There You Are

My Grandpa lit up a room with his warm smile. I was delighted to observe how people naturally swarmed to him. Everyone knew Bob. He was the quintessential gentleman in a suit and tie and camel trench coat, smelling faintly of aftershave and peppermints. His facial features were large, even though he was not.

His heart was magnificent.

No wonder Grandpa was a successful salesman. He was deeply good with people, and that was his golden charm. He could not cook, (Bob cannot even boil water, moaned my grandmother, phone cord stretched to a fare-thee-well as she gossiped to her friends while stirring dinner) nor was he handy with household repairs, relying heavily on duct tape to patch things up.

He puttered at the local hardware store many Saturday mornings, looking dapper in his weekend jeans and Ivy hat. Grandpa was there for conversation, purchasing tools he would never use, in order to Give the fellows some friendly business, Kristin.

He served by way of conversation. Direct and graciously honest, he dismantled all smoke and mirrors with plain speech, seeking others out, inquiring about their interests, meeting them right where they were, always abounding in friendly care. (Once, while he and Grandma were visiting our church, he noted our pastor’s threadbare sports coat, his keen eyes traveling the row of endless children in this minister’s family. Grandpa spent the next day hatching a plan to quietly assimilate the necessary measurements in order to purchase two brand new suites. Which he did, delivered anonymously, so as not to embarrass. I was sworn to secrecy, and kept my promise, beaming at the magnanimity of my grandfather.)

Grandpa was winsome: his inherent ability to connect with others was magical. He was popular with others mainly because he never tried to be.

There you are, his eyes spoke kindly, offering me, his shy granddaughter, an arm, treating me like royalty as we entered church, or a store, or a restaurant.

If Grandpa had one besetting sin it was his quick temper, which was utterly forgivable, seeing that it soared only to defend his loved ones. He seemed incapable of nursing a grudge and was quick to forgive.

Once, when I was an infant, visiting Grandpa’s and Grandma’s church, my mother dropped me off in the large nursery prior to the service. The sermon was scarcely over when Grandpa hot-footed it to retrieve me, eager to show off his only granddaughter.

The nursery attendant, who knew my grandparents quite well, refused to hand me over the half-door.

Rules are rules, Bob. We may only return her to the person who dropped her off.

He was livid.

But I am her grandfather!

The woman raised an eyebrow but would not budge.

Grandpa’s eyes widened, as they always did when he meant business. He swirled through the crowd in a huff, tracking down my mother. After a few minutes, his temper melted to reason, and he circled back to the nursery attendant to thank her and to apologize for his ire.

You were only doing your job, and I see now that Kristin is quite safe in our nursery.

It was endearing how quickly he recognized his wrongs.

Safety through protection remained his native tongue, love in the highest form. He shielded me from things like a creepy cousin, an unusual great-grandfather, and even from my own despair.

***

One year, when I was at the tender age of eleven, that uncomfortable time in a child’s life where everything feels in between and awkward, my aunt announced that she was going to forge her way into the hair cutting industry.

She was flush with ideas that typically fizzled, given time. She was going to become a concert pianist, an accomplished cook, an artist who painted and stenciled cloth bags, and then a professional Christmas crafter. But nothing stuck. I felt her pulsing unsteadiness. She was the mother of two sons and zero daughters, which remained a cosmic sticking point in our family tree. Desperately pining for a daughter, I felt her tracing my movements, eyes narrowed. I was that sore, perpetual reminder of what she lacked. It felt oppressive, as though I had done something dreadful.

To this day, I do not understand why I was allowed to be her hair-cutting victim. I have a few theories, but whatever the actual reasons, I knew I did not want her touching my hair, which in my opinion was far too short already. In fact, I was desperately trying to grow my hair longer before middle school. No matter. I was instructed to ascend the chair, and allow my aunt to practice her newly-discovered passion.

I was her first and last client.

I remember looking down, past the black cape draped over my shoulders, beyond my flip-flops, at the impossible inches of straight blonde clippings scattered upon the kitchen floor. I felt tears welling, seeing the clear evidence that it was now too late.

It will be a cold day in July before she cuts Kristin’s hair again, my father muttered to my mother on our way home, which was no consolation whatsoever. It was done, and I walked into my bedroom and stared in the mirror, gasping. My hair was jagged and gone.

***

Things worsened.

The next week, I followed my mother into a local market, and the woman behind the counter smiled at me as she totaled our produce, before asking my mother if her son wanted to carry the grocery bags.

I sat in the car, numb, the entire ride home. This isn’t happening, This isn’t happening, This isn’t happening.

Once home, I slipped off to the bathroom and hovered over the edge of the tub, sobbing while covering my mouth to keep quiet, feeling ugly and hopeless and quite helpless.

When Grandpa found out what had happened at the market, he hit the roof, eyes bugging out.

She said what to my beautiful granddaughter? Is she blind? You are the prettiest girl in town. I am going there tomorrow to set her straight.

Once he settled down, he found me. Just wait until you are sixteen. I will be fighting the boys off with a crowbar.

He smiled. And your hair will grow back soon.

What he meant was: There you are, no matter what.

I felt a spark of hope. Grandpa never lied, and he still cared, regardless of my outward appearance. His belief, measured futuristically, illuminated a path out of my current state. It was a promise to cling to, a promise which carried me through.

***

The next weekend, he and Grandma whisked me off to the mall. Grandpa steered me through Jordan Marsh, plunking clothes on the sales counter as he opened his wallet and expanded my wardrobe with purple and pink.

Of course he did. I see now that it was the only thing that could be done to restore my femininity until my hair had time to grow.

There you are.

The future felt lighter, brighter as we returned to their home on Washington Street, and I unpacked my bags, swirling in front of the mirror like a ballerina. Grandpa made everything sparkle.

***

My hair eventually grew back, and I made it to sixteen. The boys came calling, just as Grandpa had promised, and he met each date, except the one whose last name I stole.

***

One frigid January evening, my sophomore year in college, a mere seven months before I met my future husband, our dorm room phone rang ominously. Grandpa’s painful battle with cancer was over. I only remember crying, the phone cord pulled into my dorm hallway as I doubled over on the shiny floor. I have no memory of flying home for the service, nor do I recall the funeral itself. It is the internment I remember, the silent cry that rose in my throat as I dropped to my knees on the frost-covered ground, weeping as they sprinkled his casket with dirt.

He is with God now, everyone said, meaning to comfort. But at age nineteen, all I longed for was one more afternoon to spend with Grandpa.

As it goes, memories of him, seasoned with time, are sweet, thirty years later. I am surprised to remember so much happiness; the measure of his kindnesses, his selflessness, his love. His grandfatherly instincts were unique, stemming from his strong faith in God.

Not everyone has parents or grandparents who model the heart of God the Father. But rest assured, if you are in Christ, then God has chosen you, regardless of appearance, or intelligence, or social status.

God has called you by name, and you are his.

You are his beloved.

Timeless

This week’s story weighs 14 pounds and is beyond handsome. Our grandson is currently napping in the crook of my arm, limp and peaceful, smiling in his sleep. It is delightful.

But I must give you something lovely to read this week before Thanksgiving, a pause from the dicing and chopping, table setting and dusting, as you smooth sheets over guest beds, and prepare to stuff that magnificent turkey and bow in praise to God for his never-ending goodness.

I have chosen the writings of another to share this week, a timeless tale of selflessness and kindness and true love.

Enjoy. It is one of my favorite short stories of all time.

An Invitation

I embrace the fact that not everyone is wired to write. Some of my most favorite people in the entire world would rather spend the afternoon suffering in a dentist’s chair than to put pen to paper. Their giftings are divergent in nature, flourishing elsewhere, and by God’s good design.

But for those of you who find yourself playing with words, turning over sentences, creating mounting paragraphs, carrying index cards in your pocket or on the dashboard or atop your nightstand, texting yourself meaningful phrases or ideas, your mind brimming with childhood memories and stories which spark a seeing of the hand of God in the minutiae, I beckon you to write. Our world needs more Christ-following writers willing to swirl truth with beauty.

Someone asked me recently, if, given the combative nature of current culture, I have considered the need to perhaps soft-pedal my writings, in an effort to avoid controversy.

Absolutely not, I answered, surprising myself.

Writing has made me brave. It has clarified my perspective through the lens of God’s Word, my eternal plumb line, and forced me to wrestle with truth.

***

Recently, our daughter gifted me with a treasure smaller than a golf ball. It is a miniature typewriter, complete with a piece of tiny paper that reads: Have courage and be kind. It sits perched upon my desk and is my writing mantra. I scribble rough drafts each Monday, and circle back around in the days to follow, asking What is this story about? Is it honest? Is it brave? Am I writing kindly? Will my small readership sense that I deeply understand that one common ache?

Come Thursday morning, my piece looks nothing like Monday’s efforts.

I cannot tell you how many stories I have tossed. Some because they were flimsy, weak, anything but courageous, missing the mark completely. Others have been true, courageous, and rather unkind. (As a writer, anytime I feel a glowing: That’s what you get, Charlie. Your bad behavior is your problem, and I am as free as a bird to write about every wicked detail, I reckon that I am on thin ice. It is never charitable to parade these things for the world to see, triumphing through payback.)

On the other hand, if handled carefully and graciously, boldness in truth-telling is vital. There are no stories without a rub: sin, with its mighty ripple impacts more than the perpetrator probably considered. Writing has the power to changes lives, for the better or the worse, and I know this since my own life has been changed and shaped by the writings of others, many times over.

Do you recall Jesus writing in the ground? The dirt might have been soft, but the truth of his words carried power and great conviction. Whatever those words he carved in the earth might have said, they certainly held sway. May our words do likewise.

The desire to write, in itself, is a gift, a holy invitation to be stewarded. I have yet to meet one person who randomly awoke one morning burning to write. It is more of a steady simmering. Life has to happen, first. Then, as days pass and pressures mount, a writer can use the hardships to think seriously, shaping ideas and illuminating the page with truth and beauty. Take whatever it is that you know, that one fire flickering, and do the work.

Of everything that I have penned, there have been only a couple of pieces that have felt effortless. Everything else has been a labor of love plus time plus grit, and self-editing times a gazillion. I am rather fond of authors confessing these things, acknowledging the hard crevices, as it invites and warms the rest of us over a universal campfire fellowship, a continual effort to build stories that serve readers. It is a passion both hard won and exhilarating.

I cheer you to set aside a time and a space to work, laying borders with the strictest of personal deadlines. As Gustave Flaubert once said: Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

If you are a Christian, the Holy Spirit dwells within you. Allow him to guide your writing. Stay tethered to your Bible reading and meditation, living moment by moment under the living, active Word of God.

At the end of the day, your writing is from God and for him.

Good reader, have courage and be kind. And if you are a writer, please write.

Marked

I treasure Mondays. It is the only day of the week that I am not expected to appear anyplace other than home. Mondays are my long writing days, and I strive to keep my ship in the quiet of this harbor. Up early to read my Bible, followed by breakfast with our daughter, followed by a long walk, and then I get to work. It is lovely.

Last Monday arrived on the heels of a full, full weekend. Those types of weekends are not my specialty, and while they are unfolding, I grow tired on the inside. So last Monday, after an exceptionally busy weekend, I lingered a bit over coffee with our daughter as we kicked off our family tradition of filling our home with Christmas music beginning November 1. Said music swirling, we penciled a few plans on the calendar for the holiday season. I then finished a few household chores that had been neglected since we had scarcely been home for days.

Consequently, I was late beginning my walk. Then, while exercising, I happened upon a couple of good neighbors, and chatted with them for a few minutes. By the time I reached the halfway point of my walk, nearly an hour later than usual, I was treated to this scene in the chilly air:

The slower start due to a crammed weekend, unfinished work, and unexpected conversations, turned into this breathtaking gift. Perfect in the dazzling sunshine, sparkling waters, and chilly November air. A gift I would have missed if things had unfolded according to my own agenda.

***

We are all marked by some type of suffering, varying in degree yet remarkably similar in that such things are unwanted, unbidden, and a painful disruption to our lives. The weight of suffering feels at best annoying, and at worst crushing. We are each hefting some sort of wound. I am learning to search for the holy, the good, the greater purposes of God as I follow the path carved out for me by his Almighty Hand.

There is no magic cure: one…two…three steps to thriving! conquering! escaping hardship while living your best life now!

Hold that mentality up to the light of Scripture, and watch it wither. Such false hopes are grotesque masquerades. They are lies, gripped by the undiscerning, who do not scour the scope and sequence of the Bible. Disciples who study the breadth of Scripture see spiritual growth and maturity through suffering time and again: think of Moses and Joseph and David and Job and John the Baptist and Christ Jesus himself.

Yet as Christians, we are not left joyless or hopeless in our sufferings. In fact, if we remember that we will be marked while enduring in faith, we will grasp that we are becoming more like Christ (Philippians 3:10). The Holy Spirit is our Comforter, and infuses us with his joy amidst suffering.

This then fuels our desire to be present in our own lives while also engaged in the lives of others, carrying our own trials and lamenting with others in their sufferings as we share burdens. We are called to press into, to accept, and to endure well God’s interruptions, which ultimately reign over our carefully crafted plans.

***

Our oldest son, Caleb, is deeply kind and generous. A fierce sports enthusiast and competitor, he sheds that jacket on the ballfield, and shepherds his wife and son and others with his tender, pastoral heart. He is earning his MDiv now, and on the occasions that I have been able to hear him preach, I am undone by the way in which our son, whom I once taught, now teaches me.

I treasure notes tucked in my Bible from his sermons, and especially one that was centered in the book of Romans.

From my penciled notes:

A Cross-Centered life = Cross-Centered Days.

How wonderful is that? And how terrifyingly true. When I drift, it is usually because I am having Kristin-centered days.

It is similar to what Elisabeth Elliot once said:

To be a follower of the Crucified means, sooner or later, a personal encounter with the cross. And the cross always entails loss. The great symbol of Christianity means sacrifice and no one who calls himself a Christian can evade this stark fact.

This note from our son’s sermon brought another story to mind.

***

Years ago, during his undergrad, there were several seemingly unending semesters of hardship, when we were not certain if Caleb could afford to remain in college. My mother’s heart ached as we helped as much as we were able. Caleb worked multiple jobs, slept little, and ultimately slogged his way through.

Caleb collects change. Every spare coin is tossed in a coffee can which he stores on the floor of his car. During those undergrad years, that coffee can of change was precious; used for gas money or hot coffee or a sandwich. With money beyond tight, he needed every cent.

One day, while driving to one of his jobs, he passed an elderly woman on the side of the road. She was limping terribly, struggling to walk in the heat of the day. Caleb turned around, pulled up next to her, and offered her a bottled water and a ride. Tears streamed down her face as she thanked him profusely and eased into the passenger seat. She told him of her multiple health problems, and substantial poverty.

He drove her safely to her doorstep, prayed for her, and then handed her all that he had: the entire coffee can brimming with change.

A Cross-Centered Life = Cross-Centered Days way-of-living is costly.

Caleb had been marked by suffering and wasted not a speck of it.

***

Autumn illuminates the brilliance and beauty of death. Death to our preferences, our way, our rights, our selfishness. The beauty of the colors signals that winter, with all of its frigid air, gray skies, and barrenness is close at hand.

Our pain and suffering hold stunning purpose, as we obey and bow in Amen to God. He works all things for good, but that does not mean that it feels good in the moment. We would do well to remember the patience with which nature unfolds in obedience to its Creator, one season at a time.

It takes prayer and practice to relinquish our grip on our well-laid plans. Our human weakness defaults to sprinkling ourselves with selfish grandeur and splendor rather than purposing our souls to kneel humbly before Christ, holding steadfastly to him through our sufferings. He understands suffering and sympathizes with our weaknesses, with scars as proof. Scars he prayed, in his humanity, to bypass. Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will but yours, be done (Luke 22:42). Those scars rescued each and every believer.

So I am remembering the breathtaking scene I captured by photo. So lovely: the slant of light upon the glowing, dying foliage as the leaves prepare to cascade earthbound. The beauty is a mark of suffering, an end of this life as we anticipate the blossoms of spring.

And as the world hushes in the stillness of winter, remember that God is working underground still: healing, softening, and restoring the hearts of his people who obey in faith, waiting and trusting in him.

Fear Not

Although a bit shy and reserved, I was one of those children nonplussed by the usual childhood fears: monsters, big dogs, bugs, snakes, or darkness. In fact, my brother and I each owned a rabbit, both of which dwelt in a wooden hutch behind our garage. We fed Thumper and Flopsy both morning and evening during the chill of winter, providing fuel that warmed them during hard freezes. Tromping single file, we marched in the pitch of night toward our backyard, my arms stuffed with a bounty of hay and an old coffee can brimming with rabbit feed.

My brother was terrified of the dark, and followed along at my heels, one hand grasping the back of my coat, flashlight in the other, lighting our path. Beyond our garage, past the hutch spread a field bordered by thick woods, filled with occasional sounds of snapping branches as who knows what crept through the brush. In the absence of moonlight, I could scarcely see my hand in front of my face. We had one flashlight though, illuminating the wide eyes of our bunnies, huddled and stunned by the sudden light beams.

I inhaled the delicious night air, and even at that tender age embraced that I was kept by God under the dark and starry skies, frost enveloping the blades of grass which crunched beneath my boots. The coldness of the air burned my lungs in the purest of ways, and I knew, I knew, that God flung this universe into existence with merely a word. I was made alive, trusting my Maker, delighting in the stillness of nature, and I adored him for gifting his majestic artwork, forever on display, in the great outdoors.

Did I have any fears?

I did.

A subtle change of tenor, a pitch in the atmosphere, cues and signals of polite, underlying anger. Sudden mood swings in people hatched terror in the base of my stomach, and with that thudding fear came stillness. I developed a skilled neutrality in moving forward, pretending to carry on, to distract from disturbing behaviors, to change course, even while my heart was silently flailing. In grade school I realized that I was sensitive, discerning relational clues that others did not, trying to prevent discord before it unfolded. I read a room, and paid careful attention to the raised eyebrow, clenched hand, rolling of the eyes, a set jaw.

Recently, I unearthed an old grade school report card from the bottom of a box: Kristin is a helper, always taking care of others. This might sound kind and gentle, but those moments were often a heavy weight around my small neck. I was quite alone in my self-proclaimed responsibility to continually smooth and iron out the wrinkly moods of others, circling around and around and around my fear of man.

***

Last month I had the oil changed in our truck.

As I drove away I thought I heard a clunking noise, but then assumed it was the radio. Two miles down the road, I turned the radio off.

Ca-clunk. Ca-clunk. Ca-clunk.

I seriously considered pushing through. I had a list of errands a mile long, no one else to complete them, plus I was leaving town the next day.

Who on earth keeps driving when there is a terrible sound in their vehicle?

Me, apparently.

A few miles later I sighed in surrender and reluctantly turned around, coasting back to the dealer, where they dislodged a heavy bolt from the back tire.

No charge for repairs young lady, the man said. It was one of our shop’s bolts, and you most likely ran over it in our parking lot as you left. He tipped his ball cap. You were smart to return. It would have cost you in five different ways if you hadn’t.

I considered his words for days.

***

Like the odd noise in my truck, there has been a clanking in my life as of late. A return of disturbance, my heart trembling in fear both familiar and inexplicable.

So I am running to safety, burrowing deeper into Scripture, desperately studying it, guarding it, holding the thin page of my story up to the light of God’s Word, examining it carefully through this lens. Am I sinning in my fear?

I dislike cheap answers, platitudes that diminish suffering. It reminds me of our son, Marcus, who plays the piano. When he sits upon the piano bench, hands soft upon the keys, I hold my breath, anticipating the richness that is about to fill the room. He feels the music, he is the music, he loses himself in every note, and it is his passion that makes the piano sing. Others may play the same piece, upon the same instrument, perfectly obeying the sheet music before them, but it feels rote, mechanical, a cliché to my ears.

Our bones and our flesh are designed by God, fleeting and frail, carrying us through infernos then ashes. Our Crucified King knows the depth of sorrow and pain and loss. He never spoke in flimsy platitudes, and neither should we. He engaged raw truth with aching clarity while tortured, hanging on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsake me? (Mark 15:34)

Feelings are maps, directing us to places that God longs to heal. Do not ignore those feelings. When the ca-clunking starts, it is time to high-tail it back to the repair shop. You might not appreciate the news that you receive, but you will at least have a proper diagnosis called truth and be able to deal in reality. And reality is always found in Scripture, the heartbeat of God.

Why are we prone to persuading ourselves that the opinions of man reign supreme? People without spiritual depth and grit will not lead you to honest answers that heal. God will, through his Word.

So when I tell you that I am abiding in Scripture, understand that I have sought comfort elsewhere, and found it lacking. My Maker knows me better than anyone, and is with me in my fear and anguish. The Bible is a living gift, offering truth and healing, correction and comfort; a balm for our sore and wounded souls.

God’s Word says that he collects our tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8).

God’s Word tells me not to trust my heart (Jeremiah 17:9).

God’s Word tells me that God is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).

God’s Word tells me that Jesus came to earth not to bring peace, but division (Luke 12:51).

God’s Word says the fear of the Lord is wisdom (Proverbs 9:10).

God’s Word tells me to forgive (Ephesians 4:32).

God’s Word tells me to flee the presence of a fool (Proverbs 14:7).

God’s Word tells me to speak truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

God’s Word tells me to seek wisdom (Proverbs 4:6-7).

God’s Word tells me that at times, Jesus found it necessary to retreat from people in solitude (Matthew 14:1-13; Mark 6:30-32; Luke 5:16; Luke 6:12-13).

God’s Word tells me that Jesus pushed through tremendous fear, sweating drops of blood, willingly obeying his Father (Luke 22:44).

God’s Word tells me that the crowd of Christ’s supporters slimmed as he neared death (John 6:60-66).

God’s Word tells me that there is one way to salvation (Acts 4:11-12).

God’s Word tells me that despite all evil and suffering, Jesus will return and make all things new (Revelation 21:5) .

God’s Word tells me that to know Christ is to share in his sufferings (Philippians 3:10).

God’s Word tells me that as a Christian, I am hemmed in, protected by God (Psalm 139:5).

God’s Word tells me to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

God’s Word tells me not to fear in the midst of persecution (Matthew 10:16-33).

The Lord is my Protector (2 Samuel 22:2), and with my soul trusting in Christ, what can man do to me (Psalm 56:11; Psalm 118:6)?

***

Seasons of deep suffering are inevitable. A sudden and pervasive stripping away of earthly things that we hold dear hurts. While the traumas and the sufferings may never be fully righted in this earthly life, God is still good.

Go to battle against your fears, choosing to bow low in reverence before God, who mercifully sent Christ to bring our dead bones to life (Ezekiel 37:1-10).

Every hardship, ever fear, every moment of suffering holds holy purpose.

Feast upon his Word, trust God, and live.

52 Pickup

It was a few hours after my great-grandfather’s funeral that I met my Great-Uncle Louie. My grandparents’ home on Washington Street swelled with relatives, men sweating in heavily starched button downs and muted ties, women bustling about in dark swishing skirts and pumps, balancing punch in one hand, while steadying crackers topped with even strips of Vermont cheddar in the other.

As the adults mingled in the dining room and living room, sobered and hushed by death, I heard a ruckus in the kitchen. Upon entering the narrow space, there stood Uncle Louie, surrounded by a handful of children: my cousins and other distant relations. He was laughing, a piercing pitch; while wildly pouring ginger ale like a professional bartender, allowing the fizz to overflow, a volcano creating a sticky mess on Grandma’s shiny countertops.

Wheeeee, he laughed as he poured. We can have fun, can’t we? Unlike all of those serious faces in there!

He thumbed toward the living room, and mimicked their somber expressions.

My cousins laughed, unaccustomed to such escapades, and certainly relieved to poke some fun into this sad heap of a day. I stood in the doorway, watching. He reminded me of a clown.

Want to see a magic trick? Louie asked.

He dropped the 2-liter of ginger ale on the damp counter with a thump, and I watched the soda swirl then spill over the edge. Whipping out a deck of cards from his back pocket, he warmed up his act with multiple sleight of hand tricks, causing a quarter to disappear from beneath his handkerchief before retrieving it from behind a cousin’s ear.

With a now captive audience, he then splayed the deck of cards, and asked us each to pick one. We did, memorizing our cards before placing them face down within the deck.

Now, I am going to find your exact cards. This magic trick is called 52 Pickup. Watch me carefully.

We leaned in as he shuffled the deck.

Staring seriously at the small faces before him, he flung the cards up, high into the air. They spread and fluttered earthward like confetti, landing on both the ginger ale-laced counters and linoleum as he hollered:

Whoppeee! The best magic trick of all! Now you kids get to pick them up! All fifty-two!

He roared with laughter, slapping his knee and howling.

Louie.

Grandpa’s even voice, behind me.

This is neither the time nor the place, as we are paying our respects. And your magic trick? That was unkind. He ushered Louie out of the kitchen.

While 52 pickup and disappearing quarters are scarcely considered magic, it remains my first memory of the term. I never did care for Uncle Louie or such games. Both felt like a cheap trick.

***

Sophomore year in high school, there was a boy that I will call Matt, who sat next to me in English class. His father owned a produce farm, a place that according to my grandmother, was profiting hand over fist. I could certainly vouch for its success, as my brother and I worked there during high school. The place was consistently stuffed with happy customers, pushing their brimming carts, laden with bright pumpkins, Granny Smith apples, sweet potatoes, Romaine, and smoked Gouda.

Matt was a class clown, always joking, in trouble with the teacher, and so on. He was smart, popular, and reminded me of someone. It wasn’t until he started in on multiple card tricks, before class, that I realized that someone was Uncle Louie.

Matt begged a few of us, on occasion, to write his research papers, offering us cold cash as payment. I rolled my eyes and ignored him, but was impressed by the number of twenties folded in his pocket.

One Saturday, while I was working at his father’s produce farm, straightening a gigantic display of McIntosh apples, I heard his father’s raised voice in the back room.

I peeked around the corner, where he stood red-faced before Matt, pointing emphatically, jabbing his shoulder, yelling words such as lazy and irresponsible.

I cannot believe that you are even my son. Get out of my sight.

Matt turned abruptly, and noticed me. I lowered my gaze, and stepped back to work.

He sauntered over and picked an apple from the pile, tossing it in the air before shining it on his jeans. He took a bite.

My Dad’s a funny guy! he laughed, mouth full. I really know how to get him going.

He whistled as he walked away. Always playing the part.

***

After that, things felt different in English class. Matt flung himself into overdrive, becoming extra everything. Extra funny, extra relaxed, extra I don’t care what happens. I felt embarrassed for him, hiding behind all of those silly antics. I wished I had not seen his father’s anger on display.

Matt knew that I knew, and it felt complicated, even though we were not even friends, just classmates.

And then, one gray, wintery day, after class, he jogged over to me, a J. Crew sweater upon his back and a smirk on his face.

Check out my locker, Kristin. I want to show you something.

I followed him across the bustling hallway.

Look what I have, he grinned as he opened his locker.

The shelves were stuffed with boxes of brand new Walkman radios. Dozens of them.

Where did you get these? I asked.

Aww, I just lift them from wherever. Haven’t been caught once. He grinned. Want one?

No Matt, I don’t. They’re stolen. Why are you doing this? I thought of the unending cash in his pockets, his wealthy family, the luxurious home and expensive vehicles.

Because I can. And I’m good at it.

I turned away, knowing that his behavior was a railing against his father, who cursed and shamed and humiliated his son.

It was a deep, fathomless cry: Look at me. Notice me. See me. I have value.

***

Our actions are mirrors to our heart. There are reasons for our behaviors.

And our hearts, if not tethered to Christ, will roam and wander and seek and turn over any stone that will validate our personhood. An insatiable void: Feed me, Feed me, Feed me, Fill me up.

***

I do not know what became of Matt.

As for my Great-Uncle Louie, I discovered, years later, that once upon a time, several of his children had died of cystic fibrosis. Funerals were unbearable for him, triggers that sent him spiraling into all kinds of inappropriate behaviors. Thus the ginger ale sideshow.

***

We all have broken stories, don’t we?

I say, Let’s not waste them.

Our stories hold power as we turn over leaves along life’s trail, growing interested in the ways that God is working and showing off his goodness and his sovereignty. Even now he is weaving our burdens and heartaches and suffering together with his golden rope of goodness.

Yet it often hurts, doesn’t it? I know this well. This past week has been tough. Since I write to remember, this ragged story will eventually curve its way onto the page. But first, I must step back, pray, consider, and wait. All in due time.

That golden rope? It is meant to lead us to the feet of Christ: casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7). So I do so again and again, in the center of pain, trusting that all things will work together for good, as I hold fast to God.

Our God never plays 52 Pickup, tossing events randomly into the air, leaving us hunched over, trying to pick up and sort the mess. No. He is with you, Christian, even now, a gentle hand upon your aching shoulder as you grasp your mustard seed of faith. The Good Shepherd never leaves even one of his sheep. In Christ we are never alone.

May the peace of Christ rule over each of our hearts today (Colossians 3:15).

What the Church is Not

The fog was dangerously thick this morning, as I drove our daughter to work in the dark before sunrise. High beams made matters worse, so I turned them off and hunched over the steering wheel, driving ten miles per hour under the speed limit, while allowing myself to be guided by the bright double yellow lines in the center of the road and the white singular line at the right edge.

Driving within these parameters clearly kept me from careening into a ditch.

***

These are dark days.

Thankfully, there are double yellow lines within the church, made and intended to guide the body of Christ: God and his Word. The white outer line? That is your pastor, a man chosen by God, an overseer tasked with the mission of shepherding your soul through prayer and teaching. He answers directly to God, and will give an account.

Hebrews 13:17 reads:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Pastor Dane Ortlund recently said:

A tidal wave of pastor resignations is coming in 2022. But that wave can be greatly lessened by the most powerful gift a congregation can give: the ministry of encouragement.

Amen.

Church is a living organism, made up of flesh and blood and the mystery of souls, destined for eternity. It is a house of prayer and preaching, proclaiming the Word of God, which is living and active (Hebrews 4:12).

Church is not to be centered upon statistics and numerical growth, but upon what God holds dear: repentance of sins, biblical obedience, and spiritual depth. It is a hospital for the sick, the downtrodden, the struggling. It is a house for the believers to be strengthened, to delight in God and his Word; a place of spiritual feasting and nourishment.

Church is a place where we must digest hard words of truth that deeply offend our flesh, and that is a good thing, as we joyfully submit to the straight edge of Scripture. We cannot subsist upon pablum, but require meat, in order to grow deep into the things of God.

Church is where we must tend to one another in brotherly love: encouraging, edifying, building up the body of Christ, while sharing our God-given gifts and abilities to further the kingdom of God.

Church is the body of believers, for whom Jesus Christ died to ransom. It is where the fruit of the spirit within each believer should shine on hearty platters: a gifting, an offering to serve the entire fellowship in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

A critical spirit is not one of these fruits, nor is it ever a gift. It quenches the work of the Holy Spirit. Criticism tears down, destroys, and is a fast-spreading cancer that breeds contempt. A critical spirit always fractures.

Church is not our playground. We do not own our church, staking our claim, as a playground bully does.

Church is not our wishing well. Let us refrain from tossing our shiny pennies into the shallows, insisting that our leaders accommodate our wishes and preferences.

Church is not a Fortune 500 Company, to be run like a crisp board meeting.

Church is not a buffet, a restaurant where we pick and choose our favorite junk foods, opting to skip the nutrients that our bodies require to function well.

There is a better way. A way that builds up, edifies, and breeds unity under the banner of Christ: submission to the Word through obedience and prayer, followed by words of kindness and encouragement for your pastor and fellow church members.

Encouragement is contagious: it twinkles and sparkles and draws people together in brotherly love. It shows a generosity of spirit which in turn strengthens the tired and discouraged ones.

Encourage your pastor this very day, as he is laboring around the clock in prayer and preparation to feed souls. It is weighty and holy and joyous and exhausting.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. Hebrews 10:24-25

Flesh and Bone

The quotidian life is my fertile clay, and in the small dollops of the humdrum my spirit is renewed. Winds brushing through swaying treetops, the scent of burnt vanilla candles that flicker in the dusk of evening, hot soup steaming on a chilly night, our dear grandson’s first baby smiles, soft piano music swirling as I write. Worn Bible pages as I unearth the book of Matthew, an outstretched wave from a neighbor, my daughter and I laughing as we enjoy our show. Family group chats, long walks through crunchy leaves, catch-up phone calls with our sons, a note of gratitude with care-filled words, slowly brushing the walls of our home with paint colors that reflect God’s creation: blue of sky and sea, green of pasture, soft white puffs of cloud.

I am flesh and bone, dwelling solidly in the physical realm, seeking comfort in the touchable, the seen.

I have been reading the gospels, and listening to God as he speaks to me through the Bible, paying attention to the lack of hustle, lack of worry, and lack of frenetic activity in the life of Christ. So contrary to the ways of this world. Jesus walked from place to place, purposeful in motion, speaking truth in love, resisting Satan and rebuking Pharisees, humbly bowing only to the will of his Father. He ate and slept and prayed and wept and worked and taught and spoke in parables.

Jesus can empathize with our carnal frailties.

***

For fifteen or more years I prayed for an older, wiser, Crucified-with-Christ mentor. A flesh and bone woman. This did not come to pass, so I eventually stopped praying in that bent, believing it was simply not to be.

***

Several months ago, in the high heat of summer, we purchased our home. We had been renting, allowing ourselves time to grow familiar with our new state and county, in all of its thin weaving roads and lustrous beauty of seasonal change, considering neighborhoods that might serve as a quiet oasis in the midst of pastoral ministry.

The market was hot, at least from a seller’s vantage point, and our Realtor reminded us time and again that it would be next to impossible to find what we were looking for without paying exceedingly over asking price, which was something she cautioned against.

So we toured three homes, and I fell hard for one. We prayed, bid on it, and drove home. I was soaring internally, daydreaming of paint colors and patio furniture, big family gatherings and quiet rocking chair moments, when I received an alert on my phone: a new house listing had popped in a neighborhood where homes disappeared within hours. My husband had previously researched this location, and was hopeful.

Let’s drive by, he said.

I nodded, but in my heart the other house was the one. It was flawless and yellow, and guess what? Not just any yellow. The perfect yellow.

So we slipped into this other neighborhood, and it was beyond lovely. In fact, it was so beautiful and good that I felt faintly conflicted about our previous bid.

Jon’s smile was huge.

But we just bid on the other one, I said, heart thudding. And it is yellow, I might have whispered.

Let’s see what God does, was his answer. A good reply from a good man.

We entered the neighborhood, looping through a winding road that culminated in a generous culdesac. There she sat, a beauty of a house resting upon a hillock, with an entire acre of yard. I immediately envisioned our soon-to-be-born grandson, and future grandchildren, playing here: building forts and jumping in autumn’s leaves, riding bicycles, playing football by day, roasting s’mores by night.

I felt whiplashed.

The House on a Hill or The Yellow House?

Quieting my inner dialogue, I wrapped up both homes in butcher paper and string, and handed them directly back to God, freeing both my hands and my heart: an act of the will. It might be one, it might be the other, or it might be neither. Thy will be done.

Within a short time, we lost the bid on the yellow home, placed a bid on the second one, and the owners accepted.

Our Realtor was stunned.

You never should have been able to get this home at asking price, were her words. I don’t think you understand…this does not happen in this neighborhood. Ever.

I laughed and told her it was God’s doing.

She studied me sideways, considering.

***

As a pastor’s wife, I have grown accustomed to hard things; to circumstances unfolding contrary to what I hope and pray. I actually anticipate difficulty, the way a beekeeper calmly expects to be stung. There are honey-sweet times too, but let’s face it: any pastor who is willing to preach the truth of God’s Word will suffer, to some degree. Principalities and forces are at play, warring and raging as Scripture is proclaimed. There is skin in this game, and that skin includes the pastor’s family. Every pastor, plus his wife or son or daughter who might read this knows. So much outpouring, precious little inflowing.

We have a wooden sign that I pass each morning in our hallway as I begin the day, a quote from Charles Spurgeon:

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

He wasn’t wrong, and being in full-time ministry has been the impetus of my deepest, ongoing sanctification. Yet some days it is rather easy to neglect this truth: God knows precisely what he is doing. Always.

***

When the yellow house did not pan out, I was fine. More than fine. God had chosen perfectly, gracing us with a gift far better than what we could have imagined.

And I was unaware of the half of it.

If the yellow house bid had been accepted, I would have never met Carrie.

***

We closed on our new home, and schlepped our belongings from one address to the other. After I had cleaned every square inch of our new abode and painted three different rooms in as many days, and unpacked our entire kitchen, I was spent: desperate for air, for sunshine, for twenty minutes of writing time, for my beloved walks. Anything other than unpacking boxes.

As I stepped outside, shielding my eyes from the sunshine, I met our across-the-street neighbors, who were retrieving their mail.

Welcome to the neighborhood! I am Carrie, she said, before introducing her husband.

We made small talk for a minute or two, before she inquired what brought us to our state. I told her of my husband’s pastorate, and her eyes danced. I have been teaching Bible Study for over thirty-five years, she said.

We waded to the deep end, moving straight to the things of God, kindred spirits and fast friends. Carrie swept me up into her Bible Study, where we are currently settled within the pages of Matthew. Nothing shiny, pretty, or easy: only the unadorned Word of God, which is exactly as it should be. I am in the midst of women who have tossed all fluff, and are burning to obey God. I am soaking up their wisdom eagerly, grateful to learn.

Although I never officially asked, nor had to, since it sprouted organically, Carrie has become my mentor, pulling me into her home, feeding me the finest chicken salad, praying for and treating me like a favored daughter and sister-in-Christ. She is direct and strong, serene and wise, humble of heart and entirely devoted to glorifying God.

She is also fun, likes to laugh, and has befriended our seventeen-year-old daughter.

You, she said to Lauren, are my adopted granddaughter. And I am treating you to a pedicure.

So off they went, and it was good.

I am undone by the kindness of God.

***

I might be undone, but only after having seen a physical answer to my long-standing then abandoned prayers for a Crucified-with-Christ mentor.

In fact, truth-be-told, I have behaved exactly as did Thomas, doubting God.

John 20:24-29:

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

Eight days later, the disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Jesus, fully resurrected, walked through a locked door, entering in peace. He approached the doubting disciple, and in a flood of understanding, urged Thomas to touch his scars, to feel the physical truth, and to believe.

Thomas often receives a bad rap, but I see the tender love radiating from Christ to this man. The compassion, the understanding. The sheer physicality of the wounds themselves. Jesus’ scars proved his fidelity to God and Scripture. Wounds that cost him his life, yet he empathizes with Thomas’ frailty, knowing that the man before him is mortal, a soul fashioned for eternity, but with feet of clay.

Jesus invited him into the somatic, (touch my scars) while pointing him to the eternal (blessed are those who believe without seeing).

May we, as flesh and bone, have eyes that see beyond the earthly, trusting God to the uttermost.

***

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

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)

Tell the Truth

It was a normal autumn week during my kindergarten year that my mother received a slew of phone calls that went something like this:

You need to speak to your daughter. Kristin told my son that that there is no such thing as Santa Claus.

and:

Your daughter informed my Andrea that not only is Santa Claus make believe, but so is the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.

They were livid.

My mother told me that I must keep this truth to myself, so as not to spoil things for others.

***

It was 1977, and I was enrolled in a public kindergarten class taught by a hippy. Our teacher’s limp hair draped downward in a thin and tangled mess against her lower back. Rail thin, she wore a bandana, faded jeans, and tinted sunglasses to school while occasionally teaching us lessons that amounted to precious little. Most days she preferred to strum her guitar while we busied ourselves with blocks and crayons and games of checkers.

We were, however, required to join her in singing dreadful songs during circle time. These were not peppy children’s tunes, but ones she had penned, songs that droned on in a minor key about subject matters we knew nothing of. After awhile one of us would slip up a hand and beg for a reprieve.

Can we go to recess now? Teacher sighed and blessed us with the universal peace symbol before freeing us to the playground.

I longed for structure and purpose to my days, and preferred to know what was next. That never came to pass during kindergarten, where every day unfolded differently. It made me nervous.

My grandparents visited our school’s Open House that year, and I recall Grandpa pulling my mother aside, speaking in a low tone.

I do not trust this teacher, and I certainly do NOT like my granddaughter being under her supervision. That woman, he pointed, is not sane.

I loved and trusted my Grandpa, because he always spoke the truth, no matter what.

***

So that early October day, the week my mother fielded complaining phone calls, our teacher had us circle up as she called it. We surrounded her in a ring on the worn shag carpet.

I have a question for each of you. She pretended to smile, using a faux baby voice: Who does not believe in Santa Claus? Raise your hand.

I raised my hand. No one else did.

Hippie teacher gave me a hard stare. I blushed, guessing I had erred.

My friends peppered me with questions at recess, as we spun on the bars and pumped our legs on the swings. I told them the truth: Santa is not real, and Christmas is about baby Jesus. Parents pretend to be Santa, filling stockings, and they also hide money under pillows for each lost tooth. The Easter bunny? He is fake, too.

Thus the many phone calls to my mother.

***

A few months later, on a cold and snowy day, our teacher announced that she had a special movie for us, since it was too icy to play outdoors. She passed out popcorn and lined our seats up in front of a projector, dimming the lights.

We were exhilarated, as we had never before watched a movie in school.

The film began: the story of a real horse and her colt. I adored animals, and fed our neighbor’s horse shiny apples with delightful regularity, daydreaming that he was my own. The horse in the movie was magnificent and her colt was darling.

Within fifteen minutes, and hardly a segue, the frail colt wandered from the safety of his mother, and to my utter horror, slipped into quicksand. He struggled, and as his mother whinnied and reared, helpless to save him, he perished.

I was five years old. A terrifying panic swelled inside of me. Several classmates began crying, and I was so traumatized that I froze. Squeezing my eyes shut, I tried to mentally erase what I had witnessed. Yet every time I did, I could only see the helpless colt sinking all over again.

To further complicate matters, the entire concept of quicksand was my ongoing fear prior to this movie. My brother and I had been forbidden to enter the woods behind our home, as our landlord had told dreadful stories about people being swallowed up in the bog. To see this actually playing out in a movie was far more than I could handle.

I stepped off of the school bus that afternoon, Holly Hobby lunchbox in hand, and said not a word of the movie to my mother, convinced that this terror was something to hide. I was absolutely certain that I would spoil something for someone if I told the truth.

As it turned out, my ensuing nightmares and stomachaches did the talking for me. My mother heard from numerous other mothers, whose kindergarten children were terrified to go back to school. Suddenly the nightmares and stomach aches made sense, and my mother ultimately pulled the story from my withered heart. I could not stop weeping.

Kristin, why didn’t you just tell us the truth? she kept asking.

I continued sobbing, wordless.

If kindergarten taught me anything, it was this: truth was a tricky beast.

Sometimes people asked for it and were grateful, and other times they received it and were angry.

***

It is not unlike church.

Every Sunday, I am grateful to sit under the teaching of God’s Word, verse-by-verse. The straight edge of Scripture serves as a mirror to my soul, spotlighting those jagged, sinful edges. My response to truth typically goes one of two ways: I grow offended and huffy, blaming anyone and everyone else while denying my own trespasses, or I grow offended then contrite, confessing and repenting before our merciful God himself, asking him to forgive me yet again.

A sullen poverty of spirit, which darkens both our countenance and our actions, is always tethered to a dusty Bible. I have yet to meet one person who is steadfastly feasting upon God’s Word that chooses to consistently rebel against God. An open Bible and a softened heart foster a longing for truth. And people hungry for truth are eager to receive the teaching of God’s Word.

***

According to the words of Jesus, truth also causes division.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three (Luke 12:51-52).

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34).

As Christians, we ought to be the best truth-tellers and receivers. We have been bought with a price; rescued through the truth himself: Jesus Christ (1 Peter1:18-19). How unkind to skirt around it, scared to offend or to lose friends, when the truth is the only thing that may set them free (John 8:31-32).

Heart Medicine

My brother and I tumbled downstairs, windbreakers zipped to our chins, eager to see how our pumpkins had fared after sitting on the stoop overnight. I opened the screen door, inhaling autumn’s air and then suddenly stopped short, causing my brother to bump into me.

Look, Tommy! I pointed. Our pumpkins shrunk! I stood, stunned by the tiny gourds before me, no larger than an apple.

How was this possible? One day prior, we had visited a pumpkin patch, and for the first time ever had been allowed to choose our very own. My brother had picked a handsome, oval-shaped pumpkin, slim and tall, with a perfectly straight stem. My pumpkin was round and squat and bright, far heavier than I could carry. It’s green stem swayed to one side in a soft curl.

My brother might have been younger, but was far wiser to the ways of the world.

Our pumpkins didn’t shrink, Kristin. They are right there. He pointed to the road in front of our home.

I turned and stared at a gigantic mound of lumpy orange debris.

But how…? I began, my eyes filling in realization that they were destroyed.

Someone stole them, smashed them, and played a trick on us, my brother said matter-of-factly. He grabbed my hand. C’mon. Let’s go tell Mom and Dad.

And just like that, my world changed. Bad things could happen, and for no reason at all.

***

Growing up in this old New England farmhouse was magical.

The house itself, large and stately, sat on a fine piece of land, which included two expansive fields, several black-soiled vegetable gardens brimming with carrots, beans, and tasseled corn, a tangled raspberry patch, plus a pretty pond full of fish and turtles, complete with a small and roaring dam. A millstone adorned our front yard, flat beneath a maple tree. We enjoyed many lunchbox picnics on that round slab, which doubled as home base for our games of tag.

The farmhouse itself had been divided into four apartments, three of which were rented out and the fourth inhabited by our landlords, a retired couple who owned and tended the property.

Norman Golden was our landlord, a tall and imposing man, who hid behind untamed eyebrows and frequent sarcasm. Behind all of the bluster, however, was a heart of kindness. He spent hours repairing anything and everything, and then, as time allowed, tinkered in his breezeway, a wood-working and inventing area which separated the main house from the garage.

His wife, Mary, spent most of her time working outdoors, perpetually bent over those scrupulous garden rows, yanking weeds, and laughing at her husband’s ways, scolding him with a gentle: Oh, Norman. Stop scaring the children. She clearly adored him, and I delighted in their banter and easy camaraderie as they labored over their beloved property.

On the first of every month, my father descended the back, narrow staircase, rent check in hand, and Tommy and I followed, eager to visit. Mr. Golden beckoned us gruffly into their hazy kitchen, ash trays smoldering with stubby cigarettes as we took a seat at the formica table, knowing well what was next. Mrs. Golden pushed up the window by way of apology, waving her hand in invitation for the swirling smoke to disappear.

Mr. Golden’s voice was commanding and his wiry eyebrows remained furrowed as he shuffled over the linoleum floor, clad in white undershirt and khakis: his indoor attire. Would you kids like a piece of chocolate cake?

We responded with a vigorous nod.

Well that’s too bad. We don’t have any.

We giggled every time.

The script remained unchanged and I adored it. Deep down, I would have been somehow disappointed if he had actually produced a slice of cake.

He humphed as he sat down at the table, and lifted his juice glass. The ice cubes clinked as he swirled the drink, referring to it as heart medicine, asking my brother and me if we wanted our own glass.

Norman! his wife clucked. Stop that. This too remained the same, and for years I believed that he was sipping apple juice.

But the real reason I enjoyed going downstairs on rent day, was to hear stories. Mr. Golden was full of them, and despite his wife’s admonitions, he rarely held back.

You kids stay away from that dam across the street, hear me now? One hundred years ago some kids were roughhousing, and one fell and cracked her head.

We nodded, wide-eyed.

And the road out front? Just because our street is quiet, doesn’t mean a car isn’t coming. You look both ways five times before you cross. Understand? One time I was almost flattened by a semi out there.

Mary rolled her eyes.

And the edge of the woods in the back field? It’s a bog, full of quicksand. My ancestor lost a cow back there. The cow disappeared, and my ancestor went a’lookin. The cow never came back and neither did he. The ground just swallowed them up. And then his son followed, even though his mother told him not to. He almost disappeared too, but managed to escape, jumping out of his boots which sunk in the bog.

This gave me pause to consider. It also put the fear into us, which was his plan all along, I am quite sure. We respected the property boundaries, taking great care to avoid both the dam and woods.

***

One cool fall day, on the first of the month, his story felt less like a tall-tale.

Sometimes kids just don’t listen. I remember one time my two boys were wrestling in the living room. I told them to quit, but they were in high school and kept going. George pushed Michael off the sofa, and he landed on the coffee table. The legs gave way and our dog was pinned underneath and died.

The kitchen clock ticked.

Mr. Golden ceased his storytelling, staring vacantly beyond the kitchen window, across the street to the pond. His wife turned to the sink, wiping off an already clean dish, as my father cleared his throat and stood, pushing in his chair.

My eyes remained fastened upon Mr. Golden’s face.

We must be going, Norman. My father guided us to the back door.

I wanted to say something kind, but could not speak.

Bad things just happen for no good reason at all, he murmured, lighting a cigarette as we left.

***

Mr. Golden was incensed about our pumpkin loss, and in an unusual turnabout, dropped all sarcasm and informed us in no uncertain terms that if he had witnessed those cowards stealing our pumpkins, he would have made good use of his shotgun.

I did not want anyone to be injured, but I felt the care tucked within his speech.

***

Decades have swept by since that time, and now I think of Mr. Golden, our New England farmhouse, the smashed pumpkins, and disrupted plans. It was all so very long ago, and there were chapters of this story that were impossible for me to know as a little girl. The Golden’s son, George, had died suddenly as a young man. Norman’s grief was compounded by the realization that the relational bridge between he and his son had never been repaired.

His coping strategy? Hypervigilance and plenty of heart medicine.

***

The day our pumpkins were smashed, my young life felt disrupted. I had not yet learned that a disturbance of our plans holds holy purpose. Bad things do happen, and while I have no snappy answers for the why, my comfort is planted in the knowing that those very things have been permitted by our Father.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, passes through the hands of God without his consent. Every scalding pain, aching sorrow, and ongoing burden is used by God for good, and for his glory to burn brightly.

Even today, I have reminded myself to bow low before God, my: Yes, Lord in the midst of pain. A glowstick shines in the pitch of night only after it has been broken.

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand (Proverbs 19:21).

This is my heart medicine.