The real issue, as I see it, is that I don’t feel I’ve learned anything “for sure”—nothing clear or obvious that I can offer up, a complete meal on a clean plate. It’s all slop in the trough right now. I want to invite people to the table, to give them hearty, sustaining and good fare that will see them well on the way back out into the long cold night—but the best I can do, it seems, is throw some junk food at their feet as they pass. Maybe a wrinkled apple or two, drawn from deep in the cellars of memory. There may be some beef jerky way back in the pantry… but my table is sideways with the bottom being reinforced, and the state of the oven is deplorable.
Gollum and Long Division
If you have a train going 40 miles per hour, traveling from New York to Chicago, and another train going 45 miles per hour traveling from Chicago to New York, at what exact geographical point on the journey will those trains pass each other?
Did anyone else just experience a brief, but real rage response? Or a cold shudder borne of memories-of-horrific-moments-in-school past? What about a knee-jerk prayer, like Please, no, not again–?
If so, we are kindred, and I welcome you to my virtual hearthside.
Up until three years ago, if the subject of math had come up, I had but one response, like Gollum toward anyone who threatens his Precious: “WE HATES IT FOREVER!” I was forced to take all the way up to Calculus in High School and fared miserably, proving that math was, as I called it, my mortal nemesis.
But three years ago, when the subject of math came up and I gave my usual vehement response, a sage told me this: “You don’t hate math. No one hates absolute truths, perfectly created order. What you hate is being bad at something.”
Dang. That was a bitter pill to swallow. After a moment or two of wrestling, God showed it to me clearly: Pride. What I was jealously defending by declaring hatred of math was my actual nemesis, Pride. Pride was my Precious, and something that attacked and wounded my pride time and again I had always viewed as an enemy, rather than as a generous gift that would usher me along the paths of humility. When I screamed in spittle-flying anger at equations that made no sense and hard, hard work I didn’t feel like submitting myself to, I was a kindred to Gollum in his mountainous cavern of selfish darkness, spewing emotional venom at the gentle, kindly folk who harbored only goodness and truth, like my long-suffering, bespeckled math teachers of yore.
Three years later, and I have come to recognize fellow little Gollums in our family: our kiddos, confronted by long division, are regularly tempted to tears, and lamenting, and flopping about like Gollum on the end of his leash, claiming injustice and certain death at the beginning of every new math lesson. Thanks be to God, He opened my eyes to the real battle being fought years ago… so this is what math looks like in our home, for now:
As soon as the tears begin to burgeon, I have my kids recite their Math Mantra:
God made me able to do this.
I may have to work really, really hard.
But with Jesus, I will emerge victorious. (The overly dramatic language usually makes them giggle, which is a nice antidote to the math weepies.)
Then, the kids are invited to cuddle up next to me, where the battle is waged. We slowly go over the problems, and talk through each step. They mutter, and sigh. They erase with unnecessary force, but then laboriously begin again. Eventually, eventually, they do emerge victorious—the shouts of YES! ring off of our walls, and this battle’s victory is much, much the sweeter because it was so hard-fought and humbly won.
These are the days the children and I are learning much the same lessons: humility in the face of questions that seem so hard; courage and faith when confronted by problems that seem insurmountable. For them, it’s long division, and accepting that being not good at something is actually a gift, designed to soften their hearts and make them ever-more teachable. As a parent, it’s actually the same gift, wrapped in different packaging: I can’t really help my children until I’ve accepted the lessons my Heavenly Father has been teaching me. In order to do this, I need to stop raging like Gollum when faced with my own weakness and failure, and instead begin to accept my mental and spiritual poverty as gifts that will make my own heart willing to do the hard work necessary to learn the lessons that only humility can teach.
The Scariest Story and the Greatest Hero
This summer, we dove into Roald Dahl. He accompanied our family across the state of Washington, up mountainsides and deep into green pastures, baking in the smoke-hazed sun. Charlie and Danny and Willy and Mr. Fox were our clever, British-accented companions as our long days danced past on beaches and baseball fields, under fireworks and ankle-deep in creek beds. But only as our year returned to school schedules and shorter days did our oldest daughter acquiesce to spending time with my favorite Dahl heroine: Matilda. Glory came bouncing into our room one weekday night, eyes shining and hands clapping: “I finished, Mom! Matilda was sooo wonderful! And she’s with Miss Honey! Oh Mom, I loved it! Can we watch the movie soon? Tomorrow? Please?”
Let me establish a few major characters in our household, so what follows can have some depth and perspective: my husband and I both studied English literature in college; he’s a professor of it now. Our Glory-girl is 10, and has been a sensitive, good first foray into story discernment for us. Winnie-the-Pooh getting stuck fast in Rabbit’s front door was a cause of major angst until she was eight… so she wasn’t ready for big-C conflict and pain and broken world motifs until very recently. Then there are our boys, almost-9 and 7, who live for the dark thrill and epic, danger-fraught story. They BEG to watch Jurassic Park movies and try to scare each other at night with outlawed tales of monsters lurking in every shadow once they’re tucked in their beds. It’s been a delicate balance, figuring out how to love and meet each child where they are when we select stories and entertainment. All this is to say, if Glory is ready for something, the boys probably have already been there emotionally for a good year or more. She’s our default canary in the coal shaft of maturity for our kiddos.
So, the next day, once all schoolwork and housework were done, we made snacks and the kids and I settled in to watch Matilda—the Danny Devito version with the fun soundtrack I loved when I first saw it as a teenager. The kids laughed, they loudly asked questions both logistical and rhetorical (How can she move things with her eyes? Why would any parent send their kids to that school once they saw it?) and at the end, Glory and I both happily cried as the Wormwoods gleefully drove off, finally out of Matilda’s life forever. A success, we decided.
Then I went into the counseling chamber (our kitchen in theory, but in reality this is where the heavy cargo gets lifted in our house), and our eldest boy trailed in behind me, eyes down, quiet.
“Hey bud” I said, “What? What’s up?”
“Mom” he whispered, finally looking up at me, “that was the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.”
All the sound got sucked out of the house in that moment. What? Scary, in a bad way? Scary how? How can he be fine with dinosaurs eating people, but a fantastical tale about a six year old girl punishing adults who are bad…. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
“Hey Hawk. Let’s talk about it.”
And we did. And we have. He was frightened by the negligence. By the apathy. By the cosmic selfishness of parents who reject a child they don’t understand. By the physical and verbal abuse of a monstrous headmistress who is only as powerful as the parents around her are willfully blind.
This was a good lesson, for both of us: Hawk is fine with dinosaurs eating people, because, well, that’s what dinosaurs were created to be: predators. They’re dependable like that—the world still makes sense and is predictable, under control, if all creatures are behaving according to their design.
But a parent who just signs away their child? Who forgets to feed and notice a two year old girl? Now that’s a real monster. That’s actual terror. And, as much as I hate having been so totally wrong in anticipating how this story would hit our boy, this was a lesson ultimately necessary for him, though he’s only almost-nine. I wish we lived in a world where he would never need to know about child abuse. I wish we lived in a world where he could maintain his trust in all adults, all authority figures. But the hard-and-fast-and-ugly reality is this: he doesn’t. We don’t. We had to talk about the fact that adults are sinners, too. That he can trust his Mom and Dad, and many other adults… but not all of them. He needs to know if an adult is behaving in a way that reminds him of Mrs. Trunchbull, even a little bit, he should run to his Mom or Dad immediately and we are going to listen to him, because we love him. He also needs to know that he will interact with many kids who have good, loving homes like his—but he’ll also interact with a lot of kids who don’t. Kids who maybe don’t have lunch at lunchtime, or anyone who comes to their baseball games. He needs to look out for those kids, and tell us about them, too.
As much as I wish I’d been wiser, more discerning, about choosing our entertainment that day, I can praise God that He used it for good: now we have more family archetypes to refer to when talking about a hard, ugly part of our broken world: Mrs. Trunchbull. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood. If we can help our kids frame the world in which they’re living within the context of these archetypal characters, they can understand if not the sinful motives, then at least, to riff off C S Lewis, that these monsters can be beaten.
We also have a new hero to look up to: Miss Honey. Someone who may have seemed weak, but was actually tremendously brave. Someone who could have run away, but who stayed in a scary, dangerous place because she loved the children around her and wouldn’t leave them alone, defenseless against a monster. Someone who looked for outcasts and gave them an advocate, and a home. Someone who is but a shadow of the Greatest Hero of all. Somehow, once again, all the good stories point back to Him.
For the Love of the Wild Child
We have a wild child. A full-fledged Lost Boy. When he was 2 he was permanently uninvited from being in the church nursery because he figured out how to escape all the child locks and was making weekly Sabbatical pilgrimages to the church parking lot, unnoticed. When he was three he snuck a pair of scissors from who-knows-where during co-op and cut his favorite superhero shirt to pieces, while it was still on his torso. Our Lachlan would watch us, waiting until we’d look away, and bolt to the nearest arcade game or parked motorcycle, whatever was shiny and looked totally off limits. He was born to front load some major lessons in life.
The day that broke me was when he was a little under two years old. We were moving into a new house, and he took off in just a diaper toward one of the busiest streets in our city. My husband and I were too far away to get to him in time; I tried to scream his name but choked instead—the fear was squeezing my throat shut. Max yelled loudly enough for both of us as we ran toward him. Just before Lachlan reached the road, a man on a bike, wearing a white shirt, pulled up next to him, popped his leg down to steady the bike, picked Lachlan up, chubby legs still pumping, and lifted him over our fence, safely back into our yard. He didn’t even turn around- we never saw his face. He just lifted his leg back up and pedaled onward.
That night, after tucking all the kids in, my emotionally brittle heart finally let go and I wept. I confessed to God that I couldn’t do it—I could not keep his little boy alive. I could not keep a boy like him from loving danger, from actually seeking ways to escape me and run to everything he was supposed to fear. I confessed that I was so scared of suffering through his death that I had stopped being very loving toward him. I was distancing myself from Lachlan, only interacting with him when I needed to discipline or warn him. I was scared of how much it would hurt if I lost him—but that day I realized how wrong I’d been. Whether or not I was acting lovingly toward my little boy, I loved him deeply. And I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to protect him, or myself, from some tremendously scary life lessons that were sure to come, unless Lachlan changed dramatically. I didn’t know how to let go and love someone who made me feel that scared. And what I really didn’t know was how to trust God with him, and with my own heart.
So that night I cried, and I prayed, and I confessed. God gave me courage to look really hard at what was scaring me so badly I’d withhold affection from my great puddin’ of a lad, as we called him. It wasn’t fear of death, or fear of suffering because of my children. It was fear that my faith wouldn’t make it through that awful trial. I was afraid that, if God gave me a boy to love and become attached to for two years and that boy died, I would never trust or believe in the Creator again. The truth was in that moment before the bike rider came: what was in my mind wasn’t fear for Lachlan. It was, Oh God, no. I won’t make it if something happens to him.
That’s a hard thing to acknowledge, a hard thing to see. But once I saw it, God gave me the Truth to set me free from the bondage of that fear. He brought True Words to mind: God is Sovereign. He is totally in control. His ways are not my ways. He has plans; plans to give us a Hope and a Future. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Death is not the end. And the good songs began playing in my heart, and as St Augustine would say, I sang the truth into my soul: He will hold me fast. He will hold me fast. For my Savior loves me so, He will hold me fast.
Letting go of the illusion of control over a child and their future is a battle hard-fought and humbly won, with the help of the Helper. As much as I prayed for smoother sailing and a change of heart in our child, I knew then and know for certain now that that terror of helplessness served a deep good in my dependance on God, and seeing His sovereignty and mercy rightly. I don’t wish a wildling on any parent, but I do love to find the fellow parents of these rambunctious image bearers and encourage them. Lachlan is seven now; he has given us more heart-pounding moments during vanishing acts, more feats of derring-do ill conceived and barely survived, than any of our other four children combined. But for all of that, I have seen more of the goodness and provision of the Lord, more tangible, moment-by-moment evidence of a Divine creator with a plan that WILL NOT be interrupted, because of our brave and adventurous son. All of those crying prayers, all of those oh-please-no moments, did not yield a different little boy; all of those moments changed me. They humbled my pride. They shushed my self-righteousness. They hurt my idolatrous heart whenever I was tempted to turn to my children for my ultimate identity as a Good Mom. And they made me turn instead to my God, and beg for help. They made me whisper, But if not, You are still Good. They grew my faith, and my trust.
Lachlan is on his own path with God; I know He has a great future in store for him, whatever it is. I want to link arms with any Mom who feels hopeless, helpless, when confronted by something in her child she can’t control, and gently say, Mama, you are not alone. You were never in control; let go, and trust. Do your best, then put your child on the altar. Confess your fear. Then trust in the Love of your Creator. He will hold you fast, come what may.
And then we can pray together for our children, and give thanks to the One who entrusted us with so much.
Pilgrim’s Trip Through Green Gables
Our Glory-girl is a few weeks shy of ten. Raised by Gospel-loving lifelong book devotees, her deep immersion into the world of narrative and literary apologetics was inevitable and, thankfully, easy. She began listening to Anne of Green Gables at night when she was seven, and has now heard the series more times than any of us can count. She, her awareness of self and the world around her, has been shaped in wonderful ways by those late nights with the redhead from Prince Edward Island. Through Anne, Glory felt encouraged to love the world around her, to delight in words and special names for the places we hold dear. She has understood resilience of spirit, and championing those around her because she spent so much time with the feisty, romantic orphan. She also was shaped in a way we didn’t foresee as problematic until this past year—and what it took to rescue her worldview and heart was another beloved tale.
Glory began looking for her own bosom best friend as soon as she met Diana on the Barry’s front porch. She would come to me, cheeks glowing with excitement after getting to sit near a girl at church or playing with a new girl at the park, and declare that she’d made a good friend. She’d talk about the girl, explaining how lovely she was and how she thought she could tell that the girl wanted to be bosom friends. I believed this was a dear, soft introduction to friendships for Glory, and encouraged her to think of thoughtful questions to get to know the girls better, and be grateful to God that she seemed to connect with other people easily. Slowly Glory did make two good friends over the course of two years; she had playdates with them, attended their birthday parties, and would send silly videos to them sharing crafts she’d made at home, loving the ones she’d get back of baby robins being born on her friend’s farm, or tours of the other girls’ rooms and yards. Glory was content and grateful to have met her bosom friends, and wanted to become pen pals and continue the friendship until they were all old and married and gray, like Mrs. Rachel Lynde and Marilla.
Then, sadly, something changed. One of Glory’s friends seemed to drift away: she stopped responding to messages, stopped responding to letters. Glory faithfully sent her letter after letter one summer, but the friend never answered. Heartbroken, Glory came to me one night on the couch and wept. What had happened? Did something change? What could she do? She had no frame of reference for a bosom friend’s departure, and so Glory no longer understood her story.
I did my best to comfort her; I told her how we should always hold out hope that her friend would want to communicate again, but that maybe it was best to give her to God in prayer. I told her to try and be thankful for the friendship she’d had, and to trust God that He loves her and has her good in mind, as well. Mostly I just held Glory’s hand, and told her I was sorry her heart hurt.
That summer, we were reading the new edition of Pilgrim’s Progress by Helen Taylor to the kids at night. We were all delighted by the illustrations, and enraptured with the story, once again, of the journey a soul makes on it’s way Home to the Father. After a particularly emotional night of reading, when Faithful departs the tale, Glory came to me on her way to bed and said, “Mom, I think I understand it better now. What happened. I feel like Pilgrim, when he wants to keep walking with his friend, but God wants him to walk on his own for a while. It’s still sad, but I get it better now, what God is doing.” She hugged me good night, shaky-breathing, but remarkably more peaceful at heart.
Have you ever had your kids teach you something so profound in a moment, you sit stunned and silent by the miracle? Glory was right: she understood how to hold those two wonderful books, full of Godly messages, in tension and come through with a stronger faith. I was in awe, awe that I’d never seen it before, awe that God had used great literature to teach my daughter her place in the Grand Narrative. Anne taught Glory the value of friendship; Pilgrim taught her the necessity of holding it loosely, with gratitude. Her own experience showed her how to hold onto faith in the Great Author in the midst of it all.
Last week I made my sowing schedule. 150 seeds, some indoor, some outdoor. The dates are staggered, some dependent on soil temperature, or rainfall. I have the indoor peat pots on the way, and 8 lbs of organic dirt is nestled next to my backdoor, much to my husband’s befuddlement (why are we paying for dirt, again? Because the online voices tell me to, honey, it’s fine). I even brought in a hangdog open-air shelving unit from outside and positioned it next to our biggest, sunniest window. All of this is in hopeful anticipation of March 21st, and the beginning of sowing season. All of this is in direct defiance of the Great Disappointment of last year.
We had two weeks of over-one hundred degree weather last summer, which was anomalous, record-breaking, and life-destroying. I planted a huge amount of seeds in the ground last spring: six or seven varieties of pumpkins, tomatoes, moss and miniature clover galore (we’re replacing the grass that is so high-maintenance it causes an actual sin response in me when I have to water it), five varieties of sunflowers, and multiple blueberry bushes. Not. One. Thing. Lived. Every single seed and bush I planted remained in the ground, stillborn. To say it was heartbreaking is not an over statement; I had carefully selected every seed. I did the hard work of digging and watering. I talked to the little seeds as they went in; I used the time of weeding to teach our kids about sin and it’s roots, how those roots choke out our lives if we aren’t careful, serious, faithful. I thought it would be a bumper crop of a year; after all, the year before we had so many volunteer plants we had to give pumpkins and berries away…
But then July came, and no sprouts. The land remained dusty brown, and hot. I watered—I went out our back door at five am most mornings and cranked over the drippy, cold tap handle, unravelling the epically long stretch of garden hose, dragging it, slithering, across our half acre backyard. I watered the trees, the bushes, the fallow garden soil. Then that heat came—and by early August I had to accept that the year was a bust. Though I prayed, no miracle occurred. I had to actually look away when friends would send pictures of their zucchinis or flowers blooming away… my own land was infertile, and my heart hurt with the disappointment. I thought my decisions over carefully; I certainly could have been more diligent about weeding (why do those blasted things grow when big, gorgeous sunflowers will not?), I could have chosen a different method of watering, or schedule for it. I could have started more indoors, or purchased starter plants instead of seeds… But for all of that, I finally realized one thing, the only thing: my plants didn’t grow because the Lord didn’t will it.
There is no coincidence to the fact that I make my sowing schedule at the same time that I begin planning for next year’s homeschooling. We have five children, all still in elementary, and the selection of a planner alone has taken on the epic feel of an actual Holy Quest. I pour over reviews, overthink, pray, and research, research, research. Then the deep dive into curriculum begins—and oh! The varieties! The options! The opinions! I make a list for each child, and write out what they individually need, praying over them and trying to discern God’s will for them in the upcoming year. As the Good Word says, I prepare my horses for battle. I learn the state of my flocks. But I can get confused, too, over what my real job is—I can pick out curriculum, I can faithfully, neatly write out our schedule and pray over our year… but God alone will make His Truth take root. God alone will change their hearts, help our children learn to love the revelation of His Son in the created world. God alone will show them His divine spark in magnificent stories, characters who are kindred and brave and True. I can work the land and sow the seeds, but the miracle of growth belongs to the Lord alone.
So last year’s devastation, my powerless failure, served an important lesson to my heart and perspective as Spring begins anew in our home. I am not almighty—I am a joyful gardener. A tender. A sower. I don’t provide the sunshine, but I can help to prune the dark things that may obscure it. I can’t make the seedling take, but I can help to identify the weeds and attack them with vigor. And most of all, I can accept my own limitations in the face of overwhelming heat, yet choose, after discouragement, to step out in faith again, prayerfully sowing the seed and planning the year. Good growth can still happen, despite perceived failure: because we had a year of loss, I believe our next harvest will be the sweeter because it’s miraculous origins will be the clearer.
Lost & Found
I remember watching an episode of Lost years ago, where one character was detoxing from I think heroin, maybe? Another character took Charlie, heroin guy, on a long trek, and during the course of it Charlie got hurt and needed to have some sort of procedure done. The guy who was his guide knew it would hurt—that whatever was about to happen was going to be excruciating. So he did the act, and immediately fell on top of Charlie, holding him down with all his strength. There was something in me that sparked in that moment—that responded to the utter Great simplicity of extreme action needed, diagnosed, and taken. I remember feeling a clear distance between my life before that moment, and my life after: that’s what I want, I thought, staring at the screen. To matter. To do something dangerous but absolutely necessary, and just give all of me to it.
Fast forward 15 years, and I’m a homeschooling Mom of five children. I did not join the Peace Corps, which I seriously thought about for a while. I did not become a careered professional teacher, which is what I did before my children began arriving. I live in a 1,200 square foot hundred year old house in Spokane Valley, Washington and I serve at my local church. From a distance, it may look like I never found that dare-to-be-great moment I yearned for with Charlie all those years ago. My world may look mundane, sort of exhausting, definitely a “good for you but that is NOT for me” category-fitter.
Over the course of these fifteen years, I have learned something: that true grit and purpose and abandon manifest most acutely not in exterior acts, but interior ones. In moments of “Not my will but Thine.” Times when you face a door and know deep, deep sorrow you will never unsee, never unexperience, is on the other side and God gives you the strength to walk through it, anyway. Moments of giving up what you think you’ve always wanted so that someone else can shine. Quiet crucifixions no one else will ever see or know, but the One who calls you to them. Faithful, steady service in the dark. That’s what grows one’s soul—not public accolades, or recognition. Not big-scale success, or social validation. Quiet moments of “yes, Lord,” and putting one foot in front of the other as we stagger on down the road. Realizing the truth of “I must decrease, so He may increase.”
This is an upside-down Kingdom truth: you have to lose your life to gain it. I thought forever ago that Great Destiny had to happen in a jungle somewhere, or on a public platform with a huge spotlight. But now I know the Greatest is the Least—the small acts of daily sacrifice for my children who don’t notice, the treasure hunting for true joy and cultivation of gratitude for all that He gives, because we deserve nothing but the cross—this is soul food. This enlarges me, us. As I struggle to stay sober and daily feel the frustration of not being able to defeat my own sin without constant help from Him, I am reminded that there is Glory in this battle: that my faith is being strengthened as I learn to cling more and more tightly to the One who will never let me go.
This is my dare to be great moment: this life. Because with an eternal perspective, these e’er-long days will seem a blink, a breath, a vapor, a mist. This is my moment, to dare all by throwing it all at His feet: all my ambitions and desires, all my hopes and abilities. He can have them all, because He is my All in All. I can dare to lose by losing myself in faithful service in the dark, because He has called me to come and die, so that I might live.
I still love watching reruns of Lost. Those fantasies are a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to spend eternity there.
An Old Story
Let me tell you a story.
I don’t know where we’re going, but when we get there, I bet we’ll know.
I read an article once that repositioned, redefined loneliness as homesickness. That sense you get when something absolutely wonderful, or ridiculous, or heart breaking happens, and you yearn to tell someone… but no one comes to mind. Like Andrew Peterson asks, “Don’t you want to thank somebody?” That feeling for me begs the question, “Who can I share this with? Who can I bring this joy to, this sorrow, this laugh, this sweet revelation… who can I text or call or touch and tell, how can I magnify or halve this moment?” My hands are overflowing, and I’m pivoting left and right, looking for a willing heart. It feels wrong to realize there is no one. The silence causes pain, a pause in my spirit that is silent, and aches. My eyes close, my head bows beneath the weight of realizing no one is there. I have to ponder this experience in my heart, to absorb the loneliness, breathe it deep down inward, then open my eyes, lift my head, and keep on going.
Then this revelation came, from one far-away writer: loneliness is the ache of homesickness. Loneliness is our awareness of our separation from the full presence of God. It’s always there—that imperfect reality, that veil, that dimness of mirror. But occasionally we feel it more acutely, we know it in a way we aren’t in tune to most of the time. To know, to be fully known: won’t that be Heaven? A land of Ture Marvels, where the far-off music is finally crystal clear in a wide-open sky? We will spin around in delight, our eyes incapable of taking it all in, our hearts overflowing—and we will be able to Thank Him, face to face. He will see our joy, and we will know ourselves as seen. We will be understood, and we will understand. We will finally achieve true self-forgetfulness, lost in the rapture and awe of Him. Delight and peace will reign in our hearts, the created come home to majestic, joyous thralldom.
But for today, this side of Eden, we are stumbling around in the vale of tears. The dim land, sin-wracked and thunderous-loud. Stars streak across this sky, enlightening our hearts, lighting the way home. Pilgrims. Nomads. Kingdom-bringers, light-bearers. The now-and-not-yet. Our existence is a liminal space, ever straining with the tension between Truth and deception, wars being fought over our hearts and souls. We long to turn our heads toward the false relief that comes with giving in, giving ground. But we cannot. When we slip, when we relax, our Brother comes. He comes in whispers, He comes in shouts. He comes through fellow pilgrims, in Word and deed. But He comes, calling. He knows His sheep, He knows his Kin. The charge to turn and follow, pick up that cross of yours, and get back on the road—that voice is ever-sweeter the longer the journey goes.
The road can be a lonely one. It can seem that that precious, pure light of our faraway country has dimmed at times. We have no eyes to see on these days- we can only put one foot staggeringly in front of the other, and limp along, trusting that the road will rise up to meet us in the dark.
And it does.
The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began.
You may stray in mind, in focus. You may remember the sun on your face when you weren’t aware of how dark the road could become. You may remember the ease at night, falling asleep in your sins. Your contentment as your friends assured you that all was well—that if you felt, it was true. So feel good, feel fine, and it is so. You may remember these things, and feel the temptation to turn your head—toward your old home. Your old self. But then He comes- and He speaks to you of the Home to come. The warm hearth waiting for all weary Pilgrims. The fellowship, the rest you’ve never known. And you find the courage, strength, to do battle once more. You dismiss the false siren songs—you block your ears, and sing the Gospel to your heart once again.
And you remind yourself that this aching heart, the one that wants to share, to laugh in company, to trust completely—this heart is a gift. It is pointing you toward a need that has but one fulfillment—the Father’s house is waiting. The door is flung wide to you—and as in the old story, He is already running down the road toward you, to sweep you up in His arms, to take all the burdens off of your back and heart, to look you in the eyes, and to say, oh, well done, my good and faithful servant. Welcome home, my beloved child. Welcome home.
A Right Big Mess Was Made by All
Or, the Transformative Powers of Mud
My husband needed to observe a class somewhere in the middle of Northern Unknown, Washington, and so, desperate for a change of scenery, into our car the seven of us all piled merrily one Thursday morning. I packed five lunchboxes in preparation, picked out a couple of audiobooks, positioned the sun on the left side of the car, and off we went. The road, alas, was far windier than we anticipated, so we arrived at our destination slightly green around the gills—with one child in the far back succumbing to her sloshing tummy, but feeling immediately better afterwards. We dropped Max off at his school, and crept our way along the one main street, Main Street, in town. No stoplights, but plenty of charm-packed store fronts faced us, with aged signs and earnestly scrubbed windows displaying pride of offerings. It was January and only about 40 degrees out, and I was tempted stay in the heated car, find a quiet view and pass around the lunchboxes, but to be frank, the car and it’s occupants needed some airing out.
We found a sign declaring “Columbia River Camping, 2 miles.” Though it was far from the right season for camping, we were hopeful for a picnic bench and some birdsong as we crept along another windy road for two miles turned into one thousand thanks to the presence of heavy whining and claims of starvation and/or death by vomit smell inhalation. Finally, finally, pine trees began to appear around us—and then we turned the bend in the road to Glory on full display. If I were Anne Shirley, this bend would be titled something like, “The Gateway to Wonders” or “The Turn toward Eternal Beauty.” The vista that greeted us was miraculous, coming after such a smelly and arduous trek: The Columbia River abruptly appeared, vibrantly sparkling in the noon sunshine, with mountains just on it’s other side, rising in ombre blue to white peaks so pure our eyes hurt to see them. And, as is true in all good stories, we were transformed by the beholding of majesty. Suddenly I wasn’t a beleaguered and short-tempered Mother, frustrated by bad attitudes and too few car snacks. No, I was an Adventure Mom, a woman gifted by the interaction with True Beauty, Grand Possibilities beckoning her onward. “Guys!” I declared. “Do you SEE that?!? We’re getting out!” My children took a beat longer, but once they flopped out of the car and caught a whiff of freezing air fresh off of the river, they began sprinting as best they could through snow toward the water which clearly was meant for them to explore that day. They whooped, they giggled, they raced toward God’s gift to us. Their voices immediately began overlapping and growing in excitement: “Mom! Mom! I see all sorts of different rocks on the beach!” “Mom! Can you see these trees? They are HUGE! I can’t see the tops!” “Mom! Mom! Watch me climb this tree that fell! Do you think we can go swimming?”
The frantic cries of my eight year old alerted me to our Foul Disaster approximately fifteen minutes into our Columbia River exploration. Friend, do you know what happens to sand in the winter? We do now. Or at least, my boys and I have become familiar. Turns out, sand in the winter transforms into extremely muddy quicksand. As in, try to walk to the water’s edge on an only semi-freezing day in January, and you’ll find yourself up to your knees in pure, sucking mud in under thirty seconds. The only correct response at that point is to begin hollering at your Mom as though actual ROUSes are after you. Your Mother then, in a fit of we’ve-just-been-studying-chivalry-so-my-other-boy-should-actually-get-in-there- ness, sends in your younger brother to try and pull you out, which of course means that there are immediately TWO young boys hollering that the lightning sand from Princess Bride is eating them. At that point, your Mother, who has apparently fully lost her senses, tries to walk out into the mire, begins to sink herself, and runs away from you yelling, “You’re on your own!”
Ingenuity born of desperation is your real mother here, if you’re an eight year old boy abandoned at the edge of the Columbia River on the Day of Filth and Madness. So our Hawkins pulls his stocking feet free, yells directions to his younger brother to do the same, and heroically rescues all of the boots from the Sand of Devious Deception. I was so proud. And very worried that my own ill-chosen footwear was now toast.
To say they were muddy during the course of our red-cheeked lunch would be an understatement. They were mud, at this point. They were filthy, they were freezing, and they were exhilarated. They had peanut butter and jellies which probably never tasted so satisfying: they left the car as discontented boys and re-entered as valiant conquerors. Our girls applauded their heroics while simultaneously giving them and their proof-of-adventure smeared clothing a wide berth. While eating we found hiking trails and rhapsodized over the water lines on the ancient-looking pines around us as the sun’s reflection from the River semi-blinded us. We talked of Narnia, and we dreamed of spring, when we swore we’d all come back to this exact spot and witness the glory on display yet again. Hawkins began plotting fishing expeditions, lured on by the vastness of the river spread before him, now knowing he was prepared to engage with the challenges the River sets it’s champions.
When it was time to pack up and reclaim their Dad, we all took a moment to just look. To appreciate the water, the mountains beyond. To take pictures of the boot-sized holes by the water’s edge and take a last deep breath of the bracing air. We experienced lightheartedness and unlooked-for joy that afternoon. We remembered that winter isn’t forever, and that beauty reigns in all seasons.
Today I am challenged by this memory; I have been daily cursing the mud and dirt dragged into our home by my children as they try to find rays of sun and active pastimes in our backyard. I’ve resented what the dirt represents: carelessness on the part of my children. Work for me. But writing out this fantastic and hilarious and ridiculous memory has taken me back, and I hope transformed me a bit, again. That mud represents play. Fun. Adventure, High and Low. That dirt means that it’s not all snow outside: it looks like the promise of Spring beginning to come true. That mud means tulips, and more birdsong, and best of all, Easter. The sun rising earlier, and the Son Rising once again.
Though I will still attack and banish the mud and dirt on my floors with abandon, I will aim to take a moment and thank God, too. Thank Him for the opportunity to really appreciate a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich, for the overwhelming gift of natural beauty in our own backyard, and for children who have such an exuberant joy in experiencing it all.
On to the next adventure—hopefully in more appropriate footwear this time.
Hope this helps.
The Widow & Motherhood
She had faith that made the incarnate God pause. She thought she was shambling toward worship in shameful anonymity; still she brought what she had forward, and she gave it all. Jesus doesn’t comment on her beauty; he doesn’t compliment her on her abilities; Jesus sees her generosity, her faith, and he stops his followers to praise her. He sees that forgotten widow. He sees her, stoop-backed and hungry. Not the object of man’s praise, not something overtly glorious and externally perfect. He sees her open her shaking hand and give everything she has, though that is nothing compared to what everyone else around her is able to give. And his praise is that she fully knows her poverty, and has given out of it. What most would cling tightly to, because they know how very scarce that resource is, she just brings it with her to her Father’s house and lets it go. And the living God incarnate sees her. He. Sees. Her.
So, this is what motherhood has become to me. I used to be a full-time employee, and a full-time student. I absolutely loved the praise of man: loved always being punctual, working hard and pleasing those in charge of me. When we had our first child, I entered into what my husband jokingly called “permanent retirement”. I went from teaching 75 college students a day to tending a tiny baby, alone, in a very hot house in southern Phoenix, sometimes not seeing another soul for 12 hours at a time. I entered what I now think of as “the cave of motherhood,” a space where, unless I told my husband, no one knew what on earth I was even doing for all those hours. The baby napped continually, and my extroverted, people-pleasing self began to atrophy, it seemed. I turned to the shallow comfort of social media for a sense of friendship, to be able to share all the little things our daughter was doing with ANYONE else. But that was junkfood, and my soul knew it. I became semi-depressed, self medicating with mindless television, beer or excessive volumes of chips in the afternoons, living for the hour my brand-new husband would come home so I could low-level resent him as he apologized, but needed to get right into his office and work. Finally, we knew I needed help, and I began seeing a Christian couple from our church for counseling. And it helped. It helped tremendously to be able to share my struggle, my embarrassment at having gotten exactly the life I’d prayed for and to feel it lacking, somehow. My desperation for friendship, for community. And ultimately: my anger at God for not giving me those good things I thought I deserved coupled with the ability to be content with them. That was where the poison really gleamed in the sun: my heart didn’t believe that this was a good life unless there were people around me to validate me like I’d been validated in school and work. I thought I needed other people’s approval instead of actually believing that God’s provision was enough, that His love was real, that His seeing me was all I needed.
The counseling helped. It trained me to turn to God with my felt needs, and to trust Him by preaching the Gospel to myself when I was hurting or angry or just incredibly lonely. In a given day all three things were true. But slowly, slowly, the Great Counselor ministered to me. He brought scripture to mind. He showed me how Jesus Christ was probably the most lonely person who ever lived, the most misunderstood, and definitely the most homesick. So, the person who I really needed those days was Jesus. He understood the pain of being isolated, the weariness of serving constantly. And by learning from His story, I began to see it: God isn’t calling me into a flashy external ministry. He isn’t displeased by a lack of praise of man for me. He is calling me to faithful service in the dark. He is calling me to trust him with every quiet cave moment, every huge failure, every loss of self-control and shame. He wants me to bring myself, fully, into relationship with him. Like the widow, he does not ask me to only give out of my strength, my abundance. He is calling me to give from my poverty.
Those years living at home with newborn after newborn, spending full weeks not seeing another person other than those babies and my husband, were hard ones. Desert years, in terms of friends and community. Most of what happened those days is treasured in only my own memory. But those are the years I look back on now, 5 children, a cross-country move, and a big, flourishing community at church later, as the very, very good times. Because those were the years I clung so tightly to God’s promises, I talked so regularly to Him, that I see them as my own infancy as a Christian, even though I was saved when I was seven. I only began to understand what God wants, who He really is to me, in those hot, lonely days. And now He is calling me out of my cave a little more, and I tell you this: sometimes I don’t want to go. I have developed a love for living anonymously, for operating from a mindset of God alone as my witness. And I’m the widow still: I see my own weakness, poverty, so clearly I can’t believe that so little can be used by anyone. But this is what I hope: my life, utterly average and full of what-on-earth-is-that-smell, how-can-anyone-want-to-share-so-much-embarassing-stuff, might encourage others who are limping along most days, as well. I want to help, is what I’m saying. I don’t have some stellar track record, and my kiddos are nine years old and under, so what on earth can I even know anyway?
But I try to think of what I would have wanted to hear from a big sister all those years ago, crying at my kitchen counter in Phoenix. And so I’ll write that. And I’ll try to share the Gospel, because preaching it to myself is really the only thing that saved me back then, and it’s the only thing that keeps me keeping on today.
Scripture does not go on to say that the widow is suddenly restored to comfort, to an abundance of resources, to a community who miraculously remembers her and begins to welcome her to warm meals and loving fellowship. We aren’t even told the old dear’s name. But the gift Jesus gave her is the one we all so desperately need the most: God sees. He sees us faithfully serving where we’re called, and despite how little we actually have to give, He is pleased.
This is my first post in a while. Now that I know what I need to say, what I most need to hear, it won’t be the last.
Sister, I want to say this to you, as you hide in your bathroom from the little mouths that always need to be fed, as you take deep shuddering breaths after having lost your temper again today, or as you begin to listen to the shameful lies that you will never actually get it right: you are incalculably loved. Understood. Held. He knows your weakness, your poverty. Bring it to Him, and rejoice, because I promise He sees you.
Hope this helps.