Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My Lumberjack Friend

In 2008 when I went on my second trip to Europe I was a part of an international team who hosted a women's leadership conference entitled EMERGE.
It was one of my favorite trips of the eight that I've taken.

Certainly it was humbling and thrilling to be a part of an effective ministry and the women on the team became friends to me in a much needed season of my life and yet none of those reasons are the reason why that trip was my favorite.

That credit is reserved for Gabriela P.

my, Gabi & Anna in 2008
Gabriela was one of the two dozen or so women who sat in on my "Parenting on Purpose" workshop. While public speaking has never been a fear of mine, I know I usually do the best when I have a personal connection with the subject matter.

You see at that time in my life I was a pastor's wife. And like most pastor's wives I was sorta expected to have a ministry niche of my own. Which, I didn't mind that so much, it's just that I wanted to be really, really certain that in whatever way I contributed to the congregation it was because I had something to contribute - not because my husband was the pastor.

So when I was given opportunity to speak to our church, I never pretended and never tried to be impressive with my messages. I knew I couldn't compete with the beloved pastor so I set out to give inspirational messages from my heart. It was important for me to be true to me. I'm no theologian, I didn't attend seminary or ministry school. Heck, the only thing I earned was a PhT
(a certificate stating I had Put Honey Through
- I'm NOT kidding!). 

No, if I was given a chance to share I never pretended or regurgitated a bible study lesson. Instead I opened my heart and searched it for a story to tell.

And that's probably why I can remember almost every message I've ever given.
They were that personal.

That was the case when Gabriela was in my session in the Czech Republic as well. I remember being completely honest with the women in attendance about my struggle to find my place in ministry as a woman, how I searched for the balance to participate, be a present mother and the honest fact that sometimes in my quest to figure it out I often found myself quite lonely and disappointed in my performance.

Throughout that entire workshop Gabriela sat intently listening - literally soaking in every word.

I later invited her to share a cuppa coffee. We shared stories, laughs and even tears as we encouraged one another. I had made a friend. And thanks to the magic of Faceboook we've kept in touch for years.

The following year as I planned to return to the EMERGE conference I hoped to see Gabriela again. But she never registered for the event. Her son had become very sick with cancer and she was holding vigils in the hospital.

My heart broke for her.

Just two weeks ago I was in her country again, this time on a different assignment. I was hesitant to let her know I was traveling for fear it wouldn't be possible to see her again. When I saw that our itinerary had us staying one night in her town I sent her a message, hoping that we would be able to connect.

When I found her she was working in the kitchen at her church preparing cakes and coffee for attendees. I walked towards her to say hello and when she saw me I swear her eyes softened. She moved towards me and when we reached each other she enveloped me in the biggest, warmest hug. It wasn't a gentle embrace. She hugged me with her entire body and I felt happily lost in that split second.

We each stepped back and looked each other over. She looked good. Healthy. Her face was bright with surprise and once again she embraced me before swooping me off to receive a gift. Yes, a gift.

Gabriela started making jewelry while she sat in hospital rooms to pass the time. She was selling some items at the conference and asked me to pick out any piece I wanted.

Later that evening I invited her over to our hotel for a coffee. We began to catch up on each other's lives. Her son is home and  for the time being doing well. She and her husband have bought a fixer-upper in order to accommodate her mother who is expected to move in with her by the end of the year.

I sat and listened amazed. She was so strong despite all the factors in her life.  When she told her stories she told them with hopeful expectation. As if she one hand on the reality of her situation but another firmly grasped on hope. She balanced the tension beautifully as she talked.

I commented as much, I said, "Gaby, you look so good. You really are OK right now aren't you?" 
"Yes," she said, "I have very good therapist."
"Oh, that must be so helpful." I nodded in agreement.
"Yes I am now so much stronger."
"I'm sure, it is helpful to speak with someone. Good for you!"
"No, maybe I am not using the right word - strong. I am strong now from therapy" and she made a flexing motion with her arms.
She meant physical strength.
I was curious if something was getting lost in translation but before I could ask again she said, "Our new home is on much land. We have many trees. I go out and I take an ax and I chop the trees. It is my therapy. I am very strong inside and out now. I take all my anger and chop at the tree and I don't come in until my arms are not working or I feel better. This is my therapy."

I sat amazed.
Here this woman's world has been on the precipice of collapse and instead of putting her head under her blanket she goes out and knocks the hell out of trees.

Not knowing exactly what to say I affirmed my early assessment, "You look really good" I told her.
"Thank you" she answered and I knew, she knew, that she did. It was true, she looked really good. Gone was the broken woman I met years ago who was crumbling under self depreciation and hardships. Her head was higher. Her voice stronger. Her eyes no longer diverting looking around for acceptance.
Chop on, Gabriela! Chop on!

Gabriela is why I go on mission trips. To be a part of some one's story, a story of overcoming and brilliance ... it's amazing.

We talked so long that night that we missed dinner but as Gabriela turned to go she embraced me one last time. She whispered a thanks in my ear. She said something shifted in her the day I shared my story with her. I almost crumbled under the humility of it all. As she turned to go she looked over her shoulder and said, "Stephanie, my friend. If you can you should buy a house in a forest. It is good therapy."

I threw my head back and laughed.
And wondered if we have an axe back home I could use.

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