Sunday, January 1, 2017

Habit Shmabit....

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, present your requests to God.
Philippians 4:6

I’m listening to a book on Audible about habits. I just started it yesterday, so clearly, I’m already an expert. ;) But seriously, I learned a lot from just one day of listening. Habits form initially as the gray matter of the upper brain makes conscious decisions about something. Then, as time goes on and the behavior is repeated, a pathway is created in a more primitive part of the brain called the basal ganglia. This pathway, called a “habit loop,” consists of a cue, a pattern of behavior and a reward. Once the basal ganglia forms the habit loop, the pattern becomes like “second nature.” It becomes a part of our person- for better or for worse- and the upper brain is then free to solve new problems or design new thoughts.

Another thing that I learned is that habits come in many varieties- they can be outward behaviors like exercising, smoking or watching Netflix. They also can be thought processes or emotional habits, and this is the type that I’m exploring more deeply today.

I woke this morning at 6:30, as I do almost every morning (if I don’t wake considerably earlier than that), and I began to think about a particular situation that causes me to feel sadness and worry. I generally lay in the bed thinking about this for a long time- until I have to get up and start the day, or I become so overwhelmed with the sadness and worry, that I crack open my journal and Bible and pray. My journal is absolutely filled with prayers about this one particular situation.

And here, on this first day of 2017, I think I’m beginning to understand why. I’m in an emotional habit loop. I started this loop long ago, I don’t even remember when exactly. But based on what I'm learning about habits, I would say that this habit probably started when I had to consciously think about this situation a lot due to some changes going on in our lives in late 2015/early 2016. I would think and pray and talk things through with God in the morning hours. Often that time helped me have self control over my overflowing emotions, and also led into some really productive conversations with Andy. Together, we agreed to seek some professional counseling, and that proved to be one of the most fruitful events of 2016 for our little family. Praise God. The situation didn't go away, but how we approach it has changed. It's still sad, but we did our best before God and man.

So there's really no need to take the habit loop into 2017 with me. This habit might have started out by providing me an emotional outlet for all I was feeling, but now it just brings unfruitful worry and heaviness that sometimes spiral into anxiety. God doesn't want that for me. He knows how anxiety hurts his children.The situation has been dealt with as best we could, but in my emotional habit loop, I begin to fret and feel sad over the end result, which I have no control over. No good can come of this, and it only steals time that could be much better spent. I could get up, for instance, and fill my gratitude journal. Or, I could remember the friends that I’ve promised to partner with in prayer. Or I could just pray faithfully about the exciting and big events coming up in our lives this year- purchasing our first home! My brother’s wedding! Story’s continued spiritual, emotional and physical growth! I could write, read or do yoga. There are a lot of exciting possibilities for new habits that can replace this old one. I'm going to continue to listen and learn and pray and hopefully there will be something new that sinks in and takes over my primitive brain that brings God the gratitude that He deserves and grows my faith in Him.

Lord, as this new year begins, I need your help. I’m “stuck” in a negative emotional habit loop. I wake up and worry and waste time about something that I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed about, but have no control over and cannot change. Lord, please help me to create a new habit this year, one in which I wake each morning and start the day with thanksgiving. Please let this new habit create space in my mind to creatively worship you and offer up sincere prayers for the people who are precious to me. I pray these things in your name, Jesus. Amen.

The book I'm listening to is: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Advent Sunday #4- Gifting

Image result for gift of christmas

I am getting so excited for Christmas. Though this isn't technically Story's first Christmas, it sort of feels like it is. Last Christmas, she was only six months old. There was a three day road trip and a terrible virus that made for a minimally merry baby girl on the 25th of December. But this year, Story is happy and healthy and into everything. Christmas should be a lot of fun.

 Yesterday, Andy and I finally headed out together to do some Christmas shopping for Story. It was pure joy for me to circle around the toy store, looking for just the right items for my little one. This week, I'll spend time wrapping them, even though I know she's just going to tear it all off.  A couple of gifts have come for her in the mail, so she's starting to get the hang of things. She looks at the package and gives one of her "Wows" and then carefully (with my help) disassembles the paper and tape.

This morning, I'm thinking about God, my Father, and the gifts that He has given to me. I have this image of Him going around Heaven's store-house of blessings, selecting gifts, big and small, that He knows are just right for me. I think His eyes must have welled up with tears when He gave me my black and white puppy in 2002. And I imagine that He was about to bust with excitement when I walked into an Irish pub in March 2009 and met the love of my life. It sort of reminds me of that last gift on Christmas morning- the one that Dad hides away in an unexpected spot. I see my Father laughing a big belly laugh over what happened at Paddy's on March 3.

I don't know if any of those images are real, but I don't know that they aren't. God identifies Himself as my Father. Jesus surely paints a picture of a passionate, engaged Dad in the story of the prodigal son. A Dad who breaks into a sprint when He sees His son on his way home. I think that's the kind of Dad who would also have a good laugh over a surprise gift or weep tears of joy over one that will restore and heal.

I do believe that God gives special blessings of material things and relationships along the way, but what I can always count on God to give me is the Holy Spirit. Christmas is a time for special gifts, but I need to give to Story every day. She needs love, approval, encouragement, and physical care each and every day. Me too. I need the same exact things, and then some.

When I drive to school in the morning, I ask God to give me the Holy Spirit. I ask for patience, wisdom, joy, love, order, truth and on and on. I ask because I'm empty. I ask because the place that I go into is filled with needy, broken humans... just like me. Every day that I ask, He gives. Just like Jesus said He would.

Father, You are indeed a giver of good gifts! Sometimes You pick out something or someone so perfect to be a part of my life. Thank you. I love the gifts that You have picked out and given to me. And thank You for what You give to me every day. The patience and strength and endurance to work with high school students and not completely crumble. You alone provide this for me, my God. Thank you. All glory to You, my generous Father. And thank you, thank you, thank you for the Gift of Jesus. Without Him, I wouldn't know the depths of Your love for me. Help me to receive Him as I ought. Amen. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Advent Sunday #3- A Mother's Song

And Mary said, "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." Luke 1:38

This Sunday, I have been thinking about the Virgin Mary. I've been taught that Mary would have been a young teenager at the time the angel came to her to announce that she was going to have God's Son. Before this totally weird and other-worldly interaction took place, I imagine that Mary, like most young women, probably had plans for her own life that didn't involve becoming a social pariah. But, when the angel came and brought her this miraculous news, she accepted it right away.

I know that I wouldn't have responded as Mary did. I'm a lot older than Mary, and I still struggle almost daily with how other people see me. Scripture tells us that Mary had favor with God, which is why He chose her to be Jesus' mom. One of the aspects of her person that must have charmed God's heart was her willingness to completely buy into His plan. I think this is profoundly stated in Mary's song, recorded in Luke 1:47-55. Verse 48 declares, "from henceforth all generations will call me blessed." Mary was right about that. Future generations have considered her a saint  or, at the very least, a woman of God to be admired. But what about the generation that she was in? Being pregnant out of wedlock in her culture was a big deal. She could have been stoned to death. Fortunately God, through Joseph, stepped in and kept that from happening, but I'm sure her reputation was obliterated, along with the rest of her family's.

Yesterday, as Andy and I were driving in the car, I commented on how I have lived a lot of years with the expectation that my life will one day, magically, fall completely into order. My checkbook will be plump, but not my waistline. My home will be warm and inviting, but not chaotic. My laundry will all be folded at the same time. And I'll be appreciated and loved by the people around me. What I'm finding to be true is that life is hectic, expensive and exhausting. Some people really don't like me, and my laundry is rarely folded at the same time.

What I'm seeing from Mary this Sunday is that the plans that we have are nothing compared to what God wants to do with our lives. Mary's heart was willing to let God come into her life and completely wreck any plans she might have in order that she could be a part of the great thing that He was giving to the world. Not only did she have no trouble of letting go of her own plans, she was beyond thrilled to become an integral part of what God was doing in the world. God's invitation was inseparable from the cost. Her life got crazy, but she chose this wildness willingly. She wanted to be used by God more than she wanted anything else.

Dear God, I am so humbled by your servant, Mary. What a beautiful-hearted young mother you picked for your sweet Son. Lord, I confess that I am so concerned with my plans and how I am perceived by others that I often do not even hear You when you invite me into the bigger things that You are doing in the world. Lord, forgive me. Don't let me miss out on Your greatness because I'm preoccupied with my own little slice of goodness. Let it be to me, Dear Lord, according to Your Word. Amen. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent Sunday #2- Today the manger, tomorrow the throne

For unto us a child is born, 
to us a Son is given, 
and the government will be on His shoulders. 
Isaiah 9:6

I keep up with the news on my iPhone. This week I've scrolled through headlines about the new administration's plans for taxes, leadership, foreign policy. I try to take it in and think through it before saying anything. But one headline I read this week got me thinking about something that I'm just too excited not to write about. What will the headlines say when there is a final shift in government? What will the coverage be like when Jesus is finally the King? I imagine something like this...

Jesus Cuts Military Spending to Absolute Zero as Wars Cease

Holy Spirit Guides Soldiers and Healthcare Workers into New Career Fields 

Slums and Ghettos Restored to Green Space, Former Residents Help Design New Housing Nearby

Taxes No Longer Necessary as Generosity Abounds in the Nations 

When I think about the visitors who saw Jesus upon his arrival, I wonder if they could envision news like this, too? The Wise Men who traveled so far. Or the shepherds who had been commissioned by a choir of singing angels. Or Simeon, who was waiting to see the Messiah before he died. They all knew that there was much more going on than just the birth of a baby.

We picture them in a stable, surrounded by animals. Mary looks serene, her hands clasped together at her breast. Joseph steady beside her. Everyone peers into a manger and looks at a newborn. We gather there with them this time of year. Today, all of us meet at the manger. But one day, we will gather in a throne-room. I love baby Jesus in the manger. I sing about his birth and celebrate the sweetness of this Christmas miracle. But, like these others, I crave His majesty even more.

King Jesus!!! How I long for your rule and reign. How I long for you to come back to this Earth and restore all things! You will repay every injustice- from the great ones that cause millions to suffer, to the smallest that have broken my own heart. Of Your rule and reign there will be no end. In that day, You will guide us into the best life. You will give us peace and rest. You will teach us to truly love one another, and to care for all that You have created. I see You now in your manger, and, though I celebrate, I wait to see You on your throne. Help me to wait well. Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent Sunday #1- The Season of Taking

It's Advent. Over the past few years, I've come to love this season more and more. Andy and I bought an Advent wreath a couple of years ago and started having Advent suppers on the Sunday nights that lead up to Christmas. We eat in the dim light of the candles from the wreath in the dining room, and then afterwards read a verse or two and sing a hymn.

This year, I'm starting something new. I'm going to write around these Advent days, as well. I don't have a plan for this. I'm just going to write what comes to my mind as I reflect on this special season.

This morning, as I sat with my cup of coffee, I thought about the Advent of the Prince of Peace. I wonder how many people, after such a tumultuous election season, are glad to see this season of peace and goodwill toward fellow man come upon us? The timing couldn't be more perfect.

The election completely aside, I'm personally ready for a little more peace. Our cross-country move and new jobs have given us plenty to work through this autumn.

So while thinking about peace, I was struck by this verse from Isaiah 53, a familiar prophecy for this season of expectation.

The punishment that brought us peace was upon him. Isaiah 53:5 

This oft-quoted verse struck my teacher-brain as a little out of the ordinary. Because punishment doesn't usually bring peace. I've faced a situation at my new school where I had to punish a student for using his cell phone during class. When I noticed him on it while I was speaking, I walked over to his desk and asked for his phone. He held it up and away from me and asked, "Do you pay the bills?" This type of belligerence does not make for a peaceful start to any day. But neither does the punishment that I had to dole out afterwards. In fact, after having his phone removed, according to policy, this student made life a lot worse by punishing me (and the rest of the class) by acting out for several days following this incident.

Good parents, teachers and leaders have to punish wrong behavior to maintain order and protect the others in their care. My students rely on me to act justly so that no one person's behavior robs the others from the opportunity to learn. But, punishment is uncomfortable, frustrating and difficult. I lost a lot of sleep about the situation I described above. Punishment feels bad. Whether you're the person giving it, or the person receiving it. We have an expression, we teachers, about this sort of situation. We hope that in giving out a punishment like this to one student that the others will see that you mean business and will follow the rules and not have to face punishment themselves. We call the punished student the "sacrificial lamb."

When I thought about that expression, I saw the connection between punishment and peace. Jesus Christ is our Sacrificial Lamb. The one time sacrifice that took away the sins of the world. Punishment is necessary because justice demands it. Our God is a Just and True King. He must punish sin because, if it were allowed to go unchecked, it would swallow all of us whole. There would be nothing left. Nothing worth saving.

So He intervened. By punishing. Choosing the Sacrificial Lamb. And that Lamb takes. He takes away sin. And that is the key. Peace cannot exist in a sin-soaked world. Peace, true peace, only flourishes where sin is completely absent.

So this Advent Sunday, I am celebrating the season of taking. Lots of people are shopping these days- me too- preparing to give. It's right to think of this season that way, too. But for today, I'm grateful for the taking.

Blessed Jesus, thank you for taking away my sin. Thank you for removing sin so far away from me that I can experience peace. Jesus, please help me to see that when I choose my sin, I reject your perfect peace that you have offered to me because you were punished instead of me. Help me to choose what is better. Amen. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

Bye-Bye Austin

At this time next week, I'll be on my way home. It's weird writing that. After six and a half years in Austin, Texas, it's time to go back to North Carolina. I don't really have pretty words to write today. I guess that suits moving, though. Everything is semi-chaotic. Precious things go into boxes... maybe even some of the intangible things that make us who we are... so that we can get through to the next station. Maybe one day, I'll unpack those things and will feel the wave of emotion, and have better words. For now, though, I guess I'm just going to keep it kind of practical and write about the move itself.

Why are we moving? 

I've heard that something like 1000 people move to Texas a day. Austin is constantly being brought up as one of the best, most vibrant cities in the US. There are good jobs here, decent schools, great parks, amazing restaurants. It is a beautiful city. I do not disagree. So why are we leaving when everyone else is coming?

Because we have Story Lamm, and I want to share her with my family. Everyone tells you how much having a baby changes everything in your life. Everyone is pretty right about that. It's complicated and difficult to raise a baby in a city where you have no family, especially when both parents work. There's no doubt that we've had a lot of support this year from our Hill Country and BSF communities, but there's really nothing like family. I want my parents to see Story grow up. I want her to know them and learn from them. I don't write much about how awesome my parents are. I should. My parents are generous, supportive and wise people. They've learned so much over the years, and they continue to learn and grow. They love Andy like he is their own flesh and blood and show him the respect he deserves. They hurt when he hurts, they are joyful when he is joyful, and they've been pretty unselfish in trusting him with their daughter- no strings, no guilt-trips. And Story is the apple of their eye. I've never seen my dad be more ga-ga over anything. And that's as it should be. There is a lot of injustice in the world. Good people often go unrewarded for the things they do. Jesus said it would be this way. He told us that as we did good in His name, we would suffer because He had suffered. I've seen that happen to my parents in different ways over the years. I've seen them do the right thing because that's what Jesus wants, and things haven't always turned out so great. It's not like they sit around and complain about that sort of thing. They just keep on serving others and worshiping God. But, sometimes, even in this broken place, there is just reward for faithful servants. And one of the things that turns about in good families from time to time is that children desire to come back to the people who raised them. Not to re-enter the nest, because a healthy family always sends their children out from the nest at the right time, but to share their own nest with their parents. Obviously you can also be a strong family and live all over the place. I know lots of friends in that situation, as well. But, sometimes it works out that you can spend some precious years closer together. And what better reward is there for faithful, loving, unselfish parents than to have their children choose to live nearby? So that's what this is really all about. Nest-sharing. Story- sharing. Not that I haven't flooded them with pictures and videos all year, but a Granddaddy should be able to hold his baby girl's baby girl. And we're moving to make that more possible.

When are we moving? 

My parents fly into Austin on Friday, and will be driving home with me and Story starting next Sunday, August 7th. I start my new job at Cape Fear High School on August 22.

Andy is staying in our house in Austin for a little longer, at least through the end of September. He's got some commitments to wrap up at work, and he will be looking for a mechanical engineering job in North Carolina. Prayers for a new job in the Fayetteville or Raleigh/Durham area are so appreciated! We are trusting God to provide.

How are we feeling? 

For me, I'm feeling ready. We had a massive cookout at the beginning of July and filled our house with students for the last time. Since then, I've been packing a little bit each day during Story's naps. I've also gotten together with friends for good-bye lunches or coffee, and Andy and I have been visiting some of our favorite places in Austin for the last time. Then, of course, we had to say good-bye to Gatsby.

My amazing friends who serve God in other countries have talked to me about the importance of good good-byes. Their wisdom has been a blessing to me, because I hate good-byes and would rather lunge forward than dwell on the past and present. But they were right (thanks Robin, Leslie and Laurie) Being intentional about saying good-bye has me feeling more settled into the reality of this change than I would be otherwise. But, it's also an emotionally draining process. And after weeks of watching things come to an end, I'm ready to start a new beginning.

Andy would have to speak for himself on this issue. It's a harder process for him than for me. Though there have been things that I have enjoyed in Austin, it's never been home for me. But Andy loves this place and does feel home here. Like me, he is tired of the oppressive heat and over how crowded everything is becoming. But, if he could have it any way, he'd probably just want to buy some property outside the city, build a house and a garage for his tools, and call it done. ;) Fortunately, our marriage doesn't work that way. I left home six and a half years ago for him, and now he's leaving home for me. Greater love has no one than this... We're hoping to find our home together.

What are we going to miss? 

For someone who never wanted to live in Texas, there are a lot of things that I'm going to miss about this place. I'm going to attempt to list some of those things here, but I know I won't get all of them. Here we go, in no particular order.

Holly Thurman, and the BSF North women's class
our house on Dijon Drive
people with the last name Glace
flying H's
Torchy's queso
Horton boys
spring-fed watering holes
cappuccino from Cafe Medici
afternoon playdates with Cal, Scout and Marshall
Scott's "face"
playing so much soccer
pick a trail, any trail... there are so many trails
Shiner and St. Arnold's
walks around Town Lake
the social acceptability of wearing yoga pants to anything
Teo and Amy's
margaritas with teachers
Captain Mitochondria and his band of merry men
Monday morning staff meetings (did I really just say that? not so much the Mondays, or the mornings, or the meetings... but yeah, the staff... those were GREAT people to start the week with)
Terra Toys
The Jackson Seven
Another witty quip from John
It's 5 o'clock at Jake's house
seeing the face of a graduated student appear at my science lab door
the oaks in my front yard
Milburne and Veterans Park pools
day trips to Bourne and Fredericksburg
Tim Hawks keeping it real
sour grape soda from Big Top
Rounders pizza
Friday night lights
sharing a fence with the Wolski's
Zilker Park on Sunday afternoons in February- 65 degrees and sunny
Alamo Drafthouse
Good Friday service at the Long Center- a service that celebrates the unification of the Church, rather than separatism and denominational division
The "Drunk Debutante" Fair
City Wide Garage Sale
The Turkey Trot
Whole Earth Provision Company
Sunsets at the Oasis

What can't be listed, though, is the feel of this city. I first came to Austin to see Andy while we were engaged in September 2009, and I developed a quite unexpected crush on it during that first visit. It was somehow part big city-with shops and restaurants, art and culture- and part small town. Everyone certainly didn't know everyone, but everyone seemed to be sharing a mutual love for this plot of land in the center of Texas. And it made them smiley, and friendly and happy, like little girls giggling over a secret shared on the playground.

And Austin is sort of like a playground. I remember marveling at how thin most people are in this city- especially since there is food everywhere. But I think that's because as much as Austinites love food- they love activity as much, if not more. As you drive through the streets, scoping out colorful bungalows and new homes with the clean lines of modernity, you'll likely be accompanied by scores of cyclists, whizzing by (hopefully) in the bike lanes. When you drive over one of the bridges crossing Lady Bird Lake (Town Lake for real, though), you'll see kayakers and SUP-ers year round. All around the city there are people playing in volleyball, soccer and softball leagues- both kids and adults. And everywhere you go, even in 100 degree weather, someone is out for a run.

Still, that doesn't quite capture the essence of Austin. I'm not sure that you can put it into words. In Biology, we talk about the principle of "emergent properties." Essentially, it's the scientific actuality that the sum is greater than the individual parts. Their contributions to the shared entity are somehow transformed beyond what they are on their own. Austin has emergent properties. Austin is an eclectic, wonderfully weird amalgamation of people, education, belief, culture, language, and style. The city's motto is "Keep Austin Weird." Yes, please.

Sadly, though, I feel like the city is changing. Moving to Austin is now a national trend. Trendiness can be a good thing. It brings the best minds and ideas together, and that seems like it would be good for everyone. And, it is, in a lot of ways. But, inevitably, there is a loss of something genuine when a place becomes trendy. Andy and I went to a couple of our favorite places on South Congress last weekend, and it's hard to describe, but things just felt different than they did years ago. The city is shinier than it was when we got here. It's more crowded, and more expensive. The organic charm of a city, once composed of lovers of diversity and individuality, seems diluted by people striving to be in the right place at the right time with the right people.

Nevertheless, this city will always hold a special place in my heart. Because, though the city will change, I'll have memories of special places and precious people who made Austin the friendliest, most open city I could ever hope to live in. I'll tell a story that brings these thoughts together. The first spring that Andy and I moved to Austin, it was an El Nino year. The heavy rains made it possible to take our kayaks down a chronically dried-out creek that runs through the Barton Springs Greenbelt. It was a rush careening down the little rapids, and we were struggling a bit with our lake kayaks, which were really too big for the task at hand. At one point, we both hit a section at the wrong angle and flipped the kayaks. We managed to get out easily enough, but we were struggling to flip the kayaks right-side up. All of a sudden, people who were out enjoying a day of sun along the creek shore were splashing through the rushing water toward us. Several big guys helped Andy right the kayaks and we were soon on our way. I remember smiling and waving at the friendly faces as we moved downstream- dogs and kids splashed in the water, music was playing, people were eating chips and drinking beer. That memory will always be Austin to me. Friendly people, enjoying life, happy to put themselves into the water's roar to help out a sojourner.

So off we go. Just a few more days, a few more good-byes. Am I sad? Not really. I'm happy we were here, happy we became a family here. Happy that we took the time to put down roots in a place this sunny and friendly and fun. I'm thankful for the incredible lessons that we've learned here. And I'm never going to forget the people that God put in our lives to help us with some tough lessons He wanted us to learn. Last night, we climbed the steps of Mount Bonnell for the last time. We took in the view of the skyline, we marveled at the mansions below. And we waved good-bye to this shining, prosperous city. Austin, we wish you well. God bless you and keep you... weird. ;)

"Graffiti" is famous in Austin. This one can be found at Joe's Coffee on South Congress. 

Mayfield Park at the foot of Mount Bonnell, where some beautiful peacocks live.  

Lake Austin behind us. 

Skyline from Mount Bonnell. 

Bye-bye Austin! 

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Greatest Gatsby

There's a line in the movie The Holiday that I really like. Jack Black's character is beginning to fall for Kate Winslet's character. Black's character is a Hollywood composer, and he writes Kate's character a song. As he plays it for her, he says, with a smile, "I used only the good notes." Today I'm writing something that I've dreaded for years. I'm writing about the life and loss of my best friend. I'm not smiling as I write. I'm crying. But, I'm going to use only the good words. Because, if anyone deserves only good- it's Gatsby.

Gatsby got sick last Tuesday. He stumbled just walking through the kitchen and nearly fell over. When I checked his gums they were gray. I called Andy, who had just left for work. He took Gats to the animal hospital where they took x-rays and did bloodwork. His heart beat was irregular, but everything else looked good. He was put on fluids and a lidocaine drip for the day. I spent the day sick with worry. At fourteen and a half, I know that each day is a gift. But the vet called in the mid-afternoon, saying that Gats seemed to be doing better, and I gleefully picked him up that afternoon. When I first saw Gats, he was not his usual, "Get me outta here!" self. He seemed tired. He looked old. We got him home, and comfortable on his sofa. I sat with him, and loved on him all evening. Andy took care of everything so that I didn't really have to get up at all. Gats can't let me leave the room. He has to follow me. So, it was best for me to just sit still with him there. Deep in my mind, I thought that the end might be soon.

But, as Gatsby did so many times in his life, the next day, he rallied. After some eggs and sausage and a little haircut, he was his spunky little self. We spent Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in a hyper-grateful state. We took in every moment we had to snuggle him, to tell him we loved him, to cherish the feel of his fur on our toes as he lay down under the kitchen table. We received it all with ever-expanding joy, just like we always have.

Gatsby's life was a cascade of blessings. Anyone who really knew him already understands this, and to anyone who didn't- who thinks of him as just a dog- there's no use in trying to explain. He wasn't really a dog. He was a ministering spirit. An agent of grace. As I age, I learn more about more about the mysteries of the God I serve. I've recently become attached to the imagery of God's hands slipping on earthly gloves. That the way that He exposes his love to those of us occupying this lonely planet is through the things He creates to walk with us here on it. Surely there is truth in this. Isn't that exactly what He did with His own Son? He put on human skin and walked among us. Then He left for a while. He left His love behind, though. That's really all we've got here. And I think, because He is always creating, and always giving grace, that sometimes, as He continues to work amongst these lost souls, he puts His fingers into dog fur, and touches us with softness that humans cannot ever attain. That was the essence of Gatsby- the softest touch of God's grace.

Gatsby was everything good. He was brave and fiercely loyal. A protector and a friend. Through the years people have told me that Gatsby was my "first child," and I always have received that as a compliment, but it isn't actually true. My relationship with Gatsby was much less about me taking care of him than it was about him taking care of me. I suppose that we took care of each other for those fourteen years. But I still think that he gave me much more than I ever gave to him.

He was meant to be my roommate. I was going to be a sophomore in college at N.C. State, and was moving into my first apartment in the fall, my first time living alone. I was angry and rebellious of heart in those days- the spiritual low point of my life. I was actively running away from God and rejecting His ways. My mom took me up to Raleigh to get me registered and, on the way home, we picked up a News and Observer and found a listing for Cocker Spaniel puppies somewhere outside of Goldsboro. We drove to the kennel on our way back to Fayetteville. When I first saw him, he was running around nipping at his litter-mates, a little black and white blur. He rode in my lap on the way home, and, just as we pulled onto Water Oaks Drive, I knew something in my heart had started to change- it was the first breach in the wall of anger that I'd built up. I confess that I've read the story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho with skepticism before- how could a loud noise actually bring down a city's walls? I suppose the same way that a sleeping puppy can tear away at self-centered, hard heartedness.

He went everywhere with me while I was in college. I could barely stand to leave him. When the weather was nice, I'd let him ride in my Jeep to campus. I rolled the windows down just enough, and he would just sleep in the Jeep for hours while I crammed sciencey things into my brain. He hated my giant textbooks, and would sometimes lie on top of them when they were strewn all across my bed so that I would pay attention to him instead of molecules and reactions. We took hundreds of walks, sometimes meeting up with my friend Katie to stroll and chat around Lake Johnson, often taking off down I-40 to Umstead State Park, where he could run the trails off-leash. When we moved to a different apartment in Cary, we lived at the back of the complex. Our porch was on a downhill slope that was covered in grass at the top and red clay at the bottom. I would sometimes leave him out back for hours on end, the sliding glass door open so that I could hear his demanding barks when he would toss the ball through the slats of the porch railings. He spent those years with a reddish orange tint to his fur. No matter how many times I washed him, that clay wouldn't really come out. Neither of us cared.

He loved hiking, and we went all sorts of places in the North Carolina mountains and Piedmont. Once, he slid down a waterfall in the mountains. I think I screamed as I watched his rapid descent stopped by a rock. It was one of many ridiculous scares I had. Once we were skiing in Colorado and got a call from the vet telling us that he was Ehrlichia positive. I thought he would die while we were on the trip. But he never showed any symptoms his whole life. When I lived in a second floor apartment in the animal hospital I worked at, he once fell through the insulation in my closet to the hallway in the floor below. I didn't even know it had happened until he showed up at my front door. I couldn't figure out how he had gotten there until I went downstairs and saw the hole in the ceiling. Another time, I was about to go mountain biking with a friend. We were leaving the animal hospital apartment, and I happened to glance back at my apartment window, only to see Gatsby walking out on the roof! I'd left the window open, and he'd walked out on the roof to try to find me. This was because he and I used to go out on the roof often, sitting up there watching the traffic below and the nights sky above- dreaming and praying. Then there was the time that he was attacked by a viscous female pit bull on Thanksgiving morning. I was giving the boarded animals their food and medicine that morning at the animal hospital. I let Gatsby accompany me on these rounds, but I knew the dog-aggressive Pit was in a cage near the front, so I left him in the treatment area. But the door separating these two sections of the hospital was a swinging door that didn't latch, and he must have pushed it open to follow me. I didn't know he was behind me when I opened the Pit's cage, but she saw him and lurched. I've never seen anything happen so fast and so slow all at the same time. She went for his neck, but he turned at the last second and she caught him on the haunches. He cried out with a sound that I will never forget and pray to God I never hear again. I tried kicking her. I pulled things off the walls and threw them at her, but nothing worked. I screamed out "Jesus! Help me!" There were no other humans in the hospital. After what seemed like forever, I completely lost my innate self-preservation. I no longer feared being bitten or attacked. I was going to save my dog, or I was going to die trying. I lunged at her face. She still had Gatsby's haunches in her mouth. I punched her in between the eyes again and again, but she still wouldn't let go. Finally, I got my hands around her neck and began to squeeze. Her mouth loosened, Gatsby ran free. I picked her up by the throat. Rage coursed through me. I could see blood and I knew how close we had come. My whole body shook and I wanted to kill her. I could have done it, and I wouldn't have felt any remorse. But I threw her into the women's bathroom and slammed the door shut, instead. Dr. Faircloth came shortly after and sewed up Gatsby's wounds. If the bites had been on his neck...

I had an amazing relationship with Gatsby. I would say that he was my dog, but really only because he felt like he needed to protect me, and because I had him longer. The truth is that Gatsby was always Andy's dog too. God's grace is amazing like that. You'll have some good gift that you think is yours, and then discover that God intended it to bless someone else all along. Gatsby is a pretty friendly fellow. But he's discerning. He would warm up to most people once they threw the ball a couple of times for him. If you threw the ball for him, and he still didn't like you, there is only one explanation- you are a bad person. Anyway, Gatsby liked lots of people, but he only ever really, really, really loved one other person besides me- and that person is Andy. We both remember when this happened, actually. Andy and I had been dating for a couple of weeks and we decided to go on an adventure- the first of many. ;) So, we headed off to a state park and Andy brought along some fishing poles. I brought my Cocker Spaniel. And I'd say that the best thing that Andy caught that day was Gatsby's heart. We have a picture of the two of them on that day. Andy's squatting down on the ground with Gats in between his legs. Somehow, even in the picture, you can see that they are already connected to each other. That connection deepened intensely after we got married. I've written before that Andy and I faced some unexpected challenges after we got married. Things got tougher than either of us could have ever imagined. I used to feel really sorry for myself in those days. I was away from my family and couldn't figure things out. But, in time, I realized that it was really Andy who had it the worst. He was truly alone in those days. Everyone turned on him, letting him know with word or deed, that he was not living up to their expectations. I was a primary perpetrator of this blaming and betraying. Hurt turned to anger inside of me and I changed from the fun-loving, solid girl that he'd committed himself to, into someone frantic, confused, demanding and broken. Gatsby had this uncanny ability to remain loyal to me, and yet- and I am not making this up- call me out. I will never forget one day when I was fussing at Andy. We were both sitting on the sofa. In these times, Gatsby would always position himself beside Andy. They would sit there silently, together. Andy's eyes would be down, but Gatsby would stare at me- not angry or desperate, but pleading with me to stop. But this one day Gatsby went beyond just using his eyes to plead, he actually placed his paw on my leg. It was like a person, or more than a person, even. That paw touched me and I completely shut up. Those were hard, hard times. And throughout them, Gatsby stuck by Andy. He was and always will be, the best family that Andy has ever had. In the hurt that Andy has had to shoulder, he hasn't ever had anyone more loyal and loving than Gatsby. As much as Gatsby loved me, he might have loved Andy just a little bit more... I can't be sure. But maybe. Just maybe. Gatsby's relationship with Andy was different than with me. Because Gats always had to take care of me. I was always needy of him. He always saw himself as my protector- he physically and emotionally took care of me every day of his life. But Gatsby saw Andy differently. He saw Andy as his protector and his friend. When Andy would go to drill weekends, Gatsby would lie on the sofa and stare at the door all of Friday night, waiting for Andy to come through it. He reverted to his protector role for those days, but when Andy got home Sunday afternoon, he would relax again. Dad was home.

Andy also loved Gatsby for his sense of adventure. We took him all sorts of places in Texas. We kayaked on spring-fed rivers- Gats would perch on the bow of Andy's kayak and jump into the water whenever he felt like it. We drove to the Pacific and the two of them dashed into the freezing water in Santa Monica together. We snuggled by the campfire and curled up together in a tent in Yosemite National Park. We all sat together on the rim of the Grand Canyon. We hiked the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians. We bought a little blue kiddie pool for him to cool off in when he played ball in the backyard in the summer time, and he helped us build a hippopotamus out of snow one Christmas, little snowballs forming around the fur of his legs as he bounded through my parent's white backyard.

But as much as he loved adventure, he also loved for all of us to be home together. The last precious memory I have of my boy comes from this past Friday night, just before he took his turn for the worst. Andy, Story and I had been out to dinner, and Story and I got home before Andy. We let the doggies out in the yard with us while we watered some plants. Andy arrived, and Gatsby and Daisy trotted off to greet him as he pulled into the driveway. A moment later, Gatsby came around the corner of the house to find me and Story, where were were finishing up with the watering. His face said, "Dad's home! Come on! Everyone is home!" Hours later, he fell asleep in my arms at the emergency clinic. His heart, always so full, always so strong, needed to rest.

These past few days have been some of the worst of my life. The emptiness that Andy and I feel is incredibly painful. We have two parallel tracks- one that is full of gratitude for God's amazing grace. We have so many wonderful memories with our boy. Some of them have been shared here, but there are so many more. And we know that God was incredibly gracious to us. His sickness last Tuesday allowed us to really cherish our last days with him, even though we weren't aware that they were the last ones. We had been praying that Gats would be able to make the move to North Carolina, but we now see that it would have been impossible to have endured the loss while we were apart from one another. And we love that Gatsby's last day was spent at home with Momma and Story, and that in the evening, Dad came home and we spent a few happy moments like any other Friday night before his heart failed. But the emotional track wrecks us. We keep on crying. There are moments- like Saturday morning when Story picked up one of his tennis balls and looked for her buddy- when we miss him so much we can't do anything but cry and pray together.

Last week, my devotion was about God's kindness. It came from Luke 6, when Jesus tells his disciples to love their enemies, to do kind things for them, to pray for them. And He says that they should do this because God is kind to the wicked. In the past few years, I've learned a lot about how to love others while also drawing boundaries (because this, too, is an expression of love) I'll likely be working on this for the rest of my life. And yet, I know, as we all do, that we are given so many chances every day- to make the choice to be kind. Jesus asked us to choose kindness, because that's what God does. But He says it's not enough to just be kind to the people who like you. He says that anyone can do that (although, some people actually don't follow through on being kind, even to the people who are kind to them). Jesus wants us to be kind to everyone, because God shows kindness, even to the wicked. It's hard to understand this. In our "grace for me, justice for everyone else" mindsets, it's hard to actually follow through, on a heart level that leads to acts of kindness. When I consider the things that have been going on this summer- fear spreading like wildfire, abuses of power, acts of terrorism, murder of the innocent- the madness of it all- I see the difficulty, and yet the dire need for humanity to do what Jesus said to do. Can we? Can I? Can I be kind? It's hard. It really is. I just keep asking Jesus for help. Help comes, sometimes wearing black and white fur. In all of my life, I do not think I'll ever understand God's kindness any better than I did through Gatsby. Because when I was most selfish, most wicked, God gave me the greatest gift that I could ever receive. He gave me fourteen years of grace.

Gatsby, I love you and I miss you. Thank you for being our friend. So loyal, so brave, so fun. Thank you for being ours. You are our family, Buddy. We pray that God, in His creativity and grace, would allow us to see you again. But know that our hearts are forever better because you were ours. We'll never really be worthy of you. But we promise to try to live out the lessons that you taught us about kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and love. Peace be with you, my sweet, sweet friend, just as you always brought peace to us.