(This post is also published on thegritandgraceproject.org as My Embarrassing Moment at Church Changed Me (For Better)
I was dragging my feet getting ready. For as long as I can remember, we’ve had an open mike for folks to share their thank-yous the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Children often go first and warm up the crowd with sweeping praises, “Thank you, God, for the whole wide world,” and with smaller ones, “We have a new baby. She smiled at me.”
I was dragging my feet because I’d stepped behind that mike two Thanksgivings before this one, and the memory of it still made me miserable. Maybe I should just stay home again this year like I’d done last year? I wanted to believe that everyone had forgotten it by now. I sure wanted to forget.
At the last minute, I decided to go and slipped in late beside Lisa and Dave, hoping to duck out just as quickly when it was over. Why had I bothered to come? I didn’t know. “I’m stuck in Overshare Swamp,” I whispered. Lisa’s mouth twisted sympathetically.
A couple of siblings were talking about their trip to Peru the summer before. Another teen spoke who’d been to Uganda. They’d had meaningful experiences and were thankful for the church members who’d supported them. I’m always touched when teenagers talk about their faith in front of the folks who changed their diapers in the nursery just last week. Well, it sure feels like “just last week” to me. This was the best kind of family talk, so rich in fact that I forgot about the shame swamp, at least for a little while. But when a ten-year-old stood up and said she’d found her lost kitty, I was back in, up to my neck.
Two years before, I’d had a devastating experience. I’d tried to read my Bible and pray the night it happened, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know what to read or what words to say to God about it–nothing seemed to fit–but I needed him in a way I’d never needed him before. I wanted to feel his love, to really feel it, as in, with-my-five-senses-feel-it. Not just know about it in my head or heart, but to know it in my body, too.
After thrashing about, unable to sleep, I went outside around midnight, desperate to connect with him and driven by the wide open access I’d feel under the stars. The rain had stopped, but the wind had whipped up, shaking the woods of our front yard the way a dog shakes his teddy. Trees swayed back and forth, back and forth, like giant dancers warming up at the barre, the full moonlight flashing between port de bras. Their flailing limbs and the roaring of the wind and the mad fluttering of a million leaves felt like a wild romp, like a hoe-down in the heavens.
The scene before me matched my own flailing, and I was awed and breathless as I watched it, my heart pounding. Swept up in the cacophony, I shouted to the skies from the top of our front steps, “God, I’m here! I need you! I have no one else! You know what’s happening. I’ve gotta feel your love…right now…tonight! I’m….”
The cat was rubbing along the backs of my legs. Impatient at being interrupted, I kicked him away, “I’m talking to God! Scat!” It felt odd that he was rubbing my legs. He normally shied away from any touching. This was the cat who’d be gone for days at a time and wouldn’t be missed until he showed up hungry.
There was other noise along with the wild wind and the dancing trees, so loud, I couldn’t hear myself shouting. What was it that thrummed and throbbed off to the right, closer to the ground? It must be the crickets, I thought. They were deafening after the rain. “God,” I shouted again. “Can you even hear me? Turn these blamed crickets down so I can talk to you!” The pulsing continued and, now that I was focused on it, swelled even louder it seemed to me.
And then the words of a story I frequently read to our grandboys came to mind, “…in the sound crickets make at the end of the day, ‘You are loved. You are loved. You are loved,’ they all say.”
I sank to the stone steps beneath me.
Really, God? You’re telling me you love me–with crickets?
I wanted to sound grateful, because I was. But also because I wasn’t. I wanted more than just crickets.
Please forgive me, God, I mean, you’ve shown up for me, just like I asked. The crickets are amazing. But I want more than just hearing that you love me. I really want to feel it, too.”
Ever since I’d landed on the steps, the cat had been back, bumping and rubbing, and then flipping around to bump and rub some more, first across my back and then along my elbows. It was rhythmical and annoying, and I’d thrown him off several times, the cat dander flying. But he’d come right back. It was odd, I thought again, for a cat to be so lovey, one I’d never been able to pet unless I sneaked up from behind.
His last rub was so forceful, I lost my balance and fell over. And then these thoughts came in quick succession:
A cat that had never given me the time of day was loving on me...I was feeling loved by this cat…No, this cat was helping me to feel God’s love. What? Am I really feeling God’s love for me through my cat?
It sure seemed like it. Love that I could feel, that was unexpected and surprising, that knocked me over–it was exactly what I’d asked for.
“Are you kidding me, God?” I laughed, laid out on my back. My heart was so full, it felt like it might bust wide open. I could feel the stupid smile on my face, the happy tears that slid into my ears. Duster had scampered away when I lost my balance. Right on cue, he assumed his suspicious and distant, “typical cat” persona. He’s never approached me since.
The memory of that night with crickets and a cat as messengers of love still moves me. If God can make a fish swallow up and vomit out a man, or keep hungry lions’ mouths shut all night, I figure he can make crickets thrum and a cat bump-and-rub me over for love.
No big deal for God.
But I felt shame at the memory of sharing it that Sunday at church. Writing this now, I can still feel the embarrassment. I don’t think anyone commented afterwards. At least as far as I can remember, I wasn’t spoken to.
Of course, that might not be actual fact. Maybe my insecurity about sharing the story has sucked out of memory all the support I actually got? I have no idea. At least, I didn’t feel supported. And after all my excitement to tell my church family how God had answered my prayer, it felt, well, lonely. And then, humiliating in the remembering.
I was afraid I’d told something publicly that was meant to be private. It was the way I’d felt when I was young and told how much money our new car cost or that Shelley’s mother drank martinis with breakfast or that my mama’s Aunt Alice hadn’t left her anything when she died, but she’d left me the ring I’d asked for.
So when that next Thanksgiving came around, I couldn’t face the possibility that I’d shared something not meant to be shared. Was God as disappointed in me as I was? Was he shaking his head, “Gee, when’s she gonna grow up and get a clue?” This was the hardest piece of shame for me to manage.
Besides, I thought, who else would believe my story the way I had? It was foolish to share it, and I was the big, fat fool who’d done it. So I had stayed home alone the next year.
Sitting next to Lisa on this particular Sunday two years later, I listened to others’ thanks-givings while my inner critic spoke her own truth: They aren’t oversharing like you did. They know the difference between saying a public thanks to God and talking about their private lives. My stomach wrenched and triggered a hot flash. You shouldn’t have come. You know, you really oughta just leave. You’re right,” I said out loud.
Wait. Who was I listening to?
A man I’d never seen at our church stood up next. He made his way hesitantly to the front and up the steps to the microphone. I‘d thought I just might leave early, but what he said next nailed me to my seat.
He cleared his throat. “Now, I’m not a regular church goer, here or anywhere, but I was here two years ago on this same exact Sunday after Thanksgiving. And a little lady stood up and told us about her cat, I think it was. And some crickets. And how God had reached down and poured love into her when she was low and needed him.”
I could hardly believe my ears.
“And that story…” His voice cracked. He looked down and cleared his throat. After a few seconds, he began again, “That story? Well, it’s changed me. Because I been low. Real low. Just like she was. But after I heard what she said, I decided that if God loved her like that, well, he was bound to love me thataway, too. It gave me hope. I needed me some hope. And I been talkin’ to God ever since. So I came here today to say thanks to this church for this open mike. And thanks be to God for the stories he give us to share, to spread around some-a his hope.“
I looked at Lisa, wide-eyed. She squeezed my hand. I wanted to stand up and shout “Hallelujah!” But I whispered, “Glory be,” instead. And just like that, my shame swamp dried up.
When I got home, I found the book about the crickets and read it to myself. And I believed it again.
“I wanted you more
than you ever will know,
so I sent love to follow
wherever you go.
It’s high as you wish it. It’s quick as an elf.
You’ll never outgrow it…it stretches itself!
So climb any mountain…
climb up to the sky!
My love will find you.
My love can fly!
Make a big splash! Go out on a limb!
My love will find you. My love can swim!
It never gets lost, never fades, never ends…
if you’re working…
or sitting with friends.
You can dance ’til you’re dizzy…
paint ’til you’re blue…
There’s no place, not one,
that my love can’t find you.
And if someday you’re lonely,
or someday you’re sad,
or you strike out at baseball,
or think you’ve been bad…
just lift up your face,
feel the wind in your hair.
That’s me, my sweet baby,
my love is right there.
In the green of the grass…
in the smell of the sea…
in the clouds floating by…
at the top of a tree…
in the sound crickets make
at the end of the day…
‘You are loved.
You are loved.
You are loved,’
they all say.
My love is so high,
and so wide and so deep,
it’s always right there,
even when you’re asleep.
So hold your head high and don’t be afraid
to march to the front of your own parade.
If you’re still my small babe
or you’re all the way grown,
my promise to you is
you’re never alone.
You are my angel, my darling, my star…
and my love will find you,
wherever you are.
Mother’s Day with our grandbuddies, our favorite loveys.
The children’s book is Wherever You Are (my love will find you) by Nancy Tillman