you cannot change and look ahead to God, who has the power and desire to do something new in your life.

Loneliness of Loss

I felt alone when my mother died unexpectedly. She’d always been there for me during 43 years of my life. Don’t we sometimes think our mothers will live forever?

If you also have an endearing kind of relationship with your mother, you’ve probably come to relish and depend on her wisdom, listening ear, and companionship. When you don’t have her in your life, you realize the preciousness of what you had.

Loneliness can descend after the loss of a spouse. Suddenly you don’t hear their voice or see them come around the corner to give you a hug or ask a question.

The loss of a child—the most painful loss, I’m told—creates the deepest sense of emptiness. It seems so unnatural for a child to die before his parents. If he has already left home, the parents have tried to celebrate his desire to create his own independent life. But when he physically leaves his parents behind, they grieve in a way that may never go away.

In the midst of the loneliness of loss, God’s promise in Hebrew 13:5 becomes an especially precious one: “I will always be with you. I will never leave you or forsake you.” God sent His Spirit to fill up the lonely places in our hearts and lives.

Dorothy and Gail DSCN2671Recently I watched God’s compassion unfold. I was visiting my 95-year-old friend Dorothy, my mother’s best friend. More than 20 years ago we had both said goodbye to my mother, but we stayed in touch and our relationship deepened. Throughout the years we exchanged letters and cards at special holidays, and I always visited her each time I traveled to Oregon. Dorothy became my listening ear, and her smiles and hugs filled my empty spaces.

Dorothy and I had looked forward to our lunch date for many months. She seldom had the chance to get out since being confined to a wheelchair. After hugging my sweet, white-haired friend, and exclaiming over her latest family pictures, we settled in for a visit. During our conversation she quietly remarked, “Shouldn’t say this, but I’m lonely. My friends can’t come this distance to see me anymore.” Sadness clouded her blue eyes.

My heart broke. Here she sat in her old age with many dear friends dying and others unable to drive to visit her in the assisted living complex. Silently I prayed, Lord, please lift her spirits today.

She explained, “When we’re ready to go for lunch, I’ll ask the gal who assists me to come to my room to push me in my wheelchair and help get me in your car.”

Later, downstairs at the entrance, I watched Sara skillfully bear Dorothy’s weight and maneuver her out of her wheelchair and into the front seat. Soon we pulled into the tree-lined driveway of the motel restaurant she had chosen. After parking temporarily at the front door, I attempted to help Dorothy but realized I was incapable of lifting her.

I’d spotted an employee sitting on a bench outside the motel as we drove in and walked over to ask her help. The young brunette with a friendly smile, popped up from her seat with eagerness.

As we walked toward the car I admitted, “I know this really isn’t in line with your duties, but—.”

“Well, actually I’m here to assist anyone who needs helps. I work at the front desk. My name’s Jamie.”

Jamie quickly and easily lifted Dorothy into the wheelchair and pushed her into the dining room. “Enjoy your lunch. I’ll help you again when you’re finished.”

Dorothy and I chatted, laughed, and remembered old times. “This salad is delicious,” she said. “If I ate any more of it, I’d be eating the plate. What a wonderful time this has been.” I smiled with delight.

But the best part was about to unfold. Jamie appeared at our table as I was paying for lunch. “Ready?”

As we approached my car, Jamie bent down to look into Dorothy’s face. “Just as you drove in, I received a text from my mother saying that my grandmother passed away.”

“I’m so sorry. Are you going to be able to get time off?” Dorothy said.

“No, my grandmother lived in another state, but you are here.” They embraced with tears spilling onto their cheeks. My tears flowed, as well.

Turning to Jamie with overwhelming gratitude I said, “God knew you two needed to meet each other today.”

“Yes, He did. And I’m getting baptized in two weeks at church. They asked people to come forward if they wanted Jesus in their lives. God helped me not be afraid.” She paused. “It has really helped me because my husband and I lost a baby six months ago.” Her deep losses shook me.

Jamie turned to Dorothy. “I can’t see my grandmother anymore but I can visit you.”

“I’d love that.” Dorothy’s face lit up with the prospect of seeing her new, young friend again. That day our heavenly Father reached into the hearts of two lonely people.

Have you been lonely at times? I have, too, but through this experience God reminded me that on those lonely days He will do special things to show me I’m not alone.

God sets the lonely in families,
he leads out the prisoners with singing;
but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.

Psalm 68:6 NIV