This year my family has faced the most beautiful and painful season of our lives. My husband was diagnosed with stage four melanoma cancer in May. The news came like a sucker-punch to the gut, but it was no surprise to God. In the weeks that followed, we experienced God’s presence and provision in the most profound way and I began to understand how critical community is to our lives.
The original version of this blog was published on August 28, 2013 on my blog “Gilmores for His Glory,” which followed our family’s everyday adventures and life doing mission work in Haiti. I’m returning to these lines, this story, today as a reminder of where I have been and where God is taking me.
I had one of those moments the other day. I was sitting in our pick-up truck headed back to our mission complex in Haiti to make dinner for my family. My dear friend and right-hand man Walquis was driving, trying desperately to avoid the assortment of chickens, goats, motorcycles, kids and huge holes in the road. A group of women from our Haitian Bead Project were in the back of the truck singing a worship song in four-part harmony. Dust swirled on the rocky road before us. I looked out across the sugar cane fields with Mount Pignon in the background.
Then it dawned on me: I’m in the sweet spot.
Something deep inside my heart was almost singing, “I love this.”
I recalled the scene in one of my favorite movies, Chariots of Fire, when the runner and missionary Eric Liddell says, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”
That’s how I felt in that moment. I felt God’s pleasure. I felt this warmth rising up in my soul and spreading all over my body. I was unwrapping an amazing gift.
I’m 36 years old, married to a man who is a courageous leader, a disciplined athlete and a faithful daddy. We are raising three girls who are growing and learning every day what it means to cross cultural lines, to live like Jesus and to bridge the gap between the haves and have nots. I have an amazing circle of friends who encourage and support me on this wild journey.
My “job” is spending time with women in Haiti, teaching them how to create jewelry and sharing my faith with them. The other part of my job is marketing their work and sharing their stories of transformation with friends in the United States.
Somebody pinch me. These are all realized dreams.
I just didn’t realize I was there. Somehow I forgot that these are all the things I have specifically prayed for through the years.
How I got here
I certainly did not arrive at this place – the proverbial sweet spot – overnight.
I definitely did not follow any road map or take the path I originally planned.
Much of this journey has been hard. I’ve whined and kicked and screamed quite a bit actually. I’ve questioned the calling. I’ve devised plans to make my life more comfortable and predictable.
Our life is far from idyllic. Even as I type this I am sitting in an airplane balancing my laptop on my knees while nursing my youngest. We have been on standby living in airports from Port Au Prince to Fort Lauderdale to Dallas to Phoenix for two days. Mama’s “Mary Poppins bag” is just about empty with only a few more diapers, some stray peanuts, a plastic finger puppet and a pad of post-its (mostly scribbled on) to keep my girls busy.
I’m wearing the same pants, underwear and tank top I had on yesterday – with a different sweater to spruce it up. (My traveling fashion secret.) My kids clothes are stained with toothpaste and pizza grease. Our Haitian braids are looking frizzy, our eyes red with travel.
Most people would not call this life I live glamorous.
What I had to leave behind
Every day that I work in Haiti, I am reminded of what I leave behind. I leave behind my air conditioner, my hybrid cars, my nicely-fenced backyard, my iced fraps and my pillow-topped king-sized mattress. I leave behind my skinny jeans and makeup and high-speed internet.
I leave behind dreams of publishing books and sending my kids to swim lessons and Vacation Bible School with their friends.
I leave behind a predictable calendar, a consistent income.
Some days what I leave behind digs deep, leaves tread marks on my heart. I leave behind my family, my closest friends.
I leave behind safety.
I leave behind planning and retirement.
I leave behind so much but I also gain much more than I ever imagined.
I have learned a new language.
I have befriended people I might not otherwise.
I have participated in amazing stories of transformation of women, mothers, daughters, and grandmothers.
I have climbed to the top of mountains and looked out over vast oceans.
I have tasted a dozen varieties of island mangoes.
I have awakened before dawn to the sound of angels singing in the church just outside my window.
I have offered a handmade dress to an orphan girl who wore it like a princess.
I have spooned a plate of rice and beans for a young man dying of hepatitis.
I have prayed with a blind woman, mother of 7. I have watched her down a glass of water, whetting her parched lips, before she returned to the streets.
I have held a newborn baby with brown, round cheeks and chubby legs. All the while, her defying the odds.
I have gained the courage to stand up in the middle of conflict, to embrace miscommunication and racial tension.
There is so much to gain when we risk loving, when we risk leaving our comforts, when we risk saying Yes to God.
What the sweet spot in ministry is really all about
In the game of tennis, when that little neon ball hits the “sweet spot” it results in a more powerful hit – not to mention that ping noise that makes the tennis ball sing.
I’m starting to see that hitting the sweet spot in ministry is never about what I’m doing or accomplishing or how I’m impressing or leading. The sweet spot is that place where I feel wholly alive using my God-given gifts and at the same time humbly submitted to following His lead.
This summer I had a taste of it when I was given the opportunity to speak at a women’s conference. I looked out over an audience of grandmas and mamas, and I shared my story. The story of my difficult, beautiful mess. And somewhere in sharing my story I was sharing the story of Hagar and Ruth. I was sharing a story of El Roi, the God who sees the invisible, the God who comforts, the God who casts out fear with love.
I loved sharing these stories. When I shared these stories I felt His pleasure.
This may be surprising coming from the girl whose nervous knees would knock hard against the piano during recitals, who used to take a seat in the back and used to hurl before speech class in college. Public speaking is the last career I expected to pursue. Working with women and children who reek of poverty and disease is a place I never imagined I’d find joy. The rural mountains of Haiti is the last place this city girl expected to find home.
One of my favorite parts about writing is that when we scribble something down in a journal or share it on a blog we have the ability to return to it later. My writing has always served as a kind of “Ebenezer stone” for me. In 1 Samuel 7, the Israelites must face the the Philistines in battle. Samuel cries out to God for help. God’s response is quite dramatic when He sends loud thunder to frighten the Philistines and the battle is won by the Israelites. In verse 12, it says Samuel placed a large stone between Mizpah and Shen as a landmark. He named it Ebenezer as a reminder of the ways God helped them.
As I was reading through the archives of my blog the other day, I happened upon the above story about the “sweet spot.” I remember writing this post in 2013 and marveling at the place God had me. I reflected on all the challenges he had brought our family through.
The post itself was an Ebenezer stone. I was laying down a rock and thanking God for helping me find a “sweet spot” where I could feel His presence and He was using me in my giftings.
Of course, I had no idea my husband would be diagnosed with stage four cancer a year later. I had no inkling that Ericlee would graduate to Heaven the following September. I did not know our time serving in Haiti would be cut short. I did not anticipate how I would have to grieve the loss of my Haitian community and serving in my “sweet spot” there.
Looking back, I now see how God used my time in Haiti to grow new passions, interests and gifts in me. He gave me a heart for serving women and helping them grow in their faith and knowledge of the Bible. Over time, he grew a confidence in me to speak in public settings. I know those are not things I would have pursued if God had not led me to Haiti and given me space there to practice.
In this season of life, I feel called to live and serve in Fresno, California. God has opened many new doors for me to speak in schools and churches, for me to share my grief journey with women’s groups, and publish books for children.
I’m returning to Haiti at the end of this month to speak at that same women’s conference in Pignon, Haiti. This time I’ll be sharing a new set of stories of how God has proved faithful to me even in the death of my husband, the grief journey, and the redemption of my family.
I believe there are times when we will feel like we are in the “sweet spot,” when we will feel wholly alive as we help others flourish. It’s important to mark these moments. It’s also important to realize that these moments may just be God cultivating our seeds to help us bloom in a new place and a new calling in the future.
How sweet it is.
It’s been more than two years since I’ve tasted Haitian fried chicken with plantains cooked over a charcoal burner.
It’s been more than two years since I’ve hugged the necks of the children in the orphanage who are now careening into their teen years.
It’s been more than two years since we have seen those goats on spindly legs grazing in the fields and stood at the edge of the muddy-red river.
It’s been more than two years since I have cupped the faces of my Haitian sisters and shared stories of God’s amazing grace.
This summer I’m going back.
I’m returning to Haiti to speak at the Esther Women’s conference at the end of July. I’m delighted to be taking my family, my daughter’s best friend, and my dear friend Rici Skei, who is also a pastor and dynamic worship leader from Fresno. This will be my third time teaching God’s word for this conference, which draws women of from four churches in the Northern Mountains of Haiti as part of Christian Friendship Ministries.
I can’t wait.
My first trip to Haiti was in the summer of 2001. That trip was led by my first husband Ericlee. In those 10 days, I absolutely fell in love with the Haitian people. I still remember looking out from the little prop plane as we departed the mountain town of Pignon. I gazed over the undulating hills and sapphire sky, and I knew deep inside my heart this was not my last trip to Haiti.
Haiti was home.
As many of you know, that was just the beginning of my relationship with Haiti. After quitting my job as a newspaper reporter for The Fresno Bee, I returned to the Northern mountains of Haiti the following January to teach English to some of the leaders I had met the summer before. Living there full-time was far different from a week-long mission trip but I was hooked.
I honed my language skills, wrote letters home to my friend Ericlee, and learned to embrace the solitude that is implicit when living in a country where so few people speak your native language.
The following summer of 2002 I helped lead another short-term trip to Haiti with Ericlee. As God would have it, Ericlee proposed to me at the top of one of the nation’s most well-known landmarks, the Citadel. This country that he visited every year since he was a child had brought us together. We started planning our wedding. Little did we know that God would call us to invest full-time in serving the Haitian people just a few years later when a devastating earthquake hit. We sunk in roots and cultivated long-term relationships.
My passport is full of stamps from this Caribbean island now. For much of our marriage, we took one or two trips a year – sometimes staying for as long as three months as Ericlee served as the Director and I focused on Communications/Marketing for the non-profit we helped start. My girls have Haiti embedded deep in their hearts. They have grown up with the kids in the orphanage next to our house. They learned to jump rope, braid hair, and suck on chicken bones from their Haitian friends.
Our last trip to Haiti was in spring of 2015 with my Haitian-born mother-in-law who grew up on the mission field. This was a very different kind of trip. After burying my Ericlee that September before, this was an extension of his memorial. We returned to mourn with our friends and family. I discovered on that trip that cancer may have snuffed out Ericlee’s life but it could never steal his legacy of faith. The Haitians honored him and loved on me, encouraged me and prayed over my future.
After leaving Haiti in 2015, I felt very clearly that God was calling me to step away from my work with the non-profit. I was entering a new season, living in Fresno, California, and raising my three daughters as widow. I needed my family and community in Fresno.
I needed time to grieve and heal.
Although I was confident in my decision, I didn’t anticipate the secondary loss I would experience leaving the ministry and my people in Haiti. I sat in the brokenness for months – grieving the loss of purpose, the death of dreams, the separation from community Ericlee and I had cultivated there.
These past two years, God has been stitching back together the wounds of my heart. He’s been growing in me a new sense of purpose. He’s given me permission to rest and dream again. He’s brought beauty from our ashes.
I’m also returning to Haiti because I have a story of restoration that I must tell. I know God is calling me to walk those dusty streets, to drink in the memories and to declare to the women of Northern Haiti that these dry bones have life again. I long to be an encouragement to them as they have been to me.
Now is an important time to return to take my daughters back to the community they so dearly love and to experience the legacy of their daddy anew. My oldest, Meilani, is excited about bringing her friend Tessa Schultz to experience Haiti with us. I also need to introduce my Haitian friends to my new husband, Shawn.
I actually began my friendship with Shawn back in 2001 in Haiti. He was part of that same mission team from our church that was led by Ericlee. Shawn and Ericlee were friends from high school. They were both runners and crossed paths many times through the years. On that trip, Shawn was assigned to be my prayer and coaching partner. We taught the Haitian kids how to jump hurdles and run sprints for the track & field camp.
Of course, I had no idea how God would thread together our lives all these years later and bring him as a kinsman-redeemer to our family. It is our joy to return to Haiti together as a family July 22-30.
Haiti is calling me. She’s calling me home.
There are three ways you can partner with us this summer:
- Join our prayer team. Simply comment below or send us a private message and we will keep you posted on specific prayer needs along the way. Your prayers are vital to us.
- Give a financial donation. This year’s plane tickets cost $1,200 per person so you can do the math and figure out the cost for a team of seven of us traveling to Haiti. It’s not cheap. Your tax-deductible donation is an investment not just in us but also in the people of Haiti. Whatever we raise beyond our travel needs will go to the women’s conference.
- Collect toiletries. Each year the women who attend the Esther women’s conferences look forward to the little “goodie bag” they will receive at the conference. This year, I’m collecting travel-sized toiletries to share with the women. If you’re at a hotel, save what you don’t use. You can also buy the travel sizes at your local drug store, Target, etc.
Follow our journey on Instagram! And please attend our community night to hear more about our trip. Details below!
My new friend Emily Allen interviewed me a few weeks ago for her Kindred Mom podcast. I’m excited to announce the podcast just went live. I hope you will tune in to hear our conversation. I’m chatting with Emily about navigating grief with my kids after their dad died in 2014. She asked some really sensitive and insightful questions. In the podcast, you will learn more about my story, some tangible ways our community came alongside us in our grief, and the backstory behind my children’s picture book, Cora Cooks Pancit.
This podcast conversation was inspired by an essay I originally wrote for the Kindred Mom blog called “Grieving Together.” I hope this will encourage mamas and others who might be navigating grief with littles. It can be hard and exhausting work. Believe me, I know. That’s why I’m passionate about sharing on this topic to walk with others.
In the podcast, I mention a free resource I developed sharing tips on how to navigate grief with kids. The resource includes encouragement for parents, practical ideas on how to honor a loved one after death, and a list of books and movies I’ve used with my girls to stimulate conversation on our grief journey.
Listen to the podcast here or paste this link into your browser:
Last month I did a series on “Navigating Grief When Life Moves Forward.” In case you missed it, I encourage you to check out some of the articles or share with a friend who is grieving:
The Garden – an introduction to the series
Grieving Together – an article on grieving with children
Choosing Joy – a guest post about a spouse choosing joy even on a long cancer journey
When a Grandparent Dies – a guest post about how one mom is navigating her own grief and grief with her kids
Facing Triggers and Trauma – an article about steering through grief when triggers and trauma color the journey
When You are the Caregiver – an article about navigating grief and feelings of guilt when you have a front-row seat to a loved one’s decline
When You Have to Say Goodbye to the Place Your Heart Calls Home – a guest post exploring the idea of “good grief” we experience when we are uprooted from a place or home we love
When You’ve Experienced Pregnancy Loss – a guest post sharing a first-hand experience with miscarriage and stillbirth.
Navigating Grief When Someone You Love Dies Suddenly – a guest post sharing about the sudden death of her mother.
Would you like a copy of my FREE resource for “Grieving with Kids“?
I’m passionate about meeting people in their grief and sharing a message of hope and glory. Let’s connect!
I’ll be honest. I’ve had this book on my nightstand for a month, and I didn’t want to read it.
Don’t get me wrong: I adore Lisa-Jo Baker and her writing. When her Surprised by Motherhood book came out, I raced through it and then bought copies for all my mama friends’ birthdays that year.
I just didn’t think a book titled Never Unfriended was for me. Gratefully, I’m surrounded by an amazing circle of friends and, if anything, my issue is not lack of friends but not having enough time to spend with these women.
As I stepped into this book, I quickly realized that Lisa-Jo had some important things to say about friendship that I needed to hear. I discovered that I do have some past hurts and hang-ups from broken friendships that have been weighing me down.
Lisa-Jo offers up a healthy mix of authentic, personal anecdotes and rich biblical teaching. About three chapters in, I realized this book wasn’t just about friendships gone awry or girl drama like I thought. This book is actually about cultivating real, authentic community. There couldn’t be a topic more near and dear to my heart.
I love how Lisa-Jo is willing to go first. She admits it’s taken her a while to get there but she’s committed to stepping out of her comfort zone for friendships. “So I’m going all in,” she writes, “I’m going to keep showing up and going first and telling my embarrassing stories because I’ve learned that it’s when we let people see the un-Photoshopped parts of our lives that they’re the most comfortable.”
Lisa-Jo models for us all the importance of vulnerability and commitment in pursuing friendships. She talks about the power of shared stories and letting people into our awkward moments and imperfect living rooms.
When Lisa-Jo starts talking about being “un-fine” in front of her friends, my mind immediately flashes back to two years ago when my husband was dying of cancer and my people rushed in to fold laundry, wash the grimy dishes, and hold me close when I was choking back the salty tears of my new reality.
This is the messy stuff true friendship is made of.
Perhaps the most challenging part of this book for me was Chapter 6, “We Can’t Control Other People’s Stories.” Lisa-Jo spoke right into my heart about some sticky friend situations I’ve endured in the past.
She wisely writes, “Every time a relationship has been more toxic than I could possibly transform, I was either too young or too vulnerable or too unqualified to be able to make anything healthy out of that environment. Because some wounds need professional, tender counseling from those qualified to speak objectively into a raw and hurting person. In those cases, God has given the protection of being able to grant forgiveness while simultaneously opening an exit for me to leave so there was still a chance to heal.”
Lisa-Jo’s book whispers, “I’ve been there” while reminding me of healthy ways to navigate the ups and downs of friendship. I’m so very grateful I kept reading.
If you have ever suffered from FOMO, been squeezed tight by the clutches of competition, or wondered how to deepen your friendships in this chaotic world, this book is for you.
**If you are an avid reader, I encourage you to check out some of my other book reviews. These books have carried me through seasons of tragedy and triumph.
I often serve on book launch teams as a way to get to know authors and their message better. I had the privilege of being part of Lisa-Jo’s launch team for Never Unfriended.
Next month I’ll be reviewing a mama travel memoir by Tsh Oxenreider called At Home in the World. Feel free to read ahead! I’m already a chapter in, and it’s fabulous!
My love language is food, and I love sharing it with my people. This past Sunday night I hosted a dinner party at my house. In the afternoon, my girls helped me roll meatballs, frost mini bundt cakes and dip chocolate strawberries. We scrubbed toilets and pulled out extra chairs so we could fit all the guests around the table. While my oldest prepared activities for the kids, I lit a mess of candles and arranged flowers all over the house.
The goal: to make our friends feel loved and cherished.
After all, it’s Valentine’s week, and we needed to celebrate. As the guests began to spill in the door, the pasta water began to boil. Everyone gathered in the entryway exchanging hugs and catching up. The kids found their way to our office/playroom with no trouble and started up a game of heart bingo.
The party had officially commenced.
A few friends helped me in the kitchen and we served up steaming platters of pumpkin ravioli with alfredo sauce and beef tortellini with tomato-meat ragu. We passed an antipasto salad and crusty bread with softened butter around the table. The volume rose with little clusters of friends all around the room chatting and telling stories.
You might not be able to tell it from the outside, but we all had one thing in common. We were all widows.
To be honest, this is not the kind of gathering I ever expected to have at my house. This certainly was never the story I would have written for myself. When I read my wedding vows to my beloved Ericlee, the thought never crossed my mind that I would be widowed before the age of 40. I never thought about navigating grief with my three daughters all under the age of 8 when their daddy graduated to heaven. Prior to his cancer diagnosis, all our dinner parties were with family and couples and friends with kids.
As I gazed around the table Sunday night, I experienced something surprisingly bittersweet.
Author Shauna Niequist illuminates this poignantly: “Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a sliver of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich when it contains a splinter of sadness.”
As my widow friends told stories, rich laughter rang out around the table. It was contagious. One story led to the next and to the next. An evening that could have been somber, that could have been spent home alone on the couch, was suddenly dripping with bittersweet like those strawberries dipped in dark chocolate.
We savored every bite.
I know Valentine’s Day can be hard when you are missing someone you love. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we were all surprised by joy and a few tears as we each remembered what we loved most about our husbands. Each one talked about husbands who had made them feel loved and cherished, who were their cheerleaders, their best friends, their spiritual leaders and the faithful fathers of their children.
I saw courageous mothers around that table. I saw women digging deep to rise above the ashes. I saw widows who were not willing to be defined by pity, but instead held fast to faith. Their strength buoyed mine.
We sent each of the women home that night with a bouquet of roses. As they drove away, I was struck by how, despite life’s thorns, God cultivates resilience in us through community. The blessing Sunday night was all mine.
Dear Widow Friend,
Today I know may feel bittersweet. I know the very thought of Valentine’s Day may prick your heart and trigger your memories. I know you will be scrolling through social media and see all the pictures of couples, and you will miss him.
You will stop and wonder how this came to be. You will ask yourself why you have to endure this holiday without your beloved. Again. I urge you to press in. Give yourself permission to grieve. Allow yourself to step into those memories. Don’t try to shut it down.
Remind yourself what you loved most about your man. Jot down some of those special things he did or the words he would gift to you on a day like today. Tell your kids about that silly gift he brought you that one year or the way he always showed up with flowers.
It’s ok to be a little sad on Valentine’s Day. It’s alright to shed a few tears – or even a deluge of tears if you have to – as you look at his pictures, as you remember the curve of his jaw and the tenor of his laughter.
I don’t want you to forget that you are still cherished. You are still loved.
I can’t help thinking about women in the Bible like Hagar who wandered in the wilderness with her child. God found her there. “Where have you come from and where are you going?” He asked her. He cared about her story. He saw her in her brokenness and leaned in close to see her, to listen to her.
Our God who sees is bending close to see you today.
I can’t help thinking about the widow, Ruth, who lost her husband and all the providers in her life. She followed her mother-in-law to a foreign land. She trusted God even in her grief. And He provided for her in Bethlehem. She was given food and shelter – and eventually a husband who brought new value to her life. A kinsman redeemer.
Widow friend, He provides for us in Bethlehem too.
I don’t pretend to know where or when or how God will provide for you, but I know He will. He is always, always, always working underground on your behalf. He may give you the gift of community. He may speak to you in a sunset. He may sing to you through the radio or the tune of a bird. Look for Him today. Listen for his love notes.
On this Valentine’s Day, I am extending my hands to you. I wish you courage and kindness and grace. And I wish you love.
Last night I woke to the sound of my 5-year-old whimpering in the next room. I ran in to check on her. “Mama, mama, I had the baddest dream,” came her trembling voice. I climbed into the top bunk bed next to her and laid down. “Mama’s here,” I assured her. She put her little hand in mine. Immediately, I felt her body relax. She drifted back to sleep. In that moment, I realized what my baby-girl needed was my presence.
That little scenario made me pause. I couldn’t help thinking about the emotions I have felt in the weeks following the election and the Inauguration last Friday. This season has been harrowing to say the least. I have voted in six presidential elections in my lifetime, and I never remember it being this bad. The divisiveness, the name calling, the character bashing, the violence, the fear, the dismissiveness of those in my community grieves me.
Immediately following the election, I read a lot of posts on social media that people should stop being crybabies about the outcome. I read more of the same after the Inauguration on Friday and the Women’s March on Saturday. These were painful to read because there is so much more at stake here. It’s not a simple, “Your team won; mine lost” scenario. Meanwhile, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have also been teeming with posts about hate crimes and sexual assaults committed, about friends with families and local businesses who fear being deported, about school children expressing uncertainty about their future.
My heart aches for my people and our country.
I have been searching for my place in all this. I have been asking myself, “How can I use my voice as a woman, as a multi-ethnic American, and as a Christian in this climate? How can I leverage my privileges to lift up the most vulnerable? How can I offer grace and love to my neighbor in tense times like these?” The answer I keep hearing is related to what my 5-year-old taught me when she was fighting her nightmare. I need to offer up the “ministry of presence.”
In this context, a “ministry of presence” means moving in close to listen, laying down our defensiveness and agendas, and offering up empathy instead. I have been reading Ann Voskamp’s latest book, The Broken Way, and she reminds me anew that Jesus always moves into the places of grief and offers up the ministry of presence. She writes, “In a broken world, isn’t the call always to koinonia, to communion with community that bears our burdens with us? Wasn’t suffering then actually a call for us to be a community, to stand together and bear under, trusting that arms of love are always under us?”
I have been offered the gift of presence several times in my life, and it has been important to my healing. When I was in college, I was walking to class one day and two men grabbed me from behind. In the days that followed that sexual assault, fear rose up inside me like an all-consuming monster. Thankfully, I escaped rape but the damage to my mind had already been done. I could not walk down the street or a hallway without feeling anxiety or going into a panic attack.
During that season, a dear friend and her boyfriend (who later in life became a police officer) decided to be present with me. They woke up early every morning and walked me to my classes. They waited around to see me home in the evenings. It was a simple gesture but their presence made all the difference in the world. Little by little – through counseling and mountains of prayers over many years – I regained confidence. I found the tools to combat my fear. Of course, it was unrealistic for them to be my bodyguards for life but their willingness to be present with me in that initial season was a powerful gift.
More than 15 years later, I faced a devastating stage four cancer diagnosis for my beloved husband. This was a different kind of trauma. During that journey, I had hundreds of people who offered to help us in tangible ways but it was the ones who offered the “ministry of presence” whom I needed the most. Friends came to play worship music for my husband in his final days. Friends came to sit with us through the long hours of the night when he faced the most pain, and I was the most exhausted. My community stood with me by the graveside, and they offered my young daughters and me a safe space to grieve in the months to follow.
One family offered us the gift of their presence just a few months after his death when it was time to buy a Christmas tree. Our family’s tradition was to go to a local Christmas tree lot and pick out a tree with Daddy. As the time drew closer to Christmas, dread heightened in my heart. Our friends asked me this question, “How can we be present for you this season? What’s something we can do to support you?” They agreed to accompany us to the Christmas tree lot.
The girls ran down the aisles of the tree lot in search of the perfect tree with their friends. The husband helped secure it to my car. My dear friend hugged me tight as we put it up in our home. The tears pooled in my eyes when a gathering of friends came to decorate our tree. We shared ornaments with all of them as reminders of my husband and his quirky personality.
This simple act was healing for our family because it was more than a “like” on Facebook or an act of service, more than a check or card in the mail. They were not focused on giving advice or urging me to get over it. These friends stepped into a messy, awkward situation full of grief and memories, and they were present. They listened to our needs and offered to go with us on the journey. We were not alone.
I give these two examples because I believe in these challenging times we are all called to the “ministry of presence.” It’s easy to mouth off on Twitter or re-post that article on Facebook that supports our views, but the reality is people are hurting and scared. The most courageous thing we can do is listen. The bravest thing we can do is stand with them.
We recently visited a family who has adopted children from Ethiopia and Mexico. A picture of Donald Trump flashed on the television behind us. Their middle son asked his mama again and again if his brother would be deported. She told me he has asked hundreds of times in the last week. His parents try to reassure him and offer up comfort, but it’s hard.
I sat at my kitchen table the other day listening to the story of a dear friend who has been working for years to get her American citizenship. The process has been hairy. She watched the election with fear and trembling, realizing the ramifications for her family after living and contributing in the U.S. for decades. I listened. She educated me. She spoke with courageous faith and prayed for God to make a way for her now.
I recently dined with a group of my heart friends at a local Indian restaurant, where we often celebrate each other’s birthdays. This group of friends represents a diversity of cultures and professions. We all attend different churches and live in different parts of the city. It was important to be present with each other, to sit face to face and listen to each other’s unique experiences. One woman’s son was afraid his grandma (who is a citizen) will be sent back to El Salvador. Another friend said one of her clients just chose to move to Mexico to escape all that is happening.
I considered my own multi-ethnic daughters, whose hair colors and skin colors vary in hue. How would these next four years shape their cultural identities? Would they endure comments and prejudice? As mamas, my friends and I contemplated: How can we administer grace, teach resilience and model peace in our communities and our homes?
My challenge to myself and to you is to ask: How can I be present for someone today? This is not just about acts of service or help. It’s taking time to listen, to empathize, to grieve alongside others.
These are some practical examples that have inspired me:
-invite friends to dinner and ask them to share their stories
-walk to school with neighbors and friends
-make something and deliver it to a neighbor from a different cultural background and ask them how they are doing
-offer to sit and be present with someone who is grieving
-read books to your children about empathy, kindness and other cultures
-stand with someone in your community who is afraid
-speak up against racist or sexist remarks
Friends, this is how we can be used by God in these uncertain times. In Matthew 1:23, an angel announces the birth of Jesus Christ: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us.’)” God chose to put on flesh and come to earth as a baby, who grew to be a man, who chose to be with people, to walk alongside them in their suffering, and lay down his life for them.
In the same way, we are designed to dwell with others in community. We need to carve out space for lament in our churches. We need to ask the hard questions and listen to our neighbor’s story. We need to set aside our political differences and be present with others, especially those vulnerable during this season. This is activism too. We need to seize the opportunity to be Immanuel – God with us – to those in our community.
**This article was previously published on www.inAllthings.org.
His breathing tightened. Each breath now was a labor. After almost 12 years of listening to the cadence of his breath as we ran marathons together, as he slept by my side, this sound was foreign, painful. I tried to hook up the oxygen tank brought by hospice.
Twice I connected the tubes to his nostrils. Twice he ripped them out. He was still fighting for life even as the cancer coursed through his body. His mother told me with her eyes that we were near the end. My heart knew it, too.
One by one, I ushered my young daughters – ages 2, 5 and 8 – into the room and urged them to kiss Daddy one more time. I cradled his hand in mine, fingering that wedding band – an unending circle of love between us. At dawn, light streamed wildly through the blinds of our bedroom window.
His hazel eyes moved toward the light. He clapped his hands together in his signature way and left his broken body behind….
**I wrote this article for the Valley Voices section of The Fresno Bee. Click here for the rest of the article that ended up running in more than 20 newspapers across the country.
Do you have a friend who needs permission to grieve? Please share!
Rather than a pat-myself-on-the-back moment, this was a stoop-lower opportunity. I was acutely aware that feeding Mary or offering someone dignity through a smile or learning their name or advocating for the homeless is really not about charity or me changing the world as much as it is about obedience to the gospel.