faith, hope, kindness, miracle

Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind

In 1972 Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a noted astronomer and famous ufologist developed a measurement scale for alien encounters. When a UFO is sighted, it’s called an encounter of the first kind. When evidence is collected, it’s known as an encounter of the second kind. When contact is made with extraterrestrials, it is the third kind. The next level, abduction, is the fourth kind.

Aliens aside, these past few days I’ve been contemplating encounters of a different sort, a fifth kind; encounters between humans on this planet. Random strangers. Though, not so random, if you believe, as I do, that God delights in orchestrating many of these meetings.

We’ve likely all experienced something similar; an encounter that has stayed with us, whether it was an act of kindness forty years ago, an unexpected hug in a hallway last year, or the discovery of a kindred spirit just yesterday.

Six years ago, I wrote about this very topic in my No Such Thing As a Random Stranger blog posting. At that time I asked “What if we treated every day as the momentous event that it truly is? If we allowed that the strangers we meet each day might be the friends of tomorrow? What if we are all presented with ‘random strangers,’ ‘random encounters,’ and ‘random moments’ that are not so random?  I believe we all are given those opportunities to make a friend, help someone, be helped, to hug, to be hugged, to say ‘God bless you,’ and mean it. It is a personal relationship with God that allows us to recognize those moments for what they are.”

“Never met a stranger,” is a commonly-used phrase to describe someone whose personality is outgoing, friendly, and with an ability (and desire) to talk to anyone. My husband David was such a person. In fact, I’m ashamed to admit now that it used to embarrass me when he’d stop to talk to a stranger. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now that I’m the one who embarrasses my children by doing the same. I’m a different person than I was then; talking to strangers, reaching out to others, and glad for the change in me. My mother was also one who “never met a stranger,” which accounts for the names and addresses of several “strangers” in her old address book.

Apparently, Lyn was a man she met on the bus on a trip to Colorado to visit my younger sister. I’d love to know what intrigued her about this man enough that she requested his address. Did she notice his long hair? A tattoo? Was he carrying a guitar case? Drawing in a sketchbook? Was she the only person on that bus to truly see him? To talk to him?

What happens when we treat every day as the momentous event that it truly is? I can tell you what happened to me in the last ten years, since I look at every encounter differently, knowing the strangers I meet are not always random.

A few days ago, I had my hair done at the local beauty school. I save a lot of money there and am confident because of what I’ve observed about one of the instructors who oversees the students. Not only is Diana talented, she is lovely, glowing. That’s what I see in people who are in the right profession. Their eyes brighten when they talk about their work, their voices become animated. Their whole face lights up. I watched for this in the young student when she informed me she planned on opening up her own salon in Bellevue after graduation. I saw it in her face and heard it in her voice when she told me she’s known since she was a freshman in high school what she’s wanted to do.

While normally I crave silence while my hair is cut and dyed, when I pulled out a clipboard and started to write, young Paige settled into the chair next to me and asked what I was working on. Before long, my clipboard was forgotten and we were leaning in close to each other, deep in animated conversation about creativity, the topic of my upcoming book. I became certain there was something she was supposed to hear, that our unexpected encounter was not random. At the same time, I was struck by how differently I would have responded to her questions just ten years ago, if I’d have even bothered to respond beyond simple “yes” and “no” answers.

Time passed quickly as I enjoyed our conversation, and soon the instructor interrupted to check my hair. Diana’s fingers move fast. She has a magic touch, a skill that comes with talent and practice, but it’s the look on her face and her casual banter while she works that makes it obvious she truly loves her job. Perhaps her comments to the student are intentional, to boost the customer’s ego. I assume the young woman can learn more than simple hairstyling from her instructor’s methods.

“Her hair is fine like ours, but has wonderful body to it. It’s so easy to work with. Look how beautiful it is,” Dianna says to Paige as she deftly scrunches whipped mousse into my hair. “Look what happens when we use this product that boosts her natural curl,” she continues. I stare into the mirror, transfixed. Transformed.

Tired, stressed, and overwhelmed when I arrived, I feel lighter, happier, maybe even beautiful. I needed this. One student. One instructor. One haircut. An encounter others might deem meaningless feels otherworldly to me. Whether I was to observe someone else come alive with their passion, pass on some words of wisdom to a young person, or realize just how much I have changed, there is a meaning to this meeting, an encounter that stays with me some four days later.

Then, there’s yesterday afternoon. I have a recurring dream; a nightmare where I spit a mouth full of teeth into my cupped hand. All my teeth. I shudder every time I have this dream. I’ve given birth to eight children, undergone three caesareans, a knee surgery, gallbladder removal and hernia repair, but when it comes to teeth, I get dizzy and feel faint when I need dental work done. Imagine my horror, then, when eating yesterday, to feel something come loose, and yes, live my nightmare by spitting out a tooth, a crown, or something like it, right into my palm.  That I didn’t immediately identify it as a crown come loose, nor could I bear to look into the mirror to study the area from which it came, demonstrates just how bad this phobia is. The dentist on call must have heard the panic in my voice. He agreed to meet me at the office. My anxiety was fueled by the one-hour drive. While I was fairly certain it was a crown, what if it was a broken tooth? I’d broken a tooth before and have an empty space in my mouth to prove it. What if my teeth fell out, one by one, until I was toothless? How would I do public speaking without teeth?

Entering through the side door, I noticed an older gentleman seated outside of the room where the dentist was leaning over a woman laying back in the chair.

“Are you the lady with the missing crown?” the man asked. “You’re not the only one needing dental work this weekend. I’m waiting for my wife.”

I noted the obvious concern on his face, and my heart went out to him. For a brief moment, I forgot about myself and the teeth that were surely falling out of my head, one by one.

In the next instant, I felt a deep pang of sadness. This is what it is to have a partner in life. Whatever you go through, you are not alone. They are with you. David would have talked me down from the anxiety, would have driven me to the dentist office, sat there waiting. Worried about me, like this man with his wife. I had that once. Secondary loss, having lost that partner, hit me hard.

The man indicated I should sit down. When I obliged, he asked to see my crown. Confused by a stranger who was not the dentist asking to view something that came out of my mouth, I made a feeble joke. “You make me sound like royalty, wanting to see my crown.”

He introduced himself then, a retired dentist. Pulling his chair close to me, he studied the little plastic bag I pulled out of my purse. “Yes, that’s a crown. It looks good. This should be an easy fix,” he assured me, patting my arm. My heart stopped racing. I relaxed. I suddenly knew; this was no random encounter. A retired dentist waiting for his wife at the exact moment I arrived? His kind eyes, reassuring voice, the pat on my arm. This moment, this encounter meant something. It reminded me that although I might not have my partner anymore, there are a lot of good people in the world, people that care about others. Who don’t laugh at another person’s anxiety. A dentist who takes time out of his weekend to care for a patient, even when it isn’t a dental emergency. He could have told me I’d have to wait until Monday. I’ve had dentists who have done just that. A man, worried about his wife, taking the time to reassure a stranger. These were good people.

Within minutes, the dentist had reattached my crown. I stood to leave. “I hope your wife is okay,” I said, turning around to face the man. His wife sat up in the chair.

“She will be,” the dentist reassured all three of us.

What happens when we treat each day like the miracle it is, each encounter with a stranger like the miracle it might be?

everything-is-a-miracle.22-Albert-E

Which way will you live your life?

 

Angela Miller, Bible verses, book review, faith, grief, Heal Your Grief, hope, loss of a spouse, writing

Hope and Healing~

Are there books you have purchased multiple copies of, just to give away to others?  Two immediately come to mind for me; I’ve purchased extra copies of Angela Miller’s You are the Mother of All Mothers for mothers who are grieving the loss of a child, and also the Zondervan Hope in the Mourning Bible.  

hope-in-the-mourning

Yesterday’s mail brought what was probably the tenth copy I’ve purchased of this book. It seems like I’m always giving my copy away to someone I think needs it. Not only is it is my favorite version of the Bible (NIV), but the devotionals interspersed throughout are uplifting and inspiring. The only thing that would make it better is if it was softcover, because I prefer softcover Bibles.

The morning my husband died, I knew I needed two things; heart-felt praying, and God’s word. And yet, I wasn’t sure how to find either. I prayed for guidance, and God did not fail me. He brought the right people into my life; those who consistently and fervently prayed for me, and a young woman (who’s since become my daughter-in-law), who sent me notebook pages full of Bible verses. Also, just a few weeks after I lost my husband, I was asked to write some devotionals for a grief Bible. In order to write those eleven devotionals, I had to learn how to study the Bible for answers.

Bible devotional.jpg

In the meantime, I was writing and blogging about the dark path of loss that resulted in an incredible  journey of faith. Hope in the Mourning was released in 2013, the same year my book, Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace was released.

Writing, whether it was journaling, blogging, or working on articles and books, was very healing for me. I have since studied the science behind expressive writing for healing, and find it fascinating. A writer by trade, it seemed only natural that I’d chosen writing as my choice of therapy. Sometimes, I flip through the pages of the journal I began writing in the day after my husband’s death, and though it hurts to revisit that extraordinary pain I was experiencing then, I can see how the act of writing my way through grief may have saved me.

journals
James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of TX, has spent the last 40 years studying the link between writing and emotional processing. He’s studied those suffering from cancer, illness, and loss, dividing study participants into two groups: one that would write about emotionally charged topics, and the other about common, everyday things, for just 20 minutes a day for 3-4 days. In each study, he found that the people writing about emotionally-charged episodes experienced marked improvement in their physical and mental well-being. They were happier, less depressed, less anxious. In the months following the writing sessions, they had lower blood pressure, improved immune function, and fewer visits to the doctor. They also reported better relationships, improved memory and more success at work.

This is the research behind my two newest projects; I’ve signed a book contract for a journal for those mourning the loss of a loved one, and I’ve devised a workshop to help guide those who are just getting started in journaling, or who want to utilize expressive writing to help work their way through painful experiences. I presented the “Expressive Writing for Healing” workshop at the Heal Your Grief retreat in October, and hope to present it at other conferences. Besides these two projects, next month I’m registered to attend a workshop for those who work with the bereaved.

Because I’ve discovered something else, besides writing, promotes emotional healing~ helping others.

 

death of a spouse, grace, grief, hope, prayer

On Grief and Grace

This morning, during a quiet, contemplative time that seems so elusive these days, I pulled out my journal, and these pages fell to the floor.

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I’d torn them out of a book I can no longer remember the title of.

I can hear gasps of dismay from fellow book-lovers all over. Mary tore pages out of a book? Why?

It was May or June of 2013. My husband David had died the year before, and my seven-year-old grandson Jacob was losing his battle with cancer. Talk about walking around in a fog of pain. No one but those who have experienced this kind of anguish can understand it.

I had since given it away, but one of Max Lucado’s devotionals had been instrumental in helping me get through that first year of widowhood. (on a side note, I have purchased several copies of this devotional, and each time have felt led to give it away)

Max Lucado morning and evening

I was driving down the street that spring morning when I passed a yard sale that didn’t look at all enticing from the road, except for the fact that a young boy was handling the sales. Something compelled me to turn around and go back. Keep in mind that in many ways I was a new Christian. It was only after my husband’s death that I had learned what it was to listen to God, but by this time I could recognize the promptings of the Holy Spirit. I wandered around the yard, not finding anything,  a bit confused as to why I’d stopped. I started to walk back to my vehicle when I spotted it; a Max Lucado book laying on top of an empty milk crate. I instantly knew this was it; the reason behind the compulsion. The young boy had to go inside to ask his mother how much the book was. His reply when he came out didn’t really surprise me.

“Mom is sick so she didn’t finish pricing everything. She didn’t remember any books, but said if there is one, a quarter is fine.”

I handed the young man a dollar bill, telling him to keep the change for helping his mother. His smile would have been reason enough for my stop, but I knew there was more to it. I couldn’t wait until I got home before beginning to read the book. Instead, I sat inside my vehicle, turning pages. I didn’t even get through the prologue before pulling a pen out of my purse. Without hesitation, I began making notations in the margins. I had no doubt. These words were meant for me. I drank them in as though parched with thirst.

Max Lucado 2.jpg

Page after page, I read Lucado’s words, words that spoke to my aching heart. Had I felt God’s presence during the past year after David’s death? Had I sensed God in the kindness of a stranger, through the majesty of a sunset, or a well-spoken word? Had I felt Him even in the darkness of Jacob’s diagnosis?

Yes, and yes. Even in this, in facing the loss of a beautiful little boy and the anguished eyes of my daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law Ben, I had felt it. I had felt God’s caring presence. I had experienced God’s sudden, calming presence in the face of the darkest storm. I could go on and face what was ahead only because of His goodness and His grace.

I devoured those words that afternoon, before giving the book to Elizabeth to read. Whether she got the same thing out of it, I don’t know, but it had been just what I needed that day. Instead of keeping an entire book I might never read again, I tore out the pages that had spoken to me, putting them in the journal that had become a testimony of sorts; a journal that clearly illustrated the spiritual journey the loss of my mother and husband had begun.

Keeping these pages in my journal ensures that I will look at them again, remembering what it was like to find a timely answer through the words of another writer. The kind of answers I continue to find in the kind and gentle smile of a stranger in the grocery store, in eagles soaring overhead during a visit to the cemetery, or what I’ve experienced most recently; through the uncanny connection of the soul with a woman I’m interviewing in my job as a reporter.

Are you going through a period of darkness? Have you glimpsed even a tiny pinprick of light? Have you felt it? His presence?

To know that you can might be all you need to hear today.