city lights: finding gold in palmer, alaska

I live about twenty minutes away from the town I was born in. I spent weekends, holidays, and summers there, and also a year of high school. It’s where I learned to swim, learned to drive, and learned to play hooky – good things and bad things, some not worth keeping, and others that didn’t stick the way they should.

city lights: finding gold in palmer, alaska

I skipped classes through the rest of high school and well into college; I got a knack for going over the speed limit that sent me to court once. And I still hate being in the water.

But I learned about Jesus in Palmer, Alaska.

That brave lady who’s learning to see in the dark still lives there. She’s the one who took me to church and introduced me to Him when I was little.

And some of it stuck, some of it didn’t – but mostly, what stuck didn’t matter because now I can see that He always did. When I learned to recognize and follow Him, He taught me to see in the dark, too: He showed me how to sort through all the choices and memories that required sifting, and to shine light on the gold that was in them, to see how He had been at work protecting me, teaching me, disciplining me, and pulling me out of a dark place.

So nine years ago, when part of our church peeled off as a new campus to shine a light in that town, we prayed and gave and cheered them on as they invested in the community, meeting in schools and auditoriums and wherever before they could finally settle in a building of their own. They were stirring stagnant water to reveal colors and shapes under murky creek silt. They disturbed the darkness.

That building was finished this summer, and I drove to it a few weeks ago. The road runs pretty straight from here to there; a little more than twenty minutes up and down hills, curving through roundabouts and passing fields, farms, and my old high school.

I love this town: the weathered buildings, the homesteads, the cottage industries, the farmers’ markets. I even, almost, love the spacious new cookie-cutter subdivisions (but not quite).

It’s changed a lot over the last few decades, but much is the same. Like every town it has good things and bad things, some not worth keeping, and others that didn’t stick the way they should.

I made a left at the stoplight and another left right after that, and the sun that had been at my back faced me. I was getting weepy I mean, my eyes were watering and I reached for my sunglasses.

Don’t put them on, Love, He said. I want you to see this unfiltered. You should see this in full color.

I put the glasses back on the passenger seat. The sun was low and the light was ablaze on barns, businesses, fields, and houses. The road was a wavy ribbon from the rolling landscape, and I slowed the car down as the new building came up on my right. I turned into the new parking lot, rolled to a stop. People, friends, strangers, were already streaming into the building. The view, all 360 degrees of it, was golden.

 I want you to see how beautiful it is here when the lights are on. People are still meeting Me in Palmer, Alaska.

house hunting: what we pull out of dry ground

We are still here, still looking at houses.

We go through the listings and check off their disqualifications: Too far away, too expensive, too small, too ratty. Not enough bedrooms, not enough bathrooms, no room for our dining room table, no privacy, soooper boring. Has restrictive covenants. Has an HOA. Doesn’t allow chickens, rabbits, domestic cats, wild children, sheer curtains, antique furniture, croquet sets, kayaks, kombucha, water guns, Nerf guns, real guns, or people who can shoot guns.

house hunting: what we pull out of dry ground

We’re not waiting on perfection, but it feels like it, and we use the term “perfect” very loosely. We know what we’ve prayed for, and we know what He’s said. We just haven’t found the match yet.

House hunting has become like scavenging for food in the kitchen when you’re hungry but too tired to cook: You go to the fridge, reject everything; go to the cupboard and reject everything there; then you go back to the fridge with lower standards and hope something jumps out at you with some virtue you hadn’t noticed before. Oh, peanut butter and apples. Hmm. I could maybe go for that.

And that’s sort of what we’re doing now as we look for houses. Oh, a one-acre lot that’s full of weeds and in the wrong area, but it has enough bedrooms and pretty nice flooring. Huh. I guess that might work.

But we’re also still waiting on a buyer for our house here, so we have time. We have another showing tomorrow morning, and though I won’t have time for any mercenary baking, I’ve leveraged it to get tons of extra chores out of all the older kids – vacuuming, dishes, straightening bookshelves, you name it – while I sit here and type this post, eating bonbons and sipping a martini.

(Every bit of that’s entirely accurate, except the last part. Pretty sure I don’t like martinis. And I already binged on chocolate last night, so that’s not really true either. But, you know, everything else. Gospel truth.)  

We are beyond ready to move on, be done with showings, get where we’re going, divide and conquer the bedroom situation, and unpack our books. If this showing tomorrow results in an offer, I might do cartwheels and dance the funky chicken. I may even try a martini. Though it would probably require several of the latter to facilitate the former…so I digress.

This season of transition has been long and unsettling. There are more than just physical moves afoot, and we have a lot of questions we’d like answers to. We are in a season with kids, work, and mission where we’re at a loss for what to do in certain areas and we need Him to just move some situations for us.

In a non-physical sense, we clearly know where we are supposed to go. We just have no idea how to get there.

…Command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’ – Joshua 4:3, ESV

We need Him to part the waters so we can pull stones out of a place we could never access in our own strength and ability. We’ll be happy to put them on display for the world to see once we’re safe on the other side.

He’d done it for the Israelites before – different river, different crossing. Different battle. And He’s done it for us before, too.

The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal.

And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’

For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”

– Joshua 4:19-24, ESV

Though, they weren’t really safe on the other side, and we weren’t either. The other side doesn’t mean ease and comfort. It’s just that once you’re on the other side, you’re all in – committed, no turning back, the water fills in the gap behind you and the only way to go is forward. It was true for them, and it will always be true for us.

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work…He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.

– 2 Corinthians 9:8, 10-11, ESV

They had proof that He was mighty. So do we, if we choose to recognize it when it happens, and remember it when we face the river.

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from one hermit to another

I was baking and it was completely mercenary. We had a showing in one hour and I wanted the house to smell amazing.

(Pause: In spite of the amount of cooking I do, I want to reaffirm that this will never evolve into a foodie blog, as I’ve mentioned before. Not because I don’t like cooking, or because I’m bad at cooking, or because I don’t like writing about cooking. It’s just that the everyday level of chaos here is more satirical than informational, and…well, you’ll see. Okay, resume.)

from one hermit to another

Last week we had three house showings in a span of twenty-four hours. Craziness. It’s what my nightmares were made of back when I used to think of putting the house on the market: How do we get the house clean enough (and empty enough) to make it look sterile and appealing to strangers? How do we get all the kids and cats to cooperate? How do we make it look like a normal family lives here, instead of one that outnumbers the Brady Bunch and also comes with a small cat farm?

We’ve learned a few tricks. We hide beds trundle-wise. We clear as much surface area as possible. And we take the cats with us – which upgrades the “how many clowns can you fit into a circus car” joke to the rank of how-many-Guerras-can-you-fit-in-a-Stagecoach. Turns out, all thirteen of us do: each cat gets a carrier, each person gets a seatbelt. Two of the cats go on kids’ laps while the other two cry and hiss at each other in the back.

It’s awesome. Exactly what I imagined when Vince promised me years ago that he would lead me on adventures. Sort of.

So that day last week, I was baking hermit bars. Have you had these? They’re a spongy, spicy, not-too-sweet, completely euphoric blend of cloves, molasses, cinnamon, and nutmeg. See, I told you. No mercy.

They’d been in the oven for a whole two minutes before anyone smelled smoke. Detritus in the bottom of the oven from a few meals back had started to smolder, and instead of wooing buyers with the smell of spicy sweetbread, we frantically threw all the windows and doors open to air out the house.

It, too, was awesome. Just like I’d planned, except the exact opposite.

We put the hermits on hold in the fridge, and got ourselves, the cats, and the smell of smoke out of the house just in time. We loaded the Stagecoach and went down the road to the park to wait it out.

Strange vehicles pulled into our driveway, and strange people walked into our house.

It’s a weird feeling, wanting them there, wanting them to fall in love with what you’ve prepared for them, and yet at the same time feeling a little violated. I didn’t feel it so much during the first two showings when we were out running errands, but this time I felt the whole gamut of excitement and unsettledness because I kept spying peeking checking from the shelter of the twisty slide. Which, now that I think of it, isn’t really isn’t that unfamiliar of a feeling as an introvert.

(Quick aside: I have a book signing in Anchorage soon, and I anticipate some of these same feelings. Barnes and Noble is sorely lacking in twisty slides to hide behind, though, so I’ll be brave and do my best to appear well-adjusted and sociable. I would love, love, love to see you there, and I promise not to hide under the table even once. )

After forty minutes the strange cars left. Once home, I threw the hermits back in the oven, determined to eat enough of them to ruin my dinner.

They take all of ten minutes to throw together and 17 minutes to bake. I’ll give you the recipe and they’re worth making as soon as possible even if you’re not trying to coax people into buying your house. This isn’t official, fancy, or fussy; there’s no sifting, separating eggs, etc., though you could do any of those if you really enjoy that sort of thing. This is how I make them, quick and dirty, and it’s as foodie as I’ll get. Promise.

In a medium bowl, mix 1 ½ cups brown sugar, 2/3 cup olive oil, ¼ cup molasses, 2 eggs, 2 ½ cups flour, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and The Magical Ingredients: 1 teaspoon each of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Grab hold of the counter and refrain from swooning. Some recipes call for raisins, walnuts, or currants, but I love my family and leave those out.

Now is a good time to preheat your oven to 350. Fahrenheit. You knew that, though.

Once you’ve mashed everything together with a rubber spatula, the results will be more like bread dough than brownie batter, and you’ll need to plop it into a greased 9×13 baking pan and use that spatula to spread it out in a thinnish layer.

Throw it in the oven and bake for 15-18 minutes. Once they’re cool enough to eat without burning yourself, devour at least half the pan while your kids aren’t looking and ruin your dinner like I did. No shame.

That night our Realtor texted me. She said the family loved the house but they thought it was too small for them. And I confess I responded with some thoughts that were rather, uh…expletivey…as I thought of our baker’s dozen of humans and animals, and longed for a little more space, too.

We’re keeping the house sterile (mostly) and I am exhausted. The adrenaline rush has worn off. While part of me is loving the minimalist white space around here, the other part of me wants to fling laundry all over the floor and leave dirty dishes in the sink to ferment.

But not tonight. We have another showing tomorrow, so I’m back to mercenary baking. It’ll probably be hermits again, because how can you not love a treat that shares its name with extreme introverts? But this time I’ll remember to clean the oven first.

building character: a story problem about how we get where we’re going

It’s a story problem: Nine people plus four cats, divided into a three bedroom house, multiplied by enough special needs to fill a docudrama miniseries. We are so many pieces of flint bumping into each other, sparks flying everywhere.

(Or, nine plus four divided by three multiplied by X. I checked the order of operations, and there should be parentheses in there somewhere around the addition. Not that that’s any help.)

building character: a story problem about how we get where we're going

Our family’s bedroom situation is like the river crossing puzzle, when a farmer has to carry a fox, a goose, and a bag of beans across the water in a boat that can hold only two passengers, but leaving certain combinations together results in the loss of at least one party. Some kids need their own space, certain kids can share, and other kids need to be separated. Fun, right? Yep, just like a root canal.

So we need to divide and conquer the bedroom situation like there’s no tomorrow. We’ve thought so far out of the box that if I told you some of the ideas, you’d think I was crazy or desperate. And you’d be right.

Every night I am the woman beating down God’s door, praying in earnest for an answer that feels so slow in coming.

Tell Me what you want, He said.

You know what I want, I said. You told us what to look for. There’s nothing out there that fits it, and I feel too picky, materialistic, and shallow for not having found it yet. People all over the world are homeless or living in a house the size of my bedroom, and we can’t find a house on the market that fits our family. Ridiculous.

No. Tell Me what you want, like I was your builder.

Fine. I told Him all over again about our bedroom situation. I rehashed wants versus needs, and what would be ideal versus what we would settle for. And I begged Him to not move us somewhere with propane heat, ridiculous covenants, or hideous custom tile from the 1980’s.

What about layout? He asks. What about landscaping? What about the neighborhood? This is where things get overwhelming. I have some vague ideas, but I don’t trust myself to decide all those details. I don’t want to create something from scratch — I just want to see it, and I’ll know whether it’s right or not.

The details don’t have to match my Pinterest fantasies (though I dearly love my boards here, here, and oh yes, swoon, right here). I don’t mind some dings and scratches. I just don’t want a sterile, cookie cutter house…I want character. Some old beams, a weird window. A place where we can have chickens. A little more room to stretch out in. A vessel that carries all of our passengers.

I want Him to design it, though. He knows how to make the details work. If I put together everything, I’d feel regret over mistakes I found later – the laundry room should’ve been on the ground floor, not the basement; the square footage we added to one room should’ve been shifted to another. I’d blame myself for it not being perfect. Stupid, maybe, but I know me, and that’s how it would go down. That’s my order of operations.

But if it’s His design, I can foot the nitty gritty to Him and trust Him to make it all for a good purpose. He knows the quirks our family can handle.

I told Him all of this. While seven kids were asleep, some in bedrooms and some not, the shower ran hard and the water beat down and I told Him every bit of this.

knik river

And then He started talking, too.

So, Love…the kid issues, the bedroom hassles, the cramped quarters. I know it doesn’t feel perfect.

I know how the tight schedule affects the amount of time you’ve spent working toward a goal without seeing progress, and the delayed gratification that you’ve been waiting so long for. I know this river’s taking a long time to cross.

But what if you realized I designed this season for you? What if I knew those were imperfections you could handle, according to My design?

You said you just want character. What if this is how you got it?

And that’s Jesus, with the mic drop.

____

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the second day: when we don’t know what’s ahead

We walked the woods and I wandered to the spot where we buried someone precious a few years ago.

the second day

The piece of bark was just laying there, right over the grave. This skin torn off of a living thing, leaving it exposed, vulnerable, and in pain.

Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.

I think often about this “second day” space: this time between heartbreak and victory, between the bloody cross and the empty grave, when we don’t know what’s ahead.

We hoped for something huge and desperately longed-for, but it was thrown in our face and spat on. We didn’t know what was coming.

We tried to build a fire for warmth and light, but we’re still freezing, the smoke is getting in our eyes and we can’t see anything else.

We thought those contractions meant we were close to delivery, but found out we were only dilated to one and a half centimeters.

When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.

The Kingdom is on the cusp of something amazing and huge. He is waking up His people in a way we haven’t seen in our generation, and maybe in a way He hasn’t done in many generations. This is a great time to be His people, but we have to endure the hard work of waiting.

We walk a tense line between faith and not moving ahead of God to push fruit, forcing something to work on our own. We don’t want to miss His move of certainty by stepping without Him, tired of waiting for the prophets and giving the sacrifice on our own. We don’t want to build the golden calf in our impatience for God’s answer, as the Israelites did when they squandered their loot from Egypt in making a work of their own hands to worship.

For weeks now, God has been reminding me that He restores, redeems, and refines us in our encounters with Him. And we often encounter Him in our need, in the quiet, dark place of the second day where we hurt and have no answers and are brought face to face with our need for His light, His answers, and His comfort.

In this second day space He is putting things back together for His people, as though He was working in the dark soil of our very foundation and identity, and making things right in ways they have never been before.

So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

– John 16:20-22, ESV

The second day is a day of smoldering ashes. Our woodstove is the grave of that tree. We lay on more kindling and push things around a little closer to the coals.

We shut the door. We watch.

The smoke starts spinning in there, the coals start glowing and flickering. It’s only a matter of time before you hear it – the deep whoof, the sound of ebullition — all is bright and burning.

It is the second day. We’ve been waiting for a long time and the momentum is increasing, and God is about to ignite something ferocious, contagious, and powerful for the Kingdom.

“Does bark always come off in the shape of a heart?” Cham asked.

No, I told her. Only God does that.