For the last seven years, we’ve spent our Sunday mornings in the “crying room,” a soundproof room in the back of our church where parents and their toddlers attend mass without ruining it for everyone else. We can hear what the priest says, but he thankfully can’t hear us. As parents we all do our best to manage our kids, but more often than not, the hour-long service is drowned out by the whining, screaming, running, snacking, and fighting that is simply unavoidable in a room full of little kids.
I used to resent spending my Sunday mornings confined to a small room filled with crying. It seemed to amplify what I was dealing with all week long at home, and I left feeling depleted rather than refreshed. At one point I spoke to the church’s front office about the fact that there wasn’t a separate nursery where we could drop off our kids.
The receptionist tried to console me, telling me that even if I couldn’t engage in what was happening during the mass, I was still receiving God’s grace.
To be honest, her response only frustrated me further. What does she even mean by that? I thought grace was a word Christians used when they had nothing specific to say. It sounds nice, but I assumed that, like the word “whom,” nobody really knew how to use it correctly.
A couple of years later we were sitting in that crying room on Palm Sunday, a week before Easter. The kids were armed with their palm leaves, using them as swords, and already starting to bicker. I was gearing up for a long hour.
Suddenly I felt a pain in my right side. Within a few minutes it became so intense it took my breath away. I was doubled over in my seat and motioned to my husband that we needed to leave.
A few hours later, we were sitting in the emergency room post-CT scan, and the pain had completely subsided. I was perched on the edge of the hospital bed, ready to be discharged.
But when the doctor appeared he used the word “cancer.” He announced that I had a nine-centimeter mass on my right kidney, and a spot on my lungs. The mass looked malignant, and he wasn’t sure whether the spot was benign or a metastasis.
Here is the thing: I was completely asymptomatic. There was absolutely no sign of cancer other than those few hours of pain. In the weeks that followed, while we saw doctors and conducted blood work, went for CT-scans and MRIs and bone scans, and made plans to have my kidney removed, no other symptoms emerged. No pain, no irregular lab results, no external signs of the stage 2 renal cell carcinoma I had been diagnosed with.
So what is grace exactly? It’s a gift from God that we have done nothing to deserve. Sitting in that crying room I received God’s grace in the form of a pain intense enough to land me in the ER, but brief enough to cause no unnecessary suffering. God gave me the gift of a CT-scan that illuminated a malignant tumor before it metastasized. I had done nothing to deserve this gift; in fact, I had spent years of Sunday mornings irritated and resentful, convinced that grace was a “made-up” idea.
God continued to bestow His grace upon us in the weeks to come. He gave me a sense of peace that sustained me through the journey, He lined up all the best doctors and blessed them with wisdom and skill, and He created an opening in my surgeon’s schedule so we could quickly get the show on the road!
All along, my friends and family acted as God’s hands and feet, providing us with countless gifts we did not deserve. Friend after friend after friend showed up on our doorstep with food, gifts, support, and prayers. I was fed and cared for and uplifted. People brought whatever they could think of: groceries to last us months, takeout that could feed a family of 20, dinners more elaborate than anything I had ever cooked myself, gift cards, new shoes, pajamas, shirts, jewelry, flowers, essential oils… the list goes on. The mother of one of my friends mailed me weekly packages stuffed to the brim with presents. My newly pregnant friend Claire arranged for me to find out the gender of her baby before she did, to cheer me up and distract me from my fears. And my friend Megan dropped everything and acted as my personal secretary for weeks, fielding questions and relaying information to everyone who was concerned about me.
And through God’s grace I received complete and total healing. The surgeon removed the tumor successfully, the spot on my lung was declared innocuous, and the pathology report showed that I had a rare form of renal cell carcinoma that was unlikely to return.
It’s been exactly two years since my surgery, since the morning that my husband sat in the waiting room and received the news: “it hasn’t spread and we got it all.” To mark the anniversary, I’ve spent the last week looking through my box of mementos from that time, filled with printed copies of text messages, photos of bouquets, and stacks of get-well cards.
I need this reminder, because it is easy for me, even now, to deny the truth that everything I have, every breath I take, is a gift from God. Richard Rohr recognizes that “God’s freely given grace is a humiliation to the ego because free gifts say nothing about being strong, superior, or moral.” My ego likes to believe that I deserved my healing, that I earned my good outcome. But of course that’s not true.
And I need only to look at what my friends and family did for me, how freely they gave what they could, beyond what they could, to be reminded that true love is not based on merit; it is a gift of grace. Is this what it means to be gracious? To be merciful, to be compassionate, to be kind? Is this what it means to welcome friends into your home with goodwill and hospitality; to allow a mother with a fussy baby to cut to the front of the grocery line; to stay calm when someone cuts you off on the freeway? If we extend grace to others, we give out of love without expecting anything in return. And why? Because we strive to love one another as God has loved us.
In recent months my family has upgraded from the crying room and now sits in the pews with the rest of the church. I’m still pretty distracted during the service, fielding whispered questions from my kids about whether they’ve earned a donut, making sure the baby doesn’t empty the contents of my wallet as she digs through my purse, and keeping the boys separated. Will they ever learn to keep their hands to themselves? But my husband and I always glance into the crying room as we walk past, that sacred space where God saved my life. And while I fail miserably at cultivating gratitude on a daily basis, and take almost everything for granted in my life, I’m happy to have that one small reminder re-awaken me on Sunday mornings to the wonders of God’s grace.