If you have been to my house for a social occasion at just about any point in my adult life, there were probably lemon squares as a dessert option. Specifically Ms. Sandra’s lemon squares–the signature pot luck offering of the most quintessential Southern church lady you can imagine.
My family moved to Winder, Georgia, in between Christmas and New Year’s of my 8th grade year of school. It took me years to forgive my parents for uprooting me at that point in life; still, as it happens, it brought a whole lot of goodness to my life. Including Ms. Sandra. She has been, whether in person or via prayer, present at almost every significant occasion in my life–quite simply one of the most giving and gracious spirits I’ve known. To be in her presence during my adolescence was to know love.
Over 20 years ago, Ms. Sandra was part of a group of women who prayed every single day of my mom’s journey through breast cancer. And when I was diagnosed with lymphoma in March, you can bet Ms. Sandra was one of the first people I heard from. And the next thing I knew, she had a group of folks in my hometown praying for me. The full circle moment of it has stayed with me every day thus far of my own journey, and has meant everything.
Some of you have heard me tell the story of the stroke patient I worked with as a 24 year-old hospital chaplaincy intern. Nathaniel was dearly loved man, and his family was almost always gathered at his bedside or in the waiting room in the days after his massive cerebral hemorrhage. They told me he’d been a song leader at his church, that he loved to sing. Nathaniel was not conscious during the times I visited him, and so for a few minutes every day of his hospitalization, in lieu of conversation, I’d sing. Every church hymn I could think of. And one day, halfway through “Amazing Grace,” Nathaniel’s neurologist came in for rounds. I immediately stopped and backed away from his bed, knowing his doctor had important work to do. But his doctor stopped me and said, “No, no. Please finish. Your work is important, too.”
In that moment, my understanding of the work between faith and science shifted completely and permanently, such that today I am confident that it is both a very gifted medical team and a very committed faith community contributing to my healing.
Neither thing guarantees anything. But both things mean I live with a great deal of hope. And when my primary GI doctor, who first found the lymph nodes that led to my diagnosis emailed me to say he was praying for me and hoping for the best, I added my thankfulness for his faith to my gratitude for his medical expertise.
But let me be clear that this isn’t just about me. This same dynamic leads me to believe that the great wounds in our country these days cannot fully be healed by tweaked laws or policy shifts. Certainly those things have a crucial place, and certainly there is a great deal about our nation that unequally favors one human life over another, and how we deal with those things in our communities matters. Lives are at stake. But at heart, we are in need of much more than any politician or SCOTUS ruling can truly heal. Certainly more than any social media post can heal–no matter how snarkily we put it, or what bright colors and ALL CAPS we might use.
At the core of our brokenness is our fear of real, authentic, transforming relationship. I have never yet seen hate reversed by anything but that, never seen gaping spiritual and emotional and community wounds healed by anything but a willingness to enter into sacred vulnerability and ask, “What has hurt or frightened or threatened you so much that you can act with such disregard towards another human being?” And, perhaps most of all, be willing to answer that question ourselves. When we have been hurt or threatened, it’s very hard not to hurt those around us in return. Because pain begets pain.
And so you bet I believe in science and policy. But I also believe those things will not save us. Because I believe something bigger is at work. I believe in the mysterious ways and timing of a God who first and only creates and acts in Love. And I believe that in a world brought into being by such goodness, there is always light–even if it seems but a glimmer some days. (I also believe in our collective ability to ignore that Love, and so dig ourselves deeper into the muck we’re currently living.)
Ms. Sandra died last Saturday morning. And I swear, when I heard that news, it felt like the world got dimmer. Also I immediately ordered the makings of lemon squares with my grocery delivery for the day.
And then…Monday morning…I checked the mail. And in my mailbox, was, I kid you not, a card from Ms. Sandra. “I think of you often and my prayers continue with you. Much love, Sandra.” It was postmarked June 19, the day before she died.
And suddenly, y’all, the world got brighter again. Just like a batch of her lemon squares, fresh and warm and morning sunlight yellow, straight from the oven.
There is so much we do not know, even in our human brilliance. What I know today, is that at work all around us is the mystery and mercy of a grace that, even when we shun it, holds us close and promises to never leave us.
And somewhere between our human brilliance and that unexplainable and unearned grace, God dwells.