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).

first place {how to be a real champion}

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gift: I get to be there. #1000gifts #specialolympics

A photo posted by @elysahenegar on

At every event, Adam stands too close.  I have to keep drawing him back to me.  Sometimes I hook an arm around his waist, sometimes I just catch his eyes with mine and say, come here.  But he bounces forward, right up to that white-chalk line on the grass, and it’s not his turn yet.

Special Olympics is every shape and size of beautiful.  It’s patience and courage and learning and encouragement all exploding in a single day.  It’s knots of awkwardly jutting kids gathering too close to the line, but maybe not for the reasons you’d expect.

The boy who is actually supposed to be at the front of the line holds a softball cradled in his palm, but seems distracted by the sunlight, squinting up.  With his other hand, he touches the top of his head and his fingers curl as though he feels temporarily lost here in the grassy field, the sea of people—kids in clotted splashes of color wearing slogans and school names in neat letters, volunteers in cloud white with blue.  It takes five volunteers to run this one section of the softball throw—three to check in and organize athletes, one to plant flags in the ground where the ball falls, one to measure distance against a tape stretched flat and long.  A man with a clipboard jots the numbers quickly as the judge calls them out, and then nods toward the boy, still lost in the sky.

I can’t help but think of all the time it took to prepare for this, all the details we  hardly consider in the middle.  Someone had to lay out the tapes, chalk the lines, tie the balloons.  Hands gathered pens and printed schedules and maps.  Someone ordered the t-shirts the volunteers wear. Someone knew just how many people would be needed to make this happen.   Someone—actually, a whole team of someones—prepared well in advance to encourage and celebrate these kids.  It’s an effort that matters, an effort I appreciate.

One of the volunteers looks at the sky-lost boy and says, “Ready, buddy?”   But it isn’t until his mother touches him lightly with her hand, speaking softly, that he returns from the clouds and awakens to the weight of that ball in his deep palm.  He glances at her briefly, then down at the ball.

“Okay, ready Buddy?” the volunteer says again, gesturing toward the field, the tape.  “Whenever your ready.”

The boy looks down the field carefully for a moment, suddenly alive to the effort, and then lobs the ball in a graceful arc that bounces in the grass somewhere close to the end of the measuring tape.  The line judge takes off in a run, but not before I glimpse the delighted surprise registering on his face.

Beside me, Adam shrieks; eyes glued on the boy, the field.  Adam stands on tip toe, excitement shooting out of his moving arms and hands, his fingertips.  He can’t stand still or stay beside me.  He has to get closer.  He bends in front of the thrower, examining the boy’s shirt for one of the stickers all the kids wear—wide white labels with their names and the list of their events, the location, the time.  He’s looking for a name, and finding it, Adam looks slightly down and away, but says, in a low, soft voice, “Very good job, Kevon.” Before Adam speaks, he lifts a hand just in front of his mouth, curving his fingers toward his cheek.  It’s something he often does when he initiates speech himself, a gesture that betrays his discomfort with words, his ownership of inadequacy.  And yet, he so desperately wants to tell this other boy good job, and that makes it worth the effort to fumble uncomfortably.

Adam speaks and then bobs back to me, grinning all wild delight, without a single thought about or expectation of a response.  He requires no polite gratitude or acknowledgement.  He has offered a gift for the sheer joy of giving, without any selfish agenda.  He finds real delight just in being able to congratulate and encourage someone else.  The other boy’s mom grins toward us, touched by Adam’s expression, and then reaches for her son to guide him to his next event.

I lift my arm, intending to loop it around Adam’s shoulders, but before I can touch him, he bounces forward again, gracefully quick.  He bounces far, God-thrown, God-held.  Enthusiasm propels him, and he bends right into someone else’s space to read another thrower’s name.  He prepares his congratulations even before the effort has even been made, before the volunteers have even gathered the flags from the last throw or placed the ball in the next boy’s hand.  And just that quickly God uses my son to teach me, writing questions deeply into my thoughts:  Am I intentional enough about encouraging other people to plan on it in advance?  Does my own enthusiasm for building others propel me forward in a such a wild, grace-full arc that I bounce all the way into vulnerable risk?  Not often enough.  Admittedly, encouraging others often comes secondarily to my own agenda, responsibilities, and exhaustion.

We go on like this for half and hour, because they’re running behind, but Adam seems so captivated with joy over the accomplishments of friends–and yes, even strangers–that he has little time for impatience or concern over when it will be his own turn for acknowledgement and notice.  I stand beside my son and watch him surge forward and take risks again and again, not for a ribbon, but for the chance to build someone else.  And suddenly, I know that this is the effort, the spirit, that actually makes these kids champions.  They are people-builders of an Olympic caliber, and knowing them makes me a better person.  They are blind to all the things the rest of us so tragically notice and attend to, but completely alive to the things that matter most.

So at the end of this sun-soaked, grace-arching day, I will leave voiceless from cheering and inspired yet again to be so in advance purposeful about encouraging others that I hardly wonder when it will be my turn for notice.  Yes, just this will be the empty-filling gift I will carry pinned up close:

I want to be a people-builder of an Olympic–no, still more, a selflessly Christ-like–caliber, because these are God’s real champions.

Love, love, love this boy.

A photo posted by @elysahenegar on

God built me

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I like the way God built me.  

She says it like it’s the simplest thing.  The words fall easy, fluttering elegant, lighting on a twisty varicose vein that branches pen-thin across my thigh.  I had been tracing the bruised lines with my finger.  These spidery betrayers invade, cracks in the shell of me suddenly just there, like the glimpses of gray now flashing in wiry strands at the crown of my head.

And this is the point—as I retell the story—when my older sister-friends scoff, fingering the wrinkles at their cheek bones, telling me to just wait, because we all make so many comparisons.  Very few of us can truthfully say what Riley says now, looking sideways in the mirror, testing the stability of the bun on the back of her head with her fingertips.

I like the way God built me.

I walk up behind her, sliding an arm around her waist, and I can’t help it, thinking I look pretty good with her in front of me.  It makes me smile, because it’s a mother’s trick, hiding our bodies behind our children when we pose for photographs.  In my mind, I catch a glimpse of an old photograph that stays with me—-a bouquet of flowers in every color wildly arcing; the gray-green eyes of an aunt barely visible just behind; that expression we love; the short, choppy hair; the soft, still-dewy skin deeply grooved with wrinkles.  She had insisted we let her hold those flowers, because they were prettier.  And now, I just want to pluck the arrangement right out of the photograph so that I can love the memory of her more completely.

“I like the way God built you too,” I say into Riley’s cheek, feeling her grin against the light weight of my kiss.  A few errant strands of her hair fall feathery over my nose.  “You’re absolutely beautiful.”

“Mmmhmm,” she says, the way she always has, and when I look up, laughter escapes with her smile, as though she exhales joy.

How is it that I’m just beginning to learn what she has always known, that beauty is wildly imperfect?

She’s okay with herself, more than that, she likes the way God built her.

“And I like the way God built Zoe, too,” Riley says, throwing a grinning glace outside the bathroom door to the chair where her sister sits curled around a thick book, absently twisting a length of hair in slender fingers.  “And I like the way God built Mom, and the way He built Dad, and the way He built Adam, too.  I like the way God built everyone.”  She does.  She’s okay with herself, so she’s okay with everyone else.  She always has been.

And it’s not something she learned from me.

We say, in our middle and later years, that we’ve learned to be okay with how we are, but the truth shows up in the things we say, the way our gazes drop critically-heavy, the way we jealously deride other women for their better qualities or make shortcomings out of tiny changes in appearance.  We’re not okay with ourselves, so we’re not okay with each other.  I still wince when I see pictures of myself, and when someone compliments me I can scarcely believe it.  Oh, let’s be honest:  I even turn away from mirrors sometimes so as to avoid assessing my imperfections.

But not Riley.  Show her a picture of herself and she just laughs, nodding her head.  Yep, that’s me.  She has no use for make-up, but she doesn’t find it necessary to critcize those who want to wear it.  She never says, “OH, delete that.  Delete it, I look terrible.”  She’s not self-deprecating or insecure, and she’s also not jealous.  She never notices that someone else has gained weight or lost weight or chosen the wrong thing to wear.  She likes the way God built her, and she likes the way God built me, and she likes the way God built you.  And I love that she emphasizes those words–God built—like precious gems cradled in her palm for safe keeping.

Middle age, and more and more it resonates with me that in Jesus would not entrust himself to human beings.  He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man (John 2:24,25).  Instead, He lived for the testimony of God–You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased (Luke 3:22).  It’s a testimony that spills from my daughter’s lips as the truth, not some pretentious platitude.

I like the way God built me.

Lately, as my prayers for more of God and less of me increase, as I ask for a sure centering on Him and what pleases Him instead of on myself, I have resolved to adopt Riley’s testimony as my own.  I haven’t stopped trying to be a good steward of my body and my physical health, but I have started asking God to transform that voice in me that speaks when I see myself in the mirror or in a photograph, because self-deprication is self-centeredness, too.  And seeking after the admiration of other people makes me a servant to their opinions of me instead of a servant of Christ (Galatians 1:10).  It’s idolatry, and that’s the unpopular truth.  His is the testimony I want to live for, a testimony that has little to do with this temporary, though wonderfully-made, tent.  Simply this, to hear Him say, Well done, good and faithful servant.

Riley slides away from me, light and free, flitting airily away from her own reflection.  And now unshielded by her elegance, I try out the words, tasting the organic sweetness of them, looking into my own green eyes in the glass:

Mmmhmm, I like the way God built me.

And just as quickly, she flies back to the door, my wise-free child, peering in.

“Me too, Mom.  I like the way God built you, too.”

*~*

I praise you because you made me in an amazing and wonderful way. What you have done is wonderful. I know this very well (Psalm 139:14, NCV).

oh, hello {how to give a Gift anytime, anywhere}

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We wander down the grocery aisle, me with my head buried in a list, Zoe pushing the cart, Riley walking just behind, quietly trying to breathe. Zoe reaches toward me with her eyes.  I feel the gaze grab hard, and I look up and toward my daughter.  Zoe sucks in her belly and stiffens her neck, flicking her gaze sharply back at her sister.  Without words, she says, “Mom, Riley is doing that thing.”  That thing would be tensing with sensory stress, half-holding her breath and half-breathing, as though she has too much to handle to remember how to inhale.  I pause, quickly appraising.

“You okay?” I ask carefully, because Riley doesn’t like me to attend to her difficulty.

“Mmmhmm,” she says, holding her neck straight, offering me a practiced smile, a flat line that says Don’t worry.

I turn back to the grocery list, scanning to see how quickly I can finish.  And then I hear Riley speak.

“Oh, hello,” she says, and I look back to see her acknowledge a woman passing with another cart, another list, another set of things to carry.  The woman looks shadowed and absorbed, tucking hair behind her ear with a weariness I recognize, scanning shelves for needed items.  Riley lifts one hand in a tiny wave while she grips her leg with the other, trying to halt the shaking that sometimes comes when she starts feeling overloaded.  I notice the white edges of Riley’s fingertips against her pant leg, urgent, determined.

“Hi,” Riley says again, waving.

The woman slowly realizes the greeting is for her, and her face sparks with sudden surprise.  She tilts her head, momentarily distracted from her list, allowing herself to look at Riley, who exhales awkwardly and grins.  I watch the woman search Riley’s face for recognition.  It’s a reaction I’ve seen many times.  In fact, a few aisles back, a man we didn’t know tried to cover up the fact that he couldn’t remember us.  “They’re growing up so fast,” he said jovially, baffled, gesturing toward the girls, to which Riley happily replied, “Yes, we are!”   That exchange confused Zoe so much that she whispered, who was that? after we rounded a corner.  So often we scroll through other lives without really sharing even the simplest acknowledgement, browsing past each other cloaked in carefully guarded silences.  Finding no recognition of us, this woman smiles broadly.  “Hi.” She pauses briefly and then moves on.  I can see the light she carries with her as she continues past us, returning to her shopping, gathering up the notice.  Someone sees.

It’s the smallest moment, but I gather it up too, the light thrown and scattered, falling on the glossy floor.  I watch Riley offer this simple gift all the time, leaning over to read nametags and work badges dangling from woven cords, so that whenever possible, she can call a stranger by name.  She does this everywhere we go, in any place, at any time, acknowledging everyone, even salesmen spinning signs by the roadway as we pass by in the car.  She gives the gift of notice, of acknowledgement, even when she’s fighting her own battles, when the rest of us retreat.

“We’re almost finished, girls,” I say, more for Riley than for Zoe, leading them to the end of the aisle and toward the check out.

Good, Riley says, and the word tumbles out with another exhale.  She pats her leg quickly, trying for nonchalant.  I look at her, walking tall, twisting a length of brassy hair around her finger.  “I’m ready to go home,” she says softly, as we take our place in line.  Riley knows I see her, and the confession makes her cry.  She blinks back tears, looking up.

“I know,” I say quietly, silently giving thanks that this time in the line will be relatively short.  Times like these, I don’t know what to do with my eyes.  I know that if I look at Riley too long, examine her too much, she will interpret my scrutiny as disapproval.  She doesn’t like to think she’s causing any trouble.  Less of me, more of you.  John the Baptist’s sentiment resonates.

Riley, she teaches me.  Wiping tears from her cheeks with her palms, she leans forward to forget herself and acknowledge someone else.  The woman at the checkout speaks into the groceries and the conveyor belt, never looking up, her eyes, her voice dull with the repetition of the day.  “Hello,” she says, “did you find everything you need?”  It feels like a recorded message more than a greeting.

“Hello, Ms. Amanda,” Riley says.  “We sure did.”

Again, the surprise, the light-thrown, and immediately I think of all the times I go through these lines without ever looking up from my list, my phone, my watch.  The cashier stops, looking up.  “Hi,” she says, having caught her own name.  Again, the search for recognition.  She knows my name. How does she know my name? The cashier wears a name tag, but clearly, she’s not used to anyone actually reading it.

“Don’t be afraid, for I have saved you.” The prophet spoke for God.  “I have called you by name,  and you are mine (Isaiah 43:9).”  He knows our names, whether we know Him or not.

“Do I know you?” The cashier says kindly.

“No, I read your nametag,” Riley says, pointing, quietly inhaling a sniffle.

“OH,” the cashier says, grinning.  “Of course.”  She resumes scanning groceries, but now she’s looking up, at Riley.  “No one ever notices my name.”

“I know your name,” Riley says.  I know your name.

“Well, I don’t know yours,” the cashier says, grinning.  And so it begins—a short but day-changing conversation between my daughter, who works so hard to juggle words and people and sounds and anxiety, and the cashier who usually feels invisible.  And I stand there listening, thinking that my daughter is often a much better reflection of God than I.  Because God reaches right into our not knowing Him; right into our lack of recognition; right into our shadows and our self-absorption, and sacrificing Himself, He whispers, “I know you by name, and already I love you.” It’s our startled surprise, our gathering up of that radiant grace, that makes us look up to see Him and seek to know Him in return.

together

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On the porch in the early morning and the light all new, I lift my hand in the air, bending my fingers into the sign for love.  And Adam, looking through the window as he leaves for school, tilts his head, studying the gesture.  He looks at his own hand as Kevin backs out in an arc, and he tries, bending the wrong fingers.  He waves a random sign at me, more like a softly crumpled fist than a symbol, and I smile, blowing kisses at him with my hand.  This is how it is with us.  I speak and he tries to reply, and some of the words he loses.  But still, we understand each other.  We tell our story together.

I hold my coffee mug against my chest with my other hand, a gathered warmth against the slight spring chill.  As they disappear around a corner, I drop my hand.  And that’s when I notice, because my fingers fall on the jutting tag exposed and chilled by the air.

My pajama pants are on inside out.  Nice.

I look down at the faded sea of polka dots, the coral background blotted white on the underside, the rough seam traveling the length of my leg.  This happens when a mother dresses in the darkness right before she melts into the sheets and the bed.  In the weary night, it hardly seems important if things look the right way.  And it makes me smile, because maybe we would all find it easier to talk to each other sometimes if we owned the truth about how we all are, how our need for tender treatment rests hidden on the underside of polish, how we stumble in the dark all empty when everything feels backwards and upside-down and crazy askew.

I think maybe inside-out is closer to the truth.

This morning, I forgot to butter the toast.  I stared at it for seconds, wondering why it looked different, why today the bread appeared too dry.  And then I remembered something I do every day, the butter, the knife, blurred by the morning fog gathered behind my eyes.  And that was before I noticed my pajama pants.

I wander into the kitchen to survey the damage:  a paper towel covered with egg shells, the cooking spray still uncapped behind; plates stacked randomly and teetering with gummy forks; the bacon pan cool now, with a dark sheen.  In my inside-out pajama pants, I move to the sink, the dishwasher to unload, the task of re-ordering a room that looks about how I feel inside, all disheveled and messy.  One thing at a time, I say, just under my breath, taking another swig of coffee.  Sometimes upside-down and inside-out only straighten in short, careful steps.

Before I can sweep the floor, after I have rinsed and loaded the dishes and washed the pans, just after I have sprayed the sink with cleaner, a text comes from a friend:  Can I serve you? She has written thus, only the words are more specific, the task framed so that I can touch it.  She asks to pay the cost herself, and then has the grace to write PLEASE?!!  I’m not the best at serving, but I’m maybe worse at being served.  And suddenly, in the middle of Holy Week, I realize where I am.  I’m in the Upper Room, and water splatters just a little from the basin as Jesus pours it, kneeling.  He bends in front of me—me with the fog still gathered behind my eyes, with my pajama pants on inside-out; me with that messy feeling in my soul.  He kneels before me in the person of my friend.  And my reaction, when He bends to wash my feet is, Oh no, not me, Lord.  See, she’s God’s daughter too, and she bends in front of me to sacrifice herself and take care of me.  She’s no less busy, no less burdened by life and motherhood.  But she writes, Life for you is all upside-down.  Can I, please?

She sees me standing there all dusty, and she lays aside her life to wash my feet.

These were the last hours the disciples spent with Jesus, when he knelt and gently took their dirty feet in His hands.  Days later, and they likely still felt His touch, still saw Him there in front of them—the King who kneels, the King who dies. They had no idea how upside-down their lives were about to be, how inside-out and scared they would feel, but He knew.  He could see their tender vulnerability jutting out already, their misunderstanding, their confusion, their dust.  And the last thing He chose to offer them before He turned with purpose to the cross was a clear view of how they would testify together.  He showed them what cross-bearing looks like every day, how it redeems the broken, how it washes away the dirt that clings. Everyday cross-bearing looks like setting aside life and station to pour some water in a basin, to bend over another soul’s travel-worn feet.  

Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you (John 13:14,15).

It always hits me what Jesus says when Peter shrinks back from the washing, when the disciple says No, you shall never wash my feet.  I can see the way the Lord looks up, the King beside a basin in the floor.  I can hear the way He says, Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.  We can’t be served by the Cross if we won’t admit that we need the sacrifice.  We can’t find our way right-side up if we won’t admit we’re all askew.  We can’t give the gift unless we’ll be vulnerable enough to receive it, unless we’ll own that it was given to us first.  And every time we serve each other, every time we wash each other’s feet, we proclaim the Cross.  All of our self-sacrifices say, This is the King He is.  This is what He has done for us.  We become the sacrifice because He is the sacrifice.

My friend, waits, while I stand there looking at her kneeling, while I curl up inside, wanting to say no.

And suddenly I know what it is to say yes.  I feel it, the way Peter felt it when he exclaimed, Then, not just my feet, but my head and my hands as well!  Receiving the gifts, the service, the sacrifice of others proclaims our need, our inadequacy on our own, our acceptance of the Truth that changes us inside-out.  So, I sit down, and I text back, “What a gift of grace.  Yes.  Yes, that would be wonderful.” These words I type really say more.  They say, I do not have it all together.  I am not a solo act.  I have seen my King, and I have claimed His cross and His righteousness.  Yes.  Yes, I take the washing, because yes, yes, yes, I need help.  I need the gift of the Cross.

Christianity is about following all the way to the Cross, and it’s also about admitting that I need the Cross in the first place.  It’s about saying yes, wash me.  Because if I can’t own my loose threads; my ragged, inside-out, dark-stumbling life; my desperate dependence on His grace, His foot-washing gift, His righteousness, then I have no part with Him.  And when another soul bends over my dirty feet, proclaiming the Truth by their sacrificial service, it is my part with Him that should move me to say Yes.  Yes, I need help. Because we’re His.  And that means that we need Him; that we’re clumsy and messy and we lose words.  And it also means that we can understand each other—the gift and the receiving.  It means that we tell this story together.

hungry {and unashamed}

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Walking behind him, I can see clearly that his jeans only just reach his ankles.  The nurse talks over her shoulder—okay, follow me and then some small talk about the weather, the red file folder jutting out, an extension of her hand that messes up all the angles.  She fills the space with words so light that I can still keep up, even though I’m thinking, OH.my.  When did he get so tall?  I hadn’t noticed that he needed new jeans, mostly because he’s so slim that keeping the pants up has more readily captured my attention as of late.  I often reach for him and lay my fingers neatly in the valleys between his ribs.  He’s my son; I remember when I could gather the entire length of him into my arms; when his cheeks and arms and stubby legs filled my palms, round and baby-warm.

Adam is too old now to hold my hand when we walk down the hall.  He is taller than the nurse, but we are far enough apart that I can see the way her hair escapes her ponytail in unruly wisps.  She leads us to the lab, and Adam slips off his shoes before we reach the doorway, leaving them empty in middle of the glossy floor, frozen mid-stride.  He’s been doing these checkups since he was two.  I remember the days when he did not understand the words take off your shoes, when I would have to back him against the wall, kneeling down to move his fat feet back, back, no—here, so that his heels touched and they could measure his height.  Now, Adam does it on his own, dutifully holding his back up straight while the nurse slides the metal piece down gently against the top of his head.

He’s grown nearly a full inch in two months, the nurse says, jotting something quickly on a yellow sticky note pressed askew on the top of the file.  I’m not even sure why they carry the folder anymore, except that I have to sign an updated history every time, checking boxes against potentially alarming symptoms.  All of this data she will actually type into the computer, clicking for longer than the data seems, while she asks if we need any prescription refills, if we have any concerns.  Meanwhile, I will look and relook at papers stapled to a bulletin board on the wall next to me—a list of diabetes camps, an infographic about what A1C results mean; at the framed print—Dr Seuss’ Advice About Life, read thrice.

But actually, I am thinking about my son, gathering my own growth-notes in sweeping glances that glide over his cheek bones, the intense focus of his eyes, the length of his fingers as he pencil-circles a found word and then types it into the search box on Dictionary.com.  He mutters the pronunciation softly, too low for the nurse to notice, and then moves on, shifting his attention in short, quick jerks.  I can almost see the mathematical precision with which he sums this information, information that will not stay or that will sit just beyond the reach of use.  Whatever it is that jumbles the synapses in his mind has kept him wanting his whole life—wanting to know, wanting to speak, wanting to connect.  Adam is hungry all the time—hungry for knowledge, and these days, hungry for food.  This reflection makes me chuckle, and the nurse looks up from her clicking keys and smiles, wondering, as the top end of the thought escapes me aloud, unbidden.

I can’t seem to keep him full, and no wonder:  Almost a full inch in two months.  He gets his own snacks, and sometimes now I find him carb counting three granola bars and a couple of fig cookies all at once, the pile scattered around a steaming cup of coffee in the afternoon.  At a potluck last Sunday, he found me in the line to ask for help estimating the carbs for his lunch.

“How many carbs do I have?” He’d said lyrically, carefully lifting the “I” for emphasis.  He still mixes up his pronouns sometimes, so he concentrates on the shapes the sounds make, the lift of our voices, when we model them correctly for him.

“Well, I’ll have to see your plate,” I’d said, following him from the buffet to the table.  I had been caught in conversation and had not been with him in the line.  He had piled his plate as full as it possibly could be, a mountain of protein and pastas, cheeses and sauces.  I have never seen so much food on one plate.  He’s hungry, I thought, finding his unrestrained feasting both refreshing—he sees no need to hide what he needs–and also a little embarrassing.  Adam’s growing independence often reveals new lessons to teach, ways in which his failure to understand social rules makes other people uncomfortable.  After all, most of us hide our hunger neatly behind legitimate restraint.  That is, until that want becomes a beast we cannot control any longer, a monsterous thing we unsuccessfully try to satisfy multifariously.  Our idols are the gripped and wildly thrown solutions to our need, sugary substitutes for real nourishment stuffed into ravenous, gapping holes in our lives.

God has beckoned us to a feast, inviting us off the dusty streets (Matthew 22: 1-14), offering us Kingly robes in exchange for the rags of our own self-righteousness (Isaiah 64:6).  He offers Himself as the full meal, the bread that satisfies hunger, the living water that slakes our thirst.  Pile your plates high, He says.  Be unrestrained, unafraid, unembarrassed by your need for me.  And perhaps if we were a little more openly hungry for God and a little less consumed by keeping up appearances, we could find sustainance before our need becomes a beast.  In my mind, I see Him approaching me, the rags hanging from my elbows and the ridiculous way I can sometimes feign satisfaction while I’m soul-starved.

The way he’s growing, the nurse says, glancing my way as she types, I bet he eats and eats.

He never gets enough, I say, laughing.  And at potlucks…Well, I’m beginning to think I need to give him a list and some boundaries before we go.  I open up a little window, so that she can catch a glimpse of my thoughts, that moutainous plate.

But at least he knows what he lacks and seeks after the right solutions, I’m thinking.  I never get enough of God, but so often I reach for so many substitutes for what I really need.  I watch Adam, circling and searching for words—reaching for what he needs—and suddenly I’m reminded of a passage I read in the morning, just as the light brought in the day:

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory, and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word (Hebrews 1:3).

Sustaining all things by His powerful word.  I had underlined the words and re-written them in my journal.  Sustaining all things, it says.  So God reaches into me, pointing to something already written there. “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:3),” and then “I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty (John 6:35).”  It’s a misread, a sad mistake, to believe God has promised an end to physical need for the faithful.  He has promised, instead, to be the spiritual feast, offering Himself as the sacrificial meal.  And in fact, He has promised a ravenous and continuous hunger that can only be satisfied with Him, a longing that will become a monsterous, discontented and angry beast unless we openly consume Him, unrestrained and unconcerned with propriety.  In that way, our hunger is actually a gift, a gnawing reminder of our need for God and the grace-given invitation to feast.  In my journal, I wrote a single question:  Why, knowing this, do I so often, so quickly reach for sustainance in empty things?

I can’t help but think of this now, talking to the nurse about how growing makes Adam hungry.  I can always have absolutely as much of God as I want, and all my hungry feasting on Him means I will grow tall too.  And does God then smile, remembering me as a babe?

OH, let him eat, the nurse says, grinning.  He needs it.  “Look at him,” she says, gesturing toward him with an open hand.  “Every thing he eats right now goes into bone growth.  He needs that food for strength.”  She shrugs, laughing.  “Who cares what people think?”

*~*

…his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.  He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither (Psalm 1:2,3).

Meditation on the Bible is more than just intense thinking.  …Meditation is spiritually “tasting” the scripture—delighting in it, sensing the sweetness of the teaching, feeling the conviction of what it tells us about ourselves, and thanking God and praising God for what it shows us about him.  Meditation is also spiritually “digesting” the Scripture–applying it, thinking about how it affects you, describes you, guides you in the most practical way.  It is drawing strength from the Scripture…(Timothy Keller, Prayer, 150-151)

just breathe

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For a moment, just breathe.

Morning run under bluest skies, and the warmth of the sun splits apart the crisp, cool evidence of a night safely passed.  The trees, red and swollen, change the tone of the landscape, pregnant now with possibility.  Spring comes suddenly, like a first breath, a startled gasp exhaled as relief; a seal broken on an empty tomb, air rushing to fill the void.  The New Testament word for Spirit–pneuma–literally means moving air, or a breath, and God, He fills all our empty caverns with Himself, rushing right in. New life always begins with the first real breath.

I inhale slowly, tasting the breeze for hints of blooming, memorizing the gift, considering something a friend of mine once said about breathing:  We take it for granted until we can’t.  She would know.  She has a chronic illness that robbed her of her lungs, and she once told me that before her transplant, she felt starved for air.  You don’t know how precious it is to breathe until you can’t.  We gloss right over the simple profoundity of being emptied and re-filled, the instinctive way we let go of what we have and see it rotundly returned, the way the seasons pass and things die away only to bud and rebloom.  And sometimes, we’re just to busy to take notice.

So for a moment, maybe, just breathe.

Every empty space only waits for re-filling, and our arms have been sculpted for carefully gathering waiting treasures tucked away in grass blades, the bright orbs trimming the edges of our living.  Where ever we go, God has been before, planting grace.  He has promised never to leave us empty.  He waits, watching, drawing a finger out to nudge us toward the bright slip of color we’ve not yet discovered.  Look, just there, just carefully.  Now. Breathe.

I run through cherry blossoms scattered on the sidewalk, and I think of the number I will write in my journal back at home, the round O filled with my counting, another empty orb God has well-filled with grace.  Cherry blossoms, silk-delicate, tossed across the path.

He is forever filling up something empty.  God fills my arms with the warmth of my children, my mouth with indulgent food, my hands with deft ability, my home with music, joy, love, laughter.  And He fills me with Himself.  It’s what He does.  He rushes in, a bold breath, startling me newly alive, offering me abundance if I will take up the gifts He offers, ready, just there at my fingertips.  If I can surrender long enough to be satisfied.

It’s a funny thing about breathing, that it requires surrender. After that first breath, every last one only comes after we let go of the stale stuff we’re holding onto. Renewal is written right into living.

I’m not fast as a runner, but I try for negative splits. I push myself up a hill, and the faster I run, the harder I breathe. I smile, remembering the way, as a young runner, this quick exchange used to cause me such gulping anxiety. I can’t, I can’t suffocated both my faith and my view of the truth that I was breathing—empty then filled, empty then filled, and it was enough.  Sometimes, this desperate fear had been enough to make me stop still in the path, defeated.  But that’s what fear does, especially the fear that we will not find the sustainance we need. Hunger, need–it’s all just a cavernous place ready for God, a place He’s promised to fill.  Endurance has stretched my understanding of possibility, and I have learned that things are hardly ever as they seem.   These days, I run certain my mind will betray me before my lungs give out and still more certain that God will do as He has promised.  When I feel emptied, He has already begun to fill me again.

So rounding a turn, I lift my legs and whisper an echo miles-long:  just breathe.  

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