“1,2,3…Okay, Mom—I’m going to count how many people signed my yearbook. Let’s see how many I have.” And she begins again, confident that she has my attention. ”Let’s see, I have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8…and here I have 9, 10, 11, 12,”she says, counting the ones who wrote words and the ones who just signed their names, scanning all the pages, resting her finger on smudges and curls of ink.
When she arrives at the number, she begins reading the names and all their words, and I can’t help but notice that most of the connections feel loose, the words barely threads. But then I remember my own middle school yearbook and its autographs–the benign, chunky, bubbled letters, the meaningless rhymes and phrases we scrawled around the vague edges of relationship. We barely knew ourselves, much less each other.
The wind rushes through the car window, and I smell cut grass, and as we pass the house with the six plastic domes outside, the faint hint of dog. In the dandelions growing beside the road, I see the golden flutter of a butterfly, and on the other side, a horse wanders past a paint-peeled barn. I can smell the hay heaped up beside the wood fence. I count gifts, even as I hear the whisper of something else, the continuation of another unending conversation. To the one, we are the aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? (2 Corinthians 2:16). Tell me, what is the fragrance of your living? The Spirit asks it deep as we drive and I collect smells and she collects words on a page.
“…is sorry she was so mean to Riley this year,” Riley says, and my mom eyes flash to the rearview mirror, and I stop my counting at the whisper of Spirit, stop it cold, with my breath.
“Wait. Read that one again?” I say, listening for a change in her tone, for the hint of a bruise. ”Who wrote that?”
She says the name, without the slightest hint of resentment, or judgement, or wrong recorded, and she reads it again, the part about was so mean to Riley this year.
I can’t let it go.
“How was she mean to you?” I ask, and I’m sure Riley can hear my voice harden, the syllables striking sharp, the zing of steel just beneath.
“Well, she umm, I think she said the ‘s’ word to me. That’s what she did,” Riley says lightly, as easily as if this broken girl had bumped into her by accident or stepped on her toe in the hallway. From Riley’s pure heart, the vilest ‘s’ that remains unsaid, the one she skips over when she reads, is stupid.
And that’s when I see this faceless girl, her blurry expression smug, her dull-edged lips shaping the word stupid and hurling it toward my daughter. How dare she. The thought lurks, a shadow.
“She said that to you?”
“I think so. I think that’s what she said.”
That just stinks.
I can still see her, this girl, still smug, still mean, writing in the third person in my daughter’s yearbook like she’s talking to a baby. “is sorry she was mean to Riley. “ To me, the autograph is a blight, an insult. I feel the mother rage boil, searing my heart calloused. I want to turn the car around and go back to school, march into the office and say something ridiculous, find this clueless little girl and tell her, tell her something. I’m not sure what to say. Riley doesn’t know, doesn’t understand the subtley of the girl’s cruelty, the ugly that hides behind the words. Riley presses her finger into the writing, happy over the presence of the script, the name, still smiling over it.
“Is she still mean to you, Riley?”
“No. She’s not mean. She said the ‘s’ word, but she’s still nice though.”
Do I tell her? I grip the steering wheel, seething. A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense (Proverbs 19:11). The Spirit speaks, and I see it clear, my daughter wise and pure-hearted and glinting with glory. Me and this silly adolescent girl, we’re the ones together now muddy and smelling of rot. We’re the ones bathing in the slop. Just that quickly, I have taken all my blessing and frivilously tossed it aside. I have become the Prodigal, reaching down in the pit and rubbing the grime all over my arms and my face, right under my own nose, until all I can smell of living is the sickness of it. And so, I begin to smell of it too, the filth and decay of this place.
I can’t let it go.
And so the seed of it dies, lodging in my heart. And I descend into shadow, and from the decay the bitter root of it sprouts long, thin, dank and weedy.
And later, as the day dies too, I bury my hands in the hot, soapy water in the sink and Zoe collects her plate from the table, and Kevin grinds coffee for another day. I hardly savor the rich smell of the crushed beans, still tasting the disdain in my throat. I barely hear the whisper of Spirit, testifying that the full fragrance of life abundant wafts from broken lives forgiven, redeemed new. Lives like mine–broken, sinful, resurrected. And this is the perfume of worship, the smell of living sacrifice, the incense reserved for Glory. It is the scent of His hands, transferred to the sticky clay of us.
I open my mouth, and out spills the ugly, the judgement, the condemnation wielded by the dead and dying. I’m telling Kevin about the autograph, about what I knew it meant to convey, and Zoe stands by the table breathing in the bitter poison of it. And the Spirit whispers, Love mercy. Love mercy and walk humbly (Micah 6:8). You have not been condemned (Romans 8:1).
And all at once, just as Zoe picks up the scent, just as she follows after me, I realize that I have become the debtor forgiven much who cannot forgive even a little. Shouldn’t you have mercy just as I had on you (Matthew 18:33)? I hear the zing of steel, the sharpness of dividing Word. What is the fragrance of your living? The Spirit asks, sharply this time, ushering me into a house where a sinful woman poured perfume all over the Savior’s feet, shattering her treasures to anoint Him, washing His feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of her perfume (John 12:3). And I am Simon and He says to me, standing in the room with the scent of her sacrifice spreading over me, over everything, “Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more (Luke 7: 42)?”
I whisper with Simon, standing there with my hands in the water, speaking the truth born across time. “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”
You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little (Luke 7: 46.47). So tell me, what is the fragrance of your living?
It finally sinks deep, stinging me, just as Zoe continues my spewing from the table, just as she says something critical about a friend at school, something another mistaken person said, something that stinks of condemnation. Condemnation, the foul, clinging scent of death, the stench that sours the sweetness of mercy, that covers over the perfume of grace. ”I just wish she would—”
“—I’m not very good at this,” I say suddenly, rising, interrupting her descent. Zoe’s head jerks toward me. She looks at me, wide-eyed, her words still hanging in the space. ”But we have been forgiven so much. We’re forgetting to love mercy, Zoe. We’re forgetting to live the grace we’ve been given. I’ve been given so much grace.” And here I am now, wandering home on a lonely road, offering myself as a servant, and the Father runs to me, opening His arms wide. ”I’ve said so many things I shouldn’t have in my lifetime. And my attitude about all this stuff, it hasn’t been right.” I don’t mean to say more, but it’s all Spirit now, the cleansing fire burning away the dross. ”Honey, we need to be so careful. Do you know that God wanted to spit in Miriam’s face for the things she said against Moses (Numbers 12:14)? Your sister, she loves this girl anyway. She doesn’t hold anything against her. She offers this mistaken person her friendship, her unmerited favor, and that’s grace. Just exactly that. Mercy is the forgiveness of every debt, and grace is the love we don’t deserve. Your sister’s living, it smells good, Zoe. It smells so good to God—like sweet perfume filling this place, like all our treasures, even our pride, shattered and poured out at His feet.”
I want my living to smell that sweet.