Unoffendable

I will never know what might have happened if our neighbor hadn’t intervened.

My heart was flailing, as I stood wide-eyed, attempting to fill the frame of our front door. It was my hope to shield my children’s view of this woman, a futile plan, given this creature who was now screaming at me, a Jezebel in the flesh, eyes blazing and nostrils flaring.

***

We once lived on a short cul-de-sac in Texas, home to some ten families. Our sons played outdoors daily, by the slant of afternoon light. Neighborhood boys flocked from surrounding streets, dividing and forming football teams. I occasionally offered drinks and snacks, walking outside with our two-year-old daughter, while keeping an eye on everyone.

It was a wonderful group of boys, many with a key dangling about their neck, parents working until the dinner hour. I remember their names and faces even now: Donovan, Mouse, Jake, Cody, and Finn. Plus our own three sons: Caleb, Jacob, and Marcus.

These games were rigorous: Our ten-year-old, Caleb, the oldest of the bunch, had mapped out strict playbooks and schedules, tallying scores while diligently keeping stats. It was all quite official and the boys treated the games and each other with the utmost respect. I could feel their hunger for leadership, routine, and purpose. As I plucked weeds and played with our daughter and walked our dog, occasionally treating knees with Neosporin and band-aids, I grinned at their serious discussions. These boys had resplendent plans: college football prior to skyrocketing to the one and only National Football League.

Those were the days.

***

One of those splendid afternoons, as the boys were in the thick of a game, I stood indoors, folding a mountain of laundry heaped upon the dining room table. Our daughter was napping upstairs, and from time to time I paused my work, peering out our front bay window, double checking that all was well. After returning to my folding, I paused upon hearing deep voices. Opening our front door, I observed two teenagers as they intercepted the football. They tossed it back and forth, cackling over the heads of the younger fellows.

I stood there for a moment, considering. Maybe they will just join the game. That sentence evaporated as intense taunting began. It was now a game of keep-away, a pathetic sight coming from sixteen-year-olds to mere children.

My protective instincts caught fire as I whirled down our driveway.

Hey! That’s enough, guys. Please give the ball back to the boys.

They turned, surprised.

It’s my street too, lady. One of the boys approached me, defiant.

Give my son his football and head on home. I stood still, arms crossed, and the street hushed.

He sneered and twirled the ball high into the air, before slinging it back to Caleb.

We’ll see about that. He glanced over his shoulder, summoned his pal, and strolled away.

I kept a close watch the rest of the afternoon. All seemed well.

***

Early that evening, before my husband had returned from work, I prepped dinner, chopping and dicing while the kids sprawled on the living room floor enjoying a movie. In the middle of this peaceful scene, the doorbell rang. I opened the door, surprised to see a middle-aged woman dressed in business casual. I did not recognize her but smiled.

Who do you think you are? she hissed.

Excuse me? My heart began pounding.

You certainly have a lot of nerve telling my son to leave his own street. Her voice was rapidly escalating, and her eyes were hot. I started to slowly close the door.

Oh no you don’t. She pressed her manicured hand on the doorknob, her thick foot blocking the doorframe. You owe me an explanation.

I was too stunned to answer.

Now! she exploded.

Explanation? Your son was bullying

Bullying? Bullying? She was now screaming. You call trying to be included in a football game bullying? Let me tell you–

And then.

Hello, Kristin. Our next-door-neighbor, a petite, middle-aged woman whom I had chatted with only a handful of times, was now standing next to this angry lady.

I am sorry, dear, if I have caught you at an inconvenient time, but I wanted to once again see the lovely paint color in your dining room before our remodel. It must match my quilt.

She held up her arm, over which draped a tidy blanket, folded. Turning breezily to the ranting woman, whose face was burning, she continued. Would you excuse us, please? Her voice was kind yet firm as she guided me back inside.

And just like that, she followed me inside, quickly closing and locking our door.

I was shaking.

This good neighbor peered at my children who had never heard such ranting.

Oh, it’s okay. Some people are just so grumpy, aren’t they? she smiled at my wide-eyed tribe. My goodness, you are watching Peter Pan! I love that movie. Keep it rolling. I have to get some paint ideas from your Mom.

We stepped into the dining room, and she parted the curtains to make sure the Screamer was gone. She was.

Thank you, I said weakly. My legs were shaking.

I almost called the police, dear. That woman is a ticking time bomb. A couple of months ago she had issues with another neighbor down the street.

***

I never saw the screaming woman again.

In fact, prior to this incident, we had only glimpsed the back of her head as she careened into her garage after work each night. It remained the same after her rage on our doorstep.

I was greatly offended and nervous. Would she come back?

Deeper still was the uncomfortable knowledge that someone did not like me. I had spent so many years staking my worth upon lack of altercations and disagreements, keeping the juggling act afloat, working tirelessly to earn favor with nearly everyone. And now this?

Couple this with the abysmal reality that my time spent in Scripture was haphazard at best: cherry-picking verses, snacking upon God’s Holy Word if I found the time, rather than choosing to feast daily, and it is plain to see that I was spiritually bankrupt.

God never condones idolatry in the hearts of his own, and people-pleasing is simply that. It is a deep, deep well and also a sneaky one: appearing kind and gentle and sensitive and servant-minded and considerate. It is not.

Those who abide in man-pleasing ways, rather than fearing God most, typically display the same acute symptom. They are easily offended.

Bowing first and only to God while loving others well, breeds true freedom. As we dwell securely in this space, we will no longer be content to live a flimsy, man-pleasing life: a shallow, upending existence if ever there was one.

God has given me a simple measuring stick in examining my own heart: Am I easily offended? Huffy? As I abide fully in Christ, the more unoffendable my soul becomes. My heart and mind and soul are consumed with obedience to God, rather than focusing upon the fickle affections and reactions of man.

***

There is a deep transformation taking place in the true believer’s heart. A slow and tender growth, as God clips away the sinful thorns that distract us from walking in step with the Holy Spirit. It feels crushing as we stand exposed in our sin and weakness.

But then, just as he did for Adam and Eve, God supplies leaves to cover us, soft green branches of hope, given to clothe us in his righteousness as we cling in trust to Christ who is our Vine, our Shelter, our Savior.

And that increasing desire for God himself? This, too, is from the Lord.

***

We had a couple of guests at our church one evening last month. As I stepped into the sanctuary, I noticed a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, sitting in the back row with her father. I ambled over to their pew, introduced myself, and welcomed them to our church.

Within one minute I could feel the daughter’s angst. As I chatted with her father, her eyes raged against my friendliness, until finally she said icily:

What, did we take your pew or something?

I felt the darkness clashing and a sorrow welled up inside of me at her rudeness.

I smiled at her. No, not at all. I don’t own any pew. I just wanted to welcome you. My husband is the pastor here, and I enjoy meeting new people. I am happy that you are here. Merry Christmas!

Her father looked deeply embarrassed as I said goodbye and moved on.

***

Later, much later, I turned this scene over in my mind. Something nagged at me, as I thought of this young woman.

What was it?

I was unoffended.

The realization came in a rush, so refreshingly different from my old patterns of harboring and rehearsing deep offenses I had once clung to.

The reactions of others always reveal their own hearts, not mine. It is not my business to own their responses, only to walk in step with the Holy Spirit.

God, in his kindness, has been at work, transforming and renewing my heart and mind through his Word, while granting me the longing to love him most. God is everything. It is important to understand that obedience to God is highly offensive to unbelievers. Darkness hates light.

So I no longer hold people’s opinions as supreme. This is true living. A life that is filled with deep, imperishable joy, regardless of others.

***

If I could now walk backwards sixteen years, to the Screaming Lady Situation, I might be caught off guard, but I would no longer be offended.

She was a woman without the hope of Christ, and her festering wounds knew no bounds. I see that now.

It was never really about me.

At that time, I was an infant subsisting upon spiritual milk: splashing in the shallows instead of diving into the deep waters filled with the truths of God and his Word.

It was thus impossible for me to share that which I did not possess.

In hindsight, I can now see this incident as the spark: the beginning of God tenderly cupping my face, turning me around, and leading me directly into his Refiner’s Fire; unraveling all of those tangled messes I had spun in my own sin and fragility.

He is stitching me back together still, piece by piece, and it is my honor, and my joy to abide in him, through faith and obedience. And when I fail? I repent and return.

I pray for God to keep me faithful, allowing me to maintain both a spine of steel and a soft, humble heart.

Unoffendable.

That One Common Ache

We are a funny people: planning, mapping, strategizing. We purchase gym memberships and anti-wrinkle creams, free-range this and organic that, paralyzed by anxiety of our inevitable aging and death, fearful of missing out on a life-changing blurb awaiting us on social media, and agonizing over insufficient retirement funds. So much preparation for worldly things, while prone to disregarding our soul’s eternal future.

Fellowship with God on streets of gold or scorching flames and torment without him will be our forever. One or the other. There is no middle ground.

We rage against our story.

What beauty might erupt, if this year we chose instead to press into our own narrative, divinely written by God our Maker? Palms held loosely open, (Your will, God, not mine) humbly and graciously accepting his path, trusting him implicitly by way of adoration and bowed obedience?

Our past, present, and future is mysteriously braided together by God himself. His plan unfurls through our unique stories.

Just imagine if we treasured our fleeting lives enough to surrender them fully and generously to the Lord, no strings attached.

***

Not so long ago, I bumped into a woman whom I had not seen for a bit. One minute into the conversation I slipped away. My feet did not move, and I may have nodded at appropriate moments, but after a short time, she lost me.

Honestly it was not really a conversation at all. It was more of a soliloquy revolving around her children’s accomplishments:

4.0 this, President of that, Honors Society Member and Dean’s List and Straight A’s and Star Athlete and on and on and on it went. It had been awhile since I had seen her, and it pained me afresh to recognize that her children’s worth is so poorly measured by fleeting accomplishments, tangled and jumbled in earthly awards that fade in due time. I could picture her pressured offspring, burdened by weighty backpacks of accumulated winnings, soul-exhausted with their lot in life, and feeling quite powerless to escape.

As she rambled, a familiar feeling floated upward in my mind. Suddenly, I was nine years old and swinging my legs in the shiny wooden pew of my childhood church.

***

It was a chilly January morning, and the promise of a brand new year glowed brightly as the sunshine danced its way through the sanctuary windows. There was a delicious excitement in the air: a brand new calendar flush with possibilities. That magical sensation in which wrongs may be righted and the sky is the limit and this year, yes this year will be golden! (Of course this feeling crashes and burns as winter unfolds, and the snow turns to dirty mush along with our resolutions and we wail: Where is spring?)

I was holding my own hymnal that day, feeling quite grown up as our minister asked our congregation to please stand and sing: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. As the organ sounded, and the richness of those words sprung forth, their meaning jolted my soul. Especially verse two:

Did we in our own strength confide,

Our striving would be losing;

Were not the right man on our side,

The man of God’s own choosing:

Dost ask who that may be?

Christ Jesus, it is He;

Lord Sabaoth His Name,

From age to age the same,

And He must win the battle.

My heart quickened, as my eyes filled. This Christ Jesus was wonderful, and I knew him.

I considered the words: Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing. The Holy Spirit was at work.

As the next verse began, a new voice joined in, one or two measures behind our congregation, and terribly off-key. I peeked over my shoulder, and saw Jimmy swaying in the back row. He was standing, as always, next to his mother, who smiled gently as she sang, looking both tired and peaceful.

Jimmy had been born late in his mother’s life. His father abandoned the family soon after Jimmy had been born with Down’s Syndrome, meaning that his mother was left to raise two boys alone, which she did, working many odd jobs to remain afloat. Eventually, her older son labored to support his mother and brother, which was of great comfort.

And then, one evening, in the depths of night, a harsh and insistent knock interrupted their sleep. Jimmy’s mother rushed to fasten her robe before opening the front door. Two policemen stood before her, caps in hand, bearing the grim news that there had been a terrible accident, and her older son had died.

I knew all of these things as we sang A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and as I peeked at Jimmy, who continuously missed words and syllables, I was fairly certain there was no voice as sweet. His face was glowing. Jimmy loved his mother and he loved God. It was that simple. He sang loudly and without embarrassment, worshipping his Creator.

His mother clearly delighted in the sweet abandon of her son, never shushing him despite pointed stares and a few grimaces from others. She was a soft-spoken woman, who had humbly accepted her hard story, full of broken edges and dark spaces. In her crucible times she clung to God rather than raging against him. And guess what? Her life did not grow easier, yet was magnificent.

I might have been quite young, but the tranquility of her soul spun brightly, and I knew with certainty that I wanted precisely what she possessed.

Which is interesting because she lacked all worldly treasures: money, beauty, high achievements, a pretty home, good health, an intact family, and popularity.

It simply did not matter. She delighted in the one matchless gift she held dear: an unshakable faith.

***

During this same time, several women at church grew edgy with each other, (smiling prettily through gritted teeth) as their children reached high school. It became an obvious game of Let’s See Who Can Outdo One Another With Our Children’s Accomplishments. I meandered through the congregation after the service, waiting for my parents to finish talking, and overheard snippets of conversation amongst these competitive women, which revolved around things that did not matter. I felt confused as I tried to reconcile the Win! Strive! Compete! with this God of merciful grace, whose yoke is easy and burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

I eventually put on my thick winter coat and stepped out of the narthex into the biting New England air. Jimmy’s mother was ahead of me, graceful and quiet, nodding her hellos to a few folks while pulling her coat tighter in the freezing temperatures as she ushered her son through the parking lot. He looped his short arm through hers, and she turned and smiled at him so dearly, and with such a tender mother-love that my heart ached. I knew her life had been marked by tragedy, yet here she stood, in the cold sunlight, dressed in a threadbare coat while stunningly cloaked in utter devotion to God and her son.

***

Oh, the common ache of mankind! To be known and loved unconditionally.

How devastating to neglect this staggering fact: if you are in Christ, you already possess this unconditional love. You are known and fully treasured by God himself. What an imperishable delight: one that cannot be withdrawn.

Nor can it be earned. God’s love is a majestic gift. We are his image-bearers, and therein lies our complete worth.

Gym memberships and slim physiques, beautifying lotions, new clothes, straight-A children, fancy houses, scholarly degrees, popularity among mankind, successful jobs, and fat bank accounts are no measure of anyone’s worth. All of these things are fleeting.

Jimmy and his mother acquired none of these earthly treasures. Their lives echoed Lamentations 3:24:

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I will hope in him.”

Their faith in Christ Jesus sparkled as brightly as the New England sunshine casting its rays on the snow-covered hilltops. Mother and son delighted in God, praising him for his unending goodness. They were the rich ones, indeed.

***

I snapped back to the conversation with the woman in front of me. She had paused, inquiring if I was doing well?

I nodded, adding that this past year had been both broken and beautiful. God is faithful, I added, meaning it whole-heartedly, always at work.

I think it was her turn to fade away, as she fumbled for her tweeting cell phone. We said goodbye with an awkward wave. I watched her retreat into the distance, clothed in her expensive coat and handbag.

She had everything, and nothing at all.

***

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; (2 Corinthians 4:7-8 ESV)

Thank You

As we bid adieu to 2021, I want to thank you for granting me your time.

My blog is certainly not required reading for anyone, and I appreciate you choosing to linger in this quiet corner. As a writer, I am so grateful to have a home for my words to dwell.

God chooses my readers, and I take none of you for granted.

I write to remember what God has done and is doing. He is good and faithful and purposeful and unchanging, and it is my prayer that the stories I share might deepen your walk with him.

And if you are new here, welcome. I have chosen to finish 2021 with some of my readers’ favorite posts from the past twelve months.

Happy New Year!

Things We Remember

Keep Your Soul Diligently

Humility Precedes Him

Unspoken

Remembering Finn

The Secret Things

Please Stay

Tell the Truth

Flesh and Bone

I Do and I Will

This is Advent

My plans for Advent have crumbled, and it is perfect, in a terrible sort of way.

***

It all began Thanksgiving Day. We had a houseful of family, friends, and neighbors. Midway through meal preparations, I peeked inside the turkey roaster and discovered that the bird was a whitish-pink. After initially cooking hot, for a short time, the roaster conked out. I glanced about our home at the sheer number of hungry people. At least there were plenty of side dishes, now sans turkey.

No one else was perturbed, given the bounty of food, but let’s face it: my plans for a tender, juicy platter of meat fizzled.

To further complicate, I began to feel unusually tired, but isn’t that normal (or so I told myself) when hosting an extensive holiday gathering? As the day unfurled, I began to daydream of slipping upstairs, crawling into bed, and sleeping for days. I longed for my soft pillow. (This is definitely not normal. My family knows that anytime I want to nap, something is off.)

Within seventy-two hours of Thanksgiving, I was terribly unwell. I curled up in bed and stared longingly at my new Advent book perched upon my nightstand, but could not draw strength to read so much as a sentence. When all was said and done, I was ill for over a week. And then, just about the time I began to recuperate, my husband came down with an aggressive kidney stone attack, landing us in the ER, and beyond. Shortly thereafter, I circled back around to the doctor yet again, this time with an angry sinus infection.

What does any of this have to do with Advent?

I had great expectations. Advent is a hunger, an anticipation of Christ’s coming. This was going to be the year for me to dig deep, to partake of the month-long devotions, to soar to new spiritual heights.

But like the cold turkey, Advent has not cooked up according to my best laid plans.

***

Down for the count as Advent began, I contended, painfully, in the dark. I tossed and I turned and I slept. And I wrestled. And through that struggling, I saw afresh my self-reliance in times of plenty.

Suffering, by its very nature, changes things. It forces my hand, and requires me to operate at a subdued frequency. Suffering whittles the edges off of things I hold dear, replacing those seared spaces with a burning for heaven. Suddenly, this present world loses its sparkle.

Advent is a fresh wailing. A pleading for Jesus to come to earth and make all terrible things new. He alone can put all sin and pain to rights. During the desperation of suffering, I see my complete lack and God’s goodness with fresh eyes. Prior to any of us being bedridden, or bankrupt, or living in bedlam, we assume that we may control and plan and move the proverbial needle, rising to our best self. And we fool ourselves into believing that this must be God’s plan.

It isn’t.

Read your Bible from beginning to end, and you will understand that we are, and have always been, a desperate, needy, sinful people. It is the wise soul who recognizes this, and moves toward Christ in humble repentance and trust and obedience. Again and again and again.

I have just finished reading my Bible straight through this year. It is the only way to stay grounded in truth. Through this daily reading, I have born painful witness to my own familiar sin on repeat. (As Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us, There is nothing new under the sun.)

I am like Eve in the garden, vying for supremacy, and after willfully disobeying God, I blame others (Genesis 3:13).

I am the children of Israel, impatient as God writes the Ten Commandments with his own finger (Exodus 31: 18). I seek that pretty golden calf, tossing my soul towards idols, before becoming a shadow of Aaron who shrugs, casting blame while pathetically announcing: No one knew where you were, Moses, so I collected gold, threw it into the fire, and voila! out came a calf (Exodus 32:21-24)!

I am like the children of Babel, fashioning towers of self-glory, which God mercifully confuses, opening my eyes to my foolishness (Genesis 11:4-9).

Like Jonah, I am a petulant child, often dissatisfied with where God has placed me to serve, irritated at all of the people who just don’t get it (Jonah 4:1-3).

I am Peter, boldly proclaiming God and his goodness, and then creeping to the shadows (Luke 22:54-62) and denying Christ.

But God (Ephesians 2:4-5).

There is hope. And this is what my daily Bible consumption gives me:

Jesus.

Our Savior is tucked right there in Genesis, and is present throughout Scripture, all of the way through Revelation. At the moment sin entered, there is a gracious promise of the offspring of Eve, who will crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:14-15).

I finished Revelation this week and could have wept in relief. Jesus calls himself the bright morning star. (Revelation 22:16.) He is our Advent come to fruition. Our everything. Our only hope.

Jesus Christ was our chosen Redeemer before the foundation of the world. (1 Peter 1:20-21) Understanding this, believing this, clinging to this, leads to life. The world is broken and we do well to remind ourselves that it is so. This is why a sinless baby was lowered from the heavens. To suffer and to bleed and to sweat drops of blood as the sins of his people thudded upon his shoulders. The agony of it, the curtain wrenched and torn from top to bottom is a mighty preview of the Second Advent as we prepare for that eternal feast in heaven with Christ.

Under normal circumstances, when life is jolly: the presents are wrapped, the lists are checked off, the carols are trilling merrily in the background and everyone is quite happy and healthy, I would say something sweet, like: Advent is the anticipation of Christ’s return. A time to prepare ourselves for Christmas.

Years like this? When suffering and sickness are playing tag, and it is difficult to imagine how to survive the next twenty-four hours? Now I am desperate. Deep groanings. Jesus is coming back to make all things new, and I plead for his return.

In a rude stable Christ was born, in veritable obscurity, as a star sparkled in the heavens above him. In Christ, we too have a star overarching our painful, beautiful, God-ordained lives. It is a star called salvation, a gift for the ages: imperishable, and hidden with Christ on high.

Advent, for the true Christian, is a restless, holy, and deeply personal matter. A work between you and God alone. Pray to him, ask him to soften and ready your heart for his coming. Remember that he is always faithful.

This is the time to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Do not wait.

The pain, sickness, loneliness, and confusion on earth? None of these things may separate you from God. Remember, what Satan intends for harm, God will use for good (Genesis 50:20). There may be joy and growth in the midst of suffering. Draw near to him in repentance.

Whatever cup Christ has poured for me, I must steadfastly accept and drink. Suffering in itself does not make any of us holy, as suffering is universal. It is suffering well, the pressing into God with our open-handed Yes and Amen, trusting his good plans when they hurt most, when the glass seems dim and we do not understand how he can allow such terrible cutting shards into our lives, that makes us more like Christ, and deepens our relationship with him.

***

This frosty morning, on my walk, I stepped over a dead copperhead on the edge of the road. His head had been crushed.

My heart swelled at the consummate symbolism.

Satan has been crushed.

It is finished.

Come Lord Jesus, Come.

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.