I was having one of those days. The kind I seem to have a lot of since my wife passed away.
Knowing I’m not functioning at my best, knowing that the people in my realm of influence deserve better than what they are getting from me, questioning whether I will ever return to the level of effectiveness I once had, wondering if I should just walk away … as almost an afterthought, I opened a graduation card from a young woman whom I have known for many years.
Fourteen years ago this past Memorial Day, a teenage girl named Ashleigh got into an argument with her mother, Janice, on the last day of their traditional backpack trip to Yosemite National Park. Turning on her heel, the teen stormed off toward the trail head, leaving her mother and younger sister to break camp and meet back at the car.
When mom and sister walked up to the car, Ashleigh was nowhere to be found. Somewhere along the way, more than likely distracted by her own thoughts, she had zigged when she should have zagged.
By that afternoon, an extensive search and rescue had been launched. Park personnel, tracking dogs and helicopter patrols were all part of the effort. As pastor of the Yosemite Valley Chapel, I was asked to come alongside the family and assist in any way possible. As you might imagine in such a setting, emotions run high, anxiety runs deep, imaginations run wild, guilt becomes overwhelming, and fear is palpable.
On the evening of the first day, the father had joined his wife and youngest daughter in Yosemite. Given their need to be close to the search headquarters, we opened our home to them. Literally, apart from sleeping, we were together around the clock. We prayed, cried, read Scripture, hoped, worried and—as one day became two days, and two days became three days—doubt crowded faith.
On the periphery, I couldn’t help but notice the greater than normal attention this search was getting. Television and print media reporters had set up shop, parking their unruly mobile units wherever they could. I recall being very grateful that a ranger friend was keeping them at bay.
With the dawn of the third day, the toll this was taking became visible, not just on the family, but on a usually stoic search and rescue team, as well. Even though it was unspoken, I had done this often enough to know that there was a shift in thinking from search and rescue to the hope of at least a body recovery.
Thanks to the generosity of a local cabin rental company, we had moved the family—and by now what had become a dozen or so of their closest friends who had come to hold hands and offer support—into a larger, more comfortable and centrally located house. Sometime about the middle of the morning, we gathered on the deck for prayer.
Ashleigh’s mother and I had spent several moments prior in sober conversation. She was doing her best to come to terms with the possibility that she would never see her daughter again this side of heaven. Through her tears, she asked me how to let her go. In a way that can only be attributed to the tender influence of the Holy Spirit, she seemed to make her peace with things.
When it came time to pray, Janice released her daughter to the Lord. It was personal, poignant and permanent. As the last words fell from her lips, a ranger came bounding up the steps, yelling: “We found her! She’s alive! We found her! She’s on a chopper now and is on her way!” It is no exaggeration to say the place erupted!
I’m not sure you have ever experienced it, but there comes a moment when, having fully invested yourself into the lives of grieving loved ones, and having been depended upon for everything from water to information to comfort and encouragement, you suddenly become invisible. You simply fade away.
That was my moment.
The reunion at the landing zone was euphoric. I distinctly recall noticing that even jaded reporters I had interacted with in the past were teary. Everybody loves a happy ending. And this one really captured the attention of a large audience. The story was repeated in more than one national publication, and there was even talk of a made-for-TV movie.
Normally when you fade away, that’s the end of it. But in an interesting twist of fate, the family kept in touch.
Right after my wife, Janet, passed away, I got a letter from Janice saying she had really felt the need to contact us but had lost our address. During an attempt to find it via the Internet, she had found Janet’s obituary. Her heartfelt words of sympathy reflected the unique bond we had developed during those difficult days in Yosemite.
When I opened the graduation card, a personal note from Ashleigh slipped out. Smiling as I discovered this young lady was receiving her degree from a distinguished law school, I began to read the personal note. Tears began to fill my eyes. This is what it said:
“Half my lifetime so far (5,107 days ago), I had a life-changing adventure. You played a critical role in that adventure. This graduation announcement is not a traditional opportunity for you to send me a gift. This is an acknowledgment from me to you of what God has brought me through to get to this moment.
“In lawyer-speak, this is a statement of evidence that what you did when I was lost, was not in vain. I know the words of Jeremiah 29:11 are true: The Lord has a plan for my life. Thank you again, and again, and again, for being part of my life, and for interceding for me when I needed you.”
It isn’t often we receive such a tangible reminder of the importance of the work we do. More often than not, we live in a “no news is good news” environment. Granted, most of us hear positive comments every Sunday, but I would be willing to bet that we are all inclined to run that through a “well intended but obligatory” filter.
While some exceptions exist, I suspect that most of us battle insecurities, doubts, overwhelming challenges and the incessant question, “Am I making a difference?” far more frequently than we bask in the awareness of knowing what we do really matters.
I share this story because, in the middle of my own doubts, I was reminded by a girl who once was lost that the work we do does matter. It is a good work. It is an eternally good work. More than likely our full comprehension of that will be revealed to us in heaven.
So, in the meantime, when something comes along to remind us of the value of what we do, let’s allow ourselves a moment to appreciatively ponder the significance of what God has called us to.
By: Brian Empie, senior pastor of River Valley Christian Fellowship (Bozeman Foursquare Church) in Bozeman, Mont.