It was Christmas Eve, and a funeral home was no place for kids. But we had to say goodbye to Daddy, who had died a few days earlier from cirrhosis of the liver. Mom brought us early, before anyone else got there, so we could be alone with our tears and our memories. I was ten and my brother, Danny was fourteen.
I thought back to my few recollections of Daddy, most of them filled with drama:
- Sitting on his knee on the lawn of the psychiatric hospital where he lived while he got shock treatments, crying and laughing at the same time as he sang he sang “Oh Susanna.”
- Watching Mom struggle to get out of his embrace when he was drunk and wanted to give her a kiss; sobbing when her glasses flew off her face and across the room; yelling at him to “leave my Mommy alone!”
- Visiting him in his dinky room on the second floor of a shabby boarding house after the divorce, while Mom waited alone in the car. That day, he was the one who cried as he gave each of us one of his sharp shooting medals and hugged us goodbye. I wonder if he knew he’d never see us again.
When the funeral started, Mom and we kids sat out in the main section of seats. My grandmother, Daddy’s mother, hated Mom. She blamed her for Mom and Daddy’s divorce, and Daddy’s alcoholism that led to his death. Although Grandma didn’t attend the funeral, she’d made it clear that we were not welcome with the rest of the family. Only a handful of people sat scattered throughout the funeral parlor, but I still felt exposed and vulnerable on that second row, with empty seats all around us.
That day began an avalanche of anger in my young life that lasted for many years.
I was angry with Mom, who’d divorced Daddy when I was six, and married another alcoholic. Joe was not a sweet, cuddly teddy bear like my Daddy, but an ornery, demanding grizzly bear who swore and called us names. I was angry with him, too. If he hadn’t been part of the picture, perhaps Mom and Daddy would’ve gotten back together, and Daddy wouldn’t have died seven months after Mom remarried. I was also mad at Daddy for leaving my brother and I to be raised by a monster of a man whom I was convinced hated us. But mostly I was mad at God, who let this horror happen to me. I felt alone, abandoned, and confused.
My teen years were full of quests for attention. I became a first-class show-off, trying to make people laugh every chance I got. I joined drama club and performed in several plays. I took voice lessons, hoping to enter show business. And I dated boys too old and too experienced for me. I was searching for acceptance, trying to find the love I’d lost that day we buried Daddy. But I was looking in all the wrong places, and my search only left me more empty and insecure than ever.
I drifted in and out of church, trying to be good. But my trying was never enough to keep me out of trouble. I got high grades, hoping to impress my step-dad. But nothing I did was ever good enough for him. So, I gave up trying.
I rebelled against my parents, sneaking to do things I knew were wrong. I ran away from home twice, going to live with my brother and his family. But he had become an alcoholic like Daddy. After two weeks of sleeping in the same room with their three-year-old and baby, listening to Danny and his wife fight constantly, I soon realized that I had jumped out of the cage and into the tiger’s jaws. So, I returned home to my unreasonable step-dad and mom, miserable and lonely.
And still angry.
Near the end of my teen years and the end of my futile attempts to manage my own life, I recalled a saying I’d heard from the Bible. Something about God flinging our sins away from us as far as the east is from the west. I was so tired of running away. Not just from my parents and their rules, but from God Himself. I longed for peace of mind that I couldn’t find in all the boyfriends I’d had and all the parties I’d attended. I needed to know if God would truly forgive me for all my wrongs. I hadn’t been to church in over a year, but I thought that perhaps the leaders there could help me find that Bible saying about forgiveness, and help me get my life straightened out. I was desperate for real love, and I was willing to give up the parties and the boys to have it.
So, on a rainy Sunday morning, I stood in the pastor’s study after church, my heart thundering louder than the storm outside. I took a long, deep breath and forced a smile for the six men staring down at me. Although they smiled back, their eyes held probing questions. I bet they wonder why I’ve asked them to meet with me, since I haven’t been around in so long.
Did I catch a hint of impatience in the baritone voice that interrupted my thoughts? “What can we do for you today, Jeanette?”
I managed to force words around the cement ball in my throat. “Umm… I’ve done a lot of stupid things, things I regret.” Memories etched an ugly picture on my mind. Shame scalded my cheeks. But I made myself go on, my eyes on my shoes. “I really want to give my life to the Lord, and make a fresh start. But I think I’ve sinned too much for Him to forgive me.” I looked up then, secretly begging one of them to contradict me.
Silence, followed by nervous smiles. Gazes cast out the window. More silence. I felt tears sting my eyes. The cement ball grew larger, chafing my throat. But I had to know if there was a way out of the mess I’d made.
Taking a jagged breath, I continued. “I heard a Bible verse a long time ago that says God has removed our sins as far away as the east is from the west. Do any of you know where that is? I think if I could see it and read it for myself, I’d be able to believe the Lord loves me in spite of all my sins.”
After a long silence that nearly smothered me, the baritone spoke again. He patted my shoulder like you’d pat your neighbor’s disheveled child. “Let’s form a circle and pray. As to the Bible verse you mentioned, we’ll have to get back to you. I think I’ve heard that verse myself, but I’m not sure what book it’s in. We’ll do some research and call you if we find it, okay?”
My heart slapped the floor. If these men didn’t know that saying, maybe it wasn’t there after all. Perhaps I’d sinned too much, and my life was beyond hope.
I allowed the tears to spill out as the men prayed for me. Although their voices were warm with compassion, their lack of answers had flung my last bit of hope to the ground.
The trudge to the parking lot was a blur. As I buckled my seatbelt, my thoughts turned from disappointment to rage. I fumed all the way home, then made an excuse to my mom about not being hungry, and headed for the bedroom. As I threw myself across the bed to cry, a sunbeam broke through the clouds and fell on my Bible lying on the bedside table. I reached for it, and a thought turned my anger to determination.
Those men couldn’t help me, I thought. So what? I’ll find that saying for myself, if it takes all day and all night! I’m not an Irish redhead for nothing!
As I knelt beside my bed, the tears started again, dripping onto the Bible
spread in front of me. “God,” I whispered through the sobs, “I know that saying is in here somewhere. Please help me find it. I need to know you love me, and will forgive me for all the rotten things I’ve done.” Talking to Him felt comfortable, like the hug of an old friend. Sweet warmth settled over me.
I opened my Bible randomly, with no idea where to look. The pages fell open to these words in Hebrews 9:16-17. “‘This is the covenant I will make with them after that time,’ says the Lord. ‘I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.’ Then He adds: ‘Their sins and their lawless acts I will remember no more’” (NIV).
I stared at the words. It was a different verse than I had in mind, but the concept was identical: God would forgive my past, and forget my sinful deeds. Was it possible that His love was bigger than my guilt? A trickle of hope bubbled up, defying the shame in my soul.
My heart hammered again, this time in excitement. I stood and lifted my face heavenward. My voice trembled as I said, “Lord, You’ve never hurt me once. I realize now that I was the one who hurt You, with all my rebellion. You said You’d forgive me and not remember my lawless acts anymore. So, here I am—to serve You the rest of my life.”
I waited for an angel choir to sing, or a dove to fly through the window and rest on my shoulder. Instead, a calming peace washed through me, reassuring me I was clean of my guilt and anguish. And that hole in my heart which anger had burned for nearly a decade began to heal.
I’ve bought over 40 new calendars since that day I discovered that God’s love is more stubborn than my wrong-doings and deeper than my sins. I’ve had many opportunities over those decades to try the Lord’s patience. But he’s never given up on me or left me alone, even when I’ve stumbled.
He’s led me to forgive Daddy, Mom, and my step-dad for every real or imagined wrong against me. And because I know he isn’t holding my sins against me, I’ve grown to be able to forgive myself. That’s what His stubborn love and relentless grace will do.
“Well,” you might be thinking, “that’s a nice, sweet story and I’m really happy for you, that you found forgiveness and were able to forgive those who hurt you. But what does that have to do with me? How can your story help me?”
I’m so glad you asked that, because as Christians, we have all experienced God’s grace—that quality of his that never gives up on us, always keeps seeking us, offering us his mercy and kindness, like we grandparents might offer our grand kids a big bowl of ice cream or the present they’ve been wanting for years under the Christmas tree. We like to give. And that penchant for giving came from God’s heart of love.
But what do we do with God’s grace? Do we just sit back in our recliners and say, “Thanks for the ice cream, God. You’re the best” and then feel sorry for all the other people in the world who don’t have as many goodies as we do? Of course not. I know you people well enough to know that you are anything but stingy or selfish. I am constantly remarking to Laurie and Rodger about how generous you all are. You’re perfect examples of following Jesus’ instruction to when he said, “Freely you have received; freely give.” But Jesus was not just talking about money or things when he told us to give.
I’d like to share with you three very personal action points to respond to God’s grace an love:
- Believe it and receive it. Say “Yes!” to God’s grace by making Jesus the Lord of our lives. I became a follower of Jesus when I was eight years old, and was baptized into him. But it was only when I made Jesus my lord and said to him, “Here I am, Lord. What would you have me do? How can I glorify you?” that my life truly changed from darkness to light. Whenever we relinquish our right to have our own way and ask God to lead us, we honor his grace and love.
- Forgive ourselves when we mess up and sin, even the same sin we did last week or yesterday. Ask Jesus to cleanse us and help us obey. He is more than willing to come to our rescue, and it honors him when we run TO him instead of AWAY from him.
- Extend his love and grace to others when they mess up and sin. I don’t have to tell you, but I’m going to anyway: People are stupid, mean, and ugly. They annoy and offend us. They hurt us. They even wrong us. And it’s not fair, or right, or just. But when we share God’s grace with them—the same grace God gave us when we sinned, taking us into his family and forgiving us—we act like Jesus. Our heart grows two sizes. We become more like God.
Let’s pray: “Lord, we love you and adore you. We know that we’ve been forgiven much, so we love much. Empower us to share that love with others we meet, especially those who we think don’t deserve it. Give us the grace to share your grace with the least of these around us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”