I usually stick to talking about writing on this blog - but the writing life is more than writing. It's actually about story. Everyone has one. Recently, I was asked to tell a part of my story to a local group of women. It was a daunting exercise for me to write my "mini-memoir". I'd like to share it with you.
I’m not very good at testimonies. Testimonies make me nervous. Especially my own. I’m not sure I’ll get it right. Seeing the forest for the trees, and all that. And where to begin? Worse – where to end? I’m not at the end yet, far as I can tell.
But I was asked to give a testimony recently, and in preparing for that evening, it dawned on me that my testimony has little to do with me. It has everything to do with God’s grace. That’s my story – wrestling with grace.
I don’t remember coming to Christ. When I was six I overheard my mother explaining the concept of hell to my older sisters (maybe they had done something terrible? The detail why is lost). When she was done, I went to my room and prayed for Jesus to come into my heart. My prayer went like this, “Please come into my heart, Jesus. I don’t want to go to hell. I don’t want to be anywhere you’re not.” And the Lord spoke to me, “I’m here.” A lovely beginning, don’t you think? It’s the sort of beginning that makes you think, everything’s going to be fine over here. She’s going to have a good life, stable, purposeful, focused, abundant.
Funny thing about abundant life. Jesus tells us He came that we might have abundant life – but it’s never the sort of life you think it should be – rather the abundance that Jesus brings turns out to be a very different kind of life than we think ought to be. And the sufficient grace that sustains that life He brings, turns out to be a very different sort of grace than we hoped it might be.
In his excellent book, When God Interrupts, M. Craig Barnes writes: “We tend to think of grace as the concession of a polite God who says, “Well, that’s alright Sweetheart; please try not to do that again.” Grace is whatever it takes for God to come and get us. It can be confrontational, frightening, disruptive, and demanding, but in the end it saves our life.”
This well describes my encounters with God’s grace. Confrontational. Frightening. Disruptive. Demanding. And I might add – wounding.
And that brings me back to my nervousness about my testimony – you see I don’t have the sort of testimony that tracks the healing salvation brings. From pagan to Pentecost. Rather, I have a testimony that tracks the refining fires of faith. And it isn’t the reassuring testimony that most of us like to hear. Certainly that I like to hear.
Let me preface my story with an excerpt from the story of the bible character I most identify with. Peter. Peter, the big-hearted, big-mouthed screw up of a disciple who talked first and thought second. The guy who, in the course of one afternoon Jesus bestowed the honor of being called The rock on which I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it – and, a few minutes later Jesus says to this same disciple: “Get behind me Satan. You are a stumbling block to me . . . ”
I get this guy – So let me share a passage of Luke that details a conversation between Jesus and Peter has lodged itself in my spine. Let me read you the version of this conversation that plays in my head when I read it.
Luke 22:31-32 We’re in the middle of the Passover supper. Jesus is saying and doing all kinds of confusing things. And he turns to this disciple and says, “Simon, (uh, don’t you mean Peter? The rock?) Simon, (He keeps calling me Simon. Why not Peter? I thought I was Peter now.) Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. (What? Why? Satan? Why are you even listening to Satan? Who cares what he wants?) But I have prayed for you, (Whew. Dodged that bullet. Jesus prayed. I’m home free.) Simon, (Oh uh. Still not calling me Peter) that your faith may not fail. (What kind of a prayer is that? Wouldn’t a better prayer be that Satan isn’t allowed to touch me at all? That his request to sift me like wheat be denied? Wouldn’t that be better than praying for my faith?) And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Turned back? Oh Lord, where am I going?)
In the spring of 1998 my husband left me for another woman. He came back to me, then promptly left me for yet another woman. It was a bad year. A bad year that had capped off a bad decade. I was in the middle of losing my marriage. Before that, I had lost my brother to mental illness and suicide. Before that, my son Justin to an irreparable heart condition. I’d lost three babies to miscarriages, and at age 29 my doctors had told me I had lost my ability to have children.
In the spring of 1998, I was feeling very much sifted like wheat.
My life had been stripped to the bone. By the summer of 1998, I would discover my lifesavings had been pilfered by the man who had promised to love me forever. I was broke and homeless. If I were asked to describe myself at that time in one word, the word would be: wounded.
One thing that more than a decade of loss had taught me was that asking why is never a good idea. It’s not a good question – because knowing why never solves the real problem. So when I prayed, I didn’t ask why, I asked where? Oh Lord, where am I going? Where is this terrible grace leading me?
You see, I still had faith. It was banged up, dented, bleeding faith. But faith nonetheless. A gift from this God who gives and takes. I didn’t understand Him, and I didn’t like His ways, but He helped me cling to Him anyway.
The other thing I had, was a small café I owned in an even smaller town. It never made any money – but it forced me to get up everyday and face the world. It forced my damaged faith into encounters with God’s disruptive grace.
I wrote a short story that was published a few years back called The Stuckville Café. I want to read you an excerpt, to give you a flavor of the grace I experienced in the midst of loss. I changed my name to Carol for the sake of the story – so as not to confuse the reader.
The town has a real name, but I call it Stuckville. Because boy, oh, boy, I’m stuck here. Plunked down in the middle of nothing-to-write-home-about by a husband who wanted a changed (so we moved here), then wanted a bigger change (so he left me). Now, I’m the soul proprietor of one rinky-dink café right across the street from the train tracks. I sell ice cream, espresso drinks and Mexican food. I know the combination sounds cock-eyed, but most everything about this town is cock-eyed.
Don’t think there aren’t times I think I should cut bait and run. But I suffer from the worst of human maladies – a double whammy of a total lack of a plan and an over-developed sense of responsibility. Like I said: stuck.
Gene’s a regular. When I say ‘regular’ I mean a constant presence. He’s old, like dirt. Or so he says. One day he says, “Carol, I’m old.” Me, diplomatic and tactful like I am, say something like, “Oh Gene, you’re only as old as you feel,” or some such gabber. He looks at me square on and says, “Woman, I’m as old as dirt.” And he pounds his cane on the floor. Now, I’m not old, but I’ve been around long enough to know that when an old man calls you “Woman,” and bangs things on the floor, its best to just smile and nod.
Gene comes in twice a day, after lunch and just before supper. Sure, he likes the coffee, but he’s actually coming to see me for medical treatments. Cancer has chewed away at his ear, and the doctors have taken most of the rest of it. They left a piece though, a ragged, festering gob of flesh that requires a salve to be applied three times a day. Unfortunately, Home Care only comes once a day, and because Gene is half blind, he can’t see to apply it himself. So he walks the block and a half from his house across from the post office to my café twice a day. When the place is devoid of customers, I apply cream to the stump of his ear with a Q-tip and tape new gauze to the wound.
One morning he presents his ear for my inspection and says, “What kind of a God lets an old man get cancer?”
I pull off the blood-encrusted tape and say, “The same one that let you get old as dirt.”
Gene grumbles, but I see a smile pull at the corners of his mouth. He says, “Who says there’s a God? You can’t see him. Can’t know him.”
I squint at the oozing blob of flesh that used to be his ear. It looks bad. Worse than yesterday. “The Bible says you can know God if you are born again in the Spirit. ‘The wind blows wherever it please,’” I quote. “’You hear it’s sound, but you can’t tell where it comes from or where it’s going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’”
Gene pulls his eyebrows together until they form a V in the middle of his forehead. “Bible says that?”
I dab his ear. It smells terrible. “Yeah, a guy named Jesus said that. Ever heard of him?”
Gene smiles and nods his head like a bobble head.
“Hold still,” I say. “Did the home care nurse say anything about the way your ear looks today?”
“I don’t know. When you see her tomorrow, you ask her about it, okay?”
There were others besides Gene who came into my café looking for ice cream and a friend. After awhile my café resembled a kind of therapy salon. Ragged people sitting in chairs, sipping coffee and asking questions about life that no one had answers to. In time we became a community of question askers, of puzzlers, of troubleshooters. And after awhile I came to see that my sad little café in the middle of a sad little town had become the center point of grace in my life.
I still see God’s grace this way. Much like my café where the door would open and I would never know what was coming in to face me – an opportunity to offer grace, like I did with Gene. Or an opportunity to receive grace from the hands of another. When I think of God’s grace, I think of the door in my café. An unseen hand on the other side, ready to pull it open, and God standing beside me saying, “Be ready for anything.”
Years have gone by since I owed that café. Good things have happened – I met Steve Grove. I married him. As for those babies I was never supposed to have – Our son celebrated his tenth birthday recently – our daughter turned eight a couple of weeks ago. They fill my life with noise and chaos. Each time they holler so loud it raises the roof, I first tell them to pipe down or else – then I thank God for the cacophony that fills my ears and the children who ruined all my plans for my life.
But within the blessings of the past eleven years, there have been terrible losses – again. Still. Life isn’t perfect. And I’m starting to realize that perfect isn’t the point. That it’s not about arriving “home free” where nothing bad can happen.
I’m beginning to see that the only faith worth having is the faith that stands. Against time, questions, loss, doubt, fear. And the only way I could hope to attain that faith is to have it tested – to be sifted like wheat. And all the while, banking on those prayers of Jesus that my faith will not fail, and when I have turned back, strengthen my brothers and sisters.