March 2019 E-newsletter: Listen in Love

Posted on 04/02/19 by Russ Corley

Click here to read the March 2019 e-newsletter: Listen in Love.

Listen in Love

Posted on 03/26/19 by Russ Corley

When my children were young, sometimes they would talk to me when I became distracted. All three of them had a technique for getting my attention. It was simple in design and very effective. They would take my head in both hands, direct my face towards them, and say, “Daddy, listen to me!”

My children were constantly reminding me of a deep truth. As persons, we have things to say that are profoundly important to us. We want to share such things with someone who listens with love and understanding, and who shares our perception of the importance of that thought or feeling. When we are with someone who listens closely and follows us through the labyrinth of our soul, we feel cherished.

My children were not my first teachers. My first mentors came during my childhood in the form of my first true friendships. One friendship was formed in third grade and another when I was in seventh grade. Both friendships were born in conversations about problems and deep questions about life and relationships (as deep as third and seventh graders can go).

Early on, I learned that if I interrupted the flow of careful thought or strong feelings, that I could shut down what was happening: the disclosure of the hidden life of a soul is a delicate matter. I also discovered that if I refused to comment and asked thoughtful questions, then often I was blessed with new insights into someone’s life. Those two people are still friends. We still share meals and talk, and as we do, the friendships born in childhood, deepen and mature.

During my years in graduate school, I met two people who were great listeners. They both drew me out and allowed me to draw them out. My lessons on listening expanded as I personally experienced the profound benefit of being heard and understood. Their questions allowed me to disclose aspects of myself that I was not aware. I actually discovered things about my personal thoughts and feelings as we talked. Often, I was surprised by something that I spoke. As I became vulnerable, they were willing to share more. It was becoming clear that mutual trust and confidentiality were essential to the listening relationship.

When I first began to visit patients in hospitals during those years in Ohio, I found that the key to my work was not being someone with expert spiritual advice. Instead, what they seemed to need was someone willing to sit with them and to listen with love and sincere interest.

Patients seemed to share things with me that apparently, they were not sharing with other people, even members of their own family. They shared because I would listen without judgement or correction or advice. They wanted someone to hear about their experience of suffering, their anxieties and fears, and to think aloud about decisions that lay ahead. Often, friendships formed between us after a few visits. Friendship provides a context of trust that opens unexpected possibilities.

Sometimes people ask me about how to encourage someone. My answer may sound shallow, but for me it is true: listen with love and a genuine interest in another person’s life. Such listening is a deep spiritual practice. I am still learning how. Listening has made EM a wonderful adventure.

I am still learning to listen. I should add that my three children are now adults. Something beautiful has emerged in our relationship. Now, they ask me about how I am doing, and they listen for my answer and ask questions to draw me out. In such moments, God’s love is poured into my soul with healing power.

Encouragement Ministries, Inc. is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization. We exist through the generous financial support of the friends of Encouragement Ministries. If you would like to make a donation to help our ministry continue, click here. It makes a difference.

February 2019 E-newsletter: Learning to Trust Jesus, My Shepherd

Posted on 03/01/19 by Russ Corley

Click here to read the February 2019 e-newsletter: Learning to Trust Jesus, My Shepherd. 

Learning to Trust Jesus, My Shepherd

Posted on 02/24/19 by Russ Corley

Recently, I have been reading Dallas Willard’s book, Life Without Lack. This thoughtful reflection on the Psalm 23 reminds me of many people that I have encountered in hospitals who trusted in Jesus with big faith as they walked through the valley of the shadow of death with hopeful courage. Let me explain.

Discovering the Depth of Familiar Reality

I have met people who visited the Smoky Mts. National Park but who never got off the road and onto a trail. Their visits were centered in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, and their presence in the park was in the car with quick stops to take scenic photos. They remind me of a person reading through Scripture during a year but never stopping with a text long enough to discover its deeper riches.

Many years ago, I got out of a car and hiked my first trail in the Smoky Mts. It led me up a beautiful stream with large boulders and finally to a waterfall. Sitting a while at the base of the falls, I enjoyed the sight and sounds that had escaped me when I was tied to the comforts of a car.

A few years later, I backpacked with a friend who knew those mountains well. He had hiked all of the trails, and many of them multiple times. He had backpacked the Appalachian Trail through the park, he has fished the streams, and he knew how to live in the woods for days. He hiked with me, taught me things about backpacking and about the wonders of the park and the life that fills the woods with beauty and sometimes danger. Our time together gave me new eyes and a deeper sense of wonder and awe.

A Deep and Beautiful Psalm

I first met Psalm 23 when I memorized it as a child in an elementary school class at church. It was not my first memory verse, but it was my first memorized chapter of the Bible.

Later, when I was a teenager, Ira North used Psalm 23 to teach some of us how to read scripture aloud so that others could grasp its meaning. Using vocal inflection and pauses, you could feature the Shepherd, or our personal relationship with the Shepherd, or the benefits provided by our Shepherd. For the first time, I realized that a text has a surplus of meaning that must be carefully explored if God’s word is to be understood. That insight became a lifelong invitation to study and meditate on Scripture.

Reading Willard’s book, I am humbled to see how a brilliant mind transposes a familiar text and surprises me with ideas that I’ve missed or that I noticed before but failed to explore like a side trail in the Smoky Mountains that breaks off a main path with hidden treasures.

Walking with a Friend through Psalm 23

When working with Psalm 23, one confronts two questions: (1) Do I trust that God will care for me in this way? (2) Do I live as someone who follows the good Shepherd all the days of my life, or do I constantly pull away?

These questions have become important to me because of a dear friend who is putting into practice Ps. 23 as he faces the reality of cancer.

He had just finished reading Life Without Lack when he heard from his doctor about the discovery of cancer in a lung that may have metastasized to his liver. He has begun re-reading the book and working with the Psalm as he faces tests, waiting, reports, waiting, decisions, waiting, treatments, waiting, and unfolding outcomes.

We shared lunch recently. I listened as he talked through some of the initial aspects of this personal crisis. At every turn in the path, he is working with his Shepherd, trying to trust Jesus when his emotions push him in a different direction. He is coming to know more about the guiding rod and staff and the voice that assures him that all will be well, no matter what lies ahead.

This is not a man in denial. His emotions are strong. More than once in our conversation, he paused and recomposed himself before he continued. During five years that I have known him, I have witnessed his development as a committed disciple of Jesus. This is not theoretical to him; it is an existential, practical reality that my friend now relies on in a new crisis.

I appreciate the book by Willard, and I cherish the Psalm. I see both of them as light filtered through the prism of my friend’s life. The refraction of this light through him is unique and holy. It is the beauty of one becoming more Christ-like, even in suffering. “We share in His suffering in order that we may also share in His glory.” (Rom. 8:17)

Encouragement Ministries, Inc. is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization. We exist through the generous financial support of the friends of Encouragement Ministries. If you would like to make a donation to help our ministry continue, click here. It makes a difference.

January 2019 e-newsletter: When God Uses the Thing That We Call Small

Posted on 01/23/19 by Russ Corley

Click here to read the January 2019 e-newsletter: When God Uses the Thing That We Call Small.

When God Uses the Thing That We Call Small

Posted on 01/18/19 by Russ Corley

I often talk to many Christians who, when they look at their lives, feel unimportant compared to others. They believe that they have very little to offer God. When they observe the impressive accomplishments of Christians who live in the spotlight and are promoted as examples, they feel inferior. They ask themselves, “What difference can my life and limited resources make given the big problems and the overwhelming needs of the world?”

I am always eager to remind people of what Jesus said to his disciples, “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of my little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will not certainly lose their reward” (Matthew 10:42).

My point? Small things done in love can be transformed into great things by God. Things that you consider insignificant have a potential for great good. Tiny actions brought into relationship with God’s purpose can create an experience of love with unexpected power. When you work patiently with that principle, it creates a world of possibilities that will constantly surprise you.

Let me illustrate my small point. What Pat and I do in our work consist of small, everyday actions: listening, speaking, touching, and praying. Little that we do lies outside the capacity of any person that you have ever met, including you!

For example, late one afternoon after a long day, I received a phone call. Weary, I did not answer but instead listened to the forty-two-second voicemail. It was a referral to see someone who was admitted that afternoon to a hospital through the ER.

As I listened to the message, I knew that the next day was going to be very busy with no opportunity to go by that hospital. A decision had to be made.

I talked with Jackie about switching our plans for the evening. She was gracious and gracefully flexible, and that kindness created our time together before I responded to the unplanned opportunity.

When I started my cross-town trip, I was not in the best of moods! I realized that something in my heart had to change in about twenty minutes, or I would be a Pharisee: looking good on the outside, but not within.

As I drove, I called Pat. That reality check helped me refocus. After we finished, I confessed to God what he already knew about my heart and asked him to take this small visit and use it for his purpose.

The visit went well. As I spoke with the patient, I shared about her friend’s thoughtful call that created our opportunity to be together. I added that her friend had emailed their small group so that a circle of loving friends was praying for her.

We joined that invisible circle of prayer as I prayed for her healing. There was nothing impressive about my prayer. Rather, it was an expression of the things that we had talked about, but it placed that situation in the hands of Jesus.

During our prayer, the door opened softly. When I said, “amen,” her husband stood there with her sister from Seattle. The four of us talked for another ten minutes. Our conversation was filled with love and laughter primarily led by her sister. Love and joy are gifts of the Spirit and aid healing.

Jesus taught his disciples about the greatness of small things. Long ago, Jesus stood with his disciples observing wealthy people in the temple making large gifts to the treasury. Apparently, many people were impressed, but these individuals in the spotlight did not get Jesus’s attention. Instead, his eyes followed a small widow walking in the shadows to give her small gift unnoticed by most. He discerned the greatness of her heart full of a love for and faith in God (Luke 21:1-4; compare this with Jesus’s teaching about the motive of our giving in Mt. 6:1-4).

Jesus did not simply observe this widow; he also taught his disciples how to perceive such moments.

Jesus can transform the way you think about the meaning and significance of small things done in love and faith. The next time the Spirit prompts you to do a “small thing” like write a note, make a visit, cook a meal, make a referral, do not refuse to act by rationalizing that it will make no difference because it is so small. Instead, thank God for giving you something to do. Accept his gracious invitation to work with him. You, too, may be surprised by the results of a small thing given in love for the glory of God.

Encouragement Ministries, Inc. is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization. We exist through the generous financial support of the friends of Encouragement Ministries. If you would like to make a donation to help our ministry continue, click here. It makes a difference.

December 2018 E-newsletter: We Are Grateful for Your Prayers and Financial Support

Posted on 12/12/18 by Russ Corley

Click here to read the latest e-newsletter: We Are Grateful for Your Prayers and Financial Support.

We Are Grateful for Your Prayers and Financial Support

Posted on 12/11/18 by Russ Corley

God has been gracious to EM for 28 years. Our approach to fundraising has always been low-key. We do not focus on our financial needs, we avoid manipulating people to give with deeply emotional pleas, and we refuse to pressure anyone to give. We trust that those of you who believe in the importance of this ministry will help us. We continue to ask God to give us work and to provide the strength and wisdom to do it. We believe that if this is what He wants us to do, He will provide the support necessary for that work.

Some people think this is a crazy way to do business as a non-profit. You will not find this model in the books on running a charity, but 28 years of experience has made clear that God opens opportunities for service and provides financially in ways that surpass our expectations. I stand in awe of Him and I am grateful for those people who sense his prompting to pray for and to give to Encouragement Ministries.
What also amazes me is how a small beginning becomes a deep story if we are faithful and allow God to work.

Several years ago, I was taking a call for Pastoral Care at VUMC. One of the patients that I was asked to visit after chapel on Sunday morning was a couple from Kentucky. Our first conversation ended with prayer. That humble introduction became an enduring relationship that eventually included Pat Ward.

In that first meeting, I met the husband who was critically ill and his wife. He would be in the hospital and then at Stallworth Rehab for many months. I saw the couple almost daily through EM. We became very close, because they were far away from their friends and their home church.

When they left the hospital, they moved in with their daughter who lives in Nashville. They eventually had to sell their home in Kentucky and became permanent residents at her house. I would go by every couple of weeks to visit. The wife always provided me with Diet Dr. Pepper and cashews for a snack. We would talk about their concerns, laugh, and always end in prayer.
The wife’s health slowly declined as she cared for her husband and dealt with his developing dementia on top of all his other physical limitations. Yet they always greeted me with kindness and continued to feed me cashews.

Years passed. Their lives were rather isolated because of their limitations. They often had two jigsaw puzzles working at the same time on a large table set up by a kitchen window that allowed them to watch birds and squirrels in the yard.
When the husband died, I performed the funeral in Clarksville. After the funeral, the period of grieving and adjustment began as his wife now faced life without her husband and was separated from her network of friends in western Kentucky. Those were often very long and lonely days.

Then Pat Ward entered the scene. She had just begun working for EM during the summer. She would go by twice a week to visit. She would stay longer than I would and was much better at long talks and doing things with our mutual friend.

I was often reminded with a smile that I did not come by as often as Pat! When the new school year began, our mutual friend would be sad at her loss of Pat’s frequent visits.

When Pat began full-time work with EM, that brought tremendous joy to this woman. Now there was a year-round presence of love, prayer, laughter, and comfort. Pat and this woman began to work on coloring together, an interest that I do not share (I cannot stay in the little lines). They would color, look at photos, talk about the struggles of growing older and being alone. Sometimes Pat would take her to eat with some other friends or take her to get her hair done or pick up some groceries. They always prayed.

This past week, our friend went into the hospital with a serious heart problem. Pat and I have been working in tag-team fashion, going by frequently to check on our friend and her daughter who is trying to balance work and family responsibilities during this crisis.

On the day that I wrote the first draft of this letter, I had visited my friend early. She was having a tough day and was discouraged. I also was struggling with my emotions. As she shared her depression, I felt my energy draining. Her cardiologist walked in and needed to see her, so I excused myself.

While walking out of the hospital, Pat called. Her voice was sunny, and she was having a good morning. She was heading to the hospital to see our friend. I updated her on the situation and also confessed my emotional struggles. Pat assured me that she would see her soon and wear her “happy pants” and see what would happen. When our conversation ended, I was once again grateful for how God provides for EM, not only financially but also in bringing Pat to work in her unique way to complement what I can and cannot do.

This continuing story is possible because God works through people like you to make this work possible. The great actor in all of our stories about EM is God. He makes all things possible and is working all things together for good.

You see this truth when you read Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, the accounts of the birth of Jesus. Read closely and see all the ways that our unseen God is working in the midst of history in the grand miracle of all creation, the incarnation of the Son in a baby named Jesus, Immanuel—God with us. May we all have eyes to see our God working in us and in the world today and honor Him with our lives. May God bless you and those you love this Christmas.

Encouragement Ministries, Inc. is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization. We exist through the generous financial support of the friends of Encouragement Ministries. If you would like to make a donation to help our ministry continue, click here. It makes a difference.

November 2018 E-newsletter: A New Lesson in Encouragement

Posted on 11/14/18 by Russ Corley

Click here to read the November 2018 e-newsletter: A New Lesson in Encouragement.

A New Lesson in Encouragement

Posted on 11/13/18 by Russ Corley

Hi there! Cynthia Bennett here, Vice President of the Board of Directors for Encouragement Ministries and pinch hitter for this newsletter. My love and respect for Russ and Pat multiplied recently as I joined them for the first time for an Encouragement Ministries visit.

On a rainy morning, the three of us arrived in separate cars in front of the home of a dear woman who was uniquely special to each one of us for different reasons. This beautiful and strong woman of 98 years had been placed recently under 24-hour hospice care. Her thoughtful daughter had moved in with her to help care for her. We were greeted at the door and welcomed in.

I will admit that this visit made me feel very sad and emotional. I mentally kept telling myself, “Get a grip, Cynthia. It will not help anything if you become a blubbering mess.”

We walked down the hall and into the bedroom where the hospital bed had recently been installed. There was our friend. She appeared to be in a deep sleep. I felt uneasy, and I was afraid we would wake her. I wondered if we should offer to come back another time but….

Pat and Russ appeared to be completely at peace, and immediately each of them went to her bedside – one on one side and one on the other. Pat touched this precious woman and spoke soft words of encouragement in her ear. Russ put his hand on her shoulder and spoke the 23rd Psalm over her in his booming yet pleasant voice. (Our friend is hard of hearing.) Pat joined in on the 23rd Psalm, and I choked out a few words while fighting my tears. More kind words were spoken. Russ prayed. Our friend appeared to still be asleep.

We moved away from the bed and started talking with the daughter, but then we heard our friend wake up. Pat went back to her. She calmly talked with her and kissed her on the head. I drew close and talked with her. Russ waited for us to speak and then took his turn to talk with her. He reminded her of deep connections between his grandparents and her and her husband long before Russ was born. He reminded her that two of her grandchildren were friends of two of his children. Then he joked with her! She responded to his joke, and the room filled with unexpected laughter. Finally, we said our goodbyes and assured her of our love.

Before we left, we focused on her daughter. We let her share with us some of what had gone on the last week and how that had affected her. We talked about some of her shared moments with us: Pat’s weekly notes now include her, as well as her mother; Russ spoke at her father’s funeral thirty years ago; and there were other connections. Then we made sure that the daughter knew we are available for any future needs. (Russ and Pat both gave her their cards with their cell numbers.)

Have you ever heard of the 10,000-hour rule? Or the 1,000-hour rule? Some claim it  takes 1,000-10,000 hours of practice to get good at something. What I witnessed during that visit with Russ and Pat makes me believe this statement might be true. How many hours has Russ practiced the art of encouragement over the past thirty years? How many hours has Pat practiced the art of encouragement and heartfelt note writing over the years? Their experience is evident in their comfort and peace in painful and difficult situations. They genuinely feel honored to be invited into this sacred space by the people they visit. We all believe God gifted them and called them to this ministry and that the Holy Spirit strengthens them to do this work on a daily basis.

We currently live in a pain-avoidant and technology-saturated society. When suffering and crisis arrive, we need people to come alongside us who are familiar with pain and who are not afraid to be in the presence of suffering. We need people who enter into the pain, look people in the eye, pray with them, hug them, and encourage them. And this is exactly what Russ and Pat do. Every. Single. Day.

If you have someone in your life that could benefit from a visit from Russ or Pat, please let them know of the need. If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation to Encouragement Ministries, you can do that today and help us in this ministry of compassion. As a member of the Board of Directors, I can promise you that a donation made to Encouragement Ministries is money well spent.

Encouragement Ministries, Inc. is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization. We exist through the generous financial support of the friends of Encouragement Ministries. If you would like to make a donation to help our ministry continue, click here. It makes a difference.