It Began on Washington Street

I am happy to tell you that a portion of my blog has now become a book!

It Began on Washington Street is in honor of my grandfather. Sixty-five stories turned chapters, with an introduction and a beloved photograph, too.

Here are a few sentences from the introduction:

I invite you into the broken and beautiful stories of my simple, ordinary life. In this book, each stand-alone story will spark familiarity, warming you with the overarching promises and truths of God. Our tangled, knotty lives hold purpose, are authored by our Creator, and deserve to be told.

I am grateful for you, my small, blog-driven readership. It is my prayer that you will enjoy, savor, and also share It Began on Washington Street with your friends and family. And for those that have requested this collection of stories in book format–this one’s for you.

Would you consider leaving an honest amazon.com review? I have prayed over my words, asking God to use them as he desires. I trust him fully.

Thank you for faithfully reading along in this quiet meadow– tucked within a turbulent world.

***

(My book’s interior and cover design were crafted by a loyal reader, Willow Feller, owner of Green Withy Press. She is a gem, wildly talented and kind. Without her this book option would not exist.)

Eighteen

I pull the China plates from the hutch, setting the table pretty. Our girl is turning eighteen and everyone is coming home to celebrate. Decadent brownies are cooling on the kitchen island as I boil tricolored pasta for party salad–drizzling olive oil and sprinkling parmesan liberally over this cooked rotini, orbiting the salt and pepper shakers around the bowl an extra time or two for good measure, before tossing in sliced black olives and quartered cherry tomatoes.

Eighteen?

I am suddenly undone by the goodness of God, blessing me with a daughter to mother, a daughter to love, and now a daughter to release. God’s gifts are in the ordinary, the extraordinary, and alas– in these rushing winds of change.

Jan Karon said it well: Bottom line, wasn’t life itself a special occasion?

Yes.

***

The story of our Lauren.

It is spring of my senior year of high school and I am perched cross-legged on Megan’s floor, where six or more of us sit scattered–painting nails, braiding hair, thumbing through Seventeen magazine, under the pretense of finishing homework. We are in that lovely margin of life, sunshiney days where nearly every moment seems easy-breezy-possible.

Spring has arrived in New England, all majestic and viridian, prompting Megan to fling open her bedroom window. She has also grabbed a bag of extra-salty chips and two jars of salsa from her mother’s pantry. We sip lime-water with our crunchy snack, planning a beach day next month, before graduation. It feels deliciously grown-up, this sliver of time before final exams.

Girls, says Nikki after a bit, covering her mouth so full of chips, We are going to be college freshmen in four months!

We squeal and cheer, clinking glasses.

Hey, she continues. Let’s go around and say how many children, boys or girls, we wish to have after marrying our Prince Charming. When we are old we will remember this day.

So we do: two girls–three girls–three girls and one boy– one of each–just one daughter--and then it is my turn.

Definitely a bunch of sons and one daughter. In that order.

Really, Kristin? says Megan.

Wow, says Wendy, eyebrows raised.

I had no idea, says Suzy.

Neither did I, until now! I grin, and we laugh.

***

Thirteen years later my husband and I sit in the doctor’s office, waiting to be called back for a sonogram. Jon has just taken a business call, and he stands, a silhouette against the waiting room window, phone to ear and hand-talking while I remain seated, picturing our three little boys currently at home with a sitter. They light up our world.

We chose not to find out gender during my first three pregnancies, and it was fun to be surprised. Our third son, Marcus, is the only one I had imagined to be a girl, and that was due to my unusually debilitating queasiness.

Women perpetually apologize to me as I shop the aisles of the grocery store with our trio —three beautiful stair steps.

What handsome sons! But three boys? They cluck. You poor woman! They will eat you out of house and home. You need a girl!

Not at all, I laugh, correcting them and striving to stay friendly, while actually thinking: Skedaddle ladies, my boys can hear you.

Instead I say, They are my treasures–gifts from God.

This usually brings the dialogue to a screeching halt, as they pretend to smile and turn away. But these are the truest words of my life–I adore being the mother to these three. Every single slice of it.

***

A nurse calls us back, and Jon returns to my side and squeezes my hand. We imagine that we are having another boy. I have been incredibly ill on the daily.

The technician squirts the cold gel over my midsection, and asks if we want to know the gender.

Yes, I say.

She makes small talk, asking about our other children, her mouth forming a perfect O after we tell her we have three little boys.

She pushes the wand firmly over my belly, peeks at the screen, and laughs.

This isn’t going to take long! I already know.

Definitely a boy, just like we thought.

She turns to me. I am sorry, Kristin.

Instinctively, I bristle. Grocery store, take two, I think.

Don’t be sorry, I say. I love having sons!

She grins, shaking her head. No. it isn’t that. I am sorry that you will have to buy all new baby clothes. You are having a girl! Congratulations!

***

Our Lauren Olivia is born the following February and is stunning in every way. Jon holds her high as she sleeps swaddled. He is King Mufasa I think, holding a bundle of pink before the entire world. His face is glowing as he gently lowers her back down for her brothers to kiss.

They are strutting, these four fellows of mine, guarding the roost–protecting our girl. The birth might have felt the same, but everything now sparkles differently– a daughter for us, a sister for our sons, and the first granddaughter for both family trees.

My high school wish flashes through my mind, and I am astonished to recognize that God had given me a desire that he had already planned to fulfill. It feels special and rare. Our mother-daughter dance has begun.

Jon and the boys head home before nightfall, as I am wheeled to my room. I gently lower Lauren into the nursery cart, swaddled close by my side. She is beautiful.

Famished and thirsty, I wash down a sandwich with endless glasses of iced water. I soon push my tray away, and turn gingerly to my side, keeping one hand on Lauren. I doze off.

Suddenly the hospital alarms are screeching, and my first thought is my baby. She is sleeping, despite the noise. There has been a recent string of abductions across the nation, women masquerading as nurses, confidently walking out of hospital doors into broad daylight, cradling babies they have stolen.

I look again at our daughter, and in my post-labor fatigue I double check her face to make sure that this baby is my baby. And she undeniably is, looking so much like her big brothers.

Three nurses burst through the door. We’re sorry, but we need to take your daughter. Now.

What? I am frantic. Are these really nurses or abductors? I cannot think clearly.

You and your daughter have a blood incompatibility and she is in danger of debilitating jaundice. The bloodwork just came back from the lab. This is serious.

I weep.

***

We survive the weeks of our baby girl being under the sunlamp, tiny sunglasses shielding her eyes. I am not permitted to hold her apart from feedings, even as she cries, until the bilirubin levels drop. I somehow believe that this phototherapy will never end.

A grumpy visiting nurse drops by our home each morning–all gloom and doom. Her sour mood feeds my hormonal crying jags that overflow in the depths of night. I tearfully explain to my husband that our dear bundle of pink might not bond with me as her brothers did, given that I cannot hold her.

He reassures and calms me.

Lauren is determined from the get-go–less than a week old and already flipping herself over from her tummy to her back as she cries hard, disliking the phototherapy.

This too shall pass, I mentally repeat over and over again, as I sing lullabies to our baby over her bassinette.

***

It does pass, and suddenly Lauren is four, and our family of six is playing in the park. We have races: brothers versus brothers, Dad versus Mom, and then Lauren wants to race her Daddy.

They line up to my Ready…Set…Go and they are off. It is one of my husband’s favorite memories. As they run, he stays by her side, pretending. He is one stride ahead, and she glances his way, pigtails bouncing. Recognizing that he is ahead she turns up the heat, small arms pumping, and hollers with determination: Oh no you don’t! pulling ahead for the win.

This little blue-eyed wisp, as lovely as can be, is no shrinking violet. Our girly-girl has grit and backbone. I love her for it.

***

My dear daughter, I wanted to buy you an Easy-Bake oven, and a Home Depot shed to decorate as a playhouse. I wished to travel on mother-daughter getaways and take that dream trip to tour Prince Edward Island–the place of our favorite Anne of Green Gables. Finances and time and life itself did not permit us these things.

But guess what?

God gave us something richer, better than my wishes.

He gave us time. Strings of days then weeks turned months and years. I did not know it then but I see this golden treasure now. Every day is a special occasion.

We read books and played outside, cooked in your play kitchen and then again with real pots and pans. We played stuffed animals and Calico Critters, squared off in double solitaire, Bananagrams, Dutch Blitz, Words with Friends, and Yahtzee. We practiced makeup strategies and pedicures. We read our Bibles side-by-side and memorized verses together, washing the Word over our souls, before scrubbing the floors and sinks and counters of home. We endured mean girls and unkind women, held difficult discussions and built delightful friendships laced with unstoppable laughter. We have adored our many pets and mourned over some, too. Our show is our show only, just the two of us. And those memes you text me? I have saved them all.

Remember this, my daughter, relationships of substance cannot thrive in the cracks; in the in-between. They take time and intentionality plus more time, and more time, and even more time. As you leave your chrysalis, spreading your vibrant butterfly wings, abide in God. Offer him your time with wild abandon–remaining tethered to Scripture and prayer, bowing low before him in continued repentance. There are no shortcuts.

This is the secret to everlasting joy, come what may.

I see you now reading and highlighting God’s Word, your thick study Bible a mystery and even a mockery to some. Never mind these people, but pray for them as they will give an account for such cruelty. God is keeping close watch over you, permitting hard things for his perfect purpose. He is always working and he is always good, even in the midst of suffering.

Two verses I give you on this, your eighteenth birthday:

2 Chronicles 16:9 – For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him.

1 Peter 5:8-10 – Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.

While I began the story of you with my own memories from age eighteen, remember that your story truly began before the foundations of the world. You have been chosen, redeemed, and are kept by God forever.

Our Maker does all things well, and I thank him for the gift of you.

A Panoramic View

A few days ago, my mind tired as I worked on several writing projects. I attempted to sort jumbled thoughts, and was interrupted more than once: a question, a phone call, another question, a knock on the front door, and on it went.

Writing is costly, measured by internal, invisible processes. Clear, honest writing requires a devotion to thinking–reworking strings of ideas with precision, urging words to rise, sparkle, and then leap gracefully to the page. Creative yet tamed sentences– tethered to the pages by way of neat, straight lines. I am convinced that every author bleeds out at least five different ways with every finished piece as they offer up their poetry or prose to the world.

A writer is an expectant mother, suffering through queasy days and thickening waistline, carrying a weight that no one, no matter how considerate, may shoulder. When the agony of labor quickens a mother screams, promising herself and anyone within earshot: no more babies. Yet months later, holding that bundle of sweet life, she is already daydreaming of future place settings to round out the dinner table. The pregnancy and delivery are the crushing hardships. The joy? This child before her.

So it is with writing. When the words flow–a gentle, pretty stream–it is fun to keep pace, sentences glowing in radiant sunbeams, rushing over rocks and leaves and branches, clear and cold and alive. But when the words slow in their pining for completion, there is a painful struggle, this yearning for winsome clarity.

Once the story is finally born into the world of readership, the writer is flooded with relief, albeit temporarily. Within days the entire process begins yet again– shaking the bushes for the next piece of fruit. Truth to unpeel for the reader.

Some writers are suited to work in fits and spurts, here and there in the midst of noise and mayhem and interruption, phones jingling and doorbells ringing, coffee meetings and lunch dates, happily picking up just where they left off, for the fifteenth time.

I wish this approach worked for me, but it does not.

When I am in the midst of writing, in the throes of working out ideas, I type quickly, hearing the song in my head and striving to keep up. Every time I am interrupted, I lose tempo as the music fades.

So I begin again, seated in my office, welcoming the sunshine through twin windows. Assigned writing days are cordoned off in my day planner. George Winston’s piano music flutters softly in the background –the only noise as I work, save two snoring dogs at my feet. Long jags of uninterrupted time–solitude– to consider and then to write.

***

On this particular day my exhausted mind–coupled with repeated interruptions–had fallen to mush. I stared at my rambling, pathetic paragraphs, and realized that the whole shebang, from beginning to end, was a perfect mess. It sounded dreadful. I no longer even knew what I was trying to say which was disheartening.

So I stood up and stretched, gazing out my office windows thus taking in a panoramic view. Pine cones dotted our large front yard, and the sun filtered through swaying treetops by way of gentle breeze. I prayed in that moment, as I often do, for God to guide me. He brought a Scripture to mind. One that I had lingered over the previous week:

But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. (Numbers 14:24)

The verse is brimming with richness–do you see it? Does your heart begin to thud as does mine when I read the entire story?

Caleb was rewarded for his faith and obedience. Isn’t it interesting that God sent spies to scout a property that he already knew by heart? It was a test. How many believed?

Of the twelve spies, only Caleb and Joshua believed God wholeheartedly. They reported their findings in broad, sweeping coverage: land flowing with milk and honey and grapes and even giants, but most importantly the protection of God himself. I can feel their courage, their stalwart faith through their description.

God rewarded Caleb and Joshua for their belief –a delayed prize–received after forty long years of painful meandering. The very two that God rewarded were the men that the people of Israel wanted to stone to death. The crowd capitulated to the ten naysayers, fear swelling high and at fevered pitch–an ugly, ugly, contagion.

Only two out of twelve recognized Canaan as holy, this terra firma gifted by God. Thousands of years have passed, and little has changed. (Matthew 7:13-14)

***

The question always circles back: May God be trusted in everything? Do I believe that he is the author of my life, down to the smallest of details? Is anything outside of his sovereign hand–interruptions, sheer exhaustion, days of poor writing?

Psalm 115:3 – Our God is in heaven; he does all that he pleases.

Proverbs 19:21 – Many are the plans in the mind of man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.

A spirit like Caleb’s, believing and trusting and worshipping God fully, moment-by-moment, regardless of consequences, burns hot. Those flames are colossal, taller than any giant, throwing light throughout this darkened world.

Caleb was fearless.

Why?

He knew that God was on his side.

***

I considered Old Testament Caleb as I tucked my writing notes in my desk drawer and walked out of our home and into our yard. Bending down, I picked up pine cones, scattered liberally, tossing them into trash bags as I cleaned our yard piece by piece. I listened to the birds singing, a dog barking in the distance, squirrels rustling through the woods. My thoughts turned to God, the utter mystery of his perfect will, a golden tapestry of goodness. I thanked him for every breath, pure grace.

My shoulders began to relax as I labored. It felt good to physically sweat and mentally chill, clearing both the yard and my mind.

In less than two hours the job was complete. I returned indoors and leashed our two golden retrievers, offering them a stroll around the yard, unhurried. They sniffed leaves and grass, ears perking up as two squirrels chased each other up a tree. I turned my face fully toward the sunshine and closed my eyes, drawing a deep breath, while basking in the unusual warmth of this February day.

I had returned to an unhurried and patient place, trusting God in the intricate minutiae, asking him to give me the words to write, in his time and in his way.

A New Season

Five mornings per week, excluding torrential rain or icy roads, I take a long, looping walk. I could choose to vary my path, but that would mean severing ties with my habits, of which I am terribly fond.

While my walking course might not change, the nature around me does, little by little, and I find it exquisite. I worship on these walks, my heart silently bursting, thanking God for the beauty of his great outdoors, and another day to live, to breathe, to move.

Isn’t our Creator creative?

Today I spotted several things on my walk–a brilliant cardinal and his less-vivid yet lovely bride, chirping amongst the evergreens, shining lake waters sparkling beneath the sun, bare wintery branches swaying in the breeze, chunky squirrels digging up their hidden acorns, nibbling their meal between slender paws. A hawk descended from the heights, swooping in front of me, wings spread as he soared, gliding to a higher treetop.

It was freezing this morning, frigid enough to keep most morning exercisers indoors, an occurrence which will change drastically in the coming months as we round the corner toward spring. Our neighborhood is certain to brighten–floral buds glowing and dogwoods blooming, scattered amidst the emerald grass and sprouting leaves.

Life, springing forth from death.

In due time the high, wilting heat of summer will burn, and months later, when everything feels hopelessly scorched? Just then, whispers of autumn will dance by on a welcomed breeze, vivid colors erupting.

God ordains seasons in our own lives, too.

***

I was recently sorting through textbooks to either sell or donate, sitting cross-legged on the floor, utterly lost in bygone days, when I received a text: It’s official, Brady has retired.

I thumped a history book on top of my growing pile, and closed my eyes, allowing myself the deepest of sighs. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots (and even the Buccaneers, given we once lived in Tampa) are part of our family’s story. To hear that he is officially done gives voice to the end of an era, a finality to something foundational, now etched in the halls of history.

While Brady is hanging up his cleats, I am donating my books–a solemn farewell to my Magnum Opus–twenty-six years as a stay-at-home-mom and home educator.

Seasonal changes? Yes, please.

Life changes? Not so much.

My grief and joy are racing neck and neck. There are so many endings and beginnings happening at once, fireworks blasting simultaneously.

It feels loud.

My heart as a mother is lamenting that Jon and I will soon be empty-nesters, while harboring a simultaneous joy that our children are abiding in Christ. These four treasures have now become our best friends.

Is it possible to hold two powerful and conflicting emotions at once? I think so. Especially when one delightful season is drawing to a close, and a new season, perfectly unfamiliar, is knocking.

***

Every family has their language, and ours is football.

My husband was once a high school and college quarterback. As soon as our toddler-aged children could run, Jon spent evenings in our humble apartment teaching them to catch a soft, toy football. They squealed in delight, jumping up and down as they watched him pluck it from the toy basket, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized not every one-and-a-half-year-old is able to go deep and actually catch the pass.

Jon made it irresistibly fun, part of the nightly routine before their bath time, and I remember a warm joy enveloping me, while watching them play. By the time our daughter was a first grader, the cutest little pig-tailed girl in town, she grasped the fundamentals of the sport. How could she not?

I recall Jon stepping through our back door late one Sunday afternoon, and Lauren racing to greet him with: Daddy, guess what? He coughed up the ball! quickly bringing the proudest of fathers up to speed on the game we were watching in the living room.

We have lived in several different states, but regardless of zip code, the New England Patriots have remained my team. As my husband played catch with our brood, I felt it my high duty as their mother to teach Patriot roster names and pronunciations to my little ones: Tom Brady, Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Coach Belichick. Can you say that?

By golly, they could.

My husband rolled his eyes, never a New England fan, (sheer stubbornness, I tell you) this man whose proclivity is to follow favorite quarterbacks into retirement–Marino, Elway, Manning, and hang on, now Tom Brady–rather than remaining tethered to a team, which is how I roll. It’s been a lively adventure.

Football is a fantastic sport, a game for the ages. While play-calling and defensive scheming is amazingly complex, there is also so much heart, so much beauty in simple teamwork and dedication. Football is teeming with life lessons.

Love them or not, it is difficult to argue against The Patriot Way. Coach Belichick is unshakably focused, consistent, and strict in his preparations. Do Your Job and Ignore the Noise are not sweet platitudes, but foundational practices in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The Patriot’s culture revolves around building a unified team and executing the duties of one’s assigned position. The coach is the boss. Zero exceptions.

***

Jon’s living room practice sessions eventually progressed to flag football for our boys, followed by tackle football. Soon, our Friday nights became the playground for some of our favorite family memories. Caleb played tight end, perfecting his bulletproof stiff-arm, catching countless passes from Jacob, who threw staggering spirals, launching arcs of perfection. While fans found it quite remarkable, I had been watching this system unfold for some time, beginning in our tiny living room. It felt as natural as breathing, this powerful brotherly chemistry. With merely a look they were in sync. The end result? Touchdowns, and plenty of them. My husband assisted the head coach, Marcus served as water boy, and Lauren, so small, jumped up and down on the sidelines, proud of the accomplishments of her three big brothers.

***

Tom Brady and Coach Belichick became some of my favorite examples to place before our children in all types of situations. I taught our four to be on time, practice hard, ignore the noise (of poor, ungodly advice), while owning up to both their responsibilities and mistakes.

Brady clearly had natural talent, but he became the best because of his discipline, strong work ethic, and commitment. He also respected his coach, who emphasized team unity, and strict adherence to team protocol. It worked. The culture became known as The Patriot Way and the results remain exceptional.

***

In addition to The Patriot Way, I have discovered that on occasion the golden path to learning is swept clean by observing a sideshow entitled What Not To Do. Our family viewed it one year. I should have brought the popcorn.

***

Our sons were in the thick of tackle football. Their head coach was a strict and screaming man. He certainly had a keen knowledge of football, and although I cringed at his volume, I appreciated his adherence to structure.

One day, a rebellious athlete, whom I shall call Billy, had had enough adherence to structure, and openly defied the coach.

To be clear, the rules were few, reasonable, and easy to follow unless one was bent on doing otherwise.

Billy was bent, all right. He broke the rule once and was warned. He broke the rule again–a grave infraction. The third time, Coach called him out, told him to hand over his jersey, and informed the entire team that Billy was dismissed. No longer a part of the team. Coach threw the jersey into the middle of the field and barked at the players to circle around.

This is what happens when you defy the coach and hurt your team.

A moment of silence.

Billy was furious, but I was thrilled–a mother working judiciously to infuse my sons with character. This whole saga was undeniably in step with The Patriot Way. Every single player had now witnessed the undesirable consequences of blatant disobedience. A life lesson they would certainly carry into their future.

Billy stomped home and whined to his mother, who phoned Coach that evening, and unloaded her fury.

Here we go, I thought.

Our sons came home the next day, telling me that Billy was suddenly back on the team, but would be missing three games.

More fury.

The next day? He was now only missing one game.

And then Friday night rolled around. Game time.

Other parents were surprised when Billy showed up. Everyone was buzzing, while too scared to ask Coach what was going on.

I knew exactly what was going on. Coach was wilting, and quickly. Billy’s Mom had won, wearing him down, hands on her hips, tearing down not only the coach and the fabric of the team, but also her own son. Troubled Billy desperately required appropriate consequences for his flagrant defiance.

When all was said and done? Billy missed one quarter of game time.

It was an abysmal loss, even though we won the game.

I did not have to speak a word regarding the contrast between The Patriot Way and this weak-kneed culture. Our boys shook their heads, discussing it for days.

That particular season was flush with learning.

***

The years rolled by, as they always do, and our sons graduated from high school. One by one, they packed their bags for college.

I grieved deeply, each and every time. It was that tender knowing that life would never be the same again.

And now our youngest, our only daughter, will be moving to college in a mere six months. The final baby leaving the nest, which brings me back to the news of Brady’s retirement.

***

I sat there with my stack of memories and books, just thinking.

I long to live this next season well. I am forty-nine, a grandmother, and nearly an empty-nester.

It was then that I remembered watching another episode of What Not To Do.

My grandmother, who died many years ago, complained non-stop, through each and every season of life. I recall her telling me, as I slipped out the door one Friday night, seventeen-years-old and looking forward to a dinner with friends: Enjoy it. These are the best years of your life. It’s all downhill from here.

She repeated this narrative for my benefit when I left for college, when I got married, and when I became a mother.

It took me some time to see the pattern, but the memory of her discontentment, her lack of embracing life’s chapters with joy, marked me.

Misery loves company, and I will certainly pass on that gathering.

As I continued to stack books, I asked God to help me both process and glorify him through life’s changes with joy in my heart. To be honest in lament while walking in both obedience and thanksgiving.

The Holy Spirit immediately brought two Scripture passages to mind:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. (Psalm 145:1-3)

And there it is. My help. God ordains each season of life, and I am to bless him forever, while commending his works to my children, grandchildren, and one-day if God sees fit, great-grandchildren.

***

The game of football will continue, though it will never be quite the same, given Tom Brady’s retirement. And yet, there are new seasons around the bend, and it is fun to consider what they might hold. We shall see.

***

As it goes, this soon-to-be-empty-nest season just might be a sparkling new adventure. In fact, my husband has recently informed me that he will be treating us to home-game season football tickets at a nearby university, the town where our sons dwell and where our daughter will soon be. They may join us for any game, if they wish, dinner to follow.

Who knew? This husband of mine is full of surprises.

In the words of Tom Brady?

Let’s Go!

A new season awaits.

Hot Fires & Deep Waters

There is, in fact, no redemptive work done anywhere without suffering. ~Elisabeth Elliot

***

Late one summer night, many years ago, I was sixteen, and driving home from youth group. It was a warm, moonless evening, still and dark, with scattered, twinkly stars to guide my path. I flicked on the high beams, accelerating slowly as I maneuvered snaking back roads.

Quite suddenly, a kangaroo hopped right through the headlights and into a thicket. I braked, coming to a sudden stop, glancing to my left, straining to see this animal again. It was too dark.

Returning home, I told my parents what I had seen. They stared at me, full of disbelief.

That’s impossible, Kristin! We live in New England, not The Outback.

I nodded, a touch embarrassed, realizing how absurd my claim sounded.

But it bothered me.

I knew exactly what I had seen.

***

I told some friends the story before homeroom the next morning, and the response was similar. One felt my forehead, grinning in mock concern.

Feverish? she joked.

I rolled my eyes. I’m telling you guys, it was a kangaroo.

Why don’t you join me in first period? teased another. Geography 101. We can learn how to find Australia on the map.

Funny, I said and we laughed.

I might have piped down, but what I had witnessed was real.

***

A week or so after my kangaroo sighting, our small-town newspaper headlines read:

Local Nature Preserve Recovers Missing Kangaroo.

***

Hot fires and deep waters, also known as suffering, are headed your way, sooner or later. Such things are inescapable as we dwell in a sin-soaked world.

Elisabeth Elliot defined suffering as Having what you don’t want and wanting what you don’t have. That sums it up perfectly, doesn’t it?

While we cannot obliterate suffering, we must grab hold of the truth, clearly evidenced throughout the pages of Scripture, that God ordains our every affliction. (John 11:1-4, John 9:1-3)

To embrace suffering as something authored by God will always seem foolish in the eyes of the world. Every bit as nonsensical as my kangaroo sighting seemed to others. Ignore public opinion, and hold fast to Scripture, trusting God with this truth: Your pain holds stunning purpose. (James 1:2-4) God is about the business of chiseling you into the likeness of Christ, teaching patience and endurance and hope. (Romans 5:3-5)

There is a prominent difference between a white-knuckling-pull-myself-up-by-my-own-bootstraps response to suffering, and a clinging to Christ in faith, soft-heartedly embracing what God has chosen.

One is to suffer poorly; the other is to suffer well.

The flesh will tug: Sail away on this magic carpet ride, and to oblige is to embrace cheap diversions that allow you to soar for a time, before crashing. There are so many ways to dabble, aren’t there? The world will continually champion substitutes for godly faith in the midst of suffering. Pathetic, clunky alternatives, floppy cardboard boxes filled with empty trophies heaved in human strength as we lug them, tip-toed and breathless, upon the throne of our heart.

To the soul wandering far from God and Scripture, suffering remains random, unfair, and meaningless. Yet we know that God’s greater purposes always come to pass. (Romans 8:28) In fact, absolutely nothing happens without his permission, and our sufferings are part of his good and holy design. (2 Corinthians 4:17)

To believe this, trusting God implicitly, (without clutching any flimsy escape clauses), will change our trajectory. Pain and suffering are flush with high and holy purpose, and I know of nothing more comforting than grasping the certainty that there is no random event, no haphazard oversight causing me to suffer. I can hold my suffering, tiny or gigantic, up to the light of God’s Word and say, This is so painful, but I trust you, God.

Consider the Old Testament’s Joseph. He was hated by his jealous brothers, who tossed him headlong into a deep pit, lied to their father, pronounced Joseph dead, covered up their despicable falsehoods by dipping his robe with animal blood as proof of his death, and then further abandoned their younger brother by selling him into slavery.

I would argue that Joseph had ample opportunity to grow bitter and hard-hearted.

He did no such thing. In fact, quite the opposite.

When a sinful yet enticing distraction presented itself, following his season of suffering and terror, Joseph fled. (Genesis 39)

How can I do this great wickedness to my God? was the cry of his heart as he stiff-armed sin, embracing the promises of God rather than the seductive wife of his boss.

Joseph’s earthly reward for such allegiance to his Maker? A stint in prison, where he landed with a hard thump.

How is that for gratitude the world hisses? Joseph languishes in prison for years, suffering for such immediate obedience?

While it might be said that Joseph suffered mercilessly at the hands of others, isn’t it truer still to say that God chose Joseph to suffer horrible things, unimaginable atrocities which ultimately led to his family’s restoration and the rescue of an entire nation? (Genesis 50:20)

***

We each stand before our front windows, studying the landscape. When Christ rules our hearts, the view is stunningly clear: bright, clean, and rightly ordered for eternity. If Christ does not rule supreme, our windowpanes remain tainted, foggy, and smudged. This is why feasting on the totality of Scripture is vital to our spiritual health. It paints a clear picture of who God is, and how we are to rightly live out our lives, our hardships.

To grasp the power and wonder of God is to accept his good purpose in every speck of suffering. The pain will still throb, pulsing and hot, but you will now be able to trust him in the midst of it, recognizing that his gifts of hardship yield beauty, making us more like his Son. Christians who have placed their faith in Christ but have not fully embraced God’s rulership in every facet of life, are yet peering through a smudged window.

Our heart’s true belief of God (not simply who we say he is) will be spotlighted during our sufferings. Complaining, sulking, withdrawing, pouting, and blaming others, reveal the true state of matters, called suffering poorly. It is impossible to continue in such behaviors while simultaneously bowing low in humility before God.

Think of Christ himself, who suffered most, hanging limp and bloody at Golgotha, horrifically tortured, yet graciously pleading: Father, Forgive them, for they know not what they do. His heart’s cry was full of mercy and kindness. He suffered well.

Brilliant diamonds are forged in the hottest of flames, and lustrous pearls are created through sandy, abrasive discomfort by unwelcomed irritants to the oyster. We, too, are shaped, crushed, and even beautified through unbidden hot fires and deep, bone-chilling waters, as we press into Christ with Yes and Amen. Only then may we sing through our hardships, as God’s children, knowing that our sufferings are gifts specifically chosen for our good.

God is with us in our trials, and what comfort that provides! (Isaiah 43:2) Suffering awakens our need for a Savior, our need for mercy, our helpless state apart from God.

Your life as a Christian, with all of its wounds and scars, is hidden with Christ on high, a treasure growing and sparkling and preparing you for death into new life. An eternal crown, dotted with brilliant sufferings of diamonds and pearls, indestructible, forged through hot fires and deep waters.

Good Medicine

My husband had been given tickets to a comedy night at a nearby church.

I hear this guy is pretty funny, said Jon as we herded our four children into our van, some fourteen years ago.

The small sanctuary was packed, standing room only. Five minutes before the show was to begin, our two youngest informed me that they needed to use the restroom.

I took them to the foyer, pointing to the twin doors with a Make it snappy! We don’t want to miss the beginning!

As I waited in the lobby, tapping my foot, and watching the clock, the church’s front door opened and a man stepped inside. He was dressed in ratty jeans and an old t-shirt, with a mop of tangled hair. Without warning, he dropped to the ground, completing rapid-fire pushups. Then he sat up, leaned back against the wall, and closed his eyes.

The poor man, I thought. Homeless. He probably can’t even afford a ticket. I decided to give him mine.

My two children joined me, and I grabbed their hands, heading back to our seats. We passed Homeless Man, who was performing yet another round of speedy pushups on the foyer’s carpet.

Why is he doing that? asked my six-year-old.

We slipped back to our seats, and I leaned over to ask Jon about giving the man my ticket, but the crowd was now standing and applauding and he did not even hear me.

As the pastor welcomed the comedian, everyone clapped. I turned to see this comic jogging up the aisle.

Wait a minute.

It was Homeless Man.

Everybody give it up for Tim Hawkins! cheered the pastor.

***

We have had plenty of laughs over this.

Can you imagine if I had offered him the ticket?

I never would have lived it down. My reserved nature is a running joke in our family, and this comedian would have had an absolute field day.

It is good medicine to laugh at myself and all of those quirky happenings that unfold in everyday life.

***

I remember a season, before Jon became a pastor, when we were serving in a local church. We had recently moved long-distance and were new to this small congregation.

Joe and Marie.

That is what I will call them.

For whatever the reason, these congregants took a strong and immediate liking to our family.

Joe and Marie were sincere and friendly, sixty-something with precious little concept of personal space, standing uncomfortably close during every conversation. Marie wore the thickest of glasses, which might have provoked such proximity. Who knows about Joe.

My natural instinct was to back up, flee, or maybe disappear into thin air. But I quickly discovered that it was nearly impossible to kindly slip away from these two. I heard myself repeating, Well, I better be going, as they doggedly continued speaking, ignoring my cues, which no longer felt subtle, as they persisted with another story, another opinion, another idea.

I never recall seeing them at church without Styrofoam cups of steaming coffee in hand. Joe and Marie were an overtly animated couple, constantly interrupting and speaking loudly over one another, while emphasizing everything with exaggerated and frequent hand motions, thus prompting their milky coffee to slosh over cup’s edge, dripping on the floor.

They were, as Tim Hawkins quips, window-washinghand-raisers during worship, in a group that was not, shall we say, quite as expressive. One morning as the congregation sang, Marie began window washing, which clearly inspired her husband, who joined in. I am not sure if they forgot the coffee at their feet, but one of them bumped it and it flooded the tiled floor. Joe bent down to wipe it up, and as he did so, kept window-washing with one hand, while swirling napkins on the floor with the other, one eye closed before the Lord, and one eye trained upon the mess, in a unique wink. While this was happening, the chorus picked up, and Marie, quite overcome, began deeply swaying while window washing, inadvertently clunking a woman standing next to her.

As the woman rubbed her head and glared, Marie carried on, blissfully unaware of her mishap, eyes closed, tipping over yet another coffee, which kept Joe busy even longer as he sopped up the mess, one-handed and one eyed, with too few napkins that were now drenched, dripping, and ineffective.

This was all too much. My children’s shoulders began to shake uncontrollably, and I felt a contagious giggle bubbling up. My husband was working hard to keep a straight face as he helped clean up the mess.

We howled in the car later on, laughing until we cried, tears streaming down our faces.

***

After a few months at this church, Marie invited us over for dinner. The first two times she extended an invitation, we legitimately had other plans and were unable to go.

I assumed she would forget, but she did not. She was, in fact, perfectly relentless.

I don’t want to go, I informed my husband one night as I brushed my teeth in front of our mirror. They stand too close, and they don’t stop talking. Ever. Can we please decline?

Maybe we should just say yes and endure one evening? he said.

I sighed in defeat.

They were being hospitable, after all.

***

Joe and Marie swept us into their home without missing a beat. The conversation was unsurprisingly one-sided, as they talked and talked and talked some more, literally picking up from the place they left off the previous Sunday. I tried to keep up but found myself struggling to endure.

I was pretty sure, while listening to Marie talk, that I heard Joe telling my husband, that he had once siphoned gasoline with his mouth.

I am resourceful, if nothing else, he added proudly, hands resting atop his rounded belly.

Jon was visibly stunned.

Somehow, we survived dinner, and thanked them for hosting. My husband glanced at his watch: We must be going!

Our children revived, the boys especially. This was Saturday night in late fall, and college football was whispering our names. I was proud of our crew…they were polite troopers who had graciously endured a most tedious evening. Perhaps this would build character and fortitude in us all.

Wait! Before you go, we must show you our collection! Joe and Marie herded us toward a side room.

We moved in a cluster through the slim hallway, stepping into a bubblegum-pink guest room.

Dolls.

They were everywhere. These were not cute baby dolls, but adult dolls with staring eyes and shocking hair and candy-appled cheeks. A few clown-type dolls were strewn about for good measure, which I found greatly disturbing.

These beings sat perched upon chairs, beds, shelves, and even the floor.

Marie picked up one doll, and Joe another. They created high-pitched voices to these lifeless toys, holding them up to our faces, attempting to spark discussions between us and these ghoulish creatures.

It was wildly uncomfortable.

I am not quite sure how, but we finally managed to exit. I seem to remember Jon thanking them once again, his hand firmly propelling the small of my back toward the front door.

At first it was quiet, driving home.

I cleared my throat.

What in the world just happened? I said.

One of our sons started to laugh, and soon we were doubled over, roaring, not so much at the oddity of such a night, but rather at the memory of each other’s facial expressions during those bizarre conversations. It was hard to get complete sentences out as we laughed, but a few words triggered understanding… Mom’s face…Dad’s shock…Siphoned gasoline?

My sides ached from laughing so hard.

It ultimately became a story for the ages. We have bunches of them, actually. Memories understood in our own language; comical tales and inside jokes that resurface at perfect times. When the going gets tough, we pluck them liberally from our treasure chest, laughing all over again, and it is good, good medicine.

***

A joyful heart is a good medicine; but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. ~Proverbs 17:22

Drink

My father’s German parents, whom I scarcely knew, dwelt upon a pretty tree-lined street in the suburbs of Chicago for their entire existence, working steadily, attending a Lutheran church, holding silent their opinions and beliefs and ideas with measured stoicism. They also enjoyed a fully stocked bar in the basement of their Craftsman home.

I was mystified by my strong-willed grandmother, who with no more than an upward tilt of her clefted chin and a narrowing of her eyes held the power to subdue any given atmosphere. She had once been a beauty, and I could see it still in the rare moments when she laughed.

My grandfather ambled about, as peaceful as could be, always smiling comfortably while remaining consistent, methodical, and neat in his work. This too was mysterious to me as a child because underneath that pleasantness seemed to stretch a vast, wind-whipping prairie: unreachable.

The basement.

Descending to the dark depths of their cellar by way of a steep and narrow staircase stirred feelings of both curiosity and claustrophobia in my young body. There were bottles upon bottles of wine and drink and beer perched in open shelving behind the bar itself. The space was tidy and smelled of sweet pipe smoke. My uncles would stoop, descending into these depths, and I heard laughter amidst the clink of ice. Although no one was drunk, they were different as they sipped: looser, more relaxed.

Grandpa, when he was not sipping coffee, held a drink in hand, quietly smiling while remaining gentle and calm. His glass was short, filled with ice, and colored with amber liquid. As he emerged from the basement, positioning himself comfortably into the striped lawn chair in their tended yard, he observed his grandchildren frolicking about. Those soft blue eyes took in the scene before him, before fading to a faraway place. Grandpa was a WWII veteran, had piloted a double-winger and was awarded a purple heart. (I learned these things as an adult, only after studying his obituary.)

In wartime, his sons were not yet born, still a twinkle in his eye. The first five years of his marriage he spent apart from his new bride, as he commandeered that double-winger. Shortly after he returned from war, my grandmother discovered that they would be a family of three. All went smoothly until days before her due date, when the baby stopped kicking. She delivered their lifeless firstborn: a son. My father and his three brothers had not a clue of this fact until they were grown men. The baby’s name, if he was ever given one, was never spoken. This says much, doesn’t it?

Although mild-mannered, I learned that my grandfather grew upset when questioned about his wartime experiences. So much so, in fact, that everyone stopped asking. His sufferings remained personal, and I imagine he took some horrific images to his grave.

Of course none of these events occurred in a vacuum. Hurts and choices and customs and world views always collide given time: swirling together and eventually spilling forth. The whole not dealing directly approach tends to spiral downward generationally, after the context for such behaviors is no longer clear. Too late. The patterns have now been normalized and fully adopted, even embraced.

What I wouldn’t give now to dig deeper and learn this person who was my grandfather. I am fairly certain ease and pleasure through lifelong drink involved more than family tradition and those formidable German roots.

It seems to me he drank to forget.

Do you know of anyone who drinks to remember?

Neither do I.

***

Fifteen years ago, before I consistently studied the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, I would have told you that drinking alcohol was a sin.

This was when my reasoning was based solely upon personal experience, with a couple of Bible verses added for good measure. There were a few hushed suicides tucked back a generation or two in my paternal family tree, and it terrified me. There was also a slim, yet clear trail of what I now recognize to be functioning alcoholics, and with the knowledge that these propensities often hold a genetic component, I decided early on to abstain. In fact, when my own children were quite young, I told them often of our familial history. I wanted them to understand the dangers, the addictions, the fault lines. I thought drinking was mainly a sin because I never witnessed it producing anything good or safe or meaningful.

Furthermore, two childhood experiences had deeply disturbed me, thumping a permanent and heavy weight upon my young heart.

***

One particular summer, on a visit to my grandparent’s Chicago home, I was introduced to two new cousins, not yet two years of age. They were busy toddlers, wanting to join in the fun, hyper and refusing to nap. Their parents grabbed a beer, pouring an inch or so into their bottles before swirling it with milk. They held it skyward and everybody roared, slapping their legs as the toddlers guzzled and grew sleepy.

If I close my eyes, I remember the tightness in my chest, the lonely feeling of despair, knowing, that while everyone around me laughed, this was all terribly wrong. I was draped in a cloak of guilt by association feeling quite powerless to stop such activity.

I was eight or so at the time, standing alone in the side yard near a tidy cluster of Hosta plants, lush and green, which were my grandmother’s pride and joy. Conversation swirled, drinks in hand while German sausage sizzled and bowls of sauerkraut and coleslaw and German potato salad were placed on the indoor kitchen table so as not to attract flies. The screen door opened and slammed shut again and again, as everyone helped themselves.

The liquor frightened me. It held an unfathomable power to change people, somehow swelling who they were, while diminishing who they were meant to be.

***

A few years later, one Sunday afternoon back home in New England, my brother and I were invited to our minister’s home for lunch following services. He had a bunch of children, and we were good friends with several of them. My brother and I had been welcomed to lunch before, seated at their immense English table, privy to the British tradition of heated dishes and utensils, a large roast surrounded by cooked carrots and brightly steamed peas plus baked potatoes, neatly divided on China plates, topped off with endless slices of hot, freshly baked bread. Our pastor’s wife donned an apron, smiling kindly, looking both wan and settled. She waited endlessly upon everyone, slowly serving dishes, and passing plates, adorned in her Sunday dress and warm slippers, a long braid dangling down her back.

This was all quite different from our familial Sunday lunches, in which my father would slice cheese, placing the wedges atop Stoned Wheat Thins, then pouring tomato juice into stout glasses before sprinkling oregano on the surface of the drink. It was delicious and staved off our hunger until our lunch was ready.

On this Sunday, once seated, our minister turned and asked us if our parents partook? I did not know what that meant, but my brother, a year-and-a-half younger than me, answered.

They sometimes have wine with dinner.

Minister nodded, looking at his wife, who reached into the top cupboard, pulling down three goblets.

He then leaned backward in his chair, opened a pantry, retrieving a wine bottle. The red liquid glugged as he poured three glasses: one for his wife, another for an adult guest at their table, and then one for himself.

After saying grace, everyone began to eat, fork properly overturned in hand, index finger applying pressure while neatly cutting the roast. The sturdy silverware clinked and my thick cloth napkin, tucked into the top of my dress, interfered with the view of my plate.

This was definitely not the simple meal I was accustomed to.

In the midst of chewing there came a knock on the kitchen door.

In a flash our minister’s children swiftly yet calmly reached for the wine goblets, concealing them under the table, as the guest stepped into the room.

What were they doing?

After a few minutes of conversation the visitor said goodbye, and the children placed the glasses tabletop and resumed eating.

Our minister’s blue eyes crinkled in a smile.

We wouldn’t want to offend, he said in that smart British accent.

This was clearly not my grandparent’s basement, but that familiar claustrophobic feeling rose again.

***

My other grandfather, who lived on Washington Street, had once upon a time enjoyed beer and cigarettes with the fellows. On the night he gave his life to Christ at a Billy Graham Crusade in Boston, those behaviors disappeared. Drinking and smoking ceased, quite literally, overnight. He became a brand-new man: a young, god-honoring husband and father who searched for a Bible-preaching church, and then served that congregation diligently, worshipping there for the rest of his life.

So by the time I was old enough to pay attention, I had front-row seats to these four grandparents of mine. I observed each one and discerned the steadfastness and surety of Christ anchored only in one. It was not too difficult to see.

My Grandpa on Washington Street, who was tethered to God, did not drink.

Why would I want to? That was the old me, he said, simply.

A few shook their heads. Legalistic, they murmured in hushed tones.

I did not know what legalistic meant. All I understood was that Grandpa drank hot tea with lemon, was fully present and unchanging, and checked off the pages of his Bible as he read them. He told bunches of stories and laughed, adored and protected his family, and was comfortable and generous and kind.

His basement served not as a bar, but as his home office. It was light, and although small, felt warm and open and inviting. When we visited, he called my brother and me downstairs in between his sales calls, allowing us to sort through his delightful promotional samples.

Take whatever you want! he cheered; a snug beanie perched upon his nearly bald head for warmth.

Nothing felt concealed, hidden, or dark. He was far from perfect and the first to admit it, but Jesus Christ had already forgiven and transformed Grandpa, who trusted in faith.

He lived freely, and it glistened, like sparkling sunshine dancing upon water.

***

Grandpa’s one sentence: Why would I want to? That was the old me, landed softly inside of me, planting a seed. Over time, it grew then blossomed.

Years later I returned to these words of Grandpa’s, plucking the flower, and inhaling its scent.

***

Decades unfold, and quite suddenly I am an adult, with two sons in college, two teenagers at home, and a husband traveling in his ministry work.

One Sunday, with Jon out of town, I am visiting a church.

The sermon proves topical: Christians and Alcohol.

I lean in.

The pastor cites Scripture after Scripture about the evils of drunkenness, pounding the pulpit for emphasis: drinking is a sin.

I am surprised not to be mentally high fiving him.

By this point in my life, I have been reading and studying my Bible from beginning to end and know from God’s Word that while drunkenness is clearly a sin (Galatians 5:19-22) (Proverbs 20:1) drinking itself is not, and can even be something to enjoy (Ecclesiastes 9:7) (Psalm 104:14-15). Jesus’ first miracle, in fact, was turning water into wine at a wedding feast (John 2:1-11).

So I sit there, scribbling notes, fingers flying to the concordance, looking up all of the drinking verses, aiming to gather the whole counsel of God.

I long to live in the shadow of Christ, humble and unswerving in obedience to God. It is hard for me to reconcile the idea of an ardent Christ-follower enjoying wine, drinking moderately for pleasure. But God’s Word is clear, never to be dismissed or replaced by my conflicting experiences and human opinion.

***

I know that the Bible is living and active and true.

Everything important comes back to cherishing God’s Word, doesn’t it?

Weeks after this sermon, the truth clicks.

The entire counsel of God and his Word.

***

Grandpa’s words rush back: Why would I want to? That was the old me.

Grandpa remembered who he had once been before his encounter with God. He stopped smoking and drinking cold turkey from a pure heart, not from a space of legalism or condemnation. Those were old patterns, his former coping strategies, and he had been changed. His heart belonged to Christ, and his about-face was a bright testimony. His choice not to drink did not save him, Christ did. He walked away from those hindrances.

Truth is far bigger than dutifully looking up each Bible verse regarding alcohol, or any other behavior. The real question is:

Am I obeying and glorifying God?

I have heard 1 Corinthians 10:31 used in a way to condone appetites of the flesh. Do whatever to the glory of God, carelessly used as an excuse to overeat, drink greedily, and smoke cigars.

Taken out of biblical context, it becomes grotesquely flippant to our Creator, and in my opinion, utterly lacking in the reverence due him.

Consider what Jesus himself said is the most important commandment of all: Mark 12: 30-31 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all of your mind and with all of your strength. The second is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than this.

If we are heeding Mark 12: 30-31, then our outward behaviors will reflect it. 1 Corinthians 10:31 will be attainable because we are no longer seeking loopholes, nor checking off those fearful and legalistic boxes. Instead, we offer God a heart of total surrender, bowing to our heavenly Father, overflowing with genuine love for our neighbor, and enjoying God’s good and gracious gifts.

Which is why some Christians may freely enjoy a glass of wine, while others, knowing their own histories and weaknesses and proclivities, are free to abstain.

As Christians, may we partake uniquely, always drinking deeply the entire counsel of God and his Word.

***

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16 ESV)

Unoffendable

I will never know what might have happened if our neighbor hadn’t intervened.

My heart was flailing, as I stood wide-eyed, attempting to fill the frame of our front door. It was my hope to shield my children’s view of this woman, a futile plan, given this creature who was now screaming at me, a Jezebel in the flesh, eyes blazing and nostrils flaring.

***

We once lived on a short cul-de-sac in Texas, home to some ten families. Our sons played outdoors daily, by the slant of afternoon light. Neighborhood boys flocked from surrounding streets, dividing and forming football teams. I occasionally offered drinks and snacks, walking outside with our two-year-old daughter, while keeping an eye on everyone.

It was a wonderful group of boys, many with a key dangling about their neck, parents working until the dinner hour. I remember their names and faces even now: Donovan, Mouse, Jake, Cody, and Finn. Plus our own three sons: Caleb, Jacob, and Marcus.

These games were rigorous: Our ten-year-old, Caleb, the oldest of the bunch, had mapped out strict playbooks and schedules, tallying scores while diligently keeping stats. It was all quite official and the boys treated the games and each other with the utmost respect. I could feel their hunger for leadership, routine, and purpose. As I plucked weeds and played with our daughter and walked our dog, occasionally treating knees with Neosporin and band-aids, I grinned at their serious discussions. These boys had resplendent plans: college football prior to skyrocketing to the one and only National Football League.

Those were the days.

***

One of those splendid afternoons, as the boys were in the thick of a game, I stood indoors, folding a mountain of laundry heaped upon the dining room table. Our daughter was napping upstairs, and from time to time I paused my work, peering out our front bay window, double checking that all was well. After returning to my folding, I paused upon hearing deep voices. Opening our front door, I observed two teenagers as they intercepted the football. They tossed it back and forth, cackling over the heads of the younger fellows.

I stood there for a moment, considering. Maybe they will just join the game. That sentence evaporated as intense taunting began. It was now a game of keep-away, a pathetic sight coming from sixteen-year-olds to mere children.

My protective instincts caught fire as I whirled down our driveway.

Hey! That’s enough, guys. Please give the ball back to the boys.

They turned, surprised.

It’s my street too, lady. One of the boys approached me, defiant.

Give my son his football and head on home. I stood still, arms crossed, and the street hushed.

He sneered and twirled the ball high into the air, before slinging it back to Caleb.

We’ll see about that. He glanced over his shoulder, summoned his pal, and strolled away.

I kept a close watch the rest of the afternoon. All seemed well.

***

Early that evening, before my husband had returned from work, I prepped dinner, chopping and dicing while the kids sprawled on the living room floor enjoying a movie. In the middle of this peaceful scene, the doorbell rang. I opened the door, surprised to see a middle-aged woman dressed in business casual. I did not recognize her but smiled.

Who do you think you are? she hissed.

Excuse me? My heart began pounding.

You certainly have a lot of nerve telling my son to leave his own street. Her voice was rapidly escalating, and her eyes were hot. I started to slowly close the door.

Oh no you don’t. She pressed her manicured hand on the doorknob, her thick foot blocking the doorframe. You owe me an explanation.

I was too stunned to answer.

Now! she exploded.

Explanation? Your son was bullying

Bullying? Bullying? She was now screaming. You call trying to be included in a football game bullying? Let me tell you–

And then.

Hello, Kristin. Our next-door-neighbor, a petite, middle-aged woman whom I had chatted with only a handful of times, was now standing next to this angry lady.

I am sorry, dear, if I have caught you at an inconvenient time, but I wanted to once again see the lovely paint color in your dining room before our remodel. It must match my quilt.

She held up her arm, over which draped a tidy blanket, folded. Turning breezily to the ranting woman, whose face was burning, she continued. Would you excuse us, please? Her voice was kind yet firm as she guided me back inside.

And just like that, she followed me inside, quickly closing and locking our door.

I was shaking.

This good neighbor peered at my children who had never heard such ranting.

Oh, it’s okay. Some people are just so grumpy, aren’t they? she smiled at my wide-eyed tribe. My goodness, you are watching Peter Pan! I love that movie. Keep it rolling. I have to get some paint ideas from your Mom.

We stepped into the dining room, and she parted the curtains to make sure the Screamer was gone. She was.

Thank you, I said weakly. My legs were shaking.

I almost called the police, dear. That woman is a ticking time bomb. A couple of months ago she had issues with another neighbor down the street.

***

I never saw the screaming woman again.

In fact, prior to this incident, we had only glimpsed the back of her head as she careened into her garage after work each night. It remained the same after her rage on our doorstep.

I was greatly offended and nervous. Would she come back?

Deeper still was the uncomfortable knowledge that someone did not like me. I had spent so many years staking my worth upon lack of altercations and disagreements, keeping the juggling act afloat, working tirelessly to earn favor with nearly everyone. And now this?

Couple this with the abysmal reality that my time spent in Scripture was haphazard at best: cherry-picking verses, snacking upon God’s Holy Word if I found the time, rather than choosing to feast daily, and it is plain to see that I was spiritually bankrupt.

God never condones idolatry in the hearts of his own, and people-pleasing is simply that. It is a deep, deep well and also a sneaky one: appearing kind and gentle and sensitive and servant-minded and considerate. It is not.

Those who abide in man-pleasing ways, rather than fearing God most, typically display the same acute symptom. They are easily offended.

Bowing first and only to God while loving others well, breeds true freedom. As we dwell securely in this space, we will no longer be content to live a flimsy, man-pleasing life: a shallow, upending existence if ever there was one.

God has given me a simple measuring stick in examining my own heart: Am I easily offended? Huffy? As I abide fully in Christ, the more unoffendable my soul becomes. My heart and mind and soul are consumed with obedience to God, rather than focusing upon the fickle affections and reactions of man.

***

There is a deep transformation taking place in the true believer’s heart. A slow and tender growth, as God clips away the sinful thorns that distract us from walking in step with the Holy Spirit. It feels crushing as we stand exposed in our sin and weakness.

But then, just as he did for Adam and Eve, God supplies leaves to cover us, soft green branches of hope, given to clothe us in his righteousness as we cling in trust to Christ who is our Vine, our Shelter, our Savior.

And that increasing desire for God himself? This, too, is from the Lord.

***

We had a couple of guests at our church one evening last month. As I stepped into the sanctuary, I noticed a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, sitting in the back row with her father. I ambled over to their pew, introduced myself, and welcomed them to our church.

Within one minute I could feel the daughter’s angst. As I chatted with her father, her eyes raged against my friendliness, until finally she said icily:

What, did we take your pew or something?

I felt the darkness clashing and a sorrow welled up inside of me at her rudeness.

I smiled at her. No, not at all. I don’t own any pew. I just wanted to welcome you. My husband is the pastor here, and I enjoy meeting new people. I am happy that you are here. Merry Christmas!

Her father looked deeply embarrassed as I said goodbye and moved on.

***

Later, much later, I turned this scene over in my mind. Something nagged at me, as I thought of this young woman.

What was it?

I was unoffended.

The realization came in a rush, so refreshingly different from my old patterns of harboring and rehearsing deep offenses I had once clung to.

The reactions of others always reveal their own hearts, not mine. It is not my business to own their responses, only to walk in step with the Holy Spirit.

God, in his kindness, has been at work, transforming and renewing my heart and mind through his Word, while granting me the longing to love him most. God is everything. It is important to understand that obedience to God is highly offensive to unbelievers. Darkness hates light.

So I no longer hold people’s opinions as supreme. This is true living. A life that is filled with deep, imperishable joy, regardless of others.

***

If I could now walk backwards sixteen years, to the Screaming Lady Situation, I might be caught off guard, but I would no longer be offended.

She was a woman without the hope of Christ, and her festering wounds knew no bounds. I see that now.

It was never really about me.

At that time, I was an infant subsisting upon spiritual milk: splashing in the shallows instead of diving into the deep waters filled with the truths of God and his Word.

It was thus impossible for me to share that which I did not possess.

In hindsight, I can now see this incident as the spark: the beginning of God tenderly cupping my face, turning me around, and leading me directly into his Refiner’s Fire; unraveling all of those tangled messes I had spun in my own sin and fragility.

He is stitching me back together still, piece by piece, and it is my honor, and my joy to abide in him, through faith and obedience. And when I fail? I repent and return.

I pray for God to keep me faithful, allowing me to maintain both a spine of steel and a soft, humble heart.

Unoffendable.

That One Common Ache

We are a funny people: planning, mapping, strategizing. We purchase gym memberships and anti-wrinkle creams, free-range this and organic that, paralyzed by anxiety of our inevitable aging and death, fearful of missing out on a life-changing blurb awaiting us on social media, and agonizing over insufficient retirement funds. So much preparation for worldly things, while prone to disregarding our soul’s eternal future.

Fellowship with God on streets of gold or scorching flames and torment without him will be our forever. One or the other. There is no middle ground.

We rage against our story.

What beauty might erupt, if this year we chose instead to press into our own narrative, divinely written by God our Maker? Palms held loosely open, (Your will, God, not mine) humbly and graciously accepting his path, trusting him implicitly by way of adoration and bowed obedience?

Our past, present, and future is mysteriously braided together by God himself. His plan unfurls through our unique stories.

Just imagine if we treasured our fleeting lives enough to surrender them fully and generously to the Lord, no strings attached.

***

Not so long ago, I bumped into a woman whom I had not seen for a bit. One minute into the conversation I slipped away. My feet did not move, and I may have nodded at appropriate moments, but after a short time, she lost me.

Honestly it was not really a conversation at all. It was more of a soliloquy revolving around her children’s accomplishments:

4.0 this, President of that, Honors Society Member and Dean’s List and Straight A’s and Star Athlete and on and on and on it went. It had been awhile since I had seen her, and it pained me afresh to recognize that her children’s worth is so poorly measured by fleeting accomplishments, tangled and jumbled in earthly awards that fade in due time. I could picture her pressured offspring, burdened by weighty backpacks of accumulated winnings, soul-exhausted with their lot in life, and feeling quite powerless to escape.

As she rambled, a familiar feeling floated upward in my mind. Suddenly, I was nine years old and swinging my legs in the shiny wooden pew of my childhood church.

***

It was a chilly January morning, and the promise of a brand new year glowed brightly as the sunshine danced its way through the sanctuary windows. There was a delicious excitement in the air: a brand new calendar flush with possibilities. That magical sensation in which wrongs may be righted and the sky is the limit and this year, yes this year will be golden! (Of course this feeling crashes and burns as winter unfolds, and the snow turns to dirty mush along with our resolutions and we wail: Where is spring?)

I was holding my own hymnal that day, feeling quite grown up as our minister asked our congregation to please stand and sing: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. As the organ sounded, and the richness of those words sprung forth, their meaning jolted my soul. Especially verse two:

Did we in our own strength confide,

Our striving would be losing;

Were not the right man on our side,

The man of God’s own choosing:

Dost ask who that may be?

Christ Jesus, it is He;

Lord Sabaoth His Name,

From age to age the same,

And He must win the battle.

My heart quickened, as my eyes filled. This Christ Jesus was wonderful, and I knew him.

I considered the words: Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing. The Holy Spirit was at work.

As the next verse began, a new voice joined in, one or two measures behind our congregation, and terribly off-key. I peeked over my shoulder, and saw Jimmy swaying in the back row. He was standing, as always, next to his mother, who smiled gently as she sang, looking both tired and peaceful.

Jimmy had been born late in his mother’s life. His father abandoned the family soon after Jimmy had been born with Down’s Syndrome, meaning that his mother was left to raise two boys alone, which she did, working many odd jobs to remain afloat. Eventually, her older son labored to support his mother and brother, which was of great comfort.

And then, one evening, in the depths of night, a harsh and insistent knock interrupted their sleep. Jimmy’s mother rushed to fasten her robe before opening the front door. Two policemen stood before her, caps in hand, bearing the grim news that there had been a terrible accident, and her older son had died.

I knew all of these things as we sang A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and as I peeked at Jimmy, who continuously missed words and syllables, I was fairly certain there was no voice as sweet. His face was glowing. Jimmy loved his mother and he loved God. It was that simple. He sang loudly and without embarrassment, worshipping his Creator.

His mother clearly delighted in the sweet abandon of her son, never shushing him despite pointed stares and a few grimaces from others. She was a soft-spoken woman, who had humbly accepted her hard story, full of broken edges and dark spaces. In her crucible times she clung to God rather than raging against him. And guess what? Her life did not grow easier, yet was magnificent.

I might have been quite young, but the tranquility of her soul spun brightly, and I knew with certainty that I wanted precisely what she possessed.

Which is interesting because she lacked all worldly treasures: money, beauty, high achievements, a pretty home, good health, an intact family, and popularity.

It simply did not matter. She delighted in the one matchless gift she held dear: an unshakable faith.

***

During this same time, several women at church grew edgy with each other, (smiling prettily through gritted teeth) as their children reached high school. It became an obvious game of Let’s See Who Can Outdo One Another With Our Children’s Accomplishments. I meandered through the congregation after the service, waiting for my parents to finish talking, and overheard snippets of conversation amongst these competitive women, which revolved around things that did not matter. I felt confused as I tried to reconcile the Win! Strive! Compete! with this God of merciful grace, whose yoke is easy and burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

I eventually put on my thick winter coat and stepped out of the narthex into the biting New England air. Jimmy’s mother was ahead of me, graceful and quiet, nodding her hellos to a few folks while pulling her coat tighter in the freezing temperatures as she ushered her son through the parking lot. He looped his short arm through hers, and she turned and smiled at him so dearly, and with such a tender mother-love that my heart ached. I knew her life had been marked by tragedy, yet here she stood, in the cold sunlight, dressed in a threadbare coat while stunningly cloaked in utter devotion to God and her son.

***

Oh, the common ache of mankind! To be known and loved unconditionally.

How devastating to neglect this staggering fact: if you are in Christ, you already possess this unconditional love. You are known and fully treasured by God himself. What an imperishable delight: one that cannot be withdrawn.

Nor can it be earned. God’s love is a majestic gift. We are his image-bearers, and therein lies our complete worth.

Gym memberships and slim physiques, beautifying lotions, new clothes, straight-A children, fancy houses, scholarly degrees, popularity among mankind, successful jobs, and fat bank accounts are no measure of anyone’s worth. All of these things are fleeting.

Jimmy and his mother acquired none of these earthly treasures. Their lives echoed Lamentations 3:24:

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I will hope in him.”

Their faith in Christ Jesus sparkled as brightly as the New England sunshine casting its rays on the snow-covered hilltops. Mother and son delighted in God, praising him for his unending goodness. They were the rich ones, indeed.

***

I snapped back to the conversation with the woman in front of me. She had paused, inquiring if I was doing well?

I nodded, adding that this past year had been both broken and beautiful. God is faithful, I added, meaning it whole-heartedly, always at work.

I think it was her turn to fade away, as she fumbled for her tweeting cell phone. We said goodbye with an awkward wave. I watched her retreat into the distance, clothed in her expensive coat and handbag.

She had everything, and nothing at all.

***

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; (2 Corinthians 4:7-8 ESV)

Thank You

As we bid adieu to 2021, I want to thank you for granting me your time.

My blog is certainly not required reading for anyone, and I appreciate you choosing to linger in this quiet corner. As a writer, I am so grateful to have a home for my words to dwell.

God chooses my readers, and I take none of you for granted.

I write to remember what God has done and is doing. He is good and faithful and purposeful and unchanging, and it is my prayer that the stories I share might deepen your walk with him.

And if you are new here, welcome. I have chosen to finish 2021 with some of my readers’ favorite posts from the past twelve months.

Happy New Year!

Things We Remember

Keep Your Soul Diligently

Humility Precedes Him

Unspoken

Remembering Finn

The Secret Things

Please Stay

Tell the Truth

Flesh and Bone

I Do and I Will