Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Of Thankful Hearts and Harps

Thank you for so many kind, encouraging words about the 300th post - The Christmas Cookies!

God's miracles really do need to be rehearsed and celebrated, don't they?  Maybe that story will encourage you to jot down a few of your own family miracles.  We all have them to tell!  And our children need to know about God's faithfulness.  His personal involvement in the life of their family!

My hope is to record one such miracle every month for the coming year.  Our family has spent A LOT of time in the "miracle zone" through the years.

Your response to the cookie story made me realize how much our miracles need to be shared.  So be watching for those in the coming weeks.  (There.  It's in print and I'm now accountable to you!)

I certainly hope everyone found some special joys during their Thanksgiving week!

We all converged on my dad's home place.  My family complete with three adult children, two additional spouses, two perfect grandchildren.  My sister's family with two teenagers and a ten year old.  Can you say, crowded?!

This was Nathan's first visit there. Along with Spencer and Abby, of course.  (It's much easier for Papaw to drive to Winter Haven than for Winter Haven to drive to Papaw.)

We were especially thankful to be in Florida so that everyone could ramble and roam the entire ten acres.  My sister's three children were fascinated with Spencer and Abby.

Spencer had his own personal transportation team for all things boyish: running, yelling, throwing, even rough-housing.  He was in Heaven!  And Abby got plenty of attention, too!

Dad's house is rather small.  It started out as a fishing cabin some thirty years ago.  Then in 2006, he and mom decided to move there permanently.  They added two large bedrooms down one side and a dining room/sun room across the back.

We are ALL thankful that Mom insisted on a second bathroom!

And did I mention that FL weather makes the outdoors accessible for most of the year?!  Thankful for that too!!

It was a crowded, crunching, toe-stepping, forgiving time.  But we were all glad for the opportunity to be together.

One funny story that I have to share -

It's our tradition to go around the table at Thanksgiving and share what we are thankful for from the past year.  Even little ones are prompted and encouraged to give thanks to God.

As we circled the table, two things became apparent about 2012:  God had been faithful to all our family and we were all missing Mom.   (She moved to Heaven four years ago.  Unbelievable!)

Dad had the final word for the day.  He took a deep breath and began to share his heart as we listened carefully.  Words of blessing and affirmation have been awkward for my dad through the years.  Since Mom's passing, we've all come to understand the importance of saying what we wish we could TODAY.  Tomorrow isn't guaranteed.

Dad talked for some time about how thankful he was we were all together.  How proud he is of each one.  He choked up as he talked of God's faithfulness to us as a family.  And he wrapped up his comments by saying, "I attribute most of this to the one who isn't here today!"   (Meaning Mom.)

He bowed his head as tears dripped onto his plate.  Everyone around the table was touched; many of us swiping at our own eyes.

And then it happened -

A sound.  An unfamiliar sound.  My sister and I shot quizzical looks at one another from across the table.  Was that........wasn't that.......were we hearing........a harp sound?  Really?!  Yes, ummm.  Definitely a harp!  Everyone could hear it but no one knew what to say.

Finally realization hit me and a huge smile spread across my face.  Here's what happened. 

My phone was on a counter in the kitchen.  We have very little reception inside my dad's house so we don't pay much attention to our cell phones until checking messages.   It just so happened that this one time, my phone was close enough for us to hear the text message alert when it sounded.

My alert sound?  You guessed it - a harp!
Mom would have absolutely rolled with laughter!  And who knows, maybe she did!


Monday, November 19, 2012

300 and Counting!

Welcome to the 300th post of Embrace the Grace!

(Cue: balloons, confetti and celebratory song by the brass ensemble.)

This new posting system gave me the information just this week.  And I must admit that I was a bit surprised.  Three hundred times over the past three years I've sat down to an empty page and poured my heart out to whomever might want to read my ramblings. 

And graciously, you've read!  You've commented!  You've even encouraged me to keep writing!!

So because this is a rather auspicious occasion for me, I wanted to write something a little more special.  After thinking on it quite some time, I decided to record for you one of our all time favorite stories of God's faithfulness in our lives.  A Hawley Family Miracle Moment! 

This will be a little longer than the normal three minute read most blog instructors encourage.  So, grab a cup of tea.  AND I have to thank a couple of people for pushing me on this blog journey.
  • Of course, Frank and the girls who have spent their lives cheering each new venture!
  • Becky Smith, of Smithellaneous fame.  It's great to have a friend who knows exactly how to direct you through something you know nothing about.  What a teacher!
  • Amanda Bock Hoggard who created the beautiful layout for this blog (twice); showed me the publish button; and insisted I push it!
  • Deanna Shrodes for continuing to say, "You DO have time to do this!"
  • Oddly, the movie Julie and Julia. The basic plot involves a young lady who blogs about cooking through a Julia Child cookbook. That movie laid down a challenge for me.  Couldn't I write about life, laughter, family, tears, ministry and grandbabies instead?
That's how Embrace the Grace was born.  Thanks for checking in periodically.  Thanks for reading, cheering, commenting.  You make the effort worthwhile!  


In the fall of 1981, Frank and I became pastors of our first little congregation in the mountains of NC.  

We were young, naive, exuberant, sincere, thrilled.  (That's a lot of energy to thrust upon an established congregation of thirty settled souls!)  

Our first opportunity for outreach presented itself with Christmas, which was right around the corner.  Frank announced that the youth group would come to our house to bake cookies.  We would then go to the local nursing home for carols and cookie distribution for the residents. 

Small glitch.  There was no "Cookie Outreach" section in the church budget.  So, it became my mission to squirrel away enough money from our personal grocery budget to purchase the needed baking ingredients.  This was quite a feat as our weekly list included a lot of tuna, pasta and potatoes!  

Did I mention we were young and poor?

The Saturday morning before Christmas I bundled up, made the drive to Bi-Lo Grocery and scoured the aisles for the best buys on flour, sugar, vanilla, milk, butter and baking soda.  My tight little fist opened reluctantly at the register to relinquish the dollars so carefully saved.  

I sang carols on the drive home and arrived with a huge grin.  Putting away the precious commodities was such fun.  The richest sultan had no greater joy than mine!  

We had everything in place for a great afternoon and evening with the youth and retirees.  I loved this pastoring thing!

Within the hour, a knock came at the back door of our little home.  I peeked out the window and saw that it was another "interstate visitor."        

Now, our church sat just off the main highway.  And the parsonage (where we lived) sat just beyond the parking lot.  People in need of gas and groceries knocked on our back door rather frequently.  Frank and I dubbed them our "interstate visitors."

Although the church itself had no benevolence budget, we tried to help as many as possible.  We had quickly learned that this extra giving was the means God was using to keep our own pantry filled.  "Give and it shall be given......."

As my handsome, young husband started for the door, I gave him a dire warning.  "We can help this one a little bit.  But DON'T offer the flour, sugar or anything else I just bought for those cookies!" 

A brisk nod let me know he understood our situation.

In just a couple of minutes, Frank appeared in the living room doorway.  "Honey, you'll never believe this!"  My stomach sensed what was coming.  "This fellow didn't ask for money."  (Good thing.  We didn't have any!)

Frank took a deep breath and plunged ahead, "He asked for sugar, milk, eggs, butter and flour!  Can you believe that, Honey?"  

I sat dumbfounded!  All the staples for our cookie outreach.  

My immediate reply?  "NO!  I'll put together a bag of canned goods and other things.  But he can't have the sugar cookie ingredients."  Christmas cheer did NOT reign in my heart!

I trudged obediently toward the kitchen where I shook open a brown paper bag and began filling it with items from our own sparse supplies.  Looking out the window, I caught a glimpse of the old sedan.  It sat filling our backyard with blue smoke.  The man's wife, children and apparently a grandmother sat huddled together against the cold.  

I added some apple sauce to the bag for the children.

Frank invited the man to step in where it was warm but he declined.  As he stood just outside the door, I could see him shuffle from one foot to the other, stomping worn shoes and working a frayed hat around and around in his hands.  He hadn't shaved for days; he looked exhausted and concerned.

I added another can of green beans to the bag for the grandmother.

Frank stepped over to where I was working and spoke in a low tone, "Honey, I started to turn him away.  But just as I closed the door I felt the Lord whisper to me, 'Frank, you may be entertaining angels unaware!'  We need to give him the sugar and flour, Sheri. "

Huge tears pooled in my eyes; but I knew it was decided.  I opened another bag and quickly gathered the milk, eggs, butter, sugar, and flour before reason could kick in.

I couldn't stay and watch.  Frank handed over the groceries and prayed for the gentleman while I headed for the living room and plopped down on the couch.   I didn't feel generous or festive!  My heart looked a lot more like Scrooge just then.
The joy in Frank's heart preceded him into the living room.  

He bounded over to the couch, gathered me into his strong arms and said with confidence,  "Wasn't that amazing that he asked for the very items you just bought?!"  My sour expression had no effect.  "Don't worry, Honey!  The Lord won't forget us!"

I wasn't so sure!  

There was no back up plan.  At 5:00 eastern time, eight teenagers would be staring at me waiting for instructions and ingredients for baking cookies.  How was I going to do that without any flour?!  All I knew to do was finish cleaning the house.  And pray!

About an hour later, Frank came out of his study and grabbed his coat.  "Come with me, Baby.  Edna wants to see us."

The day had just gone from bad to worse!

You must understand, Edna was the meanest woman in the world!  At least, she was the meanest woman I had ever met.  

She didn't like Frank.  In fact, she didn't like men in general; including her own husband and son.  She didn't especially like me since I was married to Frank.  And although I had tried to befriend her, she wasn't having it!

Edna was the last person I wanted to visit today!

We stood on her porch just moments later.  In response to our knock, she yanked open the door and shoved an empty box at Frank.  

"Here!  Follow me!" she ordered.  Then headed down the stairs toward her basement.

Frank and I had only a split second to exchange a puzzled glance, then follow.

Indignation filled me.  "If she thinks for one minute that we're going to help her clean out her basement, she has another thought coming!"  My frustration bubbled and threatened to boil over at any moment!

We stepped onto the cold cement floor and paused while our eyes adjusted to the dim light.  Edna strode across the room and pulled open the lid of a chest freezer that sat against the far wall.

She wheeled around and without explanation waved her arm across the contents.  "Here!" she ordered.  "Get some meat!"  Her scowl didn't look inviting.  The impatient tapping of her foot confused us.  Was this some sort of test?  


Edna motioned to us again.  "Come on!"

We stepped cautiously to the side of the freezer and picked up a couple of packages of hamburger while murmuring our thanks.  

"Oh, good grief!  Move over!"  Edna pushed me aside and began to pull out cuts of meat we hadn't seen in quite some time.  A roast!  Beef tips!  Steaks!  My jaw dropped open as the frozen meat thudded against the box.

When the box was half full, she turned toward the shelving that housed her canned goods.  Not Green Giant canned goods.  No, this was the bounty from her own summer garden.  Green beans she had grown, gathered, snapped, canned and stored for winter.  

She finished filling the box with jars containing colorful vegetables of all varieties.

Frank and I followed Edna back up the stairs in stunned silence.  

She paused briefly in her kitchen and leveled her gaze at us.  "Aren't you having the youth over to your house tonight?!"  It sounded more like an accusation than a question.

Frank answered cautiously, "Yes.  Yes, we are."

"Well, here!  I suppose you'll need this too!"  Edna snatched another box from the counter and opened her refrigerator door.  Butter, eggs, milk.  Her pantry swung open.  Sugar.  Flour.  

Tears brimmed over the edge of my eyes and spilled onto her meticulously scrubbed floor.

Everything I had just given to our interstate visitor and more.  So MUCH more went into the second box!

Edna brushed away our words of appreciation and took quick steps toward the front door.  She never smiled.  She never said, "You're welcome."  She simply slammed the door shut as soon as we exited.

Truth was, Frank and I were back in our car, pulling out of the drive before we could begin to process what had just taken place.  Our tears of gratitude flowed.

At 5:00 eastern time, the youth piled into our kitchen with all the laughter, teasing and loudness one would expect.  We baked cookies. Loaded everyone in vehicles. Drove to the nursing home.  Sang carols.  Hugged frail bodies.  Shook trembling hands.  Distributed sugar cookies they probably couldn't eat.

Our first outreach was deemed a huge success!

We pastored that small, mountain church for almost two years.  And you can believe it or not, but I never had to buy another bag of flour the entire time we lived there.  

Just as my supply would start to dwindle, someone would drop a bag of groceries by our house.  In addition to everything else, it would contain flour.  A friend would hit a "two for one" sale - on flour!  Someone would have an extra bag sitting in their pantry.  The flour never ran out! 

Our Heavenly Father used that moment of obedience to teach us an object lesson about His faithfulness that would last us a lifetime.  The story feels as fresh as it did the Christmas it occurred!  We've told the story to our children and grandchildren, to friends and family, to other congregations and even large conferences. 

And I feel pretty sure that our great grandchildren will tell about Papa and Noni's Miracle of the Christmas Cookies!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Friends and Family

"Friends are the family we choose for ourselves!"

What a seemingly warm sentiment to calligraphy or cross stitch and give to someone.

But as I've aged, I've come to strongly disagree with this statement. In fact, I find it highly suspect and suspiciously hyped!  (Try saying that three times quickly.)

Now, most of you already know how I feel about friendship.  True friendship is a rare treasure meriting:           
  • copious investment
  • prose of appreciation
  • self-abandonment
  • loyalty bordering on ridiculous
  • and GRATITUDE!  Lots and Lots of gratitude!        
But to think that we can chose our family or disown our family in favor of friendships makes my breath catch in my throat!

I don't spend much time working on friendships that give me nothing in return.  Do you?  Most of my friends think I'm witty, enriching, creative, a great speaker and lovely.  (Well, I added the lovely part myself.)

The point?  Healthy friendships should be a balance of give and take.  But we seldom maintain friendships that don't benefit us. 

Most friendship arrangements go something like this:
  • You make me smile?  I'll keep you around!
  • You aggravate me?  I'll dump you!
  • You encourage or even flatter me?  I'll watch your cat for a month!
  • You refuse to jump through this hoop?  Don't call me anymore!
See, friendships can come and go based on how they make us feel.  I'm pretty sure that "B.F.F." (Best Friends Forever) was coined by high school girls who think an entire month is almost forever. 

In today's world, we like things nice and tidy; comfortable; matching our vision of perfection.  Friendship makes all that possible!  The control of whether you stay in my life or go, rests completely with ME!

Family?  You're stuck with family!  And that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Several years ago, Frank and I read a book by Gary Thomas entitled Sacred Marriage.  The premise of the book focused on God's ultimate purpose for marriage.  It's not about making me feel good or even about meeting my needs.  Marriage should make me more like Christ! 

And I don't become more like Christ when I'm surrounded by people who are there simply to appease, applaud and please me!  OUCH!!

Truth hurts but helps too.
  • The sibling that insists on reminding you of your most embarrassing middle school moments?  Shaving off some pride! 
  • The parent that perpetually tells you how THEY would raise your children?  Keeping you on your knees!  (How do they forget that they raised you?  That never made sense to me!)
  • The uncle that monopolizes every conversation at every family gathering?  Reminding us how unattractive self-focus is!
This list could go on but it's probably more beneficial for you to fill in your own family member that causes you to say, "Are THEY going to be there this year?  Oh, give me grace!"

Yep, God's sand paper in disguise!

We can not run away from family.  Somehow or other they keep showing up at every holiday, every wedding, every baby dedication.  And they bring their annoying, irritating, demanding ways with them.

Which means I don't get MY way!  Which means I have to learn to accommodate others!  Which means I'm putting them first!  Which means...................becoming more like Christ.

Just a thought as you prepare to head over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's House for Thanksgiving!


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Optimist's Opinion

"Sheri, you are an eternal optimist!"

My life-time friend, Brenda, made the statement years ago with a disbelieving shake of her head.  Her tone made me wonder if it was a compliment or not.

I do prefer to try and look at the "UP" side of most situations:
  • Traffic jam?  Probably helped us miss a potential accident!
  • Low funds?  Perfect opportunity for creativity!
  • Rain?  The flowers need it!
  • Sun?   Self explanatory!
  • Long sermon?  No line at the restaurant!
  • Trip cancelled?  Great time to stay home!
  • Unexpected trip?  Life is never boring!
You get the idea.

However, I must admit to you that the eternal optimist hit a wall yesterday.  Frank and I avoid verbalizing our support for one candidate or another during election season,.  But we are quite intense with our personal opinions/views.  And he has threatened to fire anyone who doesn't vote! 

The 2012 election held some stark contrasts for me in regards to matters of life; whether elderly, unborn, or disabled.  And I chose candidates accordingly.

Disappointment settled on me like a cloud when I woke to the reports Tuesday morning.  Seems like one of the most dangerous places in America today is a mother's womb.  (Sorry if that sounds harsh.  But adoption is such a marvelous part of our family story  We are pretty passionate in this area.) 

We've weathered the political season many years; we know all the appropriate responses.  "God is ultimately in control."  "This will be the church's finest hour!"  "We look to God as our source, not to man."  Facebook is full of them right now.

Bottom line?  The wall I hit loomed rather large in front of me.  I have grandchildren to consider now!

So this morning as I watered my flowers, the Lord and I were having a little conversation.  (When I don't understand, it seems smart to go to the One who knows everything for my answers.)

On Friday, Frank and I hit a great clearance sale in the garden section of Lowe's.  It was the last stop before the trash for a cart filled with dying plants.  I carefully examined them all searching for signs of life.  Then I checked out with a terrific variety; all for only seven dollars! 

Saturday morning found us clipping, planting, fertilizing, watering and hoping that at least some of them would survive.

This morning I discovered, with great delight, that not only have they all survived - they are flourishing!  Mums that were mute have mutated.  Greenery and geraniums have grown.  Sad looking blooms now sparkle.  And formerly wilted  foliage looks wonderful!  Such a great surprise!

Those blooms that had been ready for the compost pile on Friday now comprise my fall flower bed.

In a split second, my heavenly Father opened my eyes to the importance of believing.  Even if something looks impossible; seems to have no life left; shows no promise - still, we hope!  Because time, effort and faith mixed together bring a great surprise.

It seldom looks like I would have originally scripted but faith is a powerful element in all our lives!

My favorite quote so far?  "It's not about a donkey.  It's not about an elephant.  It's about a LAMB!"

And that's the opinion of this optimist today!