Many years of spiritual direction, which for me is like Jesus-oriented experiential therapy, has radically changed my connection with God. I’ve regularly come to see, hear, feel, and experience the presence of a very personal and extravagant God.

These encounters have strengthened and deepened this year as a tender Mama God has shown up for me in exorbitant ways through a year of “desolation,” as my spiritual director describes it. During a season marked by the deaths of four people dear to me, including my very best friend, as well as other painful losses, God’s faithful embrace has enfolded me. Through the moon, the stars, music, deer, the sacred stillness of the woods, and remarkable connections with cherished friends, God has ministered to the abandoned little girl who still aches within me at times.

I’ve found great meaning this year in the symbol of a heart, which started when Barbi, a dear friend for nearly two-and-a-half decades, introduced me to the Heart Tree on my hiking trail at Radnor Lake. I first picked up a heart-shaped stone in May, and I’ve chosen and returned several more since then, including one I almost always have with me and a second I have tucked into a special place for safe keeping. Every time I pass the Heart Tree on the steep trail to Ganier Ridge, I pray for the stones lying there and what they symbolize to those who left or will select them. Sometimes with tears, I pray for the people and things represented by the stone hearts I’ve chosen. I pray in gratitude for the ways God has strengthened me with Her grace and love embodied in those tangible hearts.

After finding such comfort and growth through interacting with these heart-shaped rocks, as strange as that may sound, I couldn’t imagine God doing anything more generous with this symbol than what She has done all year—until this week, when She outrageously outdid herself.

Despite the bitterly cold weather, I decided to hike on a day I normally don’t. I was seeking an extra sense of God’s peace as I anticipated a difficult experience I was facing in a couple of days. As I entered the parking lot of the state natural area, I was surprised to see Barbi stepping out of a familiar car. She was accompanied by Sally, a woman I’ve known all my life because her family attended the large church my dad pastored throughout my childhood. We hadn’t seen each other in decades until January, though, when she was present at a birthday party for Barbi. I admit we largely ignored the guest of honor and talked deeply through the evening in a way that blessed us both. We promised to get together, but despite the passage of many months, we hadn’t yet followed through.

We all hugged and Barbi laughed that she and Sally had just been talking about me, which I found surprising. The story behind that conversation is nothing short of amazing.

Several months ago these two long-time friends had been talking about hearts for some reason, and Barbi told Sally about another friend who had come to find hearts very meaningful during an especially hard season. As a deeply spiritual person, Sally had remembered this friend’s journey and prayed for her regularly. In the fall during a vacation trip to a distant state, she had even bought Barbi’s friend a card with a picture of a Christmas tree made out of heart-shaped rocks.

When the friends parked before hiking, Sally gave Barbi the card and asked her to give it to her friend, hopefully in time for Christmas. Sally said she had continued to pray for the friend’s heart and God’s comfort and presence with her.

After our greetings, Barbi asked Sally to get the Christmas card from the car and just smiled knowingly at the puzzled looks Sally and I exchanged. When Sally returned, Barbi put her arm around me and told Sally, “You get to give my friend the card in person. It’s for Marnie! She’s the one who has needed the hearts this year.” Barbi told me the story of the sweet, unknown connection, and all of us cried at God’s amazing delight in Her children. It felt like a sign that my upcoming challenging experience would be well, which was the comfort I had hoped for from my time in the woods. Once again, a very personal and extravagant God had shown up for me in an astonishing way—actually, had shown up for all three of us.

Immediately, I knew this story would become my Christmas blog, which I had been struggling to create. It was the perfect embodiment of Emmanuel, which is emphasized at Christmas: God with us. The Word that became flesh and dwells among us. More than any pain, sorrow, or fear I’ve felt this year, I have known the unwavering, certain presence of God with me. The heart of Emmanuel.

What better message could there possibly be for Christmas? I pray your heart, too, is graced with the gift of Emmanuel.

Marnie C. Ferree