Do Not Delay

It was a lush summery day, some forty years ago. The sun sparkled and a gentle breeze blew, causing the tall grass to bend and sway in a field close to Washington Street, near the home of my grandparents. My uncle had coaxed my father, brother, and me to observe his dog in action.

She’s an attack dog, he boasted. I glanced up at my father and could tell by his narrowed squint that he detected exaggeration.

My uncle was never known for follow-through, and in fact, quit things with alarming regularity. One time, while in high school, he secured a lengthy newspaper delivery route for summer employment. After a few days of hard work, and a route far longer than he preferred, he quit delivering without telling a soul. One evening that week, during dinner, my grandfather received a phone call: a manager reporting that a string of customers were beyond livid, wondering where on earth were their daily papers? As it happened, my uncle had dutifully picked up his delivery stack each morning, bicycled down to the local bridge, and dumped the papers into the rush of river, before pedaling home to munch on cereal and watch television.

He held many jobs, for short periods of time, before either quitting or being fired, which must have been a difficult pill for my respectable grandfather to swallow.

Another high school catastrophe occurred when my salesman-grandfather noticed that a score of his finest sample pens had gone missing. He emptied filing cabinets and drawers, before discovering the cold truth: his son, my uncle, had been peddling the pens at school, selling them for quick cash, which obviously suited him far better than holding any job that required actual labor.

So, by the time we stood in the field that day, I had heard all of the stories, and was inclined to believe not a word that my uncle said. Attack dog? Whatever.

***

My uncle had purchased this expensive purebred puppy two years prior: a female German Shephard named Rontu. She had grown from a frolicking and chunky bundle of energy into a sleek, dark, and still creature. By nature, I was comfortable around all dogs, never one to scare. This lack of fear bothered my parents who regularly warned me: Not every dog is safe or friendly, Kristin.

Rontu was the very first dog that I did not wholeheartedly embrace; there was something different about her. An intensity, a silence. I chose to keep some distance.

They made an odd pair: my uncle, swaggering, unfocused, with little forethought to any venture, and his dog: alert, highly focused, yet aloof; detached from anything other than her master.

Are you guys ready? My uncle grinned. Stand back and watch what she can do.

He began with the basics, which were actually impressive, considering the source. Sit. Stay. Down. Heel. Come. Rontu’s obedience was as swift as his commands. There was no cajoling, no second reminders. He was basking in this showing off, feeling the power of his words coming to fruition in front of this slim audience of three. Even at the age of nine I sort of felt sorry for him; embarrassed by his need to be king, if only for an afternoon.

We enjoyed watching the show, though. I was shocked that this particular uncle had taken the time to consistently attend so many classes with his dog. (Later on, I found out that he lived in a terrible section of the city, and he owed people money. Cash that he did not have. He had been beaten within an inch of his life, wailed my grandmother, and in order to preserve his existence, trained Rontu as a form of protection. It worked.)

After twenty minutes or so, my father thanked him, and suggested we head back to my grandparents’ house. But my uncle, reveling in such glory, had one more trick.

It’s the best one, he added. He mumbled something to my father, who shook his head.

But my uncle was on a roll and issued the command anyway.

Rontu, he said. Her brown eyes gazed directly at his face. He pointed to a man on the far side of the field, walking, minding his own business on this lustrous summer’s day.

Rontu, hit!

And she took off, without sound, but with a blazing speed and surety. A dangerous blur flying in a direct line to this perfect stranger. She was gaining on him.

Call her off! my father hollered.

My uncle only laughed. Isn’t this cool? She will do whatever I say!

At this point, my heart was thudding in my throat, my feet glued to the earth. Rontu was catching up to this helpless victim who was now high-tailing it, bracing for an imminent attack.

And then, within yards, my uncle called only two words: Rontu, out!

She slowed immediately, curving and beautifully turning back to her master, loping in relaxed fashion; completely ignoring her former prey. She arrived at my uncle’s feet, panting.

Good girl. He patted her head and her eyes closed as she plopped down submissively at his feet.

I learned later that if he had not summoned her, she would have bitten the man first on his forearm, dragging him down before fastening her razor sharp grip upon his throat, puncturing the jugular.

***

Is there anything as disturbing as a child who is encouraged to disobey? Children trained for disobedience?

Stewart, come here. Little Stewart crosses his arms and locks his legs. Stewart, I am going to count to three. One…Two…Thr-

And Stewart ambles half-heartedly to his parents, who then praise him for disobeying the first time.

To delay is to disobey.

God’s word is simple to understand, and in our sinful bent towards defiance and stubbornness, often difficult to obey.

The biblical structure of the home and the church is now being called into question by professing believers: Did God really call men to lovingly shepherd their families and their churches? Is marriage really between one man and one woman? Do parents really have authority over their young children? I hear people questioning these clarities of Scripture, and I tremble, reminded of Eve, heeding the voice of Satan, rather than the voice of God. Did God really mean to abstain from this one luscious tree? Why that makes no sense! Partake, and you will be like God, full of knowledge.

She believed herself to be wiser than her Creator.

Her choice of blatant disobedience, coupled with Adam’s floundering silence and lack of backbone led to death. The consequences resulted in ruin for the ages.

A swift glance at biblical disobedience beyond the Garden of Eden is also alarming: Cain’s rage and eventual murder of his own brother, Noah’s neighbors swept to eternal damnation by flood, Lot’s wife becoming a pillar of salt, and the Jewish nation wandering for four decades as punishment for their rebellion. There are always steep consequences for disobedience.

The commonality of origin is clear: an ongoing rebellious reliance upon human wisdom rather than God’s instruction.

There is strength in obedience; in swift godly submission. Think of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God’s instruction, Mary’s response of Yes, Lord, May it be to me as you have said, and Jesus’ humble submission to God the Father, as he hung on the cross. Each one of these acts of prompt, sacrificial obedience produced blessings for the ages.

It is time, Christ-followers, to become like Rontu: singular in focus, with our aim to hear and obey only the voice of our God, our Master. Leave all consequences for such obedience in his hands. Hands that created the universe out of nothing; hands that are holding the world even now. Eternity is coming, and eternity is forever. Do not delay.

Isaiah 5:20-21: Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!

Chasing Rest

Sometimes, my friend, the most faithful thing you can do is crawl into bed at the end of the day, close your eyes, and sleep.

This is my mantra for today, this week, this month, and this summer.

Softly placing my head on my pillow each night, especially during busy or chaotic times, requires an abandonment of control. Intentionally ceasing to still my hands and quiet my mind at day’s end, when work still beckons, is an acknowledgment of my human frailty before our Creator who flung the stars to shine by pitch of night and designed the sun to warm by day. Resting reminds me that I am not God. Created in his image, I rest out of obedience (Deuteronomy 5:12). God values a pause in work, as he himself rested after his six days of Creation.

But there is an even deeper rest than sleep. It is a rest of the spirit: an abiding tranquility of the soul. A gentle ocean, with quiet, steady, lapping waves. Clear water, unperturbed and obedient to the moderate tide. A safe and beautiful place to boat and swim.

How different from the anxious, bothered soul! A roaring ocean, beating the shoreline, its undertow yanking swimmers, tugging them away from land, flailing and choking and even drowning. The anger of the white crested waves is powerful and dangerous and often deadly.

The soul of gentle waters trusts God moment-by-moment in contentment, and remains calm through absolute submission to God, who is wisdom and authority and perfect power. Nothing startles the Lord, and unflappable tranquility is the result of a heart set upon him.

The anxious, swirling ocean rears up at each bothersome wind of trial. There is no peace, because there is no authority or anchor. This soul is like a doubting, unstable wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind (James 1:6).

I remember so many years ago, rocking our babies in the middle of night. A street lamp threw a narrow gleam upon the dark canvas of that three a.m. window. The gentle creak of the rocker leant noise to the otherwise silent room. My babies must have felt the steady thumping of my heartbeat. In a short time, as we swayed, I sensed their small bodies relax, limp and heavy with sleep. I held them tenderly against my shoulder, kissing their downy heads and marveling at the wonder of them. They rested in my arms in utter trust.

How much more our Heavenly Father holds his own. We are so beloved by him that he cares for us moment by moment, held fast even beyond our lifetime, cradling us into forever. How often I forget the sturdiness of God’s love. We discover true rest only in Him.

***

This week I had plans to work on specific projects. Those plans crumbled due to unanticipated events, and I instantly felt a growing tightness in my shoulders, and a clenching of my jaw as I reviewed my unfinished To-Do list.

I love my To-Do list. It is how I navigate through each day. God pried the list from my hot hands and turned this week into something quite different.

I confessed yet again, apologizing for curling into selfishness: something I thought I had crucified. Tricky, because my planned projects themselves were for others, and while that in itself appears generous, I neglected to rest in God and to keep a tranquil spirit: Nevertheless not my will but yours, be done (Luke 22:42). I somehow forgot that he orchestrates all events with purpose.

I was a turbulent ocean.

I will not slip into a state of godly tranquility by happenstance. These bones require the meat and skin of repentance, prayer, and Bible reading. I am asking God to refine my To-Do list, praying for him to infuse me with a desire to obey and please only Him. Everything else is quite secondary.

I have also decided on the front end of what is shaping up to be an exceptionally busy summer, full of deep projects and extra work, to cheerfully tend to the duties which he has placed in my lap.

And then, when the evening beckons, and the sun lowers its heated rays, I will faithfully slip between cool sheets, read a good book, and go to sleep. God is awake and working, that I may rest.

In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. Psalm 4:8

I Do and I Will

Summertime is for flip-flops and barbeques, sandy beach towels and magnificent sunsets. Evening fire-pits and spontaneous car rides ending in ice cream. Sun pulses against evening shadows, turning to morning rays tapping through the blinds early; awakening the birds who trill the beginning of another dawn.

Summertime is also for weddings.

I remember one pretty summer morning, twenty-seven years ago this August. My maid-of-honor and I had whispered late into the night, dreaming of our long anticipated futures: grown-up lives and handsome husbands and future children, with nary a clue of the complexities of real-time marriage: the newness, followed by the permanency of our vows, followed by shadows of our own sins pressed up against a fellow heir of Christ with his own shortcomings. All of it intricate and beautiful and crushing…this becoming one. A slow dance requiring a lifetime of learning, loving, forsaking self, forgiving, and growing. It is never what one imagines; but far more weighty; made richer through sacrifice.

Any two may properly answer the questions posed during the finest of premarital counseling, in addition to reading all of the books, but still. It is like researching and daydreaming of swimming: proper techniques and strokes and breathing; the rhythmic arm motion and kicking. At some point you can only learn to swim by letting go and jumping into the water.

But on that breezy, blue-skied August morning decades ago, I knew none of these things, and my first order of business was to join my bridesmaids, each of us fresh-faced and tan in our umbros, soft t-shirts, and wedding shoes. We danced the driveway and laughed, performing the twist as we intentionally scuffed the bottoms of our slightly heeled shoes so as not to slip while later walking the aisle to Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (them) and Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntaire (me).

That scuffing did the trick; it gave the shoes solid traction for wedding day festivities. It altered the shoes for the better, and although no one could see the ugly pavement marks, hidden beneath our feet, they remained. We each survived the long, lilting walk down that brilliant aisle to the front of the sanctuary.

***

I recently heard of a couple who has been married a handful of years, claiming to have never once argued. Pardon me? I nearly choked. This seems so impossible, that I am left wondering if one of them is void of opinions? Have they both reached an impossible perfection?

I am not suggesting to go home, cantankerous and spoiling for a fight, but in any real and honest marriage some scuffing up will happen, and if weathered for better or worse, will produce a gradual change in this merging of two distinct people: one man, one woman. It is the staying, the dogged determination to see this promise through, without optional exit ramps, but frequent: I am sorry and will you forgive me pleadings that result in something beautiful and lasting and God-honoring.

There is a glorious triumvirate in a Christian marriage: God…husband…wife. Through the scuffing and scars and suffering, your footing will become more sure, only if you first bow in obedience to God. Ephesians 5:21-33 has taken Jon and I years to practice and learn. It is the simplest and most difficult formula to flesh out. But it works. Dying to selfishness and sin, plus continually striving to outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10) is no cheap trick. It is costly, as is loving your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). A spouse, as it turns out, is our closest neighbor.

***

This is what I do know: as pretty as cut flowers gifted by my husband and perched tabletop appear, they pale in comparison to the truly costly. Who knew that Jon’s filling up the truck with fuel, or taking out the bulging trash bag, working so hard to pay unexpected bills, bringing me ginger ale and saltines when I was down for the count, or patiently rubbing the back of our sick children in the middle of the night would have stitched my heart to his? The grit of life. These are the selfless acts that make a velveteen rabbit marriage: soft and worn and a bit threadbare, yet beautifully blended and cherished and deeply good. Love is kind.

***

Many years ago we took the children and our dog to romp at the park, where we played for hours: football, swing sets, slides, timed races. It was lively and it was fun.

As we drove away, I looked down and gasped: my diamond setting in my engagement ring was gone.

We returned and combed the park, which was of course futile: acres upon acres of field and sand, and we had played upon it all. As we drove home, it was quiet in the car until Marcus, age six, whispered: Mommy, you and Daddy are still married though?

I laughed, and the sadness fled. We pulled into our driveway and I scooped him up and reassured him, and myself, that a diamond is just a thing, not nearly as important as the husband and wife in covenant.

Oddly enough, within a year, I was slicing apart frozen chicken, when the knife in my right hand slipped, cutting a fast and angry gash above my wedding band. My finger swelled faster than I could remove the ring, which left a helpless choking sensation in my left hand.

Jon rushed home and we raced to a walk-in clinic, where a doctor sawed the band off. The relief was immediate, followed by tears. Hadn’t it been enough to lose my diamond? Now I was holding a crudely broken wedding band. But then I remembered: it was an object. We had each other.

Ultimately, we paid a jeweler to repair it, and I wear it now. We persevere: a circle of gold, without end.

***

This August, soon after celebrating our twenty-seventh year of marriage, we will embrace our first grandbaby. This circle of life looks much like our worn wedding bands. As our children begin their marriages, promising their own vows, Jon and I will cheer them along. God treasures marriage.

I sometimes study the familiar silhouette of my husband, and remember all of the love and fun, sacrifice and hardships, disagreements and differences, and then marvel at the kindness of God. Those scuff marks have formed us, sometimes in the furnace of affliction, while enabling us to step down the aisle of life together. Not in perfection, but with strength and love, inching forward still, holding our covenant high before God. The journey of a lifetime.

My Hiding Place

For many years, my childhood church was held in a finished barn, attached by narrow hallway to the parsonage. One warm summer’s evening, when I was four years old, our congregation gathered there to watch a film of Corrie ten Boom, who spoke of her book, The Hiding Place. We scrunched uncomfortably close, sans air conditioning, to make room for all members and visitors who had come to hear this woman share her survival story. As soon as the movie began, I was captivated.

***

Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch woman, who along with her sister and father, was caught sheltering Jews in a hidden compartment within the walls of their home in Holland during the Nazi terror of World War II. Because of their steep involvement in the Dutch underground resistance, Corrie, her sister Betsy, and their aging father were separated and herded off to a concentration camp. Their father died within days, but Betsy and Corrie survived to suffer starvation, humiliation, and torture under the Nazi prison guards. Betsy guided and encouraged Corrie to stand strong in faith, and together they shared Jesus with fellow inmates during nightly Bible studies. The guards remained providentially oblivious, due to a bedbug infestation in those very rooms. Betsy perished only days before Corrie was freed. It was later discovered that her freedom was due to a clerical error.

God had wonderful plans for sparing Corrie from death: one of which was to herald her testimony of the freedom found only in Christ. Once released from the concentration camp, she acknowledged a hardened place growing in her heart, a wide cavern filled with hatred and bitterness toward those monstrous guards.

Corrie dumbfounded the world by fully forgiving her tormentors, repeatedly sharing her testimony in her world-wide missionary travels. This was staggering in a time where nearly everyone was hand-feeding rage and bitterness due to the gut-wrenching atrocities inflicted by the Nazis.

One day, in her travels, a former German guard approached her and offered his hand, seeking her forgiveness. She immediately recoiled, recognizing him as the most debased guard of all, a man who had personally humiliated both Betsy and Corrie. As he stood directly before her, apologizing and speaking of his new faith, she yielded to the Holy Spirit’s promptings, choosing to radically forgive him.

***

Of course I knew none of these things that warm summer’s night in our barn-church, but I do remember, even now, the black and white film, and Corrie’s face: kind, peaceful, lovely. Her words were spoken clearly in her Dutch-laced accent, unmistakable in their pulsing love of God, and others; even her tormentors.

My little-girl heart stood transfixed: never had I seen the Lord so vivid in the being of another. So genuine. Corrie was not a dynamic speaker: she was direct, full of authority, both soft-spoken, and happy. Her face radiated calm. I was too young to know of her suffering, (those blanks would be filled in later), but her joy of Jesus was undeniable. Corrie was simply at rest in Him, and I could feel it in my bones: this was exactly what I wanted.

After the film, there were platters of finger foods and punch, and the children gathered outside to play tag, waiting for the fireflies to begin their flickering lantern-dance by dark. I romped and played, delighting in a summer’s night with an abandon that often eclipses adults. As we chased each other, my imagination soared with fantastic plans to build secret compartments and rescue people. I longed to be brave just like Corrie ten Boom, and I wanted to know the same Jesus that she did.

***

Suffering has a way of parting the heart, chiseling a highway straight down the middle, before offering grave detours; choices. I have yet to meet a Christian who radiates the image of the Creator, that has not suffered well, choosing to accept in peace the precise will of God.

It is easier, by nature, to suffer poorly: plunging into self-pity and complaining, nursing and rehearsing grievances to anyone who will lend an ear, growing bitter and sullen, storing up a record of seemingly justified wrongs. I have been guilty of these very things.

Years ago, God took me through a season of paramount suffering. Multiple heartaches within a two-year span, which at the time, felt like 200 years. I will not say that the details are unimportant, because details are always important. But more importantly, within a short time of this suffering, I reached the end of my workhorse self.

I awoke one morning, looked into the mirror, and bumped up against the ugly truth: I was a thoroughly exhausted people-pleaser, who could no longer patch things up for myself or others, while bowing to the whims of whomever, and hanging on to simmering grudges, festering yet silent, buried deep inside. I had gods before me, and the God, my jealous Heavenly Father, had had enough. He chose to unravel the entire mess.

I can see now, in hindsight, that God designs sufferings, created uniquely for his children. He does not toss hardships at random, like dreadful Christmas gifts from some Great Aunt who bestows the same matching, ill-fitting sweaters to each family member carelessly, with little care. Instead, God gives us our sufferings to fit his good and holy purpose: to grow and form and shape us in likeness to his Son. Our part is to trust and obey and follow our Father, knowing that there is nothing reckless or random in his plan. He is our perfect hiding place; the safest spot to dwell.

During those two years, suffering had blazed a deep highway down my heart, and I held two choices in either hand: obey God and forgive, or hug bitterness, and thus quench the Holy Spirit.

And then I remembered Corrie ten Boom. After searching, I discovered an old video clip, and I was suddenly four years old again, seated in a packed New England church. Her face was precisely as I had remembered: confident, soft, and joyful. Regardless of the consequences, we must forgive, she said.

And there it was: my next act of the will. A choice: obey God, or follow my own heart?

I could not change my suffering, I could not erase the sins of others inflicting harm, and I could not strong-arm anyone’s heart into biblical repentance.

But I could forgive, and leave all consequences in God’s care. (Forgiveness does not necessarily result in reconciliation. The Bible teaches us to guard our hearts and walk in wisdom. There are dangerous situations and dangerous people, who may be forgiven, but kept at a distance until time reveals a true heart change.)

So I forgave. Wildly, I might add. My list was embarrassingly long: silly little grievances and monumental ones, long-standing grudges and recent, ongoing hurts.

There was nothing gradual about the moment following: my newfound freedom was swift and delightful, and like Corrie ten Boom, I was flooded with warmth and peace. Absolutely nothing around me had changed; but I was now unchained, and free to live.

Corrie, godly and wise, was changed through her furnace of affliction. She understood that forgiveness is the heartbeat of Christ. Father forgive them for they know not what they do (Luke 23:24).

***

Corrie ten Boom and her family saved some 800 Jewish lives in that tiny hiding place in the heart of their Holland home, but her bold forgiveness of one guilty prison guard resulted in the rescue of so many more. I am one.

Psalm 32:7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

I Thought You Should Know

One bright September day, those shimmering early school days: untainted notebooks, sharpened pencils, crunchy leaves and crisp air, afternoons of slanted sunshine upon porch pumpkins, yes on that type of day, our junior high class was introduced to Mr. Langley.

Seventh grade meant Latin, and I felt the twins of curiosity and nervousness flutter. I knew nothing about this language, nor the teacher. Mr. Langley, a new hire, stepped carefully into our bright classroom, and placed his slim briefcase upon the teacher’s desk.

Salvete, discipuli, he said quietly, pushing his wire rims to the top of his nose. He turned to grasp a piece of chalk, and as he began writing his name on the chalkboard, his briefcase toppled and the chalk broke, all at once.

Oh dear, he mumbled, scooting down to gather the mess of papers that had spilled. When he stood, again adjusting his glasses, I saw chalk dust streaked along his face, and on the side of his navy pants.

The boys started laughing, and when Mr. Langley did not stop them, but continued to fumble with the papers and chalk, cheeks crimson, I knew he would never be able to control our class. Our other instructors knew precisely what was what, and could cast a glance at any student and reel them in. Or else.

But he was different from the other teachers: gentle; shy. As he stood, lean and awkward, scripting his name precisely on the chalkboard, I noticed his fingernails were neatly clipped; scholarly. I could not imagine that he ever mowed the lawn or pushed a wheelbarrow or tossed a football. His aura was one of meticulous caution and forethought, a stretch when governing a junior high classroom. As the weeks unfolded, his intellect proved both humble and mighty in a way that spun impractical: an apprehensive scholar who likely poured over his textbooks line by line, perhaps by candlelight, smiling at the wonder of those mighty Latin roots, unperturbed by any other event taking place on planet earth.

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, he clearly understood Latin, and longed to share the importance of this unspoken language that had crumbled in tandem with the Holy Roman Empire some 1500 years ago. As the weeks moved along, he encouraged us with the practical benefits of the Latin language: If we memorized that pater meant father, for example, we could decipher the meanings of English words such as: patriarch, patron, patronize, paternity, patriot, and expatriate.

Isn’t this wonderful? he beamed, impervious to the disinterest of most of his pupils. Latin helps form the logical portion of your brain, he offered, pushing up his glasses with his index finger. It will help you not only in college entrance exams, but in all of life, as you read the classics and delight in learning new vocabulary. He annunciated each word thoughtfully, as he gazed absentmindedly out the schoolroom window at the majestic maple in all of its autumnal splendor; branches spreading throughout the schoolyard.

He then walked back to the chalkboard, asking us to join in the verbal chant of conjugations. Amo, amas, amat, we began. I heard a noise and peeked over my shoulder as a classmate lobbed a spitball across the room, hitting his friend’s neck. The boy retaliated in kind, and they hooted. Mr. Langley turned, oblivious to the cause of disruption, and kindly requested our full attention yet again.

***

As the months passed, and our Latin vocabulary expanded, Mr. Langley handed each of us a copy of Lingua Latina, and then took his seat behind his desk. We took turns reading aloud and translating.

Imperium Romanum, I read. The Roman Empire, I translated.

I heard snickering and looked up. Mr. Langley had stood and was writing Imperium Romanum on the chalkboard. Clinging to the back of his pantlegs were dozens upon dozens of white page hole reinforcements.

Had this been any other teacher, to my shame, I probably would have laughed, at least on the inside. But Mr. Langley was so kind, so gentle, such a frail bird that I felt miserable as he deciphered the trick played at his expense. His face flushed and his shoulders drooped, mumbling to himself as he exited the classroom to remove the stickers.

To my initial surprise, a pretty and popular girl laughed, claiming ownership of the prank. As she high-fived the spitball fellows, I had a flash of understanding: recalling her careful exclusion and subtle mocking of the girl with the lisp, the boy who wore the same three shirts on repeat, and the shy, smart girl who was dared to outshine everyone on exams. And now our introverted Latin teacher, brought low in humiliation while she, the self-proclaimed queen bee, rose to rule.

***

I am married to my pastor.

This does not make me special or remarkable. Quite the contrary. I am an average, middle-aged woman.

What it does mean is that my viewpoint from the pew to the pulpit is unique.

I drive into the church parking lot each Sunday and Wednesday, knowing.

I know when my husband is juggling six or seven weighty situations, I know of our family’s stresses and sin struggles, I know his deep longing to please the Lord. I know when he is excited in the growing discipleship of our men and women, I know when he is weary, I know the pressures of decision-making in leading a congregation and answering ultimately to the Lord. I know when a member has greatly encouraged him with a kind word, I know when he has wrestled with a difficult text all week, I know the time spent in prayer, I know the double-digit hours spent in study and preparation as he preaches verse-by-verse, and I know when he has tossed and turned all Saturday night.

But the hardest part is that I know when members are clashing for control, tossing bolts of intimidation subtly, working against unity and submission to God and his Word. It is impossible not to see, not to know, and my husband does not need to even speak a word. These things step into our home, draped over his shoulders like a cloak at day’s end. I offer to take the cloak and stuff it in the closet, but it sheds something fierce, and remnants remain on his shoulders, day after day. I vacuum them from the carpet, as they are sprinkled everywhere. This is undeniably part of his work, and by default, mine as well.

What am I to do? I have a soft heart for the struggling, the weak, the hurting of our church body. They are the image of Mr. Langley, all of these years later, and my instinct is to defend, to help, to shield. My protective instincts have always run a bit hot; it is my native tongue.

My heart’s posture towards the troublemakers? If left alone, it grows into a cold, hard stone.

***

Years ago, when our two oldest sons lit up the Friday night field, one a quarterback and one a tight end, my joy knew no bounds. Jacob threw with mighty precision, and Caleb’s soft hands caught those passes with ease.

Caleb had this thing, after catching the football, while running to the end-zone; a signature move that became known as: Caleb’s stiff-arm. His powerful arm shot forward and held, pushing down any defensive player who attempted to stop the scoring mission. They simply could not bring him down. It was incredible to watch him put points on the board out of sheer strength, and to witness the team gather around our sons, slapping backs and helmets, high-fiving, while Caleb and Jacob gave each other a quick hug. This was all so natural: they had grown up playing backyard football and with a glance, knew what the other was thinking, what play to run. They looked out for each other.

This is the picture I conjure now. I am like Caleb, pulling in the long and beautiful pass, catching the ball softly, cradling it securely, and forcing a stiff-arm to bring the play to magnificent completion. My husband is preaching the Gospel, offering the Good News and I am striving for softness, and winsome kindness, seeking determination and strength to carry it generously, and when necessary, stiff-arming in protection.

And yet.

The Gospel is not only for the weak, the vulnerable, the Mr. Langley-types of this world. The Gospel is also for the bullies, the arrogant, the queen bees who must be struggling under such staggering poverty of spirit; layers of insecurity that lead them to harm and rebel.

Yes, the Gospel is for all.

The solution for both my cold heart and the bullies is one in the same: a tender work of the Holy Spirit. A repentant heart.

In weak moments, I daydream of clever loopholes, desiring a Bible verse that would permit the stony portion of my heart to remain in a perpetual stiff-arm. This is exactly why soaking up the entire counsel of God, from Genesis through Revelation, is the only way to grow in wisdom and grace as a Christian.

Away with sweet platitudes and easy, milky devotionals. I desperately require the unadorned truth: raw, complicated, meaty. Sola Scriptura: a comprehensive, exquisite, yet savage mural of the riches of God’s Rescue Story, which is living and sharp, holding the power to crush the hardest heart to bits, softening all jagged edges, filling me with compassion and kindness and patience and love. An overarching reminder that God is always working on his children’s behalf, no matter what.

Our son, Marcus, compels the piano to sing. The keys cooperate with their Master, following in obedience as he instructs the notes to unravel in beauty, but only at his bidding. It pierces an almost unreachable place in the listener’s soul: the timing, the softness of his hands as they travel up and down the keys, the flow, the tempo, the sound that sweeps gently over the listeners, falling upon them with presence. The song is not finished until Marcus, the Master Player, has said so.

As long as we have breath, the song of our life is not yet finished. Our music will fall with sweet, lasting beauty upon the world only as we bow to our Creator.

Great is His Faithfulness

This Mother’s Day might be joyous: perhaps you are a new father, amazed by the mystery of those sweeping waves of unconditional love towards your new little one; stunned with the raw miracle of birth and the blossoming motherhood that you glimpse unfolding in your wife; you are delighted to honor her. Maybe you are graced with a kind and tender mother, not perfect but deeply good. Or you are now a middle aged mother, blessed by children grown, sons and daughters who have flown the nest, but still call you and text you and open wide their adult lives. Your heart is flooded with love, and it is your primary delight to serve them, still. Or perhaps you are a grandmother, full of gray hair and smiles, fashioning notes and gifts, praying and delighting in those young lives birthed through your own children. Mother’s Day seems a crown of glory.

Mother’s Day might also throb: you have buried a son or daughter and your grief is torturous, or your medical chart has been stamped in red ink: unable to conceive, or miscarriages have haunted you repeatedly. As a husband you are stuck; terribly helpless, longing to comfort your wife while also wishing this very day would pass, and quickly. Or you are a single woman longing to marry, desirous of children, but so far nothing. Or you are a child that has been maimed by your very own mother, who is supposed to love you most. Or perhaps you are an aging mother simmering that you are not being served by your adult children in the manner you feel you deserve. Maybe you are a single mother surrounded by little grabbing hands and you are depleted, tired, over it. You are a mother burning with regret: you have abandoned or abused or neglected your children, or have chosen abortion, or have stubbornly refused to repent of your sin, remaining stuck on the merry-go-round of worldly sorrow that leads to death, rather than living godly grief which produces repentance that leads to salvation without regret (2 Corinthians 7:10).

My guess is that in this messy life, many are experiencing a measure of both joy and grief tangled up together this Mother’s Day week.

I invite you to slow yourself, and cradle this coming Sunday in your hands as a pure treasure; an opportunity to allow your heart’s posture to bend as your yes to God. Let it be to me according to your word. (Luke 1:38). Refresh your weary mind with Lamentations 3:22-24. Our world is turned upside down with much foolishness, but God’s Word always remains right side up; a razor sharp straight edge; an imperishable anchor that steadies and holds us fast.

Remember on this Mother’s Day, no matter where you may be, that God is kind and gentle and merciful. There is no grief he cannot carry, there is no sin he refuses to forgive. Carve out some time to preach the Good News of the Gospel to your weary heart. Come to him and find rest (Matthew 11:28).

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” Lamentations 3:22-24

On Writing

My daughter and I sometimes play a word game as we drive the gloriously winding stretches of road leading to her classes, her job, and horseback riding. It is rapid fire:

Three pet peeves. Go.

So I answer:

Clowns, small planes, and ice-breakers.

She laughs, unruffled, and her eyes are so blue. Oh Mom, you are the most predictable.

I like to imagine this is part of my staying power. In an ever-changing world, I enjoy not surprising people. And if you paid attention to my pet peeves, this might not surprise you, either.

I began this type of game when our children were quite small. It was a slower volley back then, with me asking their favorite color, favorite books, favorite animals, and favorite foods? I already knew the answers, from paying attention to those four little beauties. I treasured their opinions and preferences; I wanted them to not only be known, but to know that they were known; beloved. And then, their little voices from the backseat would return the favor, peppering me with questions. They especially enjoyed posing the same ones, time and again. It felt like a test: Is Mom really listening? Will she tell the truth?

I remember one day, driving home from the park, the heat oppressive. My iced lemonade sat perched, perspiring in the minivan’s cupholder, and even with the AC cranked full blast, we were sweltering. The boys had guzzled their juice boxes, ballcaps all crooked, cheeks crimson. They had even peeled off their socks in a desperate attempt to cool down. To pass time, Jacob began the question game: Mommy, what is your favorite season?

Mentally I thought: Well, not this one, sweet pea.

As I prepared to answer aloud, I first took a sip of my cold drink.

This must have taken a bit too long, because I heard Caleb’s gravelly voice:

Remember, Jacob? Her favorite season is fall. It’s always fall.

Oh, to be known.

The pure sweetness of those long days and flashing years echoes deep. I see now the gift of those hours stacked upon hours, a long string of days with my children; the character-forming and shaping, the consistency built without shortcuts. Time and work and repetition paving the quotidian path for trust and security to take root. I made so many mistakes, but God saw fit to work through my lack.

Children are onions, made up of thin layers. As their mother, it was my joy to gently peel layer by layer; learning them; understanding that they, too, are image-bearers of God, unique and quite separate from me. Children begging for both boundaries and freedom, but ultimately requiring freedom within boundaries to flourish.

The mother and child relationship is tender. A baby is carried and slowly formed for the better part of a year, and there is a knowing of that tiny person. And then, with the birthing, comes a sudden severing of the oneness. The baby cries, disoriented by the bright lights and cold air; the harsh separation. The mother cries out with pain, followed by swift joy and a holy fear at the weight of her treasure. I remember for weeks after the birth of each of our babies, awakening from snippets of sleep in a flooding panic, realizing all over again that they were no longer safely growing within, but were separated from me, an arm’s length away in their bassinette, which might as well have been oceans away in my sleep-deprived stupor. The cord had been cut.

Thus began the lifelong ebb and flow: the pulling in and nurturing, the sending off in independence, the pulling in of loving and training, the sending out to leave and make their own way, the pulling in of please come home anytime, coupled with the willingness to step outside, barefoot on the porch, waving goodbye with a full, aching heart, genuinely happy for their adulthood, while utterly missing the olden days when every little stairstep was tucked safely into bed by eight o’clock.

***

Writing is not so different.

Each story grows and flutters within, and is held safely until it is born. And then once it is out there in the big wide world, I am relieved yet left wondering what ever possessed me to let it go. I hold a loving attachment to each piece: a longing to serve my reader well, yet pondering if the words might have missed the mark. Every story is as unique as each of my children, yet there is a resemblance, a solidarity of voice, just as each of my children holds a portrait of familial likeness. Separate yet similar and uniquely cherished.

Ultimately I do my best and let the story go. The baby has been prayed over and birthed, and I have already asked God to please make it true and beautiful and read by those of his choosing. The story sprouts wings and is gone. After a few days, I begin stitching together the next one.

My stories are born from paying attention to tiny details; threads pulled and woven. Snippets of conversation, observing beauty in the great outdoors, hearing a string of words that sparks a memory, wrangling goodness in life’s hard crevices. I keep a notebook of things I see and words that dance and stories I remember, hoping to eventually mix them together to awaken something in my reader. Most of my notes are yet untapped. These things take time.

I think of writing in this space as the onion approach: the gentle pulling back of layers, inviting the reader to figure it out.

Instead of writing this:

I prefer cold weather. I like to exercise outside. I enjoy when our whole family is at home together for dinner.

I bid you to understand with this:

Three Favorite things. Go.

Soft hoodies, long trail walks, a crowded family table with elbows bumping, dishes passed, laughter and clinking silverware.

How to write? Sit down and do the work, no matter what. Attention, time, labor, repeat. There are many days I write for an hour or more and ultimately scrap the entire mess. This is not a waste of time. It is part of the process that yields the finished piece. Also, take a break and go live. Take a walk, clean the kitchen, read books formed by another, enjoy coffee with a friend, wash the car. Words often come when you are not drumming your fingers impatiently.

The work of writing is costly for the author: born of heart and soul and stretches of time.

The reader is the recipient of the final draft only; he will never know the dreadful beginnings, the bleeding out, the middle parts of despair, the jagged margins, nor should he. The finished work is his gift.

***

This morning I drove our daughter to work in the early morning, and coming home, it was still dark. As I accelerated over a hill, I was astonished to see the moon hanging low in front of me: swollen, massive, buttery bright and breathtaking. I felt as though I could stretch and touch it; as though it might swallow me up. What joy to be alone with God and his magnificent moon.

Yet there was a twin longing: to share this early morning beauty with someone, to bring others inside the goodness of God, to be surprised with me by the Creator and all of his masterpieces.

So I write.

(This week’s post is my response to Abigail who so kindly nominated me for the Liebster Award.)

Between the Lines

The best kind of books are the ones you enter, roaming along the edges before diving headlong into the middle, lost in the pages that have become real. The types of stories where you are right there and have grown incapable of hearing the ringing doorbell or whistling tea kettle; the tales where you travel alongside the characters: dashing through an airport, or sitting scrunched up at the school desk in the back of ninth-grade homeroom, or chopping onions at a kitchen island flush with natural lighting, or hiking the Appalachian Trail, shivering alongside the protagonist as they warm their hands fireside, bandage their blistered heel, or dodge a hungry wolf.

My utter favorites are the ordinary, the mundane slice-of-life variety discovered in novels or memoirs that provoke tears to fall and laughter to bubble up and the deepest of sighs because the author just granted words to your pain, confusion, and pleasures. There is a knowing in these kind of books, where the pages cannot be flipped quickly enough; a type of read where you dread the final page because that means the end will arrive and the story will be over. You are left lingering, turning the saga over in your mind, thirsting for more.

I have kept what I refer to as my Life Book for fifteen years. It is a notebook, categorized by calendar year, (I am fond of old-fashioned paper and pen) with a list of books that I have read. The excellent ones receive a star, of which there are precious few, and the finest, the most gripping, the life-changing cannot put down type receive three stars.

If you are a Christ-follower and a reader, it becomes essential to work out your own reading plan. As a voracious book-lover, I have learned, through trial and error, to happily trust the Holy Spirit to guide my reading. I understand that what I read will shape both my thinking and my writing. It is impossible for it not to, because of the sheer amount of words that I absorb.

My favorite English professor from my college days spoke to this very thing with a bold: Think people. Chew up the meat and spit out the bones. Use the brains that God gave you, and be discerning. Read broadly and understand that all truth belongs to God. I have taken this to heart ever since she spoke these words decades ago.

I probably tend to read a bit less broadly than others, only because I know my own weakness when it comes to beautiful writing; I recognize my proclivity to be swept away with the lovely, even if it is untrue. I don’t mean only a stellar storyline; but the beauty with which words are spun. There is a balance I have learned to mentally weigh, but in a nutshell, I have learned to question: Is this beautiful and is this true? I have not always been right.

The Bible is the only perfect book ever written, and if I split hairs over every single thing I disagree with in regards to other books, I would read nothing at all, thus missing untold treasures and truths and delights. This would be a shame, as my imagination and understanding and compassion would also fade. Books are passports, flinging wide the gates to varying perspectives and time periods and heartaches and triumphs. Good books, beautifully written and true, broaden us in the best of ways.

***

For as long as I can remember, I have loved animals. Especially big dogs, with an acute fondness for Golden Retrievers. This stems back to my childhood, where for my first twelve years, we were not allowed to own a dog. I grew up in a pretty New England farmhouse, divided into apartments, where our landlord did not permit large pets. We had fish and gerbils and outdoor rabbits, all of whom I loved. But at the end of the day, these sweet creatures could not satisfy my deep ache for a dog.

Half a mile up the street, our neighbors owned a horse, whom I spoiled with apples and carrots in a semi-regular fashion. I stroked his nose and told him my deepest thoughts. He listened while innocently chewing grass, and I daydreamed about having my own farm some day. But that wish remained a dim flicker compared to my burning for a dog. Some days, while petting the horse, I was lucky enough to see Happy.

Happy was the farm owner’s Golden Retriever, who lived every square inch up to his name, wagging and jumping and licking my face. I stroked his benevolent head, scratching behind his ears as my mother visited with our neighbor. When he flopped down and panted, extending his paw to rest on my arm, I was a goner. Completely smitten.

Many years later, when our youngest child was two, I carefully snipped a slim blurb in our newspaper, advertising: Puppies for Sale. Golden Retrievers with papers, for a mere $250. I waved the clipping under my husband’s nose, looking directly at him with my large and hopeful eyes. He raised an eyebrow knowingly, and said We’ll see. And then, a few weeks later, we buckled up four excited children, and drove three hours into the middle of absolutely nowhere to choose our puppy.

The dam was sweet and subdued, licking her many puppies. She was gorgeous, with a shiny, glistening coat of deep red. We chose our dog and christened him Noah. As we were preparing to leave, my husband asked to see the sire. The couple hemmed and hawed, then motioned, albeit sheepishly, to a distant pen, mumbling: He’s a tad hyper today. Jon gave me a look, and I followed, with slowly fluttering heart to the pen. Noah’s father was splendid: large and perfectly proportioned, a lighter coat than his dam, stately and impressive. As it goes, Noah ended up being his carbon copy, in more ways than we bargained for.

Noah’s sire was wild. As soon as he spied us, he began barking and leaping, his four paws quite literally air born. He beheld a crazed look, and his barking never once ceased. Jon stepped behind me and whispered: Now I know why these puppies are only $250. Are you sure you still want him? I felt a shadow, a foreboding, but nodded determinedly, already swooning at this this darling bundle of fur in my arms. I was quite beyond reason.

Noah proved to be a lot. He was an anxious dog, but for whatever reason, set his affections upon me. I have never seen such unbridled favoritism. He followed me everywhere, and as time went on, would bark five minutes before I returned from any outing or errand. Our family grew used to it, but it was odd that he instinctively knew when I was nearing home. Each night, he circled then thumped on his dog cushion next to my side of our bed, and whenever I so much as sneezed, would place a paw firmly on my arm, watching me with mournful, worried eyes.

I registered him for puppy classes at the local pet store, and although he quickly mastered the commands: Sit, Stay, Down, Heel, he remained nervous, mouthing my hands gently as a type of pacifier during class. We started referring to him as Needy Noah.

One Christmas season, while Noah was still young and in training, Jon and I sat down to watch a movie. I clipped Noah’s leash to his collar, teaching him to obey the Stay command while at my feet. On this particular night, he repeatedly attempted to lurch towards the dining room. I kept tugging him back, urging Stay, which he obeyed for a moment, before lurching again. This was unusual, because although a bit wild, he typically longed to obey me.

Crazy dog, Jon said.

I think he is trying to tell us something, I responded. Jon wasn’t buying what I was selling.

As he lurched again, I intentionally let go of the leash and watched as he flew into the dining room, suddenly barking. I followed, and to my horror saw that a candle had fallen from the window and was burning a hole in our carpet. He had sniffed out danger and alerted us. I was so proud of him and praised him wildly. This story eventually became Noah’s Magnum Opus, one I would dredge up every time he misbehaved, (which was often), as I watched my longsuffering husband shake his head and sigh.

Noah lived for nine-and-a-half years, and the older he grew, the more bad-tempered he became with everyone except me. When cancer ultimately had its way, I cradled him as he breathed his last, his eyes locked with mine until the very end. I kissed him goodbye at that sweet spot between his eyes that had always smelled so clean, like fabric softener. I cried for days.

***

Noah certainly wasn’t for everyone, and his hyper-active jumping and anxious barking understandably annoyed many. But his immeasurable, and singular devotion to me was irresistible, and I loved him, craziness and all. We have owned a string of Golden Retrievers since, and their dispositions have been sweet and happy. Jon loves one now, and would do anything for her. I smile knowingly at his devotion, while remembering Noah.

Good books are like dogs. Different personalities and preferences and styles will lend themselves to favorites. What bursts open your heart in a certain book, might not spark others. I recommend chewing up the meat and spitting out the bones as you travel the reading road.

My Three-Star Favorites:

At Home in Mitford – by Jan Karon (I recommend the entire series which I have read through countless times.)

Educated – Tara Westover (A stunning and heart-wrenching memoir with splendid writing.)

The Pleasures of God – John Piper (This book has played a tremendous role in shaping my walk with Christ.)

Some One-Star Favorites:

Little Britches – by Ralph Moody

Stepping Heavenward – Elizabeth Prentiss

The Hiding Place – Corrie TenBoom

Safely Home – Randy Alcorn

Papa’s Wife – by Thyra Ferre Bjorn

God’s Smuggler – by Brother Andrew van der Bijl, Elizabeth and John Sherrill

An Invisible Thread – by Alex Tresniowski and Laura Schroff

True Companion: Thoughts on Being a Pastor’s Wife – by Nancy Wilson

Lad: A Dog – by Albert Payson Terhune

Shiloh – by Phyllis Naylor

Bruchko – by Bruce Olson

Wish You Well – by David Baldacci

Keep a Quiet Heart -Elisabeth Elliot (every book by Elisabeth Elliot is a worthy read)

Eight Twenty-Eight: When Love Didn’t Give Up – by Ian and Larissa Murphy

Mama’s Bank Account – by Kathryn Forbes

Crow Lake – by Mary Lawson

A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss – by Jerry Sittser

The Sun is Still Shining on the Other Side – Margaret Jensen

Becoming Elisabeth Elliot – Vaughn

Please Stay

The sun sifted through the treetops, filtering its way through the new buds of leaves visible on slender branches. I walked the familiar trail, enjoying clean spring air. This walk is impressive during each season, swaying from green leaves and bright flowers to dazzling autumn splendor, from brown leaves crunching to the soft whispers of snow.

While looking upward at these enduring giants, whose limbs hang over the stillness of the pond, I tripped.

Catching myself, I glanced down at the worn path, where a massive root twisted its way along the trail, mostly embedded beneath the dirt, but occasionally rearing. My foot had tangled in it, causing me to stumble, but of course doing no harm to the tree itself. It is a behemoth of a beauty, which based on stature and breadth, is ancient. Old and anchored to this impressive patch of land.

***

I grew up watching our congregation receive the bread and wine on the first Sunday of each month. Our pastor grasped a freshly baked loaf of bread, each end wrapped in a white cloth napkin. He ripped the loaf in half, and careful to cradle each end in cloth, passed the broken halves to both sides of the congregation. Up and down the pews, each person tearing a small piece before passing. And then:

Jesus said, Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.

The rhythm of this unchanged Lord’s Supper, month by month, year by year, was a continual reminder of the broken body of Christ. The tearing of the loaf felt painful and beautiful; somber and hopeful.

One day, however, a church member grew offended. She and her husband had voiced their complaint over the lack of proper hygiene in the passing and plucking of the loaf, but to no avail. Nothing had changed in their favor, and growing incensed, they grabbed their marbles, plus a few other members, and marched to another church playground, never to return.

The seeds of division festered.

***

This world is full of many who are applauding each other for leaving their churches, taking a break, venturing to greener pastures, or staying home and nursing grievances. Everyone is offended at the injustices of this life, and sin in the body of Christ. While I am not condoning any sin, I ponder mostly the injustice done to Jesus, hanging nailed to the cross, the only perfect man and a perfect God. He died for the sins of his people, for his bride, the church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail (Matthew 16:18).

To those of you tempted to hop on this bandwagon named Departure, I ask you to please stay.

My husband is also my pastor, and most Sundays, after he preaches, and we walk to the back to greet people, I whisper: great message. And then we turn to converse with our congregation as they exit the sanctuary.

What I really mean by great message is this: Your words deeply offended me today. As you preached, I realized how often I sin, and then, as you read supporting Scriptures, my heart was pricked. I took notes and apologized to God, asking him to help me repent, obey, and delight in him. As I confessed, God softened my heart, and opened my ears to hear his truth. So although I might have stepped into the service worried about this, and annoyed by that, I have now spent an hour and a half upon the Great Surgeon’s operating table, and have become more overwhelmed with my own sin than I am with getting my own way.

Each one of us is prone to reverse this, swimming along the current of culture, feeling completely justified with our toddler approach of demanding our rights, and our way, and completely ignoring our sin.

I have discovered that there is only one thing destroyed by my repentance, and that is my pride.

Please stay.

Stay in your Bible preaching church with imperfect people, imperfect pastors and imperfect teachers. Stay and commit to hiding God’s word in your heart, reading and meditating every single day. Stay and humbly repent of your own sins. Stay and pray for others. Stay and serve. Stay and speak a kind word. Stay and confront a grievous sin. Stay and be confronted. Stay and forgive. Stay and encourage your pastor, who is often left alone to carry the weight of his calling and the weight of his flock. Stay and temper your complaints, placing them before the Almighty God in prayer before taking further action. Stay and put a hand on a discouraged shoulder, and in doing so encourage the entire church body to move towards unity. Stay and show forbearance and long-suffering; modeling commitment for your spouse, your children, and your grandchildren in the midst of this transient world. Stay and extend deference to the non-essential opinions of others. Stay and be the church without owning the church, because the church belongs to God.

Stay and be changed.

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like the chaff that the wind drives away. (Psalm 1: 1-4 ESV)

Becoming What We Behold

It was usually during the high heat of summer, when humidity swelled and sanctuary windows sat propped, begging a breeze, as women fanned themselves through the sermon, sweat trickling to their neckline, that someone mercifully planned the annual Ice Cream Social.

My childhood church, located in the heart of New England, did not have a gazillion potlucks, as do churches in the south. We held a yearly Sunday School picnic, in early September, checkered blankets scattered on the lawn, ushering in autumn’s splendor while bidding farewell to summer.

But July was the month for ice cream in the church basement, where the air settled cool and damp and musty.

To understand New England’s culture, it is important to know that going out for a cone, partaking in the rich, creamy goodness of Black Raspberry, Vanilla Swiss Almond, Pistachio, or Coffee Heath Bar, actually translates: Come along, my friend. Let’s slow and spend some time together enjoying life. We can sit on picnic benches or lawn chairs, or walk and eat.

One particular year, a man named George was placed in charge of the organizing and scooping of ice cream at our church social. I thought he was a nice man but very old, which is humorous because he was probably in his late forties, my age now. George was a distance runner, and held to his own fashion standard: a short-sleeved dress shirt and shoestring necktie paired with athletic shorts, ankle socks, and running shoes. He was beyond slim, and sported a chin beard plus sideburns, bereft of mustache. George was in the habit of concocting green smoothies ages before anyone else even knew what they were, and was also prone to sharing health strategies that benefited him in all of the ways, to anyone who had the stamina to listen. He was known far and wide for his frugality, which made him an all-around horrible candidate for doling out ice cream.

Children were sweaty, squirmy and hungry, and exhausted parents were discussing the heat wave as they formed a line in the church basement. Heat waves in New England are short-lived, but back in the day few people had air-conditioned homes and cars, making for an uncomfortable stretch until the humidity broke. As our family neared the serving table, George scooped out the tiniest bit of ice cream I had ever seen into our styrofoam bowls. The amount would not have sufficed even a toddler. Folks were irritated, and jabbed at George, complaining about the miniscule portions, plus the no-name brand of ice cream.

George had certainly muddied the waters with his thrifty ways. He mentioned how much he had been able to shave from the church budget with his cheap brand, and if he scooped evenly, there might even be some left over. This was not the typical Ice Cream Social; in years past a friendly face would serve generously, even granting seconds. George remained unfazed, impervious to any criticism, lost in his own world, so it seemed, of pennies and nickels and green health drinks.

I thought of Grandpa, and how he would not approve of this Ice Cream Social one tiny bit. In fact, he was unlike George in every way.

***

Seattle has its coffee, Texas delights in barbeque, and the Deep South boasts sweet tea, but ice cream is New England’s love affair, the Rosetta Stone of the northeast. You haven’t tasted real ice cream until you have stepped out for a cone in that region of the United States. Quality ingredients and flavor reign. Cheap brands will never do.

It is astounding how many of my childhood memories are based around ice cream plus Grandpa, who treated his grandchildren as often as our parents would allow, sometimes sneaking it for us, regardless. Only as an adult did I learn that he had confessed these excursions to our parents, only because he did not want us to be tempted to lie.

Grandpa opened the jingly door to the ice cream parlor, and with a grand sweep of his hand, ushered me in with: Ladies first! then introduced my brother and me with pride to our grinning server: These are my grandchildren! Every server seemed to know my grandfather, which was no surprise. People always flocked to him. He made time for everyone and held the gift of easy conversation. It was a magical sort of gifting, and I was proud. He was not clever with tools, or repairs, or lawncare or cooking. He was simply excellent with people, which is pretty much the best gift of all.

We were encouraged to order anything we wanted, which often meant a fizzy Lime Rickey and grilled cheese followed by an ice-cream cone with jimmies. Grandpa then purchased a five gallon tub of vanilla, to haul home and stash in the basement freezer for later. Later was usually after dinner, which meant on those most special days, sprinkled throughout the year, we would have an afternoon cone and enjoy another dish of ice cream for dessert.

I remember sitting in the backseat of his Volvo (always a Volvo) eating my ice cream, swinging my legs, and listening to Grandpa sing Because He Lives along with the Bill and Gloria Gaither cassette tape. I studied his face in the rearview mirror, watching his round eyes pool with tears. I looked away, aching with the privacy of that moment. He would sometimes tell us that the goodness of God was wider than we could even imagine. It was a short conversation, which oddly enough strengthened the impact. His words fell softly upon a tender place in my heart.

I remember one weekend my brother and I were staying overnight at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. They treated us to a cone before taking us to the movie theatre, which was a big deal back then. The night was unexpectedly cool, and we were chilly after our ice cream. On the way to the theatre, Grandpa turned onto a different road, despite our grandmother’s protests: Bob, we will miss the movie!

No grandchildren of mine will be cold if I can help it, he said and we giggled. He parked the car at Jordan Marsh where he then purchased the nicest sweatshirts the store offered, telling us that quality always mattered; it was good to buy things that would last.

I was probably six or seven at the time, and I still remember that warm feeling inside, which had nothing to do with the sweatshirt I pulled over my head. Grandpa loved us, and it dazzled brilliantly…fireworks lighting up my world. I peeked at his profile as we stepped into the theatre, and it was not so hard to imagine the very face of God.

***

The beauty of Grandpa was that he was full of kindness, grandeur, and authority. One long weekend, he and Grandma invited my brother and me, as well as our two cousins, for an overnight at their home on Washington Street. These cousins of ours were known to bicker endlessly, and this weekend proved no exception.

Grandma scooped ice cream for each of us to enjoy as we sat on their wide front porch. One cousin complained that his portion was smaller than his brother’s, and suddenly a fist-fight erupted. My brother and I stood, horrified, as Grandma tried to peel the two apart. One was so angry that he turned and punched Grandma in the stomach, just as Grandpa appeared.

Grandpa’s eyes widened. He grabbed his grandson’s arm, and propelled him upstairs where he received a solid bit of discipline, on the seat of his pants.

No one ever lays a hand on your Grandma, he told us a bit later, when things had settled. We understood quite clearly.

The offender was not permitted any dessert that weekend, and that was the only time I ever saw Grandpa withhold ice cream; the only time he spanked a grandchild. The boundaries were firm: he meant business, and we knew it.

***

Sometimes I sit quietly and think of those childhood days spent with my grandfather, those moments that sparkled, and why his legacy still stirs. I believe it is this: I never wondered if he loved me, and I never had to earn his love.

He loved me simply because I was his granddaughter. Nothing more could be gained; nothing lost. His worn Bible was a testimony to his first love. He had been rescued by the grace of God, and he knew it; he beheld his salvation, and lived it, happily.

One day I will see him again, and I imagine we will take a stroll together, enjoying some ice cream, for old times’ sake.

Man of Sorrows

Perhaps, during this Holy Week, you are in a tender time, aching for a soft place to land.

Maybe someone you love will be missing at your Easter Table. Or a person whom you considered a true friend has betrayed you. Or you are walking out an unending loneliness, or a staggering illness. Maybe you have been cast aside, or are being mocked for your faith in Jesus. You are bone-weary, discouraged, and sad.

I was reading in Jude last week, and noticed a gem in the second part of verse one:

To those who are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ…

There it is. The gospel, tucked within a greeting: Called, beloved, and kept.

***

As a little girl, my grandparents drove me, weeks before Easter, to Topsy-Turvey, a dress store not too far from Washington Street. At the time, I was the only granddaughter in a sea of grandsons, and once per year they decided a new flowery dress was in order.

One spring, I fell for a white dress, sprinkled with tiny rose buds of pink, purple, and lavender, with a sky-blue sash. It was a swirly-twirly type of dress; an Easter outfit completed by the purchase of a pair of white tights and navy Mary-Janes. Most of my first-grade friends had shiny white patent leather Easter shoes, but in our family line, white shoes were strictly forbidden until after Memorial Day.

It’s just not done, Kristin. Miss Manners had spoken, and that was that. I also longed for pigtails, but had received a fashionable Dorothy Hamill haircut instead, much to my dismay.

We joined my mother’s large extended family after church on Easter Sunday, gathering at a fine restaurant, my grandfather’s treat. It was a delicious feast that began with the establishment’s famous popovers: a light and fluffy delicacy that staved off our hunger as we waited for our full-course lunch to arrive. I’m famished, Grandpa smiled to the waitress, as he handed her the basket to refill.

I was allowed to order a Shirley Temple with my holiday meal, feeling quite grown up while peeking at the Maraschino cherries speared and held by a cocktail pick, floating upright in my red fizzy drink. That is, until I spilled some liquid on my dress. My mother dabbed water from her glass onto the starched white napkin, trying to remove it, but the stain was stubborn. I suddenly felt like a baby and my eyes filled, embarrassed at spilling, humiliated by the stain, and self-conscious of my navy shoes and short hair. I had eaten too many jelly beans and Peeps before church, and suddenly my small world was a dishonorable mess. I was grumpy on the inside, and remember, even now, the loneliness of that moment.

***

I have always held holiday gatherings dear: everyone seated at long tables with pretty place settings, iced lemon water sweating in goblets, vases of fresh-cut flowers, elbows bumping and plates passing as tired stories are embellished and urged back to life while the coffee pot drips and desserts abound. The voices, the togetherness, the familiarity and feeling of belonging to something grander than our own selves is powerful.

I have discovered that sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering is more powerful still.

There was a time, a handful of years ago, when our family experienced back-to-back sufferings, inflicted by the hands of others. Our pain and utter disbelief left us reeling. It was as though we had fallen headlong into a damp, dark cellar, believing that we had surely hit bottom, only to be hurled down another flight and yet another, landing with a hard thump.

I do not yet have any more words for that time, and perhaps never will. I wish I could say that I pulled myself together and soared above my heartache, and everything eventually returned to normal, but that would be to dishonor the nature of suffering. Things never return to business as normal when God takes us through agony; permitting pain that scalds. We exit those waters changed, and in my experience we step onto dry ground walking with a limp. Suffering forms us, and this too is the Lord’s doing. We become like our Cruciform King, bearing permanent scars.

The Mariana Trench is the deepest place on Earth, located in the South Pacific, descending nearly seven cavernous miles. The thought of those dark, frigid waters both frightens and fascinates me. There is ocean life at this abyss, and I marvel that God has created sea creatures for his good pleasure that can function in those pitch recesses. Creatures that we will neither see nor touch. But he fashioned it all, and knows precisely what lies beneath.

Likewise, Jesus knows the depths of our personal suffering. He endured immeasurable loss, betrayal, and an agonizing death at Golgotha, not to mention the loneliness of that dank burial tomb. After three days, he arose majestic, springing up from those depths, and in faith, we will too, after our lifetime of joys and hardships has been completed. God created each of us in secret, designing us with unique fingerprints and sufferings, shrouded in his good and holy purpose. Heaven will be stunning, and we will always belong, tethered to Christ, gifted as heirs with the riches of his Resurrection. A perpetual banquet feast of unbridled joy.

It took me years, but I can now say that I would not change those hard crevices of suffering within my life’s story, even if I could wield such powers. I see now that God knows me best, and my suffering is designed to burn off the dross of myself, forcing me to cling only to him.

My encouragement, suffering one, is to remember Jude’s salutation: as a believer, you are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ.

***

At times we all feel like a child in stained Easter clothes, filled up with sweets that never satisfy, our hearts longing for more. Jesus came to rescue us, in all of our wretchedness and sin and brokenness, suffering in his descension from heaven to this tainted earth. That is the truest love. To pull ourselves up by our own strength is both futile and prideful, and misses the whole magnificence of our rescue by Christ. He sympathizes with our frailties and our sufferings, this Man of Sorrows who is now preparing a place for us, keeping his own forever.

He is fully alive.

Humility Precedes Him

Per doctor’s instructions, I stepped into the scalding shower, hand pressed for support on the tiled wall, inhaling a deep gulp of steam. Suddenly, I gasped, coughing and choking while trying only to breathe, desperate for air.

***

One week prior, I had flown home from an extensive, precautionary surgery. Dropping my shoulder bag, I embraced my family, one-by-one, joyful for a return to the warp and woof of precious mundane. Our sons had spent the entire day installing drywall for a friend, and now lingered in our kitchen, sipping iced coffee, hair damp from showers, smelling of cologne and laundry detergent. Jacob’s face was flushed.

Are you feeling okay? I asked, and he nodded.

I pressed the back of my hand to his forehead. It was on fire.

104 degrees, as it turned out.

This quarterback son of ours was in the thick of his senior year football season. News stories fired rapidly: virulent flu epidemics were sweeping our county, wiping out entire teams. A few local high schools had boarded up, waiting for this sickness to spindle.

I spent the next few days pressing cool compresses on Jacob’s head, persuading him to sip broth and Gatorade, while urging down a few saltines and applesauce to bed his stomach for ongoing ibuprofin. I stripped his sheets twice per day, spinning the dial hot on the washing machine, tipping more detergent in as I waged all-out war on this invisible contagion. His bedding was drenched from profuse sweating as the fever raged and abated, raged and abated: endless waves in a sea of ache.

There’s nothing else to be done, the pediatrician sighed, when I called, frantic at his weight loss, excessive fatigue, and pallor. If his fever spikes over 104, bring him straight to the ER.

I slept little, fear rising tall.

But then one morning Jacob asked for toast. He was shaky and pale, but hungry and feverless. My relief was sweet, and short lived. By morning, everyone else was bedridden, except for me.

That next week was a blur: measuring medicines and keeping charts, scouring bathrooms, serving oyster crackers and tiny ramekins of applesauce, taking cat naps, hauling laundry: repeat. Five days later, when everyone was asking for soup and more toast, please, I was grateful to have bypassed this terrible flu.

Or so I thought.

The aches began suddenly, and I was chilled. I sped to our local walk-in: a precautionary measure because of my recent surgery.

I was labeled Flu-B, and remember telling the doctor I did not feel too terrible, except for an odd feeling in my chest: a shortness of breath. She pulled a cobalt breathing apparatus out of her metal drawer, measuring my oxygen levels while I inhaled then exhaled, informing me all was well. Measurements were perfect. I had a slight cough, all part of this horrific flu.

I want you to go home, and take a long steaming shower. Breathe deeply, and it will help. She signed a prescription for an inhaler, just in case.

It’s precautionary, she smiled. I don’t believe you will need it. But you will feel very poorly, come morning. This I most definitely knew, after watching my family flounder in near delirium for a week.

But no one else had labored breathing, I told her. This seems different.

Hot shower, she pointed at me, all teacher-like. And rest. You will be fine.

***

I have shared words about this son of ours. Quarterback is code for leader, commander, captain, guide. At some point this description is insufficient for Jacob. He is all of those things and more, wrapped in a blanket of gentleness and humility.

***

I could not breath as the water beat hot on my back. I inhaled, and a seal-like barking cough erupted from my chest as I gasped. My daughter, only eleven at the time, heard it and banged on the bathroom door.

Mom, are you okay?

The cough abated, allowing me a momentary breath.

I need a doctor, I wheezed.

In that moment, I would have told you I was dying. My thoughts were sharp, and as I pulled one leg and then the other into my sweatpants, I knew only that I must get dressed before anyone found me. I pulled a t-shirt over my head, but did not untangle my wet hair.

Then, Jacob knocking.

Mom? I am taking you back to the clinic. Can I come in? He had just returned from football practice, and it was a Wednesday. My husband was teaching our Wednesday night church service, and had already left.

I tried to answer, and the gasping began. I remember hearing Lauren sobbing, and Jacob assuring her that all would be well, and to please get in the car. He opened the bathroom door, and seeing the terror in my eyes, remained calm. You might have thought we were going for an amble in the park. It was the same face he held when orchestrating his team down the field and scoring. The effect was soothing; I felt courage flicker.

It’s okay, Mom. We’re getting help. He led me to the back door.

My hat, I wheezed. He found it, handing me my New England Patriots ball cap, to cover my damp hair.

***

As Jacob later spread his wings in college, he was called Tom Brady by students and professors. At that time, Brady was rocking and rolling as the New England Patriots quarterback. Their faces are remarkably alike, so much so in fact, that our son was part of a university article regarding doppelgangers, the name for true look-alikes.

The Patriots are our team, (well, for four out of the six of our family members) and by that I mean they are our team. We take these things seriously in our household, and Jacob had spent his entire boyhood keeping a scrapbook of all things Tom Brady and New England Patriots. To top it off, he threw the ball just like Brady, which made this whole look-alike thing fun.

He downplayed it all, laughing and waving it off, turning the tide of all conversation towards the person before him. So how about you? Do you have a favorite team? Genuine humility is a super magnet; especially for the unrecognized, the marginalized, the outcasts. It is warm, inviting, and kind. The arrogant remain mystified by its pull.

***

Jacob was breaking records his junior and senior year in high school. He never spoke of it, just played and executed, played and encouraged. While Tom Brady was slinging insults at his receivers who dropped passes, Jacob was signaling plays with calm authority, patting backs of those who dropped his spirals. I had a solid view, perched high in those Friday night bleachers, adoring those arched passes of beauty, artistic in their seamless execution. The result of years of practice and whole-hearted love for the game. Jacob’s goodness and kindness towards everyone was prodigious in itself; pulling the excellence out of each athlete, who trusted their quarterback. They simply knew that he desired victory with integrity.

***

By the time Jacob peeled into the clinic, I assumed I wasn’t dying, although each time I coughed, it felt as though I would never again draw breath. With each cough, I would gasp, desperately sucking in air, willing my lungs to open.

The doctor rushed me into the back room, recognizing me from earlier in the day. Days later, Jacob told me that he was frightened when I struggled to breathe in that office, because of the terror on the doctor’s face; her charts and notes and equipment falling useless.

She fumbled again for the blue breathing apparatus, and asked me to inhale, reporting that my oxygen levels were good.

But she can’t breathe, Jacob said evenly. She needs to go to the hospital right now.

I looked at the fear in my daughter’s eyes, and asked Jacob to care for his sister. Please take her home, and tell your dad, I gasped.

We’ll be fine, Mom. And so will you.

He hugged me and they left.

***

Over time, I have watched him serve the biggest slice of his favorite pie to another. I have seen him empty the dishwasher when no one is paying attention; when it would have been easier to pluck one clean glass and shut the rest inside for another to empty. I have noticed him caring for the neglected, tender in his words, hand upon slumped shoulder, quiet; inconspicuous. I have watched him deny himself the chance to be proven right by not correcting. I have known him to stop in the middle of the road and lift a turtle to safety, and I have seen him sing as he works, joyful in hardships. I have observed him step away from insults, diffusing a crisis by calm retreat rather than retort. I have watched him rise up to defend us, his family. His protective instincts know no bounds, and his friendships eclipse only the arrogant. I have never once had to repeat myself to him: he listens with entirety, remembering stories and preferences and details; holding them with surety and precision. Jacob’s Bible is continuously open on the counter, his bed, and his desk; worn-out, marked, cherished.

His soul is an entire table, really. A banquet feast of fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

***

The doctors in the ER told me that the flu had uniquely manifested itself in my lungs, leading to difficult breathing. They kept me overnight, and provided an inhaler. I limped home the next day, where the flu took a wicked turn, wiping me out for a week as it had my family. But I could breathe.

***

When Caleb (who had bypassed the whole Flu-B saga, away at college at the time) became engaged, he asked Jacob to be his best man.

During Caleb and Natalia’s reception, following their vows, we danced and laughed and twirled, long dresses and suits swishing, uncomfortable shoes kicked off, fire pit hot as guests warmed their hands in the chill. Then the music paused. It was speech time. Jacob stepped forward, under the tent, sparkly lights glowing over the planks of the dance floor. Tears sprang up as I watched him stand before his older brother, one of his best friends. I held on to those memories now whipping through my mind: their childhood years spent sharing a bedroom, building Legos and forts, riding bikes and playing football together.

This best man pulled his speech from his suit pocket, thanking everyone for attending his brother’s wedding. He looked directly at Caleb and told him he loved him. He then shared a childhood memory which illuminated the kindness of Caleb. Everyone leaned in, loving the story, which concluded with: And this is why, you, Caleb, are really the best man.

Caleb’s eyes filled; we were all undone. Jacob shared several more vignettes, repeatedly ending with: And this is why, you, Caleb, are really the best man.

It was a speech for the ages.

***

There is a scene in The Wizard of Oz, a moment where everything comes crashing down, truth is revealed.

Toto, the tiny dog, yanks back the curtain of secret powers. The jig is up: this Wizard is a mere mortal. His entire existence was a sham, and he had deceived his entire kingdom, pretending to be something he was not.

I have seen the curtain pulled back in Jacob’s life, revealing his secret. There, within, lies a bridge called Abiding. A bridge leading directly to the Lord, a bridge that Jacob chooses to travel each day. There is a hidden gem that he practices rather than preaches. It goes something like this: Love God most and go live your life.

***

Not too long ago, Jon and I sat in the living room, catching up with Jacob, now a man who writes articles by day and songs by night, singing his stories handsomely. He had been given a work assignment to cover a news story about a well-known Christian artist who was encouraging music majors at a local university.

What’s he like? Jon asked.

Jacob paused, coffee mug in hand.

The only way I can think to describe him, is to say that humility goes before him.

How so? asked my husband.

Well, he walked into this huge gathering, and he noticed others, stopping to speak to everyone. Sometimes these famous people have a list of needs or demands. He was the opposite of that, relaxed and peaceful, and was interested in hearing the music and stories of the students. I have never seen anything like it. Very cool. He smiled, just thinking of it.

Never seen anything like it? I thought. But our son had just perfectly described himself.

And then, a flash of knowing: the truly humble never regard their own humility. Of course

Humility precedes him.

Home

Last Thanksgiving, I slipped out of bed early, and seasoned an enormous turkey, wrangling it, with the help of our son, Jacob, into our new electric roaster oven. We circled the salt and pepper shakers, grinding them generously over the raw bird before placing the lid on top, covering it with a dish towel, and willing it to cook up juicy and tender in this new contraption. Our son brewed a steaming pot of coffee, pouring us each a generous cup, and splashing it with half-and-half as we set to rolling out the apple pie and crumbling the crisp. Lauren soon joined us, and together we chopped and diced and chattered and laughed and sang along to some favorite tunes that we told Alexa to play.

Slowly, our home awakened as the sun brightened our bustling kitchen. Caleb and his new bride appeared, so happy, his wedding band shiny on the small of her back. As my husband set up folding tables and chairs, our daughter-in-love’s family rang the doorbell, with yet more casseroles, after-dinner-mints, and hugs all around. Soon, our home was ablaze with family and friends, conversation, delicious aromas, good will, and laughter.

We lined up the pretty platters beneath the window of our swarming kitchen. I delighted to see our sons sampling the fare before our feast began, nodding in pleasure to no one in particular. My heart was full, with this gift of expanding family, this glorious feast; the togetherness of it all. The beauty of that moment only matched the joy of the people in our home. It was a cheer to the future, and I felt the presence of God in our kitchen, as we thanked him for this one precious life; his kindness and goodness stretching towards us in both the good and the hard.

I wanted to hold on to that precious day; it felt like a sliver of heaven.

***

I sailed away to a conference recently, driving alone for miles through the foothills of our state. This respite from the mundane was something that I have often neglected, due to good things crowding out soul things. Those stretches of highway, navigating the winding roads through violet hues of mountains, cattle grazing slant on hills, old chipped farmhouses nestled into the land, chimney smoke swirling, opened my heart to our Creator.

I was entirely unprepared for the soul places that were pierced during this conference. As Christians shared their craft, their burdens, their good and failing habits, I scribbled fast notes. It was a steady stream of experience and wisdom; flashing sparks of clarity: that sense C.S. Lewis spoke of when he said: Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”

Although I did not befriend anyone, (it was not that type of interactive setting), there were many What? You too? moments. Writing is a solitary habit, dwelling in a distant mental space that takes on a entire kingdom of its own. It is good to remember to occasionally swing open the door and return to solid ground; linking arms with living, breathing people.

The richest moment happened when one author moved to the podium, and read an entire chapter from his own book. It was memoirish in its unfolding: his sentences were haunting, lovely, and true, all swirled together, falling softly upon fertile soil. I know this because I was not the only one dabbing my eyes. I cannot even remember the last time I have been the grateful recipient of such winsome words. His story carried familiar pain, and his scars spun golden beauty on the page, thoughts that I am still gathering and turning over in my mind. He shared of his elusive longing for home.

He also spoke of a time when a mentor urged him to pay attention, to heed those seemingly trivial moments in life that bring tears or a throat lump: whether while watching a movie, or reading a book, or listening to music. Those tender spots just might be the very places that God longs to heal. How often do we rush past these emotions, rather than understanding them to be maps? Maps leading to all sorts of unfinished business. It is good to be still, to be quiet and alone with the Lord. To ponder these things while reminding ourselves that He is God and we are not (Psalm 46:10). An invitation to pay attention to what God is choosing to do in and through us; in our ordinary days that often slip by without our full attention.

***

In soon to be twenty-seven years of marriage, we have held many addresses. While this sounds adventurous and perhaps romantic to those filled with wanderlust, it lodged and settled: a mountainous ache within. Something I continually tripped over.

I lived my childhood remembering only two homes, and for the first twelve years of my life spent in that old New England farmhouse, flush with four, sharp, brilliant seasons and outdoor beauty, romping and reveling with my brother in this outdoor realm, place was magnificent. God used his creation to draw me to himself: his handiwork on display in the fresh country air, baled hay in our back field, burning foliage, stone walls, ripened raspberries and apple orchards, ponds, and tall, heavy snow drifts. These things spelled home, and even as a little girl pedaling my bike up the road to deliver a shiny apple to our neighbor’s horse, I remember sensing that my heart might just burst at the goodness of God’s creation. I thanked him for it as I smiled big and pedaled on, tousled hair blowing in the breeze while I pumped my bicycle. I would have been deeply embarrassed to share this unbounded joy with anyone, as it all sounded rather dramatic. Yet those unbroken waves of worship were soundlessly unbridled.

When Jon and I married, I held fast to a two-pronged wish: to live in one place forever, and for that one place to have seasons. God said No.

Part of that No had to do with the fact that my husband’s job was in the far south, which clearly excluded a changing of temperature. I acclimated, growing accustomed to a nagging longing, much like an annoying mosquito buzzing about my face every single September, without fail. Shielding my eyes from the scorching sun, I vainly scanned the horizon for any inkling of autumn.

We had been entrusted to raise four beauties, were blessed with friends, and were fostering the growing roots of community within our church. Eventually, we purchased what was to be our forever home. I had plans, which would not include buying soft sweaters or winter coats, but involved some dreamy garden schemes, a solid fort for our children, extended walks around the community lake, spying alligators and Great blue herons, and who knows? Maybe one day, we would even add a swimming pool to our backyard.

What I did not know, was that within a year, we would hammer a For Sale sign in our front yard and hike across the country, to a space with wide open sky minus those four spinning seasons, a rootless place with no established community. We were beginning all over again, and I was tired. While all of this was unfolding, I bore a deep sorrow for failing our children. They would never know the joy of standing firmly in one spot, tending to one specific patch of earth, diving headlong into community that remained constant.

Of course, now, in hindsight, I am able to poke all kinds of holes in my faulty thinking: communities change, God has different plans for our children than he does for us, and we must learn to be joyfully open to the Lord’s direction in our lives. But honestly? I still wish I could have given our now-grown children the gift of singular place. It is a thorn in my flesh, this longing for a forever home, a splinter that disappears and returns, unexpected.

***

As our keynote speaker read his own words, he shared of his nomadic pain as a pastor’s son. He had loved his home, his neighborhood, and those four clear seasons. When his father accepted a pastorate in the South, it crushed him, in all kinds of ways. In time, as a man gazing back over the landscape, he was able to see God’s magnificent redemption woven throughout his story. He recognized that he had regrettably kindled his disappointment and ache for what was into a steady blaze of anger, which blinded him to the goodness to be found in the today; to all of those things he might have learned.

I appreciated his humble admission that he still longs for that elusive home on earth. Acknowledging this, rather than pretending that everything ended up just so, sang of both credibility and vulnerability to this audience of strangers seated before him. He knows that his heart beats for eternity with God, yet he simultaneously lives in an aging body, as we all do, full of memories and broken dreams. The beautiful truth is that one day, all things will be made new. As Christians, we know that our story, through Jesus, ends in absolute perfection and joy, but even with this comfort and this hope, life remains hard.

A lump rose full in my throat as it stirred up that yearning for one place; for that permanent zip code. It was suddenly quite clear: this ache of mine is a map leading to my heart’s ultimate cry: for heaven, where Jesus has gone to prepare my forever home. He will take me safely there, one day, to be with him, forever (John 14:2-3).

***

I drove back from the conference, retracing my path through the winding, anchored mountains which appeared lovely, yet different in the still of evening as the sun fell, tossing long shadows. I was going home.

The Secret Things

It was early on in my college days when I entered that economics class, backpack thudding heavy at my feet, dutifully prepared to fulfill a graduation requirement for my liberal arts education. I wish I could tell you of my insatiable curiosity regarding each and every subject offered, but that would be untrue. I had a singular yearning for all things English. Playing with words, relishing plot lines, fleshing out themes, developing characters, plus studying the great writers consumed my inward musings. I spoke of this to pretty much no one, ever. But I knew what I loved. Every other class I would plod along, studying and learning something; a conscientious workhorse, if nothing more. But writing? That was my slow burn.

Professor Rick stepped bowlegged into our classroom, tall, mid-thirties, a hefty stack of books and papers under his arm, pencil tucked behind his ear. A few hallmates had warned me that he was tough. As he handed out the syllabus, I scanned the packet, spotting a future paper. I exhaled relief at this opportunity to perhaps earn points. Multiple-choice exams had never been my companions.

Hallmates were accurate in their assessment of this man. He adored economics: currency, scarcity, government spending, supply and demand, prices and profits. He was consumed by the wonder of it all, and I could not even pretend to imagine how anyone could be passionate about such things.

As the weeks drifted by, I tried my very best, and earned a decent mark on my paper, which helped to brighten my outlook in the landscape of below average test scores. I had attempted to create beauty out of my boredom and lack. As Professor Rick returned my paper, he asked if I was an English major. I nodded.

Your paper missed the mark of a developed grasp of microeconomics, young lady. But you do have command of the English language. His eyes smiled even as his mouth did not. Keep at it.

In hindsight, it must have been dreadful for him to teach this basic class to students who were merely checking off a box. His passion was not ours. I knew business majors who claimed that he was a top-notch professor, full of knowledge and wisdom and brilliance. This was lost in translation to our class. Many students fell asleep, mouths slack and sometimes even drooling. On more than one occasion Professor Rick slammed his fat economics book shut, jolting the sleeping to life. He was not smiling when he chose this command of his classroom; his irritation pulsed. We learned, rather swiftly, to refrain from asking too many questions as his impatience soared. This professor was light years ahead of us, and we were mere creatures suffering through necessary evils to graduate.

After frightening a few students awake on a particularly dry week, Professor Rick, in a rush towards practicality, or so it seemed, shared a money principle that he had adopted from day one of his marriage. He asked us to consider following his method.

Class, I keep a small notebook in our kitchen drawer. I make sure that my wife writes down every single penny that she spends each day, and I do the same. Gasoline? Check. A pack of gum? Check. Our electric bill? Check. Cheeseburger and fries? You guessed it! Check.

His eyes danced with the delight of such economic slyness.

This way, I can be certain where our money is going. Not only that, but it forces us to really think before we so much as purchase a candy bar. He was now grinning hugely.

I twirled my pencil in my hands, imagining the tightrope existence his wife was likely walking at home. She probably could not even enjoy one lousy piece of gum on any given day.

Another morning, he lectured upon the magnificence of numbers, those ten digits that could be ordered in unending ways, and the inconceivable mind of God who designed an infinite number line, completely beyond human wisdom. I considered that truth for a moment, comparing it to the twenty-six letters of our alphabet. Certainly more letters than those ten digits, but words were not infinite, and that thought sheathed me in a cloak of comfort. Words were already formed, tucked guardedly beneath the canopy of sky, waiting patiently to be chosen and paired and strung together. Beauty and truth landing on clean white paper, in numberless ways. Stories longing for a pen.

***

Before my first birthday, I had committed two unpardonable offenses against my grandmother. Two things that would more or less define our relationship for the rest of her life.

Number one: When she traveled all of the way from New England to the Midwest to meet me weeks after my birth, I would not permit her to hold me, crying profusely until she handed me back to my mother.

To be fair, air travel was not cheap in the 1970’s, and I am quite certain that she had scrambled to receive time off from her secretarial job at the local high school. Later on, when we lived in New England and I was in kindergarten, every few weeks my mother was paid to deep clean our grandparents’ home on Washington Street. My brother and I would enjoy cartoons in their television room as our mother polished the furniture with old t-shirts ripped into square rags and dampened with lemon oil. She shined everything to a fair-thee-well, pieces of dust stirred upwards in a haze before floating lazily to the ground, captured by the sun streaming through the French doors. Tiring of television, my brother and I zipped up our windbreakers and stepped outside, digging up old dead branches in the back woods, inventing games as only four and five-year old children can.

After vacuuming, scrubbing the tub, and commanding mirrors and sinks to sparkle, our mother fed us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cut into triangles, before buckling us up and driving the short distance to visit our grandmother’s workplace.

The high school where she worked smelled of paper and pencils mixed with the sweat of student athletes, who lounged over the counter waiting for permission slips to be acknowledged by the front office before slipping out for their dental appointments, as their mothers waited in cars, glancing at their watches and sometimes honking in exasperation.

I stood tippy-toed by the counter, observing my grandmother working at her typewriter in her office space behind these counters. Her desk was sparse and her office tidy. As her fingers flew over those pinging typewriter keys, her eyes scanned the papers to her right, never once peeking at her own hands.

The receptionist traded hellos with my mother, holding out a glass dish of pastel mints that melted sweetly on my tongue. My brother stood staring upward, utterly mesmerized by the massive Sachem carving, the Native American mascot of the high school. It was startling and strangely beautiful, this chief’s likeness, a pillar of strength and greatness, a nod to this formidable tribe of the Northeast. The warrior’s headdress was full of white feathers, his brow serious and his profile sharp. I could tell that he meant business.

After a moment, the receptionist tapped on my grandmother’s office window. Grandma walked towards us, business-like in her gray blazer with shiny gold buttons and matching skirt, greeting us in a voice one octave higher than usual, her wording unnatural. I felt trapped, knowing what was coming minus the understanding of the why. I longed to hide behind that formidable Sachem.

Do you have a hug for Grandma? she stepped from behind the counter, and my brother hugged her waist.

The office ladies clustered around, clucking and crooning. He’s so cute, Libby! Would you look at those dimples! You must adore having such beautiful grandchildren.

Grandma nodded, her eyes landing on me. But that one never comes to me.

She watched me, her eyes tightening, slightly. The story that never ended.

When Kristin was six weeks old, I flew all of the way to see her, and she screamed every time I held her. Imagine spending all of that money, and not even being able to hold my own granddaughter! I ended up cooking and cleaning, which I could have done at home.

The office ladies laughed.

I stood there, not knowing what to do with my hands, nowhere for my feet to go.

***

My second unpardonable offense took place on Washington Street. In my grandparents’ bedroom.

At that point, we still lived in the Midwest, but had traveled back to New England for a visit. I was a baby, old enough to pull myself up to a standing position in my crib, which is what I did on this day, while I was supposed to be napping.

My grandmother borrowed a playpen, and unfolded it underneath her bedroom window. As the story goes, I fussed for awhile, probably missing my familiar surroundings. When my crying stopped, everyone assumed that I had drifted to sleep.

My grandmother had recently gone to great pains, as she was fond of saying, to completely repaper their bedroom. This room was good-sized, and with three prominent windows, was most definitely not a cinch to wallpaper. The paper itself was expensive: lusciously thick with raised designs, high quality and just so. With five children grown and four of them no longer living at home, she finally had a bit more money to spend on such things. As it goes, she had discovered this high-end paper at a remnant store, and figured that if she measured carefully, and worked meticulously, she would have just enough to complete the job.

And she did. With not a shred left over.

So on that day, playpen perched under the window, shades pulled low, my baby hands found a corner piece of wallpaper that the paste had missed. I pulled at it, and it ripped jagged. It must have been entertaining, because I kept it up, pulling and ripping an entire area, shredding the pieces thin.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for that reaction.

All I know is that she repeated the story for decades, always ending with: I was as mad as a hornet!

To which my grandfather would mutter: For crying out loud, Libby. She was only a baby.

***

I scraped by in that economics class, passing, and grateful for it. I was delighted to part ways with the roar of economic jargon that had plagued my dreams. It was sweet relief to move on.

A year slipped by, and college life pushed along until one night, while studying in my room, a friend pounded on my door. There is an emergency hall meeting in ten minutes, she said.

As it turned out, there had been an attack on campus. A girl had been assaulted, but thankfully a campus security fellow had stepped in, engaging the knife-wielding predator, who had himself managed to escape. The campus security man, also a student, had sustained significant knife wounds during the scuffle, and was hospitalized.

Until this man is apprehended, said our hall director, we are asking you girls to stay in groups when walking campus, especially at night. Remember: safety in numbers.

Our small university was abuzz; nervous. Everything felt tense. My roommate and I were extra careful to lock our bedroom door at night, and our suitemates would not even enter the communal bathrooms alone, fearing the possibility of a hidden assailant lurking in the showers.

***

The whole story quickly unraveled as the police worked the case. In the end, there was neither a perpetrator nor a victim. The campus security student had fabricated the twisted story, stabbing himself so as to be viewed a hero.

Faculty were upset, parents were outraged, and students were simultaneously relieved yet angry at the web of lies. The campus safety student was a commuter; older than most undergrads, and a business major in one of Professor Rick’s classes. I had a friend who was in this very class, and shared what happened after the truth was discovered.

Professor Rick called the man to stand before the class, and the man confessed his wrongdoing. This humbling act was followed by his apology to everyone present. Professor then gently accepted his apology and openly forgave him, praying for his healing and God’s blessing upon his life. According to my friend, the kindness extended by Professor Rick was sincere and quite moving, impacting the students seated in that classroom, and trickling beyond.

Five years later, Professor Rick died suddenly while playing basketball with his son. I had not realized the impact he had made upon business majors and our university itself, until I read about his wide generosity in his obituary. As it turned out, he gave and gave and gave some more; fruitful works secretly executed.

That notebook of expenditures in his kitchen? Those personal denials of extras allowed he and his wife to hugely provide for others. I felt ashamed for my hasty rush to judgment towards a man who had quietly done so much good.

***

The days are growing longer and brighter. Shadows are changing, Temperatures have lifted, and the sun is beckoning new life, calling the sleeping flora and fauna to awaken. I spotted a few lemony dandelions while walking this week, and now feel much like a child on a treasure hunt, searching the trees for buds. Resurrection time is nearing; this long winter is shedding its coat as all things are being made new.

***

What I did not know as a child, nor understand as a college student, is the layered complexity of each life.

My aversion towards my grandmother, my tearing of her lovely wallpaper, ripped at some sort of festering blister within her soul. I will never know the depths of it, as the secret things belong to the Lord. (Deuteronomy 29:29) There was a poverty of spirit within her, something so cavernous that no one person could ever fill. She clung so protectively to her many grudges, that in time it became who she was. I have forgiven her completely.

Freeing another with wild forgiveness sweeps away the clutter of my own heart, and ushers in the winds of lasting peace, freeing me. It is a choice to take the long view, releasing others to the workings of the Holy Spirit. There is a richness to be treasured in this perspective, understanding that because of my faith in Christ, I, too, have been fully forgiven. As I grace such pardon to others, spring rushes into my heart; the truth of the Resurrection exquisitely unveiled.

The Power of Story

Last weekend, when I viewed that black and white photograph, the world exploded: a symphony of color.

***

I was four years old when our family visited the stuffy apartment of my great-grandparents.

I stood pressed next to my parents and grandparents as we skyrocketed the cramped elevator. Crossing their threshhold, I saw Nana rocking in her rose chair, padded house slippers covering her feet. Pa sat perched on a worn-out sofa, hands resting on his belly. He was remarkably short, by any standard, his feet not even reaching the shag carpet unless he scooted to the edge of the couch.

There was something imperceptibly intimidating about his face: a large, rectangular head, wise-guy smirk, eyes framed by dark-rimmed glasses. As lore had it, (always whispered along with: Careful, little pitchers have big ears) Pa once strode the city streets with a belligerent crowd, stirring fights. The third of eleven children, he had barely finished eighth grade when he quit school in order to support his enormous family. From the few crumbs of scattered tales I have gathered, the family was tough, and by that I actually mean rough. Resilient, but lacking warmth.

Pa was said to be brilliant, but a poor handler of money; a man who considered practical details trivial. A natural inventor, he had designed a way to preserve drinking water for military use. When he neglected to complete the trivial paperwork to patent his invention, another man snatched it up and quickly patented what ultimately became a wildly profitable invention.

Just think… my grandmother used to moan in her older years, chin resting in her palm, elbow atop the dinner table. If my father had only registered the patent, we would all be living in a mansion overlooking the ocean.

I remember studying a can of this preserved water, which my mother kept on a shelf at home. For years I held the weight of history, the thrill of invention, heavy in my hands, but after a time it became only a solid gray can, reminding me that details do matter.

Of course I knew none of this that day. All I knew as I clutched my Grandpa’s hand, was that Pa frightened me.

Come here, little girl. Pa beckoned to me roughly with his short index finger. I inched forward.

Watch this, Kristin. I can bite my thumb off.

And with that terrifying sentence, he placed his thumb straight into the air and pretended to gnaw it off. When he pulled the thumb out of his mouth, he kept it at an angle so that half of it appeared missing. He then feigned to swallow the missing half: solid proof to any four-year-old that all hope was lost.

I felt a trapped cry rise in my throat, as my grandfather pulled me back, and stooped low, comforting me.

Joe, he hollered to his father-in-law, Stop it! You are scaring the child to death.

Pa laughed, showing me his intact thumb.

And that is my only memory of my great-grandfather. He died within a year.

***

Years ago a friend gifted me an ancestry.com subscription, prompting me to spit into a vial and mail in my DNA. When I received the results, there were no surprises: mainly English and Irish ancestry on one side; predominantly German on the other. I realized after I studied the results, that these findings felt dull. What was I really searching for?

Stories, of course.

Shortly after those ancestry results, my brother emailed me a copy of our detailed family tree that our uncle had created: an in-depth labor of intense research to trace back the lines that had led to the union of his parents; my grandparents.

I studied the thirty-odd pages, and initially became stuck on one glaring mistake: the death of Pa dated 1967 rather than 1977. I was not even born until 1972, and this error would indicate that I had never stepped into that terribly warm apartment. It would also not account for my memory of the reception following Pa’s funeral.

I was five, and there were throngs of people stuffed into my grandparent’s home on Washington Street. I stood at the edge of their living room, observing Nana as she wailed, handkerchief in hand, rocking steadily in the chair, while my own grandmother sat dabbing her eyes on the far sofa. Relatives were milling about, bumping elbows while clutching drinks and balancing hors d’oeuvres on tiny napkins. As people traipsed through the narrow living room, I studied the fireplace mantle. Atop it were several genuine whale teeth, with exquisite sketches of ships etched upon their yellowed surface. My Grandpa had once placed them in my open hands, never once prompting me to be gentle. I had watched him carefully cradle the monstrous teeth, and instinctively knew they were valuable.

Our ancestors were whalers in New Bedford, he told me as I held the artifacts.

Those whale teeth were very cool, and they sparked my imagination. I envisioned brave men in our family line, in worn-out rain jackets with hoods, shouting to one another above the howling winds and frigid sea air, spinning through waters with their spears and ropes, bravely chasing those gigantic sea creatures and their precious blubber needed for oil-lamps and soap. Their success was measured by the number of teeth they brought home.

I never imagined that within a few years of Pa’s funeral, in the pitch of night, my grandparents’ home on Washington Street would be robbed; whale teeth forever lost. But I still held the story.

***

Aside from the incorrect date of Pa’s death, my uncle’s report held intriguing information. One family line traces firmly back to the deck of the Mayflower itself, my ancestors sailing that tumultuous journey of sea-sickness and hardtack and miles of grey ocean. A journey that began with excitement and promise, and ended with uncertainty and exhaustion and the painstaking work of survival.

Another document reveals the tragic story of three siblings: Sarah, John, and Zachariah, relatives to our direct family line, who climbed a cherry tree one lovely summer’s day in the year 1711. At that very moment, Indians raided their property, kidnapping the three children, ripping them from the tree branches and forcing them to Quebec. The daughter was never seen again, but the boys returned some thirty years later, now grown men who had adopted Native American culture, in time becoming prominent Indian chiefs. Their painted faces and dress concealed both their heritage and our family bloodline, pulsing through their veins.

The facts are just that: names, dates, towns, and tribes.

Did their mother recognize the shape of their eyes, or the slopes of their noses? Did she hug her dear sons and weep? Was their father relieved to see them alive as Indian men? Or was the pain now worse, as they chose not to remain with their birth parents? Did these sons even remember their mother and father after lost decades?

I am left guessing, longing to fill in the blanks.

***

While reading through the Old Testament, I have encountered list after list of genealogies: names and relations and tribes. I pause, and allow myself to become fully aware of each name. We are all image-bearers of God, created by his design, and each one of us has a tale or two worth sharing. What a shame not to keep and treasure our stories. God has gifted us with history: the ability to write and speak and remember the things of old (Isaiah 46:9-10). Stories from our life on earth help us to witness how sin flows black, curling the heart inward, often carrying poison to our progeny, ever prone to repeat our ways.

Today I read of Gideon. In Judges 6:25-27, the LORD commanded Gideon to remove the altar of Baal that his own father had built, replacing it with an altar to God. Gideon obeyed, but I was fascinated to read that Gideon did this in the dark of night, because he feared his family.

Only two chapters later, Gideon is found repeating the sins of his father, by creating an idol out of melted gold, which he placed directly in his city. And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family. (Judges 8:27)

Family is a powerful thing, and I understand Gideon’s fear. Family holds sway, and I have only relinquished my sin of people-pleasing during this past year. I bear the scars, but my story goes something like this: When you choose to love God most and please him first, he will shore you up with immeasurable peace in the midst of the upheaval. God has no room for idols in the hearts of his children. Family is a gift to be treasured, not a god to be worshipped.

***

Last weekend, our son, Caleb, placed a black and white photo on his kitchen table.

Look at this, he said.

I stood in that kitchen, so bright and pretty: a happy place for our newly-married son and his dear wife.

There, gently placed before me, was a photograph of our first grandchild. A magnificent sonogram profile.

In a flash, I felt the blessings of heritage, the beauty akin to a French braid: strands gently pulled and grafted in, familial lines weaving and culminating in a divinely designed person who is already loved and cherished and fully known by God. With this one glance, I was reduced to happy tears, as joy gave way to excitement and sudden love: fierce and strong.

Our firstborn son had shown me a photograph of his firstborn. Our story goes on, an intricate tapestry woven by God.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well.

Psalm 139:14

Despite My Lack

When my husband was hired to pastor our church nearly two years ago, I sat down with a sharpened pencil and yellow pad, scribbling down our projected new cost-of-living expenses. After reworking and erasing numbers, I pondered ways to earn a bit of additional income. But overseeing the schooling of our two high-school-aged children, and managing all practicalities of our household, left little time for another job.

I had friends who had ventured into online work, virtually teaching the English language to Chinese children. The pay was decent, and I could perhaps schedule tutoring hours early in the morning, freeing me up for normal tasks throughout the rest of the day. Five o’clock in the morning here is dinnertime in China, which is prime for tutoring. I was willing to give it a whirl, and when I shared with my husband what I could potentially earn, albeit small, I noticed his shoulders relax.

As I was knee-deep in boxes and packaging tape, stuffing up our worldly goods, I paused and made a few purchases for this new online potential: alphabet magnets, a pretty poster displaying the four seasons, and another with the English alphabet in easy-to-read print. The largest expense, still minimal, was a canvas map of the world: unlabeled, artistic, and engaging. I had visions of placing a globe on my desk, showing those little children where I was in the world, tracing with my index finger all of the way to China, as I slowly spun the sphere. Then, I would point to the canvas print: directing a slow line from China back to the States. I had also selected a few classic easy readers to share with the students, students who were oceans away.

As the last piece of furniture was pushed into our moving truck, I phoned this online teaching company, scheduling an interview to take place two weeks after we had moved into our new state, our new home, my husband’s new job, and our new church. What was I even thinking? I know not.

Somewhere along that tedious twelve hour drive up Interstate 95, it dawned on me that I had overlooked an important purchase: a desk. Our former home had contained built-in bookshelves plus a nook for our computer, and in the bustle of moving, I had forgotten that our new home was without said shelving.

So after one lengthy week of full speed ahead: unpacking boxes and hanging pictures in our new home, our son, Marcus, came to my rescue. He knows me well, and spent time searching for the desk of my dreams: solid and handsome and inexpensive. I never imagined it possible to find this triumvirate, but then, one night: bingo. It was nothing short of perfection: a cream-colored, farmhouse-style desk with eight drawers and ample desktop space. It was divinely solid, built to last, and attractive. The cost? Forty dollars.

We heaved it upstairs, inch by inch. I placed the computer and globe squarely on top.

***

The first time I was required to stand up in front of my class and give a little speech was fourth grade. Fourth grade was one of those years that I recollect rather hazily, except for the fact that our teacher was trying a new thing, and we were made to sit in clusters of four, desks pushed together in a square so that instead of paying attention to the teacher, we were continuously distracted by each other. I still cannot figure out why she chose this arrangement, but she must have had her reasons, even as her voice grew shriller by the week. Stop Talking! Pay attention! Listen to me!

The girl to my right was left-handed, and the underside of her hand was perpetually stained with graphite from dragging it across the page. This smudged her papers and her desk, and sadly even my desk, as she usually rested it there while the teacher was speaking. This same girl was a talker, and delighted in whispering to our group. I dreaded even the possibility of falling into trouble for talking, so I tried my best to ignore her, which left her dark and sulky. Fourth grade was flush with drama, if nothing else.

One day our teacher assigned a presentation based upon our upcoming leaf collections. We were to assemble a variety of leaves, press them within two sheets of contact paper, label them, and present our overall findings to the class. I was beyond nervous.

While the leaf collecting itself was enjoyable, the speech was not. I flushed bright red, as sweat trickled down my back. Flying through my prepared words far too rapidly and quietly, the teacher had me start over, twice, with a: Please speak up and slow down, Kristin. When she said: slow down, she raised her voice and decelerated, dragging the words for a painfully long time. My eyes smarted in complete humiliation.

The whole scene, beginning to end, was beyond abysmal.

These public speeches, sprinkled throughout my entire education, were essentially the same song, different dance. Any improvement was miniscule, at best.

In fifth grade, my parents enrolled me in flute lessons. An overly-compliant firstborn, I never protested, despite my interest in the flute being nil. I only held onto one small musical dream of playing piano. Several of my school friends had pianos, elegantly settled in the corner of their formal living rooms, and when I spent afternoons at their homes, I played the keys, softly experimenting, seated upright on the bench’s edge, trying to make my legs reach the pedals as I played Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The piano was so peaceful and relaxing, while the flute pierced: every bit as shrill as my former fourth-grade teacher.

Regardless, the flute lessons continued, and I soldiered on, dutifully and miserably. That is, until the dreaded, mandatory recitals. I pleaded with my parents and teacher to excuse me, but to no avail. The moment I stepped upon the stage, my lips dried up in nervousness, and when I tried to play, the room grew deathly still, with only an occasional cough or wrinkling of the program paper, as scores of parents, siblings, and grandparents watched. I attempted to blow into my flute, but without moisture, nothing but a pathetic whiffling sound emerged. I was crimson with embarrassment, yet kept my fingers moving with the memorized change of keys. Barely a sound came out. The only thing that would have made it worse was crying, and by some means I held my tears until I was alone in the recital hall’s bathroom. There I wept.

These lessons went on for seven, aching years.

During that time, I hatched a plan, and promised God: Should any of my future children show a fondness for piano, I would move mountains to make it happen. Recitals? Optional.

***

A few days before my online English tutoring interview, the company sent me a practice link, brimming with pointers and practice ideas.

It took about five minutes of perusing to determine that this was not quite the opportunity that I had envisioned. The entire approach proceeded by reading slides, always keeping things: fun! exciting! loud! I felt my plans of tracing along a globe, pointing to a map, and teaching letters and sounds gently, with careful repetition, disintegrate.

It took another five minutes for me to decide that I was not going to give up. I had successfully taught our four children to read, and I could do this. I simply needed to be flexible and willing to adopt a new method. I would push along and just figure it out.

I failed to pass interview number one.

The willowy, blond-haired woman who was coaching me pretended that she was a young Chinese student. She scrunched herself small, and began speaking in a high-pitched child’s voice. This caught me off guard, and I desperately wished my family could be in the room to watch this oddity unfold. They would laugh, wildly.

I am occasionally ribbed about my naturally reserved disposition. I have always preferred small, behind-the-scenes moments, and I enjoy quiet, thoughtful, one-on-one conversations. This was one-on-one, sort of, but definitely not reserved, and definitely not me.

I began reading the slides, but no sooner had I started when the curled-up woman began cupping her hand behind her ear in an excessively exaggerated manner. I raised my voice, but still: the cupped ear. Does she want me to yell? I thought. This was dreadful.

Finally, impatient, she sat up to her full height and normal voice. I don’t think you are ready. You need to project your voice like this. Then she yelled the sentence, in a silly, sing-songey voice.

She bid farewell abruptly, but only after signing me up for another interview, a few days later.

***

I think it was Mark Twain who said: Humor is tragedy plus time. While this was certainly not tragic, it was disastrous, but would prove funny, given a few weeks.

At that particular moment, however, it was beyond humiliating as I failed my second interview. This time a grown man acted the child role. He did not scrunch himself up, but instead played the lazy student, and sprawled out flat upon his desk, intentionally ignoring me. It all felt surreal.

This time I failed because I sat too far from the camera, and did not successfully jolt the student out of his stupor. Also? My delivery lacked zip.

Kristin, you need to move closer, and engage the student by using a puppet rather than posters. Also, you need to move along more quickly through the slides, or you will lose their interest. Remember to be loud and fun and snappy! Practice for another week and try again.

I logged out, and my eyes filled. On the one hand I had already run the projected numbers by my husband, whom I did not want to disappoint: we had bills to pay.

But it was glaringly obvious that this was a poor fit: I never even remotely possessed the magical gift of acting, or performing, or public speaking, nor did I want to. It all made me quite uncomfortable. Teaching our own children was streets apart: nothing was scripted: it was ongoing conversation and reading, moving along at a pace that suited us all. And I adored every minute of my time with them.

***

Sometimes there are beautiful limits as to what we are actually able to do. God uses even our lack to work out his good purposes, and I am continually astonished by this very thing. But those beautiful limitations do not always feel lovely at the time. We cannot be everything we want to be.

I sat there, after failed interview number two and thought for a moment. Part of having a rich inner life is taking a moment to see the truth of a situation, and offering it up to God, just as it is, without any fancy packaging. In acceptance lieth peace, said Elisabeth Elliot. She was right.

So I slowly took the globe off the desk and held it, spinning a line from China to the United States, and then carefully placed it back upon my bookshelf.

I studied my farmhouse desk, sitting all lovely and strong beneath the two office windows. I thought of Marcus, who despite having a full schedule of his own: finishing his high school courses, preparing for college, working to pay for it, and acclimating to a new state, had cherished me enough to find the perfect desk. I loved him for it.

Marcus is a pianist: the only way to describe his gifting is to say that he gives the keys of that instrument life. He obliges the piano to sing. One of his first words was music, and he began piano lessons when he was six years old. I bought a keyboard at a garage sale, and signed him up.

His teacher, months later, pulled me aside. No matter what, do not allow him to quit. I have never seen a child understand and feel and play music the way he does. It is a gift.

This felt tricky. I saw the gifting, but knew I would never force him to play. I would never push any of my children to perform. That would have to be something they chose.

So I prayed for Marcus’s music to be used in a way pleasing to God himself, since he gave him the ability in the first place. We provided encouragement and lessons, but the rest was a road between Marcus and God. God has answered that prayer, and he is majoring in music at college, and sometimes leads worship at church. When this happens, I am drawn into worship by my son because he is not performing. He is quiet and gentle and focused on God. It is beautiful.

Despite my lack, God has worked. He is always working.

***

So that handsome desk by the window? I thought that I would be teaching English from this place in our study. It was not to be.

I provided a keyboard for our son, and he found this desk for me.

I sit here, most days, painting words as I watch the light from the windows dancing through the trees, and filtering to our walls. Some of my words are letters of thanks to fellow Christians in ministry, others are notes of encouragement to people that are unwell.

But my favorite words are the stories of my life that God brings to mind.

I write to remember, and it makes my heart sing.

Keep Your Soul Diligently

As a high schooler and throughout college, I held a myriad of summer jobs: working at farm stands, packing scores of apples, scooping ice cream, answering phones at a temp agency, and babysitting. Lots of babysitting.

One hot summer’s day, a couple of months before my wedding, I received a call to babysit for a new family who had recently registered through a babysitting service. Previously, I had worked for families I knew, mainly from church. But during this particular summer, I had chosen to babysit through an agency, who vetted me, and paid handsomely for my work. The clients were wealthy and willing to pay for sitters that had been professionally screened. So I would care for little ones many days and nights, spooning dinner to babies, cooking thick grilled cheese, and slicing up fruit. Once the children had been tucked in bed for the evening, I addressed our wedding invitations. There was a lengthy list of wedding tasks that I needed to finish, and it was satisfying to cross things off my list as the summer pushed along. It was a whirlwind time of stashing away money for our upcoming marriage, and I was thankful for the work.

So this new family had two young children, and on that particular day they needed a sitter from mid-morning to late afternoon. I walked through the house with the mother, noticing that the baby’s nose was perfectly orange, essentially matching his tufts of hair. It was startling and difficult to ignore, until the woman told me that she had read an article on the benefits of feeding infants only carrots, several times a day; thus the carrot-colored nose. I must have looked interested during her soliloquy, because as she floated through the house, me following, she continued citing her study and sources and the benefits she was already witnessing in feeding carrots, resulting in her son’s power of intelligence. I nodded, when all I could actually see before me was a lump of a baby, with a frightfully bright nose, shaking his plastic spoon and fussing as he sat squirming in his high chair.

She checked her watch as she clinically listed instructions about naps and outdoor play, plus emergency numbers. We finished our discussions right where we began, back in the narrow kitchen. The house itself was large, the neighborhood expensive, but the slim kitchen was a mess, unloved and untended. If you have time, feel free to wash the dishes, she said, all serious, pointing to the overflow in the sink. And with that, she plucked her keys off the hook and was gone.

I pulled the little orange-nosed baby from his chair, and grabbing a paper towel, wetted it with warm water, wiping his face. He rewarded me with a one-toothed grin, and my heart softened. It wasn’t his fault that his mother seemed a bit off. With him on my hip, and his three-year-old sister traipsing behind me, we stepped into the back yard to play.

It was hot, and the children enjoyed the breeze created as I pushed them on their swings. They guzzled juice from their sippy cups, thirsty from the heat wave. After some time, I heard the phone ringing, and gathering up the baby and his sister, stepped indoors to answer, as the mother had mentioned she would call to check in. My hand was on the phone when the ringing ceased. I thought I heard a voice within the house. Odd.

I listened, but all was quiet. Glancing out the window, I noticed neighbors conversing. That explains the voice, I reasoned, never one to easily spook.

Clean plates and bowls seemed a rarity in this space, but I managed to pluck several from a high shelf, quartering a thin peanut butter and jelly for the toddler, while heating carrots for the baby. I sang them a few snappy songs while they dined, and the little girl kicked her legs in rhythm as she tried to sing through her sandwich. I played airplane with the spoon as I fed the little one his mushy carrots. He watched me, and grinned, as did his sister.

After lunch, it was naptime. I washed both their hands and upturned, blinking faces before placing the baby in his crib and pulling the shade low. After reading several books to the toddler, her eyes grew heavy, and she drifted off. I tiptoed out of the bedroom, cracking the door as I retreated to wash the mountain of dirty dishes.

As I entered the kitchen, I jumped. Directly in front of me was a middle-aged man, wearing a white, ill-fitting bathrobe. My heart thudded into my throat.

Kristin, right? He stepped closer. My wife said a sitter was coming over today. Didn’t she tell you I was home?

I shook my head.

Didn’t mean to frighten you, he offered, again moving closer.

Suddenly the doorbell rang quite loudly, and through the window, I saw the mailman. Mr. Bathrobe stepped away to answer, and the baby started crying. As I was trying to figure my escape, the mother pulled into the driveway.

I put on my game face, looking collected as my heart beat: a slow, heavy drum. Collecting my pay, I worked very hard to walk calmly to the car. My hands were shaking as I left.

***

I had experienced that same thudding fear a few years prior, while on a missions trip one spring break during college. While I might have spent the week fully serving impoverished people who subsisted upon trash sifted from the ruins of the local dump, I spent the entire time numb, glancing over my shoulder, making certain I was never alone with the missions pastor leading the trip. My roommates pushed a chair under our locked door each night; a sweet gesture to protect me, as they too, had noticed. I hardly slept.

It was the kindness of God that protected me physically, but the pastor’s inappropriate words, his leering, broke something inside. Where trust had once resided, a brick wall formed. There is a searing pain when a man of the cloth is duplicitous. It is confusing and terrifying to be fooled and sinned against by someone whose vocation revolves around serving God.

***

Snow and ice pelted us last week. Many lost power, and tree limbs buckled under the weight of the ice, occasionally snapping under the pressure. Some roads were blocked due to downed trees and power lines. While driving our daughter to class, I was forced to take a completely different road pattern; the journey took us far longer than usual.

With all of these gray-sky days full of icy snow and rain, my outdoor walks have been few, and I have missed them. Exercising at the gym feels so confining compared to the great outdoors.

Yesterday morning, as I paid bills at my desk upstairs, I heard the trilling of a bird. Turning the blinds, before me sat a chunky cardinal outside my window, perched brightly in the tree. His cheer matched the sun that cascaded after days of storms and clouds. It was an invitation to go walking, and I wasted no time in grabbing my heavy coat.

The blue sky and freezing air were encompassed by the sun. It felt perfect to move outside, deeply inhaling the cold air. Invigorating.

If I had not paid attention to the news, I would have believed that we would continue, storm-free. There was nothing dark to behold as I scanned the skies. Yet in reality, another winter storm was moving our way, and quickly.

This morning the skies are again dark as ice prevails.

***

Do we ever truly know the deep recesses of a person’s heart? The grief I have experienced lately rushes in much like a winter storm. One moment the skies are bright and cold and stunning; and then I receive news of a trusted Christian pastor or leader whose double-life has been revealed. I have been fooled again. The shock of it brings back the familiar thudding of my heart. Families are shattered; scores of people injured; trust obliterated.

I think of the cloak of burden from living a secret existence, of covering up lies, while teaching Bible truth? Dark and exhausting….perhaps even worse than being exposed.

I once heard a pastor suggest that we should mentally picture the most evil person our minds could conjure. He settled on Adolf Hitler as an example.

Now imagine, he continued, yourself, with your own sins: anger, jealousy, complaining. Think of it: those things are every bit as heinous to God as the atrocities committed by Hitler. The effects are different, but sin is sin.

Deuteronomy 4:9 says to keep your soul diligently. I have been thinking this through. I typically don’t trip headlong into sin overnight. It is a slow, lulling fade, made one compromise at a time. And when I am daily in prayer and in my Bible and trusting God? Then my soul is kept diligently. It is a cocoon of safety in a broken world. And when I do stumble? Immediate truth-telling; keeping short accounts with God and stepping back onto the safe and narrow way.

***

In a few days my favorite girl, our daughter, will turn seventeen. Through the sparkly candles, I will remember my baby girl, age one, poking at the carrot cake, smiling and clapping and eating with her pink spoon. The years have slipped away; and I am watching the hourglass sands filling heavy as her senior year is racing to our doorstep.

I leaned against the fence as she rode bareback the other day, in that cold winter air, back unswerving, golden hair spilling from beneath her riding helmet. Her tone was low and gentle as she spoke to the horse, patting his neck as he trotted in obedience. It was lovely; a clear image I will bring to mind again and again. She is strong and beautiful.

I long to protect her from everything: pain, betrayal, loss. But in her short life, she has already beheld such things, despite my German Shepherd-like protective measures. It is the way of life on earth. Recently, a highly trusted teacher, interwoven within our family’s faith story, was exposed for living a double-life. To see my daughter’s utter disbelief, followed by a resigned: you can’t trust anyone shattered my heart into little bits. I know that feeling well; it will be tough sledding for a time to come. In the storms we are forced to navigate new routes. I am so sorry, my sweet girl.

The farm where she rides is currently a muddy mess. I recently invested in a pair of mucking boots, so I can step into the pen with my daughter, helping her retrieve and tack up her horse. I might not be able to sweep away the cavernous mess, but I can step inside and venture into the difficulty. Together, in the muddy trenches. Plowing ahead with courage, frequently reminding one other to keep our souls, diligently.

My Blue Tassel

The first apartment Jon and I called home, after our wedding, was tiny. It had a long, narrow living room, bright and cheery if the blinds were opened, leading to a closet kitchen full of dark cabinets and zero natural light. We could not be in the kitchen at the same time without bumping into each other. With no space for a washer and dryer, I spent Saturday afternoons at the laundromat with stacks of quarters, our full laundry basket, and my latest library book.

I have an unusual fondness for laundromats, even now: the sudsy, peaceful churning and washing away of the workweek, the lemony-linen scent of detergents and softener sheets twirling steadily within heaps of clothing: a hopeful reminder that every day may be washed clean, as we begin again. People of all ages and walks of life line the white and gold-flecked counters: ample space to fold the softened clothes, towels, and bedsheets. There is a quiet comradery in the midst of those commercial washers and dryers: we are all needing clean clothes, and at least for this day, the laundromat is our best option.

Once the dryers slowed and stilled, I closed my book, folded our laundry and breezed home. Smoothing the still-warmed clothing, I tucked it into our dresser drawers, just so. A benediction to the end of another week.

Saturday evenings the two of us lived large: Subway for an early dinner followed by a movie, complete with a bucket of popcorn and a bag of Strawberry Twizzlers. I absentmindedly tied knots in each licorice strand before partaking, and Jon laughed at my unusual proclivity.

Despite our apartment being so little, it was our first home and I loved it. We had been given hand-me-down-furniture, mismatched, but we were grateful. Our dining room table sat perched, wobbly at the far end of the living room in a marginal attempt to divide the living area from the kitchen. Placemats could not conceal all of the scratches and dents, but I shined it as best as I could. Even our sofa looked tired, a poor match for the newness of our marriage. I attempted to scrub out a few small stains, to no avail. The only brand new furniture we purchased following our wedding was a queen mattress and box spring, sans headboard.

I cleaned our small space each evening, upon returning home from my paying job. (What was there even to clean, I ask myself in hindsight? We were both at work all day!) Soon I began inviting people for dinner. We opened our door to extended family, friends, and new acquaintances, setting up card tables and borrowed folding chairs, with little elbow room to spare. That first year I prepared the same dinner on repeat for our guests because it was the one recipe that I was completely comfortable with: Spaghetti Pavarotti. I served it with garlic bread and the greenest Romaine I could find, sprinkled with carrot shavings, Vidalia onions, and cherry tomatoes, halved, and drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette. Jon promised not to tell guests about my lack of proficient recipes, and he was as good as his word.

With a famished husband, and a bunch of library cookbooks (remember, no internet back then) I kept at it, practicing my culinary skills. Jon told me they were all very good, but I was learning his tells, namely the tenor of his voice, and the lack of requests for seconds, which served as my guide as to which recipes needed work. He did not yet understand that I preferred direct honesty over regard for my feelings, as I labored to expand meals in order to comfortably entertain. I could not rely on Spaghetti Pavarotti forever.

I do remember the unexpected joy in my heart after cooking a meal that he loved. I felt so accomplished, and a tiny bit proud of my determination, as he asked for seconds. And so it went, little by little, week by week.

Close to our first anniversary, Jon left on a men’s retreat one steaming summer weekend. I fell into our couch after a long workday that Friday, looking forward to finishing a book. Quite suddenly, I woke up to our telephone ringing, and was confused as to why I had drifted off. I had never been one to nap….in fact, the only time I did was when I was ill.

As I arose to answer the phone, I felt light-headed and queasy. I spoke with my girlfriend briefly, apologizing that I was quite unwell. Crawling into bed, I closed my eyes. The next thing I knew, the sunshine was filtering brightly through the blinds, and it was late Saturday morning.

I was both ravenous and queasy, but nothing in our refrigerator looked appetizing. My friend called again to check in, and asked me how I was feeling. I mentioned my symptoms and she laughed. I think I know what’s wrong, she said.

***

This week I have been reading the book of Numbers. The Lord instructed Moses to send spies into Canaan, a land which God was giving as a promise and a blessing to the Israelites. The spies set off together, and for forty days examined this land from every angle. It proved lush, with an abundance of milk and honey and fruit. They also observed massive men and large protected cities (Numbers 13:27-28).

While every man sharp-eyed the same things: luscious clusters of grapes, dates, figs, plus gigantic men in fortified cities, their conclusions were at odds. Twelve had been sent out, but only two: Caleb and Joshua, returned with favorable reports.

While reading, I paid closer attention to something I had previously glossed over. The LORD knew exactly what the land of Canaan contained: the delicious foods, the cattle to provide the milk, the beehives full of sweet honey. Of course he knew of those enormous men and guarded cities of the land. He knows everything.

Sending those twelve spies was a measured dose of truth serum: During those forty days, would any of the men see past the impossibilities? Were any spies able to gaze above the earthly, knowing and believing that God had already promised to be with them and to bring them safely into this homeland? Who would place the LORD above their fears?

As it happened, ten spies rejected the beautiful inheritance. Impossible to overcome, they murmured in warning, remembering the imposing giants and city walls.

But Caleb had a different spirit (Numbers 14:24), trusting God wholeheartedly. He hushed the naysayers, with a Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it. (Numbers 13:30) He held high the promise of God, bright and majestic, a guarantee that simply overshadowed those massive men in guarded cities. Caleb’s spirit burned in reverence and appropriate fear. There was no questioning his obvious affections.

***

That following spring, after my weekend illness, our Caleb was born.

Cradling this beautiful miracle, I marveled at his bright blue eyes, large and staring, watching me; waiting. The gravity of this new life was matched only by the immediate protection I felt. A mother bear? She had nothing on me. I would defend this little one to the death. It was such a different love: consuming, completely unrestrained and entirely unconditional. It was my first genuine understanding of God’s unfathomable love in sacrificing his Son. As Caleb cooed, my grip on him tightened as I imagined sacrificing him for anyone. Inconceivable. My eyes filled, marveling at the miracle of life and the deep affections of God, all intertwined.

Alone with our baby during the middle of that first night, tucked into a hospital bed with stiff, uncomfortable sheets, I longed for home. Suddenly overwhelmed, I prayed: Lord, help me to be a good mother, and please give Caleb a heart that follows you.

***

As our family grew numerically, with three more children, we expanded our square footage, and even bought a new dining room table and sofa. Although I enjoyed our new and spacious home, I knew that it was my family that was most precious.

I still invited friends and family over to dinner, although not quite as often. My hospitality was focused on loving and serving and cherishing my five favorite people. I did not have much time to daydream about fancy recipes, or gently tumbling laundry, although our washer and dryer were constantly humming. We did not frequent Subway each Saturday, but Jon occasionally picked up subs for dinner on the way home from work…food we divvied up with our children, as our sleep-deprived eyes smiled over their heads, vaguely remembering that first year when it was just the two of us. Our hands were busy loving these treasures, and tending to their needs. Despite my imperfections and lack, God answered my prayers for each of our children, turning their hearts towards trust in him alone. There is nothing better for a parent to witness.

***

It was during this time of fullness that I experienced a sudden season of loneliness, due in part to a cross-country move. The Lord tenderly cared for me, beginning with the prompting to read a fantastic book that I had arbitrarily plucked off the library shelf: The Pleasures of God, by John Piper. After reading the first chapter, which was full of Scripture, I retrieved my Bible and purposed to read it straight through, beginning to end.

That year I feasted upon Scripture. There is no other way to describe it. God kindled my desire to know him, and my heart soared. I no longer felt so lonely, understanding that the Lord was with me. Scripture was alive, God was holy, and he cared about my affections. He loved me enough to show me my sin, and my wandering heart.

***

I am feasting again this year. Nothing fancy, just a plea for God to speak to me through the faithful reading of His word, which God tells us never returns void. (Isaiah 55:11 NKJV)

This passage jolted me one morning this week:

The Lord said to Moses, Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. (Numbers 15:37-38)

God was so good to help the Israelites, and to give them a visual way to remember his commands: a blue tassel. If obedient, they would have to maintain the same gaze that Caleb held: fastening themselves to an eternal perspective and the promises of God rather than upon the disappearing earthly treasures that consumed their vision. It is never a good plan to follow your own heart and the desire of your eyes.

My blue tassel is my daily Bible reading. I am understanding that nothing will tether me more to God than the reading and meditating of His Word wrapped up in prayer. It is like a sudsy, fresh-smelling laundromat, showing me my stains and washing them clean with truth.

Caleb’s obedience ultimately led to his pleasure of stepping into his earthly inheritance: the Promised Land. Out of all the Israelites, only he and Joshua persevered in obedient faith. He banked everything on following God completely, and even his descendants were favored beneficiaries.

***

We are pilgrims of dust on this earth: living in temporary homes with vanishing paychecks and crumbling dreams. One day, as true disciples of Christ, we will become settlers: permanent citizens of heaven. That blue tassel reminds me that God alone holds the master key, and has given us everything we need to know in his Holy Word.

Things We Remember

When I was in grade school, every so often my grandfather would come home from work, and loosening his tie, announce to my mother and grandmother with a slight bow: Ladies, I am giving you a cooking reprieve. Tonight, we are going to Giovanni’s.

The best part was that it was usually an average night, say a Tuesday. My brother and I would would grab our coats, grinning. The week had just grown infinitely better, and homework could wait. Giovanni’s was the finest.

We stepped into the dimly lit restaurant, drippy candles and Italian music tastefully swirling, not too loud. Goblets of iced water sat heavy upon starched white tablecloths; bright lemons clinging to the sturdy edges. I ordered chicken parmigiana, slightly crunchy under a layer of warmed tomato sauce, heavy on the oregano, concealed under melted cheese.

We would eat until full, as the tuxedoed waiter returned with the dessert menu. Everyone begged off, announcing how they just couldn’t. Everyone but Grandpa.

My grandchildren and I will each have a dish of spumone, if you please.

Oh Bob, really, said Grandma. Everyone is too full! The children will get sick.

They most certainly will not. He smiled broadly, confidently tucking a fresh cloth napkin into his dress shirt.

Spumone is a tri-layered Italian ice cream. Giovanni’s created their version with green, pink, and brown layers. Candied fruit and nuts were tucked within, and the entire delicacy was topped off with a perfectly thin drizzle of chocolate liqueur. It was delicious.

I have not tasted spumone since Grandpa died, decades ago. But if I close my eyes, I am back at that fine Italian table, music soft and dreamy, with a spoonful of dessert, enjoying my grandfather’s delight in treating us to good food.

Both Grandpa and Giovanni’s are gone, but the memory of spumone brings it rushing back; an association, quite alive. Grandpa made everything better.

***

Of course, not all associations are so pleasant.

Last week found me in the endodontist’s chair, for two root canals, which I opted to complete in one fell swoop. I might have casually mentioned that I had experienced a poor dental experience as a child. That was all the endodontist needed to hear. His eyes grew wide, and he paused his careful drilling.

Let me tell you something, Kristin. I am sixty-five years old, and I still remember the horrific dentist my parents took me to as a boy. He had equipment that I promise you was from the Civil War era, and he refused to numb me. I thought the pain that day might send me skyrocketing through the roof.

He paused momentarily, shaking his head.

I went home crying, begging my mother not to take me back. But she did, the very next year. To this day, whenever I pass by where that office once stood, my hands start shaking uncontrollably.

Well, this suddenly gave me something to consider, which is useful while undergoing such an uncomfortable and lengthy procedure. As he continued to drill, explaining each step of the root canal and asking how I was holding up, I paid attention to the soothing music, gentle assistant, comfortable furniture, and shiny equipment. They even offered me a blanket, should I grow chilly.

Ninety minutes later it was over, and the doctor walked me to the front desk. Now you’ve got me thinking about that horrible childhood dentist, he said. Leaves me wondering why I even went into this line of work after something so dreadful?

It makes perfect sense to me, I offered. You are giving people the very thing you wanted but did not receive.

***

I am reading through the Bible this year, Genesis to Revelation, from beginning to end. Five chapters per morning, Monday through Friday. On the weekends I choose a shorter text, sometimes a Psalm, sometimes a few verses from the New Testament. Reading through the Bible is not a race, and I do not have to do this, but it is so, so, good.

I am in Leviticus now, which has a reputation for being difficult, with all of the rules and regulations and diseases and sacrifices. It is not easy to read, but it has awakened a sliver of my heart that had grown sleepy; lazy. Reading Leviticus has quickened my fear of God: He is Holy and perfect and righteous, and he hates sin. He stands in complete opposition to anyone who refuses to humble themselves and repent. I need to have a strong fear of God. This holy reverence results in my heart bending in contrition, obedience, and love. He is Ruler of all, and I ought not forget it.

Something else about Leviticus: it has caused me to long more for Jesus. I want to hop right into its pages, in the midst of that ancient story and encourage the children of Israel. I wish to cheer a people who must have been so tired, to hang in there and trust God: a Savior is coming. He will be the consummate High Priest, sweeping away all of our sins upon himself; the once-and-for-all-sacrifice.

I arrived at Leviticus 20:26 this morning and paused, savoring the ancient words.

You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. (ESV)

My association with Leviticus?

I am His.

***

My Grandpa, whose father grew ill and died while he was young, grew up with little. Meals were mainly soup, very thin soup, sitting heavy on the back of the stove. While Grandpa did not starve, he was often hungry. His mother did not have the luxury of spoiling him with choice meats or extras. But I do remember him saying that she would pick a wildflower or two, arranging an attractive vase upon her modest table. She was a lady, after all, and although poor, swept the floor clean and dusted the furniture to shine. And she always set the table.

So, like the endodontist, my grandfather gave what he had wanted, but could never have. Those dinners at fine restaurants were a way of healing an ache; like a sewing machine going backwards and re-stitching a nagging tear in the fabric. Grandpa never once considered soup to be a complete meal, and asked my grandmother to prepare meat-and-potato fare instead.

We all have our own aches, deep down, that we long to crush.

***

Those Israelites grew weary, as do I. So I am reminding myself that our Savior will soon return. He is cheering us to run our race in faith, trusting in him until we are safely home.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:12

Ashes

I was walking a trail the other morning, alone. It was chilly but bright; sunshine causing the icy pond to sparkle. I was thinking of small things: the laundry to fold, some paperwork needing my attention, an appointment to schedule. I texted myself the short list, which allowed my mind to drop the to-do’s and focus on one thing: happiness in the great outdoors.

Writing is a process: thinking, jotting down, rethinking, writing, rewriting, deleting, and ultimately stringing sentences that dance. Occasionally the words flow swiftly, but most often they are a roaring house on fire, a blaze needing to be tamed and greatly calmed, becoming more of a steady, crackling fireplace. A fireplace to serve the reader with truth and beauty and warmth.

In order to shape words, I have learned that it is good for me to spend time outside. The fresh air, magnificent trees, walking trails, and ponds make me entirely happy. I move forward, enjoying the flitting cardinal, Canada Geese, and holly bushes, bright with berries. I see my breath puff in the cold, and then throw a stone in the pond, watching the ripples stretch over the surface.

These things blanket me, small and secure under the expansive sky, within a universe, held gently by God’s hands. My problems shrink as I gaze upon his beauty, on brilliant display, dazzling in all of nature.

***

This past week has been rainy, keeping me indoors, parted from those daily walks. I had been working steadily on a piece of writing, and it was simply not coming together. The whole thing fell apart, flat and dull, and I was stuck. I kept trying to prop it up, like a large party tent. The moment one stake felt stable, the tent began to droop in a million other places. This was so different from taming a house fire: it was more like begging for a spark that stubbornly refused to be kindled. After hours of alternately tapping at the keyboard and staring out the window, I gave up trying to force something to work that had already turned to ash.

And life itself can be much the same. We toil and sweat and push and plan, and some days the orchestra plays majestically in the background.

Other days we do the same, and the stuff of life crumbles, and that is that.

I am not waving a billboard inviting people to give up. I put great stock in plugging along. But I am beginning to understand what to do in those moments, when after working as hard as possible, God allows the shattering and the turning to dust.

I take a deep breath and quiet myself for a moment. Then I unclench my hands, and offer up my best laid plans and wishes and dreams to the Lord, resting in the knowing that the same Creator who spoke the world into existence, and wills my heart to beat, knows with precision what he is doing.

***

I awoke to a soft blanket of snow, falling gently this morning. The rain has passed; replaced with a winter wonderland. Beauty from ashes.

There are no Shortcuts

It is no coincidence, my times of drawing close to the Lord. The years that my heart has flourished, have been the times when I am still in the early morning quiet. Just me and my Bible.

For whatever reason, I went through a long stretch of time when it was me, my Bible, and a stack of devotionals. They were meaty; chock full of truth. But I recently told my husband that I was beginning to hear the voices of the authors before that of the Lord.

I still read these authors, and God has seen fit to use them in stunning ways to encourage and challenge and grow me. These faithful Christians have written words full of godly wisdom and understanding. I have simply switched some things around, and now read those books before going to sleep each night. The mornings now, are just me and my Bible. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12 ESV)

This morning’s reading landed me squarely in Exodus, with mighty Pharaoh, ruler of all of Egypt, holding out a stiff arm to the Author of the entire universe. His brazen stubbornness and hostile disobedience put him in direct opposition to God, who used the entire situation for the good of his children. His whiny, petulant, often disagreeable children, who had already witnessed, wide-eyed (I imagine) the power of God himself on display during those terrifying plagues. Why could they not just trust God to make a way through the rushing waters of the Red Sea?

Moses’ response to their complaints?

Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent. (Exodus 14:13-14 ESV)

The Bible is living and active and piercing and discerning. I only have to read the Exodus account to be convicted of my own complaining, which, when pared down, only reveals my lack of trust in God’s promises. Honestly, I know myself well enough to realize that standing on the brink of the Red Sea, full of sharks and cold water, mighty warriors aiming spears at my back, would have terrified me. My trust might have crumbled.

***

I grew up on Old Mill Road, in a lovely, aging white New England farmhouse, steady upon a spectacular piece of land. Our apartment was the upstairs right, and my playground was the great outdoors.

My brother and I pedaled fast on our Big Wheels in that expansive driveway. We built forts in the woods, complete with rope swings and stone walls. Across the street from the farmhouse was a pond, where we spent hours in a tiny tin rowboat, snugly adorned in faded life-preservers, fishing and catching painted turtles. We netted frogs, which we kept for a few solemn hours as our very own pets, and under gentle hands, lulled those little creatures to sleep upon their backs, white throats glistening in the summer sun.

We ate our fill of raspberries, blackberries, and concord grapes, the juice dripping on our t-shirts. During the warm afternoons, we swung lazily on the backyard swings, bellies full, toes spinning in the dirt beneath the crabapple tree, which was pecked full of holes from the pair of Downy woodpeckers. Our sand box held mounds of sand, just right for creating castles and roads for my brother’s dump trucks.

Sometimes we chased through the field, playing hide-and-seek, while our landlord’s wife, Mary, hung her damp laundry on the line, clothespins dangling from her lips, eyes crinkling friendly at our freedom to romp and enjoy the outdoors. I practiced cartwheels and roundoffs in the soft bed of grass in our front yard, before retrieving my hula hoop and jump rope from the garage.

We had so much to play, endless possibilities to explore. In fact, there were only three things we were not allowed to do: go near the dam at the far end of the pond, step into the far woods beyond the field, and play on the young tree in the side yard.

There was no way that I would go near the dam: the roaring noise was so loud, and the bank so steep that I was afraid of slipping and crashing upon the rocks below.

I was also petrified to go into the woods beyond our field: our landlord had told us there was a bog, where two cows had once been swallowed whole. It was no hardship to give those woods wide berth.

But the tree in the side yard? It beckoned to me, small and pretty: the perfect height from which to swing. I imagined practicing some acrobatic moves that my first-grade friends and I enjoyed during recess on the jungle gym bars at school.

This no touching the side yard tree made no sense. I knew exactly what was best for me, and I went for it. One day I jumped and grabbed hold of its tender branch, which immediately snapped with a sudden and loud crack.

Our landlord soon discovered his beloved tree, now broken. The slender limb now dangled quite pitifully.

My parents confronted me and my brother. I confessed, and then, to my horror, was made to march downstairs, pronto, to our landlord’s apartment, to own up to what I had done and apologize. I was deeply ashamed and embarrassed, and will never forget Landlord’s words: Kristin, I am so disappointed in you. You knew the rule and chose to disobey. He forgave me, but it stung.

After that, I understood quite well, the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, as taught repeatedly in my Sunday School classes. I was a little descendant of Eve, who dwelt in a magnificent playground called the Garden of Eden. She thought she knew what she needed most: the fruit from that luscious yet forbidden tree, right there in the side yard.

***

There are some sleepy mornings, when it is so cold, I long to stay in my warm bed. But when I will myself to get up and open Scripture, asking God to speak through the words of his Bible, I am rewarded throughout the day, as the Holy Spirit brings those verses to mind over and over. Sometimes the verses convict and correct, other times they comfort and encourage. I might think I know what I need each day, but I actually don’t. God does.

Recently, I have been a little bit discouraged by the number of people falling away from the narrow gate in favor of the wide path (Matthew 7:13). When traced back to the origin, it seems likely that there is a stepping away from God’s Word in favor of what makes sense to them: their own personal feelings. It has scared me, as I have swung from the proverbial forbidden branch more than once, landing with a prompt thud. When those moments happened, I was painfully jolted out of my stupor, suddenly quite aware of my lack of discipline in the serious intake of God’s Word.

There are no shortcuts. More Bible equals more discernment. You will know what is phony only after you have filled yourself up with truth. Hard days will ensue, sooner or later. Fear not. Stand firm. The salvation of the Lord is coming. He will fight for us, his children, as we stand trusting and still.

No Strings Attached

There is simple kindness, among few, in the art of gift giving. An offering presented with joy and weightlessness; a smile of anticipation in the knowing of the goodness to be shared.

My grandfather was one of these givers: happy to delight others. One bright March afternoon, on my tenth birthday, he surprised me with an enormous teddy bear. This was no ordinary stuffed animal, but a Gund: soft, stitched to perfection, and created to last. Grandpa embraced quality: no cheap gifts on his watch.

One day, he invited me on an errand to the local feed and hardware establishment. He loved to tinker in hardware stores. Never mind that he was far from handy and could fix nothing without the use of duct tape. It was the comradery he enjoyed with the other fellows, who were clad in tired jeans and worn tool belts, wandering the aisles, assisting customers with a clipped: Morning! while sipping their steaming coffee.

As Grandpa chatted, I meandered the aisles, suddenly drawn to the cheeping sounds from the far corner of the store. Baby chicks! I scrunched down, patting the tiny geese through the wire pen: completely smitten. After a few moments, I returned to my grandfather, who was paying for his goods.

Unbeknownst to me, Grandpa had noticed my delight. Shortly after this trip to the feed store, he returned home calling my name, clutching a jumping box containing two cheeping goslings. My parents and grandmother were not impressed, and I could not understand why….the chicks were simply perfect.

Grandpa calmly told them that his granddaughter must have these, as animals were her favorite thing. (I now understand the lack of excitement from the other adults. Those goslings were cute for about fourteen days, before they grew with a vengeance, destroying our bushes and flowers, honking and disturbing neighbors, and driving our dog frantic with their aggression. I loved them unabashedly until the day they were given away, without my consent, months after being gifted.)

So Grandpa dispensed gifts with untamed abandon. Although impulsive, it was never about him, but always about the recipient. This shaped me, a person not impetuous by nature. However, there are moments, when I see something, and know deep down in my bones that this is perfect. My affection is so deep, and the present is right, and I am happy, reminded of Grandpa, who loved wildly: no holding back, and no chintzy tokens.

Yet the finest gift my Grandfather granted was the no strings attached component. This came with neither words nor fanfare; and nestled deep within my heart. He never once reminded anyone of his gift-giving. There was no: do you like your teddy bear? or Remember when I bought those goslings for you? He simply gave open-handedly, leaving the gift and the response in the hands of the recipient. The joy set before him was in fulfilling his kind deed: the choosing of a present to show his love in a way that would please the recipient.

Never did he expect a thank you note. I typically sent one, but Grandpa assured me that the pleasure was all his. With each passing year, I now realize that this very action in itself, was his legacy-gift. In this, his kind heart radiated selflessness, and it was deeply good.

***

One Sunday morning, as a young college student, I leaned in, as the pastor preached on finishing well.

Finishing? I thought. I have hardly begun!

For whatever reason, I was deeply interested. I had never heard a sermon on this topic.

Do not suppose that you will awaken at age forty, or fifty or eighty, said the pastor, and suddenly be more mature; more godly. You must be working out your salvation with fear and trembling. Good works? Godly attitudes? Godly fruit? These stem from humility and obedience and repentance, day in and day out. A soaking up of God’s Word, read then applied. If you do not practice such things, your sin struggles now with be greatly magnified with age.

Regrettably, I did not take notes, or scribble down the many Bible references he included. But the essence of the message marked me: fight sin now.

I am now forty-eight, and though not officially old, I am getting older. I think of my grandfather, who with all of his flaws, read the Bible consistently, carefully placing a checkmark upon each completed page. I remember his ongoing words about his love for King David, a man after God’s own heart. A king who took what wasn’t his, lied about it, and even murdered. The most important part? He humbled himself, repented, and then obeyed.

The grace of God, Grandpa remarked, shaking his head, eyes filling.

Grandpa, like all of us, had a story. He came to Christ in his thirties, remorseful and repentant. He always said God had forgiven him for so much; just as God had forgiven King David. It gave him great hope. His many sins had been flung far, from east to west, and he never forgot this: God’s gift. I believe this is why he could love big, with no strings attached.

When he died so painfully, cancer raging, it was clear that he had done the hard work of finishing well.

***

There were some older, church-going women sprinkled upon the periphery of my childhood. A tasteful, honest description of them would be busybodies. Gossip was highly permissible amongst them; shuffled around and labeled concern, or news.

These flock of women also enjoyed gift-giving: especially for weddings. The gifts themselves were lovely: bone china place settings, buttery yellow tea towels, 400-thread-count sheet sets. But those tasteful gifts had invisible strings attached: the firm expectation of an immediate hand-written note of profuse thanks. Following that came the folded arms and toe-tapping: impatient waiting for excessive verbal gratitude: Thank you, and Thank you again, and I love the gift and am using it often!

It would have been kinder, and far more generous of them to have given nothing.

One particular day, weeks following a wedding, I overheard the women whispering ill of the unthankful couple. A lot of huffing and puffing over the complete lack of gratitude; not even a thank you note! I rolled my eyes, privately, tired of the griping. The poor newlyweds had not even been married six weeks.

Those weren’t wedding gifts: they were chains.

***

So with another birthday around the corner, I examine my own heart in gift-giving. Not simply physical presents wrapped in paper, but heart gifts: charitable thoughts, an encouraging word, friendliness to a grumpy one, choosing to resist hearing or speaking gossip. And one step further in examination: Am I doing these things with thoughts of myself or others? Am I gifting shining trinkets with strings attached? Do I insist upon being properly thanked, and stir trouble when I am not? Do I always wait for something in return?

I sit a moment at my desk, thinking through this, carefully pondering in the still morning hours. Rather than aiming to modify my poor behavior, I jot down the three important words: humility, obedience, repentance.

Every truly generous person that I know is humble. Every humble person I know practices repentance. And every act of repentance is performed from a heart of obedience. A grateful heart is satisfied, cheerfully giving from an overflow of thanksgiving, for what God has done.

2 Corinthians 9:6-8 (ESV): The point is this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.