The day was one that I could only describe as “auditory torture”. The noise level of four young children plus a barking, anxious dog combined to make a recipe for nervous system overload. After dinner, I headed to Panera for a beautiful mug of hot chocolate filled with whipped cream, chocolate marshmallows, and caramel sauce to accompany my notebook and books and the need I had to simply be alone.

When I sat down, I was near a group of five women and my heart swelled because  seeing that happening in my local Panera brought me joy and encouragement. They were discussing a Christian book for women that I hadn’t heard of before, and I have to confess that eavesdropping on their conversation was too tempting to resist.

The one who seemed to be leading this group was the over-talker with all the “right Christian answers” and there was the jokester who was bringing levity to the group and don’t forget the one who was seeking to be vulnerable and telling all of them how badly she was blowing it at spending time in the Word. Across from them was a woman in the corner who alternately seemed confused and cynical and beside her was the shy introvert with a soft voice with a beautiful baby girl under the peach and aqua nursing cover. These beautiful women could be any of us and seemed to be an accurate cross-section of the women’s groups that I have been a part of many, many times.

As a bystander to this group, I was able to look from the outside in and see their loveliness. Each had such a need to connect and had shown up with something to say and the laughter over mothering stories were the same ones we have all chuckled over many times. Their hearts to grow in their relationship with Christ were evident but what really struck me was the shame and how they beat themselves up and that was the part that grieved me.

They spoke of “rules for talking in haste” and that they must get more self-discipline and GET IN THE WORD. There was the guilt of too much Facebook and smart phones and too much yelling at children and one says that she is “all or nothing” and just needs to get rid of it all. Most of the conversation was about how to be quiet more and not speak. I sat there sipping on that decadent hot chocolate wondering, “Why don’t we celebrate our goodness? How loved we are? The good things we are doing in our lives?” What draws us to all the Christian books that continue to beat us up and call us to work harder, be quieter, and confess more? Why do we oddly feel better after being sufficiently spiritually beat-up after punching ourselves with the fists of failure and shame for all of our marriage, mothering and service shortcomings?

There was something in me that wanted to walk over there and tell each one of those precious women, “You are doing so much better than you think. You are so LOVED and so dear to God! You are ACCEPTABLE because of Christ not whether you cracked open the Bible this morning or not. You are FORGIVEN and there is no need to redouble your efforts tomorrow to try to make up for the sins of today. And do me a favor? Please don’t be quiet. Please don’t lose your voice and think that godliness is mute and measured. We need your words and your story…the unedited and the messy not the perfectly scripted and sweet.

That evening in Panera was God showing me glimpses again of the messages He wants to offer women. Messages of freedom and grace and radical, unconditional love. Messages of peace for the anxious, acceptance for the spiritually striving, and warmth for the ones who believe He is so cold. I got teary sitting there in that space leaning into the conversation and sensing the very Heart of God for them. He’s so much better than we realize, so much more tender than we can ever dream, so much more delighted in us than we can hardly seem to bear.