Grace: The Most Precious Gift I Gave and Received this Christmas

iStock_000022043493XSmallDavid and I attended an afternoon gathering at our church a few Sundays ago, a few weeks before Christmas.

After a couple of songs, the host pastor urged us to greet our neighbors.  We turned to a couple sitting a few rows behind us. “I’m Junko,” I said, as I extended my hand to shake the man’s.

“Junko! I’m ‘Corey’,” he said, in a hey-I-know-you sort of a way, and I took a second look at his vaguely familiar, smiling face.  Hmmm…who was he again? His wife was explaining to David that they were just visiting that day from Los Angeles.

After everyone took their seats and the place quieted down, the senior pastor came out and began speaking.  My mind, however, was flipping through my mental Rolodex.  Then I got it.

Oooooh, THAT Corey!

This guy still owes me money from 1994!  If you add interest, we’re talking about over a thousand dollars.  At that time, he was promoting a Christian music festival with some “Christians” he had met in prison while serving time for a white collar crime (that should have been my first red flag), and they signed me up as one of the acts.  I was just releasing my debut album, still naive and trusting of everyone. They promised me a generous appearance fee and I, in turn, hired a band.

The day of the festival arrived, and it turned out to be a complete mess.  It was the hottest, ugliest day in LA that year, and attendance was low.  None of the amenities that they had promised — food, ATM machines, green room — came to be, and the people were upset.  Some of the biggest acts in Christian music in the 90′s backed out at the last minute when they sensed that they would be stiffed.  I dutifully performed, even though I had gotten rear-ended on the freeway on my way there.  Then I discovered that my CD’s were stolen right off of my merch table!  It was a horrible day.

Corey and his friends promised to pay me, but I never heard from them again.

I had long ago erased this unpleasant experience from my mind, but it’s amazing how powerfully memories can come back.  As our pastor spoke, I was trying to keep anger from welling back up and kept searching for the quickest exit.

As soon as the meeting ended, Corey and his wife came dashing over to us.  They must have been doing some strategizing during the sermon.

“Hey, we know a bunch of things happened about 20 years ago, but we just want you to know that we are so, so sorry for what we did to you,” they said to me.  “We were foolish and dumb, and what we did was not fair to you.  Please forgive us.”

I was floored!  They’re trying to make amends!

I was then reminded of the conversation I had just had that morning at church with Howard, an 80-something widower.  He was telling me about the full life he’s lived, even as his hand shook with tremors.  “I have some friends who are now alone and bitter.  I don’t want to be bitter!  I want to keep enjoying life, so I’m not looking back,” he declared with a smile as his coffee dribbled out of the cup in his trembling hand.

“Of course I forgive you,” I exclaimed, as I hugged Corey and his wife.  They looked relieved, as if I had been that last person to cross off the list from their 12-step program.  They thanked me for my graciousness and wished us a Merry Christmas.

* * * *

As they left, I thought of the many foolish things I’ve done over the years and the people I have wronged and hurt.  The couple had more courage than I to make amends.  I should be the one thanking them for this chance meeting, for it was a huge lesson in grace.  Not the grace I extended to them but the grace given to me by God…in spite of myself.

Thank you, Corey, and thank you, Howard, for this most interesting and important gift I received for Christmas this year.

My Former and New Flexible Self

These people are more flexible than I am! (iStock photo)

I used to be so flexible.  I used to be able to do the splits when I was in high school.  I also used to stretch before and after running and could bend sideways, forwards, and backwards farther than any of my cohorts.  Later when I was pregnant, my ligaments became even more loose in preparation for the Big Day when my hips would open sesame to expel a human from within.  Sideways splits were easy as pie in those days.

I thought I would always be limber, but then something happened a few weeks after giving birth.  My ligaments hardened up like concrete! And no, they didn’t go back to the way they were before pregnancy but in whatever position I happened to be sometime between noon and 1pm, 30 days postpartum.  I know this, because I was standing in the kitchen with my feet slightly apart, washing the dishes.  I now walk like a duck.  I can barely touch my toes today, and the floor remains far, far away if I attempt the splits.  When I try to bend sideways, my brain thinks that I’m at 90 degrees while my body stubbornly remains stuck at around 170 degrees.

While waddling around in my ever-stiffening body one day, I realized that becoming a parent has ironically made me more flexible in my heart.  I used to have such rigid expectations about myself, but now I’ve had to let go of them for the sake of our kids.  I also used to have every minute of the day scheduled with my to-do list, but a sick child would completely throw off all of my carefully-laid plans…and I wouldn’t resent it one bit.  I’ve let go of a perfectly organized house for a more realistic, fun home.  I’ve also stopped beating myself up when my kids didn’t meet some milestones, because some things are beyond my control.  Actually, not much in life was ever under my control; it just took motherhood for me to recognize this.

I don’t think I would ever go back to my former, inflexible self.  Back then, things always HAD to be a certain way.  Who wants a perfectly clean home when the kids are all stressed about it?  What child wants every minute of their days planned with activities?  Who cares about doing the splits when there is a sick child who needs you?

I’m writing this today, because Josh missed his baptism this morning due to yet another illness.  He really did have a high fever and looked rather contagious.  In my past life, I would have thrown him in the ice tub, made him get dressed, and fed him Tylenol for breakfast so he could be lucid enough for the 10 minutes at church.  After all, his name was already printed in the bulletin!  Instead, we let him go back to bed and sleep in.  Thankfully, Pastor Tim assured us that there will be another opportunity after he gets well.

Yeah, it would be nice if I could regain some of my physical flexibility from my glory days, but I wouldn’t trade the flexibility I’ve gained as a mother for anything.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go do some stretches on the floor next to the bed where my sick child is sleeping upstairs.

Tell me — are you more or less flexible after becoming a parent, physically or emotionally?  What are some big lessons you’ve learned as a result of having a child?

First Day of School

First day of school for this boy and mom

School year begins in April in Japan, so last week in Osaka I saw a lot of parents rushing to attend the Opening Ceremonies at their children’s schools.  Many of the moms don their spring kimono for this momentous occasion.  Walking on the streets lined with cherry blossoms, the view of these ladies took me back in time…not only to historical Japan, but also to my own son’s first day of elementary school.

Josh attended the preschool and kindergarten right on the grounds at the church where I was on staff during that time.  In total, Josh spent four years — very safe, nurturing, and familiar four years — at this wonderful facility.

That’s why it was such a dramatic change when I enrolled him in our neighborhood public school.  Irvine has a great school system so I was not concerned about the quality of education he would be receiving.  It’s just that it was no longer familiar territory.  It was time to step out into the big, bad world.

Mrs. Calkins was a tenderhearted first grade teacher who understood us moms’ apprehension and let us linger just a few extra moments at the classroom door before leaving our children in her care for the day.  It was a cloudy day, and the dark skies reflected what was going on inside my heart as I fought back tears.

My baby…oh, I miss him.

I was surprised by how sad I felt about Josh entering first grade.  I should have been rejoicing!  After all, I had spent the previous 6 years counting down the days until I regained my freedom.  I couldn’t wait for Josh to start school!  But then the memories came rushing back.  Oh, the fun walks we had together, just the two of us at the park and at the mall!  And all those trains we chased!  I pictured his sweet face looking up at me in the bassinet when he was only a few weeks old, and how much I enjoyed cuddling with him during nap time when he was a toddler.  I realized that I wasn’t quite ready to let go of my son just yet.  I wished I could turn back the hands of time, just a little.

After I left school, I went to run some errands, and that’s when I ran into a friend.  At the time, he was still a newlywed and not yet a parent.  I’ll call him James.  Not aware of my fragile emotional state, he waved hello and casually asked, “How’s it going?”

“My son started first grade today,” I said, trying to sound normal, which I was not.

James, being a young man, responded in a way that any non-parent in his situation would:

“Oh, that’s good.  Um, congratulations?  Well, see ya,” and away he went, leaving only me to deal with this awful conversation that just ensued.

Good?  That’s good?  I’ve lost my baby, my world is falling apart, and you think I should be congratulated?  What type of a heartless soul are you?

No longer able to contain my tears, I ran back to my car for a good, long cry.

Later, I reflected on my little conversation with James, and it dawned on me that I must have said twice as many insensitive things to people who are parents.  You just can’t understand the heart of a parent until you become one yourself.  I felt mortified as I recalled some of the unthoughtful and stupid words I had said.  Oh, if I could only go back to apologize to all those moms and dads for the dumb things I said!

Tomorrow night, we are attending the orientation night at the high school where he’ll be attending starting this fall.  And in four years from now, we’ll be looking at colleges.

I can’t imagine what a wreck I’m going to be when that day comes around.

How did you feel when you sent your child off to first day of school?  Any college parents out there who could give us some words of wisdom?  Please feel free to do so in the comments below!