It's NOT beginning to look a lot like Christmas . . .

It's NOT beginning to look a lot like Christmas . . .

If “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas . . .” is related to a house decked in outdoor lights, a beautifully decorated tree indoors, and stockings “hung by the chimney with care,” we’re off. Way off. Thankful to have just gotten all pumpkins processed and the orange and rust decorations put away . . .

Of Sages and Celebrations

Thanksgiving greetings to all!  We’re back in California as we write, having flown here to celebrate this holiday weekend with our west coast family before flying to Orlando to speak at a camping conference.  It was pure joy to be gleefully met by Brandon and Ana this afternoon.

What a month it’s been!!  I last wrote as we were landing in California to speak at the Salvation Army’s Regional Officers Marriage Conference, October 27-28, which was preceded by several days of visit with my mom.

That turned out to be code for “we’re going to launch Virginia’s 60th birthday celebration with surprises at every turn” and we were off and running.  Paul and the girls had brilliantly master-minded an unexpected (to me) intimate gathering of friends who “bumped into me” on Orange Street in Coronado as we walked towards the Lamb’s Players Theater to watch “Les Miserables.”  And that was only the beginning of many wonderful celebrations, which made turning 60 something I wished I had done sooner.  :)  I can’t remember a time that I have felt more loved, known, and affirmed than I have been this past month, and if you were part of the never-ending-celebration in any way, from posts on my Facebook wall, to beautiful bouquets of flowers delivered, to showing up at or creating any of the amazing surprises along the way, thank you again from the bottom of my heart.

The “Les Miserable” surprise theater group, sans Gabe and Kari, who rushed to my mom’s house after the show to prepare a fabulous Mexican feast.

I am truly much more comfortable being on the giving end of such honor.  I love to plan the ways to love and surprise others for their special milestones.  When Paul and the girls asked me months ago how I wanted to celebrate my 60th, I was very clear that I didn’t want a big party.  I’m truthfully not wild about being the center of attention in such settings.

Semi-apologetically, after the first of two big surprise parties, they confessed that they couldn’t NOT have the parties because so many people wanted to be a part of something. They said, “We’d rather have you temporarily mad at us than make everyone else mad!” And they were accurately confident that I wouldn’t be “mad” long. And so I’ve been the recipient of kind words, thoughtful gifts, sacrificial travel, and great efforts by many to help usher me not just painlessly, but joyfully into the 7th decade of my life.

I have been more than humbled by all the expressions of BIG love. I have spent much of the past month feeling overwhelmed in an off-the-charts-delightful sort of way.  I have been genuinely surprised more than I’ve ever been in my life, and hence have officially retired the long-held belief I’ve had that it was near impossible to surprise me.  

HUGE accolades to Paul and the girls for planning clandestinely each celebration. They worked overtime….and dusted off their “effective lying” skills to pull the wool over my eyes time and again. They thoughtfully put together events and experiences that would be most meaningful to me. They sacrificed much to pull together unforgettable moments.  Especially meaningful to me is that all of my siblings and my mom, as well as almost all my in-law siblings, were part of the celebrations.  Julie and Derek’s desire to join the festivities was thwarted by living in Uganda, but they will be home in 3 weeks and we’ll get the party on with them then.

The Garcias worked so hard behind the scenes to insure success on every level. 

Sisters Sue, Lucy, and Melissa with my amazing mom at the west coast gala.

The Friesen side of the family represented at the west coast gala.

Four generations of our family . . . so blessed!

Julie and Derek were at the east coast celebration . . . via FaceTime.  Here we are conversing in the midst of a room full of people.  I was undone.

Kari and Lisa give public tribute at the east coast surprise party.

I will treasure the memories of all of these expressions forever. 

That will be made possible in part by the gift of two beautiful books full of words of affirmation collected and produced by Kari. A big thank you to any and all who contributed to that treasured project. Very thoughtfully, my sister Laura even submitted several letters from my dad’s pen, written in the late 70’s and early 80’s, so even my precious father is on the pages of this incredible gift.  They will be thumbed through and absorbed over and again in the years ahead, as a gift that will keep on giving.

I have been the recipient of extreme generosity in so many ways—well beyond material goods (though those have been present). The generosity that has touched me the most has come through beautiful words written with a high rate of inflation—and I’ve had two prevailing thoughts. One has been grace . . . so much grace!! I’m not unaware of my faults and short-comings, and you’re not either . . . so the extraordinary affirmations which have come my way are framed in grace and love. The other has been “I hope these wonderful people will pray that I become all that they think I am.” (That thought was inspired by Elisabeth Elliot.)  

My hopes and prayers for this next decade are wrapped up in becoming. I want to press towards becoming more and more Christlike, more and more in love with my Savior. I know that will be the best use of whatever days I have left.

My real birthday, November 5, was celebrated from morning ’til night, starting with breakfast in bed from my above-and-beyond husband.  Lunch with a really special friend was followed by dinner and theater in Boston by several more very dear friends.  Every part of it was delightful. 

Paul, aka “Chauffeur Goober”, made sure that we got downtown for dinner and opening night of “Annie” on my birthday.  If he quits his day job . . .

Kari and Lisa flew in that weekend for more partying, starting with whisking me away to a darling cottage in Ogunquit, Maine, where I was surprised by a small gathering that included two of my sisters and a few other “chosen” sisters.  Long walks on the beach, great meals, and lots of talking and laughter filled the next 48 hours in a most unforgettable weekend. That was capped by a large surprise party hosted by the Ploskers and the seemingly unending string of surprises came to a close. After open mic times at both west coast and east coast parties, I said I felt I had been at my own funeral. There’s something to that.  It’s life giving and motivating to be encouraged and affirmed generously.

Kari and Lisa flew in from California for more birthday surprises.
Decked out and ready to join the 60’s club.

Two more sisters, Francene and Laura (and husband David, who drove up from Virginia for the celebrations), were in on the Maine getaway weekend in a big way.  Sweet, sweet time.  Laura planned and executed all the meals, including an out-of-this-world Maine lobster dinner.

And finally: the brother!  I was deeply touched by the efforts made by all my siblings to join in the celebration.  My brother Frank and and my sister Francene both traveled from VA to surprise me.

In the midst of this epic milestone celebration, we have been doing ministry. Back to the Salvation Army, we spent two incredible days with the officers from the Greater Los Angeles area looking at God’s design for marriage and ministry.  We fell in love with this very special group of ministers.  They are committed to living sacrificially for the Kingdom to a degree we seldom see.  Their focus is to come alongside the most broken in our world, and give them “soap, soup, and salvation.” Their thrift stores support their drug rehab program, which boasts a 28% success rate for those who go through the (free) program.  We had great interaction with them as they wrestle with balancing the demands of ministry (endless) and their families (also endless.)  Several weeks after the conference, Major Ian Robinson wrote:
"People are still talking about the retreat and how it impacted their lives and marriages.”
Several other officers have booked us to speak for their locales, and others have written to let us know that the retreat was rather life-changing.  Thank you, faithful God!!  We’re not confused about Who changes lives.  

We are so thankful to have had this opportunity and encourage you to contribute to the red kettles manned by  those very hard-working Salvation Army bell-ringers during this Christmas season.

Part of the Salvation Army officers who attended the marriage conference
at their retreat center, Mt. Crags, in Malibu Canyon.

Colonel Doug and Colleen Riley were instrumental in the success of the conference. 

We flew back to Boston as soon as the conference ended late Tuesday, and were in the saddle for the Patriots women's study onWednesday morning, Oct. 29, and for counseling that afternoon and evening.  We repeated that on Thursday, with counseling in the morning and the Pats couples’ study that evening.  We are so thankful for a high level of interest in both studies. God is doing something among this special group.

Home just long enough to exchange California appropriate clothing for St. Louis garb, we flew to Missouri early Friday morning for our annual visit with the Williams family. Usually made in December, we took advantage of an unscheduled weekend (Halloween eclipses marriage conferences it seems!) for our celebration of chosen family with this precious crew. Those little girls have turned into very tall, grown-up ladies and we were heartened again by their hearts for the Lord and their healthy life choices.  Great time!!

Grant is the offensive line coach for Westminster Academy, the Christian high school the girls attend, and this photo follows a play-off win.

So thankful for Grant and Emily’s commitment to their marriage, family, and ministry.
We love every minute with them!

Life returned to “normal” after all the celebrations ended, and the following weekend, Nov. 15, H.I.M. sponsored a one-day marriage seminar featuring Gordon and Gail MacDonald, who spoke on “Soul Care for Your Soul Mate.”  True sages, Gordon and Gail held the audience mesmerized by their living room conversation we were invited to overhear.  Married now 53 years, and each having logged 75 years on this earth, all who attended would agree that they brought something rare and sacred to the table. Having been very intentional throughout their life together, they presented a picture not of perfection, but of hope and redemption.  One person wrote on their evaluation, "On a scale of 1-10, today was off the charts . . . way over 100!!!”

So much wisdom was “overheard” as Gordon and Gail  conversed with one another
as though none of us were there.

Calvary Christian Church in Lynnfield opened their doors for this one-of-a-kind event
and once again extended incredible hospitality and warmth to all.

I wrote to Gordon and Gail the following day:
"We couldn’t be more thankful than we are for the day.  You and Gordon gave us all a gift we’ll never forget.  A look not only into your living room, but also into your kitchen, your family room, and even your bedroom.  You let us overhear your conversations about real life, which included failures as well as successes, the journey from a lack of understanding to understanding, selfish tendencies transformed by humble repentance producing unselfishness.  
You showed us how to communicate, how to honor one another, how to love.  And armed with the credibility of 53 years of marriage, you were most convincing because of the very nature of where your marriage is in 2014: tender, thoughtful, sensitive, growing, vital."
As we hear from attendees, it’s clear that God did an amazing work that day and is continuing to use it.  All praise is His!!

Gordon and Gail MacDonald have had a mentoring role in our lives for thirty years now.
What a gift to us!

We went straight from the conference to Westgate Church to celebrate the life of Stephen Gerber, who passed away a year ago. We’ve had a long, sweet friendship and partnership with Stephen and Nancy, so Paul was honored to be one of the speakers at the service. Nancy and son Douglas put together a beautiful, honoring evening tributing their beloved husband and father, and the service celebrated not only his life, but his profound legacy.

Douglas Gerber conducts the choir at his father’s memorial service while his mom,
Nancy, sings (far right, front row)

We spent Sunday with a precious congregation in Swansea, Massachusetts: Bethany Gospel Chapel. We love this group! They heavily support H.I.M. events as well as the ministry, and we’re thrilled to partner with them.  Paul preached and then we spent the afternoon in the home of Jim and Mary Klink, fellowshipping with many congregants over yummy homemade soup and salad.  

A portion of Bethany Gospel Chapel’s congregation who stopped by for soup and salad at the home of Jim and Mary Klink (back row, far right)

Just before leaving on this trip, we had an Engagement Matters weekend. Sadly, we “lost our lease” on the home we’ve held this conference in for the past 8 years (or more truthfully, the Macraes sold their home in Weston), but happily the Bilazarians offered their beautiful Victorian home in Andover center for the event. We had a great crowd, which very soulfully invested themselves in the weekend.  Besides us doing the plenary sessions, Ryan and Kelly Plosker did a session on their “Top Ten Tips for Marriage” and Seth and Melanie shared about their journey.  Lots of positive feedback at the end of the weekend. One young man said he had come with high expectations, but the weekend had way surpassed those expectations.  So thankful.

Most of those attending Engagement Matters this past weekend.

That brings us up to date.  It’s been a rich, full month of celebration and sages.  May your experience include both of these as well.

Legacy of Thanksgiving

November has always been one of my favorite months and this one we've just turned the page on is no exception. Ushered in by the waning days of fall and ending by catapulting us into my favorite season of the year—Christmas—it's not a stretch to understand my affinity for this eleventh month of the calendar year.

But it's more than that.  And last week's Thanksgiving Day celebration helped to clarify why this month is so important and meaningful to me.  Well beyond the glory of fall with its captivating moments of observing castaway leaves dancing in the currents of winds, crispness due to falling air temps, and the increasingly pressing awareness of the diminishing days that stand between now and the celebrated birth of the Christ Child, November reminds us to be thankful.

Though it shouldn't be that way, it is.  It's so easy to live entitled rather than grateful in America.  The simple things—like food, shelter, and freedom to worship—are hardly occasion for thankfulness.  We “deserve” those things.  The occasions for genuine gratitude are reserved for really big things we don't deserve . . . like winning the lottery or the World Series.

This month reminds us that being thankful is really, really important to God.  "In everything give thanks . . . for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you."  (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

I've pondered how a thankful heart is cultivated, since this is "the will of God"—making it much more than a suggestion or a good idea when you want to feel better.  

And that's where legacy comes in.  Though not the only factor, it is a significant contributor towards our hearts being inclined towards entitlement or gratitude.

We've both reflected especially this month how profoundly we have been influenced by parents who loved the Lord above all else and who modeled thankfulness. Who taught us to appreciate the small things and to not take them for granted. Who showed us through example that giving to and serving others would produce more joy than living self-indulged lives. Who lived sacrificially and responsibly, who worked hard and made no excuses, who loved one another faithfully and prioritized their family.

A sweet but short visit with my parents reinforced the goodness of
being with ones who truly have hearts of gratitude.

On the family farm in Pixley for Thanksgiving Day, we were with four of the five original Friesen siblings and some of their progeny.
It was easy to reflect on our heritage with such gratitude for the values Paul's parents instilled in their family.

As life moves on, our awareness of the rarity of this kind of legacy grows.  And that deepens our gratitude and compels us to pass the mantle to the next generation, whose challenge to live this out is greater than ever.  Our prayer is that we would cultivate thankful hearts year round, 24-7.  That will contribute greatly to our growing Christlikeness.

We've had a great month, which has included time together in three states and four countries.  And, Paul has been in an additional 12 states on his own, and no, he's not running for office.  And we've relaxed.  And been renewed.  This is how:

We spent the first week of the month celebrating my birthday and the Patriots’ bye week on a Caribbean cruise.  There were many firsts for us on that cruise, including having our minds changed about cruises in general.  Naturally, we got a great "couldn't pass up" deal and spent 7 days resting, relaxing, enjoying the beauty of the Caribbean, reconnecting with each other, and eating delicious food. We got a lot of exercise, basked in the majesty of His creation, and were renewed.  It was a wonderful gift.  We also met a couple on the tender going to port on Grand Cayman Island, and we clicked immediately.  We ended up spending our day with them, making an unforgettable excursion to Stingray City together.  We are looking forward to continuing the relationship.  

Leaving Tampa on the first day of the cruise, we had no idea how many delights
the Lord had in store for us on this cruise!

On the ministry front, we had a great Engagement Matters weekend, Nov. 16-17, and spoke at the Arabic Evangelical Baptist Church of Boston for an evening of marriage and family encouragement during that same weekend.  It was a true delight to partner with Pastor Khaled Ghobrial and his wife and to get a glimpse into the relevant work this church is engaged in.  The New England Patriot studies have been going well and have been well attended.  We have seen God work through our counseling in moments of breakthrough and hope.  We also had the privilege of doing two chapels for the UCLA women's basketball team during a recent tournament.

Standing with Pastor Khaled Ghobrial and his wife, Manal,
after speaking on family and marriage to their congregation.

A highlight of the month was hosting Pastor Wilberforce Okumu, lead pastor of Pearl Haven Christian Center in Mbale, Uganda.  He was the featured speaker for an H.I.M. donor thank you dessert evening and knocked it out of the park. Everyone was inspired by the work he's engaged in and his vision for the Kingdom.  We loved having him in our home for a few days as well.  Partnering with him in Mbale these past couple of years has bonded us in Christ and we love his heart!

Nov. 14th was a significant day for Home Improvement Ministries as we launched our first software app:  "The Marriage App."  After months of development primarily by Doug Macrae and assisted by Guy and Barbara Steele and Richard Hendricks, the app (based on our newest book, The Marriage App) hit cyberspace with the aid of tweets by Elizabeth Hasselbeck, Richard Dahstrom, Shaunti Feldhahn, Don Davis, Gary Gaddini, Ray Johnston, and David Hegg (to name a few).  Along with lots of Facebook traffic, the app soared to the top of the list of new apps on marriage downloaded over the weekend of  Nov 15-17.  We have been humbled by emails and Facebook posts which have affirmed the value of this app and are praying that God will use it to give hope to marriages and contribute to them thriving.  If you haven't downloaded this free app yet, we'd encourage you to do so at the App Store.

Most recently, we flew back out to California for the Thanksgiving holiday.  Well, I flew out.  In order to visit those additional 12 states I mentioned, Paul decided to deliver the used van that Gabe and Kari bought from (east coast) friends of ours, making his second cross-country road trip in 2 months time. Confirming his introversion, he loved every minute of it and made this trip between Friday morning the 22nd and Sunday night the 24th. He's amazing.  

Our days in California included some time with Gabe, Kari, Brandon, and Ana in their home in Santa Clarita; attending a UCLA vs. OK women's basketball game to watch the athletic trainer (the game was great, too: a big upset victory for UCLA!); visiting my folks and sisters in San Diego with Lisa and then Paul; sweet visits with two other special families to welcome newborns; and a short but wonderful time in Pixley for Thanksgiving Day with Paul's extended family. In between all those visits, we managed to walk to the setting and rising sun on various California beaches.  Heavenly.

UCLA Head Women's Basketball Coach, Cori Close, with me and her parents, Don and Pat Close, and her sister Amity Wicks,
in Pauley Pavillion following the UCLA win over OK.  GREAT family.

We flew to Florida on Black Friday, missing the shopping and the crowds, but making it just in time to see UCLA women play in the Gulf Coast BB Tournament.  Though disappointing results on the court (we went 1-2), Paul and I loved being with the girls and the staff and feel we have such a better understanding of Lisa's new life in California.  Many in the system are coaching or playing for more than just records, and their hearts for the Lord are obvious.  They are struggling currently with a depleted team due to injuries, but the month ahead should see their bench increasing.  We are so thankful Lisa is part of this effort.

While in Florida, we also managed to walk a few beaches and to visit our dear friends Don and Yannette Davis, who extended warm hospitality to us as we concluded this all-over-the-place trip.

One last walk on the beach (Siesta Beach near Sarasota, Florida) before returning to Boston.

Though the delights this month have been many, the sorrows have also been present.  We've walked with several dear friends through the deaths of beloved parents and with couples through marital and family crises.  Life is often hard; sometimes because of choices we've made, but other times just because we live in a broken world and sin and evil takes its toll on all of us.  And death is a reality that no one escapes.  Each time death steals away one we love or one loved by ones we love, we are reminded in grief that we weren't designed for death and therefore it will always be excruciatingly painful.  

That's why the 1 Thessalonians passage says "In everything give thanks . . ." not "for everything give thanks."  There are many things we can't give thanks FOR, but we're called to give thanks IN.  

A very dear friend who lost her father and her mother-in-law within the space of 9 days this month, both unexpectedly, wrote:

Hello Friends,
It feels like I am writing from within a nightmare. We are working through the loss of my dear mother-in-law, and figuring out how we will care for my sweet father-in-law. These have been dark days, to say the least. 
This afternoon my father died suddenly at his home in New Hampshire. I am on my way there now to be with my sisters and my mother.  I have not yet told my children, and my sisters have not yet told my mother. Please pray for each of these situations, as they will be profoundly difficult conversations.
I want each of you to know how grateful we are for your love and support this last week. You have each pressed love into us and have been a source of strength and comfort.
I have been listening to a lot of music this week.  A song that I have come to love, "You Are Good" by Nichole Nordeman has these beautiful lyrics:
  When it's dark and it's cold and I can't feel my soul, You are so good
  When the world is gone gray and the rain's here to stay You are still good
  So with every breath I take in I'll tell You I am grateful again
  And the storm may swell, even then IT IS WELL and you are good.
It is well and God is good.

This friend is living in gratitude and passing on to her children a legacy of thanksgiving.  In the midst of deep and dark unexpected valleys, her comfort and source of gratitude is found in Him.  She is teaching all of us profound lessons.

In the month ahead, we will all experience the gamut of emotions, from the pinnacle of joy found in revisiting the manger, to the depths of despair as pain past and present weaves its darkness into our awareness.  Praying that especially in the moments of sorrow, we'll find our way to the cross and "in everything, give thanks."  That's the best legacy we can pass on.

Nathan at 2 months . . .

. . . and at 4 months. 

Brandon (3 years) and Ana (4 weeks)