starry night: when we find ourselves in unexpected territory

Not sure if it’s denial or just complete rebellion, but we broke out a 1000-piece puzzle to work on for Christmas, even though we’re moving in a few weeks.

And, friends, this is not your normal puzzle. No, no, this is Van Gogh’s Starry Night, a thousand pieces of beautiful insanity requiring a magnifying glass, good lighting, and (probably) an inordinate amount of sheer stubbornness.

So, I’m in.

starry night: when we find ourselves in unexpected territory

Up close, Starry Night has trillions of faint lines that look like bones – a tibia here, a broken fibula there – and the subtlest shades of color make the light seem to fall against blue-black darkness. It has scratchy marks you’d never notice until looking intently at a magnified thousandth of it. None of the pieces give any indication what the big picture looks like.

We’re making slow progress on it while procrastinating through more responsible moving and house-selling duties. The last time we worked on puzzles was when I was pregnant with Finnegan, and I could justify slowness and rest with the contractions of early labor and all the other discomfort of late pregnancy. And in a way, we’re right here again – we’ve been pregnant for months, bursting at the seams in this house we’re overflowing out of, and restless for this new season, new structure, new routines.

We’ve been in labor for this move for a long time. Years.

We thought we wouldn’t be here this year. Actually, two years ago we thought we were spending our last Christmas here, and last year we were absolutely certain we would be living somewhere else by now.

But we’re still here. It’s a “finally suddenly” feeling; it seems too fast after all the slow waiting, and I want to hold on to certain pieces while flinging others into oblivion. It all melds together though. Just like days, years, memories, brushstrokes – they refuse to sort cleanly; they bleed into each other.

We are hip-deep in selling the house – repairs, paperwork, phone calls, oh my – and since it’s December, we’re also up to our ears in gatherings and festivities. Texts about scheduling and signatures come in rapid fire, and my phone sounds like it’s dinging “Carol of the Bells” on just one note.

We strive for margin, and in our striving sometimes we lose more white space. We imagine life to look a certain way, and it violently veers an entirely different direction.

I need to stop for a minute, slow down, and put a few of these pieces together; get some perspective.

I turned 41 last week.

(This is a good time to mention that last summer, Chamberlain asked what scallops were – lines, not shellfish – and I told her they were sort of like waves, and pointed to a nearby wooden crate with scalloped edges as an example. “Oh, like those?” she asked. “Those are scallops?” She was pointing to the wrinkles on my forehead.)

I’m 41 now, and we’re moving, and none of this looks the way I thought it would. We have a back-up plan to rent from a generous friend, but we haven’t found the right house to purchase, we don’t know exactly where we’re going, and we’re not really sure what we’re doing.

I’m not really sure what God’s doing with us.

But I’ve been looking way too closely at one or two pieces of this, and they are only thousandths of the picture. I know He sees the whole picture. I know He has a thousand reasons for having us where we are. But not knowing what those reasons are, or where He is sending us, or what He is doing, is hard.

I told a friend that this not knowing is doing many of the same things to me that fasting does – it brings up the dross, the hard questions, and tests my willingness to receive hard answers.

It also tests my ability to trust Him for good answers.

He and I have been talking about it a lot (a lot) lately. I’ve asked Him over and over, and He keeps saying, It’s a surprise, Love.

I’ve mouthed off something about not liking surprises and He hasn’t stricken me down. I’m the one who finds presents early, shakes them and squeezes them, and hides them in new places just to be a stinker.

Sheer stubbornness. See, told you.

But the season feels off, unfamiliar – it’s not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not what we envisioned. We don’t picture the cramped house, people overflowing out of bedrooms, the special needs that interrupt daily interaction and normal activities, and children losing years to poor choices and mental illness. I talked to a woman recently who is also struggling through this season, wanting life to be the way it is supposed to be, instead of revolving around her husband’s addiction.

It’s not the way it’s supposed to be, because we never envision the angry, distant family member, or the job loss, or the person who’s always been there but suddenly isn’t because death took them too early.

None of it is what we expected, dreamed of, or asked for.

He meets us in the mess we are in, whether the mess is from our own choices, or the choices of someone else, or because He has a surprise in store to teach us that we’re not in control.

He’s telling me that when you find yourself where you never thought you’d be, He’s positioning you for something you never could have planned.

On that starry night, Mary probably never imagined her first experience of childbirth and motherhood would occur in unfamiliarity, in a barn, in the dirt.

Maybe Jesus was born where He was because we needed to know it is okay for things to not look the way they’re supposed to. Maybe it was so we’d know we have a King who doesn’t fit the mold. Maybe it was a thousand different reasons.

Maybe one of the reasons is to show us that our expectations and plans fall short. Maybe we would settle for mediocrity when we were made for more.

…. The rest of his days he spent…wondering and pondering why he had not found a way to the East. He blamed the unknown continent that barred his way. It never occurred to him to be grateful that the unknown American continent had been in his way. Otherwise he and his men would have starved to death on the endless way to Asia.

For the world was three times as wide around as Columbus had believed.

– Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire,  Columbus

Maybe we dream too small, too stubborn.

Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

– Ephesians 3:20-21, ESV

Saul the Pharisee never dreamed of becoming Paul the Evangelist. Peter, as a young fisherman, never imagined growing up to be the Rock the church would be built on. Columbus never planned on discovering America. John Adams, Abraham Lincoln – neither of them had any idea as children that they would be presidents who would direct and define our nation’s history.

And until the angel told her, Mary never imagined being the mother of the Messiah.

But when her plans were changed she gave the sacrifice of praise. Mary sang her magnificat though she never imagined being pregnant and unwed, shunned and suspected by society for the rest of her life. When she was engaged to Joseph, she didn’t think her wedding would be compromised by pregnancy and scandal.

All through history, none of the great figures and heroes had any idea what the big picture of their life would look like. They only saw a thousandth of it at a time, like you and me.

Except for Jesus. He was the only one who knew what He was getting into – way beyond inconvenience and into the depths of messy humanity. That’s where He chose to meet us.

And He is still meeting us here, right now, wherever we go.


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stay with me

Five months old, his first Christmas. Finnegan watches eight people constantly buzz around him, and all he can do is scoot backwards.

stay with me: when the star shone on our circumstances and showed us the Savior


He’s almost crawling, but so far only his reverse gear works and he ends up pushing himself farther away from what he’s trying to reach. I can tell he wants to go places, to keep up with everyone and get things for himself. Sometimes he fusses about it. But he’s patient, usually, and waits.


I sit with him on the floor, watching him as he watches everyone else: brothers coming and going, sisters stopping to coo over him before moving on. Even the cats, those lazy things, run circles around us. He looks at me with those blue eyes and I can tell he’s asking, Stay with me? And I tell him, It’s okay, buddy. I’ll stay with you. I have a book to read, he has some plastic keys to shake. And we sit in each other’s company, watching the laundry and dishes pile up as the afternoon goes by.


What all this means is the tree is probably safe from getting knocked over this year. Next year will be a different story.

Next year will be a milestone, because I turned the big 3-9 last week. My grandma, that brave lady who started 2015 in the emergency room, called me on my birthday and asked how old I was again. And I told her, again.

“Really!” she said, feigning disbelief. “Are you sure you’re not just 21?” (Don’t you love her?)

“Pretty sure. I could go buy something scandalous though, and see if they card me for it. Vince has been wanting some bourbon to cook with.”

“Ha! What would you do if your pastor saw you at the liquor store?” Grandma is Baptist, don’t you know.

“Well, I guess…I’d ask what he was buying.” Ha, yourself.

(Side note: The kids have been wanting to make homemade vanilla for about a year and we bought a bottle of alcohol for that purpose. We finally got around to reading the super-easy instructions last weekend, and I confess it was more than a little disturbing to hear Afton calmly say, “I’ll go get the vodka.” But I digress.)

Our conversations are usually all over the place, coming back to touch on a few things more than once because of her memory loss. She always asks what we’re having for dinner (twice this time) and I told her I was all out of sorts because Vin took all the kids with him (all! the! kids!) to run errands so I could have a few hours to myself. They got home around naptime, but I’d been totally irresponsible and forgot to make lunch. She said she does that too, only she does it on purpose.

But she’d been extra responsible that day, because dinner was well on its way at her house, even though it was still afternoon. She starts making it at sunset, which is around 3 pm here lately. Her vision has deteriorated and she doesn’t like the dark. She no longer drives, reading and writing are no picnic, and she is more dependent than she’d like. Sometimes she fusses about it. But she’s patient, usually, and waits.

She can’t tell that Finnegan’s eyes are blue, and she can’t see the dimple in his left cheek that he inherited from her. She could not have known what this year held for her twelve months ago.

Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace like the ticking of a clock during a thunderstorm.

– Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Most of us have had to adjust one way or another this year, and we’re all facing unknowns that we don’t have answers for. We had no idea what this year would look like. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we don’t know what Christmas will look like, and it’s only days away.

We’ve sat in one place when we wanted to move. We’ve moved when we wanted to dig our heels in and stay still. We’ve been restless for the next big thing, and anxious about getting what we’ve asked for. We’ve wanted to go places, to keep up with everyone, and get things for ourselves. We’ve watched things darken around us, and wondered if anyone else notices.

We’ve been Joseph, feeling unprepared and out of options. Or we’ve been Mary, holding onto promise in a pregnancy she didn’t plan, and seeing its fulfillment in the most unlikely of places.

Wherever we’ve been, He’s said, It’s okay, Love. I’ll stay with you.

A year ago we faced our own unplanned pregnancy. The Sunday before we told anyone, I remember singing You make me brave, but I was wiping my eyes and feeling anything but brave. But we sang it again recently, and I was holding our fair blond Finnegan — all baby curves and chubby cheeks and sleepy, sweepy eyelashes – and I know more than ever that He delivers on His promise. He is the God-With-Us who delivers us from the unknown, and from the dark outside and in us.


For our family, by God’s grace, next year we will be moving to a house with more than three bedrooms. More woods, and less homeowner restrictions. There are a lot of unknowns at play and we’re not totally sure what He’s moving us into. We have no idea how the adjustment is going to affect two of our kiddos who are just learning to handle the upheaval of a four-day weekend.

This is the season that transforms darkness to light, when the star shone on our circumstances and showed us the Savior: we celebrate the baby who was kept warm in burial wrappings because He was the lamb of God, and laid in a food trough because He was also the bread of life.

Delivering and providing are what He does, so it doesn’t matter too much that we have no idea what next year will look like. Next year will be a different story.


related: go bravely: learning to see in the dark

go bravely: learning to see in the dark

Few decorations, no baking, no projects, no formal dinner. Our Christmas was so far from perfect this year. But one part stands out — Christmas Eve, just sitting on the couch next to my grandma, holding hands. Asking her how she’s feeling. Her asking me how I’m feeling. Talking about cats, hers and ours. Taking turns demurring more food and sweets, and eating seconds anyway.

She’s 83 this Christmas, and I just turned 38. On my birthday she pointed out that our ages mirror each other.

go bravely: learning to see in the dark

We sat in the living room and listened to her reminisce with my dad and uncle, and they got to talking about collecting pine knots in the woods for firewood when the boys were little. What are pine knots? I asked, having often heard of them but never knowing what they were. I’ve always lived in Alaska, and we have spruce trees, not pine. But Grandma and Grandpa lived in Arizona before coming up here with their four boys.

Pine knots, they told me, are what is left after a pine tree has fallen and rotted away – they are the tough joints and sinew where the branches were attached to the trunk, and when the tree fell and the rest of it decomposed, these knots endured the weather and decay. Good fuel, Grandma said – small, but burned forever, and smelled better than the creosote from the old railroad ties they often had to burn.

This brave woman, just under five feet tall now, brought those boys to Alaska and was often alone and on her own as she raised them amid all their shenanigans. And she wasn’t finished; she still had one more boy to go. Grandma still sees so much though her vision has been failing. Her eyes are bluer than mine.

As I’m thinking back on all of this, I’m sitting with Gus, our older striped cat, who used to be shared equally between our oldest son and myself. Now he seems to clearly prefer me. Between the two of us sitting on the couch, he almost always comes to my end and climbs on my lap, heedless of the shrinking real estate due to a pregnant tummy. Maybe it’s because of Sophie’s absence, or because of the kittens’ presence, but I think it really just boils down to comfort. He’s older, a little bonier, stiffer, and less tolerant of sudden moves and loud noises. He wants the gentle touch of the mama-friend, not the rough scrubbings of kids who have yet to learn empathy wrought by pain or age.


And we are like this, too, in our seasons of rawness. When we are tender and fragile, we naturally lean toward the friend who wields words and truth gently, who holds wisdom humbly because they won it through pain without allowing bitterness to fester. A heart that is ready to be comforted runs to the friend who carries compassion forged through experience.

The night that I called my grandma to tell her about our our curve ball, our surprise due mid-summer, I wondered what she would say. I wondered if she would discourage me without meaning to when I already felt so brittle.

Why do we do this, bracing ourselves against discouragement even from those we’ve learned to trust most? But I did brace myself, and told her.

And she asked, “How old are you now?”

Here it is, I thought. “Umm. Almost 38.”

“Ohh…” I could hear her smile. “That’s a good age…not too old, not too young. I was, oh, 41 when I had Mark. And he was so special, such a gift. A surprise, too, but such a joy. You are –” she paused, I heard a sigh over the phone — “so very blessed.”


You are so very blessed.

She saw. She knew I was anxious, and she knew what to say to speak life, comfort, ease, and encouragement. She spoke of my uncle, their fifth boy, the only one born in Alaska. Born in the same place I was, five years before me.

We can know things for ourselves, and still need to hear them from others. We can encourage each other with truth and fight each other’s darkness, but still need others to shine that truth into us on the days that fall pitch black. We stumble and get our hands and knees in the mud, and a fellow traveler says, Here, I’ll hold your lantern for you while you get back up again. There you are. Bravely now, onward.

And on Christmas Eve we sat on my dad’s couch and held hands. On the other side of her was my uncle, the last one born in the States before they moved here. Our kids played with cars behind the couch and we forgot to bring our camera and it was just a small gathering on Christmas Eve in this season that has felt incomplete from the very beginning. And still, it was perfect.

These curving seasons with stormy weather and crumbling are what make our story endure. They are the turns, the branchings-off, the connections that make us of the tough sinew that lasts, uncorroded and unwasted.


For the unsettled family who doesn’t know where they’ll be going in six months, but they know they won’t be staying where they are; for the grieving family who had no preparation for the loss they are suddenly facing; for the parents making choices they never thought they’d have to consider for their children; for the single person confronted with unknowns beyond reckoning; for the mama facing an unexpected pregnancy while still overwhelmed with an alphabet soup of special needs and health issues…may we be the friends who hold wisdom humbly.

This is the year to speak truth in tenderness. This is the year to speak life into darkness for ourselves, and for each other. Oh, my friends: this is the year to face things bravely.

But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually — their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten.

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

May we be unflinching, not shrinking back, but moving in bold obedience to the curves and bends in our story. You are so very blessed.

Most of it is not what we planned…and that is okay. Heroes are not made in control groups living inside a sterilized petri dish. They are made in the wild. They are those who choose to lean hard into the curve instead of turning back.

o night divine

The candles are lit. Evergreen is everywhere, studded with strands of white lights.

There is mingling, laughter, and hugs between familiar faces, and awkward observation and frequent phone-checking by people sitting alone. Some are here by invitation, some are here every weekend, and some are here just for lip service.

o night divine: only one birth ever caused movement like this (Copperlight Wood)

All of them are waiting to meet a friend…not all of them realize it, though.

Before the service starts, the music starts to play:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,

It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.

People are starting to find their seats, arranging puffy jackets and squirmy children and travel mugs of coffee. Some are expectant, some are uncertain, and some are exhausted and discouraged after a day that was meant for joy but went awry somewhere between a late breakfast and an early dinner.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,

Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

We know the words and hum along as we divide and conquer our six kids, staggering those who are goofing off between the other ones who are bickering.

Someone kicks a coffee cup over, caffeinating the carpet around us. I lunge for it, save what’s left, and set the cup upright. We rearrange kids again and put someone with shorter legs next to me.

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

More people arrive. Several rounds of musical chairs in the dim lighting indicate a packed house, and no one is sitting alone anymore. Some extend hands and make hasty introductions. Others peek to their right and left, make eye contact with strangers and acquaintances, and smile quietly. Coats are shuffled, elbows are bumped, apologies are whispered.


The volume of the song is changing and the tempo slows as people settle in their rows. The frantic day with its mutinous agenda is dissolving, and my heart starts to set upright again.

The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;

In all our trials born to be our friend.

I stop singing along when I realize the words have been rearranged. A hush is falling as others notice it, too.

Expectancy hovers. We wait and listen, and something stirs.

Truly He taught us to love one another;

His law is love and His gospel is peace.

The atmosphere suddenly shifts. I’m not sure how it happened, but in less than a minute the mood changes from simple holiday cheer to something much more serious.

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;

And in His name all oppression shall cease!

This is no mere Christmas carol.     

This is the worship evoked by holiness.

Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!

O night divine…O night when Christ was born!

A spark lit, and scattered. Across the dark auditorium rustling was heard as shapes rose.

About a dozen got to their feet, scattered throughout a room of hundreds.

He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger,

Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!

Ignited like shared flames in a candlelight service, people begin to stand all over the room. Babies are lifted off laps and placed on hips as parents and children, friends and strangers rise for the One they were waiting for…the Friend they came to meet.

Only one birth has ever caused movement like this.

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,

His power and glory evermore proclaim.

They’re on their knees. They’re on their feet. Hands are raised and hearts are full and the seats are empty.


His power and glory evermore proclaim.


out of the blue

out of the blue: finding joy when the season is a struggle

In case you missed the news in the video on Facebook or in the newsletter, we have an announcement. Coming soon, summer of 2015, a new baby at Copperlight Wood. And if you ask us, “Hey, haven’t you guys figured out what causes that yet?” we will probably give you any one of the following answers:

1. Yes…haven’t you?

2. Yes, and we like it.

3. Yes — lots of…well, paperwork (high five to fellow adoptive families!).

big sister

We’re excited, but the days so far have been a lot like this one:

Fold the next shirt, try not to throw up. Match a pair of socks, try not to throw up. Stay away from the kitchen (or the catbox, or the boys’ bedroom) and try not to throw up.

These days, I subsist mostly on crackers and peanut butter and ask the big kids to make lunch for everyone else while I fight queasiness on the other side of the house. They do a pretty good job. Only two food groups? Close enough.

And yes, we’re thrilled about this new life, and yes, these days will pass and joy will come, but to be honest…everything turns dull shades of grey and blue while morning sickness tries to drain the color out of life for the weeks that it lasts. I walk around in a haze of nausea, not enthusiastic about Thanksgiving, not helpful with cooking, not inspired about Christmas decorating, and not even excited about our first scheduled date out of the house in two and a half years.

It’s just, bleh. Blue. And it’s not me, it’s the morning sickness talking.


And maybe it’s not morning sickness for you, but the bleh happens to many of us out of the blue – or at a certain time of the month – and we are just not who we normally are. The color is gone, our caffeinated superpowers have abandoned us, and we could not summon appropriate enthusiasm if someone were to lay a platter of chocolate and roses in front of us and declare that we’ll never pay a mortgage again. Life for a little while has lost it’s zing. And I know I’m not alone in this…I suspect it also happens to thousands of devoted Downton Abbey fans at the end of every season. Mm-hmm. You know who you are.

It’s easy to turn the funk into an excuse to pull back, isolate, and recoil. And there is room for that, sure — no one wants an audience hovering around when we’re absolutely miserable — but He gives room for growth and productivity within the struggle. It’s a grace-saturated opportunity: no added pressure, no increased burden, just the light yoke of learning boldness in affliction.

We can pursue the Kingdom quietly in spite of pain. The struggle is a season, not our identity.

Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.

– Colossians 4:12

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you.

– Philemon 1:23

I’ve never paid much attention to this name before, but in the last several weeks of reading the New Testament the name Epaphras kept showing up, and I finally noticed. His name means “lovely.” The few scriptures we have that mention him revolve around this theme of both faithfulness and struggle.

The two go together. Anyone can be faithful when things are easy. But being steadfast in the struggle is what reveals faithfulness. And that is lovely.


We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.

– Colossians 1:3-8

Through lunch, I’m sitting on the couch, sorting the kids laundry for them to put away later. The girls’ clothes go in a pile to my right, the boys’ clothes go on the other couch. I toss some over in a half-hearted fling – a shirt makes it, but the sock hits the floor. Close enough.

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.

– Colossians 1:9-10

Reagan has been coming up to me lately for lots of hugs – no real reason, just out of the blue, she’ll reach out and ask, “Hug, Mama?” like a wee toddler would. And one afternoon last week when I was nauseous and not wanting anyone near me, I hugged her anyway — which may make me sound like a terrible parent, but if you’ve ever been this close to throwing up at the same moment that a child with a history of aromatic breath wants to come near and squeeze your body, you’ll understand. But I let her, and she hugged me long, and for the first time ever, after being home with us for two and a half years, she said something else — all on her own, no prompting, out of the blue.

It was, “Ah yah you.” I love you, in Reagan’s toddler speak. I melted, but it put me on guard a little – there’s still this inner struggle of wanting to trust and enjoy it, but knowing from experience that often there’s a backlash coming after sweet behavior, the swing from hot back to cold, from clingy to repellent.

But there was no backlash, and she did it again today. And there was joy. Her struggle is not her identity, either.

May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.

He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

– Colossians 1:11-14


We ran errands, and bought maternity clothes, club soda, and a Christmas tree. We listened to Louis Armstrong sing about a Dixieland Santa Claus while driving home in the snow with the tree strapped to the top of the Stagecoach, and the haze was there, but color and loveliness were, too. And it wasn’t quite enthusiasm, but it was close enough.