Category Archives: Christianity

The Land of Before: The Thirtieth Year of Marriage

December 2, 2018

Last night, I called my younger daughter, who is 1,001 miles away at college.  She said that she was in the common room with her suitemates, and they were bonding, and I was glad because I think, in general, common rooms should be used more than they are.

Somehow, they got to talking about abortion and babies and whether you would keep a baby who you knew was destined to die. Abby had to tell her new friends that, actually, that happened to her family–that we lived that two years ago.

Until Abby wrote about Stephanie Grace’s death for English 120, I didn’t how much it destroyed her. Of course, I knew April was heartbroken, lost, and bereaved, and I knew of my own helplessness, but I did not know how deeply everything–comforting her sister, shoring up her mom, all while still keeping perfect grades–had impacted Abby.


That’s the thing, the stunning thing: some of us carry tragic loads that seem too heavy to lift even once–and yet we must carry them evermore.


I am in a group of women, anencephaly mothers and grandmothers, hundreds upon hundreds of them who have lost these precious babies, who are lifting their precious loads, and who are walking on in pain.

Before Christmas, I didn’t think I could walk on any longer.

It all seems so unfair. We should have a two-year-old granddaughter romping through this house. We should be worried about keeping fragile Christmas ornaments out of reach, and instead, there’s no baby–even her mother is gone. There’s just sadness, resignation, and anger.

With losses like those we have accrued, it does not matter if you can pick yourself up–because everyone must emerge from despair. If one person remains in the pit, then the other family members find themselves staying near the edge–there is, after all, an intrinsic moral imperative: you tend to the hurt. You try to carry them out–and, if you can’t, you remain nearby. In a family, there is no TRUE moving on unless everyone is ready to walk.


I cannot believe how long my little family has lived with rage, for rage is–in some ways–the absence of love. But rage has within it an angry love–a love that says, “None of this should have happened, and it happened while you were with me, and you dared to stand beside me and endure hell and hard things. You stayed there with me, you propped me up, and I am mad that we had to endure this hell–but every single time I see you, I think of the hell.

That’s what’s no one’s really honest about. That’s what no one says: if your husband holds your hand through two miscarriages, and if he’s there during two failed adoptions, and if you’re there during his three cancer battles, and if you’re both there during your granddaughter’s devastating death, then it will not matter how many roses one of you someday summons the energy to buy. It will not matter how many candlelit dinners you eat together. It will not matter how many times you reach for his hand in the car.

The sad anger is always there.


I understand that God can do a work. What I am even more fully aware of is that God has not yet done a work, unless you consider the marvel that we are both in this house, that he is sitting beside me on the sofa as I write this. There is still a resilience despite the losses stacked like cordwood.


In this edge-of-despair, often angry world, sometimes I feel far from God. I know I feel far from my indoctrination–I joke with friends that I need reindoctrination, I need to go back to those early days of adulthood, days where anticipation was great, when there was joy in keeping a house and fulfillment in the suppertime smiles of my husband and children.


What you must never, ever say, the thought you must fight with ferocity–the one that you must always keep captive is this: I can’t believe this is my life.


When I got married, I intended to be a frugal homeschooling quiverfull mom with six children–everyone on one pew at church.  Instead, it sometimes feels like the only true harvest I have is sorrow–buckets and buckets of sorrow, and it just seems like God has forgotten us.

But I know that, despite everything I feel, God is there because Mr. Chalk told me so. As did Lou Turk. And Mrs. Mullis. I know that at the bottom of the ocean, He is there. On the top of the highest mountain, He is there–and so He has to be in my sad and angry house, but I can’t find Him here.

And so I get tired, And I want to raze the house.


Rationally, I want to destroy the house. To give up, take a cat and dog and flee–because there’s no way that God could have built this. Rationally, there’s no way the “tapestry” they talk about these Christian memes and movies can actually be something that works for me.

All I see is ugliness.

All I see is destruction.

All I know is the silence of the joyless house that I sit in for eight hours a day.


It is only natural to think, how can this be God???

I don’t know because I’m not a theologian, but I think it can be God because I think that God, in the hard times, can teach us the meaning of the word sustain.

He can teach us what it means to be held up.

He can teach us what it means to be propped when there’s just no more energy for propping. When there is absolutely nothing left that we can do for ourselves, that is where God shows up–in our weakness, in our frailty, when we can be neither kind nor patient, when we cannot be anything positive at all.

But we hear ourselves at work or the grocery store, saying, “Good morning, Sarah, that’s a pretty shirt.” “Hi, Whitney, how are you today?” starting the day’s cycle of kindness, the process of reaching out, of being God to others–in this gentle patching, we lose a little bit of the pain. A little bit of that rage. We can forget the hurt temporarily and see, instead, God–I see Him in the student giving me  the candy craft he has made–marshmallows on a stick–embarrassed at 15, but still reaching out, being Jesus to a sad, tired teacher.


Ultimately, no matter the emotional shape of our house, no matter how close we are to the edge of the pit, we are all still together.


August 10, 2021, our 30th anniversary 

Since that day in May–the day of Greg’s brain bleed, the day of the strokes, the day the woosh of the pit was the only sound I heard, when we were all, once again, engulfed in it–I have told myself, On August 10th, I am going to pull in his driveway and say, “Let’s go be glad you’re alive.”  


I thought, really, it wouldn’t happen after thirteen months of living apart.

I thought it would be too big, remembering the land of before. That land is a place we no longer know–and it’s a place few people here have ever seen us be. We have spent two decades in a land of burst and wasted balloons with little and faint music; we have only remnants of ribbon.


Tonight, my younger daughter and I were in her bathroom–she was twirling in a little black sundress and her favorite cardigan, twisting her hair into mini buns, a preparatory post-pandemic collegiate dress-up. We were prepping for one last trip to her favorite Goodwill, forty miles away. “Let’s take Dad,” she proclaimed.


Abby had collected stories for the car–the eight-year-old she tutors who hates “baby TV” (Paw Patrol), her roommate’s cactus scandal (the cleaning service threw away $250 worth of his plants), vegan adventures (recipe plans involving artificial eggs). She was opinionated and funny, just like we’d raised her, and we were already missing her, although she was right there.


On the way home, we went to Burger King–I got a real Whopper;  Abby, an Impossible Whopper, and Greg, cheese sticks.

Abby’s vegan Whopper was a little burnt, and I rolled down the windows while Greg made Dad jokes: “It’d be impossible for me to eat that Whopper.” Abby ignored us, munching happily, saying, “It makes me feel included.”


We whizzed down the highway, the sun setting pink in the distance, the sky cloudless through the pine trees. 

Abby, her mouth full, mumbled something about deer.

“Deer?” I asked.

“Did you see all the deer in that field? There were like a ton of deer. Like twelve. There were mothers and babies. So many deer.”

We hadn’t seen them. Not even one.


We told her the story together, one of the foundational stories of us, of our family in the land  before the pit:

On the night we got engaged, while driving home, I saw two deer standing in the dark at the roadside. 

April, when she came to us in foster care, had the last name of her legal father: Roe–meaning deer.

And when we found out we were pregnant with you–when I was desperately afraid–we drove the next day to the fertility doctor in Woodstock, in Town Center, and as we left the parking lot, there stood a deer in the parking lot, looking at us, then leaping away.

“Abby, it was near a highway like the one in Jacksonville. Near a mall. Lots of stores. There shouldn’t have been a deer,” Greg said.

And we marveled as we rode in silence, remembering the deer.

 

Unashamed–Amid the Beams (Rejoicing in the Babies)

The views expressed in this blog are, of course, my own and should be taken as such.

My grandmother is with me in my daily life. On the days when I do not want to do good–offer the ride, buy the meal, wave someone on at the four-way stop–I can hear her gentle voice, “Thereby some have entertained angels unaware.” If I decide to skip sunscreen or Neosporin or a blow-dry, she reminds me to.

Stephanie Saussy’s desire to celebrate everything is with me still–thirteen years after her death, I find myself thinking, “Time to get out the Valentine’s bowl fillers.” I remember the thoughtful absurdities: she would hoard the banana Laffy Taffy so we could eat it in her bed while watching Little House on the Prairie; make us all dress in luau garb just to sit beside the wading pool and sandbox while our toddlers played; leave no-reason presents on the front stoop.

In Seattle, we lost over twenty friends, people who did not see their children graduate, marry, launch small businesses, people who missed futures that I lived to see, who have left me a legacy of awareness: this is what I have; here is my treasure.

Twenty years of hearing them, of remembering, left me prepared to hear my father–to have my days interrupted by memories: the way he sang “I love a parade” while waiting to turn at the corner of Seminole and Central; the times he’d moan, “Spare me/Why me/Oh my god!” over idiocies both large and small; his spontaneous speeches about men that were his heroes.

I knew he would be with me.


What I didn’t expect was the haunting of suicide, the additional burden that survivors must bear (and one suicide affects up to 135 people), the weight of anger and sorrow and shame.

I didn’t expect to be cleaning a litter box and think, “Well, everyone [in this small town] thinks my dad is in hell.”

I know, I know, I am not supposed to type those words–or even admit to thinking them–even though you think them when you see me in the grocery store, whisper them to your children. Even though you perpetuate the stigma, I am not supposed to admit that I see it.

I am supposed to live in your denial.

I am supposed to go quietly away, to take my agony and drink in a corner.

Good Lord–why didn’t I learn to be feminine? Or at least subdued?

You want me to live in shame–to take my trauma-filled childhood and even more incomprehensibly traumatic adulthood and go away.

Because that is what shame demands–that people put their troubles in tightly-lidded boxes, that people like me, with troubles that are particularly unsightly, duct tape their boxes shut, then cover them in black tarps–that our pain remain, always, completely covered.

But there is a place where pain cannot be covered, where it must be unmasked because there is no mask large enough, no make-up thick enough, where it must be seen, even in the face of your judgment.

The thing I want to show you, the thing that I hope my blogs point out again and again and again is you can make people’s lives okay. You can make the unbearable bearable. You can come alongside. That is Christlike.

Why, then, do we choose shame???

Why does society–even Christian society–choose to heap on the pain???

Last Sunday was Sanctity of Life Sunday. People lined roadways bearing “Choose Life” signs–this always profoundly moving to me since my daughters and I–and even my granddaughter–could have all been aborted: hydrocephalus, suspected birth defects, unplanned pregnancy, anencephaly–all were crisis pregnancies carried to term.

We were loved–even en utero–as babies should be.

It’s really that simple: babies are worthy of celebration, fearfully and wonderfully made, known by God in their mothers’ wombs.

But any veteran high school teacher–or anyone who works with young women–can tell you that the cultural stigma against unwed motherhood is still strong, particularly within the church. The shame some of these young women feel is deep–and church-sanctioned.

I’ve witnessed it for three decades–the same church that says, “Don’t abort,” can refuse to open its arms.

The women apologize–to the church, their grandmothers, all of us–as they don their scarlet letters, shamed for the babies everyone demanded they save.


I began this blog because my own daughter was twenty-one, unmarried, and pregnant and all the Christian resources I could find said things like, “Gather the children to discuss their sister’s sin,” and I just could not do that.

I could not heap shame on my daughter, couldn’t slap my grandchild with an “unwanted” label.

I was broken, overwhelmed, and lost–and I failed,in some ways, utterly–but I could not choose shame, even if that’s what “powerful” Christians told me to do.


Putting people in boxes, policing their behavior, judging on outward appearance–it’s all so exhausting.

Shaming and mandating and chiding–telling others, always, how wrong they are–exiling and alienating and punishing–the words themselves are wearying.


I have heard decades of sermons about specks and motes and beams in eyes–and spent my lifetime either hiding beams or removing motes–and I am here, now, with ruins all around. I have nothing to show, nothing to hold–it truly stuns me, still.

But there is value and redemption in this: you and I can see my beams–somehow, raised as I was, in the Church, married as I was, in the Church, having seen all I have seen in the Church, I am still here, among these broken beams. You and I both see that my world is not beautiful: impacted by cancer, anencephaly, suicide, and divorce. There is nothing tidy here.


Here’s the thing: I don’t have a heaven or hell to put anyone in. I could spend days saying that. It is a life-changing revelation.

I don’t have to decide.

I don’t have to judge the sins, weigh the merits, see the dark black smudges and hunt for the bright white. I don’t have to wonder about anyone’s salvation or think too long about whether their long walk to the altar at age thirteen will still save them at forty-three.

It is their salvation. It is God’s heaven. I am totally out of the equation.


Once you realize that, once you see that it is you and God and them and God–that you are not the chairman of any heavenly committee and your mansion in Glory may be right next door to Ted Bundy’s–once your eyes are open to your complete lack of power, in that realization is your freedom–to rest and rejoice–in God’s grace.

(And all those babies.)


Dirty Dishes: The Nine-Minute Principle

Written on Friday

One of the smartest things I did as a teenager was to build relationships with the parents of all of my friends. If I was at your house and you were in the shower, I wasn’t in your room listening to Billy Joel. I was in the kitchen bugging your mom. If the youth group had a pool party at your house, I certainly wasn’t in the center of the horseplay in the pool. I was in the kitchen with your parents talking about couponing and egg salad.

One of my better friend’s mother was a single parent. She was, and is, one of the calmest women I have ever known. I loved her placid demeanor and the matter of fact way that she lived her life. I spent at least an hour of my life simply reading her refrigerator door. It was covered with inspirational sayings and Dear Abby clippings that oozed self-acceptance and positivity, and just standing in that kitchen and reading that you could buy your own flowers encouraged me.

When she got married again, I was surprised, but she settled into her wifely role very smoothly. One day, several years ago, I went to visit her, and we talked about marriage. She said something that has stayed with me: “Once you figure out where the lines are drawn, it’s really very easy.


I had never thought about that, the fact that we, in our marriages, draw lines. We have them, really, in most of our relationships, even those with coworkers and grocery store clerks. I will be polite to you if you break in front of me at the copier but do not take my food from the refrigerator. I will make small talk with you while you scan my groceries, but please do not lick your fingers while touching my grocery bags.

In my marriage, two of the major lines were fairly clear–for me, no chit-chat in the morning, and certainly, no loud 6:00 AM Fox News. And my husband wanted the right-hand side of the sink empty. Clear always–for the filling of the water pitchers and dog bowls and, of course, for the washing of hands. (When the pandemic began, my younger daughter noted, “Now everybody gets to live like we have lived for 19 years .”) The empty sink was of utmost importance–and loading the dishes was my nightly responsibility.

I like loading them, generally. I like looking out the window, I like the warm water, I like the pets wandering into play with the soap bubbles and sneak licks from the forks in the dishwasher. I like the solitude–the dishwasher door takes up almost a third of our kitchen’s floor space, so if you are loading dishes at our house, you are guaranteed privacy.

And, honestly, I like the time to reflect at the end of the day. To stand there in the kitchen looking out at the Japanese magnolia in the twilight. To be alone after a day with 120 teenagers. To listen to Eric Church and feel the nostalgic hope that music brings.


But, sometimes, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to do dishes. Three from scratch meals a day meant there were always so many. It was late. I was tired. Sometimes, I just felt like they could wait.

When I felt that way, this is what I would do, this is what I thought: Surely, I love him nine minutes.

And, with that, I would set the stove timer. Always nine. Never more or less. Nine was both the minimum and the maximum.


Sometimes, as I worked for nine minutes, I thought contented thoughts–this kitchen will look good, he will be pleased, I am grateful that he is still alive to do dishes for. Sometimes, I was sullen and far from Christlike–as pastor Mark Rutland once remarked, “There’s nothing louder than an angry woman doing dishes.” I proved that maxim true. But always, I made it nine minutes.


Now, my younger daughter and I are living alone, trying to negotiate the switch from mother and child to roommates, a relationship neither of us ever wanted–or expected–to have. She is supposed to be at Yale, and instead, she has been on the sofa in our den for 266 days. She and her laptop have rarely left it–because Yale is still Yale. The insane workload was, no doubt, more bearable in the silent and beautiful Sterling Memorial Library. It was easier to watch a three-hour lecture in Maison Mathis with hot coffee and a fresh croissant. Midnight snacks of raw cookie dough and Nutella quesadillas in her dorm’s buttery (with actual people) were so much better than month eight with Mom.

It was easy to be away, and it is so hard to be here.

But she is here.


Today, I came home from work tired. Whatever ailment I have–fibromyalgia, hypertonia, just plain bad luck–I am in a horrible flare. For the past few days, I have screamed getting in my car.

Screamed.

I’ve done yoga and cried.

Hot baths with Epsom salts.

And there just hasn’t been any relief to be found. None at all. So, when I make it to Friday at 3:00, I’m so happy. So ready to come home and start the weekend.

But Friday at 3:00 at Yale is so very different from Friday at 3:00 in South Georgia. And she is at Yale.


She is helping to design experiments for the psychology department at Yale. She is working in the lab there. She is writing papers and doing important work, but it sometimes feels like she is just hanging out in our den.

I want to tell her the minutiae of the day. I want to send her to Walgreen’s, ask her to do extra chores.

Almost daily, I have to remind myself that, right now, there is an Ivy League institution meeting at my kitchen table. (Certainly, some of the lectures I have overheard have been mind-blowing. Brilliant. I’ve listened to class discussions where I have barely comprehended a sentence. She says things to these people, her peers, and I marvel at who she is when she is with them and who they are now, and who they all will be.)

Yes, there are times when I am able to say, “That might be the future President of the United States who is saying hello to my dog on Zoom.”

There are days when I can understand that she has papers due, question sets, and quizzes.

But there are other days, like today, when I don’t want to do anything and so much needs to be done.


Tonight, I wanted her to take out the trash. I wanted her to sweep. I wanted her to dump the rags, and I certainly wanted her to unload the dishes.

I didn’t want to bend. It hurt. I hurt. But my daughter had work to do on this, the last day of classes. She had lots of it–she would, I knew, see 2:00 AM again.

I thought about the nine-minute principle, about how it applied to her.. And I went into the kitchen, turned on “Holy, Holy, Holy” and began to unload the dishwasher–because, really, you can do almost anything when the music is right.


Sometimes, the people we love need big things–chunks of money and time and work that are hard to give, that require truly gutting sacrifice. Ironically, these things be easier to give than the small continual tasks that seem so very burdensome.

Letting the dog in; retrieving a forgotten towel; refilling a glass of chocolate milk; fetching a bookbag from the car–these tiny acts of grace are ultimately redemptive signals of grace, reminders of love. They are so much more than simple minutes.

Thankful for the Good (I wouldn’t even tell me what would happen to me)

For almost twenty years, I have had a Mary Engelbreit calendar hanging in the same place in my kitchen. Tonight, as I stood washing dishes, I looked up and saw her succinct command: Give thanks.

And I thought about the fact that I do give thanks.

I know, I know, there are those of you who call me Eeyore, who wish I were a little peppier and forced some oomph into the monotone, but, in general, the Lord and I know I’m grateful.

And as I stood at the kitchen sink tonight, I thought about last Thanksgiving, when my father had been dead only a month, and my husband was still my husband–and recovering from his second heart surgery in 55 days. He was in our house, in his recliner, Andy Griffith and Barney Fife his constant companions.

And tonight, for a just second at the sink, I cracked open a door. I let myself think about how much my world has changed since last Thanksgiving.


It is the most astonishing thing–to be without your husband, to have declared null the words you spoke twenty-nine years ago on an August day, to negate them, to take every one back, especially when, for so long, you clung solely to those words. You meant them.

To have them taken away: to have your words taken away when words are everything . . . To watch them disappear and–after months, years, of crying–say, “That is fine with me,” to stand and watch yet another chasm open, knowing that if every cliff gives way, you will, in fact, survive–is a Red Sea moment.

That seems an overstatement—hyperbolic drama. A simple divorce does not compare to the parting of the Red Sea and the sparing of the Israelites. Who must I think I am?


I stood in church on Sunday night–Sunday nights in South Georgia are when the “real” worshipers attend (for those who don’t know me, the sarcasm oozes), when the facades fall off, when the congregation gets loud–and some of the adults were truly free in Jesus that night. They were, some would say, losing their minds.

And, in the back of the church, I noticed some teenagers laughing. Eyebrows raised, hands over their mouths, they whispered to one another, grinning at the fools.

And, for a minute, I admired their innocence, their complete lack of understanding of the reality that, truly, God is the only thing that matters; Jesus is the only thing that gets some of us through, that grace and mercy are truly sometimes our souls’ only sustenance.

There was so much that they had yet to endure, and I loved that.


I have a casual friend who is a sister in loss. I have never been to her home. I do not know her phone number. I cannot tell you what kind of car she drives, but we know loss, and we are sisters in faith–our bond is beyond texting and pool parties. 

When we do see one another, we tighten the knots.


We bumped into each other one day in a Walmart parking lot. One of us, I can’t remember who, had recently celebrated an anniversary, had looked at a picture of her young, naive self, hopeful on her long-ago wedding day–and posted a picture on Facebook.

We stood between shopping carts talking about that picture, about the days when we hoped for bright futures, when we thought that they were assured. And my friend looked at me and said, “You almost want to say, ‘Don’t do it.'”

You look back at the young girl you were, at all that was ahead of her, and you want to say, “Don’t walk. Don’t take that step or that one. Don’t move ahead. Because the path is one of pain and sorrow. The losses are stacked like cordwood.

But on our wedding days, so full of joy, most of us are ignorant of the sorrows to come. Like the teenagers in the church, there is so much we do not know.

On our wedding days, we anticipate unity and joy—the relational richness of Christ and The Church. 

But within marriage, we also learn this: the losses in our lives reveal to us the character of God. Behind each loss, there is an assurance of His presence. He is present in our horrors.


In the loss of my granddaughter Stephanie Grace, I have seen the hand of God more mightily than I have in any area in my life. When I stood in that hospital room and held that lifeless baby, I could not have known that her story would reach–literally–throughout the world.

We cannot see the heavenly scope of our loss; we cannot know the extent of what God has planned when our treasures are taken from us. But when much is taken, when you lose babies and jobs and houses and money and health, when it is all discarded–that is when you know that there is only God. 

There is only God. 


He is our only hope, and even as a cleansed sinner, as someone who does MUCH wrong, I can say that He is faithful, that He has restored much in my life, that He has blessed me abundantly, through every loss that I have endured. 

So, even in the loss of my marriage, in this stripping away, I trust in this: He is there.


I talk about cordwood a lot in this blog because that is how I see my losses. Stacked, heaped, piled high. 

An elderly reader who knew me in my childhood once messaged me, saying, “Even from infancy, you have not had it easy.” 

I cried that day because I had never considered it that way. I see myself as having endured much from first grade on, yes. But I had never thought: Even as an infant, even as a toddler, I was enduring. Brain surgery. Leg braces. Months-long pneumonia. 

Even as a small child, I was suffering.


My brain tells me to count up the suffering, to count up the loss, to evaluate and contemplate and think about all that I do not have. 

And I am without much. 

I rearrange the things I have lost, these logs of heavy sorrows. I pitch a fit and try to throw them. Behind them, all I find is God. 

All I find is God. 


Five years ago, Thanksgiving meant dinner at my father’s. With my husband and my daughters and twenty other people. This year, there is no one. This year, a neighbor is making me a plate. 

In the natural, it makes no sense.


As recently as seven years ago, I would have wanted to make this make sense.

But tremendous, all-engulfing loss makes it impossible to have anything other than God. Past a certain point, there is no comfort but the assurance of God’s presence and the fact that He will do good.

Lose enough, and it becomes easy to live in the day, to do that which is set before you–and on good days, you can even work with all your might. Endure enough, and it becomes twisted into your core that tomorrow is not promised, that all is dross.

You take out your scales–you weigh everything while simultaneously letting so many things go.

And it’s not trusting the process; it’s not time heals all wounds, it’s not relentless forward progress. Rather, it is simply this: You have seen everything stripped away, and you have seen what remains.

He remains. 

He is faithful through our pain, through our loss, through all our suffering.


The 21-year-old bride who stood in that church on that August day 29 years ago would, I know, be stunned to learn she’d spent two decades consumed by caregiving–and she never homeschooled–but her husband did. She would find it amazing that she was, in fact, the primary breadwinner twice. She’d be dumbfounded that she lived within a mile of her childhood home, taught for the arch-rival high school, had only one birth child–and only adopted one. The yoga would be hilarious to her. The pets, oh, what a surprise they would be.

I wouldn’t tell her about the losses. I couldn’t do that to her. I realize that, sitting here now, staring into the darkness of my yard: in the Walmart parking lot that day, my friend and I agreed: we would tell the young bride to run.

We wouldn’t tell her what would happen.

That is stunning: I wouldn’t even tell myself what would happen to me. I wouldn’t recite the litany of the things that I was going to lose. I would let myself be ignorant.

I could not say to myself: You are going to lose this man.

I could not say to myself: You are going to lose your father.

I could not say to myself: You are going to lose your granddaughter.

But I could grab that bride’s hands, clench them tight, look her in the eyes, and say, “God is going to sustain you in the days to come; He is going to be faithful, and you will stand strong in Him.”

There is so much pain in this confidence, but there is also so much confidence. Beneath the cordwood, there is this bedrock: Good will come. 

And for that (and sometimes that alone), I will always give thanks.

Photos by Magen Lindstrom

Competitive Holiness

15271229_10210168976913615_145613507_oEarly Friday morning I went into the garage, climbed the ladder, and retrieved the Christmas decorations. I have mixed emotions about this different, loss-tinged Christmas, and my husband, knowing this, surprised me this week with cheery holiday sofa pillows. A needed nudge.

Since Thanksgiving was a good day, I thought maybe I could manage to deck the halls as usual. Ours is not a festive family, so once a decade there are carols and everyone is involved, but most of the time it’s just me, Kid Rock, and Dr. Pepper.

The first box I brought into the kitchen contained a centerpiece and three nativities. As I unwrapped the chipped cows and broken angels, I suddenly thought, “You don’t feel reverent enough about this nativity. About baby Jesus.”

I had spent the previous evening thinking I wasn’t “thankful enough”–and hearing the echoing accompaniment,  “and you’re thankful for the wrong things.” This latest revelation was just too much.

I caught myself judging my spirituality, my whole walk with God, by the fact that I wasn’t grateful enough for a cheap china statuette painted by workers in a  windowless factory half a world away.

Once more, I had taken out my unfair yardstick–the one that fully measures my negatives.

This yardstick ignores things like these: a cheering Sephora shopping trip with a distressed daughter; comforting two friends after the deaths of their mothers; broccoli casserole made gluten-free upon request; a visit to a widower in a nursing home; care packages full of lip gloss and Hershey’s bars sent to New York; coffee cake cooked at dawn for my hungry husband; a catnap in a recliner while “waiting up.” Of my week’s activities that showed Christ’s love, none mattered because I didn’t fall on my face at the sight of a Dollar Tree baby Jesus. 

Somehow, we now live a world where a correctly captioned Facebook photo of baby Jesus can deceive everyone, fooling the photographer and the viewers into ascribing holiness where there may, in fact, not be any.

We can see light where there is darkness, and, even worse, sometimes we aspire to be That Holy.

15271257_10210168975113570_7311176_oWhat is the true purpose of the misty-morning patio Instagram shot of a coffee mug, a Bible, and an open notebook with a spunky #meandJesus ? Is it crying look at me or look at Him? Could our time be better spent direct-messaging people whom we know are hurting and reminding them of Christ’s strengthening love? Could we not invite a friend for coffee and put down our cameras long enough to hold their hands in prayer?

We internalize all this, after all. It becomes the approved Christian way to do things.

Last week, I saw a Lincoln Navigator decorated like a reindeer, and immediately my brain thought, “Well, they aren’t Christians.” Christians wear “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” pins and make birthday cakes for Jesus and participate in Operation Christmas Child and sometimes even have their own in-home Advent wreaths. (If you just thought, “Hey, we could do an in-home Advent wreath!“, I apologize. Don’t join the competition.)

My family has done those things. When the girls were small,  we placed Baby Jesus in April’s bedroom and daily marched him closer to Bethlehem: the nativity. In the den. In South Georgia.

We made a birthday cake for Jesus, and never, ever made cookies for Santa, gaining holiness through baked good selection, oblivious to the fact that, either way, we would be the ones eating them.

We bought surface over substance. Feeling holy over being holy. It’s so easy.

In the church, we continue to value feeling over reality. We pat ourselves on the back for our refusal to allow our kids to participate in Elf on the Shelf when we are blind, absolutely blind, to the needs of others in our community. In our church families.

15183952_10210168975793587_2123366880_oIf there’s one thing 2016 has taught me, it is how filthy my rags are. And how abundant. And how my value of them was influenced by a culture which considers the visible to be the valuable.

This year, visitors to our home will see snowmen and Santas; on our scorecard, there will be more tally marks in the secular Christmas column, as our angels are far outnumbered. 

But this year, to quote my younger daughter, “The angels matter more than ever.”

This year, it is real to me: the fact that Christ came, that God sent Him at all, that God saw how much Nothing there was here, how little chance we all had apart from Him, apart from salvation–and at that thought, I can fall on my face.

My nativity may not move me. I may have the “wrong” attitude about Elves and Santa. But more importantly, so much more importantly, this year I know: my rags of righteousness are far filthier than anything that was in that Bethlehem stable.

This year, I know my need.

Christ in me, the only hope of Glory.

Oh: Emmanuel.