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you don’t always have to understand to still love

The paint brush falls, twisting, this cosmic splash of color dashing toward the art studio floor and my wife, watching me from the couch, says “I’ll get a rag.”

“No,” I whisper to her, gentle, then turn back to the picture emerging from the canvas. These coincidental accidents bring beauty to not only art, but to art studios themselves, I think and that’s so true of humanity too, how so often it’s the differences that give vibrancy to an otherwise dull world.

So she sits there, watches me paint, watches the way I dip the brush, watches how a stroke of green merges with blue and the waves of an ocean take shape.

The paint brush, fallen, lies on the floor, a puddle of blue drying beneath it.

And she resists the urge to clean because she understands something I’ve been trying to learn all my life:


The day in the emergency room is over and I’m sitting in my chair, drinking coffee and I open the news app. My breath catches, bitter bile rises. My coffee sits cooling as I read. So many dead. So many wounded. Oh, Orlando, I’m praying for you. I close my eyes, lean back, sigh deep.

I remember her well, the way I met her in the ambulance bay and she couldn’t get out of her car, couldn’t catch her breath because she was crying so hard.

Her partner’s panicked face met mine and we struggled together, her and I, to get her into a wheelchair, into a room and I placed a bag around her mouth, rubbed her shoulder and told her, “Breathe with me, slow and steady, in, then out…” Because that’s all you can do when hatred pours raw and ugly down around you and the darkness closes in; you reach toward the few who love and just breathe together.

“I’ve been working every day this last week.” Her words come in staggering, clipped gulps. “And they called me again today because we’re so short-staffed at the nursing home and I know they need help but I just can’t…”

She slumps against her partner, wipes the tears against the sleeve of her shirt.

“And my dad called when I was getting ready for work and he just yelled at me.”

“We just told everyone about our relationship,” her partner explains.

I offer her a tissue, squirm in my chair.

“Those old people at the nursing home,” she whispers, “I love them. And they love me. They need me. I just can’t go today and I feel so guilty.”

“Once a nurse, always a nurse,” I smile at her. “I know the feeling all too well.”

I leave then, leave them together beneath warm blankets and they cry together and when I sign them out, now much calmer, she reaches for me, wraps her arms around my shoulders and says, “You were the best nurse I’ve ever had. Most people can’t look past the blue hair to see me.”

“Thank you,” I reply. “Today’s been a hard day and not all people are as nice as you.”

I go back to my desk, close my eyes, breathe deeply because the patient in the room next door who just swore at me has their call light on again and I’m suddenly weary from trying to heal all the hurting in the world.

Love. Just love. You don’t have to understand.

I stand, go into the room and I’m thinking of another Man who came to earth and loved the prostitute at the well, how He ate dinner with the embezzling tax-collector, how He loved a murderer as they hung on the cross together in pain… how He left such a powerful witness to how we should truly live and love.

“What the **** happened to me?” the man asks lying on the cot.

“You were found in only your socks wandering the streets, completely naked,” I explain this for what seems the hundredth time. “Somehow you hit your head or someone hit you. You were bleeding a lot when you came in.”

“Am I going to bleed to death?” he slurs.

I smile.

“Not on my watch. I’ll do my absolute best to keep you alive.”

He lies still. Then grabs my arm, pulls me close and I feel as though I’m getting drunk myself off the alcohol from his breath. “You’re a good man. I don’t want to die.”

I smile broadly.

“Then I need you to do something for me. I need you to keep your clothes on first of all. None of us enjoy seeing all that. And I want you to lie perfectly still so you don’t start bleeding again from your head.”

He goes rigid, still, determination to live through this day. I smile. “Yep, just like that. That way you won’t lose any more blood.”

The Band-Aid on his head covers the already clotted off head wound.

I laugh.

It’s true. You don’t always have to understand to still love.

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you, and persecute you; That you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven: for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love them who only love you in return, what reward have you? (Matthew 5:44-46)

**the situations, dates, names, locations, genders etc… have all been omitted or changed to protect the identity of the individuals in the story


the long way home (part 2)

To read part one of this series, click here.

I went to jail when I was nine years old.

The day started just like any other horrifically normal day, the day I went to jail. I ate my mini-wheats, soaking them just long enough to make them smoosh but not long enough that the white frosting slipped silently into the milk. Then I brushed my teeth, remembering to scrape my tongue because, as I had learned, that’s where the stinky bacteria lived. I gagged but did it anyway. Then, before tucking in my shirt, I lifted it to make sure no lint was stuck there, in my belly-button.

Once I had found lint there and that day was an awful day because things hadn’t been right, right there from the beginning so I sassed someone in charge and broke a rule or two and everything just was wrong all because of that one piece of fuzz from who knows where.

So when I went to jail, that day, on a day that no lint was found, on a day that I had brushed my tongue and eaten the perfectly sogged mini-wheats, I couldn’t figure it out.

“That’s enough,” the teacher had said, then plopped this box, probably something a washer or dryer had come in, right over my head, right over my desk.

I remember wondering what happened to my daydream bubble, the kind that was always in the comic strips above people’s heads. Did it squish through the cardboard bars only allowing me to see the chalkboard and nowhere else? Did it hover above my head, smashed, flattening toward the corners of the box? Why didn’t the teacher care about the daydream, haphazardly throwing that box over its head and why couldn’t she have given me some notice so I could’ve released it back to the other clouds, back to its friends in the sky?

I’ll have to be its friend, I thought, and I liked this box, instantly, the way the lights glaring were cut out and I wanted a candle to flicker across the paper in front of me, to cast a cozy glimmer across the picture I’d been drawing for the cloud above my head.

“I suppose that was the first memory,” I tell the therapist, this bald, shiny foreheaded man with kind eyes. “That was the first memory I know of where my reality couldn’t be seen by others.”

“Do you remember what was happening before that?” he asked.

“I knew my spelling words. The teacher wanted us to write them five times each. It was such a waste of time. I remember talking a lot, goofing around. I was the life of the party. She kept telling me to be quiet. I couldn’t. I laughed at her. She got mad. I didn’t care. I kept going, going. Everyone thought it was fun.”

“Did you have many days like this?” he prompted.

“No. Not until I got older.”

the long way home part 2 photo

“What made you realize you needed help?” he asked.

“My wife. It had been a good day at work. I remember wishing there was more to do. I remember how happy I was; how my coworkers became incredibly interesting and I poked fun at them. I had the perfect comeback for every joke. Colors were bright, flying at me. Thoughts came even faster than the colors. I couldn’t keep up; couldn’t sit still. On the way home from work, that night, I saw a man standing by the road. I thought maybe he needed help. So I pulled my car over onto the gravel shoulder and yelled at him. He just looked at me, sad-like and walked into the woods. I screamed at him. Screamed loud enough that he could hear over my car’s engine. But he just kept walking. So I shut my car off and stumbled after him, using my flashlight on my phone the best I could but I tripped over some twigs and some viney thorns ripped at my pants. I wasn’t scared. I stared up at the sky trying to make sense of where I was but the trees had covered all the stars. I couldn’t find my way back to my car. I suddenly shivered and it was like I woke from a horrible dream. I started shaking and crying and I wondered if maybe I wasn’t dead and this was hell, being alone in the woods at night. I eventually found my car and drove home. When I got there, I went straight to the shower and threw my clothes in the washer when I was done. Climbing into bed, I wrapped my arms around my wife and imagined giving her a one-way ticket back home, begging her to climb on a plane headed away from me, away from whomever I was becoming but I knew she wouldn’t take it. That girl loves me something fierce. I don’t deserve it. Never have. I vowed to myself that I would get help, that night. For her, mostly. So here I am.”

And that’s the magical, craziest thing about love; someone else can hold us together when we’re undoubtedly falling apart.

“You have to tell me something is wrong with me. You have to. Everyone has their limits. What if this happens when she’s around? Worry is killing me. I can’t sleep. Can’t eat. I won’t be able to hold it together much longer,” I told him. “Pretending is horrible. I’d rather be dead.”

And I thought about the swerving of a car, sudden, into a concrete underpass or walking slowly into a field, the corn tall, letting my arms hang loose by my sides and the sharp edges of their leaves cutting at my arms, reminding me of what I’d come out here to do…

“Something is wrong,” he replied, as if everything I told him didn’t scare him and this surprised me about him, how calm he was in the face of a monster and I thought maybe he was a little like God in that way, unafraid of even my darkest secrets. “But it’s not something wrong with you. It’s something wrong with your brain…”


for days grief won’t go away… it’s okay

Sometime while we sleep, the moon slips behind clouds, hides behind their walls — building, rising, thunder rolling, lightning striking.

And when day dawns, we listen to the coffee maker drip, draw open blinds to stare across a gray Mississippi horizon, watching the way the sky turns into itself, puckering its face as if the heavens themselves were sharing in our grief, this day we lay to rest a man who taught us all about true redemption.

for days grief won't go away photo
Licensed under CC0.

The dirt from the recently dug grave turns to mud and is this really the way it has to be, God, I murmur, can the sun not shine on this day we so desperately need it to?

Maybe I’m sad too, He whispers and I find comfort here because so often I forget God feels what we feel. He came to earth a human, felt the joy of life, the sting of death and when our hearts hurt, His hurts alongside it.

It’s okay, I whisper, Thank you for sharing in our grief.

Here’s the thing about grief; it shows up when we least expect it. We may be able to hold our tears back on the day the coffin is carried across the gravel, across the mud… but a week from now, maybe months, when we pour coffee into two mugs instead of one, grief knocks us to our knees.

Maybe it’s when Mother’s Day rolls around and she’s been gone for years, this lady with soft smiles and gentle words but then you see a bouquet of flowers, lilacs, her favorites, and your face turns shiny, heavenward, there in the grocery store next to the cards you no longer buy.

We are all only a phone call away, a six-inch dotted yellow line away from this grief, knees hitting the ground and the screams echoing loud inside our head. But can we remember, also, that we are all only a prayer away from heaven, the One who knows all and holds all and loves all?

The throne of grace is only reached through brokenness; is only touched when some manner of healing is needed.

I spoke with a man, once, who had driven his tractor over his own wife, him not realizing she was there bringing him a sandwich and lemonade for lunch.

“I don’t remember,” he whispered, “I don’t remember the funeral, the weeks following. Even now, I don’t know what color her casket was. What I remember most was climbing alone into the mountains where we often went for picnics, her and I and the girls, and I found this place where we used to go and there were rocks, huge rocks, where we used to sit together and watch the day end. I started screaming,” he said, “I screamed and screamed and I flung those rocks hard down the mountain. I knew nothing but rage. Nothing but pain. And then the sun went down. I watched the way it fell into the lake below. I’ve never seen a sunset since that was more beautiful. I stayed there, then, holding my knees to my chest, just sobbing and the moon came out and the stars along with them. I felt God, then. He slipped his arms around me. I knew at that moment that the emptiness I felt was only going to be filled with love.

Yes, we can fill the emptiness of grief that way, by continuing to love what is gone, by reaching to love those left behind, by filling ourselves full to the brim with God’s love.

So when Mother’s Day comes, it’s okay to take a moment in the card aisle and hold close some words that remind you of her. Maybe you buy her some dark chocolates and remember her each time you take a bite. Maybe you take your motherless daughters up the high mountain with the big rocks and you sit there watching the sunset, drinking lemonade and eating sandwiches and remembering. Maybe you pour two cups of coffee instead of one, then sit extra long drinking from them both, watching the day rise and remembering your years together.

It takes great bravery to face grief, to experience the sadness of it all… but the brave, I realize, have faith in a God who will see them through.

So when that storm rolls in my friend, and the sky bends low to the earth, maybe it’s God way of leaning close to your ear and whispering, “We’ll get through this… We’ll be okay…”

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalms 34:18 NIV


for when we need contentment

We’re driving narrow roads down valleys and up sloping hills, through trees budding green to our campground. Nestled in a historic part of Minnesota, this is where we plan to rest for a few days, right next to a clear cold water creek.

Three days of furtive glances from curly-white haired Mr. Watson trying to sneak food from our picnic plates and the large, pleading eyes of Ervin to throw the ball, just one more time, hiking up steep mountains, soaking in the sun, sleeping in, reading all those books stacked in the back of the car.

I step out of the car, breathe deep, then deeper yet. My heartbeat slows. Life starts, it seems, when we finally ask it to stop. I stare at the towering hillside, the way the pine trees seem to hold the jagged rocks from falling down around our feet.

After plugging the RV in to electric and water, we chit-chat with the neighbors who stop by. He’s a UPS driver and I gush awkwardly, tell him he’s my favorite person ever because he brings me books, lots and lots of books. Thank you, Amazon… you are this introvert’s best friend. He’s pleasant of course, like all UPS drivers have to be, but he shuffles away quickly.

We drive into town, then, to an old A & W drive-in and we sit under neon lights, eat burgers and fries and talk about nothing and everything all at the same time, all those tiny little thoughts that make up a life. And I watch a chubby girl in white sandals and a red sundress ask her dad something and he walks to the jukebox, selects a song, and she dances. Her hands held high, her face relaxed, eyes closed, she gyrates across the floor, kicking her feet high, her dress twirling and I stop talking, watching her, the way she so unashamedly moves, how she feels this moment, loves this moment. Her breathless excitement ignites something within me and I’m tempted to throw the rest of my fries to my dogs in the backseat and dance next to her.


I want that. I think about hitting the button on the panel next to my window, wishing I could say, I’ll take the #6. Yes, contentment. Yes, a large. But I don’t. Instead, I hit the button and order a turtle sundae, which is kind of the same thing.

Stomachs full, we putter to our home away from home, and I’m quiet, turning the thoughts over and over in my mind while I build a campfire. The brook, a thousand tiny tongues, laps nearby. Southern Gal hands me a mug and I clench its warmth between hands, take sips filling a soul so thirsty. Ervin hufflepuffs his way around the camp, convinced our neighbor from Wisconsin who’s whistling is surely a horrible man intent on pillaging our camp and stealing our marshmallows. Out there, in the grass, there’s a chorus of insects singing while they crawl. And out there, somewhere in the trees, two owls yell at each other about whose turn it is to catch supper.

Southern Gal settles next to me, wraps her arms and a blanket around me and we scoot close to the crackling fire. I watch the moon rise, imagine hidden strings holding it, hidden strings manipulated by a God above, this great puppeteer slowly raising it, white and full, to the heavens.

for when we need contentment photo

I see Him up there, holding the strings, and maybe He bends his ear, listens to some eight billion hearts beating, this symphony of humanity, this collective rhythm of sleeping and breathing and eating. Does He hear mine? I lift my face to His, soak in all this goodness, praise Him for such beauty. It’s easy to be contented, I think, when everything is perfect, but what about the hard times?

And then I feel it, just a drop at first, then more.

Rain. It falls down around us, each drop hissing as it hits the fire.

We run for our camper.

We play a game then and argue about who really won because why did you drop that card worth three points on the floor or should it be in the discard pile? The winner takes her shower (yes, she did win) and I step outside into the drizzle with the dogs and the grass is wet between my toes and the moon is gone and it makes me lonely, the way it went away so suddenly.

Tomorrow is another day.

Tonight, I will take the rain, take the pattering on my poncho, hear its melancholic drip and maybe I’ll let my eyes drip too.

I think back to the previous year, the many days how my broken mind would bustle within my skull, my heart would race, how I would simply take the medications, lie down, turn my head slowly to stare at the blank wall and wait till the dizziness passed, wait till the chemicals in my brain neutralized, how I would pray a little harder and hold a little stronger.

Life is unbearable sometimes. It’s so broken; so terribly, horrifically broken. And it’s okay, I think, to open oneself up to feeling its rough, jagged edges. Bad days happen. Maybe, if for no better reason than to make us grateful for tomorrow when it’s different, to remind us to always cling to hope that the next moment might bring joy?

There is a quietness, a calmness, even contentment in accepting that not all things work out in this moment but all things do, however, work together for good. (Romans 8:28) This I believe.

Acceptance towards all things, good and bad, is the key that unlocks truest contentment.

I push my chest to the heavens, breath deep, feel the rain against my face. My heart beats wild, free, content. I know God is listening. I thank Him for the good. Even the not-so-good. I thank Him for this beautiful, chaotic experience called life. And most of all, I thank Him for having me along for the ride.

The trash bag whips in the wind and Mr. Watson growls, all eleven fluffy pounds of him ready to fight while Ervin, the seventy-five-pound dog, runs terrified for the camper.

Life. Isn’t it simply the best.


what redemption truly looks like

When you marry into a family, you get what you get.

My new family got a multi-colored sock wearing, politically independent, chaotically abnormal, minimalistic, nature-loving hippie who sees no reason a shirt should ever have buttons. And I got, well, the opposite of all that and then some and I definitely got the better end of the deal.

Bless them, for having me.

This became evident when we were recently down in Mississippi for an extended family reunion, over 200 people smiling and hugging and claiming the same genetics willingly.

I’m here to tell you folks, there’s a lot of nice people in this world. I didn’t know their names and they hugged me as if I were their own. At first, I was skeptical, this tribe being strongly Southern, would likely embrace even a skunk if it rang their door bell and asked for some sweet tea.

But over time, I became convinced of their genuine kindness as they continued to talk to me throughout the day; so much talking, in fact, that at one point, I escaped to a bookstore and sprawled in the Psychology section with only my coffee in hand to read excerpts from a favorite book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Upon my return, Southern Gal sits beside me, continues to whisper, “That’s so-and-so. He’s the one I was telling you about that’s going to school for… or she’s the one who was diagnosed with…” And so on. Clearly invested, I became invested in these people also and there was one man in particular who stood out.

Time has a way of reducing us all. Vibrant, we come into this world. All cries of joy and screams of hunger we arrive and then one day becomes two and so on until wrinkles appear and our bones protrude through thin skin and what’s left is a life lived, mere memories holding our shrinking bodies together.

I notice him right away. An erase marker board in hand, family members are writing their well-wishes to him since his hearing is impaired and a stroke had made it difficult to speak.

“I’m an emergency nurse,” I write to him while waiting for a burger. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too. I’ve been to the emergency room many times,” he replies.

“I’m sorry,” I scribble.

“They saved my life a few times. It’s good.”

And there it is. A body wracked with cancer, tired, and still saying, “It is good” can only be the murmured when we grasp the greatness of God, can only be uttered in seeing the bigger picture in the grand scheme of this one little life we’ve been granted.

Gratefulness in this world’s darkness shines brighter than any other testimony one could give to the goodness of our God.

The next morning, we gather for Sunday devotion and this man stands, shuffles quiet to the front and tells us his story. Many of us know it’s also his goodbye, the prognosis of cancer very likely not allowing him to attend another reunion.

He holds his hand to his mouth, his face twisted with life’s circumstances and he mumbles the words, telling us about how he woke in the ICU, hooked to cords and IV lines keeping him alive. And how in one of those IVs, the steady drip of red blood fell straight into him, a life giving life.

what redemption truly looks like photo

He told us about another blood spilled, on his behalf, and ours, about a man who was hanged a sinner so we didn’t have to. He mentioned a life of many regrets and how in that moment, nothing mattered except his acceptance of that blood, how it gave him new life, how the restraints of this physical life meant nothing in the face of the freedom he gained.

“Oh, what a Savior,” we sang after, our voices harmonizing together, bouncing off the low ceiling of that sunlit sanctuary, “Oh Hallelujah. His heart was broken on Calvary. His hands were nail scarred, His side was riven. He gave his life blood, for even me.” (Marvin P. Dalton)

For even me. Yes. For even me. 

I look around, so many here also, their faces fighting the same emotion I’m fighting and why are we so scared, as a people, to be vulnerable? Why do we swallow the lumps in our throats when tears are a way of cleansing the soul, of letting others know we’re in this together, that this life we’re living isn’t an isolated experience but instead a dirty and grace-filled march toward Home?

A few tears fall. Some are whispering the words to the song. And then there are those, wracked with emotion, not singing at all and I wondered if God looking down didn’t think they were singing the loudest of all, the cry of their heart ascending toward heaven because they too realize:

True redemption is ugly. It looks like scars and imperfection laid raw; like nails ripping through flesh and blood spilling. It looks like dirt on one’s knees and tear-streaked faces turned heavenward. It looks like a man lowering his hand from his drooping face and letting the tears fall, letting us see his sagging face, how no matter what we go through in this life, how beautiful it can be if surrendered to God.

Later that day, the sun starting to set, we stop in at this man’s house to say goodbye. Exhausted from a tiring weekend on a tired body, he sleeps in his chair. I scribble a note, leave it on the armrest of his chair. I don’t remember what I wrote. I just remember feeling the emptiness of words in that moment, how I could write a thousand amens to the testimony of his life and it still not be enough. So I write it simple, thanking him for being him, for allowing God to work miracles and sharing those miracles with the rest of us.

He sleeps on, his gentle snores the only noise in the house save for the subtle, ever forward ticking of the clock on the wall.

Don & Elaine and family… we are praying for you in this difficult time. And won’t you, friends, pray also for these beautiful people as their dad, their spouse, their grandpa and friend takes his final breaths on this earth and inhales deeply the first of many breaths on the other side of eternity?