“Are you ready to be recognized by people you might not remember?”
My husband posed the question to our kids as we climbed the concrete stairs in front of the church just before he opened the heavy door. In all our years of attendance, we never entered the church this way. We would always walk in through the back door and wind our way through the first floor rooms to the stairs leading to the second-floor sanctuary.
We were–and still are–back door kind of people. I’ve always thought of the back door of a house as a place where family and close friends enter. The front door is for people who don’t know your ways, who have never been inside, or maybe for strangers trying to sell something.
Also, visitors. That’s what we were that day at our former church. It had been more than four years since we last set foot in that building. When the door swung open in my husband’s hand, we were greeted with a big smile from the woman we considered our kids’ surrogate grandmother in our days at this church. Our daughter went right to her for a hug. Our son was more reluctant, but who could blame him? He was 3 when we moved. My husband and I also went in for hugs, then we all climbed the stairs as we had done once a week for five years.
“Do you remember this place?” I asked my son. His memory is good but has its limits. He pouted and shook his head “no” as he clutched my hand. The sanctuary looked and felt the same, and there were some familiar faces at the top greeting us. Although it was Sunday, this was not a typical gathering of the church that meets in this building but a special service for a friend of ours. Many of the faces were familiar from other seasons of our life. The pastor who married us was there with his wife. People my husband knew from his job at the retirement village. Pastors from neighboring counties whom we counted as friends. Our current pastor was there, but the setting was so unusual for our son that at first he didn’t recognize him.
We settled in for the service, which featured a good chunk of music and singing. I loved that. I stood, my hands resting lightly on the back of the wooden pew in front of us as I sang and watched my kids from the corner of my eye. I had done this so many times in this church. My spiritual life in the days of parenting young children was distracted devotion. Some days, it still is, but not always because of the children.
I closed my eyes and I could see her–the tired mom of two little ones, trying to hold everything together. The days I spent in these pews were days of demanding needs of babies and toddlers, family crises, adjusting to life 800 miles from where I was raised, giving up a career to stay home with kids, nurturing my husband’s dreams. They were days of picking up the pieces of a crumbled marriage and trying to put it back together. I cried a lot in these pews. I could feel it all again years later as I occupied the same space.
But I wasn’t sad, and that surprised me.
As the songs continued, I felt something different.
The woman who stood between those pews now was something else. She was less tired because the demands of the children have changed. She has survived crises and found her place in this home-away-from-home. She has pursued her career and creativity again. She nurtures her own dreams alongside her husband. She no longer tries to hold everything together because she has seen how God can pick up the pieces of a shattered life. She knows that sometimes a broken life is a gift.
I had spent a lot of Sundays full of bitterness in these pews, wondering why life wasn’t better, feeling sorry for our circumstances. I carried that bitterness for months after we left, and sometimes when I have gone back to a place of sorrow and hurt, those feelings have returned.
Not this time.
I was grateful. And even that is not a strong enough word to describe it. In my heart and soul I was deeply thankful for all of it because without it, I would not be the same person I am right now. It has been a journey full of speed bumps and pot holes and breakdowns and what feels like a whole lot of endings.
But it also has been a journey full of grace, and if grace had a feeling, I felt it on Sunday.
The tired and worn-out woman from before and the becoming-more-brave-and-whole woman from right now–it felt like grace to have both of them be me.
I didn’t have enough time to consider all of this in the moment, though I acknowledged that it was there, but when my friend stepped up to the front of the church to sing for her husband a song of his choosing on his special day–when I heard her voice fill the sanctuary, watched her use her gift of song knowing some of what it has taken for her to stand there and sing–I cried tears I couldn’t stop, and if we had not been in such a public place, I think I would have sobbed loudly at the beauty of it all.
I used to want to erase the ugly parts of my life, to forget they happened and concentrate only on the good stuff. I have wanted to dwell on the victories, the redemptions, the successes. I want to hold those things close, but I want to hold the hard things alongside them. Because without the losses, the deaths, the failures, the good things wouldn’t mean as much.
Days later I am still looking for the words to express my gratitude for the years that felt like a wasteland. They were dry and my heart was brittle and sometimes it felt like we had fallen into a valley so deep we couldn’t climb out, but the climate of our souls changed and my heart began healing and we could see the sun again.
I don’t want to forget the dark days because they are testimony of what God can do in a life. They are proof that He transforms hearts and circumstances, that what feels like the end is sometimes the beginning.