mea culpa: how we break a cycle that’s getting us nowhere

Well, I’m not proud of it, but it’s done. Finished. Time to move on and get our life back.

Mea culpa: how we break a cycle that’s getting us nowhere

That’s right, folks – I’m talking about how we spent the last three weeks binge-watching seasons four, five, and six of Downton Abbey, months after everyone else wept and waxed eloquent over the series finale.

Now we can weep and wax eloquent, too.

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Now our evenings are normal again. Now we are responsible again. Now we will do things again, like spring cleaning. Like getting ready to sell the house. Like laundry.

Actually, the laundry isn’t really Downton Abbey’s fault. Our dryer stopped working – it would run an unending cycle, but without heat – and when Vince finally had a chance to figure out what was wrong with it (between episodes, of course) we discovered that dryers go on strike once they have accumulated a certain amount of legos, screws, and bobby pins in their bowels. This is hauntingly similar to our discovery that ice-cube makers don’t digest glitter.

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But my appliance-fixing hero husband gave the dryer a bowelectomy or something on Monday, and we are back on track. Which is great, because some of us were dangerously low on clean underwear, favorite socks, and, um, bobby pins. Mea culpa.

Now we can focus on getting ready to move. We have a whole list of tasks: some painting, some trimming, some caulking, little things here and there. It helps that it’s spring. ‘Tis the season for doing the dirty work of cleaning vents and corners and window crevices anyway.

And He’s doing it with us, too. We’re ready for a new season, and the big move isn’t just a physical thing. A laundry list of items that need to be dealt with emerges – heart issues, attitudes, habits, and routines. It’s time to clear the clutter, remove what’s taking up too much space, and make way for breakthrough. We need it. Our kids need it.

This may shock you since your children are probably perfect, but our kids are not perfect and a few of them have had a rough go of it lately. I’ve also had a rough go of it lately. I’ve struggled with irreverent thoughts, like, Hundreds of years ago some mother in Mexico was doing the same kinds of impossible, aggravating things. She was teaching her kids, cleaning her home, cooking food for everyone. She probably couldn’t help her six-year-old understand place value in arithmetic, either, and that’s when she invented Tequila.

I’ve been at a loss for how to pray and intervene sometimes. I’ve wondered if a certain kid’s continued disobedience is because he’s just not ready or because we’re doing something wrong. I’ve wondered if I’ve become resigned to it. I’ve wondered if I’m a good enough mother. We torture ourselves with these kinds of thoughts, the debris that churns round and round, shorting our circuits and blowing our fuses.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.

– Isaiah 53:4, ESV

I keep praying the same thing over and over, and still see the same choices, the same mistakes, the same hardness, and what I’m praying doesn’t seem to be helping. And I’ve scrubbed the bathroom in desperation and relief, knowing that if I couldn’t make a child speak correctly, couldn’t make him do his business in the toilet every time, couldn’t make him want to be healthy and whole and free, I could at least send him to bed for a while so I could eat breakfast two hours late and clean the bathroom and pray about it.

At least, for crying out loud, I could clean the mirrors.

And that’s all any of us can do. Just take care of what is in the mirror.

And He told me, Look for the same thing in yourself, Love. Find the log in your own eye, even if you only think it’s the tiniest speck. If you don’t think you even have that, ask Me, and I’ll show you what I want you to rout out and redeem. Confess and repent of it to clear the way, and your prayer for this loved one will be powerful and effective.

We tend to accumulate all sorts of emotional clutter and collateral damage. Repentance is our best routine maintenance.

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It’s just a faint reflection of what He did for us – He looked at Himself, stainless, and when there was no log or speck to pluck out, He took the whole tree instead. For us.

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

– Isaiah 53:5-6, ESV

Mea culpa. My fault.

There was a really hard day not too long ago, and I needed immediate words for one of our kiddos – words that pursue truth without pushing away, words that don’t let the behavior slide but also don’t miss what’s going on underneath. They needed to be words that helped him see in the mirror clearly instead of further distorting the image. And He gave me the words, but after I said them I realized they were for me, too.

They’re words we all need to hear on days that we’re not proud of. Here they are:

How you’ve acted this morning (this week, this year) is not who you are. I hope you start acting like yourself real soon.

We pray for those who are falling and those who have fallen and those who are walking wounded from their choices – and it’s their choices that we can do nothing about, though we see so clearly the grief they are causing. But we can look in the mirror and find our own frail humanity and need for grace just as much, and then pray more effectively because compassion has swept the debris out of the way.

It’s the same thing I’ve been telling one of my oldest kids over and over, but I didn’t realize it was for me, too: Until we take responsibility for ourselves and how we affect others, we will run around in circles progressing nowhere. And then we feel and recognize His forgiveness – the gentle joy that revels in victory – and the breakthrough from the battle is for us and our kids and all of our loved ones, and we know He is accomplishing it in those we are interceding for, too, because His kindness leads us to repentance. Instead of the grinding downward spiral, it’s a cycle that always leads to our truest self, and more life. And we need to get our life back.

who helps you bury the body: a post on friendship

Snow was lightly falling. We drove home, talking about places we might move to, and this conversation occurred in the Stagecoach as we went down the highway:

“Remember when Wendy was here and we were talking about that one neighborhood?” Chamberlain asked.

who helps you bury the body: a post on friendship from Copperlight Wood

I stopped at a red light. “What? No, when was that?”

“When we were talking about that one place?”

“Huh? No, I don’t remember that.” The light turned green and I pressed the gas.

“When they came over last time.”

“Last time? What did we do the last time they came over?” The snow, the traffic, the chatter – I was drawing a total blank as I turned off the highway.

Mo-om, you know – when she came over to get the beer!”

The beer. Oh, yes. It all came back to me as I tried not to veer into the ditch.

Let me explain. After Christmas, an extremely generous coworker of Vince’s gave him a bunch of draft beer. It had a three-day lifespan before it went flat, and we couldn’t possibly finish it. And by “a bunch,” I mean two growlers from a local brewery for two adults who barely drink alcohol.

This friend doesn’t know us well. Yep, it was a little awkward. Almost as awkward as my six-year-old yelling about beer.

I could only think of one way to use it up that fast, but since using beer as a sedative for children at bedtime would be frowned upon (ahem) we called friends for assistance. Wendy, who does know us well, came over. And that was what Chamberlain was talking about – we chatted about real estate, moving, and neighborhoods while I poured stout and hard cider into mason jars for Wendy to take home, so she could tranquilize her children share accordingly.

You do what you have to do. As Vin said, good friends lift you up in prayer; great friends also help you finish the growler. Or, bury the body. Whatever.

(This might be a good time to refer you to why our kids also know about vodka)

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We’ve made some pretty incredible friendships during our marriage. We’ve done normal friend stuff with a lot of people – hiking, movies, small groups, coffee, dinners, and such – but the couples we are closest to are the ones we’ve buried bodies with.

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We’ve met in the emergency room when one of us was still on a gurney. We’ve taken turns responding to middle-of-the-night prayer requests and family crises. We’ve walked through grief and recovery together.

We know the messes from each other’s past and present, and the wild, crazy hopes for the future. These are friends who help us bury the body of our past – our failures and doubts, mistakes and inadequacies – and continually point us back to His truth.

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Of course, we share fun things in common, too. A few weekends ago we went to someone else’s house, and while us girls settled in the living room with tea, the guys were in the kitchen where her husband had just pulled a cast iron skillet full of fresh cornbread out of the oven. And, true story – my husband said to her husband, “Wow. Nice pan.” Because we both totally scored in the marriage department with husbands who cook.

(In related news, there was recent drama here when we moved the appliances I never use to the garage. We relegated the Kitchenaid next to the chainsaw, but in the process lost the doughhook for about a week. Vince was in a state of grief until I found it in the pantry.)

For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.

– Romans 6:4, NLT

We have to bury the body to be the body – and these friends help us do that because they know us well. They know where we’ve been and where we are going. We become less to become more, stretching roots deep with our dearest so we can grow wide in our communities.

Our closest friends help us bury the body so we can rise.

These are the friendships that nurture, that press you closer to Him and who He’s designed you to be. You know each other’s individual daily struggles and share some of them in common. Some of them have walked a journey of grief that reflects your own, and you speak the same language.

These are the deep friendships, where you are free to be yourself, your most vulnerable you. The messy kitchen, the kids and coffee and books everywhere; hoodies draped over chairs, the reality of diaper changes when a cat wants to help, and the kids’ discarded stray socks everywhere.

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That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

– 1 John 1:3, ESV

These are the friendships that don’t stop contending for you in prayer when you are this close to breakthrough, even after you’ve pretty much given up and just don’t want to talk about it anymore. These friendships fight for those things that feel like impossibles, because sometimes it’s easier to pray and believe for a friend than for yourself. We can do that for each other.

And also, great friends aren’t weirded out by this kind of text:

Do you guys have an extra snot sucker? We left ours at home but can run back for it after church.

an accidental feast

The almost-ten-year-old: Afton’s looking at the largest baking bowl we own, full of flour and some other white ingredient…which, from the look on his face, is probably called “regret.”

I ask him what it is. He says it’s four cups flour, and four teaspoons – or was it tablespoons? – of baking powder. Uh oh.

an accidental feast: how we rise when we think we've made a flop

“What are you trying to make?”

He points to the cookbook. “Jalapeño cheesebread, but it’s a double batch.” And that sounds awesome, but he’s using a cornbread recipe and he’s actually quadrupled it. I try to explain that he’ll have to switch recipes and make the cornbread instead, and it’s okay, because I can help figure out the ratios and such…but, no, he says. It’s not okay. Panic is setting in, and he starts speaking desperately, without punctuation:

“I needed four cups but I was using the half-cup scoop so I did eight scoops but I don’t want any cornmeal and do I really have to make cornbread because I want it to be like French bread but I don’t want to have to wait for it to rise!

The rising thing always gets me, too. But no, I tell him, you can’t make French bread, cheesy or otherwise, with baking powder. It needs yeast; it has to rise.

There is a quiet, tense pause. Then he says:

“I think I can separate the flour from the baking powder with static electricity.”

And this, my friends, is why people are afraid to homeschool. They say it’s because they can’t teach high school math, but the truth is they’re terrified their nine-year-old is going to blow up the kitchen by separating flour from baking powder using static electricity.

(That night during dinner cleanup, we asked him where he heard about that. He shrugged and said it was from a science book. I turned to Vin and said, “That does it. No more science.”)

But four batches of cornbread later (perfect, cheesy, drool-worthy, jalapeño cornbread…), he learned a lesson that we all get eventually: things don’t always work out the way we expect, and we don’t always end up where we planned.

We’ve lived here for eight years, but we never expected to end up in Wasilla. Initially, we resisted moving at all and justified it with reasons that sounded good – but it turned out that what we were staying for in Anchorage was exactly what God was trying to get us away from. He had something so much better for us, if we’d trust Him enough to let go.

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And we did let go. But we thought we were supposed to move to Eagle River, and when we started looking, there was nothing available there. We searched and prayed and eventually went with plan B: we found land in Palmer. We made plans and a million phone calls, and hired subcontractors to build a house, and ten days before we were supposed to break ground, our bank went under…so that didn’t work out, either.

Sometimes when things don’t work out, fear starts to take root: What if this is the beginning of a pattern, and the next bend in the road is even worse? What if we think He told us to do this, but we heard wrong? What if we’re just waiting for the next shoe to drop?

But…what if none of those scenarios are the case at all?

What if the things in our lives that aren’t working out only seem that way because they’re not finished yet?

What if we are judging the end product by the messy middle phase? Like cake or cornbread that needs to bake for an hour, but we pulled it out of the oven when it’s still doughy and unset – we followed the recipe, used all the right ingredients, but we checked its progress too early. It’s not done yet because there’s no shortcut to waiting for it to rise.

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I still don’t know why He didn’t just tell us right out to move to Wasilla nine years ago. Maybe He knew it was too far off our radar and we had to warm up to the idea; maybe there were timing issues; maybe He knew we were stubborn (no way) and wanted to test our obedience. Maybe it was a million different things.

Maybe He wanted to teach us that even when life doesn’t go the way we plan, it still works out. He knew we would need to remember that in the years ahead.

The end product might not look at all what we signed up for. It might not be what we wanted at all  — no one plans ahead anticipating disease, disaster, divorce, or other heartbreak. That’s fair; He doesn’t want those things either and He grieves with us. But He is the master at taking the most screwed up recipes — all of our accidents, failures, and near-misses — and even when it feels like we’re having hot water for dinner, He’s redeeming it all into a gourmet feast.

Life needs yeast in order to rise.

And sometimes, things are hard simply because that’s the nature of expanding our comfort zone, living and learning deep and wide. It’s not because we are failing; it’s because we are not those who shrink back…even from homeschool.

That same kid, a few days later, is right back at it — and this time he has a project he wants to tackle with the sewing machine. The fabric is stretchy, the machine is unfamiliar, and he looks up at me.

“I prayed first,” he says, and hits the pedal.

not over yet: oxygen that resurrects our story

While much of the lower 48 is recovering from a blizzard, we are oddly snowless in our part of Alaska. It’s brown and ugly, but makes for easy driving with seven kids in the Stagecoach going hither and yon for errands.

not over yet: oxygen that resurrects our story

The other day we drove home from Cham’s therapy appointment behind a sedan with a slow leak on both of its left tires, wobbling slightly lop-sided down the Parks Highway at 48 miles an hour until it finally turned off near a service station. We don’t always notice when we have a leak; the roads are rutted from studded winter tires, and a little wobble doesn’t necessarily mean any more than that. But hopefully the driver noticed and stopped for a quick refill — air’s still free, you know.

We had snow a few weeks ago before it melted, and some moose came to visit. This mama just stared at us through the window, her ear flickering at sudden noises, on guard nonstop. Her baby was nearby eating a willow. We stared at her, staring at us, as she sized us up through the window. And I know how she felt, this mama on high alert.

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A little on edge. Constantly watching for danger, trying to keep our kids safe and in sight; trying to keep the air from leaking out of our tires.

Most moms really struggle with this. And most adoptive moms I know are driving on at least one steel rim. Some of our tires are just fine, but others are about to go flat without some serious maintenance. And soon.

Someone asked me a while ago what our family really needs, and how the church can support us. It’s a loaded question, so I gave the easy, predictable answer: Pray for us. Then the Spirit pricked me towards transparency, and I also mentioned we need a bigger house. And it’s true, we need both of those things.

But I wish I would’ve said childcare. Or a meal once a week. Or just, invite me to things even if you think I probably can’t come. And you’ll probably be right, but it’s nicer than being written off.

The church is starting to recognize that special needs adoption is a frontline ministry unlike most others – the mission field is brought into the home, and it often (especially in the first years) becomes a war zone. There’s no clocking out; there’s no furlough, there’s no sabbatical. There’s no leaving triage after a 12 hour shift.

Several times a week I hear from grieving moms who are walking wounded, marriages struggling, everyone suffering some level of trauma from the chaos. And for the most part, I don’t mean families who just recently adopted. I mean families – moms, dads, and siblings – who have been in this for years and have little left after so many miles of driving on rims.

What can we do? A meal once a week would free up 30-60 minutes for the adoptive parents to spend much-needed time doing any number of other things that need caught up on: errands, paperwork, phone calls, one-on-one time with a child, or (gasp!) even alone time to decompress. For reals.

Marriages might be saved if someone invested in an adoptive family in such a way that they could provide appropriate childcare for the special needs involved. A mid-week calibration might do wonders for a family on the edge and in need of intervention, because frontline ministries require reinforcements.

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Ready for a science break? A few days ago I was reading to Afton about silkworms and metamorphosis. Here:

“Once enclosed in its cocoon, the caterpillar withers and shrivels up, as if dying.”

Cheerful, isn’t it? Hang with me. Many mamas are right here, in the middle of the mess, shriveling in darkness. And we need to hear this.

“It is an intermediate state between the caterpillar and the butterfly. There can be seen certain projections which already indicate the shape of the future insect….Both the chrysalis and the nymph are insects in process of formation – insects closely wrapped in swaddling clothes, under which is finished the mysterious operation that will change their first structure from top to bottom.”

And did you know that swaddling clothes are death wrappings? The same cloths wrapped around Jesus at birth were meant for wrapping around a dead body. And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. But the same death that was meant to be the end of everything was actually the beginning that conquered death forever.

It is an intermediate state, this darkness.

“It must get out of the cocoon. But how? The caterpillar has made the cocoon so solid and the butterfly is so weak! …It would not be worth the trouble of going through so much to stifle miserably in the close cell, just as the end is attained!”

“Could it not tear the cocoon open with its teeth?” asked Emile.

“But, my innocent child, it has none, nor anything like them. It has only a proboscis, incapable of the slightest effort.”

“With its claws then?” suggested Jules.

“Yes, if it had any strong enough. The trouble is, it is not provided with any.”

“But it must be able to get out,” persisted Jules.

“Doubtless it will get out. Has not every creature resources in the difficult moments of life!….But you would never guess the singular tool that it will use.”

Tell me. Tell me how we stop the leak, refill, keep our kids safe, and protect our own oxygen level all at once. Tell me how we get from the new normal that feels like death and darkness to a new normal that feels like flying.

Ready?

“Insects’ eyes are covered with a cap of transparent horn, hard and cut in facets. A magnifying glass is needed in order to distinguish these facets, they are so fine; but, fine as they are, they have sharp bones which all together can, in time of need, be used as a grater…One by one the threads of silk succumb to the rasping. The hole is made, the butterfly comes out. What do you think about it? …Which of us would have thought of forcing the prison walls by striking them with the eye?”

– Jean Henri Fabre, The Story Book of Science

And He says, Look at Me, Love.

Your oxygen is right here. That’s why this is the year of deep and wide. There’s not much that prayer, education, and worship won’t round out again.

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We are so busy looking at the darkness – not only the demands of the day, but sometimes we have traumatized kids or abusive people puncturing our tires and slashing their own. And the darkness tries to command our attention, but we are not at the mercy of darkness because how we aim our vision is how we let the light break through.

Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness.

– Luke 11:34

We’re meant to thrive and grow, not just barely make it before our rims start wearing against the pavement. Which of us would have thought of forcing the prison walls by striking them with the eye? Only the Creator who made a way for each of us to escape the darkness.

Look at Me, Love.

It’s hard, yes. Diagnoses are real and pain is real, and changing our focus doesn’t change the past, it doesn’t change Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, it doesn’t change the amount of your paycheck or the dysfunction of someone else.

But it’s not the end. The prison turns into a place of new birth, oxygen changes our structure from top to bottom, and where we were earth-bound and vulnerable, we become strong and beautiful. It starts with looking at the One who fills us. The air’s still free, you know.

not overcome

We’re usually pretty good about using up leftovers and not having science experiments in our fridge, but twice now we’ve accidentally fermented pineapple.

It’s okay, though. We’ve been learning a little about probiotics over the past few years, and after some cautious investigation we discovered that it is not only edible, but full of beneficial microorganisms. Usually a bit more planning is involved to turn various foods into healthy fermented goodness, but apparently you can also do it by completely avoiding the kitchen during seven weeks of morning sickness.

not overcome: choosing to rise when conditions are rotten

One afternoon while I’m doing some research, Cham brings me a book and asks me to read to her. She wants Fancy Nancy – and well, it could be worse. (Amelia Bedelia, I’m looking at you.) But still, I’m in the middle of something.

“Oh…do you really want to read that?” I ask. “Don’t you want to learn about water kefir instead?”

“No.” As in, No way, you weird loony.

And I give in, consoling myself by giving every hoity-toity character a voice like Effie Trinket. May the odds be evah in your favah.

Last week was a vacation, of sorts — more of a staycation meant to be a “workation” to get some projects finished — some studying, some writing, some time together, some catching up. It started well, and was going well, until the middle of the week. And without meaning to, the week turned into something else with a phone call.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

– James 1:2-4

That brave lady I’ve mentioned before – the one who taught me to fold fitted sheets, make soup, and see in the dark — had taken an early morning trip to the ER, and by the time I got there, things weren’t looking good and a medivac team was on the way to fly her to Anchorage. My dad met me in the lobby and whisked me to her room.

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

– James 1:12

She was unconscious, tubes and lines everywhere. The nurse filled me in and said her heart had stopped for four minutes that morning, and they did CPR and brought her back — and when I heard that, my heart stopped a little, too. I stayed with her till the medivac team came. She was freezing; I kept my hand on her forehead and prayed. I kept asking the medics if I needed to leave, if I was in their way, and they said No, you’re just fine, and worked around me, priming lines, switching out bags of fluids and medications, and passing instructions to each other. And I whispered in English and prayed in tongues over my Baptist grandma for thirty minutes or more until they were ready to put her on the other stretcher and wheel her outside.

I was in the parking lot, on the phone with Vince, when the helicopter lifted off. I watched her fly.

Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

– James 1:16-18

We spent several days on alert, on the phone, on edge, on our knees. That first day I was fine and faithful, but the second day I turned somehow and was in tears constantly. I plowed through typing up the kids’ curriculum for the new term, and realized I was crying. I finished submitting Upside Down for paperback, remembered Grandma, and cried again. I did the dishes, wiping my eyes with the same towel and I didn’t even care. The whole day alternated between tears and productivity. Repeat. Repeat.

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Know Jesus, know peace – and even still, that peace has to be fought hard for when we confront loss, and not everyone is equipped the same way to handle it. For some, it looks like control or anger, in the same way insecurity often looks like pride or narcissism. For others, fighting fear looks like grief, on edge.

A mother watches a son fall further into depravity and she grieves and prays. A woman faces betrayal, fear, and upheaval, and a community prays for a family’s future and safety. A city walks on edge, unnerved over terrorist threats and lost lives. We face sin that has fermented into awful, putrid heartbreak in a million directions.

A Baptist uncle speaks of trusting in God’s will and sovereignty, and his charismatic niece speaks of trusting in God’s goodness and truth. And really, we’re talking about the same things.

We sit and wait, wanting answers in the midst of emergency, and we either ferment into faith or fear. Our choice determines what will we be when life takes an unexpected turn — enduring or decaying, rising or rotten. Something healthy, or something sickening.

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

– James 1:19-20

Seven days after her heart stopped, she woke up and did a little physical therapy. The next day, my husband sat with her in her room and made her laugh. She told him how much she misses her cat, he charmed her socks off, and they prayed together.

Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

– James 5:11

You are so very blessed.

The best way to see in the dark is not to keep stumbling on, but to reflect the One who created light with a Word.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

– John 1:5

And we are still praying, and so grateful for healing and progress that amazes doctors and glorifies God. This woman in her eighties who finally retired last summer, who raised five boys and then put in more than her fair share of time with me — this is the lady they tried to keep sedated but, well, she kept waking up because you can’t keep a good woman down, and the odds are always in our favor.