To and From Hawaii with Love

When the invitation to speak for a women’s conference in Hawaii came nine months ago, we “knew” it would be God’s will for me to say “yes.”  Isn’t it always His will that we go to Hawaii??

We’ve joked that way each time we’ve been invited to Hawaii, but in all honesty, we do pray for confirmation of His will, even for invitations to what has become our second favorite place in the world.  And we knew that only He could’ve orchestrated this invitation, the back story of which began 25 years ago at Campus by the Sea (our first favorite place in the world).

The invitation came from Stacey Taylor, who 25 years ago was twelve-year-old family camper Stacey Munsey.  She came to CBS with her single mom and her four siblings, as well as several of her aunts and their children, beginning a tradition which is still alive today.  A collection of Munseys, Huitts, Browns, and Cekoriches show up at family camp every summer (missing only a couple of summers when their name never made it to the top of the waiting list).

Through Stacey’s teen years, as she navigated the challenges of a broken home, CBS became a place of refuge and hope.  In her words, she was drawn to the truth of the gospel and wanted desperately to live her life according to that truth, but brokenness in several critical areas hindered the full realization of that desire (a reality all of us share with her).  Even still, she returned—summer after summer—to have her wounds dressed and her hope renewed.

When Stacey invited me, she wrote this:

“Virginia and Paul, I am so blessed that you were a part of my teen years, in a home without a parent-team, without relationship role models, without a true vision and understanding of my worth to our Lord. I will not forget what I did grow up with: a family whose heart craved to know our Lord more.”

She got married in her early twenties and bore her first son.  For many reasons, that marriage failed quickly and she juggled being a single mom with trying to finish college during her mid-twenties.  Though not easy years, she is a survivor, and during this time her faith grew by leaps and bounds.  Through much hard work and perseverance, framed within the grace of God whose love for her was transforming her from the inside out, she managed to get through college and provide stability for her son.  Her every-summer family camp tradition became sporadic physically, but remained constant in her heart.

Stacey was last at CBS six years ago, only a few years into her marriage to Britton Taylor, who serves with the U.S. Navy.  As she landed at CBS that summer with Britton, Caleb, and Kirstyn, her beautiful smile told it all.  She was in a secure marriage with a godly man and together they were committed to raising their children for Him.  I remember being moved by how healthy and happy their little family was; it was obviously the work of God in their lives.

Since then, their assignments have kept them geographically too far from CBS to come back, but they are finishing a 3-year tour in Hawaii this summer and are being relocated to Everett, WA, so their plans are in motion to attend family camp in 2012.

I know that’s a lot of background for this post about the women’s conference, but I am so deeply moved by the Christlikeness of this family, I can’t really stop thinking about them.  Stacey’s journey reflects with unmistakeable clarity the power of God to redeem, to transform, and to accomplish His purposes.  She is an amazing mother to her four children, a loving wife to her husband of almost 9 years, and a faithful mentor to a variety of younger moms God brings across her path.  She is leading ministries that are equipping and encouraging marriages and families with Biblical truth.  And she completed a masters in marriage, family, and child therapy in the last few years.  Wow!

So, when Stacey invited me to speak for the the PWOC retreat (Protestant Women of the Chapel) back in July (while we were doing family camps at CBS), we agreed with her that this was God’s will.

Even so, I had no idea of how deeply I would be blessed and impacted by the time with Stacey and these wonderful women.

From the time Stacey picked me up at the Honolulu airport Thursday afternoon, March 17, until she returned me there Sunday late afternoon, each moment seemed God-breathed.  First stop: her base housing, which allowed me to have a peek at her sweet family, including her husband, her four children, and 9 one-week-old chocolate lab puppies.  Busy household!!

Stacey holds her “baby” Karelyn, and is surrounded by oldest son Caleb, Kirstyn (holding one of the puppies), and Camden.

And then we were off to Mokuleia, a Christian camp located on the west coast of Oahu, right across from Dillingham Field airstrip.  The camp is right on the water, so had we been one week earlier, we would’ve been evacuated for the tsunami.  Thankfully, our only weather excitement came in the form of rain that visited us on and off during the weekend.  At least it was warm rain.

The ladies began gathering Friday afternoon and were welcomed by a warm registration team.  Arriving at their rooms, they were surprised to find  personalized goodie bags and other gifts on their beds.  Stacey and her team didn’t miss anything!  Each woman felt well loved by the time they reached their rooms!  After a great dinner punctuated by a worshipful hula, all gathered in the beautifully decorated meeting room for the start of the conference.  It was very impressive to see the ambience created by some hardworking designers, whose creativity transformed the functional space into a warm, welcoming, “we love you” refuge.

Part of the welcome committee, ready for action, who maintained this coffee/tea station throughout the weekend.

The theme of the first meeting Friday night was “He knows me and still loves me!” based on Psalm 139.  How good it is to be reminded from that psalm that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  That I’m fearfully and wonderfully made, that He knows me fully, that He knows my name, and that His love for me is deeper than I’ll ever fully understand.  It laid a great foundation for the rest of the weekend.  Walking to our cabins under a full moon to go to bed was a perfect ending to a seamless start.

Stacey welcomes everyone and launched the conference Friday evening.

The full moon was an added gift to the weekend.

Saturday dawned before it was bright; the 6 am prayer meeting at the beach beat the sun up, and though it was hard to interrupt sound sleep at that very early hour, it was well worth it.  A surprising number of women joined the circle to intercede for many and it truly was a “sweet hour of prayer” and a fitting start to the day.  The morning session focused on a look at God’s creativity as seen in our differing temperaments, “Fearfully and Wonderfully Wired,” and we had a rollicking good time laughing at the ins and outs of our personalities.  But it was more than fun—it was insightful and equipping as we considered the challenges we face in accepting and validating our differences, especially in our marriages.  There were many “aha!” moments that will hopefully make a difference relationally going forward.

That night, we looked at "Taking the Road Less Travelled—Trail Markers Along the Way,” springboarding off my book Raising a Trailblazer:  Rite of Passage Trail Markers for your Set-Apart Teen (as per request by Stacey).  Knowing that not all of the women had children approaching the teen years (either because they were empty-nesters, not yet moms, or were moms of really young children), I broadened the application of the principles for all.  For instance, the 13th-year rite of passage focuses on the value of purity, but at what age does purity become unimportant?  God calls us to purity our whole life, so I challenged the women to consider their own pursuit of purity in what they read, see, do, how they dress, etc.  I was thankful for a fairly universal application of the heart of the book and was really touched to hear how the talk affected a number of the women.

Besides our main sessions, I loved being available to the women, and they seemed to love my availability.  After meeting with women before and after sessions, I crawled into bed at 1 am both Friday and Saturday nights—rather exhausted, but contentedly so.

Sunday started with rain, so after getting up to my alarm at 5:45 am for prayer meeting, my housemates informed me that the outdoor prayer meeting was cancelled due to rain, so I happily went back to bed for another hour.  I later found out that the devoted prayer warriors met anyway—indoors.  I’m sure they prayed for me, because once again, during the final session, I was very aware of the presence of God.  My last talk, entitled “Forever 31 . . . and Making a Difference:  Five “D’s” that will improve your GPA*” (Growing a Proverbs 31 Attitude), was a charge to be devoted to growing as Proverbs 31 ladies and to DO something to make a difference for the kingdom with each one’s unique gifting and call.  I sensed that the women were stirred by the spirit of God and left with resolve to be more fully His, driven by His purposes.

The book table was ably managed by Jenn Forxworth - top right- (whose brother Thomas Austin is on the practice squad for the New England Patriots, and who along with his wife Margaret, was very involved in our couples’ Bible study last fall!), and helpers Stephanie and Kelly.  The ladies were thrilled to have some new resources to take home with them and definitely set a record per capita for book sales. 

There were many reasons this women’s retreat was the richest and most meaningful I’ve ever been a part of, but two stand out with prominence.  I’ve already written about the first: Stacey.  The second is that this wasn’t any ordinary group of women: these women are married to men who are serving our country through the armed forces.  The context linked me back to my growing up years, as the daughter of a Naval officer and his very devoted wife, my mom.  It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of things like deployments and ID cards and base housing and uniforms, but it all came flooding back to me kind of like a tsunami figuratively.  I felt a bond with these women in a way I hadn’t expected, for though I’m not a military wife, my years as a Navy “brat” connected me with their world on a fairly deep level.

Interestingly, I felt that some of my most persuasive encouragement to the women came as a result of the gift my parents gave me and my 6 siblings of the strength of their marriage.  Stacey reported that just the week before, statistics had been released revealing that the divorce rate among the military is highest at the bases of the Pacific Fleet — right there in the idyllic paradise of Oahu.  I wanted to give these women hope that they could avoid being part of that dismal statistic by the grace of God and by prioritizing, guarding, and investing in their marriages.  I used many examples from what I observed in my parents’ marriage as a kid growing up in the military.  I can still see my mom every night as I kissed her good-night sitting at the huge mahogany table she and my dad had built together,  writing him on a plain Mead tablet.  Every night.  She numbered the letters and sent them off every day.  My dad was doing the same thing from wherever he was in the world.  And when he was out at sea, it was a red-letter day when the mailman brought 2 dozen letters to her in one day due to a mail drop in the middle of the sea.  His were numbered as well, so my very happy mom would know the order in which to read them, and also would know if any were missing.  Those letters are bundled and preserved in boxes to this day, as my parents approach their 63rd wedding anniversary.  Obviously we were never privy to the contents of those letters (I do remember overhearing my dad instruct my mom to burn them before they left this earth), but their impact was huge in terms of our sense of security of the solidarity of our parents’ marriage.

I asked my mom to write these precious women some thoughts from “one who’s been there” and this is what she wrote:

A few thoughts from an old military wife...
There are many jobs I think I could have done well in my life, but God gave me the best of all: wife and mother. To make it even more challenging and interesting, He made me a military wife.
A few of the things I learned I would like to share with you.  First of all, you are a wife and helpmeet and as such you have no military rank, no matter who your husband is.
But you do have have the privilege of helping other wives in so many ways. Take advantage of that.
The Navy used to say, “if we would have wanted you to have a wife we would have issued her with your sea bag.”  Thank heaven that has changed and the military has finally realized what an asset a family is to a service member.
Military life is difficult but also rewarding. My first advice is that you support your spouse in every way you can. Being a wife is hard, being a serviceman’s wife is even harder.
If you are a parent, the most important thing you can do for your children, besides loving their father well, is to have the same set of rules and standards when their father is away as you do when he is home.  So many times after the ship had sailed I heard a few “Boy, am I glad he is gone.  Now we can do things differently.”  That is a recipe for disaster for your child.
Most of all, I will say that had I not been a Christian, letting God lead in my life, my Navy journey would have been much more difficult. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”  (Phil 4:13) was the verse I relied on to get me through many tough times.
I hope you are having a fantastic retreat in beautiful Hawaii. 
Esther Collins

The women loved it!  What a treasure to have her speak into their lives words that few others could speak.

So I left the weekend empty of energy and full of heart.  It was such a gift to me to have spent the weekend with this group who are challenged in all the “normal” ways that young moms are challenged today, as well as with things that most are not.  Some of them returned to homes “alone” with husbands deployed as planned, but others whose deployments were unexpected due to the tsunami in Japan.  Most returned to temporary situations, with orders looming on the horizon which would transplant them to bases around the world.

By God’s grace, all returned with a deeper understanding that their security isn’t dependent on where they live, or on their husband’s rank, or how long they’ll be in one place—but on His everlasting and abiding love and presence, which will always be theirs.  I left with a heart expanded by a very special group of women, whose faces, stories, and journeys I’ll carry with me, with hopes of crossing paths again.

This is part of an email I received from Stacey this week:

“Many women have related to me that their return home was completely peace-filled, emotional, and marked by worshipful exhaustion. As I spoke with a few today, soo many of them were filled with such peace when they went home they were just glad to be home with their families—where they belong. That just softened my heart with gladness to hear such news. Even more was their complete love for you, the way you spoke to their hearts and reminded them to live with purpose. I have to say that purpose was a reoccurring theme spoken today of the retreat impact. One woman in particular couldn’t believe “that I had no sense of direction” or even thought about parenting purposefully, only living day to day and ‘doing the best I can’ . . . what a wonderful talk she had with her husband that night.”

I’ve spent much time since the retreat thanking the Lord for this experience and praying for these women.  I know that it is God who is at work in them and that He is their hope.  Pray with me that their awareness of Him will only grow stronger and will draw them to deeper levels of surrender to Him.

Cynthia, Vera,  Riza, Hannah, Susie . . . some of the great ladies who expanded my heart.

After most of the women had left, I gathered this “remnant” who were wrapping things up for a quick photo.  Tired but radiant, no?

Hannah (a Gordon College graduate turned teacher for Calvary Chapel’s school in Honolulu) led worship—and crazily jumped in the ocean with Susie after it was all over for a memorable ending to the weekend.

The glory of God was seen in the beautiful setting, as well as in the beautiful women.