25 Strength and dignity are her clothing,
And she smiles at the future.
26 She opens her mouth in wisdom,
And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household,
And does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and bless her; -Proverbs 31:25-28
A couple of days ago I got some sad news that a woman I knew had passed away from cancer. It was an invasive and terrible cancer and by all reports, she had fought it with the strength and determination of a whole host of heavenly warriors- and then some. She had been in drug trial after drug trial, tried treatment after treatment- merely hoping she could prolong the inevitable long enough to watch her son graduate from high school. She didn’t make it.
She and I had not been friends- in fact, she had been involved in a fairly illicit affair with my husband several years ago and that was how we had met. (Understandably, not the best situation.) She had apologized those years ago and I had forgiven her outright. That being said, there are things that stay with us, embedded in our history no matter how loathe we are to keep them, or how much we long to let them go.
Interestingly, as the years passed, I’d hear about her through mutual friends, through ladies at my church who’d known her at their home parish, through women she shared in a Bible study with and through her son’s athletic and scholastic accomplishments. Every so often I’d run into her at the grocery store or a ballgame. To say the tension was palpable would be a gross understatement. We were always polite and I always felt for her in those moments because I could sense her unease.
When I first heard she had been diagnosed with cancer, I hate to admit I am not sure what I felt. There was the initial sadness of course because I am not an evil, ugly ogre of a person. But then, hollowness set in- a nothingness that I felt deep remorse at feeling. ‘Why do I not feel more? What kind of person am I?’ I asked God. ‘You’re going to have to figure that one out for yourself,’ was his reply.
I’ll admit here too that the thought of this waxed and waned over time, sometimes taking the forefront and at times the back burner. Every chance encounter giving me pause and causing introspection that at times left me questioning how much like Jesus I was truly able to be. He would never feel the way I felt. Hell, he KISSED Judas. Would I ever be able to truly open my heart and be the person of Christ I am forever proclaiming to be?
Two weeks ago my old friend Rod, came to talk to my theology class during On-Board, which is the time at the beginning of class reserved for the discussion of a provocative topic (usually of the religious or spiritual ilk) to give our educational and sacred dialogue a warm-up if you will. Rod is a purveyor of truth and wisdom and any time spent in his company is savored.
He read in part a piece written on the Jewish people as an abomination before God. It was a particularly repugnant and repulsive document filled with hatred and ignorance and arrogance. He then asked us who we thought might have written it and our overwhelming answer was Adolph Hitler. It was in fact, written by Martin Luther in 1543. Yep, that guy. Martin Luther, the guy who posted the 95 Theses to the door, the guy who translated the Bible into German making it accessible to the masses, the guy who challenged the Roman Catholic Church and it’s power structure to its very core, paving the way for Christianity as we know it today. How was this even possible?
Rod then asked us to consider whether people’s lives should be considered as a whole, a sum of the parts, or if it is fair and just to consider only the parts without concern for the whole. I think we all know the answer to that- at least I know my own answer. While I can’t condone this writing by Mr. Luther, (the only one of its kind he ever wrote, btw)I can say through research and history, this was not a sentiment he carried throughout his entire life and to judge him based solely on this one terrible lapse would be an injustice. I AM IN NO WAY FORGIVING HIM THIS AWFUL MISSTEP. I am simply saying on a lesser scale, we have all been there.
To judge someone solely on an isolated incident from their very long tableau seems not only unfair but unjust. There are things in my past, that were I to shine a light on them, would perhaps make you, dear reader, think differently of me and perhaps make my loved ones question their devotion to me. They are, of course, a part of who I am- and moreover, why I am the person I am today. Penitence is a very powerful word- one filled with meaning and emotion and if you are me, the very wisdom of God.
I have been Peter. I have turned and wept bitter tears at the wrong I have done others and the times I have ignored God for self. The fingers of these memories still burn my soul as tired embers of a long (almost) forgotten fire; the voice of them is a lowly whisper in a sometimes dark world. But these tattered fragments are only a piece of the cloak with which I cover myself.
During class on Monday, someone mentioned pieces of a quilt…how one quilt may be filled with so many varying pieces, all separate in their design and sentiment and yet, it is stitched together to become something singularly beautiful. That’s me. At least, I hope that’s me. A man in the class who is, on the face of it, completely opposite of myself in almost every way sat down to have a private moment with me. The topic isn’t important so much as the words he left me with, “You know Ashley, I know sometimes I do not fully live out what it means to be a Christian- I may never even be able to- but I keep trying.” That’s it really. We try and we fail…but we continue to get up and go forth armed with the grace and wisdom and forgiveness of a loving God. We skin our knees or sometimes lay dying on a bloody battlefield on which we question our very existence in at all. Yet still, we crawl or claw or simply will ourselves to once again begin.
My friend Patty called me not too long ago to talk about a memorial scholarship the bank was setting up for the woman I mentioned earlier. She had done such good works in the community and been such a face (and force) for strength and humor and perseverance for fighting cancer that the bank wanted to honor her and her memory when that time came. She wanted me to know, she said, because she didn’t want me to think she was keeping it from me. She has stated before that her friendship with us both has caused her some contemplation. Is she ‘cheating’ on me by being friends with someone with whom I have a tense and troubled history- and vice versa? I always adamantly tell her “no” and I mean it.
Patty also feels conflicted because she was diagnosed with and survived cancer and this woman will not. She wonders often why she should be spared while others are not. This is an age-old question and one I’m afraid without a satisfactory answer. “Survivor’s guilt,” she tells me. I tell her that God would not want her to feel guilt but gratitude. I think a scholarship is a brilliant idea and who better to be the voice behind it than my graceful, grace-filled dear sweet and wonderful friend Patty- whose heart is big enough for us both and the world?
A close personal friend of mine’s ex-wife was released from prison today. For full disclosure, I do not know her. In fact, we have never met. What I do know is that she traveled down a very dangerous path of drugs and self-destruction until the law caught up with her- twice. There are three children involved and a whole lot of emotions and history I don’t pretend to grasp. What I can and have said, is that I love this man and his children and that means I must also love her too. I do not have to like the choices she has made- I don’t have to understand them either. What I do have to do is believe she is on a better path now, one in which she is committed to her health, her recovery and most importantly, her children. I must help sustain this man during this delicate aspect of his life and help foster a relationship of goodwill between the two for the children as well.
“Where is she going with all this?” I hear you asking. It’s a fair question. Sunday I lead Christian Education with a study about the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It’s a text that was found in what came to be known as the Nag Hammadi discovery (or the Gnostic Gospels) in Egypt in 1945. Without getting into too much detail, this particular gospel tells the story of Jesus’ life from the flight into Egypt at two years of age up until we meet him in Luke’s gospel in the temple at twelve. In it, we see Jesus as very human, very precocious and sometimes reckless child. He is quite unaware of how to harness the divinity within him and ends up striking a few people blind, dumb and dead. (I kid you not.)
There is, of course, controversy surrounding this gospel but again I go back to the wholeness of this man- not the parts. If we consider this gospel might be true (which I freely confess, I do) then it should cause us much consternation and introspection that Jesus, who we say is love incarnate, might have had a brief period in his very earthly existence when he was mischievous, perhaps malicious and a handful for his already over-burdened parents. Of course, this only really matters if we take this one very small piece of the meaningful and cosmos-altering life of the Son of Man and forget the rest of the story. We would never do that. We know better. We have faith that the child will grow up to save us all- and in fact, he does.
The news of this woman’s death seemed to be everywhere. There was no escaping it. Moreover, it affected the lives of so many people that I love and admire. The more I heard, the more I read, the more I listened and understood the life of this person I had hardly known, I felt a shift occur within me. It started way down deep and I literally felt it work its way through every fiber of my being.
This woman, a very long time, a world away and another lifetime ago, made a mistake. We’ve all made them; big, small, life-changing, upsetting, indefensible, unfathomable mistakes. Notice I did not use the word ‘unforgivable’. There is no reset button on life. We do not get to erase the wrong we’ve done or shine a brighter light on the good. It all goes in the chili, so to speak.
All my boys are home right now and it is glorious. I have not felt such peace and happiness for a good long while. Yesterday evening they all three piled in the car to come pick me up from work. As I slid into the car, we passed my boss who I sort-of date. Jack has never met him formally. “Is that the guy you have the hots for?” he asks. “Yes,” both Alec and Paxton reply in unison without looking at one another. I laugh out loud and the jokes begin to fly. I put my head on Jack’s shoulder and let the moment wash over me as I gaze out the window at the sky which is painted with a crimson so heavenly my breath catches in my throat.
And then it finally hits me, like a ton of bricks laden with kryptonite. There it is, clear as day. I openly begin to cry, the really ugly crying that comes from a dark place and chokes your gullet and burns your eyes. It is the kind of crying that comes with the recognition I have been small and hard and unforgiving as the Amarillo wind in winter.
This woman was a mother. She was a friend, a confidante, by all accounts a faith-filled person with Christ in her heart. She was humorous and brave and kind. She brought joy to all who knew her and she profoundly impacted those with whom she shared her story. She was a daughter. She thought of much bigger things than herself. She gave love and was loved in return. Her son was the axis on which her entire universe spun.
As I listen to the boys’ laughter and feel the warmth of their bodies and hear Jack’s heartbeat, I weep. She will never watch her son graduate, or see him truly fall in love and marry. She will never again laugh with him in the car or kiss his forehead as he lies sleeping. She will never again hear his heartbeat or feel his hand in her own. ..but she will be remembered for the warrior she was and the part she played in the story of life.
A tree is not just roots and shoots and leaves. Sometimes there are beautiful blossoms and sometimes, most times, there are thorns. The thorns can be bothersome, and be ugly and cause pain…but they are still a part of the wonder that is the tree.
There is a richness in each piece of our existence- even the ones we try to bury way down deep. Aristotle said, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ I don’t think I ever really understood what he meant until I felt the walls of my heart give way.
I go home and stand in front of my vanity wiping tears away and apologize to God and finally, finally…say a prayer with words that are tender and loving and long overdue for this woman who deserved better than I ever gave her.
Godspeed and eternal peace, gentle soul.