On Things Overheard in a Kindergarten Classroom

They say wisdom often comes out of the mouths of babes, and I discovered a treasure trove while substituting recently in a kindergarten classroom.

It’s always a pleasure to sub a few days in the same classroom. Just the process of learning 25 names before 9 AM five days a week is daunting (not to mention the high school gigs where you have to learn 5X25; that is, if they even tell you their right names, the rascals), so when given the chance to hang out with the same bunch of awesome little people for more than one day, I say, yes, please.

Because what might happen when you haven’t quite woken up and some fresh batch of faces storms the room, having been up for hours, is what happened another morning in another classroom, this one full of first graders:

A nameless little one asks to go to the nurse just minutes after arrival. His tooth was apparently loose, but not loose enough for the nurse to triage him, and he returns minutes later, heavily disappointed.

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He begins to swing his backpack in a wide arc, evidently not concerned at the other unsuspecting mouthfuls of wobbly teeth trying to hang their snowpants on the coat hooks nearby.

“Hey, tooth guy!” I find myself shouting before I can think. It felt like an emergency.

Everyone stops – stunned – even tooth guy. Perhaps I am onto something.

But I do prefer to know who’s who early and often, as things roll much more smoothly for me when I can name the offender. “Hey you in the red shirt” doesn’t work so well when the child hasn’t even learned her colors yet.

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So when I was called to sub in a kindergarten classroom three days in row, it was like hitting the lottery. By the end of the morning on day one, I knew all their names, and they knew mine; by the end of the afternoon on day three, I had numerous birthday party invitations and a couple dozen magic marker drawings to use as kindling, I mean, hang on my fridge.

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I was also able to overhear some of the cutest human beings on the planet, raw and unfiltered, saying whatever came into their impressionable little heads.

This particular class and school will remain nameless to protect the, well, innocent, but I suspect similar verbal pearls are being harvested in kindergarten classes around the world every day.

Like this one:

Upon returning from one of his “specials” (out-of-class activities, such as art, music, P.E., STEM, or library), a young lad admitted to his neighbor “I tooted at gym class,” followed by a hearty dose of giggles, followed by more tooting.

You’ve got to respect the honesty. Because, truly, how many times has someone tooted around you, say, on an elevator or in the checkout line at the grocery store, and refused to fess up? A simple “Excuse me” would suffice. Kindergartners are remarkably unflappable, and have not yet learned to be embarrassed about – let’s face it – anything. Being around them is silly and freeing and crisp and real. Toot on, brother.

Here’s another:

Girl Number One (crawling around the “rainbow rug” when she was supposed to be listening to calendar math) (don’t even get me started on calendar math): “Look, I’m a doggie!”

Girl Number Two (concentrating so hard on calendar math you could hear her brain crackle): “You’re a BAD doggie.”

Teacher (me, trying not to laugh): “Crisscrossapplesauce, everyone!”

Again, Girl Number One can hardly be blamed for entertaining herself when – I kid you not – calendar math consists of one child standing in front of the whole class and adding straws to envelope pockets to signify howmanydayswevebeeninschool and telling the number of times it’s been sunny this month and predicting the shape pattern on the days of the week and on and on and on and on. None of these exercises is bad in and of itself – I quite like all of them, truth be told – but when 23 children must be hostages to watching one child calculate and measure and sort and match, I’m thinking, #1) NASA is doomed, and #2) I’d be a bad doggie, too. (Sorry, calendar math. I couldn’t help myself.)

One afternoon, a little girl named after a princess in some animated cartoon – not even one I recognized, and my kids had an extensive collection of video fluff  (don’t judge me) – was showing off her new backpack festooned with characters from a more familiar Disney film.

Her friend asked her, “When its my birthday, (insert unfamiliar princess’s name), will you buy me a (insert familiar Disney film characters) backpack?”

To which unfamiliar princess girl quite reasonably replied, “Sure.”

There was no thought as to whether she could afford such an extravagant birthday present, given she wouldn’t be old enough to hold down a job for another decade, nor even if she would be invited to the party. In unfamiliar princess girl’s mind, these were givens. How refreshing to live one’s life so unencumbered by worry, doubt, fear, or lack. You want a backpack just like mine, I’ll make it happen. Case closed.

Later, princess girl came back from the bathroom with her wispy blond hair sopping wet and looking very much like a porcupine. “It was all crazy,” she said, as if that explained her dripping sweatshirt and the puddles trailing behind her. Okay, then. Because it looks SO much better now, girlfriend.

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The kindergarten children were not alone, however, in their verbal surprises. Adults say ridiculous and unexpected things when in the presence of large numbers of tiny people in perpetual motion.

I overheard the wonderful woman who served as the teacher’s aid call out across the room, “Johnny, stop opening and closing the door and just go to the bathroom.” Little Johnny, peering out from behind the restroom door, pants around his ankles, tee-hee’d as he surveyed the room. He knew who was in charge. Meanwhile, his poor classmate did the pee-pee dance while desperately clinging to the outside doorknob, prompting the aid to add, “And Joey, wait on the red square! You know the rules!” 

I’m pretty sure we had to dive into Joey’s “spare clothes” bag that day.

Later, after a spirited game of “Recycle the Paper Balls,” I overheard the P.E. teacher tell one of the kindergarteners as they swarmed to line up , “Jimmy, STOP TOUCHING YOUR PANTS.”  What does that even mean? Perhaps it’s the cousin of, “Susie, stop touching the wall,” or, “Betty, stop touching your nose.”  Of course, this last one is a euphemism, not that Betty would care. Nose-touching is a popular pastime of 5-year-olds, especially during the cold and flu season, and there’s no shame in doing it in full view of everyone.

Perhaps now would be the time to share my favorite kindergartener-taming question.

If the card-carrying members of the rules police – i.e., all kindergarten children on the planet, who trumpet fairness and parade it around the room like it’s the Stanley Cup, lowering it only to bash their peer over the head should they dare to ask to do that when Mrs. Turner is out sick – if they do not prevent young Benjamin from attempting something totally outrageous – like using an alternate stairway to get to lunch – this question will stop him cold every time.

Are you ready? I simply ask, “What would Mrs. Turner say?”

It’s brilliant, don’t you see? With all those card-carrying members of the rules police lurking about, Benjamin has to answer truthfully, and 10 times out of 10 he has asked to do something Mrs. Turner would most assuredly say no to, might even be something she has written in capital letters on a poster of rules hanging by the sink. In my short subbing career, this question has done more to promote world peace than Ghandi himself. Not even bothering to answer, the child huffs and stomps off, knowing he has been outsmarted by a keener mind than his own.

Wish I had discovered it sooner.

Once Jesus told His disciples, after they tried to prevent mothers from bringing their kids to Him to bless, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).

After spending three wild, wonderful days in the company of kindergartners, I think I understand Jesus’s fierce love of His smallest sheep.

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They are brave and vulnerable and honest and strong, little seeds bursting with the potentiality of life and love, commanding watchful, patient gardening lest they become weedy or weary or wilted. Furnish them with plenty of sun and plenty of Son and watch how they bloom.

“Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks,” Jesus also taught his followers.A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken” (Luke 6:45).

5-year olds have super-overflowing hearts, and the things their mouths speak keep us smiling whenever we are in their company.

As for me, the part about having to give an account for every empty word I have spoken challenges me to watch my own heart’s overflow.

When I find myself calling a small boy “tooth guy,” perhaps it’s time to get up a little earlier, double up on the coffee, pray.

Or blame it on the calendar math.

On Gentleness

I had an ugly fight with my brother the other day.

Fueled by a desperation born of stubbornness and pain, the argument looked a lot like something terribly uncomfortable Jesus once said: “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law—cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me” (Matthew 10:34-37).

Or bother or sister. Family members, my brother and I, cutting against each other…and what was the source of this ugliness? Jesus Himself.

Here’s how the fight looked: I relentlessly battered my brother with a gospel-mallet of what I thought was love, but looked a lot more like lunacy, and he repelled my onslaught with grenades of anger and doubt. It was a hotly contested spiritual battle, with no obvious “winner.” Quite the opposite, in fact; when he called me a phony, I retreated outside to the great dark sky, my safe place, and he stormed off to bed, both of us feeling wounded and raw, but neither one willing to come to the other’s “side.”

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Speaking of lunacy, C.S. Lewis once famously said this about Jesus: in evaluating what Jesus claimed He was, what He said about Himself, we are left with only three options we can decide Him to be –  lunatic, liar, or Lord.

The “Mad, Bad, or God” argument goes like this (I will not even attempt to paraphrase Lewis; his words are strong and clean and infinitely more convincing than mine could ever be):

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

My brother kept demanding “proof” that Jesus rose from the dead, and although there are over 500 eyewitness accounts of people who witnessed Him walking around after his brutal murder, I could not give my brother what he wanted. What I remember saying is that if we had Facebook posts or Snaps or some video evidence of Thomas poking his finger into the holes in Jesus’s wrecked wrists or of Jesus having fish on the beach as He lovingly restored the all-too-human Peter, then what would be the need for faith?

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I don’t believe Jesus is a poached egg, or even that He ever thought He was.

I don’t believe the Jesus who healed the leper and forgave the adulterer and supped with sinners is a demon. How could He be? His actions were not evil, but infinitely good.

And more than that, I take Him at His word when He commissions us to “Go into the entire world and preach my Good News to all creation” (Mark 16:15).

Poor Jesus. He was surely shaking His head as He listened to me buffet my brother with His “Good News.”

Guess what, Cheryl? I can hear Him suggesting. Yelling at someone is not the method I would recommend to win others over to Me. Have you tried gentleness?

Ouch, Jesus.

So you mean the Good News is so good, that if I choose love over judgement, kindness over condemnation, faith over fear, if I live my life in light of what You have done for me – in trust and quietness – instead of arguing over who You say You are…You mean fruit will grow from that? That it’s not even up to me, but Holy Spirit? Is that what faith looks like?

Yes. That is what I’m saying. Gentleness.

I was reminded in the aftermath of this awful fight that even John the Baptist had his doubts. Even though John baptized Jesus and saw Holy Spirit descend upon Him like a dove, even though, after that, he heard the booming voice of God declare, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17), even though pre-birthed John actually leapt for joy in his mother’s womb when in utero Jesus entered the room – even though, even though – John still asked from Herod’s prison cell, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3).

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John the Baptist in prison Matthew 14:3

Looking for someone else, John? Hadn’t Jesus done enough, hadn’t being around Him been evidence enough, hadn’t you seen enough, heard enough, felt enough in your spirit that Jesus is the Christ?

John the Baptist! If even he could doubt, we are in good company, indeed.

So what did gentle Jesus answer, when John’s followers waited to take His answer back to John?

“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy  are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me” (Matthew 11:4-6).

And if that wasn’t enough, Jesus went on to praise John as if he had never doubted at all. To the gathering crowd, Jesus proclaimed:

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.  And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear” (Matthew 11:11-15).

Whoever has ears. That’s pretty much, well, everybody. Except maybe those lepers over there. (But Jesus had just declared His intent to cleanse them, so, technically speaking, when Jesus said everybody, He meant everybody).

So Jesus is saying this: Of all of the millions of people born on this planet, John was the greatest. Even John’s doubt was seen by Jesus as a mark of faith (faith is nothing if not honest). But if we are willing to consider ourselves least in the kingdom of heaven, then we, WE are even greater than John himself. And if the kingdom of heaven – our place with Him, forever – is being subjected to violence, instead of reacting with more violence, more anger, more self-righteous bluster, our response instead needs to be….gentleness? Faith despite the doubt?

Whoever has ears.

 

 

 

On Sticking

This one might be a bit raw, but I suppose, as an English teacher, I’ve preached the credo “write what you know” enough to believe it. Our stories are our own.

Let’s just start with this: God is love.

Not our human, dependent-upon, fickle, memememe kind of love – the kind that falters or bolts when we’re met with an unkind word, a disappointing action, an unfulfilled expectation.

No, God’s love is a love that sticks. It sticks through our prodigal wanderings, it sticks through our lusts, it sticks through our greed and our judgements and our indifference; it sticks through our snappish demands, our overt cruelty, our not-so-benign neglect and our worrisome fears. God’s love stuck itself right up there on the cross where, despite the brutish spikes and the mocking spittle and the bloody thorns, its final words were ever-still looking out for our best good: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

God is love. God loves. There is nothing and no one like our Love-God, and not even the most sacrificial, pure, holy, human love can approach the mighty, reckless, awe-ful, fearsome love of God.

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I was married once.

My husband and I fell in love in the usual way – with laughter and shared pursuits, and eyes that held over candles, and sweetness and emotion and abandon. For over two decades, we woke up in the same bed, oftentimes with a nursing baby or a sick child or a couple of cats or all of the above alongside. We propped each other up when I began to unravel under the strain of motherhood or he was fired from his dream-job or our house burnt down or the kids took turns rebelling. Friends died and family members struggled and we moved more times than I care to count, but through it all, I thought: this is it. This is love.

Until, one day, it wasn’t anymore.

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I missed the signs, wrapped up as I was in my selfish self, and thinking, how lucky am I – he’ll never leave, and though the silences were growing more alarming and his business trips seemed to blend one-into-the-other until he was away more than he was home, I nevernevernever thought he would walk away. Nights I would sit upstairs in our bedroom reading fictional accounts of people who sounded like they had it all together and he would sit downstairs in the “family” room playing iPad solitaire. It was desperate and heartbreaking, but I thought – we have time. This is rough, but we have time. Someday this will get better and we’ll have a great laugh, together.

Falling-love is easy. Sticking-love is not.

Sadly, that someday became instead a one-day when he said I can’t, and I won’t and I’m done.

How does one recover from such a thing? Get up every day and move about the world as if, as if, as if I could still eat and still sleep and still will my heart to beat on and still think can I make it back to the safety of the car before I break down for the umpteenth time today? Still smile at my children?

Still believe that God is love?

In the Gospel of John, the disciple Jesus loved, (this was how John oftentimes described himself; good ol’ dependable John!) recounts how many followers of Jesus began to fall away from Him when Jesus said these shocking words: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” This was obviously a hard thing for Jesus’s twelve main men to hear. Was this Jesus crazy? What could His words possibly mean?

Without getting into the theology of the richness of what Jesus meant – how His sacrifice will nourish us if we are willing to identify ourselves with His suffering – what happened next is what we really need to remind ourselves of when our own earthly sufferings startle us to attention.

For when they began to question and argue, Jesus asks His disciples point-blank: “You do not want to leave too, do you?” He wanted to hear from their own mouths where they stood with Him. Although being, of course, Jesus, He already knew.

Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” 

Good ol’ impetuous Peter! Answering a question with a question. He’d been around Jesus long enough to have learned some of the Master’s nifty tricks. And he’d also been around Jesus long enough to know that there was no where else to go. Jesus’s words may have been shocking and hard – they still are, 2,000 years later – but they are life, hold eternal life.

You do not want to leave, too, do you, my daughter?

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Lord, to whom should I go? 

Where else can any of us go when the life we thought we were living suddenly strikes us on the heel? When the love we thought we knew drains away from us, leaving us empty and abraded? Or when we realize the things over which we thought we held sway – health, dreams, job, home, friends – are not actually ours to control? Never were.

Lord, to whom should I go?

Then comes His gentle answer. Come back to where you started, My child. Remember who I AM. I am love, your love, your best love. My love never falters, never runs, never leaves nor forsakes. My love is sweet and and light and affirming and constant, but I will tell you it can also be firm and heavy and corrective and bare.

My loves calls to you when you have forsaken my ways and are hiding in the trees. Adam, where are you?

My love cheers you on when you feel totally unqualified to do the things I have asked of you. Be strong and courageous, Joshua. Do not be afraid.

My love gives you purpose because I believe the best of you. Whom shall I send, Isaiah? Will you be my sent one?

My love fills you to overflowing so that, through you, I can bless others. Feed my lambs, Peter.

My love challenges you for your greatest good. Beloved, if you want to be my disciple you must deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me. For if you try to save your life, you will lose it, but when you lose your life for me, you will find it. What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?

My love both asks and answers the uncomfortable questions.

Jesus: You do not want to leave, too, do you?

Me: Well……

Jesus: My child, be sure of this: I am with you always, until the very end of the age.

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His liberating, uncompromising love is the flesh and blood of your life. It sticks. Yes, things might look pretty grim right now. They may feel jagged and merciless and unfair.

But His love can restore even that, yes, even that.

Human love can be patently unsticky. We are all, yes all, guilty of loving unstickily.

But that is why it is so amazing that we can with confidence listen to His love whispering to us in those bruised, tender places.

I am love.

I love.

Follow Me.

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On Identity

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Saint Luke – physician, author, fearless traveling companion of the apostle Paul – begins his gospel in the following way:

Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught. Luke 1:1-4

From there, Luke launches into the incredible drama of Jesus’s birth, boyhood, and explosion into His earthly ministry.

The climax of Luke’s early account is the heaven-ripping, dove-descending, water-washing baptism of Jesus when the very voice of Father God booms down from above, “You are MY SON, whom I love; with You I am well pleased.” Luke 3:22

Whoa.

God has been speaking to me recently about my identity. And before you think to yourself, “Gee, that girl is bold, thinking that God would speak to the likes of her, the likes of us, being mere humans and not, therefore, GOD,” let me say that this was not always the case with me. The sad fact is, that for many years – most of my childhood, much of my rash young college years, and in disparate decades throughout my “older” adulthood, I couldn’t be bothered to listen to what God was saying to me.

What a shame! How many mistakes, heartaches, disappointments, and pain could have been averted, had I only unstuffed my stubborn ears and truly sought the voice the One who spoke the cosmos into existence with just His word.

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But I’m listening now. And the way God speaks to me is intimate and exciting and personal; any doubt cruelly lingering in my mind as to if I truly hear Him or even what I hear is execrated from my consciousness by His insistent, still – small – holy voice. It comes at all hours of the day and night, in scripture, in the secular, in echoes from blogs and emails and websites, in prayer, in dreams, in worship, in tears, in the advice of friends, in spin class, in song, in the turning of a leaf, the fall of snow, a penny on the ground.

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You’d have to work hard not to hear Him.

And apparently our identity has been on His heart lately.

It might be easy to examine how we identify ourselves by our actions and accomplishments. This is the United States of “I can do it myself”; I live in Yankee “pull up your bootstraps” New England, in the state of “live free or die” New Hampshire. And certainly what we do is an integral part of who we are. Looking back, I could call myself many things based on what I have done throughout the course of my life.

Student. College athlete. Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. Runner. Ironman. English teacher. Hockey player. Writer.

We also tend to identify ourselves in relation to the important “others” in our life.

Daughter. Sister. Wife. Mother. Friend.

Contratrarily, we could even tell ourselves who we are is what we could not do, or with whom we can no longer enjoy sweet companionship.

Non-olympian. Non-Boston qualifier. Unemployed. Empty nester. Ex-wife.

What God has been whispering to me lately, however, is that although what we do and our relationships with others is important to Him – He cares about it ALL – that who we are IN HIM is really the only measure He wants us to use in identifying ourselves.

Luke addresses his gospel to someone he calls “most honorable Theophilus” or, in other versions, “most excellent Theophilus.” Scholars disagree on who this Theophilus was. “Most excellent” denotes rank and honor, so he could have been a high-ranking official in the Roman government. Or he could have been a man of wealth and influence, perhaps even Luke’s benefactor, to whom he was reporting back all the mysteries and miracles, shipwrecks and beatings, he had witnessed and endured in creating an account of Jesus’s life. Or he could have been a Jewish high priest or a Roman lawyer.

But here’s the thing. Whoever Theophilus may or may not have been, in an “only-God” moment this morning when I was pondering my identity, I discovered that his name means friend of God, loved by God.

Whoa.

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John was perhaps Jesus’s closest human friend. As He hung on the cross, beaten and bloody, Jesus “saw His mother there, and the disciple whom He loved (John) standing nearby, and said to His mother, ‘Dear woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his house.” John 19:26-27

Talk about identity!

Later, after Jesus has returned to the Father, John writes, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” 1 John 3:1

As an English teacher, I am supposed to discourage the extraneous use of exclamation points, but who can blame John for his grammatical excess? God spoke to him about his identity, and he was – as I am – forever changed.

I am not defined by what I do or not do, or who chooses to be or not to be a part of my life!

I am a child of God, His precious daughter, an heir of the MOST HIGH KING, God’s trusted friend, the bride of Christ, a warrior in His army, a sheep that knows His voice and follows Him, a son and not a slave, His Beloved, a new creature, His ambassador, the dwelling place of His Spirit, not my own but His, a more-than-conqueror, can-do-all-things, race-running child of the light!!

And it is knowing who we are that gives us the ability, the strength, the endurance to walk this hard, beautiful, tragic, joyful thing called life with hope and love and courage.

“You are my daughter, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

No matter how many times I mess up, how many times I act in unforgiveness, how many times I allow myself to step out of love, how many times I allow discontent to rob me of my peace, how many times I doubt or fear or fret, I can be certain of one awesome, miraculous, unchangeable truth: I am His.

It changes everything.