About Gretchen O'Donnell

Gretchen O’Donnell is a freelance writer and columnist for The Globe. In her column she discusses everything from her lifelong secret desire to be a DJ to the humiliations of skiing in Switzerland. Occasionally she talks about parenting and ornithology and the pressure of having an Irish last name on St. Patrick's Day. She and her husband and three children live across the street from Iowa, where she writes, cooks, drinks the occasional cup of coffee, and reads. From time to time she even dusts.

Unexpected Blessings

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On a chilly morning early one spring, seconds after I waved good-bye to my husband and kids on their way to work and school, I received a text from my son.

“Pls get pics of moon! Dad says good camera not phone.”

“Oh, that’s right,” I thought, glancing out the window, “There’s an eclipse. And a blood moon to boot, whatever that means.”

Before I had time to remember what, exactly, that did mean, I received another text.

“Hurry! Setting.”

“Okay, okay,” I muttered – and texted – my reply. So while the moon proceeded on its downward course, I shoved on my shoes, decided I didn’t need a coat as it didn’t seem too cold, grabbed the good camera (decided to bring my phone along too), opened the door – ran back upstairs for the tripod – and then, slamming the door behind me, trotted over to the west side of the yard.

For several seconds I struggled to attach the camera to the tripod, but it was dark and I couldn’t get it. I finally gave up as the moon wasn’t stopping to wait for me, hopped for a steady hand, and began shooting pictures.

They turned out okay. Mostly it was neat just seeing the tail end of the eclipse in person without a viewfinder in the way.

Finally, feeling a little chilly and in need of some coffee, I picked up my gear and headed back to the front door. I turned the doorknob.

And discovered that the door was locked.

In the nine years of living in this house, this had never happened before. Optimistically, I tried all the doors – knowing full-well that they were locked too. Finally I sat down on the kitty house – the only dry spot on the deck owing to a light rain in the night – and sent a text to my husband.

After that I looked around the deck and felt the chill of the morning begin to sink in. I gazed longingly through the sliding glass door at the news, blaring away to an empty and warm house so close…and yet unreachable.

Seeing that only made me feel colder.

I checked my phone weather app. It was 39 degrees. I shivered and gazed around in growing despair. I had a moment right then. I could sit there and find things to complain about…or I could enjoy myself.

For a few moments I couldn’t decide which direction to choose – the way of self-pity or the way of hope. I looked around for the cats, feeling like their warmth might help me decide.

“Why do they always turn up underfoot when you don’t need them and when you do want a warm cat on your lap they’re nowhere to be seen?” I think I actually said this out loud.

Finally, I decided that cats or no cats, misery was dumb.

Then Colin texted that he’d be there as soon as he could. Okay. Awesome. I can do this.

I stood up and began walking around, snapping photos of frost on the grass and listening to the early-morning sounds. Cows in the field. Twittering birds. A Pheasant. Then a whole flock of ducks flew overhead, the sound of the wind through their wings filling the air.

I looked around my yard, across the street to the fields of corn, up at the blue, blue, sky. And I began to pray.

“Thanks that it’s not windy, God. That would have made this time pretty unbearable. As it is, it’s not so bad. Thanks that I grabbed my phone on my way out the door. Thanks for technology that can bring Colin back to rescue me without my having to walk a quarter mile to my neighbors in my pajamas. Thanks that Colin is not out of town like he was supposed to be this week. Thanks for the sounds, and scents, and beauty of this morning.”

I heard a car approach, heard it slow down. The garage door opened. One of the cats appeared.

I was saved.

But, really, I had been blessed already.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Why I go to church

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I grew up going to church at least three times a week. Sunday morning. Sunday evening. Wednesday night. In between those expected church times there was Good News Club, or rehearsals for the girls singing group I was in, or Christmas program practice, church work days, Vacation Bible School…you name it, I was there.

And I was okay with that.

I knew the building inside and out. I knew where the janitor kept the garbage bags, knew where the extra visitor cards were stored, knew how many choir robes there were hanging in the downstairs storage closet. I even spent happy hours up in the steeple (a fully sanctioned visit) vacuuming up dead flies.

I must admit that I even knew the exact length of time it took for a six year old to wiggle on her tummy beneath the pews down the length of the sanctuary – long enough for Daddy to be able to come down from the choir loft during practice and haul that six year old off the floor and plunk her down on the front pew with dire warnings not to budge until choir practice was finished.

I didn’t mind going to church because it was a place of safety. Of acceptance. I knew everyone and everyone knew me. They encouraged, acknowledged, and probably even reprimanded me. I felt secure there. Loved.

And yes, the stuff about God was fine, too. It was all part and parcel of the warm atmosphere of the building and the people.

I suppose that’s why it was such a shock to me when a friend asked me one day as we were playing if I intended to go to church when I grew up. I was probably about ten years old.

“What?” I asked, puzzled by her inquiry.

“Will you still go to church when you grow up and aren’t forced to go there by your parents?” she repeated, looking down at me through the rail of the loft in my bedroom where we were playing.

I looked up at her, uncomfortable with her question yet old enough to understand that she did not understand why it was that I went to church, why it was that my parents “forced” me to go with them.

I didn’t answer her question right away. I remember pausing to consider my words, thinking even as I did so that this was a great opportunity to explain to my friend why church was more than a building, why God was more than a concept, a cosmic being out there keeping His thumb on the world.

But I wasn’t very old, and I didn’t have the words.

I simply said, “Yeah. I’ll still go to church.”

“Why?” she asked from the loft, looking down on me in more than one way.

“Because of Jesus and stuff,” I replied, shrugging my shoulders.

“Huh,” she said. “I wouldn’t if I were you.”

I remember that moment with mixed emotions. I felt like I’d failed God in some huge way, missing out on an opportunity to “witness”, whatever exactly that was. But I also recall feeling sad for my friend. Sad that she didn’t understand the good stuff about church, the nice people, and the truth of Jesus’ love.

I do go to church now that I’ve grown up. I’m not there every time the doors are open – and I sometimes skip meetings that I ought to attend – but I go because I still really like the people I find there. That and I still I love Jesus.

Some people say that religion is a crutch. I prefer to think of it as a hand to hold through the mountains and valleys of life. What’s the difference? Maybe there isn’t one. But it doesn’t matter. I go to church not because it’s a habit or anyone is forcing me or I’m trying to make someone happy or it’s the social thing to do.

I go because I believe.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8,9, NIV.

Hands

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Not too long ago it was my turn to help serve communion at my church. This always makes me nervous. I worry that my hands will shake and I’ll drop the plate. I worry that I’ll somehow be a distraction. I worry that I’m not worthy. Which of course I’m not but Jesus loves me anyway.

Usually we pass the plate from row to row, the servers facilitating the process as we progress up the aisles. But on this particular week our pastor shook things up a little and had the congregation come forward to receive the elements.

I stood, along with three others, at the front of the sanctuary, holding a shiny tray filled with tiny communion cups. I kept my eyes focused on the tray, silently watching as each person’s hands moved toward their chosen cup, seeing their fingers rise above my focus then move past me to the bread.

Seeing the variety of God’s people in their hands.

There were small hands, unlined, unsure, untaught. The owners of these hands hesitated before choosing their cup. Perhaps this one is better? These were hands that wear Band-Aids like badges of honor. That boast ink stains that don’t easily wash off because they used indelible ink even though Mom told them not to.

Where will those hands go, over time? How will they find ways to serve the Lord? Will they always make the right choice? So many possibilities.

There were middle-aged hands, more worn and rough than the previous ones, which reached confidently for their cups before moving on. They had found their place in the world. Found ways to prove their worth through the years, serving God, serving their families, serving communion themselves, in their turn. Sure, they have made wrong choices, but yet here they are, taking communion amongst their peers, knowing that God’s grace covers over a multitude of sins.

There were old hands. Thin of finger and skin, lined and freckled with age. These were knowledgeable hands, slowed by the wisdom that sudden decisions can lead to regrets. They were strong hands, once. Skilled hands. Hands that have seen their skills betray them through tremors and frailty and age. Cool, dry, hands that take yours in greeting each week and give you confidence to carry on.

And there were farmer’s hands. Calloused, they were, and bent. Marked by deep lines and sun. Gnarled. Thick. Strong enough to endure the rigors of life. Scarred and marred by the hazards of their trade.
Not unlike Jesus’ hands, I’d imagine. Scarred. Marked by his trade as a carpenter. Marked by Roman brutality. Yet gentled by the grace of His father.

I wonder, if I held the communion tray and His hands reached for the cup, would I recognize His scars? Would my heart leap as His hands came into view? Would I know, without looking up, who it was that stood before me?

Or would I watch His hands pass by as the others did? Just one more hand in the line. One more face in the crowd. Not drawing attention to Himself. Not wanting to distract. Only wanting to serve.

Yeah, this church thing…it works for me. No, we’re not perfect. Yes, we have quirks and do weird things. Sure, there are Sunday mornings when I’d rather stay in bed, have brunch, drink my coffee out on the deck to the sound of birds chirping and my neighbor mowing his lawn.

But when it all comes down to it, all that weirdness is done for Jesus. All those raised arms and ageless hymns and tiny plastic communion cups. For Jesus. All the committee meetings and baby dedications and Vacation Bible Schools. For Jesus. All the rote recitations and misunderstood motivations. Jesus. He’s why I do what I do.

This is where my story is leading me.

“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:28