My Hiding Place

For many years, my childhood church was held in a finished barn, attached by narrow hallway to the parsonage. One warm summer’s evening, when I was four years old, our congregation gathered there to watch a film of Corrie ten Boom, who spoke of her book, The Hiding Place. We scrunched uncomfortably close, sans air conditioning, to make room for all members and visitors who had come to hear this woman share her survival story. As soon as the movie began, I was captivated.

***

Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch woman, who along with her sister and father, was caught sheltering Jews in a hidden compartment within the walls of their home in Holland during the Nazi terror of World War II. Because of their steep involvement in the Dutch underground resistance, Corrie, her sister Betsy, and their aging father were separated and herded off to a concentration camp. Their father died within days, but Betsy and Corrie survived to suffer starvation, humiliation, and torture under the Nazi prison guards. Betsy guided and encouraged Corrie to stand strong in faith, and together they shared Jesus with fellow inmates during nightly Bible studies. The guards remained providentially oblivious, due to a bedbug infestation in those very rooms. Betsy perished only days before Corrie was freed. It was later discovered that her freedom was due to a clerical error.

God had wonderful plans for sparing Corrie from death: one of which was to herald her testimony of the freedom found only in Christ. Once released from the concentration camp, she acknowledged a hardened place growing in her heart, a wide cavern filled with hatred and bitterness toward those monstrous guards.

Corrie dumbfounded the world by fully forgiving her tormentors, repeatedly sharing her testimony in her world-wide missionary travels. This was staggering in a time where nearly everyone was hand-feeding rage and bitterness due to the gut-wrenching atrocities inflicted by the Nazis.

One day, in her travels, a former German guard approached her and offered his hand, seeking her forgiveness. She immediately recoiled, recognizing him as the most debased guard of all, a man who had personally humiliated both Betsy and Corrie. As he stood directly before her, apologizing and speaking of his new faith, she yielded to the Holy Spirit’s promptings, choosing to radically forgive him.

***

Of course I knew none of these things that warm summer’s night in our barn-church, but I do remember, even now, the black and white film, and Corrie’s face: kind, peaceful, lovely. Her words were spoken clearly in her Dutch-laced accent, unmistakable in their pulsing love of God, and others; even her tormentors.

My little-girl heart stood transfixed: never had I seen the Lord so vivid in the being of another. So genuine. Corrie was not a dynamic speaker: she was direct, full of authority, both soft-spoken, and happy. Her face radiated calm. I was too young to know of her suffering, (those blanks would be filled in later), but her joy of Jesus was undeniable. Corrie was simply at rest in Him, and I could feel it in my bones: this was exactly what I wanted.

After the film, there were platters of finger foods and punch, and the children gathered outside to play tag, waiting for the fireflies to begin their flickering lantern-dance by dark. I romped and played, delighting in a summer’s night with an abandon that often eclipses adults. As we chased each other, my imagination soared with fantastic plans to build secret compartments and rescue people. I longed to be brave just like Corrie ten Boom, and I wanted to know the same Jesus that she did.

***

Suffering has a way of parting the heart, chiseling a highway straight down the middle, before offering grave detours; choices. I have yet to meet a Christian who radiates the image of the Creator, that has not suffered well, choosing to accept in peace the precise will of God.

It is easier, by nature, to suffer poorly: plunging into self-pity and complaining, nursing and rehearsing grievances to anyone who will lend an ear, growing bitter and sullen, storing up a record of seemingly justified wrongs. I have been guilty of these very things.

Years ago, God took me through a season of paramount suffering. Multiple heartaches within a two-year span, which at the time, felt like 200 years. I will not say that the details are unimportant, because details are always important. But more importantly, within a short time of this suffering, I reached the end of my workhorse self.

I awoke one morning, looked into the mirror, and bumped up against the ugly truth: I was a thoroughly exhausted people-pleaser, who could no longer patch things up for myself or others, while bowing to the whims of whomever, and hanging on to simmering grudges, festering yet silent, buried deep inside. I had gods before me, and the God, my jealous Heavenly Father, had had enough. He chose to unravel the entire mess.

I can see now, in hindsight, that God designs sufferings, created uniquely for his children. He does not toss hardships at random, like dreadful Christmas gifts from some Great Aunt who bestows the same matching, ill-fitting sweaters to each family member carelessly, with little care. Instead, God gives us our sufferings to fit his good and holy purpose: to grow and form and shape us in likeness to his Son. Our part is to trust and obey and follow our Father, knowing that there is nothing reckless or random in his plan. He is our perfect hiding place; the safest spot to dwell.

During those two years, suffering had blazed a deep highway down my heart, and I held two choices in either hand: obey God and forgive, or hug bitterness, and thus quench the Holy Spirit.

And then I remembered Corrie ten Boom. After searching, I discovered an old video clip, and I was suddenly four years old again, seated in a packed New England church. Her face was precisely as I had remembered: confident, soft, and joyful. Regardless of the consequences, we must forgive, she said.

And there it was: my next act of the will. A choice: obey God, or follow my own heart?

I could not change my suffering, I could not erase the sins of others inflicting harm, and I could not strong-arm anyone’s heart into biblical repentance.

But I could forgive, and leave all consequences in God’s care. (Forgiveness does not necessarily result in reconciliation. The Bible teaches us to guard our hearts and walk in wisdom. There are dangerous situations and dangerous people, who may be forgiven, but kept at a distance until time reveals a true heart change.)

So I forgave. Wildly, I might add. My list was embarrassingly long: silly little grievances and monumental ones, long-standing grudges and recent, ongoing hurts.

There was nothing gradual about the moment following: my newfound freedom was swift and delightful, and like Corrie ten Boom, I was flooded with warmth and peace. Absolutely nothing around me had changed; but I was now unchained, and free to live.

Corrie, godly and wise, was changed through her furnace of affliction. She understood that forgiveness is the heartbeat of Christ. Father forgive them for they know not what they do (Luke 23:24).

***

Corrie ten Boom and her family saved some 800 Jewish lives in that tiny hiding place in the heart of their Holland home, but her bold forgiveness of one guilty prison guard resulted in the rescue of so many more. I am one.

Psalm 32:7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

I Thought You Should Know

One bright September day, those shimmering early school days: untainted notebooks, sharpened pencils, crunchy leaves and crisp air, afternoons of slanted sunshine upon porch pumpkins, yes on that type of day, our junior high class was introduced to Mr. Langley.

Seventh grade meant Latin, and I felt the twins of curiosity and nervousness flutter. I knew nothing about this language, nor the teacher. Mr. Langley, a new hire, stepped carefully into our bright classroom, and placed his slim briefcase upon the teacher’s desk.

Salvete, discipuli, he said quietly, pushing his wire rims to the top of his nose. He turned to grasp a piece of chalk, and as he began writing his name on the chalkboard, his briefcase toppled and the chalk broke, all at once.

Oh dear, he mumbled, scooting down to gather the mess of papers that had spilled. When he stood, again adjusting his glasses, I saw chalk dust streaked along his face, and on the side of his navy pants.

The boys started laughing, and when Mr. Langley did not stop them, but continued to fumble with the papers and chalk, cheeks crimson, I knew he would never be able to control our class. Our other instructors knew precisely what was what, and could cast a glance at any student and reel them in. Or else.

But he was different from the other teachers: gentle; shy. As he stood, lean and awkward, scripting his name precisely on the chalkboard, I noticed his fingernails were neatly clipped; scholarly. I could not imagine that he ever mowed the lawn or pushed a wheelbarrow or tossed a football. His aura was one of meticulous caution and forethought, a stretch when governing a junior high classroom. As the weeks unfolded, his intellect proved both humble and mighty in a way that spun impractical: an apprehensive scholar who likely poured over his textbooks line by line, perhaps by candlelight, smiling at the wonder of those mighty Latin roots, unperturbed by any other event taking place on planet earth.

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, he clearly understood Latin, and longed to share the importance of this unspoken language that had crumbled in tandem with the Holy Roman Empire some 1500 years ago. As the weeks moved along, he encouraged us with the practical benefits of the Latin language: If we memorized that pater meant father, for example, we could decipher the meanings of English words such as: patriarch, patron, patronize, paternity, patriot, and expatriate.

Isn’t this wonderful? he beamed, impervious to the disinterest of most of his pupils. Latin helps form the logical portion of your brain, he offered, pushing up his glasses with his index finger. It will help you not only in college entrance exams, but in all of life, as you read the classics and delight in learning new vocabulary. He annunciated each word thoughtfully, as he gazed absentmindedly out the schoolroom window at the majestic maple in all of its autumnal splendor; branches spreading throughout the schoolyard.

He then walked back to the chalkboard, asking us to join in the verbal chant of conjugations. Amo, amas, amat, we began. I heard a noise and peeked over my shoulder as a classmate lobbed a spitball across the room, hitting his friend’s neck. The boy retaliated in kind, and they hooted. Mr. Langley turned, oblivious to the cause of disruption, and kindly requested our full attention yet again.

***

As the months passed, and our Latin vocabulary expanded, Mr. Langley handed each of us a copy of Lingua Latina, and then took his seat behind his desk. We took turns reading aloud and translating.

Imperium Romanum, I read. The Roman Empire, I translated.

I heard snickering and looked up. Mr. Langley had stood and was writing Imperium Romanum on the chalkboard. Clinging to the back of his pantlegs were dozens upon dozens of white page hole reinforcements.

Had this been any other teacher, to my shame, I probably would have laughed, at least on the inside. But Mr. Langley was so kind, so gentle, such a frail bird that I felt miserable as he deciphered the trick played at his expense. His face flushed and his shoulders drooped, mumbling to himself as he exited the classroom to remove the stickers.

To my initial surprise, a pretty and popular girl laughed, claiming ownership of the prank. As she high-fived the spitball fellows, I had a flash of understanding: recalling her careful exclusion and subtle mocking of the girl with the lisp, the boy who wore the same three shirts on repeat, and the shy, smart girl who was dared to outshine everyone on exams. And now our introverted Latin teacher, brought low in humiliation while she, the self-proclaimed queen bee, rose to rule.

***

I am married to my pastor.

This does not make me special or remarkable. Quite the contrary. I am an average, middle-aged woman.

What it does mean is that my viewpoint from the pew to the pulpit is unique.

I drive into the church parking lot each Sunday and Wednesday, knowing.

I know when my husband is juggling six or seven weighty situations, I know of our family’s stresses and sin struggles, I know his deep longing to please the Lord. I know when he is excited in the growing discipleship of our men and women, I know when he is weary, I know the pressures of decision-making in leading a congregation and answering ultimately to the Lord. I know when a member has greatly encouraged him with a kind word, I know when he has wrestled with a difficult text all week, I know the time spent in prayer, I know the double-digit hours spent in study and preparation as he preaches verse-by-verse, and I know when he has tossed and turned all Saturday night.

But the hardest part is that I know when members are clashing for control, tossing bolts of intimidation subtly, working against unity and submission to God and his Word. It is impossible not to see, not to know, and my husband does not need to even speak a word. These things step into our home, draped over his shoulders like a cloak at day’s end. I offer to take the cloak and stuff it in the closet, but it sheds something fierce, and remnants remain on his shoulders, day after day. I vacuum them from the carpet, as they are sprinkled everywhere. This is undeniably part of his work, and by default, mine as well.

What am I to do? I have a soft heart for the struggling, the weak, the hurting of our church body. They are the image of Mr. Langley, all of these years later, and my instinct is to defend, to help, to shield. My protective instincts have always run a bit hot; it is my native tongue.

My heart’s posture towards the troublemakers? If left alone, it grows into a cold, hard stone.

***

Years ago, when our two oldest sons lit up the Friday night field, one a quarterback and one a tight end, my joy knew no bounds. Jacob threw with mighty precision, and Caleb’s soft hands caught those passes with ease.

Caleb had this thing, after catching the football, while running to the end-zone; a signature move that became known as: Caleb’s stiff-arm. His powerful arm shot forward and held, pushing down any defensive player who attempted to stop the scoring mission. They simply could not bring him down. It was incredible to watch him put points on the board out of sheer strength, and to witness the team gather around our sons, slapping backs and helmets, high-fiving, while Caleb and Jacob gave each other a quick hug. This was all so natural: they had grown up playing backyard football and with a glance, knew what the other was thinking, what play to run. They looked out for each other.

This is the picture I conjure now. I am like Caleb, pulling in the long and beautiful pass, catching the ball softly, cradling it securely, and forcing a stiff-arm to bring the play to magnificent completion. My husband is preaching the Gospel, offering the Good News and I am striving for softness, and winsome kindness, seeking determination and strength to carry it generously, and when necessary, stiff-arming in protection.

And yet.

The Gospel is not only for the weak, the vulnerable, the Mr. Langley-types of this world. The Gospel is also for the bullies, the arrogant, the queen bees who must be struggling under such staggering poverty of spirit; layers of insecurity that lead them to harm and rebel.

Yes, the Gospel is for all.

The solution for both my cold heart and the bullies is one in the same: a tender work of the Holy Spirit. A repentant heart.

In weak moments, I daydream of clever loopholes, desiring a Bible verse that would permit the stony portion of my heart to remain in a perpetual stiff-arm. This is exactly why soaking up the entire counsel of God, from Genesis through Revelation, is the only way to grow in wisdom and grace as a Christian.

Away with sweet platitudes and easy, milky devotionals. I desperately require the unadorned truth: raw, complicated, meaty. Sola Scriptura: a comprehensive, exquisite, yet savage mural of the riches of God’s Rescue Story, which is living and sharp, holding the power to crush the hardest heart to bits, softening all jagged edges, filling me with compassion and kindness and patience and love. An overarching reminder that God is always working on his children’s behalf, no matter what.

Our son, Marcus, compels the piano to sing. The keys cooperate with their Master, following in obedience as he instructs the notes to unravel in beauty, but only at his bidding. It pierces an almost unreachable place in the listener’s soul: the timing, the softness of his hands as they travel up and down the keys, the flow, the tempo, the sound that sweeps gently over the listeners, falling upon them with presence. The song is not finished until Marcus, the Master Player, has said so.

As long as we have breath, the song of our life is not yet finished. Our music will fall with sweet, lasting beauty upon the world only as we bow to our Creator.

Great is His Faithfulness

This Mother’s Day might be joyous: perhaps you are a new father, amazed by the mystery of those sweeping waves of unconditional love towards your new little one; stunned with the raw miracle of birth and the blossoming motherhood that you glimpse unfolding in your wife; you are delighted to honor her. Maybe you are graced with a kind and tender mother, not perfect but deeply good. Or you are now a middle aged mother, blessed by children grown, sons and daughters who have flown the nest, but still call you and text you and open wide their adult lives. Your heart is flooded with love, and it is your primary delight to serve them, still. Or perhaps you are a grandmother, full of gray hair and smiles, fashioning notes and gifts, praying and delighting in those young lives birthed through your own children. Mother’s Day seems a crown of glory.

Mother’s Day might also throb: you have buried a son or daughter and your grief is torturous, or your medical chart has been stamped in red ink: unable to conceive, or miscarriages have haunted you repeatedly. As a husband you are stuck; terribly helpless, longing to comfort your wife while also wishing this very day would pass, and quickly. Or you are a single woman longing to marry, desirous of children, but so far nothing. Or you are a child that has been maimed by your very own mother, who is supposed to love you most. Or perhaps you are an aging mother simmering that you are not being served by your adult children in the manner you feel you deserve. Maybe you are a single mother surrounded by little grabbing hands and you are depleted, tired, over it. You are a mother burning with regret: you have abandoned or abused or neglected your children, or have chosen abortion, or have stubbornly refused to repent of your sin, remaining stuck on the merry-go-round of worldly sorrow that leads to death, rather than living godly grief which produces repentance that leads to salvation without regret (2 Corinthians 7:10).

My guess is that in this messy life, many are experiencing a measure of both joy and grief tangled up together this Mother’s Day week.

I invite you to slow yourself, and cradle this coming Sunday in your hands as a pure treasure; an opportunity to allow your heart’s posture to bend as your yes to God. Let it be to me according to your word. (Luke 1:38). Refresh your weary mind with Lamentations 3:22-24. Our world is turned upside down with much foolishness, but God’s Word always remains right side up; a razor sharp straight edge; an imperishable anchor that steadies and holds us fast.

Remember on this Mother’s Day, no matter where you may be, that God is kind and gentle and merciful. There is no grief he cannot carry, there is no sin he refuses to forgive. Carve out some time to preach the Good News of the Gospel to your weary heart. Come to him and find rest (Matthew 11:28).

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” Lamentations 3:22-24

On Writing

My daughter and I sometimes play a word game as we drive the gloriously winding stretches of road leading to her classes, her job, and horseback riding. It is rapid fire:

Three pet peeves. Go.

So I answer:

Clowns, small planes, and ice-breakers.

She laughs, unruffled, and her eyes are so blue. Oh Mom, you are the most predictable.

I like to imagine this is part of my staying power. In an ever-changing world, I enjoy not surprising people. And if you paid attention to my pet peeves, this might not surprise you, either.

I began this type of game when our children were quite small. It was a slower volley back then, with me asking their favorite color, favorite books, favorite animals, and favorite foods? I already knew the answers, from paying attention to those four little beauties. I treasured their opinions and preferences; I wanted them to not only be known, but to know that they were known; beloved. And then, their little voices from the backseat would return the favor, peppering me with questions. They especially enjoyed posing the same ones, time and again. It felt like a test: Is Mom really listening? Will she tell the truth?

I remember one day, driving home from the park, the heat oppressive. My iced lemonade sat perched, perspiring in the minivan’s cupholder, and even with the AC cranked full blast, we were sweltering. The boys had guzzled their juice boxes, ballcaps all crooked, cheeks crimson. They had even peeled off their socks in a desperate attempt to cool down. To pass time, Jacob began the question game: Mommy, what is your favorite season?

Mentally I thought: Well, not this one, sweet pea.

As I prepared to answer aloud, I first took a sip of my cold drink.

This must have taken a bit too long, because I heard Caleb’s gravelly voice:

Remember, Jacob? Her favorite season is fall. It’s always fall.

Oh, to be known.

The pure sweetness of those long days and flashing years echoes deep. I see now the gift of those hours stacked upon hours, a long string of days with my children; the character-forming and shaping, the consistency built without shortcuts. Time and work and repetition paving the quotidian path for trust and security to take root. I made so many mistakes, but God saw fit to work through my lack.

Children are onions, made up of thin layers. As their mother, it was my joy to gently peel layer by layer; learning them; understanding that they, too, are image-bearers of God, unique and quite separate from me. Children begging for both boundaries and freedom, but ultimately requiring freedom within boundaries to flourish.

The mother and child relationship is tender. A baby is carried and slowly formed for the better part of a year, and there is a knowing of that tiny person. And then, with the birthing, comes a sudden severing of the oneness. The baby cries, disoriented by the bright lights and cold air; the harsh separation. The mother cries out with pain, followed by swift joy and a holy fear at the weight of her treasure. I remember for weeks after the birth of each of our babies, awakening from snippets of sleep in a flooding panic, realizing all over again that they were no longer safely growing within, but were separated from me, an arm’s length away in their bassinette, which might as well have been oceans away in my sleep-deprived stupor. The cord had been cut.

Thus began the lifelong ebb and flow: the pulling in and nurturing, the sending off in independence, the pulling in of loving and training, the sending out to leave and make their own way, the pulling in of please come home anytime, coupled with the willingness to step outside, barefoot on the porch, waving goodbye with a full, aching heart, genuinely happy for their adulthood, while utterly missing the olden days when every little stairstep was tucked safely into bed by eight o’clock.

***

Writing is not so different.

Each story grows and flutters within, and is held safely until it is born. And then once it is out there in the big wide world, I am relieved yet left wondering what ever possessed me to let it go. I hold a loving attachment to each piece: a longing to serve my reader well, yet pondering if the words might have missed the mark. Every story is as unique as each of my children, yet there is a resemblance, a solidarity of voice, just as each of my children holds a portrait of familial likeness. Separate yet similar and uniquely cherished.

Ultimately I do my best and let the story go. The baby has been prayed over and birthed, and I have already asked God to please make it true and beautiful and read by those of his choosing. The story sprouts wings and is gone. After a few days, I begin stitching together the next one.

My stories are born from paying attention to tiny details; threads pulled and woven. Snippets of conversation, observing beauty in the great outdoors, hearing a string of words that sparks a memory, wrangling goodness in life’s hard crevices. I keep a notebook of things I see and words that dance and stories I remember, hoping to eventually mix them together to awaken something in my reader. Most of my notes are yet untapped. These things take time.

I think of writing in this space as the onion approach: the gentle pulling back of layers, inviting the reader to figure it out.

Instead of writing this:

I prefer cold weather. I like to exercise outside. I enjoy when our whole family is at home together for dinner.

I bid you to understand with this:

Three Favorite things. Go.

Soft hoodies, long trail walks, a crowded family table with elbows bumping, dishes passed, laughter and clinking silverware.

How to write? Sit down and do the work, no matter what. Attention, time, labor, repeat. There are many days I write for an hour or more and ultimately scrap the entire mess. This is not a waste of time. It is part of the process that yields the finished piece. Also, take a break and go live. Take a walk, clean the kitchen, read books formed by another, enjoy coffee with a friend, wash the car. Words often come when you are not drumming your fingers impatiently.

The work of writing is costly for the author: born of heart and soul and stretches of time.

The reader is the recipient of the final draft only; he will never know the dreadful beginnings, the bleeding out, the middle parts of despair, the jagged margins, nor should he. The finished work is his gift.

***

This morning I drove our daughter to work in the early morning, and coming home, it was still dark. As I accelerated over a hill, I was astonished to see the moon hanging low in front of me: swollen, massive, buttery bright and breathtaking. I felt as though I could stretch and touch it; as though it might swallow me up. What joy to be alone with God and his magnificent moon.

Yet there was a twin longing: to share this early morning beauty with someone, to bring others inside the goodness of God, to be surprised with me by the Creator and all of his masterpieces.

So I write.

(This week’s post is my response to Abigail who so kindly nominated me for the Liebster Award.)

Between the Lines

The best kind of books are the ones you enter, roaming along the edges before diving headlong into the middle, lost in the pages that have become real. The types of stories where you are right there and have grown incapable of hearing the ringing doorbell or whistling tea kettle; the tales where you travel alongside the characters: dashing through an airport, or sitting scrunched up at the school desk in the back of ninth-grade homeroom, or chopping onions at a kitchen island flush with natural lighting, or hiking the Appalachian Trail, shivering alongside the protagonist as they warm their hands fireside, bandage their blistered heel, or dodge a hungry wolf.

My utter favorites are the ordinary, the mundane slice-of-life variety discovered in novels or memoirs that provoke tears to fall and laughter to bubble up and the deepest of sighs because the author just granted words to your pain, confusion, and pleasures. There is a knowing in these kind of books, where the pages cannot be flipped quickly enough; a type of read where you dread the final page because that means the end will arrive and the story will be over. You are left lingering, turning the saga over in your mind, thirsting for more.

I have kept what I refer to as my Life Book for fifteen years. It is a notebook, categorized by calendar year, (I am fond of old-fashioned paper and pen) with a list of books that I have read. The excellent ones receive a star, of which there are precious few, and the finest, the most gripping, the life-changing cannot put down type receive three stars.

If you are a Christ-follower and a reader, it becomes essential to work out your own reading plan. As a voracious book-lover, I have learned, through trial and error, to happily trust the Holy Spirit to guide my reading. I understand that what I read will shape both my thinking and my writing. It is impossible for it not to, because of the sheer amount of words that I absorb.

My favorite English professor from my college days spoke to this very thing with a bold: Think people. Chew up the meat and spit out the bones. Use the brains that God gave you, and be discerning. Read broadly and understand that all truth belongs to God. I have taken this to heart ever since she spoke these words decades ago.

I probably tend to read a bit less broadly than others, only because I know my own weakness when it comes to beautiful writing; I recognize my proclivity to be swept away with the lovely, even if it is untrue. I don’t mean only a stellar storyline; but the beauty with which words are spun. There is a balance I have learned to mentally weigh, but in a nutshell, I have learned to question: Is this beautiful and is this true? I have not always been right.

The Bible is the only perfect book ever written, and if I split hairs over every single thing I disagree with in regards to other books, I would read nothing at all, thus missing untold treasures and truths and delights. This would be a shame, as my imagination and understanding and compassion would also fade. Books are passports, flinging wide the gates to varying perspectives and time periods and heartaches and triumphs. Good books, beautifully written and true, broaden us in the best of ways.

***

For as long as I can remember, I have loved animals. Especially big dogs, with an acute fondness for Golden Retrievers. This stems back to my childhood, where for my first twelve years, we were not allowed to own a dog. I grew up in a pretty New England farmhouse, divided into apartments, where our landlord did not permit large pets. We had fish and gerbils and outdoor rabbits, all of whom I loved. But at the end of the day, these sweet creatures could not satisfy my deep ache for a dog.

Half a mile up the street, our neighbors owned a horse, whom I spoiled with apples and carrots in a semi-regular fashion. I stroked his nose and told him my deepest thoughts. He listened while innocently chewing grass, and I daydreamed about having my own farm some day. But that wish remained a dim flicker compared to my burning for a dog. Some days, while petting the horse, I was lucky enough to see Happy.

Happy was the farm owner’s Golden Retriever, who lived every square inch up to his name, wagging and jumping and licking my face. I stroked his benevolent head, scratching behind his ears as my mother visited with our neighbor. When he flopped down and panted, extending his paw to rest on my arm, I was a goner. Completely smitten.

Many years later, when our youngest child was two, I carefully snipped a slim blurb in our newspaper, advertising: Puppies for Sale. Golden Retrievers with papers, for a mere $250. I waved the clipping under my husband’s nose, looking directly at him with my large and hopeful eyes. He raised an eyebrow knowingly, and said We’ll see. And then, a few weeks later, we buckled up four excited children, and drove three hours into the middle of absolutely nowhere to choose our puppy.

The dam was sweet and subdued, licking her many puppies. She was gorgeous, with a shiny, glistening coat of deep red. We chose our dog and christened him Noah. As we were preparing to leave, my husband asked to see the sire. The couple hemmed and hawed, then motioned, albeit sheepishly, to a distant pen, mumbling: He’s a tad hyper today. Jon gave me a look, and I followed, with slowly fluttering heart to the pen. Noah’s father was splendid: large and perfectly proportioned, a lighter coat than his dam, stately and impressive. As it goes, Noah ended up being his carbon copy, in more ways than we bargained for.

Noah’s sire was wild. As soon as he spied us, he began barking and leaping, his four paws quite literally air born. He beheld a crazed look, and his barking never once ceased. Jon stepped behind me and whispered: Now I know why these puppies are only $250. Are you sure you still want him? I felt a shadow, a foreboding, but nodded determinedly, already swooning at this this darling bundle of fur in my arms. I was quite beyond reason.

Noah proved to be a lot. He was an anxious dog, but for whatever reason, set his affections upon me. I have never seen such unbridled favoritism. He followed me everywhere, and as time went on, would bark five minutes before I returned from any outing or errand. Our family grew used to it, but it was odd that he instinctively knew when I was nearing home. Each night, he circled then thumped on his dog cushion next to my side of our bed, and whenever I so much as sneezed, would place a paw firmly on my arm, watching me with mournful, worried eyes.

I registered him for puppy classes at the local pet store, and although he quickly mastered the commands: Sit, Stay, Down, Heel, he remained nervous, mouthing my hands gently as a type of pacifier during class. We started referring to him as Needy Noah.

One Christmas season, while Noah was still young and in training, Jon and I sat down to watch a movie. I clipped Noah’s leash to his collar, teaching him to obey the Stay command while at my feet. On this particular night, he repeatedly attempted to lurch towards the dining room. I kept tugging him back, urging Stay, which he obeyed for a moment, before lurching again. This was unusual, because although a bit wild, he typically longed to obey me.

Crazy dog, Jon said.

I think he is trying to tell us something, I responded. Jon wasn’t buying what I was selling.

As he lurched again, I intentionally let go of the leash and watched as he flew into the dining room, suddenly barking. I followed, and to my horror saw that a candle had fallen from the window and was burning a hole in our carpet. He had sniffed out danger and alerted us. I was so proud of him and praised him wildly. This story eventually became Noah’s Magnum Opus, one I would dredge up every time he misbehaved, (which was often), as I watched my longsuffering husband shake his head and sigh.

Noah lived for nine-and-a-half years, and the older he grew, the more bad-tempered he became with everyone except me. When cancer ultimately had its way, I cradled him as he breathed his last, his eyes locked with mine until the very end. I kissed him goodbye at that sweet spot between his eyes that had always smelled so clean, like fabric softener. I cried for days.

***

Noah certainly wasn’t for everyone, and his hyper-active jumping and anxious barking understandably annoyed many. But his immeasurable, and singular devotion to me was irresistible, and I loved him, craziness and all. We have owned a string of Golden Retrievers since, and their dispositions have been sweet and happy. Jon loves one now, and would do anything for her. I smile knowingly at his devotion, while remembering Noah.

Good books are like dogs. Different personalities and preferences and styles will lend themselves to favorites. What bursts open your heart in a certain book, might not spark others. I recommend chewing up the meat and spitting out the bones as you travel the reading road.

My Three-Star Favorites:

At Home in Mitford – by Jan Karon (I recommend the entire series which I have read through countless times.)

Educated – Tara Westover (A stunning and heart-wrenching memoir with splendid writing.)

The Pleasures of God – John Piper (This book has played a tremendous role in shaping my walk with Christ.)

Some One-Star Favorites:

Little Britches – by Ralph Moody

Stepping Heavenward – Elizabeth Prentiss

The Hiding Place – Corrie TenBoom

Safely Home – Randy Alcorn

Papa’s Wife – by Thyra Ferre Bjorn

God’s Smuggler – by Brother Andrew van der Bijl, Elizabeth and John Sherrill

An Invisible Thread – by Alex Tresniowski and Laura Schroff

True Companion: Thoughts on Being a Pastor’s Wife – by Nancy Wilson

Lad: A Dog – by Albert Payson Terhune

Shiloh – by Phyllis Naylor

Bruchko – by Bruce Olson

Wish You Well – by David Baldacci

Keep a Quiet Heart -Elisabeth Elliot (every book by Elisabeth Elliot is a worthy read)

Eight Twenty-Eight: When Love Didn’t Give Up – by Ian and Larissa Murphy

Mama’s Bank Account – by Kathryn Forbes

Crow Lake – by Mary Lawson

A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss – by Jerry Sittser

The Sun is Still Shining on the Other Side – Margaret Jensen

Becoming Elisabeth Elliot – Vaughn

Please Stay

The sun sifted through the treetops, filtering its way through the new buds of leaves visible on slender branches. I walked the familiar trail, enjoying clean spring air. This walk is impressive during each season, swaying from green leaves and bright flowers to dazzling autumn splendor, from brown leaves crunching to the soft whispers of snow.

While looking upward at these enduring giants, whose limbs hang over the stillness of the pond, I tripped.

Catching myself, I glanced down at the worn path, where a massive root twisted its way along the trail, mostly embedded beneath the dirt, but occasionally rearing. My foot had tangled in it, causing me to stumble, but of course doing no harm to the tree itself. It is a behemoth of a beauty, which based on stature and breadth, is ancient. Old and anchored to this impressive patch of land.

***

I grew up watching our congregation receive the bread and wine on the first Sunday of each month. Our pastor grasped a freshly baked loaf of bread, each end wrapped in a white cloth napkin. He ripped the loaf in half, and careful to cradle each end in cloth, passed the broken halves to both sides of the congregation. Up and down the pews, each person tearing a small piece before passing. And then:

Jesus said, Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.

The rhythm of this unchanged Lord’s Supper, month by month, year by year, was a continual reminder of the broken body of Christ. The tearing of the loaf felt painful and beautiful; somber and hopeful.

One day, however, a church member grew offended. She and her husband had voiced their complaint over the lack of proper hygiene in the passing and plucking of the loaf, but to no avail. Nothing had changed in their favor, and growing incensed, they grabbed their marbles, plus a few other members, and marched to another church playground, never to return.

The seeds of division festered.

***

This world is full of many who are applauding each other for leaving their churches, taking a break, venturing to greener pastures, or staying home and nursing grievances. Everyone is offended at the injustices of this life, and sin in the body of Christ. While I am not condoning any sin, I ponder mostly the injustice done to Jesus, hanging nailed to the cross, the only perfect man and a perfect God. He died for the sins of his people, for his bride, the church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail (Matthew 16:18).

To those of you tempted to hop on this bandwagon named Departure, I ask you to please stay.

My husband is also my pastor, and most Sundays, after he preaches, and we walk to the back to greet people, I whisper: great message. And then we turn to converse with our congregation as they exit the sanctuary.

What I really mean by great message is this: Your words deeply offended me today. As you preached, I realized how often I sin, and then, as you read supporting Scriptures, my heart was pricked. I took notes and apologized to God, asking him to help me repent, obey, and delight in him. As I confessed, God softened my heart, and opened my ears to hear his truth. So although I might have stepped into the service worried about this, and annoyed by that, I have now spent an hour and a half upon the Great Surgeon’s operating table, and have become more overwhelmed with my own sin than I am with getting my own way.

Each one of us is prone to reverse this, swimming along the current of culture, feeling completely justified with our toddler approach of demanding our rights, and our way, and completely ignoring our sin.

I have discovered that there is only one thing destroyed by my repentance, and that is my pride.

Please stay.

Stay in your Bible preaching church with imperfect people, imperfect pastors and imperfect teachers. Stay and commit to hiding God’s word in your heart, reading and meditating every single day. Stay and humbly repent of your own sins. Stay and pray for others. Stay and serve. Stay and speak a kind word. Stay and confront a grievous sin. Stay and be confronted. Stay and forgive. Stay and encourage your pastor, who is often left alone to carry the weight of his calling and the weight of his flock. Stay and temper your complaints, placing them before the Almighty God in prayer before taking further action. Stay and put a hand on a discouraged shoulder, and in doing so encourage the entire church body to move towards unity. Stay and show forbearance and long-suffering; modeling commitment for your spouse, your children, and your grandchildren in the midst of this transient world. Stay and extend deference to the non-essential opinions of others. Stay and be the church without owning the church, because the church belongs to God.

Stay and be changed.

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like the chaff that the wind drives away. (Psalm 1: 1-4 ESV)

Becoming What We Behold

It was usually during the high heat of summer, when humidity swelled and sanctuary windows sat propped, begging a breeze, as women fanned themselves through the sermon, sweat trickling to their neckline, that someone mercifully planned the annual Ice Cream Social.

My childhood church, located in the heart of New England, did not have a gazillion potlucks, as do churches in the south. We held a yearly Sunday School picnic, in early September, checkered blankets scattered on the lawn, ushering in autumn’s splendor while bidding farewell to summer.

But July was the month for ice cream in the church basement, where the air settled cool and damp and musty.

To understand New England’s culture, it is important to know that going out for a cone, partaking in the rich, creamy goodness of Black Raspberry, Vanilla Swiss Almond, Pistachio, or Coffee Heath Bar, actually translates: Come along, my friend. Let’s slow and spend some time together enjoying life. We can sit on picnic benches or lawn chairs, or walk and eat.

One particular year, a man named George was placed in charge of the organizing and scooping of ice cream at our church social. I thought he was a nice man but very old, which is humorous because he was probably in his late forties, my age now. George was a distance runner, and held to his own fashion standard: a short-sleeved dress shirt and shoestring necktie paired with athletic shorts, ankle socks, and running shoes. He was beyond slim, and sported a chin beard plus sideburns, bereft of mustache. George was in the habit of concocting green smoothies ages before anyone else even knew what they were, and was also prone to sharing health strategies that benefited him in all of the ways, to anyone who had the stamina to listen. He was known far and wide for his frugality, which made him an all-around horrible candidate for doling out ice cream.

Children were sweaty, squirmy and hungry, and exhausted parents were discussing the heat wave as they formed a line in the church basement. Heat waves in New England are short-lived, but back in the day few people had air-conditioned homes and cars, making for an uncomfortable stretch until the humidity broke. As our family neared the serving table, George scooped out the tiniest bit of ice cream I had ever seen into our styrofoam bowls. The amount would not have sufficed even a toddler. Folks were irritated, and jabbed at George, complaining about the miniscule portions, plus the no-name brand of ice cream.

George had certainly muddied the waters with his thrifty ways. He mentioned how much he had been able to shave from the church budget with his cheap brand, and if he scooped evenly, there might even be some left over. This was not the typical Ice Cream Social; in years past a friendly face would serve generously, even granting seconds. George remained unfazed, impervious to any criticism, lost in his own world, so it seemed, of pennies and nickels and green health drinks.

I thought of Grandpa, and how he would not approve of this Ice Cream Social one tiny bit. In fact, he was unlike George in every way.

***

Seattle has its coffee, Texas delights in barbeque, and the Deep South boasts sweet tea, but ice cream is New England’s love affair, the Rosetta Stone of the northeast. You haven’t tasted real ice cream until you have stepped out for a cone in that region of the United States. Quality ingredients and flavor reign. Cheap brands will never do.

It is astounding how many of my childhood memories are based around ice cream plus Grandpa, who treated his grandchildren as often as our parents would allow, sometimes sneaking it for us, regardless. Only as an adult did I learn that he had confessed these excursions to our parents, only because he did not want us to be tempted to lie.

Grandpa opened the jingly door to the ice cream parlor, and with a grand sweep of his hand, ushered me in with: Ladies first! then introduced my brother and me with pride to our grinning server: These are my grandchildren! Every server seemed to know my grandfather, which was no surprise. People always flocked to him. He made time for everyone and held the gift of easy conversation. It was a magical sort of gifting, and I was proud. He was not clever with tools, or repairs, or lawncare or cooking. He was simply excellent with people, which is pretty much the best gift of all.

We were encouraged to order anything we wanted, which often meant a fizzy Lime Rickey and grilled cheese followed by an ice-cream cone with jimmies. Grandpa then purchased a five gallon tub of vanilla, to haul home and stash in the basement freezer for later. Later was usually after dinner, which meant on those most special days, sprinkled throughout the year, we would have an afternoon cone and enjoy another dish of ice cream for dessert.

I remember sitting in the backseat of his Volvo (always a Volvo) eating my ice cream, swinging my legs, and listening to Grandpa sing Because He Lives along with the Bill and Gloria Gaither cassette tape. I studied his face in the rearview mirror, watching his round eyes pool with tears. I looked away, aching with the privacy of that moment. He would sometimes tell us that the goodness of God was wider than we could even imagine. It was a short conversation, which oddly enough strengthened the impact. His words fell softly upon a tender place in my heart.

I remember one weekend my brother and I were staying overnight at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. They treated us to a cone before taking us to the movie theatre, which was a big deal back then. The night was unexpectedly cool, and we were chilly after our ice cream. On the way to the theatre, Grandpa turned onto a different road, despite our grandmother’s protests: Bob, we will miss the movie!

No grandchildren of mine will be cold if I can help it, he said and we giggled. He parked the car at Jordan Marsh where he then purchased the nicest sweatshirts the store offered, telling us that quality always mattered; it was good to buy things that would last.

I was probably six or seven at the time, and I still remember that warm feeling inside, which had nothing to do with the sweatshirt I pulled over my head. Grandpa loved us, and it dazzled brilliantly…fireworks lighting up my world. I peeked at his profile as we stepped into the theatre, and it was not so hard to imagine the very face of God.

***

The beauty of Grandpa was that he was full of kindness, grandeur, and authority. One long weekend, he and Grandma invited my brother and me, as well as our two cousins, for an overnight at their home on Washington Street. These cousins of ours were known to bicker endlessly, and this weekend proved no exception.

Grandma scooped ice cream for each of us to enjoy as we sat on their wide front porch. One cousin complained that his portion was smaller than his brother’s, and suddenly a fist-fight erupted. My brother and I stood, horrified, as Grandma tried to peel the two apart. One was so angry that he turned and punched Grandma in the stomach, just as Grandpa appeared.

Grandpa’s eyes widened. He grabbed his grandson’s arm, and propelled him upstairs where he received a solid bit of discipline, on the seat of his pants.

No one ever lays a hand on your Grandma, he told us a bit later, when things had settled. We understood quite clearly.

The offender was not permitted any dessert that weekend, and that was the only time I ever saw Grandpa withhold ice cream; the only time he spanked a grandchild. The boundaries were firm: he meant business, and we knew it.

***

Sometimes I sit quietly and think of those childhood days spent with my grandfather, those moments that sparkled, and why his legacy still stirs. I believe it is this: I never wondered if he loved me, and I never had to earn his love.

He loved me simply because I was his granddaughter. Nothing more could be gained; nothing lost. His worn Bible was a testimony to his first love. He had been rescued by the grace of God, and he knew it; he beheld his salvation, and lived it, happily.

One day I will see him again, and I imagine we will take a stroll together, enjoying some ice cream, for old times’ sake.

Man of Sorrows

Perhaps, during this Holy Week, you are in a tender time, aching for a soft place to land.

Maybe someone you love will be missing at your Easter Table. Or a person whom you considered a true friend has betrayed you. Or you are walking out an unending loneliness, or a staggering illness. Maybe you have been cast aside, or are being mocked for your faith in Jesus. You are bone-weary, discouraged, and sad.

I was reading in Jude last week, and noticed a gem in the second part of verse one:

To those who are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ…

There it is. The gospel, tucked within a greeting: Called, beloved, and kept.

***

As a little girl, my grandparents drove me, weeks before Easter, to Topsy-Turvey, a dress store not too far from Washington Street. At the time, I was the only granddaughter in a sea of grandsons, and once per year they decided a new flowery dress was in order.

One spring, I fell for a white dress, sprinkled with tiny rose buds of pink, purple, and lavender, with a sky-blue sash. It was a swirly-twirly type of dress; an Easter outfit completed by the purchase of a pair of white tights and navy Mary-Janes. Most of my first-grade friends had shiny white patent leather Easter shoes, but in our family line, white shoes were strictly forbidden until after Memorial Day.

It’s just not done, Kristin. Miss Manners had spoken, and that was that. I also longed for pigtails, but had received a fashionable Dorothy Hamill haircut instead, much to my dismay.

We joined my mother’s large extended family after church on Easter Sunday, gathering at a fine restaurant, my grandfather’s treat. It was a delicious feast that began with the establishment’s famous popovers: a light and fluffy delicacy that staved off our hunger as we waited for our full-course lunch to arrive. I’m famished, Grandpa smiled to the waitress, as he handed her the basket to refill.

I was allowed to order a Shirley Temple with my holiday meal, feeling quite grown up while peeking at the Maraschino cherries speared and held by a cocktail pick, floating upright in my red fizzy drink. That is, until I spilled some liquid on my dress. My mother dabbed water from her glass onto the starched white napkin, trying to remove it, but the stain was stubborn. I suddenly felt like a baby and my eyes filled, embarrassed at spilling, humiliated by the stain, and self-conscious of my navy shoes and short hair. I had eaten too many jelly beans and Peeps before church, and suddenly my small world was a dishonorable mess. I was grumpy on the inside, and remember, even now, the loneliness of that moment.

***

I have always held holiday gatherings dear: everyone seated at long tables with pretty place settings, iced lemon water sweating in goblets, vases of fresh-cut flowers, elbows bumping and plates passing as tired stories are embellished and urged back to life while the coffee pot drips and desserts abound. The voices, the togetherness, the familiarity and feeling of belonging to something grander than our own selves is powerful.

I have discovered that sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering is more powerful still.

There was a time, a handful of years ago, when our family experienced back-to-back sufferings, inflicted by the hands of others. Our pain and utter disbelief left us reeling. It was as though we had fallen headlong into a damp, dark cellar, believing that we had surely hit bottom, only to be hurled down another flight and yet another, landing with a hard thump.

I do not yet have any more words for that time, and perhaps never will. I wish I could say that I pulled myself together and soared above my heartache, and everything eventually returned to normal, but that would be to dishonor the nature of suffering. Things never return to business as normal when God takes us through agony; permitting pain that scalds. We exit those waters changed, and in my experience we step onto dry ground walking with a limp. Suffering forms us, and this too is the Lord’s doing. We become like our Cruciform King, bearing permanent scars.

The Mariana Trench is the deepest place on Earth, located in the South Pacific, descending nearly seven cavernous miles. The thought of those dark, frigid waters both frightens and fascinates me. There is ocean life at this abyss, and I marvel that God has created sea creatures for his good pleasure that can function in those pitch recesses. Creatures that we will neither see nor touch. But he fashioned it all, and knows precisely what lies beneath.

Likewise, Jesus knows the depths of our personal suffering. He endured immeasurable loss, betrayal, and an agonizing death at Golgotha, not to mention the loneliness of that dank burial tomb. After three days, he arose majestic, springing up from those depths, and in faith, we will too, after our lifetime of joys and hardships has been completed. God created each of us in secret, designing us with unique fingerprints and sufferings, shrouded in his good and holy purpose. Heaven will be stunning, and we will always belong, tethered to Christ, gifted as heirs with the riches of his Resurrection. A perpetual banquet feast of unbridled joy.

It took me years, but I can now say that I would not change those hard crevices of suffering within my life’s story, even if I could wield such powers. I see now that God knows me best, and my suffering is designed to burn off the dross of myself, forcing me to cling only to him.

My encouragement, suffering one, is to remember Jude’s salutation: as a believer, you are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ.

***

At times we all feel like a child in stained Easter clothes, filled up with sweets that never satisfy, our hearts longing for more. Jesus came to rescue us, in all of our wretchedness and sin and brokenness, suffering in his descension from heaven to this tainted earth. That is the truest love. To pull ourselves up by our own strength is both futile and prideful, and misses the whole magnificence of our rescue by Christ. He sympathizes with our frailties and our sufferings, this Man of Sorrows who is now preparing a place for us, keeping his own forever.

He is fully alive.

Humility Precedes Him

Per doctor’s instructions, I stepped into the scalding shower, hand pressed for support on the tiled wall, inhaling a deep gulp of steam. Suddenly, I gasped, coughing and choking while trying only to breathe, desperate for air.

***

One week prior, I had flown home from an extensive, precautionary surgery. Dropping my shoulder bag, I embraced my family, one-by-one, joyful for a return to the warp and woof of precious mundane. Our sons had spent the entire day installing drywall for a friend, and now lingered in our kitchen, sipping iced coffee, hair damp from showers, smelling of cologne and laundry detergent. Jacob’s face was flushed.

Are you feeling okay? I asked, and he nodded.

I pressed the back of my hand to his forehead. It was on fire.

104 degrees, as it turned out.

This quarterback son of ours was in the thick of his senior year football season. News stories fired rapidly: virulent flu epidemics were sweeping our county, wiping out entire teams. A few local high schools had boarded up, waiting for this sickness to spindle.

I spent the next few days pressing cool compresses on Jacob’s head, persuading him to sip broth and Gatorade, while urging down a few saltines and applesauce to bed his stomach for ongoing ibuprofin. I stripped his sheets twice per day, spinning the dial hot on the washing machine, tipping more detergent in as I waged all-out war on this invisible contagion. His bedding was drenched from profuse sweating as the fever raged and abated, raged and abated: endless waves in a sea of ache.

There’s nothing else to be done, the pediatrician sighed, when I called, frantic at his weight loss, excessive fatigue, and pallor. If his fever spikes over 104, bring him straight to the ER.

I slept little, fear rising tall.

But then one morning Jacob asked for toast. He was shaky and pale, but hungry and feverless. My relief was sweet, and short lived. By morning, everyone else was bedridden, except for me.

That next week was a blur: measuring medicines and keeping charts, scouring bathrooms, serving oyster crackers and tiny ramekins of applesauce, taking cat naps, hauling laundry: repeat. Five days later, when everyone was asking for soup and more toast, please, I was grateful to have bypassed this terrible flu.

Or so I thought.

The aches began suddenly, and I was chilled. I sped to our local walk-in: a precautionary measure because of my recent surgery.

I was labeled Flu-B, and remember telling the doctor I did not feel too terrible, except for an odd feeling in my chest: a shortness of breath. She pulled a cobalt breathing apparatus out of her metal drawer, measuring my oxygen levels while I inhaled then exhaled, informing me all was well. Measurements were perfect. I had a slight cough, all part of this horrific flu.

I want you to go home, and take a long steaming shower. Breathe deeply, and it will help. She signed a prescription for an inhaler, just in case.

It’s precautionary, she smiled. I don’t believe you will need it. But you will feel very poorly, come morning. This I most definitely knew, after watching my family flounder in near delirium for a week.

But no one else had labored breathing, I told her. This seems different.

Hot shower, she pointed at me, all teacher-like. And rest. You will be fine.

***

I have shared words about this son of ours. Quarterback is code for leader, commander, captain, guide. At some point this description is insufficient for Jacob. He is all of those things and more, wrapped in a blanket of gentleness and humility.

***

I could not breath as the water beat hot on my back. I inhaled, and a seal-like barking cough erupted from my chest as I gasped. My daughter, only eleven at the time, heard it and banged on the bathroom door.

Mom, are you okay?

The cough abated, allowing me a momentary breath.

I need a doctor, I wheezed.

In that moment, I would have told you I was dying. My thoughts were sharp, and as I pulled one leg and then the other into my sweatpants, I knew only that I must get dressed before anyone found me. I pulled a t-shirt over my head, but did not untangle my wet hair.

Then, Jacob knocking.

Mom? I am taking you back to the clinic. Can I come in? He had just returned from football practice, and it was a Wednesday. My husband was teaching our Wednesday night church service, and had already left.

I tried to answer, and the gasping began. I remember hearing Lauren sobbing, and Jacob assuring her that all would be well, and to please get in the car. He opened the bathroom door, and seeing the terror in my eyes, remained calm. You might have thought we were going for an amble in the park. It was the same face he held when orchestrating his team down the field and scoring. The effect was soothing; I felt courage flicker.

It’s okay, Mom. We’re getting help. He led me to the back door.

My hat, I wheezed. He found it, handing me my New England Patriots ball cap, to cover my damp hair.

***

As Jacob later spread his wings in college, he was called Tom Brady by students and professors. At that time, Brady was rocking and rolling as the New England Patriots quarterback. Their faces are remarkably alike, so much so in fact, that our son was part of a university article regarding doppelgangers, the name for true look-alikes.

The Patriots are our team, (well, for four out of the six of our family members) and by that I mean they are our team. We take these things seriously in our household, and Jacob had spent his entire boyhood keeping a scrapbook of all things Tom Brady and New England Patriots. To top it off, he threw the ball just like Brady, which made this whole look-alike thing fun.

He downplayed it all, laughing and waving it off, turning the tide of all conversation towards the person before him. So how about you? Do you have a favorite team? Genuine humility is a super magnet; especially for the unrecognized, the marginalized, the outcasts. It is warm, inviting, and kind. The arrogant remain mystified by its pull.

***

Jacob was breaking records his junior and senior year in high school. He never spoke of it, just played and executed, played and encouraged. While Tom Brady was slinging insults at his receivers who dropped passes, Jacob was signaling plays with calm authority, patting backs of those who dropped his spirals. I had a solid view, perched high in those Friday night bleachers, adoring those arched passes of beauty, artistic in their seamless execution. The result of years of practice and whole-hearted love for the game. Jacob’s goodness and kindness towards everyone was prodigious in itself; pulling the excellence out of each athlete, who trusted their quarterback. They simply knew that he desired victory with integrity.

***

By the time Jacob peeled into the clinic, I assumed I wasn’t dying, although each time I coughed, it felt as though I would never again draw breath. With each cough, I would gasp, desperately sucking in air, willing my lungs to open.

The doctor rushed me into the back room, recognizing me from earlier in the day. Days later, Jacob told me that he was frightened when I struggled to breathe in that office, because of the terror on the doctor’s face; her charts and notes and equipment falling useless.

She fumbled again for the blue breathing apparatus, and asked me to inhale, reporting that my oxygen levels were good.

But she can’t breathe, Jacob said evenly. She needs to go to the hospital right now.

I looked at the fear in my daughter’s eyes, and asked Jacob to care for his sister. Please take her home, and tell your dad, I gasped.

We’ll be fine, Mom. And so will you.

He hugged me and they left.

***

Over time, I have watched him serve the biggest slice of his favorite pie to another. I have seen him empty the dishwasher when no one is paying attention; when it would have been easier to pluck one clean glass and shut the rest inside for another to empty. I have noticed him caring for the neglected, tender in his words, hand upon slumped shoulder, quiet; inconspicuous. I have watched him deny himself the chance to be proven right by not correcting. I have known him to stop in the middle of the road and lift a turtle to safety, and I have seen him sing as he works, joyful in hardships. I have observed him step away from insults, diffusing a crisis by calm retreat rather than retort. I have watched him rise up to defend us, his family. His protective instincts know no bounds, and his friendships eclipse only the arrogant. I have never once had to repeat myself to him: he listens with entirety, remembering stories and preferences and details; holding them with surety and precision. Jacob’s Bible is continuously open on the counter, his bed, and his desk; worn-out, marked, cherished.

His soul is an entire table, really. A banquet feast of fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

***

The doctors in the ER told me that the flu had uniquely manifested itself in my lungs, leading to difficult breathing. They kept me overnight, and provided an inhaler. I limped home the next day, where the flu took a wicked turn, wiping me out for a week as it had my family. But I could breathe.

***

When Caleb (who had bypassed the whole Flu-B saga, away at college at the time) became engaged, he asked Jacob to be his best man.

During Caleb and Natalia’s reception, following their vows, we danced and laughed and twirled, long dresses and suits swishing, uncomfortable shoes kicked off, fire pit hot as guests warmed their hands in the chill. Then the music paused. It was speech time. Jacob stepped forward, under the tent, sparkly lights glowing over the planks of the dance floor. Tears sprang up as I watched him stand before his older brother, one of his best friends. I held on to those memories now whipping through my mind: their childhood years spent sharing a bedroom, building Legos and forts, riding bikes and playing football together.

This best man pulled his speech from his suit pocket, thanking everyone for attending his brother’s wedding. He looked directly at Caleb and told him he loved him. He then shared a childhood memory which illuminated the kindness of Caleb. Everyone leaned in, loving the story, which concluded with: And this is why, you, Caleb, are really the best man.

Caleb’s eyes filled; we were all undone. Jacob shared several more vignettes, repeatedly ending with: And this is why, you, Caleb, are really the best man.

It was a speech for the ages.

***

There is a scene in The Wizard of Oz, a moment where everything comes crashing down, truth is revealed.

Toto, the tiny dog, yanks back the curtain of secret powers. The jig is up: this Wizard is a mere mortal. His entire existence was a sham, and he had deceived his entire kingdom, pretending to be something he was not.

I have seen the curtain pulled back in Jacob’s life, revealing his secret. There, within, lies a bridge called Abiding. A bridge leading directly to the Lord, a bridge that Jacob chooses to travel each day. There is a hidden gem that he practices rather than preaches. It goes something like this: Love God most and go live your life.

***

Not too long ago, Jon and I sat in the living room, catching up with Jacob, now a man who writes articles by day and songs by night, singing his stories handsomely. He had been given a work assignment to cover a news story about a well-known Christian artist who was encouraging music majors at a local university.

What’s he like? Jon asked.

Jacob paused, coffee mug in hand.

The only way I can think to describe him, is to say that humility goes before him.

How so? asked my husband.

Well, he walked into this huge gathering, and he noticed others, stopping to speak to everyone. Sometimes these famous people have a list of needs or demands. He was the opposite of that, relaxed and peaceful, and was interested in hearing the music and stories of the students. I have never seen anything like it. Very cool. He smiled, just thinking of it.

Never seen anything like it? I thought. But our son had just perfectly described himself.

And then, a flash of knowing: the truly humble never regard their own humility. Of course

Humility precedes him.

Home

Last Thanksgiving, I slipped out of bed early, and seasoned an enormous turkey, wrangling it, with the help of our son, Jacob, into our new electric roaster oven. We circled the salt and pepper shakers, grinding them generously over the raw bird before placing the lid on top, covering it with a dish towel, and willing it to cook up juicy and tender in this new contraption. Our son brewed a steaming pot of coffee, pouring us each a generous cup, and splashing it with half-and-half as we set to rolling out the apple pie and crumbling the crisp. Lauren soon joined us, and together we chopped and diced and chattered and laughed and sang along to some favorite tunes that we told Alexa to play.

Slowly, our home awakened as the sun brightened our bustling kitchen. Caleb and his new bride appeared, so happy, his wedding band shiny on the small of her back. As my husband set up folding tables and chairs, our daughter-in-love’s family rang the doorbell, with yet more casseroles, after-dinner-mints, and hugs all around. Soon, our home was ablaze with family and friends, conversation, delicious aromas, good will, and laughter.

We lined up the pretty platters beneath the window of our swarming kitchen. I delighted to see our sons sampling the fare before our feast began, nodding in pleasure to no one in particular. My heart was full, with this gift of expanding family, this glorious feast; the togetherness of it all. The beauty of that moment only matched the joy of the people in our home. It was a cheer to the future, and I felt the presence of God in our kitchen, as we thanked him for this one precious life; his kindness and goodness stretching towards us in both the good and the hard.

I wanted to hold on to that precious day; it felt like a sliver of heaven.

***

I sailed away to a conference recently, driving alone for miles through the foothills of our state. This respite from the mundane was something that I have often neglected, due to good things crowding out soul things. Those stretches of highway, navigating the winding roads through violet hues of mountains, cattle grazing slant on hills, old chipped farmhouses nestled into the land, chimney smoke swirling, opened my heart to our Creator.

I was entirely unprepared for the soul places that were pierced during this conference. As Christians shared their craft, their burdens, their good and failing habits, I scribbled fast notes. It was a steady stream of experience and wisdom; flashing sparks of clarity: that sense C.S. Lewis spoke of when he said: Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”

Although I did not befriend anyone, (it was not that type of interactive setting), there were many What? You too? moments. Writing is a solitary habit, dwelling in a distant mental space that takes on a entire kingdom of its own. It is good to remember to occasionally swing open the door and return to solid ground; linking arms with living, breathing people.

The richest moment happened when one author moved to the podium, and read an entire chapter from his own book. It was memoirish in its unfolding: his sentences were haunting, lovely, and true, all swirled together, falling softly upon fertile soil. I know this because I was not the only one dabbing my eyes. I cannot even remember the last time I have been the grateful recipient of such winsome words. His story carried familiar pain, and his scars spun golden beauty on the page, thoughts that I am still gathering and turning over in my mind. He shared of his elusive longing for home.

He also spoke of a time when a mentor urged him to pay attention, to heed those seemingly trivial moments in life that bring tears or a throat lump: whether while watching a movie, or reading a book, or listening to music. Those tender spots just might be the very places that God longs to heal. How often do we rush past these emotions, rather than understanding them to be maps? Maps leading to all sorts of unfinished business. It is good to be still, to be quiet and alone with the Lord. To ponder these things while reminding ourselves that He is God and we are not (Psalm 46:10). An invitation to pay attention to what God is choosing to do in and through us; in our ordinary days that often slip by without our full attention.

***

In soon to be twenty-seven years of marriage, we have held many addresses. While this sounds adventurous and perhaps romantic to those filled with wanderlust, it lodged and settled: a mountainous ache within. Something I continually tripped over.

I lived my childhood remembering only two homes, and for the first twelve years of my life spent in that old New England farmhouse, flush with four, sharp, brilliant seasons and outdoor beauty, romping and reveling with my brother in this outdoor realm, place was magnificent. God used his creation to draw me to himself: his handiwork on display in the fresh country air, baled hay in our back field, burning foliage, stone walls, ripened raspberries and apple orchards, ponds, and tall, heavy snow drifts. These things spelled home, and even as a little girl pedaling my bike up the road to deliver a shiny apple to our neighbor’s horse, I remember sensing that my heart might just burst at the goodness of God’s creation. I thanked him for it as I smiled big and pedaled on, tousled hair blowing in the breeze while I pumped my bicycle. I would have been deeply embarrassed to share this unbounded joy with anyone, as it all sounded rather dramatic. Yet those unbroken waves of worship were soundlessly unbridled.

When Jon and I married, I held fast to a two-pronged wish: to live in one place forever, and for that one place to have seasons. God said No.

Part of that No had to do with the fact that my husband’s job was in the far south, which clearly excluded a changing of temperature. I acclimated, growing accustomed to a nagging longing, much like an annoying mosquito buzzing about my face every single September, without fail. Shielding my eyes from the scorching sun, I vainly scanned the horizon for any inkling of autumn.

We had been entrusted to raise four beauties, were blessed with friends, and were fostering the growing roots of community within our church. Eventually, we purchased what was to be our forever home. I had plans, which would not include buying soft sweaters or winter coats, but involved some dreamy garden schemes, a solid fort for our children, extended walks around the community lake, spying alligators and Great blue herons, and who knows? Maybe one day, we would even add a swimming pool to our backyard.

What I did not know, was that within a year, we would hammer a For Sale sign in our front yard and hike across the country, to a space with wide open sky minus those four spinning seasons, a rootless place with no established community. We were beginning all over again, and I was tired. While all of this was unfolding, I bore a deep sorrow for failing our children. They would never know the joy of standing firmly in one spot, tending to one specific patch of earth, diving headlong into community that remained constant.

Of course, now, in hindsight, I am able to poke all kinds of holes in my faulty thinking: communities change, God has different plans for our children than he does for us, and we must learn to be joyfully open to the Lord’s direction in our lives. But honestly? I still wish I could have given our now-grown children the gift of singular place. It is a thorn in my flesh, this longing for a forever home, a splinter that disappears and returns, unexpected.

***

As our keynote speaker read his own words, he shared of his nomadic pain as a pastor’s son. He had loved his home, his neighborhood, and those four clear seasons. When his father accepted a pastorate in the South, it crushed him, in all kinds of ways. In time, as a man gazing back over the landscape, he was able to see God’s magnificent redemption woven throughout his story. He recognized that he had regrettably kindled his disappointment and ache for what was into a steady blaze of anger, which blinded him to the goodness to be found in the today; to all of those things he might have learned.

I appreciated his humble admission that he still longs for that elusive home on earth. Acknowledging this, rather than pretending that everything ended up just so, sang of both credibility and vulnerability to this audience of strangers seated before him. He knows that his heart beats for eternity with God, yet he simultaneously lives in an aging body, as we all do, full of memories and broken dreams. The beautiful truth is that one day, all things will be made new. As Christians, we know that our story, through Jesus, ends in absolute perfection and joy, but even with this comfort and this hope, life remains hard.

A lump rose full in my throat as it stirred up that yearning for one place; for that permanent zip code. It was suddenly quite clear: this ache of mine is a map leading to my heart’s ultimate cry: for heaven, where Jesus has gone to prepare my forever home. He will take me safely there, one day, to be with him, forever (John 14:2-3).

***

I drove back from the conference, retracing my path through the winding, anchored mountains which appeared lovely, yet different in the still of evening as the sun fell, tossing long shadows. I was going home.