doing love

I am folding towels, warm against my hands, pressing them into neat lines, when Adam appears in the doorway, carefully balancing a mug in his hands.  His fingers grip the sculpted handle, which is blue like a strip of summer sky arching over a field of yellow flowers.  The mug is one of my favorites, and it surprises me to realize that he has gathered this fact and kept it.  His other hand rests flat, opened up long and slender beneath the bottom of the mug, there both to steady the cup and to catch any errant drips.  Adam watches the way the coffee swells close to the edge, a caramel-colored wave rising and falling as he walks.  He bites his lip, lightly, lifting his eyes up to me and back to the mug, silently offering his gift.

And I am stunned that he thought of me.  I say his name, more a gasp than a clear articulation, thanksgiving gushing after, and his lips curve in a faint smile. Doing is the weight of saying, and not the big grandiose things but the tiny, the daily, the sweet-in-the middle of the ordinary, the glisten of love on a crumbly day.  Saying love finds shape in doing love, just as saying faith finds significance in living faith.  We need the words, but with them, we need the substance of something held, something touched, something treasured.  Doing love means what it says.

At first, we parents of childen with autism draw out the words, the articulations that frame relationships.  I remember how I waited for the first time that my son would tell me on his own—not in response or repetition or because I prompted, but because he chose to say those words: I love you, Mom.  And when at last he did—little boy with his hands on my shoulders, I cried.  When your once-silent children speak, any words sound beautiful, but those words, those arms-around-me, reaching-into-me words; those how-I-know-you words signify a wealth of waiting.  Those words are a door.  Beyond it, we wonder if our children feel the words when spoken, if love means anything to them.  Or, is it merely another ritual, the saying of love?  Only now has Riley grown old enough to ask, often dozens of times in one day, about the meanings of words I thought she knew long ago, and Adam has yet to find his way to complicated questions.

We joke sometimes that Adam is like an old man trapped in a boy’s body, the way he holds affection for certain routines—eggs and bacon for breakfast, a cup of coffee at 4 in the afternoon.  Among parents of children with autism, rigidity—with it’s iron-written reign—is water-cooler talk.  But no one wants love that is merely routine.

Adam had asked me to make a pot of coffee before I walked upstairs, because that has become an uncompromising expectation, one motivating enough that he has learned how to make his own cup whenever he must.  May I please have Mom making some coffee, please, he said, in those low, rich, careful tones.  But most always, he has finished his own cup of coffee before I make it back downstairs—licking the last drops from the edge of the mug with his tongue, having learned a long time ago to serve himself.  Adam’s routines are mostly self-satisfying at this point, bringing him comfort.

But today, he thought of pleasing me.  In the middle of his routine, he selected my favorite mug, poured in sweet cream, filled coffee to the brim, and then traveled all the way up the stairs to find me, balancing the steamy cup.  He served me first—just me.  And I stood breathless, sipping the steam of love with shape, holding it warm in my hands.

And then it struck me, cutting deep, the way I can let saying love fall empty of doing, the way I can let loving God and loving people become a self-satisfying routine.  And nobody wants loving that is merely a routine.  God wants a love that thinks of Him, that stops in the middle of the routine and remembers what He wants, what He favors; a love that serves Him first, even if it means traveling far and balancing careful, even if it’s a risk that could swell and drip down, burning the yielded hands that carry the gift. And people, being made in His likeness, long for real love, too, the kind of love that takes creativity and has shape and feels weighty about the shoulders.  The kind of love that’s always new, and sometimes even a surprise.

So now this, as my son turns to go, this lip-bitten prayer lifted with my hands open flat: Oh Lord, teach me to do love like that.

*~*

“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth (1John3:18).”

look what I found

In my cabinet sits a carefully labeled bowl, a sticky note in Riley’s tight hand perched on its rosy scalloped edge.  Riley’s Bowl of Game Choices, it says, or some such thing.  Below it, another bowl with another sticky note, something like Games We Have Already Played.  As she gets older, Riley imposes her own structure over things, and this is something her brother appreciates more than most.

I peek at them through the doorway, gathering up the way he stands on his tiptoes, so happy that it flows right out of his moving hands while she plucks a single bright yellow slip from the bowl of choices.  Those hands, they float and jerk and fly madly in anticipation.

“Racko,” she reads carefully.

“Check! We are having Racko,” he trills in his rich, full voice, as though making an announcement.  I love that voice.  I never get tired of hearing him speak.  When for so long they say nothing, every word becomes a treasure.  And when for so long they live apart right in the midst of together, every true connection is a find.  Maybe the moment seems small, but to me, it feels immense.

“Yes, Adam,” Riley answers, “we are playing Racko.”  She tilts her head, appraising him, and together they walk to the cabinet to pull out the game box.  This has become their favorite thing to do, the thing she picks when I tell her, This is time to do something you enjoy, because you need some time for those things too.  This is time for laughter, time without stress or fear.  She calls up through the ceiling, where her voice blends with the music Adam breathes like air, and he always runs down, machine-gun legs against the stairs.  They have become a comfort to each other, and this moves me to give thanks.  To have a companion, a friend, who understands the way you’re put together, that’s a grace.  My children have found safe harbor, moored together.

I stand in the doorway, my hand gripping the grooved frame, gathering up peace until it covers me.  This companionable ease is something Adam learned at school—a small, desperately needed place where there is no weird.  The children at Dynamic-–the first charter school of its kind in our state, a school for middle and high school students with disabilities–understand each other uniquely, so much so that the older, more articulate students have been known to advocate aloud for their younger peers, interpreting when language becomes a barrier.  In the last six months at Dynamic, Adam has shown more rapid social growth then I have ever seen in him before, and I know those gains have come because of the safe, comfortable influence of friends who understand how he ticks, who don’t see him as other, who appreciate all his idiosyncratic seams as the interesting elements of his personality.  And I smile, thinking, just look what God has done.

Now, watching my children together, the way Riley breathes without trembling, I pray silently for the longevity of this school, for her ability to join Adam there next year.  She could use some of the peace that has settled over her brother.  I have been told that there’s just no right fit for her in traditional high school, that as the crowds and the overwhelming sensory quagmire and the language-heavy grading and the quick pace of the curriculum pile more and more stress on her shoulders, my only option is to choose between her anxiety and her future.  I sigh, tightening my grip on the door frame.  Riley laughs, telling Adam it’s his turn, gesturing toward the box.  She made the A/B honor roll last quarter, and yet, they say that the only way to guard her against the anxiety she now feels over school is to choose not to let her pursue an academic diploma.  No.  There’s another option.  Dynamic.  Our exceptional children need more schools like this one.  We must insist on their potential.  See, I’ve gathered progress and possibility in these arms, and I’m not ready to let it fall.

Adam reaches up and flicks Riley’s ear with his fingers, his smile a wide, contented curve, and once again, I give thanks.  Thank you for giving my son a place to grow, for showing me this.  Adam hasn’t always been so ready to interact, even with Riley.

He used to argue about playing games with us, first a “no,” and then continual questions about when he could be finished or how many rounds of whatever we would insist that he play.  We endured many family nights ruined by his complaint, simply because we cared enough to insist that he work at engaging.  He loved us, loved being near us, but didn’t care to interact or just didn’t know how.

I remember the way Adam’s protests once drove Riley to tears, the way she would clasp her hands over her ears as though his words flew in like barbs and hung there, stinging.  “I don’t like it when you complain,” she would say, the words awash with pain.  So many times, the last energy we had floated away on her grief.  So now, watching them play—he with his arm sometimes casually thrown around her shoulders, his ruffled head bobbing near her cheek–it stops me still and fills my eyes and reminds me how to breathe.  Slow down now; See; Gather up what God has given.

Last week, Adam stayed home from school one day because he was ill, finally accepting my insistance that today he just couldn’t go—It’s time to go, he’d said.  Dad’s truck.  School.  And in the hours when I just had to cook or clean or fold, he found that bowl with the sticky note perched on its scalloped edge and played game after game alone. But it wasn’t the same. The papers snaked across the carpet, a bright yellow line, as though he couldn’t quite make them travel to the other bowl without her.  When I walked through the room, he lifted his eyes and said, “Where’s Riley?”

“At school.  You know Riley’s at school.”

“Be right back,” he said, turning his attention back to the game, the line of yellow slips.  “What’s your favorite time?”  Or, in other words, when will she be home?  He lamented being at home without her, he who used to be so lone.  This is an immeasurable gift, a new and glinting joy.

And so, I give thanks, gathering up the moment and carrying it away with me, leaving my space in the doorway, lest my children catch a glimpse of me and contrive to be something other than the beautiful they are right now.

*~*

How can it be that a school that serves such an important need, a place where our children are growing so much, could be under threat of closure?  Well, we’re doing a revolutionary thing, and no one in the establishment likes a revolution.  Read about this amazing place and a concept that works, and consider helping us stay open.  Will you lend us your voice, your prayers, your resources?  We know God can provide what’s needed, that He may even use some of you to do it, but even if He doesn’t, we will never be able to praise Him loudly enough.  We trust God, in this and all else.

afraid

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“I always eat slowly right before school.”  She says it quietly, when she knows I stand listening, when it’s just the two of us in the room.

Two days back to school, and every morning Riley comments that she’s cold and wraps her legs with a blanket.  She sometimes tries to stand so that I won’t notice she’s shaking.

She sits at the bar across from where I work, nibbling tiny bites from a piece of toast, chewing each one until it must be nearly nothing on her tongue.  She eats slowly, which means—I’ve come to understand—that anxiety has taken it’s stand against her, that she’s nauseous and afraid she’ll gag, that tremors run up and down her legs.  Sometimes, she says she has chills in her mouth.

Over the break, the symptoms of her fear smoothed away, gradually, like a receding wave leaving the shore all new.  Eventually, she stopped worrying that every bite might make her throat convulse.  But now we’re two days back, and she says, “I always eat slowly right before school,” and beneath each word, I hear panic dripping.  Anxiety like hers is a physiological reality for a majority of teens with autism and is almost guaranteed for epileptics approaching young adulthood.  Maturity births awareness—the knowledge that she doesn’t always understand what words mean, the fact that she loses time to invisible seizures, the truth that not many of her peers appreciate her as she is—or, to say it as she does, the way God made her.  Sensory stress, especially in crowded spaces like school, makes it difficult for her to blend in and go unnoticed.

I put down the damp dish towel I hold in my hands and walk around to kiss Riley’s cheek, to rest my forehead against hers.  And just when I make it to her side, Zoe appears on the other, as though Riley’s fear drew her downstairs.

“I know,” I say, grazing Riley’s cheek with my hand.  “Can we pray with you?”

She nods, swallowing hard, and I put my hand on her back.  Zoe reaches for us, and we are three stretching, Three bending, three melted into each other.

“Dear Lord, please,” I whisper, and Riley breathes, and with her exhale comes the sound of relief, a smile we can hear.  In the midst of her anxiety, she often reminds me about the power in clinging.  I watch her cover her mouth, running toward the bathroom in false alarm, and I hear her behind the closed door, pleading alone, “Lord, please.”  So now, we go together, three souls asking.  And as I speak to Him of Riley’s worries and the washing away, she exhales as though she feels Him touching her.

When we open our eyes, she has found her smile.  “Mom?  God is with me,” she says, speaking the same truth as on those false alarm days, when she finally comes out from behind the door and meets my eyes.

“Yes.  He is,” I say, and Zoe and I wrap her in our arms, and for a few minutes, we just stand knotted together, a cord of three not easily broken.  And in just that way, she teaches me what to do with my fear, my uncertainty, my overwhelming inadequacy.  She teaches me to pray, to trust, and to obliterate trembling with the truth.

*~*

The virgin will give birth to a son, and they shall call him Immanuel (which means “God with us”). ~Matthew 1:23

what He does

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Afternoon, and I give thanks that I am sitting alone in the waiting room at the pediatric dental office, because this gratitude always comes fresh.  I never forget the difference between now and then, those days when I held my tears because of his, when it took three people just to clean his teeth.  They used to put us in the baby room with the plastic kitchen and the wilted stuffed animals, and I used to stretch my body over the length of him while he screamed.  And still, we needed an extra hygenist to hold the one free arm I just couldn’t keep pinned beneath the weight of me.  It was an impossible time.

I’ll never forget the look on Adam’s face—sheer terror blended with a full measure of disbelief, that I, his mother, would allow them to torture him, would help them do it. That look ripped through me; I carried it, heavy.  I remember the metal contraption they put in his mouth to keep it open, cranked wide against his will.  I remember the way his body felt beneath my own—the muted thrashing, like a scream stopped by my hand, like a protest against the unredeemable.  Please, how could you, how could you, how could you, his eyes flashed, and tears soaoked his cheeks and my clothes, and I wondered if he would ever be able to manage it.

We had to hospitalize and anesthetize our son to have his cavities filled, and at the same time, the dentist sealed his six-year molars and took x-rays.  She knew they’d never be able to accomplish any of that while Adam was awake and terrified.  Those days, we had a short list of foods Adam would eat, because he was afraid of the feel of certain textures on his tongue, as though the wealth of sensation brought him pain.  Dental visits amounted to violation.

But today, I sit alone in the waiting room, giving thanks.  Because God can redeem anything.

These days, when the hygenist comes out, Adam stands up with the girls and walks back on his own, and the only thing he wants to know is, How long?

He stops the hygenist in the doorway, looking at his watch, tilting his head the way he does when he’s trying to listen carefully, trying to sort out words from the wealth of information in the room.  “Until…“Adam says, leading her.  When she doesn’t answer right away, he looks at me.  “It’s time to go home,” he says.  But I ignore this, looking past him to the hygenist.

“I’m sorry, he wants to know how long it will take.”  I offer a time, a question, generously adding on a half hour more than I think it will take them to examine his teeth.

She looks at her watch.  “Well, they have x-rays today, so…”  She wobbles her head back and forth, considering.  X-rays.  Adam hasn’t had xrays since the hospital.  It’s uncomfortable, and no one can go in with him, and they don’t tell him how long to “stay like this.”  I have coached them on this, but I haven’t been able to convince them that they need to be specific.  I don’t have high hopes for x-rays.  Usually, the hygenist shrugs at the end, and says, “Well, we tried, but,” and we all agree to try again the next time.  Today, she agrees that my suggested finish time will likely work, and Adam nods, satisfied.  I chuckle, watching him disappear through the door, the bony shoulders, the long legs.  The hygenist doesn’t understand that she has committed to a contract.

From time to time, sitting in that chair in the waiting room, I hear Adam squeal, and I lift my eyes toward the door, away from my computer and my work. But it’s only the sound of mild disapproval that has replaced the terror of years ago.  He still struggles, sometimes audibly, most often trying to convince the hygenist that she is actually finished.  And they still have a note on his chart about the sticky flouride, because it used to make him gag.  But I’m sitting out here, and he’s back there, and he has enough words now not even to need the communication book we used to carry, the first thing that eased his fear, the first way they used to tell him what they were doing, what they needed from him.  Sometimes, when we’re all wrapped up with impossible, progress seems like such an empty promise.  I’d like to go back now and tell that emptied, carved out shell of me gathering bags in her sore arms that there’s always room for hope, because nothing is impossible for God.  I used to leave these appointments with my heart full of questions and heavy doubt—How will I ever keep doing this?

A click, and the hygenist appears, motioning for me to join her in the back.  “Adam’s twelve-year molars are in,” she tells me as we walk down the hall, “and we’ll need to seal those.  We can do those right now, if you want to.  We got xrays today, and–”

“You got xrays today?  You did get them,” I clarify, as we walk through the door and the dentist looks up from Zoe’s teeth and smiles, and Riley grins at me from where’s she sits in a chair by the window.  From one of the exam chairs, Adam cranes his neck to see me.  He wears black sunglasses, and I wonder if that’s just something for him, until I notice Zoe’s orange ones, a little too small.

“Yes,” the hygenist says, smiling.  “He did well.” Yes?  Yes?

And I think maybe I will fall down, washed over by a grateful wave.  This means he understood, I’m thinking.  This means he managed patience with his discomfort.  This means he “stayed like this,” and waited.  I cannot explain what God accomplishes.

“So, do you want us to go ahead and seal his molars?” She asks, and I hesitate, remembering.

But Adam lays patiently in that exam chair, touching the red vinyl with his fingers, flicking glances at his watch, and I see that we still have plenty of time.

“Sure,” I say, and the hygenist tells me, motioning with her hand, that I can just sit in the chair beside Riley and watch.  And just briefly, I see myself stretched out, covering over the length of him, singing soft songs into his ears while he screams.

The hygenist tells Adam that she will “paint” his teeth, and then she slides that ugly metal tool into his mouth to keep it open, resting it lightly against his cheek.  He hates that thing.  But this time it’s loose, only just sitting easy.

“Why did she put that in Adam’s mouth?” Riley asks bluntly, and I explain that sometimes Adam has a hard time remembering to keep his mouth open.

“Well, actually, I just put that in there because it’s hard to keep your mouth open as long as he will need to for the sealant,” she says to me.  “It’s just to help him.”

And almost in reply, Adam reaches up and removes it, handing it back to her.

“Trust me, mister,” she says to him, laughing, pressing her hand lightly over Adam’s shoulder as she replaces it.  “Leave your hands by your sides, please.”

Leave your hands by your sides, please.  I watch Adam, waiting, remembering the years gone by, the terror in his eyes, the screaming, the feel of him thrashing beneath me.  But today, today in the shadow of that old fear, he lifts his legs just a little and crams his own hands underneath, as though he can’t trust himself unless, and then he settles his head back against the chair to wait.  Did he really just do that? Everything goes blurry with my mom-tears, and I swallow hard because no one could possibly understand.  I am suddenly overwhelmed by gratitude, breath-robbed by possibility. I gasp at a full glimpse of redemption.

Never, never, never give up–It settles somewhere deep, resting, a treasure for another impossible time.  Whenever I feel weary with the so hard, I will take out the glinting gem—those long-fingered hands self-crammed beneath his legs–and examine it closely.  I will grip the wealth of it in my hands until they’re sweaty.  I will plant this precious stone in the heart of our living as a memorial, a glimpse of the Glory of a great King whose power obliterates can never be. 

It’s what He does.

*~*

“Let the redeemed of the Lord

tell their story–(Psalm 107:2)”

she’s strong

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I walk in, and she sits alone on the third row—she, only here to be with; she, who forgets how to breathe when being means there’s just too much to absorb.  She has the courage of a lion, and most don’t even know.  A movie flashes large on the screen at the front of the room, but I hardly notice the blur of its color, the garble of sound.

I notice the knot of girls side-by-side at the back of the room, girls Riley’s age, like new birds twittering on an electric line.  They wear their closeness like a shade, like a brand that makes them okay.  They flick hair and glances and glossy smiles, and in every way as it’s always been—they don’t seem to realize how much she’d love to be with them—she, and another few scattered around, rows away from them, each like an unprotected ewe without the strength of their numbers.

Riley finds no other wants besides this one: connection with girls her own age.

If only they knew, I stand there thinking, that she studies YouTube videos for hours trying to understand how to talk to them, trying to figure out what to say.  If only they knew that sometimes when she’s with them she eats herself sick because at least eating is something they can do together.  If only they knew that she thinks of them as her friends; that she wants to invite them to her celebrations; that she never says or thinks or feels an unkind thing toward any of them.  If only they knew that to her, they’re always beautiful just the way they are, never “too” anything, never out of place. And I don’t know, because maybe they do know and just don’t yet understand the value of that kind of friendship.

It’s not that these girls mean to be unkind, just that Riley can’t quite reach them.  She stretches and tries, and they’re nice enough, even often tolerant of her presence and her idiosyncracies.  It seems as though they recognize that they can and should be charitable to her, without ever understanding the gift she offers them.  She isn’t usually invited into their knots.

I motion, catching Riley’s glance from the doorway, and she smiles, standing immediately, moving toward me.  She stops next to me and turns to say goodbye to each one of those girls, calling them by name sometimes repeatedly until they acknowledge her.  And I wince inwardly, watching them throw grins, elbowing each other.  If she had not insisted, they would not have even noticed her leaving.

“Why were you sitting alone?” I ask her as we walk away, guarding myself against a natural inclination to speculate about how the arrangement came together.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she says, looking sideways the way she does when she feels me evaluating something but doesn’t know what to do with my notice.  She clutches her hands together awkwardly, catching my eyes again, and then laughs a little to set me at ease.  I’m okay, Mom, she says, without a word.

But still, I have to ask.  “Were you okay with it—being by yourself up there?”

She nods, looking forward.  “I guess so,” she says, and then finishes a bit more solidly.  “Yes, I was okay with it.”  She hadn’t thought about whether or not it was okay until I asked, and now she’s decided.  So why does this bother me so much, if it doesn’t even seem to bother her? Oh, but somewhere deep it does, or she wouldn’t work so hard to untangle their knots.  I know how hard she works at this; I see what few others can: how much she wants to be with them.  And I suppose that’s how it is with God too.  He alone sees what happens when no one’s looking and what lives in the corners of our hearts.  Surely he aches too, while he watches us growing.

I study the lines of Riley’s face carefully, as stray strands of her hair lift in the wind.  It’s not that she refuses to complain, but that she truly conceives no criticism—not of her situation, not of others, not of herself. She harbors no ugly shadows.  She lives with more concern for others, crying most often over someone else’s pain.  So when she feels disconnected, she struggles to find what she can do to connect more, without ever wishing anyone any different than they are, without an ill thought regarding anyone else’s motives or short comings.  And meanwhile I stand in the doorway with my “if onlys.”  If only is not a shining refrain.

Whenever Riley wants to go and be with, I have to pry my arms open to let her be away from me.  Because for all my faith, I still live and breathe as though Kevin and I are the only ones protecting her.  But here is the truth I now see with spiritual eyes, as the sun lights my daughter’s eyes on fire and she walks beside me:

A soul who belongs to God is clothed with His strength and dignity.  And she never walks alone, because she walks with God.

I’m blind not to see it.  She’s not some vulnerable ewe.  She’s strong. Because she’s His.

And still, He’s not finished with me.  As we leave for home together, He writes something else right into the ache in the heart of me: If I long for her to have friends, God longs for it even more, and He stands at the door as we gather in our groups and He hurts too, for all the ones we leave sitting alone because they don’t know how to make us feel better about ourselves; for the ones who don’t know how to speak or what to say; for the awkward ones still struggling for connection, the ones we tolerate without offering relationship; the ones we believe we honor with our charitable notice.  He says to me, It hurts me too, when there are souls left out.  Because in truth, I am often guilty of the kind of selfish ignorance that seeks only my own comfort without noticing the discomfort of others.

So I give thanks for the mother-ache I feel, settling my arm again around Riley’s shoulders, and the Spirit moves and I answer deep, asking God to give me eyes to see. Let me ache over what makes you ache.  And then again, with a throaty-whisper, I ask for the sheer strength of a pure heart.

good talk

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I understand sometimes she has a hard time, and I don’t mind.  I don’t.  You know?  I let things go.  I don’t make a big deal, she says quietly, sipping thoughtfully, sitting carefully across from me at a dot of a table. If we could but offer each other this, that we all make unintentional mistakes.Zoe jiggles the straw in her cup, and I see the open reflection of her in the domed lid, without mask or hint of pretension.  Below her long, darkened lashes, I catch the hint of smudges.  She’s still just practicing. But really, aren’t we all?  She has so many of her father’s best qualities, including an ease for offering grace.  She finds no purpose in contention, and it shines in her, a shade of smooth peace that wraps our living. Do everything without grumbling or arguing (Philippians 2:14)…And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, this a still echo of something resonating as I see her (2 Timothy 2:24).  Not the hurried glance but the true sight of her, the way she’s suddenly serious and vulnerable, the lengthening angles of her face.  God has lately sharpened my eyes, has lately strengthened a commitment in me: to really see my children well. Suddenly, I smile, realizing that Zoe readily attributes this peace-guarding nature to her sister without ever claiming it for herself.

“I know.  I see that, and I’m proud of you.  We all make mistakes…it’s so important to give each other room for error.”  I smile at her, licking whipped cream off of my lip, thinking that it is a sign of the time sitting across from her—sweet, indulgent. Like her dad, Zoe is also careful about whom she entrusts with her depth.  Lately, she protects our dates like holidays, begging out of other opportunities without regret.  And as the years come so quickly, more and more I hold these moments precious in my palms and study them.  We love each other in every perspective, and this too is the reflection of God’s reach.

For the past hour, we wandered through a store gasping at price tags, running our fingers over blankets, giggling over tusk-handled accessories and eccentric art. She lifted a giant spoon, feigning greed over it’s functional size, and I laughed, a cleansing, weightless sound that seemed to fill our morning.  Occasionally, we stopped without preamble to appreciate color, the blend of evocative shade, just a wordless moment, a mutual pause and then a glance sealing unspoken agreement.  We read a children’s story book to each other out loud, sliding in and out of narration, and I gathered a few early gifts for friends, offering her the value of considered details.  We have found joy just in wandering together, in having no particular productivity other than spending time with each other. God shapes her well, this growing girl.  I see His hands still at work, gently moving through her.

“But Mom—the thing that I can’t figure out is that she seems to make a big deal out of every mistake I make.  It’s like I don’t get to have a hard time, like I’m supposed to do everything right all the time.” I wince, stabbed mother-deep, and I see the acknowledgement of it shining in her eyes.  Aren’t these the painful tides of our relationships?  We all live desperate for grace, but so easily slip right into measuring someone else’s performance.  In the face of such evaluation, we are all eternally guilty and painfully inadequate.

“And you don’t understand why she doesn’t offer you the same room for error that you offer her,” I say, lifting my drink, pondering her dilemma.  “Have you talked to her about it?”

She smiles at me, having expected the question.  “I’ve tried.  But it doesn’t help.  She just tells me I shouldn’t be upset and then keeps on expecting me to be perfect.”  It’s a difficult thing to offer grace and in turn to receive unrealistic expectations.

I sigh, gathering up the sight of her listening, waiting.  I wonder how long she will believe I know what I’m doing.  The truth is that I have no idea; that I stumble along; that I don’t trust my own interpretation of things.  We’ve so much evidence of the mess made as we go our own way, and God has written it clear across me: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways, submit to Him, and He will make your path straight (Proverbs 3:5,6). I open my mouth, and those are the words that tumble out.  She blinks.  “Hunh?”

I smile at her, and she giggles, the smallest snicker ultimately full-blooming into a belly laugh, until I am laughing too.  Her eyes sparkle.  “I mean, I know that verse,” she says, gathering herself and sitting up.  “Well, a little.  But what does it have to do with what I was saying?”

“Only that I don’t know all the answers,” I say, still grinning broadly at her over the table.  “I know that you’ll never be perfect this side of heaven, so you might as well not be beaten by the expectation.  I know that you have to do what God wants you to do even if it’s hard and regardless of what anyone else chooses.  (“I do, but I just,” she interjects, and I hold up a hand, gently.) And I know that you need to see the best in your friend, even when she’s unreasonable. But having said all of that, I have to return to the first thing:  Make sure that first and above all else, you trust in God with all your heart, and submit to Him.  He alone searches hearts and knows the why deep in someone else.  Everything isn’t always as it seems.”

She sips her Frappachino, until the air gurgles in the straw.  “It’s just hard,” she says, appraising the bottom of her cup.

“Yes.”

She looks around her for a trash can, glancing at me with a zany smile, adopting again the part of her that must try on every mask in a store and pose in it.  “Sooo, ready to go to another store?”

“Of course, let’s do it,” I agree, gathering my purse in my hands.

And as we walk away, she reaches up and pats me on the back and says, “Good talk, Mom, good talk,” and careens away from my rib-poking hand with another giddy giggle.

Zoe spoon

words to live {and yes, even drive} by

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Afternoon, and noting the time, we drop the things in our hands, gathering and folding into the car.  We turn corners and lift our hands, flat shields against the blinding sun, mutually complaining about the sight-stealing while we give thanks for the warmth, huddling into our seats.  You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live, God says (Exodus 33:20).  And so creation testifies, because I can hardly drive under this brilliant shining.

But another turn, two, and I gasp at the clouds, the sweep and curl of them, the way they twine with long fingers of sunlight.  Look, I say, an awe-wrapped whisper to my girls.  Zoe has her nose in a book–something thick and absorbing, and Riley sits beside me, looking out the window at the passing traffic.  Since birth, Riley has worn the quiet over her shoulders, hooding her head, and as she gets older, I notice a growing richness to its quality, a pure and peaceful contemplation.  “Yes, I see,” she says, nodding.  “God has done a great job with the sky.”

It makes me smile, the easy way she says this, the practical delivery.

“Indeed, He has.  A great job indeed,” I agree, slowing suddenly behind a reluctant driver just as we approach the freeway.  I sigh, straining to gather information from behind.  Who is this, and why are they driving so slowly? I can’t see.  But as we ease our way onto the ramp, he or she pumps the breaks.  The taillights blink: long long short.

“Oh please,” I mutter to whoever ahead of me, looking in my rearview mirror for the poor soul who will soon eat my bumper.  “You’ll get us all killed, you crazy person.  If you can’t get on at full speed, please don’t get on.”

And then the Spirit reaches into me, like a hand gripping.  Don’t dishonor another soul with your words.  It’s effortless, the way we slide in and out of praise.  We all stumble in many ways, James writes.  Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check….but no human being can tame the tongue….With the tongue, we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this should not be (James 3: 2, 8-10).  No human being can tame the tongue.  This isn’t resolvable; it must be metamorphoo, completely transformed, and that’s the work of God.

Riley sits forward a little in her seat, and without looking at her, I know the lines of her forehead, the shape of concern and confusion rumpling her features.  She already lives this lesson, and often God uses her heart like a flame for my own.  “Mom, why is that car going so slow?” She lifts her hand, pointing.  I feel her squinting into the sunlight.  Her question is genuine, not a point to be made.  It’s a tiny thing, but I have brought it to her attention.  I have made it important.  She waits on my answer, thinking I know.

But the truth is, I don’t.  I don’t know why.  I could speculate a dozen different reasons, some compassionate, some judgmental, depending on the direction of my heart-wind.  The driver could be older, slower to react, trying to stay safe.  Or, maybe she’s someone grieving who should not be driving at all, vision blurred by tears.  He could once have suffered a terrible accident while entering traffic.  He could be gripped by fear.  Or, perhaps he or she argues with a passenger, living in conflict. Or maybe, life has just exploded into a distracting level of too much, as it does for me so often.  Riley’s question forces me to remember that someone drives, someone with reason, a life, and vulnerabilities as wide as my own.

Oh, come on…I breathe, but it’s only a mild argument.  Even here?

Lately, it’s this He’s refining in me, the growth He’s Spirit-stretching:  Don’t dishonor another soul with your words.  This conversation we’ve been having has lasted years, and bit by bit He captures and reshapes more of me, reaching.  I’ve always loved this about God, that the details matter—the smallest spaces, the lightest moments; that it isn’t just the public me He wants but the private shadows, the things I say and feel and think in my car, with my family, behind closed doors.  Don’t dishonor another soul with your words, He says.  Not a driver you don’t know.  Not a person who has wronged you.  Not a family member, not a friend, not an aquaintance.  But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” Yet these people slander whatever they do not understand…(Jude 1:9,10).  Slander.  In this particular passage, it’s two words: blasphemia krisis, slander—speech injurious to another’s good name—and condemnation.   We slander and condemn what we don’t understand, what we don’t know about one another but think maybe we do.  But if the archangel wouldn’t even venture to slander the devil, who am I to take it lightly to slander another person, even privately, even in my thoughts?

Let your light shine before others that they might see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven, He says (Matthew 5:16).  Let the light of me be blinding—warm rays like fingers twining with clouds.  Be the glimpse of Glory, the wisp of a view of my back passing by.  Let your children see what I do with you.

My children.  I look sideways at Riley, still staring ahead with concern.  My children, like God-charged sentinels, innocently test my tone as their own, tasting the words, practicing my outraged expressions.  They absorb my disdain, my criticisms, like hunks of bread clutched in the fingers, quickly rot-dipped and gobbled down.  It isn’t the right meal for them, and the regurgitation repulses me.

“You know, I don’t know,” I say to Riley, slowly.  “I don’t know why.  Maybe they’re just having a slow day.  You know…God’s done a great job with whoever that is too.”

On her face, the clouds break, and she shines, sitting back.  “Yes, indeed.  Indeed He has, Mom,” she says, and her voice lifts and falls into joy at the thought.

God calls His words nourishing, life-giving, productive.  And as I grow resplendent with Him (2 Cor. 3:18), so also should the overflow of my heart (Luke 6:45) build and nourish and strengthen instead of tear down.  As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isaiah 55: 10,11).  …For man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3).  

Don’t dishonor another soul with your words, He whispers, gently sculpting, muddying His fingers again with the heart of me.  And to this, He adds a shade of wonder:  What if I allow Him to make me uncompromising on this, bold enough to admit out loud that I just don’t want to disappoint Him with what I say? Because I say so many empty things, and for all of these there will be but one account (Matthew 12:36): I am empty without you, and only your grace is sufficient for me.

offline

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She follows me upstairs, after we return from some festive errand, and we drop our bags on the floor.  She touches my shoulder, gripping me lightly, catching my gaze.

“Will you do something for me?” She asks, as though the possibility exists that I will say “no,” though we both know I never would.

“Sure,” I say, waiting, smiling into her eyes, deep brown and ageless, like her soul.

“While I have the kids, turn off your phone.  Please?  Will you do that for me?”

God opened a cavernous place in her, years ago, to knit me together.  She knows the tones in my voice,  the angles of my smile.  She knows the things that weigh me, the things that rip, the things that simmer.  All this, she carries with me, silently, without criticism or question.  She knows why I live and not just how, and so she entrusts me daily to the One.  It isn’t often that she asks me to do something for her.  I’m not surprised that when she does, it’s something like this, a request that immediately feels like a relief.

“Yes.” Children, obey your parents, and I am wise enough now to listen to her, even if she makes a request of it and not an imperative. I smile, nodding.

“You will?”

“Yes.”  I don’t know if she had expected an argument from me, but she seems surprised that I have agreed so quickly.  The truth is that I have been thinking of this for a while, that all our quick, easy access to each other has it’s disadvantages.  Impulsivity and urgency have begun to replace thoughtfulness and preparation.  As a society, we rapidly lose respect for time coming, for waiting, for the marination of thought.  We forget how precious a thing it is to be invited. Interruptions and distraction slowly deteriorate our peace and meditation, our focus on meaningful interactions.  It’s becoming offensive to focus on just one thing at a time, and on the whole, we have less patience.

Mom and I sat in a restaurant with a sister-friend just before Christmas, and after the hostess explained that we could pay to play games on digital consoles at our table, the three of us entered into a long discourse about the way that electronic devices have begun to interrupt our relationships.  Directly across from us, a man and woman sit together in a booth for two, both thumbing screens with one hand, lifting their forks over steaming plates.  Noticing them, we scan the restaurant and see the same scene repeated over and over again, people together but living online.  I think of the way it happens with me sometimes in the afternoon, how I will be open and available to my children, how they spin around me like held planets, and I misread a moment and check my phone and then suddenly realize they’re standing waiting for my attention, needing me, feeling as though I am more absorbed in cyber things.  I want to be more present for the skin and bone in front of me, for the warm and breathing need I can see and touch.

Sometimes, it’s shocking to me that we’re losing the feel of books in our hands, the way heavy paper sits in the fingers.  The curl of handwriting fades in our digital age, and more and more we fail to see the treasure in way the hand rests, pressing pen into paper with variety of pressure and pace.  Slowly, we forget how to look at each other, how to infuse spoken words with warmth, how to savor the way something tastes.  So she asks, and my answer is yes, without hesitation.

And still, part of me wonders if I can do this, because oddly the ready responding, the way I can allow urgency to sweep across our lives, deceives me.  The very situation that overwhelms me also convinces me that I am in control, that I could be.  I begin to believe that I am more essential digitally than I am tangibly, that the things here can wait secondarily to the even more transient mobile network.  So, my efficiency, my resourcefulness, my online productivity become idols that thieve away lasting influence.

So, I agree.  Yes, I will turn my phone off for the week, and for the week I will live and breathe offline.

And on Saturday, they pack the car and drive away, and I listen.  I leave my device on the table beside the bed, silent. My husband and I talk, and I gather up the sound of his voice, the color of his eyes.  I rest.  Unplugging offers me the space to take emotionally uncluttered breaths.  Living offline reminds me that I am a vessel, lifted, that necessity rests in the hand of God.  It is a Sabbath trust, a Sabbath living, the modern equivalent of an ancient pause commanded.  And I realize, resting my eyes on the whispered Word that will anchor our new year—family—that this choice will be the discipline to carry it.  Every so often, I will choose to live offline.  I will write with a pen and read books and listen to voices and savor the way things taste.  And I will breathe in the Spirit, and He will remind me of the order of things.

Time to just lay fallow. Purposeful sabbaticals from the telephone—quiet days letting the answer machine route all calls. Routine computer sabbaticals—days of time alone, offline. Weekly work sabbaticals—sabbaths to rest, pray, write and meditate.

When we stop, when we create quiet and fallow space, when we take a leave, He comes.

For He is the Lord of the Sabbath.

~SabbaticalsAnn Voskamp

the best gift {every difficult day of the year}

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I weave my way through aisles, casually lifting trinkets in one hand, weighing their merit as stocking stuffers against the cost, yellow-highlighted on white stickers.  We left home early to avoid the rush, the traffic, and scurried huddled through the icy mist to gather our gifts.  We chuckle, in a jovial but deeply horrified, self-convicted way, about the number of retail items manufactured just for Christmas. Our longing for twinkling memories, for tangible abundance, for sentiment we hold in our hands, has inspired an industry.

I laugh over a pen that has a speaker attached to the top.  Push a button, and a variety of recorded voices declare sarcastic and bold refusal.  I find this funny and trivial in a way that frames escape from so many challenging and more meaningful realities, not to mention that the little item makes light of a pervasive feeling—the no, not that of our living.  So much of the time, we all wish we could simply but firmly refuse the difficulty, the responsibility, the things we breathe through.

My phone chimes, an email from Zoe.  Riley is upset and her stomach still hurts.  :( She is really upset.  I close my eyes, briefly.  Just simply: Please.  I need a break this week, a rest, a carved out space for replenishing and refocus.

I read the message aloud to my mom.  I feel Riley’s tears.  She cries silently, without a wail, and sadness blurs her voice when she tries to talk.

“Do you think we should go home?” Mom says.  The day before, something Riley had eaten caused her distress—gas pain that went unabated through the early evening. I assured Riley that most of this would likely dissipate overnight, but clearly it had not yet disappeared entirely.

“I don’t know.”  I sigh, suddenly weighted by one of those realities I would like to simply refuse.  Sometimes I don’t know if Riley’s pain is real or anxiety-induced.  Anxiety is a problem for many people with autism and also can be a higher-risk issue for those with epilepsy.  In the last year, it has become a more significant challenge for Riley.  I’ve watched my daughter have panic attacks in sensory-heavy situations, over studying for tests (and the worry that she will fail them), and most recently, over the potential that she will gag or feel nauseous.  She developed the latter fear one day when she tried to take her anti-seizure pills all at once and gagged, and in recent months, this particular anxiety has developed further into nausea and leg tremors.  Or at least, that’s what we believe.  Riley struggles to explain how she feels.  Some of these symptoms could additionally be side-effects to her medication, something we’re puzzling over and strategically working on with the help of Riley’s neurologist.  Riley has always enjoyed food, but this anxiety has robbed her of the simple joy she once found in eating.  These days, any suggestion of digestive issues, the possibility of an unusual texture or flavor, or even just the anticipation of a restaurant meal (another complicated shade of this fear that developed once when an anxiety attack came on at a restaurant) can paralyze Riley and leave her in tears, unable to eat.  I turn all of this over in my mind, unsure about the nature of today’s symptoms.  I hurt for my daughter.  I want to relieve her fear, to be her comforter.

Yesterday, Riley’s tears came with only a few clues, words melted into sobs: I don’t want to have to throw up.  I’m afraid I will feel bad on Christmas Eve and Christmas.  Her fears leave me tender.  Neither of these worries has particular foundation in Riley’s current situation, but both make her experiences worse in every aspect.  She has repeated both of these sentiments multiple times in the last day.  It occurs to me that she only reiterates feelings we all share:  I don’t want to be sick.  And please, not at Christmas.  We feel our loss and difficulty still more deeply on these hallowed days.  The reality of our suffering imposes on our longing for joy and celebration.  No, not now.  Not now.  

This week, we pray deeply over Family struggling through grave conditions in the hospital, over friends facing loss, over loved ones grieving, over chronic illness, over the reality of hunger and pervasive need in our world.  We feel more tender now than at any other time over the reality that suffering tarnishes living.  More than once, I have said, “This would be hard at any time, but at Christmas…” Christmas comes, and for many, it will be as difficult as every other day or more difficult still for the expectation that the holiday should glint with tinsel, that it should come ornamented and abundant.  I’ve seen so many movies this season about losing and rediscovering the spirit of Christmas, and if they offer a little taste of the truth, perhaps this is the reason:  Life hurts, even at Christmas.

I type a message back to Zoe: Tell her to lay down and cover herself up with a blanket.  She does not need to be afraid to eat.  We have a little more shopping to do, but we’ll be home soon. And then we stop our browsing, focused on the list-items.  I pray, right there in the store, watching the way florescent light pools on the glossy tile floor.  I reach for the substance of my need.  Father, grant me wisdom.  Bring her relief.

But as I walk, it’s, Why now, why at Christmas?

My phone chimes.  Zoe:  I think she’s a little better than she was yesterday.  :(  That frown makes me give thanks. It is sisterly concern and doesn’t reflect the substance of the sentence.  Thank you, Lord, that they love each other.  And there it is:  the Light glinting. Zoe’s love covers over her sister’s trembling legs before I am there to still them with my hand.  Love–the evidence of God with us—like a blanket, like a body sacrificially stretched right over the cracks in this place.

Christ did not come to a twinkling time nor to a people satisfied and welcoming.  He came to desperate need, to a world hungry, to a people lost and hurting, and He himself came humbly.  When all else feels lost and hopeless, He comes. So why should we not more deeply feel the ache of needing Him at Christmas? Shouldn’t our Advent gnaw hungry?  On those living in a land of deep darkness (Isaiah 9:2)—those living in the land of the shadow of death (Matthew 4:16)—a light has dawned.  Into the no, not this of our living, He comes.  And no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Oh to be hungry enough to wait upon Him, to long for Him, always.

It is the recognition that life is hard, that we need, even at Christmas, that moves us to open our eyes and look for Him shining, that compels us to travel far to seek Him (Matthew 2), that centers our hearts on waiting for Him (Luke 2:22-40).  So what better a time than Christmas to even more tenderly feel the bruised truth that we reach needy for the One who is our light and the measure of our abundance, the Love that cements together our cracks and fills up our emptiness?  In Him, this too becomes our gift.  Into such need and under such shadow as ours, a great Light dawns.  He shines. He is the ornamenting of the holiday, the Love-rich covering that reclothes us (Gal. 3:27).  He is the carved out space in which we rest, the warmth we feel, the grace-glittering worth savoring.  He is the yes of God.  And as His ambassadors, we live to be like Him, to be the evidence that He has come.

And so I hear, walking up the aisle to the check-out, the answer to our deep prayers for relief, the reply to our struggling tears, the clear response to my pleading please. This is the gift we need to gather:

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).

 

the moon

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In the moonlight, her eyes sparkle.  She never wears makeup, doesn’t really even prefer it, but she made a concession tonight, for dance.  Just now, as we leave the building, a brisk wind lifts a few errant strands of hair away from her ears.  The stars rest glittery on her cheeks.

I hold the door, watching my daughter glide through, somehow taller and suddenly more graceful, and she laughs, aware of my appraisal of her. To the right of us, another woman pushes through the door at the same time.  I am ashamed to admit that I would not have noticed her were it not for Riley, who immediately glanced that way and called the woman by name, lifting her hand.  I watched light catch in the woman’s eyes, as though it had passed between them.  Moonlight glints, lifting the veil of darkness.

I’ve seen this happen many times before.  Just Sunday, a boy Riley knew and greeted this way sat beside her in a thick knot of us because she alone remembered his name.  She glides over places we stumble.

On the way into the dance performance just a few hours before, we had paused at a table to write notes to Riley that would be delivered to her backstage:  We’re so proud of you.  We love you.  We bought a DVD of the performance.  I passed the order form over the table–her name, her grade level—still amazed that my sweet-souled girl made this her first choice for an elective.

Dance? Motor-planning has always been difficult, and imitation—especially apart from a lot of practiced repetition–has never been her forte.  In the days before the performance, we asked a few times about the dances, and she showed us how she held up her arms like a moon.  Kevin narrowed his eyes at me in the kitchen.  The protective parent-words flew silently between us.  Is that what they’re doing?  Making her the moon?  It’s happened before that she’s been set aside, muted, partially hidden to keep up appearances, to cover over awkward.  You just stand there and be the moon while we dance.  You can do that.  Riley had spoken about a silver dress, about this song and that song, but besides being the moon she could only say “I really don’t know” when we asked about her movements.  She seemed content with this, with not knowing for sure, with lifting her arms above her head as the moon.  For her, this was enough.  I suspected the performance might make me angry, however.  I felt the mama within me curl fierce.  They’d better let her be more than the moon. I admit it: I can jump to conclusions.  Still, I could not imagine a more beautiful moon, a more stunning reflection than she.  So we bought the DVD, passing over the paper.

The lady at the table taking orders beamed, looking down at the order form and back up at us—Kevin and me on the other side of the table; Adam standing to my left, eyebrow-raised and eyes askance, absorbing, flicking glances down at his watch; Zoe, wandering out from behind us to peek into the auditorium.  “OH.  You’re Riley’s family?”

“Yes.” I couldn’t help but smile.  This kind lady was all light, all joy.  It scattered out of her with her words, sparking in her eyes.

“I love Riley,” she said.  “If only the world were full of Rileys.  She’s so open, so positive, so…herself.  So honest.  She shines.  I just love her.”

I don’t know this person’s name, I thought, blinking blurry.  But Riley does.  Kevin and I stood overwhelmed, unable to speak except to say Thank you, thank you so much.

“You’re good parents,” this kind woman said, and even though those are the generous building words we want to believe, I still wanted to stop her, to lay a hand on her arm and speak the truth: Whatever good you see is God.  We fumble and stumble around on the stage, and we’re not very good at imitation without a lot of practiced repetition, but God, He can make a moon out of a girl.

We hadn’t even entered the auditorium, and I’d already seen the silver light Riley casts, the light we catch.

We sat in the front row.  Riley ran elegant onto the stage in a faint blue dress that fluttered and rippled behind her.  The music sounded like hard notes tinked on an old baby piano, intentional and focused, perseverance etched over delicacy.  Riley held her lips carefully, glancing at a friend who danced beside her.  She jumped and twirled and lifted her legs always a beat behind and never fully extended.  Sometimes she didn’t quite know where to be, until she remembered something, maybe some musical phrase that set it all right.  I blinked tears, because I know how much concentration it took for her to follow.

Kevin leaned over and whispered, “So sweet…she’s trying so hard.”  His voice fell thick.

Riley’s performance stood out for it’s open effort in a room full of practiced nonchalance.  She did not cover over her awkwardness with feigned apathy, nor cower away from the fact that dancing does not come easily for her.  I could see, from where I sat, that she wanted to do so well.  The intention sparkled on her face.  In the second song, I saw the silver dress and her arms held aloft in classic ballerina orb, as Riley had mentioned.  She was the moon.  But this time, Riley was certainly not hidden or set aside, and like the moon, she only brought light to the stage.  She danced.  By the end of the third song, sweat beaded on her forehead.  And I gave thanks, challenged by the fearless way she walks right out of her comfort zone and just tries.  She tries.  She risks.  And so, God multiplies the blessing of her life.  He makes a moon out of a girl.

And by the same miraculous, powerful hand, He teaches me right now that it’s enough to bring light, that the fact that we’re neither smooth nor polished about it is okay as long as we walk right out of our comfort zones and just try.  Awkward and open and brave and pure-loving and stumbling sweaty make a moon when we rest in God’s hands.  And that moon reflects God, casting light across every shadow.

Dancing or not, that’s what our Riley does, even after the performance is done, even just walking into the brisk night with the stars on her cheeks.  She spreads light and helps us see.

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