Archive for the ‘An Encouraging Word’ Category

In Memory of Judy Flatt

Posted on 04/29/19 by Russ Corley

Recently, I have been reminded of the beauty of faith, hope, and love when it seems that the world is falling apart.

Pat Ward, my friend and co-minister with EM, has been in the middle of a very difficult time during the past few months. About three months ago, her sister Judy went to the doctor to learn why things had become difficult in her life since she had a fall last autumn. That appointment became a series of tests and visits which led to the diagnosis of an aggressive brain tumor.

Judy met with specialists, including an oncologist, to plan treatment with the hope being remission. The treatment was aggressive; therefore, the side effects of chemo together with the rapid spread of the tumor led to a hospitalization, and the chemotherapy was not slowing the tumor’s spread.

After a few weeks in a hospital with radiation treatment, the decision was made to go into hospice care. A couple of weeks after that decision, Pat called me. She had just heard from Alive Hospice alerting the family that Judy’s time was very short.

In the midst of this valley of the Shadow of Death, I have witnessed Pat, her sister, her sister’s family, and a deep circle of Christian friends face this challenge with faith, hope, and love.

Judy was a gifted Christian leader who spent her life loving and following Jesus and serving others in his name. She lived her faith with her family and in close Christian fellowship with others. As a faithful, influential leader, she made life better for others and witnessed to the reality of God with us in all things. She lived with purpose and got things done. She did not believe in playing games. Instead, she spoke the truth in love as one convinced that words matter most when they become action.

During these last months of her life, family and friends have gathered in her home, in hospital rooms, and in her hospice room to be close to her. Her love for them over the years drew them to those places in this time of crisis.

It is not easy to witness to someone decline rapidly and reach the point where she was no longer capable of sustained speech or action especially when that person has been a powerful force in the lives of so many. When her capacity to speak and serve diminished, her loving presence in the midst of suffering bore eloquent witness to the One she followed and served with joy. In these last few weeks of life, she, who had constantly served others in Jesus’ name, was now the one being served by family and friends.

Some sent thoughtful cards that were posted on the door and the walls of her room. Others came to visit. In the early phase of this cancer, those visits often included the sound of laughter in the midst of concern. During the final days, a reverent silence filled the room. It was never a total silence. In love, stories were shared, scriptures were read, prayers were uttered, and there were tender expressions of gratitude and love spoken in soft voices with a gentle touch. And there was music.

A number of minsters came to see her. They came because Judy loved them, ministered to them, and encouraged them when they faced a crisis. They worked with her in a church to strengthen the family of Christ that gathered to worship and work in Jesus’ name. One sang a song. As his strong voice filled the room with praise, those of us with weaker voices joined him. It was a holy moment.

I witnessed Pat in this stressful situation as sister, best friend, and minister. She was all that and more. Some ministers are unable to step outside an official role in a crisis: they try to be the strong person in the room who knows exactly what to say and do. I never saw that in Pat. She was her true self with her sister. Sometimes in laughter, sometimes in tears, and always in love. She was present in weakness, and in that weakness, she was a source of strength for Judy, the family, close friends, and hospital/hospice staff.

Psalm 23 makes a stunning claim: “Even in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, because you are with me. Your rod and your staff comfort me.”

Jesus, the good shepherd, invites his disciples to come to him when they are weary and burdened. When they respond to his invitation, he shares their burden, teaches them more about trusting him, and gives them peace in a place where the typical human response is fear and anxiety.

There is no room for romanticizing cancer and dying. Both are cruel enemies. Still, it must be pointed out that neither cancer nor death is greater than what Jesus accomplished in the Easter story of death and resurrection. He himself is our hope in all things. He gives us hope in our afflictions. He sustains us and keeps us for things more beautiful than we imagine.

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.

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.

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.

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.

God Working in Your Life before You Were Born

Posted on 10/25/18 by Russ Corley

Do you ever stand in awe of what God has been doing in your life, even before you were born? At times, I am overwhelmed contemplating the countless things that happened in my life to prepare me, train me, and position me for the work that I am called to do. I need to have a deeper sense of wonder and amazement.

When I consider the key people in my life who were the encouragers of everything good and important in my life, I am deeply humbled. And it all began before I was born!

My father fell in love with my mother when she first arrived at their elementary school as a new student. She was in fifth grade, and he was in sixth grade. She caught his eye and captured his heart. That early attraction became a commitment that only death would sever.

My father worked hard and made sacrifices to provide me opportunities that he never enjoyed. My mother is my original encourager. She always focused on the good she saw in me. She also dealt with the bad in me with swift justice! Both aspects in me had to be worked with, but her focal commitment was to affirm and encourage every good thing that I did. For 65 years, my ears have become accustomed to her distinctive voice assuring me, “I love you. I am so proud of you.”

Then came a long line of friends. My first three key, early friendships began with Betty Ann in elementary school, Mike in Jr. High, and Jim in college. They were each born before me. I do not know what my life would have been like without their transforming friendships.

We loved each other, encouraged each other, came to understand so much about ourselves through each other. These childhood friends continue to be part of my life today. I thrill to see them and to hear their voices. Their love for me and their hope for my life continue to strengthen me.

Two professors in graduate school became mentors and later personal friends. Jim and Bill inspired and nurtured an intellectual side of me that I had not understood before their presence. Both helped me discover my passion for learning and teaching. Their goodness towards me created an educational experience that was nurturing and exciting then and that continues to be foundational to all I do today.

Then there were the people in churches. In some of those churches, I was only a member, but in others, I served as a minister. The list is too long, and I am sure that I would unintentionally leave someone important off the list. I know this: beginning in my childhood, churches at their best have been extended families where love and encouragement were the essence of our being together.

My involvement with Encouragement Ministries has allowed me to work with talented Board members. A few years ago, Pat Ward joined us as a fellow minister and gifted encourager. I first met her in 1985, and she has been a wonderful friend of encouragement since those early days when I first started telling Bible stories at Otter Creek School. Later, Amanda became a part of our staff and began to take care of the important things that freed Pat and I to focus on ministry. She brought a new level of laughter to our work together. Both Pat and Amanda have been wise friends and faithful encouragers.

You might wonder what all of this has to do with Encouragement Ministries. Everything! Long before we formed EM in 1990, God was filling my life with encouraging, life transforming relationships. He made clear to me how much I needed others. He spoke to me through them when I needed to be challenged. Those encouragers love me through successes and celebrations, failures and frustrations.

In the crisis moments of intense challenge, they did not abandon me. Instead, they were bearers of graceful encouragement. They helped me depend on God and allowed me to replace my human discouragement with a Christ-centered hope rooted in the reality of God’s living presence in the world.

Since my birth, God has patiently worked on me to deepen my understanding of the importance of human relationships and encouragement. I must be a dense and a slow learner! Still, He did not give up on me and kept sending encouragers into my life to remind and strengthen me.

Along with those special friendships, God also provided the resources necessary for EM. He used people like you. Some of you I know well, and many of you are tucked away in that paragraph about nameless followers of Jesus who have loved me in good times and bad. Others of you know and encourage Pat more than me. You support EM because you believe in her gifts and her calling. All of you are a living gift to EM because you make this ministry possible. In giving, you are a part of this ministry of encouragement.

I hope that you will take a few moments to reflect on the men and women God has used and continues to use in your life to bless and encourage you. Have you let those people know the role that they played in your life and thanked them for their kindness? If not, perhaps the real purpose of this letter is to remind you of the importance of taking a moment to affirm people that they have been a living gift in your life. Remember, Thanksgiving is only a month away!

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.

Aware of God as We Work with God

Posted on 09/26/18 by Russ Corley

I continue to be amazed at the depth and delights of this abundant life that we discover with Jesus. For many years, I operated as if this new life in Christ was primarily about getting to heaven after I die. That idea loomed large in my thinking and in my talking about salvation. I knew that living a “good life” was important, but I thought that meant acting good, according to a shared standard. I did not realize that a genuinely good life was primarily about the formation of a Christ-like character and the quality of my relationship with God and others. Our Father calls us to develop a transformed life that expresses our dynamic relationship with the risen Jesus, and the Spirit of God works within us to produce the fruit of that new life.

Such ideas seemed strange to me in my childhood and for much of my adult life. People who talked that way seemed odd. I had ways of assessing them theologically and psychologically so that I would not be endangered by their beliefs.

When I began to study scripture carefully, I discovered things that I did not expect. I saw how Jesus talked with his disciples about their life with him. I read the way Paul wrote about the everyday life of a follower of Jesus. I saw the huge gap between what they were saying and what I was expecting.

I am still in kindergarten spiritually when it comes to understanding this. I am convinced that we have been invited by Jesus to participate in the goodness of life with God. I am trying to practice this life with Jesus. I am intentionally working at being more aware of Jesus working with me, on me, and through me day by day.

There are many days when I fail in this attempt to follow and to work with Jesus minute by minute. I am self-centered, and there is still a deep part of me that wants to be in control of things. Those who know me can testify to my sinful failure to live consistently in rhythm with his divine presence.

But that is not the only truth. There are days, or more accurately, small segments of some days, when I concentrate less on me and more on him. In those better moments, I ask him to guide and to help me with the work he gives me, and I am consistently astonished at what happens.

I look at Wednesday morning, September 19. I had been in two early meetings, and as the second meeting ended, I had the distinct impression that I was to do something very different than what I had planned. It seemed clear that I needed to postpone a responsibility and drive to Centennial Hospital to visit two patients.

As I drove, I talked to Jesus as if he were sitting in the passenger’s seat. I discussed things with him and asked him for help in this assignment. I know this sounds strange to some of you reading my words. Would it sound different to you if I had written, “I prayed to Jesus and asked him for help in what I was about to do”? The former way seems more informal, more conversational, more personal. For some of us, perhaps, too personal. The shift is intentional, and it still feels awkward to me at times.

Walking to the first visit, I envisioned Jesus walking with me. I asked him to lead the conversation ahead of us. As I talked with him, a woman with a baby stroller walked towards me, so I smiled and greeted her. The baby seemed to be intently staring at me with bright eyes.

When I arrived in the Cardiac Care waiting area, I found seven members of the patient’s family. We shared a wonderful conversation and prayed together. As I was leaving, I noticed a blanket with toys spread on the floor. When I commented, they explained that grandmother had stepped out with her grandson (the patient’s mother and nephew). The father stood up and asked me to go with him as he wanted me to meet his wife down the hall.

As we walked together, I saw the woman and child that I had met before. When she got close, we both laughed remembering our first encounter as strangers. The conversation we shared for the next few minutes was deep. They shared their thoughts about what was happening with their daughter today. As they talked, scripture came to mind, texts that aptly addressed questions or framed a word of encouragement. It was as if someone else was helping me with what was to be said. All the while, an attentive seven-month-old baby did not take his eyes off of me, as if something very odd right beside me or behind me had caught his attention.

After making a second visit, I called Pat Ward and asked her to see the two patients that I had just visited. I did not explain more than the situations of each patient. She agreed to try to get by soon, but she did more than that! Being a woman who practices what I am learning, she rearranged her schedule and went immediately. She put aside a planned thing and went to a divine appointment.

Two hours later, she called me with joy and excitement. Both of her visits had been powerful experiences for her. When I talked to those visited by her on the next day, they told me that they were blessed and encouraged by her visits.

When you experience God working with you, the quality of everything alters. This is the deep meaning of the good life, the abundant life, the life with Jesus!

Now if you read this and are like the old me, you think, “Well, Russ has gone off the deep end!” I understand how you might think that and how you might come up with alternative explanations for what happened and have some tough questions for me. I am not sure if all the talk in the world could change your mind. I think my response would be: “Why don’t you begin your own experiment with Jesus. For the next few days, ask Jesus to walk with you and work with you. Seek his face at work and at home and in every place in-between. Knock at his door and ask him to spend time with you. Try it.”

Pat and I are deeply grateful for those of you who pray for us, refer people to us, and support us financially. We do this work together with you and with God. We believe He moves the hearts of others to help us in this ministry. We believe the purpose of this work is to point others to Him and to glorify Him in all that we do. We are grateful for the flexibility EM provides to adapt to the demands of each new day. What a joy to be caught up in something larger than ourselves.

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.

When Jesus Sends, He Provides

Posted on 08/16/18 by Russ Corley

We often mention two important things that the supporters of Encouragement Ministries do that are essential in our work: they refer people for us to serve, and they pray for us as we serve. Both are critical to our success. Referrals open unexpected opportunities, and intercessory prayers are a rich resource of blessings from God who enables and empowers true ministry. Let me share a story to illustrate.

Last week, I received a call from Ohio about a man in Kentucky who had been severely injured in a freak accident when a car plowed through the front of a bank and hit him. He was rushed to a local hospital and a few days later transferred to Vanderbilt (VUMC) in Nashville to receive specialized care. The person calling me supports EM, she knows the brother of the man injured, and she invited us to be involved. She promised that she would be praying for our first meeting.

I went the day after the referral. When I got to the Patient Information Desk, I gave the name and asked for a room number. Then the dreaded HIPAA moment happened! I only had the patient’s middle and last names, and without the first name, not even a room number can be shared in that hospital. This information specialist was a “strict constructionist” in the interpretation of the law! She would not budge an inch. I am sure that she has been trained that way with threats of termination if she failed to comply.

I tried to reach my contact in OH but to no avail. Understandably, I was frustrated. Then I remembered that the patient was supposed to have surgery. I went to the Surgical Information desk and explained my plight. This kind woman had a possible solution. There was only one patient by that last name scheduled for surgery. She called the patient’s room and asked if the patient went by the name that I knew. She got permission for my visit and sent me on my way with a graceful smile.

As I left, I had a sense of joy and appreciation for such unexpected kindness. One person felt compassion and worked within the rules to solve my problem. Then I was reminded of my praying friend in Ohio, and I was grateful for God providing helpers along the way.

After my visit, I went back to the Surgical Information Desk. I spoke again to the woman that helped me. At first, she had a suspicious look on her face. I assured her that I came with good intentions. I observed that she had helped many people that morning and that most of them took for granted her assistance. I did not want to be a member of that majority. I thanked her for changing my morning and helping me in my work and noted that her smile was an added blessing.

For 28 years now, I have been blessed by acts of intentional kindness (in contrast to random kindness) by people who were at the right place at the right time to help. Some might attribute that to good luck. I will not. I believe that when God gives us something to do in the name of Jesus, He provides for our needs in unexpected ways. I know that people like you pray for our work, and God answers those prayers as our loving Father.

Referrals and prayers are both essential things that our supporters provide. The third component of support is their generous financial assistance. We do not focus much on that essential element in our work. Our commitment through the years is a theological one: If God gives us work to do, He will provide for that work without our putting pressure on people or making fundraising a constant focus. Our loving Father has been faithful in moving hearts to provide for our every need. He uses people like you to help us with referrals, in prayer, and in giving. We serve a great God together, and we must never fail to say thank you with grateful hearts.

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.

Entering Someone’s World with Compassion and Interacting through Participation

Posted on 07/24/18 by Russ Corley

This past month, I witnessed Pat Ward involved in two aspects of ministry that are important but often neglected in our busy world of fast-paced change: Presence (really being with someone) and Participation (immersing yourself in their world of thought and action). These are not sophisticated techniques that require years of college education and technical expertise. They seem elusive in professionalized ministry, yet they embody the ministry of Jesus. 

Presence (being with someone) and Participation (indwelling someone’s world)

Years ago, I met a couple from Kentucky at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC). The husband was very sick, and his wife was with him constantly in the hospital and through a long rehab. During the long months at VUMC, I saw them often, and we became friends. After they left rehab, they moved to Nashville to live with their daughter. I made visits to the house, but they were not often as before.

When Pat Ward began working part-time during the summers, she would stop by this couple’s house twice a week! She was lavish in her time with them, talking and listening with genuine interest. When Pat would leave, the wife would tell Pat with a wry smile, “Remind Russ that he is getting a little behind, and we have a diet coke waiting for him in the refrigerator.” When the summer ended, Pat’s visits became rare until the following summer.

A few years ago, the husband died, thus isolating his wife more. A few people from her church checked on her, especially one wonderful woman who became like a daughter to her.

Last year, through the generosity of our supporters, Pat began full-time work with EM. One of the first things that she did was to establish a regular rhythm of loving visits to this woman’s home.

Pat does more than go by and listen. Our mutual friend took up coloring a few years ago to fill time with something creative. I stopped by for a surprise visit when Pat was there. Our friend showed me some of the coloring that she and Pat had done together. As she talked about their shared project, her eyes sparkled with love and joy. As we talked about other things, Pat and our friend updated me on what had been happening in our friend’s life. It was clear that through many conversations, Pat had drawn her out to elaborate the details of her life and had listened closely with interest.

As people grow older, isolated, and physically limited, it is an enormous challenge. Pat has been with her through good times and bad. They have shared meals out. Pat has provided transportation to doctor appointments. This woman considers Pat to be another daughter. When she talks about Pat, I hear the love in her voice and see it in her eyes. There is no quick way to describe that kind of relationship.

Both presence and participation are important, and there is an underlying factor that motivates and suffuses both: the love of Christ in us. Without love, my spending time to be with someone will be tainted by impatience. Without love, participating in someone’s world seems shallow. In love, I am able to enter and indwell another’s world. In such graceful moments, we share the joy of being together in the presence of God. In doing this, we glance a fleeting insight into the depths of the beauty of the incarnation, God with us in Jesus, the Word become flesh and serving us in love at the point of our greatest needs.

Thank you for providing the financial support for this kind of relationship-intensive ministry where time is not spent in meetings and planning projects (those are very important things) but where time is allocated to being with a person and participating in their world in love. It makes a difference, and it honors the unique meaning and inscape of people made in God’s image.

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.

Crisis and the Hope of Reconciling Love

Posted on 06/26/18 by Russ Corley

 

Today, I want to share a story that is not about what Pat and I did this month. This is a more personal story that expresses the foundational hope that informs all that we do as we work with people dealing with a crisis in their lives.

Often a crisis moment generates a strong emotion of hopelessness. The same crisis can evoke an intense experience of shame centered in the unrelenting message, “If you were a better person, this would have never happened.”

A few years ago, I made a decision that brought about a terrible crisis in the lives of people that I love deeply. After years of a struggling marriage, I had become increasingly hopeless for any path ahead. We had gone through repeated seasons of counseling that had been unsuccessful in repairing deep problems. In my discouragement, I minimized many of my contributions to the failure of the relationship.

I insisted that I would not get a divorce. I knew the biblical teaching on marriage as a sacred covenant and the strong injunction against divorce. For years, those texts kept me from contemplating divorce. They also drove me deeper into despair. I found myself dealing with intensifying hopelessness and fear. I rationalized behavior that provided only short-lived relief from the pain.

One day I talked openly about divorce if things did not change. That met with harsh reactions of disappointment and rejection. Some well-intentioned friends asked me to commit to another year of counseling. I agreed, but the experience did not lead towards the solution that anyone hoped for. Eventually, I asked for a divorce.

That decision was painful to many, especially to my wife and our three children. Their pain became a part of my suffering and the source of unspeakable guilt and shame.

Over the next few years, I witnessed their suffering. It haunted me in my dreams and in my waking hours. There were moments when well-intentioned people made matters worse by what they said. They assumed that I was unaware of how I had failed and how my failure was difficult for others, especially for the four people most affected.

I knew that divorce was never God’s intention for marriage, but I believed that it was not an unforgivable sin. I asked God to forgive me and trusted in the grace found in Jesus. Still, I encountered people who did not share that conviction. At times, their coldness, disappointment, and rejection caused me to doubt the possibility of God’s forgiveness.

It was hard watching my children in the aftermath. They were disappointed by my failure to fix what was broken. They struggled with the consequences of my failure in their own lives. When I witnessed any major problem they experienced, I always felt responsible. I kept thinking that if I had been a better husband and father, their lives would be better.

As the years passed, my children began to soften towards me. We have made progress on the road to reconciliation, and those stories are still being written. Each step ahead is an experience of grace.

In February, my youngest son, Jonathan called and asked me what I was doing on June 20. I told him that I had no idea. He told me to save the date. For Father’s Day, he purchased three tickets for the Paul Simon Final Tour concert in Nashville. He explained that growing up, I introduced him to that music during our car rides together. He wanted a special evening with his Dad and his brother Joel, and he had made sure that would happen. When Jon hung up, I wept with joy and gratitude.

On that night, the three of us sat in the Bridgestone Arena surrounded by the music of Paul Simon, the music of our shared lives. We laughed. We sang with loud voices, but not always in key. Often, my arms were around one or both. The music evoked something deep within us.

When we returned home, the three of us got out of the car and hugged with tears. When someone forgives you, they build a bridge over troubled waters and provide a path ahead together. Such grace is a miracle of God’s deep love. Such moments inspire hope and gratitude.

When things are darkest in a crisis, strong feelings of hopelessness and shame may arise. They may be persistent and tyrannizing, but they do not have to provide the final word on the situation. Long ago, Jesus invited hopeless people to come to him, to trust in him, and to learn from him the reality of forgiving love in the heart of his Father. The experience of that love is the driving pulse of new life, the rhythm of the song of reconciliation.

There is hope, a light shining in the darkest valley as we trust God to guide us with goodness and mercy and love to a safe home.

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.

Learning from Our Mistakes

Posted on 05/29/18 by Russ Corley

Recently, I received a text from someone that I know well: “I could use your prayers today. My family is doing fine, but many close friends are walking through incredibly dark times. Death of a child, marriages falling apart, family in prison…It is weighing heavy on my heart, and I want to be present for my friends in a healthy way. Prayers for strength and wisdom would be most appreciated.”

Earlier the same week, I met with four men. We talked about their desire as Christians to make a difference in the world. I listened to their recent stories about helping people. Some of them felt stressed and overwhelmed. We talked about some of the practical challenges we faced when helping people in crisis.

Through the years, I have been involved in crisis situations, many in hospital settings but quite a few outside hospital walls. I made mistakes that became my teachers. Four things stand out in my mind.

First, know your limits. Often, well-intentioned people become overwhelmed, because people asking for help have big problems that do not have neat solutions. They share a few aspects of their problems, and you get involved with good intentions to make a difference. The dilemma: many crisis situations are very complicated, because the problem emerged over time through a long line of decisions and actions that are irreversible and have extensive consequences. Usually the story about the problem leaves a lot of important details hidden in silence. Once you get involved, more details emerge. Soon, you feel overwhelmed and entangled trying to solve something much larger than your good intentions and training. Know the difference between what you can realistically offer and those things that are beyond you. Knowing the difference between what you can do and what lies outside of your expertise or your responsibility is crucial to avoid burnout and other more serious problems.

Second, in many situations, your main role is to provide personal support while well-trained professionals do the heavy lifting. Many people want relief from their crisis but resist making any necessary changes. If you begin to deal with the underlying problems or the intricate social network that is at the root of a problem, you will meet resistance and often conflict emerges.

One of the nice things about working with a crisis in hospitals is the fact that my responsibility does not include medical care. That lies outside of my expertise. I am grateful for doctors, nurses, and other professionals who are trained to deal with medical problems. What I do is important, but it is not the reason that hospitals exist. I spend time with patients and their families to listen, pray, encourage, and support in the context of a spiritually-focused relationship. Sometimes that role seems small in my eyes given the situations that I deal with, but I know that a small thing done in Jesus’s name can be a blessing. Never overestimate your importance but do not underestimate the greatness of God and what He can do through someone He calls to serve in love.

Third, be prayerful. Prayer is essential in loving and serving others in Jesus’s name. Jesus worked with great power and authority to heal the lame and the blind, to give relief to the mentally and spiritually tormented, and to care for the hungry and the confused. When you read the gospels, you discover that often Jesus rose early in the morning and went to places to be alone in prayer; then he would meet the crowds who came to him for help. How can I help someone in Jesus’s name without prayer? When I have been prayerless in my work, others have suffered.

When I speak about doing this work in prayer, I do not mean just praying with people. That is important, but if my only time of prayer is when others are present and listening, I am in danger of Jesus’s strong critique of prayer as a performance for others’ approval (see Mt. 6:5-8). No, I need to be in prayer often with my Father who is in secret, when no one else is present to hear.

Finally, learn to work in a crisis situation with Jesus. In Mt. 11:25-30, Jesus teaches his disciples that when they become weary and burdened because of the demands of life, they must come to him to find rest for their souls. He will work alongside us if we come to him and stay with him in his yoke.  He says that he will share our burden. He will also teach us how to do this work with others. Imagine that — Jesus will mentor you to do his work. But you must be willing to learn from him, which means putting into practice what he teaches. He wants to change me so that I am able to do his work. Sometimes he humbles me with my failures to get my attention. Even then he is gentle and continues to be my guide.

Pat and I are deeply grateful for the generosity of the friends of Encouragement Ministries. Your financial gifts are needed and appreciated. So are your referrals and your prayers. We do this work together in Jesus’s name. He is the one who we desire to glorify in all that we do and say. Without him, our efforts crumble. With him, wonderful things are possible. We hope that you will continue to share this adventure with us.

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.