The Sustenance Of Grace

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By Angela Shupe | Twitter: @labellaverita

B-Angela

When the words left her lips, I sat stunned. The air in the room was sucked out in a moment’s edict, from a woman of whom I expected grace.

I was one of six, sitting around the table, searching out deeper truths of the New Testament on a windy day in April. Including the teacher, there were four men and two women, one older and one younger—me.

It happened during the break. We were asked us to introduce ourselves. The simple words of small talk common to new groups were spoken. Circling around the table, I was the last to speak. Like the others, I began with my church history, years of attendance, years married, finishing with my son who was six, and my daughter not quite a year old who was born with Down syndrome. 

I’d barely gotten the words out when they were met with the declaration, “You are going to have a miserable, difficult life.” 

Air gave way to these words shot across the table. Definitive words, as if spoken by one with the authority to peer into the future and foretell what lay ahead. If the first steps of stumbling along the path of parenting a child with special needs weren’t unsure enough, this woman summed it up for me with certainty. In her opinion, there was simply no hope. And in that moment, all I could do was sit and stare at this woman, life etched into the creases of her face now pursed in anger. I had no words to offer in response, other than that my daughter was a joy in my life.

When the class finished, I left quietly. I chided myself for assuming encouragement would be offered across the table, like the handing off of a plate of good things. I desired sustenance for the soul, but was given a plate of rotten food. 

I’d made the assumption that grace would be offered. It was an expectation I had of one further down the road. My expectation was formed long before the class, before ever having met this woman, but grew as she’d introduced herself. She was the first in our group to speak. As the mother of an adult daughter with special needs, she told us, “She’s now in college, living at home with me. I help her with her school work.” Nothing negative was spoken, just simple, matter-of-fact words. As she introduced herself, I felt that we held something in common. We both knew what it meant to mother a child with special needs, or at least, I was in the process of learning. I left that day determined to resolve her words with what I knew to be true. My daughter was a joy in my life—no question. 

Driving home, I replayed her words, turning them over and over in my head. It certainly wasn’t the first time someone had spoken hurtful words to me, albeit perhaps the most surprising. Words like these, I knew, if left untended would whisper and echo in the recesses of my mind, bent on defining me. I had a choice to make: let them go and offer forgiveness or hold on and allow myself to be defined. Experience had taught me that words spoken in haste and ignorance were best left at the foot of the cross. 

In all likelihood, I knew I might not even see this woman again in a church our size. Yet forgiveness isn’t just for the forgiven, it’s a lifeline for the forgiver. Misery is built on the weighty stones of unforgiveness. So, I made the choice to let her words go, in an effort to offer grace to us both. Yet, I could still feel their sting days later. As time past, I relaxed in the joy I found in my daughter. It was a spacious joy that filled me. And one day I realized the sting of those toxic words was gone. 

Two years later, I waited in the church lobby to hear my assignment for an event later in the day. The leader approached and asked me to follow her. We walked into another room where my partner for the day was perched high on a chair. It was the woman from the survey class. I’d not seen her since the day of the class and wasn’t sure she remembered me. 

Our leader walked away and we were left crouching around a table too small to seat anyone else. We began with small talk, again. 

“Does your family attend?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I answered, briefly mentioning my husband, eight year-old son and my two and a half year-old daughter. 

She began telling me about her family and her adult daughter with special needs who’d recently graduated from college. “She’s working full-time now,” she said, beaming with maternal pride at her daughter’s achievement. 

“I helped her throughout her schooling. It was a rough go sometimes … A few years ago, it was really difficult.”

She paused a moment to reflect.

“I’m just so proud of her,” she said, breaking the silence. Her demeanor was light. I could see it in her eyes; there was no anger, just peace.

“That’s wonderful,” I said. “You should be proud of her.” 

She smiled. Looking at her in that moment, I saw before me a mother who had long fought hard-won battles on behalf of her child. She began telling me more about her daughter. From her words, it was obvious she loved her daughter and that it had been a long and difficult road, one she still walked. 

She didn’t remember me, but it didn’t matter. I was glad I’d chosen to let those words go years before. I knew even more, at that moment, that words spoken in haste, out of hurt, did not define her as a mother. Nor, did they define me. 

As I listened to her talk, my heart filled with grace towards her. Perhaps, the past two years of mothering had given me wisdom enough to know that grace was essential. And that by offering grace across the table, I could more easily offer myself grace as I stumbled through motherhood.

I began to tell her about my daughter. “She has special needs, too,” I said. “She was born with Down syndrome.” 

“Really?” A smile crept across her face. “Do you have any pictures?” she asked. 

I pulled out two photos to show her my little girl. “I’ll bet you have a lot of fun with her,” she said.

There were no windows in the chapel letting in the April sunshine. But her smile brightened the room.

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About Angela:

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I live in the Midwest with my husband and two kids. After recently moving out of the woods and into town, I’m adjusting to the busy pace of small town life. When not juggling schedules, I bake blueberry crumble, love spending time at Lake Michigan, and write about life and faith at Bella Verita. Everyday I am awed by the never-ending abundant grace of God.

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Image credit: Ross Griff

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