Part 3 of a series on Hannah Overton and the people in her life.
The moment Noreen and I settled on the retreat theme, months earlier, my internal debate began. I remember ending that phone call thinking, How do you speak for four hours on the subject of joy to a roomful of grieving women?
They need joy, the optimist in me said.
But you can’t push them there, the pessimist argued.
Would my illustrations be insensitive? Would my admonitions be too bossy? Would it all sound implausible — impossible, even?
Every time I sat down to work on my teachings, those polar voices resumed their tiff. I’d have to la, la, la them to silence just so I could capture a few thoughts on the screen.
I chose my words carefully. I looked over every story, every illustration with an eye for Hannah, and how it might affect her loved ones. My aim was to lift up joy and say, “This can be yours.”
When all was said and done, and I’d printed up the notes for my four, one-hour teachings, I dismissed those cranky voices and sighed in relief. It felt right. It felt like I’d maneuvered myself through a minefield.
So on that first night of the retreat, when I sat down with my notes for one more look before heading down to the opening session, my heart gave a little twist when I came to the first illustration and noticed I’d made a reference to prison.
I turned the page … and saw a reference to chains. The twist in my heart became a full shimmy. What had I done? More scribbling. More scanning. More heart galloping. Prison, prisoner, shackles, chains … I’d done the very thing I most wanted not to do — I’d filled my teaching with words too familiar, too painful for this group of women.
My sister, Nancy, was in the condo’s living room reading her Bible. “Listen to this,” I said. When I’d finished, I asked her the question I was wondering myself. “Do you think this isn’t a coincidence?”
Nancy nodded. “It all must be in there for a reason.”
I thought about Romans 11:25, which says that “a partial blindness has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” God had apparently granted me a partial blindness until I was fully away from my printer and unable to fix my words.
Noreen called from her condo just then to pray with me.
“You won’t believe this,” I began.
She listened, and agreed. “You have to leave it in.” We prayed together, and then I gathered my notes and walked with Nancy down to the meeting room. I walked through those doors, looked at all those beautiful, smiling faces, and said another quick prayer. Father, don’t let me hurt them.
I’m a big believer in laying all your cards on the table. So after worship, and a short vignette in what would be an ongoing play throughout our retreat, I stood at the podium and told the women what had happened. I told them my hopes for our retreat, my fears over how my words might affect them, and my belief that it had to be said. And I told them what the Lord had spoken to me on the walk down from my room.
“There’s more than one kind of prison. Sometimes, the chains we find around us are chains of our own making. I believe God will free Hannah — but I believe He wants to free you, too.”
I shared my points, my stories, my verses. And I watched the same progression I’ve seen dozens of times in dozens of settings. The women didn’t know me — and then they did. Polite smiles transformed into genuine smiles of connection and understanding. We went from strangers to friends, and I knew that by the end of the second session, we’d go from friends to family.
I held off crying until the very end, when, while praying, I had a vision of Hannah — Hannah not being in the room with us. So I prayed what I was thinking. “Tonight, Lord, give Hannah her own retreat with You. Let Your nearness be more real to her than it’s ever been. Let her know how loved she is.”
“And then, Lord, please bring her home.”
Header photo by Dan Winters, tmdaily.com