Saturday, April 5, 2014

Busy Days for Grandma!

Yes, I've been slow on this update...there's been just a few other things to do around here. :-)  Zoe Strauss Contreras arrived at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, March 28th, weighing in at a petite 6 lbs. Like her sister, Zoe never descended and engaged, so after 11 hours of labor (Cara's determination to have Zoe naturally), the doctor called for a C-section. We thank God for his protection as Cara said all the medical people around her exclaimed, "Oh, just in time!" as they lifted Zoe out. The pediatrician said labor had been a bit rough on her, but he expected her to be back to normal in 24 hours. And sure enough, after keeping a gentle flow of oxygen near her face, the next day she was nursing with vigor. Cara is sore, moving slowly, but recovering well.

                                                                          The first hours

Ariana's first look at her sister

Peaceful slumber at home

                                                              Much happiness all around

Thursday, March 13, 2014

An Unexpected Connection

The day before the 3 1/2 day retreat I was feeling restless, anxious over trivial things, distracted...I decided to cancel class, fast and spend the better part of the day with the Lord. He graciously restored peace and a restful dependence on the Spirit. I prayed for the retreat, but I don't think I prayed much in regards to me and the retreat. Since the retreat would all be in Spanish, I didn't have much expectation in regards to its impact on me. But God....

At tea time the first morning, I sat with a group of women, mostly listening. I was impressed with an especially vibrant and attractive mother of two pre-teen girls. Eventually, she moved closer to me and patiently engaged me in conversation. A few hours later, I told Cara about Katia, and Cara told me her story.

Seven years ago, Katia and her husband, Tito, with their three and five year old girls joined the church family on this same weekend retreat. Tito was a pastoral intern at the church, a sharp young leader with energy and vision. While crossing the bridge to the camp, one of their pieces of luggage fell into the river. He was a strong swimmer, so he went down to the bank and swam around a bend to retrieve it. He never returned. His body was found six days later.

As Cara relayed the story, I suddenly realized that I had prayed for this young mother and her two little girls seven years ago when the news came to the SIM International office where I worked. We grieved the tragic loss of this young family and the church family as well. I would never have guessed that one day God would intersect my life with hers.

That night and early the next morning I wrestled, churning emotionally and begging God to bring sense and order to my racing thoughts. Again and again he brought scripture to mind that addressed the issues over which was I struggling. I knew I needed to talk to Katia, but it was a few days before I was ready.

Cara joined us to help translate, but only a few times was it necessary. Katia teaches in French, and she does quite well in English too! It was a precious heart to heart time. All three of us were a red-eyed, balling mess before we concluded, but it was a Spirit-directed, edifying time. Katia is the close-up photo of 2 Corinthians 1. The comfort and strength that God has given her is now overflowing  to comfort me in my time of grief. God had this in the works seven years ago.

Katia is leading a women's group called "Women Alone" for women who are single (for whatever reason). Cara tells me that in this city of one million people, she doesn't know of any church that has a group like it. Katia's daughters are maturing in the Lord, and Katia assured me that she is not just surviving, but thoroughly thriving, even as she still grieves Tito's absence.

I had a tiny part in lifting up this young widow seven years ago, and now God brings us together and uses her to encourage and minister to me in my grief as a widow. God's timing and his design of the Body of Christ once again amazes me.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Brain-dead by noon...but thriving!

I've had a few confusing times with taxis and some mis-communication at the house (ate some of the meat and rice in the frig - found out it was the dog's food). I've had a few grief-meltdowns, and I am still struggling to keep my eyes open after 8:30 p.m., but in answer to your prayers, I'm thriving.

Each morning, I walk out to the street to catch a taxi into center-city and meet with my tutor at the language institute for an intense 1 1/2 - 2 hours. Some days I stay for a few more hours and memorize a short script in Spanish. The large and beautiful plaza a block away is full of students and others of all ages, most of whom are happy to humor this gringa as she stumbles through her short monologue. If I don't have time for the plaza, I hit the streets near home - the goal is to talk to twenty people. By the time I slump into a return taxi, I can hardly think in English, let alone Spanish...absolutely brain-numb! But dinner at 1:00 with Mache, Cara and Ariana, a short siesta and some quiet time with the Lord restores me for another 2-3 hours of study. I try to push through emails at night, but sometimes it's a lost cause.

So how do I know I'm thriving? Because when I wake up the next morning, I'm excited about doing it again. The Charades and Pictionary mode of communication is giving way to actual conversations with my host, Lila. I'm quite tickled with the progress.

So thank you for your prayers. God is answering. Tomorrow morning I head out to a church retreat at a camp where I'll be dorm-rooming with 20 Spanish-speaking sisters. I figure if the immersion experience gets to be a little too much, I can skip some meetings because Ariana needs her grandma. :-)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Spring in Bolivia

After several weather-delays and an all night flight, I arrived in La Paz, Bolivia Thursday morning. At 12,000 feet I spent a low-key day enjoying family, walking very slowly up stairs and occasionally sucking in air from an oxygen tank. The next day Cara and I hopped a taxi to the center of town, and I registered for 50 hours of Spanish lessons with a tutor. My plan is to couple them with my Rosetta Stone lessons each weekday, so tomorrow is grandma's first day of school.

Of course, each day's highlight since arrival has been enjoying the gleeful antics of two-year-old Ariana. She's prepared many a cup of tea for me inside her pink castle. Right now I'm living with Ariana's other grandmother, Lila, and aunt, Carola, who live a minute's walk away. When "Zoe" arrives around March 30th, I'll move in with Mache and Cara.

God wonderfully provided a young missionary family, also expecting a baby soon, to live in my house while I'm away. In the busy weeks of preparing the house and myself for this trip, I sensed a curious underlying anxiety. It took me a few days to realize that I was apprehensive about leaving my space of grief, my familiar place of mourning. But I needn't have worried, I certainly didn't leave my grief at home! Cara and I have already had some tearful heart-to-hearts, and the Lord has tenderly met me in my hours of altitude insomnia with clear reminders from his word.

Please pray that I'll thrive as I build new relationships, refresh my love of different cultures and stretch this ol' brain in language learning.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Holidays - Part 2

A Gentle First Christmas

Christmas in Charleston, SC was the right choice. Mark and Amy (normally here in Dallas) were in Italy visiting Amy's sister, so I joined David and Ryan to celebrate with Ryan's family. I was warmly welcomed into the Graudin family gatherings and Christmas traditions.

As we waited for the Christmas Eve service to begin at St. Philip's Church (founded in 1680 and the mother church to Anglicanism in the Carolinas), David pulled up a Facebook message from one of our friends in Ethiopia who posted a photo of their Christmas Eve service. I knew our churches in Charlotte and Dallas were also worshiping together that evening. What a blessing it was to know that I was a part of thousands around the world focusing on God's gift to us, our eternal hope, our light in the darkness!Was I aching? - absolutely. This beautiful church was where Steve and Priest Hank co-officiated David and Ryan's wedding. The memories were poignant. But as I spoke the liturgy and took communion, I found comfort in belonging to not only a world-wide Body of Christ, but also a communion of saints that stretches back for centuries. Past and present, all of them have known pain, but all have found God faithful to carry them through it. Christmas ensures "God with us."

And God was with me on Christmas day. A lovely brunch in Ryan's childhood home, gift-giving around the tree and a festive dinner with Ryan's extended family filled the day. Steve was never far from my thoughts and a few times tears spilled over, but I enjoyed the day. It helped to be away from Dallas and in a different family context, and I felt loved and included. It greatly helped that Steve and Tracy (Ryan's parents) were comfortable with my tears and felt free in sharing memories of my Steve. Steve and Tracy also know the dream-crushing impact of cancer.Tracy and I talked freely of our longing for heaven. And so again, I found comfort in being with those who knew God's faithfulness through pain.

God gently walked me through my first Christmas. He is my faithful Emmanuel

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Holidays - Part 1

God's Mercies When I'm a Mess

The second weekend in December was a busy one...
      lengthy Saturday choir rehearsal,
            wedding of seminary-grad friends,
                    wedding reception chock-full of catch-me-up visits,
                             early rise on Sunday for choir warm-up and trio practice,          
                                      Sunday morning Christmas program - uplifting worship!
                                              I felt so blessed, but...

I was spent. Each event had both filled me and drained me. I walked into my empty house and in minutes I was mess. While I ate, I grabbed a book on grief, hoping it would steer my thoughts aright. No help. I took a nap. No improvement. I took a long, hard walk, praying and crying as I circled the park.

 I wanted very much to get to our community Bible study group's Christmas event that night. It had been seven weeks since I'd shared fellowship with them. Steve taught this group for almost two years, and they have loved us so faithfully and tenderly. I didn't want to miss being with them. But I was decidedly not ready to engage in a frolicky-fun Christmas party.  I returned home from my walk, looked at my watch and plopped in the lazy boy. "Lord, you have fifteen minutes to pull me together and change my outlook, otherwise I stay home."

And God, in tender mercy, did it!

In those fifteen minutes, I picked up that grief book, read a short chapter, God gave me some insights and then to my amazement, he completely lifted the oppressive sorrow. I jumped up, made my appetizer and headed off to the party. The carol singing and fellowship and crazy elephant gift exchange (complete with shared memories of Steve and his competitiveness at previous exchanges!) kept my spirit smiling. I didn't frolic, but this loving group, who also misses Steve, drew me into the joy of the season.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Thirty-Seven Years Ago Today...

I was a bride.

Knowing I would leave home early this morning for Charleston, I set aside time the last few evenings to reminisce through college scrapbooks, diary excerpts, love letters and our wedding photos. I chuckled through the relational maneuvering of two strong-willed first-borns on a small college campus (yes, I'll admit I was the more stubborn of the two). I lingered over the tender expressions of early love. I delighted in the network of friends that multiplied crazy-fun memories. And I thanked God for the over-the-top joy we shared with family and friends as we made our covenant of love and faithfulness on December 18, 1976.

It hasn't been a tear-less day, but God's grace-gifts have lifted my spirits. The first came on the two hour plane trip here. I read through The Revelation - yea, not exactly cheerful reading material. But it strengthened me to read again that GOD WINS! The King returns in power and glory, and we'll never again know tears, pain, suffering or death. And yes, I will once again know the over-the-top joy of being a bride.

The second gift came after a delicious enchilada dinner David prepared for Ryan and me. The three of us took off for the beach and got there just in time to watch a spectacular pumpkin-orange moon rise over the ocean. I was shivering with cold, but stood transfixed as the rising moon slowly created a shimmering path from the horizon to the beach, glowing increasingly white as it ascended. God's creative glory on display left little room for sad thoughts.

So I go to sleep tonight with happy thoughts of being a bride, both in the past and in the glorious days to come!