Ladies of the Sand and Sage
I don’t belong here, I thought to myself while politely nibbling on a store-bought sugar cookie with industrial-strength icing. Across the table there was diabetic Dee, with her cantankerous rants about the endless parade of incompetent doctors she had to see. She’d sent tact packing long ago - probably with some choice words on its way out - and wasn’t afraid to tell me repeatedly that my long-haired son needed a haircut. Then there was petite Elva, whose arthritis had contorted her hands and whose lack of hearing constantly prompted her to ask me to speak up. There was Betty, who yearned for more talk of sanctification and what she called “old time religion”. There was mildly autistic Norma, who was prone to violent coughing fits. She had a historical feud with strong-willed Dee, and current relations were tenuous. There was Susan, who always left early to return to her job at Wal-mart and whose mother had been fighting cancer for years. And then there was Ellen, my dear neighbor, who, in her cheerfully and relentlessly persuasive way, had talked me into coming to what I affectionately (eventually, anyway) called “Old Ladies’ Bible Study”. We’d moved to a completely unfamiliar rural area nine hours from our native Kansas City, and Ellen had quickly gathered me under her wing. She’d invited us to play cards and marbles and taught me such delightful new-to-me sayings such as “show ‘em whose hog ate the cabbage!” and the infinitely wise “even a blind hog finds an acorn sometimes”. Steven and I puzzled over that one - do hogs even like acorns? - but we quickly absorbed it into our vocabulary.
But Ellen had also somewhat strong-armed me into joining Old Ladies’ Bible Study, making a strong sales pitch that didn’t ultimately resemble the actual product. I don’t belong here, I told myself again. Weeks of corseted resentment now strained against my very best show of forced politesse. The pride and arrogance that festered beneath my facade of humility began to say terrible things. I wasn’t old, first of all. I wasn’t sick. I belonged among youngish, hip people, I told myself - people who know what kombucha is, at the very least! But fine, FINE, I thought. Maybe there is indeed a silver lining: maybe they can learn something from me! (Did you hear that? It sounded like radiant, divine peals of laughter, all melody and light, holy howls spilling forth from the belly of God himself. WEIRD.)
So I soldiered on. I kept showing up. And showing up. Biding my time, I thought. Gracing them with my semi-youthful presence. For weeks, my stubborn eyes refused to see and my bitterness relented to a background hum of adolescent-grade ennui. And then something very strange began to happen. I started to love these women. Week after week as they shared their vulnerabilities, their joys, and their sorrows, I started to see them and meet them as God’s beloved. Maybe it was when Dee, still scarred from her husband’s abandonment decades earlier, tearfully shared the story of her high school sweetheart showing up at her door one day out of nowhere. “I forgot what it felt like to feel loved by someone,” she said. Or maybe it was when Susan emphatically pounded the table in front of her and said, as her voice cracked, “This right here is my church. It’s here with you ladies.” Or maybe it was when Norma also broke down in tears one morning, her face grimacing in anger and pain, shouting “Just look at my teeth! I’m ugly! I know I’m ugly!” The next day I mailed her a letter - her favored means of communication - reminding her just how beloved and beautiful she is to God. At the following study, she hugged me, and I knew I’d been accepted into her sphere of trust. The hug was wooden and her eyes averted after she gave it, but it was incredibly precious to me because I knew hugs from Norma were neither profligate nor did they come cheap.
I was ashamed. I’d committed the sin of the Pharisee for the billionth time in my life and been blind to it for the billionth time. Deep down, I had believed I was better than them, and condescendingly believed only I had something to offer them while failing to see how much they had to offer me. “Pay attention to the people God puts in your path if you want to discern what God is up to in your life,” Henri Nouwen said. I hadn’t paid attention at all, and instead shut my eyes and stuck my fingers in my ears and keened an obnoxious and ridiculous tune of snobbery. Is there anything more laughably bizarre than snobbery? But God, he is so very good. He chose the foolish things to shame the wise, and the weak things to shame the strong. Those who I thought were last were, in fact, first. But God loves us too much to allow us to languish in the hell of arrogance, the prison of pride. The lozenge of humility is bitter at first, but gives way to the richest sweetness. And savoriness, if you please. We’re talking the Everlasting Gobstopper here. Jesus said those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. I suppose it’s possible to white-knuckle our pride and resist the humbling, but then we lock ourselves out of love.
Now when I think of how often the refrain of “I don’t belong here” flitted through my mind during those early months, I think of that Stephen Stills song “Love the One You’re With”. Yes, it’s overplayed and we’ve all heard it a thousand times but I like it, and yet its lyrics - particularly the chorus - I’ve always found at best inane and at worst downright heretical. Heretical because the ideas of soulmates and destiny have been foundational to my belief system in the past (If you can’t be with the one you love?! But that’s silly! I shriek). And in a way, they still are - but I hope I’ve come to a more holy understanding: you can indeed be with the one(s) you love, because the ones you’re with are the ones you’re meant to love.
He works through us to heal us, to give us the gift of communion with him and to feel his presence and taste his mercy. Jesus is here. Not yet in full, but he’s here. I know it, because I’ve seen it and felt it and breathed it. I came to that small circle of women believing I was superior, because of my relative hipness, because of my urbanity, because I’d read some theology. How little these things actually mean! I’m thankful for the merciful humbling, thankful for the privilege of sharing with these women, for receiving such unconditional kindness and hospitality and warmth and, finally, being able to give it in return. I’m thankful I was granted a measure of seeing - real seeing - that broke through the darkness of my ignorance and pretension. But that’s grace for you - even a blind hog finds an acorn sometimes.