I was given an opportunity to speak to a beautiful group of ladies comprised of women who have been widowed, gone through divorce, or who were singles who have never been married. Our church calls them the Cheerleaders. I have always viewed this group as a ministry of presence, caring, and perseverance as well as a ministry filled with great wisdom that comes from women walking with God together through really hard stuff. In this post I am sharing with you, some of the words I shared with them.
A couple of years ago the world faced a pandemic that initially rocked us to the core. Because there was so little known about it, it was presented to the public in terms that would scare even the bravest of souls. People were only allowed to work if their jobs were considered essential by the government. This hit hard at the core need we all have of believing we are significant to our world. We were told to stay home and isolate from anyone not living in our home. We were told to wash our hands, to not touch our faces, and to wear masks if we went outside. We were told to socially distance at least six feet when we passed someone. That meant we were to follow arrows in the grocery stores and stand on little circles in lines to insure we didn’t contaminate one another other. We were also told to wipe down our groceries when we were putting them away, creating a fear around the very things we needed to survive.
In the beginning, if we got covid we were told to go home with no treatment and only come back if we couldn’t breathe. Families weren't allowed in the hospital to be advocates for their loved ones and those who died in the hospital, often died alone. And those who had loved ones that passed away found that the normal healthy rituals of families gathering to bury their loved ones were prohibited. Many were left feeling like there was no closure, no final “goodbyes,” and there was no opportunity to share important memories with fellow grievers.
The American Association of Christian Counselors has reported the pandemic caused a huge rise in people struggling with fear, anxiety, and depression. There are many reasons for this. One of the biggest reasons is that in our isolation our “friends” became the journalists giving us the crazy, scary news updates. Over the last couple of years journalists have also started sensationalizing stories to get more views. We no longer have winter storms, we have bomb cyclones or atmospheric rivers. And now news on social media is presents as, “Breaking News!” or news that "broke the internet." Experts have also found people who have had a history of trauma have been more negatively impacted by covid and its shutdowns. Many have started experiencing triggers and a resurgence of painful emotions from which they had previously found healing. I would not be surprised if this is also true for the women who are in a ministry like Cheerleaders.
I spent some years working with a Christian counselor who asked me at one point what word I would use to describe how I felt growing up. The word “invisible” immediately came to my mind and we spent some time discussing where that might have come from. I realized the feeling of invisibility can come from many places. It can come from believing we are not being heard by God, because of seemingly unanswered prayers. It can come from believing we are not being heard by people who don’t listen to us, who don’t respond to what we are saying, or who don’t acknowledge the requests we make. It can come from believing we are being overlooked in the circles in which we live. It can come from not being seen in our distress and ignored. And it can come from believing we were not protected by God or others we viewed as potential protectors. And then think about all the things we each went through during lockdowns. These are things of which no one is aware. It just feels so lonely to think about it.
As I was discussing invisibility with my counselor, I discovered Ann Spangler’s book, Praying the Names of God. In her book, Ann wrote a chapter that radically spoke to my heart about this issue of invisibility. She shared the story of Hagar that is found in Genesis 16. The Old Testament culture is so different from ours and it can be confusing to try to understand the stories we read there. But if we just look at these two ladies in this story as women who are just like us, we will see they both had reasons to feel invisible.
The infertile Sarai came out of a country known for its worship of fertility gods. She was carrying the shame of infertility even in the face of God’s promise to give her a child. And when years passed, and her menses ceased and still she had no child. She may have thought God wasn’t seeing her or maybe He had abandoned her. So, she resorted to cultural ways of trying to bring God’s plan about, never considering the emotional toil it would take on her or on her servant, Hagar.
Then there was the servant girl who would not have had any rights who was given by her mistress to a husband who was not her own to get pregnant with a baby that would not be hers. She showed contempt towards her mistress when conceived, resulting in her being harshly treated. So, she ran. She sat down in the desert all alone, feeling unseen.
And God sees her and speaks to her, telling her to return and to submit to her mistress. He also promised her that her son (Not Sarai’s) would grow up and become a nation of many. She feels seen and, in her gratefulness, she ascribes to God the name El Roi. El Roi in the Hebrew Language means the God who sees, the God who sees me. As I began praying that name of God, I began to believe I was and always have been seen—seen in the good times, seen in the trying times, and seen in the hard, grief-filled times.
We may feel unseen in our circumstances, in our trials, in our relationships, in unresolved conflicts, in our ministries, and in our isolation. And those who have experienced the loss of a spouse through death or divorce or who never were married may also be feeling invisible because we are living in a culture that is both youth and relationship driven. Older women are often overlooked or looked down upon as they age. And those of you who have found themselves traveling through the messy journey of grief and singleness again are wondering where you fit in. I want to remind you that you are a part of an extended family, eternal family and that our Abba, sees you. He has not abandoned you and He is not done with you. I want to remind you that your wisdom and your gifts are still valuable to the body of Christ. If you are still beathing, you are called to ministry. It may look different than it did once did and that is okay.
I encourage you to monitor what you are listening to and what you are watching. If it causes anxiety or fear, turn the channel. I also encourage you to serve others by looking for everyday ways to love well. Maybe a new widow needs your ministry. Maybe she needs you to go with her to a scary doctor’s appointment. Maybe she needs you to share how to navigate paying her bills and calling repairmen. Maybe she simply needs your ministry of presence as she cries. You, who have walked this journey, know better than anyone the pain and the longings she is experiencing, and you will have the wisdom needed to know when and how to encourage her to take a needed step in the grief journey without shaming her.
Maybe you can do something like the lady in Shafter who was known as the “cookie lady.” She loved to bake cookies and met kids walking home from school at the sidewalk in front of her house with fresh-baked cookies on a regular basis. I have heard her funeral was full of people who remembered her and were touched by her loving kindness.
Maybe you can be like the lady who was experiencing loneliness after loss who went to the college campus in her community and put notices on bulletin boards, offering free tea and conversation to college kids. Her home became a safe haven for many who passed through, sharing tea and gaining wisdom and comfort needed to navigate college years. Maybe you could contact the college director or youth director and see if they can connect you to young people who would benefit from knowing you.Maybe you can do like the couple in this very church who used to invite a group of young people over regularly for dinner and board games. They built relationships with those young people and walked them into adulthood, discipling them through friendship. They were viewed as bonus grandparents by the young adults and every one of those adults would tell you today that they learned valuable lessons about life from their evenings with them. They are also using their wisdom in their marriages, in raising their kids, and in the ministries in which they serve.
As far as this age thing goes, you are never too old to disciple, teach, serve, or love well. The pastor I had as a young wife and a mom over 40 years ago was a middle-aged man named Nap. He had a small church but had a huge impact on the kingdom of God. I lost track of the number men and women who went to Dallas Seminary and/or became missionaries, pastors, elders, evangelists, teachers and servants because of his ministry. In his early years, Nap started a camp for children and teenagers called Ikthoos Christian Camp. He continued to have camp year after year. Over time some of the younger men came along side of him and began to shoulder responsibilities, but Nap refused to retire and continued to go and serve in the camp well into his eighties. The kids we knew as campers grew up to serve as counselors, teachers, rec directors, and worship leaders at the camp and now their kids are beginning to join their ranks.
Every year when camp is in session, they post pictures and videos for parents and those of us who pray for them. A couple of years ago one of our friends posted a picture of a feeble Nap preaching and sharing a diagram he had always used to make the gospel crystal clear. His daughters who were there then walked their aged daddy back to his room and told him good night for the last time as Napper died in his sleep. How fitting that his last night on earth was doing what he most loved in a place he considered most sacred because it was filled with children.
Nap was faithful until the end of his life and his life was not an easy life. No matter what happened, he kept on doing what he knew God called him to do. The next morning when the campers and counselors were in chapel talking to the students about his death, our friend took a picture of what her young daughter was drawing. It was the very diagram Nap had drawn on the overhead the night before. But this time it had added something new. She had drawn a little figure on the heaven part of the diagram and had added his name to it. Her mama was glad she had listened and understood his last sermon and that she was finding comfort in the truth he had presented in his last sermon.
Nap and his gifts were essential to the family of God until the day He died. His wife and his daughters finished out the week of camp, knowing Nap would have wanted that. Just as Nap and his gifts were essential to the body of Christ, so are you and your gifts. God loves you with a radical, unending love. He has always seen you; He sees you now right in the midst of what you are going through today, and He will continue to see and care about you with what tomorrow brings. Don’t ever forget that each of you is essential to the Family of God!