102: Why Not?

102: Why Not?

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Why Not?

Rejoice always, pray constantly, and in all circumstances give thanks.

~The Desert Fathers

Growing up in a small town in Mississippi, church was a major part of everyday life. Everything revolved around it, even social activities.

Due to illness, my mother couldn’t take me to church much, but my Grandmother Wilmer made sure I was there every Wednesday night and most of the day Sunday. As a child, I was mesmerized by the congregation. During altar prayer, everyone would be thanking God, clapping their hands and working themselves into a frenzy with every word the pastor said.

“Thank you, God for all you have done for us and what you have brought us through!”

Amens and Hallelujahs could be heard all around. The pastor would step out of the pulpit, wiping sweat from his forehead, headed straight for my grandmother who was set to send up her portion of loud praises. As he got closer to her, the spirit seemed to engulf the whole congregation—praises were all through the church.

“Lord, you didn’t have to do it, but you did and for that we thank you! Can I get an Amen, sister?” he said, grabbing my grandma’s hand and shaking it.

“Amen, Amen. Yes Lord!” she shouted, running up and down the aisle until finally falling to the floor. I don’t know if she fell from the Holy Spirit or if she just wore herself out. But I could certainly understand her praises.

For as long as I could remember, she was always considered blessed and highly favored in the Lord by her church members and friends. She was the first African American on her street to move, and bought her house with cash. Well respected in the neighborhood, she was always the leader of neighborhood watches and summer bake sales.

As a young girl, I decided that I, too, wanted to be a church lady like Grandma, shouting and thanking the Lord the way she did. From then on, I became very active in church, trying to emulate my grandmother. But things just didn’t seem to go right for me. God didn’t seem to want to answer any of my prayers. I would sit on the same pew every Sunday, and feel nothing spiritually. What had I done so wrong that the Holy Spirit, which seemed to fill my grandma’s soul, would elude me all together?

I finally gave up. I stopped going to church and moved six hours away.

Things only got worse. My mother had finally succumbed to her illness. And at twenty-six, I was a divorced mother with two toddlers, working a minimum wage job.

I was so angry with God, I got into my own personal shouting match, shaking my fist, asking how could he forget me when I tried so hard all my life to serve him and do right? How could everything I did turn out so wrong?

I exhausted myself shouting, and went to lie down. I tried to remember the happiness I felt as a child going to church, but it seemed far away.

The phone rang.

“Hello?” I said in a whisper, hoping it was not someone I owed money.

“Joyce?” It was Grandma. “Is that you? What’s wrong, baby?”

The tears started. “Life, Grandma. I am a failure. I just can’t do this. Why can’t I keep it together like you?” For the next thirty minutes, I went on and on about how bad things were.

“What in the world can be so wrong that it’s causing you to give up?” she asked.

“Grandma, you wouldn’t understand. You have your own house so you don’t have to worry about rent. Your monthly pension is more than enough so you don’t have to worry about money. Auntie gets her own money. (My grandmother’s oldest daughter was born with Down syndrome.) You worry about nothing. It seems if God threw all the blessings at you and walked away when it came to me.”

She listened, but she was still old school. “You quit your blaspheming, Joyce White. If you quit, not only are you disappointing yourself, you will instill quitting into your children. It’s not written anywhere life is going to be easy. I should know. I had some tough times when I was young, but God saw me through.”

“Tough times when, Grandma?” I asked. “I know for the last forty years you haven’t paid rent to anyone.”

“Do you think I’ve always had this house? You think my life has always been this way?”

“Yes ma’am,” I said truthfully.

“But you don’t know how I got this house.”

“No ma’am. I guess I never thought about it.”

“My nineteen-year-old son was killed in Vietnam. I got this house with the money the Army gave me. I had to lose a child to get a decent home. And before I got this house, I raised four children in a three-room house so run down they put a condemned sign on it. I felt despair just like you, but I had no place to go. You know what we did? We took the sign down and lived there until I could do better.”

I was stunned.

“I have lost three of my four children, your mother included. They were supposed to help me take care of your Auntie. It was easy for me at first, but, at eighty, it gets harder every day.

“As far as my monthly pension, that’s not something that was given to me. I put in forty years at a processing plant, working my fingers to the bone to earn that.”

Now I felt ashamed. I never knew she had been through so much. When my mom died, and my aunt six months later, I guess I was caught up in my own pain. I didn’t realize she had lost her children.

“Grandma, with all that’s happened to you, why are you always so happy in church?” I asked.

“Why not?” she said. “Baby, sometimes, you have to ‘why not’ yourself to happiness. Why not praise God? It’s not doing any good to be mad at him. Why not shout praises? It keeps you from crying. Why not say Hallelujah? It keeps your spirit happy. Even when you don’t feel like it, say, ‘Thank you Jesus.’ Just try it. I will send you a little something to tide you over until you can do better.”

“Thank you so much, Grandma. I needed that.”

“I know you did. Talk to you later.” She hung up without another word.

“Just thank him anyway,” I said, repeating my grandmother’s words aloud. “Even if you don’t feel like it.”

I closed my eyes. “Thank you, Jesus,” I whispered. “Thank you, Lord.” The more I said it, the more I meant it. “Thank you, Lord.” I stood up and walked from room to room. “Thank you, Lord!”

Grandma was right. Tears welled up in my eyes. God hadn’t eluded me. I had eluded him because I was mad at my own failures and losses. All this time, the blessing was in thanking him anyway. Now I understood the people at my childhood church. They were not praising God because things were good. They were praising God until things got better.

The following Sunday, I decided to go to church. I made the six-hour drive to my hometown to attend church with my grandma. When the pastor called for altar prayer, I followed my grandmother to the front of the pulpit, along with others.

“I just want to say, thank you Lord for all you’ve done!” pastor shouted, with a loud response from the members.

I looked around to see some with their eyes closed but mouths full of praise. Others with their hands in the air, and barely audible.

Why not?

“Thank you Lord!” I said as loud as I could.

Then it happened. As I continued my praise, I felt what I had been looking for all this time. The Holy Spirit. Now I knew just how everyone else felt when they found their own personal peace with God, and it was wonderful.

My grandmother looked at me and smiled. She knew I was having a “why not?” moment.

~Joyce Terrell

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