Friday, December 15, 2017

On Messiness and Christmas

I sat in my floor with the snowflake wrapping paper and scissors and tape spread out, carefully set the box on top of the paper, and began the first fold…and then I heard it.

Tap tap tap tap….

My favorite 5 year old footsteps running toward my door, and I knew without a doubt what was coming next. Big eyes and an eager smile popping into my room and an enthusiastic “What are you – OH!!! Can I help???”

And in one moment in time, I took a deep breath and blew it out, along with all my desires to do this my way, to do it with three folds and one piece of tape like those magical clerks at department stores can do it. I don’t even think they are real people. But you – you with your enthusiasm and your irrepressible desire to help – you are real.

So I chose you, and I chose super long pieces of tape and really funky creases and wrinkles and I chose a little bit of chaos and a really messily wrapped gift and I chose joy. I chose you.

Sometimes when I am plowing my way through the day I am struck by how untidy my life is. And I don’t just mean my house, because let’s be honest, that was rarely tidy even before you three came along. It’s my moments – they are just wrapped up in messiness. It’s a bowl of rice spilled on the floor, it’s the horrors of potty training, it’s muddy footprints on the floor, it’s one thing after another. It’s putting out quarrels and sorting through hurt feelings and dealing with attitudes and really bad judgment. It’s having little helpers in the kitchen which is such a beautiful notion until the flour gets knocked off the counter or the milk gets spilled.

In truth I sometimes desire to escape from the messiness. Expectations and dreams never include that part. Ideas of motherhood can be so sweet and tidy until you are in the trenches with the diapers and the spills and the disbelief over the fact that your kids thought it was a good idea to do a science experiment involving dish detergent, baking soda, vinegar, and BLACK PAINT on the coffee table.

But here’s the thing. The other day we were at church early for band practice and while you three were running around the sanctuary dancing to the music, Mr. Nick had to move the communion table to get to the wires for the sound system. There was a beautiful nativity set on the table, and to keep it from falling over when he moved the table Mr. Nick laid the Mary and Joseph figures down until he could get it back in place. My eyes moved from the nativity scene to you and back again, and all I could think was, This is so much more accurate.

The idealistic picture of the nativity is baby Jesus in the manger, with Mary and Joseph serenely kneeling beside Him, lifting their hands in meaningful – and very tidy – worship. But when I looked at the scene on the communion table, I saw Mary lying face down in the ground beside the manger, and I thought – Yep. That’s about right. I have had three babies myself and that is a very accurate depiction of what I felt like doing after childbirth. I feel you, girl. And Joseph – he was lying flat on his back – and I thought, Yep. Probably passed out from fear or trauma or exhaustion or all three.

Christmas, with all of its lights and music and nicely wrapped presents, did not have a tidy beginning. The Word – the God of order and life and harmony – emptied Himself, wrapped Himself in flesh, and entered into our world in the messiest way possible. Childbirth is already saturated with blood and sweat and pain, but in a barn? And to be laid in a feeding trough while Joseph cleaned Mary and knelt over her, desperately praying that she would be all right, that they would be all right?

This is how He chose to dwell among us. He knows our messiness – He lived our messiness. He entered into it and He grew up in it and He died in it. He overcame it. He is our compassionate High Priest because He lived it.

You are five years old and full of life and wonder. Messes, I think, do not bother you as much right now as they do me. But as you grow and life gets more complicated – as relationships become muddled and plans get thwarted and unexpected hardships arise – I want you to remember how Jesus came into the world. Because His name is Emmanuel – not God Far Removed From Us – but God With Us. Even and especially in our messiness.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


I love the chill that comes suddenly when the sun goes down in the mountains. The campfires are crackling against it, and you three and your cousin are laughing as you throw sticks and pine straw and anything else you can find into the flames. I am watching you carefully and regretting dressing you in highly flammable pj’s, but your Daddy simply says “Respect the fire” and then smiles and tells me not to worry. I try to settle in and take his advice.

Respect the fire.

There is so much I want you to know. My heart aches with the fullness of it all. Do you see the fire? Feel it? Do you know we can’t live without it? It is survival in a bitterly cold land. It is light that cannot be overwhelmed by the darkest night. Do you see its beauty? Its brightness and its depth? Do you sense its power? Its ability to consume, its danger and intensity? Do you love it and respect it and fear it and delight in it?

I spend so much of my life drawing lines, building walls. I tell you what is appropriate and what is not, what you may say and do and what is unacceptable speech and behavior. I give you laws and rules and sometimes it feels like it’s working and mostly it feels like it is not.

And I know, and have known for so long, that the rules are not enough. I do, I know it with all of my being. The law can’t save. The rules are so necessary for life to work, but they won’t change your heart. And I am torn with the weight of it, because even as I correct and train and discipline, what my soul is desperately crying out is for you to respect the fire.

Our God is a consuming fire.

I stare into the crackling flames and remember who He is. He is life and light and we can’t live without Him. He is holy and powerful and if we get too close to Him without the covering of Christ’s righteousness we will die. He is uncontainable and wonderful and comforting and terrifying all at the same time.

When you hit your sister or lie to my face or complain about everything under the sun, what I most desperately want is for you to respect the fire. Throwing rules and consequences at you will contain the situation but it won’t transform you. Nothing in your heart will change until you come face to face with the Maker, and see His beauty and power and goodness and justice, and realize that in your sin you will be consumed by this fire unless you take the merciful provision of forgiveness accomplished at the cross. And then you can delight in His presence instead of being consumed by it, and the fruit of your life will be produced by something so much deeper than what I can manipulate from the outside.

All these things are swirling around in my heart at the campfire tonight, and you guys are just laughing in delight as the pine straw goes up in flames. I laugh too, and while I once again find myself in humble awareness of my helplessness to transfer the life-giving fear of the Lord into your hearts, I also once again find peace in knowing that I am not the author of your story.

No, I am not, but I know who is.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Some Things that You Told Me

The past week has been strange, as our roles switched for the first time in 34 years and suddenly I was telling you what to do. Things like eat. And get up, walk. And you can do it, and stop letting the pain win, and drink water and walk some more.

And you told me some things too. Things like stop talking. And that I am mean and potentially a Nazi. And that I’d better not leave you to go back home but that when I do, you are going to change the locks on all the doors. And then there was the proud moment when you took my hat off my head and covered my face with it to make me stop telling you what to do.

(Since sarcasm has always been a valid form of communication in our house, I will not take any of that personally.)

But in the middle of the night, when you would wake and the pain would seize your leg and your back and your mind, and you would start to drown in that abyss, and the cries would start to rise up from your gut; when I tried to fight that battle for you the only way I knew how, by asking questions, anything to get your mind off of the nightmare; and when you submitted and opened your mouth and let the words come out instead of the sobs; in those hours between midnight and dawn, you told me some other things.

You told me a story about a boy born in the prelude to the Great Depression, whose father couldn’t hold a job and whose mother waited until all eleven of her children finished eating each night before she would make her own plate, if there was any food left at all.  You told me about how that boy grew into coarse man named Paul who was funny and smart but who loved the bottle and the cigarettes and the lust of the eyes, whose hands could craft bookshelves and houses and entire complexes, but who didn’t know how to begin to love the people who lived in his own little four room house.

You told me a story about a woman who was at once both meek and strong, whose soul was gentle and whose heart was determined to love and be devoted to the man who did not yet know how to love, or how to be faithful at all. You told me how those two very different people met and married within six months, and had a little girl fifteen months later, and had a little boy fifteen months after that. You told me how that nineteen-year-old bride always had food on the table at supper even though it was mostly out of a can, and how she had her two children in church from the time they could leave the house, and how she took in her five year old nephew for two years so that he would have a fighting chance at education and life, and how when Paul was out of town for months at a time on business, this shy woman asked her neighbor for some pointers and then drove herself to the DMV and got her driver’s license, only telling her husband about it after the fact.

You told me about the time that Paul woke from a drunken stupor to find himself standing over a bloody body, only to find out that he had come within inches of killing a man with his bare hands. How from that day forward he never tasted a drop of alcohol again, and how he knew in his spirit and declared with his mouth that if he ever took one more glass of it, he would never be able to stop. And so he didn’t ever take that one more glass. You told me how a few years later he went into a fit of coughing and decided that night that he would never smoke another cigarette, and how he gave his last box of the things to his sister-in-law for Christmas. And how years after that, when he suddenly realized that his lust of the eyes was really unfaithfulness of the heart to that gentle, strong woman who loved him, he got rid of every one of those magazines and never looked at them again.

He was changing. He was not yet changed, but he was on the road.

You told me about the little boy who was born second to Paul and that beautiful soul, how he was funny and smart and talented. How he played tennis until he beat everyone in town, and then he stopped. How he was an Olympic-in-training runner until he couldn’t find anyone around who could run faster than him, and then he stopped. How he played guitar until he wrote two beautiful songs, and then he stopped. How he loved and lost, and how he lived for years alone until he met the one his heart really loved, and how he adored Paul and was like him in all the best ways.

You told me all this through the eyes of that first one, the little girl with dark hair and green eyes, the little girl who always felt a little lost. The one who wanted to be a dancer but was afraid to try too hard, because what if she failed? The one with the beautiful voice who sang in the choir and at church and in the recording studio with those two songs her brother gave her to sing before he stopped. The one who wanted to believe but questioned whether she had wanted it right, had said it right, had prayed it right, and what if she hadn’t? The one who grew up with a coarse Paul and a gentle, strong mother.

You told me about how this shy girl grew up into a shy teenager who loved to go on mission trips and who graduated from high school, surpassing her strong and gentle mother’s tenth grade education. You told me how when she was nineteen she had to receive a blood transfusion after an artery burst and how Paul realized for the first time that life was fragile and that he could have lost that dark haired, green eyed girl. And how that was a sign post on the road that led him to life and to change and to the feet of Jesus. And how he was made new and he wasn’t Paul anymore, now he was Dad.

You told me how that dark haired, green eyed girl finally had it and refused to live in fear and doubt any longer. How she turned it all over to the One who held it anyway, and stopped questioning whether she was enough to be a true believer, and told Him that He was enough for her to be a true believer. And how that very next week, she saw a dark haired, blue eyed preacher boy in a green leisure suit, and how the green leisure suit didn’t even end the whole thing before it started, thank the Lord. You told me how that girl’s scheming pastor and wife invited those two potential lovers into their home to meet over supper, and how that was the girl’s fourth date that week. How anything had to be better than the first date of the week who had asked her if his marijuana smoking habit might come between them. Hey, a green leisure suit is nothing compared to that.

You told me how that dark haired, blue eyed young pastor was everything that sweet, shy girl had ever dreamed of. How he was steady and true and how they fell in love. How on their wedding day she accidently sprayed her hair with furniture polish instead of hairspray. How they got married and learned what it meant to pour out their lives for the body of Christ, and how through all of these thirty-nine years and three children and six grandchildren since then, staying faithful to that faithful blue eyed pastor was the easiest thing she’s ever done.

You told me about the end of Paul’s beautiful, gentle and strong woman, or at least the end of this part of her journey. How the cancer was so painful and how when I was four I would sit by her bed and make everyone else leave the room so that I could just hold her hand and be with her. How she was in the hospital with 24 hour care, and how one day Paul didn’t want to leave the room but his brother convinced him to leave just to get lunch, and how the nurse suddenly became nauseated and had to leave the room for just a minute, and how that dark haired, green eyed girl stayed in the room alone and saw the sudden last breath of her gentle and strong mother.

And I remember the end of this part of Paul’s journey. I was there. Not four anymore, but this time twenty-two, and still sitting in that same bedroom, chair pulled up to the bed, singing “It is Well.” I was in the house when he drew his last, and I saw you, with your dark hair and green eyes, as you said goodbye to the man who had been changed all those years before.

And so, over three sleepless nights, you have shared your history with me. I am so honored to know where you came from because it is also where I have come from. Because I too have a mother who is at once both meek and strong, whose heart is full of faithfulness and devotion to the man that she loves. You named me after your mom, but I want you to know that you are so much more like her than you think.

And I have a father who has always known how to be a dad, but Paul’s story is full of grace and so are you. You know the power of the gospel to transform, and you know how not to give up on someone, and you appreciate all the steadiness of the blue eyed pastor that you love. All the pieces of your history – the desirable ones, the broken ones, the ones you wish were different – have made you the treasure that you are.

Last night I ran out of questions. You were beginning to weep and I was growing desperate and the only thing I could think to tell you was to say the words of your favorite hymn. You didn’t want to but I begged you and so you whispered against the night…

Great is Thy faithfulness, o God my Father
There is no shadow of turning with Thee
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not
As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be

Great is Thy faithfulness, great is Thy faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed, Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me

And that is your story, Mom. That is your theme. Keep singing it until the night is over.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

What 39 Years Looks Like

I know what one year looks like. It looks a lot like two strangers, still with remnants of wedded bliss floating around and yet just waking up to the fact that in so many ways, they are still really just strangers. Five years looks like awareness, more committed to the one who is becoming less a stranger and more awake to the selfishness that lives inside and still trying to figure out how to navigate life together. Eleven years feels more comfortable, more humbling, and still has much more room to grow. But what does thirty-nine years look like?

You showed me what it looks like.

 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her

39 years looks like you giving yourself up for her. You, laying down your ministry and your life’s work and your own agenda to be there and be true to the promise you made four decades ago. In joy and in pain, in sickness and in health. It looks like you being faithful like your Shepherd.

that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word

39 years looks like you, the most modest man that I know, you with the unbelievable gag reflex, becoming a nurse at age 67. Learning how to clean a wound, and then doing it – unpacking, cleaning, repacking – day after day after day, and doing it without a word of complaint. (Except for when you got angry at the latex gloves that were three sizes too small.)

so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish

39 years looks like you on your face before your Maker, begging Him for strength and for healing and for relief for her. Crying out for answers and for faith and for help. Clinging to the promises that laid the firm foundation so many years ago. Speaking them over her. It sounds like the same low voices I heard all the years I slept in the next room, teaching me how to commune with the Savior.

in the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies

39 years looks like you driving her to Augusta every week or twice a week or as many times as it takes. Driving as she cries, waiting, driving as she sleeps. It looks like you buying eight different kinds of protein powder and 418 bottles of grape juice. It looks like you doing laundry and dishes and vacuuming and getting rid of over half of the coffee mugs when she’s not looking. It looks like you doing whatever it takes.

he who loves his wife loves himself

39 years looks like you holding her through the night. Losing sleep for months and staying by her side and fighting with her through pain. It looks like your tears mingling with hers, weeping with those who weep, hurting with her and for her and wishing you could take it from her.

for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church

39 years looks like you, still laughing. Still delighted at that bride, still holding on to the humor that has shaped a household for four decades. Still finding joy and cracking jokes and trying to get a rise out of her. Still smiling.

therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh

39 years looks like a long way off. It looks real. It looks beautiful and hard and right.

39 years looks a lot like Christ and the church.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

A Story About Us, or Not at All

It was eleven years ago today, and I was as giddy as a little girl. The doors opened and you were waiting, and the day was everything I dreamed it would be. My daddy preached the gospel and I nodded my head and grinned the whole time, and then we kissed and I was Mrs. Shugart and you were a husband. We were lost in joy and delight and anticipation.

And God was our Father, delighting over us.
And then there were the days and years in the little duplex on West Pine Avenue, where we learned how to survive together. You had three jobs and I was clipping coupons you found in the dumpster and we were in school and learning what it meant to be married. We had nothing, but we had everything we needed.

And God was our Provider, giving us our daily bread.
One weekend we went to Boone and you made me climb Grandfather Mountain. And not just climb, but run and slide on the ice and hold onto the rope for dear life. And I was terrified because it was the first mountain I had ever climbed and hello, the ice and the ropes and the cliffs. But we made it, you holding my hand, and we sat at the top and felt the triumph.

And God was our Strength, pushing us beyond our limits because He was enough.
There was the music, always the music. Music in our living room, in our church, in the coffee shops and at Spinners. Music in Hadley’s shed for six months, recording and learning how to play in perfect time and watching Hadley do Chris Farley impressions.

And God was our Song, working through our fingertips and our voices to fill the space with His beauty.
There were three days when the timing worked out perfectly, we got to the hospital in time, you held my hand and told me I could do it, and we saw three perfect little humans enter in to the world. I watched you transform into a dad and we were overwhelmed and they were all exactly right for us, and our family kept growing.

And God was Creator, bringing forth new life in our arms and in our hearts.
There were the days and weeks following the first birth, when I couldn’t walk and couldn’t get better, and you suffered with me. There were too many surgeries to make sense for your age, each time a blow to your passion for staying active and fit and healthy, and each time I suffered with you.

And God was our Healer, making us whole again and filling our hearts with His sufficiency.
There have been many arguments and misunderstandings and moments or even seasons of selfishness. Iron rubbing against iron, clay pots in the fire. It has not been easy, and I have found myself ashamed of forgetting what really matters.

And God is our Redeemer, working through our ashes to produce beauty.
One day we decided to put the kids and a tent into the van and drive across the country to the Grand Canyon. We were almost eleven years in to this thing called marriage, and over seven years in to this thing called parenting, and we knew how crazy of an idea it was and how awesome it could be. We made it and we hiked and we stared and we breathed in the air of majesty. We shared it with each other and with our children.

And God was our Shepherd, ever leading us back to His glory.
And now I realize, as I have before and as I will again, that this is not so much a story about us as it is a story about Him. Because He is the author, and He is the provider and the shepherd and the song.  We are the sheep of His pasture and we are being pursued by His goodness and mercy. We are on a journey to reveal His wisdom and kindness and glory.

And Coach, I wouldn’t want to share this journey with anyone else.
Happy anniversary.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

On the Days When You Suffer

This is one that I didn’t really want to write. You see, the worst thing that happened in your life today was that your muffin got cold before you finished it at breakfast, and as tragic and understandably earth-shattering as that was, I would like to think that you can keep living in that kind of world. But the truth is that today you are seven and five and two, but tomorrow you will be teenagers and then grown-ups and I have learned that the older you get, the more the brokenness of this world crowds in on you.

It seems like these days I can taste suffering all around me. There is hurt in every corner, and though I wish I could hide you three in my pocket forever, I cannot.  It’s not the way.

So on the days that you suffer…on the days when you fail miserably or make a terrible mistake, or when your heart gets broken…on the days when cancer sneaks up on someone you love, or when your trust is betrayed or you have to endure the valley of loss…on the days when afflictions grow bigger than you have known them to be so far…on those days, remember this:

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted…

Near. Closer than a breath, even when you can’t breathe. He enters in. He already laid aside His glory and put on skin and walked a thousand miles in your shoes. He took all your sin and swallowed it, became it so that you could taste righteousness and peace, and so He knows. He knows all the awful secrets that chase the tail of sin, the emptiness and despair, and He knows every bit of the pain wrapped up in the fallenness of the world. He knows it and He enters in. He feels every ounce of what you feel because He is your compassionate high priest.

So on the days when you suffer, suffer in His nearness. Feel your pain and grief, but don’t feel it outside of His presence. He enters into it with you, with groanings too deep for words. Trust in Him at all times and pour out your heart before Him because He is a refuge.

And saves those who are crushed in spirit.

There is a promise, and even another one. There is a promise for the brokenness and a promise for the ages. A promise for now – that no pain is ever wasted, that He is ever at work for good, that He will make beauty from ashes. And a promise for later – that one day He will wipe away every tear and destroy the crushed serpent and make all things new.

Kids, the last thing I want to think about is you suffering, but I know I can’t stop it. But you have His presence and you have His promise, and that is worth more than gold. Heavens, I can’t even keep your muffins warm, but He is a good, good Father, perfect in all of His ways.  So on the days that you suffer, cling to Him. He is enough.