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.

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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. 

Small Things

I like the small side of life. Those little beauties that are often overlooked. Tiny things, when noticed and appreciated, create a thankful heart posture and a rich life.

Hand written notes sent by stamp, a newly fallen maple leaf in autumn, the sizzle of an outdoor grill, hoodies on a chilly day, a sparkling clean kitchen, freshly cut flowers on the dining room table, an “I’m just thinking about you” text, a magnificent book I cannot put down, handing cash to a homeless person, a long walk with a friend, a dog giving me her paw, family dinners, lavishing a gift upon someone just because, that one Bible verse leaping off of the page and suddenly making sense as the Holy Spirit nudges.

Our particular sphere of influence may be small, but I am remembering today that that specific sphere is also a gift from God. He plants us in different locations for seasons of life, and he gently calls us to be faithful wherever that may be. We do not know our own future, and that is as it should be. We are not God.

1 Corinthians 3: 6-7 (NASB) says: I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.

Steady faithfulness shines brightly in the midst of division and anger and broken relationships. We do not cause anyone to grow spiritually. If we are humble and faithful, willing to be guided and corrected, the Lord God will bring about growth in His timing. It is not our work to save anyone; that is a work of God as we encourage and teach and pray. Those small kindnesses, and little acts of faithfulness are never wasted. God uses them all.

Many times, as we face hardship and pain, it is easy to forget the small joys and beauty that God has given us. Do, do, do. Always frantic, always working, joy-less. This always becomes self-focused, causing more harm; never gracious.

There is a beckoning; a better way if you choose to listen. Stop the striving, and serve with joy. Striving is working to earn a place of recognition, it is burdensome and weighed down and complaining and heavy. This is easy to spot in others, but difficult to call out in myself. Serving with joy is more like “my burden is easy and my yoke is light.” The doing is not frantic, but giving, peaceful, and happy. This serving will still be a sacrifice of time and perhaps money, but it is wrapped up beautifully with a bow of peace.

When I was small, I remember holding my grandfather’s hand somewhere in Downtown Boston one Sunday after church. We were making our way to Legal Sea Foods restaurant, where I always ordered my favorite clam chowder. My grandfather lavished his family with good gifts, and going out to fancy restaurants was one of them. I always felt important to him, mainly because he spoke my love language of gift-giving. And with each gift, he never once reminded me of what he had done for me in the past; and this, too, was another gift in itself. I felt honored, and cherished, and important.

That day, as we were walking, we passed a fountain. I looked over the edge, and noticed what seemed to be a million coins: pennies, nickels, dimes, and even quarters, covered in the fountain water. That is a wishing well. Make a wish and it might come true! My Grandpa handed me some loose change from his pocket, and I tossed it, making my wish.

Most adults were walking by, ignoring the wishing fountain, and the treasure that lay within arms reach. I think I am sometimes like that: the riches of God are within reach, and I am oft that foolish person, walking right by treasure that is mine for the taking. I would rather work things out on my own, ignoring the small joys of life, working, working to earn something that I have already been given.

So I am thankful for small things today. I am also thankful for God’s goodness, and forgiveness, and mercy. Those big things that He lavishes upon his children.

Beauty

Fifteen years ago, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I settled onto our soft living room carpet, plucked Parade magazine from the bundled newspaper, and flipped to the back pages. With my husband and children napping, I looked forward to this simple weekly pleasure. Those were the days when Parade’s writing was mostly thoughtful.

On this Sunday, an editorial was written by a man whose wife had spent an inordinate amount of time and money on cold creams to stop the premature wrinkling of her skin.  It is one thing to spy crows’ feet at age thirty, but this woman had begun wrinkling in her twenties, and by the time the article was written, she was nearing fifty but looked far older. She was not a vain woman but nevertheless ached to give her husband a beautiful face to love.

I only wish that I had kept a copy of his writing. (I spent a few minutes searching, but so far nothing.) The author’s words pulsed with devotion and unconditional love for his wife. He wanted no part of lotions and creams. He told her every day that she was the most breathtaking woman he knew. I still remember how my heart swelled with the idea of such a devotion despite the world’s opinion. We all ache for such a human love.

John O’Donohue, the late philosopher, said that the world mistakes glamour for beauty. Yes. And the glamour is not even real. It is airbrushed and obsessive and restrictive in all of the wrong ways.


Which reminds me…

Two years ago, our neighbor died of a heart attack in her bed one January night. She was fifty-five years old. Within a week, her sister Brenda arrived to clean and sell all possessions before putting the little yellow house on the market.

Brenda was breathtakingly lovely. She was tall and large-boned and hugely overweight. Her hair had thinned down to wisps after enduring chemotherapy and surviving breast cancer. A large mole clung to the tip of her nose, her eyes were squinty, and her clothing was ill-fitting. She spoke kindly, expressed genuine appreciation for the smallest things, gave away quality belongings of her late sister to neighbors, and accepted all help graciously and without apology. She shared challenges in her own life with an authenticity that, for me, was unprecedented.  And despite her own recent trials, she listened well, laughed loudly, and loved big.

Imagine if we all were this beautiful.

Flimsy Hearts

“It is not good for man to be alone.” ~God (Genesis 2:18)

God spoke these words in the Garden of Eden thousands of years ago. I wonder if a hush fell over the garden at that moment. Did the birds stop chirping; did the grizzly pause his berry hunt? Did Adam raise his arms heavenward in thanksgiving? Perhaps there was silence as the man formed of dust fell asleep and God built Eve from his rib. This word from God is proof that people need people. We need more than God…we need each other.

And then, when Eve was created and Adam woke up, what was said? We know that they were in perfect communion with each other and with God during this time in the garden. My mind has difficulty imagining untainted relationships. Communication free from misunderstanding and selfish intent. There were no ugly motives then, prior to the slithering snake named Deceiver.

Adam and Eve had everything they could ever want or imagine: food, drink, beauty, one another, companionship with God, safety, and love. The only thing they did not own was the highest ruling power position of all. And when they were given one rule and one rule only: do not touch or eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, a door in their human hearts cracked open, so slightly. They became consumed with that one thing that was forbidden. At first touch it scorched deep and hurt but it was too late. A scar remained. Proof of wrongdoing and shame. All of mankind was injured that day.

Are we not  a mirror image of Adam and Eve? The Father of Lies whispers sweetly to our flimsy hearts. He is crafty and lovely, at first. The ugly horror of his persona is hidden until after he has hooked us, his willing prey, and we are left with our painful wretchedness and the sad aftermath it always ushers in.

Eve was created to help her Adam. Adam needed her; she brought strengths to this first of all marriages that Adam did not have. She was also the weaker vessel, and relied upon Adam’s protection and wisdom. Without Adam guarding, she heeded the wrong voice, that of the Deceiver. That bite of the lusted forbidden fruit turned to ashes in her mouth as she recognized her first sin. The garden was defiled.

God cursed his disobedient children. Eve was now destined to desire to rule her husband, going against the grain of God’s initial design. Childbirth would be utter agony. And Adam could no longer meander in the garden at his own leisure. He now had to work all the day long to simply survive. Planting and harvesting and hunting. Labor would exhaust him; provoking irritability. His passivity cost dearly, as did Eve’s disobedience in touching the fruit.

Talk of biblical submission is taboo in many churches today. I believe it is greatly misunderstood. Submission, when lived out God’s way, looks much like a man on his knees pleading with God for wisdom, and upon receiving it, gently loving his wife and children, while protectively guiding them in God’s ways. He gives his life for his bride, as Jesus offered up himself for the church. It looks like joyful servant-hood and wisdom, willing to correct sin and shepherd, taking into account preferences that are not his. It is never heavy-handed, even though the husband will answer to the Lord for being the head.

Biblical submission looks a lot like a wife joyfully helping her husband in his life’s work. How does this flesh out? Each woman should ask her own husband. What is helpful to some, might not be helpful to another. Respect rules the day, as does servant-hood. Titus 2:5: to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. A submissive wife is ruled by kindness and goodness and truth. She uses her gifts to create peace and beauty for her husband and family. She does not disparage, but speaks truth in love to her husband.

But sin.

Humans are footprints of Adam and Eve. We are corrupt and sinful beings. Every time I desire to rule over my husband, and roll my eyes, I am proof of the curse. The footprint of Eve. Every time my husband does not protect, guarding against evil, or grows passive, he is living the footprint of Adam. All of us fail, but perhaps we would struggle less if we recognized the principalities we are battling: the pride of Satan, that wicked serpent of deceit.

Our sins are like octopus’s tentacles: far reaching, entangling, with a mighty and relentless grip. The only way to disentangle and save is to cut off the tentacles quickly, brutally.

We need each other. We need to be willing to wound each other with the truth of God’s Word, calling out sin and killing it, eradicating the infection and freeing us to heal and thrive.

Who You Are

My second grade teacher called me to her desk. I was nervous.

“I thought you should know you did an excellent job writing your story, Kristin. Nicely done!” I glanced at my paper and noticed a large smiley face with the words “Good job!” flooding the top margin.

My heart skipped a beat. I was excited and embarrassed and suddenly aching to tell her writing was my favorite, but instead stayed quiet. I was not accustomed to genuine and effusive compliments. Reading, writing and spelling were not work; they felt as effortless as breathing. Math and geography were achingly difficult. I had a hard time comprehending and retaining the lessons taught in those subjects.

Miss White smiled big and her dangling silver earrings shimmered. I loved her for her kindness and for her firm control of the classroom. No one got away with teasing or cheating or lying on her watch, and it culminated in a safe and peaceful classroom.

On National Starvation Awareness Day some people in our community chose to go without food to raise money for the hungry children in Africa. On that particular day during my second grade year, my best friend Melinda was sent to school without her lunchbox. Skipping breakfast that day as well, she was ravenous by the time we arrived at the cafeteria, but would not accept food from any of us. Mom wants me to understand the African kids, she said sadly.

The fall weather was stunning that day, leaves all crimson orange and yellow. We played tag in the crisp air during recess, but Melinda was listless. By the time we returned from the playground, she whispered to me that her stomach felt funny and she might faint.

I had to do something for my friend. So I explained the story to Miss White.

A fire danced in her eyes, and her lips tightened. Melinda, have you eaten today?

No. My Mom said I couldn’t because it is Hunger Awareness Day.

Miss White reached into her L.L. Bean bag. She fished out a granola bar and a shiny apple.

Eat these, dear. Don’t worry, I will call your mother and explain. Your body requires energy to get your schoolwork done. In my classroom all students will eat lunch every single day. Now eat up, and pronto!

Melinda gulped them down.

I loved Miss White with my whole 7-year-old heart that day. She was protective and fair and brave. She did the right thing no matter what and it was exceptional. She operated from a place of wisdom, and it made her trustworthy in my eyes.

That second grade year was also pure joy because Miss White brought her faithful companion to class every single Friday. Her gigantic Sheep Dog, Chinook. He licked my face as I hugged him tight. I longed for a dog of my very own, and prayed about the matter every night. Chinook made waiting more bearable, and I simply loved him. Miss White understood who adored her dog, who was indifferent, and who feared dogs in general. She made this a part of our classroom learning which was an admirable feat for one woman with twenty students.

******

In my experience, most people do not change too much from who they were as children. The above story pretty much sums me up today: my love of written words and stories and autumn and dogs, my protectiveness over those that I hold dear, my appreciation for fairness and justice, my admiration for people who do the right thing regardless of consequences, my discomfort in being the center of attention or receiving compliments, and my proclivity for holding things close and keeping spoken words to myself.

I lost myself a bit when our family entered ministry full time over a decade ago. I felt pressured to conform to the wishes of our congregation, and then when I just couldn’t, I wilted. I had four children at home and I was homeschooling and there were music lessons and sports. Life apart from church was full. I remember one evening a church member telling me that I needed to speak to my sons as their handshakes were “too firm.” They were little kids. I went home and cried. I could not be all of the things to all of the people. I was drowning.

I definitely wouldn’t cry now. I would probably laugh and acknowledge how crazy some folks are, bent on negativity. I have learned that a few issues must be dealt with and quickly, but not every problem is a hair-on-fire situation. The Lord has pulled me through far deeper waters since that day, and even though it stung, and there are deep scars, it also served to refine me. I no longer believe the lie that I must defer to everyone’s whims and wishes. That would be a fool’s errand. It is a relief to part ways with people pleasing, and to live in joyful freedom. God knit me together and formed me. He knows who I am. I am His. I listen to His voice and His directives. He is my Savior and my rock.

Wisdom can come with time, but that is surely not a given. We must contend for our faith, and as our heart bears a posture of submission to the will of Christ, the fruit of the Spirit will overflow. Works give evidence of our faith. I am just now, at age 48, sensing the wonderful equilibrium of faith and works. As my husband says, obey God with your whole heart and everything else will take care of itself. Part of this obedience is to be still and know that He is God, and I am not.

God formed each of us with a specific personality. He also fashioned us with weaknesses. It brings him glory and honor when we cooperate with him and our uniqueness and gladly serve Him in our giftings. It brings Him pleasure when we lean on Him in the midst of our weaknesses and rest in His perfect strength.

As Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Where do I feel most glad? It is always doing what God designed me to do.

Before the apostle Paul’s conversion to Christ, he was a strong leader, working against Christians. He was bold, direct, energetic, fervent, and powerful. He murdered believers and worked for Satan. When the Lord called the apostle to himself, did his personality change? I have been pondering this, and I believe the answer is no.

God fashioned Paul purposefully with those characteristics. When he accepted Christ, his heart softened, he became a new creature in Christ as his loyalties changed. But those traits, designed by the Creator did not. Paul served the Lord as a strong leader: bold, direct, energetic, fervent, and powerful. He was a mighty Christian, recognizing his own sin and weaknesses, while embracing his natural giftings and serving God. This is clear in much of the New Testament.

Being true to who God fashioned you to be can only happen after bending a knee in utter abandon to him. Grasp your life and offer it up, up to the Lord. Abandon sin. Cultivate a heart of ongoing and humble repentance. Then enjoy who he created you to be. Shut out the noise of the critics. You now serve an audience of One.

I Seek

I seek to be:

Unoffendable in spirit,

Generous as far as I am able,

a care-filled writer and gentle truth-teller who is daily

Doing the hard work of repentance,

honest writing,

and loving my family well.

Unoffendable in spirit. Being unoffendable is a choice that requires practice, and leads to a satisfied heart in Christ, not situations. It is grateful and happy. When someone offends, my gut instinct is to rehearse the wrongs done. This fosters bitterness, and eats away at peace. It is a relief to let the offense go, and carry on with life!

Generous as far as I am able. Everyone is battling something, and everyone has pain. I want to grow in grace, generously extending understanding and compassion, knowing that God sees and judges. “As far as I am able” simply means that there comes a time when a person is known by their fruit, and if it is continually rotten, then generosity granted at this point would become enabling. God alone changes hearts, and there is a time to walk away. It is not my job to fix anyone.

A care-filled writer and gentle truth-teller. Words matter. I love to think of caring for my readers by painting pictures with 26 letters, arranged in countless ways. A care-filled writer shows rather than tells, offers wisdom and truth gently, inviting others to gather around and think. A care-filled writer takes time to write consistently and beautifully, without hurry, without applause.

Honest Writing. Humble words that go beyond being care-filled with gentle truth-telling. Honest writing means sharing truth as best as I am able. A respectful transparency that is tethered to candor. I recently read a piece of writing written by someone I know in real life. If I had not known her, I would have been moved by her words. They sounded care-filled and a word picture was painted. The problem was that it was not honest writing. She took a real life situation and lied seamlessly. This is the opposite of honest writing.

Doing the hard work of repentance. It is a good and holy thing to take a solid look at myself in the mirror. What pride is creeping in? What self-centered attitudes are invading my heart? Am I doing battle with sin, or am I explaining everything away? And then: I am sorry, Lord. Please forgive me and help me to turn my gaze to you. Help my unbelief.

Loving my Family Well. I could write all the livelong day. But this would not be loving my family well. So I will carve out time to write, while being generous in serving my family with the other hours in the week. It is my joy.