52 Pickup

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

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

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

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

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

Want to see a magic trick? Louie asked.

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

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

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

We leaned in as he shuffled the deck.

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

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

He roared with laughter, slapping his knee and howling.

Louie.

Grandpa’s even voice, behind me.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

I followed him across the bustling hallway.

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

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

Where did you get these? I asked.

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

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

Because I can. And I’m good at it.

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

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

***

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

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

***

I do not know what became of Matt.

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

***

We all have broken stories, don’t we?

I say, Let’s not waste them.

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

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

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

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

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

What the Church is Not

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

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

***

These are dark days.

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

Hebrews 13:17 reads:

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

Pastor Dane Ortlund recently said:

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flesh and Bone

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

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

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

Jesus can empathize with our carnal frailties.

***

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

***

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

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

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

Let’s drive by, he said.

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

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

Jon’s smile was huge.

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

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

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

I felt whiplashed.

The House on a Hill or The Yellow House?

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

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

Our Realtor was stunned.

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

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

She studied me sideways, considering.

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

And I was unaware of the half of it.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So off they went, and it was good.

I am undone by the kindness of God.

***

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

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

John 20:24-29:

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Tell the Truth

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

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

and:

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

They were livid.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

I raised my hand. No one else did.

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

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

Thus the many phone calls to my mother.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I continued sobbing, wordless.

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

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

***

It is not unlike church.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Heart Medicine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Growing up in this old New England farmhouse was magical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We responded with a vigorous nod.

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

We giggled every time.

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

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

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

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

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

We nodded, wide-eyed.

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

Mary rolled her eyes.

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

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

***

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

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

The kitchen clock ticked.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

His coping strategy? Hypervigilance and plenty of heart medicine.

***

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

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

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

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

This is my heart medicine.

All of Those Little Deaths

When the will of God cuts across the will of man, someone must die. ~Addison Leitch

Last Sunday morning I prayed for my husband, as is my custom, before he left. I asked God to bless his preaching, and for hearts to be softened. Then I kissed him goodbye, and continued getting ready for church.

A moment later, he stuck his head back in the door.

Don’t forget to unplug the hair dryer!

He says this often, and I usually laugh and assure him that I won’t.

But my response last Sunday?

How old am I?

He left quietly, shoulders drooping but saying nothing, and within seconds I felt miserable, wishing I could take back such insolent words. As he drove away, silhouette bent over the steering wheel in the morning light, I called, told him I was wrong, and apologized for my rudeness. He quickly forgave me.

I had just prayed for softened hearts, thinking mainly of faces in our congregation. But God meant it for me, pricking then softening mine in confession and repentance.

***

Mea culpa catches in our throats, doesn’t it? It is one thing to mumble I’m sorry, but to say This is my fault and I was wrong? Such direct ownership of personal sin crushes pride, trampling it to death.

Pride contorts our frame, bending us inward, as we grip sin like Gollum does his ring. Mine! Precious! This ancient trap ensnares, slithering at our ankles, with flickering tongue, curling, squeezing, suffocating with promises that burn with a lie so enticing: I am my own master. And as we feed our pet Pride, trying desperately to tame it, it turns and bites, seeping venom. God opposes the proud (Proverbs 3:34, James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5).

Like Eve in the garden, we stake claim to our personal rights, thinking that we reign sovereign, but in truth we rule with crooked crowns upon flimsy cardboard thrones.

The world, however, is quick to applaud this approach: My will. My way. My life. My dreams. My future.

But is anything my fault?

Never.

As Christ followers, we must die a thousand times over to this sin of our flesh, always turning away from ourselves back to God and his Word. Jesus, sinless, modeled this the night before his crucifixion: Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done (Luke 22:42).

To be like Christ, we must pick up our cross, daily crucifying sin.

All of those little deaths hold purpose.

***

For those willing to please God through obedience, pain is inevitable.

I remember when one of our sons was very young, and had a splinter. We did not know what was wrong, but we could see that his foot was hurting and red. The pediatrician used her powerful magnifier and head lamp to study the sole of his small foot.

There is definitely a small splinter deep in there, she said, sending us home with instructions to soak his foot three times per day in warm water, mixed with Epsom salts.

So we followed her protocol, and the splinter came to the surface of his skin. As I took the tweezers and pulled, he cried. Yet the moment it was over, the splinter and infection removed, he felt tremendous relief that ushered in winds of freedom: he could now run and play.

Isn’t that the very picture of the mortification of sin?

A magnifying glass of introspection, the all-powerful flashlight of God’s Word, and the salt of truth bring healing. Sin is exterminated, and I am free.

***

Wouldn’t it be grand to walk upon streets of gold right now, seeing God and bowing low in reverence; so safe with him, treasuring eternity free of sin and pain and sickness and death?

Yet as long as we have breath in our lungs, the will of God for each of us is to travel this Calvary road, a narrow path to the Kingdom. Although slim, it is beautiful, isn’t it? Our Master gives us glimpses of treasure: Scripture to guide, prayer to deepen our walk, fellow believers to encourage and befriend, and the stunning views of nature. The path is also marked with painful inclines, low valleys, and storms. But there remains a joy in our journey because God is present and he forgives us, his repentant children, encouraging us to gaze only upon him as we travel. The Author and Perfecter of our faith is also our patient Shepherd, caring tenderly for our souls.

All of those little deaths to self? They are marks of the purposeful slaying of sin, shining as our Yes to God. He sees each and every one, a string of precious beads, stained red and hard won, treasures marking a crucified life in Christ.

I have been crucified with Christ, it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20).

What Fools Despise

My childhood summers were shaped by our beach vacations to Cape Cod. Grandpa rented a handsome cottage, and graciously welcomed one-and-all.

The adults studied tide patterns religiously, folding the newspaper length-wise as they scrambled for their readers. High tide times were loudly proclaimed as the women stacked coolers with peanut-butter sandwiches, potato chips, and fruit, completed by multiple thermoses of sun tea and lemon wedges. Aunts and uncles and parents and grandparents herded us toward the cottage steps, screen door banging as we marched toward sand and tide, inhaling the blissfully salty air, fresh upon our sun-kissed faces. We had hours until hightide diminished the sandy shoreline, and were ready to make the most of it.

There were a few understood rules: No swimming at high tide, and no swimming at night. The pull of the deep waves made my grandparents antsy, plus they had lived through enough years to remember plenty of after-dark drownings. So as the tide encroached, we flung our damp and sandy towels over the back of our necks, packed up the chairs and coolers, and flip-flopped our way back to the cottage. The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it (Proverbs 27:12).

By day, I was a fish in those waters, and spent hours swimming in the crashing waves, water cold and salty-clean. I could see the ocean floor beneath me, and feel the hermit crabs scuttling across my toes. We netted fish and dug for clams and collected bucketfuls of irate crabs, returning time and again to the depths to swim.

I noticed, after a bit, that my brother and cousins and I had drifted away from our parents and grandparents, who remained stationed in beach chairs in the sand. They were not difficult to spy, all floppy hats and obsidian sunglasses; zinc oxide pasted across their noses. Occasionally they would stand and stretch and stroll the beach, or partake in a quick dip, but their chairs remained anchored. As children, those beach chairs were our North Star, and after drifting, slowly pulled down shore by the tide, we tromped back to the familiar striped canvas designs and returned to swimming.

One summer I signed up for intermediate swimming lessons. By this time, the crawl, breaststroke, and butterfly, had become second nature. I had enjoyed clusters of swim lessons at our tiny town pond where the water remained still and predictable. But these ocean waters? They were a different beast altogether, and I could not believe how difficult it was to successfully swim against the tide, moving through those magnificent white-capped waves, exerting energy while building endurance, an act of the will which required the grit of repetition. I felt both accomplished and bone-tired after those ninety minute lessons, which carried on for two solid weeks.

Our instructor’s oft-repeated wisdom? When you grow tired, and you will, look for the safety of land and swim towards it. Land does not move, water does.

***

Less than a year after these swimming lessons, our family vacationed in Florida. We arrived at Daytona Beach with our towels and masks and buckets and shovels. This was different from our familiar treks to Cape Cod: this southern sand was hard and hot, the waves were smaller; the shoreline overcrowded with people.

Beach folks warned us, eyebrows raised, of the wicked undertow in these waters.

My parents shrugged. My brother and I were experienced and competent swimmers with years of lessons under our belts. So, hands shielding the sun, they studied the waters from their chairs and pronounced them safe.

We dropped our towels, kicked off our flip-flops and ran, scorching the bottoms of our feet as we raced each other to the waves. We laughed and splashed in the water before practicing our famous underwater flips and strokes. Some ten minutes later, I glanced towards shore, looking for our parents in their striped chairs. Try as I might, I could not find them.

Where are they? I asked my brother.

We treaded water, and kept looking. They had vanished.

I felt panic rising, which only increased as I suddenly realized that the people on this unfamiliar beach were passing by, and quickly. And then my little-girl mind understood that they were not moving, we were.

Let’s go, I told my brother, remembering my instructor’s advice: swim toward land.

We were horribly unprepared for the fierce undertow. The harder we struggled toward shore, the firmer the waters gripped us back and down the beach, clutching us in terror. Years later, I understood that we had been locked in a riptide, waters which seldom appear dangerous, but trap and pull and drown even the strongest of swimmers.

I desperately tried to pull my little brother toward me, while simultaneously propelling both of us toward shore. I could see the safety of land directly before us, but I could not beat this current. Our struggle was futile, and we were now bobbing up and going under, bobbing up and going under, trying to hold our breath then breathe, all of the while being sucked down the length of the beach. I froze, and watched my mother running towards us. She jogged into the water, where the undertow quickly sucked her in, now leaving the three of us thrashing. She screamed and my father appeared, standing firmly in the waves, not swimming, but reaching and yanking us to safety, one by one. I actually felt the grip of the waters fight to keep me as he jerked my arm toward shore.

It was a terribly long walk back to our beach chairs. We had drifted so far.

***

It was foolish to enter those waters.

It did not matter that we were competent swimmers.

It did not matter that the water appeared safe.

It did not matter that we were accustomed to ocean swimming.

It did not matter that we were swimming together, not alone.

We had been duly warned, cautioned by local beachgoers with greater experience and wisdom, yet had willfully chosen to ignore their advice.

***

In April of 1912, the Titanic, a ship deemed unsinkable, crashed into an iceberg, sinking into frigid North Atlantic waters. Over 1,500 people died. While many blame the iceberg, it is not so hard to see the fault lines which appeared before the ship even set sail.

A deckhand on the Titanic was reported to have boasted: God himself could not sink this ship. This brazen arrogance was supported by more foolishness: a lack of life preservers, a lack of lifeboats, and the lack of an exit strategy should something go wrong.

But worst of all? As the Titanic moved through the ocean waters, Captain Smith failed to appropriately respond to the warnings from other ships, who cautioned him multiple times about the dangerous ice floes.

If he had only paused, heeding the warnings from other ships, he might have stopped all forward motion until daybreak, when visibility would improve. Just imagine, with one pulse of humility and caution, so many lives might have been spared.

***

Pride (and isn’t all sin a form of it?) sends us adrift with the tide. We want our own way, stomping our feet like sulky children, captaining our own lives, blatantly disregarding the damage our foolishness causes.

In wisdom, we must continually examine our heart’s posture against the sharp, straight-edge of Scripture, asking ourselves: Am I returning in confession and repentance to Christ, seeking to obey his Word, and humbly accepting correction and instruction from fellow believers? If the answer is no, then according to the Bible, God regards me a fool.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).

Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future (Proverbs 19:20).

One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless (Proverbs14:16).

Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored (Proverbs 13:18).

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice (Proverbs 12:15).

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is (Ephesians 5:15-17).

And God’s instruction for us when we encounter a fool?

Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge (Proverbs 14:7).

Stormfront

Last night, a storm raged. The wind whistled and branches swayed, thunder raged and lightning struck frightfully close to our home, which sits hilltop, surrounded by thick trees.

The seasons are changing again, and whispers of autumn are beckoning. Cooler mornings and evenings abound, as parcel of deer emerge from woods, their silhouettes slim and still at dusk. Wild turkeys stir, pecking the ground, and the slant of soft lemon-light fades earlier as the days shorten. How I love autumn and its changes.

I anticipated that our summer was going to be a whirlwind, and it was. Ministry, especially during a pandemic, is weighty. I pray for my husband as pastor. Our world is raging, and it takes wisdom and discernment and patience to make decisions that honor God.

So I have become a desperate explorer of sorts, pulling my magnifying glass from my backpack, searching for beauty in the midst of all that is broken. Autumn is stunning in the death of leaves; a hushing of external growth. From death emerges splendor: red, burnt orange, and yellow. Pieces cascading softly to the earth.

I think of Christ’s blood, which tumbled earthward at Golgotha, a violent storm silenced only after his brutal death and crucifixion, ushering in the fulfillment of believers’ eternal peace with God.

***

Our grandson was recently born, arriving weeks early in the whirlwind storm of an emergency C-section. We received a sudden text from our son: PLEASE PRAY! and the following ten minutes might as well have been ten years. I felt desperate: Please keep them safe, God, please protect them. My anxiety stilled only as I yielded: I trust you, Lord. Your will, not mine.

Now I sit rocking this small bundle, and he is beautiful; a little person gifted into our family mosaic. I study his large eyes, and chunky cheeks and perfect chin, and it is startling to see my own babies etched within his upturned face. I sprinkle him with hushed lullabies, kissing his soft head and repeating the very songs I hummed to his Daddy twenty-five years ago. These ancient paths return, familiar and breathtaking. The weight of this baby on my shoulder is a healing balm. A reminder of God’s goodness and faithfulness in the midst of storms.

***

I could dwell upon current news headlines, rather than lullabies, thinking of the daily terrors encroaching worldwide. But I will not. That magnifying glass of mine is spotting gems even in the midst of terror. My steps fly eagerly on this narrow way, pressing more deeply into the things of God than ever before. Stormfronts, I have discovered, spark change: either a hardening of an already cold heart, fearful, bitter, and complaining, or a softening of the heart, tender and trusting in the holy purposes of God.

The Holy Spirit comforts and warms me through his Word. I persevere with dogged intentionality, responsible for my own faith-feeding habits. No one is going to spoon-feed me, nor should they.

How else may we ever stay faithful, as Christ followers, when basic truths of Scripture are being upended, and professing Christians are thronging the parade, clapping and encouraging blatant heresy and renaming it courage? All under the guise of Christendom?

Our culture is a cyclone, sweeping up people in its deadly path. I will continue to take refuge under God’s protective wings (Psalm 91:4). It is a permanent place of safety.

***

The commonality for survival in all storms? Seek shelter.

As our grandson sleeps in his father’s arms, I see it so clearly. The sweet baby, limp and relaxed, trusts his father wholeheartedly. He is rocked, comforted, and held in unconditional love, wanting for nothing.

If we are to be like Jesus, we, too, will sleep peacefully in the middle of life’s storms.

Chapter 4 of Mark tells of a great windstorm that arose while Jesus and his disciples were in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. The disciples grew frantic as the waves crashed into the boat, filling it with seawater. Jesus remained sound asleep on a cushion.

The disciples woke him.

Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:38b-40)

I have been wrestling with these words and their meaning. Genuine faith, not fear, is the only way to please our Creator, regardless of stormy weather. He is our Shelter.

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6).

This posture cannot coexist with an ongoing wringing of hands, continual passing on of the haunting news reports, murmuring what ifs and gasping what are we to do? Fear is a deadly contagion, fueling the monster of anxiety as it shifts our eyes from God and his Word to our rapidly cycling circumstances. We become like Peter, fearing the wind on the water and forgetting Christ (Matthew 14:30). We, too, will sink.

Rise up, Christians! May we live with confidence in God, believing in his promises, treasuring the Bible, and surrendering ourselves to the deep knowing that everything passes through his Sovereign hands. He is holding us, safe and secure, through every storm.

I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them out of my hand (John 10:28).

And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20b).

Don’t Tread on Me

My first days of high school were rough.

I had spent the previous four years at a small private Christian School, which offered academics but not sports, other than loosely defined gym classes revolving around Capture the Flag and kickball. By contrast, my large high school thrived upon competitive academics and athletics.

The summer before ninth grade, I tried out for the field hockey team, and understood immediately that I was out of my league. I had never so much as held a field hockey stick, and these girls had been playing together for three years. Not only were they experienced in the game, but they were wiser to the ways of the world, which is a fancy way of saying they formed an impassable clique. Only two of us were cut from the team: another newbie plus me. Honestly, it would have taken months for me to gain traction, and as the competition within our high school division was vicious, the coaches had neither the time nor the inclination to play catch-up. They needed the best, and pronto.

I inwardly paced for the remainder of the summer, knowing full well that these girls had their own language and friendships, secret codes that sent them into fits of hysterics, laughing behind cupped hands. A mysterious and impenetrable barrier. What would high school be like? I thought, terrified.

A colonial minuteman served as mascot heralding our school motto: Don’t Tread on Me. Most people lived out those four words daily. Not only were sports essential, but academics were rigorous and competitive; on par with college academia. New England is fiercely independent, leaning heavily upon intellect and performance and self-rule. Crush or be crushed, as it goes, and Don’t Tread On Me.

While this often produces winning teams (Patriots, Bruins, Red Sox) and prestigious academic institutions (Harvard, Yale, Amherst, Colby, MIT), it also offers a deadly elixir for those lapping up this mentality. A steady drip of heart-hardening poison.

So pair all of that with the fact that I had never opened a coded locker, nor switched classes in long confusing hallways, and you can perhaps understand my stress that first week. Somehow I muddled through, wide-eyed as I sat in crowded classes with perfect strangers, limping home with burgeoning backpack and silent tears. I innately knew that I was expected to push through this difficult transition, but it hurt that my clothes were all wrong, my hair was too short, and I had braces.

To complicate matters, the most popular girl in the entire school sat directly behind me in homeroom, chomping gum and swapping boyfriend stories with her friends. She, too, was a freshman, but dated a senior, and could snap her fingers and have any boyfriend of her choosing. She wielded the power to drop friends if they crossed her, while plucking other girls as willing replacements. She was as cruel as she was pretty.

By week two she noticed me. Jiggling her foot, legs crossed, while blowing pink bubbles during homeroom announcements, she poked my shoulder. I turned.

Ewww, where did you get that sweater? So ugly.

I was devastated. That sweater was my favorite. My difficult grandmother had actually knit it for me. I adored the color and its softness, but most of all was touched that Grandma had actually done something kind.

My cheeks burned and my eyes filled as the bell rang and I dashed to my first class. Later that afternoon, I stepped off the school bus and into our empty home, heart thudding as I balled up the sweater and buried it in the bottom of our kitchen trashcan. I told no one, but my mother heard me crying late that night. She told my grandmother, (which I begged her not to do), and in an odd flush of understanding, Grandma informed me that she and Grandpa would be taking me on a shopping extravaganza for a new wardrobe that weekend. It was both a relief and a sorrow.

***

Over the next several years I changed, bit by bit. I grew my hair long, bought new clothes, and smiled without braces. But there was another invisible modification. A hard, protective wall had grown, brick-by-brick, around my tender heart. The foundation solidified on the day I buried my sweater. I had always lived to please others, but was now taking this notion to a skyscraper level, flip-flopping opinions and habits depending upon whom I was with at the present moment. Voicing a need or holding a strong opinion was unthinkable.

I played some sports, joined a club or two, made friends, got the hang of makeup, and purposefully tempered my opinions and ideas. Although I knew my own mind, I had been badly burned at field hockey tryouts and in homeroom, and did not care to touch that fire again.

So I did not live my faith boldly, but tucked those truths in deep pockets, scared to be called out at school; terrified of being humiliated. I studied, obeyed rules, and remained an average student with decent grades in a sea of highly functioning overachievers. Laboring diligently to remain hidden in plain sight came to be my new and insulated normal.

People-pleasing at its finest.

Which, if you think about it, is quite common.

But we do not serve a common God, and he is not pleased when we choose to obliterate who he created us to be: image-bearers glorifying him.

Fearing man is serious business, with disastrous results. It comes across as sweet-tempered and gentle, helpful and unthreatening and kind. A blank slate. What a lie.

In my blindness I had assumed that I had dodged the arrogance of Don’t Tread on Me. As it turns out, I was grieving the heart of God by giving others the glory that was meant only for him.

***

In short, it was a rocky, torturous road, decades later, as I finally dealt squarely with my sin and exited the Fear of Man way of living. As I rapidly discovered, folks grow happily accustomed to people-pleasing people. When this faucet is turned off, and the flimsy facade collapses, so do many relationships.

I could write a nice little paragraph offering suggestions for Ten Ways to Become More Assertive, or How to Grow a Backbone With Extended Family, or How to Stop Saying Yes to Every Perceived Need in Church, but that would miss the heart issue.

People-pleasing, bullying, gossip, slander, pride, sullenness, bitterness, covetousness, and every other sin are children of the same root: idolatry. Stark rebellion against our Creator. Our way of pumping a fist at God with: Don’t Tread on Me.

I am not ignoring the fact that the human heart is fragile and often breaks open: unkindness of any type tears a deep and throbbing pain. We all have scars, and we all inflict wounds. Sin hurts.

What I am honoring here is the better news that true joy remains untainted by any ugly circumstance. True joy doesn’t dry up when we are teased by homeroom girl, or slighted at work, or undone by gossip or slander. Yes, we acknowledge the ache and deal directly, but deeper still is our understanding that we are held and known and loved by God himself. He is our peace.

And we cannot have true and lasting joy until God is supreme in our affections. As believers, our unshakable contentment is draped upon the cross of our Crucified King. This is the mystery revealed: joy amidst the ashes and scars.

Life will always wreck us if we cling to anything other than God. Our love for him, and our pursuit of him actually draws him near to us (James 4:8). If pleasing people is your priority, you will soon find yourself miserable and deeply frustrated. We are not created to thrive this way.

I picture my faith in Christ to be a pearl, embedded in an oyster, hidden in the depths of the sea.

The pearl forms through the abrasion of sand: an intruder to the oyster. The oyster then secretes a fluid to protect itself from the irritant, coating it with layers that ultimately form a stunning pearl. Trials are like intruders, beautifying and strengthening our faith if we only trust God through all of those painful situations, knowing that he works all things together for our good (Romans 8:28).

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).

We are his.

Both the simplicity and difficulty of this truth are staggering.

This is why Corrie ten Boom could forgive her Nazi tormentors.

This is why Elisabeth Elliot ministered to the very tribe that murdered her beloved Jim.

This is the reason we may live joyfully through the hard, jagged edges of life. We give our yes to God in reverence, pleasing him through obedience to his Word.

Knowing and Enjoying God

Back in time, some seventeen years ago, after our family had moved across the country, and I was lonely and sad yet wearing the brave face, God intervened. He kindly scooped me up, through a series of seemingly ordinary events, and used the writings of John Piper to stretch wide my heart, pointing my withered soul directly back toward the Bible. I began to consume Scripture daily, and to diligently study everything that makes God happy and satisfied: truths highlighted in The Pleasures of God, an astounding book by Piper. My world was quickly turned upside down in the best of ways.

I began to realize just how little I knew God, and I was thirsty for more. My whole perspective had shifted, and I was now seeing Genesis through Revelation in its totality: no more plucking random verses and hoping to thrive. I craved meat, deeply desiring to love, know, obey, and enjoy God more. Soon, I discovered the writings of Elisabeth Elliot, and her matter-of-fact obedience and steadfast love for God sparked something deep inside. So, in addition to the Bible, I was now reading John Piper’s books, everything Elisabeth Elliot, plus a third author: Tim Challies.

His blog was unique to me, as he generously shared the writings of others, linking to articles and essays and blogs that consistently gave me pause to ruminate; always under the authority of Scripture. He also contributed with thoughtful writings of his own. His blog quickly became a staple of conversation in our household. I remember my husband coming home from work, and as I served dinner while he loosened his tie and told me of his day, I would invariably ask: Did you see the article Tim Challies linked to today? or Did you read the article he wrote this morning? Our children, even now, remember these dinner conversations.

Time is the great revealer of genuine character, and as the years passed, I knew that I could trust the words and the links that Tim Challies shared. Just like John Piper and Elisabeth Elliot, he consistently and faithfully leads others toward God and his Word. The Bible is clearly his benchmark; his anchor.

This is why I am thrilled with his new book: Knowing and Enjoying God. True to form, Tim Challies has humbly highlighted the words of others, taking the finest quotes, and pairing them with short, corresponding devotions of his own. Artist Jules Koblun has designed the graphics, which are stunning. The book itself is beautifully bound, with high quality paper.

I could not resist posting this unsolicited review. Knowing and Enjoying God is both lovely and true; a book designed to strengthen one’s faith. I am choosing to pair it with my daily Bible reading, and am already finding myself more challenged and encouraged in my pursuit of God.