When my children were little, we used to read aloud nightly. One Saturday night almost a decade ago, I pulled one of my favorites from the bookshelf that seemed to be screaming, “Pick me! Pick me!” We hadn’t read it in a while, so I eagerly grabbed You are Special by Max Lucado.
My kids also loved this book, but they knew I couldn’t get through it without crying – no matter how hard I tried. You are Special is a story of small wooden people called Wemmicks, who go around sticking gold stars and grey dots on each other to show their approval or their disdain for their fellow Wemmicks. The main character, Punchinello, receives a lot of disapproving grey dots and starts to believe there is nothing good in him. One day, Punchinello’s friend tells him to go visit Eli, the woodcarver who created him. Through frequent visits with Eli, Punchinello understand how special he is no matter what the other Wemmicks say about him or how many grey dots they stick on him. Once Punchinello knows what his creator thinks of him, the grey dots stop sticking to his wooden body altogether.
I’d read this book to my children many times…. Same story. Same tears. There is just something about setting captives free from lies and bondage that is exciting no matter how many times you read it or hear about it. So, on that Saturday night a decade ago, I closed the book, dried my eyes, we said our prayers and went to bed.
The next day, I was volunteering at our church’s membership class. My job was to listen to testimonies and ask a simple question of the new church member candidates: “If you were to die today, what is the likelihood you would go to heaven?” The new member candidates would give a 1 to 10 answer, 1 being not likely to go to heaven and 10 being they would for sure go to heaven. If they gave an answer other than 10, I would talk to them about salvation being a free gift, not contingent on their works – they didn’t have to be “good enough,” because Jesus is enough (John 3:16; Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8-9).
On this particular Sunday, I was matched with a woman I’ll call Lucy. Lucy was younger than me but had three kids exactly my kids’ ages. She was a single mom and life had been hard for her and her children. One could hastily judge that her “bad decisions” had catapulted her to her current situation, but her testimony shed light on the real culprits.
She told me about her mother choosing drugs over her when she was very young. Her father was abusive to her and the different women he brought into their home. At about 11 years old, she went to live with a foster family – a pastor, his wife and two daughters. What seemed like an escape became a new form of captivity. The pastor’s wife would often pick out perceived flaws in Lucy, like telling her she had the ugliest hands she’d ever seen (her hands were totally normal, by the way).
My heart broke with each detail of her childhood. However, she seemed excited about her new life in Christ and a new church family that was surrounding her and her children and meeting their basic needs. At the end of her testimony, I asked how sure (between 1 and 10) she was that she would go to heaven if she died that day. She pondered, seemed to do a few calculations, and then answered sheepishly, “Maybe about a 6 or 7.”
I was taken aback. She had all the right answers, but still could not grasp that she was loved and accepted by God through His Son, Jesus. I said, “Lucy, God loves you and there is nothing more you need to do. He LOVES you, and your sins are forgiven.”
I was taken aback again as she replied, “I like hearing you say that. And I know at some level it’s true, but I just can’t understand HOW to be loved. I’ve never been loved. My mom rejected me, my dad abused me, and I was a trophy for the pastor and his family to look good in front of their congregation.”
Lucy went on to say that the first “church people” she knew were the foster family she had lived with, and she did not have a great impression of so-called “Christians.” They were kind to her in public for their benefit and then cruel when no one was looking. They appeared saintly but were cold-hearted.
With all the audacity afforded one who knows Jesus, I added to her story, “And Jesus hated all of it.” Her eyes got big and stayed fixed on me. I told her, “Jesus even talks about exactly what you experienced.” She was hanging on my every word.
I continued, “Jesus was disgusted with religious leaders who were hypocrites. He told them, ‘You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…. First clean the inside of the cup and dish and then the outside will also be clean.’ He added, ‘On the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness’” (Matthew 23:25-26 and 28).
Her eyes got even bigger as she exclaimed, “He said THAT?!” I could almost watch the chains falling off of her… and a lifetime of grey dots. She was being set free right before my very eyes. She knew she had already been spoken over… and spoken for.
This would have been a great story if it ended there, but God wrote more….
Later that night and the next morning I couldn’t stop thinking about Lucy. Then I felt a nudge to give her a copy of You are Special. The nudge became so strong that it seemed disobedient to not follow through. I thought it was kind of odd to feel so driven to give Lucy a book, but I decided to at least make the effort.
I didn’t know Lucy’s last name and had no idea how to get in touch with her. I remembered her mentioning a woman named Tracy who worked at the church who was especially helpful to her. I called our church and asked to speak to Tracy.
Tracy answered and I asked if she happened to know Lucy. She seemed a little confused, stammered a bit and said, “That’s funny, I was just about to call you to see if you could help her with something.” It turned out Lucy had a very painful health issue that my husband could help her with. Lucy never even mentioned how much physical pain she was carrying when we met the day before.
The next day, Lucy was at my husband’s office getting the help she needed. While she was there, I placed in her hands – the same hands that were ridiculed by her foster family – the You Are Special book and a card with Jesus’s words from Matthew 23. She had tears streaming down her face. I wanted to remind her that no matter who her parents or guardians had been, she was HIS child – His was the only opinion that mattered.
Again, this encounter happened nearly a decade ago. I don’t talk about it much, but I think about it often when I need a stone of remembrance. I think about it when I need to be reminded of God’s goodness and faithfulness; reminded that sharing red-lettered words can blot out harshness spoken over a lifetime; or reminded that He cares about every detail of our lives. This story reminds me that He wants to redeem and revoke every trauma this fallen world has dealt His children. And I want to remember the honor and privilege it is to be a part of Kingdom work on this earth.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners… to set the oppressed free… (Luke 4:18).
Yes, Lord, thank You for setting us free. Let us proclaim Your Good News to others who are still living as prisoners to what other people think of them. You created us, You number the hairs on our heads and You love us. Lord, give us more opportunities to set the captives free; there is just nothing as fun as being a part of Your redemption plan. May we hide Your words in our hearts and speak them at the appointed time. Maranatha! Amen.