What I Took Away & What Is to Come

Girl in wellies

Last week I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For three intense days, I basked in the wisdom and wit of writers/speakers such as Bret Lott, James McBride, Anne Lamott, Richard Foster, and Rachel Held Evans. I scribbled pages of notes on subjects like Writing as Lament, The Importance of Precision, The Humiliation of the Word in Our Day, and All the Work a Metaphor Can Do. I also collected a handful of quippy quotes. Here are a few of my favs:

“All good writing is about pushing into the bruise.” –Pam Houston

“Anyone wishing to save humanity today must first of all save the word.” –Jacques Ellul

“You should always be trying to write a poem that you are not able to write.” –Philip Levine

“My writing process? I start with animal crackers and then move on to more complex carbohydrates.” –Rachel Held Evans


And as if all that wasn’t wonderful enough, I also had the opportunity to meet with acquisition editors from two publishers. Both of them are interested in presenting the This Odd House book proposal to their publishing teams for review. Both of them expressed an appreciation for the subject matter and the writing. But both of them also agreed on this…that I need to scale back my posting of book content on the blog.

I am excited, of course, and nervous. But I’m also just a tiny bit sad. I have so enjoyed and appreciated all of the immediate feedback I’ve received on each chapter of the manuscript. You motivate me and encourage me and keep me honest. I will miss sharing every word with you.

But. Never Fear. I have a plan.

From here on out, I will continue to post a portion of each chapter each week. I’ll probably mix that up with some other ramblings about what the Worralls are up to right now. What we’re working through and wrestling with and thinking about. Undoubtedly, some kiddo cuteness will find its way in as well. I hope you’ll continue to visit this space and interact with what you find. And I will continue to pray that our footprints in the mud and the muck will in some way provide comfort and companionship and hope.

May I also ask for your help?

The biggest hurdle to getting This Odd House published is the fact that my blog is new and I don’t have a huge platform. So at this stage every “follow” and every “share” counts. If you feel so inclined, please spread the word.

Thank you so much. Your prayers are appreciated. And I’ll keep you posted.





And the Walls Came Tumbling Down

peeling wallpaper 1

“Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain.

“Why do you look so dejected?

You will be accepted if you do what is right.

But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out!

Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you.

But you must subdue it and be its master.”

(Genesis 4:6-7)


Actually. According to my journal. I asked for it.

In 2002, life was good. I was married to the charming husband I had wanted for so long. We enjoyed a stimulating circle of friends. I held my dream teaching position, and I was taking some fascinating classes in writing and theater. We had purchased the second-floor of a spacious 1920s three-flat in the eclectic and artistic near-north Chicago suburb of Evanston. And we were involved with an exciting urban church plant team.

But—in spite of it all—or maybe, in part, because of it—my soul was dusty and dingy and starting to crack. My journal for 2002 reads like a broken record. Over and over. The same sort of desperate refrain. Here is just a sampling…


28 January 2002

Clear out the cobwebs that have filled my spirit for so long.

Breathe new life in me. 

11 February 2002

Release me from the chains that bind—past experiences, fears,

wrong thinking, wrong beliefs, wrong views of You.  

3 April 2002

Grab ahold of me, God!

Shake me out of this spiritual sleepwalk.

28 June 2002

I live as if I don’t NEED You—as I need water and air.

Who do I think I am?

Revive me, O Lord.

12 November 2002

Loosen my grip on the good things You have given.

Pry my fists from the temporal, so I can cling instead to You.

And then, 30 January 2003

I just looked over my past year of journal entries.

And I want to scream at the top of my lungs…




Some might call it a “dry spell.” George Barna gives it another name. Remember?

It’s Stop Number Six on his journey toward Maximum Faith. “A Prolonged Period of Spiritual Discontent.”

“After years of involvement in the Christian faith, most people slip into a spiritual coma,” he writes. We are painfully aware that we have plateaued, but we feel helpless to get ourselves unstuck.

That was me, all right. Painfully aware. Plateaued. Helpless. Stuck.

Even more worrisome. Barna’s research indicates that the vast majority of Christians who reach Stop Six never move on. They spend the rest of their lives in this spiritually anesthetized state. I didn’t know much, but I knew I didn’t want that.

So, over and over in 2002, I begged God to break down the walls. The apathy. The inertia. The indifference. The façade.

And sure enough. He did. For the next six years. Blow by blow.

As they say, be careful what you ask for.


Blow Number 1 was Peter’s dad. His diagnosis in June 2003. Pancreatic cancer. Mere months to live. And he didn’t know God. Not until the very end.

Blow Number 2 was infertility. Believing I was pregnant in July 2003. Waking up on my birthday, the 15th, to discover I was not.

A switch flipped deep inside of me on that day. And seemingly all of the sudden—I was mad. The Second Stage of Grief. And I stayed mad. For a long, long time. Again, stuck. But now in a very different place. No longer wandering around in aimless circles on the barren plateau. No. This time stuck in a simmering caldron of Fear and Sorrow. That monthly boiled over. And presented itself as Rage.


22 September 2003

Anger consumes me.

We have been trying for a baby for many months. No luck, and I am angry.

Peter’s dad is dying. He only has a few months to live. I am angry.

Friends have announced that they are pregnant. I am angry.

My parents only received a small settlement for mom’s burn accident

after a four-year legal battle. And I am angry.

Beneath the anger, I know I am also afraid.

Afraid that Peter’s dad will die without knowing You.

Afraid of the future for Mom and Dad.

Afraid that we won’t be able to have a family.

Afraid that You don’t like me very much.

I don’t blame You.

I don’t like myself.

Throughout 2003 and into 2004 my anger continued to brew.

The primary object was God. I held Him responsible. And told Him so. All over the pages of a lime green journal, in a deceptively tidy script, I pled with Him. Questioned Him. Accused Him. Doubted Him. Called Him horrible names. And threatened to walk away from Him altogether.

But because God wasn’t a terribly tangible target, I also railed against certain human beings who dared to cause offense. Not surprisingly, Peter bore the brunt. No one else was close enough to me to know the half of my hurt. But even so, as the months wore on, other people did come into my crosshairs as well.


In 2003 I was meeting regularly for a Bible study with the pastor’s wife and a couple of other women from our church plant team. That fall the young pastor and his wife announced that they were pregnant. It felt like another blow. Shortly thereafter another friend in the Bible study group came with the same happy news. Bam. Then, in October, as their bellies began to bulge, they decided to disband our women’s group. It was getting to be a bit much, they reasoned. We were all stretched in too many directions, they said. But not long after, I learned, they had joined another group. A group that was especially for Moms. A club from which I was clearly excluded. It felt personal. Like a sledgehammer to my knees. And I was mad.

In loud conversations with Peter, I accused them as well. Called them horrible names. Threatened to walk away. And, in fact, I did. I stopped attending women’s events. Stopped talking to the pastor and his wife and my friend and other pregnant people and moms. I started arriving at church just in time and escaping as soon as the pastor said the final, “Amen.”

In the Spring of 2004 I did exchange a few e-mails with the pastor’s wife. I understand now that her goal was reconciliation—but at the time it felt like more of a confrontation regarding my rude behavior, than an attempt to reach into my pain. At the time it was just another blow.

On Mother’s Day 2004 I made the silly mistake of going to church. Before we could even sing one worship song, before the worship leader could even ask all of the mothers to stand, before we could applaud the mothers and give them flowers, there on the screen—larger than life itself—was a picture of the pastor’s new born babe. Blow Number Seven and Eight and Ninety-Nine. Who’s counting? And I was mad.

In June of 2004 we were trying fertility treatment for the first time. And while I was at home swallowing tiny pills and monitoring my body’s every response, Peter was taking a group of junior high students to England on an exciting ten-day educational trip that he had planned months before. Thankfully, Peter was scheduled to arrive home at just the right day of the month.

But then, the night before his return flight, he called with some news. He had lost his wallet while hiking with the kids out on Dartmoor. Lost his credit cards. His phone. But most importantly his green card. It was late on that Friday night when he realized that these things were all gone. He and his mum took flashlights out on the barren hills and tried to retrace his steps. But to no avail.

He called again from London the next morning. Saturday. To say that, of course, they wouldn’t let him on his flight. Of course, the American embassy wouldn’t open again until Monday. So of course, he wouldn’t get home until Tuesday at the earliest. As far as the fertility treatment was concerned, Tuesday was probably going to be too late.

I wanted to be mad. Certainly, a part of me was. But I also really wanted to respond with grace. I was getting almost as sick of Angry Kelli as Peter was. And I knew he already felt bad enough about the mistake. So I held it together on the phone. And when we hung up, I prayed for peace. I prayed for a quick green card turn-around. I prayed that—by some miracle—we could still finish that month’s fertility treatment plan. And—by some miracle—for a fragile moment—I felt okay about things.

Then, on Sunday night, the phone rang again. This time it was one of my closest friends.

“How are you?” she asked. And I told her some. About Peter and my pills. I gave her the socially acceptable version of my pain. Not even she knew the depths of my despair or the heat of my fury.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Well, we actually have some news,” she said. “We’re pregnant.”

“Congratulations.” I choked out the right words to say. “I’m happy for you guys.”

“Thanks. Can I pray for you?” she asked. And while she did, I started to cry.

“I need to go,” I said as soon as she uttered “Amen.” I was about to bawl. “I am happy for you. I wouldn’t want you to go through what we are, but I’m tired of going through it myself.”

“I understand,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” I said. And I hung up the phone.

A few days later I sent her an e-mail, saying in effect, “This is too hard. I’m going to need some space.” I pushed her away. Lost my friend. It was a great big blow. And I was mad.


One day in early July 2004 I arrived home to find that both the pastor’s wife and my Bible study friend had given me a call. Two voicemail messages, from two new moms, asking if we could meet. Though I was still attending church at the time, I hadn’t spoken to either of them in months. This was clearly an awkward, but coordinated, effort to set things right. But I wasn’t ready. Their attempt felt like too little, too late. It felt forced and false. And it made me mad.

A couple of weeks later, near my birthday, I received a card from my dear pregnant friend. A sweet note, I’m sure, saying I-don’t-remember-what. What I do remember is that on the front of the card was a lovely picture of a mother loon and several babies, swimming in a pond. In my hormonal, brokenhearted state, the image triggered my every fear. Even loons could have babies! I ripped the card to shreds and shouted at Peter, “How could she send a picture of babies and a mom? What was she thinking?” On and on, I fumed about those silly loons.

Until poor Peter shouted back, “ENOUGH!”

It was one of only a handful of times that I have ever heard him raise his voice. “I try to be understanding, Kelli,” he said. “But I can’t support this kind of behavior. It hurts me to see you this way. Let go of the anger. It’s gone on too long.”

“I can’t let go of the anger,” I sobbed, “because then I will have to feel the pain.”


In August of 2004 Peter went to a church leadership meeting. He was on the elder board and preached on occasion. But when Peter arrived that day, the rest of the team told him that he would not be preaching anymore. He needed to take time to deal with his family. Namely, me. “People are finding it difficult to listen to you preach since there is unresolved conflict between your wife and other women in the church,” they said.

Church discipline was raised as a possibility. Phrases such as “how long is this going to go on?” were used. Peter came home and told me the story—stunned and confused. You can guess my response. Of course. I was mad.

To be fair, the pastor sought counsel on the matter and wrote a letter of apology for how things were handled. I wrote a defensive letter in reply. And I stopped going to church.


Then one day I had a bright idea.

Over the past 80+ years our guestroom walls had been covered in multiple layers of wallpaper and then multiple layers of paint. In one corner the thick covering was already pulling away, causing a crack that had continued to grow. Since we had moved into the condo in 2002, I had wanted to rip the paper down. But Peter repeatedly cautioned me to wait. “It’s too big a job. Now is not the time.”

But when he left home that morning, I knew what I was going to do. I was going to tear those walls right down.

This was something I could change.

Something I could control.

Something I could put right.

Something I could make beautiful.

Initially, the paper came off in large and satisfying sheets, revealing the original pink cameo pattern from 1925. A demur woman, silhouetted up and down the wall. The more I pulled, the more I became obsessed with uncovering all of her forms. But the more I pulled, the more she hid her face. The more she refused to be revealed.

And that afternoon Peter came home to a horrible scene. There I was. Knee deep in dusty old wallpaper. Dirty and sweaty. My hair, a mess. My eyes, wild. One wall was mostly peeled, revealing two large holes in the old plaster. Some of the original wiring was poking out. The other three walls were giving me all sorts of trouble. No amount of piercing or spraying or scraping was setting them free.

Peter wasn’t happy.

“What are you doing?” he asked. “I told you not to start this.”

“I had to,” I said. And I begged him to help.

“I can’t help,” he said. “I have no time.”

“If you loved me, you would!”

And maybe it was the IVF drugs talking. Maybe it was my pain. My anger. My fear. My grief. Probably it was all of these things combined that drove that conversation into one of our darkest places. Cruel accusations. And then threats of suicide. “I’ll stick a fork in this electrical socket. I’ll stick it right into this wall.”

I scared Peter. That was probably my goal.

I even scared myself.


The next Sunday I tried to go back to church. I’m not sure why. I made Peter promise not to leave my side. We waited in the car until we knew the service had already begun, and we slipped in the back row.

I was miserable. It felt like every other sentence was a reference to babies and parenthood. I was crawling out of my skin. I wanted to stand up and scream.

To top it off we sang “Here I Am to Worship,” with the repeated refrain—“You’re altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me.”

At which point I actually said out loud, so that several people around me heard, “But He’s not!”

And Peter ushered me out the back door.


30 October 2004

Why are You wonderful to everyone else and not me?

Am I not good enough? Actually, I know I’m not. Now, more than ever, I know that.

I’m so full of anger and hate.

Do I hate my pregnant friends to get back at You? It’s You I really hate.

I don’t want to hate You—but I don’t know how to stop.

I don’t know how to love You anymore.

And I don’t know how to believe that You love me.


I wish this chapter of my life had been different. I wish I had handled the pain gracefully. Trusted God unwaveringly through it all. And I have since tried to understand why I didn’t.

Blow by blow. As the walls came tumbling down. What was being revealed?

Doctor Donald E. Sloat has said that “an examination of one’s life usually reveals that there was an accumulation of experiences, emotions, and situations that gradually led to the crisis. It is a culmination of emotional and lifestyle patterns that began developing in childhood and finally burst into the open.”

Emotional and lifestyle patterns. That developed in childhood. And finally burst into the open.

For me, I suppose, that included not knowing how to process trauma and loss. Not letting anyone close enough to help me through. Not depending on or trusting in people or God to care for me. To love me. Or not accepting their love because I had to be strong and independent enough to do without.

It included a wrong belief about God. I had tried to serve Him all my life, so didn’t He owe me something? A wrong belief that my life had to be perfect. That my worth was all wrapped up in a certain image of myself. An image I had worked hard to create. An image that was now crumbling away.


I also wish the church better understood how to help people in pain. I wish we understood that when someone who is depressed crawls into a cave, we should not let her go in there alone. I wish we better understood that it isn’t usually helpful to tell a hurting person all of the ways that it could be worse. It isn’t helpful for us to avoid her or to ignore the subject at hand. It isn’t helpful to speak platitudes or to preach or to confront her sin. To make assumptions or promises that aren’t ours to keep. It isn’t always helpful to compare our pain to hers. Or to tell the hurting person stories of how her situation turned out just fine for other people we know.

I wish we better understood that there isn’t much we can say. But we must do something. We must be present with her. We must be patient. We must listen. And cry. And love. And pray. And wait for God to break through.


Tested by Fire

negative pregnancy test

“Gold is tested by fire, people by God.” (a Chinese proverb)

panic attack: an episode of intense fear that may occur as a reaction to a stressful event; specifically: one that is accompanied by four or more bodily or cognitive symptoms.

I didn’t realize what was happening at the time. My entire body was quaking. My face burned. I couldn’t catch my breath. I sucked a lungful of air. Forced it out of pursed lips. And the Jensons had not even arrived.

Peter tore his eyes from the door and looked at me. “Are you ok?”

His mum patted my knee. “You’ll be fine,” she said.

I nodded. How could they be so calm? I sat on my hands and concentrated on the breathing. In through my nose. Out through my mouth.

The trio of us—Peter, his mum, and I—were huddled in a corner of a Panera Bread Company. It was an icy December Wednesday in 2004. Bitter air rushed in every time a customer opened the door.

We were awaiting a meeting that none of us had foreseen a week before.

We were having dinner with Debbie.

infertile: incapable of or unsuccessful in achieving pregnancy over a considerable period of time.

For almost two years—since Peter’s dad had gotten sick—Peter and I had been attempting to have a baby. The extensive battery of tests had only revealed that my FSH level was high. This was a red flag.

“But,” Doctor Johns, our infertility specialist, had boasted from behind his oversized mahogany desk, “I’ve helped many women with high FSH get pregnant. This packet will explain the various treatment options we have. But you will be happy to know that seventy-five percent of my patients have had successful pregnancies.”

Infertility rate among American couples: 12%

Pregnancy rate for women using Clomid for three months: 40%

Pregnancy rate per in vitro fertilization transfer for women under age 35: 41%.

In May 2004 and again in June, we tried Clomid, tiny pills that I swallowed for several days. Then, on just the right day each month, I sped to the clinic with a plastic cup tucked under my coat. Both months—failure.

At our follow-up visit, Doctor Johns suggested we skip over a second level of treatment and jump right to In Vitro Fertilization—the ultimate in assisted reproductive technology. So for several mornings in August and again in October, I stood at the kitchen counter with vials, alcohol pads, syringes, and the nurse’s detailed instructions spread before me. Step by step, I mixed a potion in a syringe. I pinched a bit of fat near my bellybutton and shot the drugs into my stomach. Those same afternoons, I raced to the clinic on my lunch break for a blood draw and an ultrasound. And each evening I held a bag of frozen broccoli on my hip while my needle-phobic husband composed himself enough to insert a three-incher and inject yet another drug.

Both months, well into this routine, Doctor Johns called it off. “You aren’t responding well enough for us to go to retrieval,” the nurse explained on the phone at the end of the second IVF attempt. “But the doctor’s willing to try once more with an even stronger dose. Do you want me to make an appointment?”

Peter wasn’t home yet. I was curled in a lump on the couch. Tired of shots. Tired of frenzied trips to the clinic. Tired of the obsession. Tired of a body that wouldn’t cooperate, even with a whole lot of extra help, and wouldn’t do what most other women’s bodies do—often by accident.

“After I talk to Peter about it,” I told her, “I’ll call you back.”

I knew I never would.

pain: a. A particular kind of sensation, conveyed by specialized nerve fibers and recognizable by the patient as that kind of sensation whether he likes it or not. b. any experience, whether physical or mental, which the patient dislikes.

In his oft revered theological treatise on the subject, The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis writes that “Pain in the b. sense is synonymous with ‘suffering,’ ‘anguish,’ ‘tribulation,’ ‘adversity,’ or ‘trouble,’ and it is about IT that the Problem of Pain arises. For the rest of this book Pain will be used in the b. sense and will include all types of suffering: with the a. sense we have no further concern.”

Peter is a bit of a theologian himself. He studied theology at graduate school and graduated with honors. I did, too, actually. But with this month after month encounter with Pain, Peter’s theology was sticking; mine seemed to be slipping away.

He arrived home that night with a target on his back.

“We failed again,” I told him as he took off his coat.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“The nurse called. We can’t go to retrieval,” I said, venom in my voice.

He came and sat by me on the couch.

“I’m sorry,” he reached for me and I pulled away.

“No, you’re not,” I said.

“I am too, Kelli, but I have to trust that God—.”  My vicious grunt shut him up. “Ok, fine,” he said and left the room.

It was a conversation we had had many times over the past couple of years—after I’d gotten my period, after a negative pregnancy test, after friends announced their pregnancies or had their babies, after a sermon at church on God’s faithfulness. They always ended the same way.

Me shouting: “How can God keep doing this to me? Why does He hate me so very much?”

Theologians articulate the Problem of Pain something like this:

If God is all good and all loving, and we believe that He is…

And if God is all powerful and sovereign, and we believe that He is…

Then why—why—is there so much Pain?

On the evening of Saturday, December 4, I had gone to the basement to run on the treadmill. After our October IVF defeat, I decided on a different tactic. I tried acupuncture, which promised to make me feel better—and help me get pregnant. I changed my diet—almonds and yams were supposed to be good for fertility. I drank fertility tea and eye-droppers full of potent fertility herbs. And I was trying to lose my infertility weight.

I immerged from my run to find Peter’s mum, eating leftovers at the dining room table. She was visiting us from England for five weeks through the holidays.

“Is the turkey still all right?” I asked.

My always-positive mother-in-law looked up at me with big, sober eyes. She simply nodded and said nothing. I knew something was up.

I passed into the living room to find Peter still at the computer where I had left him. He was putting the finishing touches on a sermon he’d been asked to preach in the morning on Malachi chapter three. We were a part of a small church plant team at the time, and they made use of Peter’s preaching skills whenever the pastor needed a break. Before I had gone for my run, we had talked briefly about the passage, about verse five—in particular—about God’s promise of judgment for those who oppress the fatherless.

“How’s the sermon coming?” I asked.

He looked at me with the same sober eyes I had seen on his mum, stood up, took my hand, and led me to the couch.

“Everything’s fine,” he said—clearly nervous, “but I need you to sit down so I can tell you something.”

“What happened?”

He faced me on the couch and began, “I had a phone call from Joy Stoger.”


“She met a woman at the library—a friend of a friend named Laura Jenson—who happened to share that her eighteen-year-old daughter, Debbie, is pregnant and is making a plan for adoption. They are still looking for a family to adopt the baby.”

“Ok?” I said.

“Joy thought of us and took the Jenson’s phone number. Joy just gave me the number. But the thing is, Kelli, the baby is due on Christmas Eve.”

“What? That’s three weeks away.”

“I know. What do you think?”

“I don’t know what to think.” This wasn’t my plan. Sure, we had talked about the adoption option. But I wasn’t ready yet.

But then Peter said, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m preaching tomorrow from Malachi chapter three.”

According to David Baker, Malachi means “my messenger.” And his is a book of prophecy, written to a discouraged Jewish population. There was a drought and the crops were bad. They had expected a golden age of prosperity, but it had not dawned. Did God not care? they wondered.

Malachi answered these doubts. God was still on his throne, Malachi promised. He will deal with sin, refining his people like gold and silver, making quick judgment against all of the following: “the sorcerers, the adulterers, those who swear falsely, those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan” (3:5).

But obey God, Malachi continues, and see how He will bless.

The next morning Peter preached his sermon. And God, I suppose, used it to poke at me. “All right,” I told Peter that afternoon, “maybe this Jensen baby is what God has for us. Maybe this is what these past two years have been leading to. Maybe He can turn all of the pain into something good.”

So on Sunday night Peter called the Jensons. He talked to Laura, Debbie’s mom. He told her a bit of our story. He told her that we were both teachers. That he was from England; I was from Minnesota. That we had been married for five years and had been ready to start a family for two. And based on that information, Laura asked if we could meet. She suggested Wednesday night at Panera.

What Panera claims: We are bakers of bread. We are fresh from the oven. We are a symbol of warmth and welcome. We are a simple pleasure, honest and genuine. We are a life story told over dinner. We are a long lunch with an old friend. We are your weekday morning ritual. We are the kindest gesture of neighbors. We are home. We are family. We are friends.

“That can’t be them,” Mum whispered each time a new customer would blow through the door.

“I think we should pay for dinner,” I said. “From what I’ve read, it’s expected.”

“Ok,” Peter nodded.

Then I asked, “Do we even know what we’re looking for?”

“A big bump, of course.” Mum did a wiggle dance in her seat. Of course, she was hoping that that bump might be her first grandchild. “That’s all we have to go on, isn’t it, Pete?” she asked. He shrugged.

Then we spotted them—a middle-aged couple and a young woman who had to be Debbie. We rose to greet them.

“You seem to be looking for someone.” Laura smiled as she extended her hand to Peter. She introduced her husband, Bill, and Debbie, and Peter introduced Mum and me.

Then he announced, “We’d like to treat you to dinner.” I smiled in gracious agreement although I was already disappointed. I knew I should have come into this meeting with no expectations. Peter had drilled this into me. But since Sunday I had begun to Hope again. It was a horrible thing, that Hope. But in my Hopeful mind, the Jensons were more…something. More friendly? More charismatic? Could I be so unbelievably shallow? Even more attractive? But mostly, in my Hopeful mind, we had an instant chemistry, an instant connection. And I knew this was meant to be.

As we lined up to place our orders, I tried for small talk with Debbie. I said the potato soup was nice on a cold night, but Debbie only looked sideways at me with raised eyebrows and gave a little nod. Her blatant indifference and her bulging belly seemed to mock me. I focused again on breathing and on pulling one napkin at a time from the dispenser and piling them neatly on my tray. At the other end of the counter, though, Peter and Mum were chatting about the weather with Laura and Bill until—soup and sandwiches in hand—we all followed Laura as she bustled over to a high table and stools.

“Here we go,” she said. “Jensons on one side, Worralls on the other. How’s that?”

“Fine.” I forced a smile. “Sure has been cold this week,” I added, as Laura helped Debbie hoist herself onto a stool.

There was a painful, pregnant pause as everyone took a first bite.

“Does anyone need a napkin?” I tried again. “I grabbed a bunch.”

Then Peter took over. He always has something to say—a quality I never envied more than on that night. “We were so surprised to get that initial phone call on Saturday night,” he began. “We haven’t actually been in a position to pursue adoption yet. So it’s a bit of a shock—especially since Debbie has only three weeks to go.”

“I can imagine.” Laura had set her spoon down to focus on Peter’s monologue.

“But when we heard how you just happened to meet Joy at the library and how she just happened to think of us, we had to believe that God is doing something special here. And we are willing to do whatever we have to do to make this happen. I’m sure you have a lot of questions for us, Debbie.” Peter paused for a deep breath. “So feel free to ask anything.”

Debbie started easy. She asked where we lived, what we did for a living, and how close we were to extended family. For the most part, Peter answered. Peter—always ready with an answer, always articulate, always confident.

I just sat there.

There was a break in her interrogation when Debbie told her story of depression, alcohol, and drugs. I don’t remember a lot of the details because I was studying her features—light blue eyes above a turned up nose in a sweet, round face. I thought about looking into a face like that for the rest of my life. Such a strange thought. Could I love that face? Of course, I could. Debbie told about dropping out of high school and admitting herself for treatment. And she finished by explaining her pregnancy from a one-night fling with a blond, Norwegian guy who was just a friend and had disappeared.

When she finished her story, her questioning took a more particular turn. What were our hobbies? Did we like sports? Did we have pets? Pets were very important to Debbie. She had grown up with dogs and cats and even a horse. Unfortunately, we had none of these. But I had not seen our lack of household animals as a fatal flaw until that moment. In that moment, I was embarrassed and saddened that we did not even have a fish.

Percentage of Americans who own a fish: 2%

Percentage of Americans who own a dog: 44%.

Percentage of Americans who own a pet of any kind: 63%.

Finally, Debbie asked me directly, “Would you stay at home with the baby?”

I put my sandwich down and sat on my hands. The shaking returned full force. I couldn’t look Debbie in the eye and I stammered, “I can’t quit my teaching job in the middle of the school year…but I will quit in May…that’s the plan right now…so I will be home then. But my mother-in-law has agreed to help us in the meantime. That’s why we thought it was important for you to meet her tonight too…”

At that, Mum jumped in. She told Bonnie about her recent experience caring for her friend Brenda’s baby back home, how fresh it all was for her. How providential was that! They compared Brenda’s difficult pregnancy with Debbie’s easy one, while on my left Peter launched into a conversation with Laura and Bill about education—Peter’s favorite topic.

And there I sat—trembling and mute—in the middle.

For a few moments, I tried to smile and listen as Debbie talked about preparing for her immanent delivery. Mum responded by sharing some details from when Peter was born. I had nothing to add there.

So I turned toward Peter, Laura, and Bill. The Jensons were finishing their meal as Peter explained our interest in sending our children to a private, Christian school for the elementary years and then to the public school after that.

I tried to suppress my frantic self-obsessions. Can they see that I can’t stop shaking? Do those people at the other tables, enjoying their hunks of fresh-out-of-the-oven bread, realize the importance of this dinner in their midst? A baby’s whole life is being decided here. And does anyone care that I am probably failing my first audition for motherhood?

Finally, three hours after we met the Jensons, the Panera employees began wiping tables. “Is there anything else you want to know about us?” Peter asked Debbie.

“Not that I can think of.” She forced a smile. Her eyes looked tired and glazed. “I guess I would just ask you: Is there anything else you want me to know?”

Anything else I want you to know? I felt she knew nothing. I wanted her to know how badly I wanted to be a mother. I wanted her to know that my past year had been as hellish as hers. But I wanted her to know that I would love my children. I would do my best by them. That I might even buy them pets. But no words came. No words seemed adequate to convince an eighteen-year-old girl to choose us to parent her baby.

I forced a smile of my own and said, “Nothing comes to mind.”

“Pain,” C.S. Lewis has famously said, “insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

From my vantage point, in December 2004, the problem with Pain and God and that megaphone of His was not volume. It was intelligibility.

I could hear Him. Loud. But not so clear.

The following Sunday morning, I took yet another pregnancy test since I was a day late. And I watched as the single pink line appeared yet again in the little oval window. Peter and Mum went to church; I stayed home. I hated church just then—all those pregnant women and babies and happy people and God. I shut myself in our sunroom and watched Home and Garden TV.

It was evening when Peter knocked on the door. “Kelli, you need to get out of here. Do you want to go for a walk?”

We roamed the streets—mostly in silence. We were walking by the drug store when Peter’s cell phone rang. He looked at the number, then he looked at me. “It’s the Jensons.”

I held my breath. The quaking returned. In the moment that it took Peter to press “ACCEPT,” my mind raced from Hope to Fear and back again. Perhaps they had actually chosen us—perhaps God had come through with a miracle. I decorated the nursery instantaneously in my head and imagined baby toys under the Christmas tree. Perhaps. But then again, I was afraid of God. Afraid of the Pain I felt He caused. Afraid to Hope. The more I Hoped, the more I Hurt. I had learned that lesson all too well.

Peter put the phone to his ear. “Hello?”

He stared at the cars driving by as he listened. Finally, I heard him say, “No, we understand. Thank you for meeting with us. We wish you and Debbie and the baby all the best.”

Peter hung up and pulled me in tight. “So that’s it?” I shouted, not caring which neighbors were privy to the display. “WHAT…WAS…THAT?”

How to Use a Megaphone

Step One: Hold the megaphone several inches from your mouth with the small end toward you and the large end away from you.

Step Two: Point the large end of the megaphone toward the people you wish to exhort.

Step Three: Speak clearly into the small end.

Step Four: Wait for the audience’s response, then repeat Step Three as necessary.

Warning: Do not point the large end of the megaphone directly at the ears of anyone close to you. Permanent hearing loss can occur.  

What was that? Sadism? On the part of God? At the time I thought it must be. What else could explain the cruel joke? What else could explain kicking your own supposedly beloved daughter yet again when she was already down? So far down.


Or was it the wrenching of one little, white-knuckled finger at a time from my own tidy vision for my life? Preparing me for an even grander one?

I might have suggested a gentler method.

On Tuesday, December 21, the first information packet appeared in our mailbox—a large envelope from Bethany Family Services. On Wednesday came two more—America World and World Links—and by Christmas Eve we had received all six of the adoption applications we had requested.

I tentatively opened each folder and flipped through each brochure of available children from Guatemala, Vietnam, Russia, and South Korea. I studied the picture of Anila from the Ukraine. Then Xiu-Yu Mei from China caught my eye. Had her year been hellish too? I bet it had. I imagined looking into her face, loving her for the rest of my life.

Someday. One little, white-knuckled finger at a time.

I labeled a manila folder “Adoption,” slid the six packets inside, and filed it in our drawer.

For someday.

Saying Good-bye to the Center of the Universe

Dad W Collage

“A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccl. 3:4).

Peter’s dad was a Control Freak and the self-proclaimed Center of the Universe.

Peter had warned me. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the actual experience.

In February of 1999, Peter’s parents came from England to visit him in Chicago. Peter and I had known each other since September, and we had been talking—hypothetically—about marriage. So I wanted to make a good impression. Hypothetically—these people could be my in-laws.

Peter and I met his Mum and Dad at the O’Hare International Terminal, and after the initial introductions, I drove them to Avis where they picked up their rental car. Then we all stood, shivering in the parking lot, while Peter and his dad used the Avis map to try to plot a course to the Motel Six in Rosemount. Toes going numb, I decided to intervene, and forgetting the Control Freak Warning, I reached for the map.

As soon as I had it in my hand, I realized my mistake. Peter’s dad’s jaw dropped, his brown eyes grew wide, and he shook his head in (mock?) disbelief.

“I think I know where the hotel is,” I stuttered. “Why don’t you follow me?”

He did follow me—just that once—but I never heard the end of it.

One of Peter’s dad’s main initiatives as the Center of the Universe was planning holidays. He lived for long holidays, openly admitting that they were his reason for becoming a teacher. However, he traveled as if chased by demons. For him, holidays were about spending as little money and making as many memories as possible. And if you traveled with the Center of the Universe, you traveled his way.

Before Peter and I were even engaged, his dad planned our first “family” trip to France. So during the summer when Peter and I were dating, his dad took us to Normandy. Showed me dozens of sights up and down the coast—all in one week. He planned the frantic itinerary. He held onto the important documents—tickets, reservation confirmations, passports, etc. And we began to share some memories.

The first summer that Peter and I were married, we had our first real Worrall Family Vacation—in America. Dad W rented a Dodge Neon, and we took off from Chicago. Peter and I and his parents—whom I was trying hard to call “Dad” and “Mum,” three weeks’ worth of luggage, boxes of Trivial Pursuit cards, and dozens of cans of Slimfast—which, by the end of the trip, Peter and I decided didn’t actually work.

Dad W’s extreme frugality meant that we stopped at McDonalds for every meal. His paranoia meant that there was little on the menu that he would eat. According to Dad W, Mad Cow disease was even worse in America than England, so he ordered fries and ice cream, maybe chicken if he was feeling daring. Peter and I just asked for ice to use with our Slimfast shakes.

In addition to calling himself a Control Freak, Dad W called himself “Shallow.” He couldn’t handle long or personal conversations. And he couldn’t handle conversations about faith. Peter’s mum is a woman of great faith. And she passed that faith on to Peter. But if the conversation in the Neon got too personal or ventured into the realm of the spiritual, Dad W would cut across it with a “Triv” question. When he wasn’t driving, he pulled out a Triv card and started quizzing. If he was driving or if the boxed Trivial Pursuit had gotten buried in the trunk, he made up his own.

One of his original Triv games was called Security Check. To make sure that you really were his wife, son, or daughter-in-law—and not an imposter, he joked—he would ask you a question about a shared memory. My Security Check question was often the same.

“Security Check!” Dad W would call. “Mrs. Worrall Junior, what did you do the first time I met you?”

I would feign shame and mutter, “I took the map out of your hands.”

“Correct!” Dad W would raise a finger in the air. “You are my daughter-in-law.”

Another of Dad W’s made-up Triv games revolved around old movies. He loved old movies almost as much as he loved Triv. “Name the movie,” he would say. “‘We’ll always have Paris.’” (He loved Paris, too. Perhaps Paris most of all.)

“That’s Casablanca, of course,” one of us would say.

“Yes!” Dad W would shout.

Our first stop on that summer road trip was Minneapolis to hold a belated wedding reception with my family and friends. Then we headed west—hitting Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands, the Rockies, Yellowstone, and not stopping for breath until we reached LA.

On our one night in Las Vegas, Peter and I stayed up. We wanted to see everything, including the brand-new “Paris” hotel and casino. Dad and Mum W went to bed since—according to Dad W—we had to be up early and hit the road. When we returned to our room at six o’clock in the morning, Peter and I raved about the wonders of “Paris.” Ever competitive, Dad W was tormented by the fact that we had seen something that he hadn’t, and we enjoyed beating him at his own game.

“We’ll always have ‘Paris,’” Peter and I cooed from the Neon’s cozy backseat.

Peter and his dad had an understanding on our trips. Each couple paid their own way, and Dad W kept careful track. I tried to stay out of it, until one evening in a cheap hotel room in Nevada, I tried to make a calling-card call, and Dad W grew anxious. Unfamiliar with the American system, he was afraid that a call might be charged to him. He hovered over me, and I suddenly felt twelve. I wondered if he thought his son had married a dimwit or a crook or both.

Hurt, but afraid to say so, I went quiet. When I continued the silent treatment in the Neon the next morning, the tension became unbearable. Peter forced the issue.

“This is a small car,” he sighed. “You guys have to talk.”

Once he popped the cork, my anger spewed.

“I’m not used to people doubting me like that! I’m not a child. I’m thirty years old. I know how to make a phone call. Why couldn’t you trust me? Even if the charge did go on your credit card, we would have paid you back—”

Mum and Peter jumped to Dad W’s defense.

“That’s just the way he is,” Mum explained.

“He’s a control freak,” Peter said. “I told you.”

I didn’t want to let him off that easily. I wanted to stay mad. But we had a long ride ahead of us. So I finally admitted, “I’m over-reacting. I’m sorry.”

“No, no, I’m sorry too. I am a control freak, aren’t I, Viv?” His remorse was evident—for an instant. Then he turned it into a joke. He pulled the car abruptly into a parking lot. “McDonalds! We’ll stop for breakfast. And to show how sorry I am, I’ll even pay.”

“Kelli and I just need ice,” Peter reminded him.

“I know,” Dad W said, the wicked sparkle back in his eye.

And we laughed, in spite of ourselves.

Over the next three years, we took a variety of trips on both sides of the Atlantic, but with one common theme and purpose. It didn’t take me long to realize that our trips were a sort of family initiation for me. Dad W was drawing me into the Worrall family scrapbook.

It also didn’t take me long to learn to travel by the Dad W rules. One: Take extreme precautions if Dad W deemed it necessary. This included SPF 45 even on cloudy days to prevent skin cancer, long sleeve shirts to ward off mosquitoes carrying West Nile, and tight medical stockings on every flight to prevent deep vein thrombosis. Two: Don’t spend too long enjoying the sights, having tea, or shopping—even if Dad W said it was ok. It really wasn’t. And Three: Let Dad W carry all of the tickets and passports and papers if it made him feel better. And it always did.

For Christmas 2002 our entire family came together at our condo in Evanston, Illinois: Peter’s mum and dad, my mom and dad, my brother, sister-in-law and nephews. But Dad W wasn’t himself. He hadn’t been truly healthy since I had known him. An earlier illness had left him susceptible to dehydration and exhaustion. And thus, the paranoia.

But this was different.

Six months of increasing pain followed. Six months of decreasing sleep and appetite. Six months of doctors not knowing how to help.

In June, we got a call. It was the pancreas.

Two days later, another call. It was cancer.

Peter, Mum, and I started praying with even greater fervor that God would take ahold of Dad W before he died. And we planned to spend much of the summer in England—five weeks in July and August. And during our stay, Dad W planned two trips.

The first was to Wales, to connect with his roots and to stay in an enchanting 15th century B&B. However, seeing Dad W doubled over in the front seat, pounding the dashboard, clinging to the door handle in the pain, we wondered if all of this traveling was really a good idea.

He was determined though. So we spent one week at home in Plymouth for some treatment, then we were off again. Back to France. Dad W had looked into Paris. He wanted to see it one last time, and he wanted to be the one to show it to me. Truthfully, “we’ll always have Paris” was more than a movie line or a Triv question to Peter and his dad. It was a pledge and a promise. They had taken many Paris trips together, and they wanted one more. But Paris was too expensive and too crowded that July. So we settled for Brittany’s sea-side villages, camping, and strawberry tarts.

Peter and I had been trying for a baby since April. The time was right. Peter was established in his teaching job. We were thirty-three. And Dad W’s illness gave me a sense of urgency. I thought the imminent arrival of his first grandchild could give him something to live for.

Then, while we were in England, my cycle was late. I was pregnant, I was sure. But I kept it to myself. And for three days I thanked God for the perfect timing of this gift. Eventually, I told Peter. And we decided to wait two more days until my birthday, July 15, to take a test to confirm. Then we would tell Mum and Dad W.

Instead, I awoke on my birthday. With cramps. And a little seed of something—Fear? Anger? Despair?—settled on the already sad soil of my soul.

In August, Peter and I had to return to Chicago for another school year. On our last night in England, Dad W and Mum stayed up late, but Peter and I stayed up later. We finished packing. And around 3 a.m. we finally shut off the telly to catch a wink of sleep. At 5:30 a.m. Dad W knocked on our door. “Time to get up, Kiddiwinks.” We would catch a 6:30 bus from Plymouth to Heathrow, where we would catch an early-afternoon flight to Chicago.

The four of us stumbled around the house on auto-pilot. As Peter and I stuffed our final belongings into our carry-on, I tried to imagine our final good-bye. What would we do? What should we say? Would it be like one of Dad W’s favorite old movies? Soft music swelling, time standing still, poignant words hanging in the air?

“Who wants a cup of tea?” Mum called.

“We need to leave, Viv!” Dad W called in return.

Peter and I lugged our heavy suitcase out to the car. In the pre-dawn darkness, the four of us drove to the station. We talked about our next trip. That was how we got through the good-bye. “We’ll see you at Christmas,” we promised, not knowing if we would.

At the station, we hugged. “Maybe we can come to Chicago this fall,” Dad W said. Something to hope for.

Peter and I deposited our luggage in the belly of the bus and climbed on board. Mum and Dad W stood in the parking lot, waving until we were out of sight. We sat, waving back, holding hands, all the time wondering, Is this it?

The Final Good-bye. Take One.

Cancer had its way with Dad W through the early fall, and in late October we got another call. Dad W did not have long. Would we come again? And would we go to Paris? Dad W was planning a trip. And he was paying, no matter what the cost.

Peter and I each begged a week off work and grabbed a flight to England. Almost as soon as we got into town, the four of us took a train from Plymouth to London then from London to Paris—First Class. We stayed in L’ Hotel de Mericourt near the Oberkampf Metro station. And we spent the week, strolling the golden streets of Paris—just like in the movies.

Dad W had a couple of “good” hours each morning, so every day we met in the hotel lobby for thick coffee and bread. Then we headed out to the Louvre or Notre Dam or the Eiffel Tower. We ate crepes with lemon juice and sugar from street vendors because it was the only thing Dad W wanted to eat.

Then after our crepe each afternoon, Dad W and Mum went back to the hotel to rest. Several times Dad W gave Peter a wad of francs and told us to have dinner on him. We struggled to enjoy ourselves since we knew he was back in the hotel, at war with pain. But we also knew that he desperately wanted us to have a good time. So we did our best. It was autumn in Paris, after all.

On the last night of the trip, Peter and I returned to the hotel to find Mum bubbling with excitement. She came into our room to share the news. “Dad gave his life to Jesus!” she said.

“What?” we asked. It seemed too good to be true.

So she told us the story. “He felt worse than ever tonight. And he asked me, ‘If I give my life to Jesus, will He take away the pain?’ I told him that he couldn’t expect that. God could do it, but He wasn’t obliged. He had to believe that Jesus is the way of salvation. That’s all. And he said he wanted to. Then we prayed together for the very first time!”

The next day, we made our way back to Plymouth—Dad shuffling his feet, hunched over at the waist, folding himself in two when the pain was at its worst. But a new man. Inside out.

Late on our last evening in England, Dad W crept down to the living room and curled up his bony frame on the couch. We hadn’t expected him to make another appearance that night; he had gone up to bed hours before. He pressed the POWER button on the remote to turn the telly OFF—not something he did often. Peter, Mum, and I sat near him on the floor. It seemed Dad W wanted to talk.

“It would be easy to get bitter about this disease,” he started. “But I’m trying to see it as an opportunity. I think it’s an opportunity to get my life sorted with Mum, and with you, Pete, and with God. And I wish I had more time to know Kelli.” Then he expressed his love for each of us.

It took a moment for any of us to know how to respond. But eventually Peter began, “I love you, too, Dad—”

But Dad W lifted the remote. “That’s enough,” he announced, pressing POWER and again filling the little room with the sound of rugby. “I am still shallow.”

And we laughed, in spite of ourselves.

Once more we followed our departure ritual—Mum and Dad  to bed late, Peter and I packing later, BBC 2 on the telly until our eyelids lost the fight, two hours of sleep, 5:30 wake-up call from Dad W, cup of tea from Mum, pre-dawn ride to the bus station.

There were desperate hugs. But the poignant words didn’t come. The music didn’t swell. Time didn’t stand still.

The bus driver called for us to board. Again Mum and Dad W stood in the parking lot, waving. And we waved back until they were out of sight.

The Final Good-bye. Take Two.

On Christmas morning, six weeks later, Dad W woke and said to Mum, “I made it.”

Peter and I were back in England. We spent the day at Aunty Jackie and Uncle Den’s near the Plymouth coast. Dad W, no longer the Center of the Fun or the Universe, sat hunched quietly in a corner on the couch, shriveled and yellow, taking it all in. His niece and her baby on the floor, his nephew and his four-year-old son jumping around the room. Not even the electronic Triv game could tempt him. No one mentioned cancer. No one acknowledged that this was our last Christmas. Dad W wouldn’t want us to.

Long holidays were no longer possible, so our only “family trips” during that Christmas visit were short drives into the Plymouth city center. Dad W could handle a half hour of shopping before he needed to go home and rest.

On January 3, the early morning drive to the bus station was made in silence. We were afraid that this Good-bye would be the Last Take. “A wrap and a print.” We pulled into the parking lot of the bus station. A double-decker bus was being loaded, more eager passengers than us lining up with their baggage. When we had wrestled our suitcase from the boot, Peter pulled it over to be loaded. I was left alone with my in-laws. I hugged Mum and told her I loved her.

Then Dad W opened his arms. I gave his frail body a gentle hug, and he whispered in my ear, “Thanks for all you do for Pete.”

That was it. But with those simple words, I knew he thought me neither dimwit nor crook. I was a daughter. And that he thought me a good wife for his only son was a very high compliment indeed.

I took a breath, blinked back the tears, and looked him in the eye. “Thanks for all you’ve done for me. We have wonderful memories. Thanks especially for Paris.”

As Peter and I climbed onto the bus, I asked if we could go to the front of the top level to avoid motion-sickness. The question seemed embarrassingly trivial for that moment, but Peter agreed. We settled into our seat. Then we looked out the window for his parents, waiting for the Worrall wave. There they were, standing side-by-side in the parking lot—his tiny, bubbly Mum and his now-shriveled Dad. But the bus windows were tinted, and they couldn’t see us. They were waving at someone—on the lower level, near the back. We waved harder from the top front window, trying to get their attention. But they continued to wave passionately at someone else. And the bus pulled out.

“That could be it,” Peter said as they disappeared from our view.

I sighed and grabbed his hand. “And they were waving at the wrong window.”

And we laughed, in spite of ourselves.

The Final Good-bye. Take Three.

On Monday, January 26, Mum called. Dad W had been sick all weekend and had been taken to hospital. The nurse said that now, for sure, he had only days. Once again Peter begged off of work. But I couldn’t leave until Friday.

Peter arrived unannounced at his Dad’s bedside on Tuesday afternoon. Dad W was still conscious. “Crikey!” he said over and over. “Crikey! Crikey! It’s Pete!” Then, “Where’s Kelli?” Peter assured him I would arrive on Saturday.

I kept my cell phone with me that week, and Peter called frequently with updates. Late on Tuesday, the nurse said they didn’t expect Dad W to make it through another day. He must have sensed this because he began his Final, Final Good-byes, giving each family member what he knew they needed—even though it meant being personal. He told his sister she had been a good sister. He gave his sister-in-law a big kiss. To his brother-in-law, fellow motorcycle enthusiast, and friendly rival, he said, “You won’t see me in heaven.” And as the family exchanged puzzled looks across his bed, he added, “I’ll be too fast!”

On Wednesday Dad W was weaker, but late in the day he started smiling.

“I’m getting excited!” he said.

“What are you getting excited about, Dad?” Peter asked.

“Kelli’s coming!” he replied.

“Yes, Dad, she’s coming on Saturday. Just a few more days.”

The extended family came and went that week, but Peter and his mum rarely left Dad W’s side. Hour after hour, as Dad W faded in and out of consciousness, they talked of holidays—America and Wales and France. Peter and Mum slept in shifts in a chair by Dad W’s bed. And they kept me updated by phone.

Friday finally arrived. When I was on my way to the airport, I got another call. Dad W was still hanging on, but barely, so Peter wanted to put him on the phone. Perhaps to say good-bye.

I pressed the phone into my ear to try to make out every sound. There weren’t words, at least not words I could distinguish. There were only moans, then a sort of wailing.

“I’m on my way to the airport, Dad,” I told him. “I’ll see you soon.”

The flight was eternal.

I was met at Gatwick by Uncle Den, who didn’t have a cell phone and hadn’t spoken to the family since the day before. We took a train down to Plymouth and were met at the Plymouth station by Aunty Jacky, who said Dad W was still with us, resting peacefully.

I could breathe again. I was going to make it. I was going to have a Final, Final Good-bye.

Aunty Jacky ushered me through the hospital, up to the cancer ward, and down to the end of the hall, last room on the left. She knocked softly and Mum opened the door. Mum was alone with Dad W. She gave me a hug and turned to him.

“Kelli’s here,” she told him with a smile and a stroke on his head.

I looked down into his face—a face I hardly recognized although I had seen it just a month before. His features were distorted; his skin was yellow; his eyes were glazed over and staring blankly.

I took his hand and tried not to let my face register my shock. “I’m here, Dad. I came to see you.” He moaned, but his face registered no recognition. I hoped he knew me; I hoped he knew I had come.

Peter, Mum, and I settled in around Dad W’s bed. We took turns holding Dad W’s hand, standing in his line of vision, stroking his head, and giving him water on a sponge. Around dinner time, Peter and I offered to fetch tea and a snack. We returned to find Mum again bubbling with news.

“I think he knows Kelli’s here. He said, ‘All the way from America just to see me’!”

At nine-thirty that evening, Mum sent me to the dayroom sofa to rest. “We’ll call you if anything happens,” she said. So I curled up on a couch and fell asleep. Less than an hour later, Mum was gently shaking me.

“He doesn’t have long now,” she said as I tried to open my eyes, “and he would want you there.”

We returned to his side. Peter was stroking his head; Mum and I each took hold of a hand. Dad W’s breathing was shallow and sporadic—a little gasp for air—followed by a long pause—then another gasp. We said little. No poignant words were necessary. They had all been said. No music swelled, nor was it missed. The silence was right.

At 10:33 there was a final gasp.

And he was gone.

The following days were filled with visits from family and ministers, funeral directors and friends. One after another they came—morning till night. I took to making tea and supplying biscuits for each guest while Mum and Peter graciously re-told the story of Dad W’s last days, supplying as much comfort as they received.

Tuesday was a welcome respite from the barrage of guests. Tuesday we had errands. Peter, Mum, and I met with the undertaker and the pastor and the musicians and the florist. And in between the other calls, we stopped at the Magistrates Office to register Dad’s death. The undertaker needed the Death Certificate to continue with his plans.

Mum greeted the receptionist and explained the reason for our visit. The woman replied with a sincere, “I’m sorry,” and pointed us to the appropriate office. We filed in and sat in a row across the desk from the registrar.

The meeting was all business. Sign this form. Take this pamphlet. Call these people. And in twenty minutes, it was done. Dad W was officially dead.

We rose to shake hands with the registrar, I gathered the forms and the brochures and the certificate of death, and we took our leave. As we walked to the car, we planned the rest of the afternoon.

“Perhaps we should get lunch,” Mum suggested. “We kept forgetting to eat.”

“We could get a pasty at Sainsbury. Their chicken vegetable pasty is good,” Peter said.

“But Oggy Oggy has the fruit pasties that Kelli likes,” Mum said.

“Wait a minute.” I interrupted the pasty debate. “I just realized…I’m holding all of the important papers.”

Mum smiled. “Dad would definitely not be comfortable with that.”

“He sure wouldn’t,” Peter agreed.

“I know,” I said. “I feel so naughty.”

And we all laughed. In spite of ourselves.

So You Want to Get Married

P&K Wedding (2)

My What-I-Am-Looking-for-in-a-Husband List started with just a few basic traits. Christian. Intelligent. Good with Kids. Sense of Humor. And Athletic. Sounds reasonable, right?

But as I moved through my twenties—marked in some way by too many men—the list expanded and morphed. Each failed relationship sent me back to the list with a bright red pen. Christian was amended to Growing in His Faith after one Christian boyfriend decided that drugs and who-knows-what-else were a good idea. Good Communicator was added and then highlighted after a particularly painful two years during which I never knew where I stood. Comfortable with My Disabled Parents became increasingly important with each awkward family introduction. Vocational Ministry rose in the ranks as I felt more and more led in that direction. And Handy around the House was entered as a footnote. Not required, but I did swoon a bit whenever something broke and a boy brought over his tools.

I met Peter one bright September Friday in 1998. I left my office at lunchtime and walked across campus to one of the three temporary dining halls (TDRs), set up while our main dining hall was undergoing an extensive renovation.

By that time, I had been a Bible College Communications Professor for a whole month. Long enough for the initial high to fade. But short enough that I still stumbled around—dumbfounded—wondering, “Who in their right mind thought I could do this?”

That afternoon I had this funny sense that I was going to see someone at lunch. I just didn’t know who. So I entered the first TDR and wandered among the tables, surveying the faces of students and fellow faculty, looking for someone familiar or just friendly. But—seeing no one I knew or felt compelled to approach—I kept on walking, right out the opposite door.

The two other TDRs existed down in the school’s intimidating tunnel system, but on this monumental day I decided to brave the labyrinth. I found the second TDR without too much trouble and peeked in the door. It was virtually empty. No obvious divine encounter waiting there. So I trudged back to my office, resigned to spending my lunch hour drinking faculty-lounge coffee and grading English Composition papers.

But as I unlocked my office door, I felt a stirring. Or a nudge. Or maybe it was a voice. Calling to me. “Go to the third TDR.”

Of course, I could only obey.

I grabbed a book for certain company and headed back underground. To the tunnels. And after bumping up against just a couple of dead ends, I found it. The third TDR. A bustling, makeshift cafeteria, full of folding tables and hungry strangers. Feeling awkward and alone, but determined to see this thing through, I followed the crowd to the salad bar line. And while I was dawdling over the dressings, a kind gentleman approached. Dr. Green was a graduate school professor, who was also new to campus. He remembered me from orientation.

“Are you eating with anyone?” he asked with a smile.

“No,” I answered.

“Would you like to join me and some of my graduate students?” he asked.

Well. Of course I would.

He led me to a long table, crowded with a dozen or so people roughly my age. They shifted and made space for me across from Dr. Green and told me all of their names. A “Peter” was seated not far away.

I spent most of that meal exchanging new professor stories with Dr. Green. Until, suddenly, my keen left ear overheard something remarkable. In his fabulous British accent, Peter told another graduate student that Minneapolis, Minnesota, was his favorite city in the United States. Now, I am a loyal Minnesotan. For a long time, my Illinois license plate read MNESO 10. I still cheer for the Vikings and the Twins. And I secretly love to shovel snow. But even so, Minneapolis seemed like an odd choice for #1. I had to know the story. So I asked.

And that was our first conversation.

Peter explained that his parents had lived in Minneapolis for a year while his dad did a teaching exchange. I explained that I grew up there. And we agreed on her best feature. The Lakes. He also asked me what I taught, and we discovered a shared love of literature and theater. And then, as I told him about the play I hoped to direct the following spring, he started smiling. One of those smirk-y sort of smiles. As if he had some secret joke. As if I had spinach stuck in my teeth. I blushed and faltered and scrambled to recall what stupid thing I must have said. Then he jumped in to rescue me.

“I’m sorry,” he said, all dimpled and brown-eyed and British, “but I just love your accent.”

I floated back to my office, grabbed my lesson plans, somehow found my Speech Communication class, and tried to form complete sentences. Later that afternoon, when I was packing up to go home, I pulled out my journal and jotted a few lines about that lunch. I finished with this: “I think I just met the man I am going to spend the rest of my life with.” Then I added, “I can’t believe I wrote that!”

Minutes later as I left my office building to catch a train, I looked across the lawn and there was—of all people—Peter. Sitting on a bench.

With. Another. Girl.

He waved. And smiled. And I waved back. Forcing a grin. Then I kicked myself all the way to the train.

A week or so after our first lunch meeting, the annual Missions Conference was held on campus. On the first night, I headed to the auditorium early, looking for a student whom I didn’t find. But when I climbed up to the balcony and scanned the rows of empty seats, who did I see? Peter, of course. Sitting all by himself. He invited me to join him. We lifted our voices together in praise songs and brushed elbows during the sermon. Then after the meeting he walked me to my car.

On the way to the parking garage, he told me that he had been a missionary. For six years. In Pakistan and Japan. He even spoke some Japanese to prove it. (I couldn’t help myself. The List appeared in my head. Vocational Ministry. Check.) Not only that, but he had taught fifth graders at the missions school. (Good with Kids. Check.) Not only that, but he had coached their soccer team. (Athletic. Check.) Not only that, but he had come to the graduate school to understand more about the Bible and theology. (Intelligent. Check.) Not only that, but he said all of this with that adorable British accent. (Which hadn’t been on The List. But certainly should have.)

I can’t remember if the subject of The Other Girl came up naturally or if I had to raise the issue with characteristic finesse, but I learned that she was a fellow graduate student. A friend, as far as Peter was concerned, but one who had already expressed her interest in him beyond the realm of the friendly.

Game. On.

Over the next couple of weeks, I frequented that third TDR. Lingering with a student or a colleague until Peter would find me there and join our conversation. Eventually, inevitably, my dinner date would start to feel like a third wheel and would leave us on our own to shut the dining hall down. One Friday in late October, our conversation lasted beyond TDR closing time and all evening long. Finally, I explained that I ought to catch a train, and he offered to walk me to the station.

We didn’t hurry though. He was busy describing and quoting British comedies that I had never heard of and didn’t understand. Of course, I laughed anyhow. And I gave Sense of Humor a tentative check in my mind.

I missed my train that night. We arrived at the station just as it was pulling out. But like a gentleman, he waited with me a whole hour until the next one. To pass the time, he ordered a fish fillet sandwich. When he pronounced it “fill it” and I had to interpret for the McDonald’s employee, I momentarily wondered if he was as intelligent as I had first thought. But in spite of those couple of cultural blips, a romance was sparked, and from that night on, he walked me to the train. Almost every single day.

On one walk, in late October, we stopped for coffee. Neither of us was in a rush, so we found a tiny table in a Starbucks corner and talked. We were a month in, so I thought it was time to tell him about my parents. And cerebral palsy.

But I didn’t lead with that. Instead, I stalled and told him about my day. My teaching. And a sample informative speech outline I had written for my students, based on my experience skydiving. He was impressed. “You jumped out of a plane?”

I didn’t know until a long time later that this was a checklist moment for him. Adventurous. Check. Willing to Take Risks.

Eventually, I worked up the courage to share what was on my heart. To describe my family with all of their quirks. To explain their needs and limitations.

I couldn’t have imagined a better response. Peter looked deep in my eyes. He told me how he understood that if he ever married, he was marrying his wife’s family as well, whatever that involved. It was my turn to be impressed. And I gave Comfortable with My Parents a very hopeful check.

At this point I feel the need to clarify that I don’t necessarily advise this checklist approach to dating. It sounds a bit like shopping for a new car. Good gas mileage. Check. Standard transmission. Check. Air conditioning. Check. My latest must-have: Heated seats. Check.

Or maybe it’s like casting a play. The play of your life. The supporting actor role though—because you, of course, are the lead. You have the plot pretty much figured out. You know how you want the story to go. You can see the whole cast in your mind. The winsome spouse. Maybe a few adorable kids. Some cool people to play your extended family and friends. You can envision the set. A fabulous apartment or a cute little house. Perhaps you have even thought through the costumes and props.

But you’re not buying a car. You’re not even casting a play. You’re living a real-live life. Directed and produced by a real-live God. Who has his own ideas.

Like every dating relationship, ours progressed with exhilarating highs and painful lows. The Other Girl convinced Peter to break up with me just before Christmas by reminding him repeatedly that he wanted to focus on God. We reunited after the New Year and spent a month in focused prayer for our relationship, both believing by the end of January that God had indeed brought us together for good reason. That month I also held auditions for The Importance of Being Ernest and cast Peter as the lead.

As will happen, though, the more time we spent, the closer we got, the more we triggered each other’s fears and insecurities. For example, one evening we went to the theater, but when Peter told me, “You look nice tonight,” I could only hear the “tonight” and dissolved into tears. Or for example, in May Peter took me to England to meet his family, but when his mum and I gushed over The Kitley House as a potential wedding site, Peter clammed up and then protested too strongly, “I haven’t even proposed.”

During the summer of 1999, Peter took a position as the junior high leader at a church day camp. The church hired me as well, as one of Peter’s counselors. And so all day, every day—June, July, and August—we corralled and mentored dozens of sweet and squirrely kids. Bussing them to beaches and waterparks and museums and such. Leading them in games and Bible studies. Refereeing when they got out of control.

One Friday evening in August, at the end of a particularly difficult week, we were relaxing and recovering at Peter’s host home.

“It’s a beautiful night,” I said. “Let’s go for a run.”

Peter needed a bit of persuading. But eventually we went. We had done one lap around the subdivision and were starting around again, when Peter suddenly dropped to one knee on the street corner, and said quite simply, “Will you marry me?”

He didn’t make a romantic speech. He didn’t have a ring. He didn’t have flowers. He didn’t look his best. And I, too, was a tired and sweaty mess.

So my immediate response was certainly appropriate: “Are you serious?” This wasn’t how I had envisioned it when I drafted the script. And then, of course, I said, “Yes.”

Peter explained, after the fact, that he was so nervous about proposing that he just had to do it. Spontaneously. When he felt as if he could. He also explained that—in England—engagements are usually simple like that. No hiding the ring in a fill-it of fish. No hiring an orchestra to serenade. No hot air balloon rides to heaven and back. But he explained that he knew that night that we could make it work. That we were allies. Partners. Better together than we were apart.

So we started to plan for our shared life.

The wedding was to be in England at Christmas, so Peter’s mum acted as chief wedding coordinator. Meeting with photographers and florists and e-mailing me often with questions and quotes.

Peter and I focused on deciding where to live. I was still at Gert’s. And I still loved it. It was in downtown Wheaton. It was cheap. Yes, it was terribly run-down. But it was quirky, and I had made it cute. My two main qualifications for a home. I wanted to stay.

Peter wanted to move. The school where he would be teaching fifth grade was purchasing a home and a stable on a large piece of property in a suburb about an hour north. A bunker-like structure was built onto the backside of the barn, and they were offering that to us for a reasonable rent. It had the quirk-factor, for sure, but it wasn’t at all cute. It had two-foot thick concrete walls and small windows. It had been used as an office space, so it sported a drop ceiling, florescent lights, and industrial grade carpeting. Not to mention, you could hear the horses through the wall. Reluctantly, I agreed. Then the school’s property purchase fell through, and we were back to square one.

Peter lobbied next for a 1970s apartment halfway between his school and mine. The location made sense. And it was affordable. But it wasn’t cute. Or quirky. So I made quite a fuss. We spent the better part of one premarital counseling session duking this out, our pastor and his wife as the referees. Until Peter gave in.

So then, after our Christmas wedding, we squeezed and settled into married life. Upstairs at Gert’s. We unpacked our wedding china and piled it precariously on the sagging pantry shelves. The plates and bowls and saucers and cups rattled ominously every time a train went by.

And while we enjoyed Saturday morning newlywed brunch dates at the corner cafe and long newlywed walks in the nearby Cantigny flower gardens and spontaneous newlywed escapes to fancy bed and breakfasts all around the area, we also realized—with each little rattle—as most newlyweds do—that our Lists were even longer than we first let on.

Husband of Kelli wasn’t supposed to play computer games.

Wife of Peter was supposed to be able to dance.

Husband of Kelli was supposed to enter into home improvement projects with glee.

Wife of Peter was supposed to listen to him read for hours, and then debate him the finer points.

Husband of Kelli got more stuff done.

Wife of Peter wasn’t so uptight.

On our first anniversary, we decided to start a joint journal. A written record of our married life. Peter would write on the left hand pages, and I would write on the right.

We composed our first parallel entries at a bed and breakfast called the English Rose. I wrote about being married for one year, how sanctifying it had been, how much we had grown.

Peter wrote this.

It seems that in marriage the emotions constantly fluctuate, especially when we are in each other’s presence. Yet through these multifarious testings of our strength, we rely on God and we grow. I see how easy it would be to close off completely, harden the heart, pretend that all these things are happening independently of me. Yet I make the choices and I live with the consequences. As a bachelor I was able to deceive myself more easily. I love my wife, but that love is often under pressure. It is a mystery how it grows under pressure and blossoms. It is a further mystery how it is pruned once more so that it yields more fruit. Beyond this analogy a whole metamorphosis has taken place which gives birth to a love that makes what went before look like indifference. 

It continues from there. I wrote on and off—on the right-hand side—for the next four years. Peter wrote much less and then stopped.

What is easy to see now, though I had no idea of it at the time, is that we were already drifting apart. Busy and buried in our own lives. Consumed with our own thoughts. Nursing our own wounds. Striving for our own goals. Reaching out to one another. Yes. Trying to bridge the gap. But acting so often in our own, parallel but too individual, plays.

Over the years Peter and I have been asked to put several young couples through their premarital counseling paces. In fact, one adorable young couple is coming over tomorrow night. We have our curriculum all laid out. We always talk about personality types and communication and conflict. Eventually, we’ll discuss finances and family and sex.

But if I had to boil it down. If I were asked to tell them one first and fundamental piece of advice, I think it would be this: Take the time and make every effort to see.

Not the caricature in your head. Not the cast member in your play. But the real-live person that you have been called to love.

I didn’t so often in those early years. And it might have made a difference.

To Grow Your Soul

Kelli in Garden (2)

I am a gardening wannabe.

It’s the artistic part that appeals to me. Loading my Home Depot cart with pretty plants. Then arranging them around the garden, according to size and color and shape and texture and blooming time.

However—and quite unfortunately—the science side of gardening eludes me. Oh, sure, I can place the plants based on shade or sun. I can sprinkle a bit of fertilizer here and there. And usually I remember to water. But beyond that—when you start talking about soil, nutrients, bugs, rot, and disease—I’m in over my head.

When Peter and I bought This Old McHenry House, the small back yard was covered in a variety of overgrown shrubs. No grass. Just bushes, rocks, a crumbling brick patio, two dilapidated fountains, a cock-eyed birdhouse, and a pathway running through the foliage, from house to garage.

It looked like a scraggly and neglected mess when we arrived in March. But come spring, I was pleasantly surprised when most of the bushes erupted with flowers and leaves. A jungle of loveliness. And that first summer, I dedicated myself to the task of taming it. Sculpting it into our own suburban oasis. I pruned and weeded. Moved some plants and added others. Filled the old fountains with flowers. And at the end of every long day of gardening, I collapsed in an Adirondack chair with a glass of lemonade and admired my work.

The following spring I was eager to take things to the next level. By then I had researched how to lay a brick patio, and I planned to transform the awkward space between the house and the neighbor’s fence from a mud pit into an additional outdoor living area. I had also investigated native Illinois flowers, various mulch options, and how to hang a hammock.

My enthusiasm waned ever-so-slightly, however, when I surveyed the scene in early May. While most of my perennials had survived the long winter, several of them had not. So before I could press ahead with my elaborate scheme, I had to deal with the casualties. I moved around the garden with shovel and lawn bag in tow, digging up the dead.

Until I came across one particular Potentilla.

At first glance she looked brown and brittle, so I poked in the shovel and began to pry her out. But when I looked more closely, when I parted her prickly branches to grab ahold and pull up her roots, I saw just a little bit of life. Just a few delicate green leaves pushing up through the dirt at her base.

Peter found me, sitting in the mud, a bit teary actually, pushing her back into the ground. “What’s up?” he asked.

“Look,” I said. “This poor shrub reminds me of me.”

See, that spring gardening was more than a home improvement project. More than a hobby for me. It was a distraction. Even a salve. I was smack in the middle of a six-year proverbial “dark night of the soul.” I was brown and brittle. And gardening was going to help get me through.

In my next several blog entries, I will detail that journey. The descent into the valley. The rocky terrain, the long tunnels, the glimpses of light, and the eventual slow climb out the other side.

But here, in this essay, what I want to do is give you a map.

I knew less about Spiritual Growth than I did about gardening when I signed up for the Principles of Discipleship class during my fourth semester of seminary in 1994. As a part of the course, I waded through James W. Fowler’s thick treatise on the subject, Stages of Faith. Fowler based his work on Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development and Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. And he was one of the first to describe Faith Development in similar terms—specifically a six-Stage process that all people move through in sequence—though the object of their faith and the speed of their journey may widely differ.

Fowler begins by defining faith in broad terms—as “a state of being ultimately concerned.” According to Fowler, then, we all have faith. In something. We are all ultimately concerned “with how to put our lives together and with what will make life worth living. Moreover, we look for something to
love that loves us, something to value that gives us value, something to honor and respect that has the power to sustain our being.”

In later chapters, then, Fowler describes his six Stages in great depth with piles of research to back them up. Here, I’ll try to give you a sort of simple summary.

Stage Number One typically describes children from age two to seven. Fowler writes that young children approach Faith primarily with their imagination. They are powerfully and permanently influenced by the stories and actions and emotions of the adults in their lives. And they express their own “Faith” largely by imitation. They don’t yet understand God, and they may imagine him to be all sorts of fantastic things. But they pray the way their parents tell them to pray. And they recite the Bible verses their parents teach them to recite. This is an important foundation for the Stages yet to come.

When children reach school age and their thinking becomes more concrete, they are ready to enter Stage Number Two. They begin to construct a more coherent and literal narrative for their Faith. Story remains central, but they now work hard to sort out the real from the make-believe. Stage Two children are literal. They are greatly concerned with right and wrong. And they expect God and life to be good and fair.

In adolescence, most children move into Stage Number Three. Here, a child’s world expands well beyond the family, and Faith should ideally provide an anchor and a basis for identity. But this is an insecure and conformist Stage. Children are so concerned with the expectations and judgments of others that they often follow the loudest voice. And unfortunately, when Faith is not a primary influence, these voices can become so loud and so powerful that they impair judgment and jeopardize future growth.

To push beyond Fowler’s Stage Number Three, an individual must reflect critically on his beliefs. Often this transition to Stage Number Four is precipitated by a major life change or a crisis of some kind. The source of authority shifts from the external to the internal—from others to self. And the individual begins to take seriously the responsibility for his own Faith. Ideally, this should happen in young adulthood. But Fowler’s research revealed that some adults don’t move into Stage Four until mid-life. And many other adults never, ever do.

Stage Number Five happens when adults—usually in mid-life—move from the self-confidence of Stage Four to a place where they can appreciate the presence of ambiguity and the power of paradox. By this time, they are well-acquainted with pain, and they are ready to “reclaim and rework” their understanding of the past. They draw close to what is different, embrace the tension, and think outside of the box.

Finally, Fowler describes an exceedingly rare Stage Number Six. Mother Theresa, for example. The person who has reached Stage Six has abandoned the need for self-preservation. She has a transcendent passion to transform the world—not into her own image, but into the image of the Divine. According to Fowler, these people “have a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us.”

When I was studying Fowler in 1994, I was entering his Stage Number Four. Graduating from college and moving on my own to Illinois had been a major life change. This new independence and my seminary studies were causing me to evaluate my background and my beliefs. But I wanted to do this thoughtfully. To really become an adult. To truly grow.

So I devised a Spiritual Growth plan of my own.

Step Number One: Deconstruct my old beliefs, keeping only the non-negotiable ones.

Step Number Two: Research—both my old beliefs as well as the alternatives.

Step Number Three: Build back a stronger structure on a more sure foundation.

So I got to work. Step One was fairly easy. Demolition usually is. But I got stuck in Step Two. I spent several long Saturdays in the seminary library, tucked in a quiet corner, pouring over theology books that I could hardly understand, wondering if it was supposed to be this hard, begging God to tell me if I was doing the right thing, and realizing that—here too—I was in over my head. If brilliant theologians disagreed about the nature of free-will and God’s sovereignty in salvation, for example, who was I to figure it all out?

So I graduated from seminary in 1996—Magna Cum Laude, and in many ways, mid-renovation.

I didn’t know much about George Barna when he got up to speak at the Re:Write Conference last October. I knew him to be the Christian research guru, and several of his research books lined my shelf. But I didn’t know that—based on his research—he had laid out his own path for Spiritual Growth in his book called Maximum Faith. He describes a Ten-Stop Faith Journey that in many ways parallels Fowler’s work. But I think Barna makes some things even more clear. Here’s what he says.

Stop Number One: We are ignorant to the concept or existence of sin. We all enter the world this way, and according to Barna’s research 1% of American adults remain in this position.

Stop Number Two: We are aware of sin, but indifferent to it. We understand that certain behaviors might be categorized as “sin,” but we are not concerned at all about the consequences. 16% of American adults live here.

Stop Number Three: We are concerned about the implications of personal sin. We begin to ask the “what ifs.” What if there is a hell? What if my sin does offend God? What if the Bible is, in fact, true? Here, we explore possible responses as well. We could ignore sin, reduce sin, hide sin, or seek some way to wipe it out. 39% of American adults exist in Stop Number Three.

Stop Number Four: We confess our sins and ask Jesus Christ to be our personal Savior. After considering our options, we choose the Biblical, Christian path. Unfortunately, 9% of American adults see this as a “one and done” moment and have gone no further on the journey.

Stop Number Five: We commit to faith activities. We read our Bible, memorize verses, join a small group, and pour ourselves into service. This can be an exciting time, a time of rapid growth and change, and 24% of American adults say they are living here.

Stop Number Six: We experience a prolonged period of spiritual discontent. “After years of involvement in the Christian faith, most people slip into a spiritual coma,” says Barna. We are painfully aware that we have plateaued, but we feel helpless to get ourselves unstuck. We become bored or disillusioned with the church. We are susceptible to cynicism, frustration, and doubt. The majority of believers who reach Stop Number Six never move on. The commitment and cost seem too great. So “they retreat to the shelter of the religious games that ensnare most churched people.” This describes 6% of American adults.

Stop Number Seven: We experience personal brokenness. This is when God takes us through a time of “in-your-face confrontation…which prepares [us] for the glorious healing and reconstruction that God has in mind.” This brokenness only comes “after much reflection and meditation, sorrow and remorse, realistic self-evaluation, talking and listening to God, and coming to the end of self…This phase is largely about realigning our spirit with God.” Sadly, only 3% of American adults make it here.

Stop Number Eight: We choose to surrender and submit fully to God and live in radical dependence on Him. We allow God to completely “remake our life,” to heal our past. And we live in the present with a God-consciousness that changes absolutely everything. According to Barna’s extensive study, a mere 1% of American adults have reached Stop Number Eight. The rest of us who have experienced the brokenness of Stop Number Seven have run from it, reverted to previous Stops seeking comfort and ease, become angry with God, or abandoned the faith altogether.

Stop Number Nine: We enjoy a profound intimacy with and love for God. At this Stop, “God blesses us with the ability to know and love Him so profoundly that it is difficult to put into words.” We experience a joy and peace and wisdom that were not available to us before. Just .5% of American adults ever reach this point.

Stop Number Ten: We experience a profound compassion and love for humanity. Finally, loving God as we do, we are able to love people the way He does too. This is the ultimate life, but only .5% of American adults ever experience it.

I sat in Barna’s workshop, staring at my pen and notebook. A bit teary actually. He was articulating so much of what I, too, want to say. What I want this blog to be about.

The importance of healing the past in order to move victoriously into the future.

The role of brokenness in making us whole.

The long, hard, but eternally rewarding journey of Spiritual Growth.

That’s the path before us. That’s the road that each one of us is on—whether we realize it or not. Whether we have stalled by the side of the road, have shifted into reverse, or are slowly making our way forward through a thick fog. I know I’ve traveled in all three ways and then some.

So that’s the developing narrative of This Odd House.

Buckle up. It’s going to be bumpy.

20 Things I Might Have Told My 20-Something Self

PicMonkey Collage

Truth be told…I didn’t want to write this essay.

Oh, I know. List-y essays are all the rage. That’s partly why I balked. The non-conformist in me.

But, too, it feels reductionist.

Because in listing out these 20 points, I am communicating—in an over-simplified sort of way—several of the ideas that I will be unpacking here in the weeks and months to come. I’m spilling the beans.

You could almost call this an outline. A table of contents. A summary. Or worse, the Cliff’s Notes version of this blog. And I’m an English teacher. This just isn’t right.

However, the more I tried to avoid this essay, the more it wrote itself in my heart and mind. The more I decided that it had to be.

When Peter and I meet with college students or recent grads, when we speak on a dormitory floor or invite them into our home, we are often asked: “What is the most important piece of advice you would give to us?” And I never answer well. Dozens of thoughts start swirling around in my head, and I can never grab ahold of what I would deem to be “the most important” one. Instead, I just stutter and stammer and try to say something sensible.

So, for any of you who have ever asked me that question and been disappointed by my answer, or for any of you who prefer using Cliff’s Notes, this one is for you.

Here are 20 things I might have told my 20-something self…

  1. Examine your foundation carefully. It’s your worldview. Look deeply at what you value and what you believe about God and man and truth and reality. And make it your own.  Because it will affect every decision you make. And because life has a way of picking you up and tossing you around. And you always want to nail the landing.
  2. Seek healing. Don’t imagine that the trauma of your childhood has been left in the past. It simmers under the surface. And it will surprise you at how suddenly it can boil up or suck you under. The work of healing those hard places might involve reading books or finding counseling. (Don’t be too afraid or too ashamed to ask for help.) But ultimately take that trauma to the only Helper, the Counselor, who has a totally healing touch.
  3. Remain teachable. More specifically, find a mentor. A parent, a pastor, a teacher, a spiritual guide. Or just a person who is living as you would like to live. Spend time with them. Sit at their feet. Look and listen and learn. And, most importantly, be different because of them.
  4. Choose your community carefully. Your friends will give shape to your life. They will either stunt your growth or spur you on. And when you find good friends, keep them. They are like gold. Treasure them. Invest in them. Spur them on too. Be the kind of friend that you would like to have.
  5. Feed yourself. Your body, your mind, and especially your soul. When your soul is starving, you can’t see straight. So learn what sort of nourishment you need. A group Bible study? A worship song? A long run? An art project? A prayer with a friend? This is an individual matter, so take the time to figure out what fills you up.
  6. Foster good habits. As Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” So don’t wait until tomorrow to get up early, go to bed on time, exercise enough, save money, and so on.  The patterns of your life today are the person you will become.
  7. Learn to rest. Though this could fall under “foster good habits,” for me, it deserves its own point. I am terrible at it. And I can trace this trouble back to my twenties—when I was single and lonesome and (more) insecure. And to distract myself, I filled my days and nights to overflowing. A bit fuller and more frenetic each year. So I would tell my 20-something self that busy is not better. And your worth is not measured by the length of your to-do list.
  8. Take sin seriously. There is no such thing as “getting away with it.” Even if you don’t “get caught.” Though grace is gigantic and forgiveness is free, sin does still stain. And the spot will undoubtedly spread further and sink deeper than you can initially see.
  9. Be patient. Learn to wait well. You are used to getting things in an instant and on demand. But life doesn’t always work that way. Neither does God. His timing is rarely yours. But His is always right. He doesn’t rush. And He never delays. Instead, He unfolds a plan carefully designed and perfectly timed to bring Him glory. (More on that later.)
  10. Don’t worry. It’s a waste. Of time. Energy. And emotion. Worry will tie you in knots. Keep you up at night. Make you cranky and crazy. Nothing good ever comes of it. Worry is fear for the future, but worry does nothing to actually change it. So instead of worrying, make the best decisions you can right now. That’s all you can do. Then let it be.
  11. Evaluate your emotions. They are tricky. And they can be trouble. Often, they spring up from our triggered trauma. For example, let’s say (hypothetically) your husband says something about your blog. He might mean it innocently, even positively. But (hypothetically) you hear it differently. And you immediately feel threatened, defensive, hurt. All of your (hypothetical) insecurity swells to the surface in an instant. You can go with it. Milk it. Act on it. Hurt him back. Or you can do the better thing and take it back to truth.
  12. Adjust your expectations. So much of our disappointment and frustration—with people, with life, with God—occurs because we presume that life should go our way. I still remember the Friday night when the light bulb of this lesson first switched on for me. I was driving home from work, mulling over my expectations for the weekend and already becoming irritated, knowing that they wouldn’t be met. So I decided to change them. Simple as that. I made the very conscious decision to rewrite my personal plan for those two days. And I put only one thing on my new agenda: “Love Peter well.” That I could do. That I did. And I was in no way disappointed.
  13. Take risks. Follow God’s leading boldly into the unknown. Beyond the horizon of your comfort zone. As a wise friend advised me when we were trying to decide whether or not to put our already broken hearts on the line to foster our son Daryl, “Do what you won’t regret.”
  14. Press into pain. While no one wants to experience pain, you will. Don’t be shocked. Don’t run from it. Don’t ignore it. Don’t fight it. Let it be. Let it burn and melt your heart. But never fear that God has abandoned you to the flame. He is there. His presence is unwavering. He is pursuing you and purging the dross. You are not being punished. You are being purified.
  15. Realize that your life is not about you anyhow. It’s about Him and His glory. I used to repeatedly recite this mantra to myself when a big project loomed and I feared the outcome. Would I succeed or fail? Would my reputation rise or fall? “It’s not about me. It’s all about Him.” I said it over and over and over again. And if He receives more glory from your failure, so be it. Accepting this takes the pressure off.
  16. Maintain an eternal perspective. Train your eyes on this hope, this inheritance, that will “never perish, spoil, or fade.” That is “kept in heaven for you.” For it is in this that you are “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1). Peter (the apostle, not the husband) said it better than I could. So we’ll leave it at that.
  17. Embrace grace. Accept it with open arms and open heart. Hold it tight until it soaks into your soul. Then release it. Give it away. To your family, to your friends, to your church. When I was 20-something, my church was falling apart. The pastor left. The leadership couldn’t agree. And the congregation was about to split. I was disillusioned and critical. Sitting in judgment over all of them. Looking down my nose with disgust. But that posture helps no one, and it is not your place.
  18. Live loved. Wake up every morning and—before you put your feet to the floor—let your mind and heart linger on the fact that the Creator of the Universe loves you passionately, completely, unconditionally, and eternally. Nothing matters more than this. And this one truth can change absolutely everything.
  19. Never, ever get another perm. (A digression, I know. And yes, it is included because I needed one more point to make 20. But, really, it had to be said. Right? I’m pretty sure you were already thinking it.)
  20. Finally, prepare to be amazed. Your life may look something like you envision. Or it may take you to places that you never imagined. Regardless. Hold on tight. Because He is in the business of blowing your mind.

Which of these do you need to hear most?

Anything you would change or add?

Home Inspection (or What We Knew at 22)

cracks 2

When Peter and I purchased This Old McHenry House in 2005, we did what most wise home buyers do. We hired a home inspector to go over the place with a fine-tooth comb and tell us what needed to be fixed.

The garage door didn’t close properly. The brick patio was crumbling. Among other things. She was 84 years old after all. But the issue that concerned us most was the cracks in the foundation. Four rather large crevices running from the basement ceiling almost to the floor.

A previous owner had tried to patch them on his own. Had slathered black tar up and down and all around. But this was our foundation we were talking about, so we called in the big guns. One of those fancy waterproofing companies with a website and a reputation and a promise. Their representative spent a long time in our basement, then emerged with a plan. Two, really.

Plan Number One. For a small fortune, the company would fill the cracks in our basement and guarantee them not to leak any longer.

The problem with Plan Number One? The representative explained that the placement and size of our cracks meant that one third of our house was quite possibly sinking into the ground.

So he recommended Plan Number Two. He showed us a slick and scary video to prove his point. For thirty-something-thousand dollars, our right arms and left legs, the company would excavate the entire perimeter of the house to below the foundation. Then they would install piers at regular intervals. These piers would be hydraulically driven into the ground until they reached bedrock. And This Old McHenry House would be gently lifted back to level.

We chose Plan Number One. And the basement has been (mostly) dry ever since.

But sometimes, when TOMH creaks and groans under the stress of bearing our lives, an image flashes through my mind. The image of the front of our house dropping right off. The image of the LOML and me, lying in bed, suddenly exposed to the elements as our bedroom wall falls to the ground.

If this happens one day, we can’t say we weren’t warned. Right there on their website, the waterproofing company says it all, clear as day.

“Many homeowners are unaware of structural foundation problems that are affecting their home. Typically, a homeowner does not become aware of the problem until the symptoms begin to affect the main floor and upstairs living environment. The tendency is to treat the symptoms without rooting out the cause of the problem. Of course, this leads to remedies and patches that create a much more expensive repair later. It is important to know the signs of structural foundation failure.”

“The signs of structural foundation failure.”

Know the signs.

If only I had.

If only any of us did.

Last night I spent some quality time with my 22-year-old self.

I put the kids to bed, made a cup of tea, and curled up in the beanbag chair with several old journals that I found in a bin in the basement.

I admit. I was nervous. I wasn’t sure what I would find. Or who. Wasn’t sure what memories or emotions those old confessions would stir up. And I wasn’t sure I would like her very much. That 22-year-old me.

It was a roller-coaster of a read, for sure. Up and down and all around. And as I watched her ride—this time from afar—I one moment cheered, and cringed the next. Knowing what I do now. Knowing the tunnels, the hills, the drops, the corkscrew turns. Knowing full well where the rails go next.


When I was 22, I moved into a flat in a decrepit house in downtown Wheaton. A six-month roommate situation had deteriorated, and I needed an affordable place of my own. The second story of Gertrude’s house fit the bill. It was old and quirky and filthy when I first saw it. A tiny one-bedroom with horrible wallpaper, a Pepto-Bismol pink kitchen, severely slanted floors, and—one redeeming feature—a clawfoot tub. Gertrude was only asking $300 a month though, and thankfully she agreed to let me paint. So I did. Every inch of that place. Floors. Ceilings. Walls. Even the tub. My compulsive painting habit was born in that space. I decorated with inherited antiques and flea market finds and made myself a cute, cozy home.

When I was 22, I was enjoying my independence and my fledgling ministry career. I had moved to the Chicago area right after college for an editing job at a Christian publishing house. They hired me to create a new curriculum product for kids, and the project was off to a good start. My boss believed in me, expanded my responsibilities, and gave me space to create.

When I was 22, I was also still riding the high of my first overseas missions trip to Romania. I had seen God work there in new and surprising ways. And I wanted to go back. Wanted to serve the people there. Wanted another adventure. Wanted to do great things for God. And to know more of Him.

So when I was 22, I enrolled in Trinity Divinity School, seeking a seminary education—and, truthfully, a seminary man. I also threw myself into ministry at my church. Sang in the choir, taught Children’s Church, volunteered in the youth ministry. Became extra busy about God’s work.

To the casual observer—to the homeowner unaware—the structure that was my young adult life likely looked strong.

But if I had done a thorough home inspection at that time. If I had allowed God to excavate the entire perimeter of my life. If I had known the signs of structural foundation failure. I might have seen the cracks. I might have drilled down to bedrock much earlier on. I might not have resorted to remedies and patches. Ephemeral fixes. And I might have avoided some of the very costly repairs that had to happen down the line.

We sometimes call it our Worldview. And we all have one. It’s what we believe—sometimes without realizing it. It’s what drives our every thought, every decision, every move we make. It affects how we relate to other people and what we feel.

When we break it down into parts, we can talk about the following: Our understanding of God. Our understanding of Man. Our understanding of Truth. Our beliefs about the Future. What we Value. And what we believe to be Real.

We come by our Worldview quite honestly. We were helped in its construction. By our family, our friends, our teachers, our experiences, our faith.

And, when we are 22, it is upon that foundation that we build.

When I was 22, I knew a lot about God. I had already studied Him for years. And I had Him figured out. My theology was sorted. It had hardly been questioned or challenged or truly made my own. God still fit in the nice God-sized box I had been handed and then set on the shelf. He was holy and sovereign and on down the line, but He was also good and wanted good things for me. If I delighted in Him, He would give me the desires of my heart. On demand. That was the Deal.

When I was 22, I knew a lot about myself. I knew I was a perfectionist. I knew that I had to perform. To keep it all together. To control my well-ordered world because if I didn’t make things happen, no one would. But digging just below the surface, I also believed that I was horribly alone. And horribly unloved. That I didn’t measure up or have anything important to offer. That I really wasn’t good enough. No matter how hard I tried or how many good things I did. I was driven by emotion and full of fear.

When I was 22, I valued comfort over Christ. Activity over intimacy. Pleasure over purity. Ritual over real life change.

Signs of structural foundation failure. All over the place.

The cracks are there, if we know what we are looking for.

I get to work with college students. And I love them. So much. I admire them too. Their passion. Their energy. Their minds. Their creativity. Their authenticity. And so much more.

I get to teach them how to write and how to speak. How to create and express. And when I’m extra lucky, I also get to listen as they tell me about their lives. I’m sure that I too often give them remedies and patches. We rarely have the opportunity to excavate to below the foundation.

And then, every May, I don cap and gown and watch as another five hundred of them cross a platform, accept their diplomas, and walk out into the waiting world. We buckle them in and send them off. On the ride of their lives. I am equal parts proud and nervous. I cheer and I cringe. Knowing what I do now. How life will take them up and down and all around. The tunnels, the hills, the drops, the corkscrew turns.

Of course they don’t know their own structural foundation failures. Few of us do at 22. Few of us do, until the walls are already crumbling down.

But every May I pray that—as soon as the cracks become evident—they will choose the more thorough, albeit more costly, plan. That they will do what I did not. That they will call in the big guns—the experts, mentors, parents—those who can detect what they cannot. That they will excavate the perimeter of their hearts and minds. That they will examine their foundation carefully. And that they will drive those piers all the way down to bedrock. To Him who is certain and solid and immovable.

If you are 22 or so, do you detect any cracks?

If you are, well, older than that, what would you tell your 22-year-old self?

What cracks have become evident in the foundation that is your worldview?

Growing Up in Good Time

House in 2005 (2) 

When we first saw This Old McHenry House in December of 2004, she was covered in a dingy white vinyl siding. All of her still-visible trim work was sloppily painted a horrible dark pink. She wasn’t pretty. But I thought she had potential.

My suspicion was confirmed when we received a folder of paperwork at the closing in March 2005. In the folder was a picture of the house just after she was built in 1921.

There she was. In all her glory. Wide clapboard on the first story; narrow on the second. Craftsman details around her base and her middle, on each corner and window. I became obsessed. “That’s all gotta be under there,” I told the LOML. “We have to bring her back.”

House in 1921 (2)

I began to plot and plan.

Providentially, a Victorian-home-turned-attorney’s-office just around the corner from us had recently undergone a complete exterior transformation. So one day I suggested that we knock on their door and ask them who did their paint job. Maybe get a recommendation. Peter said that this whole project was my crazy idea and I would have to do the talking, but he agreed to walk with me over to the house.

As we approached, however, my heart sank. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before. The poor thing stood there, only a year in her new grey and purple paint, already cracking and peeling and pitiful.

“See? That’s what I’m afraid of,” Peter said. “I don’t want to have to re-paint our house every single year.”

I was momentarily deflated, but I am not so easily deterred. I redoubled my research—determined to find a better way. And poor Peter? He was simply swept along in my scheme.

Eventually, I located a company in Elgin, Illinois, that specializes in the exterior restoration of old homes. They couldn’t do the work for us. They were too far away and too expensive. But I e-mailed the owner for advice. She graciously wrote back with detailed instructions and a guarantee. “Follow these steps to a ‘T’ and your paint job will last seven years, maybe even ten.”

Here is what she told us to do:

1.   Thoroughly scrape off all loose paint.

2.   Sand every surface smooth with an orbital sander, feathering the edges.

3.   Scrub the surface in a circular motion with a brush and a tablespoon of TSP dissolved in a gallon of water. Rinse with running water and allow to dry.

4.   Fill nail holes ONLY with Flex-Tech Apoxy.

5.   Prime ONLY with Muralo’s Ultimate X-200 Exterior Oil-Based Primer-2200 and allow to dry.

6.   Paint with Benjamin Moore Premium paint, using ONLY a brush.

Finally then, in June of 2007, armed with this information, I was ready to make a move. First, I hired a contractor to pull the vinyl down. One Saturday morning, we awoke to the sound of the old siding being torn from the house. We live on a busy corner of town, so all day long people stopped and stared as This Old McHenry House was stripped bare.

By the end of the day, she stood completely exposed. Dirty. Bruised. And broken. Peter and I circled her, assessing the situation. Thankfully, much of the siding and trim was still in place, though one sizable section at the back of the house was rotted through. Pieces of trim had been carelessly yanked off to accommodate the vinyl. Additional woodwork near the roofline was falling apart.

house in process (2)

Peter looked concerned. “Now what?” he asked. “Do you know what you’ve gotten us into?”

“We get to work, I guess,” I said. “There’s no turning back now.”

So for many long and exhausting weeks, we spent every available moment scraping and sanding and washing and filling and priming and painting. We started with the garage, then moved to the first story of the house. In early September—with winter looming—we interviewed a few paint contractors, looking for someone to help us get her done. One contractor promised to be the cheapest if we paid him in cash. Another promised to be the quickest because he had a young, energetic crew. But I didn’t want cheap or fast. I wanted a thorough and quality restoration. So I hired the only contractor who agreed to follow each and every one of the Sacred Six Steps.

Following the steps is important, right? And not just in home restoration. But in many areas of life. Cooking a meal. Writing a book. Constructing a toy.

And, of course, helping a human grow up.

Like most parents, I have studied various charts and lists that spell out the steps my children need to take in order to grow. Physically. Cognitively. Socially. The experts tell us, too, that the order of the steps is important. Baby needs to hold up his head before he sits. Creep or crawl before he walks. Run before he rides a bike. A school-age child must learn her numbers before she can add. Her letters before she can read. And so on. In his book Changes That Heal, Dr. Henry Cloud confirms this fact. “We must mature in one stage before we can go on to the next.”

But healthy development through each step or stage doesn’t just happen. Dr. Cloud says three essential ingredients are necessary. The first is Grace. An unearned and fully accepting relationship. The second is Truth. An accurate understanding of the way things really are. Combined, Grace and Truth form an authentic relationship which nurtures development. But this development must also be given the third essential ingredient. Good Time.

Dr. Cloud explains that when parents do their job well, when they speak Truth and ooze Grace, children complete developmental steps confidently and in Good Time. But when parents are absent or withdrawn, when they are abusive or too harsh, when they lack either Grace or Truth, some aspect of a child’s being is removed from Time. “It goes underground,” Cloud writes, “and does not change until it is called out into Good Time, into time affected by Grace and Truth.”

When Peter was about twelve years old, his dad brought home for him a second-hand bike. It needed some work, but Dad Worrall was handy like that. And in no time he had it up and running. Peter was thrilled.

One day, though, Peter brought the bike home with a flat. He very much wanted to learn from his dad, to be able to fix his own bike. So he convinced Dad Worrall to show him how to change the inner tube himself. Then—surprisingly—Dad Worrall let Peter give it a try. Peter struggled to follow the instructions though. And before too long, Dad Worrall stepped back in.

“Just let me do it, Mr. Engineer,” he said.

Mr. Engineer.

Dad Worrall used that nickname often from that point on. Even spread it around the family a bit—to cousins and uncles and aunts—the people Peter respected most. And it has stuck with Peter all of these years. That lack of Grace.

But mechanical projects weren’t the only thing that Dad Worrall took out of Peter’s hands. He was a “control freak” by his own admission. Filling out Peter’s forms. Holding onto Peter’s paperwork. Making Peter’s plans.

And a part of Peter—the part that might have gained confidence about household repairs and paperwork and plans—that part of him went underground.

Just a few months ago it peaked out from under a rock. Peter decided he should finally start the process of becoming an American citizen. He’s been putting it off for years. It involves paperwork.

So one afternoon he went online and found an application. He gave the website his credit card information when they asked for $200, then he spent a long and agonizing time filling out the forms. When he came to the end of the process, though, he realized that something was wrong. What he thought had been a legitimate government website wasn’t.

I was running errands while all of this was happening. So I arrived at home just in time to find him wide eyed, scared, self-loathing, and twelve.

The adult Peter did make some phone calls and get his money back. But twelve-year-old Peter is so powerful that he hasn’t revisited the process again.

I have a twelve-year-old self too. I’m guessing most of us do.

But while Peter’s twelve-year-old likes to retreat and avoid, mine likes to control. It makes sense. While responsibility was taken away from Peter as a child, it was thrust upon me. While twelve-year-old Peter is terrified of what might happen if he does step up, the twelve-year-old me is terrified of what might happen if I don’t.

You might call us a perfect match. The LOML and me.

Or perhaps a perfect storm.

Remember our big painting project? Here she is.

front finished (2)house side

Certainly our twelve-year-old selves surfaced a lot that summer. They don’t always get along. But with a bit of Truth and a whole lot of Grace, we are slowly bringing these things back into Good Time.

In fact, a couple of weeks ago Mr. Engineer fixed our toilet. For the second time. And I didn’t say a word. He watched a video online. Made a trip to the hardware store. And successfully replaced a broken part.

He stepped forward.

I stepped back.

And lo and behold, we both grew up.

What parts of you went underground?

How have they been brought back into Good Time with Grace and Truth?

The Fundamentalism Factor

And…I’m back after a holiday break, hoping to post each Tuesday now until I see this project through.

Thanks for joining me on the ride. Buckle up. Here we go…


I grew up in a Fundamental Baptist world. Fundamental Baptist home. Fundamental Baptist church. Fundamental Baptist school.

I know what you’re thinking.

Okay, actually, I don’t. But I imagine a handful of common responses. Defensiveness is one. Maybe you know some Fundamentalists, and they get your back up. Or maybe you are one, and you are now afraid that I’m going to rip them to shreds. If you’re not defensive, maybe you feel pity? Or curiosity? Incredulity? Empathy? Or disgust?

This label leaves few of us completely indifferent.

Perhaps a little history is in order.

According to Stefan Ulstein (Growing Up Fundamentalist), the term “Fundamentalism” was coined in the early twentieth century. “In 1910 Lyman Stewart, an oil magnate from southern California, commissioned a select group of Bible teachers and evangelists to pen a response to the modernist influence within the evangelical coalition. The result was a series of twelve paperback volumes, known collectively as The Fundamentals” (13). Ninety essays by sixty-four different authors were included. And they covered a wide range of topics—from the Virgin Birth to Socialism to the Second Coming of Christ.

Early Fundamentalism, then, held firm to the beliefs spelled out in these books. It stressed orthodox doctrine, intentional evangelism, personal piety. And followers rose up quickly to the call.

Within just a few years, however, a marginalization of Fundamentalism began. The Scopes Trial of the 1920s pitted Fundamentalists against Modernists in a very public debate around the issue of evolution—and Fundamentalists were painted as “anti-science” and even “anti-intellectual.” Later, when some Southern Fundamentalist voiced support of the Jim Crow laws, the movement as a whole was also labeled “racist.” Then, as American culture experienced the sexual revolution and Fundamentalists clamped down on their progeny with strict dress codes and an uncompromising list of rules, Fundamentalists were often viewed as “reactionary” and “old-fashioned.” The movement became increasingly fraught with fear. “Come out from among them, and be ye separate” became their major refrain.

Rightly or wrongly, this “image problem” has plagued Fundamentalists ever since. And many of us who grew up in the movement have done everything we could to shake this identity loose. We’ve run. We’ve rebelled. We’ve renounced. Much to our parents’ dismay.

On the other hand, though, I have to be fair. For me, the experience of growing up in the Fundamentalist world was certainly not all negative. My Fundamentalist church and school—like many others—faithfully preached the Gospel and taught us to take the Bible seriously. They provided a sense of belonging, security, commitment, and community that is difficult to replicate.

Ulstein wrote his book to give a voice to ex-Fundamentalists. To help those who are still struggling with their Fundamentalist heritage. To encourage communication between Fundamentalist parents and their estranged children. But ultimately, he says, to draw all readers closer to Jesus Christ. According to Ulstein, “our place in the body of Christ is usually guided by the way people around us live their lives and by the ways that they help or hinder us in our own journey” (21).

But this is true—no matter what your religious heritage, right? Whether you grew up Baptist or Catholic or atheist or something else—your understanding of God and your relationship with him was not so much learned as absorbed.

Certainly, I learned much from my family, my church, and my school. But I absorbed even more. Certainly, I was both helped and hindered by my Fundamentalist upbringing. Here, then, is just a bit of how.

When the movie opens, the following verse fills the screen to the sound of an ominous ticking clock.

“Keep a sharp lookout for

you do not know when I will

come, at evening, at midnight,

early dawn or late daybreak.

Don’t let me find you sleeping!”

Jesus Christ

Then the clock comes into view. It’s 10 a.m. The radio turns on, and the news anchor is already describing a universal state of shock. “The event seems to have taken place at the same time all over the world,” he reports. “Just about twenty-five minutes ago, suddenly, and without warning, thousands, perhaps millions of people just disappeared…millions who were living on this earth just last night are not here this morning.”

In the middle of his account, Patty Jo Myers—young, blond, beautiful—bolts awake. She has been sleeping!

After taking a moment to rub her eyes and listen to the report, she calls out to her husband. “Jim. Jim? Jim!” Hearing no response, she rushes to the bathroom and finds Jim’s electric razor. Plugged in. Buzzing loudly. Lying in the sink. Jim is clearly gone. Patty Jo screams.

She stumbles back down the hallway, into the bedroom, and collapses on the floor as the news anchor reads from Matthew 24. Some church leaders are speculating, he says, that this could be an event called the Rapture, spoken of in some branches of theology. “And I quote. ‘Even if it is something like the Rapture, we need not panic. The very fact that we are here and able to discuss it is sign enough that it is not all inclusive.’ End quote.”

Thus goes the opening sequence for the 1972 movie A Thief in the Night. The first time I watched it, I was eight years old, sitting with my family on the hard pews at Grace Baptist Church. It was probably a special Sunday night evangelistic event. For an already anxious child, a child who kept a tearful vigil by the window every time her parents left the house, this movie wrecked me. For months, every night, I begged Jesus to forgive my sins and come into my heart and take me up to Heaven, too, when he came for my mom and dad.

I believed the movie was true. I was a child. Of course I did. I believed that Jesus will come again in the clouds. That it can happen at any time. And that my salvation depends on my confession of Him.

But this, too, I believed. That God is, above all, terrifying. That He is unpredictable, unapproachable, uncompromising, and even cruel. That He keeps us in fear. And that He would not think twice about tearing my fragile family apart.

This I believed.

When I was in fifth grade, our family left Grace Baptist Church and joined a smaller Baptist congregation closer to our home. We were quickly integrated into the little community, attending every time the doors were open. Sunday School. Morning Church. Sunday Training Time. Evening Church. Thursday Prayer Meeting. Saturday Pre-Teen Club. And Social Events.

This church didn’t have a building of its own. We met in the Richfield Community Center and the pastor’s home. For a couple of years, my parents hosted the Pre-Teen Club in our basement. Using primary-colored tape, our leaders laid down an AWANA-like circle on the concrete floor. And every Saturday morning, with a dozen or so other kids, I ran relays around the course. Played Steal the Bacon. Tug of War. Crab Soccer and more.

Every week we also recited memory verses, completed worksheets, and had a “sword drill” for points. Our leader would ask us to hold our Bibles high in the air, making sure that no one had a finger tucked between the pages. Then he would call out a Bible reference and say, “Draw your swords!” We would all bring our Bibles to our laps and feverishly whip through the pages.

I was good at church. As a kid who always felt she had something big to prove, I was as fiercely competitive at Pre-Teens as I was on the softball field. I did church to win. So quite often, I would be the first one to jump to my feet and start reading the sword drill verse aloud. Quite often, I grabbed the beanbag out from under a smaller child’s nose and ran like the wind. And quite often, I recited the most Bible verses for the most points and the most pats on the back.

This I believed. That the Church and the Bible are important. That I should be committed to this Community. And that I should know the Scriptures inside and out.

But this I also believed. That my performance was important too. That I had to win to be worthy. And it was not a good option to be weak.

From the people at this little church, my parents learned about a Baptist school across town, and they sent me there—much against my will—when I started seventh grade. Once I got past the initial transition—only vomiting once in an assembly because I was too timid to ask for help—I thrived there in many ways. I made life-long friends. Excelled in school. Participated in extra-curricular teams and events.

But success in this setting also meant adhering to a long list of rules.

No walking on the left side of the hall.

No long hair for boys.

No pants for girls.

No popped collars for anyone.

No music with a drum. They said that the beat appealed to our baser side.

And so on.

Every morning during homeroom, in the midst of prayer and announcements, our home economics teacher and the school administrator came by to check on us. The administrator carried a comb. If a boy’s hair touched his collar or his ears, he went with the administrator for a trim. Meanwhile, the girls had to stand up next to our desks while the home economics teacher passed by, looking for visible knees. If a skirt was too short, the offender was whisked out of homeroom and taken to the office, where she had to don one of the “office skirts,” an unflattering polyester A-line.

I made it through junior high and high school with only one mortifying detention. And I never, ever wore an office skirt. That doesn’t mean that I never broke a rule. It just means that I got good at the game.

This I believed. That God’s standard is pure. That sin carries consequence. And that followers of Jesus Christ should live a different sort of life.

But this I also believed. That rules matter to God more than relationship. That sin must be done in secret because the discovery of it brings shame. And that guilt is more powerful and more prevalent than grace.

For my first two years of college, my parents insisted that I attend a small Baptist Bible school not far from home. In addition to my major in English Education, I was required to take many Bible and Theology courses.

During my first semester, my friends and I had a 7:30 a.m. Old Testament Survey class. We put long johns on under our skirts, trudged through the snow drifts across campus, and sat shivering in a drafty old auditorium. Our professor had given us a thick set of notes, complete with an extensive outline, some diagrams, and blank lines for us to fill. Each long class period, then, he displayed countless overhead slides, while we copied down the missing words.

This I believed. That truth can be known, and the Bible is its primary source.

But this I also believed. That the Fundamental Baptist idea of truth is always right. It is not to be questioned or contradicted. And memorizing it is all that is required of me. Not learning. Not changing. Not thinking. Just parroting it all right back.

I talk often about these things with the LOML. Though Peter didn’t attend a Christian school—they are rare in England—he did attend a little Plymouth Brethren Church not unlike my Baptist one. We have that similar background. Similar helps and hindrances.

We talk often about how we want to give our children the same Biblical grounding that we had. We bemoan the fact that some kid and youth programs these days emphasize the Fun. But not much of the Fundamentals. So yes, we teach the Bible at home. But we also try to create opportunities for them to study it with their peers.

We talk often about wanting to invest our lives in a committed community of believers that is pursuing hard after Jesus. We long for deep relationships with fellow followers whose faith is central to their lives. Whose faith changes everything. Demands everything. Costs everything. And we hurt. When we go to church and leave again, not having a significant conversation with one soul. Or when we see fellow Christians settle for a version of faith that is easy and comfortable and cheap.

We also talk often about our own junk. The lies we have believed. Yes, still believe. And we try to work it out. Where were we helped? Where were we hindered?  Where do we go from here?

A couple of weeks ago we had a houseful of family and friends staying with us for Christmas. I love that. I love the camaraderie. I love the conversations. I love everything about it, except the inevitable mess.

When we weren’t out doing something fun or I wasn’t busy in the kitchen feeding the many mouths, I was scurrying around the house—tidying toys, piling pillows, wiping windows. But with the population of our house doubled, there was no way I was going to win that war. And it felt like a war. Me against everyone else—my two kiddos with their Christmas booty and my two teenage nephews leading the enemy charge.

Peter could read the stress on my face one afternoon and stopped me in my tracks. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“It’s the mess,” I said. “I have this involuntary physical reaction to it. My chest gets tight. I find it hard to breathe. I panic almost. I know it’s crazy. I’m sure it’s an issue of control. But it feels like it’s me against everyone else. And I’m losing.”

“If Jesus were here, what would he say about the mess?” he asked. (If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll start to see a theme here with him. Drives me crazy sometimes. But I know he’s right to keep bringing me back to Him.)

I slowed down and filled my lungs with air. Released a long, slow sigh as I asked myself. If Jesus were here? What would he say about the yogurt on the walls? The muddy boots by the door? The pine needles piling up on the floor? The dust settling on His own nativity?

I said, “As silly as it sounds, my gut reaction is that I need to apologize.”

I know I don’t, of course. But there they are again. Those old beliefs. The old need to perform. The old shame when I can’t.

But praise God that He keeps bringing me back to Himself. That I don’t have to clean myself up before I come. That He sent His Son to a dusty and messy stable. To love and redeem a messy and lost lot like us.

This I believe.

That’s my two cents. What’s yours?

Please discuss…


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