She wrote upside-down on the stationery, and she apologized for the mistake.
But in truth, her upside-down words were the most right-side-up words I had read in a long time.
Her name was Paula. She wrote me the letter more than a decade ago, and it covered two sides of her notecard. I found it while cleaning our filing cabinets the other day.
When I held it in my hands, one long rubber-band of memory snapped me back to the day I got her letter.
Two days before the letter arrived in the mailbox, Paula had visited my home. She and I sat together on the couch, with crushed Cheerios underfoot. I had drawn on lipstick before she came over, but Cover Girl couldn’t cover the dark circles under my eyes. Nor could I hide the postpartum depression that had bulldozed my joy.
I had worn mismatched socks and tried to hide the wardrobe malfunction by pulling my legs under me. I sat on my feet until they tingled and numbed.
Paula was cradling my baby.
My husband and I had been attending Paula’s church regularly, but for me, the liturgy and hymns felt like mouthed abstractions toward an unseen God. I was swimming through a soup of depression and drowning under the hot guilt of my puny faith in God.
For some reason, my doubt felt like failure, like something that needed to be confessed. Like something I should feel terribly sorry for.
So I kept my doubt walled off, and I nodded with the pastor when he preached the gospel, and I closed my eyes when I sung hymns, like maybe I could will myself to believe sometime before the organist hit the final chord.
The wall crumbled the day Paula came by.
She was old enough to be my mother. I didn’t intend to unzip my heart that day. Maybe all of my bone-tiredness had loosened my steely resolve to keep secrets. I can’t say for sure.
I do remember the softness of her eyes. The way she put her hands on my knees, like we were family. How she never swept away the crushed Cheerios with her feet. I remember mostly, how my doubt came up and out, like it was busting out of a prison. Paula was like a parole officer.
And she was like a mother. I kept on talking, and she kept on loving.
A couple days afterward, her handwritten letter arrived in the mailbox at the end of our country lane. I waited until I got back to the kitchen to read it, with my bare feet planted on the wood planks and a baby on my hip.
“Don’t be discouraged by your doubting and empty feelings, Jennifer,” she wrote. “Even after all these years, I feel empty at times.”
A whole decade later, I sat in my office re-reading those words through tears.
I had no idea, until all these years later, how important that letter really was. And she would have had no idea how her small act of obedience—sitting down to write one letter—would make a huge difference on the trajectory of one woman’s faith life.
Before Paula, I had feared condemnation for my doubt. But she held it gently in her hands.
These days, I hear a lot about how the church is failing people. How it’s too stodgy or irrelevant or happy-clappy or judgmental or legalistic or pick-your-favorite-adjective-and-insert-it-here. No doubt, the church has been one or all of those things for many people down through the ages.
But for me on that day? Paula was church, the way church was intended to be, right in my living room, and again in my mailbox. Because she rang a doorbell. Because she picked up a pen.
It didn’t cost her more than the gas to our house, and the stamp on the envelope. And maybe a little time.
Mother Teresa, a giant in the faith, once told us all how the little things count for a lot:
“Not all of us can do great things, she said. “But we can do small things with great love.”
Small is the new big, which is good news for any of us who think that our small acts of obedience don’t amount to a whole lot.
Like Mother Teresa, Paula reminds us of this truth: it really is the little things.
You want to make a difference today? Go ahead, think small.
Send your kid’s teacher a note of thanks. Bake cookies for your church janitor. Listen to the dreams of the woman who lives at the end of the cul de sac. Stop your car at the curb, and help your elderly neighbor pick up sticks. Send the note, and don’t fret if you write it on the card upside-down. Make the call. Pray your prayers. It matters. It really matters.
Look: You don’t have to preach in stadiums or go viral or be a bestseller to radically alter the course of another human being’s life.
I’ve sat in many a conference-hall seat, and have been wildly blessed by dozens of books and blog posts.
But Paula’s small act of love? THAT was the act that opened the door that let the light in. And if I wasn’t writing about it right now, no one would ever know. It was done in secret. Out of love.
That’s the power of small. It was a stepping stone.
After that meeting with Paula all those years ago, I found a way to pluck my bravery out from under my doubt. Later, I became a leader in my church, even in the midst of my persistent questions about the faith. I began to teach Sunday school, to lead our church’s Vacation Bible School program, and to serve as the “church DJ,” spinning tunes from the church’s music library on contemporary-worship Sundays. Later, I led community Bible studies, began a blog about my faith walk, and most recently, wrote a book
to encourage other Christian women who are trying to figure things out.
You won’t find Paula’s name on the spine of any books, but she’s built right into the spine of my faith story.
More than a decade ago, she wrote these words to me–
“Obviously, you are searching and studying and God is preparing you through that for what He has in store for you. Hang on—it could be a roller coaster ride but with God in charge, you’ll love it.”
She added a postscript in the corner:
“Sorry I wrote this upside down.”
So, what’s your Story?
A #TellHisStory is any story that connects your story into the story of God.
You’re invited to tell that story right here, in community with us.
Share your narratives, your poems, your Instagrams tagged with #TellHisStory, … your beautiful hearts. You are the chroniclers, the people who help others make sense of the world with your words and your art.
Story is how we know that, no matter what happens, we can get back up again.
Visit someone (or two) in the link-up to encourage with a comment. Then, Tweet about your posts, and the posts you visit, with the #TellHisStory hashtag. Come back on Friday to visit our Featured #TellHisStory, in the sidebar.
A final note: This is a safe place to tell your stories. You don’t have to be a professional writer to join us. Story is built into every single one of us. Your story matters, because it’s part of God’s story down through history, not because you punctuated everything correctly. Deal?
For more details on the #TellHisStory linkup, click here. Share the love of story by visiting someone else in the community!
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