Gratitude Again

Where friends and family are pondering entering into what for many is the busiest season of the year, holidays hitting with rapid succession, my season has just ended. Preparing meals for our church gatherings each Wednesday and Thursday, two funeral meals, two huge church celebrations, and finally last night a catering for a rehearsal dinner. 7 weeks of intense cooking and planning and shopping all behind me, the quiet again ahead. The constant motion has provided little time to sit and think, to stew and reflect on all of my worries and heartaches, a respite from my emotional pain even as my body ached and rebelled and wished for sleep. As I consider my one neglected home and my critical need for a haircut, I can only see the blessings of this season and know that the sheer ability to say that is progress.

My sanctuary is the church kitchen, the place where I can just be, where friends wander in for a quick chat and a nibble, where people appreciate the gifts I have to offer and there is no pressure to smile.  Yet the smiles and laughs come easily there, the room where children come in and ask if “Miss Lisa needs any help” and proceed to carry out whatever crazy task I give them. Where sweet potato mishaps and a counter covered in leeks are merely part of the story.  This is the place in our church where people 20 years older than me come in to help wash dishes and set out salt and pepper shakers, where people trust me to guide them. I have been amazed at the grace that flows so freely, at the undeniable goodness of people I encounter. Each interaction, every single one, has been healing for me, as if each person took hold of my hand and chose to walk a bit of the journey with me, bringing me back into a restored relationship with the One who sent them into to the kitchen.  They may have thought they were painting a ham with marinade or finding serving utensils, but truly they were showing me a God I could love again, evaporating my anger with every bite of a steak sandwich or the hauling of tables around the room.  Grace, they all offered me grace that I lapped up as eagerly as they consumed the shrimp at the low country boil.

The disruption of two funeral meals in the midst of this chaotic season could have destroyed the momentum I was feeling, the deep sadness threatening to send me back to the couch. An elderly gentlemen who joined his wife in heaven, a man who exemplified a servants heart, that was tough. Then a young man, was too soon, just inconceivable that this could be happening again, although in much different circumstances than my Arrow. I felt honored to be in service, behind the scenes as families gathered to mourn these saints. I felt the wash of my grief even as I recognized that neither event was about me, not about my tears. I remember little of the memorial service we held for Arrow, I attended moments of each of these and allowed the words and songs to minister to me as well, selfishly trusting that the faith on display that we would see these men again to cover my son as well. Unbelievably , friends held me as I sobbed, surrounded me in my own pain and not a single one shamed me for not being able to focus on this very loss and not my own. How could I deserve this grace and love? The generosity of kindness reminded me that I will never deserve any of it, yet it is freely given.

Monday of this week I was given the opportunity to speak to a local fraternity about addiction and consequences. I looked out at these young men and saw promise, saw hope. Even as I shared our struggles with Arrow’s demons, I told them I don’t expect my story to change theirs, that no amount of talking and begging and pleading could save my son, surely they would ignore a stranger in front of them pouring out her heart. What I did remind them is that someone loves them as dearly as I loved my son, that they have value and worth in their very existence and someone would be devastated and broken if they make the wrong choice. I shared the truth that no one wants to grow up to be a heroin addict, that there are hundreds of choices that priced that end result and those steps matter. Looking out for their friends and loved ones, making hard choices to share secrets and act on concerns, that is where I pray they will go. These young men listened and asked beautiful questions and spoke one-on-one with me after. They offered me the opportunity to share my love for my son, something I regret not being able to do at his memorial. They offered me healing with their attentiveness and respect. Another step closer to restoration of my faith.

Finally last night, I was given the opportunity to cater a rehearsal dinner, the first time both sides of the wedding families met. It was glorious to be hovering around such sweet gentle people who laughed and shared stories and accepted the challenge to expand their own sense of family. What a blessing to be on the periphery of this joining, to hear the chatter and watch the groups morph into family, as if I were watching a birthing. New life happened in front of me, around me even as my heart was heavy over the loss of such a young life celebrated mere hours before. Circles, I saw the continuity of life and loving and again, felt my soul accepting the grace and healing so generously given.

Aching feet, groaning back muscles, the aroma of pesto and cartelized onions. I brought all into my home late last night to be greeted by a little boy voice. “Gran, will you snuggle with me?’ My Plum was supposed to be asleep already, I anticipated a glass of wine and my feet on the stool but instead got to hear some giggles and reminiscence from his day, the absolute best way to grow closer to the God who made all this impossible. This morning the dishes are done, the calendar is cleared and a weekend away with my Chef and Plum await. I know I will be traveling with a lighter heart and with too many people to thank for assisting along this journey. Grateful.  I am grateful and I haven’t felt that way since December 29th. I am being restored, a process that causes aching muscles and exhaustion. but my God, the view from the other side is amazing. Thank you to each of you who have held my hand, you are my hero and my deepest friends and I can say with honesty that I am thanking the God I have avoided for months now, for all of you.

Becoming

Ruminating on “do-overs”, losing myself in fantasies of going back and saying something different, going left instead of right, listening more with wisdom and compassion instead of responding out of fear, finding my voice and trusting others when I most desperately needed help, all just day dreams that do not change any outcomes or build any bridges. Introspection though seems to drive my current reactions, when I realize I am in the midst of a potential disaster and the choices are once again before me, I like to think I listen to the nudges to avoid adding to my mental list of life-changing blunders. What would I say instead, say that now. Rather than leave a moment of confusion to fester and grow into discontent, I check in, clear up, try again right in the moment. I move forward and into relationship, trying not to add more fodder for wishful-thinking fix-it sessions. Yes, I have regrets and baggage but I am not adding weight and worries to the load I already carry. But what happens if I am given the chance to re-visit, to close a circle, to display the person I am trying hard to be? I quite unexpectedly (really, would I have taken this opportunity if I had more time, if it had been planned out?) found out this week.

My church has delved into social justice ministry over the course of the last year, plus. Slowly, carefully, we have been exposed to authors and issues as they intersect with our faith and gently lead into a journey of restoration for our brothers and sisters within the criminal justice system and those who are living within addiction. A partnership with our local probation department provided the bridge into the community, into relationships that seek more for those who are marginalized, those outside of our predominately white, upper-middle class, highly educated congregation. I have been all in with this ministry, actively pursuing ways to have meaningful impact on the lives of those who visit the probation office and on those who wish to know more and be better. As the partnership solidified, I knew I had to tell me story, own up to my history with the folks behind the desks in the courthouse. I could no longer merely appear as a well meaning white lady, I couldn’t try to pass as someone with no insider information on the process and the experience.

Anxiously, fearing that all I had helped to build would denied me, that I would be judged and sentenced to life outside of the very ministry that was calling me forward, I took off the mask and bared my identity. The immediate reactions from the probation department contacts was overwhelming, they thanked me, they said I was brave, they saw no need to exclude me and thought my history even brought a richness. Then we moved on. I wasn’t prepared for the acceptance, I had all my evidence to convince them that I was still worthy and they needed none. So simple and yet life changing. I did not know I was being prepared for a larger revisiting, a closing of a circle.

Our ministry team dreamed up a crazy idea, we wanted to make a quick video interviewing the probation officers to show to our larger church. Something that could take months of planning was conceived, completed and delivered within a 2 weeks, most of the time spent coordinating schedules. Sitting in my pastor’s office as the vision for the project was forming before us, some voice that must belong to my braver self, volunteered to do the interview. Leaping out of my comfortable back seat where tasks can be completed and no one sees me, I agreed to be on camera… inside the probation department, without the support and buffer of my pastor. Another member offered up her teenaged daughter to do the filming, someone I had never met. We were going way out on the limb but still, my established relationship with the two probation officers surely would allow for safety.

The project unfolded quickly, dates were volleyed back and forth and then finally a phone call from our main contact, “We can do it because JH, a longtime probation officer has agreed to be interviewed tomorrow.” My brave voice said yes, I hit the red button to disconnect the call and then the magnitude of what I had just set up hit me. Questions flooded my mind, should I call back and say no? Should I contact the pastor and seek someone else to go? Should I say quiet with this man, keep my mask on? I had 24 hours to wrestle and worry and wring my hands. Ultimately I listened to the nudge that said move forward, that said you can do hard things, you can be who you are today with those who once knew you. You see, JH was MY probation officer almost 30 years ago.

I was given the chance for a do-over, an opportunity to say thank you to the man who could have been harsh and judgmental and terrible but chose to be kind and helpful and support my efforts to reintegrate after prison. As the greetings and chair arranging and camera adjusting came to an end and the real interview began, I asked him how long he had been with the department. After he shared his history, I shared mine. I told him I actually knew he had been there a long time, because he was my probation office. Did his attitude change, did he put me into a different category than church lady with a mission? He broke out in a huge smile, he said I looked familiar but my name didn’t ring a bell. Mask fully demolished, I told him my name when he knew me, he remembered me, pertinent details, and said he recognized the smile if not the hair. He allowed me to sit before him, the person I am today, offering respect and dignity to a woman so shamed by the past that years and years of life have been wasted. He honored my wholeness by not giving too much weight to the broken parts. He participated in my healing.

Daring to be authentic, striving to own our mistakes and each day seeking restoration is risky stuff.  I will never be able to undo all the bad or unsay all the hurtful words, despite my day dreams and wishful thinking. Exhausting and scary as the journey may be, as contrary as it may seem to find the space in a probation office to be holy ground, the truth is that I was never alone or abandoned in that room, it was not a solitary wandering on the path to reconciling different parts of my life. God desires to restore me into right relationships and wants me to shed shame and self-incrimination and I know He wants that for you too.  I pray we all can find moments to revisit who we were and offer a view of who we are and allow God to continue to bring our best selves forward into the world. I pray that when someone around trusts us with their true selves, we commit to showing compassion and offering a cold drink. Let us take off our masks and celebrate who we are today, who we are becoming. Let us abandon our day dreams and do the work before us, finding pieces of grace that heal and patches of light that warm us and lead us on.