Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Home Again!

Last month was an historic first for "Embrace the Grace."  And I sincerely hope, a last!

It was the first time in over five years of writing that I missed an entire month.  No post for over thirty days.  My journal bears the same stigma - entry dates are August 31 followed by October 2.  I hope to never again repeat this.

But Frank and I were able to go to England!!  (Please insert here large quantities of joyful shouting and some serious jumping up and down.)  It had been seven years since our last pilgrimage to Great Britain and we were thrilled to finally go back.

Fourteen days visiting the U.K. would have been wonderful enough but we also went for a purpose greater than tourism.  Frank and I were invited to preach for several churches and even a women's conference.  It was brilliant!

Our dear friends, the Parsons, served as hosts and organized the speaking itinerary.  The women's conference was the catalyst for our trip. But because we've ministered there four times over the past 18 years, we were given the fantastic invitation to preach for several other groups/churches, as well.

Of course, there's never really a quiet season here at our wonderful home church.  So our original plan was to fly out following Sunday services.  Which also followed the beautiful wedding (on Saturday) of a couple whose parents serve as board members.  This was all planned.

But then we lost a dear friend just days before the wedding.  Her memorial service took place Friday morning before the wedding rehearsal Friday evening.  Joyce was one of our founding members; my close personal friend.  Her unexpected home-going surprised us all but her Godly life was easy to celebrate.

I was incredibly thankful for the amazing people all around us.  Wedding plans had been set well in advance and our part in the ceremony was all printed and waiting in a stately-looking folder the week before. Kristin and Meagan volunteered two hours to help me plan my clothes for speaking and touring the Monday before departure.  Joyce Demo's team of marvelous workers covered every detail of the funeral meal for over 100 people.  John, Joy, Cody and Nathan all stepped into various roles from preaching to tech to photography to singing in order to make things run smoothly.

By the time Frank and I actually boarded the plane Sunday evening, we were exhausted but confident we had left the church in good hands.  He sent one final text as the engines whined and our phones stayed in airplane mode for the next two weeks.

We saw the English Channel for the first time.  (I'll write about that experience on another day.  It was a God-moment for sure.)  We visited Exeter, the hometown of our host.  We spent three days in the beautiful, wild region known as Cornwall.  (Those of you who watch British programs on PBS would recognize the names Poldark and Doc Martin both shows filmed in that region.)

Then it was on to Stoke-on-Trent for ministry times in several different locations over the following days.  Frank and I aren't the typical tourists.  We prefer long walks, fish and chips, hot tea, Yorkshire pudding, watching sunsets in the garden and just experiencing local life that many miss.  Our friends know this about us, so they planned accordingly.

We came home with bags full of happy memories.  Acquaintances renewed.  New friendships formed.  One lady gave her heart to Christ on Sunday morning following Frank's sermon.  She came to the altar bedraggled and weary; her story was one of betrayal, abuse and alcoholism.  When she returned that night and the next week for the conference, she looked like a totally different individual. We were dumb-struck by how beautiful the transformation was.  (Please keep praying with us for this dear soul as she begins her walk with Christ.)

Shortly after we returned to Winter Haven,  I flew to Tennessee to speak for another women's conference being held in Pigeon Forge.  My lifetime friend, Brenda, was able to join me for part of that event.  I came home with my sides aching from the wonderful tears and laughter shared with over one hundred pastor's wives.  Such an honor, believe me!

Needless to say, I'll have many stories to share with you in the days ahead.  Thank you for continuing to check in here even though new material was absent.  And thank you for coming back today.

I sat down to write this afternoon and to be perfectly honest, I was flooded with feelings of shame because of being absent so long.  The thought came, "You don't really have anything useful to say. Why bother writing at all?"  Sometimes negative thoughts are so articulate and loud.

But then I glanced up to see the statement made by my sweet little Mama just days before her home-going.  (One of the girls here copied and framed it.)

"With the help of the Lord, I Will!"  

So, with the help of the Lord,  I just started typing.  Joyce Meyer has a great quote that I rehearse often, "Never let your yesterday determine your tomorrow!"  Why would I miss out on sharing with you the wonders we experienced during September just because the blog won't have a September date?

One generation telling the next of God's goodness is NOT time sensitive!  Aren't you glad?!

Don't be robbed of doing what you set out to do, dear friend.  It may seem late by your estimation, but it may also be right on time by Heaven's!  Hugs to you ALL and a warm "Cheerio!"


Saturday, August 20, 2016

Love and Fear

While preparing to teach a marriage conference years ago, Frank and I came across a powerful story.  It illustrates an incredible truth about the difference between love and fear.

After a whirlwind courtship, Sarah agreed to marry Thomas.  He was attentive to every detail of her life and watched over her in such a protective way.  But soon after their wedding, Sarah began to notice subtle signs of a controlling nature in Thomas. 

He wanted to know whom she talked with on the phone.  He planned their weekends then told her what they would do.  Before long, he even began to dictate what she should do during her free time. 

Things slowly escalated until finally the lists began to appear.  Sarah would arrive home from work and discover a to do list on the kitchen counter.  “Please take care of this before I get home,” wrote Thomas. 

At first, Sarah took them as suggestions and did her best to complete what she could.  But Thomas’ displeasure over any items left undone soon turned to anger then rage.  Sarah became fearful of not completing each and every item on the list.  They became the taskmasters ruling her life.  She feared Thomas and hated his lists.

Sarah became more proficient at anticipating and then completing the items he enumerated.  But her love for Thomas dulled and she trudged through every day with a sense of duty rather than the delight she had once imagined.

After several years, Thomas died.  The liberation Sarah felt knew no bounds.  She was finally free from domination, mental abuse and from the dreaded lists.  Fear was broken and her joy slowly began to return.

Sarah eventually married again.  Her new husband, Jonathan, certainly wasn’t perfect but he had no need to control and their love for one another blossomed.

One Saturday afternoon Sarah sat absent-mindedly cleaning out an old purse.  In the back zippered pocket she discovered a crumpled piece of paper.  As she unfolded it her stomach lurched; it was a list written in Thomas’ distinctive handwriting.

Tears began to sting Sarah’s eyes as she read down through the old list.  The yellowed piece of paper contained a to do list that perfectly matched all the things she had spent her Saturday doing.  But instead of doing them out of fear or duty, she realized this time she had completed each item out of love.  And her love for Jonathan made any type of list completely unnecessary.

We are told in I John 4:18,  “There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out all fear.”  (NIV)  A truth well illustrated by Sarah’s poignant story.

Please remember today, our Heavenly Father is not at all like Thomas; although some characterize Him as such.  There is no list of rules, no checklist of demands for us to follow.  In fact, Jesus' disciples asked him one day, "Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?"

(Funny isn't it?  Human nature asks for a list we can check off in order to measure our "goodness."  I guess these disciples wanted to skip to the front of the line by just obeying the single most important one.)

Jesus quickly responded, "Love God with all your heart, mind and soul.  Then love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Everything hangs on these two commands." (Matthew 22: 37-40 Sheri's Paraphrase)

Dear Friend, God is Love.  It's just that simple.  And Love drives out all fear.  Don't you want to embrace the Heavenly Father who is able to drive out all fear from your life?  The choice for love allows us to serve Him out of our well filled with bubbling, joyful waters; not out of the dry, dusty bank vault of fear.  

Let me encourage you today, choose LOVE!  It's a much better way to live.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

A Voice of Cheer

Writing is a very personal, exposing of one's soul.  At least that's the case with writing that moves us to action.  And because writing tends to leave the writer feeling vulnerable, I find it difficult to record  some things until the raw edges have healed a bit.

That's why I've waited until now to post about a recent funeral.  Many people look at my life and suppose that the joke I once heard is true.  "Preachers and their wives are for marryin' and buryin' and baptizin'.  Beyond that, there ain't much to 'em."

(Yes, someone did express that opinion to me when I was young in ministry.  Fortunately, Frank and I now serve a congregation filled with people who are much more thoughtful and observant.)

It's true that we're privileged to be right in the middle of all sorts of joy.

We have a front row seat to the tender look in a groom's eyes as he pledges his forever love to his bride.  We usually have the privilege of holding newborn congregants within hours of their arrival on this earth. We sense the utter joy of new converts being baptized.  And the freedom that comes when someone prays to make Christ Lord of their life.

These times are like the jet fuel that keeps us moving at the pace necessary for our life-style. Frank and I always feel so honored to be invited in to those intimate life moments with others.  It's truly a privilege we respect and appreciate.

But there are also the sorrowing times of people's lives when all we can offer is a shoulder to lean on and a strong hug reassuring them of our love for them and that God has not forgotten them.  We often walk back to our car, after sharing in sorrow moments, close the door and weep.  We genuinely love the people we serve and their pain becomes our own.

That's how it was for me when we got the call saying Jasmyne was in the hospital and not doing well.  Just 31, Jasmyne had been extremely ill for over a year.  A car accident eleven years earlier nearly took her life but Jasmyne made a valiant come back after three weeks in a coma.  And went on to become a phlebotomist in our local hospital.

Unfortunately, the trauma took a real toll on her body.  At 30, she went back into the hospital with pneumonia and just never recovered.  But she maintained her positive outlook and her fierce love for family and friends.  An email.  A text.  A phone call.  A message on Facebook.  Jasmyne was always reaching out to encourage; always acting as a voice of cheer.

Frank went to the hospital as soon as we got the call on Friday.  I went up Saturday morning and quickly realized Jasmyne wouldn't be with us much longer.  The stroke left her unable to talk or even open her eyes but she let me know by raising and lower her eyebrows, she heard me.  Later that afternoon, Jasmyne slipped into the waiting arms of her Savior.  I closed my door and wept.

She had only been a member of our congregation for a couple of years.  And she wasn't able to attend at all for the second year.  But she stayed engaged through our online services; generously expressing her appreciation for every point of contact.

The funeral was incredibly moving.  Not just because she was so young.  And not just because her life had been such a struggle.  But because of the broad spectrum of people Jasmyne had touched.

See, Jasmyne was African-American.  And this is the deep south were racial prejudice is supposed to have clearly delineated boundaries which keep people separated.  But Jasmyne just didn't acknowledge those boundaries and we all discovered the depth of her beauty at her funeral.

Frank was very honored to be asked by her family to bring the eulogy.  The team from our church provided and served the lunch for all the family.  Our skin color made us stand out a bit among the richness of Jasmyne's family and 300 closest friends.  But no one that day was concerned with color or culture or even protocol - we had all gathered to celebrate the short life that had touched us in long-lasting ways.

Each person there had a story to tell of how this young lady had impacted them; challenged them; encouraged them.

"Jasmyne is the reason my boys are respectful and on the right track today," told one.

"She encouraged me to get my degree," expressed another.

"That sweet girl had a smile and a hug for me each time I saw her," shared her grandmother.

"Jasmyne was always the same friend with everyone," said a high school classmate.

"Jasmyne told me about Jesus.  Now I know I'll see her again," testified a cousin.

When her uncle stood to introduce Frank, he asked a simple question.  "I'd like to know where all the media is today?  All the ones saying that we can't love one another and care about people who look different from us. Look around you today.  Listen to the words that have been spoken.  Shouldn't they be here to report on this?"  His piercing, dark eyes reached to every corner of the packed auditorium.  Loud "Amens!" rang out all around me.

And he was right.  There were no divisions of color or age or gender there.  Jasmyne's love for everyone covered each soul equally and that was the blanket comforting all our grieving hearts.

I, too, look forward to embracing Jasmyne again when I exchange my earthly address for a heavenly one.  What a day that will be!

But until that time, I hope my life will more closely reflect the influence she had on me.  I'm praying to live in such a way that my own funeral will be a blending of so many different hues and ages and backgrounds that you won't be able to tell where one group ends and another begins.

It's unlikely that the media will report on my passing either. But I do hope there will be some who can testify that my life encouraged, challenged, or impacted them in a profound way for good things.  We each matter on this journey; there is someone who needs your smile and touch.  May I encourage you to pick up the torch Jasmyne laid down?

Decide to be the voice of cheer for another today.  You'll be ever so glad you did.


Sunday, July 31, 2016

Simple Truth

Frank shared the essence of this story with me quite some time ago.  I've written what I could remember.  Simple truth is often the most profound.........

There is a fable about a king who owned an amazingly beautiful ring.  All who lived in his kingdom knew the intricate designs of the gorgeous piece of jewelry.  Such an amazing statement piece needed a proper inscription.

The king called for his most trusted advisor, a man known to be of outstanding wit and wisdom.  “This ring must be inscribed with a sentiment unlike any other; something totally awe inspiring.  I want you to find a statement that at the same time brings sorrow to the heart of the one rejoicing and joy to the heart of the sorrowful,” declared the sovereign. 

For days the wise man labored under his assignment until at last the perfect words came together for him.  He asked for an audience with the king and it was granted immediately.

Everyone in the throne room waited silently; they leaned forward with anticipation of what the sage would say to the royal.  “Sire, your request was indeed a difficult one to fulfill.  I’m not sure there has ever before been such a statement as the one you desired for the inscription your ring will bear.  However, I do believe I finally have struck upon it.”

“Well, speak up, man!  Don’t keep me waiting, “ the king’s excitement couldn’t be hidden.

“The phrase that will simultaneously bring sorrow to the joyful and joy to the sorrowful is this, O King…… ‘And it came to pass’.”  The words hung in the silent expanse and the sage bowed low waiting for the king to ponder them.

“And it came to pass…, “ whispered the monarch as he stroked his beard pensively.  “Yes,” his weathered face nodded slowly. “Those five words will indeed simultaneously bring sorrow for the joyful and joy for the sorrowful.  ‘And it came to pass.’ 

Indeed the one constant is that everything in life changes.  Even moments of greatest joy eventually fade into tomorrow.  The anticipation of that change would cause the one rejoicing to have great sorrow.  And so it is with the one who finds himself in a time of sorrow.  Eventually the day of newness dawns and sorrow is finished.  The hope of that day gives the sorrowful great joy.  Well done, my friend.  Well done!”

The words of the sage ring true still today for each and every season of our life journey.   
“And it came to pass….”

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

It's a Journey

(This is an excerpt from the project I'm working on.  In this project I'm examining the concept that so much of life is made up of different seasons.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on the story.  Enjoy!) 

Because of all our ministry travels, we’ve stayed in some incredible accommodations.  Always appreciated.  Always interesting.  Almost always clean.  But one spot illustrated, for me, a vitally important life lesson........

Frank and I had finished a church service once years ago and were taken to a lovely condo overlooking a golf course.  We had been traveling extensively for weeks and this was a perfect spot for us.  Because we were there during the “off” season, the golf course was almost completely abandoned and quiet.  We were able to sit in high backed rockers on the veranda and listen to all the sounds of nature; feel the breeze; smell the rain; experience the peace. 

We just happened to be there over the weekend of our wedding anniversary.  So the condo became, for us, a haven of rest.  Our hosts had stocked the small kitchen with an assortment of snacks and breakfast items.  We had our own transportation and were able to move at a luxuriously slow pace.  It was nothing short of resplendent.

However, our scheduled time at the condo came to an end all too soon.  When we were finally packed and set to leave, I asked Frank if I could sit on the porch for just a few minutes longer while he put our bags in the car.  Sitting there all alone, looking out over the pristine greens, enjoying the different bird songs, I suddenly began to cry.

The wave of emotion caught me completely off-guard and it took me a couple of minutes to regain my composure.   “I don’t want to go,” I whispered while brushing away tears.  “This is such a perfect spot, Father.  Can’t we stay?”  I found myself asking God to let us stay in this peaceful place just a little longer.

The truth was, I was physically and emotionally exhausted by the schedule we’d been keeping and my heart was crying out for more than just a break.  In the secret depths of my soul, I wanted to be finished with evangelistic travel.  I wanted to find a little place with a porch and a view and a lot more serenity than my life was offering at that time.  In essence, I was requesting a new assignment. 

Our Heavenly Father is so tender when we are broken hearted.  The response I sensed from Him was gentle and filled with compassion.  “Sheri, you must move on.  I have other places for you to experience.  If you stop here, you’ll miss what I have in store.”  In the same moment I was reminded of Psalm 23, “….he leads beside still waters.  He restores my soul.”

I knew the Lord was urging me to walk on in confidence; to not give up before experiencing all He had planned.  There would be other times of refreshing but for now, I needed to get up (emotionally) and find joy in this part of my journey.

I took a deep breath and marked that moment for myself.  It’s important that we treat promises and personal moments with the Father as great treasure.  Luke says Mary (the mother of Jesus) was our example.  “…Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19 NIV)

My response to the Lord’s urging came from the deepest recesses of my heart.  “Alright, Lord.  If you’re saying this season isn’t over, I say, ‘Let’s Keep Going!’”  

About that time, my dear husband stepped out onto the porch and sat down in the rocker beside me.  He sensed I was having a conversation with the Father and simply took my hand in support.  No words were needed.  It was several days later before I shared with him my thoughts.  He understood perfectly.

And I can tell you that after all these years, I’m still experiencing some amazing rest stops on this journey.  I’m so glad I got up and kept moving even though it wasn’t what I wanted at the time.  I’m especially glad when I think of all the adventures and beautiful people I would have missed.

In the Disney movie, Pocohantas the lovely young heroine asks multiple times, “What is it that’s waiting for me just around the river bend?”  And I guess I understand her song of anticipation because that’s what my life has reflected.  While there are lessons to be learned and clear purposes for this season, there’s always something to look forward to in the next.   

Understanding this truth keeps us moving during the times we’d prefer to stay right where we are.  Walk on, dear friend.  Be encouraged in Christ.  Look forward with eager anticipation.  This is a journey and there is much yet for you to experience.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Gift

While today's post is about gifts and givers, it comes in two parts. 

Part One

A beautiful little girl is celebrating her FOURTH birthday today - her name is Abigail Grace Schreck!

Known as Abby to most of us, her name actually means "Joy of the Father."  And our oldest grand daughter has proven to fulfill her name over and over these four years.

The most resilient child I've ever met.  Abby has weathered surgeries, eye exams, x-rays, and face plants more times than we can count.  (Her feet don't always carry her where she wants to go as quickly as she wants to get there!)

But with each difficulty she jumps up, brushes herself off, flashes a smile that could melt an iceberg and takes off again.  We're never sure if it's the huge blue eyes, the adorable dimples, the bouncy blonde hair or the raspy lisp that pulls everyone in to her spell.

But when Abby focuses on you and begins to explain the latest adventure taking place in her imagination, you can't help but smile and nod agreement.  I've watched her captivate the toughest heart and force them to break into a silly grin of delight.

This fall she'll begin kindergarten.  We can't believe time is passing so quickly.  One thing is for sure, she'll be loved by her teacher and classmates just as soon as they meet her.

That's our Abby!  Happy Birthday, Sweet Girl!

Part Two

Last week I was getting my breakfast at the same time Nathan was packing his lunch for the day.  Our kitchen times overlap occasionally but I'm aware that Nathan is not a morning person.  He loves me.  He always responds politely to my overly chirpy comments.

But typically we stick to three sentences:
  • "Good Morning!" "Morning."
  • "Did you rest well?" "Pretty good."
  • "Have a blessed day!" "Thanks, you too."
On Wednesday I noticed that Nathan was searching for a sandwich bag for his turkey sandwich.  Unfortunately, we were completely out of sandwich bags and I knew it.  When he heard my sad report, he put his resourcefulness into action and wrapped the sandwich in plastic wrap.

But I knew his lunch would be stale in record time.  And at that moment, I remembered where there was a lone zip lock bag.  It stood as a silent sentry in the pantry, guarding the freshness quotient of my British tea bags.

As many of you know, air is the arch nemesis of tea bags.  Once they've been exposed to air, the freshness is sucked right out into the atmosphere and the avid tea drinker (such as myself) is left with decidedly mediocre tea.

And so you make every effort to guard the delicate tea leaves against being accosted by the brutish air.  Hence, the importance of the single zip lock bag in our pantry.

But I dearly love my sons.  The girls have accused me of showing more love to the boys than to them - silly girls!

It took all of a millisecond for me to reach into the pantry, grab the zip lock and empty it of the fragrant tea.  "Nathan, here's a sandwich bag."

He was surprised I had found one but expressed his gratitude, deposited the sandwich and quickly headed for the front door.

"Have a Blessed Day, Nate!"  "Thanks, you too."

As the door closed,  I rolled the tea bags into a tight ball against the onslaught of freshness-stealing oxygen.  "At least it wasn't an entire sleeve of tea bags, only half." I consoled myself with the idea.

While waiting for water to boil, I reached for the milk and thought, "Wow, Nathan isn't a tea drinker.  He didn't even have a way to realize what a gift I gave him."  I smiled with the thought of my small token preserving his sandwich......and my heart was instantly glad I had shared.

As I poured the amber liquid into one of my favorite cups and watched the steam rise, a whisper came to me.  "Sheri, how many times have I felt the same way?"

It was the familiar whisper of my Heavenly Father impressing my heart.  "How many times have I provided a gift for you that was more precious than you really understood?"

Before I could feel any guilt, the impression came clearly, "And I'm always glad I provided for you.  I dearly love you!"

A single tear dropped into my perfect cup of tea as I bowed my head.  "Thank you, Father!  Thank you so very much for every precious gift that I didn't understand how to value.  I'll never have the words to adequately express my gratitude.  I dearly love You, too!"

Rest assured, Dear Reader, He dearly loves you just the same!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Lawn Beautification

Don't you just love the smell of fresh-cut grass?  It's like the scent-sational signal that summer is suddenly showing.  (I know that was a bit of a stretch, right?)

Our entire family breathes deeply when we pass such a lawn.  I also love the smell of newly tilled dirt but that's a different blog post.

Here in FL, the mowing began several weeks ago.  The lawns all around our little neighborhood are beautifully manicured.  Each emerald-colored carpet is thick and grows right to the edge of our road.

Starting late on Friday and all day Saturday you can hear the various models of mowers and edgers working their magic.  Most of the men in our community take great pride in making sure their lawn is pristine in presentation.  If they can't get to it that week for some reason, they hire the work done.  

With all the rain we had from the tropical storm this week, Frank told me he's certain he can hear our grass growing.

We bought this house ten years ago from a bachelor.  A fine young man who worked for another church in the area.  With great diligence, he took "lawn labor" to an entirely different level.

As a bachelor, he had lots of extra time on his hands.  He poured long hours into making the lawn at house 2013 look just like the greens on a professional golf course or the outfield of a baseball stadium.

His grass was uniform in height.  The edging was exact.  There were no brown spots to be found.  He meticulously manicured his yard and it showed.

Then we moved in.

Three daughters, two dogs and a steady stream of visitors.  Often those visitors drove separate vehicles to our home. Which led to parking anywhere they could find an open spot.  Even if that spot was more grass than concrete.

More cars meant more unsightly patches of grass.

Some of our guests were college students driving older cars with oil leaks.  Others weren't aware of what their tires were doing to our lawn.  Some simply had no clue. 

Brown spots began appearing where the oil had leaked.  Our driveway looked like it had developed a case of leprosy.  Grass died and had to be replaced regularly.

Finally, Frank gave up the impossible standard set by our predecessor.  He came to peace with our less than perfect lawn condition.  The anxiety of seeing cars strewn over our yard like a patchwork quilt completely disappeared.  In its place came joy!

After that, more cars came to mean more hugs, more laughter and more love being shared by the drivers.  And of course, More JOY!  So much more joy!

Frank and I stood by our front door a few days ago waving good-bye to the last of our party guests.  It had been a small group for our impromptu cook-out; only eleven cars to park.  For those few hours, our lawn looked, once again, like a brightly colored quilt.

As they pulled away one by one, we began to see the huge bare spots where an impeccably groomed lawn existed just ten short summers ago.  Now, our scraggly excuse for grass barely makes it to the road.  (A friend recently told Frank that we have more green weeds than grass.)

For a split second I closed my eyes and envisioned the verdant lawn that had been.  But then a final visitor beeped their horn and waved good-bye while calling, "Thanks!  We had a great time!"

Huge smiles.  Laughter echoing.  Rich memories swirling.  And JOY so much joy!

I took one more look at our yard and knew, it may not win any awards but I have the most beautiful lawn in the neighborhood.