Monday, August 31, 2009

The Burden of a Grudge

I received a call awhile back inviting the church to participate in a campaign for a local radio station. The man who called was very professional, albeit a little pushy, and very well-informed about St. Paul’s. He gave his marketing plan and I listened to the entire pitch. Once he outlined the pricing program, I explained that this church is very small and operates on a very limited budget. I politely declined his offer. After my third decline, he yelled some final remark and slammed down his receiver.

I confess that the phone conversation and especially how it ended made me mad. I confess that it made me so mad I wanted to let somebody know just how mad I was. I flipped through the yellow pages, found the number for the radio station he represented, picked up the phone to dial the number, and then stopped. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I am a new pastor in the community and that perhaps I needed to refrain from making the call. Perhaps, I thought, it would be best for the church and for my reputation if I just ignored the conversation. I did, however, decide that I would forever hold a grudge against this radio station and would always wait for the day when I would be able to let them know just how rude I thought their employee was to me.

And then, I thought about that. I realized forever is a long time to hold a grudge and that maybe that was actually a worse reaction than just making the call. At least, I thought, if I call and lodge my complaint, I’ll be better able to just let it go. So, that’s what I did. I called the radio station, asked to speak to speak to someone in management, and was immediately connected to the assistant manager. I explained what had happened and that I felt angry to have been treated in this manner and that I thought the radio station supervisors might like to know how I experienced their marketing endeavor.

There was a pause and then finally, this reply. “Ma’am,” the young woman said, “we’re not participating in that kind of marketing endeavor. I don’t know who called you; but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a person on our staff.”

It turns out it was a scam. It was some professional con artist trying to get money from churches. The man did not represent the radio station. The managers knew nothing about this phone call or this campaign targeting local churches.

Of course, I am very glad I made the call, and not because I learned new information about scams and the need for caution in talking finances with strangers on the phone. I’m glad I made the call to the radio station because I learned the lesson once again that sometimes the things we hear are not always the things we need to believe. Holding a grudge is a very serious decision to make and usually not the best one. Forever, after all, is a very long time and an unfounded grudge is nothing but dead weight. Perhaps, like a phone call that’s a scam, it’s best not to pick it up in the first place.
“The Goodness of Grace”

Texas journalist Browning Ware tells the story of a man who went to have breakfast in a diner somewhere in the south. The man wanted ham and eggs and when his plate arrived he found grits sharing the plate with his order. “What’s this?” he asked his server. “Them’s grits,” the waitress answered. “I didn’t order grits,” he responded. “Mister, you don’t have to order grits. Grits just come.”

Grits, like grace, just comes.

I was going through a difficult time a few years ago. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life, whether I was going to stay in the ministry, how I was going to get through the struggle in which I found myself. A couple of times I sat in my car near an exit on Interstate 40 and considered just taking the ramp and heading west, driving until I ran out of gas. In the midst of this dark night of the soul, I spoke with a dear friend. She knew of my trouble as I had already confessed to her on a few occasions my sense of utter loss. After spilling my sorrow to her during this particular phone call, I hesitated. And she said the words that seemed to ease me just enough to find hope, to feel hopeful. “You know, we don’t have a lot of extra room here; but you can always stay with us if you need to.”

Grits, like grace, just comes.

It seems that we spend a lot of our time complaining about how things never work out the way we want them too. And it’s true that life rarely turns out like we expect. Disappointments, sorrow, trouble, betrayal, all these events and the consequences of them can keep us burdened. And yet, at least in my life, there have always been moments of grace, moments when the right words get said or when the right act of kindness comes my way, moments when the sun peeks through a sky filled with clouds or a flower blooms in the least likely place. And when these moments come, it’s as if the sky opens and great drops of mercy fall upon my head. It’s as if I get something that I didn’t even know how to order.

I can’t say that I fully understand the ways of God or how it is that someone can come along with just the right thing I need to hear or see or experience; but I do know that if I hold on long enough or even if I find myself having to let go, grace, like the grits my grandmother used to put on every breakfast plate she served, always comes.

Winter, with her long shadows and her gray mornings, her barrenness and her refusal to offer warmth, cannot last always. Do not give up on spring. Do not give up on mercy. Believe even in what you cannot see. Grace, like grits, will come.
My Grandmother's Gift

I was twenty when she died. My mother’s mother was living with my parents and I was in college when she finally lost her battle to pancreatic cancer. Her name was Lessie Alford and she was the oldest of ten children, born to a farmer in eastern North Carolina. She was also, according to everyone who knew her, a saint.
She didn’t make the news or have wealth or fame. She was not important in politics or church history books. She didn’t invent any great medical cure or write a great treatise. She was a school teacher, a Sunday School teacher, a farmer, a neighbor, a wife and mother and grandmother. And she was the kindest, most loving, faithful person I have ever known.

After her death, the family gathered to divide Grandmother’s few belongings. My sister chose her quilts. My cousins wanted some of her pots and pans and the sewing machine. My mother wanted to keep her wedding rings, her mother’s few pieces of jewelry. My dad asked for her Bible and my brother wanted a few pictures. When I was asked, I knew immediately what I wanted. I chose my grandmother’s mirror. It was part of a set; but I don’t know what happened to the brush and comb. I suppose I got them as well; but I didn’t keep up with them. The mirror has a long handle, gold-plated, with a well-faded fabric backing. Like my grandmother, on the surface, it does not look that remarkable.

For more than twenty years I have never really understood why I chose the mirror. After all, I never remember my grandmother actually using it. She was never one to wear much make-up or worry too much about her looks. She was definitely not vain; she rarely checked a mirror and I don’t recall that this mirror was that significant to her. And yet, I have always known that upon Grandmother’s death I truly wanted the mirror. And for all of my adult life, having relocated more times than I can count, I have kept the mirror on my dresser, prominently placed so that it was always near.

Recently, during my weekly housecleaning, as I was dusting the bedroom furniture, I picked up the mirror and decided to look at myself. I put down the dust rag, held the long handle in my hands and turned it over to see my reflection. And without having any real clear idea of why I was having this revelation at that particular moment, it was just at that time that I finally understood why I chose my grandmother’s mirror.

I have never thought of myself as being special or important. In fact, I would have to say that I have spent much of my life feeling inferior, insignificant, even worthless. Mine, I have learned, is a constant and familiar battle for many people, that struggle of never quite feeling good enough. As I stared at myself in that old and well-worn mirror, however, I realized that I never felt that way when I was with my grandmother. She always made me feel special and significant and beautiful. She said only good things about me, always told me that I could do anything, that I could be anybody. And I realized as I stood looking at myself in my grandmother’s mirror, more than twenty-five years after her death, that this was the reason for my choice. This gift meant more than her jewelry or her hand sewn quilts or her sewing machine or even her pictures. I wanted to keep with me for as long as I live my grandmother’s image of me. I have always longed to see myself as she saw me.
And so, I keep the mirror close at hand, always in sight. It will never bring me money or fame or even great wisdom. It will, however, bring me what nothing else can, a reflection of myself, created in love. It holds the best of me, the view from my grandmother’s eyes. It is her greatest gift.