As a military wife who moved frequently, I attended many churches. I am also a Pharisee and a people-pleaser, so I gravitated towards women like me—those who recognized and approved good works. Every church has those who give and those who take, and I found satisfaction in being someone who gave more than I took.
A woman at our current church, Winnie, was a taker. She was an older, single mom who balanced on the edge of poverty. Her situation was dire because she was slowly going blind from macular degeneration. She smoked. She was brusque and opinionated. Winnie’s encroaching blindness led to her standing deep inside my comfort zone so she could see my face, thereby billowing cigarette breath directly at me. Winnie seemed to know I was a big faker and was not impressed with me. I tried to avoid her.
One Sunday, I was talking with someone about a half-marathon I’d run the day before. It came up in casual conversation.
Me: What did you do this weekend? That’s nice. I ran a half-marathon. Want to see the medal I just happen to have in my purse?
Winnie overheard and said, “I don’t think it’s fair you got a medal for running halfway. What about those who did the entire thing?”
On the drive home from church, I complained to my seventeen-year-old daughter, Noelle, that Winnie didn’t celebrate that I’d run 13 miles and deserved that medal. She whooped with laughter.
Noelle: Was she smoking a cigarette and coughing in your face while she chastised you for your lack of effort?
Me: Yes, she was.
I really was desperate for approval.
As my good works and people-pleasing piled up, I became exhausted. Then an unexpected pregnancy led to a miscarriage. I was bitterly angry at God because he didn’t value my sacrifice and service. I wanted him to reward me with security and safety. I had an emotional breakdown. I became a taker. Ashamed, I sought counseling and took a serious look at my brokenness.
As I was rebuilding my relationship with a God who loved me, I realized I needed some women who would walk with me through Dan Allender’s book, Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse. So, foolishly or bravely, I put a notice in the church bulletin asking interested women to contact me. Only one did. It was Winnie.
I didn’t want to do it, but she was insistent. So, for thirteen weeks, we read and discussed being victims of sexual abuse. Where I had used acting like a “good girl” to protect myself and interact with the world, Winnie had become a “party girl,” living a wild life to plaster over her hurt. Then, she’d come to know Jesus. After hearing her story, I marveled at her fierce love for him. She reminded me of the party girl who washed Jesus’ feet at a Pharisee’s supper. Her act of love brought the contempt of the Pharisees on her and on Jesus. Jesus defended her and said, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:47)
As Winnie and I talked, I struggled with anger at those who had hurt me, especially my mother. Winnie loved her mother deeply, and my mother-anger bothered her. On one of the last times we met, she tenderly spoke to me of her mother’s love for her. She asked me to consider that my mother, in her failures, was trying to love me, and she asked me to forgive her.
I was sitting in Winnie’s tiny dining room, host to the ghosts of thousands of cigarettes, my knees pulled up to my chest to make myself a fortress. From anyone else, I would have dismissed the call to forgive as Christian-ese—pat words said to distance the hearer from the injuries of the speaker. I’d used them myself. It is painful to sit with the hurting. Coming from Winnie, who had known the depth of the forgiveness of God in ways I hadn’t, and who knew the price of what she was asking, these words compelled me to hear and to consider.
Winnie loved much because she was much loved.
Several years later, at Winnie’s funeral, those who got up to eulogize her first confessed her rough edges—her harsh words of criticism and her gruff demeanor. Then they told how she had mentored them in the Big Sister program, or created all the silk bouquets for their wedding, or how she faithfully attended Bible Study every Thursday, bringing her strong opinions and ideas.
Wild Winnie was remembered and celebrated for her love.