There are no Shortcuts

It is no coincidence, my times of drawing close to the Lord. The years that my heart has flourished, have been the times when I am still in the early morning quiet. Just me and my Bible.

For whatever reason, I went through a long stretch of time when it was me, my Bible, and a stack of devotionals. They were meaty; chock full of truth. But I recently told my husband that I was beginning to hear the voices of the authors before that of the Lord.

I still read these authors, and God has seen fit to use them in stunning ways to encourage and challenge and grow me. These faithful Christians have written words full of godly wisdom and understanding. I have simply switched some things around, and now read those books before going to sleep each night. The mornings now, are just me and my Bible. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12 ESV)

This morning’s reading landed me squarely in Exodus, with mighty Pharaoh, ruler of all of Egypt, holding out a stiff arm to the Author of the entire universe. His brazen stubbornness and hostile disobedience put him in direct opposition to God, who used the entire situation for the good of his children. His whiny, petulant, often disagreeable children, who had already witnessed, wide-eyed (I imagine) the power of God himself on display during those terrifying plagues. Why could they not just trust God to make a way through the rushing waters of the Red Sea?

Moses’ response to their complaints?

Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent. (Exodus 14:13-14 ESV)

The Bible is living and active and piercing and discerning. I only have to read the Exodus account to be convicted of my own complaining, which, when pared down, only reveals my lack of trust in God’s promises. Honestly, I know myself well enough to realize that standing on the brink of the Red Sea, full of sharks and cold water, mighty warriors aiming spears at my back, would have terrified me. My trust might have crumbled.

***

I grew up on Old Mill Road, in a lovely, aging white New England farmhouse, steady upon a spectacular piece of land. Our apartment was the upstairs right, and my playground was the great outdoors.

My brother and I pedaled fast on our Big Wheels in that expansive driveway. We built forts in the woods, complete with rope swings and stone walls. Across the street from the farmhouse was a pond, where we spent hours in a tiny tin rowboat, snugly adorned in faded life-preservers, fishing and catching painted turtles. We netted frogs, which we kept for a few solemn hours as our very own pets, and under gentle hands, lulled those little creatures to sleep upon their backs, white throats glistening in the summer sun.

We ate our fill of raspberries, blackberries, and concord grapes, the juice dripping on our t-shirts. During the warm afternoons, we swung lazily on the backyard swings, bellies full, toes spinning in the dirt beneath the crabapple tree, which was pecked full of holes from the pair of Downy woodpeckers. Our sand box held mounds of sand, just right for creating castles and roads for my brother’s dump trucks.

Sometimes we chased through the field, playing hide-and-seek, while our landlord’s wife, Mary, hung her damp laundry on the line, clothespins dangling from her lips, eyes crinkling friendly at our freedom to romp and enjoy the outdoors. I practiced cartwheels and roundoffs in the soft bed of grass in our front yard, before retrieving my hula hoop and jump rope from the garage.

We had so much to play, endless possibilities to explore. In fact, there were only three things we were not allowed to do: go near the dam at the far end of the pond, step into the far woods beyond the field, and play on the young tree in the side yard.

There was no way that I would go near the dam: the roaring noise was so loud, and the bank so steep that I was afraid of slipping and crashing upon the rocks below.

I was also petrified to go into the woods beyond our field: our landlord had told us there was a bog, where two cows had once been swallowed whole. It was no hardship to give those woods wide berth.

But the tree in the side yard? It beckoned to me, small and pretty: the perfect height from which to swing. I imagined practicing some acrobatic moves that my first-grade friends and I enjoyed during recess on the jungle gym bars at school.

This no touching the side yard tree made no sense. I knew exactly what was best for me, and I went for it. One day I jumped and grabbed hold of its tender branch, which immediately snapped with a sudden and loud crack.

Our landlord soon discovered his beloved tree, now broken. The slender limb now dangled quite pitifully.

My parents confronted me and my brother. I confessed, and then, to my horror, was made to march downstairs, pronto, to our landlord’s apartment, to own up to what I had done and apologize. I was deeply ashamed and embarrassed, and will never forget Landlord’s words: Kristin, I am so disappointed in you. You knew the rule and chose to disobey. He forgave me, but it stung.

After that, I understood quite well, the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, as taught repeatedly in my Sunday School classes. I was a little descendant of Eve, who dwelt in a magnificent playground called the Garden of Eden. She thought she knew what she needed most: the fruit from that luscious yet forbidden tree, right there in the side yard.

***

There are some sleepy mornings, when it is so cold, I long to stay in my warm bed. But when I will myself to get up and open Scripture, asking God to speak through the words of his Bible, I am rewarded throughout the day, as the Holy Spirit brings those verses to mind over and over. Sometimes the verses convict and correct, other times they comfort and encourage. I might think I know what I need each day, but I actually don’t. God does.

Recently, I have been a little bit discouraged by the number of people falling away from the narrow gate in favor of the wide path (Matthew 7:13). When traced back to the origin, it seems likely that there is a stepping away from God’s Word in favor of what makes sense to them: their own personal feelings. It has scared me, as I have swung from the proverbial forbidden branch more than once, landing with a prompt thud. When those moments happened, I was painfully jolted out of my stupor, suddenly quite aware of my lack of discipline in the serious intake of God’s Word.

There are no shortcuts. More Bible equals more discernment. You will know what is phony only after you have filled yourself up with truth. Hard days will ensue, sooner or later. Fear not. Stand firm. The salvation of the Lord is coming. He will fight for us, his children, as we stand trusting and still.

An Inside Job

A few years ago, I was sitting in the orthodontist’s office, thumbing through a magazine, while our daughter was receiving an adjustment. These things take time, and I was in the middle of a decent article, when the assistant beckoned to me with her index finger.

I followed her back, where Lauren was eased in the reclining leather chair.

We have a problem, said orthodontist, all serious.

I was nonplussed. This was child number four in braces, and I felt unflappable. I raised my eyebrows.

Hasn’t your dentist suggested removing her wisdom teeth?

I inwardly groaned. Our three sons had wisdom teeth that had developed early; they had all been extracted, and it was expensive.

I sighed. No. He thought she could wait several years, I said.

He proceeded to wave his hand at x-rays and colorful flow charts, with lengthy explanations and growing intensity.

If this isn’t done ASAP her orthodontia could be damaged. That is a bunch of money wasted! And her teeth are so straight!

I eventually fled the office, clutching a list of oral surgeons in one hand, while dialing one of them and juggling my purse and keys. Mr. Orthodontist had succeeded in alarming me. I had visions of peeling into the oral surgeon’s parking lot on two wheels, that day, or else.

Within a week, we were seen for a consult. Our poor daughter was in low spirits, having formerly witnessed two of her three brothers swell up like balloons while simultaneously becoming sick from the pain meds. I assured her that I would do whatever necessary to get my hands on anti-nausea pills, should she require surgery. That was the best I could offer.

We sat in the examining room for a few minutes, when the oral surgeon breezed in. He was as relaxed as Mr. Orthodontist was intense.

Well hello, he said, shaking hands and smiling.

He studied the x-rays, turning them this way and that.

What brings you in?

I brought him up to speed on our situation. He nodded, examining Lauren’s teeth, and looking again at the x-ray.

Well, this is not a hair-on-fire situation, he said simply. Orthodontists tend to get worked up, but she will be fine to have the wisdom teeth removed anytime in the next year or so, as long as she continues to wear her retainer.

I laughed with my daughter as we drove home. This is not a hair-on-fire situation. We loved the saying, and use it still: a way to remind ourselves to calm down.

***

The other morning I pulled in to the gas station, stepping inside to pay. A wrinkly woman, behind plexiglass, smiled brightly as I stepped forward.

May I have $30 on pump five? I asked.

Of course, baby! she smiled. Would you like any gum or coffee today?

I declined, thanking her and asking for a receipt. She obliged, adding: Have a wonderful day, sugar!

Her small, worn face was so friendly; her eyes shining. I was a bit startled, as the tenor of her words, a soft wrap about my shoulders, felt so warm, so gentle, so different from the callousness that has warped our world. Yet here she was, one itty-bitty woman, unknowingly waging a quiet war against the tide with her honey-combed spirit.

I stepped outdoors, shivering in the cold air, where many were pumping gas. Most looked plain tired, shoulders slumped as they filled up their vehicles.

There is more than one way to fill a tank I thought, as I began pumping the fuel.

The kindness of the clerk had inspired me. So I smiled at the lady at the gas pump across from me.

Chilly, isn’t it? I asked.

Yes it is! she answered. I’m enjoying this wintry weather. We made further small talk, and she waved, friendly, as we parted ways, our tanks now filled with fuel and kindness. And just like that, my burdens felt lighter; the day brighter.

***

I hold my new day planner, forever old-school: real paper bound before me and true pencil markings. The clean pages will fill, but not just yet. The planning and wishing and praying and hoping offer a sliver of brilliance as we begin this new year. The mercy of possibilities.

This is tempered with the truth that none of us know what this year, or even this next moment, will bring. Most are a bit frayed after having been shaken by loss and grief and the unknown during the past year. We are all wading through hardship, on some level. I am continually comforted by the life of Elisabeth Elliot, who once said in her book Suffering is Never for Nothing:

The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things that I know about God.

God’s plans are stretched into forever, while our afflictions are light and momentary. They feel heavy and unending, but we are promised that they are actually preparing an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17). I am comforted by this dear reminder again and again and again.

If I look over my shoulder, I glimpse an old black-and-white film: the story of my life. I see the shining moments of laughter and simple joys, pleasures so genuine, sacred moments innocent of the knowledge of what was next, around that proverbial bend. And then those hard and sad and frightening times flood in with a mighty rush, knocking me down, breathless. How kind God is to not allow us to see the future, which would steal our finite happiness.

I, too, like Elisabeth Elliot, have plodded through deep waters and scorching fires. Because of those painful, tender times, my faith has flourished in ways only hardship can produce, and I drink deeply of the goodness of God. He is faithful, and is always working; the Holy Spirit is our Comforter.

Overarching every single trial are eternal hands, cupping our lives, which will never be snuffed out too soon. God holds the key to calm clarity in the midst of sadness and grief and sickness and pain: the promise of our Perfect Redeemer, coming to make all things new (Revelation 21:5). He is fashioning the future home of his trusting children (John 14:2).

Our job is an inside job, a yielding of our own soul to the Lord: loving and obeying Him wholeheartedly, which if genuine, will overflow in love for our neighbors. That gas station sales clerk, wrapped up in kind words and friendliness, pulled me in. Her warmth made me want to sit a spell and enjoy the goodness of God in the midst of a hard season. And isn’t that the hope of the gospel? Peace within, because of what Jesus, our Rescuer, has already done?

I need not wait for all my plans to align, or my health to improve, or for that person to snap out of it. The pleasures of God are mine now, to enjoy through adversity, through all of those seemingly hair-on-fire situations. As God’s children, may we shine even more brightly this year in our patience and warmth towards others. As Ephesians 2:10 (ESV) reminds us:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

No Strings Attached

There is simple kindness, among few, in the art of gift giving. An offering presented with joy and weightlessness; a smile of anticipation in the knowing of the goodness to be shared.

My grandfather was one of these givers: happy to delight others. One bright March afternoon, on my tenth birthday, he surprised me with an enormous teddy bear. This was no ordinary stuffed animal, but a Gund: soft, stitched to perfection, and created to last. Grandpa embraced quality: no cheap gifts on his watch.

One day, he invited me on an errand to the local feed and hardware establishment. He loved to tinker in hardware stores. Never mind that he was far from handy and could fix nothing without the use of duct tape. It was the comradery he enjoyed with the other fellows, who were clad in tired jeans and worn tool belts, wandering the aisles, assisting customers with a clipped: Morning! while sipping their steaming coffee.

As Grandpa chatted, I meandered the aisles, suddenly drawn to the cheeping sounds from the far corner of the store. Baby chicks! I scrunched down, patting the tiny geese through the wire pen: completely smitten. After a few moments, I returned to my grandfather, who was paying for his goods.

Unbeknownst to me, Grandpa had noticed my delight. Shortly after this trip to the feed store, he returned home calling my name, clutching a jumping box containing two cheeping goslings. My parents and grandmother were not impressed, and I could not understand why….the chicks were simply perfect.

Grandpa calmly told them that his granddaughter must have these, as animals were her favorite thing. (I now understand the lack of excitement from the other adults. Those goslings were cute for about fourteen days, before they grew with a vengeance, destroying our bushes and flowers, honking and disturbing neighbors, and driving our dog frantic with their aggression. I loved them unabashedly until the day they were given away, without my consent, months after being gifted.)

So Grandpa dispensed gifts with untamed abandon. Although impulsive, it was never about him, but always about the recipient. This shaped me, a person not impetuous by nature. However, there are moments, when I see something, and know deep down in my bones that this is perfect. My affection is so deep, and the present is right, and I am happy, reminded of Grandpa, who loved wildly: no holding back, and no chintzy tokens.

Yet the finest gift my Grandfather granted was the no strings attached component. This came with neither words nor fanfare; and nestled deep within my heart. He never once reminded anyone of his gift-giving. There was no: do you like your teddy bear? or Remember when I bought those goslings for you? He simply gave open-handedly, leaving the gift and the response in the hands of the recipient. The joy set before him was in fulfilling his kind deed: the choosing of a present to show his love in a way that would please the recipient.

Never did he expect a thank you note. I typically sent one, but Grandpa assured me that the pleasure was all his. With each passing year, I now realize that this very action in itself, was his legacy-gift. In this, his kind heart radiated selflessness, and it was deeply good.

***

One Sunday morning, as a young college student, I leaned in, as the pastor preached on finishing well.

Finishing? I thought. I have hardly begun!

For whatever reason, I was deeply interested. I had never heard a sermon on this topic.

Do not suppose that you will awaken at age forty, or fifty or eighty, said the pastor, and suddenly be more mature; more godly. You must be working out your salvation with fear and trembling. Good works? Godly attitudes? Godly fruit? These stem from humility and obedience and repentance, day in and day out. A soaking up of God’s Word, read then applied. If you do not practice such things, your sin struggles now with be greatly magnified with age.

Regrettably, I did not take notes, or scribble down the many Bible references he included. But the essence of the message marked me: fight sin now.

I am now forty-eight, and though not officially old, I am getting older. I think of my grandfather, who with all of his flaws, read the Bible consistently, carefully placing a checkmark upon each completed page. I remember his ongoing words about his love for King David, a man after God’s own heart. A king who took what wasn’t his, lied about it, and even murdered. The most important part? He humbled himself, repented, and then obeyed.

The grace of God, Grandpa remarked, shaking his head, eyes filling.

Grandpa, like all of us, had a story. He came to Christ in his thirties, remorseful and repentant. He always said God had forgiven him for so much; just as God had forgiven King David. It gave him great hope. His many sins had been flung far, from east to west, and he never forgot this: God’s gift. I believe this is why he could love big, with no strings attached.

When he died so painfully, cancer raging, it was clear that he had done the hard work of finishing well.

***

There were some older, church-going women sprinkled upon the periphery of my childhood. A tasteful, honest description of them would be busybodies. Gossip was highly permissible amongst them; shuffled around and labeled concern, or news.

These flock of women also enjoyed gift-giving: especially for weddings. The gifts themselves were lovely: bone china place settings, buttery yellow tea towels, 400-thread-count sheet sets. But those tasteful gifts had invisible strings attached: the firm expectation of an immediate hand-written note of profuse thanks. Following that came the folded arms and toe-tapping: impatient waiting for excessive verbal gratitude: Thank you, and Thank you again, and I love the gift and am using it often!

It would have been kinder, and far more generous of them to have given nothing.

One particular day, weeks following a wedding, I overheard the women whispering ill of the unthankful couple. A lot of huffing and puffing over the complete lack of gratitude; not even a thank you note! I rolled my eyes, privately, tired of the griping. The poor newlyweds had not even been married six weeks.

Those weren’t wedding gifts: they were chains.

***

So with another birthday around the corner, I examine my own heart in gift-giving. Not simply physical presents wrapped in paper, but heart gifts: charitable thoughts, an encouraging word, friendliness to a grumpy one, choosing to resist hearing or speaking gossip. And one step further in examination: Am I doing these things with thoughts of myself or others? Am I gifting shining trinkets with strings attached? Do I insist upon being properly thanked, and stir trouble when I am not? Do I always wait for something in return?

I sit a moment at my desk, thinking through this, carefully pondering in the still morning hours. Rather than aiming to modify my poor behavior, I jot down the three important words: humility, obedience, repentance.

Every truly generous person that I know is humble. Every humble person I know practices repentance. And every act of repentance is performed from a heart of obedience. A grateful heart is satisfied, cheerfully giving from an overflow of thanksgiving, for what God has done.

2 Corinthians 9:6-8 (ESV): The point is this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.

May the Traditions Serve

As a child, Christmas began six weeks before December 25th, when our family pulled on our heavy coats and boots, trekking a bit up the road, deep into the woods of a neighbor, to tag our Christmas tree. The air was freezing, and I watched my breath puff into the air. A thorough study of one tree after another, until: There it is! That’s the one!

My father tied our tag fast to a tall and sturdy branch, our last name claiming the beautiful little pine. I patted a branch with love, saying goodbye for now, returning home to enjoy hot cocoa sprinkled with miniature marshmallows that melted and swirled deliciously atop the steaming drink. We returned shortly before Christmas, paying cash to our good neighbor before chopping it down and carrying it home to decorate.

Christmas afternoon was spent at my grandparent’s home on Washington Street. The house was full of relatives: adults at the big table, grandchildren at the card table which was placed in the front hall. My grandfather was perpetually cold, so the heat blasted, leaving us far too warm in our turtlenecks and sweaters. I looked for the ribbon candy, (always ribbon candy), placed on my grandmother’s proper, heavily-oiled New England coffee table. That ribbon candy signaled Christmas, as did the pine wreaths hanging on their front door. After gifts, and our traditional meal, we grandchildren bundled up to play outdoors in the freezing, and sometimes snowy yard. The adults stayed behind, lingering over coffee and hot tea, cleaning up the kitchen and holding off on serving the pie until dark. This was Christmas to me.

***

When I grew up and married, my husband’s job landed us far, far south. It was roasting when we moved; still in the throes of summer.

I was stunned when our first fall arrived, (according to the calendar), without even a speck of foliage. The only weather pattern change was that September was even more sweltering than its predecessor had been. There was no walking down any road to tag a tree. We ended up overpaying for a spindly little pine from the side of a road, purchased from a poor fellow who was sweating profusely in his shorts and tank top.

I buried my sadness and made the very best of it: decorating our apartment with bunches of lights, dreaming along with Bing Crosby as he crooned White Christmas, and turning down our air conditioning in a small attempt to add a festive winter chill to the sticky humidity that was suddenly my new normal. The longing for a turn of seasons hurt more than I cared to admit. It felt a little like hearing a beautiful song unheard by most. My entire life had been lived with four clockwork changes; I knew no different and realized for the first time how important the seasons were to me; buried down deep in my bones. Now I was living a perpetual summer. And so it went.

One day, that first married Christmas season, my husband came home with a small bag in his hand.

I bought something for you.

I opened the bag and pulled out a white wax angel ornament, which smelled exactly like the Christmas pines of my childhood. I inhaled the aroma as I hung it on our tiny tree, and turned to hug my husband.

***

This year, now in our twenty-sixth year of marriage, Jon and I were running an errand together.

We need to buy a tree, he reminded me.

I agreed, and at that very moment he received a text from a kind man at our church.

Pastor, have you bought your Christmas tree? If not, my wife and I want you to go and choose one. It is our gift to you. Get the best one.

So we did. The air was cold, and the smell of pine, fresh.

Our daughter and I chose a handsome beauty: tall and full and classically shaped. The fellow wrapped it in netting, loaded it up in our truck, and waved goodbye with a hearty: Merry Christmas! My breath puffed in the cold. Yes, Christmas had officially begun.

Later, my husband hoisted the tree into the stand, while we instructed him: A little this way, no…that way! Finally, it was just so. We strung lights and sat mesmerized by the bright twinkling.

The next day I pulled out our red tub of ornaments, looking for the angel, as I always do, and remembering back to our first Christmas. This act of searching, and remembering, has become my own Christmas tradition. The scent still lingers on that wax ornament; I love it so.

***

I recall buying ribbon candy one year, happening upon it in a store while Christmas shopping. Tears pooled as I was instantly transported back to Washington Street and the hubbub of conversation; the card table and heat full-blast.

So I purchased the ribbon candy, setting it on our coffee table that Christmas morning. Our children were young, but old enough to eat the treat.

Here’s the funny thing: while willing to try it, they had little context. I feebly explained that this reminded me of my Christmases as a little girl. They listened, and tried the candy, politely, but it was more of a That’s nice, Mom.

This awakened me. My traditions, and memories and childhood were for me. No two stories are exactly alike, and God has his plans. It was after this Christmas that I stopped working so hard to recreate my own childhood delights, stamping them upon my children, and allowed our own traditions to serve our family. This was all easier than I expected, and it went something like this:

What are your favorite things we do as a family to celebrate Christmas?

Four little faces chimed in, with pretty much the same simple answers. We have been doing most of those things for a long time now.

***

As our family has expanded again, this time through marriage, I am holding traditions gently, softly in my opened hands. Things change, as do seasons. I am embracing that each year will probably be different, as our children begin families of their own, with traditions unique to them. They might not have ribbon candy, or tag a tree, or have a little wax ornament. But they will have their own delights, and I will cheer them on every step of the way.

In the meantime, I will be planning new ways to serve my family, even from afar. If God blesses us with grandchildren, I already have some plans cooking; traditions to enjoy. We’ll see what sticks.

But for now, I will continue to gaze at my small wax ornament, hanging on our twinkly tree, and thank God for His faithfulness to our family over all of these years. I will thank him for all of the traditions that have served us, binding us together as family. And I will thank him most of all, in his magnificent wisdom and stunning sacrifice, for gifting us with his most precious Son.

The Wideness of God

I have saved sparkly Christmas ornaments that our children glued for us in Sunday School, ages ago really. They hang on our Balsam fir, and when I spot them, I smile, carried back in time. I can resurrect their bright faces, Christmas creations in hand, so happy to be retrieved from class, heading home for lunch and rest time; worn out from a morning with friends and glue and noise.

I do not enjoy crafting in the least. Coloring? Yes. Sketching? Absolutely. But popsicle sticks and glue and glitter for miles? I just can’t.

What I lacked in crafting, I like to imagine I made up for in reading. My goodness, did we read. From the time our oldest was a newborn, we read stories together, which I continued to do with all of our babies. We devoured books after breakfast and throughout the day. Bible stories, adventure stories, picture books and fairy tales. The local library was our treasured friend.

Confession number two: I do not garden. The beauty of cut flowers: tulips, hydrangeas, and lilacs especially, arranged in a vase on our dinner table, is delightful. I am also quite attached to the only house plant I have ever managed to keep alive: my Philodendron whom I affectionately call Phil. He cleans the air, and requests only happy sunlight and a touch of water. But gardening? No. This is funny, because I do love being outdoors. Walking is one of my favorite activities, and I feel most alive while taking in the beauty of the cold air, maple trees, mountain views, and bright flowers. I just do not desire to plant them myself.

So I ventured daily upon long walks with our little ones: mornings and late afternoons. I would point towards the stately trees and fluffy Cumulus clouds, the Roseate spoonbills and Robins, and all of the fat squirrels gathering nuts. I avoided most baby talk, speaking clear descriptions to my babies, filling their imaginations and minds with God’s creation. They would soon speak these words back to me.

I can still smell their baby shampoo, brushing my face as I kissed their soft hair, scooping them up and holding them high as they giggled and hugged my neck.

Dinnertime was followed by baths, baby-damp hair combed back, pajamas snug. While I cleaned up toys, and quieted the kitchen for the night, my husband played with our little ones: blocks and chunky Legos and tossing a soft ball. Daddy-games so fun and different from the hours spent with me.

I now feel like Mary, treasuring up all of these things and pondering them in my heart.

***

I was a bit stunned, recently, to find an old piece of writing of mine, composed when our children were ages eight and under. It snapped me back to those former days, days which I have already begun to sugarcoat.

During this time period someone was awake most every night, with a bad dream, or an upset tummy, or an earache, or thirsty, or lonely, or just wanting to sleep in our bed. As I read my own words, I remembered how my husband and I grew accustomed to a small face in our dark bedroom, stirring us from deep sleep. It got to the point that I would sit up, eyes closed, while a little body would hop up and crawl in between us. I would thump back down, eyes still shut, and wait for little knees to snuggle against my back, warming me.

What I am tempted to say is: how sweet those times were, and what I wouldn’t give to go back. Which carries a measure of truth. But my own voice, on that old scrap of paper, jolted me into remembering the entire narrative: the fatigue, the sleep deprivation, the trips to the pediatrician, my hard-won patience, in addition to the beauty of loving and raising these four little people with fierce devotion.

There was not time to process much during those tender days; I was about the business and busyness of raising children. I wrote for ten minutes here and five minutes there, sometimes scratching a sentence on an old bill envelope that I had yet to throw away. And then, mid-thought, one of the children would need me, and from the very depths of my heart, I felt such love, awakening, and total surrender to this magical and precious gift of motherhood, that it was my joy to lay the paper down.

A few people tilted their heads over the years, asking if I regretted not using my writing degree; choosing instead to stay home and raise our children? Does it not feel a bit wasted?

Oh, I am using that degree, I told one. I am writing books. Four of them, actually. It took her a moment, but she nodded, following my gaze to the breezy backyard, where our three sons and daughter were playing.

***

In my lack, God was there. I could not craft, nor garden, and we were young and as poor as church mice. We never purchased a fancy baby nursery, with all of the things, and it took awhile before we purchased our first house. But we had each other, and I was entrusted, by my husband, with the gift of time with our babies. There is no replacement for that. Time that leant itself to Bible reading and early memorization, good books, sweaty outdoor play, games, and conversations for the ages. Our children are now our very best friends.

So as not to sugarcoat, we faced financial pressures and stresses stemming from one income. My husband and I bickered at times, petty disagreements. We never were, nor are, a perfect family. There were seasons when we had only one old car, which proved tricky and inconvenient. As an introverted mother, I occasionally felt stretched thin with so much outgoing conversation and constant interaction. But God always provided, gifting me with a few good friends, a husband who could break the day’s monotony with humor, many good books read in snippets here and there, and of course his Word.

I am rounding the corner, nearing the end of my stay-at-home-mothering years. Looking back, I can now see that as much as I was raising our children, God was raising me. So enjoy your children to the hilt, knowing that they are a true blessing from the Lord (Psalm 127:3). Those little people are God’s will for you because he has given them to you, and only for a short time.

Recognize, too, the wideness of God in this: he fashioned each of us with preferences and abilities, shortcomings and dislikes. No two people are created by his design to be exactly alike. You are uniquely positioned to raise up your children, and no, you will not be perfect. Keep in mind, on those long days, or sick days, or lonely days, that the Lord has called you to this tender love and sacrifice. It is a hard and holy work. Parenting well takes courage; a labor of love flush with future rewards (Proverbs 22:6).

Hungry

We sat cross-legged, in soft pajamas, hair upswept and faces washed clean, before our hall meeting. I had only been in college for a few weeks.

I glanced at the girls around me, surprised at our fast-deepening friendships. The personalities on our floor were an exquisite blend, and we were getting along famously.

Before our hall meeting kicked off, a few girls had ordered breadsticks from our favorite pizza delivery. We took turns splurging on this delicious treat, complete with warm cheese and Italian tomato-dipping sauce. The cost was dangerously affordable for even the poorest of college students: three dollars including tip.

I had been warned about gaining the freshman fifteen, so I subsisted mainly upon salad and cold cuts and apples, skipping the mystery meat, dutifully drinking plenty of iced water each meal, and jogging five mornings per week. Doing these few things, plus having a healthy teenage metabolism, freed me to enjoy breadsticks, milkshakes, or Dr. Pepper on occasion. I enjoyed my food, and truthfully thought precious little about it.

So our meeting began, and one girl, clad in fuzzy pink slippers, offered the foiled treat to one and all: breadstick with sauce, anyone? There was a lot of feasting going on; those breadsticks were mouth-watering. An added bonus? There were no boys present to tease us about our late-night snacking.

One girl put her hand straight out.

I don’t want any.

I will call her Stacey. She was a transfer student, small with a thin-lipped mouth; an unexpressive face framed with wired-rimmed glasses. Her way-to-big sweatshirt swallowed her wispy frame.

Really, Stacey? There is one left for you! They are yummy

To entice, the pink-slippered girl wafted the foiled breadstick under Stacey’s nose.

I said, no!

Her voice was so loud that we all stopped chewing. And stared. The silence was awkward. One of the RA’s put her hand softly on Stacey’s arm.

Are you okay?

She nodded, looking down at her lap. I’m just not hungry.

After a few seconds, the meeting began, and I peeked at Stacey, watching us eat, her eyes taking in our bites, our chewing, and our pleasure. There was something beneath the outburst. A longing.

The months rolled along, and then: our floor Christmas party. My roommate and I made rice-crispied treats, decorated with holiday M&M’s pressed firmly on top. We pooled our quarters, depositing them in the vending machine, dropping Little Debbie’s oatmeal cream sandwiches with a flurry. Someone had opened sparkling grape juice. This was fun…a delightful reprieve from our looming final exams.

Stacey had missed a few hall meetings, citing work issues and poor health. She slipped in late to our Christmas festivities, after our RA had already prayed. I think we were all a bit reluctant to offer her food, choosing instead to enlarge our circle and placing a paper plate in front of her; a gentle offering. Our conversations were loud and laughter-laced: we were overtired from studying, excited for the holidays, and as we ate, we spoke of our favorite Christmas cookies, dreaming of home.

I have heard there is a natural lull in conversation every seven minutes. That hush happened, just in time for the loudest stomach growling I have ever heard. Stacey blushed and covered her belly.

Have a cookie, our RA offered.

Stacey downed it in seconds. Then she inhaled a rice-crispied treat, followed by another.

I am so hungry, she groaned, mouth full.

Sweetie, said our RA, quietly. When is the last time you ate?

Sunday.

No one moved. Or spoke. It was now Wednesday night.

Stacey stood up. I need to jog.

No, said our RA. You have not had enough to eat to go running.

Stacey paled: a frantic, wild fright upon her face.

I have to. I just ate so much.

The RA’s led her to a private room. I heard whispers later that Stacey had endured so much parental pressure to perform: grades, sports, clubs, that she subconsciously fought for control of the only thing left to manage: her weight. I was neither mature nor experienced enough to know how to help Stacey. But one thing holds true about that night: I woke up to the hunger all around me.

***

Circling the pond this week on my usual walk has been different. Our magnificent foliage has once again departed. Vibrant leaves have died, now brown and crunchy under my shoes. The air is colder; I can see through the treetops to surrounding homes. The once burgeoning fullness and color have been eclipsed with stark branches, chilly air, and a stillness. Everything is bare and visible; revealed.

I walked and pondered. With Christmas coming, I mused upon holiday recipes and grew hungry, and then remembered Stacey, all of those years ago. I recalled her panic and longing, all tangled together in a messiness that pulsed.

That frightening hunger is everywhere: stomachs starving for peace and control, pleasure and belonging. A hunger for happy times to remain; an equal tug for hard circumstances and sadness to vanish.

Life is not this way though, and there will always be a continual want for our lasting home. And like the splendor of changing seasons, there are times for everything under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3). Although autumn is my utter favorite, there is beauty to be unearthed in the still and cold barrenness. God uses these times to wrench the hardened soil of our hearts. Control, outside of him, is an illusion. We know nothing, other than his birth, his death, his rising to life, and the certainty that he is coming back to make all things new. That promise tastes of springtime to our weary, hungry souls.

***

Our daughter is nearly seventeen, and stunning. I watched her from across the dance floor at her brother’s wedding, laughing true and clapping, the edge of her bridesmaid’s dress sweeping those wooden planks, sweeping childhood years away. She was once a ballerina and four years old; blond pigtails and pink leotard, stretching high upon tiptoes. It feels impossible that so many years have faded while I was busy tending to her, her brothers, my husband; our home.

I see the hunger beckoning to her generation: the Instagram posts and stories, bright flashes promising: more! better! thinner! prettier! that will only deceive, promises that distract and steal and then fade; meaningless really. But then I recognize that it is not only her generation tempted. It is all of humanity since the Garden of Eden: chasing fading ways to be known and seen and loved. Ways to control. If only we would embrace that we alone are not enough, and never will be. If we were enough, there would be no need for a Savior. Freedom lands on our doorstep when we acknowledge that God is God, and we are not.

Winter in our souls does not have to be wasted. It may be used as an offering to our Maker: a scooping up of the dead and crunchy leaves; holding them high and then letting them fall to the hard ground. Stand still and watch what our God will do. I speak from experience. Do the hard work of letting go. Remember, control is always a mirage. Only God holds that master key. If you love and trust him, you cannot lose for eternity, no matter how long earth’s winter may last.

Fragrance

I was eighteen years old, thumbing through a magazine at the dentist’s office. It was time for my annual cleaning; another chore to check off before heading to college.

As I was casually flipping the pages, an insert dropped and floated lazily to the floor. Picking it up, I caught an inviting scent: warm, rich; earthy. I asked the receptionist if I could keep the insert and she obliged. I traced the words with my fingers, repeating the name: Roma Perfume by Laura Biagiotti.

Days before college began, I made my way to the mall and purchased a bottle of this Roma. I rarely bought anything extravagant, but simply knew this was my perfume. I had rubbed the sample insert to a fare-thee-well upon my wrists. It was nice to have a full bottle to spritz each morning; something I have now been doing for three decades.

Just the other day, an acquaintance who is nearly blind, smiled and told me that she knew my presence before I greeted her because of my perfume.

***

It has been a full week, with family and friends: cooking and feasting, laughing and watching football. After everyone had gone home, I vacuumed and dusted and cleaned the fridge before sinking into my favorite chair with a steaming mug of coffee and my Bible. The aroma reminded me of our children, who also appreciate a good mug of joe.

So I stopped and prayed for each of them, slowly. Not a snappy list, but a steady holding of their faces in my mind’s eye as I placed them one-by-one before the Lord: Thank you, God, for their precious lives. Thy will be done as they follow you. I whispered my specific requests for each, appeals from this mother’s heart. As I did so, I felt my soul soften.

I opened my Bible, savoring 2 Corinthians 2:14-16a:

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.

I looked out of our living room window, and watched as dying leaves slipped from their branches to the ground. The phrase triumphal procession reminded me of Noah guiding the animals and his family into that massive ark. I imagined Noah’s neighbors, a perishing people, snickering or perhaps squinting skyward at the bright blue expanse absent of rain clouds, laughing at the absurdity of this Noah-man, leading the beasts, side-by-side into an ark. The ark, perched upon dry land, with no rain in sight.

I also envisioned Noah, plodding along faithfully, ignoring the insults, exuding an aroma pleasing to his Creator; a fragrance from life to life. This was not silliness; but pure faith and obedience beautifully intertwined; understood by precious few. The work of Noah’s hands, the crafted ark, revealed what had already been reckoned in his heart. Steadfast trust.

There was only one door to this massive craft, and the Lord shut them in (Genesis 7:16). A triumphal procession, for certain. Noah carrying out his part in unquestioning obedience, and God sealing them up in perfect safety.

***

Last night, as a man was backing out of a parking space, he came close to hitting our truck. I quickly pressed the horn, which was loud. He braked, just avoiding a near collision. As he sped off, he thrust his hand out the window in an obscene and rather prolonged gesture.

This was an excellent opportunity to overlook an insult, something I have been working on this year. If I am to ever become wise and tender-hearted, it will be through perseverance and speedy forgiveness, I am quite sure.

Unlocking a forgiving and forbearing spirit is easier said than accomplished. Not too long ago, someone stole my idea, claiming it as their own. Just typing that sounds childish, and it was.

It was a small thing really, an uncreative measure I hatched to serve someone, and although I proposed it, another took credit, claiming that the idea was hers.

So I said nothing, and carried on with false cheerfulness, at first. But I was miffed.

I silently stewed and simmered, feeding my own irritation until the next day when my husband asked: What’s wrong?

So I told him. And as I verbalized the story, I realized what did it matter as long as the needy person was served? I was missing the entire point, and this was absurd. My attitude was not a pleasing fragrance to anyone, especially the Lord. And with that acknowledgement, the knot in my stomach dissolved. I forgave the thief, praying for God to bless her. And I meant every word.

***

So I spray perfume on my wrists absentmindedly each morning, part of my routine, but now with a certain and growing awareness that the fragrance most pleasing to God springs from my heart: that tender place formed and fashioned and fed by the Holy Spirit. Those quiet, unseen moments of prayer and Bible meditation, obedience and faith, forgiveness and repentance, count; big time. And they are never unseen by God. They lift, rising heavenward; a fragrant offering pleasing to Him.

Thanksgiving

We are having a houseful (as the older generations once said) this Thanksgiving, something that has not happened for years, as our family has been prone to travel the fourth Thursday each November.

So I have made all of the lists: recipes, ingredients, and cleaning chores, while also counting chairs, beds, sheets, towels and pillows. Wiping the dust from ceiling fans, I noticed scuff marks in the hallway, which led me to enter a home improvement store; a nearly frozen can of old paint in my hand, labeled wall. The paint department employee, with squinted eye, informed me this was in fact, ancient paint, so old that surely this could not match our current wall color?

I don’t know, I offered. We just moved in a little over a year ago, so I really have no idea.

He stares at me dully, clearly not wanting further details, then looking behind me at the growing line.

I waited while he matched the color, then drove home $15 poorer, with a pint of touch-up paint that, you guessed it, did not match. It looked as though it would, so instead of wisely brushing a tiny and inconspicuous area, I threw caution to the wind and began touching up all of the scuff marks. This is how I roll, an unapologetic get-it-doner rather than a perfectionist. Preferable in some situations, but not in this particular one with a houseful arriving.

I felt slightly impatient, with my to-do list mentally scrolling on autoplay as I drove to Home Depot after having made some phone calls to track down the proper paint color.

Now I was second in line at the paint center, and with my mind fixed upon inconsequential things, I must have stepped over the orange tape affixed to the floor. The sign in front of me read: Please stand at least six feet apart.

The customer in front of me looked hard at my sneakers, toes over the line, before taking great pains to deliberately move his cart further away from where I had overstepped, adjusting his mask decisively for good measure.

Suddenly, in that moment, I felt tired of everything. Tired of scuff marks and masks and lines. Tired of sickness and suffering and death, of critical spirits and fighting and misunderstandings and corruption and gossip and Do Not Step Closer tape lines.

***

As a little girl, I recall standing tiptoed one hot summer day in front of a candy store window, nose pressed up to the glass alongside other children as we watched the baker man create salt water taffy.

He picked up a massive slab of taffy from a metal pan, heaving it upon a machine fashioned with long hooks. Once the switch was flipped, the hooks would pull the taffy, over and over, purposely creating tiny air bubbles throughout the candy. It was mesmerizing to watch the rhythmical tug of those machines, stretching to perfection. Depending upon the flavor, the candy man would adjust the time of the pull. It could be twenty minutes or perhaps an hour. Those tiny bubbles, he explained, made the candy what it is designed to be: light and chewy.

Only after the pulling was complete, could the candy be cut and twisted into tasty treats, wrapped in wax paper and sold by the pound.

***

Standing in that paint line, feeling done, I glanced over my shoulder, catching a glimpse of a twinkly Christmas tree display. I am preparing for Thanksgiving, but Christmas is coming too, and quickly.

Feeling convicted of my whiny spirit, I prayed for God to change my attitude; to help me begin preparing my heart for Advent. Eternity is coming.

Sometimes God moves swiftly. I looked at the grumpy man in front of me, scrolling on his phone, and suddenly felt compassion. We have all endured this heartbreak year; everyone has suffered to some degree, and we are feeling hard-pressed.

Aren’t we like taffy, being pulled and twisted again and again and again? As a Christ-follower, I understand that none of this is random. God is working out his kindness and perfect goodness, measuring our days on the machine, creating air bubbles of faith and obedience, making us more like his Son. Each day is a treasure, and although we cannot control what unfolds, we are permitted to choose what attitude we will hold.

What paint project are you working on today? I asked the man in front of me.

He turned, surprised I think.

I’m painting a shed. He pulled out his phone. Let me show you the color.

So he did. It was a beautiful shed, an addition to the new house he purchased. The color was just right, and we discussed palettes, and the best paint brands and so on. Sometime during the conversation, he lowered his mask and his shoulders relaxed.

And then, his paint order was ready, and it was my turn.

Enjoy your shed! I smiled as he walked away.

I will! I think I’ll call it my He-shed! He cackled at his own joke, waving as he left.

***

This time my paint color matched. It was supposed to be flat, but I think the paint man gave me eggshell, so there is a slight sheen during certain moments of the day, when the sunlight hits.

I will leave it. It feels like a holy reminder, a nudge prompting me to see that it is not the paint nor the lists nor the recipes nor the holiday perfection that matters.

It is the attitude of my heart, my tenderness towards God and my love for the people he has gifted to me today.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Children of Eden

Once upon a time, my grandmother baked the most delicious apple pies. The secret was her crust recipe, kept strictly for family, which she scribbled down for me to file in my recipe box the summer I was married. Soon, I will be rolling out this very dough for Thanksgiving, the weight of the rolling pin steady beneath floured hands.

She was a superb cook; a meat-and-potatoes type of woman, with little fondness for casseroles. Seasoned simply, her cooking was fashioned with real food and few ingredients. The steamed carrots, bright, cut long and even, were neatly positioned aside the peas, slightly salted and peppered. A fluff of buttered mashed potatoes gave way to tender roast beef, never dry and only slightly pink, shaved thin. I loved it.

Despite these fine culinary skills, she was not one to teach cooking or baking or anything else, really. She possessed a superb memory, retaining cooking measurements and numbers with ease. Grandma did not suffer fools in the kitchen, which left little time and less patience for most. Even the recipes she offered me before marriage have important information missing, such as oven temperatures and cooking times. I have just had to figure it out. She did not require recipe cards.

My grandparents eventually lived with us, and there were inevitable childhood days when my brother and I fell ill, tucked in bed; home from school. My parents left early for work, and my grandmother tended to us.

Something overtook her when we were sick; she abruptly shed her cloak of disinterest, growing warm and attentive with a flourish, checking our fevered foreheads and bringing us tiny glasses of ginger ale, just the right temperature for our upset stomachs. She whipped up strawberry and lime jello, cut into wiggly cubes, coaxing us to eat slowly and assuring that we would feel better.

Just a little something in your stomach will help.

She was right.

I always knew how sick I was based on her culinary behaviors. When especially ill, I would hear the fork whisking eggs against the metal bowl. The oven would beep, signaling that it was preheated. After a time, dozing in and out of fever-induced sleep, I would inhale the scent of custard.

She called the custard grape-nut pudding, baked in white ramekins. While it cooled on the counter, Grandma helped me to the sofa, where I lay under a thin blanket while she stripped the fevered sheets off of my bed, quickly replacing them with a set of fresh ones, folding hospital corners to utter perfection. It felt divine slipping back between those cool cotton sheets before drifting off again.

The same care in cooking, however, used to show affection, was also withheld to show displeasure. If a mood struck, or she was crossed, then dinner might be cheese and crackers, or perhaps a bowl of cereal. A little sulking, a closed door, rather than dealing squarely.

***

The other morning, I held my breath as a doe pranced across the road. She paused, her wide eyes surveying. It was early and chilly, and the glow of the sun shimmered through the maples. Bearing witness to this creation, and acknowledging who painted the sky, I worshiped. Scenes of nature, created by the hand of God, feed my soul. I felt spoiled, to have such beauty gifted to me.

Psalm 84:11: For the Lord God is a sun and shield. The Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.

I was meeting with my spiritual mentor recently, doing some heart work, casting off cobwebs of sin as I long to walk uprightly. We discussed why many people willfully withhold good things from others: Kind words, favor, praise, money, gifts, encouragement.

It is a sinful, passive-aggressive way to control and manipulate she offered simply.

Yes.

Human beings are complex layers: body, mind, soul; yet often we fancy ourselves more complicated than we truthfully are. Aren’t we all children of Eden, lured by the serpent and star-struck by our own desires, our own glory and power? We want what we want, and we oftentimes push God aside to get it. God and others.

But God is never lured. He is perfect, steadfast, and shows passionate restraint. Every time he withholds something that I have desperately craved, it is his faultless hand, full of holy favor and honor. This is not the selfish withholding practiced cruelly by we as people. He is our sun, casting pure, warm light, and our shield, protecting us from ourselves.

***

I was a junior in high school when God withheld what I thought I needed. It was years before I understood why.

My best friend, who attended a different high school, but the same church, decided that we must attend the same college. I absolutely agreed. We had schemed for years about this. So we flew to several Christian colleges, spending a weekend in the dorms, testing the waters.

She was pretty sold on one of them, and started making plans.

I told her I would think about it, but I knew I could never go. The campus buildings, in a deeply wooded area, were dark and poorly lit. The cafeteria, also dim, had an odd smell, and simply felt unclean.

I never voiced aloud, to anyone, why I declined to attend a reputable college with my dear friend. Something I very much wanted. I muttered something about it not being the right fit, which was true enough, but it was actually because I preferred bright lights, clean and tidy spaces, and pleasing aromas.

Soon thereafter, I flew to one more Christian university, one that my parents and many other relatives had attended. A place I did not wish to attend. Fifteen minutes on campus and I just knew. This was where I would spend four years of my life. The buildings were bright and clean, with natural lighting. And the dining hall, freshly vacuumed, smelled like good food.

What I did not know was that my future husband was also making the rounds in search of the right college. A football athlete, he was narrowing down his list, but had his eye on one. When he did not hear back, he continued his search, ultimately deciding on the university that I had chosen. Only after committing, did he hear back from his first choice. I have the typed letter still. Your football information was lost in the mail, apologized the coach. By the time the school had finally received it, Jon had already promised to play elsewhere.

Passionate restraint.

I would love to report that I made my college decision after praying long and hard. The hard truth is that because of my minor obsession with clean and tidy spaces, I chose school number two.

But God uses all of the things, doesn’t he? He designs us, and uses our quirks and preferences, and seemingly insignificant details, such as lost mail, to divinely orchestrate our days.

***

The summer of my wedding, I asked Grandma to teach me how to make pies. I was beginning to panic, suddenly realizing that I was going to be cooking for my soon-to-be-husband every single night for the rest of my life. I had about three proficient recipes in my arsenal, with a few weeks to build up my repertoire. This was not good.

Rather than accepting whom I already knew her to be, I built up this grandmother of mine in my mind, envisioning a homespun afternoon of bonding as she shared her plethora of baking secrets with me.

Instead, she began dumping ingredients for the crust into a bowl, quickly, blending with a fork, and not speaking measurements.

How many cups of flour was that? I asked.

You peel the apples while I make the crust was her reply.

So I peeled apples and she made the pies. I offered to use the rolling pin but when I did not press down firmly enough, which kept the dough too thick, she laughed, annoyed, and took the reigns.

Then laying the top of her rolled crust effortlessly on the pie, running a fork around the edges to seal, she reminded me to always dab cream on top before sprinkling with sugar. It makes it brown just right.

With the remaining dough, she fashioned her famous little cinnamon roll using butter, cinnamon, sugar and cream.

And then she was done, tired and spent. Handing the timer abruptly to me, she turned on her heel, retreating into her dark bedroom.

***

Sullen moping and moodiness are as strong a repellent to my spirit as are unclean places. Oddly enough, so is hyper-cheerfulness, which usually comes crashing down, given time. One is pure negativity and the other is a strong lie. Both are a withholding of goodness.

I am anchored to the middle ground: honest, sincere, and striving for contentment in the ways of the Lord. Steady. A nod to the reality of a situation, yet firmly tethered to the hope found in Christ. Come, let us reason together, and with a grateful heart. God knows what he is doing.

It has taken me years to accept that I cannot snap my fingers and change anyone for the better. I cannot even bring lasting change to myself: that is a work of the Holy Spirit. I keep my eyes wide open, and acknowledge the complicated table my grandmother set. And what a table she created: preparing and fussing and then withdrawing and withholding. An impoverished way for a child to experience love, confusing under those long and conditional shadows.

I forgive her for those behaviors that have settled deep, fueling my ardent desire to serve and love my growing family with honest and unconditional devotion. A no-matter-what-kind of love.

So this Thanksgiving, during our cooking and baking frenzy, so loud and fun, I will treasure the precious faces in our kitchen. Faces that were birthed from the Lord’s passionate restraint: a no to our teenage wishes that ultimately yielded our greatest earthly gifts.

Then I will dab cream on the top of those apple pies before sprinkling the sugar and baking hot. They will brown nicely, I am quite sure.

Adieu

One September day in the late 1970’s, a family was traveling on a rare and much needed vacation. While stopped at a toll booth, the father leaned out the window, flinging the quarters into the bin. At that precise moment, a sleepy truck driver barreled into multiple vehicles, including this family’s stopped car, which burst into flames. Stunned, and momentarily unconscious, the adults fell from the car, burned. Their towheaded twenty-two-month-old was engulfed in his car seat, the plastic melting into his smooth skin.

A stranger, hearing the toddler’s screams, raced to the car and reached his bare arms inside, plucking the nearly dead little one from the inferno. He was alive, but barely. He was now charred beyond recognition. His skin was falling off his tiny frame in puddles as they waited for the ambulance.

***

Year’s later, on a warm summer’s day, when I was nine or so, our family drove into the city with relatives to enjoy a festival together. I would be meeting Joel, the little boy who had survived more than eighty surgeries after being burned from head to toe. His family were longtime friends of my aunt and uncle.

As we approached our meeting spot, my parents whispered: Be polite and Don’t stare, explaining that he looked different.

I was not prepared for what this meant. My heart was crushed for this little fellow. He had mere stumps for arms, and a type of surgeon-created claw for one hand. His face resembled someone adorned in a hockey mask with small slits for eyes. His mouth, not much bigger than a cheerio, was formed stiff in a surprised-shaped O.

People were pointing and staring; some openly laughing.

He looks like a monkey! a little boy shrieked, as his parents tugged him away.

Joel’s father remained calm, smiling wide and holding fast to his son, seated so high upon his shoulders. This is Joel, he offered, introducing him to my brother and me. I waved, and then didn’t know if that was okay, since he couldn’t really wave back.

Joel loves when people say hi! his father encouraged. And then, Wow, it’s hot! Let’s find some ice cream.

We followed behind, and in the midst of stares and ridiculing, Joel’s Dad strode forward, laughing and telling Joel about the beautiful day God had made, and how much fun it was to be outside together. His genuine cheer nestled deep within. Remember this, I thought.

We found a soft-serve stand, and I waited to see if Joel could even eat. His Dad lifted him down, tenderly placing him in a stroller. Then, taking the tip of the ice cream into his own mouth, and pulling upward, he created a thin, pencil-shaped tip to that vanilla cone. The perfect size for Joel’s tiny mouth.

And this is how he proceeded to share an entire ice cream cone with his boy. It was natural and steady and one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed. Somehow I felt sorry for those kids making fun; it was Joel who was to be envied, with a father who clearly knew that he held the most precious of gifts upon his shoulders.

***

I was browning some ground beef last weekend, listening to it sizzle as I tossed in one finely diced onion, some garlic, salt, and pepper. Using a wooden spoon to turn the mixture, I held close the knowledge that this was the last dinner that I would prepare for our oldest son before his wedding. I asked him to choose any meal in the world.

Shepherd’s Pie, Mom?

Of course.

Heart preparation is a good and holy chore, often necessary for life’s changes. As the mother-of-the-groom, I am swinging wide the doors of my heart. Memories are a fountain flowing daily, and as the ground beef cooked and the potatoes simmered, I remembered twenty-three-month-old Caleb sitting high upon my husband’s shoulders. We were at the park, and it was warm, and I was hugely due with our second baby. My husband jogged, holding our boy’s chunky hands tight, his golden hair bouncing, his baby laughter contagious. Father and son, enjoying the afternoon in perfect simplicity. People smiled at our handsome boy. I had no idea how quickly those days would pass.

As I mashed and salted the potatoes, I spoke truth to myself. Always, we begin again. Births and graduations and baptisms and weddings and funerals. God holds it all: the pain, the people, and the pleasure. It is our life’s work to follow him, holding fast to his robes; trusting.

So I was happy, stirring our son’s favorite dinner. And truthfully, a little bit sad, too. It is the end of an era.

A wedding sparkles: an adieu to the old, a breaking off of an established branch. The start of a new and beautiful family. Our son and his bride love God. It is lovely and right and good.

As I layered the shepherd’s pie: ground beef and spice, vegetables, cheese, mashed potatoes, I prayed for the layers of our family: our son, his new bride-to-be, our three other children, the hope of future grandchildren. Holding up our family as an offering, a fragrance pleasing to God. Every word we utter and love we share and forgiveness we cultivate matters deeply; weaving the fabric of family for generations to come. Fidelity to the Lord through both joys and trials.

And then I remembered Joel’s family. Their hearts did not have the luxury of time to prepare: one minute they were laughing and sailing out of town to grow memories, and a second later, life as they knew it had vanished. This too, is the Lord at work.

I can only imagine the weight of those surgeries, the sadness that could encompass their marriage and other children, the feelings of lost time and withered dreams. No time to slow down and grieve properly. One surgery after another followed by another. During those horrific years, God held them and carried them as they chose to trust and offer their son first to God and then to the often-cruel world, many times overlooking insults. Plodding through the promise that God’s Word never returns void. (Isaiah 55:11) He is always working: holding, pruning, loving, permitting us to walk next to him into the fellowship of suffering.

I read that Joel is a married man today, a pastor now with children of his own. He has traveled the world, sharing his story and the goodness of God with thousands.

This does not surprise me, because I was once that little girl, watching a God-fearing man love his burned little boy with both tenderness and strength. Joel’s father was weaving a tapestry that would warmly blanket his son; allowing him to flourish; pointing his boy to security in Christ. And really, is there anything richer than knowing that our children are forever safe with God?

***

We enjoyed that Shepherd’s Pie and hot coffee. I cherished small memories a mama’s heart holds close. Seeing the light in his eyes, the words of the future, and the smile so genuine provided lantern-light to my feet. Soon we will take the path that waves goodbye, and then, after a time, bids welcome to this precious family of two. A tapestry fashioned by God.