Plenty to be grateful for

To call Kristi Gray my friend feels like a misnomer. We share more than one secret connection, and I know God has bound us together for the rest of our lives. I couldn’t be more thankful for her. Kristi, you matter to me.

When I first saw my friend Bethany’s request for people to submit posts on gratitude for her blog during the month of November, I quickly skipped over it thinking, I have nothing to be grateful for this year.  It’s been nothing but hard.  But then as the days grew closer to November, I began to be hit with a flood of emotions, including, yes, lots of gratitude.

Fifteen years ago this week, I was on a spiral downwards.  I had just moved to Washington, D.C., three months prior, and I was in a dark, dark place.  My drinking led to blackouts, which led to waking up in strange places with strange people.  I was putting myself in more and more dangerous situations.  I had managed to lose all the friends I had in a short period of time.  My parents were no longer speaking to me.  I was alone, miserable, hated myself, wanted to die and couldn’t imagine life without alcohol because then I would have to feel all these feelings I was desperately trying to push down and hide.  On November 4, 2001, in the middle of a drink, I was struck with the thought that if I continue drinking, I am going to die, and all of a sudden I didn’t want to die anymore.

mountain-lake-945440_1280

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

That night I walked into a meeting of people who had managed not to take a drink for weeks, months, and even years, and I desperately wanted what they had.  They offered me a solution and walked with me through the fear and the pain and the tears and all those feelings that I didn’t want to feel.  I began to slowly experience peace and contentment and God’s presence in my life.   And I haven’t had to be alone again ever since that day.  How can I say I have nothing to be grateful for?

Fourteen years from the day I put down that drink, I began walking through perhaps the most difficult year of my life.  At the beginning of this year, I was enveloped in a darkness I didn’t think I could ever crawl out of, and worst of all, I had lost all hope.  I have been through lots of painful, dark times in my life, but I had never experienced this level of pain.  I didn’t know what to do, so I just did what I’ve been taught to do by my many mentors in life and that is to keep walking through it, hang on, and don’t give up.  My wallpaper on my phone says “Never Give Up” as a constant reminder to myself to keep going no matter what.   And I know God didn’t give up on me because He has been continuously sending me angels to guide me through this dark, difficult year.  The most amazing, beautiful people have showed up on this journey to help guide the way and help me face those parts of me I had been unwilling to face.

Just a few weeks ago, with the help of a wonderful mentor God recently placed in my life, I was able to start removing some of those things that had been blocking me from God and from others, and finally, finally the light started to come in and the darkness began to lift.  I woke up today with a smile on my face, excited to start my day, and I felt happy for the first time in a very long time.  I think I called everyone I knew to tell them I was happy! I didn’t know if I would ever feel peace and contentment and God’s presence again, and now, 15 years after I felt it for the first time, I am feeling all of those things on a deeper level than I’ve ever experienced.  On November 5, 2016, I will wake up 15 years sober, and I will wake up in the sunlight and will know that God is with me and is taking care of me and that all will be okay.

How can I say I have nothing to be grateful for?  I’ve been given my life back, not once, but twice.  For that, I will be forever grateful.

Angels unawares

My car angel reminds me of all the people God has used to help me in the past.

My car angel reminds me of all the people God has used to help me in the past.

My whole life, God has used people to help me, serve me, minister to me, and reach out to me without my knowledge and without my permission. These people, whether they intended to be or not, were used by God in my life. Some of them might not have wanted to be used by God, but God didn’t give them a choice, thankfully. He uses whomever, whenever, however He wants. He is God, you know.

If I’m looking for these moments–little miracles when God transforms ordinary people into angels for my benefit–I find that there are too many to count and certainly too many to write about.

When I was five years old, I stayed after school for Brownies–not the fudgy kind. The kind who wear brown uniforms and aspire to grow into Girl Scouts someday. My mom was at home, sick with a cold, and I knew it. Even at five, I felt the need to take care of others. So I abandoned the meeting and raced outside to try to catch the bus. I was too late. The bus was leaving the parking lot, and as I ran after it, I tripped and fell and skinned the palms of my hands on the rough surface of the asphalt. I cried, knowing I’d waited too long to catch the bus and that my indecision about whether to stay after school would mean that my mom would have to drive to school to pick me up in her ill condition.

Thankfully, one of the “big kids,” a high school boy with a rockin’ mullet, saw my plight and asked the bus driver to stop. He opened the back door of the bus (probably without the driver’s permission) and beckoned me to the bus. I was relieved and thankful when he lifted me off the pavement into the bus and wiped the snot from my face. I’m sure he didn’t know that he was helping me help my mom, a single mother of four daughters.

When I was in high school, I worked as a carhop at Sonic. Granted, I quit in December when the temperatures plummeted, and I realized that I could make almost the same amount of money per hour while contained in a heated, dry building serving up hot fries and Big Macs. But prior to quitting, I sucked it up and carried trays of fast food out to patrons while freezing my tail off. One school night, right before closing as the wind wailed and the rain pelted my classy black Sonic jacket, I delivered two Brown Bag Specials to a minivan. A pretty Asian woman was behind the wheel, and she handed me a $5 bill as a tip and thanked me for facing the elements so that her family could have supper without getting out in the storm.

I’m not sure if she was always a kind, generous customer, but God used her that night to remind me that even seemingly insignificant tasks can serve a greater purpose and that there are still good people with compassionate hearts in the world. I still see that lady around town once in a while. I’ve never told her thank you, but maybe I will next time I am in line behind her at our local coffeehouse.

My sophomore year of college with my little sister, Jessie

My sophomore year of college with my little sister, Jessie

As a college student, I blazed a trail between my hometown and Bartlesville, Oklahoma, more times than necessary to visit the man my heart beat for. I’d traveled those highways so many times that it had become second nature. In true irresponsible college student fashion, I often drove on too little sleep, too late at night, with too many things on my mind. One day after leaving Bartlesville, one of my tires blew out just as I pulled away from the tollbooth. I panicked. I called the boyfriend, but he was two hours away. I told him I’d figure something out and would call back if I couldn’t. My version of “figuring something out” was to roll up my windows, lock my doors, and pray for God to miraculously inflate my tire.

He didn’t. But a kind, middle-aged man in a pick-up truck pulled up behind my little Honda Civic. He approached my window slowly, and I cracked it just a tad so I could hear his words.

“Ma’am, I can change your tire for you. You don’t have to get out of the car.”

I hesitated. My mom had warned me about creepy perverts on the interstate and had told me about her near-death experience when one of them tried to attack her after pretending to know who she was and getting her to pull over onto the shoulder. Two truckers used their CB radios that day and helped her escape, blocking the man in and helping police officers identify his vehicle. I didn’t want to go through that kind of ordeal.

“No thanks.”

He had a pained look on his face, a look that told me that he understood exactly why I was declining his offer to help and a look that told me that he felt sorry that he couldn’t help because of all the jerks in the world who’d given men like him a bad name. He walked away.

Then I remembered that I’d seen a sign along the highway in Oklahoma with a number to dial for emergency assistance. I dialed it.

A grumpy state trooper approached my window 20 minutes later. I then learned that the emergency number was for real emergencies, not flat tires.

The state trooper told me that he normally would never change a tire for someone, but since I was a single, white, tiny female so far from home, he would do it just this once. He made me watch him change the tire and explained what he was doing. I told him that my stepdad had taught me the same thing, but that I had barely paid attention. He told me to buy a better car jack and used the one in his squad car instead of mine. After putting the spare on my car, he instructed me to turn around in the median and follow him back through the tollbooth and five miles into Muskogee to buy a new tire. I did exactly as he instructed, and when we got to Wal-Mart, he waved and drove away.

I never thanked him, and I never thanked the man whose help I refused. But God used those men to remind me that not everyone has bad intentions and that He loves me enough to take care of me, even when I have been too irresponsible to take care of myself.

As a young director of career development, 2006

As a young director of career development, 2006

A few years later, as a young professional woman on a business flight to Michigan one cold November, I sat next to a man who, if my memory serves me well, was named Steve Price. He worked for Steelcase, a corporation responsible for designing and selling state-of-the-art office furniture. He showed me pictures of some of the chairs he was designing and told me about his home, his children, and his job. After circling over Grand Rapids a few times, our plane headed to Detroit. The pilot informed us that we were unable to land in Grand Rapids due to rough weather conditions but that we’d  be landing in Detroit and could catch a flight to Grand Rapids the next morning.

This put quite a damper on my business trip, which was a two-day, full-to-the-brim excursion in an effort to better understand the inner workings of the world of career development in higher education. I felt the same panicky feeling I’d felt when my tire exploded in Oklahoma. I was alone, inexperienced, and afraid.

Steve calmly led me through the airport. He negotiated hotel stays for both of us, and he hailed a taxi cab. He paid for the taxi and told me to meet him in the lobby the next morning at 6:30 a.m. He treated me the same way I imagine he would have treated his own daughter if she’d been sitting next to him on that  plane.

God showed me His love and care through the kindness of that man, and He reminded me that He would always provide for me, sometimes without me lifting a finger.

He always has.

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unawares.” –Hebrews 13:2

 

A Place Where There Are No More Tears

I’ll never forget my friend Josh Lane picking me up and carrying me through rubble and downed power lines to get to my parents’ house 30 minutes after a tornado did epic damage to my hometown.

The college days

The college days

At the time, I was a college student living on campus 20 minutes away. I tried reaching my family, and I couldn’t get in touch with them. In those pre-cell phone days, the fear accompanying the “not knowing” was prolonged. Even though our county was still under a tornado warning, and I’d heard on the radio that one of the entrances into my hometown was barricaded, I decided to hop in my old blue Toyota Camry and haul tail home. I could not stand the not knowing. I had to see my sisters and my parents in person.

Three of my good friends from college knew I was nuts for driving in my old cruddy car through all that mess, but they were crazy enough to go along with me for the ride.

After reaching the house, we went inside and called out names. No one answered. Planks had pierced the kitchen walls, knocking countless dishes to the floor, and shards of glass and random personal objects were askew throughout the house. As my friend Josh threw open the door to one of my sister’s bedrooms, he exclaimed, “Oh my gosh. Look what happened in here.”

“Oh no, that’s not from the tornado. That’s just how messy she is,” I laughed in relief.

When we entered my parents’ bedroom, we saw the worst of it. The roof was completely gone. But in the middle of my parents’ bed, all our pets huddled together, too afraid to move despite the rain soaking their fur.

Minutes later, my parents arrived. They’d been out of town that day and had headed home when they heard what was going on since my sisters were at home alone. My older sister had the wisdom to stop by the house and take my two younger sisters with her to seek shelter at the high school gymnasium, which has plenty of underground shelter.

Everyone was fine.

But the clean-up process took months. The insurance company dragged its feet. We kept finding sentimental objects destroyed, or worse yet, missing. I spent most of my free time at home, helping my parents dig through the rubble, repair fences, itemize losses, and rebuild a home from what seemed like one huge pile of mess.

Each night, when I came back to campus, most of my friends and the rest of the student body were happily encased in the college campus bubble. I felt incredibly alone in the aftermath.

One night, at our campus ministry meeting, a friend who knew about my hometown and the damage there asked, “How’s life?”

“It’s pretty bad right now,” I responded truthfully.

“But God is good.”

He is. He sent angels in the form of friends and church folks to help repair damage. He enabled my parents to pay off their home due to the extent of the damages incurred. And we didn’t lose each other–just things, objects that ultimately mean absolutely nothing.

The day after the tornadoes in Oklahoma, I’m reminded of the gamut of emotions I felt all those years ago. I want to do whatever I can to help them. I’m praying for the people who’ve been affected and lost their homes, their vehicles, their livelihoods. Their children.

I don’t know what that feels like.

???????????????????????????????All I know is that in my own life, if I let Him, He takes every disgusting, heartbreaking episode and transforms it into something breathtaking, useful, and meaningful. This is my prayer for the people who’ve lost what can never be replaced. And that someday, they will be reunited with the people who’ve passed on in a Place Where There Are No More Tears (Revelations 21:4).

 

Seeds of life

*Thanks to Mary Agrusa for sharing her thoughts on Mother’s Day with us.*

Sometimes it’s the simple things we share with our children that have the most dramatic impact on their lives. Prior to and for a few years after the birth of our daughter, my husband and I were avid gardeners. Back in the early 70’s we faithfully read Rodale’s Organic Gardening and applied the lessons learned. We planted a wide variety of vegetables in the garden at our home and maintained an additional plot at a community site, specifically for growing corn. A move overseas followed by years of Florida living ended our gardening adventures.

Mikael's garden

Mikael’s garden

Our daughter grew up to be a confirmed urban dweller. She prefers the city to a more laid back country atmosphere. She surprised us two years ago when she shared that, along with a few friends, she had ventured into canning. Last summer she and her husband took the next step and secured a plot in one of Boston’s communal garden sites. Next, a request came for any canning supplies still in storage. We packed up our thirty-something year-old Victorio Strainer and sent it off to serve the next generation of family gardeners. She was ecstatic, and our old friend got a new lease on life.

Patriot’s Day is a state holiday in Massachusetts. It also marks the running of the Boston Marathon and the unofficial beginning of the gardening season. My daughter’s usual routine was to grab breakfast and head to the finish line to cheer the wheelchair and elite racers. Last year she called us all excited. “Turn on the TV and find the race coverage. I’m on the Jumbotron at the finish line.” We scrambled and searched sports channels and internet feeds, but alas, we missed her debut on the big screen.

This year, instead of being at “their spot” at the finish line, my daughter was at the garden. When I called to check on her, I was unprepared for the sound of her tearful, frightened voice. She couldn’t reach her husband. Her calls to his phone went to voicemail. She didn’t know if he had gone to the race, but if he had, he would have been at “their spot,” the scene of the first bomb explosion.

My heart sank. Thoughts of “what if” bombarded my mind. Fear attempted to grip my soul. Suddenly her voice changed. A text from her husband confirmed he was at home safe and sound. For our family, the day had a happier ending.

As a mother I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child. Our son-in-love is the son we never had. To lose him would’ve devastated all of us. Daily we pray angelic protection around them both, and the angels did their jobs that day. I wouldn’t have guessed that the seeds of gardening planted in our daughter’s life so long ago would bloom and not only produce a second generation of gardeners, but also one day save her life.

A cup of water

007Today, one of my best friends drove two hours to visit me for the second time since my baby was born. I consider her to be my “soul sister” because of the parallel spiritual paths we trod. As the mother of four children, taking an entire day to visit me, including the driving time, is no easy task. It takes planning, cooperation and assistance from helpful friends and family members, gas money, and time away from other responsibilities.

But I’m so grateful when she is able to visit.

Yesterday, I had a pretty awful morning, to be honest. My daughter was not interested in eating for a span of several hours, much longer than what is normal or healthy for her. She didn’t seem to feel well, but I couldn’t figure out the source of her discomfort. As I attempted to nurse her for the fourth time that morning, tears began to drip down onto her pudgy belly. I prayed and asked for God’s help in determining how to make her feel better and/or how to motivate her to eat. But mostly I let Him know, as if He didn’t know already, that I really, really needed His help, a break, and some sleep.

I let my daughter go back to sleep and put myself back to bed, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to nap because of my endless insomnia. As I lay there awake, I prayed some more. I didn’t sleep, but I rested, and I felt a little less like a lunatic after an hour had gone by.

003Then the phone rang. It was my mom, asking if she could stop by to visit for a bit.

Yes!

Please!

God knew I needed someone to come along to encourage me, complement my baby on how much she has grown and how healthy and beautiful she is, and to remind me that I’m doing a very good job raising her. My mom only stayed a few hours, but it completely changed my emotional course for the day.

My friend’s visit did the same for me today.

As I relaxed this afternoon after she left, with my baby peacefully napping in the next room, a song by Chuck Brodsky performed by David LaMotte came to mind. “We Are Each Other’s Angels” has always been one of my favorite songs, and it’s never sounded sweeter than when I listened to it today.

When God sends me people to minister to me in moments when I need it most, it makes me feel like a marathon runner at the 25th mile marker–exhausted, legs aching, barely able to catch my breath, and ready to just give up.

And then an angel reaches out her arm, holding a paper cup of cool water, just enough to get me through one more mile.