I shared the grocery aisles with a mother and her four small daughters and it was not going well. The two littlest ones were wiggly on the cart-bench, grabbing and opening food packages from the carriage. The five-year old periodically wandered away, attracted by brightly colored boxes and tasty snacks. The nine-year old did the best she could to help corral her sisters, but it was clear her mother was very, very tired and having a really hard time that day. It was hard to know what to do. A sympathetic look from me might look like judgment to her so instead I quietly prayed in her direction, but as the shopping trip went on, it got worse. The Mom threatened and then acquiesced. She denied snacks, and then gave them to quell the screaming. She was inconsistent with her directions and it was making it far worse. Finally, it got to yelling and even swearing from her along with whining and crying from the girls, and the end result was chaos. Actually, the end result was a store manager following the family out; apparently one of the little ones had taken candy at the register without paying and a fellow customer ratted her out. It was awful.
A day later, the nine-year old haunts me. While it all unfolded in the checkout line, she paid for the groceries and cheerfully chatted with the employee at the register, apparently oblivious to the scene the family was making, the damage that was being done. My best guess based on my observation of this one moment in time is that she routinely takes on more responsibility than most kids of her age and whatever happens day-to-day is just her normal state of being. In my mind’s eye, she fixes, modulates, and keeps on going. One day, she may understand that everything that happened in her childhood wasn’t perfect or usual, but she doesn’t know that yet.
I think it’s fair to say that every family has some level of dysfunction. The one I came from did and the one I lead does, too. Every family has terrible grocery store moments, and most every parent has to drag a kid out of a store, a church, or the doctor’s office at least once, often covered in sweat or other bodily fluids. I’ve yelled in public, and I’ve sworn under my breath. I’ve given a kid a handful of cheerios to stop a tantrum in a weak moment. And as they get older, the problems and the fixes are more complicated to be sure, with no answer key to consult. We do the best we can, but there’s not a mother among us who hasn’t inflicted some damage, knowingly or not.
And the scary part is that the things I thought I did best while raising my children might very well be what ultimately caused them harm. And the things over which I wrung my hands might well be long forgotten. We don’t know when a wayward or even well-meaning word or an action from us will dig in and grow hurtful roots in the lives and psyches of our children. They can’t really tell us how we’re doing, and we don’t get to measure our work until long after our kids are grown, and so we’ll never get the complete picture of what we did well and how we fell short.
The result is that everyone who’s ever been raised by imperfect parents (and that’s everyone) and lives in a broken world (also everyone) is at least a little bit damaged; by their parents, yes, but even more so by people, circumstances and actions we could never guess at over decades of time. We hope the good makes up for the bad in the end, but when you look around, you’ll see a world full of damaged people walking around today who need mercy, peace, forgiveness, and rest. In a world that seems out of control, we desperately need grace-bearers, one broken heart to another.
Tonight, the girl’s face stays with me. My heartfelt prayer for that family is that they would encounter grace. Maybe you offered it to them later that day. Maybe you were a conduit for hope or peace to break in. Maybe you smiled at one of the kids today at school or offered the Mom some practical help she really needed. Maybe you are the answer to my prayer or the prayer of someone else willing peace into a damaged world. I hope so. There are no easy solutions and no quick fixes, but we’re all in it together, after all, and who knows what’s possible when brothers and sisters will work together to bear grace and healing into what’s broken.