On a Double Portion

 

T.S. Eliot once scribed that April is the cruelest month, but for me, now, it seems to be the month of May.

It wasn’t always that way.

Once, May held nothing but happiness and celebration: my wedding anniversary, my mother’s birthday and my husband’s, summer’s arrival with pansies and parties and Memorial Day parades, and, of course, Mother’s Day.

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Why God chose to allow May to become a mockery of all that once-was for me, I do not know.

When my youngest and I were hiking the Appalachian Trail back in 2010, we heard of another young boy and his father. They, too, were thru-hikers, and because little boy thru-hikers were a rare commodity, the father and I became Facebook friends, sharing intel and hatching a plan for the boys to meet somewhere along the 2,179-mile corridor.

One day, the stars aligned, and we all had lunch together at a shelter in a back hollow of Virginia. While the two boys shyly sparred with twigs and skated across the smooth floor of the shelter in their ragg wool socks, Tecolote (wise owl, he) and I discussed depleting fisheries, trail food, Lyme ticks, and homeschooling.

Eventually, we called the boys back, and Tecolote asked the boy Venado (wee dancing deer, he) to “recite the litany.”

Starting from their first day on the trail, 8-year-old Venado listed, in order, every place he and his father had ever spent the night on the trail.

Thistle Hill Shelter, stealth camp, stealth camp, Velvet Rocks, Moose Mountain Shelter, stealth camp, Imp Shelter, stealth camp, and on and on and on, until he reached the spot they had tented the night before.

Owen and I spent 58 nights on the trail; Venado and Tecolote, even more.

It was quite the list.

A long litany.

Sometimes, I am tempted to catalogue the catastrophes that have struck my life, in May and beyond. My own personal litany of loss.

Disease, drifting, divorce, death.

It might be tempting to linger there, reciting wrongs ad nauseam, but to what end?

Better to think in different terms, because God doesn’t do math the way we do.

His equations are unbalanced and unfair.

More for less.

Freedom for captivity.

Light for darkness.

Joy for mourning.

Life for death.

In fact, the prophet Isaiah assures us that God will provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty for ashes…Instead of your shame, you will receive a double portion.” Isaiah 61:3, 5

It’s Mother’s Day, and I think of my son, the lost one. Ashes now.

What does a double portion look like in the face of such loss?

How do you ever replace one precious son?

His brothers and sister pull in close, and we form a circle, tight and strong. There’s healing there, a crown of beauty.

It is then that I look around, and wonder…

There are middle school boys everywhere. I’m surrounded.

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One is cruising along on a bike. Another is trotting faithfully alongside, huffing a conversation. One is cradling a lacrosse stick, another hitting him good-naturedly with a towel. One is throwing his backpack up in the air while still another repeatedly attempts to pelt it with any available object: ball, rock, hat, shoe.

Later, during room inspection, I watch an 8th grader dust his desk with a lint roller, another seek to conceal his dirty socks under a beanbag chair. There is wrestling.

I look upon this endless stream of boys, son upon upon upon son, stretching on forever, as far ahead as I can look. Mine once lived here.

Could that be it, my double portion?

Could I have been the mother to these boys had I not lost my own son?

It was not a choice that was mine to make.  Only God knows, and this is the hand he has allowed me to draw.

Pato and Tim and Briggs and Kin Wing…are these my boys now? An infinity of boys for my lost son? They are not replacements, because no one can. But they are here, while he is not.

God’s math.

His one Son, for the sons of man.

When my mind wants to rehearse my litany of losses, I will remember instead God’s promises in Isaiah.

A garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

The year of the Lord’s favor.

Mays will come and Mays will go.

I will always be a mother.

Everlasting  joy.

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On Remembering Well

Today, you would have been 23 earth years old.

There is so much I want to remember about you, so today I pull out old snapshots and try to place myself back in each scene, willing the weather, words, wisdom, and wonder to bring me back to that time when you were here and whole.

Baby-you and college-you, silly-you and sober-you, you in tubs and ties and T’s and teams, in costumes and cowboy hats, surrounded and alone.

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It’s an ache-y pursuit.

I’ve been trying to throw away your old dorm fridge, the one with the Holderness stickers and the magnet that says life-is-not-measured-by-the-number-of-breaths-we-take-but-by-the-moments-that-take-our-breath-away.

Charley used it last year, and you know your brother. It came back dented and done, but still I cannot will myself to drive it to the dumpster and bid it adieu. So it rides around with me, round and round and round, until we end up where we began.

It’s crazy, I know that. It’s just a fridge, and a broken one at that.

But still.

I’ve just read C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and the great man has me a bit unsettled.

Granted, I only understand about half of his words, but some of the things he confesses are darker than I thought him capable of.

Listen.

Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any new bend may reveal a totally new landscape….sometimes the surprise is the opposite one; you are presented with exactly the same sort of country you thought you had left behind miles ago. That is when you wonder whether the valley is a circular trench.

Or a fridge that follows you around.

But it isn’t, Lewis writes. There are partial recurrences, but the sequence doesn’t repeat.

The sequence doesn’t repeat.

That I understand.

Some days I gaze at a picture of your face and I can manage. I can pick up my bag and my mug of coffee and march into that rowdy room of middle school boys and smile and laugh and almost forget that tenuous place in my heart.

Other days, though – like today – like when Coach Sink reaches out to give me a hug in the dining hall and I choke it all back, chokechokechoke back the grief, hold it in until I can scurry to the closed-door-behind-me of my apartment and give that grief my full attention until it almost breaks me.

People are nice to us, Love, since you left. They are just so, so nice.

What good is it then to think of your cold hand?

What good to remember the phone calls from police or the sound of your brother collapsed on the floor, your sister’s sobs?

Grief could so easily become the dry that wastes me, but I am not interested in its insistent, vice-y grip.

I want to remember well.

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So I gather myself, meet our friends for dinner – Aggie, Zach, Ralph, Sue – and talk about heaven, of constellations and Jesus and an eternity of guilt-free gluten.

We remember you, son.

You were lovely and kind and courageous and strong, and you propped me up when I couldn’t do much more than slump through the day. You’d be so proud, now, of your brothers and sister and momma and friends.

We are remembering.

Thank you for the feather that blew across my path on the way to class this morning. The lone widening contrail pinking the sky when I woke. That fat robin singing on a dew sparkled branch.

It’s your birthday and I remember you.

How could I ever forget?

On Sowing Hope

The boys are home.

Two brothers, large and loud, that fill the space in my tiny house with their piles of shoes and their dirty T-shirts and their hey-ma-can-you-slide-me-a-few-bones-heh-heh-heh?’s.

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I suppose you never know how quiet it has become until the void is filled with he-volume and you find yourself yelling over the classic rock pulsing out of the bluetooth COULD YOU PLEASEPLEASEPLEASE PUT YOUR DISHES IN THE SINK?

I’ve been trying to be still.

Stuck in what seems like a never-ending season of disappointment, I’ve grown weary of trying to fix it all.

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How do you fix winter?

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Cold and dry and dead, the scenery of my life seems frozen in the casualties that have mounted loss upon loss upon loss until I am wary of holding anything close to me ever again should it, too, be torn out of my grasp.

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Seasons aren’t supposed to last forever. Autumn follows summer follows spring follows winter, especially in New England, best place on the planet to live, so I am aware that these sneaky snows will one day give way to greengreen grass and budding branches and streams of living water flowing fast and full.

What to do in the meantime?

Where does the new growth dwell, before it becomes a brass blade bullying up through the ice or a bulb busting open, spilling its tulip or crocus or daffodil up to the sun?

Dormant, these seeds lie lifeless under frozen soil waiting, waiting, waiting for the precise moment when promise crosses opportunity.

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Jesus knew a thing or two about hibernation. In predicting his death, he said, “I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

Jesus, You were the seed. 

Your body broke open and died, fallen under Roman hands and Jewish “law,” but didn’t You startle them all? And although I feel we are living in the most exciting time on earth, where Church Age and Kingdom Age seem to be colliding at an ever-accelerating rate, I think I would give anything to have been there to see the reaction when You first came strolling down the beach.

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Talk about a change in season. What hope!

Because Jesus also tells us that we are the seed.

Here’s the The Message translation of that same passage: Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.

Our seed-lives, if kept on a shelf quietly decaying, will never produce so much as a sprout of life.

But bury that seed in the sod, tamp down the dirt and wait, through seasons of summerautumnwinterspring, at last, unrestrained, it unfurls itself courageous and bold, becoming life, life, and more life: forever life, real and eternal.

Paul put it this way:  “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;  persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.  So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” (2 Corinthians 4: 7-12)

I think of the son no longer here in body, no longer loud.

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His quiet presence permeates everything and everywhere, his life-seed broken loose on that awfulbeautiful day.

He was here for a season, and if we are to learn anything from his unfurling it might be this: hold things loosely; be reckless in your love, never allowing regret or bitterness or anger or unforgiveness to spoil the landscape of your life, for if you do this, you may find that the harvest is reproduced many times over until it “yields a crop a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13: 23)

So we sow hope and reap joy, through long seasons of winter and chill, because spring is coming, it is, even when we are tempted to doubt, even when we can’t see, even when we feel like giving up.

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Don’t give up.

(I’m preaching to myself here.)

Believe this: the Master Planter is at work.

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4: 16-17)

 

 

 

 

 

On Bowls of Gold

I’ve had a hard week.

Light shone in a dark area of my life, but the darkness did not comprehend it (John 1:5).

Have you ever prayed so hard for something that, although you do not sweat actual drops of blood, as Jesus did in the garden before the Roman nails, you feel as if the very life has been drained from you, as you ask and you ask and you ask?

I have.

In the year 2000, just months after my youngest son was born, I started training for a marathon. I had been a runner all my life, but I never managed more than 10 miles at a time. With great hope, I found a book with a reasonable enough sounding training program, and began to really run.

My long runs grew until they hit their peak at 16 miles, and then, disaster. In some convoluted every-body-part-is-somehow-connected scenario, my hip was thrown out of whack, perhaps from the milage, and the calf muscle on one leg refused to cooperate with me any longer.

Stubborn, I tried to push through.

Every time I attempted to head out, I would be forced back by a searing pain in my calf that made running impossible. I might be able to go a day or two, perhaps a week, before the rebellious thing had me in tears, but eventually I was brought to a complete halt. I had missed the marathon, and, worse, was unable to achieve even a fraction of the modest milage I had run before the injury. I was done.

At the time, I was a brand new baby Christian, so I thought, I know. I’ll pray.

So I prayed. And I prayed. And prayed and prayed and prayed.

Our family moved from Michigan to New Hampshire. I prayed.

We moved to a different town. I prayed.

God gave me a best friend, and she and I walked, walked and walked and walked, the streets of our neighborhood, praying praying praying that my leg would be healed inJesussnameamen.

Nothing.

It was as if God had closed the vault of heaven, and whatever treasures were locked inside, He had no intention of showing us the key.

One morning in church, there was a tipping point. When almost every friend and family member I knew were off running a local 5K (with free beer at the finish), I surrendered. When the invitation for who-needs-prayer was announced, I limped up to a vacant seat, and a dear sister prayed agreement with me.

Lord, I surrender. Lord, I don’t understand. Lord, I fully believe that you are able to heal this awful leg, but I will no longer ask for you to do it. I accept whatever Your hand gives.

That very week, a miracle.

I saw a new chiropractor, he fixed my hip, and I was able to run again. Hike 2,000 miles. Finish an Ironman.

You might be thinking coincidence, but don’t you dare.

10 YEARS, hundreds of thousands of prayers. Nothing.

1 moment of prayerful surrender. Key.

What unlocked the door – the years of prayer or the surrender? Both? I can’t answer that, but this I know: prayer changes things. It might be legs or it might be hearts, but when you pray, heaven moves and things happen, sometimes with an excruciating slowness that pains the soul, but happen they do.

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When my son died, I did what some might think an audacious thing.

I went to the funeral home where his body had been taken and prayed that Jesus would raise him from the dead.

Ever practical, I brought along a bag of his favorite comfy clothes because the paramedics had made short work of whatever he had been wearing at the time of his crash, and he would be embarrassed to have to drive home with his momma in his birthday suit.

It was faith that compelled me, faith and the mandate that Jesus had sent out His twelve with: Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay (Matthew 10:8).

Day and night, night and day, I went. I went alone and I went with others, Adrienne and Shawna and Myles and Joe and Scott, men and women who dared to believe that Jesus meant what He said. I asked the funeral director to hold off as long as possible cremating my boy because I believed, I believed, that prayer is what changes the things we want changed, prayer is what makes things happen.

His bag of clothes still sits in my car, and there is an urn where my son used to be.

Does God answer prayer?

If He didn’t, why would we pray?

Did he raise my son from the dead?

Absolutely. 

My son now sits with God’s own Son, high in the heavenlies, and he is very much alive.

Could God have caused my son to kick free of the zippered morgue bag, put on his comfy clothes, and stun the world?

Absolutely.

However, God didn’t ask me which choice I preferred, boy-in-clothes or boy-in-clouds.

God is God.

#1, He knows everything, and #2, whether we like it or not, He knows best.

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This week, God closed the door on a prayer I have been praying for many years.

I believe the Bible stories about the persistent widow and the mustard seed of faith and the if you ask believing, it will be yours. I do.

So do the men and women who have stood with me year by year, shield to shield and sword to sword, gathered together twoorthree: Aggie and Margaret and Cilla and Greg, Shane and Bruce and Judy and Bill, Ian and Emma and Gareth and Raye, Shannan and Rick and so many others, believers all.

It’s who we are. It’s what we do.

I wonder if my cloud-y boy can see the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders, falling down before the Lamb, each one with a harp and holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people (Revelation 5:8).

Does he know the scent of his momma’s prayers?

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There’s so much we cannot know. God protects us, I think, from many of the prayers we pray. Becarefulwhatyouwishfor because we don’t always know what we don’t know, and our prayers are often crazy, often reckless.

But the good news is, we pray big and God moves strong and in the end it is we that are changed.

He gives us what we need, not necessarily what we think we want.

So keep filling those bowls of gold. God is as pleased with the aroma as He is pleased with us.

And He will answer.

In His own way.

In His own time.

 

On Giving Hard Thanks

My two sons and I just returned from Montreal.

There is a doctor there, a kind man, whose hands know how to heal.

He probes and presses until he finds the damage done by tackles and checks and poor posture and slumpy stomach sleeping; he finds those places rent with ache, and then he does a surprising thing.

Instead of backing off these islands of sore, giving them space to cower and be, he assails them with gadgets that jackhammer and electrodes that stim, pushing and pushing and pushing these places of pain until they yield and relax, conform at last to their created contours. They surrender to his hand.

I’m thankful for this man.

The last time we made this trip, two Thanksgivings and a lifetime ago, I had three sons with me; this is the first Thanksgiving without the lost one.

How do we give thanks in the midst of our hard?

When there are empty places at your table and empty places in your heart and it feels as if the assaults of the enemy keep coming in, wave after wave after wave, until you are barely able to lift your eyes, never mind your hands, to the One who is worthy of all of our thanks?

We are told that God’s will for us is to “give thanks in all circumstances.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

All, Abba?

Could you define all?

Because I’m pretty sure that giving thanks for cancer and and poverty, riots and racial unrest, errant loved ones and dead sons could not possibly be included in Your all.

Could they?

It would be easy to protest. To remind the Creator-Sustainer that He couldn’t possibly understand what it feels like to stagger under the weight of seeming loss after loss after loss. The separation. The loneliness. The sorrow.

Until you remember.

Oh, yes.

Father, You lost Your own dear Son.

As You watched, He was beaten and mocked, spit on and struck, bloodied beyond recognition, hung and shamed upon a hill until He, yes even He, cried out in his suffering, “My God, my God, why Have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

It would have been easy to think that all was lost. Disciples scattered, one a betrayer, another a denier. Gloating Pharisees. A stinking tomb.

But the God who calls us to give all-thanks has given us the besteverreason for our hearts to hope. We know how it turned out.

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Reversal.

A resurrection.

A promise.

The Father’s hand behind it all.

To give hard thanks means that we can, we must, remember that our God is a good Father, who loves us in hard ways, who pushes and pushes and pushes until at last we relax beneath His hand, until we stop pushing back, learn that to trust Him does not guarantee us an easy. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite, living in this dirty world.

To thank God for our all means we need to look forward, not behind, to see with surrender the treasure stored up for us by the One who knows us best.

I am reminded that, after confirming that Jesus was not, in fact, in the tomb, the disciples never returned there. They turned their back on apparent defeat and with faith-filled hearts, followed their triumphant King into a battle that continues to rage 2,000 years later.

We, too, are not to go back to the stink, but ahead ahead ahead!

We are to raise our tired eyes and our empty hands and in a rebellious act of will say, Thank You, Father, thank You thank You thank You. 

Thank You for the good and thank You for the hard and thank You for your pressing hand and thank You for how You will “work it all for good for we who love You and are called according to Your purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

Perhaps the prophet Habakkuk said it best.

He really leaves us no room for doubt, when pondering all.

All means all.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

 “Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.” (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

I will thank Him for it all.

On the Things You Miss

Suppose you have a little green-eyed son.

On the night he is born, you walk the streets holding hands with his soon-to-be daddy, through the warm night of an April where the contractions are so kind and easy they are merely breaks in the hushed conversation.

They foretell.

Soon his beauty and charm press your heart-walls until your chest aches. That laugh. Those dancy feet. The way he carries a fallen maple leaf in pudgy toddler hand, blond hair dazzled by the wind of a coming Michigan winter.

He learns to skate. To write. To love. To drive.

You try your best to be his mommy, to guard his ways and warn and trust.

Put on your boots. Finish your carrots. Turn off your light. Text when you get there.

You pray: Father, guide him. Father, save him. Father, protect him.

Please.

What is it about this boy that draws people in? He’s funny without trying, kind without guile, quick to lend or offer or grant or give.

You know his hidden insecurities, the way he hates to try something for the first time, how you must sometimes subtle him into something you know he will like, the faith inside himself too small without yours alongside.

Soon, he is an eaglet, soaring alone. His life is his, and as you let go piece by piece, you are rewarded with his visits home and sweet hello’s and silly texts and coffee in the kitchen in the dust-mote quiver of an early sun.

He was grumpy that last morning.

It was uncharacteristic of him; being asked to move a broken refrigerator out the all-too-narrow front door when you’re late for work would bring out the crabby in anyone, so you tease and thank and forgive and say good-bye for what will be the last time.

It’s impossible to remember your last words to him, looking back; it was an unremarkable morning at the beginning of an unremarkable day at the end of an otherwise unremarkable week.

Until.

And now.

Oh, what you miss.

He used blow through the front door trailed by a wake of friends, not ashamed to call you Momma or say I-love-you or drop a naughty word just to get a rise. You miss that.

Events trigger.

Settled sediment of the past, stirred up afresh.

Your first parent-teacher conferences in the teacher role, reminding you of his first ones, he proud and happy, you amazed at the scholar he is becoming.

Driving through college town along the route you used to take a few times a week to gather him up or drop him off, before he figured out how to outsmart the parking nazis and leave his car on campus.

Seeing his friends walking ahead of you at a recent football game, the one you all went to together to cheer his team and see the helmet stickers his former coaches had made in his honor – watching their futures stretching ahead of them and imagining him in their mix, shoulder-bumping and insta-thinging. They see your wet eyes and draw close.

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The memory of driving home from junior boarding school that first time, he abuzz with Athens and aqueducts and his roommate Allen. You can’t keep up; he has taken ownership of his education and you cannot be more pleased.

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Photos, the memories of their snap, when he would feign shock or shy, arm wrapped around a brother’s neck or a sister’s shoulder, the glue that pulled us in as the turbid waters rose.

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Smells. His favorite muffins. Old Spice, like your own dad when you were small. Hockey gear fresh with sweat. The inside of his car.

You try not to remember that horrid day when you must dig through bloody glass to find his phone, any clue, the first sight of the impossible angles of fender and broken wheel worth a lifetime of horrors.

You don’t miss that.

Things remind you of what to miss. You pull out the running shirt he gave you a few Christmases back, bought with own-job money and son-love, a size small, which makes you want to laugh and cry, your child’s perception versus the reality of you.

You miss the obvious things, of course. Sound of voice and touch of hand. But the layers of miss…the not-yet and never-will-be. The never-bride and never-babies, the never-career and never-failures that you might have celebrated or counseled or encouraged with him.

You discover it is possible to miss something that never was.

He never saw your new tiny house, your new black car, or you in your perfect new office at your perfect new job. These things are just benchmarks on your way back to him.

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Good is relative now.

You miss that feeling you used to have waking up, knowing he is, no matter where, no matter how many miles apart you might have been. The simple possibility of him.

You ponder heaven, the where of it, what matter of distance separates him from you. You consider that perhaps it is measured in sighs and tears rather than feet or miles, at least from your end. That it is real is what anchors your soul, remembering all that Jesus promised and clasping what-will-one-day-be tight when you’re not sure you can endure.

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You miss and miss and miss and miss until now it’s your eyes that ache and your arms and your gut and your soul.

You remember that you are “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses”  (Hebrews 12:1). 

Your green-eyed boy is now one of these, exhorting you to “run with perseverance the race marked out” for you.

There is something about these backward roles, he-cheering-you now instead of you-cheering-him, that stops your heart.

Run, Momma. 

Don’t miss me too much.

Run, run, run because soon – and I mean Jesus-soon, Aslan “all-time-is-soon-to-me”- soon, you will be with me in the unshakeable kingdom.

There is nothing to miss here.

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What else do we need but our great, great King?