I just found out that Ginny Parrish died. I was sitting in a busy Jewish deli near our house, eating berries and working on work tasks on my computer when my phone rang. The room was full and noisy, but I cupped my hear to my phone because it was mom. She told me the news, her voice choked on the words. I was stoic. I said the things that are true, “Good, I’m glad she’s out of pain. Glad that her suffering didn’t last longer.” I knew my emotionless, rational response was not the kind of connection my mom wanted in that moment—but I couldn’t go there. I couldn’t connect to the grief, the loss, the celebration of Ginny’s life and the weight of all she has meant to me. I had to stay removed. I had to kept working, I was waiting for David to be done with a presentation in the other room.
Ginny was one of the most sincere, authentic, fun, full-of-life women I've ever known. I could talk to her about anything and I have learned more about Jesus from watching her life than I'll ever be able to repay. She was my Children's Pastor when I was a child growing up at the First Presbyterian Church of Burbank. When she moved a few hours away, I still visited her every so often. In the last few months, she suffered. Cancer that filled her 92-year-old body and she ended up in hospice. I visited her for the last time a few weeks ago and said all I needed her to hear in a letter I'd sent. As I left, I knew it was goodbye---but who wants to face that? She looked me deep in the eyes, kissed me on the cheek and said she loved me. A deep unshakable love I could trust.
Now I’m home. I’m alone. I’m thinking and feeling it all while I prepare for a weekend retreat I’m speaking at up at Forest Home. The wind is blowing in the trees outside and I’m wondering, “What is Ginny’s first day in heaven like?” I bet it’s breathtaking. I imagine her getting the whole picture—the one she had faith her whole life that she would someday see. I can only imagine the crowd waiting for her on the other side of the River of Life. I’m clicking through pictures of her on Facebook and still pushing the tears away. I don’t want to be alone when I cry, I tell myself. I’ll wait.
But then a memory comes. 2007. Two weeks after the fire at Malibu Presbyterian Church, the one that burned it to the ground. Someone anonymously paid for me to go to a retreat in the mountains—a welcome getaway. These people, whoever they were, knew I needed the retreat and refreshment after one of the most traumatic events I’ve ever gone through in my life.
I was wrestling with the big questions you do when your world gets turned upside-down. Laying under the trees by the lake up at the camp, Forest Home, I’d grown up going to every single summer I felt safe to do some wrestling and letting go. I looked up at the sycamore leaves, blowing in the cool autumn wind and wondered, "Why do you do the things you do? Why do you do them the way that you do?” How is it that a cute church burns to the ground and the houses nearby are spared? Today it was the church, but other days it has been my questions about the deaths of children, suicides of teenagers, and sudden accidents that take the lives of really amazing people. I’ve learned that this kind of pain is a mystery. I don’t understand why sometimes we experience a "near miss"—but other times it seems as though God turns his head, not preventing a thing. Laying under the trees, contemplating the fire and the loss of this place, my office and my normal, I wondered if God could hear me. My normal had been forever rocked and I was unthawing from a few weeks of shock as I tried to grasp what my new life was going to look like for the next many years.
Suddenly I had this impulse, an “I should go to the bookstore” nudge. I love to shop and I also have a tough time sitting still for very long. In my quiet to-myself-prayer I said, “Lord, I’m here. I’ll stay here.” And then as clear as day I knew that this nudge wasn’t my “let’s go buy books and things and see people!!” impulse but one that was a deeper, divine---a nudge. I got up, climbed in my car and drove over to the other side of the camp property where the bookstore was. I felt a little dazed, wondering and doubting if this was really God or conjecture in the midst of all of my doubt and wondering. I walked into the bookstore and there she was: Ginny Parrish. Sitting there in the bookstore with her darling husband, Dick. You see, this is one of my miracles.
I was so alone, so weary, so in need of comfort and reassurance that God was still God even when life felt rather unraveled. Sitting beside the fireplace on a small plaid couch was my Children’s Pastor. She was the one who had sorted glue and supplies for my Sunday School classes, the one who had tenderly told me how much God loved me and the one who’d taught me to love and pray for the people around the world who lived in poverty. I really can’t think of anyone able to comfort as well as these two people in this particular moment. How in the world it all fit together that they were there the same weekend in the mountains at this special place is pure divine mystery. Here, at Forest Home, I’d learned what God felt like—and God showed me again by surprising me with this perfectly timed meeting.
This is probably the only woman in my life who would also understand who I am in an intimate, deep, “only-those-who-have-known-you-as-a-child” way and understand the job I was doing. Ginny had walked so many of the same steps on this road I was walking. Her son-in-law has been a pastor at the same church in Malibu years ago AND she had spent decades at my childhood church in Burbank. She knew the whole story and I didn't even have to say a word.
Being a Children’s Pastor is a job that is more than Sunday School and glue and lesson plans—if you do it right it is one of being a stable support for families as they walk the days and years of childhood with their kids. I’d been the “calm in the storm” presence for a few weeks and as I stared down the road at several years more of this role—I was not thrilled or honored or excited that God had picked me. I was tired just thinking about it. Maybe I was even a little mad at God for picking me.
I sat down on the couch next to them. Family. Here we were. I didn’t even get the words out, “What are you doing here…” and she warmly said, “Oh, there you are. I’ve been praying for you and I thought I might see you.”
How did she know this? I was startled, in a bit of shock aware now with confidence that the "nudge" while I was under the tree moments ago was not in my head---but an invitation to something so perfect, so sweet. Only by the Spirit of God who filled up every square inch of this lady’s little body---only God could have given her this sense of things. Ginny was so close to the deeper reality that this wasn’t even a surprise but all part of the conversation she'd been having with God. I smiled. Tears in my eyes. Here, God’s evidence to me that He is in fact always with me in the tough times—even when I don’t understand the “whys" and “hows" of life. God is with us—always providing in the deepest, surest reassurance that He loves us. No matter what.
She invited me to sit down. Sitting across from her, I looked deep into her sparkling eyes and she told me some stories about when I was young and she was leading the Children’s Ministry at Burbank Pres. Her tone was serious and clear, warning me of the kinds of things to expect in such a crisis and how to equip myself to walk through each week with confidence. She told me to get to church early to pray and to be looking with my heart for the deeper realities in my midst. We talked for a while and she laid her hands on mine and prayed for me. Her peaceful presence became the gift I needed---filled with the “Oh, we’re so sorry. We are with you,” comfort and love I needed.
Maybe God is invisible, but when He loves me in these ways I see Him. God loves us down to the details, throwing "surprise parties" at camp when we need them most. God becomes visible because He takes up residence in the bodies and souls of those who invite Him to---I just have to have new eyes to truly see.
And so the tears are here now as I hear that she has passed away from this life to the next. How do you honor the life of someone so precious, wise, and extraordinary? This woman prayed for me every single day, a gift I'll never even begin to grasp. Today I feel a sense of the passing of the torch. It’s my turn to intentionally pray for children in my life, to encourage them, sacrifice for them and to know God with so much confidence that He can use me to be in the right place at the right time and not be surprised by it. I know that when she went to heaven, she was not surprised when she met Jesus. She already knew him and He said, “Oh, there you are.” and smiled. A warm welcome home.