The mess of grace

In the church tradition that helped formed my early years, communion Sunday happened sometimes. Once a quarter sounds right, but I don’t really recall. What I remember was how church changed on those Sundays.

THIS DO IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME. While learning to read, I practiced with those words and letters inscribed on the communion table. The offering plates and gigantic bible that usually sat there were replaced on communion Sunday. A special white cloth draped over shiny towers, tall stacks for the juice trays, shorter stacks for the trays of little cracker-bread squares. When the deacons removed the covering at the appointed time, they handled it carefully, folding it just so. At the end, they used the same care to unfold the cloth and place it with precision over the towers again. Everything about the service was significant and something other. And–this part stands out more than anything–a certain quiet, a practiced reverence, filled the sanctuary on those days. It kind of awed me and scared me at the same time. Holy things do that, I suppose.

When at last I was able to participate and take communion myself, I tried my best to be as grownup about it as I knew how at age 10. It was a serious business. So serious, in fact, that it made me nervous. I took the cup out of the tray and held it between my thumb and middle finger, as I had seen the adults do. I was holding it, waiting for the signal to take it with everyone else. It slipped, and the beauty that is Welch’s grape juice spilled onto the willow-green upholstery of the church pew.

As soon as the service ended and the solemn quiet was replaced with chatter, I went to tell a deacon. He followed me to my accidental mess.

He showed signs of irritation. This confused me. We had all shared a solemn, sacred act in taking these elements–the remembrance of the body and blood of Jesus–and now the symbol had turned back into plain grape juice. I tried to redeem the moment by mentioning that the juice meant something, that it meant the blood of Jesus. The deacon brushed me off. Though not overtly unkind, he did let me know, as he dabbed and scrubbed with vigor, that the juice meant a stain now.

Knowing all of the men (and then later some women) that served as deacons when I was a kid, none of them possessed an ugly bone. That day, before I needed help cleaning up, perhaps he had encountered a frustrated parishioner or had exchanged words with his wife before church. In that moment of preserving the sanctuary, however, what settled into my spirit was the disconnect between the communion service atmosphere and the conversation I had after it was over. I remember the way I botched that little section of the pew.

I think of countless times when I have extended not-grace and not-mercy when someone needed all of the grace and mercy poured out, spilled all over the upholstery, if you will. I wonder how many opportunities for grace and kindness and mercy and the love of Jesus that we miss because we want and need things to be just so. What if the Church was changed, transformed, by communion?




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Sieve-ing together

Sometimes I know what I want to write about, and sometimes I don’t. Last Monday, I stared that the blinking cursor for an hour, waiting for any word to make its way onto the screen. My conclusion, as I clicked the red X in the corner: I don’t have anything to add to the din, no thoughts to contribute to the chaos all around.

The weights of broken systems and loud groans of a cosmos longing for all to be set to rights combined with the day to day fatigue in my spirit from trying so hard to learn the language of 15-year old growing-into-manhood son has left my gut swollen with words and letters crammed into a space not designed to hold them. Because, of course, our bodies aren’t meant to hold it all. And, more obvious, not my job to fix all of the junk, or even to solve the puzzle of my kid. We live here, though, and life stuff goes through us as through a sieve, even if only penetrating the epidermis and never reaching our innards; we have to filter somehow.

My insides are pulling in, huddling tight like there’s more protection if they are pressed in even closer than the usual organ way. The body keeps track, so says Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, and I believe him. Right now, my core tells me that too many words and images and worries and fears have no outlet, and they are making themselves at home in my cells and systems.

I don’t want them to leave without learning from them what they are supposed to teach me. Nor do I want them to leave with stolen items. I just know, because God is speaking through my flesh and blood and bone, that the system requires flushing. It’s time to reclaim my property and wash the sieve with a water hose.

Maybe the noise nags at you, too. There is a lot of it. It screams at us for attention, throwing a tantrum like an over-tired toddler or a teenager grounded from their phone. But we can reach out to each other, link arms, stand shoulder to shoulder, as my friend says. I need your words of truth, your presence which soothes like a salve of grace. I promise to return it to you. We can look at the broken together, cry our eyes out, and then find ways to fight like Jesus does for reconciliation and shalom. By myself, by yourself, maybe our small offerings don’t seem to add a better word to the chaos. Together, that’s another story.



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Because of the invitation of a kindred friend, I spent this past weekend with over a hundred women. They let me join their community and be a part of their stories, and they trusted me to stand in front of them and share pieces of my own.

The night before my flight to Michigan, one of the markers of my womanhood descended on me, like clockwork with a chime on the 28th day. I’ve never complained about being a woman, about my cycle. I felt (and still feel) that being a woman is a gift, in spite of the various vulnerabilities I have come to know over the years. However, traveling in the first few days of my period poses a few inconveniences.

As I sat in the window seat (always my preference), I questioned about midway through the 2.5 hour flight whether or not my Diva Cup was doing its job. Since I discovered this alternative to tampons and pads, I’ve said, “If it is leaking, I’m not really a diva.” Next to me in the middle and aisle seats, a mom and her grown son played a card game on their tray tables. I didn’t wish to disrupt their game, nor did I wish to risk standing up and passing them in such close proximity with my possible snafu. Turned out, as I discovered after de-boarding with my jean jacket tied around my waist just in case, all was well. I visited the nearest bathroom and situated everything for the two-hour car drive to my final destination.

About 45 minutes from my friend’s house, at almost 2 a.m., I knew, without a doubt, that my diva status had been revoked. I pulled into the driveway, got out of the rental car, and put my jean jacket around my waist like a fashion statement that all women make in the wee hours of the dark. Spot cleaning the seat had to wait until the sun came up.

While I rested trying to find some sleep, I thought of walking behind young girls and women whose monthly flow had seeped through their clothing, thought of a time when it had happened to me as a teenager. I thought of the implications for girls and women in developed countries, of the embarrassment and shame those occurrences provoke for a female. I thought of the ways it affects young girls in developing countries, where the lack of education or the presence of taboos creates a stigma that marks females; the onset of menstruation is an indicator–no matter how young–that a female is of marrying or childbearing age, that she is at sexual maturity (after the unclean bleeding has stopped, of course).

Washing out my jeans and sorting through my own small embarrassment, I decided to declare the thing out loud to the women I would meet face to face soon. I wanted to dispel the shame we’ve been taught to carry, the unspoken (in spite of all of the commercials and otherwise openness) ways it still haunts us. I wanted to give dignity to womanhood. I wanted to say things plain, like they are, and stand in our common humanity.

We all bear some manner of “unclean,” segments in the chapters that make up our lives that make us feel visibly stained, that cause us to cover and hide. We are all invited to keep putting one foot in front of the other toward whole and free and “already made clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” (John 15) Are not our stories and lives worth far more than a leak through our garments?

Standing in front of those women–all of us with hurts, joys, various blotches showing our clear and undeniable human flesh and blood–I breathed in our shared oxygen, our shared carbon dioxide. What a humbling gift to recognize our symbiotic relationship to and need for one another, uncleanness and all.

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What binds us together

After my dad died, some 13 years ago now, I experienced a particular prolonged grief that dove into my physicality. The effects were challenging and compounded, and I learned in a definitive and profound way that my body could not be disconnected from my mind and my spirit. Grief represented just one layer in the stack. Dad’s passing was, however, catalytic to everything that followed–the wounding and the healing.

About three years into the quest for wholeness, I made a phone call to a health and wellness clinic. I had consulted with the physician a couple of times, but for the most part, it was the office staff that gave direction for on-going support.  On a cordless telephone in my office/laundry room, I shared my questions and commentary with a female consultant. She listened until I finished. Then she said in a kind but direct manner, “You know, Shannon, you’re not the only one to have ever experienced this.” I felt blood rush to my face, like the sting of a swift slap. Her words hurt. I said a few more things, then I said thank you and hung up. That phone call changed the direction and the momentum of the healing process. With a new determination, I turned to face my crap and kick it into order or into oblivion, pile by pile. I didn’t dial the clinic again.

That conversation comes back to me from time to time. It doesn’t sting anymore. She said what needed to be said, what I needed to hear whether I wanted to hear it or not. It might not be what I would have said in the same situation. Perhaps her words to me came out of a place of her own pain, a struggle she was facing that day or in that season of her life. Regardless, she said something true, and that truth tells me things about walking through healing.

You can not know my pain and my struggles. I can not know yours. They are our own. The manner in which an arrow comes into your heart, mind, body is not the manner it enters mine, not exactly. In that way, I can not understand completely.

On the other hand, you know the arrows that have struck you. They pierced your skin, sometimes down into the deep and hidden places. Me, too. You are on a road to wellness and soundness. Me, too. You are a human who cries and laughs and longs for shalom. Me, too.

Our troubles and pains and heartaches are unique. Our stories belong to us.  Jesus tends to each of us, with intimate care and individualized attention.

Those same bleeding places are not unique. Some common strands weave through your story and my own. We are connected. At the very least, we share our humanity. We need each other to cry with and laugh with and pray with while we walk the road.

In my healing journey, I relied on people to keep calling to the true elements within me, buried and forgotten things, shattering and glorious things. I surrounded myself with others who gave me words of life and pointed me to the Healer. The wounds of that season manifested in unexpected ways. So did the healing of my body, my mind, and my soul.









This post first appeared here two and a half years ago. In light of the ways we seem quick to forget our shared humanity, I sat with this again today–as a prayer and a hope.

My aunt made the quilt for us as a wedding gift. She told me years and years ago that she always includes a small, botched area somewhere in the work that makes a quilt. It’s not meant be be perfect, she told me. And we aren’t either. I pulled it out and stood on the edge, under the sun, with the blooming flowers. Journey enjoyed being in the flowers, too. We are practicing resurrection today.

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Good Friday Reflections

I listened to the lectionary reading for Good Friday, tried to find myself there, tried to imagine the real-time events. I asked God to help me re-member the day.

Mary stood, her gut quaking. On the brink of internal combustion, she stared at Jesus and then looked away. She held no power to undo the torn flesh, the spit upon his beard, the nakedness of her man-son. She bore no arm long enough or wide enough to protect him from the insults and mockery, the rejection and abandonment.

The disciples and the other Mary-women cloistered near. They wept in disbelief, horror, disappointment.

They took in with their senses the events before them. They smelled the crowds and the blood, heard the chaos, felt the pressing throng, tasted the morning meal lingering on their tongues. The watched the torture of their teacher and companion. Perhaps their knees gave way as the spikes hammered through the hands that had healed. Jesus hung on a common wooden structure, an ordinary heinous mode of death for criminals of their time.

It wasn’t normal. Jesus wasn’t normal. They knew it, in part. But only in part. They possessed no biblical commentaries, no church history annals, no doctrinal treatises.

I can’t live it in real-time. I can try and imagine. I pray that I can be there without my preconceived notions, the taught things, the decided and settled matters–like they were, on that day, when they didn’t know what they were supposed to know, but they lived it while Jesus died.

Perfect Love, by Peggy Wells


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