Safe With Me

We had little in common, other than the fact that we were in the same gym class, and shared the same name.

She spelled her name Kristen, as did the other handful of Kristens in our elementary school. Mine is Kristin, a slight difference, and a moot point when our gym teacher called out first names for attendance.

Kristen came from a family of athletes. We were third-graders when she won the chin-up contest for the entire elementary school. It seemed unnatural to watch this small girl pulling up on that bar effortlessly, beating out every boy. We all stood, mouths open as she kept going. While most of us were eating Cheerios each morning before school, Kristen’s parents were leading their kids in calisthenics routines. Pushups, sit-ups, dips, and chin-ups. They were a highly competitive bunch. I had actually played little league under Kristen’s mom, and it was not pretty. Forget having fun. We were little soldiers going to battle. And if the umpire made a remotely questionable call against our team, her temper flared.

One Saturday, we had to drop off something to Kristen’s family. Their house was at the end of a long, deeply wooded driveway. As our mothers were talking, Kristen invited me up to her room.

As we were standing there, her three-year-old brother wandered in. I gasped. An angry red gash spanned his face, from the corner of one eye, across his cheek and lips, then trailing down his neck.

He was attacked by a flying squirrel, said Kristen.

He nodded his small head in agreement, and lifted up his t-shirt, revealing yet another wound.

As it happened, this flying squirrel had nested in their attic. The little guy’s room was beneath, and somehow the creature had chewed its way through the ceiling before sailing downward and attacking him as he slept. Not only had he been scratched and bitten, but he was painfully treated for rabies, a precautionary measure, since the flying squirrel was potentially rabid.

The worst part of this situation was that flying squirrels are a protected species, and to have this creature hunted down and destroyed would take mounds of paperwork and lots of time.

As our mothers continued talking, we wandered into their kitchen. I watched Kristen’s father at the table, building a turkey on rye. With an eyebrow raised, he recounted the frustrating rules of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

I asked: Are you going to catch that flying squirrel?

Well, it is a protected creature, he said, scooping up his injured little boy and hugging him tight.

I thought about that sentence as we drove home. He had not answered my question. But I had seen the way he held his child, and I could feel the protection pulsing in that kitchen. It felt a lot like love.

Kristen ran over to me the next week during gym class.

Don’t tell, but my Dad killed that flying squirrel, she whispered, as we stretched in the gym.

I nodded. Of course he had. That was his son.

***

Friday night lights. Those were some of our family’s favorite years. Our oldest son was a tight end with a wicked stiff- arm yet soft hands; our second born son the consummate quarterback. My husband helped coach, and our third son was the ball boy. It was a fun time of life.

From the moment our boys could run, they played backyard football. There is something about that familiarity and chemistry that translated, quite seamlessly, to the high school football field. Words were not necessary, our tight end knew exactly what his quarterback brother was planning, and their timing was golden. To see those two in tandem, scoring touchdowns, was thrilling. They never owned all of the high-end gear or expensive cleats, but had something far better: a brotherly bond that was as natural as breathing. What everyone witnessed on that field was formed by years of play.

And then the time arrived for our oldest to go to college. Those Friday nights under the lights were still wonderful, just different. Our quarterback son’s arm was as accurate as ever, but the chemistry with receivers took more effort and patience. They weren’t brothers, after all.

One Saturday morning, during this time, I leashed up our two Golden Retrievers, and headed out for a walk. Our youngest three joined me. We discussed the football game from the previous night. Having fun conversation, I chose to lengthen the walk by going one street farther than usual.

Our discussion was suddenly interrupted by a deep, chesty growl. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw a massive Pit Bull, watching us; stone still. Thankfully he was chained, and his owner was hollering for him to shush. She gave us an apologetic wave as we quickened our steps, anxious to put space between us.

We turned off that street, rounded the corner, and headed for home. That is when I heard a snap and a clink.

The ground thudded, and as I looked back I froze. The Pit Bull was charging us.

I have read stories of people freezing in the face of danger. I never really understood how that was even possible. Until then. My legs were weak yet fastened to the ground. I held tightly to the leashes, and life unfolded in slow motion. The dog was now at my feet, snapping its fangs, biting our terrified dogs.

A true quarterback is wired to function at a high level on the field; especially under pressure. Reading the field and assessing the rushing danger is paramount. He must protect the ball at all cost.

As the beast began to attack, my quarterback son’s foot thudded against its wide chest. His arm swept his younger brother and sister behind him, to safety. He took the dog leashes from my hand as he continued to pummel the aggressor with his foot. He was calm; focused. The Pit Bull, bloodthirsty for our dogs, did not even seem to notice the beating.

My son then jerked our dogs away from the Pit’s jaws, handed their leashes back to me, pushed the menacing creature’s head to the ground, and straddled its back in a forced position of submission.

Looking directly at me, he spoke clearly as the monstrous dog beneath him kept trying to lunge.

Mom, stay calm and walk away. Slowly. If he tries to chase you, know that I won’t let him.

So I did.

Moments later, the dog’s owner came flying, a spiked choke chain in hand. She flung it over her dog’s head, and it ultimately took three people to drag the frothing beast back to its yard.

***

After we were safely home, and I had taken some deep breaths, I realized.

We were safe. My son’s actions had not been simply those of a quarterback. This wasn’t that. It was so much more. His swiftness to protect held an intense likeness to the heart of God; rescuing and leading his own to safety.

It felt like love to me.

Native Tongue

My grandmother was born in the very same Midwest home in which she died. She married young, and her wedding photos show a beautiful bride with smooth skin, 1930’s waved hair, and a clefted chin, lifted slightly in what I imagine was defiance. My grandfather stands next to her, a handful of years older than she, hair neatly slicked and wedding band shining. Even in that sepia photograph it is easy to see that his eyes were a dreamy kind of blue.

A cursory glance and I recognize traits that have been passed down: the fullness of her lips, a chiseled chin, his expressive eyes and strong hands: some are reflected in my own mirror, and others I glimpse in my children.

When my grandmother married, she brought her new husband into her childhood home that was fully furnished, complete with her German mother. It was a good thing my grandfather was sweet-spirited and compliant; he most certainly had his hands full. He was soon called off to war and was eventually awarded a purple heart for bravery. He refused to speak of his time in combat, flying that double-winger. An intrinsically gentle soul, attacking enemy planes must have seared.

It’s a funny thing, remembering. People are often petrified of telling their stories slant. I say there is no other way. We should tell our stories exactly the way we remember them, which by no means makes them foolproof. But slant is honest as we share events that have unfolded. We are biased in our story-telling simply because we are human. Only God is omniscient.

So I remember these grandparents of mine, who passed away many years ago. They chose not to travel much, and visited our home only once in my entire childhood. We drove a thousand miles to see them many a summer. Without air-conditioning, that stifling summertime heat caused my legs to stick to the scorching vinyl seats.

Once we arrived, relatives congregated and I observed. My grandfather sat in his lawn chair, smiling and watching everyone visit. His face was kind and his words were few. He watched the entire clan collectively while drinking his black coffee. His four sons and their families spread wide throughout the yard, grandchildren playing tag and adults balancing drinks and paper plates laden with burgers, German sausage, and potato salad. When anyone spoke to him he seemed to hear without listening. It was as though his entire progeny were one in the same.

My grandmother pushed herself up from the lawn chair positioned next to my grandfather, and spent most of the afternoon bent over, pulling small weeds out of her flowerbeds. Hard work was master: she labored in a factory for decades, and by her own choice. When she wasn’t there, she was planting and picking and watering her lovely perennials. I watched her face as well as my grandfather’s, secretly longing for a connection to these grandparents of mine. I performed a quick cartwheel in the lawn in front of them. When they didn’t notice, I joined in the game of tag with my brother and cousins.

One day during a visit with our grandparents, my parents walked my brother and me down the tree-lined street to meet more relatives. It was a few houses away, and I remember jumping over every crack in the sidewalk. My father knocked and rang the doorbell, and we waited. He knocked again, and a tall, older man answered. The adults greeted each other, and we were invited inside.

Kristin, this in your great-great Uncle Otto. A small woman appeared from the kitchen, smiling broadly and drying her hands on a worn apron. And this is your great-great Aunt Emmy.

I said hello, and Emmy bent down, looking directly into my eyes and smiling. She smelled of ivory soap. Would you like to see our home? I spotted large hearing aids in both of her ears. I nodded and gladly followed; her kindness met a tender spot inside.

She served us sweet bread and punch, and as we sat in their living room, I decided that I liked Uncle Otto every bit as much as his wife. He looked like Atticus in the film To Kill a Mockingbird, only older. Speaking in a measured manner, he thoughtfully asked questions that proved he was listening. I noticed that he, too, wore hearing aids.

It was a happy afternoon.

Not too many months after this day, Uncle Otto and Aunt Emmy heard another knock on their door. A salesman had a great pitch for them. Always polite, they listened patiently even though they were not interested in anything he was selling.

Their hearing had continued to decline, despite hearing aids. So while the salesman rambled on at the front door, they did not catch the sound of an accomplice picking the lock of their back door. In less than ten minutes flat they were silently robbed of all valuables, including heirloom jewelry and money that had been hidden throughout the house.

***

A year or so ago, I was driving home one afternoon with our son, when I noticed a bearded man hunched over a burgeoning shopping cart along a main roadway. He was attempting to push his worldly possessions up a small incline, while avoiding oncoming traffic. All of his things were strung together in tattered plastic bags. I asked my son to stop, as I wanted to offer him a few dollar bills that were in my wallet. My son braked, and I rolled down my window. Sir? Excuse me? Sir?

His back was facing me, and he did not turn. I raised my voice and tried again. He did not so much as turn around.

I shook my head. Forget it. Let’s go home, I said, slightly irritated.

So we did.

Yet I found myself thinking about him: He must have family, somewhere? And then, Why would a homeless person ignore help?

***

This morning, I read Proverbs 31:20: She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hand to the needy. I thought of Aunt Emmy, seeing me and holding out her hand, inviting me into their home. I was needy, just in a different sort of way: a longing to be seen, known, welcomed. She did all of those things beautifully, and in short order. Her native tongue was kindness.

God’s timing is quite perfect. I passed that homeless man again today, and instead of whizzing by, I remembered my Bible reading, and the five-dollar bill in my wallet. How good it would be for him to have a hot drink on a drizzly day.

So I pulled over, flashing the hazards, doors locked, and waved. To my surprise he smiled underneath the filthy hat and scraggly gray beard. I rolled down my window. This is for a cup of coffee, I said.

He took the bill, then gave me a gentle fist-bump with his gloved hand. Pointing first to his ears and then to his mouth, he shook his head. Placing both hands together in a posture of prayer he smiled wide and pointed at me.

He is deaf and mute.

I returned his smile as I accelerated, windshield wipers beating. A man, delighted with a five-dollar bill. And to think I had once so poorly assumed that he had ignored my help.

Once upon a time, it had been great-great Aunt Emmy, hard of hearing, who had heard me best of all. And now a homeless man, without a voice, had sung gratitude; a perfect melody, clear and sweet.

Small and Holy

I was walking our neighborhood the other day, enjoying the pull of fall: hints of red and gold filling the treetops; a slant of sunshine through those same trees, skies clear and blue with the promise of autumn. The days are growing shorter, and my soul feels such relief at the promise of this seasonal change. It is a steady reminder to me that our Creator does all things well, even when we feel whiplashed. This is the season when my bones and soul are alive; I am keenly aware as I walk that God’s beauty reflects his goodness and his plan. As I walked, I recalled other autumns of my life.

***

One fall, many years ago, I was a little girl growing up in an expansive New England farmhouse that had been neatly divided into four apartments. The great outdoors was my playground: raspberry bushes, a massive garden, forts in the front woods, a pond for row boating and ice skating, a crab apple tree holding our swings, a sandbox under said apple tree, and a large field behind the farmhouse. My brother and I were continually outside, and it was good.

One day, when the field was harvest bleached, but not yet baled, I frolicked in the midst of it with my red-headed friend. My hair blended in the golden field, but hers glimmered auburn in the fall sunshine. We were playing house, as little girls do; patting down the field to form a well-designed living space: a kitchen here; living room there. Our imaginations soared on that beautiful day. We had no idea what danger lurked. Blissfully unaware.

My younger brother had endured a terrible scare in that field the previous summer. Wandering in the middle of that tall grass, a distant neighbor’s aggressive German Shepherd had broken loose, and loped to our yard: searching, stalking, hungry. He began to circle the field, ears pointed, teeth barred. As the circle grew smaller, my little brother was trapped and cried for help. My mother, upstairs, heard the commotion and ran outdoors, trying to scare the creature away.

Our landlord, a gruff yet soft-hearted man, came running with his rifle when he heard my brother’s cries. With a shot fired into the air, the German Shepherd, steadily closing in on my brother, changed course and fled. We were all trembling. The rifle had saved my brother.

Now as my friend and I fashioned our imaginary home in that field, we did not realize that our landlord had been doing battle with raccoons and woodchucks, which had been devouring his ample garden each night. He and his wife spent most of their days in that lush spot; it was their work; their love, and it was stunning. Corn, squash, pumpkins, carrots, peas, beans and potatoes filled that expansive spot of soil, and mason jars of glory stocked their neat basement shelves. Come winter, they ate of their labor.

Our landlord, working in his breezeway between the garage and main house, had glanced in the field and his eye had caught a reddish-blond blur in the center of it. I’ve got you now, he said, reaching for his rifle. Moving quickly, yet stealthily, he crept into the backyard, raised his arm, eye squinted.

My little brother had been twirling on the tire swing. He watched Mr. Golden aim, and flew to his elbow. That is my sister, he said simply, tugging at his sleeve.

And just like that, my life was spared. The same rifle that saved my brother’s life nearly snuffed out mine.

***

Some time before or after this, I was snuggled up in the blue guest bedroom of my grandparent’s home, spending the night. They lived in the suburbs, on busy Washington Street. From the narrow bed, I counted the bright headlights from passing motorists pull across the ceiling. Accustomed to quiet country living, where the nights were inky and crickets chirped, this place stirred my mind, keeping me awake long after my normal bedtime.

I was talking to God, asking him to come into my heart and make it his home. I knew that I needed a Savior, that I was hopelessly sinful. I repeated my request over and over, as if the God of the universe was hard of hearing. I was alone and my words were sincere and unscripted.

What I did not comprehend yet was the beauty of the Holy Spirit working that night. That without him, I would never have been talking to God in the first place. The Comforter was with me, quietly and gently leading.

I know not the date, nor the time, nor even the year this evening happened, but does it matter? God knows. Many times along life’s path I have felt strongly pressured to fabricate something, anything! But God is never rushed, and is always working in his own time. It would make for a good story to pen how being misunderstood for a woodchuck led me to bow before my Savior, but these events remain somewhat tangled, as events for children typically are. All I know is that they both happened, and God is at work, always.

One Sunday in my early adulthood, my husband was traveling, and I sat in church under a pastor who steadily pounded the pulpit, insisting that we have a dramatic before and after story of our walk with God, that should include a specific date, or at least a known year of acceptance. If you cannot produce an account, then are you really following Christ?

To be fair, at that moment I had four little children, a husband away on business, and was sleep-deprived. Feeling tired and weepy, I remember my eyes brimming, as I desperately tried to come up with my before and after. I was stuck; all I could envision was the blue guest bedroom, small and holy. I knew that I was often stumbling forward; but forward still. I also was painfully aware of several longish times that I had quenched the Holy Spirit, resisting his promptings. That was followed by repentance, a turning back to God. He never let me go.

And that is what counts. The beauty of autumn is the death of the leaves. Their dying results in majestic colors, showcasing a season of completion. Our seasons of life with God matter. It is not only a beginning date, but our following, stumbling, and returning to God that matters.

This autumn our oldest son will be married. As the leaves show off their glory, I will be thanking God for this lifetime he has granted me. If I had died that day in the field, I would not be dancing with my sons on their wedding days, nor watching our own daughter walk to her groom in years to come. If I had died that day in the field, I would also have been spared much pain that along with the joys has painfully unfolded.

But God uses it all, and holds our before and our after. His followers are those beautiful leaves, created by him: green then gold, then scarlet, falling gently so that new life will return, come spring.

Never Switzerland

I double checked the room number and slipped into the front row. The professor nodded her head and began writing on the chalkboard. Others drifted in, some looking sleepy, others with damp hair and morning eyes. It was my very first college class.

She was tall and slender, tastefully dressed in a gray business suit and heels. I studied her furrowed brow as her manicured nails held the chalk firmly, porcelain skin contrasting with both dark hair and lipstick. She glanced at the clock, and at precisely 8:00am began speaking.

She was strict; punctuality was definitely the politeness of princes in her rulebook. We were allowed one pass for tardiness and after that momentary grace we would receive grade-dropping consequences. To prove her point, she called out a few stragglers who were minutes late. They had received their only pass, and on Day One.

I am glad to meet each of you. Please remember this is not high school anymore. You are big people, and you chose to take this morning class. I will be treating you like the adults that you are.

Her heels clicked as she moved up and down the aisles, handing out a stapled packet, carefully addressing each line item on the syllabus. I was stunned to learn that she would not remind us of assignment due-dates. We had been informed, and it was our job to keep track of papers and word counts and turn them in accordingly.

I paid attention, suddenly feeling the true weight of academic adulthood. I was utterly overwhelmed as I hoisted my backpack over my shoulder at the end of class.

Later that evening, while studying at the library, I pulled out my day planner and penciled in every assignment from each of my professors. English assignments filled many pages. How would I slog through all of this homework?

Yet as the weeks unfolded, I found myself enjoying that 8am class. Other students would nod off, but this Professor, although stern, held my attention. Incredibly bright, she seldom smiled, systematically teaching with great care and detail. I found myself analyzing her directives on thesis writing, story telling, and character development. I was an English writing major, and this was a far weightier cup than high school composition. A cup that I most definitely wanted to drink.

She lectured upon the use of flat versus round characters in literary works. Flat characters are served up on a platter for a distinct one-dimensional role: this one stands for evil, that one represents jealousy. Flat characters are never fully formed she said, they only serve a singular purpose in a narrative.

Round characters have both flaws and virtues: he might commit murder, but he also might truly love his mother and was actually protecting her when he pulled that trigger on an abuser; she might be jealous for the entirety of the book, but the author also formed her by showing her tender love and devotion for her children. Round characters develop and pull the reader in because they are credible.

Our professor faithfully prodded us along while simultaneously corralling us in with structured writing boundaries; awakening us to the wonders of good literature.

Chew up the meat and spit out the bones. Easy, happy stories are not the best. Take a strong position and write, people. Work the mind that God has given you. Think circumspectly; critically. Words lead people to places, and you cannot remain neutral and be effective. You are not Switzerland.

I mused upon these ideas; losing myself in thought. Every red mark on my returned papers was an opportunity to grow and sharpen my skills. To say I respected her comments is an understatement. Her suggestions were spot on.

One day, as heavy snow fell, my friend and I came into class, warming our freezing hands and laughing. We noticed that our professor was actually smiling. She greeted us by name; the usual sense of formality gone. Her cheeks were slightly pink.

Are you ready for your finals, girls? She tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear, and something flashed. A magnificent diamond.

Your ring! my friend said. Are you engaged?

She nodded. I realized how we knew nothing of this glowing woman, other than her professorship. She looked softened; happy.

By the time I was a pupil under her again, three years had elapsed and I was a senior, with an engagement ring of my own. She was now married with a baby boy, and I smiled to see those same manicured hands gripping the chalk as I stepped into class. She smiled, remaining elusive, yet excited to be teaching this difficult English class with students who wanted to take notes and internalize her lectures. She was no longer so slim; motherhood had rounded her in all of the right ways, and although her personality was intact, she had somehow grown more comfortable with herself.

Still impeccably dressed, there were days she blew into the classroom just on time, heels clicking. The babysitter was sick, she offered, although no one minded. Her lectures were our feast.

At the end of my senior year, she hosted a grand party for the English Honors society, serving up the best German chocolate brownies. We had no idea that she delighted in baking, and when I asked her if she could share the recipe, she remembered and handed it to me before the next class. I have it still.

We also met her husband, thus observing another dimension to our serious professor. He was as casual and comfortable and light-hearted as she was formal. He held her hand and gently kissed her cheek, cheerfully collecting and tossing the paper plates into a trash bag as we were leaving. It was lovely.

***

Years later, when I had little boys beside me and a baby on my hip, I, too, baked those German brownies, pretending the wooden spoon was our microphone. I held the recipe card and smiled, remembering.

I finally had words for what I had seen: my favorite professor had become a rounded character during those years. Such personality: bright, determined, and thoughtful, with strong opinions, yet softened by a devoted husband and darling baby. Becoming precisely who God created her to be; and never Switzerland.

Burning Bright

One deep New England winter, while I was enjoying kindergarten, my friend, Erika, came to school smiling wide and waving her tin lunchbox at me.

I am having a movie birthday party, and you are invited!

Being the 1970’s, this was BIG news. There were no VCR’s or DVD players then, and we had exactly three black and white television stations. Somehow Erika’s parents had managed to obtain the brand new Star Wars movie to play via movie projector.

The party was still a few weeks away, and every day while practicing our letters, tying our shoes, or playing on the playground, Erika shared more details.

I shivered with excitement. Everyone knew that she lived in an expansive house, flush with a furnished basement that held walls of shelves, floor to ceiling, filled with toys of all kinds. Her mother was a woodworker, so some of those toys included wooden jigsaw puzzles that their family had created. Another bonus was that Erika’s mother had ordered an enormous Star Wars birthday cake plus prize bags for each guest. I did not know much about Star Wars, but that was okay. It was a thrill to be wanted, to be invited, to plan.

I shared my good news with my parents, who told me this was nice, but Kristin you have not received an invitation, and it would be impolite to call and ask Erika’s mom, in the event that I had not been on the guest list.

So every day leading up to the party, I bundled up in my snowsuit and mittens to cross the street and peek into the mail box. Empty. I was disappointed, but confidant that the letter would come. Erika was my friend.

The BIG day arrived, freezing cold with snow piled deep, but the roads were clear. I checked the mailbox again, and I asked one more time, but the answer remained no. I had not been invited.

In the early evening our phone rang. Erika’s mom spoke, wondering why I had not come to the party? We sent her an invitation weeks ago.

The next Saturday, I dressed up for the birthday party. Erika welcomed me inside, and her mother explained that everything was exactly as it was the first time, except that I was the only special guest this time around. We watched Star Wars, lying in the soft gold shag carpet, elbows propping our faces. Her mom had ordered another huge cake, and there were party favors and chips and root beer. My cheeks ached from smiling.

***

One of our sons was in a car accident this week. The other driver, who had poor vision, became further blinded by the sun, and hit our son’s car. His vehicle was totaled.

When I received the phone call, my heart thudded, and I waited.

Don’t worry. He is fine. He’s not hurt.

I felt limp; the adrenaline pumping. Moments like these are a tidal wave; rushing in with a roar and decimating the petty things that entangle.

So many people are driving the highway of life with faulty vision. We all get a bit lost every now and again and need help. Yet some people continually cause proverbial car accidents; unwilling to assess the pain they are inflicting. Unwilling to change. After a spell, it becomes easy to see those patterns, endlessly repeating.

***

It has been over forty years, and I remember the warmth of Erika’s mom. Her vision was clear and wide and different. She busied herself thinking of others, and it sparkled, burning bright for my young heart to see. I was a grateful recipient. It reminded me, even at that young age, of the heart of God: kind, tender, and tenacious in the pursuit of his children.

Weeks after the party was over, the sun heated the snow, gently melting it away. Under our mailbox, soggy but intact, was the invitation. My heart was full.

Heroes

I was eleven years old when I drafted him a simple letter for a school assignment. Write a letter to your hero, said my teacher.

A few months slipped by, and long after I had stopped sprinting to peek inside our mailbox, President Ronald Reagan responded with a letter of his own.

I have saved that letter from The White House, along with a signed photograph of him riding horseback. Most remarkable to me is that he signed the note simply: Ronald Reagan. No titles, no fanfare.

He was a splendid president, honest and trustworthy, but mainly humble. He preferred macaroni-and-cheese to filet mignon, and popped jelly beans with delight. Simple, steady, and comfortable with himself, he was by all accounts the same man at home on his ranch as he was in The White House or with leaders of the free world.

Dutch, a childhood nickname he preferred, had a strength and steady direction in his presidency that was coupled with kindness and understanding. The mix was certainly powerful; people that were supposed to hate him had difficulty doing so as his honest and measured words were laced with humility. Plus that magnificent smile always reaching to his eyes. He had a unique ability to honor the gravity of the presidency and any given situation appropriately, while remaining optimistic.

I grew up studying this President Reagan; admiring his dignity, love for people and animals, and the strength and courage to do what was good. He said: “I’ve prayed a lot throughout my life. Abraham Lincoln once said that he could never have fulfilled his duties as president for even fifteen minutes without God’s help. I feel the same way.” (p. 317 When Character was King by Peggy Noonan.)

He was also remarkable in his vast amount of handwritten letters to people all over the world. Ronald Reagan was actually considered the most prolific writer of all presidents since Thomas Jefferson. The Great Communicator was he.

By the end of his time in office, however, he began to gently slip, and was soon diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

A friend once told me a heartbreaking story that I have held close. During his illness, and after his presidency, President Reagan was invited to the White House for a dinner. During that evening, a supporter approached him with a gift, placing a small replica of the White House into his open hands.

This is for you, Mr. President. Thank you for serving our country well. I admire you so much and wanted you to know.

As it goes, Reagan held the tiny likeness in his hands, and after an appropriate thank-you, continued to stare at the gift.

I know I am holding something that is supposed to be important to me. It seems like something I should remember, he said, confused.

***

Last week I was driving a busy road, thinking about what needed to be done, and pronto. The radio was humming, but I was focused on my to-do’s.

Driving along, I noticed a middle-aged woman walking briskly along the road and waving. Her lovely coffee-colored skin was set off with a bright smile. She looked directly at each passing car and waved. I waved back and surprised myself by honking the horn to which she clapped, her smile broadening. The whole moment lasted a few seconds, and I found myself cheered.

Since that time, I have passed her twice, as up and down the road she travels, waving to every person with delight and abandon.

***

We might forget the kind words we speak to another, or the hand-written notes we stamp and send. But small kindnesses, done only to lift others, will change the course of someone’s day. You just never know.

President Reagan lost all of his memory, but I remember. His written words watered a small seed in my eleven-year-old soul. I write to remember.

That woman, smiling big and waving, changed my day. Because of her, I slowed down and remembered how important kindness is. Sour grapes are a bitter and unattractive poison. Our world does not need more of that, thank you very much.

Kindness always wins.

“Live simply, love generously, care deeply, speak kindly, leave the rest to God.” ~Ronald Reagan

Steady Now

In fourth grade, our school nurse bustled into our classroom one spring morning during reading group, clipboard in hand. Nodding to our teacher, she cleared her throat.

Today I am here to weigh each one of you, and check for lice.

We groaned inwardly, as this was humiliating all around. The boys wanted to weigh the most, proving their strength. The girls, not so much. The only bright spot was that we received a free pocket comb.

My friend Jenna and I discovered we were the same height and weight which was perfect for recess, and explained why we had such a grand time on the seesaw. With other playmates, I either plunked to the ground, or remained high in the air. But Jenna and I had a perfect balance. We pushed with gusto flying upward and coming down with ease. It was fun and carefree.

One of our classmates was a show-off and a bully. He would occasionally fling girls off of the seesaw, clumsily taking their place. When he pushed Jenna off one day, I was left dangling in the air. My former feeling of weightlessness and stability disappeared. I was stuck and there was little I could do. The on-duty teacher was nowhere to be found, and the boy laughed.

Maybe I will keep you stuck up there. Or I might let you go.

He gloried in wielding his power. Either option was scary: I would be stuck in the air at an awkward angle, or I would end up with a bruised tailbone.

Jenna and I opted to retire our happy-go-lucky seesaw days. Our perfect balance just wasn’t worth it. It grew tiresome to be looking over our shoulders for the big bully; our fun was over. We joined some other friends on the swings and balance bars.

****

The sovereignty of God is beautiful. It is also hard. God does not leave us on a perfectly balanced seesaw for our earthly lives. Oftentimes I feel stuck in the air, floundering with no good options in sight.

Why is the sovereignty of God beautiful? Because it brings perfect order out of this tangled mess of life. I rest in knowing that every single facet of life is ruled by God. Nothing happens outside of his permission. And since I am his daughter, I trust him.

When our children were small, I remember a cluster of kidnappings within our state. With four little beauties of our own, I sat them down for an important talk.

It is very important to remember that when your Daddy or I call your name, no matter where you are, come to us right away.

They nodded, eyes round.

Whether we are outside, or at church, or in the store, or even at home. You stop what you are doing and obey. It might not make sense to you, but we know best. We love you.

So we practiced the drill on repeat, and discussed not accepting candy or toys from strangers.

We, as Christians, are God’s children. Satan has come to destroy. He lures us with beautifully wrapped, shiny candy and pretty little charms that are nothing more than a steel trap. Our obedience to God must be a swift yes. The stunning beauty lies in the fact that no believer in Christ can ever be snatched away from God. We are his forever (John 10:28).

Why do I say the sovereignty of God is hard?

Because of intense suffering. Allowed by God; sifted through his mighty hands. It is often crushing to acknowledge that this cup might not pass (Matthew 26:39).

My only true comfort in times of pain, is the truth that God designed and fashioned each and every moment of my life. He is supremely in charge, and uses the good things, and the achingly ugly things to form me into his image.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

It is simple to spout this during the happy times: when the sun is shining and the friends are smiling, and your family is cheerful. But when betrayal and gossip and sickness and dysfunction rule the day, this is a tough medicine to swallow over and over again.

We have a sign in our home that quotes Charles Spurgeon:

Remember this, had any other condition been better for you than the one in which you are, divine love would have put you there.

Amen.

***

Back to those seesaws. Some days we fly up and down…all balanced and airy; other moments are sad and even horrific. Stability does not come from finding a perfectly balanced seesaw, but from clinging to the One who holds us. All of his promises are true.

Abraham Kuyper said it best: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

Steady now.

God sees it all, and he permits. If you are his, he keeps you. He will never abandon nor turn away (Deuteronomy 31:6). God is holding the entire playground and is working, working on your behalf.

Loose Change

My grandfather was a salesman. His office was filled with normal and eccentric promotional items: pens, mini flashlights, stress balls, and small rubber change holders that when squeezed, pushed out loose pennies. He had boxes of miniature tools and calendars and paper weights, boxed mints, and heavy glass mugs with fancy frosted inscriptions that read “Your Logo Here.”

Grandpa worked from home, shuffling papers in his basement, before it was trendy. He was usually cold, and being mostly bald, wore a wool beanie as he phoned his customers. Well hello Charlie! And how are you on this fine morning? You don’t say! How is Anne? And the children? My brother and I would sit on the top step of the stairs, elbows propped on our knees, quietly listening, watching the phone cord stretch as he swiveled in his chair. When the conversation ended, he pulled open a metal drawer stuffed with promotional items, and waved us over. How are my favorite kids today? Pick out a souvenir! We were welcomed with a flourish into his presence, which is precisely how he acted towards most everyone. When he received an order from a customer, he sealed the deal with a handshake followed by Charlie, You are a gentleman and a scholar. He made everyone feel valuable, from family to clients to neighbors. It was magical. My Grandpa had class.

He once told me that he always kept a folded one-hundred dollar bill hidden in his wallet. You never know when you might need a little spending money. He was never much of a saver, but more of a “go big or go home” type of man, lavishing his family with gifts in his later years. He had scraped by during The Great Depression when he shouldered the responsibility of keeping their family of seven dressed and fed, juggling three jobs to stay afloat during those lean times. It was probably a good thing that my Grandmother was a saver.

One average day, Grandpa told me that he had a gift for me. He knew I had a ceramic piggy bank, and enjoyed plunking loose change in it. This piggy bank was nearing full capacity, and he had just the solution. Reaching into the back of his Volvo, he pulled out an enormous five-foot plastic blue Crayola crayon shaped bank. A customer had ordered a batch, and this was an extra.

My eyes grew wide.

Now you can really save your change! He smiled broadly.

And I did. Every spare cent was pushed through the slot.

As the years slipped by, I stopped getting quite so excited about quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies. Yet I still faithfully deposited them into that gigantic crayon. One day, many years later, while redecorating my bedroom, I realized that crayon bank was nearly impossible to move. How had it grown so heavy?

One penny at a time.

Faithful deposits had led to more savings than I had realized. When an opportunity arose during my college days to travel to England for an English Lit class, I decided it was time to roll my loose change, and put it to use.

It paid for most of my trip.

I think about my faith in much the same way. Every time I choose to trust and obey God, no matter how small it seems, I am making a deposit which strengthens my relationship with Him. Becoming more like Christ is usually a slow process; so slow it takes a lifetime and will not be completed until I reach heaven. But as each deposit of prayer, faith, trust, obedience, and studying and applying God’s Word accumulates, my piggy bank grows heavy. When those mighty winds blow, and trials loom, I have withdrawals available. God is trustworthy and why should I fear? (Hebrews 13:6)

Recently, one of our sons was cleaning out his wallet. Hey Mom! Look what I found!

It was a folded twenty.

I remember you always told us to keep some money folded and hidden in our wallet. I forgot about it!

I smiled, and thought of my Grandpa. If only he could see his great-grandson today….

You are a gentleman and a scholar he would say with a handshake.

All That Sparkles is Not Gold

I was three years old when I awoke with a horrible sore throat and a deep, chesty cough. As my fever spiked, my mother whisked me to Dr. Schwartz, our local pediatrician. I have always preferred wide margins of personal space, and a stranger touching me only fueled my misery. Being a rule-following first born, and shy, I endured quietly, and my mother and I soon left the office, prescription in hand.

It was a horrible pink medicine, coupled with Robitussin cough syrup, which to this day is pretty much the worst taste in the world. I had a strong gag reflex, and as soon as the cocktail of these two liquids passed my lips, it was game-over. No amount of cajoling or bribing, pleading or spanking could make me take the medicine. This was not good; I was quite ill and needed the antibiotic.

In desperation, my mother called the pediatrician, who was shocked. What? That compliant little girl I saw this morning? He told her to put me on the phone. I was a couple of months shy of my fourth birthday, and can remember this event clearly. I wrapped myself up in the phone cord; salty tears of shame and embarrassment trickling silently down my cheeks. I was not being obstinate…..I truly could not swallow this flavored medicine. You have to take the medicine, Kristin. Be a big girl and obey.

After the phone call, my mother tried again. To no avail. Now I was ashamed for upsetting her. I typically complied, and this was painful.

She called Dr. Schwartz again, and he said that if only I was older, he would prescribe the antibiotic in pill form. She told him to call the pharmacy and we would go for it.

And that is how I became his youngest patient to swallow pills. After several days, I felt better.

Some time elapsed; probably a few years. In my memory, it was towards the end autumn, when the burnt orange and golden leaves had begun their cascade to the ground. Pumpkins decorated porches, and the slant afternoon sun glistened without warming. Crisp weather, as we called it in New England. Folks would stoke their fireplaces and pull out their quilts and space heaters. It was magnificent.

At our elementary school, firefighters would arrive like clockwork at this time each year. They taught us to: Stop, Drop, and Roll. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s there was a national campaign regarding these measures. So we listened, and practiced, and hopped off the school bus at the end of a long day, armed with papers and diagrams to show our parents regarding the importance of having A PLAN of how to escape a fire. Shall we meet at the mailbox? The big stone in our front yard? What happens if the stairs are on fire? Do we have a ladder?

These thoughts consumed me for a few days; the fear of being stuck in a burning home was terrifying.

And then, one morning shortly thereafter, we found out that there had been a fire at Dr. Schwartz’s house. The inferno erupted in the middle of that cold and dark night, while everyone was in deep sleep. Dr. Schwartz was able to guide his wife and children and pets to safety. Everyone was terrorized, but alive.

Dr. Schwartz’ office, where he treated patients, was part of his expansive home. The family watched their home and his office burn. While anxiously waiting for the firemen to arrive, Dr. Schwartz ran back into the blaze. My files! he cried. His wife begged him to stay.

When I heard this as an elementary student, I could not believe it. Part of THE PLAN was to never return to a burning building. For anything. Never ever.

He had raced back to retrieve his patient files. There were no personal computers in those days, and all of his detailed notes were in filing cabinets. They represented his life’s work. He never returned to his family. Dr. Schwartz perished in those flames, trying to save a mere shadow of his patients.

Sometimes, I do the same thing, returning to things and for things that will not last and are of little importance. I grasp for the unnecessary yet urgent tuggings of my heart. We can be lured and enticed by our own desires (James 1:14). I remember, too late, that all that sparkles is not gold. Those files of Dr. Schwartz’s were important; they just were not that important.

Have you ever seen a raccoon trapped? My brother and I helped capture raccoons when we were young. They robbed the corn fields at night, eating their fill. We learned that with nothing more than a big, shiny ball of tinfoil, a raccoon could be baited.

In the glint of moonlight, a coon would dip into a container that was wider at the base than the top. The aluminum foil was sparkly, shiny and enticing. With a tiny paw, he grabbed the object of delight, but no! It was too large to pull through the opening. He was now stuck: a victim of his own desperate longings. By merely dropping the foil, he could be freed instantly. But the sparkle was too much to resist. When we checked the cages in the morning, the raccoon would snarl and hiss in a bold refusal to drop his priceless, yet worthless, treasure.

Our landlord, a grumpy yet softhearted man, would band the coons, and haul them miles and miles away, releasing them to the wild woods. Those very raccoons returned quickly for the corncobs and shiny trinkets; travelling great distances quickly to fulfill their insatiable appetites.

Sometimes I think about Dr. Schwartz, and wish that I had complied and taken my medicine. My little girl heart was marked by his death; one of those files he had gone to retrieve had my name stamped upon it.

Yet now, as an adult, I see how easily I can be ensnared by stuff: reputation, money, peace-at-all-cost, appearances. Godly sorrow over my own sin leads to repentance; worldly grief leads to death (2 Corinthians 7:10). Am I repenting and returning to God? Or am I stuck in worldly sadness, feeling badly, but returning time and again to sparkly substitutes? Am I like that raccoon, fiercely guarding my worthless trinkets?

All that sparkles is not gold. God himself is our treasure.

Carrying a Knapsack

When our oldest two sons were small, I joined Mothers of Preschoolers at a nearby church. MOPS, as it was known, proved to be an excellent opportunity to learn from other stay-at-home moms. I had just turned twenty-four a couple of weeks before our oldest was born, and I had much to learn.

So the children were whisked off to their classes and playtime, and the entire morning was spent listening to more experienced women sharing their hardships and victories by way of encouragement. It was water to my thirsty soul. Plus, I made friends which led to play dates and trips to the park. It was a sweet time.

One day, the speaker was a former business woman. She had dabbled in the stock market and succeeded. She loved the bustling world of business and when she discovered she was expecting a baby, it dampened her plans and her spirit. This was not what she and her husband had chosen. The Lord then surprised them with a second baby eleven months after the first. They had accumulated so much wealth that money was an afterthought. She and her husband decided that for a few years she would stay home and raise their sons. She was not joyful in this decision, and a seed of bitterness began to flourish. She complained continually, which pushed others away, thus creating a miserable web of loneliness. Her own undoing.

As she was speaking, I had difficulty relating. We were constantly struggling to make ends meet on my husband’s salary, and my deepest wish was to stay home until my babies left for college. The business world? No thank you.

But then her tone softened. The business talk was a precursor for what she shared next.

Having our sons has been the best and hardest thing I have ever done. Laying down my life has been painful, but God is showing me that it is the most important thing I will ever do. Life is not about money. It is about people and pleasing God. I realized this when our oldest almost died.

She had our attention now. A few months earlier, her son, not yet two, came down with a horrible stomach virus that lasted for two days. Dehydrated, she took him to the pediatrician, who encouraged fluids and rest. After a couple of days, her younger child came down with the same, and then the virus appeared to be over. After several days of rest, the boys were back to normal.

A family trip had been planned to the west coast: a family vacation with relatives plus a business meeting with investors, as she still dabbled in stocks. She was looking forward to it all, and packed and planned with gusto. At the last minute, her husband was called away for his work, which meant she would travel across the country with two little boys, alone.

She was up for it! How hard could it be? They would probably sleep a bit. It was only five hours.

The plane took off, and the boys fussed a bit and held their ears. Rocking the little one in her arms, he fell asleep on her shoulder, while her older son held a toy in his lap. Things settled down, and she closed her eyes and tried to relax.

She was awakened by a cry. Her oldest son, wide-eyed with fright, began projectile vomiting. It was actually worse than it had been the week before. As she held her baby in one arm, she told us that she tried to comfort her oldest, but she did not know what to do. A mess was all over her clothes, both sons, in the aisle, and on the people in front of them.

As the stewardess attempted to clean up, another round of illness began. One stewardess took the baby, and another brought a large bag.

This scene continued for the duration of the flight. She told us that through her fear and tears and eyes boring into her back from disgusted passengers, she realized something.

She was the mom, and no one was going to rescue her from this nightmare. She was stuck on an airplane, 38,000 feet in the air, and forced to endure.

While comforting and cleaning up after her son as best as she could on a cramped plane, she prayed through her growing fear and helplessness for the next several hours. When the plane landed, her little boy was weak and feverish. Rather than going to her family’s home, she high-tailed it to the hospital where her son was diagnosed with a severe case of Rotavirus. The doctors expressed concern for his life.

Here she paused from speaking and her voice wavered. I knew then that my sons were a gift directly from God. No one could carry this load of motherhood for me, nor should they. She repented and her heart became softened to the Lord’s will. Her son eventually recovered.

*****

I have thought about this story time and again over the years. Galatians 6:2 tells us to “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” However, Galatians 6:5 says that “each one should carry their own load.”

How do these two directives work together?

In the book Boundaries Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend explain.

“The Greek word for “burden” and “load” give us insight into the meaning of these texts. The Greek word for burden means “excess burdens”or burdens that are so heavy they weigh us down. The burdens are like boulders. They can crush us. We shouldn’t be expected to carry a boulder by ourselves! It would break our backs. We need help with the boulders–those times of crisis and tragedy in our lives.

In contrast, the Greek word for logo means “cargo,” or “the burden of daily toil.” This word describes everyday things we need to do. These loads are like knapsacks. Knapsacks are possible to carry. We are expected to carry our own. We are expected to deal with our own feelings, attitudes, and behaviors, as well as the responsibilities God has given to each one of us, even though it takes effort.

Problems arise when people act as if their “boulders” are daily loads and refuse help, or as if their “daily loads” are boulders they shouldn’t have to carry. The results of these two instances are either perpetual pain or irresponsibility.

Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend (p.33)

I believe each of us tend to fall in one of these two camps: a pride in refusing help in order to appear self-sufficient and strong, or a perpetually whiny attitude towards our lot in life: “no one can possibly understand what I am dealing with.” According to the Bible, both are wrong. Neither one displays a heart-posture of trust in God.

The Lord gives us daily grace as we submit to his plan for our days. We are not given grace in advance to store up for future challenges; it comes in fresh waves precisely in measure with our needs. But we may practice a daily surrender to him; and in this, our muscle of faith will gradually strengthen to aid us for the future. Faith builds upon consistent obedience regardless of ultimate outcomes.

And carrying our own knapsack with joy strengthens us for the journey of life.