When a beautiful woman in her sixties, with a serene face and an artistic hand, sits beside you at the craft table and asks to hear your story, you do not refuse. Nor do you refuse when a fun-loving stranger offers to do a coconut-oil-honey-and-cocoa-powder facial with you, and all the supplies are laid out. Nor when another cute and sassy stranger says “Hey, want to take a selfie with me? It’s my Sneaky Card assignment.”
I did not say no.
But this story starts long before that.
This summer my left foot was stepped on by a six-foot-something stranger, who apologized profusely and said “I’m sorry, it was only a matter of time. I’m no good at dancing.” I am so happy it did not occur to him that it might have been my fault, the little Mennonite lady standing beside him in the front row at a Christian concert.
Well. When my eighteen-year-old brother told me that his guy friend had a last-minute change of plans and couldn’t make it, and would I be interested in joining him at an open-air summer concert, I did not say no. I said, “Will I like it?” And then I looked up the band online and said, “Well, they sound pretty mild.” He just grinned at me.
The night of the concert, he showed up holding an iced coffee he’d bought for me. It turned out there were three bands playing that night, none of which I’d ever heard before, and I do not think mild was necessarily the word I would choose in retrospect – they were handing out ear plugs in the front row and my, did we need them. But the confetti and smoke were fun. And what I could hear of the music I liked just fine.
My little brother was very sweet, he kept asking me if I needed anything and when I spilled my coffee on the dirt he got napkins for me, and when I cried he gave me a hug.
Yes, I did cry.
I did not go to the concert expecting to hear from God. I went to have an adventure with my brother, to eat funnel cake and to spend an evening happy and free. The songs made me loosened and peaceful – but it was between songs, when a new artist began to speak of his wife’s loss of an unborn baby, and of the wise words of an old woman in their congregation, that I suddenly melted and began to cry. I cried a hard and healing rain on that clear summer night, because I know about loss, and because in that story and in the golden shower of confetti I heard God say Shari, I see you.
And then came a venue even stranger.
I watched a silly and fanciful movie, The BFG, based on Roald Dahl’s book about a Big Friendly Giant who concocts dreams to blow gently into the minds of sleeping children. I say the movie was silly because although I really like the BFG himself, there were too many scenes of drama for my liking, too many children in danger from the bad giants. But at one place there is a scene where the BFG tells Sophie that he hears everything in the world, and he will always be listening. He says, “I is hearing all the wonderous and all the terrible, terrible things. All the secret whisperings of the world.”
At the end of the movie, I closed the computer and went up to bed. I was scheduled to meet with my mentor the following afternoon. I planned to tell her about the stressors, the questions, the guilt. But we had to cancel at the very last minute, and my husband said, “Why don’t you take some private time anyway?” I drove to my favorite green-grassed graveyard, a quiet place of rhododendrons and old trees, and sat against a gravestone in the warm sun. I sat there, thinking and whispering to God, falling in and out of sleep, and while my mind was quiet I heard him say I hear you. I am right here. I am always right here, waiting for you to talk to me.
That was so good of him. I’d been pretty sure he wasn’t listening anymore, but now I had a picture of his face lighting up when I open my mouth, when I even whisper to him. Right there. He doesn’t miss a sound.
I see you. I hear you.
Then then I told my friend Joanna that in October I’d go with her to a foster moms’ retreat, Rejuvenate PA. I wanted to go with her and she made the offer irresistible, but in the weeks leading up to the event I worried I wouldn’t belong. We don’t have a placement right now.
We don’t have a placement because we said goodbye to some small and precious children we could not keep, and took a break to care for the ones who were born to us, and the guilt and fear from that decision slowly rose to choke me this past year, a woolen shawl drawn ever more tightly around my chest and neck, prickling, constricting, choking. What had I done? What if I’d ruined everything? How did I ever think I could survive this?
I didn’t need a vacation at the fostering retreat. I needed healing. I needed hope.
That is how I found myself laughing and crying with strangers, doing crazy things like high-speed hayrides and board games past midnight, fake Italian accents, impromptu selfies, chocolate facials. We shared every activity: creating decoupage and planting fairy gardens, enjoying long massages donated by professional therapists, hearing the word of God, singing, painting, eating food we didn’t prepare, getting up early to worship and pray, soaking in the beautiful weather, listening to each other’s stories, talking, talking, talking.
We had creative generosity dumped on us, all weekend long.
When I arose for prayer one morning (after having decided to sleep in, and then wakening early after all, too excited to sleep), I found that the leaders had set up prayer stations all around the edges of our main room. Each station had printed instructions waiting for us. One station had a poster board with a cross drawn on it, where we were invited to write our troubles and let Christ carry them. On the cross were newly-written words like fear and control and guilt. There were many stations. I walked across the room to one and sat down. On a table were hand mirrors, and the instructions said, Look into a mirror. What do you see when you look at yourself? What do you think God sees? What is keeping you from accepting God’s version of who you are?
I looked into the mirror began to cry silently, hopelessly, without words. “I have not liked myself for months. I see shame, I see pain, I see worthlessness. I see a woman who is not enough.”
I let my Father look at me, there in the mirror. In his eyes there was nothing but love.
I see you. I hear you. I love you.
I cannot explain the works of God. I cannot say the darkness will not return. Sometimes I don’t talk to my Father about what I feel; sometimes I don’t hear him when he talks to me. But I know I experienced his healing in that place by hearing his voice, by letting his daughters care for me, and by worshipping his son Jesus.
By the end of the weekend I could look around the room and think “I know the name of that woman’s son, and what his needs are. I know this lady’s court date, and what she worries about. That woman gave me painting tips. This one sat by a campfire with me and reminded me of what the truth was. That one prayed for me. And she, and she, and she, will carry my story home with her.”
And now I am ready to go on.