I felt frantic when I looked in the mirror and saw a small blob of beige make-up on the front of my black dress. No amount of dabbing or wiping would remove the smudge left by a spilled drop of liquid concealer. In a desperate attempt to clean my dress I pulled it over my head, stuck the stained portion into the sink, and washed the soiled area with hand soap. The smudge faded, but was still noticeably there. I wasn’t in my own home or even my home state. Without options for other outfits I had no choice but to finish rinsing out the soap; blot out as much water as I could; put my damp, stained dress back on; and continue getting ready.
I knew I was acting like a borderline crazy person, and yet I couldn’t seem to will myself to pull the train back into the rational station. But I took some comfort knowing that I’m not alone in feeling pressure to look my best when internal composure feels daunting.
I was getting ready for my oldest son’s college graduation ceremony. My roller coaster of emotions are rooted in a journey that is much wilder that just being a middle-aged mom struggling to let go of her adult child. The past four years have been rough at times, to say the least. And while I was overflowing with joy, pride, and celebration – memories of painful conversations, uncertain days, and difficult weeks were competing for space in my heart and mind as well.
Without even realizing it I had fallen in to the age-old trap of believing that in a moment of intense emotions, crafting a put together look for my outer appearance could be an anchor for a put together self on the inside. The untimely stain on my dress reminded me that rooting my confidence in my ability to control the details of an overwhelming experience is an illusion that will always leave me feeling lacking.
Since my own will and my frantic actions had failed to slow down my crazy train, I decided to try prayer. I closed my eyes and let my body and my mind become still. I prayed for Jesus to quiet my heart and show me the way out of this moment of frenzy.
I opened my eyes and saw the stain reflected back at me. But this time the stain didn’t make me feel desperate, it sparked a memory.
When my sons were very young I was an engaged member of the “Mother’s Of Pre-Schoolers” group at my church. Those women were my lifeline in my early years of parenting. One of the things I loved most about our MOPS program was gleaning wisdom from older woman in our church community as they shared honestly from their own tales of parenting and raising a family.
Jerri Morgan was a speaker at one of our annual retreats. She and her husband had raised their children on the mission field in the South American jungle. I was enamored by her stories that offered a lens through which I could see an encouraging perspective of mine. We giggled as she talked about conceiving a child in a shared hut with dozens of tribesmen and women. We laughed with her as she told us about demanding that her husband build a fenced off pen of “clean” dirt so that her toddler could have a protected space to learn to walk among a tribe who were chronic spitters. We listened with wide eyes as she told us a story about her husband hiding in the jungle from Colombian guerillas who had shot at him in the dark of night. We cried as she shared about her young family experiencing the devastation of losing everything they owned in a house fire. And we stored up her love and wisdom in our hearts as she told us stories about some difficult roads her children traveled as teenagers and young adults.
Jerri began her time of sharing by setting up an old fashioned Sunday School flannel board. She had squares of pre-cut fabric that she arranged on the board as she spoke. One block for each story. The color and pattern of every cloth matching the tone of every tale. When she was finished the flannel board looked like a cozy, homemade quilt.
To close her speaking time with us she went back to the dark squares. The black pieces of fabric represented moments of pain, worry, and disappointment woven into her family’s narrative. She told us how God had been faithful in all the squares, not just the ones that were pretty. And she placed pieces of lace over the black squares, explaining that while suffering is a part of everyone’s stories, and the pain of some memories will stay with us – God is always faithful to use all things for good, to bring joy into times of sorrow, and to blossom new life from places that feel dead.
My life is a quilt pattern of bright squares and darker ones as well. The knitting together of all the squares is crafting something far greater and more wondrous than any single fabric block.
I looked back at my stain and suddenly it didn’t bother me. It reminded me of my own quilt, and my personal narrative that God is continually redeeming and restoring and making beautiful – with the smudges, stains, and black squares; not in spite of them.
Graduation is called a commencement, because it celebrates the beginning of what’s next. In this mid-season of life, my constant prayer is that my heart and soul and mind will grow strong enough to hold everything as I move from one stage to another. A stubborn stain and a sweet memory reminded me that God is most often found in the “and” that holds all things together. Our stories are never limited to light OR dark moments. Life is not good OR bad. We are not put together OR a mess. We live in the AND, guided by the certainty that we are a beloved creation who’s stories are being woven, redeemed, and restored by a faithful God.