Last week, I made plans with Shelley to meet for coffee at IKEA. After catching up, we looked forward to shopping and spending the day doing all the things that good friends like to do when they find themselves in one of those golden just-for-fun days. Shelley is one of those cheerful optimists that makes a day together something to really look forward to.
Ironically, they say that “politics divides,” and yet it was politics that brought Shelley into my life way back in 1995 when both of our husbands were actively involved in Ellen Craswell’s gubernatorial campaign in our state. It was the start of a treasured friendship!
A talented events coordinator, Shelley has endless energy and enthusiasm. At scores of events, both political and social, I became a helper–one of her ‘go to’ persons– gleaning from her expertise in decorating, entertaining, planning and making meals, hosting guests, and organizing. Under her direction, I’ve taped hundreds of big glittering red, white, and blue stars tumbling across huge conference walls, and blown up scores of helium balloons to form conference-wall-sized American flags, arches, or even lighting chandeliers. We’ve planned and made so many meals together that following her lead has fallen into a comfortable and easy rhythm.
Decorating for an event once, she and I sat huddled against the wind, all hunched over cross-legged on the lawn behind the conference center, hovering over a candle while holding posters of our founding fathers– rolled up into big cones– over the flame to burn the edges decoratively. Smoke wafted from the points of the cones as the flame successfully burned the edges at the base. As a decorator, she’d planned to cover the walls with the “antiqued” posters for a Christian political party conference our husbands were involved in.
Concentrating on our task against the wind, it never occurred to us how strange we must have looked. We paid vague attention to joggers behind us, and certainly didn’t realize it was actually the same person circling us curiously over and over… until a security guard came to question what in the world we were doing! The “jogger” had been spying, and reported our strange behavior! It totally embarrassed me, but Shelley thought it was the funniest thing…
With a wit that’s outstanding, and an optimism that cheers everyone around them (and I will not even mention their corny, persistent puns) both Shelley and her husband Clay gave us many reasons to laugh so much together over the years.
We’ve also both cried on each other’s shoulders during various trying times of raising our kids. Then we celebrated together as our children married. (Quite literally! She was my daughter’s wedding coordinator, and I was one of her daughters’. The great difference is that she is expert, having coordinated hundreds of weddings, whereas I had never done it before, and had no idea what I was doing.)
We started an annual “girls’ night out” with our daughters and daughters-in-law (who could make it) as well as Shelley’s Mom. After dinner, we’d attend one of Leavenworth Summer Theater’s shows. This summer, we planned to see Sound of Music.
But we never made our IKEA date last week. Dan was stunned when Clay called to tell him that Shelley, at 53, had suffered a stroke and was paralyzed on her whole right side. As I write this a week later, she is slowly regaining movement in her fingers, but will be in rehab for awhile yet, working hard to walk, talk, and do the very simplest things that she could do so easily just a week ago. Gratefully,her mind is clear and her speech, though slow, is coherent. As we could have expected, she is trying hard to keep the medical staff cheerful with her puns and optimism, even now.
Shelley is one of the two most amazing women who point me– and many, many others– to the amazing grace of God in the midst of their adversity. The other one is my younger sister Dale, a true warrior who has been battling lymphoma over the past months. My history with Dale spans a lifetime– including several years that I lived with her and her husband when I was still single. Dale has long told me that when she finally arrives in heaven, she expects her shirt-tail will be hanging out, her glasses crooked, and her hair messy as she catches her breath and says, “Wow! That ride was amazing!”
With the same optimism that Shelley has been communicating, Dale likewise has amazed me with the concern she shows for others even in her affliction, and the incredible confidence and trust she holds in the Sovereign Hand of a loving God. We email regularly, though at her lowest points Dale has been too weak to even email notes. But when she can, she so often reminds me, “God is good… all the time!”
If my life– and so many others– did not change significantly because of what these two beautiful friends have suffered, then I would be ashamed. But in truth, my life has been jolted because of the adversity that has come to them both, and I know that literally hundreds of others who cumulatively know them have also been experiencing deep changes. Suffering never starts and stops with just one person, though only one person takes the force of the blow. Knowing that suffering can and should impact others for the glory of God gives some degree of meaning to adversity, even though we know we may never see the full “reasons” until we get to eternity.
Because of the suffering both Dale and Shelley are experiencing, I’m learning more about prayer than I have ever known in my life. Prayer has always been a mystery to me– wondering how man can possibly change the Hand of a Sovereign God, and yet knowing that He commands, and somehow works through the prayers of His saints. Since finding that shocking, very short email from Dale that said simply, “I have lymphoma,” I have entered into prayer as though my life– or Dale’s– depended on it. Instead of being something I “do,” pray has become part of who I “am.” Like breathing. I wake during the night, and immediately pray… the first thoughts in the morning are prayer… it’s constant, all day long, in and out, sustaining me and keeping me communicating with the One in Whose Hands both Dale and Shelley are so firmly planted.
I’m also learning patience. I mean, incredible patience! The silly, tedious things that frustrated me before don’t have the hold on me that they did before. Last week our car overheated, requiring that Dan and I wait for the mechanic for over an hour on the side of the highway on a hot day, when I was eager to get home and start dinner for a recently widowed lady at our church that I had invited over for the evening. Normally, I would have been agitated and frustrated… But thinking of Shelley in the hospital working hard in her rehab instead of decorating for a wedding she was supposed to coordinate that weekend sobered me. Deeply. I could not believe the peace I had, sitting on the side of the road on a hot day, knowing that if I couldn’t manage a special dinner I’d wanted to make, I would make something simple that would still be a blessing to my dinner guest– and praying, “Lord, thank you that for today, I can make dinner…Please give both Dale and Shelley the grace to ‘make dinner’ again soon…”
For awhile, Dale was too weak to talk. At other times, talking was impossible because she would cough incessantly when she tried. And Shelley is paralyzed on the right side of her face, making talking slow, labored and exhausting. For both of them, words have become precious; talking is a gift that they would both be so grateful to possess right now. For me, talking is so easy that I end up far too often using precious words for all the wrong reasons… to complain, to pull others down, to criticize… I have never before in my life been so convicted over how intensely powerful words are! They can build up, or they can destroy. God has given us a tremendous gift in the ability to communicate, and it’s to be used to glorify Him, constantly. How we fail! How we need to be forgiven! How we need to be cleansed in the art of speaking!
And of course, one of the most convicting aspects of praying for both Dale and Shelley has been the spirit of thankfulness it has generated. I had actually thought that I was already a thankful person! For sure, I am truly grateful for the obvious: for God, for my grandchildren, my family, for friends, for freedom… but knowing that Shelley cannot get up out of bed and walk to the bathroom has shaken me up. It occurred to me that in all these 60+ years, there were so very few times I woke in the morning thanking God that I could walk … that I could not only feed myself, but feed others…that I could do my own housecleaning, or babysit my grandkids… and a million other blessings I have taken for granted (or complained about!) just like the nine lepers who did not even return to thank Jesus after He had given them life and health!
These are hard days for Dale and for Shelley. My faith stirs me to believe that they will both recover from their adversity, though it may take some time. Until then, I will keep on praying. And I hope I will never, ever forget how my life was changed because of these beautiful warrior friends who suffered, in part, so that many of us would see God and His Kingdom with better clarity. One day, they will both be looking back on this chapter…and when they do, I hope and trust that they will see that in their suffering, the lives of many, many of their friends were changed for the glory of God.
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