Small Gestures

My mother is famous (in our corner of the world, at least) for sending greeting cards–hundreds each year for birthdays and anniversaries.  Nearly every day, she sits down and chooses birthday cards, signs them, puts them in envelopes, addresses them, stamps them, and dates them to put in the mail box.  She has learned over many decades just how long it takes for cards and letters to travel to various parts of the country and world, and times each card to arrive as close to the actual date of the event as possible.

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As a girl growing up, I found this ritual time-consuming, wasteful, and bizarre.  The calendar was a crowded mass of names, copied faithfully from last year’s calendar and crammed full of new births and recent marriages.  Once the card had been chosen and signed, Mom would have to look up addresses in an ancient address book crammed with scraps of paper and index cards with changes, notes, and other esoteric information.   Mom sent cards to people I had never heard of or met– old friends she knew from school, people my father knew from his army days, distant cousins, people who used to live in the neighborhood from before I was born.  Each year, there would be cards returned to sender as people we barely knew moved and mom lost contact with them, often for good.

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When I was old enough and sassy enough, I asked her why she bothered.  What value did she see in doing something so simple, yet so complicated– who cared whether someone they had never met (or barely remembered) sent them a 2-cent greeting card?  She patiently answered that perhaps no one cared (though she hoped it meant something), but she did it because one year, when she was young and times were very tough, she had received a beautiful birthday card from an unlikely source– the only card she received that year.  It came from her “uncle” Ralph, who was not actually her uncle, but a dear friend of the family.  “Uncle” Ralph had grown up in an abusive home, and had lost two sisters in childbirth.  He knew the pain of being forgotten on his own birthday, and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen to his “niece.”  Mom’s birthday wasn’t “forgotten” that year, but there was no money for fancy cards that year– just enough for a small, unfrosted cake and many good wishes.  Mom faced other “tough” years as a young wife and mother, when she couldn’t afford gifts or cards for birthdays.  This one small gesture so impressed my mother that she made it her mission, when she could afford to do so, to send as many greeting cards as she could to as many people as she could.  As a follower of Christ, moreover, she does it from a heart that wants constantly to show love to just one more person for whom Christ died.

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In the many years since my impertinent question, I have seen the incredible ministry my mother has had, and have heard from some of the many lives she has touched with her cards and her kind thoughts.  Time after time, I have heard of people who were strengthened and encouraged by her example and her thoughtfulness.  She is the living extension of God’s heart as she lovingly signs each card, walks it out to the mail box, and sends it on its way.

Many people have stopped sending greeting cards– we are more likely to send a text message or tweet a birthday greeting– if we think about it, or if it pops up in our news feed and we can just click a button. Yesterday was my birthday…I received three actual paper greeting cards (and yes, one was from my mother, one from my mother-in-law, and one from the ladies’ group at church).  I was blessed and touched by each one– and by the dozens of on-line greetings and random birthday wishes in the days before (and probably after), as well as the hugs and special time spent with my husband and other family members.

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I don’t send cards through the mail as my mother does, but I find myself typing Happy Birthday greetings on all my friends’ news feeds– sending happy thoughts to them,  their children and grandchildren; their spouses and cousins (though I’ve never met them)–and each time, I am reminded that even a seemingly small gesture can make an enormous difference in someone’s life.  And, because of Mom’s example, I write every name in my prayer journal.  As I turn the pages each day, I see the names of two, three, or even ten precious souls– all infinitely and passionately cherished by the creator of the universe–and I have the honor to lift each one up in prayer to the One who knows and loves them best.

Surprise!

Have you ever been the “victim” of a surprise party?  Maybe you sensed that something was “up”, but you were still shocked and elated to see old friends or family all wanting to wish you well on (or near) your birthday, anniversary, wedding, retirement, or even “just because”.  Even is you “catch on” or if someone “spoils” the surprise, it can be a wonderful celebration.  (Or, on occasion, a disaster.)

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Have you ever been on the planning side of a surprise party?  Several years ago, we threw a surprise birthday/retirement party for my father.  It required several months of planning.  We invited cousins from out of town, co-workers, neighbors, and old friends.  We gathered old pictures and momentos to display, ordered cake and balloons, and tried to keep the excitement under wraps, lest my father guess our intentions.  All the details fell together, except we couldn’t figure out how to get him to the party without guessing.  Dad was a genius at “sussing out” secrets and surprises, and also at setting them up.  We wanted to turn the tables and give him the best surprise of his life.

 

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Just less than a week before the party, my aunt (my mom’s sister) died in a car accident.  The funeral was arranged for the same day as Dad’s celebration.  We suddenly had to wrestle with a decision– to cancel or to forge ahead.  With so many coming from out of town, we decided to stick with the original plan.  It would be difficult– my aunt’s funeral was scheduled earlier in the day, and there would be about an hour to drive from one event to the other.  Dad was certainly surprised–already dressed in his best suit, he drove from a funeral in one town to a party in his honor 20 miles away.  From flowers and tears to laughter and cake..it was a day unlike any other.  The first several minutes were surreal and jarring.  But it was also cathartic.  As difficult as the day was, we honored both my father and my aunt.  Being surrounded by family and friends, some of whom joined us for both events, became a healing and encouraging experience.
It was not the surprise we expected–certainly not the surprise we had planned.

Several years later, (in fact, after my father had passed away) we planned another surprise party– this time for my mother.  Mom had, of course, been part of the planning (as well as the trauma) of the first event.  As with the first party, we invited family from out of town, ordered cake and balloons, gathered photos and memorabilia, and wondered how to get her to the event without suspicion.  All went as planned, and we had a wonderful time.  Mom was delightfully surprised, and even more so for having been through the experience of the prior party.

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What does any of this have to do with prayer?
Well…we prayed for both parties.  We prayed that all would go well, that Dad and Mom in their turn would be surprised, that guests would arrive safely, and that the parties would both please and honor the recipient.

But, far more, the two parties offer an illustration of God’s grace in the area of knowledge and foreknowledge.  “If I had only known…” is a common phrase, and one that we could readily apply to the Dad’s party.  But if we had known the end from the beginning, would we have changed our plans?  When we say that we want to know the future, we’re generally asking to know a specific outcome of a specific event– without considering the greater consequences and impact of that outcome.  When we pray, we generally pray for a specific outcome, again without knowing the full consequences.  What seems like a disastrous outcome to us may be God’s way of preparing us for an unexpected blessing.  God doesn’t send bad gifts– disasters come (and God allows them in His sovereignty)–but He doesn’t send disaster and pain to mock us or ruin our lives.  Instead, in the midst of tragedy, He gives us unexpected strength, comfort, and sometimes, even joy.

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If we had known that Dad’s party would be shadowed; that my aunt would be so suddenly gone, we might have given in to despair and bitterness.  And though the party brought unexpected comfort, it did nothing to erase the overall grief of my aunt’s passing.  But we learned so many things that day.  We were reminded that our time with Dad was precious– that life itself is precious– in a solemn and powerful way.  We were able to receive comfort from unexpected sources.  We would not have shared our tragedy in such a public way with those who did not even know my aunt.  But circumstances forced us to do so, and in the process, we were able to continue to honor her in the celebration.

If we had known all that would happen at Dad’s party, and not seen it through, we might never have risked planning a party for Mom.  If we knew in advance all the joys and tragedies we would face, we would never learn how to trust God for the next step in life.  Even more, we would live in constant dread of looming tragedies and negate all the joy of discovery and wonder.  We might not be driven to take risks if we already knew their outcome, and we might not learn from our mistakes if we already knew their consequences…and because our lives are so short, we might only see the short-term consequences, and never see the ultimate outcome.

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God is above and beyond time– He is the creator of all things, including time.  He has decreed for us a beginning and an end to life on earth, and He has decreed that we should life our lives with a certain amount of suspense– of not knowing what the future holds.  It holds both triumph and tragedy– trial and temptation.  Life is filled with surprises– catastrophes, ecstatic joy, and “a-ha” moments–as well as peacefully uneventful moments to reflect and enjoy.

As we pray today, we can be thankful that God’s knowledge is perfect, and that His power is sufficient to hold us in the midst of shock, lift us in the midst of tragedy, and surprise us with joy along the way.  And we can ask Him to grant us the wisdom to trust Him fully when we don’t see the end from the beginning.. or from the middle of the storm.

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