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Heart Matters: "Hugs on Hope Street"

"Your job focuses on families and steering the Christian education program for children," the minister said, reciting a job description that quite honestly left me flat.

Don't get me wrong -- I was excited and, yes, grateful for the opportunity to work in ministry.

After all, hadn't I been asking God to guide me out of my 12-year fashion editorial career and lead me to ways of using my writing and marketing skills in ministry? Still, I couldn't help wondering...children? I was more interested in the elderly and hospice work.

Then the words of my boyfriend, John, played in my head: "God's ways are not ours." I accepted the children's education director position at my church, albeit with a lot of trepidation.

God's ways are not ours...So true. I wiped away a tear as I remembered how five months earlier, on Christmas Eve, I'd sat in the sanctuary at the very church where I was now officially employed, thanking God for how my life was coming together. John, who'd taken a sabbatical from his career to travel the world, had been home for the holidays and our relationship was strong. My fledgling freelance business was moving in the right direction, and soon-very soon-John would be home from his travels permanently. Then I'd finally take the plunge, leave my corporate job, and enroll in seminary. I'd stared at the altar cross with tears of gratitude in my eyes. Thank you, God.

And another prayer had come from nowhere into my mind. "God," I'd said aloud, "let me remember this moment of gratitude, for when the dark times hit, I want to stay true to you."

A month later John was killed in a Jeep accident in Africa. Devastated, I remembered the altar cross and tried to cling tightly to my Christmas Eve prayer.

The children proved to be the healing balm I needed. Their smiles and laughter were contagious as we learned about Jesus. Their innocent questions and awe at the world made me reconnect with my childlike awe. Each time I felt a tug at my skirt and saw a pair of wide eyes looking up at me or a voice calling me Pastor Donna, I felt God's grace that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. And I felt John close by saying, "It's okay."

Another Christmas Eve approached, only this time I was Pastor Donna. I couldn't help but look at the altar cross as I'd done the previous year and thank God for all he'd done in my life, despite the tragedy.

Still, there was a void in my heart. It was hard not to notice how drastically my life had changed in the course of a year. That void seemed to grow bigger, especially as Christmas neared.

One day, my heartache was almost overwhelming when 3-year-old Nadia hopped in my lap. With a peck on my cheek, she squeezed my hand and looked in the direction where I stared. Together we gazed upon the cross.

A tear trickled down my cheek. But it wasn't one of sadness -- it was one that comes from experiencing God's grace. God saw what I needed in that moment of quiet despair and he gave me a hug from Nadia. It was the best Christmas gift ever.

None of the children know how they've helped me in my year of living without John and in my transition into ministry...that is, into children's ministry.

I often entertain the crazy idea of writing a letter to each child in my ministry, telling them how their hugs and hearts have healed me. I imagine giving the letters to their parents for safekeeping until the kids are old enough to understand. Instead, I simply return their hugs. John was right: God's ways aren't ours. No -- they're so much better if we just believe and trust.

By the way, the church where I get those healing hugs? It's called Emmanuel -- which means "God with us," and it's on a street named Hope.

Donna Frischknecht is a Christian education director in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

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