The Power of Story

Last weekend, when I viewed that black and white photograph, the world exploded: a symphony of color.

***

I was four years old when our family visited the stuffy apartment of my great-grandparents.

I stood pressed next to my parents and grandparents as we skyrocketed the cramped elevator. Crossing their threshhold, I saw Nana rocking in her rose chair, padded house slippers covering her feet. Pa sat perched on a worn-out sofa, hands resting on his belly. He was remarkably short, by any standard, his feet not even reaching the shag carpet unless he scooted to the edge of the couch.

There was something imperceptibly intimidating about his face: a large, rectangular head, wise-guy smirk, eyes framed by dark-rimmed glasses. As lore had it, (always whispered along with: Careful, little pitchers have big ears) Pa once strode the city streets with a belligerent crowd, stirring fights. The third of eleven children, he had barely finished eighth grade when he quit school in order to support his enormous family. From the few crumbs of scattered tales I have gathered, the family was tough, and by that I actually mean rough. Resilient, but lacking warmth.

Pa was said to be brilliant, but a poor handler of money; a man who considered practical details trivial. A natural inventor, he had designed a way to preserve drinking water for military use. When he neglected to complete the trivial paperwork to patent his invention, another man snatched it up and quickly patented what ultimately became a wildly profitable invention.

Just think… my grandmother used to moan in her older years, chin resting in her palm, elbow atop the dinner table. If my father had only registered the patent, we would all be living in a mansion overlooking the ocean.

I remember studying a can of this preserved water, which my mother kept on a shelf at home. For years I held the weight of history, the thrill of invention, heavy in my hands, but after a time it became only a solid gray can, reminding me that details do matter.

Of course I knew none of this that day. All I knew as I clutched my Grandpa’s hand, was that Pa frightened me.

Come here, little girl. Pa beckoned to me roughly with his short index finger. I inched forward.

Watch this, Kristin. I can bite my thumb off.

And with that terrifying sentence, he placed his thumb straight into the air and pretended to gnaw it off. When he pulled the thumb out of his mouth, he kept it at an angle so that half of it appeared missing. He then feigned to swallow the missing half: solid proof to any four-year-old that all hope was lost.

I felt a trapped cry rise in my throat, as my grandfather pulled me back, and stooped low, comforting me.

Joe, he hollered to his father-in-law, Stop it! You are scaring the child to death.

Pa laughed, showing me his intact thumb.

And that is my only memory of my great-grandfather. He died within a year.

***

Years ago a friend gifted me an ancestry.com subscription, prompting me to spit into a vial and mail in my DNA. When I received the results, there were no surprises: mainly English and Irish ancestry on one side; predominantly German on the other. I realized after I studied the results, that these findings felt dull. What was I really searching for?

Stories, of course.

Shortly after those ancestry results, my brother emailed me a copy of our detailed family tree that our uncle had created: an in-depth labor of intense research to trace back the lines that had led to the union of his parents; my grandparents.

I studied the thirty-odd pages, and initially became stuck on one glaring mistake: the death of Pa dated 1967 rather than 1977. I was not even born until 1972, and this error would indicate that I had never stepped into that terribly warm apartment. It would also not account for my memory of the reception following Pa’s funeral.

I was five, and there were throngs of people stuffed into my grandparent’s home on Washington Street. I stood at the edge of their living room, observing Nana as she wailed, handkerchief in hand, rocking steadily in the chair, while my own grandmother sat dabbing her eyes on the far sofa. Relatives were milling about, bumping elbows while clutching drinks and balancing hors d’oeuvres on tiny napkins. As people traipsed through the narrow living room, I studied the fireplace mantle. Atop it were several genuine whale teeth, with exquisite sketches of ships etched upon their yellowed surface. My Grandpa had once placed them in my open hands, never once prompting me to be gentle. I had watched him carefully cradle the monstrous teeth, and instinctively knew they were valuable.

Our ancestors were whalers in New Bedford, he told me as I held the artifacts.

Those whale teeth were very cool, and they sparked my imagination. I envisioned brave men in our family line, in worn-out rain jackets with hoods, shouting to one another above the howling winds and frigid sea air, spinning through waters with their spears and ropes, bravely chasing those gigantic sea creatures and their precious blubber needed for oil-lamps and soap. Their success was measured by the number of teeth they brought home.

I never imagined that within a few years of Pa’s funeral, in the pitch of night, my grandparents’ home on Washington Street would be robbed; whale teeth forever lost. But I still held the story.

***

Aside from the incorrect date of Pa’s death, my uncle’s report held intriguing information. One family line traces firmly back to the deck of the Mayflower itself, my ancestors sailing that tumultuous journey of sea-sickness and hardtack and miles of grey ocean. A journey that began with excitement and promise, and ended with uncertainty and exhaustion and the painstaking work of survival.

Another document reveals the tragic story of three siblings: Sarah, John, and Zachariah, relatives to our direct family line, who climbed a cherry tree one lovely summer’s day in the year 1711. At that very moment, Indians raided their property, kidnapping the three children, ripping them from the tree branches and forcing them to Quebec. The daughter was never seen again, but the boys returned some thirty years later, now grown men who had adopted Native American culture, in time becoming prominent Indian chiefs. Their painted faces and dress concealed both their heritage and our family bloodline, pulsing through their veins.

The facts are just that: names, dates, towns, and tribes.

Did their mother recognize the shape of their eyes, or the slopes of their noses? Did she hug her dear sons and weep? Was their father relieved to see them alive as Indian men? Or was the pain now worse, as they chose not to remain with their birth parents? Did these sons even remember their mother and father after lost decades?

I am left guessing, longing to fill in the blanks.

***

While reading through the Old Testament, I have encountered list after list of genealogies: names and relations and tribes. I pause, and allow myself to become fully aware of each name. We are all image-bearers of God, created by his design, and each one of us has a tale or two worth sharing. What a shame not to keep and treasure our stories. God has gifted us with history: the ability to write and speak and remember the things of old (Isaiah 46:9-10). Stories from our life on earth help us to witness how sin flows black, curling the heart inward, often carrying poison to our progeny, ever prone to repeat our ways.

Today I read of Gideon. In Judges 6:25-27, the LORD commanded Gideon to remove the altar of Baal that his own father had built, replacing it with an altar to God. Gideon obeyed, but I was fascinated to read that Gideon did this in the dark of night, because he feared his family.

Only two chapters later, Gideon is found repeating the sins of his father, by creating an idol out of melted gold, which he placed directly in his city. And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family. (Judges 8:27)

Family is a powerful thing, and I understand Gideon’s fear. Family holds sway, and I have only relinquished my sin of people-pleasing during this past year. I bear the scars, but my story goes something like this: When you choose to love God most and please him first, he will shore you up with immeasurable peace in the midst of the upheaval. God has no room for idols in the hearts of his children. Family is a gift to be treasured, not a god to be worshipped.

***

Last weekend, our son, Caleb, placed a black and white photo on his kitchen table.

Look at this, he said.

I stood in that kitchen, so bright and pretty: a happy place for our newly-married son and his dear wife.

There, gently placed before me, was a photograph of our first grandchild. A magnificent sonogram profile.

In a flash, I felt the blessings of heritage, the beauty akin to a French braid: strands gently pulled and grafted in, familial lines weaving and culminating in a divinely designed person who is already loved and cherished and fully known by God. With this one glance, I was reduced to happy tears, as joy gave way to excitement and sudden love: fierce and strong.

Our firstborn son had shown me a photograph of his firstborn. Our story goes on, an intricate tapestry woven by God.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well.

Psalm 139:14

Despite My Lack

When my husband was hired to pastor our church nearly two years ago, I sat down with a sharpened pencil and yellow pad, scribbling down our projected new cost-of-living expenses. After reworking and erasing numbers, I pondered ways to earn a bit of additional income. But overseeing the schooling of our two high-school-aged children, and managing all practicalities of our household, left little time for another job.

I had friends who had ventured into online work, virtually teaching the English language to Chinese children. The pay was decent, and I could perhaps schedule tutoring hours early in the morning, freeing me up for normal tasks throughout the rest of the day. Five o’clock in the morning here is dinnertime in China, which is prime for tutoring. I was willing to give it a whirl, and when I shared with my husband what I could potentially earn, albeit small, I noticed his shoulders relax.

As I was knee-deep in boxes and packaging tape, stuffing up our worldly goods, I paused and made a few purchases for this new online potential: alphabet magnets, a pretty poster displaying the four seasons, and another with the English alphabet in easy-to-read print. The largest expense, still minimal, was a canvas map of the world: unlabeled, artistic, and engaging. I had visions of placing a globe on my desk, showing those little children where I was in the world, tracing with my index finger all of the way to China, as I slowly spun the sphere. Then, I would point to the canvas print: directing a slow line from China back to the States. I had also selected a few classic easy readers to share with the students, students who were oceans away.

As the last piece of furniture was pushed into our moving truck, I phoned this online teaching company, scheduling an interview to take place two weeks after we had moved into our new state, our new home, my husband’s new job, and our new church. What was I even thinking? I know not.

Somewhere along that tedious twelve hour drive up Interstate 95, it dawned on me that I had overlooked an important purchase: a desk. Our former home had contained built-in bookshelves plus a nook for our computer, and in the bustle of moving, I had forgotten that our new home was without said shelving.

So after one lengthy week of full speed ahead: unpacking boxes and hanging pictures in our new home, our son, Marcus, came to my rescue. He knows me well, and spent time searching for the desk of my dreams: solid and handsome and inexpensive. I never imagined it possible to find this triumvirate, but then, one night: bingo. It was nothing short of perfection: a cream-colored, farmhouse-style desk with eight drawers and ample desktop space. It was divinely solid, built to last, and attractive. The cost? Forty dollars.

We heaved it upstairs, inch by inch. I placed the computer and globe squarely on top.

***

The first time I was required to stand up in front of my class and give a little speech was fourth grade. Fourth grade was one of those years that I recollect rather hazily, except for the fact that our teacher was trying a new thing, and we were made to sit in clusters of four, desks pushed together in a square so that instead of paying attention to the teacher, we were continuously distracted by each other. I still cannot figure out why she chose this arrangement, but she must have had her reasons, even as her voice grew shriller by the week. Stop Talking! Pay attention! Listen to me!

The girl to my right was left-handed, and the underside of her hand was perpetually stained with graphite from dragging it across the page. This smudged her papers and her desk, and sadly even my desk, as she usually rested it there while the teacher was speaking. This same girl was a talker, and delighted in whispering to our group. I dreaded even the possibility of falling into trouble for talking, so I tried my best to ignore her, which left her dark and sulky. Fourth grade was flush with drama, if nothing else.

One day our teacher assigned a presentation based upon our upcoming leaf collections. We were to assemble a variety of leaves, press them within two sheets of contact paper, label them, and present our overall findings to the class. I was beyond nervous.

While the leaf collecting itself was enjoyable, the speech was not. I flushed bright red, as sweat trickled down my back. Flying through my prepared words far too rapidly and quietly, the teacher had me start over, twice, with a: Please speak up and slow down, Kristin. When she said: slow down, she raised her voice and decelerated, dragging the words for a painfully long time. My eyes smarted in complete humiliation.

The whole scene, beginning to end, was beyond abysmal.

These public speeches, sprinkled throughout my entire education, were essentially the same song, different dance. Any improvement was miniscule, at best.

In fifth grade, my parents enrolled me in flute lessons. An overly-compliant firstborn, I never protested, despite my interest in the flute being nil. I only held onto one small musical dream of playing piano. Several of my school friends had pianos, elegantly settled in the corner of their formal living rooms, and when I spent afternoons at their homes, I played the keys, softly experimenting, seated upright on the bench’s edge, trying to make my legs reach the pedals as I played Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The piano was so peaceful and relaxing, while the flute pierced: every bit as shrill as my former fourth-grade teacher.

Regardless, the flute lessons continued, and I soldiered on, dutifully and miserably. That is, until the dreaded, mandatory recitals. I pleaded with my parents and teacher to excuse me, but to no avail. The moment I stepped upon the stage, my lips dried up in nervousness, and when I tried to play, the room grew deathly still, with only an occasional cough or wrinkling of the program paper, as scores of parents, siblings, and grandparents watched. I attempted to blow into my flute, but without moisture, nothing but a pathetic whiffling sound emerged. I was crimson with embarrassment, yet kept my fingers moving with the memorized change of keys. Barely a sound came out. The only thing that would have made it worse was crying, and by some means I held my tears until I was alone in the recital hall’s bathroom. There I wept.

These lessons went on for seven, aching years.

During that time, I hatched a plan, and promised God: Should any of my future children show a fondness for piano, I would move mountains to make it happen. Recitals? Optional.

***

A few days before my online English tutoring interview, the company sent me a practice link, brimming with pointers and practice ideas.

It took about five minutes of perusing to determine that this was not quite the opportunity that I had envisioned. The entire approach proceeded by reading slides, always keeping things: fun! exciting! loud! I felt my plans of tracing along a globe, pointing to a map, and teaching letters and sounds gently, with careful repetition, disintegrate.

It took another five minutes for me to decide that I was not going to give up. I had successfully taught our four children to read, and I could do this. I simply needed to be flexible and willing to adopt a new method. I would push along and just figure it out.

I failed to pass interview number one.

The willowy, blond-haired woman who was coaching me pretended that she was a young Chinese student. She scrunched herself small, and began speaking in a high-pitched child’s voice. This caught me off guard, and I desperately wished my family could be in the room to watch this oddity unfold. They would laugh, wildly.

I am occasionally ribbed about my naturally reserved disposition. I have always preferred small, behind-the-scenes moments, and I enjoy quiet, thoughtful, one-on-one conversations. This was one-on-one, sort of, but definitely not reserved, and definitely not me.

I began reading the slides, but no sooner had I started when the curled-up woman began cupping her hand behind her ear in an excessively exaggerated manner. I raised my voice, but still: the cupped ear. Does she want me to yell? I thought. This was dreadful.

Finally, impatient, she sat up to her full height and normal voice. I don’t think you are ready. You need to project your voice like this. Then she yelled the sentence, in a silly, sing-songey voice.

She bid farewell abruptly, but only after signing me up for another interview, a few days later.

***

I think it was Mark Twain who said: Humor is tragedy plus time. While this was certainly not tragic, it was disastrous, but would prove funny, given a few weeks.

At that particular moment, however, it was beyond humiliating as I failed my second interview. This time a grown man acted the child role. He did not scrunch himself up, but instead played the lazy student, and sprawled out flat upon his desk, intentionally ignoring me. It all felt surreal.

This time I failed because I sat too far from the camera, and did not successfully jolt the student out of his stupor. Also? My delivery lacked zip.

Kristin, you need to move closer, and engage the student by using a puppet rather than posters. Also, you need to move along more quickly through the slides, or you will lose their interest. Remember to be loud and fun and snappy! Practice for another week and try again.

I logged out, and my eyes filled. On the one hand I had already run the projected numbers by my husband, whom I did not want to disappoint: we had bills to pay.

But it was glaringly obvious that this was a poor fit: I never even remotely possessed the magical gift of acting, or performing, or public speaking, nor did I want to. It all made me quite uncomfortable. Teaching our own children was streets apart: nothing was scripted: it was ongoing conversation and reading, moving along at a pace that suited us all. And I adored every minute of my time with them.

***

Sometimes there are beautiful limits as to what we are actually able to do. God uses even our lack to work out his good purposes, and I am continually astonished by this very thing. But those beautiful limitations do not always feel lovely at the time. We cannot be everything we want to be.

I sat there, after failed interview number two and thought for a moment. Part of having a rich inner life is taking a moment to see the truth of a situation, and offering it up to God, just as it is, without any fancy packaging. In acceptance lieth peace, said Elisabeth Elliot. She was right.

So I slowly took the globe off the desk and held it, spinning a line from China to the United States, and then carefully placed it back upon my bookshelf.

I studied my farmhouse desk, sitting all lovely and strong beneath the two office windows. I thought of Marcus, who despite having a full schedule of his own: finishing his high school courses, preparing for college, working to pay for it, and acclimating to a new state, had cherished me enough to find the perfect desk. I loved him for it.

Marcus is a pianist: the only way to describe his gifting is to say that he gives the keys of that instrument life. He obliges the piano to sing. One of his first words was music, and he began piano lessons when he was six years old. I bought a keyboard at a garage sale, and signed him up.

His teacher, months later, pulled me aside. No matter what, do not allow him to quit. I have never seen a child understand and feel and play music the way he does. It is a gift.

This felt tricky. I saw the gifting, but knew I would never force him to play. I would never push any of my children to perform. That would have to be something they chose.

So I prayed for Marcus’s music to be used in a way pleasing to God himself, since he gave him the ability in the first place. We provided encouragement and lessons, but the rest was a road between Marcus and God. God has answered that prayer, and he is majoring in music at college, and sometimes leads worship at church. When this happens, I am drawn into worship by my son because he is not performing. He is quiet and gentle and focused on God. It is beautiful.

Despite my lack, God has worked. He is always working.

***

So that handsome desk by the window? I thought that I would be teaching English from this place in our study. It was not to be.

I provided a keyboard for our son, and he found this desk for me.

I sit here, most days, painting words as I watch the light from the windows dancing through the trees, and filtering to our walls. Some of my words are letters of thanks to fellow Christians in ministry, others are notes of encouragement to people that are unwell.

But my favorite words are the stories of my life that God brings to mind.

I write to remember, and it makes my heart sing.

Keep Your Soul Diligently

As a high schooler and throughout college, I held a myriad of summer jobs: working at farm stands, packing scores of apples, scooping ice cream, answering phones at a temp agency, and babysitting. Lots of babysitting.

One hot summer’s day, a couple of months before my wedding, I received a call to babysit for a new family who had recently registered through a babysitting service. Previously, I had worked for families I knew, mainly from church. But during this particular summer, I had chosen to babysit through an agency, who vetted me, and paid handsomely for my work. The clients were wealthy and willing to pay for sitters that had been professionally screened. So I would care for little ones many days and nights, spooning dinner to babies, cooking thick grilled cheese, and slicing up fruit. Once the children had been tucked in bed for the evening, I addressed our wedding invitations. There was a lengthy list of wedding tasks that I needed to finish, and it was satisfying to cross things off my list as the summer pushed along. It was a whirlwind time of stashing away money for our upcoming marriage, and I was thankful for the work.

So this new family had two young children, and on that particular day they needed a sitter from mid-morning to late afternoon. I walked through the house with the mother, noticing that the baby’s nose was perfectly orange, essentially matching his tufts of hair. It was startling and difficult to ignore, until the woman told me that she had read an article on the benefits of feeding infants only carrots, several times a day; thus the carrot-colored nose. I must have looked interested during her soliloquy, because as she floated through the house, me following, she continued citing her study and sources and the benefits she was already witnessing in feeding carrots, resulting in her son’s power of intelligence. I nodded, when all I could actually see before me was a lump of a baby, with a frightfully bright nose, shaking his plastic spoon and fussing as he sat squirming in his high chair.

She checked her watch as she clinically listed instructions about naps and outdoor play, plus emergency numbers. We finished our discussions right where we began, back in the narrow kitchen. The house itself was large, the neighborhood expensive, but the slim kitchen was a mess, unloved and untended. If you have time, feel free to wash the dishes, she said, all serious, pointing to the overflow in the sink. And with that, she plucked her keys off the hook and was gone.

I pulled the little orange-nosed baby from his chair, and grabbing a paper towel, wetted it with warm water, wiping his face. He rewarded me with a one-toothed grin, and my heart softened. It wasn’t his fault that his mother seemed a bit off. With him on my hip, and his three-year-old sister traipsing behind me, we stepped into the back yard to play.

It was hot, and the children enjoyed the breeze created as I pushed them on their swings. They guzzled juice from their sippy cups, thirsty from the heat wave. After some time, I heard the phone ringing, and gathering up the baby and his sister, stepped indoors to answer, as the mother had mentioned she would call to check in. My hand was on the phone when the ringing ceased. I thought I heard a voice within the house. Odd.

I listened, but all was quiet. Glancing out the window, I noticed neighbors conversing. That explains the voice, I reasoned, never one to easily spook.

Clean plates and bowls seemed a rarity in this space, but I managed to pluck several from a high shelf, quartering a thin peanut butter and jelly for the toddler, while heating carrots for the baby. I sang them a few snappy songs while they dined, and the little girl kicked her legs in rhythm as she tried to sing through her sandwich. I played airplane with the spoon as I fed the little one his mushy carrots. He watched me, and grinned, as did his sister.

After lunch, it was naptime. I washed both their hands and upturned, blinking faces before placing the baby in his crib and pulling the shade low. After reading several books to the toddler, her eyes grew heavy, and she drifted off. I tiptoed out of the bedroom, cracking the door as I retreated to wash the mountain of dirty dishes.

As I entered the kitchen, I jumped. Directly in front of me was a middle-aged man, wearing a white, ill-fitting bathrobe. My heart thudded into my throat.

Kristin, right? He stepped closer. My wife said a sitter was coming over today. Didn’t she tell you I was home?

I shook my head.

Didn’t mean to frighten you, he offered, again moving closer.

Suddenly the doorbell rang quite loudly, and through the window, I saw the mailman. Mr. Bathrobe stepped away to answer, and the baby started crying. As I was trying to figure my escape, the mother pulled into the driveway.

I put on my game face, looking collected as my heart beat: a slow, heavy drum. Collecting my pay, I worked very hard to walk calmly to the car. My hands were shaking as I left.

***

I had experienced that same thudding fear a few years prior, while on a missions trip one spring break during college. While I might have spent the week fully serving impoverished people who subsisted upon trash sifted from the ruins of the local dump, I spent the entire time numb, glancing over my shoulder, making certain I was never alone with the missions pastor leading the trip. My roommates pushed a chair under our locked door each night; a sweet gesture to protect me, as they too, had noticed. I hardly slept.

It was the kindness of God that protected me physically, but the pastor’s inappropriate words, his leering, broke something inside. Where trust had once resided, a brick wall formed. There is a searing pain when a man of the cloth is duplicitous. It is confusing and terrifying to be fooled and sinned against by someone whose vocation revolves around serving God.

***

Snow and ice pelted us last week. Many lost power, and tree limbs buckled under the weight of the ice, occasionally snapping under the pressure. Some roads were blocked due to downed trees and power lines. While driving our daughter to class, I was forced to take a completely different road pattern; the journey took us far longer than usual.

With all of these gray-sky days full of icy snow and rain, my outdoor walks have been few, and I have missed them. Exercising at the gym feels so confining compared to the great outdoors.

Yesterday morning, as I paid bills at my desk upstairs, I heard the trilling of a bird. Turning the blinds, before me sat a chunky cardinal outside my window, perched brightly in the tree. His cheer matched the sun that cascaded after days of storms and clouds. It was an invitation to go walking, and I wasted no time in grabbing my heavy coat.

The blue sky and freezing air were encompassed by the sun. It felt perfect to move outside, deeply inhaling the cold air. Invigorating.

If I had not paid attention to the news, I would have believed that we would continue, storm-free. There was nothing dark to behold as I scanned the skies. Yet in reality, another winter storm was moving our way, and quickly.

This morning the skies are again dark as ice prevails.

***

Do we ever truly know the deep recesses of a person’s heart? The grief I have experienced lately rushes in much like a winter storm. One moment the skies are bright and cold and stunning; and then I receive news of a trusted Christian pastor or leader whose double-life has been revealed. I have been fooled again. The shock of it brings back the familiar thudding of my heart. Families are shattered; scores of people injured; trust obliterated.

I think of the cloak of burden from living a secret existence, of covering up lies, while teaching Bible truth? Dark and exhausting….perhaps even worse than being exposed.

I once heard a pastor suggest that we should mentally picture the most evil person our minds could conjure. He settled on Adolf Hitler as an example.

Now imagine, he continued, yourself, with your own sins: anger, jealousy, complaining. Think of it: those things are every bit as heinous to God as the atrocities committed by Hitler. The effects are different, but sin is sin.

Deuteronomy 4:9 says to keep your soul diligently. I have been thinking this through. I typically don’t trip headlong into sin overnight. It is a slow, lulling fade, made one compromise at a time. And when I am daily in prayer and in my Bible and trusting God? Then my soul is kept diligently. It is a cocoon of safety in a broken world. And when I do stumble? Immediate truth-telling; keeping short accounts with God and stepping back onto the safe and narrow way.

***

In a few days my favorite girl, our daughter, will turn seventeen. Through the sparkly candles, I will remember my baby girl, age one, poking at the carrot cake, smiling and clapping and eating with her pink spoon. The years have slipped away; and I am watching the hourglass sands filling heavy as her senior year is racing to our doorstep.

I leaned against the fence as she rode bareback the other day, in that cold winter air, back unswerving, golden hair spilling from beneath her riding helmet. Her tone was low and gentle as she spoke to the horse, patting his neck as he trotted in obedience. It was lovely; a clear image I will bring to mind again and again. She is strong and beautiful.

I long to protect her from everything: pain, betrayal, loss. But in her short life, she has already beheld such things, despite my German Shepherd-like protective measures. It is the way of life on earth. Recently, a highly trusted teacher, interwoven within our family’s faith story, was exposed for living a double-life. To see my daughter’s utter disbelief, followed by a resigned: you can’t trust anyone shattered my heart into little bits. I know that feeling well; it will be tough sledding for a time to come. In the storms we are forced to navigate new routes. I am so sorry, my sweet girl.

The farm where she rides is currently a muddy mess. I recently invested in a pair of mucking boots, so I can step into the pen with my daughter, helping her retrieve and tack up her horse. I might not be able to sweep away the cavernous mess, but I can step inside and venture into the difficulty. Together, in the muddy trenches. Plowing ahead with courage, frequently reminding one other to keep our souls, diligently.

My Blue Tassel

The first apartment Jon and I called home, after our wedding, was tiny. It had a long, narrow living room, bright and cheery if the blinds were opened, leading to a closet kitchen full of dark cabinets and zero natural light. We could not be in the kitchen at the same time without bumping into each other. With no space for a washer and dryer, I spent Saturday afternoons at the laundromat with stacks of quarters, our full laundry basket, and my latest library book.

I have an unusual fondness for laundromats, even now: the sudsy, peaceful churning and washing away of the workweek, the lemony-linen scent of detergents and softener sheets twirling steadily within heaps of clothing: a hopeful reminder that every day may be washed clean, as we begin again. People of all ages and walks of life line the white and gold-flecked counters: ample space to fold the softened clothes, towels, and bedsheets. There is a quiet comradery in the midst of those commercial washers and dryers: we are all needing clean clothes, and at least for this day, the laundromat is our best option.

Once the dryers slowed and stilled, I closed my book, folded our laundry and breezed home. Smoothing the still-warmed clothing, I tucked it into our dresser drawers, just so. A benediction to the end of another week.

Saturday evenings the two of us lived large: Subway for an early dinner followed by a movie, complete with a bucket of popcorn and a bag of Strawberry Twizzlers. I absentmindedly tied knots in each licorice strand before partaking, and Jon laughed at my unusual proclivity.

Despite our apartment being so little, it was our first home and I loved it. We had been given hand-me-down-furniture, mismatched, but we were grateful. Our dining room table sat perched, wobbly at the far end of the living room in a marginal attempt to divide the living area from the kitchen. Placemats could not conceal all of the scratches and dents, but I shined it as best as I could. Even our sofa looked tired, a poor match for the newness of our marriage. I attempted to scrub out a few small stains, to no avail. The only brand new furniture we purchased following our wedding was a queen mattress and box spring, sans headboard.

I cleaned our small space each evening, upon returning home from my paying job. (What was there even to clean, I ask myself in hindsight? We were both at work all day!) Soon I began inviting people for dinner. We opened our door to extended family, friends, and new acquaintances, setting up card tables and borrowed folding chairs, with little elbow room to spare. That first year I prepared the same dinner on repeat for our guests because it was the one recipe that I was completely comfortable with: Spaghetti Pavarotti. I served it with garlic bread and the greenest Romaine I could find, sprinkled with carrot shavings, Vidalia onions, and cherry tomatoes, halved, and drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette. Jon promised not to tell guests about my lack of proficient recipes, and he was as good as his word.

With a famished husband, and a bunch of library cookbooks (remember, no internet back then) I kept at it, practicing my culinary skills. Jon told me they were all very good, but I was learning his tells, namely the tenor of his voice, and the lack of requests for seconds, which served as my guide as to which recipes needed work. He did not yet understand that I preferred direct honesty over regard for my feelings, as I labored to expand meals in order to comfortably entertain. I could not rely on Spaghetti Pavarotti forever.

I do remember the unexpected joy in my heart after cooking a meal that he loved. I felt so accomplished, and a tiny bit proud of my determination, as he asked for seconds. And so it went, little by little, week by week.

Close to our first anniversary, Jon left on a men’s retreat one steaming summer weekend. I fell into our couch after a long workday that Friday, looking forward to finishing a book. Quite suddenly, I woke up to our telephone ringing, and was confused as to why I had drifted off. I had never been one to nap….in fact, the only time I did was when I was ill.

As I arose to answer the phone, I felt light-headed and queasy. I spoke with my girlfriend briefly, apologizing that I was quite unwell. Crawling into bed, I closed my eyes. The next thing I knew, the sunshine was filtering brightly through the blinds, and it was late Saturday morning.

I was both ravenous and queasy, but nothing in our refrigerator looked appetizing. My friend called again to check in, and asked me how I was feeling. I mentioned my symptoms and she laughed. I think I know what’s wrong, she said.

***

This week I have been reading the book of Numbers. The Lord instructed Moses to send spies into Canaan, a land which God was giving as a promise and a blessing to the Israelites. The spies set off together, and for forty days examined this land from every angle. It proved lush, with an abundance of milk and honey and fruit. They also observed massive men and large protected cities (Numbers 13:27-28).

While every man sharp-eyed the same things: luscious clusters of grapes, dates, figs, plus gigantic men in fortified cities, their conclusions were at odds. Twelve had been sent out, but only two: Caleb and Joshua, returned with favorable reports.

While reading, I paid closer attention to something I had previously glossed over. The LORD knew exactly what the land of Canaan contained: the delicious foods, the cattle to provide the milk, the beehives full of sweet honey. Of course he knew of those enormous men and guarded cities of the land. He knows everything.

Sending those twelve spies was a measured dose of truth serum: During those forty days, would any of the men see past the impossibilities? Were any spies able to gaze above the earthly, knowing and believing that God had already promised to be with them and to bring them safely into this homeland? Who would place the LORD above their fears?

As it happened, ten spies rejected the beautiful inheritance. Impossible to overcome, they murmured in warning, remembering the imposing giants and city walls.

But Caleb had a different spirit (Numbers 14:24), trusting God wholeheartedly. He hushed the naysayers, with a Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it. (Numbers 13:30) He held high the promise of God, bright and majestic, a guarantee that simply overshadowed those massive men in guarded cities. Caleb’s spirit burned in reverence and appropriate fear. There was no questioning his obvious affections.

***

That following spring, after my weekend illness, our Caleb was born.

Cradling this beautiful miracle, I marveled at his bright blue eyes, large and staring, watching me; waiting. The gravity of this new life was matched only by the immediate protection I felt. A mother bear? She had nothing on me. I would defend this little one to the death. It was such a different love: consuming, completely unrestrained and entirely unconditional. It was my first genuine understanding of God’s unfathomable love in sacrificing his Son. As Caleb cooed, my grip on him tightened as I imagined sacrificing him for anyone. Inconceivable. My eyes filled, marveling at the miracle of life and the deep affections of God, all intertwined.

Alone with our baby during the middle of that first night, tucked into a hospital bed with stiff, uncomfortable sheets, I longed for home. Suddenly overwhelmed, I prayed: Lord, help me to be a good mother, and please give Caleb a heart that follows you.

***

As our family grew numerically, with three more children, we expanded our square footage, and even bought a new dining room table and sofa. Although I enjoyed our new and spacious home, I knew that it was my family that was most precious.

I still invited friends and family over to dinner, although not quite as often. My hospitality was focused on loving and serving and cherishing my five favorite people. I did not have much time to daydream about fancy recipes, or gently tumbling laundry, although our washer and dryer were constantly humming. We did not frequent Subway each Saturday, but Jon occasionally picked up subs for dinner on the way home from work…food we divvied up with our children, as our sleep-deprived eyes smiled over their heads, vaguely remembering that first year when it was just the two of us. Our hands were busy loving these treasures, and tending to their needs. Despite my imperfections and lack, God answered my prayers for each of our children, turning their hearts towards trust in him alone. There is nothing better for a parent to witness.

***

It was during this time of fullness that I experienced a sudden season of loneliness, due in part to a cross-country move. The Lord tenderly cared for me, beginning with the prompting to read a fantastic book that I had arbitrarily plucked off the library shelf: The Pleasures of God, by John Piper. After reading the first chapter, which was full of Scripture, I retrieved my Bible and purposed to read it straight through, beginning to end.

That year I feasted upon Scripture. There is no other way to describe it. God kindled my desire to know him, and my heart soared. I no longer felt so lonely, understanding that the Lord was with me. Scripture was alive, God was holy, and he cared about my affections. He loved me enough to show me my sin, and my wandering heart.

***

I am feasting again this year. Nothing fancy, just a plea for God to speak to me through the faithful reading of His word, which God tells us never returns void. (Isaiah 55:11 NKJV)

This passage jolted me one morning this week:

The Lord said to Moses, Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. (Numbers 15:37-38)

God was so good to help the Israelites, and to give them a visual way to remember his commands: a blue tassel. If obedient, they would have to maintain the same gaze that Caleb held: fastening themselves to an eternal perspective and the promises of God rather than upon the disappearing earthly treasures that consumed their vision. It is never a good plan to follow your own heart and the desire of your eyes.

My blue tassel is my daily Bible reading. I am understanding that nothing will tether me more to God than the reading and meditating of His Word wrapped up in prayer. It is like a sudsy, fresh-smelling laundromat, showing me my stains and washing them clean with truth.

Caleb’s obedience ultimately led to his pleasure of stepping into his earthly inheritance: the Promised Land. Out of all the Israelites, only he and Joshua persevered in obedient faith. He banked everything on following God completely, and even his descendants were favored beneficiaries.

***

We are pilgrims of dust on this earth: living in temporary homes with vanishing paychecks and crumbling dreams. One day, as true disciples of Christ, we will become settlers: permanent citizens of heaven. That blue tassel reminds me that God alone holds the master key, and has given us everything we need to know in his Holy Word.

Things We Remember

When I was in grade school, every so often my grandfather would come home from work, and loosening his tie, announce to my mother and grandmother with a slight bow: Ladies, I am giving you a cooking reprieve. Tonight, we are going to Giovanni’s.

The best part was that it was usually an average night, say a Tuesday. My brother and I would would grab our coats, grinning. The week had just grown infinitely better, and homework could wait. Giovanni’s was the finest.

We stepped into the dimly lit restaurant, drippy candles and Italian music tastefully swirling, not too loud. Goblets of iced water sat heavy upon starched white tablecloths; bright lemons clinging to the sturdy edges. I ordered chicken parmigiana, slightly crunchy under a layer of warmed tomato sauce, heavy on the oregano, concealed under melted cheese.

We would eat until full, as the tuxedoed waiter returned with the dessert menu. Everyone begged off, announcing how they just couldn’t. Everyone but Grandpa.

My grandchildren and I will each have a dish of spumone, if you please.

Oh Bob, really, said Grandma. Everyone is too full! The children will get sick.

They most certainly will not. He smiled broadly, confidently tucking a fresh cloth napkin into his dress shirt.

Spumone is a tri-layered Italian ice cream. Giovanni’s created their version with green, pink, and brown layers. Candied fruit and nuts were tucked within, and the entire delicacy was topped off with a perfectly thin drizzle of chocolate liqueur. It was delicious.

I have not tasted spumone since Grandpa died, decades ago. But if I close my eyes, I am back at that fine Italian table, music soft and dreamy, with a spoonful of dessert, enjoying my grandfather’s delight in treating us to good food.

Both Grandpa and Giovanni’s are gone, but the memory of spumone brings it rushing back; an association, quite alive. Grandpa made everything better.

***

Of course, not all associations are so pleasant.

Last week found me in the endodontist’s chair, for two root canals, which I opted to complete in one fell swoop. I might have casually mentioned that I had experienced a poor dental experience as a child. That was all the endodontist needed to hear. His eyes grew wide, and he paused his careful drilling.

Let me tell you something, Kristin. I am sixty-five years old, and I still remember the horrific dentist my parents took me to as a boy. He had equipment that I promise you was from the Civil War era, and he refused to numb me. I thought the pain that day might send me skyrocketing through the roof.

He paused momentarily, shaking his head.

I went home crying, begging my mother not to take me back. But she did, the very next year. To this day, whenever I pass by where that office once stood, my hands start shaking uncontrollably.

Well, this suddenly gave me something to consider, which is useful while undergoing such an uncomfortable and lengthy procedure. As he continued to drill, explaining each step of the root canal and asking how I was holding up, I paid attention to the soothing music, gentle assistant, comfortable furniture, and shiny equipment. They even offered me a blanket, should I grow chilly.

Ninety minutes later it was over, and the doctor walked me to the front desk. Now you’ve got me thinking about that horrible childhood dentist, he said. Leaves me wondering why I even went into this line of work after something so dreadful?

It makes perfect sense to me, I offered. You are giving people the very thing you wanted but did not receive.

***

I am reading through the Bible this year, Genesis to Revelation, from beginning to end. Five chapters per morning, Monday through Friday. On the weekends I choose a shorter text, sometimes a Psalm, sometimes a few verses from the New Testament. Reading through the Bible is not a race, and I do not have to do this, but it is so, so, good.

I am in Leviticus now, which has a reputation for being difficult, with all of the rules and regulations and diseases and sacrifices. It is not easy to read, but it has awakened a sliver of my heart that had grown sleepy; lazy. Reading Leviticus has quickened my fear of God: He is Holy and perfect and righteous, and he hates sin. He stands in complete opposition to anyone who refuses to humble themselves and repent. I need to have a strong fear of God. This holy reverence results in my heart bending in contrition, obedience, and love. He is Ruler of all, and I ought not forget it.

Something else about Leviticus: it has caused me to long more for Jesus. I want to hop right into its pages, in the midst of that ancient story and encourage the children of Israel. I wish to cheer a people who must have been so tired, to hang in there and trust God: a Savior is coming. He will be the consummate High Priest, sweeping away all of our sins upon himself; the once-and-for-all-sacrifice.

I arrived at Leviticus 20:26 this morning and paused, savoring the ancient words.

You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. (ESV)

My association with Leviticus?

I am His.

***

My Grandpa, whose father grew ill and died while he was young, grew up with little. Meals were mainly soup, very thin soup, sitting heavy on the back of the stove. While Grandpa did not starve, he was often hungry. His mother did not have the luxury of spoiling him with choice meats or extras. But I do remember him saying that she would pick a wildflower or two, arranging an attractive vase upon her modest table. She was a lady, after all, and although poor, swept the floor clean and dusted the furniture to shine. And she always set the table.

So, like the endodontist, my grandfather gave what he had wanted, but could never have. Those dinners at fine restaurants were a way of healing an ache; like a sewing machine going backwards and re-stitching a nagging tear in the fabric. Grandpa never once considered soup to be a complete meal, and asked my grandmother to prepare meat-and-potato fare instead.

We all have our own aches, deep down, that we long to crush.

***

Those Israelites grew weary, as do I. So I am reminding myself that our Savior will soon return. He is cheering us to run our race in faith, trusting in him until we are safely home.

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

Ashes

I was walking a trail the other morning, alone. It was chilly but bright; sunshine causing the icy pond to sparkle. I was thinking of small things: the laundry to fold, some paperwork needing my attention, an appointment to schedule. I texted myself the short list, which allowed my mind to drop the to-do’s and focus on one thing: happiness in the great outdoors.

Writing is a process: thinking, jotting down, rethinking, writing, rewriting, deleting, and ultimately stringing sentences that dance. Occasionally the words flow swiftly, but most often they are a roaring house on fire, a blaze needing to be tamed and greatly calmed, becoming more of a steady, crackling fireplace. A fireplace to serve the reader with truth and beauty and warmth.

In order to shape words, I have learned that it is good for me to spend time outside. The fresh air, magnificent trees, walking trails, and ponds make me entirely happy. I move forward, enjoying the flitting cardinal, Canada Geese, and holly bushes, bright with berries. I see my breath puff in the cold, and then throw a stone in the pond, watching the ripples stretch over the surface.

These things blanket me, small and secure under the expansive sky, within a universe, held gently by God’s hands. My problems shrink as I gaze upon his beauty, on brilliant display, dazzling in all of nature.

***

This past week has been rainy, keeping me indoors, parted from those daily walks. I had been working steadily on a piece of writing, and it was simply not coming together. The whole thing fell apart, flat and dull, and I was stuck. I kept trying to prop it up, like a large party tent. The moment one stake felt stable, the tent began to droop in a million other places. This was so different from taming a house fire: it was more like begging for a spark that stubbornly refused to be kindled. After hours of alternately tapping at the keyboard and staring out the window, I gave up trying to force something to work that had already turned to ash.

And life itself can be much the same. We toil and sweat and push and plan, and some days the orchestra plays majestically in the background.

Other days we do the same, and the stuff of life crumbles, and that is that.

I am not waving a billboard inviting people to give up. I put great stock in plugging along. But I am beginning to understand what to do in those moments, when after working as hard as possible, God allows the shattering and the turning to dust.

I take a deep breath and quiet myself for a moment. Then I unclench my hands, and offer up my best laid plans and wishes and dreams to the Lord, resting in the knowing that the same Creator who spoke the world into existence, and wills my heart to beat, knows with precision what he is doing.

***

I awoke to a soft blanket of snow, falling gently this morning. The rain has passed; replaced with a winter wonderland. Beauty from ashes.

There are no Shortcuts

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

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

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

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

Moses’ response to their complaints?

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

An Inside Job

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

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

We have a problem, said orthodontist, all serious.

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

Hasn’t your dentist suggested removing her wisdom teeth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well hello, he said, shaking hands and smiling.

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

What brings you in?

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chilly, isn’t it? I asked.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Strings Attached

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Finishing? I thought. I have hardly begun!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Those weren’t wedding gifts: they were chains.

***

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

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

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

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

May the Traditions Serve

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

I bought something for you.

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

***

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

We need to buy a tree, he reminded me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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