Light and High Beauty

I was asked this past weekend about my favorite natural phenomenon. I chose mountains, which I acknowledge aren’t actually a phenomenon, except, perhaps, in the process of their making. As often happens, I started to understand my love for mountains in the moments when I was explaining this love.

The first reason I gave was because they are huge. I feel the same way about the ocean, but mountains are my first love. Their looming presence, their solidity, the way a range of mountains can disappear into the haze of the horizon – they make me feel small, in a good way.

The second reason was the way they can beautify even an ugly industrial landscape. If I’m in a Wal-Mart parking lot, or a gas station, or a run-down part of town, but there are mountains visible, I can lift my eyes to the hills, which rescue me from the ugliness in front of me and remind me that beauty and immensity exist beyond my unpleasant or limiting daily routine.

I referenced this quote from The Return of the King in my answer:

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

After the others in the group answered this and a few more questions, our friend revealed that each answer secretly said something about how we view a particular area of life. The way I think of mountains is apparently the way I think of the divine: huge, solid, endless, and beautiful. Some of my other answers, when interpreted, were silly, but I haven’t forgotten this part of the conversation in the past five days.

Part of why I love mountains is precisely because they make me feel closer to God. I can immerse myself in the beauty of creation, and see that beauty is larger and more permanent than suffering. The Blue Ridge Mountains of my childhood will remain long after my death, their beauty a constant gift to generations.

It’s hard to see our current suffering as “a small and passing thing.” In the midst of an exhausting day full of aching legs and frustrating medical news, my immediate circumstances can fill my vision. Without mountains to capture my eyes, I resort to candles, art, homemade decor, and music to rescue me with their beauty.

I am learning that help from the Lord can come in a song or a timely passage of Scripture as much as it can from a view of the hills. Eyelet curtains passed down from my mother speak of the richness of family tradition. Beloved books smile down from their shelves, telling me again their stories full of despair and pain and hope and life. Even the scalloped metal basket I use to organize my prescription bottles comforts me by hiding the orange plastic and the pharmacy labels in delicate white compartments.

Most beautiful of all is my son’s growing knowledge of Jesus. Not only does he often remind me to recite our Bible memory verses, but he’ll also say the verses out loud to himself throughout the day. “Psalm One Fohty Five Nine. The Yord is good to all.” “Gen-sis Sixteen Firteen. You are da God who sees.” God has repeatedly used the simple faith of this sweet toddler to encourage me to trust Him.

These glimpses of “light and high beauty” return my hope to me. Beauty of all kinds lifts my eyes from my pain and reminds me that my help comes from the Lord, who not only made heaven and earth, but inhabited it. God is teaching me to hold two thoughts in tension: that Jesus himself suffered, knows what it is to be human, and intercedes for me in my weakness before the throne of the Father, and that in the scheme of eternity, my very real trials will indeed seem small and passing.

The final encouragement I receive from that Tolkien passage is that the beauty is beyond the reach of the darkness. The small lovely things that encourage my daily life and the enormous glory of the mountains I long for all work something eternal in my soul: a deepening trust that God, the author of beauty, has conquered death and ugliness. We can join Him in pushing back the darkness, knowing our life and joy remain secure, until He returns to make all things new.

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Even So

Today marks one year since I started having abdominal pain. It’s hard to know how to feel about such an anniversary. Celebration? Why would I celebrate something that makes me hurt every single day and often makes me feel like a complete failure at life? But straightforward grief isn’t quite right, either. So much beauty has come out of the past year of suffering.

So I’m going with commemoration. I want to mark the time, not to wallow in the misery of a year of pain, but to force myself to focus on the ways God has undertaken for me when I could do nothing on my own, and how He has given me more courage and endurance than I ever thought possible.

I purchased this mug today. The context of the quote is one close friend encouraging another to remember how far he has come since his years of drug addiction and alcoholism, but I hear it as the voice of God, sometimes straight to me but often through the mouths of others, reminding me of all that he has enabled me to overcome this year: my fear that every day will be painful, my fear of working through pain, my fear of having too much asked of me, my inability to mentally transition to a new way of living, my assumption that everyone who spends their energy caring for me is constantly irritated and disappointed.


This past Sunday was really tough. Every moment felt like a losing battle. New sources of pain revealed themselves as I got ready for church.

Scrubbing shampoo through my hair showed me that my left knuckle really hurt. The seam on my sweatpants irritated the inside of my knee. Accidentally bumping my hip against the kitchen island hurt so badly that I had to stop stirring my coffee and stand still for a moment, gasping. And of course the familiar lower-right abdominal pain popped up just when I sat down to apply my makeup.

It’s too much. Each sharp jab or dull ache ate away at my tolerance until I couldn’t hold back tears any longer. But I had to get that under control fast, because crying hurts, both at the time and after. And I needed to be able to lead the congregation through seven songs an hour and a half from that moment. The pain in my left hand was enough of a concern; I couldn’t add the possibility of more-severe abdominal pain preventing me from singing when I was already worried about how well I was going to be able to play.

The music went all right – a few technical glitches and miscommunications, but at least most of the discomfort faded away as I sang songs I love, and heard the congregation fervently joining in. Our final song was “It Is Well.” I’d been looking forward to it, because we haven’t sung it as a congregation since we launched last April, and it’s one of my favorite hymns. But it was a struggle to finish it – not because it hurt to play and sing (though it did), but because the feelings of everything being TOO MUCH began to overwhelm me again.

“The Lord shall descend, even so, it is well with my soul.”

Yes, it will be very well with my soul when Jesus comes back and finally gives me a new, healthy body in exchange for this body of pain. But what do I do until then? How do I keep singing “It is well with my soul” on days like today?

Left to myself, I can’t. There’s a reason this song is more than just the chorus.

“When sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say it is well, it is well with my soul.”

God has to teach me daily to say “It is well with my soul.” And he isn’t asking me to say “It is well with my body” or “It is well with my circumstances.” He is not teaching me to ignore the sorrows or the trials that come, but to hang my hope on the truth that “Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and has shed His own blood for my soul.”

What does the shed blood of Jesus mean when even basic hygiene hurts, or when getting breakfast ready for me and my son leaves me exhausted? It means that Jesus, being human, understands my suffering. He himself has suffered. He has experienced fatigue, extreme pain, and physical limitation. But he has also conquered sin and death, and will one day return to lead us into the new earth, where “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore.”

So as I commemorate a year of pain and beauty, I pray that any future pain will lead me into deeper fellowship with my Suffering Savior, and that every accomplishment will lead me not to an inflated view of my own worth, but into deeper worship of my Conquering King.

Anxiety, Filthy Rags, and the Peace of God

I thought I didn’t struggle with legalism. My problem is licentiousness – I dismiss the beauty of God and pursue the dim substitutes of earth. But more and more, I have realized that I that I do try to earn God’s kindness. I’m not often tempted to believe that I can purchase my own salvation, but I sometimes think God withholds blessing until my heart is turned purely toward him.

Wednesday morning was really rough. I had taken a stronger painkiller than usual the night before, which left me uncomfortably groggy when I woke up. I was frustrated with how out-of-it I felt and annoyed that I needed those painkillers. I couldn’t focus on anything, so eventually I went back to bed, while my mom took Blaise on some errands and to the park.

My anxiety rose as soon as I got in bed. It was 10:30 am – I should be working on a curriculum project, writing, doing chores, or reading, at the very least, but instead, I was taking a nap. My heart pounded and my thoughts raced. Accusing voices resounded in my head: “Why are you so weak and worthless? You should push through your pain and sleepiness. Just drink another cup of coffee. Who cares if it makes you jittery? At least you’d be productive. Only losers sleep in the middle of the day.”

I recognized the accusations as lies, so I tried to interrogate my anxiety. What truth about God was I not believing in that moment? What lie about myself was I buying into? If I could only reframe my mind, maybe God would be merciful to me and take away the fear.

At that moment, it hit me. I was behaving as if God would not be kind to me until I realized the correct truth. I was connecting my worth in God’s eyes with my spiritual “productivity,” just as I judge my own worth based on how much I’ve gotten done. I knew God didn’t care about whether I’d swept the floors, but for a long time, I’d been acting as if he wouldn’t extend his fatherly affection to me unless I grasped exactly the right theological concepts. I thought I needed to understand the specific ways in which I wasn’t trusting God, replace them with truths from Scripture, and apply them to my heart, and only then would God show me his love.

Instead, I heard God say, “Stop. I love you right now, just where you are, just as you are.”

And suddenly I was calm again.

I hadn’t done anything. The Holy Spirit broke through the lies of my anxiety and the lies of my spiritual self-sufficiency and surrounded me, body and soul, with peace. Deep truths that friends had repeated to me and that I’d read on social media finally became reality in my heart:

“God is not disappointed in you, or discouraged by you. He loves you and knows your frame, knows that you are but dust.” (Lucy Crabtree, via text)

“I am not lazy. I am not weak. Taking care of this body is part of my job. Tomorrow can only be better if I give myself what I need today.” (Tabitha McDuffee, on this Instagram post)

I know the accusing voices will rise again. I know I’ll be tempted to respond with accurate awareness of my unbelief and God’s truth – good things to know, when used correctly, but heavy burdens when used as conditions of God’s favor. But maybe next time I’ll also remember the peace God gave me on Wednesday morning in the midst of my striving. God could have taken deep offense at the pile of filthy rags I was proudly holding up to him, but instead, he took the rags, laid them on Jesus, and gathered me into his arms as his beloved daughter.

A Heavy Burden, Lifted

(This is mostly an account of my medical situation these past few months. I’m trying to wake my brain back up and get into some of the pieces I’ve been wanting to write, but it felt like I had to get all this out first.)

A chronic medical condition can make small burdens extra-heavy. It can also make small victories extra-joyful, but sometimes it takes a long time to reach them.

Since September, I haven’t had a clear way forward for one aspect of my post-surgery treatment. My surgeon recommended both physical therapy and pain management: physical therapy to loosen up the muscles and fascia (connective tissue) that had gotten tightly knotted in response to the months of endometriosis pain, and pain management to help me find a painkiller schedule that worked for my needs, with the possibility of a temporary nerve block injection if any nerves seemed to need a “reset.”

Physical therapy has been great. My therapist and her graduate assistant have showed me that the still-very-painful area in my lower abdomen is a knotted mess of muscles, fascia, and nerves. Sometimes, if certain nerves are exposed to pain signals for long periods of time, the fascia will apparently sort of protectively contract around them.

My PT has been slowly training the painful area to accept gentle touch, as well as stretching out the fascia all around the big bad fascia-nerve-knot. I made a lot of progress the first two months, but then scheduling and illness got in the way, and I haven’t been able to go as consistently since the end of October. For a while, though, I could go up to a week without taking any painkillers other than Advil, which was a huge improvement.

Around when I got started with physical therapy, I also tried to find a pain management clinic in College Station. The referral process was complicated, and the clinic apparently had some issues with their fax machine (my surgeon tried to fax my records over eight – yes, EIGHT – times; the seventh time, the girl at the front desk said, “Hmm. I wonder if it’s OUR fax machine that’s the problem?” to which I barely restrained myself from replying “YA THINK?!?!”). They also would not follow up with me when paperwork was in process, so two weeks went by when I thought they were processing my referral and insurance but they actually had not received any of the information.

For a while, I thought I might not even need to see a pain management doctor, because physical therapy was going so well, and because my PT had said that waiting a while to see if I needed a nerve block injection would be better than getting one immediately (because she didn’t want to push too hard on numbed-up tissue and inadvertently cause more damage). Within the past month, though, my pain has flared significantly, and my PT has said that a nerve block could help me, particularly by shutting down my pain receptors for long enough that I could start to do some strength-building exercises and better handle the pain if and when it comes back.

I’ve been in a depressive cycle since October. I’m coming out of it now, but one side effect of depression for me is that my problem-solving capability drops way down. It took me weeks to come up with the idea of asking my PT for an official referral (since apparently this clinic, for whatever reason, was not capable of receiving the referral from my surgeon), and then another week to get the answer that while my PT could offer a recommendation, she could not perform an official referral. My next option was to go through my primary care physician, but at that point it was the week before Thanksgiving and all doctors were either booked or out of town. I ended up going to urgent care and receiving a referral from them.

After another week, during which I discovered that the clinic had, in fact, actually received the referral from urgent care (miracle of miracles!), and had also received the detailed recommendation from my PT, I learned that the nurses would then have to decide whether the clinic could help me. This surprised me, since when I had initially called in September, and outlined the specific treatments I was looking for, the receptionist had said that they do offer those treatments and can usually get patients in the day after a referral is received.

So I called last Monday to see if a decision had been made. It had. They couldn’t help.

I was furious. They told me that they didn’t take over prescriptions for painkillers (which is one of THE MAIN things a pain management clinic typically does, so I don’t understand the reasoning there), and that they did not offer nerve blocks in the part of the body where I needed it (despite me asking if they did this type of treatment during our very first phone call, and receiving an affirmative answer). If they had only told me in September that they could not help me, I could have spent the past three months working with another clinic, either locally or in Austin or Houston, and receiving the treatment that I needed.

I spent the next several days trying to find a pain management clinic somewhere within a few hours of College Station that would 1) take my insurance, 2) offer the treatment I needed, and 3) be able to fit me in within a week or two. I finally found one in Austin, and they’ve been fantastic. I saw the doctor on Thursday. He gave me several prescriptions, including some that I hadn’t tried before, and scheduled my nerve block injection for the 19th.

It wasn’t until I got back to my parents’ house in Bastrop that evening that I realized how much of a burden this had been. I felt lighter than I had in months. My head felt clearer, I had more energy, and I had hope. The months of not knowing whether my pain would be taken care of, or where my next prescription was coming from, had worn me down far more than I had realized. There’s a lot of shame associated with asking doctors for painkiller prescriptions, even when the painkiller is as mild as Tramadol (which has opioid ingredients and is a “controlled substance” but is classified as non-narcotic). Most doctors who aren’t pain-management specialists are hesitant to refill painkiller prescriptions more than once, because of the dependency/addiction issues. Pain-management specialists, however, are better equipped to make dosage decisions over a more extended period of time.

While I was waiting for the local clinic to get their act together, I had to ask my surgeon and two urgent care doctors to refill my prescription, and each time, I didn’t know who would take care of it the next time. As a result, I rationed my painkillers more than I should have, spending hours on my heavy-pain days not taking anything but over-the-counter medication (which barely touches this particular discomfort) and, as a result, barely able to leave the couch, much less accomplish anything around the house. The stress of extreme discomfort every day, combined with the shame of not being able to get more done and the fear of seeming like an addict whenever I ran out of painkillers all piled up into a huge weight on my heart and mind.

The pain-management specialist I saw on Thursday told me to stop rationing painkillers, because hours of pain take a physical toll on my already-weakened body. Of course, he understood why I had been trying to tough it out, but gave me a dosage that allows me to treat the pain whenever I experience it, instead of only during strategic times of the day. Tramadol can sometimes make me a bit sleepy, but it doesn’t knock me out like narcotics do, and usually, once it kicks in, I’m so relieved to not be in pain anymore that I get a burst of energy and get a lot done. Just knowing that I can manage my pain this way for the foreseeable future has given me so much optimism. It seems doable to embark upon our Great Decluttering Project of 2019, because I might actually be able to do one small task each day, instead of being confined to the couch and only attending to the most urgent responsibilities. Hospitality seems achievable, as long as I keep my expectations reasonable. And writing, for which my brain has not had the space since October, is suddenly possible again.

It’s amazing how much a seemingly-small change can make in my overall outlook.

Yesterday, I had a much lighter pain day, and I celebrated by tidying up the house, doing all the laundry (including sheets and towels), purchasing and setting up a few final Christmas decorations, and making a garland. I was hurting this morning, which made packing up for our trip to Bastrop pretty challenging, but I was happy to be able to leave a clean, decorated house, and to have the comfort of knowing that I could take a painkiller when I arrived at my parents’ house and feel better in an hour or two.

Keeping my pain under control means I can work to make our house not just livable but beautiful. It means I can handle work responsibilities without getting overwhelmed. It means I can even try to do social things every once in a while. And today, it means I can finish my first blog post in more than two months.

I am so, so thankful that God worked to lift this burden. And while the past few months have been really hard, I’m thankful for what they’ve taught me: how to share my burdens with others, even when I feel like I’ve far exceeded my “neediness quota;” how often I shame myself for things that are beyond my control; how much joy simple beauty can bring to my heart. I hope that next time I go through a rough time, I’ll give myself more grace and take advantage of the healing power of beauty, friendship, Scripture, and music.

I keep coming back to Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:30 – “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” I want to learn to receive the light burden Jesus gives me when I am weary and heavy-laden, to trade in the fear that no one will take care of me for the faith that God will provide all my needs. He continues to prove himself faithful, even when I don’t have the energy for simple prayers. I want to grow in trust that he is caring for me even when I don’t see an immediate solution. And Advent is the perfect time to cultivate that trust: longing to celebrate Jesus’ incarnation, and longing for his return.

So many thoughts are still swirling around in my head, but I’ll save them for another post. Thank you to all of you who have prayed for me these past few months, particularly when I was so overwhelmed by the pain-management situation. God showed his care by providing his Body to minister to me. Some days I could not see that things would ever get better, but you held onto hope for me. So again: thank you.

Joy’s Relentless Pursuit

I discovered Indelible Grace at the beginning of college. I enjoyed some of the music we sang at church and at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, but the richness of old hymns, updated with new melodies and folk arrangements, all sung by many of my favorite artists, quickly shot these songs to the top of my list of worship favorites.

My favorite Indelible Grace song is “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” I fell in love with the mandolin, the harmonies, and Sandra McCracken’s exquisite vocals the first time I heard it. We sang it with the congregation at our wedding. I’ve known all the words by heart for seventeen years. But I came to a deeper understanding of the lyrics this week, when I typed up the chord sheet in preparation for this Sunday’s music.

The sermon today was on God’s judgment of the earth through the Flood, and His subsequent covenant with Noah. Our pastor pointed out that the third verse of this hymn references the sign of God’s promise not to destroy the earth again until the end of time. The song also references the promise of a world renewed: the promise, not vain, that “morn shall tearless be.” We may have many tear-filled mornings on this earth, but one day the Dawn will come, the Sun will rise, the dream will end, and every tear will be wiped away.

O Joy that seekest me through pain

I cannot close my heart to thee

I trace the rainbow through the rain

And feel the promise is not vain

That morn shall tearless be

It’s true. I can’t close my heart to the Joy of heaven, even when I’m suffering. This says nothing good about me and everything good about Jesus, the Love that will not let me go. I love the wording: that Joy is seeking me through pain. It’s not just waiting there for me to rediscover it. It’s pursuing me. This phrase describes my experience this year so beautifully. I didn’t particularly want to be joyful. Sometimes I really just wanted to wallow, and sometimes I wanted to shut down and sleep for weeks. As I’ve shared before, giving in to emotion can be exhausting, or even physically painful.

But Joy has chased me relentlessly. Sometimes its pursuit has sounded like my son’s little feet as he runs down the hall. Sometimes it pounds after me with the thundering power of a wild mustang. Joy has pierced through my heart’s walls with shards of exquisite music and stirring words. It has surprised me in quiet moments with a meal from a church friend or a book mailed from a friend I’ve never met.

Joy faces the charging lion of my pain head on, allows me to be knocked over, and then shows me that I am cradled in the velveted paws of Aslan. He may toss me like he tossed Susan and Lucy, but He will never let me go.

On Knitting and Sanctification

I’ve been knitting for thirteen years, ever since one of my best friends brought me a beginner’s knitting booklet and patiently taught me how to cast on, knit, and purl. I’ve loved to knit ever since, but in Texas, I only do it six months out of the year. Between April and October, it’s just too warm, even in the house, to cozy up to thick balls of cushy yarn. My hands get sweaty, the needles get slippery, and my work starts to feel grimy. But as soon as the highs drop out of the 90s, I pick up last spring’s projects again, asking myself why I haven’t been working on them all along.

I feel that way about sanctification sometimes, too. Sometimes I get tired of fighting the same sin pattern. For a while, my circumstances will make it easy to fight. I’ll hardly feel any temptation, and I’ll wonder why I ever struggled. And then my circumstances will change, and suddenly what seemed easy weeks before feels impossible and unpleasant. God wouldn’t expect me to be obedient with this going on, would he? I mutter to myself. But though there’s no real harm done in putting my knitting down for the hot months, difficult circumstances don’t excuse our disobedience. God always provides more grace.

Until early this year, I only knew how to knit and purl. I could make some pretty patterns with those two stitches, but I was limited to making items in straight, rectangular shapes. People would ask if I made hats or socks, and I would rush to say, “Oh no, I could never do that. I only know how to knit and purl.” I was afraid that I would be unable to learn the more complicated stitches, and to try would only bring frustration. But I finally got up the courage this year to try some pretty, multi-step stitches, and it turns out that they’re not nearly as difficult as I thought.

Fear – particularly fear of physical discomfort – is one of my long-term sins. If I am uncomfortable, I usually shut down. I won’t try to get anything done. I’ll just exist, whimpering internally, until I can take whatever medicine I need and rest for as long as I can. Until this year, the idea of continuing to work or parent or even socialize in the midst of discomfort was impossible to consider. But shutting down during a bad head cold is one thing; retreating from life for nine months due to chronic pain is another. So I tried a new skill this year: being brave about feeling sick.

Sometimes the pain truly has been all-consuming, and I’ve had to stop to rest and recover. But more often, I’ve had in-between days – days where I’m uncomfortable, and would much prefer to spend hours in bed, but can’t, because I have to work or take care of Blaise or fulfill some other responsibility. My default is still to shrink into myself and ask others for help, but I’m trying to strengthen my new courage muscles and get things done even when I feel awful. And it’s never as miserable as I expect. God gives me grace for each day – patience with Blaise’s sometimes endless questions when I have a sore throat, peace amidst deep discomfort, strength from unknown reserves to tutor for an afternoon. If I start the day assuming it’ll be awful, it often is. But if I start the day confessing my fears to my Father, and continuing to ask for help during every difficult moment, help comes.

Even though the nicest things I’ve knitted thus far have been scarves, I hope to make a few blankets and other decorative items in my lifetime that could be passed down. Blaise sleeps with two hand-knitted blankets – one from my Aunt Jean, and one passed down from Brandon’s grandmother. I have an Afghan in various shades of pink and white from my parents (I’m not sure who made it, but it’s handmade, not machine-made), and my parents have a small white throw knitted by my grandmother. There’s such a satisfaction in making something not just for you or your family, but, maybe, for posterity.

I confess that I don’t think of my spiritual legacy as much as I should – not dwelling on how people in future years will think of me, but asking what virtues I am cultivating now, in myself and in others, that can be passed down through the family of God. But knitting brings the topic to mind. I don’t let Blaise touch my knitting (he can touch the soft yarn ball if he asks), but the other day I asked him if he wanted to knit, and his eyes lit up. I gave him an old ball of yarn and a short circular needle, and he sat down on an overturned plastic tub and clinked the needle ends together and poked the yarn while I worked on a blanket. Every few moments, he would look at my hands, and try to match my motions.

He’s observing everything I do, every day. What is he learning? I hope in a few years to teach him to knit for real, and to truly play the piano and guitar instead of just strumming or plinking. Would he have any interest in those instruments, or in knitting, if I wasn’t practicing them in his presence? What other practices can I model for him while he is still little enough to want to do everything Mommy does? What rhythms can I bake into our days that will form his desires and his heart?

I discovered last year that I could knit a narrow holiday garland in an hour or two, and I want to make many more this year, for every season. I want to use my creativity and my love of beauty to celebrate Thanksgiving, the birth of Jesus, the Resurrection, birthdays, and other occasions. I want to use these skills not just for my own satisfaction, or to pass the time, but to make our home more welcoming, infuse our family with a sense of festivity, and make gifts for friends.

I’ve often focused on my sanctification for its own sake. I’ve wanted to please God, but I haven’t considered how my pursuit of holiness could advance His kingdom. I’ve been focused internally, trying to obey God for my own benefit without thinking of others. And obedience does give great benefit! Walking closely with God gives peace, courage, hope, love…too many blessings to name. But I don’t want to keep those blessings to myself. I want my obedience to benefit my family, when I seek God for patience and strength to serve them well. I want my pursuit of knowledge of God to benefit my friends and my church, when God can bring His words to my mind when others need to hear it. God’s blessings delight me, just like I enjoy the activity of knitting, but they don’t stop there. They have a greater purpose: to bring Him glory by sharing His character with others.

In thirty years, I’d love for my grandchildren to sleep with a blanket I’ve knitted. But even more, I hope the faith of everyone I know has a small thread running through it that God used me to help weave in.

Not For What You Have Done Or What You Will Become

I cleaned the kitchen counters today.

I don’t mean I removed the dishes or decluttered (though I did those things first). I mean I got the crumbs from behind the toaster and the mixer and sprayed the counters down with granite spray and only put the stuff back that actually belongs there.

I don’t think I’ve done that myself since January.

It’s a long-ish task – I think it took me half an hour, not including emptying and filling the dishwasher – and until recently I haven’t been able to stand up for more than a few minutes without immediate sharp pain and excruciating pain hours later. My mom and husband have done it, but I haven’t. And it felt so good.

As I’ve recovered from my monster virus, I’ve started to notice my abdominal pain again. It can still be intense, especially if I’ve been on my feet much or done a lot of talking. But today I was thankful that the pains I felt were confined to a small place, no more than a few inches across. After days and days of severe aches from waist to knees, the smaller area of my regular pain was a huge relief.

In addition to cleaning the counters and dealing with the dishes, I decluttered the kitchen table and the bar, helped Blaise put all his toys in their respective bins, swept the floor, did two loads of laundry, and folded and hung up some more clothes that had been languishing in our bedroom, clean but rumpled, for days. I wanted to bake a pie or put up fall decorations, but I knew my energy might not last, so I decided to be an adult and clean up my house.

It was enormously satisfying. Looking out on a neat room does wonders for my peace of mind. The center of our one-story house is totally open – the dining room is just a big space by the front window, and the kitchen looks out onto the living room over a long bar. The open floor plan was a big draw when we bought the house: it’s great for entertaining (as they always say on House Hunters, but it’s true! Nobody wants to be stuck in the kitchen away from the action when a group of people is hanging out in the living room) and it gives a calming feeling of space. But when one part is cluttered, the whole living space feels cluttered, so putting all the clutter where it belonged was a big relief.

When I struggle through getting breakfast ready or reading to Blaise, due to pain or sickness or exhaustion, I often feel worthless. What is the point of me, if I can’t accomplish anything? But the other side of that coin is that when I do get things done, particularly around the house, I place my identity squarely on what I have achieved. I have a clean, comfortable house. I brought order out of chaos. I am a success today, therefore, I am worthy of love.

It took a random Spotify “album radio” playlist offering “Love Me” by JJ Heller to break down my castle of achievement. Many of the people she describes in the song have never known love based on who they are. I am thankful to say that I do not fit into that category. I am deeply, unselfishly loved by my parents, my husband, and (I think? he’s two) my son, and I have many thoughtful, caring friends. I enjoyed the song – it’s beautiful! – but didn’t relate until Heller takes on God’s perspective near the end:

Not for what you have done. Not for what you will become. I fought the tears for a moment because I was at a restaurant drive-through, waiting for a server to bring my to-go order to my car window and not wanting to alarm her by sobbing through my “thank you,” but as soon as I drove away, the dam broke. I wept the entire drive home.

I’m not consciously thinking, “God will love me if I clean my house,” or “God probably doesn’t love me today, my house is a wreck and I haven’t brushed my teeth.” But I feel pride and shame in each of those circumstances. I expect others to love me more or less, depending on what I have accomplished. But while I’m sure it was nice to come to a clean house, instead of piles of mail on the bar and dog hair floating down the hall, I know Brandon did not wait to see the condition of our home before deciding if he would love me this afternoon. Why do I heap glory or shame on myself based on what I have or haven’t done?

Keith and Kristyn Getty’s song “My Worth Is Not In What I Own” is one I often skip over, because I don’t think of myself as finding worth in my possessions. Of course, once I consider it, my things bring me far more of a sense of worth than I would like to think. But the beauty of this song is that it continues, describing all the places where my worth is not found:

Jesus has done everything for me, already. He loves me for me. He died and rose again because he loved me, almost two thousand years before I was born. How can I feel shame at my lack of accomplishment when he loved me before I had accomplished anything at all? How can I glory in my meager achievements when he reversed Adam’s curse and bought life for everyone who believes?

And how can I remember these truths tomorrow, when I may not meet any of my goals for the day? Or next week, when I’m proud of all the items I’ve ticked off my checklist?

My first step is to listen to those songs on repeat. I will love you for you. Not for what you have done or what you will become. My worth is not in skill or name…in pride or shame, but in the blood of Christ that flowed at the cross. Maybe I’ll get those words tattooed on my hands, or (slightly less drastic) hang them in my kitchen. Maybe I’ll teach them to Blaise as prayers for the start of each day.

My tears are dry now. I’m thrilled at my clean house, and I think I can enjoy it without allowing the work it took to determine my value, but I’ll need constant reminders. Maybe you need them, too. Let’s encourage each other to lay the heavy burden of our worth at the cross, and take up the easy yoke of Jesus’ unconditional love.

Fall is for Pie

I’ve got some serious season-envy going on right now. All y’all pulling out your cozy sweaters and boots and scarves, and I’m over here sweating from 15 minutes in the car without A/C with the windows down. It was 91 degrees at 6:00 pm, people. NOT FALL.

But apparently sweater/boot/scarf season is also pie season, and that’s something I can get behind right away. Since Brandon and I have the same birthday, and he doesn’t like cake or chocolate, if I bake something for our birthday, it’s usually a pie. When I have the energy, I love making pies. I’ve got a great crust recipe and I’ve nailed down the technique (though it’s been a while, so I’m probably rusty). My crust isn’t super flaky, but it’s slightly sweet and buttery and baked all the way through, unlike so many pies you get at restaurants. This may be because it doesn’t tend to burn even if it’s left in the oven for over an hour. I’ll let it get nice and golden-brown before I take it out.

I’ve been baking pies since the year we got married, thanks to the great Williams-Sonoma pie cookbook we got with a wedding gift card, but I didn’t try making a lattice-top until a few years ago. Turns out, it’s not hard at all! It keeps you from having to cut vents in the top of the pie (which I always forgot to do until the last minute), and it looks so pretty. I might try the overlapping-shapes-cut-from-pie-crust top crust sometime this year if I decide to get fancy.

I used to bake a pie probably once a month. A lot of my reasons admittedly stemmed from vanity – when you’re the only one in your group of friends who makes pie crust from scratch, you get big kudos for making a middle-of-the-road pie. But the other side of it is that I just love my pie crust, and I think it elevates traditional pie fillings and turns them into something special.

I’m hoping I continue to return to health over the weekend, because I am really dying for pie right now. I can’t decide if I want to bake a traditional apple, or if I should save that for a few weeks from now. Anybody got any suggestions for fruit-based pie fillings that come together easily (no blanching of peaches in order to peel their paper-thin skins, is what I’m saying)?

And before you ask, yes, I’m including my apple pie recipe here, complete with detailed (very detailed) instructions.. Let me know if you make it – take a photo and tag me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram!

Crust:

(You will need to make two crusts total, so have double the ingredient amounts below on hand, but make each crust separately. I have found that mixing the doubled ingredients makes the crust a lot tougher, for some reason. Yes, it’s more work, but it tastes so much better if you make the crusts individually.)

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 lb (one stick) very cold UNsalted butter – put the butter in the freezer for 30 minutes before making the pie to make sure it stays firm

3-8 tablespoons very cold water (a glass of ice water works great)

Mix together the flour, sugar, and salt. Slice the very cold butter into 1/4-inch slices, then cut each slice into 9-12 cubes (2-3 slices in one direction across the slice, then 2-3 slices in the other direction). Drop these small butter cubes into the flour mixture.

(The butter needs to be very cold because you don’t want those small pieces to melt until they are being baked. This makes a lighter, flakier crust. If you were to melt the butter, the crust would be super chewy and not nearly as tasty.)

Using a pastry blender (the hand-held tool with a curved wire bottom), cut the pieces of butter into the flour mixture until the mixture is mostly uniform and the largest pieces are less than half the size of the small butter cubes. If you can see the yellow of the butter anywhere, you need to cut those pieces in more thoroughly. Use a rocking motion back and forth with the pastry-blender hand, and turn the bowl a quarter-turn very few ‘rocks’ with your other hand.

Add very cold water. Start with 3 tablespoons and stir with a large spoon. You will probably need another 4-5 tablespoons, depending on your altitude, and how soft your butter was. You’re going to have to abandon the spoon pretty soon and squish it together with your hands. As it starts to stick together, try to form it into a ball. Once it starts forming a ball, sprinkle water around the remaining dry pieces and roll the ball in the moistened bits, then try to work them into the ball. Don’t work it too much, or the crust will get tough, but work it enough until your dough-ball is fairly smooth on the outside and doesn’t fall apart when you set it down.

You can chill the dough at this point and make another crust, or you can go ahead and roll the first crust out. If your kitchen is very warm, it might be good to chill it a bit, but otherwise, it’s fine to roll it out on a lightly-floured surface immediately. Start by pressing the dough into a flat circle with your hands, then turn it over and rotate it a quarter turn before rolling. Use the heaviest rolling pin you can (mine, another wedding gift, is partly marble). Roll it in several directions, first stretching it in one direction, then the other, turning the dough over and rotating it a quarter turn every 5-6 rolls. It’s okay if it’s not a perfect circle when you get it to the desired thickness (1/4 to 1/8 of an inch) – just make sure it’s big enough that your pie pan, turned upside down over the dough, fits with a few inches to spare on all sides.

Fold the dough in half and transfer it to the pie pan, then open it back up, pressing the dough into the edges of the pan. (This recipe is not for a deep-dish apple pie – I use the boring Pyrex glass pie pan for all my pies.) Press the pie up the edges of the pan. You want them to hang over as much as possible, because your top crust will cut to size, be smaller, and this bottom crust will need to fold over the top. Save any dough scraps. Or pop them in your mouth.

At this point you can either make the second crust or make the pie filling, whatever works best. I’d leave the crust-in-the-pan out, because you want it to be flexible when you put the top crust on it.

Apple pie filling:

4-6 Braeburn or Gala apples, cored and cut into 1/2-inch chunks (not necessary to peel them unless you really want to – I never do, and I never notice the peels)

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

(You’ll notice there’s no brown sugar in this filling, which is, I think, part of what makes it so good. This won’t taste like the baked apples you get as a side dish at a low-end steak restaurant. It’s rich and apple-y, rather than cinnamon-forward.)

Mix all dry ingredients together, then put 1/4 of the mixture at the bottom of a large bowl. As you chop each apple, add the apples to the bowl, then sprinkle more of the dry mixture on top. Continue adding apples and dry mixture until all apples and dry mixture are in the bowl. Stir until every piece of apple is thoroughly coated with the sugar mixture. Some pieces will probably start to be a little sticky. If you can let the apple mixture sit out for a little while, the filling will come together even more, and it’ll start to make a syrup. If you let it sit, though, stir it well before filling the bottom pie crust.

If you have more apple mixture than you can fit in your pie pan (you want the top to be level with or a little below the top edges of the pan), save them in the bowl; you may have some extra crust that you could put on top of a small dish of the remaining apples to bake alongside the main pie.

Make the top crust according to the instructions above, then cut out a circle the same size as your pie pan.

Preheat the oven to 375.

Cut up the butter into 4-6 small pieces and place them evenly around the top of the apples in the pie pan, then transfer the top crust dough circle to the top of the pie. (I’m not providing lattice instructions [you can look it up online, it’s not hard] – you’d still make an entire top crust, but you’d have to cut the top crust into strips and weave them across before sealing the edges.) Fold the overhanging edges of the bottom crust over the top and squeeze it with your fingers to meld the two pieces of dough together. You can plug any holes with your leftover dough scraps, but try to fuse them with the existing pie as well as you can. After you’ve sealed the edges, you can use a pretty edging pattern (fork tines, crimping with fingers, etc.) if you’d like, or you can trim the whole pie to make a neat circle.

Cut slits in the top crust with a sharp knife. You can get creative if you’re fairly dexterous – I made the Texas A&M logo one time, but other than that, I usually keep it simple and just cut the slits into a star shape.

Bake the pie at 375 for 50 minutes. Put a foil-covered cookie sheet under the pie in case any of it bubbles over (this does sometimes happen to me, and trust me, apple-sugar juice burning on the bottom of your oven is not a smell you want to linger in your kitchen). After 50 minutes, check the pie. If the edges are getting dark brown but the center crust is still raw-looking, put a pie guard around the edges or cover all the edges with foil, and put the pie back in the oven. My apple pies usually take between 65 and 75 minutes to fully bake, but I do have to check them every 5-10 minutes after the first 50-minute check.

When the pie is done (when the crust is golden brown all over, including on the bottom, if you have a glass pan – I mean, it should be golden-brown on the bottom anyway, but if you don’t have a glass pan you won’t be able to tell), take it out and put it on a cooling rack. If you can stand it, don’t cut into it for a few hours – the filling needs to set.

(For reference, this photo is of a completely raw pie crust. It’s a lattice, but I couldn’t find another raw pie photo on my roll. No part of the crust should look like this when your pie is done!)

I enjoy this pie best cold, to be honest, but it’s great warmed back up and served with vanilla ice cream too, of course.

Always Good. Always Good.

Blaise made my day today. After requesting that we listen to “da wobots” (his name for the soundtrack for the Soarin’ ride at Disneyland, comprised of a whole bunch of cinematic scores like Apollo 13, Band of Brothers, and The Rocketeer – no idea where robots come into the picture, except that the cover art for the soundtrack is somewhat futuristic), he said “Yisten to Always Good?”

“Always Good” by Andrew Peterson is, I’m gonna go ahead and call it, my favorite song of 2018. The story behind it – that Andrew’s sons witnessed a young husband, collapsing in grief next to the hospital bed where his wife had died after giving birth to their first child, proclaim “You’re always good. You’re always good. God is always good” as he wept – brings me to tears every time I think about it. The words have described my feelings on countless days this year, as I’ve “tried to believe what is not meant to be understood.” Why did Jesus let endometriosis steal my health? Why did my pain increase every week when I was supposed to be preparing to lead worship for a church plant? Why would Jesus let that young mother die?

I can’t answer any of those questions. I think Andrew is right that some things are not meant to be understood.

Blaise’s request probably had more to do with the easily-remembered, easily-repeated chorus than a deep understanding of the song’s theological underpinnings. And this morning, I wasn’t thinking through the ins and outs of God’s goodness, either. I was fighting a cough and an upset tummy, and trying to figure out what to do with the jungle our backyard has become.

But I was thrilled to stop procrastinating about the lawn for a moment and just let these words of truth wash over me.

Do You remember how Mary was grieving?
How You wept and she fell at Your feet?
If it’s true that You know what I’m feeling
Could it be that You’re weeping with me?

Arise, O Lord, and save me
There’s nowhere else to go

You’re always good, always good
Somehow this sorrow is shaping my heart
Like it should
And You’re always good, always good

It’s so hard to know what You’re doing
So why won’t You tell it all plain?
But You said You’d come back on the third day
And Peter missed it again and again

So maybe the answer surrounds us
And we don’t have eyes to see

You’re always good, always good
This heartache is moving me closer than joy ever could
And You’re always good

My God, my God, be near me
There’s nowhere else to go
And Lord, if You can hear me
Please help Your child to know

That You’re always good, always good
As we try to believe what is not meant
To be understood
Will You help us to trust Your intentions for us are still good?
‘Cause You laid down Your life and You suffered like I never could

And You’re always good, always good
You’re always good, always good

Those lines contain the prayer of my life, and the prayer I offer daily for my son: “My God, my God, be near me, there’s nowhere else to go. And Lord, if You can hear me, please help Your child to know that you’re always good, ’cause You laid down your life and You suffered like I never could.”

The fellowship of suffering we have with Jesus as we experience painful bodies, discouraging circumstances, and broken relationships can still bring joy beyond all this sorrow. The more I understand how much Jesus suffered, and therefore how much he understands me, the more I come to know the depth of his love for me. I can trust that his intentions for me are good, because he laid down his life to purchase me from death. He’s proven his goodness, his good intentions, through his sacrifice.

With love like that, there is truly nowhere else to go.

He remembers that I am dust. He knows my weakness. He celebrates with me when today’s victory is taking a shower. He rejoices to renew my strength fifteen minutes before a meeting, and isn’t disappointed in me when I have to rest after it’s over. And he joins my delight in the sweet request of a small boy, asking for a familiar song but getting another opportunity for the deepest truth about Jesus to sink down into his soul.

Jesus is always good.

Good Things Today

(I’m sharing two smaller posts today instead of one longer post.)

In the midst of severe body aches this afternoon, I decided to start listing the good and beautiful things in my life right now. When physical pain gets overwhelming, sometimes it’s hard to remember the things that bring me joy, but once I started listing them, I couldn’t stop!

  • My little boy reading to himself from his favorite book (which means I don’t have to read the same story for the 287th time) – he sat in the big chair with the storybook on his lap and told himself the story about Baymax and Hiro.
  • A nice long comfy couch that I can stretch my aching legs out on. We’ve looked for a new couch on and off, but we can’t find one that’s affordable, wide enough to be comfortable, and long enough to nap on, like this one. I love this couch for its comfort even if I don’t love how it fits into our living room decor.
  • Air conditioning, since Texas doesn’t get cool for another month at least. It’s not too bad out right now, but I’m still very thankful that it’s cool in here!
  • Getting a dear friend’s wedding invitation!
  • Reading a beautiful book (All That’s Good). I started reading it digitally, but Hannah Anderson’s books are designed so beautifully that having the hard copy greatly enhances the reading experience.
  • Not having to work at the office tomorrow. It’ll be nice to have a day at home when I will be (hopefully) feeling a bit better.
  • Cheap, tasty pizza on the way home from my husband’s work. Six dollars for a large pizza!
  • A pitiful kitty meowing in the car along with a voice message from a friend. (The kitty was fine, she just didn’t want to be in the car anymore.) Kitty meows simultaneously make me laugh and tug at my heart. Plus she named her cat Luna! Such a great name!
  • Knitting some more on a throw blanket I’m working on with the softest yarn imaginable. I’m starting to see it come together, despite using an unnecessarily fancy stitch at the beginning. I like the stitch I’m using now, and I think the fancy stitch will still look okay as a border.
  • My little boy calling his little stuffed raccoon “Wacoonie.” Until now it was just “da wacoo-in,” but now I guess it has a name.
  • Getting a get-well-soon card in the mail from a church friend. I love getting mail!
  • Having another church friend bring her daughter to hang out at my house for 90 minutes so I could go to work while Blaise napped.
  • Looking forward to baking an apple pie from scratch as soon as I feel better. It’s really quite a good pie, if I can say so myself, and even if I’m not up to a lot of standing, I can do a lot of the prep sitting down.

That’s all for now. I’ve got lots of ideas for more October posts, though, so stay tuned!