Saturday, November 2, 2013

Strangers

Last Saturday found me in company with half a dozen other women, all of us in our pajamas curled up on couches laughing our heads off at nothing in particular. It was that magical hour just after midnight when the air gets thinner and everything becomes exponentially funnier and you frequently find yourself for want of breath. The funny thing is, I had hardly known most of these women for more than 24 hours.

It started at the beginning of that week. I'd been asking Jesus to help us find more friends in our new town and he said sure--I just didn't know it yet. After church and lunch and the whatever-it-is we did that afternoon, my husband took a walk before dinner and were passing the last few houses before turning up our long drive when I saw one of our neighbors watering plants on her porch waving hello to us. On impulse, I walked up their front path to say hi, dragging my husband behind me.

I told her I'd met her husband the day before, who emerged as we all introduced ourselves, and we fell into conversation. They were retired air force and had been in California several times, they said, acknowledging places we knew in common. They asked what we did. Then as conversation moved on, they mentioned their church, and we compared notes, and then they told us their biblestudy was about to meet and would we like to join?

Join a biblestudy of complete strangers at our neighbors' house? Sure! We ran home in the 20 minutes we had and made quick PB&J's for dinner. When we arrived back at their lovely home, they welcomed us in like family and we were met by a roomful of people whose names I was just barely able to recite after they all told me (they were almost as impressed as I was).

It was a ton of fun. The nearest to our age had to have been in her sixties, but we had a blast anyways. People shared and were open just as if there were no strangers intruding on their study, and the man next to us let us steal his book and follow along with their study, which was about the early church. I guess their little congregation has been without a pastor for six years, lost a number of members in that time, and is only just recovering with a pastor who they hired three weeks ago and is "young and challenging, just what we need."

The study ended. We gathered in the kitchen around snacks and coffee and tea. One woman mentioned their women's retreat coming up. She joked that if I really liked "us old people" I could come along. Really? I'd love to. My husband was going to be out of town this weekend anyway, on the men's retreat with our own church.

Serious? Okay! The spot is already paid for, but the lady found she couldn't come. So just pack some clothes and we'll pick you up on Friday. And you won't be the only new person; our pastor's wife is moving up with their stuff on Wednesday and she'll be coming too. She's like you: no one knows her. Perfect.

My neighbor was overjoyed and ebullient. She's one of those wonderful ladies like my mom and aunts and grandma, always happiest when people are getting to know other people.

So on Friday, up I went! And you know, it really was the most relaxing retreat I've been on. I didn't have to be anything or anyone. I didn't have to make an effort to meet people. Two dozen women all thrown together, most of whom have known each other through decades of marriage, re-marriage, children, grandchildren. It had the easy feel of people who not only know each other, but know themselves, and aren't fussed with changing any of it.

I hope that attitude comes with age, because I would love to feel like that all the time. I guess age brings regrets, too, but that's not what I saw with these ladies.

I know because they told me their stories. I LOVE stories. I am a writer. It's my job to love stories. I heard from one lady her story of being raised in abuse, marrying an abusive husband, having three kids, finally leaving her husband after he pushed her around while she was pregnant, getting remarried to a man who left her forty years later, nursing her son as he slowly died at the age of 50, and falling in love a third time with a man who was in the process of getting a divorce from his adulterous wife who had slipped into a coma for the last seven years and he'd been nursing her all that time, refusing to have an affair even though his divorce couldn't be completed.

That's a life. I asked her question after question and we talked for two hours. At the end of it, she joked about hindsight and all those things you wish you could change. "You'd probably never have married your abusive husband," I said. "No," she said, "I wouldn't change any of it. If I hadn't married him, I wouldn't have had my sons."

God redeems every mistake. There are no regrets with God.

Another woman in her fifties told me about the thirty-seven foster kids she'd had come through her house (never more than eight at a time), including the eight of which she'd adopted. She said she'd never really planned, things had just happened. She was a public school teacher who cared about her students and would take them to sporting events and concerts and help them with their homework outside of class. A girl in the class she taught came to her for help repeatedly and one day told her that her mom had been caught with drugs. The girl asked to live with her.

Okay, she said. CPS had them become foster parents, then the girl and her brothers became their first children. Years later, when the girl was 27, she finally asked to be adopted. "I want your surname before I get married and get a different one," she said.

This lady told me about her other kids: the four sisters they got all at once and adopted, raising them from childhood all the way up...including having all four of them as teenagers at the same time. I kept expecting advice, or stories about how to deal with the tough times, but the only things it seemed she remembered were the good times. She ruled her house with humor and treated her foster kids like her real kids and they had to obey the rules. This made her home a secure, stable place for them. Even though she wasn't allowed to spank her foster kids, her adopted children would chase them down and tackle them or squirt them with water guns if the foster kids didn't do their chores or wake up on time. It was a house where play and fun was always going on.

She said she kept her teacher's license up to date so that the foster system would allow her to homeschool all the children together. This way she could always keep an eye on them, be able to help them whenever the breakdowns happened, and keep that ordered, stable home that their shattered lives so desperately needed. They always told their foster kids, "If you like it here and like the way we do things, you can stay here. We'll make sure this is your last foster home you ever live at." And if the kids wanted, they would adopt them.

When they did so, they always changed their names. I asked why--this seems like a pretty upsetting thing for a child who has already gone through so much upheaval. But she told me that it made them a part of the family to have a name that mom and dad chose and was a family name (every child got a name that had belonged to a relative). It made them One Of Us. The kid had a say in which name it would be. Afterward, the family would play a game where you get or lose points whenever you use the right or wrong name to talk to them.

I want to be like these ladies. I want to take in any kids that need a home, I want to give generously of everything I have at all times, and I want to live without any regrets when I look back on my life.

I wasn't the only person doing the questioning that weekend. They asked me all about my life, and they were genuinely interested, too. When we played the game Two Truths and a Lie, they found out I fight sex trafficking, and it turns out their church has a small group doing so too. They asked me all sorts of questions about what I wanted to do--how I blog about it, study it, pray about it, and will adopt a child or children who have been rescued and need a home.

I told them that story: how on the same day shortly after our engagement, my hubby and I both heard God telling us and putting a fire in our hearts: be a home to the ones that are rescued. One lady asked about my husband. My husband is a freedom fighter too, I said, because he has a heart for protecting the innocent and stopping the violence.


-~-

That was my weekend with the ladies of my neighbor's church. We laughed about stupid things and talked about everything. We had a good time being women together. We enjoyed sleepover talk in our beds at night and an excess of chocolate during mealtimes.

I saw in them women who are much older than me but much younger than they are. They are filled with joy, but they are also filled with fighting spirit. Some of them are raising their grandchildren, where children are incapable of being parents. They are dealing with the same issues we all are, tossing around ideas about how to live in a world of smartphones, sex trafficking, videogames, divorce, online stalkers, homeless people, and starving children in Africa.

Sometimes people get this idea that older generations are stuck in their ways. First of all, there isn't anybody who isn't stuck in their ways. Humans, like most living organisms, are averse to change and attracted to equilibrium. We like things to stay the same because we can handle things better that way. Learning new tricks is hard. But there are plenty of older-gen people walking around who know how to email, text, and facebook, who carry cell phones in their pockets, and who get the news via wifi on their laptop. There are plenty of older-gen people who like styles of music that came out "later" and who appreciate the good things of modern culture and denigrate the bad.

We live in the same day and age. The framework that we use to see the world was shaped by different forces, but that doesn't mean it's different. It just means our reasoning might be different. All the stronger for talking it through together and combining our reasoning. Nobody likes how these days sex is cheap, children are the perpetrators of mass violence, and the family has disintegrated, but why it happened and ideas about how to rebuild are different depending on where in time you come from. And for all anyone knows, maybe all of us are right. Maybe the only way to fix some of our issues is to work together.

This is what I learned: stereotypes are simultaneously true and not true. Ultimately, it doesn't matter, because life isn't about judging, it's about knowing. "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Knowing about someone isn't the same thing as hearing their story for yourself, seeing it in their eyes as their words catch fire in the pumping blood of life. To know, you have to know them. Life is about relationship more than anything else. If there is some goal that the adventure of life is leaning towards, if that unattainable thing towards which we are always reaching has a name, it is relationship.

We will know and be known, or die trying. The only truly worthwhile thing we leave behind us when we die to mark that we were here are people and the relationships we forged with them.


-~-

It all ends with a scene from Sunday morning. I had said goodbye, driven home. I made it just in time to kiss hubby hello and dash back out the door with him to the last service at church.

Pastor Freddy had said this was going to be a good one, and his sermons are always good, so that meant this one was going to be even better. He was right. He told us the story of Hosea, God's prophet sent to show Israel what God's love is like by marrying a prostitute and continuing to go after her when she ran away, even buy her out of slavery, promising to give her a life where sex wasn't required and she could just live free.

By the end of the service, everyone was crying. Pastor Freddy was crying. The whole church was full of sniffles. Since this is the South, people say "amen" all throughout the sermon, and there were a lot of very nasal amens said softly from the chairs. He told us what this was a picture of: the God who went to the ends of the earth and does everything it takes to buy his beloved out of whatever slavery or darkness or pain and give them a free, beloved life. Everyone was thinking the same thing:

That's a relationship that's worthwhile.

--------
The full sermon is available here, called I Know He Is But What Am I? Part 4.

\