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.

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.

choosing sides: a post-adoption update, three years later

She woke up with one question.

“You say, ‘Happy bootday, Reagan?’”

After 364 days of talking about what she wants to do on her birthday – to the point we had to reign in and discipline it lest she drive herself and the rest of us crazy – we finally we got to say, Yes. Happy bootday, Reagan. Today is your day.

“Do you know how old you are?”

She grins and flutters her hands. “Yes!”

“How old are you?”

“Five!! I five, mama!”

Yep. Still working on that.

choosing sides: a post-adoption update, three years later

She was born ten years ago. Andrey’s biological mom was seven months pregnant with him, I was six months pregnant with Afton. During their first five years, we didn’t know Andrey or Reagan existed. During the last five years, we spent two trying to bring them home, and the last three post-adoption years helping them know they are home. For good, forever.

She opens the first gift and before I know it, I hear myself say, “Do you like it?” Suddenly it’s three years ago and I’m asking the same thing in my best awkward Bulgarian. “Haresva li ti?” Please say yes. Please mean it.

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And she does like them. Vin took a risk and bought size eight pants. They will fit nicely in the top of her closet while we wait for her to grow into them.

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What she really loved, though, came next. “Oh! Oh! Hoo-ey, ahhhsome! Yay, hoo-ey!” I have never seen anyone so excited over hooey before.

She loves hoodies and glasses. She likes cars and coloring. What really makes her light up, though, is music. And food, of course.

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Vin was home for the day, there were eight inches of fresh snow over everything and it was still coming down on our cusp of the valley. We had a snowball fight before lunch – all of us except Reagan, who wasn’t interested. She made tracks, ate snow, and watched from a safe distance. Cham also wasn’t interested, so she made herself a snow throne and sat like a queen in the middle of the action, occasionally granting boons of huge snowballs to us, and just as often getting hit in the crossfire with her own artillery.

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But Andrey joined us, and for you to understand how significant it is to have him do so – and have fun – in this particular activity, I would have to remind you that he cried fat tears the first time Vince gave him a high five, thinking he was getting hit. And other times more recently, there have been big crocodile tears over the slightest jostle, trying to get siblings in trouble. The boundaries are so paper thin and fragile sometimes, us learning to trust him and him learning to trust us. We want him to know that we can carry him upside down and not drop him.

Vince and I were captains and we chose sides – I took Mattie and Andrey, Vince took Iree and Afton. Afton captured Andrey and took him to the snowbank, and Mattie and I had to Stage A Rescue.

Under heavy fire from Vince and Iree, Mattie threw Afton into the snow bank on their side and I threw – okay, gently shoved – Andrey toward the safety of the snowbank on our side. And he loved it. And then the snow was everywhere – in our eyes, stuck in our hair and melting down our faces, sailing in arcs to land on hats and backs and behinds.

(There was some hand to hand combat and it got a little messy. If you ask Vin, he might tell you some nonsense about me playing dirty and shoving a ton of snow down the front of his shirt. But that’s ridiculous; I would never have done that because he had Finnegan in the front pack under his jacket. I shoved the snow down the back of his shirt. Just so we’re clear.)

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There was soup and bread inside for lunch; a movie and a nap. A normal day. A relatively easy day. The next day was harder; behavioral fallout from excitement and change still happens. Sometimes it’s over just a routine appointment, and sometimes it takes us back to behaviors we haven’t seen since those first weeks together in a hotel in Bulgaria.

Every day is a study. Will they cooperate with school – or speech – today? Will they have fun? Will Reagan join us during meals and playtime, or will she piddle the day away in the bathroom, trying to isolate herself from all of us? Will Andrey obey routines, or will he sabotage every opportunity for freedom and joy? Will Reagan remember how to count past ten today? Will Andrey pretend that he doesn’t know what the number fifteen is?

Will they know that we will do what we can to rescue them from attack, but that we won’t rescue them from the consequences of their own actions?

We are still here, a little over three years later. And the pendulum still swings, but now it usually has a more tempered, predictable rhythm.

As they get older, I hope we’ll see the right answers to all these questions. I hope they will forgive us for being imperfect parents. I hope they’ll forgive their birth parents and orphanage workers for anything they may harbor against them, heart-wise. I hope they will forgive and love themselves. I hope when it comes time to choose sides, they will choose life.

I hope they will see Jesus through their entire story, protecting, loving, correcting, and renewing. I hope they will know He is for them. I hope they wake up every morning and hear Him say, Hey, Love. Today is your day.

_____

related: a love that grows: a letter to Reagan on her eighth birthday

right of way: giving God room to move

We’re on the highway, driving out of town to a standard six-month checkup. We’ve passed the glittering fall days that are all steel and gold with leaves scattering the sidewalks; now we’re onto the bare days, with smudged white skies and naked trees. They are empty, waiting. Most of the grass is bleached straw, but the grass around the new streetlights is still fresh and green, like the oregano that grows up against our house. It clings to warmth and stays steadfast long after the mint and plantain are withered to nothing.

right of way: giving God room to move

We’ve done this trip many times – we’re almost into three years of these vision appointments. But this time our daughter can read, and yet out of one eye she cannot see that the capital Y on the screen in front of her is a Y and not an O.  The letter changes to an S, and she says it’s an O. The doctor changes the sizes and arrangement of the letters, and the mood of this casual, standard appointment shifts to something weightier.

Remember what I’ve been telling you, Love, He says.

What He’s been telling me is to thank Him in all things, even the hard things. Especially the hard things, those things that are a result of the Fall and not of Him at all. And He is teaching me that when I thank Him for those things, it isn’t as though I’m saying, “Yes, this is so good, I’m glad (fill in the blank) has happened,” as we would thank Him for, say, a windfall of cash or some unexpected victory.

It is a different kind of thankfulness. It feels like sacrifice.

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When we thank Him for the hard things, we’re saying, I trust You. I know You’re bigger than this, and as I trust and thank You in this, I am moving out of Your way and creating a wide path for You to move in power in this situation and use it for our great good.

We are, in essence, giving God the right of way, and giving the enemy the middle finger.

The doctor changes to the letter to a P and asks her what she sees. “O,” she says.

She’s a good reader and she knows her letters, but she can’t see these. For the first time, he recommends therapy – twice a week, an hour long each time.

I know it’s not a big deal. Weekly appointments are not supposed to be a big deal. But it is a blow to a schedule already overwhelmed, and I am overwhelmed, and I don’t know how we’re going to do this. I’ve been praying for breakthrough, not burden.

It’s not cancer, it’s not famine, it’s not anyone attacking our village. It’s just a new diagnosis and something else to add to the appointment book twice a week, and we are grateful that therapy is an option. I know it’s a first world problem. But we are first world people and I want my daughter to see. Thank you, God.

I ask the doctor if the appointments could be only once a week. If we could do more at home. If there’s any way we could avoid two appointments a week, anything to lighten this.

No, he says. Without therapy twice a week, he doesn’t think they can help her.

“I know this will be a challenge with your other responsibilities.”  He knows we have six other kids, he knows some of them have special needs. And I am not going to cry in this chair, looking at this doctor and holding this baby and watching this daughter put her glasses back on. Thank you, God.

He explains that insurance doesn’t always cover the appointments, and that she needs them for six to nine months. He tells me what they cost if we need to pay out of pocket – almost the same as our mortgage payment. Thank you, God.

I’ve never understood how praise could be a sacrifice, but I’m feeling it now.

The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me;
to one who orders his way rightly
I will show the salvation of God!

– Psalm 50:23

He says that if she can’t do therapy, the other option is surgery – which sometimes helps, and sometimes makes things worse. He doesn’t know that we’ve already had two surgeries in the last six months and another scheduled for the beginning of next year. And I am not going to cry in this office, holding this prescription and picking up my jacket and patting this baby. Thank you, God.

Vince is waiting in the parking lot with the Stagecoach and the rest of the kids. I give him the rundown and he suggests we get coffee. He is good at keeping things in perspective, and there are few adversities that caffeine and sugar can’t help. But, I don’t know, I kind of just want to go home and rave incoherently while tearing my schedule book into confetti.

 Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.

– 1 Thessalonians 5:16-19

Notice the order? He tells us to not quench the Spirit right after he tells us to give thanks in everything. If not giving thanks smothers what the Spirit would do in our life, giving thanks makes room for Him to light a fire under our sacrifice and sanctify our situation.

We cling to warmth, trusting Him to keep us steadfast when we are tempted to wither. He blows the chaff away, like so many leaves in the fall.

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.

– Psalm 46:5

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We are coasting into downtown Wasilla when Vin broaches the subject of coffee again. “If I can get over into the far right lane, we should stop at Kaladis.”

I looked at the traffic and assumed a somber Victorian accent. “We will leave it in the Lord’s hands.”

The little red car moved out of the way, and our Stagecoach merged into the lane.

“Thus saith the Lord,” he said, “Thou shalt have espresso.”

I nodded. “It is the Lord’s will.”

Thank you, God.