Carrying a Knapsack

When our oldest two sons were small, I joined Mothers of Preschoolers at a nearby church. MOPS, as it was known, proved to be an excellent opportunity to learn from other stay-at-home moms. I had just turned twenty-four a couple of weeks before our oldest was born, and I had much to learn.

So the children were whisked off to their classes and playtime, and the entire morning was spent listening to more experienced women sharing their hardships and victories by way of encouragement. It was water to my thirsty soul. Plus, I made friends which led to play dates and trips to the park. It was a sweet time.

One day, the speaker was a former business woman. She had dabbled in the stock market and succeeded. She loved the bustling world of business and when she discovered she was expecting a baby, it dampened her plans and her spirit. This was not what she and her husband had chosen. The Lord then surprised them with a second baby eleven months after the first. They had accumulated so much wealth that money was an afterthought. She and her husband decided that for a few years she would stay home and raise their sons. She was not joyful in this decision, and a seed of bitterness began to flourish. She complained continually, which pushed others away, thus creating a miserable web of loneliness. Her own undoing.

As she was speaking, I had difficulty relating. We were constantly struggling to make ends meet on my husband’s salary, and my deepest wish was to stay home until my babies left for college. The business world? No thank you.

But then her tone softened. The business talk was a precursor for what she shared next.

Having our sons has been the best and hardest thing I have ever done. Laying down my life has been painful, but God is showing me that it is the most important thing I will ever do. Life is not about money. It is about people and pleasing God. I realized this when our oldest almost died.

She had our attention now. A few months earlier, her son, not yet two, came down with a horrible stomach virus that lasted for two days. Dehydrated, she took him to the pediatrician, who encouraged fluids and rest. After a couple of days, her younger child came down with the same, and then the virus appeared to be over. After several days of rest, the boys were back to normal.

A family trip had been planned to the west coast: a family vacation with relatives plus a business meeting with investors, as she still dabbled in stocks. She was looking forward to it all, and packed and planned with gusto. At the last minute, her husband was called away for his work, which meant she would travel across the country with two little boys, alone.

She was up for it! How hard could it be? They would probably sleep a bit. It was only five hours.

The plane took off, and the boys fussed a bit and held their ears. Rocking the little one in her arms, he fell asleep on her shoulder, while her older son held a toy in his lap. Things settled down, and she closed her eyes and tried to relax.

She was awakened by a cry. Her oldest son, wide-eyed with fright, began projectile vomiting. It was actually worse than it had been the week before. As she held her baby in one arm, she told us that she tried to comfort her oldest, but she did not know what to do. A mess was all over her clothes, both sons, in the aisle, and on the people in front of them.

As the stewardess attempted to clean up, another round of illness began. One stewardess took the baby, and another brought a large bag.

This scene continued for the duration of the flight. She told us that through her fear and tears and eyes boring into her back from disgusted passengers, she realized something.

She was the mom, and no one was going to rescue her from this nightmare. She was stuck on an airplane, 38,000 feet in the air, and forced to endure.

While comforting and cleaning up after her son as best as she could on a cramped plane, she prayed through her growing fear and helplessness for the next several hours. When the plane landed, her little boy was weak and feverish. Rather than going to her family’s home, she high-tailed it to the hospital where her son was diagnosed with a severe case of Rotavirus. The doctors expressed concern for his life.

Here she paused from speaking and her voice wavered. I knew then that my sons were a gift directly from God. No one could carry this load of motherhood for me, nor should they. She repented and her heart became softened to the Lord’s will. Her son eventually recovered.

*****

I have thought about this story time and again over the years. Galatians 6:2 tells us to “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” However, Galatians 6:5 says that “each one should carry their own load.”

How do these two directives work together?

In the book Boundaries Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend explain.

“The Greek word for “burden” and “load” give us insight into the meaning of these texts. The Greek word for burden means “excess burdens”or burdens that are so heavy they weigh us down. The burdens are like boulders. They can crush us. We shouldn’t be expected to carry a boulder by ourselves! It would break our backs. We need help with the boulders–those times of crisis and tragedy in our lives.

In contrast, the Greek word for logo means “cargo,” or “the burden of daily toil.” This word describes everyday things we need to do. These loads are like knapsacks. Knapsacks are possible to carry. We are expected to carry our own. We are expected to deal with our own feelings, attitudes, and behaviors, as well as the responsibilities God has given to each one of us, even though it takes effort.

Problems arise when people act as if their “boulders” are daily loads and refuse help, or as if their “daily loads” are boulders they shouldn’t have to carry. The results of these two instances are either perpetual pain or irresponsibility.

Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend (p.33)

I believe each of us tend to fall in one of these two camps: a pride in refusing help in order to appear self-sufficient and strong, or a perpetually whiny attitude towards our lot in life: “no one can possibly understand what I am dealing with.” According to the Bible, both are wrong. Neither one displays a heart-posture of trust in God.

The Lord gives us daily grace as we submit to his plan for our days. We are not given grace in advance to store up for future challenges; it comes in fresh waves precisely in measure with our needs. But we may practice a daily surrender to him; and in this, our muscle of faith will gradually strengthen to aid us for the future. Faith builds upon consistent obedience regardless of ultimate outcomes.

And carrying our own knapsack with joy strengthens us for the journey of life.

What the Heart Can Hold

When our youngest was a tiny wisp, we moved across the country. While preparing for the move, I had an eight-year old, a six-year old, a 23-month old, and a newborn. I was hardly sleeping, attempting to finish our homeschooling studies, changing diapers, and packing. There were a few personal goals lingering within that simply were not happening. I mentioned this in passing to a friend.

She looked at me for a moment, then clasped both of my hands. Gently yet firmly.

Kristin, don’t you think those things can be shelved for a bit?

I looked at the kindness in her eyes, and suddenly I saw my situation for what it was. Had the roles been reversed, I would have recognized the necessity of letting go of certain things for a spell. Cutting myself slack has always been difficult. It is one of my life-long challenges: giving myself permission to be. I actually schedule time to relax, and it always must occur after earning it by working hard. It cuts to my core if anyone hints I am not working hard as a homeschooling mom and homemaker. It stings and settles and festers. These jobs have been my magnum opus.

But that friend touched something deep; it rocked me then and I remember it still after seventeen years have swept by.

The human heart can only hold so much.

Our third son has left for college, and my role as a mom has changed. I am more cheerleader than coach now.

One might think that saying goodbye to child number three would be easier, like slipping into a broken-in and comfortable old shoe. Not true. I have wept off and on for months, even as I am so happy for the new life he is beginning. It is just as it should be. Yet I still see his little two-year-old face, and the hours he spent playing in the sandbox with his tractors. What I wouldn’t give for a momentary return to those days.

But my heart can only hold so much. And to that end, I will be shelving some things. I know what those things are, and will hold myself accountable. I have conjured up the memory of my friend’s words from years ago, and will minister to myself during this fragile time. I am learning that the Lord holds my tears in his bottle; he knows how he has formed me, and how he is still forming me. He fashioned me with a sensitive spirit, and for that I must never apologize. He gave me a tender love for my family; and reminds me that he loves them even more than I do.

God is gentle; he is bearing my burdens. And when the winds of change blow hard, I rest in knowing that he holds and guards my heart.

Bar Harbor, Maine

When I was ten, my friend Jeannie invited me to spend a whole week at her vacation home in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Jeannie had been a lovely surprise to her family; her older brothers were fifteen and twenty years older. Her parents took the two of us throughout the harbor and beyond in their fishing boat, and we spotted speckled seals all along that frigid Maine coast. The water sprayed our freckled faces as our hair flew back in the wind. The air was clean and the views stunning. We later did cannonball jumps off the end of their pier, and I noticed the water was as black as night; nothing like the beaches I was accustomed to. It was many years later that I learned the water was fifty feet deep off that pier! No wonder it was pitch black.

One morning, Jeannie’s mother shooed us out the back door with a sturdy basket each. Fill them up, and I will make pies for dinner. We were true New England girls, and we imagined the pages of “Blueberries for Sal” by Robert McCloskey. I held my breath hoping to see a bear and her cub as we picked wild blueberries in the woods of Maine. Every snap of a branch made us jump.

We ate as many wild blueberries as we picked, and our fingers and cheeks were darkly stained. When we returned to the house, Jeannie’s mother looked at us and laughed, her blue eyes dancing. Go wash up, she said, as she swatted us gently with her dish towel. She evidently understood ten year old girls, and she never complained when we left blueberry stains on her white towels and in her porcelain sink. We helped her roll the dough, and fashion the pies. She placed them carefully in the hot oven and we played a board game together before setting the dinner table.

Pie was served that evening with a scoop of Brigham’s vanilla ice cream and a dollop of kindness. I was feeling a bit homesick, and Jeannie’s mom knew it. She tucked Jeannie and me into side-by-side twin beds in the blue room each night, crisp sheets starched and cool beneath our sunburned skin. I whispered my own prayers when the lights were dimmed and fell fast asleep. Outdoor play and fresh sea air tired us to perfection. Sleep was solid and earned; our bodies exhausted with the goodness of exercise.

As I gaze back in time, I see with adult eyes the kindness of Jeannie’s mother, who was nearing sixty with a ten-year-old daughter. She cared for us tirelessly and made sure we had fun. She watched over us gently without stifling our play. She swept and hung out towels and bathing suits on the clothesline, cooked simple and delicious fare, and prepared picnic baskets of bologna and cheese sandwiches on white bread smoothed with mustard for our outdoor adventures. She smiled a lot.

We would not have been able to have such a time if we had access to a television or an iphone. We were accustomed to imaginative play, occasionally growing bored with each other and with make-believe. This was not such a bad thing. Boredom pushed us to creativity or to chores: both of which are essential to a well-lived life.

The decades have passed, but I remember Jeannie’s mother well. Kindness lives long and reaches far.

Trust Falls

At the tender age of twelve, I packed a suitcase and a traincase (who else grew up calling a tiny suitcase filled with makeup. shampoo, deodorant, and a hair dryer a traincase?) for a week of Christian Camp in Western New York. This girls’ camp had been in existence since forever, and although I was happy to be with a few friends from church, I was nervous rather than excited.

It was exceptionally hot that July, and with cabins that were primitively dark, damp, and musty, we looked forward to swimming. As soon as our parents left, our camp counselor informed us that due to a lifeguard shortage, sixth graders would not be swimming on this particular week. Instead, we could take sailing lessons as long as we wore life preservers. This was going to be a long seven days.

As it turned out, we had one sailing lesson, because rain fell in torrents most afternoons that week. The girls from our cabin stuck together, and visited the camp store where we ate too much candy. At lunch and dinner we were told to drink our milk, which I could not do without gagging. I was accustomed to drinking mainly water, and simply could not choke down milk. My sweet friend switched cups with me, thus drinking two milks, while I started feeling funny from lack of hydration. In desperation, each night I would sneak out of my cabin and head to the showers, drinking water from a spicket outside the building. Not a good plan, and I was sick each morning.

I finally asked my counselor if I could please have water at mealtime, and she told me that camp was a time to grow up and toughen up. I nodded and pretty much decided I was not going to ask her for anything else.

One afternoon mid-week, when the sun poked out from behind the heavy clouds, our counselor reminded us of the importance of trusting in God. We had been having campfire discussions about this, so nothing new there. It was the way she said it though. I had a funny feeling that we were going to embark on a surprise lesson. I had had enough surprises that week (no swimming, upset stomach, musty cabins, only one sailboat lesson) and did not relish the idea of any more.

Follow me girls, she said. So we marched single file behind her for a short hike through the woods. Eventually we stumbled into a clearing. In front of us sat a log cabin with an old pickup parked outside. Form two lines at the bed of the truck, and grab hands with the girl across from you.

There were ten of us, so five one side, five the other. Palms up as you hold hands. We rotated our hands as our camp counselor jumped up into the bed of the truck.

Today, we are going to do trust falls. Just as we need to to trust God, so we can learn to trust others.

Oh no. This I could not do.

As the counselor turned her back to us, she crossed her arms over her chest, and reminded us that we could not bend our knees. This is a picture of trusting the Lord, girls.

She fell lightly and our arms swayed, but we caught her.

She picked the next girl, who waffled for a minute, then fell back but bent her knees a bit, and although we broke her fall, she landed with a thump in the dirt. She laughed and so did we. Kind of.

The next girl went, and was far more solid. She did not bend her knees, but her weight caused our damp hands to lose their grip and she landed more loudly and hurt her tailbone.

In hindsight, this would have been an excellent time to call it quits. But no. She tapped my shoulder. You are next, Kristin.

I climbed up in the bed of the truck and looked at the large maple tree above me. It was beautiful and I wished that I could be as anchored to the earth. This trust fall was something I would not do. And in my twelve year old heart, I also realized deep down that this had nothing to do with trusting in God. I loved God, and I did not trust these girls to catch me. We had already dropped a few campers, and I had no intention of adding a bruised tailbone to my growing list of bad things at camp. I also did not trust my counselor who refused to allow me to drink a lousy cup of water at meals.

At the same time, I was not the girl to buck a system, or to talk back, or to be publicly embarrassed. So I had to quickly choose: embarrassment or getting injured. Embarrassment won.

I cannot do this.

Oh yes you can. You trust God, don’t you?

Yes. But I won’t do this.

She shook her head and I jumped down, ashamed of what my friends might think.

As it turned out, they were real friends, and really did not care that I bowed out.

******

If we place our trust in people, we will live in a constant state of fear. Look about you. Our world is wringing their proverbial hands during this time of global pandemic. If we take a trust fall into the arms of worldly opinions, or CNN or local news, we are going to land with a hard thump. This is not what God asks of us.

God beckons us with Fear not. My heart is grieved to see fellow believers panicking. Nothing in this world happens without God’s knowledge. He sees our tears and anxiety and calls us to abide in Him. He is our shelter and our shield of protection.

Christ died for his bride, the church. He knows the hairs upon our head, and he catches all of our tears in his bottle. We have been given a specific amount of days on this earth, and we are to live them fully, not in fear, but in joy, serving and loving others.

My hero of the faith is Elisabeth Elliot. She faced many hardships during her life, and often shared about battling fear. Her first husband was killed by a tribe of people whom he was serving, and her second husband died after a raging battle with cancer. Acceptance is the key to peace in suffering, she taught women. And she lived those words. For the Christ-follower, suffering sands away our heart’s rough and calloused edges. Without suffering, we would remain cold and heartless.

Fear not should become our mantra. Bad things are happening, and will happen as long as we live on planet Earth. The Bible teaches this. But it also teaches us that faith is not born out of fear, but out of trust. Not in people or government or worldly goods, but in Christ alone.

A Dumpster

It started with an odd hail storm a few months ago. One minute it was raining, then quite suddenly the sky darkened, and one of our dogs grew frantic. I heard the ice pelting the back deck, and ran to peek outside. Golf-ball sized hail was scattered over our lawn and driveway. One street away the heavy winds caused a massive tree to collapse upon the earth, roots exposed, while next door an equally large tree fell upon the neighbor’s roof, creating extensive damage.

This entire event lasted no more than five minutes.

Storms can be that way. Short and powerful and devastating.

Within a week, a vehicle thundered onto our dead-end street, unceremoniously depositing an old, ugly red dumpster at the foot of our neighbor’s driveway.

At first, this was a problem. Backing our truck out of our driveway is hard for me in the best of circumstances (ask my kids, I am the worst backer-upper ever.) But now, with a looming dumpster, backing out required extra time and patience. It was slow going.

Our mail-woman had to stop delivering mail unless I flew outside to meet her. The dumpster, so massive, did not allow her to fit in the culdesac and she was unhappy. She asked our neighbors when the monstrosity would be moved, and I was surprised to hear that it would be a month or more while roof repairs were underway.

Our front porch no longer held the same charm as we rocked. Who wants to look at a heap of trash?

But, after a few weeks of practice, I was able to slip out of the driveway quickly. The mail-woman and I had become friends, and she now zipped up our driveway in her truck to hand-deliver our bills. I rocked on our front porch keeping company with my thoughts despite the dumpster view. I simply looked away.

We grew accustomed to the inconvenience of the ugly dumpster. We worked around it and truly stopped seeing what was right in front of us.

******

Sin is ugly. It is a grotesque garbage dumpster, that if not slayed, becomes invisible to us and to others.

Have you ever stepped into a situation that is unhealthy and diseased? Your intuition is in overdrive, and you recognize the dysfunction? Yet other people around you seem unperturbed; oblivious?

I remember when Jon and I began dating, and spent time with each other’s families. We each brought up some funny and odd things about each other’s family of origin. Is it always like this? Has so and so always acted this way and everyone accepts it? The interesting part? Neither one of us had seen clearly the issues within our own families. We had been living with it for a lifetime, and particular patterns had become our normal. The obvious dumpster in the street had become invisible.

******

I am praying for clear eyes and a willingness to continually be killing sin and confronting it head-on. I most likely have fewer days on this earth ahead of me than behind me, and I want them to count. Belonging to Jesus means that the Holy Spirit is within me, and I am his image-bearer. The fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) is attractive and freeing: simply Christ in us. We yield to him. If any person is continually displaying the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-20) Scripture warns that the kingdom of God will not be granted.

How do we “see” these proclivities in our own lives? I wondered recently. Here goes:

Ask yourself what it is you most fiercely protect. This will most likely lead you to your vulnerabilities. If my answer is money, then my sin-bent might be stinginess, overworking, spending sprees, or jealousy over “never enough.” If my answer is reputation, then my sin-bent will be keeping up false pretenses, or longing for adoration, or anger over lack of recognition. If my answer is addiction, my sins will most likely include lying and cheating and hiding and selfishness. If my answer is control, then I will sin by domineering others, bossing, and not trusting the Lord in outcomes. If my answer is family, then I will sin by enabling to keep peace at all costs, or sin by keeping a hyper-vigilance in guarding every nanosecond of my children’s life, or becoming defensive on my family’s behalf too quickly.

What do you most fiercely protect? Ask God to show you. He will.

******

That old dumpster in our street is finally gone. Good riddance.

The Church

Matthew 16:18 (NET) “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”

One year ago I was hushing my email inbox, as I am prone to do. Somehow, I had missed reading the article entitled “To the World Through New England: Why John Piper will not forget 1992.” I clicked and as my eyes scanned the first two paragraphs, I gasped.

******

Church.

The very word awakens sights and sounds and smells; it lifts me to another time, a different place. People, pain, and pleasure tangled together. The collision of this triad has been a burdensome weight for me to carry, especially as a pastor’s wife. I know Matthew 16:18 by heart and pluck courage from the words on the days when hell appears victorious.

Our New England family attended one church, the one I was eventually married in. The worship service was held in a white-washed barn attached to the parsonage. It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays, as our pastor was preaching, the scent of roast cooking would waft into the tiny sanctuary. The only thing separating the sanctuary from the pastor’s kitchen was a narrow hall holding two bathrooms that were virtually impossible to turn around in; no bigger than a linen closet. The church’s “office” was a tiny room at the rear of the sanctuary.

Our church nursery, teeming with fussy infants and runny-nosed toddlers, was located in a room directly behind the pulpit. On more than a few occasions the nursery door would open slowly, revealing half of a worker’s face and her beckoning crook of an index finger. To which a tired mother would, pink of cheek, tiptoe in front of the entire church body, in the middle of a sermon, to quiet her squalling infant.

After a few years, the church’s white-washed barn was swelling with congregants, babies, and guests. An unusual heat wave descended, and sans air conditioning, produced irritable babies, a sweating pastor, and women fanning themselves at lightning speed. A building plan was soon proposed, and within a few years a brand-new sanctuary was constructed: a gorgeous replica of an 18th century New England church; all wood and windows with an imposing pulpit lifted so high that I held my breath believing someone was going to fall. And they did; just not in the way I imagined.

Church.

Our pastor was British and proud, a short man with dark eyebrows and startling cobalt eyes. While a gifted biblical expositor, (adults labeled him ‘brilliant’) he had perfected a friendly yet detached state with his congregation. He and his wife had five children born in a tight span of seven years.

Wife’s hair hung dark and thin, stretching to the back of her knees, but nearly always clipped in a wispy bun. She lived in threadbare dresses, with an overlaid apron and slippers. Always slippers. Her smile was gentle and tired. She chopped and peeled, scrubbed a mountain of dishes, folded laundry and chauffeured her brood around town in an old station wagon which was short on seatbelts and shocks.

Our pastor believed it honorable to invite whomever to Sunday dinner, and those invitations were always extended after Sunday worship. Betty prepared enough food for their seven, and then had to roll with any number of additions that appeared. And to be clear, she was not serving soup. These Sunday dinners, without fail, included meat, bread, potatoes, vegetables, and dessert. Another requirement, or British expectation really, was that each and every dinner plate be warmed to perfection.

One Sunday my brother and I were invited to their meal, along with two other adult guests. Never did I feel at ease; it was rather like waiting for an unwelcome pop quiz. On this Sunday, Pastor asked Wife to fetch four adult glasses from the high shelf.  His piercing gaze landed on me. “Your parents partake, young lady, do they not?”

“What?” I said, quietly.

 “Do you mean, ‘pardon’?” British accent.

I had broken their family rule. It was considered rude in their household to say ‘what?’ ‘Pardon’ was the appropriate word.

Pop quiz failed. I blushed crimson.

My brother answered for me. “Yes. They have wine sometimes.”

“Good,” Pastor said. “We are enjoying a drink today. I don’t want to offend.”

The meal continued. Several minutes later, there was a knock on the kitchen door.

Before I could blink, all conversation ceased, and the pastor’s kids lunged for the adult’s wine goblets, concealing them under the table with one hand, while continuing to slowly and casually eat with the other. The visitor came in, had a short conversation, and left. After a few seconds, the goblets were returned to the table. This drill had clearly been rehearsed. I was stunned. It felt confusing, watching our pastor and his family practice masterful deception. This confusion settled inside and ached. Later on, when I told my parents, they laughed at my seriousness and shock. “You are too sensitive, Kristin.”

Church.

Each September, our church held the annual Sunday School picnic. Summer meant a break from school and Sunday School, and our two morning services were combined. The beauty of this was the togetherness of one sermon, and the accepted restfulness of summertime. This fostered a spirit of readiness to begin all things school in the fall, and the Sunday School picnic kicked it off.

Charcoal grills were readied, and the smell of sizzling hamburgers and hot dogs permeated the church parking lot. Blankets scattered across the lawn served as place settings for families and friends. As children, we played hide-and-seek, stopping for a quick gulp of lemonade. One year, a friend hid behind the above-ground well in front of the white-washed barn. She yanked me down next to her.

“I don’t think you know about this well because I saw you sitting on it last week.” There were two gigantic concrete slabs covering the top. The gap between the two slabs was several inches wide.

“One time a girl and her brother fell in that crack and died.”

What she said, although fabricated, haunted me. I became obsessed with keeping my brother away from that well. Several years later, a girl from youth group disappeared one day while bicycling to work. Simply vanished. It was twenty-four months before her bicycle was found in nearby woods, but her body was never recovered. She had been fond of sitting on that well after youth group, legs dangling, flirting with boys. My young mind partnered the two frightening images together: four-inch crack and missing girl.

Church.

Our pastor ministered most heartily to the social outcasts. George, for example.* George conversed openly with fruit flies and repeated their alleged conversations verbatim. I found out later he suffered from schizophrenia and refused medication. Jim the Kite Man, as we knew him, also sat at Sunday dinner on occasion. He dreamed of opening a kite store one day; yet could not hold a civil conversation without lashing out.  Also, he was continually between jobs and apartments, which occasionally landed him on the minister’s lumpy red sofa, much to the chagrin of their flea-infested cat.

Our pastor condemned the spaying or neutering of pets. Skippy, their beagle, fathered more than his share of oddly proportioned mutts, and Pastor’s female dogs were perpetually in heat, hugely pregnant, or nursing an endless array of litters.

Church.

Christmas Eve. For several years in a row, my parents volunteered me to read a Scripture passage in front of the entire church, in a failing attempt to enhance my poor public speaking abilities. I dreaded it, blushing terribly and speed reading my way through.

We had cookies and punch afterward, which made up for my temporary misery.  Although I did not recognize it then, it was sweet to have grown up with all of the same families, faces illuminated in the candlelight of a holy evening. Looking back, it anchored in me a sense of belonging, time, and place.

My favorite Sundays were communion Sundays. Freshly baked loaves of bread were purchased from a convent nearby. The bread was crusty on the outside, soft and delicious once broken. Our pastor would hold each end of the napkin-wrapped loaf, and tear. The broken loaves were passed up and down the pews. As he said:  This is my body, broken for you, we would tear a piece of the loaf, waiting to partake in unison. That tearing of the bread awakened me. Jesus’s body was broken for me, the one whose mind wandered during the sermon, the one who often thought poorly of others and judged mercilessly. Yes, broken for me.

A few years later, one family became incensed about unsanitary hands touching the loaves. They eventually left the church, taking others along. I was saddened when we eventually stopped the literal breaking of bread. The word picture This is my body, broken for you evaporated, just like that. During the same time period, a squabble erupted regarding music preferences. It drifted into further division, and more people took leave, white hot anger over small things.

Church.

The years unfolded, as they do, and suddenly it was time for college. I chose a small Christian liberal arts university in the flat and beautiful farmland of Indiana. Once there, it did not take more than one hot minute to realize two things: I missed my imperfect church, and I was in the shallow end of knowing God’s Word. I joined a few Bible studies at college but felt feeble. A gnawing discomfort flared: I had been heavily involved in church service and keeping up holy appearances but did not love God most. I had given my heart to Christ at a tender age yet had remained flimsy in the ways of the Lord. I had not chosen to pursue Jesus.

Precisely ten years later, with a family of my own, I pushed a stroller through our library one ordinary day. We had recently moved across the country, I knew exactly no one, and my husband was enrolled in seminary and was simultaneously working full-time. I was homeschooling two little boys plus tending to our toddler and newborn. My faith was stretched thin as I wandered the library’s spiritual section. My eyes landed on a book:  The Pleasures of God, by John Piper.

That afternoon, during my children’s rest time, I read. At night I devoured more. I kept my Bible next to me and studied, reading and highlighting as my soul inhaled the deliciously rich food of truth. God’s Word became real. It was the loneliest yet sweetest time of my life. God awakened my heart and strengthened my faith in him. God had graciously used John Piper to help me flourish. God became my true and beloved Father.

Back to college days:  there was a growing concern in my church back home. One afternoon, I was told that our pastor had banged his head intentionally on the pulpit while preaching, and his wife had cut her hair short and applied a touch of lipstick. Haircut and lipstick? This was alarming.

And then, unceremoniously on the heels of such news, our unmarried church secretary resigned, confessing that she was pregnant. The church financially supported her for a time and held a huge baby shower. For the first time in twenty years, our pastor’s wife neglected to attend a baby shower. Shortly afterwards, our pastor resigned without explanation. He simply refused to speak to the deacons.

Unbelievably, no one seemed to figure the obvious: our pastor had fathered this baby. This remained unconfirmed for many years until his daughter was grown and went public on social media. He never again pastored a church.

Church.

I am now on the other side of the Sunday table. As a pastor’s wife I know how messy church is. Being on the inside is often crushing. It is impossible to be everyone’s friend and confidant. It is often lonely in the midst of many. Truly, it is a battle to be transparent when so many are tugging with their needs and agendas. I find it difficult to trust and wish I didn’t. But it is possible to be kind. To smile and care about the person talking with me. Kindness warms others. Kindness trumps brilliance any day. It is a choice to intentionally reach out in friendship, expecting nothing in return.

I wonder what would have happened if our pastor had been humble and repentant? In any church, a humble pastor will create spiritual growth no matter what the size of the congregation. Honesty and humility are much finer than excellent biblical exposition.

Could our congregation have served our pastor differently, more fully? Yes. Would this have prevented the devastation? I do not really know. But that event did create sharp edges within me. It broke apart a solid trust of church. I fight against that focus often and choose to focus on the church as the bride of Christ. As individuals, we must each answer for our own behavior and heart posture. At the end of the day, I am responsible for me. God studies individual hearts, and alone knows the depths. That is his job; not mine.

*********

So yes. John Piper had preached at our little church while I was away in college. It was there that his online ministry took root, and ultimately flourished. A ministry that changed my life was born, just like me, in a messy place where the Bible was preached, people argued, bread was broken, outcasts were gathered, pastors sinned, and imperfection abounded.

*names of church members have been changed

Sea Glass

I move the glass jar from the garden tub’s edge to shine the bathroom clean.  It is swollen with shells, and they are white and pink and lovely. I spent so many New England summers of childhood at those beaches. I inhale the salt air deeply now; and watch the tide smashing against the rocky jetties. I close my eyes and am curling my painted toes into the sand while the sun is warming my tanned back. 

“Really, she is as brown as a berry,” my grandmother says, and she has zinc oxide on her nose and she is peeling an orange and her skin is like leather after a lifetime of summer sunbathing. She often speaks of me rather than to me.

Sitting next to my brother and cousins, eating peanut butter and honey sandwiches while sharing thermos cups of lemonade, I am really not so brown, but my hair is bleached out and I have a splash of freckles on my upturned nose. I swim in the wild ocean for hours each day and spend the rest of daylight collecting pet purple periwinkles and crabs in my red bucket. My brother and I coat our shells with clear nail polish and try our hand at selling them after dinner in front of our cottage.  I am seven and write my first poem and second short story. Sleep is deep and peaceful and beautiful come nightfall.

I open my eyes and place the jar back onto the tub’s ledge. Doing so shifts a few shells and I notice the soft sliver of blue. Yes. In my peripheral a robin hops in our backyard, but I am hundreds of miles away…a little girl hunting for sea glass. Grandpa is teaching me proper sea glass etiquette.

“If it is sharp or thin or clear, you must throw it back.  It needs time to become beautiful.”

I remember and follow this rule meticulously. It was not until recently that I discovered sea glass takes eight years to become such. It is the stress of sand and waves and pressure and time that make it soft and foggy and beautiful.

I rub the sea glass between my thumb and index finger. Photos from those summers capture suntans and cookouts and backyard badminton.  Sandcastles and ice cream cones. Pictures clicked in a moment for the ages; hiding the depth of story swirling, swirling, underneath.

Buppa

When we were small, we called him Buppa. Later on it became Grandpa, because most teenagers in the 80’s did not use such terms of endearment, especially in front of friends. In my heart, however, he was always Buppa.

Buppa used to tell his grandchildren stories to make us laugh. He loved this one:

It was a dark and stormy night. Three men were sitting around a campfire. One said, “Joe, tell us a story!” So Joe began:

It was a dark and stormy night. Three men were sitting around a campfire….

We would get the giggles, so easily entertained, and he would laugh and we would beg him to tell it again.

I found a photograph not too long ago, and my Grandpa was laying on his back on our living room shag carpet. My brother had on his fireman pj’s and I wore my Lanz nightgown. My brother’s dimples, so deep as he laughed, my smile wide; eyes bright. Grandpa engaged with us. He wasn’t perfect but he was deeply good and kind.

******

In New England, and in my family of origin, ice cream is a huge part of life. Going out for a cone is an event, and simply the best. Those brown sprinkles on top? They are known as Jimmies. Never sprinkles, unless you want to be an obvious tourist.

I was five years old and loved Jimmies, but was upset that my cousin, Jimmy, had this special topping named after him. (He didn’t, of course, but I was five and inconsolable.) Grandpa took care of this breezily. As we stepped to the Brigham’s ice cream counter, he announced my order to the server. “My beautiful granddaughter will have a vanilla cone with “Kristin’s” sprinkled on top.”

I was stunned. Grandpa was matter-of-fact about my beauty and this new name for Jimmie’s? These things never happened to me.

The server stared. “Excuse me. Sir?”

Grandpa explained. “The colored sprinkles are called Kristin’s. How did you not know this?” Deadpan.

The server looked at us and smiled.

“One vanilla cone with Kristin’s coming right up.”

I beamed for days. He could fix just about anything.

******

A full time salesman, conversation came easy and comfortably. Everyone who knew him loved him, and he loved big. He was a lavish gift-giver and spender; quality trumped cheap every day. After he died, my grandmother cut expenses sharply and brought the budget back in line. Budgets are by no means evil, but it felt like a holy presence was swept out of the house when he died. The magic of gifts dwindled. He had been a “go-big-or-go-home” type of man.

Buppa became very sick my freshman year of college. Cancer ravaged him, and quickly. He passed away shortly before I turned twenty. It was the end of an era. He was my only grandparent who showered me with love. I could not see this clearly until he was gone.

******

I thumbed through Grandpa’s worn Bible after the funeral. He had placed check marks on the Bible pages he had read, and there were many checks. King David was his hero because as a King he sinned, repented, and was restored. Grandpa told me once that he could not wait to meet King David in heaven. Grandpa had not given his life to the Lord until after three of his five children were born. He told me once that he had been wild, and it had been a sad kind of wild. Empty. He gave his life to the Lord after hearing Billy Graham preach at a crusade in Boston. By all accounts, his life changed swiftly; drastically.

******

I started thinking about him today, as the 4th of July closes in. Grandpa esteemed the American flag, plus holiday parades and festivities. It seems impossible that he died over 28 years ago. I cannot wait to be reunited in heaven one day.

Boundaries

As a little girl, I grew up in an expansive old New England farmhouse. The white house had been divided up into four apartment-type dwellings, and sat upon a beautiful piece of land. My brother and I had complete run of the yard, plus the field, gardens, and wooded area. Across the street was a pond and a small dam. We borrowed Mr. Golden’s tin rowboat and paddled all around, catching turtles, frogs, and small fish. We spent most of our play time outdoors in the fresh air. I loved that house and was sad when we eventually moved.

It was not difficult to know my boundaries at that house. Some of the vegetable gardens were staked off, other flower gardens we were told were off limits. Distinct property lines included an ancient stone wall. The neighbor’s field began after our woods, and I never stepped into it. Further down the street houses were divided by white picket fences, all whitewashed and pretty. They were not there for their beauty….they marked ownership and boundary lines. Those boundaries provided a source of safety and oddly enough, freedom.

Limits always produce freedom. Just watch children. It doesn’t take one hot minute to recognize which children are favored with boundaries that have been set and guarded. Most often the happiest children are the ones who understand that boundaries mean safety and the freedom to be themselves within those healthy limits.

Physically marked boundaries are obvious. Personal and emotional boundaries are often trickier. And if we do not build them, we will never be the whole person that the Lord desires us to be; his workmanship. We will be stunted and either frustrated, sad, or angry. Not to mention exhausted.

Recently, I have had to guard my heart with emotional boundaries. (Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Proverbs 4:23 NIV) This sometimes looks like sweeping a soft path away from a broken person who is inflicting pain, or other times looks like hammering a picket fence that allows the breeze to blow through, but definitively marks what will not be permitted to enter. We cannot change others, (that is the work of the Holy Spirit) but we may change what we allow to hurt our heart. If we do what we’ve always done, we will get what we always got.

One summer when I was perhaps ten, our family and extended family was vacationing on Cape Cod. Every day my grandparents would give us a handful of loose change to walk a half mile to buy penny candy at the corner store. This ended up being my brother, 2 cousins named Jim and Steve, and myself. Steve was harmless, but Jim was a sneaky and miserable kid. He caused problems wherever he landed.

We always raced from the candy store back to the cottage. Jim, who was bent on winning everything, would inevitably trip one of us to gain an advantage, or cheat with a head start. It was getting pretty annoying, but I did not say anything. I respected the boundaries of others, but had absolutely no boundary fence of my own. I had fashioned an idol out of peace-keeping, rather than being a good and objective truth-teller.

On the last day of vacation, we held our final race. This was it. I had had as much of my cheating cousin as I could take. I was determined to win this race. For the first bit Jim and I were neck and neck. Then I mustered up some determination and increased my speed. The cottage was in sight and I knew I could do this. My heart was racing and I was smiling. Just as I reached the foot of the cottage steps, I felt a pull on the bottom of my t-shirt, and suddenly I was falling backwards. I landed with a painful thump as Jim started of the steps.

“I won!” he gloated.

Something snapped inside of me, which up until this point in my life had never quite shown up. I flew up those steps, and as Jim reached for the screen door, I put my arm in front of his neck and pushed him. Hard. I flew into the cottage, and to the surprise of every adult announced loudly that I had had enough of Jim and his cheating ways.

Unknowingly, I had created a new boundary with my cousin that would remain. He continued to be a problem, but interestingly enough he left me alone. It had taken me at least five years of suffering to say enough.

Take it from me, it is better to trust in the God that created you and loves you. Your worth comes from Him. If you know this deep down in your bones, you will not be a people-pleaser and enabler, but a truth-teller. This does not mean pain will end; on the contrary. But you will have a clean and honest life before others and God.

Boundaries are not the same as walls. Walls block out everyone. Walls silence all conversation. Boundaries are fences that keep most toxicity out. One can gently converse over a fence, while maintaining a measure of safety and protection and limitation.

To be clear, some people do not like to be given limits, or boundaries. Pay attention. In my experience, every person who throws up their hands at healthy boundaries, are the very people from whom you must guard your heart.

Jesus was the ultimate boundary setter. He served, and then retreated to rest. He knew his purpose, and carried it out in an unhurried way. Often, if you read the gospels, Jesus did not do what everyone else wanted or expected him to do. He did not chase people down, but went steadily about the work that God had planned for him. He disappointed many, but it did not matter, because his focus was upon God alone.

Seasons

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13-16 ESV)

     I grew up wrapped in the dazzling seasons of New England. After I married, and moved to Florida, the novelty of beaches and heat quickly dissipated, and a tiny seed of sorrow was born. It festered every single September for the next twenty-five years.

     New England summers typically hold only a couple of unbearably humid weeks. Older folks sip sun tea, no sugar only lemon please, fanning themselves and remembering when. The New England coastlines are summertime magnificent:  jagged and historic with cold blue waves and long jetties and beaches meant for walking and scavenging for sea glass and shells.

     Fall arrives: Oh September, a beauty! The air holds promise; leaves blushing crimson, fire orange, and gold. This is the season I treasured most, inhaling deeply, deeply. As a child I pondered the beauty; savoring and feeling God’s embrace through every outdoor adventure.

     As the autumn leaves begin to crisp, winter coats are plucked from cedar chests and LL Bean boots are readied by the door. Winter is necessary death; cold and still and stunning. A benediction to former seasons. Snowfalls hush then muffle, fireplaces roar and cheeks pinken with hot drinks and extra plaid blankets. There is outdoor play, but more so puzzles, movies and books.

     And spring. The apple blossoms and lilacs sing white and purple, their scent pungent and life-giving. The entire area awakens, and winter apparel is shelved for windbreakers, thin sweaters, and raincoats.

     This is the exquisite warp and woof of abiding in four seasons.

     What I warred against for a quarter of a century, was the aching to return to a life of seasons versus choosing to nurture contentment precisely where God had placed me. Truthfully, I did not feel well in the blazing and stifling humidity of Florida. And our hottest month was September, the time that ushered in the crisp fall of my childhood. I struggled with grumpiness and longing to once again inhabit a space where seasons were definitive. I was aware of my edginess; a spirit that did not give praise to my Creator. And when I was able to tame my tongue, I was unsuccessful in taming my irritated heart.

     What does this reveal about me? While I believe that place matters, and that God designed us with preferences, how does this mesh with living a crucified life? The Hall of Faith chapter found in Hebrews 11, pays honor to those who obeyed and followed the Lord, not for this earthly life and homeland, but for heaven. God is pleased with their heavenly gaze, so much so in fact, that He is preparing a city for them.

     As I have lived conflictedly, trying to untangle the strings of my life, I vacillate. I have followed my husband, our family’s spiritual leader, through many physical and difficult moves, supporting him fully. I have felt like Abraham, living a ministry of leaving without knowing where we are going. But even in this, I ached for what I did not have and inwardly moaned.

     And now, pecking away at my computer, I know I can write winsomely about the flush of fall, the cold snap of a winter’s day, the chirping of spring, and the Cape Cod lobster rolls of summer. It does not change the fact that I bowed my affections to seasons, worshipping the creation rather than the Creator. If I had bent low to God, I would have been content in Him, regardless of place.

     We recently moved to Virginia, and the state and seasons are stunning. Interestingly enough, months before my husband applied for this pastorate, I wrestled with God. One day, in an act of surrender, with tears of relief, I told Jon that I would willingly follow him to any pastorate of God’s leading. Even if that meant staying in Florida. Forever. A weight flew off of me, even as I knew that we would remain seasonless. I had wrestled and laid down my will. Within several months, Jon was hired in Virginia.

     Place matters; just not as much as my heart’s posture. A Chinese proverb says:  The strongest memory is weaker than the palest ink. I write to remember.