Can We Afford to Share Grace?


My friends and I often joke that we are grateful that social media didn’t exist during our teen years, that we are ever grateful no one had a camera at the ready during our college exploits. We laugh and nod and not so secretly know we are telling a deep truth. Whew, we got by with some stuff, didn’t we? We worry for those who are coming of age in a society that documents and publishes everything. Now that we are older, wiser, calmed down and less prone to public drunkenness, we breathe many sighs of relief. And still we speak judgement on those who are now getting their comeuppance, on those who have some power or notoriety and have their sins or folly or one poor judgement exposed for all the world to see. Where is the grace, when does that enter into the discussion, how do we decide to offer that life-changing gift to others? How does one cross the bridge from exposed sinner to forgiven saint?

Grace, redemption, restoration. These concepts often feel so far away, meant for others, out of my reach. Other times I glow with the knowledge that I am included in the forgiven club, that I truly get a fresh start. What is the difference between a forgiven day and a shaming one? Mostly I find that when I let outsiders define me, people who don’t know me and want to dig up salacious history or repeat gossip, who need to feel righteous…those are shaming days when the reminder that I am made new again in Jesus gets lost in the noise. Then begins the slow crawl back to grace, shutting out the whispers and innuendos, listening more intentionally to the nudge of the Holy Spirit that says I am more than my past, yesterday is over. Choosing to focus on the thread that pulls me closer to God is ever challenging but maybe more so in the greater culture of #metoo and the publicizing of old yearbook pictures and long forgotten emails. I am left with the question of who deserves forgiveness, who gets a second chance?

Accountability. I think it all rests in accountability. Confession of sins plays a critical role in the forgiveness equation, at least for me. What hides in darkness is scary, powerful, soul-crushing and only loses steam and the ability to hurt when it is brought into the Light. For many years, I hid, I avoided relationships and feared exposure of my past. Meeting each overture of friendship with dread, distrust, desperation, I stayed home, stayed quiet, stayed alone. Anyone who continued to push, asked for lunch dates or invited me into their club, ministry, children’s play group mom gatherings brought anxiety and a long discussion with Chef. Dare I risk connecting with her? What if she finds out? How long before they find out that I carry a monster label and they back away, judge, begin whispering? No, better to be safe and not invest in a friendship, not pour any effort into building a program or sharing my gifts only to have the inevitable phone call that says thank you but no, the email that says my help is no longer needed, the summons into the manger’s office telling me it is over. This is shame, this is the darkness. I built a castle, a fortress for one, that kept the outside away and while it was a new prison, I was at least in control of who crossed the moat.

Two significant events began to open my eyes to living into grace instead of shame. I can’t remember which came first, but together they offered me a hand across the bridge and both involved accountability and Light. A trusted neighbor who knew my story began to spread gossip and judgement about me to others on the street. Why he would do that is still many years later a question I cannot answer. Yet his behavior gave me the opportunity to face a shame, to question and confront an accuser. I faced him and stepped into the light. I felt my shame melt away, the weight of secrecy and worry lifted by using my own voice to say, “You know me, I am more than my past and a label and I have given you the story before I accepted your friendship.” I sought accountability for both of us, only one walked away with the Light that night, a glow that dims sometimes but has never been fully extinguished. I lost a friendship but gained myself.

A conversation with a trusted pastor, a man who spoke many truths to me, was the other awakening I needed, the encouragement to leave the safety of my prison. When I shared with him that a now highly trusted friend had invited me to lunch, began pursuing a friendship with me, and she had small children and I wanted to spare her the high cost of a relationship with me, that I had finally succumbed to her advances by sitting on the patio in the bright sunlight for a lunch I couldn’t eat and listed out for her all the reasons she shouldn’t be friends with me, he didn’t congratulate me on my honesty or thank me for keeping the reputation of others intact, he didn’t high five me for choosing to quarantine myself lest others catch the virus of my sinful reputation. No, he was appalled that I would begin every conversation that way, that I wouldn’t trust others to forgive and that I had such little faith in their genuine delight in getting to know me. What? WHAT?!! No, he said, stop it. Just stop it. Who else begins a relationship with a recounting of their past, he asked me. “Lisa, accept the grace that is being offered to you.” He guided me across the bridge into a relationship with the One who had already forgiven me, who wanted to rejoice in my redemption. Life changed after that talk with my pastor.

So what can these experiences teach me about the current climate of outing old emails and yearbook pictures and stupid teenage choices? My constant companion of old, anxiety of being exposed, tries to squash me to this day. I avoid the spotlight but hear the Holy Spirit reminding me there is no glory in rejecting the gifts I have been given. For the record, I am not saying that there are no consequences for wearing blackface or pretending to grab a woman’s breast. But can one event tell our entire story? Is that one photo a true indication of our character? No, I think that grace accepted for our own secrets requires us to offer it to others, to make space for apologies and seek out evidence of atonement as well. Owning my history and poor choices and devastating decisions, I am free to cross the bridge into grace. The price of that grace though is the demand that I look back not into my own past but to those who desire assistance to get to the crossing.

My advice to those who have covered their painful pasts, who fear the exposure that a Google search could bring, I say own it. No, don’t begin every conversation with your sin list but yes, say it happened and express the remorse that precedes grace. The truth is we have all done hurtful things, we all were young and dumb and self-centered. Many of us ruminate on choices made during school years, on the mistakes we made parenting or the ways we have taken our spouses for granted. Getting stuck in shame robs us though of the healing that comes with accountability and claiming our status as a child of God. Then live each day as if we have another chance to get it right, make each choice better than the last one, look to the vulnerable people and hear their pain and then do what we can to stop the cycle of shame.

I was heartbroken when another favorite actor was exposed as a sexual predator, when a politician I admired was found to have no respect for women, when a beloved celebrity appeared in disgusting pictures that we know today are offensive and perpetuate injustice. With each new headline, I wonder why, why didn’t this person get out in front of it and tell us all that they made choices yesterday that they have spent many todays atoning for? The new ministry at church that is healing my heart is bringing us into relationship with those in the community that have been incarcerated. As we strive to convince them that they are more than their last bad decision, they are greater than the Department of Corrections number that follows their name, that they are deserving of a second and third and fourth chance, I recognize that this is a hard sell when we are taking down others with our phones locked in video mode. We revel in righteousness every time a person of the opposing political party makes the news for a 40 year old decision. Instead, let us ask if this person would make the same choice today? Has this public figure or now-public figure behaved consistently to display a contrite heart?

I get lost in the space between seeking accountability for victims of injustice and offering grace to other sinners like me. I can’t find any easy path forward beyond continuing to cross the bridge into forgiveness and handing our grace like candy. We all want to be heard and validated in our pain, to believe our experiences are unique. The truth is that we all hurt others and are hurt. Some of us stop there, get stuck there and hoard forgiveness as if it is ours to dole out. Today I am grateful for a pastor who told me otherwise, for friends who have persisted in relationship with me, for a new 24 hours to get it right. You have your own new day, will you join me in seeking the best in others and allowing the worst to pass without our amplification? Join me as I cross again into grace, where the Light is warm and bright and available to all.

Forgiving Debts

As the time approached for Arrow to return home from prison, to begin his life again, we rearranged bedrooms, we got rid of all the alcohol we had massed, we installed a landline again for his ankle monitoring system. We discussed rules and boundaries and set a plan to get him back to independence. We filled our days with hopes and tasks and considered each step carefully, knowing full well that his success and our sanity depended on creating a safe place, one that included support as well as accountability. I am reminded of all the hours spent on the phone with him as the days grew closer to his freedom, each of us considering that while prison had been horrific, the real work lay ahead. Even with all the intentionality that process held, we made mistakes, we blew it and we all lost. I take comfort in knowing not that while we were not perfect, we didn’t prevent his relapse, we did give our best efforts, we did the best we could at the time. My regrets often feel like a debt I can never touch, a steady reminder of how I fell short.

Every day I see the scribbled card that hangs on the refrigerator, the one where we recorded his debt. Like a talisman, it has hung there for years now, showing not only the money we offered him that he insisted he would pay back, the money he hoped always to pay back as a show that he had become a responsible man and not a child getting an allowance, not a dependent kid. We paid to have a tooth implanted to replace the one lost in a prison fight, we paid to have his driver’s license reinstated, we paid for a gym membership. The truth is that I would have willingly gifted all of this to him but understood my need to rescue him could be the very thing that undermined his success. My boy went to prison, I struggled to see the man who had returned. He grew confident each time he offered up $20 and marked it on the card, understanding that the thousands we had spent while he was locked up were certainly forever out of his reach but he could stop the slide further. Of course not everything made the list, the cost of new clothes and shoes and a winter coat and meals out and the pantry stocked with food we wouldn’t normally purchase, these were considered the cost of parenting.

The card remains on the fridge, a reminder of debt that has been abandoned. Mostly I view it with great sadness, not that we won’t recoup the funds, (we spent equally on Stella but that is a very different blog post) but rather the reminder that we will never have a chance to see him to restoration, to redemption, not on this side of the heavens. No , I look at this list of money owed and know that maybe, just maybe, if he had stuck to the plan, we would be celebrating him rather than mourning him. Maybe if we had written everything down, he would have recognized how much we had to offer and he would have felt humility and respect rather than noting the loopholes and means to manipulate. But I think this card reminds me of more, brings sadness t my own shortcomings rather than just Arrow’s. More than what this card says about us and our failed attempts to keep him sober, I see that I also carry a list of debts and know that I will never pay them off.

Pastor Pat once told me and probably many others in the congregation, (was it a sermon, the words echoed so loudly with me that it is hard to remember he surely was speaking to us all) that God has my picture on his fridge. A simple deep message, that I am honored and cherished by my creator. He didn’t say that God has a list of my transgressions, not a quid pro quo of my blessings and what I need to do to get us even. My picture. I can never repay my debts, I daily even scoff at my blessings as I want more and different ones. I forget that God has already provided, that He sent His son to pay for it all. What if I chose to face daily not the list that outlines how my son fell short but the one that I carry with me, the tattered card full of scribbles that describe how I fell short? Would I notice the ways I did work on the debt, the ways I have held myself accountable and sought to be better or only the ways I didn’t? Indeed, it is a choice, to look at a life and see the losses or to celebrate the gains. Does God celebrate each time I offer up $20 to pay for the groceries of the person in front of me who is silently, embarrassedly putting items aside because the total is too high, the wallet is too empty? Does God rejoice when I notice the least of His, when I recognize another broken soul? Do these count as my offerings, accepted with the same sense of delight as I pocketed that $20 from Arrow? I think He does, I think I have missed the point of being indebted all this time.

My birthday is approaching, days away now. It has almost never been a happy day for me, not something I wanted to share. Vivid memories of childhood horrors when I experienced the conflicting messages that I was to be simultaneously feted and molested have created deep ruts where I find myself stuck, year after year. I hate surprise parties, recalling the year my father took me away from home while friends gathered, away to pick up my birthday cake and to a country road where he violated my body and my soul and then returned me to the party, shell shocked and unable to find sanctuary. No, my birthday has never been cause for celebration for me, one met with trepidation and hyper vigilance. Yet something strange happened this year, as January brought a relief from the intense grief of the holidays and I began to breathe. I felt God nudging me to accept the present of my birthday, to accept life and see that those who have celebrated with me through the years were not just showing up for cake. While my picture may not be on any of their fridges, I hold a place in the hearts of many and that is good. The danger has passed and I am being invited into life. Ever mindful that I not seem proud or boastful, I wondered, what if? What if I looked not at how I fall short but rather on the ways I thrive and survive and say that is enough, just for one day, that is worthy, I am worthy?

Before you wonder why you weren’t invited to my own celebration of me, know that my plan didn’t come to be. While I am not this year throwing a party for me, cooking food I want to share with you and opening the door of this closed off home to your laughter and your friendship, maybe one year soon. I am getting closer to acknowledging my debt to God and also the ways in which He rejoices at my birth. I am removing the card that lists my son’s debts and instead am remembering all the ways he lived. My gift to me this year is to intentionally begin living, growing into me. I hope you will forgive my debts and yours as well, that you will destroy the accounting of wrongs and embrace the fresh start we have been given. I think that counts as another payment to our creator who keeps cleaning up our messes and offering a fresh start.

A New Year

Like any good horror movie where the star runs through the scene alternately looking forward for an escape and back to see monitor how close the threat is, I can see how I experienced this last year. Looking over my shoulder, seeing hurts and memories that threatened to consume me, I looked forward to upcoming holidays and birthdays and knew the danger lay ahead as well. Stuck in an endless loop of running and hiding, constantly feeling like I was one wrong step away from losing all of me. Like a bright light, a gust of fresh air, suddenly I find myself on the other side, out from under the cloud of doom and into a calendar that is fresh and waiting for new memories and safe. Sure the same holidays and birthdays and special events await, yet somehow just surviving the first grief-filled year has brought some clarity and a healthy dash of hope.

The truth of grieving my son has shown what even I cannot deny, I do have a desire to survive. Too many times I wondered why someone else got cancer, was in a horrible accident, when I had no desire to take the next breath. Not actively suicidal, no worries friends, but also not actively living. I heard of someone who died of a broken heart and wondered to God why my life was continuing. When the pain felt unbearable, I got another text from a friend saying they felt the strong call to pray for me right then. I cannot say I always welcomed those but I recognized them for what they were, a lifeline, a rope thrown to a drowning woman. When I asked God to let me stop this survival run, I found in the mail another card, a sweet message from a friend near or far who acted on the impulse to remind me there is a greater world outside of my mourning and I was welcome to rejoin when I could. Couldn’t they sense my resentment at their kindness, why wouldn’t they leave me alone in my misery? Cards and calls and dinners arrived inspire of my surliness, breaching the walls I was erecting. I was offered bits of hope and just enough air to endure the next minute, to exist another day.

As the new year arrived, I realized I no longer wanted to run from pain and look back to all that chased me. So bizarre that merely flipping the calendar could bring a fresh start, an awaking to the blessing of a new day and yet, it seems it is so. Certainly all the resolutions and goal setting that begins on this day each year would hint that I am not alone in embracing another chance to get it right, be healthier, find joy again. The grief group I attended surely assisted in gaining this different perspective, 6 weekly meetings that provided a safe space to be angry and broken as well as the offer to see even a tiny bit beyond my limited view. Imagine running in the darkness, desperate to avoid the dangers of sorrow all around and then the lights come back on, casting out the shadows of “what-ifs” and “if onlys”, illuminating the truth that I was running for no reason, the threats were all in my head. I was given the larger view, that my Arrow is in a better place, words that angered me in the darkness but reassured in the light.

I survived a year of firsts, a year spent mostly sitting silently in my grief, sometimes showing my tears but most often putting on a fake brave face. I thought I was getting through each empty day mired in memories without making progress, what really would progress look like? Trudging through every morning, long nights that brought no relief, and yet I find I have moved forward, into an unknown life without the joy of my son, also without the worry and despair that comes from loving an addict. I was freed from the demons that haunted us for 11 years, it just took some time to stop the habit of fretting and wringing our hands and checking the local police blotter every day. We survived against most of my efforts and even as I questioned the wisdom of a God who refuse to offer me the out I desired, I was slowly given the knowledge that I still had more to live for, more to experience, more life ahead.

I didn’t get the blessing of dying from a broken heart, instead I am offered the chance to live with one. The energy, the adrenaline rush that comes after the crisis has passed now fills my soul, even as I resist the fresh air and look suspiciously at the empty calendar and the hope that flutters within. We are embarking on the second year, one surely filled with more tears and sadness and dark days and yet… we are moving forward into a light that exposes happy memories as well. Plum, Chef and I celebrated New Year’s Eve with root beer floats just as we always did with my Stella and Arrow. We played games and built Lego sets and were asleep by 8:30, safe in the belief that we didn’t have to watch the clock to know another day was coming. As the first day of the new year dawned, we lit sparklers and celebrated both the darkness and the light, both surviving and living as we breathed in deeply the possibilities of this new 24 hours. We have entered year 2, a year of seconds that seems to be inviting us into different firsts.

Happy New Year friends, thank you all for continuing to read a blog filled with longing and sorrow, thank you for the texts and dinners and cards and your couches. Thank you for walking through the darkness with me, bringing your light and showing me I had nothing to fear. You are the angels of God who knew I would follow you back to Him. This isn’t a horror movie, this is a life, full of minutes and moments and months, full of joys and sorrows. I have survived thus far, I might as well see what is ahead, I might as well grasp the joys that also lurk just around the corner. Be blessed friends.

I Remember You

I dreaded the calendar flip from November to December, dragging me into a month of reminders that you are gone. Knowing the anniversary was creeping, often speeding towards me, I desperately tried to cling to the emotional stability I had achieved, I tried to stay busy. Still, the quiet moments were consumed with flashbacks to the morning I learned you were gone. Most of this month has been about pretending I could celebrate Christmas for the sake of your child, my Plum. The Christmas tress were up, all the presents purchased with the help of online shopping to avoid people and music and merriment, the cookies baked. Plowing ahead, moving forward as if each day were a separate 24 hours to get through. Then I saw the comet (lens flare?) and I regained some footing. I imagined you dancing through the sky, playing with your beloved Pony dog and my heart became lighter. Another day closer to the anniversary but also another day I had survived and glimpsed a moment of peace and clarity.

Next I went to dinner with my mother-in-law and was given the chance to really remember you. My mother-in-law has Alzheimers, she doesn’t remember you died. While at the restaurant celebrating her birthday, she asked me repeatedly how you were doing. What could have been excruciating, to tell her again and again that you died, I chose instead to recognize that she only remembers that you lived. With her diminished capabilities, she gave me the greatest gift. I too could focus on all the other days of your life and not just on the one day that you left us. “He is doing well, I think,” I replied the first time she asked. The next time, I considered carefully and stated, “He is strong and healthy and happy, I believe.” With each question, I affirmed what I had been told, by the comet and the pastors and my friends, that you are in heaven and no longer in the grips of addiction. I got to see you as you are, I got to talk about more of your story and not the last chapter.

Time continued without any help from me, today marks one year since you began to fly in the heavens. I remember you, your silliness and your laughter. I remember how much you made me smile. I see you cuddling pets, always cuddling pets and realize you are now taking your beloved Pony (the black lab we rescued after he was found swimming following hurricane Katrina. Please don’t ask me how he came to be called that) for walks in heaven, oh how you loved that dog. I am convinced there is Sriracha sauce up there, that you are eating steak and hot fries and one day I will join you and make my special pancakes for you.

I am sure you are listening to your son and glowing with pride at his wit, at his ability to play with words and cock his eyebrow just as you did. I cannot forget your face if I wanted to, I cannot escape you when this child is near. The same blue eyes, the same silly looks, I think each time that I am seeing you for a flash and that you will never fully be gone while this child walks among us. I can hear you laughing, delighted in his teasing of me and his quick quips. He has your intelligence and also your deep well of empathy. He sees the invisible around us, he reaches out to those who are vulnerable. I remember in elementary school when you chose to sit at lunch with the child others shunned. You came home and asked if you could share some of your clothes with him, did we have an extra coat? You had all the charisma, you drew everyone to you just by walking in to a room, and yet you often chose to take your place around those who had none. You elevated others without fear of your own standing. Your child does the same, he recognizes the lost and the hurting and shares his heart with them. H doesn’t worry what others will think, he thinks for the crowd and pulls them in the kindest direction. I know you are watching him and your smile outshines the stars I gaze at each night.

I have long seen you as an arrow, as a child with a choice of the direction you would fly. I didn’t consider that and arrow lays still without intervention, without a force to propel it forward. I tried for most of your life to be the bow, to hold you steady and direct your path and I failed. Or maybe I didn’t, maybe I became broken and loose and not able to withstand repeated walking, running to pick you up and start afresh. I do know that I gave you all of me until there was so little left that when you died, I became empty and useless and emotionally dead as well. A year, 365 days of surviving without purpose and then this morning I a reminded of a conversation with you shortly after you returned home from prison. You chastised me, your direct honesty and wise words are echoing within me today even more than that horrible phone call, the screaming and crying. You told me to stop, just stop mourning the estrangement with your sister and start living again. You said my sadness was robbing you, Plum, Chef of me. You said I needed to get a shower and stop wearing pj’s all day and begin laughing. I didn’t know then you were preparing me for this very day. You were showing me that I was more than the bow to hold you up, more than a punching bag for your sister. I was needed each day for a greater purpose and I needed to stop wallowing in past hurts and see the new day ahead as opportunity to find other parts of me. I hear you, I still hear your words and I know, just like the comet I am being given a new perspective if only I chose to see it. You have become the bow, I am the arrow.

I often say that you I am more than one chapter of my story, sometimes I say it with conviction, others I whisper it and wonder when it will feel true. By focusing on only the last chapter of your story, I lose the joy of remembering all the ones before, the ones filled with your huge presence and silliness, “Mom did you know mom upside down is wow?” and all the notes you left me, scribbles of sweetness and a request for a certain breakfast or a wake up time early enough that we could spend time together. I remember you Nick, with every breath and with each second and today I will try so very hard to shower and put on real clothes and do something, anything to take a step forward. The shower and clothes may be the only steps but forward, into the search for life and not mere survival without you. Today I will remember that you lived, that you loved and that you are forever a mama’s boy who took pride in that relationship. The hundreds of letters I have from you while you were in prison are beautiful reminders of the love we shared, the hopes you held and the successes you experienced.

You and I, we know our truth and we know you are living free and healthy and flying with support of the strongest bow, One who will not tire or lose strength. You are living fully now and I am given the choice to follow your example and your life and your words. Today, on the anniversary of your last breath, I will try to fill my lungs and begin to live again.

I See The Moon

I see the moon and the moon sees me and the moon sees somebody I want to see

God bless the moon and God bless me and God bless the somebody I want to see

This lullaby, written by Meredith Willson, was a particular favorite when my children were tiny, we almost reflexively repeated it each time we caught sight of the moon. Certainly as I was imprisoned, we chanted the words over countless phone calls, taking comfort that the same moon they looked at was within my view as well, we couldn’t truly be that far apart. I silently said these words during the time was daughter was on another continent, while my son was missing or jailed or homeless. Somehow, knowing the moon was watching us all, wherever we happened to be, regardless of the distance between us, gave us all peace. 

During the memorial service when Chef talked about our Arrow, he again used the imagery of the moon, illustrating how he was the brightest thing you would see whenever he entered a room, much like the moon that always overtakes the starlight. The moon has special significance in our family, each night for the past year, as sleep eludes me and I wander the house while Chef is seeking rest, I look out at the moon and the words to the lullaby echo in my thoughts. I chant the words, I wish to see someone I can’t. 

It is no secret that this year has tested my faith, that I have battled with the need to understand and the knowledge that I never will. The anticipation of Christmas has been excruciating, remembering how blindly I celebrated last year without the knowledge that just 4 days after all the presents were opened and the cookies eaten, I would hear the devastating news that my son had died of a heroin/fentanyl overdose. Christmas this year has brought dread, a reluctance to put up the decorations and hang the stockings, still knowing that the season is important to Plum, that we must carry on has forced me to go through the motions at least. Each night though, I look up at the moon and say the words and entreat God for what I cannot have. Often I take a picture of the moon, filling my camera roll with shots of the night sky to replace all the pictures I will never again take of my son. 

Two nights ago I was following my routine, sitting on my back porch and considering the moon when I noticed it was oddly shaped. Not a truly 3/4 moon, it seemed to have a bit more hidden but just in one section. Yet in the picture, the moon appears full and bright. Not understanding what I was seeing, I pulled out my camera to capture the image when I saw something else on the screen, a blue ball, a floating orb. I wiped off the lens and tried again. Same thing. Snapping several pictures, I looked to see if  changing my position would cause the ball to disappear. I inspected the sky, I couldn’t see it yet every time I raised the camera, it appeared. Finally I went back inside to get Chef’s phone, thinking surely it would be gone and the mystery would be solved, something must be wrong with my phone. It remained in the viewfinder. Wondering at the image and needing an explanation, I posted the photo in a subreddit called @whatisthisthing, knowing someone out there could offer an answer. What I learned has shaken me, given me pause and a sliver of peace and a large helping of hope. I apparently was capturing the image of the Christmas Comet, something  visible only that night and not again for centuries. 

I don’t know if it is really true that I saw the blue of my son’s eyes as it traveled in the night sky, appearing to play by the moon. Maybe it was a lens flare, as some redditors suggested. Yet I am embracing the ones who explained about the Christmas Comet, who posted links to astronomy sites and assured me it was so. What I can be certain of is that while I couldn’t see this blue in the sky with my naked eye, that I needed a strong, different lens, I could find it with the a different view. Much like I cannot know for certain where my son is and my view is most often cloudy regarding most things these days, with some help I can be offered the truth that there is more to the story, there is a greater plan and God rules the heavens and the earth and sometimes we can have a pleading to see somebody we want to see, if we look around differently. 

I was given a Christmas gift that I will treasure forever, the image of my boy traveling the sky under the watchful gaze of God, a quick visit to assure me that Christmas is still relevant and magical and deeper than the presents under the sparsely decorated tree in our home. I am still puzzling out what all it means for me, much like the shepherds of old who heard the angels sing, it is awesome and holy and frightening, to have had this encounter with the God who saw me too, who knows that I wander in search of assurance and beg for the closeness that disappeared Dec 29, 2017. I was given this sign that He does know there is somebody I want to see and he is blessing us both. 

Forever Altered

Several months ago a wind storm blew in, not entirely unusual during the fall but this one was different, more powerful. I listened from inside while the howling increased then settled, again and again. The sky looked normal, no threat of a tornado, merely ferocious gusts that erupted and abated. Trees older than me bent sideways, lost leaves but stood each time as the calm returned. Venturing out to take a look, I heard a crack, a splintering and watched in disbelief as a huge branch of our old maple fell right at my feet. Later when I took Chef outside to survey the damage, he struggled to see amidst the fullness of the remaining leaves, the mighty branches, just where the tree had broken. Walking amidst the fallen branches, I pointed out just where the tree had separated, glaring once he could spot the emptiness. 

As time has passed, with the ground covered in leaves and the winter sky above, the tree is marked forever by the part that is missing. Just as the weather folks warned of the potential for danger with this wind storm, so we were warned many years ago that addiction could take our son. We heeded the warnings, we sought treatment and interventions and prayer. Still, in the same way I couldn’t protect this beautiful strong tree, I was helpless to save my child. Every morning I look out at this tree and recognize that it is still standing, still providing shelter for birds and squirrels and probably raccoons, but it is broken, forever marred by forces stronger, more dangerous than  the strong root system or age. 

I wonder each morning if I am the tree, if I am still strong and mighty and able to continue a purposeful life, able to shelter others and experience joy as little ones gather around me, playing and laughing and watering more storms. Instead am I the broken branches which still lay in the yard, our grief robbing us of motivation to care, of the ability to do basic maintenance like shower and eat, never mind tend to our home? Most days I feel like those decaying logs, laying cast aside and neglected. I know that even those pieces do some good for the earth, for the smaller critters who burrow inside. Yet is that enough, to merely lay around and passively let live exist in my presence? 

Some days I can even claim to be the wind, to be strong and angry and forceful, seeking weak places and blasting my wrath. Mostly my anger has left me, the good work of the grief group I attended bringing me back into relationship with the God who created that tree and me and my son. All that remains is sadness. Big and deep and pervasive SADNESS. I look at the tree each morning and know that others may see just a tree, see that it has survived this latest storm and countless others. My eye though is drawn to the splintered spot, to the gaping hole where once a significant member lived. The tree will never be the same as before, that moment, that snap that forever altered it, is now part of the tree’s story, it’s history. 

I am broken, stuck in that moment just after a phone call that brought my nightmare, all of my fears into fruition. I hear the wailing, the keening, the screaming and know it was me, a howling wind that may have quieted for others but never leaves my soul. The branch of my tree that was my son lays in ruins at my feet, a promise of a life full and rich and joyful separated from the rest, from the strength of our family, from me. It is true that he is restored in heaven, that he is no longer haunted by his demons, his life may be characterized by all that I wanted for him here, now that he is there. Yet I am left looking at the missing parts, at the emptiness, at the destruction of hope. 

The wind came howling and broke my tree, opioids slid silently back into my son and broke him. I knew the power, the potential but we had weathered so very many storms before, I thought we could survive more, I thought our roots would protect us. Wrong, I was wrong. I could not protect him or us or stop the drugs from reaching him, anymore than I could brace the tree from a power so much greater than I.

Gentle breezes move the smaller branches, I take little notice. The damage is already done. 

A Different Kind of Gratitude

I cook at church. A lot.  I feed people whenever several gather, when fellowship around a meal is requested. What I don’t do is look for credit, for gratitude, because I know I am really doing it for me. The kitchen has fed my mental health, been my sanctuary, allowed me to get out of the house and serve without engaging too much. No one is ever sure if I am crying because of the onions or a broken heart. It is a blessing for me to be there. Thus as the thank you come in, I feel a twinge of guilt. I deflect, I try to explain how I am given a chance to breathe while I chop and prep and wash dishes. Rarely do folks understand, they still are grateful. It feels awkward, uncomfortable, wrong, to say you are welcome. Yet a gentlemen called me out on this very habit while I was still wearing my coat, when I had just walked into to service this past sunday and I have pondered his words ever since. 

His wife shared with me that someone in the first service had raised me up as a joy for a luncheon I had served the previous week. Yikes, I said. I should avoid first service people I said. Still coated, bearing the weight of my bible and my huge purse, I hadn’t even settled in yet and already someone was saying my name outlaid and telling me thank you. Danger Will Robinson! As his wife and I talked, he said, you know you could just say thank you for the compliment. Freeze frame, all movement stopped, no air in building. So I began to share with him how I am blessed by the opportunities to cook, so i started in the litany of blessings I receive. Yet he persisted, he didn’t let me go. He said it could be both and to say thank you. He said he sees women everyday at the university who have no ability to accept a compliment. He teaches them to do so. I learned in that moment to avoid this man and to also try to block his words but they won’t leave me alone. 

I know that men and women respond differently to praise. Yep, a huge generalization but still. Women deflect, they say “this old thing?” or “it was on sale” or “it is a blessing to me.” Men high five and joke and flex their muscles. and they say thank you.  I have long wondered at the difference, secretly felt pride in the humility women express.  Yes, I know how crazy that sounds and surely comes from some learned behavior as a child. Girls are demure, they look away shyly, they poo-poo praise. And more often than not, they feel under appreciated, they struggle to get recognition for their work, they are paid less and do more. They wonder why men on the same team get the spotlight and the glory. Girls, we are doing this to ourselves, in part because we can’t say thank you when receiving said credit, said compliments, said glory. 

I could argue that humility is Godlike, that our place in heaven will have more Milano cookies and mugs of always steaming coffee than the men who take credit in this world. In fact scripture says we are to do and pray and make food secretly, lest our rewards be here rather than at the feet of Jesus. I do argue that, usually. Yet this man’s words keep bugging me, are still rolling around in my mind days later. Maybe there is a way to have both. He told me, when someone gives you a present, you say thank you. Say thank you now, when they give the gift of gratitude. I personally don’t like wise men much, I prefer to keep my own twisted counsel. How can I argue with this logic?

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. A day to show our grateful hearts to all around. Even in a horrible year, my heart swells with thanks for all that I have, all those who love me in spite of myself. Being grateful is not my challenge. Accepting gratitude is. Therefore, tomorrow, I will say thank you when someone says this is the best cheesecake they have ever eaten. I will say thank you when someone says they like my sweater, that old thing I have worn a hundred times. I will practice a new kind of gratitude. Maybe a little girl will witness these exchanges and wonder at my audacity and also say thank you when I tell her she set the table beautifully. Maybe the next time I see this man I will tell him he has been working on my soul, and thank him for it. Or more likely, I will duck into the kitchen and start up the dish machine, clean off the prep table. 

I am thankful for each of you who chose to take a moment and read my blog, for those of you who tell me my words matter to you. I am thankful for friends and family and friends who are family and I am thankful for being convicted before I get my coat off. The pastor can preach every week about our souls and I am truly marked by his sermons. Yet what happens in the hallway sometimes has more impact. Sorry Pastor, your people are preaching outside of the sanctuary and it is good. Thank you. You are welcome. On this Thanksgiving, will you join me in accepting gratitude as well as giving it?