photo11I went “home” last week to Texas to lead a retreat. My friend, Meredith Stone, invited me to be the speaker at the annual fall retreat for Texas Women in Ministry. We gathered at Camp Buckner, and for two days, thirty-five women and I pondered the idea of living, praying, and serving with “Hands Wide Open.” We talked about sharing ourselves and our stories, opening our hearts more fully to God, and giving generously to others. In our last session together, I told them a story about my friend, Jane. It is a story I tell often, because it was a powerful moment of grace for me. The story goes like this . . .

I teach as an adjunct professor at McAfee School of Theology. Back in 2010, in my second year of teaching at McAfee, Jane Hull enrolled in my church history class. Jane and I had already been friends for several years, so it was rather odd being her professor and especially odd grading her papers and tests. But being Jane’s professor was a gift, for it gave me a front row seat from which to observe her in action. What I learned over the course of that semester is that Jane knows the power of blessing. She easily and readily speaks words of affirmation.

All semester, I watched Jane as she sat and laughed with her fellow students. I watched as they pulled her aside for quiet conversations. I watched as she counseled with them, offering words of encouragement and wisdom, and I watched as she placed her hands on their shoulders, looked them straight in the eye, and spoke words of blessing. I watched and okay, sometimes I eavesdropped when I had the chance. Those sacred moments that Jane shared with her fellow students convinced me that there is great power in saying words of blessing to one another.

Jane and PamThen my day came. It had been a hard few weeks, and I was struggling. I wondered if I was enough, if I was good enough, strong enough, smart enough. After class one day, Jane stayed, talking with me, asking me about an assignment, and when all the other students were finally gone, Jane placed her hands on my shoulders, looked me straight in the eye, and spoke words of affirmation to me. She reminded me that God had called me, that God had gifted me for the ministry of teaching, and that I was indeed enough. And on that day, I joined the ranks of those who have been blessed by Jane Hull.

Speaking words of blessing is a gift, but receiving words of blessing is also a gift. Jane’s gift of blessing started me on a personal journey in learning how to receive. Ever since that day after class, I have been intentional, working hard to open my heart to holy words of affirmation, to open my hands to receive grace and love. Receiving is not my natural posture. It doesn’t come easily to me, but I am working, practicing, and hopefully, learning the art of receiving blessing.

Last week at the retreat, I encouraged the women who sat circled around me to practice receiving blessing. I asked them to write down the words of affirmation that they needed to hear. Later, as we celebrated communion together, I quietly and privately read each woman’s words of blessing back to her.

Then it happened again for me.  I became the recipient–for what I thought would be a beautiful learning moment for the women ministers present became an experience of grace and blessing for me. As I read the words they had written down and saw the tears in their eyes, as I received hugs and kind smiles, I found myself standing in the light of God’s love and care, surrounded by a room full of women with hands wide open to me. And I opened my heart and received.

Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia. Her friend, Jane Hull, is the pastor of Union Christian Church in Watkinsville, Georgia.