Open Hands in Life and Death

As I held my shaking hands out, palms up, one desperate word formed, “Help!” I knew God understood what I could not pray. Help me open my hands to you, Lord! I sat on a hospital bed, and the steady rhythm of a heartbeat echoed from a fetal monitor. I was twenty-four weeks pregnant, and my placenta had begun to abrupt, or tear from the uterine wall. The delivery of our baby girl seemed imminent. 

Up to that point it had been a smooth, “boring” pregnancy as my ob-gyn jokingly and reassuringly quipped. I’d even had less nausea than with my firstborn.

A gentle breeze and gorgeous, blue sky had beckoned us outside. As I pushed Hudson in the stroller, a sharp, knife-like pain suddenly pierced through my lower right abdomen. I doubled over and then stood, breathing deeply for a minute before I could walk again. 

Not a rookie pregnant lady, however, I didn’t want to overreact and thought the sensation could be round ligament pain. We walked home and sat on the front stoop to rest. I snapped pictures of my grinning toddler in his muscle shirt and red baseball hat. Still feeling some pins and needles pain and cramping, I thought I might need to use the restroom.

I sat Hudson on the floor in the bathroom (because, you know. . . mom life). It was then that I saw blood on the tissue—every pregnant woman’s fear.  I stood and there was so much blood.

Instinctively I glanced to see if my precious girl was in the toilet.

While my nightmare fear (I’m losing her!) crashed around in my mind, I screamed for my husband. “David! David! We need to go to the hospital right now!” Praise God, David had not yet left for work.

He wasn’t crying, but fear etched Hudson’s fifteen-month-old face. I scooped him up and put on my best calm voice. “Buddy, we’re going to get in the car. And Mamoo and Papa will meet us at the hospital. Mommy loves you, and it’s going to be okay.” 

I desperately hoped it would indeed be okay.

As we drove I felt Charlotte kick. She is moving. She is alive.

A Familiar Question

When something is critical, hospitals become a flurry of activity. Medical staff moved quickly, starting an IV, giving me a steroid shot to develop the baby’s lungs, starting magnesium to forestall labor, checking vitals, hooking up monitors, calling an ambulance for transport. Thinking of the frenetic pace still brings up residual trauma from my first husband’s death.

Alone in the room of a major teaching hospital, I called out to God. As I prayed, a vivid question sprang to my mind. What if I take her?

The words felt familiar; I had been in that moment before, where God held someone beloved across my mind’s eye. I do not claim to hear God’s voice audibly, but He has asked me that question three times.

Once he “took” a fiancé through a broken engagement.
Once he took my husband home to Himself.
Once he spared the life of my daughter.

Once I said, “No! God, I’ve waited too long.”
Once I said, “Lord, I want to say yes, but I don’t know that I can. I do know you will help me open my hands if the time comes.”
Once I said, “Yes, Lord. She’s yours.”

Father, you know my hands are open to you. She is your baby. I know you will do what is good. But could you please spare her and protect her?

In His mercy and grace, He did. We had eleven more weeks of countless doctor visits, two more occasions of bleeding, multiple inpatient stays, multiple outpatient hospital trips, along with medications, steroid shots, preterm labor, and contractions for weeks and weeks. We made it to thirty-five weeks before my water broke.

Now she’s a vibrant, precocious three-year-old with a love of marker tattoos and stickers. Still, I open my hands to God. She is still yours. They are all still yours.

I opened my hands and God protected her. 

But let me also be extremely clear. Open hands do not guarantee healing in this life.

I opened my hands when my first husband, Jon, lay motionless under the weight of chest compressions, his airway intubated. I prayed the same prayer. My hands are open. He is yours. But please God, spare him. Nothing is too hard for you.

Yet, much sooner than I ever dreamed, God didn’t heal (in this life, anyway).

God was still good, though. Romans 8:28 assures that He works all things together for our good and His glory. He designs the course of history in ways I cannot understand, but ultimately I trust His providence, “His wise and purposeful sovereignty.”1

A common thread between life and death stitches the words “open hands” over and over. Motherhood, grief, all of life—they are studies in having open hands. None of these things follow the well-ordered designs we create in our minds.

The Savior’s Answer

Sometimes God’s will feels crushing, His mercies too severe. And we cling to our plans as a child clutches a grubby penny though he’s offered far more. But Jesus opened His hands. He opened them wide, and they were nailed to a cross.

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me—nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42)

In agony Jesus pleaded that there might be any other way for humanity to be rescued. As He looked into the metaphorical cup, all He saw was wrath brimming and boiling over. He anticipated a depth of suffering that is incomprehensible to us. Yet He lay down His own will, opening His hands to the Father’s perfect plans.

With open hands, He held out far more than we have ever been asked to give. For the first time He knew separation from the Father. He held out His identity, His authority, His riches, His unity, and His holiness. He would become sin personified (2 Cor. 5:21).

When we lay down our lives, we find true life.

If Jesus has truly accomplished redemption and if God is truly who He says He is, then we can hold our hands open to Him. Again and again, we can surrender our plans because His will is better. He does know all things and is in control of all things. When we lay down our lives, we find true life (Matt. 10:39).

And when holding life with open hands feels too big, He meets us with lavish grace. For me it was grace to face the valley of the shadow of death. For me it was also grace to walk through a pregnancy full of complications and the gift of humble submission regarding the timing and circumstances of my daughter’s birth.

It’s strange that it’s almost easier to open our hands in the defining, life-altering moments. But surrender is also daily. It’s the mundane plans that are sometimes hardest to hold out with open hands—the days when a long awaited nap doesn’t happen, when teething keeps us all awake, or when a toddler expresses his big emotions through hitting and biting. 

I have yet to decide what is more life altering, the death of a husband or being a mom. Right now they seem neck and neck. I did them in reverse order, so for me motherhood is sometimes colored by loss. My first husband died when I was thirty, and I became a mother at thirty-five. 

Of course, there are radical differences between the two. The death of a spouse is like being hit by a freight train. Being a new mom is sometimes like hanging on to the freight train for dear life, and sometimes like sitting at a crossroads that is blocked by what seems like a never-moving train. However, being Mama is also full of precious delight.

But the similarities between motherhood and grief are striking.

Both have the potential to crush us.

Both bring us to the end of ourselves.

Both cause us to evaluate our identities.

Both aren’t always what is expected.

Both teach us to hold out our hands, palms open.

Whether in birth, death, or all the in-betweens, God is accomplishing so much more than we can see. And grace empowers our responses.
 

I realized that the deepest spiritual lessons are not learned by his letting us have our way in the end, but by his making us wait, bearing with us in love and patience until we are able honestly to pray what he taught his disciples to pray: Thy will be done.2 —Elisabeth Elliot

1John Piper, “Are God’s Providence and God’s Sovereignty the Same?,” Desiring God, October 20, 2022, https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/are-gods-providence-and-gods-sovereignty-the-same.

2Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity: Learning to Bring Your Love Life under Christ’s Control (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2013). Ebook edition accessed at https://www.google.com/books/edition/Passion_and_Purity/rTATEAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PP1&printsec=frontcover.

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He Takes Good Care of Us

His hands were sticky and peanut butter smeared his cheeks. Strawberry jam coated the corners of his mouth. As I had done a thousand times before, I washed chubby hands and a bright-eyed little face.

“Mama, why you wash me hands and me face?” 

“Well buddy, I want to take good care of you.”

“Why you take good care?”

“Because God takes good care of us.”

“Why God take good care?”

“Because He loves us.” 

A short exchange, but my words penetrated my own heart. God takes good care of us. 

Pinpointed Care

It’s who He is: a God whose care is not only lavish but precise. Jesus fed thousands from a little bit of lunch, but He also embraced individuals who longed to be touched. He healed sickness, but waited to come until Lazarus was dead so He could display deeper, more extravagant care (John 11). He comforted some and admonished others. 

Jesus was not a far away philanthropist, tossing mass-produced, look-alike blessings from the sky. He taught with words His audience could understand, perfectly pinpointing the need of each heart.

His care in our lives is also precise. Shifting scenes come into focus, evidence of His precision: Specific Scripture passages spring to mind as I pray for comfort. A financial need is met at just the right time. A spectacular sunset radiates across the sky. A surgeon skillfully removes a tumor. A woman praises God at her husband’s funeral. A baby sleeps through the night. And on other nights the weary mama has grace to rise yet again, praising God for quiet, stillness, and soft baby skin nestled against hers. 

All are gifts of precise, tangible grace, flowing abundantly for the day when they’re needed.

Inexhaustible Compassion

How marvelous it is that God never has to prioritize whose need is bigger or more important? He has the power and compassion to meet billions, trillions, quadrillions—an infinite number of needs at once. 

My children are close in age, so I’m constantly evaluating whose need is more urgent—one calls for help in the bathroom, the toddler has bumped her head, and the distraught baby needs to eat. Sometimes I’m not exactly sure of the best response. I’m talking about total meltdowns when a two-year-old’s dinosaur sheets are in the washing machine or how to handle it when shouts of “It’s mine!” “No it’s mine! I had it first!” reverberate down the hall. It’s exhausting. And exasperating at times.

Praise God, He’s never exhausted or exasperated by the constant care his children need! He already met mankind’s biggest need, through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. So rest assured, your needs are not too great. Or too small.

God is also a Father characterized by perfect compassion toward his children. “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14 esv). He understands our weaknesses and gets down low to meet us there (Isa. 57:15). He is a shepherd who tends his flock with gentleness—especially the young (Isa. 40:11).

His care is precise, powerful, and perfectly compassionate—all because He loves us. Because Jesus took care of His own even to the cross, we know kindness when we deserve wrath, grace when we deserve judgment, and gentleness when we deserve rebuke. As a result, our care can reflect his care. We take good care of our own.

By this we know love, that he lay down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. (I John 3:16 esv)

Caring for the Needy

By sacrificially meeting our children’s needs, we get to show a fraction of God’s lavish love. God doesn’t leave His own in their filth, so even the physical act of cleaning our children is a kind of mercy. Of course, small children need a parent to do these things because they can’t do them on their own. How quickly they would succumb to their own excrement. How pervasive is our filthiness if not for Christ!

Sadly, not all children are well cared for by their parents. In a broken world, even the natural desire to provide and care for our most vulnerable is marred. Most folks in our culture are rightly appalled by horrific stories of abuse, but many still promote a “children are jerks” culture. 

A medical professional sat across from me talking about his young son, “I love him, but sometimes he’s a total *expletive*.” 

I made my next appointment with another doctor. Children are image bearers and loved by God. They are our little neighbors too.

May our parenting flow from a life overflowing with the fruit of the gospel—that is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). We can be counter-cultural by not berating, shouting at, shaming, or demeaning our children.

Furthermore, remembering God’s care produces so much joy in the mundane. Instead of merely washing hands and faces for the seemingly millionth time, we get to touch a hand loved by God and cleanse little faces made in God’s image. What an attitude changer on a hard day! 

Do we begrudge them their neediness, become frustrated because they inconvenience us and demolish our “plans,” or do we realize the potential to show them the heart of Jesus? 

We cannot meet their spiritual needs, but by tenderly, generously, compassionately, and kindly meeting their physical needs we reflect the One who can meet all their needs.

Unseen moments, then, become acts of worship and reflect the heart of God.

A parent’s days are filled with unseen moments, but they’re holy moments, nonetheless. Holding a hand in a parking lot, rocking a sick baby in the night, giving a toddler clean clothes after a potty accident, changing a blowout diaper, loading a dishwasher—all reveal something about God to the people around us. Whether we like it or not, the way we parent contributes to our children’s perceptions of themselves and of God. Unseen moments, then, become acts of worship and reflect the heart of God.

Is He a God who is rough and gruff? Is He fickle, some days speaking calmly and others flying off the handle? Does He grudgingly get up to answer our cries? 

Sometimes I’m fickle, selfish, and moody, but “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Amen.

Commenting on Romans 2:4, Jared C. Wilson writes, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance. Not his law, not his berating, not his exasperation or his cajoling. His kindness.”1

I wish I could say I’ve never been guilty of berating, cajoling, or exasperation. But because the Holy Spirit indwells believers and the gospel empowers us, we can respond to our children with kindness and gentleness. We can respond rather than react. 

But what about when we sin against them? What about when we don’t meet needs tenderly or do give in to anger boiling inside?

Well, God’s kindness leads us to repentance also. He is notoriously patient and long-suffering, and his compassions fail not. Over and over his mercies are new (Lam. 3:22–23). He is near the contrite and lowly because Jesus already paid the penalty for selfishness, angry outbursts, frustration, desire for convenience, and all the other parenting temptations that come our way. 

When we sin we are encouraged to bring our mess to Jesus because he will know just how to receive us. He doesn’t handle us roughly. He doesn’t scowl and scold. He doesn’t lash out, the way many of our parents did. And all this restraint on his part is not because he has a diluted view of our sinfulness. . . . His restraint simply flows from his tender heart for his people . . . rather than dispensing grace to us from on high, he gets down with us, he puts his arm around us, he deals with us in the way that is just what we need. He deals gently with us. —Dane Ortlund, in Gentle and Lowly2

On our best days and on our worst, He is our intercessor and advocate who constantly brings us before the throne, His own righteousness covering us (1 John 2:1–3Heb. 4:14–16). He silences the accuser, and we recall who we are—called, capable, new creations, redeemed. 

He has cleansed us from our own filth. More than that, He moves toward us and embraces us, and is committed to the work He began. He will sanctify his own (Phil. 1:6). Therefore, we walk forward without shame.

So take heart friends, He takes good care of us.

Jared C. Wilson, The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017).

Dane C. Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021).

This post was previously published at Revive Our Hearts

Countless Thoughts

Giggles pealed through the air contrasting the rhythmic break of waves against shore. Children ran, full of joy, letting water crash against their ankles. Shovels plunged into sand. Fingers and toes curled, greedily exploring the texture as if they were made for sand and sea. 

“Look at this beautiful shell Mommy!” They showered me with shells indiscriminately, gifts of grace from precious hearts. 

“Mommy look at those huge birds!”  Pelicans glided across the water in single file, gracefully swooping down. They were proud, showy, confident of their place in the world. 

“There’s a man on a skate board, and he’s using a parachute in the water!” My nearly three year old who is blessed with the gift of many words, gazed in wonder at a kitesurfer. I marveled at her apt description of a concept she’d never seen before. Every minute was fresh with discovery. Every new site met with delight. 

I drank in the scene admiring the horizon stretching endlessly, intersecting with the very curve of the earth. Ocean, sand, sky— together resplendent—they couldn’t help but praise the one who made them. How naturally worship flooded my heart! What a powerful, majestic, God I have! Even the beauty of creation is a gift of grace.

I had waited for this day. Illinois has some lake beaches, but they’re kiddie pools (or cat pools as my little ones say. See the sweet misunderstanding there?) compared to the ocean. I longed to take my children to the ocean, and their first experience with it was every bit as lovely as I imagined it would be.

Playing in the water, building sand castles, eating sandy snacks—there was no quiet contemplation, or nose buried in a book. But the beach with kids was delightful.

Gears of time turned, and in my mind I contrasted another, earlier day.

It was windy, the precursor to rain and storms. I lay on a beach towel, soaking in the rays, yet aware of the more than average wind. Sighing, I closed my book, and propped my chin on folded arms. From my vantage point, I had an up close and personal, lavish view of nothing more than sand.

Alone with my thoughts, I contemplated “the long dreaded day”- the day he would be gone longer than we had been married. Two years, eight months, and three days I was married to Jonathan Atkins. Two years, eight months, and three days he had been gone.

My mind swirled with implications. “I’m facing a day most widows never experience. So many get to be with their husbands for decades.”

Sand whirled, reacting to the force of the wind. My face inches above the beach, I searched for an indiscernible pattern, noticing individual grains whisked along by something outside themselves

“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.” (Psalm 139:17)

If I tried to count the grains of sand in the square foot in front of me, it wouldn’t take long to realize the futility of my endeavor. How ridiculously more impossible to number all the grains of sand on every beach and under every ocean!

But a string of zeros marching across my imagination is the best I can do to comprehend the number of God’s thoughts toward me. Now multiply that by seven billion people on the earth. It’s unfathomable. God has countless thoughts about me? About each image bearer? 

All I can do is marvel. 

Writing Psalm 139, David overflows with astonished wonder. How can it be that the God who is glorious and transcendent is also personal and intricately involved in his small life?

“The intimacy of David’s relationship with God is put on beautiful display through this Psalm. David knows that God’s care for him is so deep and thorough that every step he takes, every word he speaks, is known fully by the Lord who has numbered all of his days before they began. Indeed his days began as God formed him while yet in his mother’s womb. His very inward parts and every aspect of his life have been designed by God himself. No matter where David may travel, far or wide, he knows that God’s Spirit is always with him, that God always knows the situations he is in. To imagine the detailed and exhaustive nature of God’s thoughts toward his own children, as David here exemplifies truly is precious.” (1)

His thoughts about us are vast, and he deals with us in more unique and intimate ways than any human ever could. By God we are thoroughly known and and still thoroughly loved (2)

“In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” (Psalm 139:16)

Before I was born God established the course of my life, a tiny though meticulously planned subplot in His epic redemptive tale. He was sovereign over the length of days I had with Jon. He orchestrated our meeting, and His timing was perfect. To wish for more time, is at its root to doubt God’s character. It is to doubt the vast, detailed, and utterly perfect nature of His plans.

There were times I did doubt. But God always brought me back.

Even if I stopped being known as “Mrs. Atkins,” or slowly became surrounded with friends who didn’t know Jon or the me I had been with him, I was still known

It had taken me a while to figure out who I was after death ripped me in half.  But as I walked farther down the path away from the valley of death, I started to look forward. It was ok to be me without Jon. 

For truly my life is hid with Christ on high (Galatians 2:20). As I gaze on him, I know who I am. 

I closed my eyes, breathed in the salty air, and rested in the beauty of being fully loved and fully known. On a day I long dreaded, I realized I had nothing to fear.

Fast forward, back to children playing in the sand. Sorrow mingles sometimes, but on this day there was nothing but joy and laughter. I watched my husband, David, playing just as gleefully as the kids were, scooping them up then dipping them in the waves. 

I was given two years, eight months, and three days with Jon. To date I have had five years, 10 months and 17 days with David. We’re closing in on six years quickly. 

How much more striking is the narrative of my life written by a perfect, sovereign hand than what I could ever think to pen. I wouldn’t have chosen death. But without it I would never have this man, these children. 

This is a story of two contrasting days drawn together by a common theme. One day lonely, quiet, wondering what was next, fearing the piling on of days and Jon becoming a background character. And a second day, full of laughter, contentment, and the boisterous play of three under five. 

But both days drew my heart to worship. Both reminded me of an unfathomable God who also knows me precisely. The same God who created vast oceans and innumerable grains of sand knows me.

I tend to share my struggles openly and deeply. I want to be as known as people will let me be. However, though our culture loves the words “real” and “authentic,” we only want them to a certain extent. Somewhere there is an invisible line we dare not cross. 

Sometimes we want just enough of others’ messiness to feel better about ourselves. Other times we truly do care, we just have no idea how to respond. Too much confession, too much grief, too much depravity makes others uncomfortable. And besides who wants to always be the “broken” friend? So sometimes I do what we all do— put on my respectable face. Don’t overshare. Don’t weigh everyone down. Don’t be “too much.” 

But it is not so with God. Even if I tried to put on my respectable face, he knows all of my ugliest parts; he is not afraid of them. And he loves me anyway. I have learned I can always run to God with my sin and struggles. I need not hide because the transcendent God, bowed low enough to be born a helpless newborn and bowed even lower still to die on the cross. He always meets me with mercy and grace. 

Although he knows everything about me, he still dwells with me. Though he has countless thoughts about me, he remembers my sin no more (Isaiah 57:15, Hebrews 8:12).

All I can do is marvel and respond with lifted hands. 

“What is our hope in life and death?

Christ alone, Christ alone

What is our only confidence?

That our souls to him belong

Who holds our days within his hand?

What comes, apart from his command?

And what will keep us to the end?

The love of Christ, in which we stand.”  (3)

Lying crumpled in the valley of death, Christ is the hope. Rising, limping, staggering up the slope, Christ is the hope. Looking forward as the path winds around the bend, Christ is the hope. And even on bubbling with joy, resplendent, playing by the sea days, Christ is the hope. 

And this hope is not nebulous or wishy washy. It’s not the way our vernacular uses hope. “I hope it doesn’t rain” or “I hope I can get that stain out your clothes.” We think hope is a “maybe.” Perhaps something good will happen, but it isn’t guaranteed.

However, true hope in Christ is confident expectation. It is something steadfast, sure, guaranteed. He is exactly who he says he is and will do exactly what he has said he will. 

My confidence may be shaken. It may even start to crumble. But hope is built not on my ability to believe, but on the one who holds me, you, every blade of grass, every galaxy, and every atom together. This God who is hope knows every fear, worry, and every wretched thought I have. He knows the beautiful ones too. Fully known, yet fully loved. This God purchased hope with his blood, and he lavishes it on my soul like innumerable grains of sand poured on every shore and under every ocean. 

To be known. To be thought of countless times. To be met each day with precise hope.

All I can do is marvel.

Commentary on Psalm 139, ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible: Christ in All of Scripture, Grace for All of Life: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

 Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2016).

3 Keith Getty et al., “Christ Our Hope in Life and Death,” Getty Music, accessed August 23, 2022, https://www.gettymusic.com/christ-our-hope.

An edited version of this article first appeared at Revive Our Hearts

Messy, Complicated, Beautiful

Let me tell you about Mamaw and Papaw. They are Jon, my first husband’s, adoptive parents. That’s a complicated mouthful, illustrating a precious reality. It’s not common that a widow’s first in-laws stay in her life when she remarries, but these beautiful ones are another facet of a story only God can write.

In order to see the full loveliness of the mosaic, I need to back up further though.

Jon met the Neffs through his grandma taking him to church. Dad Neff was the pastor, and Jon quickly became best friends with their son, Ben.

Jon’s mom, Darlene had had type 1 diabetes, and In the 80s it was a much more life threatening disease than it is today. She had been told “If you have children, it will kill you.”

But God had other plans. Jim and Darlene were absolutely thrilled to find out Jon was on the way. From reading her journal, I learned she was hospitalized for months leading to his birth. Not easy, but daily she poured out thanks for the miracle growing inside. Her love of Christ leapt from the pages; her journal is a touching link to a lady I never met.

When Jon was five, Darlene had her first stroke. He quickly learned to dial 911. Eventually her legs were amputated, and she was a home bound invalid for much of Jon’s life.

She died when he was 14.

After his wife’s death, Jon’s dad Jim tried to drown his grief in alcohol. He had adored his wife, and Jon always told me he learned lavish love by watching his dad.

And Jon himself described sitting on the edge of his bed with a loaded gun contemplating something horrific. But the phone rang. When he answered, someone merely said, “Hey Jonathan! I’ll be there in a few minutes to pick you up for church.”

It wasn’t a request, but he always said it saved his life.

Fast forward a few years. Jon started passing out playing basketball and it was discovered he had a long missed, congenital heart defect. After open heart surgery and a heart valve replaced at 18, he was written about in medical journals.

Through all this the Neffs were there, in the background of his story, loving him though he seemed like a “rebellious” influence on their son.

The suffering wasn’t over, however. Jon’s Dad died of cancer after Jon’s first semester of college. He was alone.

Astonishingly though, God was up to something new and marvelous. Before Jim died, he asked the Neffs a big request.

“Will you help him stay out of trouble? Will you make sure he stays in college?”

But in their hearts, they knew God was asking them for more.

“Would you make him your son? Would you bring him into your family?”

And they did.

They packed up a grieving, angry teenager and welcomed him home. My first mother-in-law has said, “Even then I knew it would be more. I knew he wasn’t going to walk out of our lives after college.”

So they adopted a son. And Jon always said he got another mom and dad, two brothers, a sister, a dog, and a cat. Another family to cherish.

His brother Ben jokes that Jon held the world record for longest sleepover.

“I used to go over to Jon’s house, but the one time I asked him over to mine, he ended up staying for 12 years!”

They went through some crazy rough times together. At times he made them angry. At times he broke their hearts. But a miraculous, radiant thing was forming. Another son. Part of the family.

When he took me home to meet them, I learned later he eagerly asked, “So do you like her?”

“What’s not to like? You better not mess this up!”

They played such a huge, indispensable role in the gospel driven man he became. He was loved when he was unlovely.

At my wedding to Jon, he couldn’t help but be choked up about the beauty of adoption. Through example, his second parents taught him the reality of an even greater adoption.

Jesus accomplished the greatest adoption. His death and resurrection brought His own into the family!

As Mom and Dad Neff chose Jon, so God adopts His chosen ones. He makes them part of His family, as sons and heirs. His love is lavish.

After Jon died Mom Neff wrote,

“And my mother’s heart shattered into a million tiny pieces. ‘Wait, God, this wasn’t the plan! This is not what I expected!’ My heart mourned, and God held me close and simply whispered, ‘You let me love him through you, and that was my plan all along!’

“People ask me if I would do this again, knowing the struggles, disappointments, and hurts. My honest human answer is maybe not! (Later in the post she wrote, “In a heartbeat!”) Here’s the interesting part, however. God didn’t just change Jonathan, He changed me. The love of God is unconditional, full of grace and flowing from His heart “even while we were yet sinners.” (Romans 5:8). Because that’s His plan, to use His children to love those around us, those who need to know the love of God as more than just a fuzzy idea they once heard somewhere, to love those who need to know the love of God in salvation!”

At first I wondered if I would lose them as I had lost Jon.

“Ami you’re stuck with us. We’re not going anywhere. Jon may not be here with us anymore, but you are still ours. You are still family.”

And they have been. And they are. They welcomed David with open arms, excited for new love in my life. David, the uniquely suited for me man that he is, welcomed them too.

They were at mine and David’s wedding, Dad Neff sharing the joy of walking me down the aisle.

They are another set of grandparents for our children since my own parents are gone. Mom Neff has come after the birth of all three babies. And we see them as often as we can.

As we drove away from their house today, I prayed thanking God for such a sweet week.

From the back Hudson and Charlotte piped up with their additions.

“And thank God for the park by the zoo.”

“And thank God for the big swimming pool.”

“And thank God for Jon, your first husband because we have Mamaw and Papaw. And we wouldn’t have them without Jon.”

Little boy knows how to make both of his parents cry.

It’s a lovely, complicated, messy thing, but God has made it so beautiful.


To see more about how this all unfolded…

The Side Effects of Loss and the Gospel that Heals Them

Almost ten years have passed since my first husband died, and I’ve long left the valley of the shadow of death. I was almost crushed, but now I walk again bearing jagged and radiant scars. I’ve processed and processed and processed, and I know the beauty of a life restored. 

A second husband, three spunky children— life is rich and full again, and grief often seems like a distant memory. But even now some unexpected, long term side effects of loss remain: fear, worry, embarrassment, and shame to name few. 

Recently I needed surgery to have a painful, but (thankfully) benign ovarian cyst removed. Concurrently, my husband has an unexplained mass on his arm, and we’re waiting for MRI results and surgery. Medical concerns still raise a prickle of fear followed by its close cousin, worry. If you checked my phone search history, you’d find a list of symptoms. My fingers sought answers and my heart played “worst case scenario.” I was on the look out for that six letter word that should be a four letter word, cancer. 

Given my first husband died in an Emergency Department after symptoms were missed and mistakes made, it makes sense that I’m more cautious medically. That fear can still so easily overtake me is unexpected, however. It’s been almost a decade, haven’t I walked forward into a new, beautiful life? 

As I cried alone in my car, worry and fear spilling out, I was also surprised to realize I’m still responding to the trauma of death. Memories of emotional pain so intense it was physical still crouch in the corners of my heart…

The complete article was graciously published first by Revive our Hearts, and you can find it here.

Red Nails

Perfectly manicured nails, red, wrapped around a warm mug its contents the color of caramel. Books and journals lay piled about. I took a picture, but didn’t post it. Was it really necessary to perfectly crop and Instagram it, after all?

It’s funny how memories work. Red, lovely nails came to mind this morning as I snatched a few minutes, Bible open before kids clamored down the hall.

Widowed, I had hours of quiet— reflecting, reading, writing. I became close friends with solitude. It was a beautiful, needed, and gracious gift of God as I worked through the depths, leaning into the pain. Somehow the only way out was through. I think I’m much better for it as a result.

Some days I look back on those quiet times wistfully. But if I take off the rose colored glasses, loneliness was profound. 

The quiet was rich and sweet, a time of knowing Christ more intimately than I’d ever thought possible. But it was also a battle. I was surrounded by the best friends a girl could ask for in such a dark time. But loneliness clung like a heavy blanket. I had been part of two and now I was one. 

My days are no longer quiet. My nails no longer manicured or my hair beautifully colored. I don’t often get hours to sit and be quiet. Coffee cools down and then it lies forgotten in the microwave, cooling again.

But I am not lonely. 

Though days are exhausting and sometimes exasperating, they are rich. I prayed for these days for a long time. And they’re here. What lavish grace!

When sleep gets interrupted, when the day is a mundane slog of chores, or I deal with the hundredth sibling squabble, I tell myself “slow down.” See them. Remember, they are answers to prayer.

Sometimes the season feels long. “Even youths grow tired and weary,” (though one might argue I no longer get to claim youth). But don’t feel sorry for me. I adore these little ones close in age. 

I love seeing them reach new milestones, hearing the funny things they say, and watching their imaginations take full flight. I love being the one they run to when they are scared or hurt. There is joy in seeing them learn to clean up after themselves or put clothes in the hamper. I like teaching them life skills and watching them start to spread their wings. 

“Yes, you may pour your own milk.” 

Snuggling them on my lap book in hand; it’s one of our favorite places to be. I also love rocking my babies and even cuddling my 60 lb, gangly leg, tall 4 year old who stretches long across my body.

And I actually do like being home with my children. They’re pretty great people.

I taught kindergarten for awhile and later was a developmental therapist. Both were career paths I enjoyed, but I never saw myself doing them long term or continuing to climb the ranks.

But I always wanted to be mom. And it’s so good to remind myself. 

What a tremendous privilege to be entrusted with the shepherding of their souls, with the task of cultivating the soil of their hearts. 

And I am learning the joy of abiding, snatching time as it comes. Audio Bible in the shower, scripture songs in the car. I take advantage of nap times for reading. Index cards with truth line cabinet doors. Even the resources we use with our children stir my heart. Abiding doesn’t have to be hours of quiet with a leather bound journal in hand.

I do love to fill a good leather journal. But it’s not always what this season looks like. 

I don’t always abide well. Romans 7 barges in. But I press to know, press on to grow. I lean into Jesus. I run to find help from others when I can’t get truth into my own heart. I ask the Holy Spirit to guide my actions and words, filling me with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.” (Galatians 5:22)

I painted Charlotte’s nails the other day; little finger nails seem much easier to paint than my own. I place the new memory beside the old. My hands alone. My hands holding hers. 

Red manicured nails and hours of quiet. It was good for a season. 

Pink nails on tiny hands. Snatches of quiet savored when I get it. Beauty in this season.

“For every thing there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Eccl 3:1

The Winter Coat

“You know you’re not poor when you can just go buy a coat.” 

The words formed in my heart and brought tears to my eyes. Gratitude permeated my soul but mingled with memories of electricity being turned off, a furnace without oil in the middle of winter, a hole in the floor that looked right down to the crawl space (I think I was in high school before it was fixed), a bathroom floor always threatening to cave in. You could see the ground below through cracks in that one too.

This winter Hudson needed a new coat and we discussed whether it should be part of his Christmas (which would be a perfectly good Christmas present), but the big holiday was well over a month away and the weather had already turned cold. His coat from last year left inches of bare skin exposed when he bent down. So we decided I should just go buy him a coat. 

What wealth! What luxury!

And the simple decision hit me down deep. 

Growing up my family moved from financial crisis to financial crisis. Talk of loans and advances from employers sprinkled daily conversation. When my parents died, my Dad in 2016 and my mom in 2017, the tiny house they’d lived in for almost 50 years was still not paid for. They were still paying a mortgage, the house having been refinanced who knows how many times. 

I remember when I realized that other kids in my class had their own beds, more than that their own rooms. I had slept in the bed with my mom, and my dad always slept on the couch (their marriage was horrible for as long as I can remember until late in their lives). Somewhere in elementary school I figured out this wasn’t a typical arrangement. Eventually I had a top bunk in my sister’s room, and it became my room when she moved out. 

Imagine my surprise when I started paying my own bills, and I learned that utility companies don’t just turn off your water or electricity if you are a few days late or accidentally miss a payment.

I have memories of flipping on lights and seeing hundreds of cockroaches scatter. One time in high school a cockroach found its way into my back pack. As I saw it crawl across the floor of English class (boys were trying to feed it crackers), I had no doubt from where it came. Mortified isn’t a strong enough word. I buried my face in the text, shades of crimson spreading over my cheeks, and prayed no one would make the connection. I began checking my back pack before I left for school.

Not once did I have a friend come over to my house to play. Ever. My mother was too embarrassed, and later I was too embarrassed. Some of it was the house. Some of it was the state of my family. I learned to make all the excuses.

Once a possum got inside and delivered its babies in my mom’s closet. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence. My dad thought it was funny, and I’m not sure what he did to dispose of them. And yet another time a lone possum found its way in and my mom killed it with a broom. 

But somehow I had a Nintendo Game Boy. Somehow we went to restaurants. Somehow I did pageants for several years (yes, the kind with tiaras and big curly hair). My little girl will never do them. But I digress. Small plastic cards, easily swiped, payment deferred— those were plentiful.

There have been times in my adult life when money has been extremely tight. I know it happens, and there’s no shame. I have seen the miraculous provision of God on more than one occasion—stories for another time. But I think my parents were trapped on a hamster wheel of debt and and didn’t know how to get off.

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the daily messes, endless loads of laundry, and piles of dishes to wash. Sometimes my home and heart feels chaotic. But from a certain corner on a certain couch, I can almost always remember how beautiful our home is. Handprints framed, family pictures, meaningful art. You might call our style eclectic. That’s a nice way of saying that we’ve chosen to embrace the mismatch so it looks purposeful. And from my cozy corner I admire shelves lined with books, and gifts of rocks and pinecones also proudly displayed. 

I’m kind of amazed our little family is doing so well on one income since I choose to stay home with the kids. Yet we have a lovely, comfortable, enough room for us, house. Our needs our met, and we even have many of our wants.

I don’t know why buying a coat affected me so deeply; I don’t have memories of not having a coat. Perhaps it is that my children have never known a home without heat in the winter, holes covered by duct tape, appliances broken for months, sagging floors and the like. I pray they never know it. Profound gratitude flooded my heart. 

Perhaps it’s also that it wasn’t just the house. A few months ago a friend and I had the blissful opportunity of a couple hour car ride without children. The conversation was deep and beautiful on both sides. After some childhood stories she remarked, “Ami, there are at least several reasons DCFS should have been called.”

I had never thought of it that way. But I think it’s true.  

There are millions of people in the world who have far less than I had growing up, so many in far worse conditions. But maybe the deep emotions of providing a coat for my son are tied not only to physical circumstances but to the turmoil they represented, a family tossed about, more than just finances insecure. 

Objects flew across the room, a fist went through a window, a piano crashed to the floor. Shouting, only ever shouting– there was never calm conversation during anger. I dialed a number seeking help from my grandmother, but hung up when she answered because I was afraid. Mercifully she called back.

I recall habitual, denied affection, “I don’t want to see you. Just walk away.” Still cuts deep.

I pray my children know they are secure, as secure as they can humanly be. They have a Mom and Dad, though sinners, who love each other. They have clothes to wear and food to eat. They have warm beds and a roof over their heads. They are drawn in instead of pushed away.

Isn’t that the heart of every loving parent, to provide for their children? 

I know my parents wanted to provide. I know they tried with the resources they had. I have plenty of sweet memories also.

Sometimes I’m still astonished I’m a Christian. But I look and see the bold red ribbon of grace winding its way through the years, through the circumstances. 

I have a Father who has provided so much more than a winter coat, one who lacks no resources, no ability, or follow through. 

He is lavish. He is kind. He is gentle to his own. He always does what’s right. He always does what is good. 

He restores. He redeems. All the hard memories and dysfunction become clay in the Master artisan’s hand to shape and remake into something lovely.

He secures. God does what even the best of human parent’s can’t do—makes the soul secure.

Every Christian parents longs to know their children believe. But it is God’s work. Oh that the bold red ribbon of grace would wind through their lives! That they would meet the one who is the real Provider!

Oh that their burdens would tumble off as they gaze at the cross.

This is my prayer for them

It was just a winter coat, not that extravagant really. But the grace it represents is abundant, lavish and overflowing like waves.

And my heart worshiped.

Holy Work

“It’s holy work,” my heart whispered to my mind as I walked down the hall toward screaming siblings.

“It’s holy work,” the Spirit said as I knelt down to empathize.

Holy work.

Sometimes I get it right. Perhaps my children smell the fragrant aroma of the riches and grace of Christ. Perhaps their subconsciouses catalog the beauty of a redeemed life.

It’s holy work to show them Christ, to be their first and deepest exposure to the gospel, to give them their first constructs of what God is like.

Sometimes I get it wrong. They surely smell the stench of sin.

The trenches of daily life are the litmus test. Does the Jesus we proclaim on Sunday permeate our days on Monday?

We take the call to make disciples seriously. The work of shepherding, a holy calling. Jesus, the gospel-they are not add ons, not once a week “gave my tithe, filled my pew, did my duty.”

Jesus is our life.

In the same way speaking to a hundred women or leading Bible study is holy work, so is wiping another bottom, reading another book, washing another dish.

And loving them when they seem unlovely is an act of grace, a gift of worship.

I push back against mediocre, “Mommy needs a glass of wine” parenthood.

This much unseen, soil cultivating, seed planting work is valuable and important.

The messages they receive at home become a part of who they are. What am I telling them about their identity?

At a recent medical appointment the practitioner spoke about his young son, “I love him, but sometimes he’s a total expletive.”

I switched my next appointment to another doctor.

Because the little ones are image bearers also. They are gifts of grace.

They are sinners in need of Savior. But they were created for good and honorable things.

They were created to know the One who shows them their true selves.

So I do holy work, and pray they will know him.

Let the Children Come

She was a sad puddle of two year old, face down on the floor.

A combined Good Friday service with another church wound down in the background.

“I want more water!”

“Come here sweet girl. The cup is full. We filled it all up.”

The puddle remained. I held a sleeping Henry.

People flooded through the auditorium doors, and I felt the stares at the screaming child, now stomping her foot.

The puddle turned into a tree, rooted on the spot. And I didn’t want want to wake her brother.

“Charlotte I’m going to go get Daddy and come back.”

I looked back, and she poured the water on the floor.

//

I rocked Henry reflecting on stares and looks from people I don’t know. Church can be a hard place for small people (and their parents).

But stares and looks are trivial compared to the cross.

And the cup.

I offered her clean, cold water. It was there, but she couldn’t see it.

I’ve been the two year old.

“But Lord I want more water!!”

“I am the living water.”

The best, thirst quenching water. It’s Him. And he’s always full, overflowing. He gives and gives and gives.

He even gave himself.
And looked into another cup not full of cool, clean water, but overflowing brimming over with wrath.

It was there, and he could see it. But he drank it all.

Wrath satisfied.

He died for those little stomping feet.

//

“Let the children come,” he said.

There is room for puddles on the floor.

Gospel Thoughts on Re-wiring my Brain

I love light bulbs, the “aha” moments when all of a sudden two truths align and things make sense. I’ve been pondering a big one that feels life changing, or at least brain changing.

But first, a little background. Sanctification is becoming what you have already been declared to be. (Through Jesus, and only Jesus, you are justified or declared righteous.) You could call it spiritual growth or growing in Christlikeness. It’s a life long process. The Holy Spirit works in the heart of a believer, and the believer responds.

Here’s the flip of the switch.

What if sanctification isn’t just heart change but also literal brain change? What if “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” is in part re-wiring neural pathways?

What? That’s crazy!

Ok, I see you scratching your head. Don’t write me off just yet.

Have you ever heard the phrase “Neurons that fire together wire together?”

I have in several contexts, but I confess I haven’t really gotten it.

During my brief CrossFit days (I wish I still did it) I heard it in context of weight lifting; the more repetitions you do, the more automatic a movement becomes.

I’ve also heard about firing and wiring from occupational therapists as they provide deep pressure on arms and legs, from head to toe, and across the body. By activating those neurons together, they are teaching a child to regulate his nervous system so he can calm and focus.

Recently I heard it in a “Discipline that Connects” course (from Connected Families) David and I are taking. And this time all the bells and whistles went off in my brain.

Messages sent to the brain create neural pathways, and repeated messages fire faster and travel more easily. The more we use a neural pathway, the more it becomes a super highway.

Therefore, the more I am “large and loud” or angry and frustrated with my children, those responses are more easily triggered.

If I want to change the pattern, I need to change the pattern. My brain needs new messages. And it needs the repeated messages of interacting calmly and connecting with hearts before discipline.

My heart exploded with understanding and praise to God for a few reasons! Over the last four years I’ve been on a mission to seek God’s heart regarding shepherding our children. I have ready many books and studied Scripture as David and I have built our overall philosophy.

I have also been “putting in the work” to understand and process my own childhood trauma.

All of this creates and reinforces neural pathways.

As I have learned strategies to remain calm in high pressure parenting situations, I am literally re-wiring my brain. And the more “reps” I do across different circumstances, the more I’m becoming who I want to be.

When I kneel down and talk to my children instead of shout at them, neurons are doing some important highway construction— in my brain and in theirs.

I am encouraged that something physical is happening. Maybe if someone measured brain activity there would be a difference.

There is growth even if it feels SO slow sometimes. There is growth even if it feels like construction is at a stand still or an excavator dug a hole across the path.

I know my understanding of brain science is simplistic, but maybe, just maybe I’m also dismantling some neural pathways related to my own abuse and neglect.

But there’s better news! For a Christian, it’s even bigger.

If the strategies I am learning are rooted and grounded in the gospel, this is not mere behavior modification.

As I repeatedly remind myself of the truths of the gospel related to parenting (or any other struggle), those truths send neurons firing across my brain. The resplendent reality of the gospel physically changes my brain. What I actually believe about God, myself, and others physically starts to change.

Over many years a highway (among others) called “Identity” has formed. Construction on it will probably never end—an I-90 in my brain—but it’s getting bigger and better.

Perhaps brain change and heart change are connected.

Only God changes the heart, but as thinking changes so does the heart. What a complex mystery. Sanctification is God’s work. But I respond by recalling truth.

When I tell my small people…

“You are made in God’s image. Jesus loves you and died for you. He came to save sinners like you and me.”

Or
“Mommy needs Jesus also. Let’s stop and ask God for help.”

Or
“I know you are having a hard time. But I love you.”

Or
“You are called and capable. You are responsible for your actions.”

Or
“God created you. He can use your big heart, persistence, and determination for his glory.”

Or
“I’m on your team. We can figure this out together.”

…perhaps those repeated messages, will one day lead to heart change. Perhaps they will internalize the truths firing across the super highways in their brains.

That’s really good news.

Maybe all of this is a little too nerdy. But imagining neurons racing across my brain, is immensely encouraging. Some things are rewiring, some past highways demolished. God is a work in me. And I will keep actively repeating messages of truth.


Ephesians 4:20-24

“But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”