by Pastor Katrina Clinton
It was the worst year Louise could ever remember. She couldn't wait for it to be over. Last February, she lost her husband of 42 years, Ted, to a heart attack. It was so unexpected. She wasn't prepared for that loss. She was preparing herself for losing her daughter, Sandy, who had cervical cancer. Sandy died in August. By that time, Sandy's husband, Joe, had left, so the kids came to live with Louise. Joe, Jr. was the oldest- he was 16, then there was Jenny, 12 and Louisa, 8.
When they first moved in with Louise in the old family farm in Oldtown, they had a difficult time adjusting to life in the country. They had lived in Chicago and Joe, Jr. had a group of friends there - it was still home to him. He told Louise that he was just biding his time until he turned 18 and he could go back to Chicago on his own.
Jenny was getting along okay in her new school, but a lot of girls made fun of her and teased her about her glasses and her weight. Louisa seemed to be fitting in the best at school, but she was so independent and stubborn, just like her namesake grandma.
The big shock was last week, when Joe showed up on Louise's doorstep on Christmas day. He wanted to see the kids. At first Louise didn't want to let him in- not unless she knew if he was going to stick around for awhile, or if he was going to take them away, or what he was after. But he yelled about his rights as a parent and threatened to call the police, so she let him in.
The kids were glad to see him. Joe, jr. acted as if he was about to be sprung from prison. Jenny became all quiet and slunk in a chair in the corner and Louisa jumped into his arms and then began beating him with her fists and yelling at him for leaving them.
The next days after Christmas were spent looking at old photo albums, drinking hot chocolate with marshmallow fluff in it- an old wintertime family tradition that Sandy continued with her kids-She used to quote her mother and say that a cup of cocoa warmed you inside and out. They visited the cemetery where Sandy and Grampa Ted were buried. And then there was the trip to Boston and the planetarium. Sandy and Joe used to take the kids to the one in Chicago all the time. Sandy loved to see the stars, and tell about how many thousands of miles there were between stars, and how long they lived. She used to wait for the meteor showers in August and take the kids out to see the shooting stars against the dark midnight skies. The last thing the kids shared with Sandy before she died was some shooting-stargazing on Aug. 11th. On Aug. the 25th, she died.
And now it was December the 31st, and they were at the Oldtown New Year's Eve vesper service…all lined up in Louise's pew. Jenny was next to her grandma, and then Louisa, Joe, Jr and finally Joe, on the end. Louise kept wondering when he was going to get up and leave. She figured he was on the verge of bolting once again- and running back to his young girlfriend, the one in the picture Joe showed the kids with her sitting on the back of the motorcycle with her leather jacket and flaming red hair.
Louise remembered Sandy's long blond hair- before the chemotherapy made it all fall out. She remembered brushing it when Sandy was Jenny's age. Sandy loved her hair, and loved wearing it in all different styles. Ted used to call her his Barbie Doll because of all the ways she changed her hair and outfits constantly. Louise smiled at the memory and then got sad so quickly when she remembered all the losses- the loss of Ted and the blond hair and then Joe's leaving and then Sandy dying. It was all too much- too much to take in one year. She wasn't sure why God was doing this to her. She didn't think she deserved this much heartache for her sins.
When Pastor Grace asked the congregation to think about their sins, and then write them down on a piece of paper, Louise glanced sideways at Joe. She could sure fill out her paper for him. Abandoning her daughter when she needed him most should be at the top of the list- and then abandoning the children. And how about running off with the red head and living in sin with her. How about the fact that he never wrote to the kids or sent any money to help with their expenses. She could sure come up with a list for him!
And as far as she could tell, Joe Jr was going to turn out just like his Dad. He already had a few things he could list - like his truancy from school and his smoking and swearing, and the way he went through girlfriends, a different one every week.
Louisa's stubbornness was the contributing factor on her list- why she could put down all the talking back, and the failure to clean her room and do her homework, the lies she tells to get out of completing chores or fulfilling responsibilities. For an 8 year old, she had enough to put down. But Jenny would be writing the longest list, even though the things she wrote were nothing. But because Jenny thought so little of herself, her list would be self-abasing and very sad indeed.
Pastor Grace announced that people should be finishing up their lists now. Louise looked down at her blank piece of paper and realized that in concentrating on everyone else's sin list, she hadn’t had time to think of her own list. So she quickly scrawled, Criticism, Blame, Failure to let go.
Everyone was invited to go forward and put their lists in a big bowl. When it was time for her row to get up, Louise half-expected Joe to head for the door, or at least sit still in the pew with a blank piece of paper. But he got up and went to the front, and she could see that indeed there was writing on the paper. The children followed their father with their papers, and Louise brought up the rear. When she got up to the table she saw a small printed sign on the altar. It just had 2 words on it: "I'm sorry". As she put her paper into the bowl and read the words, tears ran down her cheeks. She was sorry- sorry for herself, sorry that she lost her husband and her daughter, sorry that she blamed Joe for not being there for his wife and kids, sorry that the children were so unhappy, sorry that life was unfair, sorry for everything she had done or failed to do in trying to make the family work again without 2 of it's most important members.
By the time they got back to their pew, Louise was wiping the tears from her eyes and Jenny was holding her hand.
Pastor Grace explained that no one was sinless, but that the greatest gift Jesus gave us was the gift of forgiveness, of a clean slate so that we could start over. She told about the old slates in the schoolhouse that had to be washed every night so that the teacher could begin the next day with a clean slate to teach the students their numbers and letters. An eraser would take off the words, but the chalkdust would leave a cloudy white coating that made it hard to read. But a good washing would take away even the chalkdust so that the slate was truly clean and ready for the next day.
"Without forgiveness," Pastor Grace said, "it's just an eraser that moves chalkdust around. We think we're over things, but we still harbor grudges and memories of hurts and hurting. Sins still have power over us. They still have a cloudy residue over our souls. But Jesus can wash us clean." As she poured water from a pitcher into the bowl to drown the sins, she said that because of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, we know we are so loved, so unconditionally loved, that nothing can separate us from God- no sin is too great- no separation too wide.
Then she led everyone in a prayer that asked for this forgiveness to wipe everyone's slates clean. During the hymn, "Amazing Grace" everyone was encouraged to go to someone to say, "I'm sorry" or ask for forgiveness or reconnect in some way. Joe leaned over to Louise and said, "I'm sorry, Louise. I'm sorry that Ted died and Sandy and for not being around for my kids. I want things to be better between us." Louise took his hand and tried to speak but words were difficult through her tears. "I'm sorry too, Grandma," said Jenny. "Me too," said Louisa, and even Joe, jr added his sentiments- "Yeah, sorry Grandma."
By the time they walked out into the cold crisp air, they were huddled with one another as their breath made clouds in front of them. "Look," said Louisa, "the chalkdust of our souls is coming out. We're going to be all clean inside." Then Jenny looked up into the night sky. "Look up there- look at those two stars that seem to be joined together. That must be Grampa and Mom looking down on us, telling us that they're with us and that our family is going to be okay." "Did you see that," said Joe, Jr, "the shooting star next to them? Did you see it? It's a sign. They sent us a sign."
None of them knew what the next day or years would bring. They didn't know what life had in store for them, but the future was more open than it had been in a long time. What they did know was that love is stronger than death. What they did know was that there is a miraculous power let loose in the world- the power of forgiveness. When they got home they had hot chocolate with marshmallow fluff and it warmed them inside and out.