I can’t remember where I heard about the practice of choosing a word for the year, but I’ve done it every year since 2011.
Until 2020, that is. Rereading my journals this weekend, I noted the last time I’d chosen a word for the year was January 7, 2019, when I chose Selah, which means pause. I never did settle on a word for 2020. Maybe because there would be no word for the year we’ve had.
For those who are new to the idea of choosing a word, it is basically a meditative practice. By asking God to reveal the perfect word for the year, we then spend 365 days pondering its meaning in our life, a form of Lectio Divina that we can employ as we study, listen, ponder and pray while also delving into God’s Word.
I take this process seriously, as I have seen the difference in my life since I began the practice. Over the next few days I will be taking time to pray, ponder, and prayerfully discern what word God wants me to concentrate on in 2021.
As part of that process, I re-read Debbie Macomber’s One Perfect Word, taking copious notes.
This wasn’t my first exposure to the book. In fact, I can tell you the exact date I first read it, because I blogged about it on March 8, 2012:
“Yesterday my daughter Elizabeth called her house shortly before noon to inform me that the surgeon had, indeed, found cancer in Jacob’s lung. No bigger than a lima bean, the cancerous growth meant that, just six months after his treatment, Jacob’s Wilms’ tumor had returned. He will now be facing additional treatment that likely involves a stem cell transplant and stronger chemotherapy drugs.
Time stopped as I stood there holding the phone, long after Elizabeth had hung up. I was startled out of my reverie by a slight movement from the couch. I looked down at the little boy staring up at me; my three-year-old grandson, Jo-Jo, bleary-eyed from having abruptly woken from a nap by the ringing phone. As if in slow motion, I sat down beside him, pulled him close and sobbed quietly into his back. He struggled a little against my tight embrace, and I loosened my grip, kissing the top of his head. “I love you,” I whispered hoarsely, and a little voice whispered back “I love you, too.” Then he pulled back to look at my face, and I forced a gentle smile, lightening my tone, “So, how about those corn dogs Grandma promised? Should we go get them?” He nodded his head, jumped from my lap, and ran to get his shoes.
I remember not wanting to face David, knowing how close he and Jacob were. I wanted to give him just a few more minutes of not knowing, to protect him from the news for just a little longer. Instead of heading home, I drove to my sister’s consignment store.
There was a parking space right in front, and I couldn’t see any shoppers through the window. Jo-Jo was quiet as I pulled him from the back seat. Stepping inside the doorway of the store, I saw the two smiling faces of my sisters Denise and Pat as they looked up from their lunch. “Mary!” one of them called out in welcome.
“It’s back. The cancer is back.” I blurted out, and they left their chairs to come hug me. Joseph, clinging to me like a little monkey, was hugged inside their embrace. Joseph, I thought to myself as I buckled him in again. Nearing four years of age, and facing weeks without his mother as she stays in the hospital with his older brother, he’d suddenly become Joseph. It would forever be the first time he’d told me he loved me. It would also be the last time I called him Jo-Jo.
The library was our next stop. Joe still clung to me, uncharacteristically quiet. The stairway down to the children’s room seemed longer than usual, and I prayed my sister had returned from her lunch. Angie, who had become Angela and my best friend after our mother’s death, came around the corner from her office area. She knew as soon as she saw my face. We hugged, and again I began sobbing; poor Jacob. Poor Elizabeth. Poor Ben. Poor little Joe, who silently observed the adults around him crumple one by one.
Bolstered by the collective strength of my sisters, I was ready to face David. But he must have already known.
My husband stood on the porch. Joe ran ahead of me into the house. David held his arms out to me, and we clung to each other for a few moments.
I don’t remember either one of us saying anything. What could we say? David’s agony was palpable as we embraced, mirroring my own. Having gone through cancer treatment himself, David and Jacob were comrades, sharing a special bond. David retreated to the back yard and began raking. I retreated to the house to watch the children. The sharp pain David began experiencing in his shoulder that night never did abate, and would eventually move to his chest. We would later learn the shoulder pain was likely the first in a series of small heart attacks, not muscle aches we attributed to the yardwork. But we didn’t know that yet.
I just went through the motions the rest of the day, unable to stop thinking of Jacob, Elizabeth and Ben. Katie, at 12, seemed to intuitively know what I needed; she made Joe’s corn dogs and pizza rolls for the girls. Emily kept hugging me. Even Matt, 18, hugged me several times. The girls played as usual, Joe joining them. Several times throughout that afternoon, I picked up a pen and pad of paper to write, but to no avail. Words wouldn’t come. Instead, I picked up a book that had been recommended to me by a friend that very morning. I began reading Debbie Macomber’s “One Perfect Word.” The book pulled me in, despite, or maybe because of, the anguish I was experiencing. In it, Macomber discusses how concentrating on one single word each year has become a tool for God to work in her life. In 1999, her word was BELIEVE. She shared how belief can become a lifeline when grief or tragedy strikes. I read those passages several times. Macomber uses C. S. Lewis as an example. While grieving the death of his wife, Lewis wrote about belief in the face of fear in his book, “A Grief Observed”:
‘You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it…Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief.‘
I had to ponder this for awhile. If I believe, truly believe, that God has a purpose and a plan for everything, then this trial has to be for a reason. My marriage has never been as good as it has been since David’s cancer, my faith never as strong as it has been since my mother’s death. But to know a child, an innocent child, is facing something that knocks grown men to their knees! What purpose could there be in that? I continued reading, searching for answers.
I found an answer I needed in the story of Annie Beiler, founder of Aunt Annie’s Hand-Rolled Soft Pretzels. Annie had tragically lost her nineteen-month-old daughter in a farming accident.
Anne coped with the loss of her beloved daughter as best she could, but inside, something cold had begun to grow. Depression set in, and with it, a crisis of faith. In an article she wrote, ‘Had it not been for God’s grace and mercy, and the wonderful godly husband who loved me as Christ loves him, I never would have climbed out of depression. I believe Angela was sent to me and my family for many reasons, but a key purpose was for me to become the kind of person that Christ wants me to be.‘
Even before Elizabeth and Ben returned from Iowa City, e-mails were arriving in my inbox: family and friends asking what they could do.
I think of that rope that C.S. Lewis mentions, the one that Elizabeth and Ben must hang onto in the coming days. I think of the friends, the loved ones and even the strangers who care about this little boy and his family. I think of the little boy himself, who wakes from surgery, pulls out the IV lines, and even amidst his pain, asks when he can buy his sister a toy from the gift shop. This little boy who trusts with a childlike faith, whose life is the epitome of the goodness we all search for. I look to my family for assurance that they will be there, and they protectively circle around me, embracing me. I turn to friends, and their answering prayers are lifted to the heavens. In the darkness of these days, I reach out and feel the rope. It feels thick and strong. I tug tentatively. Why, Lord? Why this little boy? Why?
I step out in faith, and the rope holds.
When I wrote those words in March 2012, I had no idea how much I’d need that rope twenty days later, when I would discover my husband had died sometime during the night, three days after coming home from the hospital following heart stent surgery, or again, in August 2013, when we lost Jacob.
Now, just days before the end of a year that has been tough on everyone, I am reminded of how One Perfect Word was the one perfect book for me to have on my end table that fateful March day when we’d discovered Jacob’s cancer had returned. How it helped tremendously to know parents who had lost a child survived, and eventually thrived. To read words from C. S. Lewis that I would turn to repeatedly in the coming months, that I still turn to when facing tough situations. It was no coincidence that Debbie Macomber’s book was sitting there, waiting for me. It was exactly what I needed.
It is no stretch of the imagination then, to believe that a God who cares enough about me to guide me to the perfect words back in March 2012 can lead me to the perfect WORD for 2021.