for the birds

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I confess that when she comes to get me, I do not want to get up.

I just picked up my book—Dorothea Frank’s Plantation, and I have precious few moments to mind-leap on down to the Lowcountry and shut out the world.  Every time this author punctuates a sentence with the word yanh, I smell the marshes and hear the coastal voices, their smooth inflections running thick as the humidity through my bones.  The warm breeze tickles the underside of my porch-propped legs.  Dressing seemed to take forever.  I kept staring at my face in the mirror and wanting to cry.  I didn’t look sick, I–Mid-sentence, I hear her call, even as she runs beckoning across the light-glittered street.

Mom, Mom, MOM!!  Come see.

Confession: I don’t want to see.  And I left my shoes inside.  I shift my gaze to the sun-baked road, wondering how quickly I can hot-foot it over there to see and get back to a little not seeing.  Oh Lord, thank you for the grace of children.

Zoe’s hair flies behind in her in brassy ribbons.  Her skin looks warm even from a few yards away, as though it has swallowed up the sunshine in giant, soul-nourishing gulps.  She hurries toward me, reaching for my reluctance, casting glances behind her as she runs.  Across the street, I see her friend, bent over looking, pressing her hands flat against her knees.

Mom!  It’s baby birds.  Oh Mom, you have to see.  Their nest fell—oh, they’re so…so…so adorable!

She lets go of the words and they fly away on the breeze, soaring up and away, still free. I hold the last sentence I read in my hands.  I don’t look sick, I—I what? Ms. Frank’s character can’t bear to look, and I don’t want to see, but I put my book down on the weathered wood table beside me.  I throw a glance at Kevin, but he’s still reading, likely willing his tired limbs invisible to imploring children.

Come on, she says, and her blue eyes shine.

I ignore the sharp heat of the pavement, remembering something my dad used to say when we scampered across black-hot summer sand and our breathing came up jagged: It’s good for you.  It’ll toughen up your feet.  I don’t know if it ever really toughened up my feet, but all that oooh oooh ooh oooh running did teach me that I can survive, even when the ground feels like fire, even when I’m helpless-dumped right out of my comfort zone.  No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.

Zoe talks while we walk, looking over her shoulder at me, and I take in her long legs.  The last few years have brought grace.  A certain insightfulness has lately crept into her expressions.

When we reach the grass across the street, my daughter points, her finger lancing the air, drawing my eyes toward the mulch at the base of a Crepe Myrtle tree heavy with blooms.  There, she says.  Two gawky baby birds, not even barely fledged, huddle helpless.  They’re hungry.  That much I know without knowing much at all, because their beaks gape open silently, yearning up, wide gulfs hard-outlined.  Their open mouths look impossibly prominent, a bottomless emptiness.  At first, it’s everything I can see of them.  Taking it in, I sigh.  I feel like those birds sometimes, like one big yearning cavern over a whole mess of needy-vulnerable.  The birds’ eyes aren’t even open yet.  They can’t see, maybe don’t even know to want to.  They’re just hungry.

Aren’t they so sweet, Zoe says, giving the last word tender weight.

I look again, because all I see so far of the baby birds are those gaping holes, those gimme gimme mouths.  I see desperate need, and nothing sweet about it.  But that’s how it is.  Don’t you ever feel like the neediness of this heat-soaked place is just too much to bear?  When we feel weak and needy ourselves, everyone else’s hunger looks absolutely bottomless.  I don’t even know what to do for myself.  How am I supposed to know what to do for you? But maybe that’s a problem of perspective.  These baby birds are not strong enough to feed each other, not able enough to find food, not even old enough to see.  Neither one of them can really do a single thing to change the situation for the other.  So they just huddle together.  They combine their warmth against trembling because it’s all they know to do.  Something about the shape of those hungry baby birds, tucked side by side on the mulch, touches me.  It occurs to me that at least they have each other, even if they have little to offer apart from nearness.  And I wonder if maybe sometimes, when hungry together is the limit of our strength, could it be enough just to huddle close?

I’ll go get them some food, Zoe’s friend says.  She sees hungry too, clearly.  We have some bird seed, she calls, already going, and Zoe calls after her.  Wait.  I don’t think they can–but her friend has already disappeared inside.  The effort is beautiful, even so.  Trying, even imperfectly, is worth our appreciation.  The breeze gently lifts the wisps of feathers just beginning to grow on the birds’ baby bodies.  Mostly, they’re still naked.  Their skin looks gray, like a storm, except in places where bone protrudes and flesh stretches.  They’re hardly beautiful yet.  But whatever they are, they’re that together.

My neighbor’s daughter—our friend—drops a bag of seed on the ground beside the tree and bends again toward the birds to look more closely.  I notice the nest, empty on the ground beside where it must have tumbled, light in the wind, after the fall tossed the babies out.  Sometimes it happens that way.  In just one gust, we’re trembling vulnerable in the middle of a helpless we could not have imagined.

I am telling the girls not to touch the babies when my friend, our neighbor, joins us beside the tree.  No, don’t touch them, she agrees, because both of us have read—maybe even a long, long time ago—that if you touch baby birds their mothers will abandon them.  They can smell that you have tainted their young with your fingers.  Moments later, we discover this to be an untruth when my friend’s sister arrives, unfolds from the car, and corrects our misconceptions. We are false prophets, blind guides.  No, her sister says, bending down to retrieve the nest, scooping one of the birds up in her hand, birds don’t have a good sense of smell.  But if you leave them laying in the mulch, they’ll die.  This truth only leaves me gathering up another, carefully, settling it safe: There are so many things we just don’t know.  Ours is always a problem of perspective.  In our story, we are all the babies—not the life-redeeming, hands-lifting, back-home settling Savior, not the life-changing Wind, and not the life-giving mama bird.  You and me, we should lean into each other—not on our own understanding.  We should let that be enough.

Carefully, my friend’s sister lifts the nest and places it back in the tree where it was, following the evidence of sticks and matted leaves. Now hopefully, she says, pressing her words into the tree with her movements, the mama bird will come feed her babies.

And all I can do is smile as the breeze lifts my hair.  Oh, she will.  I know she will.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them.  Are you not much more valuable than they?

help me

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Help.  I write the word in plum today, and in the curve of the e, the marker squeaks against the whiteboard.  Help really isn’t the right word.  It’s as inadequate as the word serve for describing what we do for God.  Learn would be the better verb if this schedule were truly about accuracy, but from my son’s perspective, help will do.  I’m training a soul first, a body second, and attitude supercedes activity.

Morning chores
BREAKFAST
Help Mom clean the kitchen

I smile, thinking back to brassy pictures of me as a child, standing on a stool at the sink with dish towel in hand, little-girl sleeves rolled up to the elbows.  Back then, I had the theory that my parents asked me to help so that they would have less work to do. Because of my forced labor, their lives were easier.  They got to relax (—ummm, when?).  I often lived as a selfish, resentful servant:  Why can’t they just do their own work? I sulked, especially when I had to go back and do again some task I had only half-heartedly completed the first time.  I clinched the bathroom brush in my Comet-smelling fingers and scrubbed out angst. Why don’t I get to do what I want to do?—scrub, scrub, scrub– Don’t they care (pause here for a dramatic sob) that I need some free time?  I’d let the brush thud against the pasty surface for punctuation.  And how many times, now, have I given thanks that my parents did the hard thing and taught me—not just the skills but so many other soul-deep things with them—against my will?  Of course, a child never appreciates the free time she actually does have whilst she is in the throws of unwanted helping.  Talk about perspective and attitude: While I was helping, mine often reeked of I don’t want to.  I’m so thankful that they persisted right through my bad attitudes and ungratefulness, that they didn’t just placate my immaturity and give me what I thought I wanted.

But let’s be honest: In truth, this problem isn’t unique to childhood.  Sometimes I am still a selfish, resentful servant.  And I still very often get all mixed up on the facts.  Sometimes I still lose my sense of gratitude, and sometimes my attitude still stinks.  And yet, God’s mercy and grace-filled persistance with me never fails.  He does the hard thing.  Always.

Of course, it took being a parent myself to realize that from the parental perspective Help Mom really means everything takes longer and Mom feels bone-tired at the end of the day from all the repetitive teaching, because it really means Mom will teach you how and Mom will insist that you don’t just do but do well, and God will teach Mom–again–that attitude supercedes activity, that grace forgives imperfection, that building and loving and touching a child means more than just about clearly everything on a “to do” list.  Mom trains a child and God trains a Mom.

Help Mom with the laundry.

The words sound so mundane, but they make me smile wide as the marker squeaks through the sweeping curves of the letters.  Confession:  my purposes aren’t all functionality.  When Adam “helps” me around the house, I get to spend precious time with him.  His participation in my work makes me happy.  I write those ordinary words, and I hear the way Adam giggles when we sort the laundry, when I roll in some speech lessons and ask him to identify each piece before we toss it in the appropriate hamper.  Sometimes he adds in a description I haven’t even requested, like “oohgggg, purple shiiRT,” and his words soar up and explode in a chirp of laughter.  He’s giddy over my notice and congratulations—delighted with his own accomplishment–and meanwhile, I realize that I’m standing in front of a basket of dirty clothes thinking thoughts far flung from stale drudgery. I love being with my son

So maybe God’s purposes are similar in asking us to join Him in His work: one part growing, stretching, sculpting the vessel and another just the joy of spending time with us held securely and purposefully in His hands.  Listen soul, it’s true that He delights in us.  I don’t know about you, but I’m always getting that confused, losing track of the most joyful priorities.  Like my son, I suppose I still have quite a lot to learn.

This week, Adam has learned to dry the dishes carefully when he unloads the dishwasher and to rinse the dirty ones well when he loads them.  I have watched him discover value in his own strength for observing the finest gradient of detail while slowly sweeping the towel across the shiny surfaces of coffee mugs, gathering water droplets from thin spaces where porcelain handles join cups in hairline seams.  Visual acuity is not a light ability, and that’s a truth familiar to me, but beautifully new to my son. When we vacuum the living room together, Adam lays flat on the floor, carefully guiding the unclamped hose underneath the sofa.  His upper torso disappears beneath as he chases every crumb, scrutinizing the carpet from an inch above.  I watch the vacuum cleaner jerk and skid behind him as he drags his long body behind a fluff of down driven out of dark-hiding by his movements.  This effort he makes naturally, drawn by the blend of his own compulsions and personal strengths.  So, after a few moments delighting, I have to remind him to stand and move the machine itself back and forth in motions that cover the larger area more quickly.  He excels at the details but loses track of the bigger picture.  Soul first, then body.  As we uncover strengths, we also find new ways to grow.

“Adam, have you done your morning chores yet?” I ask, standing back from the white board to consider the order of the day.  It’s my job to take the largest view, to think of all of the details Adam might not appreciate, to make sure he’s ready to do the right things at the right time.  At this point, he’s not ready for that responsibility, and if I gave him control of the schedule, he would write in activities that feed obsessions and steal his words, isolating him further from the rest of us.  Sometimes, when I resist the sovereignty of God, it’s because I fail to trust that His control–His careful providence, leadership, training, and guidance–His larger view—actually protects me from falling into immature patterns of activity that would only feed my weaknesses and insecurity and make me vulnerable to choices that would alienate me from Him.

Adam looks up from Riley’s notebook of stories.  For the last half hour, he has been reading what she has written and sauntering into the kitchen to mention certain details, just a word or two with no context for interpretation.  Still, it’s clear that the time we’ve spent working together has brought us closer and made this initiation more natural for him.  He’s trying to talk to me, and that matters.  This week, Adam has learned to say, “Now it’s time to sweep the floor,” instead of just “broom,” and after four days, he’s very nearly able to distinguish a fitted sheet from a flat.  Very soon, Adam will not only be able to change his sheets without any help from me, he will also be able to ask someone else for what he needs or explain what he intends to do, and that matters.   That matters more than nearly everything else on my “to do” list.

Snowing,” Adam says, looking up, tapping Riley’s story with his finger.  “Snowing.”

“Snowing?  It’s snowing in Riley’s story?”

“Yes.  Cooking hamburgers.”

“Someone’s cooking hamburgers?”

“Yes.”

“While it’s snowing?”  In Riley’s stories, such a thing is entirely within the realm of possibility.

“Yes.”

“Who?  Who’s cooking hamburgers?”

“Outside.”

“That’s where.  Adam, who?  Who is cooking hamburgers?”

He looks back at the paper, tapping insistently with his finger.  “Snowing.  Hamburgers.” He’s trying.  If not for our week, our working together, he would not be talking to me at all.  He would be staring at a video screen with his headphones on, lost to me.  Oh Mamas, Mom trains the child and God trains the Mom.  We can’t give up, and we can’t let anyone tell us that the foundation-building, the rooting we’re doing—that spending time–is something mundane.  We’re trying—dead tapping the Page with our fingers, and that matters.

“Adam, have you done your morning chores?”

He walks over to me, where I stand with the marker in my hand, and looks at the whiteboard.  I’ve made it all the way to LUNCH, but not past.

“Schedule,” he says, even as he turns to begin his chores.  From the stairwell, I hear him say, “yet,” and I want to sweep him up in my arms for the effort.  But you haven’t finished my schedule yet, that’s what he means to say, and I understand, and I think, He’s still talking to me.  And he doesn’t understand why right now, but he’s still obeying right away.  And I realize that I don’t have to understand why right now to obey right away either, that I can start obeying while I’m still telling my God I don’t get His timing.  I can join Him in His work and I can let Him set the course and choose the time, and I can learn to trust while I obey and while I talk to Him and while He teaches me.

I turn back to the whiteboard for Adam, determined to finish while my son blind-begins, and I realize God’s determined to finish too, that He knows the finish while we’re just blind-beginning to obey, while our awkward faith is just a seed.  And I think maybe the schedule He’s writing for me looks something like this:

Wake up!
Spend Time with Me
Help me Build and Love and Touch the Souls I came to Save

And I think maybe I should get busy.

related

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I recognize the symbol immediately–the faded rainbow lines tattooed onto the back of her neck, the needle-pieced, needle-etched shape of just one part of a global puzzle.  The top edge of her taffy-pink scrubs hides most of the word beneath, but I can barely make out the upper third of the black script letter ‘A.’ It doesn’t matter.  Autism is a part of me too, and it might as well be written there on the back of my neck, too–in that spot where I collect my stress, on the tender skin at the base of my get-it-done ponytail, right above where the baby hair just won’t be tamed.

I sit in a padded chair, open-palmed, one arm vulnerably upturned to expose the veins—the life running through, while with her back to me she types details into a computer, click click.  Before I saw the tattoo, she and I moved under the unforgiving office-grade flourescents as complete strangers.  I walked into the room just another patient needing bloodwork, and she just another medical professional working her way down a list of walk-ins.  We shared very little up till then, only a cloaked exchange.  We were virtually invisible to each other.

“I like your tattoo,” I say, because God likes to insist that I use my words.  How else will He ever convince us we were meant to care about each other? It is, after all, the reason I insist the same from my own children. “That’s the autism symbol, isn’t it?”

“Thank you,” she says slowly, turning toward me.  “Yes, I have a son-“She lets it hang there, quiet and exposed, like the thick blue vein running the length of my arm, and for the first time, she lets her soft brown eyes rest on my face.

“I have two children with autism,” I offer, which is the easiest way to tell her that there are a thousand things she doesn’t have to explain to me, that I understand, that we speak the same language.  In a few words, I sketch my children’s faces for her, giving them life and voice, though I suspect she caught a glimpse of them in my eyes before I ever spoke.  “How old is your son?”

“Twelve,” she says, “and getting ready for middle school, and—well, you know how it is with changes.”

“I do.”  I tell her about the day this week when I sent Riley to school in tears because I couldn’t find my keys and a carpool friend had to drive instead of me, how it broke my heart that the switch had been so difficult for her.  “She struggles with so much anxiety anyway, I hated to see her upset like that right before school.  After my girls left, I had a good cry over it.”  She nods, holding onto my eyes, and then–

“One, two, three,” the autism mama says, sliding the needle into my arm. I barely notice any pain.  I glance at the wall and then back at her face.  I don’t care to watch.

“My son has behaviors because he’s afraid,” she says, “and lately, there’s been so many changes.”  She tells me about waves of mama-ache, of mama-wandering through the mama-maze, of her own heart literally breaking down right in the middle.  “It’s alot,” she says, and I can feel the heavy on her back, the tense-weight collecting right there in the curl of the Autism ‘A’ script-twined into the muscles of her neck. It’s my turn to nod, to hold on to her eyes, to let her see I know.  “It took me a long time to recover, to get my strength again.  And now they put him in this middle school, and see, he has a behavior plan too, and I don’t know, I just hope it’s a place that can manage both things.”  I know she means his education and the behavior plan—two things that should complement but don’t always.

I want to tell her about Dynamic, but I know I can’t.  Not yet.  To mention what might have been to an autism mama right as she wonders out loud Can I trust these people with my child? would only be a cruelty. I nod, listening, knowing the complexity of that puzzle.  Educating our exceptional children tops the list in significance and difficulty.  Their vibrant uniqueness, their abilities, don’t fit into the mainstream mold.

“I’m praying this school will be the right place,” she says tentatively, pulling off her gloves, tossing them away.  “I just don’t know. But God does.”  She watches me, waiting.

“Yes, He does,” I admit easily, and I can see that she anticipated this response, that this too she had felt or maybe found in my eyes.  “And don’t you find that He uses your son to teach you so much?”

Spirit rushes, and her hand flies down, smacking against the laminate countertop.  “YES,” she says, and then the gratitude spreads across her face, a smile that reaches her eyes.  “God is first in my life,” she says solidly, “but I cannot imagine who I would be without my son.  I have learned so much from him.  So much.”  What she feels is too much for the words, and this too I understand.

For a moment, we just grin at each other, two strangers suddenly not strangers at all, but sisters.  Mama-sisters.  In some way, we are all related.  We just have to want to know how.

“You know,” she says to me, relaxing against the edge of the counter, and me leaning forward against the faint-guard on my chair, “the other day my son told me he thought maybe God should give Him a different family.”  Her voice trembles, and I find her grief within the modulation of the sound. “And I said, ‘Why, honey?’ And he said, ‘Because I can’t speak your language.’  She lets that soak, looking up at the ceiling and then back at me, shaking her head.  The sentiment becomes a swell.  I have often felt–and said right out loud—that living with Adam is like doing life every single day with a foreign exchange student.  I watch him trying to grasp the language, trying to understand the customs.  I watch him navigate the isolation autism threatens, even as I reach for him.

She continues– “We’re bi-lingual, but when my son was diagnosed, they told us we could only talk to him in English because, you know, he couldn’t talk at all then.  They said we would confuse him.”  Suddenly her words fall easily, and I know she has stopped measuring them carefully for me.  “But our other sons, we wanted them to still know, you know, so we kept speaking both languages to them.  Now, my autistic son, he feels left out, because he hears us and he wants to have that too.  I don’t know if that was the right thing.  I just don’t know.”

I feel her words well past the hearing, and what echoes is something written: God forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.  It’s a merciful truth, a pleading because He understands, not a condemnation. It’s okay that we don’t know.  And none of us really do.  We just do a lot of pretending. But she has me wondering what would happen if, recognizing understanding in each other, we could admit to that truth and offer each other that mercy.  The only real certainty is trusting in Him.

I am still, watching her tuck back strands of hair that won’t stay collected.  Her eyes flash.  “But I say to him, ‘No. How could you say that?  We are your family, and we all speak this language together,’ because I want him to see that even though we have differences, we have so much the same, you know?” Twelve years, and autism has taught her that communication is broader, more various, than words.  She sees what I see, that she and her son speak more languages with each other than his literal mind will yet allow him to comprehend.  Despite the graces drawing them together, he still sees the space.

I nod, smiling, expanding her thought.  “Yes.we.do.” And she smiles back at me, because it only took us a few sentences to discover the languages we have in common.

She laughs suddenly, throwing her hands in the air.  “I’m sorry, I’m telling you my whole life,” she says, and the sound of her voice is full.

“No apologies. It’s good to–”

“—to talk to someone who understands.” She finishes the sentence with me, crossing the room to give me a hug—a mama-sister-girlfriend-strong hug, even though I’ve only just learned her name.  Because that tattoo, we both wear it fading and stretched across our necks, and for a moment, our Father lifts us both beyond the space of strangers to the very precious truth that we’re His, together.

colors of the mind

six letters

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I wish I had thought to take a picture of them, sitting there with me.  Me, all hulled out and bare—wearing my soft pants and no makeup, because with them I can.  And them—six of my close friends–using their smartphones (of all things) and their words and their hands that can’t be still in the face of injustice–to put me back together.  I’m sure they hardly knew how well they held me.

phone wine

In the evening, we gather around a table to plan a time to get away together, but before we even get to that they reach for me and they want to know what’s happening now with the kids, with our school.  So I tell them, looking around the table and gathering in all our mama-tired faces, all our stretched thin places.  They feel worn, just like me.  Now, maybe more than ever, I’m aware that we each have our own knots fraying loose at the edges.  We all have so much we don’t know how and desperately little margin for all our caring about it.  But maybe that’s what makes it possible for us to offer each other grace.  Oh, we have our brittle moments, when our voices sound a bit too far removed, but it always comes back to this—this sitting around a table reaching into each other’s lives.

So I put down the truth I carry and spread it out in front of me on the table, right there beside a plate of crackers and a block of cheese.  These friends of mine, they listen to me talk about how my heart is broken for so many hurting families. I tell them about how I have cried, listening to parents speak of their pain, of children mistreated and discarded and dismissed before and thriving now, finally.  The words pour out, as though just the one question—So, what’s happened?—serves as my heart-stent.  I sit bare, telling my soft-pants-and-no-makeup friends the ripping stories of these others, feeling all emptied but wishing I could change things.  This openness is maybe our best gift to each other, that tonight we are unmasked and trusting.  The rush ebbs, and I fall silent.

“What if,” one of my friends says, filling the open space,”what if we all write a letter to the governor.  I mean, what if tonight or tomorrow he gets six letters all at once?”  It’s as if I’ve fallen, and she offers me her hand, her iron-laced courage.

“Let’s do it now,” another friend says, lending her spontaneity, her bright-lit belief in possibility.  “Get your phones.  Let’s do it right now.”

And they do.

Right then.  While we’re sitting at the table.  It’s neither a mean to nor a maybe, but a right now gift.

And they make me laugh, throwing out sentences they’d like to write and then smoothing them out collaboratively.  I watch them build scaffolding under my dangling feet, sentence upon sentence, for support. They remind me that we are all stronger together, and that this is why the enemy of our souls works so hard to divide us.

As a current educator in the private sector, I am appalled that North Carolina handled these children and their education in such a careless manner…and… Children at this school have been given a safe environment to learn and to thrive.  I have heard stories from parents there about the remarkable and wonderful changes this school has made in their children’s lives…and…If the State Board considers Dynamic a “risk” for financial  reasons, I can tell you that these parents of this small school have more dedication and drive to see this school succeed, not only for their own children, but for those that would come behind them in the future.  Six separate letters from six beautifully different friends.  Six willing to sign their names to a fight for justice.  Six uniquely offering me the gifts they have when I feel most vulnerable.  Six reaching for me while I fight for faith.

So I sit–emptied and bringing nothing, but slowly filling.  I watch my friends furiously typing, reading back lines and paragraphs, exchanging ideas, and I am actually stunned that they are helping this way, that they can’t sit still or feel satisfied with wishing out loud that things were different.  What a terrible lie we all believe—despite so much contradictory evidence—when we believe God has left us to fight alone.  These are not the first letters my friends have written in support of our school.  All along they—and many others—have stood beside us, insisting on something better.  Shared strength brought to action builds shelter for the least of these, and societies change.  And in an evening, God uses six friends to gather in my fraying edges and pour their gifts right into the emptiest parts of me, supplying me for this journey that feels like too much for me.

And suddenly, watching and listening to them, I smile over this silly thing that comes to me:  It takes six letters to spell friend.

mountain moving {let’s talk about what is}

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I really don’t know what to say anymore, she says to me, and I understand, because when you say everything true and it doesn’t seem to make a difference you finally run out of words.  They drain and fall away, leaving only echoes like bits of fluttering ash.  And in the aftermath of a wordy, difficult week, I feel it too–that deep, hollow ache left behind.

But maybe that’s okay, because God’s words never fade, and His hope-building promises sustain.  He sees.  He hears.  He is.

In the background, I hear my friend’s son, repeating the way to school, and I smile.  Turn right, he says.  Turn.  Going to school.  His tone alludes to a depth unreflected in the brevity of his words.  He is both insistent and certain, and every so often she stops mid-sentence to acknowledge his sentiment so that he can stop repeating the same phrases.  The gift, for me, is that my friend doesn’t need to explain or follow any sort of silly decorum when she talks to me, because I have an exceptional son too.  Our children teach us; they shape us into something better.

Today, this is the heavy weighing down our conversation: The State Board of Education voted to revoke the charter of the first year school our sons attend, and we find the decision terrible, misguided, even cruel.  As a community, we have fought the entire school year against a predisposed idea, a looming can’t, against a lack of faith in possibility that, in exceptional education, has become the acceptance of a failing beauracracy.  As exceptional needs parents, we’re all familiar with this persistent negativity.  We fight insistently, repetitively, against a barren view.

Turn. Turn right.  Go to school.  My friend’s son’s words seem like an echo of something significant.

For years, we’ve all endured endless evaluations of our children that focus on what they can’t or will never be able to do, and from the outset of this endeavor, we were told that what we want to do for our children cannot be accomplished.  So for an entire school year, we have shouted about what is happening, and in the end, the only thing the governing bodies care about is whether or not our methods fit into their limited perspective on possibility.

My friend sighs, frustrated, and again, I understand.  This is perhaps the greatest gift of the past year:  In the midst of great difficulty, we’ve found a whole army of friends who understand.  

Exceptional needs parents survive mountains of unanticipated and often overwhelming struggle by blazing new paths and building tunnels.  We work on solutions.  We cannot simply stand still and point at the mountain.  Instead, with a little faith, we move the terrible thing standing in our way.  Together, we find a way.  Together, we are strong.

Lately I’ve run all out of patience for negative paradigms unshifted by truth, for the sort of blindness that makes us all hold on to our cinder block walls so hard our knuckles turn white.  We must be careful.  We must have the faith to venture into open spaces, to make new paths.  Our moving God has told us to go and fill, to grow and bear fruit.  He’s never been powerfully invested in paralysis, except to heal it.  And by His enduring Word—the Word that never returns emptyHe has obliterated impossibility.  So, we must be careful not to pick up that miserable refrain, nor to let it creep like a settling toxin into the fabric of our living.  Our speech must fill and re-fill with what is, and our thoughts with everything excellent.  These are the words that change the world, that root and establish our children, that strengthen and build our community.

Maybe it seems irrelevant to some, what a year building a community means to a group of exceptional needs parents advocating–no longer alone but together–for their children, but honestly I think the gifts we’ve gathered are meant to be universally shared.  Weary of hearing what isn’t and what won’t be, we have chosen to focus together on something better.  So here’s just some of what is, what has been gained and accomplished and built over the past year; here’s some of the excellent truth our children have offered us: 

  • Despite the challenges that always threaten to limit them, our rare children have taught us to see.  They have shown us that reality is far greater than what can be evaluated on the surface of things.
  • A community unified behind a single purpose becomes a formidable force for change.  We have discovered the weakness of individual comparison, the inherent beauty of diversity, and the strength bound up in mutually pursued progress.
  • We have experienced first hand that those who truly care about the blessing and benefit of all will gladly sacrifice selfish interests, even unto the exhaustion of personal resources.  I don’t know a better reflection of Truth.
  • In a community that lives above us and them and other, notice, friendship, and inclusion elevate and transform experience.  A new normal redeems the past.  The strong no longer bully the weak.  The popular no longer mock the insignificant.  Instead, such extreme categories disappear in favor of a superior sentiment: If today I am more readily able, I will help you along.  Tomorrow, you will be the one helping me.
  • It’s okay–even best—to learn and grow in a way that is uniquely yours.
  • And, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, creativity and resourcefulness vibrantly offer us limitless possibility.  Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 

So, this is what we do, to find strength again at the end of a depleted week:  We set aside our sighs and we talk about what is and what can be.  We speak again of possibility.

legacy

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I like doing this with you, she says, and I look away from the wild roses just beyond us in the yard, their bold red beauty twisting madly toward the limitless sky, jutting elegantly through the slats.  Their freedom completely captures me, that and the way they’ve doubled in size, the way they reach in the humid heat and gather raindrops like diamonds in the palm.  Stunning, I keep thinking, but God says good, just good.  

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God made everything so complex, she said, gesturing to the ribbon curl of a leaf dangling over the edge of the flowerpot on the table between us and then beyond, to the roses, the lemon-yellow Finch bobbing on the edge of the feeder.  And now she draws me back.  I like doing this with you.  It makes me feel better.

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I look at her, sitting across from me with The Book open across her legs, those sun-gold cheeks that make her eyes seem even more blue, her brassy hair divided into two low pig tails that have long since escaped the boundary of her shoulders.  She’s my own wild rose, and I see the whole wide sky reflected in her eyes.

all kinds of beautiful

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I don’t know, but I think maybe I will treasure up the sight of her like that for some time. It makes me wonder if my mom still thinks of the way I looked those days and nights years and years ago, when we sat next to each other and she rooted and tended and pruned, guiding my tender reach.  I know I can still see her, sitting there with those big red-framed reading glasses on the end of her nose, pushing past tired to teach me, drawing a soft olive finger across the thin page, asking me what I think it means, how it will matter in my life.  Eternal moments these, the kind that become not just memory but part of the fabric of a soul.  I know now that those hours were the best my mother gave me, the most rare and beautiful.  Of all her gifts, this one still sustains me most.  And just this afternoon, when we sneak away to the quiet of the porch, I tell my own daughter the same thing my mother told me:

On the days when gray clouds stretch across the sky like steel, when life feels heavy and thick like bars—On those days, nothing and no one abides like God.

Nothing roots a daughter strong for woman- and sister- and mother-hood like learning how to reach for God, how to listen, how to hold the wealth of Him in the palms when everything else seems to slip through your fingers.

So, we start simple.  Just 1,2,3 Grow.  Just the same three steps my mother taught me, and she wants to begin at the beginning, so we start right there—at speaking power and speaking being and Trinity-creating life.  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

You know, it says “our image,” she says, and I see the glint of it in her eyes.  That’s because they were all there—Father, Son, Spirit—ALL of them, right from the beginning.  Her finger glides, and I watch her—soul-beautiful and lit with Light, and all I I think is the one word: Stunning.

this one puts arms on Love {go, and do likewise}

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rain_wet_windowSo, I’m sitting here in tears, can bearly see the screen for the flow of grace, like the soft rain falling just beyond the window.  I count gifts all the time, because it’s one of the most powerful ways I know to keep these dim eyes glued on Truth, and this one gusts in to fill up empty spaces I have scarcely even begun to acknowledge.  This one washes me; it smooths salve on my wounds; it covers over my nakedness and gathers me in.  This one puts arms on Love:

gift: one of my daughter’s very best friends is a friend of mine.

I could let that sit.  It would be enough.  But there’s more:

Bold black in my email inbox, the unread message just says re:restorative yoga.  It comes from this deeply beautiful friend, so I open it up to read.  And the thread that falls loose is silken, glorious.  Thank you for your response, it begins, addressed not to me, but to someone else, a yoga teacher who offers one-on-one classes.  Riley and I have done yoga together at my house twice…We have also been to two different classes.  She does quite well but needs someone to show her more than just what to do.  I’ll copy Riley’s Mom so she can see what I am up to.  As I continue to read, the words take shape in my mind, filling the grooves of something else, Spirit-carved.  It is the real shape of love.

Saturdays, these two sometimes venture out to lunch, to my friend’s house to make homemade granola, to go shopping , or yes, to go to yoga and out for frozen yogurt.  I stand on the front porch and wave them off, hard pressed to find a joy brighter than that light-lit smile on Riley’s face as they embark on their adventures. Growing up, there were women who wrapped arms around me in similar ways, who set aside doing and tired to spend time with me.  These days it seems rare to see love expressed that way, but oh, how we want that for our daughters–the thick strength of womanhood wrapped and gathered about their roots.

So this morning’s thread unwinds, another stunning shade, and I drop into a chair.  This is love in action, I think, and it’s the Samaritan I witness, finding that broken man in need.  Coming to where he was, the Samaritan saw him, had compassion upon him, and bound up his wounds.

My friend comes to us right where we are, in the middle of our rolling, dusty chaos, and she sees our Riley—not with a mere glance, but with knowing, with clear comprehension of the force of her.  She sees the bright light of our daughter, the gifts, the God-bought worth, and also the difficulty.  So on her way and finding us, she loves.

Her words on the screen sketch out the scene for me:  I think with a good teacher working hands-on with her, [Riley] would understand the actions and poses much more easily, our friend has written.  I also think that a daily practice would benefit her so greatly.  She needs help learning to dissipate anxiety…I think she holds her anxiety in her lower back.  And suddenly, the gift gusts, and my tears fall like rain as I realize that their yoga outings have been more than just fun.  These experiences have been bandages for healing, carefully held in my friend’s hands; sensitively wrapped.  Having seen Riley’s desperate, prayerful struggle with anxiety, our friend resolved to do more than say keep warm and well fed.  Witnessing our wounds, she decided not to pass by on the other side, not even to advise a solution that might have only left us more overwhelmed.  Instead, she stops to bind my daughter’s wounds herself, pouring on oil and wine.  She opens her arms to mentor, to equip Riley with skills that will help her for life.  Recognizing the challenges of autism, she even seeks out this one-on-one instructor with the hope that she can help Riley learn the poses.  All this our friend offers generously, taking all of the responsibility upon herself.  I have read this parable so many timesand now again I’ve seen it, again felt it myself, the healing hands, the lifting, the opulent, lavish grace.

This friendship is unanticipated provision.  It builds and fills and mends.  It is a gift.

I drag a palm across my cheek and peer bleery, trying to compose some kind of reply, some recognition: So, forgive the mom her tears over here.  This is just beautiful in all different directions, I begin, but I have to set aside my phone to dry my cheeks.

My friend, she could never have known that her email would find me just risen from prayer, just freshly emptied and owning my own uncertainty in the face of so much need—but her email comes as a direct and immediate answer to my whispered, vulnerable petition:

Help, just please help.

She is the help He sends, the grace sufficient for today.

My friend’s gift—not just the email that shares it, but the history it represents—that gift is today a table spread before me in a season of famine, and I smile as these tears of mine begin to fall again, because His favorite intimate name for Himself is I AM.  Today, He has once again shown Himself present and abundant through the love of a friend—love not with words or speech, but with actions and in truth.

So I offer thanks, more felt than spoken, counting the gift.

And this, the gentle, soul-shaping reply: Go, and do likewise.

firstfruits

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Ever feel like you’re so tired that your eyes don’t even really fit in your face?  

I say this to Kevin and he groans, nodding, throwing a leg over the side of the bed to heave himself upright.  In the stillness, I rub my eyes—these betrayers that don’t even want to open, much less to see.  Life just hulls us out that way—the emotion of it more even than the time.  We rise empty and early in search of fullness, hungry and desperate and determined.

I crouch helplessly beside the Keurig in the dark, not even really wanting to stand.  That blue machine glow creates the only light in the room, and it turns my olive skin pale, cold.  Impulsively, I grab my phone from the night stand and thumb-scan my email.  4 messages that came…when?  Some of them will take a second reading…and that one…I’m itching to answer it now.  Now, in the cold blue glow of the Keurig before I can even barely open my eyes.  Probably not the best time for good communication.

The machine clicks ready, and I center my mug, thinking that even its chipped rim is somehow beautiful for the history.  My thumb grazes a tiny open place, a soft, porous bisque exposed, and I let it rest just there, remembering the feel of long-tossed seashells and bits of salt-washed pottery.  I recognize the longing for the meandering power of the coast, the way it scrubs a soul.

The Keurig sighs, a gust of air pushing out the last of the liquid, and I lift the mug, returning my attention to my phone.  Twitter.  Facebook.  A few likes, a retweet, a happy birthday message.  I even buffer something for later–quickly, just by touching a few buttons, and if you know what that means, well, then you know.  It’s important to prepare for later, to be ready when the day rushes past too quickly and time blurs everything.  Not that I can see much, in the still black morning before the sun has even risen to light the glaze of the seaglass in my window, and the only light is the false light of machines.  I feel productive, but that longing—it persists.

And then I thumb past something good just resting there waiting at my fingertips, something about giving God the firstfruits of your time.  And then I see it, the way I have let machine light become my Dawn, when the Life—the light that the darkness cannot overcome, the lamp to my feetthe Reason Heaven needs no sun nor light of lamp has been awaiting the touch of my fingertips, my thumbs gliding over the thin paper, my heart turned.  And I see the subtle way the most benign distractions creep, how they swallow the minutes whole beneath my thumbs.  The first day’s five multiply into forty, and then I have twenty minutes left for God when I could be waking up to Him fitting these eyes back into my face and teaching me again how to see.  Because I already know that the longing gnawing at my soul, it’s really the deep need to be close to Him.  In my heart, the folds of His arms always smell like the ocean.

In the darkness, I put down my phone.

The best content available on social media and the best content shared well-fills hands first opened to God.  He’s the reason I get up so early, the reason I stand crouched beside the Keurig and Kevin heaves himself upright.  We choose the early hour because we need to focus on Him first, and yet…even before the true light dawns distraction creeps, and by choice, I offer my groggy attention to a thousand other voices before I listen to the sound of His.

Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine, Proverbs says.  God’s always had this thing about receiving our firstfruits, about the choice of a soul to offer Him the first of everything, believing that He will supply—indeed overflow—the harvests that come after our initial sacrifices.  And it’s not something He asks without offering the same.  Word says we’ve been given the firstfruits of the Spirit, even as we groan in these bodies.  Giving over that first before the rest comes, that’s faith.

When tithing becomes primarily about a percentage and not about what’s first, it can become more a budgeted part than the surrender of a faith-turned heart.  Offering was never meant to be about what I expect to be able to manage myself, but rather about what I am certain God will provide, not because it makes sense to me but because He has promised.   And so it is, even with my time.  There’s no better way to prepare for later than to offer God the firstfruits of my attention, my waking; to come to Him emptied and hungry, ready to be filled by the firstfruits of His Spirit.  I haven’t fully experienced–nor even yet imagined—the outer limits of the productivity until I willingly offer God that Sabbath, because God promises to multiply unto overflowing blessing whatever I first invest in Him.

Somehow, I miss things—like light falling on the glaze of sea glass–when I start off without ever getting my eyes in right, without feeling His thumbs pressed carefully over the lids, healing.  I spend the day chasing time and never finding enough.  And I just don’t want to live a life I can’t savor or taste or see, a life half-dead and only partially surrendered, partially opened to grace.

So in the morning rising, I put down my phone and I renew a choice I made a long time ago, to make Him my first thing, the first One…every day, every breath, every chance.  I choose —again and again, and stumbling, again—to offer Him the firstfruits.

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mothering without limits {the giving that never runs out}

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Psst…I have rediscovered the secret to mothering without limits.  And just in time for Mother’s Day.

Sometimes in the middle of a meal, she puts down her fork, a thin tink against scalloped edge.  The silver flashes, a change in the light just barely perceived, as she loosens her grip.  Oh my, the things that happen to our souls when we’re brave enough to let go.

The sound draws our attention away from the conversation, the adolescent streaming of you know and he said and I’m like, to see her clasp her hands together and close her eyes against intrusion, bending her head ever so slightly over the plate, the meal.  We exchange glances, alarmed.  Her lips move, shaping words we can’t hear, delicate, intimate sound she offers only to God.  She’s so lost in what she’s saying that she doesn’t notice our silence.

She’s praying, Zoe mouths across the table at us, exaggerating the syllables so that we will understand.  I nod, pressing my lips together.  Yes.  She is.  Zoe opens her eyes wide.  Oh.no.   I smile.  Now I smile.  Because Riley has reminded me again that prayer isn’t only for our emergencies.

“So what were you saying about…”I say out loud in my normal tone, glancing away from Riley, knowing she will not want to open her eyes to our scrutiny.  Riley struggles nearly every meal with the fear that she will gag on her food, a fear that autism grows into a spore-throwing, nourishment-stealing weed, one of those aggressive obsessions that takes over the landscape of her mind.  I have tried yanking it free, the thick-trunked stalk, but the thing has thorns that pierce, and there are limits to a mother’s strength.  My determination to fix the situation only sometimes breaks the worried stalk in half, and it bleeds milk that drips all over my stinging hands, and right then I know we’ll only temporarily be rid of it. Obsessive anxiety is an ugly growth that never stops springing up right in the middle of the most beautiful blooms.  And Riley is so beautiful.

For a while, Riley’s paralyzing fear made it nearly impossible for her to eat, so much so that meals took her three times as long, and she almost never ate more than half of her portion.  And then we started praying about her “worries,” wrapped around her in knots, because I just didn’t know what else to do for her.  That’s when things began to change–when this mother stopped relying on her own strength and started calling upon God’s.

We had exhausted every immediate potential solution, and like I said, my hands were left weak and stinging by all that fruitless effort.  We mothers will do ourselves right into the ground if we think it will save our children, and having done all I knew to do, I realized that I had fallen into a trap subtly woven into the way we phrase our thoughts about reaching out to God in prayer.  All we can do is pray.  I’m trying to stop using that sentence.  The only thing I know to do is pray comes out of my mouth as an expression of my helplessness, my powerlessness, my weakness; and it suggests that asking God for help is what to do when I can’t fix it myself.  It’s a spoken lie, betraying the shadowy limitations of my faith, because while prayer illuminates my powerlessness, it also engages the dead-raising Power of the Almighty God.  And let’s see, if it’s really between what I can do and what He can do, why treat Him like the last resort?

Suddenly, I realized I needed to change both my words and my approach.  So, I started gathering Zoe and Adam in huddles around their sister every time anxiety dripped off her cheeks in tears, when she’d say, It’s just that every time it’s so hard for me, and that word hard would shatter in sharp shards.  I started praying out loud and praying hard and praying right then.  I started asking God to teach me to say, “Let’s pray, and then let’s see if God has something for us to do,” and I started looking into Riley’s ocean eyes and holding her chin so she’d look at me and giving her the first, the best way:  You pray.  Whenever you start thinking about it.  Every time.  Right then.  You pray. 

And so she does.

And that one thing—that turn of His hands on me—strengthens more than any other mothering I’ll ever do because it reaches past improbability and all the way into His arms, His strength, His limitlessness.  For nothing is impossible for God.  So there it is:  the secret to mothering without limits is the real and complete reliance upon His strength.

Riley prays, and I watch relief rise in her like a light.  I watch her find her smile, and I think: How is it that things can get so out of order?  The subtlety of that strategy alarms me, the way prayer can become the thing I do after I’ve tried everything else; the way turning to God can become what I do after I’ve exhausted and rediscovered the limits of my own resources.  It should not be so.  Oh Lord, I believe.  Help me in my unbelief.

These days I find it beautiful that God didn’t take away Riley’s anxiety, but He used it to teach her– and by extension, to remind me—to pray first.  Somewhere in the middle of our mother-daughter flailing, my daughter learned to cut down the ugly fear-weed at the root.  Word says “We take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5),” but Riley would have trouble explaining what that means.  She’d get lost unpacking and untangling all the words.  And yet, she knows how to live it.

So, sometimes—less and less all the time—right in the middle of a meal, she puts down her fork.  And she has a real conversation with God, and we get to watch His sheer Love slice through her fear.  Silver flashes, barely perceptible.  Her lips stop moving as that light falls across her face, and she smiles.  And then she opens her eyes, reaching again for her fork without explanation or comment or any doubt about the Power at work within her.

And I try not to make a big deal, to offer her that dignity, but it still makes me giddy that when she reaches the limits of me she discovers the depths of Him.

do not worry

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He’s in a thousand tiny things:  the way one strand of Riley’s hair falls unevenly across her forehead, the rich sound of Zoe’s laughter—and mine—over song lyrics she misinterprets, the faintest hint of flowers on the breeze when I open the back door and walk across the porch.  The bird feeders, empty, swing ever so slighly.  He’s in that rhythm, the way life sways back and forth, empty and filled again.  The birds wait, tiny enough to sit in my palm but too free to be held; flashes of bright yellow and cherry red in the grass.  I can still smell the sweet-cut trimmings; the dew sticks them wet to my bare feet.  Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life.  Do not worry.

I step into the yard, and the birds fly, afraid of me and my veiny feet; of the strength of my hands; of the unexpected way I interrupt their twittering with the sound of footfall; the heat of movement.  It’s just me.  I always come just this way, just to fill the feeders so you can eat.  It always makes me just the tiniest bit sad that I’ve scared them with my arrival; but then, I know they’ll be back.  And they’ll feast on what I’ve left for them.  I talk to birds as I work, hoping the gentleness of my voice will coax them from their hiding places.  This makes me smile, and there He is–God, I mean, and with Him the loves I’ve known, my own little cloud of witnesses, right in the sweet-cut traces of memory.  As a fair-haired child, I wrote letters to my Papa on the subject of birds, and he sent back poems. My Papa used to name the hummingbirds flitting at his feeder—Twiggy and Zip Zip and Road Runner.  His letters sit delicate in my hand, paper-thin treasures fragile enough to crush, an elegant history only just pausing to sit in my hand. And yet, the appearance of love is often so deceptive.  We think love fragile and fleeting, but real love stays, powerful, strong-filling our empty-spaces.  The sky is blue, the day is sunny.  Elysa thinks her Grandpa is funny.  I lift the first feeder from its hook, gripping a fat bag of seed in my other hand.  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them.  He feeds them by my hand gripping the fat bag, by my grass clipping covered feet steadying the feeder to keep it upright while I pour.  The seed rattles, dead-filling the empty cylinder of the feeder.  This seed will bear a different kind of fruit—the sound of birdsong.  It will build nests and fill them; broken down into soluble energy.  Sometimes our sustainance comes from the most unexpected places—things broken down, clipped, lumbering into our lives a terrifying surprise, in the things we curse before we discover their merit.  He’s there, in that startling truth.  He’s the redeemer of things that are not; things that wouldn’t be without His all-changing presence in the midst of them.  They neither sow nor reap nor store away.  And yet.  He feeds them.  Are you not much more valuable then they?  Oh yes, yes you are. You flash vibrant, skittering at my feet, always so afraid just to trust me.

I settle the feeder again on it’s hook and reach for the second one, this one more squat and round, a bit smaller than the first.  It’s funny to me that the big birds fight over this one, when the other, taller feeder holds at least twice the seed.  But then, the perch along the bottom has a wider circumference and maybe feels a bit safer to the feet.  He’s there too.  Do you see Him there? He moves gently, mightily through the way the more awkward thing—the riskier, outside-of-comfort thing, holds the most bounty, the biggest feast, the most potential satisfaction.  The moments He beckons us to trust right past our comfort, those are the moments most pregnant with wild life.

I pour the seed, settling the green top into the clips that hold it in place and hang the feeder back in place.  Who of you, by worrying, can add a single hour to His life (Matt. 6:25-27)?  Do not worry about your life.  I hear it clear, and it isn’t a suggestion.  It’s trust that lengthens the hours and stretches the moments, that awakens us from fright to discover the feast.  He’s there, in the filling of our hungry, empty spaces.  There, in the cover clipped careful over provision.  And lately, I peer starving from a hidden place, only to discover Him there, refilling my life with His grace enough.  And when that’s emptied, when I’ve gobbled it all down for strength, He’ll come back, surprising me unexpectedly, awe-inspiring footfall that I will often misunderstand and then rediscover all over again.

So the key, maybe, is the fixing of my eyes, the tracing of the fearful edges of Faithful and Almighty, the breath-stealing truth that He stays and His love stays and that cloud of witnesses stays, and my fear will only keep me from finding the full measure of Him.

Be still, He says to me, busy in His work.  I always come back just this way to feed you.

*~*

Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10).

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