Jo Dee Messina: Prayer reminds you that you’re not alone. When you turn your eyes to Him, He will fill you. He will show up.
Surprising Ways to Find Connection in a Lonely Space: Jo Dee Messina & Larry Randolph and Jennifer Bleakley – Episode #370
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. One of the most fulfilling aspects of our lives is the opportunity for connection. We weren’t designed to live life on our own, but today’s world makes it so easy to be self-focused instead of others-focused. John 13 tells us we should love one another as Christ loved us, and “…by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” When we ask God to show us places we can connect to others, we will begin to reap the many benefits of those bonds, and also find ways to bless others as well.
Country music trailblazer Jo Dee Messina is known for her chart-topping hits, but in the process of building her legendary career, she found that everything she’d built was crumbling, mostly because she’d tried to do it on her own. That’s when she found God—or actually, He found her—and she began to see the importance of connection with Him, which in turn led her to see her music as her connection point to the world. Founder of Canines for Christ Larry Randolph and author Jennifer Bleakley found ways to connect with their faith through their animal friends, and they share how help and hope is brought to the world through the gift of therapy dogs.
Let’s start with Jo Dee’s story.
Jo Dee: Hey, I’m Jo Dee Messina and I am a singer/songwriter, mainly on the country format, but I also have songs and cuts in the Christian world as well.
I was a latchkey kid, which these days is unheard of, you can’t do that. But my mother spent a lot of time working, and so I spent a lot of time home alone, and music for me was a safe place. It was a place for me, something that comforted me as I got older. It was something that helped me process through life. I chose country music because that’s what I felt the closest to and that’s what I related to the most. And so I started singing when I was thirteen/fourteen years old.
To be able to share music is a great gift because it is a universal language. Some might not know the words or what they mean, but they know the melody or some, you know, love the words but can’t quite remember the melody. And so music is a universal language. It’s something that crosses all boundaries. So it’s always been kind of a safe haven for me.
At the End of Yourself
When I met Jesus, I was probably at the very end of myself. At that point, my mother was my foundation, and my career was my identity, and my marriage was my story. All of that was created by me in a kingdom that was set up by me, and it started crumbling. Like, all of it started crumbling, and I couldn’t withstand it anymore. I couldn’t hold it up. I couldn’t hold my marriage up. I couldn’t hold my mother’s health up. I couldn’t keep my career going. And so, I was really at the end of myself where I’m like, I can’t do this anymore. I’m like, I don’t have it in me to do this. And I think at the very end of myself is where in my spirit, in my soul, I sensed Jesus saying, “She’s mine.” I just didn’t know Him. I wasn’t at a revival. I wasn’t praying. I wasn’t like, Oh, God, help me. I was just there, and He found me. And I’m grateful that He did.
“I think at the very end of myself is where in my spirit, in my soul, I sensed Jesus saying, ‘She’s mine.’” – Jo Dee Messina
My next door neighbor was a man named Steve Green. He’s a Christian singer. So him and his wife—I immediately went over and I started to talk to his wife and say, you know, “Tell me about Jesus. I need to know all these sayings that people have, that Christian-ese, you know, ‘Lay it at the cross’ or ‘His blood has made you clean.’”
But it had to make sense to me, so I went to her and I started asking questions and she started explaining parts of the Bible to me and parts about Christ, and how He did give His life for us. Like, that had to be done. There had to be a sacrifice for all of our sin. And He was like, “Let me, choose me, I’ll go.” And it was fascinating, so that began a huge quest for me to this day, still really trying to find more of Him and be connected closer to Him.
Music: The Great Connector
You know, I never recorded songs that I didn’t understand or I couldn’t relate to. You can tell where I was in my life if you go back and listen, because it really mirrored what I was doing in life or what I was walking through.
Any time I walk out on the stage is a joy. The shows are never the same. Everything’s different, the audience is always different, the response is different. And so you get that, Okay, what’s it going to be like as you’re walking out there? And then when you’re in it, it’s magical, just having people sing along with you and have so much fun and enjoy it. And so I think each time I get to walk out on stage that’s the moment.
For me to connect with the fans is more of a humanities thing, being able to have compassion and empathy for someone else’s situation, which just happens to be the same as mine. People listen to some of my songs and they’re like, “Man, I wish I was that strong.” And I was like, “I was not that strong, but I wished I was, and that’s why I chose them.” So they’re coming from the same place as me, as I’m singing “Bye Bye” going, “Man, I wish I was that strong.”
“For me to connect with the fans is more of a humanities thing, being able to have compassion and empathy for someone else’s situation, which just happens to be the same as mine.” – Jo Dee Messina
“Just To Be Loved,” the bridge of the song talks about you’re loved just the way you are, and it goes back to that Psalm 139, “You stitched me together in my mother’s womb, the who of who I am, you created so perfectly and love with a perfect love.”
A Life Touched by Christ
When I was early on in my walk with Christ, I would live with the Jesus Calling books, because it simplified how precious we were to Him and how much He loved us and the grace that’s bestowed upon us, and that’s a great place to start.
I was a hot mess. I built a kingdom on my own, I watched it crumble, and even at the very end of that—when everyone else was running away—He was running towards me. When your life is touched by Christ, it may look ugly from the outside in the sense of, like, all the pieces that I have to wade through, but there’s a wholeness on the inside that you can’t create. You can’t mock it. It’s a real love and compassion that you have within you, and because it is so astonishing, you want to tell people, “I see you’re hurting. Let me tell you about this,” or, “I see you’re confused, let me share this with you.” Or almost, “Be careful, I see you’re on the same path that I was on. Let me tell you about Jesus. Let me show you what He did in my life and the power of His blood and our testimony.” And so even that in itself is fascinating enough to want to glorify Him and share Him with the world.
“I was a hot mess. I built a kingdom on my own, I watched it crumble, and even at the very end of that—when everyone else was running away—[God] was running towards me.” – Jo Dee Messina
I realized the importance of being connected to God, and I wrote Him a note and was just saying—well it was a journal entry—and it was like, “God, when I am not connected to you, every day is an off day.” And so the importance of being connected with Him is so that we can walk the days with all the people that I meet and all the people that I deal with, whether it’s from kids, to dogs, to the lawn guy, to people in the music industry, to employees, to employers, to, you know, all this. It gives perspective in the sense of, If I’m not perfect, it’s okay, but I’m doing my best, you know? But I think connecting with Him on a daily basis is crucial, or else it’s just an off day.
This reading is from Jesus Listens, July 2nd.
I’m grateful that You are in my midst and You are mighty. Just as the sun is at the center of the solar system, You are at the center of my entire being—physical, emotional, and spiritual. You, the Mighty One who created the universe, live in me! I want to take time to absorb this amazing truth—letting it reverberate in my mind and soak into my innermost being.
I delight in pondering what it means to have so much Power dwelling within me. As I think about Your powerful Presence, I realize I don’t need to worry about my lack of strength. Moreover, I’m comforted to know that Your Power is completed and shows itself most effectively in my weakness.
Jesus, please remind me frequently that You live in me and You are mighty! I ask that my awareness of Your indwelling Presence may drive out discouragement and fill me with Joy. I’m so thankful that Your Life flows into me continually, strengthening me with Your divine might.
In Your mighty Name, Jesus,
Narrator: To keep up with Jo Dee, follow her on social media, and be sure to check out her latest single, “Just To Be Loved.”
Stay tuned to Larry Randolph and Jennifer Bleakley’s story after a brief message.
Spreading Hope With Samaritan’s Purse
At Samaritan’s Purse, we bring spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world. We go into dangerous situations because in disaster and disease, in war, Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, to heal the sick, and feed the hungry, restore the broken. All who work and volunteer with Samaritan’s Purse follow the example of Jesus. We go to serve, not to be served. And we go in Jesus’ name. Join us at www.samaritanspurse.org.
In celebration of National Dog Day (August 26), we welcome Larry Randolph, founder of Canines For Christ therapy dog ministry, and his co-author, Jennifer Bleakley. Larry and Jennifer share how animals have helped guide them towards conversations with our Creator, and how they’ve turned that into a mission to share God with the world.
Larry Randolph: My name is Larry Randolph, and first of all, I’m a follower and believer of Jesus Christ.
Jennifer Bleakley: I’m Jennifer Marshall Bleakley. I’m an author and an avid animal lover who loves writing about the ways animals can direct our hearts and minds to God.
How God Works Through Animals
My love of animals began at a very early age, actually. I was a painfully shy child and found it difficult to talk to other people, even kids my own age.
I did have an outdoor cat named Sugar, who became my closest confidant in childhood. I told Sugar everything: every secret, dream, wish, fear that I held in my young, little heart. And one Sunday—I think I was around the age of six or seven—I remember our pastor encouraged us to spend time in prayer, just thanking God for the many gifts He’d given us. And after thanking Him for my family and knowing myself at that age, I’m sure I thanked Him for Captain Crunch cereal, I also thanked Him for sending Sugar to be my friend.
And later that day when I got home, I went outside to pet Sugar, and after a few minutes of talking to her like I normally would, I realized I had started talking to God about her and thanking Him for her and then talking to Him about other things. And over time, my talks with Sugar morphed into me talking to God with Sugar beside me. And so looking back, I can see how God planted seeds in my heart that day that would one day sprout into a career of writing books and stories about all the beautiful ways God works through animals to direct people’s hearts and minds to Himself.
“Looking back, I can see how God planted seeds in my heart that day that would one day sprout into a career of writing books and stories about all the beautiful ways God works through animals to direct people’s hearts and minds to Himself.” – Jennifer Bleakley
Larry: One of my darkest times was when I had lost my real estate business in the economic downturn, and that led to emotional stress and eventually a divorce. And then it finally ended up in a financial bankruptcy. But in the midst of things, God was humbling me. God was telling me in His way to reach out and to do something for Him: “You need to just stop what you’re doing and focus on something else.”
My daughters brought me this little dog, and it was a dog named Gus, and he was a goofy looking basset hound, floppy ears, droopy eyes, slobbering all over the place. And he brought me the most joyful love in the midst of this pain, this agony that I was going through of all these losses, the sadness. When I would walk in from a day of just researching for another job, for example, I would walk in [and] this little dog as best as he could, would put his paws up on me, look at me with those soulful eyes, and just lick my face. And how could I not reach out and just hug him and just be joyful in the aspect of what my thoughts were?
He just gave me so much love and unconditional joy and peace, and made things right in a way that only God could do through a dog at that time. He had planned for me all along to have this dog in my life, this basset hound named Gus, to set up what was going to happen next for me, and that was to create a ministry using therapy dogs.
“[God] had planned for me all along to have this dog in my life, this basset hound named Gus, to set up what was going to happen next for me, and that was to create a ministry using therapy dogs.” – Larry Randolph
Canines for Christ
Canines for Christ, of course, is a therapy dog ministry. Therapy dog ministry means that we train and certify therapy dogs through the American Kennel Club and give them the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizens certification, which is a sociability certification that they’re well-trained, sociable, non-aggressive, friendly, can be petted without any aspect of harm to anyone. The mission is to reach people with God’s powerful love, just using the dog as a vessel so the dog can meet and greet people and the volunteers can therefore open up a conversation, break the ice, and share a message of hope and love and come and say, “God bless you today, and God loves you today.”
Because when you’re going into a nursing home or a hospital or a rehab center or hospice units, the pain or the sadness or the loneliness can be pretty difficult to witness. But when you bring a dog in, it seems like people care about, “What’s that dog’s name?” Or, “Boy, he’s a beautiful dog, I remember I used to have a dog.” And it starts to change people’s attitude, people’s demeanor, their facial expressions, and then the dog does the rest. He can just put a little paw up on somebody’s hand or in a wheelchair or give somebody a little kiss on the cheek with that beautiful tongue, and wag that tail, and all of a sudden you see the loneliness stop and the sadness just go away. And it’s beautiful to see how the dogs can just bring that out. It’s just that beautiful way of sharing the powerful love of Christ.
“[A dog] can just put a little paw up on somebody’s hand or in a wheelchair or give somebody a little kiss on the cheek, and wag that tail, and all of a sudden you see the loneliness stop and the sadness just go away. And it’s beautiful to see how the dogs can just bring that out. It’s just that beautiful way of sharing the powerful love of Christ.”- Larry Randolph
Jennifer: So Finding Grace is the name of the upcoming book that I was so honored to get to co-author with Larry. And it tells the powerful story of what God can do with a willing heart and a wagging tail.
Larry: We didn’t really have a dog of our own, and one day, as we were coming out of the VA hospital, a lady stopped us and said, “What are you doing?” And we were telling her about what our ministry did and how we brought the dogs into the hospital to bring joy to people’s lives that are suffering and going through trauma and everything. And she said, “Well, I’ve got this lady who is a breeder of white Labrador retrievers, and they’re really beautiful. And she’s got a litter, and I know that she’s a Christian, that she would probably want to talk to you about a dog. So would you be interested?” And so I said, “Well, yes, I would.” And so we contacted the lady and she said, “I have this little dog, that’s kind of curled up in the back of the kennel. She’s very quiet, very passive, and I think that she would be a good therapy dog.”
The breeder said, “You know what? This dog is like something from God’s grace, and I’m going to give her to you.” So she donated the dog to us. This was a gift from God, just like God gives us a free gift of His son, Jesus. This lady gifted her Gracie to us, and Gracie was a gift from God. She never left my side.
Gracie went everywhere and she was a regal dog in the aspect of people saw her, they would come up to her. Her beauty, her statue—she was that eighty-five pound dog, very white and very glimmering with that aspect of her coat and her demeanor was like, “You come to me and I’m going to be here for you.” Dogs have emotions and they can sense things of other people. She could sense pain and crying and loneliness and death, and it was amazing to see her react to people in this way.
Jennifer: And it’s so kind of God to provide dogs to step in when people have been hurt by other people. And then here’s a beautiful dog that’s able to enter into their heart where maybe another person could not, and help them experience the love of God, the tenderness of God, the faithfulness of God. And then the dog kind of gets in the front door, and then oftentimes they’ll open their heart up to another person through that dog. But it just feels like such a kindness of God to just scatter His little ambassadors of grace and love around this planet that happened to wear fur coats and have wagging tails and warm, wet, little noses.
“It’s so kind of God to provide dogs to step in when people have been hurt by other people. And then here’s a beautiful dog that’s able to enter into their heart where maybe another person could not, and help them experience the love of God, the tenderness of God, the faithfulness of God.” – Jennifer Bleakley
Larry: She went with me on thousands of visits all over, and visited thousands of patients that we saw, people that were dying in their hospital beds, and she would minister to them. And the people that were just coming out of the hospital and trying to regain their composure of where they had been, and people in airports that were rushing back and forth from planes, or in crisis response centers.
Jennifer: It was just so, so inspiring hearing Larry speak about his Gracie and getting to meet her. And she really did live up to the name Amazing Grace, and I’m so grateful that I got to know her and experience grace from Gracie.
The Legacy of a Ministry
Larry: When I started this ministry, you know, sixteen years ago, I started keeping a journal and I journaled everything—all my visits, all my prayer requests—and I’ve kept these journals going and I still do them today. And I combine those with devotional books like Jesus Calling and now Jesus Listens and of course, the Bible.
Sometimes I’ll go back and I’ll pick up, let’s say, a journal from 2010, and I’ll read in that journal about what I did that day and how I took Gracie out, and we visited somebody in the VA hospital, and the joy that we brought them today, and it just touched their life and the prayers that I said for that person.
Years ago, one of my chaplains named Steve had a life-threatening case of pancreatitis, and he was instantly hospitalized. And I went and visited him. He had his Bible there, but he said, “Would you bring me a devotional to read?” And so I brought him Jesus Calling. He had never seen it before—and so this is years later now. Steve loved the devotional books so much that when he goes out to visit people—he is one of the most active volunteers—he carries a box of Jesus Calling books with him, and he will pass out these books to people in hospitals, the rehab centers, hospice centers, anywhere he thinks that the book would be appreciated or needed, he passes out these books. But that started from that one visit.
If you listen to God and you obey Him, you take one step forward, God will be there with you through the steps and He will guide you through it and amazing things can happen. The wildest dreams can happen. I didn’t think that when I started this ministry sixteen years ago that it would be the huge ministry that it is now. There was no way I thought that, but God did, and He knew everything that was happening.
“If you listen to God and you obey Him, you take one step forward, God will be there with you through the steps and He will guide you through it and amazing things can happen.” – Larry Randolph
Jennifer: One of the practices that I admire so much about Larry is his morning prayer time, and the fact that he begins every morning with prayer. And for fourteen years, his beloved and beautiful Gracie would lay at his feet as he sat at the feet of Jesus. Just that practice of having an animal sit with you as you sit with the Savior, and a tangible reminder that we’re never truly alone, that God Almighty, the God of all comfort and hope, is with us. And I think that is just one of the many, many gifts that our animals can give us. It’s really an invitation to see ourselves in this story and to ask and to ponder, What might God be asking me to do?
“Just that practice of having an animal sit with you as you sit with the Savior, and a tangible reminder that we’re never truly alone, that God Almighty, the God of all comfort and hope, is with us. And I think that is just one of the many, many gifts that our animals can give us. It’s really an invitation to see ourselves in this story and to ask and to ponder, What might God be asking me to do?” – Jennifer Bleakley
Larry: You will have a purpose in your life, but you have to take those steps forward to trust.
Narrator: Thank you for listening to this episode. The Jesus Calling team fondly remembers and honors the legacy of therapy dog Gracie, who recently passed away. To learn more about her incredible work, as well as the mission of Canines for Christ, check out Larry and Jennifer’s new book, Finding Grace, available October 17th.
If you’d like to hear more stories about the power of connection, please check out our interview with Walker Zimmerman.
Next week: Jordan Davis
Next time on the Jesus Calling Podcast, we’ll hear from popular country music singer Jordan Davis, who’s known for his hit songs like “Buy Dirt” and “What My World Spins Around.” Jordan shares how he’s kept God at the center of it all, so he can model faith for his children.
Jordan Davis: You always have to find somebody that you look up to, no matter what you’re doing, whether it be music, whether it be sports. And I think when it comes to our spiritual journey, it’s the exact same thing.