Small Things Done With Great LoveBlog / Produced by The High Calling
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 nearly 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. I also remembered when she visited my home, two days before the note arrived in my mailbox. 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 2013, 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 my 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.
Afterward, I found a way to pluck my bravery out from under my doubt. 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.
Nearly ten years ago, she wrote it: “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.”
Jennifer Dukes Lee is a contributing editor at The High Calling. She is author of Love Idol: Letting Go of Your Need for Approval—and Seeing Yourself through God’s Eyes (Tyndale Momentum, April 2014). Jennifer and her husband live on the Lee family farm in Iowa with their two daughters.