To Love Me is to Know Me

When our daughter, Louisa, moved from California to Missouri last summer, my husband and I took the opportunity to hand off some of the bins of her papers and memorabilia that had been taking up space in our garage.  A couple of weeks after receiving these “treasures,” Lou sent me this text:  “I went through those bins you sent down here, and I have a whole bin to send back because it is Katrina and Ted’s stuff. But I found this:” 

Below this text was a photo of a weathered piece of notebook paper with the following heading:

“Chicken Pox Blessings – Louisa”

Seeing those words transported me back 20 years to the winter of 2001 and the time when chicken pox ran quickly through our missionary school in Moscow.  Students and parents alike fell victim, and only a few families were spared the interruption of a chicken pox siege.  In our family, this memorable period began innocently when one of Louisa’s friends came home from school with her.  The girls played quietly together for a couple of hours, and a few days later we learned that Louisa’s friend had chicken pox. If we had plotted to expose Louisa to this illness, we could not have done better!  Within a few days we detected the first spots on Louisa’s back and chest.

So it was that Louisa and I spent much of the next two weeks together as she bore the discomfort of sores, fever, fatigue, and itching and then began to recover and heal.  Katrina and Ted brought home daily reports of more and more kids who had disappeared from the daily school routine. We knew it was only a matter of time before Louisa’s siblings would have it, too, but for those two weeks my world was small, and I was focused on Louisa.

As she began to feel better, I was moved to make a few observations—a kind of remembrance of this quiet time that we spent together. Thus came into being the list of “chicken pox blessings” that Louisa found nearly 20 years later. It continues as follows:

“A Mom likes to discover things about her children.  Thanks to Chicken Pox, I have discovered, or rediscovered, some things about Louisa:

  1. Even when she is sick, she is active, and not one to lie around for awhile.
  2. She is innovative and creative, thinking of her own way to deal with itching.  She kept her hands busy so she wouldn’t scratch, and gently rubbed her shirt over her chest and back to relieve itching.
  3. She tends to be patient or at least quiet, rather than vocal, during her illness.
  4. She doesn’t, as a rule, drink a lot of water!
  5. She can focus on one thing very intently.
  6. She enjoys helping, unless she is focusing.
  7. Her dream house has lots of room for Action, Art, Adventure!
  8. She prays, and appreciates prayer.
  9. She has a quick sense of humor (she “gets” Calvin and Hobbes)
  10. She is sentimental about “old stuff”

Other things were also a blessing:

  1. I got to spend lots of time with Louisa, and so did Ted
  2. We got to move the room around, so it was better for everyone.

Well, there was nothing written for that third point.  Clearly, I had intended to go on, but in a household with one child recovering and two others going down for the count, something probably distracted me.

Louisa keeping busy in the time of Chicken Pox

To my great regret, I did not begin a similar list of blessings for either Ted or Katrina. Ted has reminded me that they had each other to occupy them, and they even spent some of their time deciding how they would welcome Louisa home from school at the end of each day.  Still, I consider it a pity not to have a list for each of my kids because the striking thing, as I read my observations about Louisa, is that much of what I discovered (or rediscovered) is still true.  I treasure this reminder that those quiet slower-paced days of nursing Louisa through her illness allowed me to know my girl a little differently—a little better. 

This experience helped to reinforce a piece of advice that I read as a relatively new parent when Katrina, our oldest, was still a baby.  It went something like this: “Grab a cup of coffee, have a seat, and take some time to study your child while he or she is playing.”  It was an attractive idea, to be sure.  I like to sit.  I like coffee.  Sit in an easy chair, sip from a steaming mug, and watch—not just watch, but study—my little one while she contentedly putters about with her toys. What could be better? 

I have often shared this advice with young mothers, but I usually add a disclaimer, because what I learned, from the few times I tried to do this, was that Katrina was quick to realize I was not busy with anything else, and she wanted me to be busy with her!  My coffee cooled on an end table and I exchanged my comfortable chair for the hard floor as we played together.  But—mission accomplished. I learned that quality time together was important to her—and it is still one of her love languages. 

We are fond of telling parents “nobody knows your kids better than you do,” but it’s not something that happens automatically.  The fact is that you know something better if you study it, and that includes a child.  Study includes observing, thinking, and reflecting.  Quite simply, it takes time, and time has become a most precious commodity, I think. But studying our children—however we do it—is time well spent. A friend of mine told me recently that her husband loved to just sit and stare at their baby son. “I just can’t stop looking at him,” he says.  And I think, “Perfect.  Study that little boy. Start now and keep studying him throughout his life.  Learn all you can about him and help him learn about himself.  It’s a powerful way of saying, “You are loved.”

My husband and I were fortunate to have opportunity and encouragement for studying our kids.  Our life as a missionary family in Russia allowed for a lot of family time during the years when our children were still small.  Over time, John’s increasing responsibilities led to training and education that was designed to help him better understand his own strengths and weaknesses. He enjoyed bringing the things he learned home to our family, so that the “discovery tools” he learned to use became part of our family discussion.  We would even joke that “Dad has a new test for us to take,” or “Dad has a book to tell us about.”  But we also knew that we were going to learn something new about each other and ourselves, and that was a good thing.

The phrase, “To know me is to love me” is familiar to many of us.  It can also take the form of “to know him is to love him,” or “to know her is to love her.”  It reflects the idea that anyone who knows a person will automatically love them…or if you know that person, you can’t help but love them…they are that lovable.  The problem is that for plenty of people, the more we get to know them the less impressed we are.  Love and appreciation do not always grow from knowledge of other people. All too often both love and any desire to know come to a screeching halt.

But turn that phrase around, and we have a truth that comes straight from God:  To love me is to know me.  Psalm 139:1-4 says,

“O Lord, you have searched me

and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise:

You perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

You are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

You know it completely, O Lord.”

God IS love. His love for his creation, and for each of us in his creation, is extraordinary and nothing we have earned or deserved.  It’s not that, by knowing us God can’t help but love us.  It’s more like he loves us and can’t help but know us.  And isn’t this what we all desire—to be fully loved, fully known?

I think our world is crying out to be known.  We feel unheard, unappreciated, unwanted, and much of it begins with feeling unknown.  We resent being lumped in groups and categories, without any knowledge of the intricacies that make each of us unique. And instead of building bridges to know each other better we build walls that keep the “unknowns” out of our life.  And at the same time that we resent not being known, we think we know a lot about everybody else.  The fact is that without the love and gracious forgiveness that only is possible because of our Savior, Jesus, gaining knowledge of one another that leads to understanding and the certainty of being loved is impossible. 

There’s a lot we can do to help the people in our circles feel fully known and fully loved.  I realize that’s easy to say, and not always easily done.  If people are open and talkative, there’s a lot you can learn in a short amount of time, although there is probably more under the surface, still to be discovered.  If people  are like me, they are harder to know to know—I am an introvert, I tend to listen more than talk, I like my privacy, and my circle of friends is small.  In knowing others, I tend to err on the side of caution, expecting other people to be as private as I am. But I do appreciate it when I realize that people have observed things about me and are willing to share those observations with me. This reminds me that there are ways of knowing people that don’t require invading their space, but rather the time to study them in different situations, building trust, looking for opportunities to ask questions in a comfortable way that leads to better understanding.

We can take that understanding a step further– The chicken pox siege gave me the opportunity to know my daughter better and to put my knowledge of her into words—words that were precious 20 years later. As an adult and a teacher, Louisa has learned the power of defining and communicating what she knows about her students to them…she helps them to see in themselves the things that she sees—their abilities, characteristics, and gifts that are God-given and make them the persons they are.  Those insights, too, become precious over time.

A few months ago–at Christmastime–Louisa got married.  She and Andrew had put three years into a long-distance relationship, and her move back to the Midwest was meant to give them an opportunity to spend time together in the same place.  It only took a few months for them to realize that they did, indeed, want to spend their lives together!

In early October, when Andrew spoke to John and me about asking Louisa to marry him, one of my enduring impressions from that conversation this: “He knows her. He loves her and he knows her.”  We knew that Louisa loved Andrew, and Andrew loved Louisa.  By God’s grace, in loving each other, they were also eager to know each other. Knowing took time, but it made love all the more real. 

Resources for knowing yourself, your loved ones, and others:

  • Charles F Boyd with Dr. Robert A. Rohm, Different Children, Different Needs:  Understanding the Unique Personality of Your Child
  • Gary Chapman, The 5 Love Languages
  • Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell, The 5 Love Languages of Children: The secret to Loving Children Effectively
  • Richard J. Leider, Calling Cards: Uncover Your Calling (set of cards with instructions)

Let Us Go Now…With Our Different Gifts

In recent years, the nativity scene that we traditionally positioned under the Christmas tree in our home has been consigned to the top of our bookshelves in the living room (thanks to our cat and the more recent addition of a grandson).  This requires that I climb a ladder to place the figures in and around the manger, and because I carry each figure separately, I have had more opportunity to study them. 

I’ve always liked the fact that this nativity has not just one or two shepherds, but a group of four, and I find myself drawn especially to the unique characteristics of these figures.  As you can see in the photo, each approaches the stable and the newborn Jesus in his own way. One kneels as he presents an open bag with small loaves of bread, another plays a horn, a third gazes up in stark awe and wonder at the sky that had been filled with angels, and the fourth carries a sheep, draped over his shoulders.

We know that the wise men brought precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to present to the newborn king, but our nativity reminds me that even the humble shepherds had gifts to offer—as people created uniquely by God, they had gifts that differed, just as each of them differed.

I know people who are like these shepherds.  I have friends who, in all situations of need or for gatherings of any kind, are immediately thinking of food. Like the shepherd bringing bread, their first thought is, “They’re going to be hungry.” They have an instinctive sense that food itself is a gift, bringing a sense of well-being, or adding to the fellowship of all who are present. They cringe when others want to dismiss a meal as “too much trouble.”  Food is necessary, and therefore not a trouble to them.

I have other friends whose gift is music, and who likewise consider music to be a gift.  Like the shepherd playing his horn, they seem to be always thinking, “There should be music.” Some of these friends play or sing with a talent that makes me marvel.  Others simply have an enjoyment of it that is contagious, knowing that music can set a tone and enhance the mood of any event.

I have friends who approach God in stark awe and wonder.  Like the shepherd gazing up at the sky, they are all eyes and ears for his message of grace and hope—a reminder to the rest of us that it is entirely appropriate to be blinded now and then by the glory of God and his amazing work in our lives…especially in sending his son, our Savior. 

And I know people who have a strong sense of vocation.  Like the shepherd bearing the sheep on his shoulders, they seem to be what their work is…but also able to join their friends as they participate in the activities of the greater community. With their strong sense of purpose, duty, and responsibility, they can be committed to the efforts and purposes of those around them, as well.  

The Bible really doesn’t give much of a description of the actual shepherds in the account of Jesus birth in Luke 2.  We really have no idea how many there were and speculation about their unique gifts and talents is just that—speculation.  There may have been only two or three, or there may have been a dozen—with two or three or a dozen differing gifts. What we do know is that it was a night like any other, and that they were there in the fields near Bethlehem, keeping watch over their flocks by night, when,

“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’

 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’”                           (Luke 2:9-14)

And we also know that the shepherds—after seeing and hearing the angels’ glorious announcement of Jesus’ birth—did not just look around at each other and say, “Wow, that was something!”  Well, they may have said that, or something like it, but Luke 2 continues by telling us what they DID most definitely say to one another: “Let us now go, even unto Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass…” (Luke 2:15, KJV).  And together they went. With their different gifts and unique personalities, they went together and found Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus. 

After seeing the angel’s words confirmed, they again did not just look at each other and say, “Well, that was nice.” Well, they may have said that, or something like it, but what we know for sure is that they went and “spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child” (Luke 2:17). This thought strikes me as an important one.  They went together, with one purpose, to spread the word.  But each most likely did it in his own way, in his own style—and this is good, because those who heard this news, and were amazed by it, were also unique and different, hearing and receiving in different ways.  Each of the shepherds brought something unique to the spreading of that good news!

It is now December 24, 2020, and it’s time again to celebrate our Savior’s birth. In many places in this incredible year, we will celebrate in new and unique and perhaps non-traditional ways. But let’s remember that we are nonetheless doing it together. Each of us, uniquely made and uniquely gifted, can say to one another, “Let us go now…and see this thing that has come to pass, that has also been made known to us!”

One of the things I would like to remember in 2020 is that, gathered together to worship in church, or worshiping from a distance and online, the body of Christ is still the body of Christ, and each of us who is part of this group of believers in Jesus is uniquely gifted for the sake of that body and the Good News of Jesus.  This is assurance that God gives us in his Word, and there is much for us to do, as God’s people, both in encouraging one another and bringing hope and healing to the world around us.

So–let us go now!  Let’s be like the shepherds.  We have gifts that differ.  Let’s bring them with us as we celebrate the good news announced by the angels when Jesus was born.  And then let’s also “go now” to spread the word, knowing that God has uniquely gifted us for that, as well!                                                                                                                       

A Monotone Saint

I have a little story to tell that has nothing to do with world or national events, much as these have been on my mind. It has to do with my father. Recently I was reminded of some things I loved about him, and of why I’m thankful for the blessing of those who have gone before us in the faith. Since Dad was a Lutheran Pastor, you may find yourself nodding or smiling if you are one of my Lutheran friends, but even if you are not, I hope a few moments reading this will be time well spent!

During a visit last weekend to our son’s apartment, my husband asked Ted if he had a hymnal.  Ted immediately hopped up, went to his bookshelf, and pulled down a copy of the Lutheran Service Book.  He held it up for a moment so that we could see that it also had his name printed on the cover.  Then, as he flipped it open to the inside front cover, my eyes suddenly blurred with tears.  There, in Dad’s familiar handwriting, was a message he had inscribed to Ted when he and Mom presented the hymnal to Ted for his confirmation. 

It was a note like countless notes Dad had written inside of birthday and anniversary cards, in correspondence on half-sheets of paper, or—as in Ted’s hymnal—inside the covers of books, Bibles, hymnals, and catechisms that he and Mom gave as gifts over the years. Dad seemed never to miss an opportunity to offer a few words of encouragement in faith and in life—sometimes presenting us with resources to reinforce that encouragement, and sometimes simply with his words alone.

The message he wrote inside Ted’s hymnal was characteristic—nothing earthshaking, perhaps, but it was typical that he would remind us of God’s blessings, point us to Jesus, and add a few words to build us up in our life of faith:

Confirmation 2008

Dear Ted,

God has blessed you by giving you a good Christian father and mother and two fine sisters.  But you are especially blessed by the love he has shown you by making you his child.

May this hymnal be one way you keep fresh in your heart and mind the love God has shown you in Jesus.

Much love,

Grandma and Grandpa Lange

And there was always “much love.” His spoken equivalent to this greeting was, “Love you much!”  I really miss hearing him say that….

Dad died in July, 2017. That’s more than three years ago, and the early days of grief in which tears flowed at every reminder of him have mostly passed.  But a memory, even—or maybe especially—a fond and joyous one, does still knock me back a bit with a wave of emotion. To be reminded of Dad’s inscriptions is one of those fond and joyous memories, but perhaps it was especially moving to see it in a hymnal, and one for my own son. Hymns were a big part of our family life when we were growing up. Dad loved to sing, and he loved hymns. Hymns of substance, with lots of stanzas to fully elaborate on their Biblical basis, were some of his favorites but he would sing them all with gusto.

My brothers and I were still quite young when Dad and Mom began the practice of singing a hymn verse as part of our devotions around the dinner table—something I know had also been done in Dad’s childhood home. We took turns choosing a different hymn each week and over time developed favorites, of course, but we steadily learned a good portion of the hymns in the “old” hymnal. It may have been something of a miracle, though, that we learned them properly because without benefit of accompaniment Dad often changed keys several times during the course of a song, and—as I say—he sang with gusto (probably we have Mom to thank for keeping things on track, even if we did not hear her voice over Dad’s).

I don’t think Dad had any illusions about his singing. When Ted was in college, he interviewed Dad about his life—part of a project for a sociology class. Dad related that his family was musical, with many of them playing instruments and singing.  Dad played an instrument, but “couldn’t hold a tone” when it came to singing. While he was in high school, in fact, he was in the “monotone choir.” Ted had a chuckle about that. Dad’s high school was a prep school for future Lutheran pastors and teachers (now St. Paul’s Lutheran High School in Concordia, Missouri). All the students were boys in those days.  As Dad told it, the monotone choir was for people who liked to sing but weren’t chosen to be part of the school choir. There apparently were quite a few of these singers! Being in this choir, he said, was lots of fun, and clearly added to his enjoyment, musical knowledge, and confidence—not to mention the repertoire of hymns and songs that remained with him throughout his life.

As a pastor, Dad was always eager to add to the musical experience of church services, but I think he especially enjoyed festival services.  These included holidays during the church year as well as special services for special events.  In all three of the places where he served while as I was growing up, Dad was involved in the building of a new church building. I sometimes think new buildings were exciting to him partly because they were an opportunity to have special services for groundbreaking, cornerstone laying, and dedicating of the new facility.  These celebrations of the beginning, progress, and completion of a building where God’s people would gather for worship always seemed to get Dad’s blood pumping.

This Sunday, November 1, is the church festival of “All Saints Day” throughout the Christian world, as it has been for centuries.  It is a day when we remember and give thanks for those who have died in the faith, recognizing that we are made holy, and therefore saints, by the perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus.  Trusting in his promise that this work of Jesus brings forgiveness of our sins, we celebrate the departed who held fast to this promise, themselves.  

Our church has a tradition, on All Saints Day, of reading the names of members who have died in the year since the previous All Saints Day. This simple reading of the roll becomes a moving and emotional process as groups of names are read, interspersed with the singing of this verse,

“All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song:  Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!” 

One of the final names on our list this year will be that of a precious young boy, whose accidental and tragic death just a few days ago has affected many in our congregation—a saint who, according to his classmates (as told me by their teacher), can now ask God all the questions they’ve been wondering about!

In the last three years, as I’ve listened to the names being read and as we sing the verse and the “Alleluias,” my thoughts have always gone to Dad—Dad who is now singing to his heart’s content, and no doubt in perfect tune as he “makes his song” in the heavenly choirs—no longer a monotone. It occurs to me that, just as Dad had no illusions about his singing, he never had any illusions about his own goodness or perfection. He would readily admit that, left to his own devices, he was a “monotone” in life as well, having no ability of his own to live as God would want him to, and certainly no ability to merit heaven. But now, by God’s grace, Dad is enjoying a perfect existence as “St. Bob” for all eternity. 

Dad was sure that even a monotone can sing with gusto, and that even a sinner—as he knew he was—can live with gusto for God and for others, because of Jesus. As evidenced by notes like the one in Ted’s hymnal, he was eager to encourage that same certainty in others.  

One of the hymns we sang on Sunday was a favorite of his, and I’m sharing it here, as a bit of encouragement from St. Bob to you:

Christ be my Leader by night as by day;

Safe through the darkness, for He is the way,

Gladly I follow, my future His care,

Darkness is daylight when Jesus is there.

Christ be my Teacher in age as in youth,

Drifting or doubting for He is the truth.

Grant me to trust Him; though shifting as sand,

Doubt cannot daunt me; in Jesus I stand.

Christ be my Savior in calm as in strife;

Death cannot hold me, for He is the life.

Nor darkness nor doubting nor sin and its stain

Can touch my salvation:

With Jesus I reign.

Dad and I waiting patiently for a festival service to begin

Choosing A Side

As our family arrived at the baseball field for Louisa’s game (5th grade, mixed teams, machine pitch), we quickly made our way toward her teammates in their “Orioles” uniforms.  Looking around for an opposing team, we saw only a few players in uniforms of another color.  As it became more and more apparent that the other side would not have enough players to field a team, some of the Orioles were excited that they might get a win without even having to play, but I knew Louisa would be disappointed. She liked to win, but not by forfeit. Louisa preferred to be victorious after a hard-fought battle.

The coaches, meanwhile, had put their heads together and pointed out that there were enough total kids to field two teams so a game could be played.  They proposed that four of our team play for the opponents.  Everyone was quickly in agreement, so our coach glanced around, named off four players, and—as luck would have it—Louisa was chosen to play for the other side.

I groaned to myself as I anticipated her response. Louisa had loved sports all her life, from the moment she dribbled her first rubber basketball around the store and shot it into my shopping cart or tucked one little leg under another and slid with foot extended into an imaginary base in our living room.  She was fascinated by the equipment, enjoyed learning the rules, practiced the skills for hours, was intrigued by the strategy.  But as much as all of those consumed her interest, Louisa thrived on being part of a team.  From an early age she was heavily invested in her team, whichever group that might be, and whichever sport she might be playing.

And–just as I anticipated–happiness at getting to play turned to agony at the thought of playing for the opponent. The coaches completed the arrangements while we all waited, and Louisa stewed.  I knew how difficult it would be for her to play competitively in this situation. It would be a mortal internal battle the entire game.

Finally, as the other team headed to the outfield for the first inning, and the Orioles prepared  to bat, I walked up to the coach to explain why my daughter seemed stuck in her tracks somewhere along the first base line, and I asked if he could possibly choose someone else to play for the other team.  He was not particularly sympathetic or understanding, just shrugged and asked the team if anyone else wanted to switch sides.  In no time he had a volunteer and Louisa joined the Orioles in the dugout.  She wasn’t proud. She seemed emotionally spent.  But her sense of which team she belonged to was intact.

Happy to be playing for her team

“Whose side are you on?” We are fond of asking this question, especially if we ourselves identify strongly with one side.  It is how we identify people with whom we can form alliances or against whom we will do battle.  We ask, and we expect an answer so we can assess others’ loyalty to causes, values, beliefs, or actions.  Even when people don’t express strong convictions, we are bold to demand that they choose a side, or we look for markers to help us decide where their loyalties must fall. It’s important to know who sees things our way–who we can count on in a fight.

There is no shortage right now of motive and opportunity to ask the question, “Whose side are you on?”  We are in a world of hurt, literally and figuratively, and within our nation that hurt has intensified in the last two weeks.  Dividing lines are everywhere. For months we have engaged in debate about the COVID-19 pandemic, ways to control the spread of this virus, or the best treatment for those who have contracted it. What could be a unified battle against a global disease has broken into all manner of factions, generating anger and judgment and hateful speech and actions.

“Whose side are you on?” is an even more emotional question as we address the recent killings, injustices, and evidence of racism in our country and the pain they have brought to millions. Protests, peaceful or violent, have led in some cases to greater dialog and in other cases to greater division as we debate the many aspects of this sinful condition and the best ways to address it.

As if the crises themselves are not enough, battle lines are quickly drawn in this election year as we analyze the action, reaction, or inaction of our leaders.  At every level of elected government, and among our fellow citizens, we ask the questions and look for the evidence that will help us know who is on which side for this fight.

One of the more fascinating scenes from the Biblical account of the fall of Jericho is an encounter that takes place just prior to the battle, described in the last verses of Joshua 5.  Joshua is approaching the city of Jericho when he sees a man with a drawn sword standing in front of him.  Joshua approaches the man and asks him, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

“Neither,” the man replies. “But as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” 

“Neither.” Neither!  Here’s a guy, a soldier—a warrior apparently, with his sword drawn and ready for battle, yet he does not declare a side.  He simply identifies himself and his purpose–“As commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”

What does Joshua do next?  The passage tells us, “Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence and asked him, ‘What message does my Lord have for his servant?’ The commander of the Lord’s army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.”

That’s it.  Joshua, the faithful leader of God’s people, does not respond in anger or frustration, or even in fear, but with humility.  He falls on his face in reverence and asks for the message that the commander of the Lord’s army must surely have for him, the leader of God’s people.  The instructions he receives are the same ones that Moses heard when God called him to lead his people out of Egypt….”Take off your sandals.  You are standing on holy ground.”  You are in God’s presence and He has work for you to do.

Suddenly, “Whose side are you on?” or “Are you for us or for our enemies?” are meaningless questions. Joshua gets the message.  Rather than being consumed with knowing who falls into his camp, and who falls in the camp of his enemies, his question changes:  “What message does God have for me?” and—perhaps–Am I in HIS camp? Am I prepared to fight the battles He gives me to fight, according to His battle plan.

Being on the Lord’s side changes my understanding of human divisions.  It also changes the way I look at God.  If I am going to recognize God as God, then He is not mine to try to manipulate, but I am His to lead and use.  Following Joshua’s humble example, I am inclined to fall face down in reverence and ask, “What message does my lord have for his servant” and then I pray I am ready to listen for whatever direction I may receive.

God’s moves and my part in them may well be something completely different from what I would do, just as marching around Jericho for seven days was not the way Joshua normally would fight a battle.  What God asks of me may even cause me discomfort and stress, but I am not a lone warrior. God does not fight battles according to human-defined sides but at the same time He DOES do battle.  Jesus life, death, and resurrection were all part of his battle over sin, fought out of tremendous, sacrificial love, and I must recognize that He fought that battle for every single person on this earth. The battle for salvation has been won, yet He continues to do battle for us against the evils of this world. 

Whatever the earthly battle lines, I would like to have the same unwavering desire to be on God’s side, the same strong sense of being on his team, that Louisa had as an “Oriole” on that baseball field long ago.  With wisdom from His spirit, compelled by his love and reflecting his boundless grace, I want to be willing and prepared also to fight on God’s side–for every single soul, every person on this earth.

Remember Me? Remember Me!

“My goodness. Who do these children belong to?” The question, coming from my father-in-law, seemed an odd one as he gestured with interest toward our three kids.  It was a hard thing to realize he did not know them—at 94, both his memory and his eyesight had faded considerably.  But my husband readily responded, “Why, those are our children, Dad…this is Katrina, and this is Louisa, and this is Ted.” As they were introduced, our kids (ages 12, 9, and 6) stepped forward and smiled into Grandpa’s face, the better to be seen by him.

John held up the camera he was carrying and said, “Dad, would you like to have your picture taken with them?” Grandpa looked delightedly around him at his grandchildren and said, “Why yes, I believe I would!”  So the kids climbed up on the bed where he was sitting, gathered around Grandpa, and John took their picture.  After a bit of chatter, I took our children out to the nursing home lobby so John and his Dad could visit in peace.

In due time, we came back to the room, and Grandpa again remarked, in surprise “Well, where did these children come from?” John again introduced our three youngsters, and Grandpa exclaimed, “Well, I’ll be! I think I’d like to have my picture taken with them!” John smiled and agreed that this was a good idea and motioned to our kids. With sideways grins in our direction, the they climbed up on the bed again, gathered around Grandpa, and John took their picture.

These were bittersweet moments during one of our last visits with John’s Dad in the summer of 2001.  As difficult as it was that he did not know his grandchildren, we got some wonderful photos of them all together on this occasion—photos that we treasure, to be sure. 

In many ways, Dad Mehl’s loss of memory was especially striking because he was always a strong advocate of memorization, including Bible passages, the catechism, or really anything he learned.  He grew up in an era when learning things “by heart” was the order of the day, and it was common for him to remind us that the things we know by heart give us “hooks to hang our thoughts on.” He was also fond of the Latin phrase “Repetitio est mater studiorum” (in English, “repetition is the mother of study”). He read widely, had a broad scope of knowledge, shunned calculators, loved word puzzles. He had a keen, active and organized mind which carried him through many life experiences and situations, touching lives and leaving solid foundations.

Our visit with Dad Mehl and the snapshots of that day have been on my mind in recent weeks because John and I have learned of several people among our extended family and friend groups who are also facing the effects of memory loss. Some of these people are recently diagnosed, and some are to the point of entering “memory care” facilities.  And while John’s Dad, at 94 years of age, might reasonably have expected to have failings of mind and body, these friends are much younger and may have many years, yet, to live. 

There are two related themes that seem common when families face the loss of memory in one of their own. On one hand, the ones with memory issues may fear that they, themselves, will be forgotten—and their loved ones likewise hate this thought. If the situation deteriorates and being cared for at home becomes impossible, will they be remembered?  Or will they live out their lives in an institution, both forgetting and forgotten? And on the other hand, loved ones anticipate with sorrow the day their husband, wife, mom, dad, sibling, or friend will see them, but without recognition. For all concerned, the phrase “Remember me” is both a question—”Remember me??”—and a plea—”Remember me!!”

Recently, for my personal Bible study, I began reading 1 Samuel, which opens with the story of Hannah, mother of Samuel the prophet.  Many of us know about Hannah. She was barren and longed to have a child.  Her situation was made more difficult by the fact that her husband’s other wife had several children and felt free to mock Hannah for the fact that she was childless. (And let me just say that I appreciate the fact that Hannah’s husband was loving and tender toward her, not seeing her as a failure or disappointment… Still, his question, “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” may be evidence that he did not fully understand Hannah’s grief!)

Every year Hannah’s family group went up to the temple at Shiloh to worship and sacrifice during the Feast of Tabernacles.  There came a year when Hannah had apparently reached her breaking point.  Unable to eat, she rose from the meal and went to pray, and with many tears she made a vow to God, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life…”

Remember me. Have you noticed that the phrases, “Remember me” and “God remembered” appear frequently in the interplay between God and his people, especially in the Old Testament? In our experience, a plea like “Remember me,” spoken to another person, most often means something like, “Hey—don’t forget me!” knowing that this is all too likely to happen.  But when God’s people raised this plea in the Bible, it was a request for something far more active and purposeful.  When Hannah asked God to remember her, she was not simply asking God to acknowledge her existence, but she was begging him to act on her behalf.

Acting on our behalf.  What a powerful way God has of remembering his people.  It’s so much more than tapping his forehead as he recalls, “Hannah…Hannah—Oh, yeah! Hannah’s that barren woman with the spiteful sister wife.” It’s not simply His calling to mind who we are but his coming to our aid because we are His. In Hannah’s case, this meant opening her womb and giving her a son. When we ask God to remember us, we acknowledge His power and ask him to act on our behalf when we are overwhelmed and completely lacking in power–whether on a personal scale or a scale of worldly proportions.

God’s “memory” is a remarkable thing. A quick search produced this short list of people and things God remembered, sometimes in a response to a plea to “Remember me” or “Remember your people,” and sometimes simply because He is a faithful God:  Noah and his family, Rachel, Abraham, and God’s covenant with Abraham, the children of Israel in Egypt, Samson, Hezekiah, the thief on the cross next to Jesus. Most notably, God remembered (acted on behalf of) the entire world, mired in sin and in need of a Savior.  As promised already in Genesis, He gave His Son Jesus for the sake of the world and every single person in it. Through Jesus’ saving sacrifice and resurrection, he has provided for our complete forgiveness. 

When we ask God to remember us, not only in our sin, but also in our disappointment and our suffering from the mortality of our bodies—even the bewildering situation of memory loss—we can be sure that he does, because he has.  Hannah’s story continues in 1 Samuel 1:20 , where we read that, when they returned to their home, Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, “made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son.”  Acting on her behalf, God made it possible for her to have a child, Samuel, a leader of God’s people–and later five more sons and daughters.

Do you have stories that can start with the phrase, “God remembered…?” I do. That’s part of why I write. From very real needs of daily life, to waiting on Him and his timing, to relationships among family and friends, to my need for forgiveness, he has acted on my behalf, beyond my human ability to comprehend. Quite often, God remembers us through the actions of other people, in ways we hardly expect. He has done this in my life, and I pray to be ready when the opportunity arises to be that person for others–especially to be aware that the words, “I remember you!” bring great assurance from God, but are also treasured when spoken and demonstrated person-to-person.

We are now in the midst of the season of Lent. There is much to be remembered in these weeks, beginning with the shame of remembering and acknowledging our sins before the Lord. We would like to just forget them, but in truth they are “ever before us,” as David wrote in Psalm 51.  And how well we know that forgetting them does not remove them. So we plead with God, “Remember me! Act on my behalf in my sinful condition!”  In return, God calls on us to remember him—his mighty deeds, his miracles, his judgments, his mercy and his promises, kept when he sent Jesus to be our Savior.  We consider these and stand in awe of them.  

Perhaps most remarkable, in this season, is to ponder the one situation in which God does not remember.  It is not a memory failure, but an act of will.  In Isaiah 43:25 he reminds us, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” We lay the burden of our sin before the Lord, and Jesus takes it on himself, and God removes it “as far as the East is from the West.”  Remembered no more.

We may sometimes feel that we approach God tentatively, doubtfully– “Remember me?” Instead, because we have been made his through Jesus, we can be confident in our plea—“Remember me, O Lord!  Act on my behalf! Act on behalf of those I love!”  And when we read God’s command to “Remember me!” let’s do it with praise for His power to act in our most powerless situations, whether in our immediate circumstances, or in the scope of eternity.  In our humanity and our mortality, our memories may fail, but God has demonstrated again and again, “Remember me? Remember me! For I remember you, my child. For now and for eternity, I am acting on your behalf.”

Do They See Love?

When our family first moved overseas, I had a pretty definite “battle plan” for adapting to daily life in another culture.  It involved keeping my head down, blending in, being a watcher, flying under the radar, letting the Russian people yell at me if they wanted to (they did)—pretty much anything to avoid lengthy scrutiny or confrontation.  In short, my battle plan was NOT to battle. There were occasions, however, when I was less reticent, especially if I felt there was a threat, even a small one, to me or my children.  

One afternoon I was coming out of a shop with our two daughters in tow, stuffing change into my wallet while juggling two heavy bags of groceries. In no time, a swarm of gypsy children surrounded us, waving hands in my face and clamoring for money. I berated myself for letting my guard down. Groups of gypsies were common in the summertime in Moscow. Flashing money around in plain sight, as I was doing in my carelessness, was an open invitation to be mobbed.

I paused a moment, considering my options and concerned for my daughters. The goal of the gypsy children was to have the cash they could plainly see, but common wisdom said that it was best not to do anything that would make them bolder in their begging. I surely did not want them following me! The bottom line for me was simply to get out of the middle of this group as quickly as possible.

One girl, taller than the others, had positioned herself next to my left hand, which still held my open wallet. In the midst of the clamor, she suddenly grabbed my arm, and just like that my battle plan of reticence went out the window. Jerking my arm up and away, I turned on her, looked her in the eye and gave her the full blast of what my husband refers to as the Death Look. Her big eyes opened wide in fear. She ducked as if avoiding a blow, and she and her friends scattered, vanishing as quickly as they had appeared.

This is a story I have told often because it was a time—perhaps the only time—when  the Death Look produced a good result.  My husband, who became familiar with the Death Look in the early years of our marriage, had identified it quickly and studiously avoided it.  While it seemed to give me immediate control of an argument or disagreement, it really only created an environment of anger, distrust, antagonism—not exactly things you want in a marriage. We fortunately moved on to healthier ways of communicating as the years passed. But in the midst of a group of gypsy children who wanted my money, the Death Look shifted control from them to me and served me well. 

Some years later, I am sad to say that the Death Look resurfaced as a way to control the behavior of our oldest daughter.  When she was 10 or 11 years old, I developed the habit of fixing her with the Death Look when we were in the company of others and I wanted to avoid an open argument but still let her know she was not behaving as I wished.  I don’t know if she remembers this, but I do because I was pretty smug about my ability to control her with a single look. I began nailing her with the Look at home, as well.  The fact that she came to avoid my eyes altogether should have been a clue as to its real effect, but for a while I enjoyed the power I wielded.

Then came the day when I picked up a tattered little paperback in a pile of used parenting books at our school rummage sale. As I began to thumb through it, a heading to this effect caught my eye: “When she looks in your eyes, does she see love?”  My gosh, how my heart suddenly hurt as I faced the truth. I could hardly bear to think what my daughter saw in my eyes when I fixed her with the Death Look.  Why was I so intent on showing displeasure to one whom I loved so deeply? The book further explained that a loving look is especially crucial when our girls are 10 or 11, and when our boys are four or five.  Our son was five at the time, and and our second daughter was fast approaching the crucial pre-teen years. How often had I used the Death Look on ALL of them?

Shortly after this, my daughter and I were in the kitchen together cleaning up after dinner. Whether she dropped or spilled something I don’t recall, but she stole a furtive glance in my direction. I knew the look that she was expecting, and I knew exactly what I wanted her to see. I locked my eyes on hers with all the love I felt for her, and I smiled. She stared at me with a look of shock, followed quickly by relief. To this day my eyes fill with tears as I recall that moment. She glanced down for a minute, then back at me. Like a time-lapse video of a seedling unbending and reaching upward, she stood a little straighter, looked up into my eyes in wonder, and returned my smile fully and openly.

I am a sinner, and I have no doubt that the Death Look surfaced again in the years since that time, but if ever there was affirmation of a simple but powerful bit of parenting wisdom—one I deem worthy to pass along to my own children and anyone who is a parent—that was it for me.  When they look in your eyes, do they see love? It’s hard to describe the thrill I got for a while, just seeing my kids’ reaction to a simple loving look. I think we like to believe our kids know that we love them, but in times of bad behavior and disobedience, it’s tempting to trust a look of disapproval and disappointment that most kids wish to avoid. We forget that a Death Look is a pretty big barrier for any message of love to pass through.

Do they see love?  As a new mother, I read an article that urged parents to consider carefully what we want our children to think about every day as we choose the things to hang on their walls. When I saw a picture of Jesus looking deeply into the eyes of a little child (half price!) in a Christian bookstore, I suddenly knew what I wanted our kids to see and think about every day. The child laughing up into Jesus’ eyes could have been either of my own, surrounded by friends or siblings. Jesus was in their midst, and his eyes were filled with love. This picture has traveled around the world with us—during times when my own look was less than loving, or I needed to see that look myself, I have been grateful that we all have had this reminder of Jesus’ look of love.

You may know this picture, titled “Jesus and the Children,” by Frances Hook (1962).  It was popular when I was a child in the mid-60’s. In recent times, and having lived in other cultures, I’ve been all too aware that the children in the picture are light-skinned, with light brown hair and round eyes. I think it would be marvelous to be able to reproduce this scene for children of all colors and types of skin, hair, and eyes, so any child could have a version in which Jesus is gazing into the face of a child who could be them. Because this is something children should know—that the look they receive from Jesus is not a Death Look, but the look of absolute and unwavering love, meant specifically for their eyes to see.

The fact is, God has every reason to give us the Death Look. Our easy and self-centered neglect of him—to the point of denial—and our desire to control things with our own “rules,” and in our own way, puts us in a place where he has every reason to look on us with anger, disappointment, displeasure. But Jesus’ Death Look for us is limited to the one that came after he uttered the words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!” and died in our place to bear our sin of defying and neglecting his love-based will.  Jesus’ Look is one of love—love that gives Life, as he plainly told his disciples in the Good Shepherd passage of John 10:10:  “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”  

My husband says that he is now amused by the Death Look, and to be honest I have a difficult time producing it in his presence. But I AM one of those people who has a “naturally sober” expression. It is often perceived as disapproving and, really, I can more easily put people off with a look than put them at ease. This is something I think about. In an age when eye contact seems to be reserved for screens and looks of approval seem to be reserved for those who have somehow earned it, I wonder what my eyes say to people. Whether they are my loved ones or simply ones to whom I can show love (even a gypsy girl wanting my money)–do people in my life see yet another frowning, disapproving face when they see me? Or, instead, do my eyes reflect the self-sacrificing love that I see in the eyes of Jesus?

A couple of months ago, via Facetime, our daughter Louisa showed us Katrina playing with her baby boy during a weekend while Louisa was visiting.  At one point, Katrina turned her wiggly son toward her and leaned forward until their foreheads touched, her eyes locked on his. Forward and back she went a few times, eyes fixed on him, as he stared at her, mesmerized.  I was mesmerized, myself, as I watched my daughter as a first-time parent, her eyes filled with this amazing love.

I hope and pray that my children will not be tempted to trust the false power of the Death Look in their relationships—in their marriages, with colleagues, in their friendships, but especially as they meet the challenges of parenting their own children. I pray they will trust and reflect the look of amazing love they receive from Jesus, just as I pray that my own eyes will more consistently be reflective of the love I receive from my Savior, love that saves me from death—and from resorting to the Death Look.

A look of love for the next generation

Intended Consequences

When I was in college, I chose a major that I knew nothing about, and spent four years studying Economics.  At this point in my life it would probably not be too far off the mark to say that I still (or again) know nothing about Economics, but one of the things that did fascinate me about economic policy was the difficulty of foreseeing the effect of policy on human behavior, and vice versa. 

So it was that, earlier today, I was enticed to click on an article about “the cobra effect.”  The cobra effect is an illustration of how unintended consequences can completely undo the good intentions or the best-laid plans of a law or an economic policy. 

The cobra effect refers to a situation in Delhi in the days when India was under British rule as a colony.  The infestation of cobras at that time was so great that the powers that be passed a law that put a bounty on cobras, paying the people to kill them.  This source of income was enticing, of course, and people responded. Very soon the supply of cobras dwindled—along with the income produced by killing them.  Human rationale took over, and people began breeding cobras in order to kill them and continue to reap the benefits.  When the government responded by rescinding the law, people lost the incentive to kill the cobras they had bred and—in the end—the cobra problem was greater after the law was rescinded than it had been when it was enacted. 

Economic policy and considerations aside, I began thinking that unintended consequences can result from a variety of situations, as I have lately witnessed and faced up to in my own life.  In this young month of December, this season of Advent, this time of rejoicing and goodwill that we so recently have entered, there are plenty of opportunities for unintended consequences.

Like many of the teachers, pastors, Church workers, and others in our family and friend groups, this is a time of year when we expect to give of ourselves, becoming involved in all sorts of programs, festivities, worship services, social events, charitable events, concerts—‘tis the season.  And these events often fight for space on the calendar or schedule with all the routine and daily tasks and activities that seem to keep us plenty busy to start with.

So with the very best of intentions we wade in, often with a feeling that we are following the Spirit’s leading and everything about our involvement is right and good.  There are so many opportunities to serve, to do something helpful and to be part of the joy of sharing the good news of our Savior, of celebrating his coming.

Certainly nobody signs up to “do good” with the intention of ending up feeling cranky, put-upon and unappreciated, but that is all too often the case.  It’s jaw-dropping sometimes how quickly my good intentions get derailed, often by something that seems simple and meaningless. Suddenly willingness, eagerness and joy are replaced by the unintended consequences of fatigue, burn out, and ill will. 

In my feeble attempts to get back the joy, I often find myself “raising more cobras,” doing more things, or different things, and finding my best efforts producing only additional unintended consequences.  “OK,” I think (for example), “Let’s at least get the Christmas tree up and decorated.”  And there it stands—the empty, unfluffed and unlit artificial tree has been hanging out in our living room for a couple of days, now, taunting me. The bin of lights awaits.  The decorations cool their heels.  My husband usually does the lights, and I follow with the decorations, but “he is out of town and I don’t have time anyway,” I think resentfully to myself.  

I don’t have easy answers for the unintended negative consequences that seem to pile on when I believe I am acting with such good intentions. But I do know that God invites me to come to him, setting aside my frustrations and enjoying time in his presence.  Here is an excerpt from an evening prayer I read a day ago—and even shared with a friend, it spoke so directly to some of my typical Advent feelings:

“And in my heart’s most secret chamber Thou art now waiting to meet and speak with me, freely offering me Thy fellowship in spite of all my sinning.  Let me now avail myself of this open road to peace of mind.  Let me approach Thy presence humbly and reverently.  Let me carry with me the spirit of my Lord and Master Jesus Christ.  Let me leave behind me all fretfulness, all unworthy desires, all thoughts of malice towards my fellow men, all hesitancy in surrendering my will to Thine.

In Thy will, O Lord, is my peace. In they love is my rest. In thy service is my joy.  Thou art all my heart’s desire….”

Our prayer book belonged to my mother-in-law and an updated version is available, but I love the “Thee’s” and “Thou’s”

For all of my regret and disappointment over the unintended consequences of my earnest desire to do good and helpful things, as I sit in quiet fellowship with my Lord I cannot help but ponder what seem like unintended consequences of Jesus’ life on this earth.  From a human standpoint, it is hard to look at all the good he did—his perfect life, his ministry, his acts of healing and mercy—and not be aghast at the way he was received by the leaders of the time, who were so intent on killing him.  Jesus was not filled with resentment over the way he was treated, but they were certainly resentful of Him and His following. His death, from a human standpoint, looks surely like an unintended consequence of a life lived for others. 

But Jesus came to earth not to simply live a life for others but to give His life for all.  He knew full well that He would die, paying the price for our sins. And then he rose victorious over death and over all of Satan’s successes in bringing about unintended consequences from our best intentions.  Our forgiveness and our right and close relationship with God, who freely offers us His fellowship in spite of all our sinning, is the fully intended consequence of Jesus’ advent.


My son and I sat opposite each other at the table, discussing a middle school project he had basically ignored. I spoke in measured and practical tones, making it clear that I was disappointed in his lack of attention to schoolwork.  Ted’s head sank lower and lower as he sat rigidly before me. Ted’s primary love language has always been words of affirmation, and he braces himself noticeably in the face of criticism.  As I talked on, the negative effect of my words was more and more apparent.  I suddenly stopped mid-sentence, leaned forward, and said quietly, “Ted…I am on your side.”  His head jerked up and his eyes narrowed.  “What’s that supposed to mean?” he challenged.

He may have been surprised and perhaps a bit irritated that I had abruptly played that card in our discussion but in truth he and I both knew what “I am on your side” was supposed to mean.  It reflected one of the basic concepts of the Mehl Family Mission Statement, a document that was well known to our family of five.  After all, we had spent quite a bit of time writing it in the summer of 2000.

That year was a pivotal one for us. We were a missionary family based in Moscow, and my husband was preparing to take on the role of regional director. Up to that point, one of the benefits we had enjoyed as missionaries was a close family nucleus. John’s new position would require him to travel to places where other missionaries worked in and around the former Soviet Union.  More travel time meant less time with the family, especially during the school year.  Anticipating time away from us, John determined that we develop a family mission statement—intentionally discussing our beliefs, values, and purpose, and putting them into a brief document. Together or apart, we would be bound together by this written expression of our common foundation and mission.

We had a full calendar of activities from late May to mid-August that summer.  To make our time on the road more comfortable, friends had loaned us a well-traveled blue conversion van. This vehicle became our family cocoon as we accumulated hours and miles driving around the country.

To my husband, time in the van was perfect for working on a mission statement.  To our three grade-school aged kids and to me, the task of hammering out a mission statement seemed a lot like homework during a summer break that was already busy. Our groans were often audible as he climbed into the van at the start of another day, put a fresh mug of coffee in the cup holder, and handed me a notebook so I could record our discussions.

John was either oblivious to the groans and tension, or he was simply not to be deterred. By the end of the summer, his probing questions and our grudging responses, faithfully noted by whichever parent was not driving, produced a family mission statement that we could all agree to.  

When we returned to Moscow at the end of the summer, we printed off our mission statement and attached it with magnets to our refrigerator. In our small kitchen it was easily visible whenever we sat down to a meal.  Later that year I met another woman who told me her family also had a mission statement—theirs was framed and hanging in their living room.  I assured her that ours also had a place of prominence in our home! 

The thing is, we are “process people,” and our statement was in the perfect place to be discussed, tweaked, refined and polished. The revision process continued for the next decade or so.  After the initial changes we began the practice of reading our statement together on New Year’s Day, an annual appointment to decide whether further changes to it were warranted. The most recent version, taped to our kitchen cabinet in Nebraska, is dated January, 2010, and had been approved with few alterations for two or three years prior to that date. It reads as follows: 

The Mehl Family

…Knows that God is for us, forgives us, and loves us no matter what because Jesus is our Savior.  We want to know Him and want others to know Him.  We study his Word and continue to grow in Him.

…Knows that we are a team. We are for each other. We want to know each other well. We love one another and will always love one another, no matter what. We look one another in the eye and speak words of apology, forgiveness and truth. We make and keep promises.  We encourage one another. We value a sense of humor.

…Wanders and wonders in the world God has made, so that we will know it, too.

…Understands that earth is a temporary place to live and grow and share God’s Word; heaven is our eternal home.

As we became familiar with our mission statement and repeated it to each other, we quickly latched on to the phrase, “I love you and I will always love you, no matter what.” We said these words to each other at bedtime when we hugged goodnight. We used them to accompany our good-byes and hellos when John left on a trip or returned home. We said them to reinforce “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” when apology and forgiveness were necessary.

In short order, “I love you and will always love you, no matter what,” was abbreviated to ILYAWALYNMW (yes, the second ‘I’ is omitted)—which I confidently pronounce as “Il-ya-WAH-lyn-mwah,” because that’s what it says, right?  It is a code word for unconditional love that is part of our family culture, and is used in letters, notes, texts, and signs that have hung in our homes.  A few years ago our daughter, Louisa (who displays ILYAWALYNMW in her middle school classroom), had this abbreviation made into a bracelet for me as a Christmas gift.

Both the full phrase and the abbreviation gained import in the decade between 2000 and 2010 as our children left the family nucleus to attend high school in the US.  During those same years our home base moved from Moscow to Frankfurt, and then to Hong Kong.  The bond of ILYAWALYNMW was increasingly precious, as our family, once snug in the confines of our trusty blue van, was stretched and spread to opposite sides of the globe. 

If asked, I believe each of us can point to times when ILYAWALYNMW has been put to the test in our family. Declarations of unconditional love WILL be tested. Whether doing the wrong or suffering the wrong—whether daring our family to love us despite our sin or being pressed to prove that ILYWALYNMW was more than  just words, we each have felt the strain of testing. To be sure, repeating the words “I love you and I will always love you no matter what” carries a lot of power within a family. We feel and mean those words deeply—more and more with every repetition. But we also know that actually living them through the fluctuating highs and lows of living sometimes requires power that we do not have on our own.

You may have noticed that the Mehl family mission statement begins with God, and with good reason.  Much as we like to repeat ILYAWALYNMW, unconditional love begins with God…with His promises to us and their fulfillment in Jesus. We believe that GOD is for us, forgives us, and loves us no matter what because Jesus is our Savior. 

Because Jesus is our Savior…our sins have been forgiven

Because Jesus is our Savior…we know what it means to be loved sacrificially, unconditionally

Because Jesus is our Savior…we have a right relationship with God

Because Jesus is our Savior…we are free to love sacrificially, unconditionally

Because Jesus is our Savior…we are empowered by His Holy Spirit to forgive and to live FOR others, beginning with those closest to us.

Honestly, it is not in my power to say and to live “ILYAWALYNMW” without the power that Jesus provides in His original, loving, and sacrificial act of “ILYAWALYNMW.”  He proved himself to be on my side by taking my place. He died so that I might live blameless before God, and daily enjoy the blessings of grace and reprieve. Living in that grace, it is every bit in my power to say and live ILYAWALYNMW with His spirit at work in me.

Writing a mission statement may not have been my top priority in the summer of 2000, but I’m thankful it was my husband’s and I love him for his tenacity. It gave us words that bind us and remind us that because Jesus loved us unconditionally, the power of ILYAWALYNMW is ours—given by him to us so we can share it with each other.  

A few months after my conversation with Ted, he and Louisa were having a discussion (possibly about me) and I heard him say, with only a hint of teenage sarcasm, “Louisa, don’t you know? Mom is On. Your. Side.”  Over the years, he and I have had our disagreements, but if I pause and then say, “Ted…” he will reply, “I know. I know. You are on my side.” Earlier this year, when he presented me with his customary hand-written Mother’s Day letter, I was moved to read these words: “Thank you for always being on my side.”  Grown to be a young man, he is also on my side, and I’m quite sure he knows what that’s supposed to mean.

It’s OK to be at Your Wit’s End

I sat and frowned at the computer screen and the latest email from my daughter.  For days—weeks—we had carried on a conversation that seemed to be going nowhere.  It was increasingly clear that, though we were separated by thousands of miles, my words were pushing her even farther from me.  I badly wanted to “fix” her situation, and she badly wanted to be done with my advice, instruction, and exhortations.

Feeling frustrated because I had so much more to say, I opened a new Word document, closed my eyes, and typed, “Dear God! I am at my wit’s end!”  I paused, thought about what I had just written, and continued, “….the end of my own wisdom…the end of my own understanding.  I have done all that I know how to do!” 

I smiled wryly as I had a sudden and vivid impression of God saying, “Finally!  I’ve been waiting for this moment!”  It occurred to me that there was a lot of “my” and “I” in those sentences, an accurate reflection of how I had been relying on all the human wisdom and practicality at my disposal to fix something that my daughter was not as eager to fix—or not in the way I thought she should. In any case, it wasn’t working. My wisdom fell far short of what was needed.

Eyes still closed, and now quite tearful, I continued to type, pouring my heart out to God in prayer.  I told him all my concerns and asked for a special measure of his Spirit to be at work in our daughter—HIS daughter. I asked him to give both of us his wisdom in dealing with a very difficult thing.  I asked him to help me to be quiet so that she would hear him….so that I, too, could hear HIM.

There followed a period of days and weeks and even months in which this prayer document became quite lengthy.  Whenever the “wit’s end” feeling resurfaced—sometimes a few times a day—I  would go to my computer, close my eyes, and pick up where I left off, telling God in prayer what I so wanted to tell her, but leaving it there with him.

From that very first day, this reliance on his wisdom allowed me to shut my mouth and listen when she persistently shared only a general overview of her life and activities—while I craved details and had a million questions about the things that really mattered to me.  As time passed, I felt more and more certain that, as he was guiding her, his guidance to me was simply to allow him to act.  In HIS wisdom.  Any further attempts by me would be feeble, indeed.

One Sunday during this time, a guest pastor at our church started his sermon with this question, “Who here would like to be part of a miracle?” A rhetorical question, we realized, but nearly every hand went up.  Of course!  Wouldn’t that be cool!  He discussed that for a moment—how amazing and life-changing that would be. 

Then he asked this question: “Who here wants to be part of an impossible situation?”  Smiles turned to frowns because…NO.  We don’t like impossible.  We don’t like problems that can’t be solved, that leave have no way out, no hope….

And this is when the speaker reminded us that there cannot be miracles without impossible situations, because that is what a miracle is…God takes a situation in which there is no human solution and makes the impossible possible.  He gives hope to the hopeless who are mired in situations where, humanly speaking, there is no solution…no way out…situations that leave us at our wit’s end.

Jesus’ death and resurrection are the ultimate miracle, for there is no human way out of the mire of sin. With Jesus victory over death and the Enemy of our soul, we have salvation—the ultimate solution to the impossible situation of being separated from God forever.  That eternal hope gives us confidence in God’s powerful love—and His love gives us hope for daily life, as well.

So with hope, even in what seemed an impossible situation, I looked forward to a time when our family would reunite for Christmas and I would see our daughter again. There’s a lot of guessing that goes on when you talk on the phone but don’t see one another face to face.  There’s a lot of reading between the lines in texts and emails, when you hunger for hints of change or progress toward a good outcome.  I continued to keep questions to a minimum as the months passed, and there was still so, so much that was just unknown as we went to pick her up from the airport.

From the moment we saw her come through the gate, our daughter was open, joyful, and obviously happy to see us. In the ensuing days, I would furtively watch and listen for signs that this might be just  a nice façade, but they never came. It became clear that a miraculous change had occurred. She offered no information or explanation but God had dealt with that impossible situation without my help, applying his wisdom in ways I may never know—and do not need to know.  I continue, after many years, to be simply and profoundly thankful that, while I was at my wit’s end, God’s wisdom is without bounds. He answered hours of heartfelt prayers in his way and in his time.

What I realize about myself and my human wisdom is that my goal is to “problem solve.” And isn’t this how human wisdom works?  When faced with impossible situations, our “wit” tells us to find a formula, follow a rule, apply a procedure or a process that is going to repair the damages—or in some cases maybe we simply seek to eliminate the source of our distress so we can go forward.  Outwardly, things are fixed.  But often the problem surfaces again or begets new problems…and we find ourselves at our wit’s end. 

God’s problem solving is so far beyond human rules and formulas and procedures.  To solve the problem our sin, He ruled that His own son would take our place—a perfect sacrifice. To make a right relationship with us, he applies the formula of forgiveness—adding up all the sins that separate us from him, and coming up with zero, as we place our trust in Jesus’ redeeming act of love.  HE eliminates the source of our distress in ways we could never imagine by the application of abundant grace.  

As of August 4, my daughter and her husband are the parents of a new baby boy—our first grandchild.  I am over the moon thrilled to be a grandma, but I am more excited for Katrina and Isaac to be parents and for her to fully understand the love I have for her. I am eager for her to know the incredible joy and sometimes despair that come with investing deeply in that mother love…love that often finds itself at it’s wit’s end.

A photo Katrina sent in the early morning shows the beauty and serenity of my grandson asleep in his mother’s arms, his tummy full after a nighttime feeding. I marvel at this perfect little one, and at the same time the end of her message tugs at my heartstrings…”It’s been a long night.” I recall the fatigue and seemingly endless giving of oneself that are part of the early days of parenthood…

If my daughter were to ask one bit of advice from the parenting lessons I learned along the way, I think I would simply say, “It’s OK to be at your wit’s end!” Whether she finds herself in the middle of a hard night, or in the middle of a hard season of life, I would encourage her to admit to the end of her wisdom and commit her impossible situations to God—to ask his guidance as she allows His wisdom to do its work for her and her son.

And while this is my best parenting advice for both Katrina and her husband, it is increasingly my response to all of life’s impossible situations, whether they are physical, emotional, intellectual, social, or even job related–and whether they are my own or those of people I love. At my wit’s end, I am bowed low—figuratively and often literally down on my knees before God. In this position I have my focus on Him and am out of the way as He applies His wisdom.  There are times, of course, when God’s wisdom doesn’t lead to my first desired outcome. Often it works, instead, on my heart, giving me a desire for the outcome that he provides.

Ultimately, being at my wit’s end is not an end, but the beginning of the real solution to life issues—a greater dependence on my Savior and a deeper relationship with Him. To ignore God and his wisdom in giving us a Savior does not work for my salvation.  To ignore him and his wisdom at work in daily situations does not work, either.  I know His wisdom doesn’t depend on my trusting it—but my daily and eternal peace does!


The Easter service was over, and the young mothers approached our row of women with shy smiles on their faces and babies in their arms. As they came near, we shook hands and they held their children up close to us. Many in our group reached out to place our hands on the children’s heads or hold their little fingers.

One mother stopped directly in front of me, and her little girl stared at me with big eyes. In an instinctive “mom” move, I gently placed my hand on her and kissed her on the forehead. It was something I would have done with my own children, but I quickly glanced at the mother, wondering at her reaction. 

This was not familiar territory. My husband, son, and I were with a church group on a mission service trip in Vietnam.  With special governmental permission, we had worshiped with other Christians on Easter Sunday at a Vietnamese Catholic church. As you can imagine, 23 people of mostly European descent were hard to miss, and not only because we looked different. The women in our group had chairs to sit on in the back of the congregation, while the men stood behind us.  This was special treatment we appreciated, because the hundreds of local worshipers had sat Vietnamese style—on their haunches with feet flat on the ground—for most of the long outdoor service. After the service the local women sought us out.

Outdoor Easter worship in Vietnam

In this unusual setting, I looked in the mother’s eyes to see if she would be shocked or offended at my kissing her child. Had I committed a cultural error?  But she returned my gaze and gave me a gratified smile, while the next mother eagerly moved forward and held her child up so I could touch and kiss her baby as well.

At this point I heard a sharp intake of breath to my left, and turned to see a panicked expression on the face of the woman who stood next to me.  She was looking at the baby I had just kissed as the mother smiled and held it forward. Suddenly I realized that this little girl, like many of the children, had probably been sitting or playing on the ground near her mother during the long worship service.  Her little face and hands were smudged with dirt that I had not noticed.

Gingerly my American friend reached out and patted the baby’s head. As I leaned forward and kissed the next baby in line, I thought to myself that I was not doing this lady any favors.  The smudged and dirty little ones were touchable for me in that moment, but she was not feeling quite so free about it.

Let me describe another scene from this trip.  Our group included some couples, singles, and other family groups from the English-speaking church we attended in Hong Kong, and at one point we visited with some local people in the walled-in yard of a home in one of the villages. In the universal language of children, our middle school kids and the younger Vietnamese children were chasing each other around the courtyard in an informal game of tag. As we adults looked on, a friend of mine leaned over to me and said, “I wonder if those are bug bites or a rash on that one little girl.”

I froze, and there may even have been a sharp intake of breath, because “that one little girl” was playing with my son. I soon responded to the situation with another instinctive “mom” move, taking my boy aside and quietly telling him not to get too close to the little girl, and not to touch her, since we didn’t know what had caused her rash.  He glared at me, but he knew I was serious.

Later that day, my husband related that our son had indignantly reported me for my insensitivity. “Mom told me not to play with that little girl.  She thinks I might catch something from her!” Another parent might understand my reaction and concern; he did not appreciate my fear.  A little girl with a rash on her arms was touchable for him in that moment, but I could not allow it.

Our son with local school children

While we may not even be able to explain our reasons, we each have situations in which we find other people to be untouchable.  For me, there is usually something about a person that I fear, don’t understand, or can’t control that makes me discreetly put my hands behind my back. Apparent dirt and germs may trigger a “hands off” reaction, but sometimes I just stay away because a person is different. 

Oh—and I can point out any number of things that make a person different! People who are not from the same place I am from are different, of course—whether they come from another country and speak a different language or from another part of town and I understand them just fine. Or they may be different because of their approach to life, of what they do or fail to do, of real or perceived injustices and slights that they don’t seem to regret and “should,” of the things they believe and value, of other people they associate with, of their hostility to me or in general, or of an overbearing or unreceptive personality that I cannot approach.  The list is long and you only have so much time to read this. And in the same moment that I may proudly point to all the people I AM willing to touch, pat on the back, hold hands with, embrace loosely or hug closely, my behavior can also say that different people are just…untouchable. 

Less than two weeks ago we celebrated Easter again, rejoicing in the glorious resurrection of our Savior, Jesus. Jesus is God but came as a man into a world full of rules about not touching unclean things or people and he touched them all—he touched the sick, the unwashed, the outcast and even the dead.  He allowed others to touch him because they believed in his power to heal with his touch. He approached the unapproachable and laid his hands on them.

These were not hesitant, fingertip touches.  Jesus essentially leaped into the cesspool of evil, disease and guilt that is the world we live in, and he stayed immersed in that filth to take hold of us and lift us all out by his own suffering and death.  He actually became untouchable in our place, and thereby purchased for us the great gift of forgiveness.  Easter means that before God Jesus has made us pure, clean, and touchable.

And in a seriously miraculous turn of events, Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that our eternal well being is locked up—untouchable by any force of evil—as we trust in Him, the living Savior. These forces that we encounter and give in to every day may win many battles, but Jesus has won the war.

My cousin Becky once related a story from her travels to Africa that has stayed with me for over a decade. Her work often took her to places where there was a clear contrast between her very light skin and the very dark skin of the local people.  She especially enjoyed being among the children, who (as I recall) would surround her and were fascinated by her lightness. In one instance, a young girl reached out and took her hand.  Becky described it as a simple and powerful action, which we might do well to emulate—“If someone’s different, hold their hand.” 

Leading games–not touching was not an option!

This is what Jesus did.  How “different”—how untouchable—I was.  Yet He took hold not only of my hand, but of my very self.  How different—how untouchable—others can seem, but the eternal touch of Jesus also brings a different perspective.  His grace and forgiveness allow me to see beyond my fear of people and situations I can’t control.

Each day I am reminded that Jesus has work for me to do that means I sometimes touch—literally and figuratively—untouchable people.  Each day I pray that by the power of His Spirit it will be my instinct to hold the hands and touch the lives of people who seem different—perhaps an instinct as familiar as reaching out to kiss the forehead of my children, or a baby in Vietnam.