Great is His Faithfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Writing

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

Three pet peeves. Go.

So I answer:

Clowns, small planes, and ice-breakers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, to be known.

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

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

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

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

***

Writing is not so different.

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

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

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

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

Instead of writing this:

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

I bid you to understand with this:

Three Favorite things. Go.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

So I write.

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

Between the Lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crazy dog, Jon said.

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

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

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

***

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

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

My Three-Star Favorites:

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

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

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

Some One-Star Favorites:

Little Britches – by Ralph Moody

Stepping Heavenward – Elizabeth Prentiss

The Hiding Place – Corrie TenBoom

Safely Home – Randy Alcorn

Papa’s Wife – by Thyra Ferre Bjorn

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

An Invisible Thread – by Alex Tresniowski and Laura Schroff

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

Lad: A Dog – by Albert Payson Terhune

Shiloh – by Phyllis Naylor

Bruchko – by Bruce Olson

Wish You Well – by David Baldacci

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

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

Mama’s Bank Account – by Kathryn Forbes

Crow Lake – by Mary Lawson

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

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

Becoming Elisabeth Elliot – Vaughn

Please Stay

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

The seeds of division festered.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please stay.

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

Stay and be changed.

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

Becoming What We Behold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Man of Sorrows

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

He is fully alive.

Humility Precedes Him

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

***

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

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

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

104 degrees, as it turned out.

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

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

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

I slept little, fear rising tall.

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

Mom, are you okay?

The cough abated, allowing me a momentary breath.

I need a doctor, I wheezed.

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

Then, Jacob knocking.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll be fine, Mom. And so will you.

He hugged me and they left.

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

It was a speech for the ages.

***

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

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

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

***

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

What’s he like? Jon asked.

Jacob paused, coffee mug in hand.

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

How so? asked my husband.

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

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

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

Humility precedes him.

Home

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

The Secret Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes danced with the delight of such economic slyness.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The office ladies laughed.

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

***

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

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

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

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

And she did. With not a shred left over.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

The Power of Story

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pa laughed, showing me his intact thumb.

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

***

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

Stories, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

Look at this, he said.

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

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

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

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

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

Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well.

Psalm 139:14