Words That Lead

From time to time I receive comments about the writing life. A day-dreamy look appears on questioning faces, eyes all soft with: I think someday I will write a book about my life.

I nod, waiting for the inevitable.

And then it comes.

How do you ever find the time?

It used to make me feel funny, intuiting this belief that folks have regarding writers, which goes something like this: It must be nice to have so much free time to write articles, posts, and books, rather than working like the rest of humanity.

Of course these words are never directly spoken, but the vibe circles the room, a mist falling upon my shoulders. Rather than taking offense, I have decided that it might be helpful to clear the air of several common misunderstandings.

Myth number one: Writers write in their free time.

Serious writers schedule time to write and do it. People are surprised to know that I treat my craft like a job (which it is), while holding to a strict schedule.

Myth number two: Writing is not work, but a hobby.

I call writing a hard joy. Some days are tedious. Other days are enjoyable and the words flow. But ultimately, writing is work, and writers must do the work. It is not glamorous or easy or even a hobby. In fact, it is quite challenging.

Think of it like this: would you ever ask a veterinarian if he performed surgeries on ailing animals as a hobby? Does he operate on a whim, only when the spirit moves him? No. It is the same with writing. A writer must sit and complete the task.

Most writers enjoy hobbies that are more physical in nature–walking or jogging or biking or knitting or painting or photography. It is good for the writer’s mind to rest by laboring physically.

Myth number three: Words magically appear on the page.

Words never magically appear.

Readers see the finished labors absent of the blood, sweat, prayer, and tears that lead to that final piece. In all of my writings, I recall only a few times when the words have flown from my brain to the page with ease. Most often, I write and rewrite and write and rewrite again and again and again.

Myth number five: Every season is conducive to full-time writing.

I have scratched out words for as long as I could spell. However, I did not begin writing consistently until 2020, once our children were nearly grown. My previous adult years were spent homeschooling, and if I could do it over again, I would choose the same path.

No earthly anything is more precious to me than my family, and raising and teaching our children was my full-time occupation. My favorite work of all time. God has blessed each one of us with different seasons, and now that my husband and I have an empty nest, I am grateful to be able to dedicate the lion’s share of my working hours to writing.

Myth number six: Everyone is a writer.

I would ask you this: Is everyone a scientist? A painter? A professional football player? A musician?

Of course not.

I am not sure why people often assume that everyone has a book glowing inside, waiting to be born. I would argue that everyone has a story to be shared, but not necessarily through the medium of writing. Do not feel badly if you are not inclined to write. You do not have to be.

On the flipside, if you enjoy words, and crafting sentences, perhaps you should set aside a few hours each week and give it a whirl. Do this consistently for a month and see where it takes you. Perhaps you are a writer.

***

May I add another important truth? Writing is a responsibility. A weighty one. Every word published will lead your reader somewhere.

Will that somewhere be good, true, and lovely? Or will that somewhere lead to a tangle of confusion?

Personally, I love memoir and I wish that more sober-minded Christians would pen it.

I enjoy reading about life’s small moments: one’s thoughts as they stand at the kitchen sink washing dishes– fresh lemon soap growing sudsy on tired hands while scrubbing the egg-coated pans to a fare-thee-well, all of the while considering the wonderous beauty of nature, observing chunky chickadees flitting upon the bird feeder outside their narrow kitchen window.

Such a pretty sighting thus prompts them to contemplate the Master Artist. Those chickadees, as well as that humbling act of scrubbing away the remnants of breakfast stuck to pans mean something. God is with us at the kitchen sink of life, inviting us to consider and worship and enjoy him.

Writers who are Christ-followers are highly favored with the precious opportunity to write about our Heavenly Father, who is with us in our daily mundane. I pray that, as a writer, I may be a heated iron, used by God to smooth the wrinkled shirt, inviting order and biblical truth to the tired, the worn, the frayed. A heat that sizzles, smooths, and prayerfully diminishes the wrinkles. I have discovered that God’s Word, when known and loved and cherished and obeyed, rightly orders our lives.

The question presents itself: are we willing, as writers, to yield our time to the beauty of pairing words for the glory of God? Even if those words are read only by Him?

All writing, not only memoir, takes people on a journey leading to a destination. This is important to understand, which is why writing itself is work, to be taken seriously. Words, strung together, grow and swell and sway people, leading them to run deeper into a pit of noisy confusion and self-help, or to a golden field of truth. This place of truth invites readers to look up and away from themselves, considering the wonders of God.

The best advice I have to offer writers is to stay tethered to the Lord through Scripture. Love him most, pray continually, and seek to obey his Word.

Then?

Write.

***

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To the Nations

As promised last week, and without further ado, here is my recent chat with our son Jacob, who is making preparations to share the Gospel with the people of South Africa as a full-time missionary. You will be blessed to hear my husband answer some questions as well.

It is my prayer that your faith will be strengthened as you hear Jacob’s testimony and passion to both live and share the Good News.

While I encourage you to listen to the entire discussion, here are some highlights:

1:39 – How sports are playing a part in Jacob’s missions work

5:37 – Jon shares how the Lord has been preparing Jacob to Go

13:54 – How Jacob was called to missions

18:29 – Suffering in ministry

21:16 – A father’s heart as his son prepares to leave

27:00 – Deep roots bear godly fruit. How Jacob nourishes his faith.

I invite you to click here to read about Jacob’s missionary work, and prayerfully consider partnering with him.

Matthew 28:19-20

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

A Guest

Next Thursday, I will be hosting a special guest here at The Palest Ink. I encourage you to return and hear the voice of our son, Jacob. My husband and I will be chatting with him as he shares the enormous changes God is orchestrating in his life. It is a recording that you will not want to miss.

I thought it might be helpful to offer some background and context leading up to next week’s interview.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a post about Jacob. I invite you to read it now, an introduction to the character of this man whom you will have the joy of meeting next week.

This is Jacob.

Humility Precedes Him

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

***

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

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

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

104 degrees, as it turned out.

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

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

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

I slept little, fear rising tall.

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

Mom, are you okay?

The cough abated, allowing me a momentary breath.

I need a doctor, I wheezed.

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

Then, Jacob knocking.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll be fine, Mom. And so will you.

He hugged me and they left.

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

It was a speech for the ages.

***

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

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

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

***

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

What’s he like? Jon asked.

Jacob paused, coffee mug in hand.

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

How so? asked my husband.

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

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

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

Humility precedes him.

Wrinkles in Time

I am startled, at first, by the magnifying mirror, revealing new lines about my eyes. It isn’t so clear in a normal mirror, but then again I speak this without the benefit of reading glasses perched upon my nose.

Readers.

I keep several pairs handy— one at my desk, one on my nightstand, and one pair in my purse. I even own a pair of sunglasses that double as readers, perfect for devouring a book on a bright, summery day. Life would certainly be easier if I did not have 20/20 vision—then I could fill a prescription for bifocals and keep them on all day. But as it goes, I require them for reading and desk work only. To wear them for anything else makes me dizzy, my vision blurred.

At least for now.

I find my glasses and push them up the bridge of my nose. And suddenly the magnifying mirror screams: Look!

Yes, indeed. The passage of time. How the decades have flown!

Never mind my trying to look thirty again— that would be silly. I decide that I will not waste the gift of today, and the age that God has presently gifted me. To long for something else is to invite discontentment into the living room of my soul.

So I embrace middle age, grasping the hours and days and weeks and months with a heart of thanksgiving and joy, digging more deeply into life with Christ. It is a mindset that I must choose as an empty nester, determining not to morph into a woman who spends her fifties looking despondently into the rearview mirror; taking expensive and excessive means to tame and conceal and reverse the swell of time.

Instead, I gaze back at my reflection, dab on my daily moisturizer, swirl on a touch of makeup, and smile broadly at the day to come.

Time is a gift to be stewarded, and why am I prone to forgetting?

I am no longer twenty or thirty or even forty.

Nor am I supposed to be.

So I pray aloud: Thank you God for the delight of today, and whatever it may bring. Our dogs stare at me like I have gone loco, thumping their tails while tilting their heads, quite uncertain why I am speaking to an empty house.

Now I am laughing.

God has a plan, and who am I to disagree with so much as a smidgen of it?

***

Last week I observed a woman, sixtyish, pushing her grandson in a shopping cart while her daughter flipped through a clothes rack, desperately seeking something. Most people do not smile while shopping for clothes—I get this— but the stylish daughter seemed especially miserable; frowning.

I watched the grandmother play peekaboo with her grandson— pushing the cart away and then pulling him close, pushing it away and pulling him close and then kissing those wonderful chubby cheeks as he squealed in delight, kicking his small feet.

My heart felt happy. I play this very game with our grandson.

And then, daughter to mother:

Mom! They don’t have anything— what will I wear? She snapped her gum and her whine was petulant as her mother answered, How about the pretty cream sweater in your closet at home?

This thirty-something woman rolled her eyes with: I wore that last year, clucking as she returned to the racks.

The grandmother’s eyes twinkled–a clear and lovely hazel encompassed by small wrinkles–her hair salt and pepper, swept up in a loose clip. She was soft about the edges in a huggable sort of way, wearing comfy jeans, and a raspberry-colored sweater. A gentle grandma with a kiss of makeup to brighten plus a good haircut, not overdone. Graceful in aging, and delightfully attentive toward her little grandson, rather than herself. Such a pleasant melody to hear in the midst of a loud and selfish world.

Stirred by her actions, I realized that I want to move happily ahead on the path called today, serving my family and friends, playing peekaboo with our grandson and forgetting all about me. This does not happen naturally, does it?

Through seasons of suffering and affliction and heartache, as well as in times of pleasures and joys, I will seek to rise early to meet with the Lord, losing myself in the pages of Scripture, knowing and loving and obeying God. This is the golden key to beauty; contentment.

Please hear me—I am not suggesting that middle aged people should embrace a frumpy, disheveled appearance, ignoring sleep or exercise or healthy foods–but I am believing that one good moisturizer and a drawer full of kindness, goodness, and fidelity to God is better than a drawer full of lotions and potions and endless creams to preserve something that was never meant to last.

That something called youth.

***

Isaiah 46:4 even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made and I will bear; I will carry and will save.

Psalm 118:24 This is the day that the LORD has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.

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The Lord is My Portion

Here we are, a handful of days into a new year, and my inbox is noisy: buy this, try this, join this, and break free in ’23 by checking off your bucket list!

On and on and on it goes.

What if we dismissed the razzamataz and choose to embrace godly wisdom?

Lamentations 3:24 tells us: “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.

Scripture leaves little room for bucket lists and personal agendas. Deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me (Matthew 16:24) is the song of holy living. This is how the Lord becomes our portion.

Is the Lord your portion? Will you hope only in him?

***

A few days before Christmas, I ordered a small book called Narrow Gate Narrow Way by Paul Washer. I devoured it in one sitting, and then I cried.

I cried because the Holy Spirit was close, stitching up my sore heart. I cried because I suddenly knew that as much as my husband and I often feel alone in ministry–solitary in our belief that God is to be utterly adored, obeyed, cherished, and trusted– we are never alone. God is with us.

And so are others.

Indeed there is a remnant of surrendered Christ-followers, as God is at work, gathering and strengthening his people.

Listen to Paul Washer:

I want you to know that when you take a look at American Christianity, it is based more on a godless culture than it is on the Word of God. So many young people and adults are deceived into believing that because they prayed a prayer one time in their life, they are going to heaven. Then, when they look around at others who profess to know Christ and see those people living just as the world does, and when they compare themselves to themselves, nothing troubles their heart. They think, “Well, I am the same as most others in my youth group. I watch things I should not watch on television and laugh about the very things God hates. I wear clothing that is sensual. I talk like the world. I walk like the world. I love the music of the world. I love so much that is in the world, but bless God, I am a Christian. Why am I a Christian? …Because there was a time in my life when I prayed and asked Jesus Christ to come into my heart.

I want you to know that the greatest heresy in the American evangelical and Protestant church is the false idea that if you pray and ask Jesus Christ to come into your heart, He will definitely come in. You will not find that in any place in Scripture. You will not find it frequently in church history until the last century or two. What you need to know is that salvation is by faith alone in Jesus Christ. And faith alone in Jesus Christ is inseparable from repentance. Repentance is turning away from sin; a hatred for the things that God hates and a love for the things that God loves; and a growing in holiness and in the desire not to be like the latest popular idol, like the world, like the great majority of American Christians. It is a desire to be like Jesus Christ! (Narrow Gate, Narrow Way pp 6-7)

He doesn’t mince words, and why should he?

***

A few days ago, I received an email from a woman who is currently in the throngs of horrific suffering. Her husband has abandoned her, two of her grown children have left church while thumbing their nose at God, and her third adult child has been diagnosed with a terminal disease. There was even more to it, but the point was that in the midst of it all, she is clinging to God. She thanked me for openly writing about faith in Christ, suffering, repentance, and holiness, and what Scripture has to say about narrow way living.

Twenty-four hours after reading and responding to her kind words, I was confronted by another who shared that I was far too serious and narrow minded in my writing. God accepts us as we are, said she, and we should not judge how others live.

Oh, the vast sorrow I felt, within my frail human skin.

My desire is not to strive to offend, but to stir and awaken sleepy souls. I was once a sleepy soul, and it is no place to remain.

Speaking clear biblical truth is highly offensive to the flesh. People walking on the wide path do not have eyes to discern that pursuing holiness is paramount. Until the Holy Spirit opens one’s eyes, we are continually speaking two different languages: one which condones and enables wide path living, and one that follows the difficult, narrow way. (Matthew 7:13-14)

Genuine redemption will breed healthy, growing fruit, nourished by the richest of soils, Jesus Christ himself. A true believer will desire to pursue godliness at all costs, because a true believer is filled with the Holy Spirit.

***

I also wept after reading Washer’s book, because I am saddened by the reality of painful relational shifts due to my faith. While suffering has shattered my fear of man into a million pieces that I have gathered and tossed into the trashcan, relational losses still sting. And yet I remain grateful for the jagged slashes of suffering, aches which pull me closer to the heart of Christ.

Many people I care about adore the world and are deceived, infatuated by the Atta boys of man, remaining prisoners of this present world, chained and enslaved to their lust of people-pleasing, rendered incapable of glorifying God.

God cannot be your portion as long as the world is.

And if God is your portion, the world will persecute you.

Indeed, all who desire to live godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Timothy 3:12)

If you are not being persecuted for your faith, examine your life. Do you desire to live a godly life? If your answer is yes, how are you obeying God on narrow path living?

I have circled the sun 50 times, and not once have I met a godly person who is consumed by pleasing man, building personal platforms, or checking off bucket lists of self-gratifying pursuits.

The godly people I have known have been consumed by the same burning fires: soaking in Scripture daily, loving God through obedience, walking in ongoing repentance, praying continually, speaking truth boldly and steadfastly, and denying themselves while serving others.

The Lord is their portion, and every single one of them has suffered persecution.

While my heart’s desire is to invite as many as possible along the narrow path, the reality is that this is a work of God. I can exhort, encourage, and even plead, but according to Scripture there are four soils, and only one of them yields genuine faith. (Matthew 13:1-23) And the hard truth to embrace is that those three unfruitful soils are the majority, scattered within churches, thieving the name Christian, appearing godly but denying the power of God. (2 Timothy 3:5)

***

It is heart-wrenching to watch so many people I care for skipping merrily along the wide path, bent on fulfilling their dreams, grandstanding, eager to accumulate popularity and wealth, while choosing to protect fragile, ungodly relationships, so terrified to offend.

What are genuine Christians called to do?

Perhaps it will encourage and embolden you to consider this:

If a tornado was approaching your friends’ home, and you knew it, but they did not, would you swiftly pick up the phone and warn them? Or would you pause and weigh out your options, fearful to cause offense because they were a tad busy, inside that endangered structure, enjoying family dinner and a movie?

What would be the most loving thing to do?

***

The good news this new year is that you may dismiss worldly pursuits and make God your portion and your hope.

If you are reading this, you are alive. And because you are currently breathing, is not too late to trust fully in God. Ask him to give you saving faith, transforming your limp and wicked heart with a swell of his transforming power, making you eager to love and obey him. Or if you are already a Christian, but have grown sleepy, return to the Lord with renewed vigor, feasting on Scripture and prayer.

Determine to saturate your heart, soul, and mind with the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. If reading is difficult for you, listen to a Bible app, or ask someone to read aloud on your behalf. Dip yourself deeply within the pages of Scripture. There are no shortcuts to personal holiness. Pay attention to what every chapter teaches you about the character of God.  Learn what he detests and seek out that which he praises and requires. Then obey.

May God be your portion and your hope, now and forever.

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Christmas On Washington Street (Part III)

(Part I and Part II )

Grandma served Grandpa the same breakfast every day: a soft-boiled egg perched in a Hadley egg cup, a side of buttered toast with jelly, one small glass of orange juice, and a cup of scalding tea with lemon.

It was now the day following Thanksgiving, and my brother and I sat munching away at the breakfast table with our grandparents, eagerly waiting to help Grandpa run some Christmas errands.

Running errands was usually code for a trip to the toy store, where Grandpa allowed us to pick out any one item, followed by a trip to Brigham’s to enjoy an ice cream cone sprinkled with jimmies, all of which took place before lunch.

But on this cold and sunny day, as we buckled our seatbelts in the backseat of Grandpa’s Volvo, he informed us of other plans.

We will first stop in the hardware store, as your grandmother has asked me to buy the Christmas wreaths. And then to the Five-and-Ten, so you two can do a little Christmas shopping.

Grandpa loved going to the hardware store, despite the fact that he had not one handy bone in his body. Duct tape was his repair method of choice, and even though he was the proud owner of a remarkable tool bench with fine tools, he scarcely touched them. His sons-in-law repaired most household things, painting and caulking and hammering away.

But regardless, Grandpa loved to give the hardware store fellows some business, as he was fond of saying. As we careened out of the driveway, he put a cassette tape of Evie singing Come on, Ring Those Bells into the cassette player, and the three of us crooned along. I remember feeling filled up, bursting with love for God and his gift of Jesus, for Christmas, for my brother who was my very best friend, and for my magical Grandpa, who made life glow.

We arrived and hopped out of the back seat, zipping up our coats in the frosty air, and helping Grandpa decide which Christmas wreaths were the best. He chose the largest ribboned ones, and their pine smell swirled…deliciously intoxicating. We helped ourselves to the steaming mulled cider offered at the counter, reaching up and pulling the lever as it glugged into our tiny styrofoam cups. Grandpa disappeared, returning with several boxes of bulbs for their Christmas window candles.

I shivered with delight as we finally arrived at the Five-and-Ten. This place was the best: narrow rows upon rows of everything anyone would ever want: bubble gum and candy bars and tiny doll-house miniatures, plastic toy animals and brightly colored pencils, a leather pouch of jacks and decks of playing cards, miniature pinball games and Christmas-tree-shaped pencil sharpeners, tinsel and hair bows, matchbox cars and small tablets of drawing paper, Chapstick and decorative socks, fancy bars of soap and crossword puzzles.

As Grandpa opened the door of this fine establishment, a cluster of silver bells tinkled and the store owner looked over and smiled, saying: Merry Christmas, Bob! And who are these two?

I blushed and stood by Grandpa’s sleeve, while my brother happily shook the man’s hand. Grandpa proudly introduced us. He then pulled two crisp five-dollar-bills from his billfold, (as he called it), and told us to go ahead and shop for some Christmas gifts.

It was extraordinary, this being graced with so much money, and we took our time covertly shopping. I found a shiny matchbox car and a bag of candied orange slices for my brother, a new black comb for my father’s back pocket, and a package of flowered tissues for my mother to tuck in her purse. I bought several miniature sliding puzzles for each family member, plus a bag full of Old-Fashioned caramel cream candies called Bullseyes, which were my favorite. They would certainly not last until Christmas Day.

I had been gifted the world, with some change left over. I held out the remaining coins to Grandpa.

Keep it for your piggy bank, he smiled.

I looked up at him and knew.

I was standing next to greatness.

***

Back on Washington Street Grandma had been working, dusting and vacuuming and placing the small nativity on the fireplace mantle. Grandpa and Grandma had taken a church trip tour to the Holy Land, and had returned with an olive wood crèche. I studied it, gently holding the smooth, wooden baby Jesus in my cupped hands. Grandma and my mother had also unpacked the Spode Christmas dishes, my favorite plates of all time.

Grandpa handed my grandmother a paper bag of ice cream.

She laughed. Oh, Bob, really? More ice cream?

He kissed her cheek.

It’s Christmas! he offered by way of explanation. Little did she know that we had already partaken of a heavily sprinkled cone.

My brother and I watched as Grandpa went to work, positioning the plastic candles in each of the front windows. They were cream-colored, with pretend drippy-wax stuck to the sides, a mock likeness to a real candle. I thought these candles were simply beautiful, and could not wait to see them glow.

Grandpa then hung one of Grandma’s wreaths on the front door, keeping an extra nail between his lips as he hammered away. Christmas was in the air!

By late afternoon, as the wintery dusk encroached, Grandpa gathered us all together and plugged in the lights with a flourish.

They glowed.

An interesting, opaque orange.

Aren’t they wonderful? He looked terribly pleased.

Bob! They are orange! my grandmother gasped.

My parents simply stared.

Aren’t they fantastic? he smiled.

Silence.

What will the neighbors say? my grandmother wailed, hand resting upon her cheek.

Regardless of anyone’s opinions, the orange bulbs were here to stay.

***

What will the neighbors say? was my grandmother’s modus operandi.

My grandfather, as it turned out, did not think this way. He lived to serve others, acknowledging preferences and humbly deferring.

Well, most of the time.

When he was truly moved by something he simply did not care what others would say. And this, I believe, was his charm. It was magnetic, it was freeing, and it was oceans apart from keeping up appearances.

Folks bent on keeping up appearances are insecure, discontented people. You cannot possibly be content while simultaneously running around attempting to keep up appearances; grasping to fill that interior chasm with man’s approval. It is a space that only God is meant to inhabit.

I will admit, however, that those lights were interesting.

This is my brother’s take on the glowing bulbs that Grandpa placed in the windows of their home on Washington Street: Kristin, they were the exact same color as Campbell’s tomato soup.

I cannot think of a more perfect description.

What made this tacky light scenario so interesting is that our Grandpa was a class-act guy. He liked to gift his family, and others, with fine things.

He treated Grandma to dinner out more than once per week, at fancy places like: Legal Sea Foods, Giovanni’s, and the Ninety Nine. He never preferred fast food establishments, and also never looked down upon others who did. He was simply comfortable in his own skin. Quality was king, in his estimation, and he refused to buy anything, for anyone, of poor caliber in order to save a buck. Of course I did not have the advantage of knowing Grandpa in those early years, when he and Grandma scraped to make ends meet. I am sure his generosity had something to do with the hard remembrance of suffering.

Grandpa was forever pulling someone up and out of despair, quietly buying groceries or clothes for those in hard places, while allowing his love to cover a multitude of sins. He served his church with joy, clearly laboring not out of duty but from a place of deep, heartfelt devotion to God. Unlike so many older folks, Grandpa never held back his generosity of spirit, waiting for a sunny day to shine, or stockpiling cash for rainy day expenditures. He thrived by dwelling fully in the present, blessing and gifting and relishing those opportunities sparkling before him.

One time Grandpa was tasked with confronting an usher at church, who had been caught stealing cash from the collection plates. It was soon discovered that this had been going on for quite some time. I overheard a family friend inform my mother: Your father is the measure of kindness and justice. That usher will have to repay every penny of what he stole, but it was your father who worked out a quiet way to keep him from prison, preserving his dignity with forgiveness and a reasonable repayment plan.

The Bible was Grandpa’s comfort, his mirror, and his joy. He was quick to exclaim over the grace and forgiveness of God, and then turn and extend those very things to others, in spades.

I am leaning in and learning from him, even now, thirty years after his death.

***

I imagine we all would have guessed that Grandpa would have chosen, shall we say, more elegant lights.

But he did not.

It raised more than a few eyebrows, not only in our family tree but likewise in the neighborhood. Although during this time period it was common to see bright green and red lights, no one–and I mean no one–displayed Campbell’s tomato soup lights.

Grandpa carried on quite happily, plugging in those candles every year, for the rest of his life.

I miss those warm, tomato soup bulbs. It was perfect…unique Christmas lights for our one-of-a-kind grandfather.

***

Grandpa was not the only one to surprise me that Christmas.

On December 25, Grandpa’s and Grandma’s home on Washington Street filled to the brim with relatives. Conversation was loud, the women bustling about, serving cheese-and-cracker-platters, and fancy punch dotted by pale green sherbet, poured into heavy goblets. Their home was toasty, given Grandpa’s propensity to shiver in wintertime. The scene was wonderfully festive, as all of us seemed to be donning something new– a watch, a scarf, warm socks, a new sweater. We had opened our stockings and gifts at our own homes before packing up and meeting at Washington Street to carry on the celebration of our Savior’s birth.

While Grandpa and Grandma always gave fine gifts, I know that Grandma tempered Grandpa’s spending, reminding him of something known as The Budget. He loved to go all out: the finest stuffed animals, expensive jackets, well-crafted toys, tasteful jewelry.

Grandma usually bought me a dress or earrings.

But that year, I was surprised to receive something far more special. A book that she had hand-selected: Black Beauty.

I opened up the hardback, delightfully weighty in my hands, and read a note scrawled in her penmanship:

Dear Kristin, This was one of my favorite books when I was your age. I hope you love it, too! ~ Grandma

A little jewel of warmth flooded my bones. Grandma and I had something in common! She had considered me, my love for reading, and had purchased a book that she had once read as a girl.

She must have noticed my delight, because the following March, she gifted me with a birthday gift sublime, the first book that ever made me cry: Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I was thrilled to later discover that this same author was a dear friend to several of my ancestors.

Don’t worry, Kristin, it made me cry too, Grandma said–an unusual flash of understanding–after my mother confessed to my deep sorrow over the death of Beth March.

***

In the years to follow, story birthed a tentative bridge between us. One year, when I was in middle school, my mother and I popped some popcorn and joined my grandmother in her tv room a few days before Christmas.

This is my favorite Christmas movie, Grandma said.

We watched together, and I was utterly enchanted by this old 1944 Judy Garland film, Meet Me in St. Louis, a movie which I now watch every single year during the Christmas season. Grandma grew stunningly verbose that day, telling us how this film was a box-office smash as soon as it was unveiled in the theaters.

It was a craze that swept the nation, she smiled, remembering. I pictured my grandmother, a pretty young lady, enamored by this movie that had likewise captured my heart.

Meet Me in St. Louis also introduced the world to the beloved Christmas song: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

***

I am now sitting in our living room, alone, enjoying the quiet as well as the soft twinkly lights on our tree, studying ornaments from Christmases gone by, and remembering. It is good to remember with a tender and thankful heart.

As I ponder my heritage, I thank God for the many stories lived out on Washington Street and beyond, tales both beautiful and crushing. There are so, so many to tell.

The truth? Some people love well, and others do not. Will we choose to forgive, even apart from a sincere and broken apology?

We must, if we want to be well with God. (Matthew 6:14-15)

One small ornament catches my eye: a nail, dangling from the pine branch, ribbon bright red.

Jesus, God made flesh, the Savior of the world.

From Perfect Baby to Crucified King.

Our darkened hearts made righteous through faith by Christ’s death, that he might present us to God, alive in him. (1 Peter 3:18)

This is God’s plan. Isn’t it amazing? The story of our existence, with its many agonies and delights, is fully authored by him. Nothing, nothing, is accidental. Isn’t that comforting?

May we have eyes to see our stories through an eternal lens, thanking our Heavenly Father, who is working all things together for the good of his children who follow in genuine faith. (Romans 8:28)

This Christmas, as you glance back, or peer ahead, remember to also stand firmly in the present. Trust not in princes, or any mortal man, but in God alone. (Psalm 146:3) Those hard, bleak crevices and golden sunbeams of life, are his good and holy design.

***

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Christmas on Washington Street (Part II)

I invite you to first read Part I

Before I tell you the story of Grandpa’s Christmas decorations, and the kerfuffle that ensued, we must back up to my grandmother’s role in my childhood Christmas seasons on Washington Street.

Grandma was the oldest of four daughters, quiet, proficient at rummikub and card games, a whiz with numbers, a meticulous housekeeper, deeply fond of babies until the moment they could walk or speak or both, a voracious knitter, a zippy reader, and a big-time fan of the Boston Red Sox.

Grandma gave gifts differently than my grandfather–hers were wrapped with invisible, complicated strings. Did you like the dress? Why haven’t you worn the shoes? Did the mailman lose the thank-you note? That isn’t the bookbag I gave you last fall….is it?

Grandma, in fact, was nothing at all like Grandpa.

The older I become, the more clearly I am able to discern the shadows that clung to her heels from her childhood, creeping into her adulthood. Things never spoken, but present.

When a child, it is difficult to appreciate that one’s parents and grandparents have lived decades of life before we entered the scene–and unless the full stories are shared in context–we only see the current behaviors of the people before us as though in a vacuum, rather than seeing the backstory of these men and women who have been shaped by circumstances and formed by a worldview of life: bowing humbly before Christ or bowing arrogantly to self.

Grandma and Grandpa both grew up in unbelieving homes. Early in their marriage, Grandpa became a Christian at a Billy Graham crusade. My grandmother followed him down that stadium aisle in Boston, also professing faith.

Grandpa was a radically changed man–he had become a new creature. Grandma, it seemed, did not allow Christ to heal and change her, until perhaps in her final earthly days. There remained a cold lump of impenetrable bitterness inside, holding her back from a life of joy and freedom. Her personality was jagged, sharp, and unsteady.

Like any granddaughter, I desired to connect with my grandmother, but realized that she was quite unavailable. As silly as it sounds, when she flew across the country to first meet me (I was six weeks old) I cried, without fail, every time she held me. After a few days of this, Grandma clucked, returned me to my mother’s arms, and resorted to cleaning house and cooking.

This story became her weapon, a tale often repeated to family and friends and colleagues, for as long as I can remember. She often brought the story to light following a kindness shown to me by my grandfather or by another. I did not understand that this was jealousy, every time she cut her eyes, jabbing at me. I simply knew that she had never forgiven my newborn preferences, which made me feel guilty in a strange and uncomfortable way. I always assumed that our lack of connection was my fault.

In remarkable contrast, my love for Grandpa was natural, happy, and secure. He sparkled with the fruit of the Spirit, as this was the core, his essence. He did not try to make others love him, as he was secure in the Lord. And because of this, people did love him. Grandpa read his Bible, loved God, served others, apologized when he needed to, and lived his happy life of faith to the hilt.

***

During the Christmas season Grandma often flourished, growing a shade warmer. She unpacked the crèche and placed sprigs of pine and red velvet atop the fireplace mantel. Out came the glass bowls, filled to the brim with ribbon candy and butterscotches, with endless boxes of Russell Stover chocolates for one and all.

She was a fine cook, and rather than smiling and looking directly into the eyes of her children or grandchildren with: I love you so much, and I am thankful for you, sweet pea, she cooked and baked and ignored and presented the food.

She fashioned tender roasts and juicy chicken, with buttery mashed potatoes and long cooked carrots, offering warm and softened rolls alongside salt and peppered peas. It was all meat-and-potato fare, made to suit Grandpa’s preferences. He praised her cooking, and she glowed under such kindness. Grandma understood food in a rather remarkable way: this tasted best when paired with that, precise temperatures and cooking times, producing beautifully cooked meats that were tender, juicy, and never dry, timing up every dish just right.

My grandmother, so it seemed, was more herself in her narrow kitchen than anywhere else in the world.

Come to think of it, she understood food in the same way that Grandpa understood people.

Following Thanksgiving, Grandma settled into the Christmas spirit, mixing up a huge lump of her pie crust, tucking it up tightly in Saran wrap in order to chill, informing me that this would produce superior pies, if it had first sat in the ice box (her term for refrigerator). These comments were spoken indirectly, her back to me as she swooped through her kitchen, tidying as she went.

After a few minutes of observation, I found my winter coat and boots and scooted outside, crossing my fingers–hoping and wishing that she might remember to bake her small, scrumptious specialty from the extra pie dough.

I remember her calling it a pie roll, and this is how she made it:

Taking a small piece of pie dough, she rolled it out and buttered one side (always butter, Kristin, never margarine) and sprinkled a generous amount of sugar, a few teaspoons of cinnamon, and a miniscule pinch of nutmeg on top. Then, she rolled it up, dotting the top with butter and cream and another sprinkle of table sugar, using a dull knife to press even diagonal cuts (not clear through, mind you) before wrapping the entire delicacy up in foil and baking.

That little treat, proffered each year, was a smidgen of love that I pulled from Grandma’s kitchen on Washington Street, holding it close. It would have to last for twelve more months.

So as much as Christmas on Washington Street meant buying wreaths and ice cream and presents with my grandfather, it was a painting also adorned by Grandma’s apple pies and homemade fudge, the finely wrapped boxes of chocolates and ribbon candy in glass bowls, the sweet display of the crèche on the mantle, the velvet bows and a pie roll.

And then, one Christmas day on Washington Street, Grandma surprised me with an unexpected gift, from her heart.

***

(Come back next Thursday for the final installment of Christmas on Washington Street.)

Thank you, Gentle Reader, for your kindness in showing up at this space this year. By way of gratitude, and to offer you a heartfelt Merry Christmas, I will share my Grandma’s pie recipe with any reader who chooses to sign up to receive my blog and newsletter in your inbox. Simply email me at kristincouch@gmail.com, and I will send this fine recipe your way.

Christmas on Washington Street (Part I)

My earliest memories of Christmas began each Thanksgiving night, on Washington Street.

The turkey platter and bone China had been washed and dried, stacked neatly on the hutch. Likewise the pewter platters. My aunt or mother would shake the crumbs off of the well-starched tablecloth, clucking, while fussing over a stubborn stain of some sort and thus hastening to the basement, murmuring about white vinegar and grease, while tossing the massive heap into the washing machine, along with bunches of soiled cloth napkins.

My grandmother bent low into the hutch, pulling out another pressed tablecloth, flinging the covering through the air with a whoosh over the sturdy table as the kettle heated for tea. The men and grandchildren were scattered: some in the living room chatting or playing cards, others napping upstairs, belts loosened a few notches after such a fine feast.

But as soon as the tea kettle whistled, everyone emerged from their preferred nooks and gathered back around the table again, grabbing a sterling silver fork and spoon. It was finally time for pie and ice cream. Grandma was known far and wide for her apple and squash pies–her crust reigned supreme. I am grateful to use that recipe today, as I have yet to taste any pie crust that comes even close to hers.

The adults poured the hottest of tea with lemon and sugar into delicate heirloom teacups, resting their spoons on matching saucers. Grandpa, forever the cold one, slipped his beloved beanie onto his balding head before descending the narrow steps to their frigid, New England basement. He shuffled about their deep freezer, as it was called, lugging a five-gallon container of Brigham’s vanilla ice cream back upstairs into the kitchen, smiling contentedly at my little brother while scooping heaping portions of delicious goodness into everyone’s bowl.

This is what I loved most about Grandpa: he lived large, and he lived to serve. Selfless I tell you. No cheap brands of anything would suffice. Quality and generosity mattered and he gave everything that was good in deep abundance, and with wild abandon.

Once the ice cream was served, Grandpa unwrapped and placed a box of Andes mints on the table. At this precise moment, unbeknownst to anyone, a shiver ran down my spine and I knew that Christmas was finally near.

I savored the slice of pie and ice cream, not only because they were so tasty, but because dessert prompted the beginning of family stories. This seemed neither planned nor rehearsed. It just happened, quite naturally, year by year. After a moment of sweet silence, with only: Mmmmmmm, Libby this is delicious, the best pie ever, or Thank you, Grandma! someone would share of days gone by, my aunts and uncles and grandparents painting vivid pictures of memories that seemed both odd and wonderful to me. Stories that rounded out a fuller, different family portrait than I was accustomed to viewing.

Apparently, Grandma and Grandpa were once so strapped for cash that Grandpa had taken on three jobs to care for their family of seven.

Wait a minute. I thought. My Grandpa, this fantastic gentleman who drives a Volvo and wears finely polished dress shoes and tailored business suits to work once worked an extra job cleaning ship decks on the wharf in Boston? How could this even be?

I leaned in, folding and refolding the pretty foil wrapper of my Andes mint as I reached for another.

One year, when my mother was only a baby, Grandpa’s knee swelled-angry and hot and tender, days after working a shift at the shipyards. It gradually worsened over the course of a week, until he was bedridden, tossing and nearly delirious with raging fever. In desperation my grandmother rang for the doctor, who in those days made speedy house calls. He swiftly punctured Grandpa’s knee to drain the infection, and to everyone’s complete horror, pulled a lengthy, spaghetti-like thread of pus from his leg. According to both of my grandparents, he pulled and pulled and pulled this thin string of contagion (Yes, it was exactly like a string! Grandpa reiterated) from his knee, a task which seemed terrifyingly unending. The doctor had never seen anything like it. Once out, the fever quickly subsided and Grandpa healed nicely.

Bob would have died, if I hadn’t called the doctor, said Grandma, matter-of-factly, with precious little tact as she popped another mint.

Grandpa noted my wide eyes, and calmly changed course.

Oh Libby, it wasn’t that serious. He winked at me. I am here, alive and well, aren’t I?

Well, according to the doctor–she continued as he put his hand firmly on her arm.

Little pitchers, Lib. Little pitchers.

And that was that.

Thanksgiving was also a time for funny stories to be retold. Some sagas that I had lived through and could actually remember.

Like that one Easter dinner on Washington Street. There were probably fifteen of us clustered around the table, famished after a long church service and ample drive back to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house. Grandpa said grace, and my uncle, starving, quickly heaped salad onto his dish, while reaching for the bottle of House Italian. The oil had separated from the spices, so he began to vigorously shake the dressing, not realizing that the lid had already been removed.

As the dressing catapulted airborne, hitting the ceiling, he shouted, Libby is going to kill me!

We roared at his retelling, laughing until we cried, because he was right: My grandmother, squeaky-clean, had looked grimly at her white ceiling, now dotted with impossible-to-clean House Italian. She was not pleased.

Some humorous stories retold had unfolded long before my birth. Such as the time my uncle, the firstborn, left for college. My grandmother was beside herself, missing him, and telling her four younger children, ad nauseam, how awful it was to have one less dinner plate at the table. She spoke about this so often, that everyone grew weary of the same tired story, repeated night after night.

Finally, as Thanksgiving mercifully approached my grandmother hatched a brilliant plan. She would bake an entire extra pie before the actual holiday, since her favored son adored this dish above all others.

I will make him his own pie for his first night back! she declared triumphantly. For him only!

Everyone rolled their eyes and left her to it.

She gushed when he walked through the front door, proudly displaying the pretty pie. I made an entire apple pie, just for you!

Thanks Ma, he said, kissing her cheek.

After dinner, and to no one’s surprise, she made an exaggerated ordeal out of serving him his very own dessert, as the remainder of the family looked on, miserably.

And then he took a bite.

This, he said, is the worst pie I have ever tasted.

In her day-dreamy excitement, my grandmother had forgotten to add the sugar.

All of us grandchildren giggled as the adults howled, hitting their hands on the table for good measure. The funniest part was that she did not miss him quite so much after that dinner scene. Or if she did, she didn’t let on.

There were a few mildly scandalous stories as well. One was told in bits and pieces, adults tiptoeing carefully, leaving out the most important, and sordid details.

When my grandparents were newly married, Grandpa’s widowed mother fell on hard times. Grandpa’s sister, many years his junior, was still in high school, and Grandpa offered to move them both into his (and Grandma’s) newly purchased home.

Whenever this story was rehashed, which was every few years, I held my breath. There were clearly missing puzzle pieces, and although I was young, I felt the vibe. The move-in arrangement lasted for a remarkably brief time. Grandma always sighed, eyebrows furrowed and frowning with: Elsie was so difficult and Carolyn was a brat.

Grandpa said little, looking down. He loved his mother and sister and his wife. It was terribly complicated, whatever happened, and I got the impression that my honorable grandfather was covering for his wife.

So there was far more to it, (isn’t there always?), which is a story unto itself. But I will say this: one of my earliest, and fondest memories of all included this Elsie Francis, my Grandpa’s mother, my great-grandmother. Once upon a time she had welcomed me into her humble apartment, a place so fresh and inviting, smelling of lemon oil and peppermint, and comfortably adorned with a slender vase of flowers perched elegantly on her fragile kitchen table.

Her face was openly kind….so much like Grandpa’s, that I took to her immediately, at the tender age of four. She gifted me with a wide green scrapbook, full of blank pages, plus a full bottle of rubber cement, placing a stack of fanciful magazines at my side, with a pair of scissors.

Kristin, you may cut and paste anything that you wish from these old magazines. She peered over her glasses at me. And I also have some exquisite alphabet stickers. I will help you spell out words for your scrapbook.

So the adults visited and I created. The afternoon flew by, and I did not want to leave this peaceful, warm home.

The scrapbook disappeared over the years, but when I close my eyes, I can see my name, spelled golden and sparkly in foil, heavenly letters that were of remarkable quality, made to last.

Yes, she was the measure of my Grandpa, a woman of depth, and despite her meager income, she remained a lady, full of class. This was plain for anyone to see.

Make something lovely, she had said as she smiled widely, speaking to me with purpose, and free of dreadful baby talk. She expected more and it definitely prompted me to rise to the challenge.

I nodded.

Make something lovely.

I never forgot her directive.

Most adults chose to shoo children along with a distracted: Go play.

Grandpa once informed me that his mother was a kind and very stubborn woman. So there was that, as well. Stories are rarely linear in nature.

So yes, Thanksgiving stories repeated around the table were infused with greater meaning than the actual story itself. I was learning the importance of paying attention to every word, every nuance.

It is sad to think of the many stories left untapped, wasted because they remain untold, unwritten, and forgotten.

I firmly believe that God gives us lives full of stories to share.

***

After a time, on these majestic Thanksgiving evenings so long ago, when the inky, star-studded skies grew cold and the adult conversations turned to boring matters, my brother and cousins and I scooted upstairs to my grandparents’ tv room. There were two recliners in the small space, but we preferred to line the carpet instead, resting on our stomachs, elbows propping our faces, as children often do. We cranked the television knob until we found the first Christmas movie of the season.

Hooray! We cheered, clearly on an exhausted sugar high. Usually the movie was Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman. We often fell asleep in that warm and comfortable upstairs, as the fireplace crackled downstairs and the adults kept pouring hot tea and reminiscing.

Sometimes, our family even spent the night, if the conversation went long and my parents were too spent for that forty-five-minute drive home. If we were especially lucky, my brother and I were allowed to sleep in my grandparents’ bedroom, our green sleeping bags sprawled on the floor alongside their enormous king bed. Grandpa usually snored, which kept me awake, but I didn’t mind.

It was not as though I could sleep anyway. Excitement was in the air.

Yes, Thanksgiving was over, and we could now spend the next morning helping Grandpa putter around, while taking his time setting up his favorite Christmas decorations of all.

Decorations which prompted quite a stir.

(Return next Thursday, for Part II)

To Say Yes is To Also Say No

It was the fall of my first-grade year. Autumn in New England is a splendor to behold, the colors magnificent, brilliant as bunches of ripened apples drape heavy from their branches. That particular year I was reveling in the joy of learning to read, in a time when phonics were kindly held in high regard, and children were taught to read well.

An entire world of goodness had been unleashed at my doorstep, beautiful words strung together and opening the floodgates to magnificent paths of imagination.

My first-grade teacher intuited both my shyness and my love for reading, and thus invited me to stand at her desk and quietly read Amelia Bedelia directly to her rather than before the entire class. She rewarded my efforts with scented stickers–banana, strawberry, and root beer. I can smell each one, even now.

I spent happy hours each week practicing my penmanship with sparkling, new-to-me vocabulary. Not only did books become my treasured companions, but soft green writing paper and chunky, chiseled pencils sent me tiptoeing into realms of unbridled delight.

I participated in reading lessons with a dose of gravity, flipping through phonics flashcards with a sober-minded type of joy, putting such knowledge to practical use. One afternoon during that fall, my little brother and I decided to sell lemonade at the edge of our front lawn. I displayed my homemade For Sale sign with the symbol signifying the long vowel sound atop the a, and a diagonal strike through the silent e.

Reading was–in my humble, six-year-old opinion–a full-time job.

So I cherished every moment of that September. That is, until Pioneer Girls began.

Pioneer Girls was comparable to Girl Scouts, but a Christian version that met weekly at our church.

I had quickly grown accustomed to my first-grade schoolroom which was bright, highly structured, and calm. I knew precisely what our teacher expected, and this dear woman had not one shred of tolerance for so much as a whiff of chaos. Period.

Pioneer Girls, on the other hand, was held in the depths of the church basement, dark and noisy and confusing and full of multiple projects to keep us busy.

So while my ferocious appetite for stories and books and first-grade writing was continuing to blossom, my Pioneer Girl instructor announced, over the din, a project for each of us to complete. The Leaf Collection. We were instructed to collect a minimum of twenty-five different types of leaves, thereby creating a laminated book of specimens to be neatly labeled with proper names.

It was due in two weeks.

No one else appeared at all fazed by any of this, but my conscientious heart thudded. How would I ever be able to learn my vocabulary words and study for my spelling tests while also collecting leaves?

I slumped home that Monday night and my stomach ached. After a few days had elapsed, my mother found me crying silently into my pillow, my Holly Hobby pillowcase drenched.

Kristin, what is wrong?

It took a while, but I finally fessed up and told her that making a leaf collection and learning my phonics and practicing writing new words was simply too much to bear. I could not do all three well.

Ultimately, I was allowed to step away from Pioneer Girls and the looming leaf project. My relief was swift and I settled down, returning to my books and spelling lists.

I now laugh as I consider this saga, while also considering that perhaps we do not change quite as much as we imagine, over the course of our lifetime.

***

It is still in my nature to partake of fewer tasks wholeheartedly, attempting to do them well.

Which is why I seldom wrote when my children were young and at home. This was no sacrifice for me as they were my dearest loves, my greatest joy, my priority. Nurturing our family and tending to our home has been my greatest earthly honor, my life’s work. God entrusted me with four children, and I knew that I was accountable to him for my mothering decisions. Serious business.

As they eventually grew up and left the nest, one by one, I was stunned to discover that my three oldest chums were waiting in the wings: the pen and the page and the words.

Don’t you regret not writing sooner? I have been asked.

I shake my head no, thinking: Don’t you see? To have loved and raised and served my children, I needed to love and raise and serve my children, without any competition of my time and focus. Writing could wait, or even disappear. My children could not.

From time to time I linger in our front hallway, studying the photograph of our four grown beauties.

Oh, yes, I was writing all along. My four favorite books of all time. Books entrusted to me by God himself.

***

Don’t miss it: To say yes to God’s plan is to say no to other things.

Don’t ever believe the lie that you can have it all and do it all and still be well with God.

You cannot.

***

Today is December 1, and Christmas is near. I have been making inner preparations for months, striving to keep a soft and tender heart, staying tethered to Christ during this holiday season in which we honor his birth.

Sadly, such preparation has not been my strong suite for December, ever.

December is famous for multiple gatherings and church events and shopping and wrapping and baking. While I enjoy some of these things, I often overspend and overeat and wonder why I feel pressured and headachy and dull.

A few months ago I realized that in order for this Christmas season to be different, I needed to change. So I studied my day planner and acknowledged an upcoming road trip, a speaking engagement, the weekly work of my blog, another book project, the occasional substitute teaching job, a delightfully full house come Thanksgiving, and likewise for Christmas. Plus completing homework for my weekly Bible Study, preparing to teach another monthly Bible Study, housework, family time, and rest.

It was plain to see that I had choices to make. I had previously prayed over each commitment, and I was at peace knowing that God wanted me to accept these things. While it has never been my tendency to overcommit, to say yes to each of these things, and to do them well, meant saying no to other things.

Much like Pioneer Girls.

So I took an hour with my Bible and a cup of tea, plus my favorite pen and a blank page. I began to sort things out. I crossed out events that perhaps were expected of me but were non-essential, and set aside a few extra afternoons to read the Gospels for the pleasure of my soul. I mailed a few Thanksgiving cards to friends living far away rather than stamping a thick and expensive bundle of Christmas cards that I usually send. I revamped my writing schedule, planning times to get ahead with a few projects in order to relax with our large family at Christmas and penciled in some mother-daughter time with Lauren before we deliver her to college come January. These are days that will never return, and to say yes to precious time with my favorite girl requires more than one no to other things.

***

And this is where I am going, dear reader: whether it is writing a book or raising children, cooking a delicious dinner, or teaching a Bible Study, preparing a speech or hosting a holiday, or even simply being fully present with the loved one before you, we must first be willing to say no to something else.

If I choose to cook spaghetti sauce from scratch, browning the ground beef and dicing the onions and adding spices to the tomato sauce, I cannot simultaneously be baking chicken and roasting a pork and grilling hamburgers. To do so would cause distraction, and likely a lousy dinner.

For every yes there are a thousand nos.

But if I take my time and cook a delicious sauce, boiling the pasta, and rounding out the dinner with a pretty Romaine salad, my family will be blessed and satiated.

***

With that mug of steaming vanilla chai in hand, I prayed over my schedule, and came to grips with reality: I am not God, but am woven together by flesh and bone. I have been designed with limitations and to pretend otherwise is arrogant; foolish.

Isn’t is a poor plan to say yes to any and every opportunity straight away, and then turn around and sprinkle a hopeful prayer over the entire mess, begging God to bless and enable us to do that which he never asked?

He will, however, always equip his children to do his will.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and the holy angels. (Luke 9:23-25)

I cannot prescribe the specifics in how this will unfold in your life. That is between you and the Lord.

But according to the Bible, obedience to God always entails surrender, personal sacrifice, and obedience.

***

So this December, may I suggest a different way? Seek God first in prayer, and disregard the Bucket List you are accustomed to checking off each year.

I know, I know–you are quite certain this completed list will make you happy and fulfill your candy-cane dreams.

It won’t.

Instead, ask God what you shall say no to in order to fulfill his plan for the yeses that you offer before him.

It is worth it. There is no substitute for trusting God with your time and decisions.

Abide in him and you will perhaps be surprised. Stunned by the freedom to fully enjoy every good and perfect gift, coming down from the Father of lights. (James 1:17)

Radio

I was graciously invited to Moody Radio’s Kurt and Kate Mornings a couple of days ago, to discuss my recent piece From Griping to Gratitude. I thought it would be fun to share it with you in the midst of this festive week.

May we all strive for thankful, satisfied hearts this Thanksgiving and beyond.

And thank you, my dear readers, for taking the time to read my words. You are a blessing to me, and I am grateful for each one of you!