He didn’t know, but I watched him from a distance. To him I was just a face in the crowd at church. But I enjoyed watching him. I loved the way he laughed with his daughters, the way his eyes sparkled as he gazed at them with pride. I loved the way he would put his arm around his wife as they sat in the church pew, and the way he sang — with gusto and slightly off-key.
I also remember when his life changed. It was whispered how his marriage fell apart, how she’d “run off,” and how he was left with the children. His smile wasn’t so bright anymore. His eyes lost their sparkle.
I suppose that could have been the end of it. He could have lived the rest of his life in bitterness. He could have gossiped about his ex-wife, letting everyone know of her betrayal. But he didn’t. After a season of sadness, he came alive again. He smiled at people, he showed up at his daughter’s games, he helped out at the church garage sale and joined the single-parent ministry. He still looked sad every so often, but watching from a distance, he made the best of a lousy situation by pouring himself back into life.
When my world fell apart years later, I remembered him. To me, that man in my church symbolized hope, strength and resilience. I figured if he could make it, so could I.
And I never even knew his name.
She was married 23 years. Sassy and vibrant, everyone knew Ellie. She and her husband, John, were a testimony to marriage. In their early 50s, they were deeply in love.
Young couples looked up to them and sought their advice. Older couples loved to be around them. It was as if their contagious love for each other splashed out on others, drenching nearby marriages with a healthy dose of hope.
Everyone was shocked when John died in a motorcycle accident early one Sunday morning. Ellie was widowed and left with the sole responsibility of raising their three teenage children.
I remember how the church seemed to collectively hold its breath the first weekend she returned to service. It was as if she were made of glass; people seemed afraid she would shatter right there at their feet. No one knew what to say.
And yet Ellie lived on. She didn’t wilt at the loss of love; she seemed to grow in beauty and strength as she battled life alone. She couldn’t speak John’s name without a tear welling up, but she still managed to laugh, to sing, to worship. She knew loss, but she knew enough to understand that she wouldn’t hurt so badly if she hadn’t loved so well. And in her eyes, the love was worth the pain.
I didn’t know Ellie well, but I watched her. She was an inspiration to me. I wanted to love as generously, even if the loss was as deep.
My own life, like that of Ellie and the man from my church, has had its share of pain. Most of it came from my own lousy choices, but the heartache was just as real.
I didn’t handle things quite as gracefully. I whined and pouted. I stomped my feet and shook my fist at the heavens. Life didn’t turn out like I expected, and I couldn’t seem to let that go.
But slowly and over time, God changed my heart. He used living examples such as Ellie and others to point me in a different direction. I realized they had something I didn’t have — but it was definitely something I wanted.
Over the coming months and years, I began to grow — in my love for God and in my role as a mom. My daughter and I have been on our own for 12 years now. She’s 13 years old and, just a few weeks ago, she attended a speaking engagement with me. She was in the audience, listening to me tell my story of the things God had done. On the plane ride home, she turned to me.
“I’m really, really proud of you, Mom. You told people about God, you told them stories and made them laugh. You even made them cry.” I wiped my tears as she continued, her eyes misting over, too. “You made a difference. And I’m so proud to be your daughter.” She kissed my nose.
I couldn’t believe it. I know where I’ve been. I know the mistakes I’ve made with my precious girl. And I know the difference in my life was not a result of “picking myself up by my bootstraps.”
My story changed as I watched other God-stories unfold in the lives around me. It changed as a result of seeking God, only to discover He’d already found me. It changed as I believed that even though life hadn’t turned out the way I expected, God still had a future in mind for me.
Friends, you never know who is watching your story unfold. Strangers are watching, friends are watching, family is watching. Your own children watch as you valiantly struggle through this season of life.
Show them what it means to live life well. Not by putting on a happy face and pretending, but by seeking our God, the One who will heal their wounds as well. Show them what it means to cry out to Him. Do whatever it takes to learn from those around you.
Let yourself be inspired by the lives in your circle. And if those lives are uninspiring, put yourself around people who will point you to His heart with contagious joy. Then when you least expect it, one of your children will come to you, put her arm around your shoulder and say with tears in her eyes, “I’m proud to be yours.” And even sweeter (if that’s possible) you’ll one day hear from your heavenly Father, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” (Matthew 25:23).”
Truly, those are words worth living for.
This article appeared in Focus on the Family magazine.
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