Four years into retirement—and I have to say that retirement is not what I expected. Covid-19 struck before the first year ended. The part of Virginia I live in wasn’t much affected, and by summer 2020, churches began to meet again and groups of 50 were allowed to gather. So I planned a family reunion and picked up travelling more to visit my children who now live here, there, and everywhere. By the summer of 2021, my daughter I shared an apartment with had become licensed to foster, receiving her first long term placement in July—a 16-year-old boy.
That same summer was plenty chaotic with another group of four teens, grandchildren of my deceased friend, arriving for a week’s visit right after the foster placement, and resulting in a crowded but fun apartment. That same summer, our upstairs neighbor suffered a stroke and through a series of unexpected circumstances, I temporarily became his power of attorney, having to help him relocate to assisted living.
That fall, it became necessary for me to help my son and his family, which has continued since. In the past two years, I haven’t been home for more than three weeks at a time, and that, not often. I have not even spent a half years’ time in Virginia, and most every week has involved a six-hour drive, which actually has been the quietest and most reflective part of this time, giving me a chance to be alone, listen to some great books and worship music, and worship and pray. It has been a wonderful time of serving my family and growing in Christ. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
But a few months ago, I knew I had to make some changes to keep me from losing my mind, and get me back to my original goal for retirement: writing. Even though that decision has required an even bigger transition, (not having a place of my own and living with another daughter and her family, as well as doing extensive travelling), ultimately it will end with me having an apartment all my own, still in the town where I have come to feel at home—Lynchburg, Virginia.
I learned in the midst of all this that the American Association of Christian Counselors, was returning to Gaylord Conference Center in Nashville, for their first world conference there in four years. As an executive director of a pregnancy center, I had attended the last five of these gatherings, four with my daughter accompanying me. I loved them. What sources of encouragement, training, and applying the Word of God to my present circumstances, both by the workshops and largely by the preaching and worship during the plenary sessions. Now with my world swirling in over-activity and serving my children and grandchildren, I needed and longed for this kind of boost.
“ And by the last day, we had both admitted to the other that we had prayed for each other and knew that in our meeting, God had answered each of our prayers. ”
But no one could go with me and I wasn’t sure I could afford it. So I prayed, and several unanticipated opportunities rose to the occasion. I learned I could volunteer, and even though a total of 10 hours would be spent working at the conference, I could attend for free. I found an Airbnb I could afford. But even with all of this, I still worried about parking every day. The conference hotel charged $40 a day, but online research revealed a free parking lot within easy walking distance. I’m sorry to say I worried about whether this would work out right up to the time I got there, since what I was reading online was several years old. It was just one of the many details I fretted needlessly about. In the end, I paid nothing for parking.
Yet, as the time to attend grew closer, my anxiety levels rose. There seemed to be no end to family issues changing or new ones popping up. It has always been easy for me to stress and wonder how things will ever turn out. I can be a very slow learner when it comes to trusting God—even when there is so much answered prayer and gracious blessings occurring in my life all the time. Still, I stressed about how travelling to Nashville alone would go, and about not knowing anyone at the conference, and not having a job to gather information for. Was it right for me to think this conference was for me?
In later years, these kind of thoughts come to me a lot in the night, disturbing my sleep. So at the height of worrying about a week before the conference, in the middle of a semi-sleepless night, I prayed—repenting for foolishly letting stress get the best of me when God had never given me any reason to doubt Him. I prayed that He would use the conference to teach me and encourage me and not cause me financial regression. I prayed for a friend to share the conference with, and for the volunteer work to be a blessing and not difficult. (I was worried maybe someone would hand me a computer to do something with—a definite weakness for me.)
The evening of the first event, I arrived later than I planned. The first plenary was due to begin in just a few minutes, and I still had to check in with volunteer registration. Even so, just entering the magnificent Gaylord Resort and seeing people with the familiar lanyards around their necks sent warm, familiar emotions surging through me.
As I approached the registration line, the woman who was in front of me seemed to be looking expectedly at me and began a conversation immediately. This turned out to be the friend I had prayed for! And by the last day, we had both admitted to the other that we had prayed for each other and knew that in our meeting, God had answered each of our prayers. We were able to attend plenary sessions together, and even though our schedules only allowed us one meal together, at the end of one day we were able to share our stories with each other, sitting under the trees outside the hotel. Not only had God provided a friend, my new friend had so many similar life experiences to mine.
“ There was that memorable awesomeness of hearing over 7,000 people singing to God. ”
With the first plenary underway, kicked off by Natalie Grant, there was that memorable awesomeness of hearing over 7,000 people singing to God. Of being aware that God was listening to us sing to Him. Of knowing that His presence was in this huge auditorium with us. Each plenary has two or three speakers, but the one that most got my attention that first evening was Tim Timberlake, a pastor from Jacksonville, Florida. His topic: Is it well with your soul? Most of the conference’s attendees are in some kind of helping-people vocations, and though I’m not a counselor, I was coming off two years of helping others almost full time. I realized I was exhausted. Timberlake emphasized the importance of caring for ourselves before trying to help others. Like on an airplane trip gone bad, you put the oxygen mask on you before you help anyone else.
Using Third John 1:2 as his text: “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.” In listing three things we need to do to keep our souls well—rest was the first. When we are well rested, Timberlake said, it is well with our souls. Hopeless people are tired. Fatigue can change our goals to rely on ourselves instead of God, make us feel we’re in control, and push us in our own strength to succeed. Often, we then realize we have lost control, and in those cases, it is not well with our souls.
Second, Timberlake continued, we need to steward our soul’s responsibilities. Our job is to believe that God will perform through us the work He has entrusted to us. It is never accomplished with our strength. Finally, Timberlake concluded, we have to understand restraint. From Psalm 23 he quoted, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” We have all we need to do what God has given us to do right now. We often take on more than we should, again using the wrong thinking that we can do things without help from God or sometimes by wanting to be all things to all people.
“ God had arranged who would sit at my table. ”
I find myself often failing to practice these. Not realizing that God has equipped me for all He calls me to do. I can balk at giving up my control and trusting God to work in His timing. So it seemed as I meditated on the Scriptures Timberlake shared that God was indeed using what I heard to remind me of truths I tend to overlook when I get overwhelmed with busyness. You might have already guessed that after Timberlake’s message, we joined together to sing “It Is Well with My Soul.”
Throughout the three-day conference, several speakers particularly stand out in my mind.
- Katherine Wolf, who suffered a severe stroke shortly after giving birth to her first child, leaving her debilitated and now spending much of her time in a wheel chair, spoke of learning how to live “in the tension of the good and the hard” in our stories. She foremost shares about how the presence of God and His word speaking into her life has brought great joy to her, enabling her to start a ministry for the physically and mentally disabled.
- Bob Goff, who describes himself as a recovering lawyer, kept us laughing. His own robust laugh that followed his every funny remark reminded me of one of my sons who does the same thing. But truth shone from his hilarity. He described how we help people by symbolically holding a mirror to them to show them who they are capable of becoming, by the grace of God. But we need to remember to look in that mirror ourselves—remembering that we too, often look at ourselves negatively, reflecting what is wrong with us, rather than knowing that God is working in us to reflect His glory.
- Dr. Curt Thompson, spoke about how sin has ravaged our world and affected us, breaking us and leaving us swirling in hopelessness. He spoke to us about giving our presence to those we are helping, just as we need to share with them the hope we have in the presence of Jesus Christ. He explained the circuitry of the brain, as did many speakers, and the therapies that can be used to rewire us to heal. But he also communicated that while these are good, the hope found in the work of Jesus on the Cross is the true healer.
- Jennifer Ellers and Shannae Anderson, both educated and experienced in working with trauma patients, shared data about how pervasive trauma is in our culture, and their joint research on treating it. But they also stressed that true healing and post-traumatic growth comes only from knowing Jesus. Ellers shared a bit of her own story of healing after sexual abuse early in her life, and ended the session by having us join her in singing “All my life You have been faithful, All my life You have been so, so, good…”
Throughout the conference there are “extra” special events to attend—dinners with speakers and/or concerts. I have traditionally attended one called “Rock the Block,” and this year was no exception. God had arranged who would sit at my table, and I was privileged to sit with a pastor and his wife who had just become an Executive Director at their local pregnancy resource center. What good conversation and what a pleasure to talk with them!
Mandisa was the featured artist for this event. She came alone without her band, seating herself before us, and sharing her story of depression and healing. She only sang three songs and ended the evening by singing “Waymaker,” a fitting finish to her story and a moving tribute to God and Who He is!
The workshops I chose to attend were also helpful. I chose topics particularly focusing on my own struggles, like anxiety and sleep. All were helpful. I chose the final workshop because the title resonated with me as truth. Adam’s Dilemma and the Church’s Mental Health Challenge. The leader talked at length about aloneness, not loneliness, but the fact that God created us to be in relation with one another, which is especially true of Christ’s Church. Sometimes we choose to be alone, withdrawing from others. Much of the mental illness found inside of churches is due to this aloneness. “Jesus tended to focus on people’s aloneness as a means for showing their fallenness, or sin,” the instructor explained. Zachaeus, the woman at the well, the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, all expected to keep living in aloneness. And yet, Jesus called each into relationship with Him. He urged us to show that same loving inclusion in our church communities. There was much said that I will continue to draw from.
“ Jesus called each into relationship with Him. He urged us to show that same loving inclusion in our church communities. ”
After leaving that workshop, I went to my car and began my six-hour drive home, so thankful to God that I was able to attend. Seeing His hand that arranged everything. Leaving greatly encouraged. I always think that the worship is a bit of a foretaste of heaven. The way people start talking to you all friendly and Christlike every time you’re in a line or sitting next to them. Thousands of believers all around. Tim Clinton told us at the kick-off plenary, that each of us had been prayed over again and again in the weeks preceding the conference. I’m confident that is true. Every one of us needs to be recipients of such blessings as these.
I questioned myself during the conference about just where God wanted to use me next, since I don’t actually have a real job anymore. Was I being called to write, as I had always hoped? What I think I’m transitioning toward, is a much needed, quieter, stay at home period. And yes, mostly to write, and for God to use this writing to reach whomever He wishes it to reach. For sure my personal people group is growing so huge, (at last count 26 grandchildren), leaving written words seems a way that will continue to reach them long after I am gone.
It makes me think of Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” God has planned, prepared, and equipped me to do the good work that glorifies Him, for all the days ahead of me, alongside those 7,000 conference attendees, as well as thousands of others who are called by His name.